Financial Times Europe - 23.09.2019

(Kiana) #1

16 ★ FINANCIAL TIMES Monday23 September 2019


George Loomis

Philip Venables’sacclaimed first opera,
4.48 Psychosis, based on Sarah Kane’s
trenchant final play about her depres-
sion, came with a built-in advantage: the
play itself, which responded affectingly
to musical adaptation. His second opera,
Denis & Katya, seen in its world premiere
by Opera Philadelphia, is not so fortu-
nate. Its libretto by Ted Huffman, who
directed4.48 Psychosisand also directs
here, tells of two Russian 15-year-olds
who, facing parental opposition, holed
themselves up in a rural cabin, precipi-
tating an armed stand-off with police
that left the couple dead.
This incident attracted attention
because the two streamed their rdealo
on the internet. Were they hoping to win
online support? Did they commit suicide
or did the police kill them? Huffman’s

libretto doesn’t tell us, because, it
implies, in an era of fake news, one’s
imagination supplies the answers. Yet
why, for a tech-oriented subject, such a
low-tech opera?
Eschewing so conventional an
approach as having singers portray the
protagonists, this hour-long “docu-
drama” is pieced together from erba-v
tim textsand spoken or sung by just two
singers, a soprano and a baritone,
assuming different guises. It often seems

random. The film that Denis and Katya
apparently generated is constantly men-
tioned but never seen. We are told about
events instead of witnessing them.
Andrew Lieberman’s decor consists
essentially of a bare rectangular space.
As for the music, one wished there
were more of it. Performing forces were
slender — just the two singers and four
cellos, plus electronics. Much was spo-
ken, so that moments such as the sing-
ers’ portrayal of teachers in well
accented duet were particularly wel-
come. Eventually, the singers partially
sang phrases in Russian, which had a
further distancing effect but supplied a
jolt of operatic life when the baritone,
Theo Hoffman, sang irately as a friend of
the couple. Siena Licht Miller did well
too but her voice suffered more from the
pervasive amplification.
Most of the instrumental support was
atmospheric, but near the end, as a kind
of requiem that recalled a similar
moment in4.48 Psychosis, the cellos
played a haunting, Baroque-like piece
over a ground bass. Too little, too late.

To September 29,


Denis & Katya
Suzanne Roberts Theater, Philadelphia

Amanda Berry,
left, with actor
Tom Hiddleston
and investor and
Wendy Yu

getting were from the other end of the
argument, smaller films telling us the
rules were too strict and they couldn’t
get on enough screens to qualify.” And so
Bafta found itself at the epicentre of the
clash of agendas and business models
that defines the modern film industry.
Brexit is only a little more fractious.
After months of intense consultation,
Bafta’s rules of qualification will
now remain unchanged, but with a
public recommitmentto the need
for awards contenders to be released in
cinemas with, where required, box
office figures made available to ensure
transparency. (Netflix, famously, rarely
discusses numbers.)
Smaller British films will be given
online support to reach voters. For now,
Netflix — about to release another slate
of awards contenders, including Martin
Scorsese’s he IrishmanT —remains in
play, while Richards has confirmed
that Vue will support the Baftas in 2020.

But the dilemmas keep coming. This
month, a mixed blessing for the British
screen industry arrived with Disney’s
deal to lease the historic Pinewood Stu-
dios until 2029, with Netflix already
installed in nearby Shepperton. “Many
of our membership work in craft and
technical roles,” Berry says, “so having
so much high-end production happen-
ing in the UK is an amazing thing.” There
is a significantbut. “We also have mem-
bers who say they now won’t be able to
afford studio space for their own films.”
Bafta’s role as a membership organisa-
tion with strict rules of conduct was,
Berry says, key during a still graver
moment. In 2017, when women began
coming forward with their experiences
of Harvey Weinstein, Bafta suspended
his membership ahead of expulsion
while much of the industry appeared
paralysed. “We have these incredibly
robust membership criteria, so even
when someone has been a philanthropic


manda Berry, chief execu-
tive of Bafta, has a model of
Buzz Lightyear in the win-
dow of her office off Lon-
don’s Haymarket. Before
infinity, there are the builders. Around
the corner from the administrative hub
she uses as her base, work has begun on
the renovation of 195 Piccadilly, the flag-
ship venue the British Academy of Film
and Television Arts has occupied since
the 1970s — a grand meeting and event
space for its members, theactors, direc-
tors, craftspeople and technicians.
Like most London building projects,
there were snags. Plans to develop the
basement were thwarted. Instead, Bafta
is going up, raising the roof to create a
wholly new floor.Benefits will include a
doubled capacity and a dedicated space
for breakthrough talent. Berry receives
frequent photographic updates.
“Frankly,” she says, “it’s terrifying.”
The building is due to reopen in 2021.
The project has required consideration
of a longer timeline. If the new building
— costed at £25m — was to be fit for pur-
pose, what was that purpose going to be
in decades ahead? Berry, originally from
North Yorkshire, arrived at Bafta in
1998 as a talent agent. “I thought I’d do
three years, sort out the awards, and
that would be that.”
She now sits behind a stack of papers
at least two inches high. “I started

making notes for this and couldn’t stop.”
Mostly, these detail the breadth of
activity Bafta is currently involved in,
reeled off by Berry without recourse to
her paperwork, the multi-function as
annual awards show and year-round
provider of education and support for
the British creative industries. They also
unavoidably touch on the rolling crisis
in those same industries. In 2019, film
and TV are in flux, dogged by awkward
questions — about streaming and the
economic future, about which back-
grounds allow access to the business,
and the behaviour of those at the top.
One storm broke in February, after
four of this year’s Baftas, including Best
Film, were given toRoma, director
Alfonso Cuarón’s portrait of 1970s Mex-
ico City, funded and released by Netflix.
Immediately afterwards, Tim Richards,
chief executive of UK cinema chain Vue,
published a furious open letter attack-
ing Bafta for rewarding a film he derided
as “made for TV” and whose British cin-
ema release — a precondition of Bafta
qualification — was, he argued, so token
as to be insulting. (Vue, like most UK
exhibitors, had been unable to screen
the film.) eH threatened to withdraw his
company’s support for the awards.
Other exhibitorsmade similar noises.
Berry admits to surprise. “We didn’t
see it coming. In the run-up to the
awards, all the complaints we were

Lights, camera,


donor, we are able to act very quickly.”
In an industry obliged to examine its
own conscience and where different sec-
tors are at each other’s throats, Bafta
now finds itself seen as referee and role
model, a remit beyond the glitz of award
ceremonies. “I take it as a positive. If
we’re in the middle of these conversa-
tions, it’s a sign that, actually, we’re rele-
vant.”Berry’s response has been a
tweaking of mission. “At this point, it
would be shocking if we weren’t doing
whatever we could to support new tal-
ent. We know talent is everywhere but
opportunities are not.”
This has translated into a series of
scholarships and training programmes
a i m e d a t p e o p l e f ro m u n d e r -
represented backgrounds. Berry speaks
of Bafta as a force for “social change”,
while aware ofits apparent double life: a
transformative agency with an official
champagne partner (Taittinger). “Peo-

Theo Hoffman and Siena Licht Miller

Industry turmoil and a row over Netflix have put Bafta in the

spotlight. Chief executive Amanda Berry talks to Danny Leigh

better in the aftermath of catastrophe.
Santos is a warm yet authoritative
host who shows us the contradictions
in our psychological impulses. She
points to the yawning gap between our
imagined happy futures and the reality
of those situations, and how mental
simulations in our brains can trick us
into leaving out crucial details that
would otherwise bring us down to
earth with a thud. She also explains the
concept of “hedonic adaptation”, and
the ability of humans to return to a
base level of happiness, despite positive
or negative events. As the social
psychologist Dan Gilbert tells Santos:
“Happily ever after is only true if you
have three minutes to live.”

At the start ofThe Happiness Lab, the
smart new Pushkin Industries podcast
presented by Dr Laurie Santos, there is
a disclaimer. Santos, a professor of
psychology at Yale University, explains
how her series, which looks at the ways
we can make ourselves happier, is
rooted in science and is definitely not
“a bunch of platitudes, or a load of
hippy-dippy BS”. This is reassuring,
since podcasting is generally awash
with ghastly, platitude-spewing
wellness shows purporting to teach us
how to “om” our way into a more
fulfilling life.
By contrast, Santos is the voice of
sanity, not to mention scrupulous
research. In the first episode, she
examines the current spike in feelings
of stress and anxiety — in the US, the
rate of depression among 20-year-olds
has doubled since 2009 — and asks
why and what can be done about it. She
looks at the perceptions and metrics of
happiness — what is it and how do we
measure it? Among her contributors is

the author and academic Sonja
Lyubomirsky, who defines the state of
happiness both as “being happy in
your life, and being happy with your
life”. In other words, a happy person
feels positive emotions such as
enthusiasm, contentment and joy, but
is also generally pleased with how his
or her life has progressed.
The second instalment, released on
Tuesday, examines how received
wisdom regarding what should make
us happy (money, a successful career, a
new relationship) and what shouldn’t
(illness, divorce, losing a job) isn’t
always correct. Santos tells the story of
a man whose life unravelled after he
won the lottery, and meets Clay
Cockrell, a clinical social worker and
psychotherapist, who counsels
billionaires suffering from stress
related to feelings of guilt, isolation and
lack of trust. “They struggle, they’re
not sleeping, they don’t have good
relationships,” he explains.
In showing how our understanding
and expectations around happiness are
often wrong, the programme expertly
blends scientific research with human
stories, from the woman who
contracted herpes from a partner to
the American soldier J.R. Martinez,
who was trapped in a burning vehicle
after it hit a landmine and sustained
major burns. Both feel their lives are

Happiness without the platitudes

Scrupulous: Laurie Santos




‘People think of

us as posh frocks

and red carpets

rather than as an


charity, but in fact

they’re both true’

A force for change:
Amanda Berry.
Above right: Olivia
Colman with
her 2019 Best
Actress Bafta
Debra Hurford Brown/
Camera Press

ple think of us as posh frocks and red
carpets rather than as an educational
charity, but in fact they’re both true. Our
partners allow us to do the work we do
when the cameras aren’t rolling.”
She admits to collegiate sympathy at
the recent criticism faced by the Oscars,
while aware it has allowed Baftabreath-
ing space. If the job of Oscars host has
become such a poisoned chalice it now
appears actively unwanted, for the Baf-
tas Berry was able to recruit Joanna
Lumley to replace retiring awards host
Stephen Fry last year with relative ease.
Yet for all the chaos of the wider
industry, it is still awards night she finds
most unnerving. “We’re incredibly good
at what we do but like any show, there is
always that moment when it just dis-
appears out of your control.”
Before another text from the builders,
she gives a chipper smile. “But it’s
always good to be nervous isn’t it?
It stops you getting complacent.”

SEPTEMBER 23 2019 Section:Features Time: 9/201920/ - 18:03 User:david.cheal Page Name:ARTS LON, Part,Page,Edition:EUR, 16, 1

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