What is happening today inevitably reminds me of the ‘90s, although without baseball bats in the streets, without people being chased, killed and buried in Topčider or some other forest. Everything else is characteristic of a relatively totalitarian regime that has a great love for tabloidisation of every type, including bad music, the dross in which we drown as though submerged in faeces
Soprano Katarina Jovanović recently became an associate professor at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Musical Art. She does not hide her satisfaction at achieving this in a society where corruption is an essential need and where she officially, along the road that’s less travelled and tougher to traverse, became a professor of the song as a result of respect for her knowledge and pedagogical skills. This top opera singer has amassed a rich international career during which she gave an average of 120 performances a year.
She was the director of the Opera of the National Theatre from February 2010 to November 2011 and launched some major music festivals, such as KOZART and BUNT, but today she is not active on the official opera scene of the National Theatre – along with many other highly qualified and high-quality young people.
Most artists seek to make some changes when entering a cultural institution and as a result, they meet with resistance. Asked if she wanted to change something when she arrived at the National Theatre, Katarina admits:
“I wanted to, of course. There are various levels of change, and I tried to make changes where I thought that was simplest. But it turned out that nothing is simple. It is impossible to say that something is wrong, that something is below the permitted artistic level. It was important for it to survive as a blank wafer without artistic content. It is important not to touch anything so that one day the National Theatre could host some folk-pop star. Of course, it’s not her fault that she found herself where she does not belong because she does what she does better than many soloists from opera, ballet or drama.
Others are to blame for the fact that a folk-pop singer had a concert in the National Theatre, instead of the other concert halls reserved for that in Belgrade?
– The initial blame lies with the manager of the National Theatre, the entire board of directors of the National Theatre and the Minister of Culture, all of whom permitted that. If was prime minister, all of them would have been dismissed from their duties. They did not fulfil the moral imperative of their jobs. Unfortunately, when you say “moral imperative” they look at you as though you’re not normal. And that is the most important element: to be able to look someone in the eye and tell them that something is not good and cannot be done in the way they are doing it. The Governing Board should have unanimously demanded the resignation of the manager of the National Theatre at the moment he signed a contract with the agent of the aforementioned singer. And long before that, unfortunately.
WIs it really so difficult to solve the problems in the functioning of such a large, bulky national institution as the National Theatre?
– In contrast to the other former Yugoslav republics, Serbia had the additional burden of picking up a terrible reputation after the breakup of Yugoslavia, which undermined and humiliated us. We were no longer able to handle any criticism because the last criticism to arrive had come in the form of the bombs that fell on us at the end of the 20th century. Thus, in such a devastated country, which was devastated both economically and morally, how could anybody explain that the theatre is important? How can you allocate money for the theatre when there is no money for the treatment of children, but rather contributions are collected via text messages?
And, to answer your question, when you enter the National Theatre it’s initially tough to remind people why they are there and how important it is that they realise their vocational calling and don’t merely act as an employee in that institution. It is tough to understand the degree of nepotism when it comes to employees in various departments; it is tough to see the boundaries of that soft corruption eating away at the fabric of the theatre. It’s tough to put together a repertoire for the month of May when you don’t have enough employees in the orchestra to perform a single work and you have to engage freelance associates, and that costs money that you don’t have. It’s tough to work on a new performance when you’re not sure if the artists will come to rehearsals or whether the conductor will arrive on time.
Does it seem that it was much easier to get rid of a director of the Opera than to change the habits that have lasted for years?
– The little time I spent in that post cost me my health and endangered my life. I wanted employees to immediately stop playing computer games, I wanted everyone to immediately come to rehearsals on time, to immediately all behave responsibly, to immediately stop stealing toilet paper from the toilets, to immediately start doing their jobs, and not to neglect those jobs while waiting for the exact day and hour of the month when they will receive their wages. All of that was, of course, impossible.
The National Theatre is today a political playground approved by the state in which you have two guys who are playing – one is in the house, the other is out of the house, and they use this house as their terrain for “outwitting”
Renowned director Dejan Mijač said at the beginning of Culture Minister Ivan Tasovac’s term that he would only succeed as minister if he managed to solve the problem of the National Theatre. It seems, however, that he did not succeed in that?
– He didn’t, because he fell into his own trap. It’s hard for me to talk about that, because I have a lot of respect for the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra as a living, breathing organism. However, the Philharmonic is actually a political experiment that succeeded. Everything in society was done to ensure that this institution succeeded because it was decided that an oasis would be made in the desert. And only an oasis has water, while everything else is an arid desert. And then it is logical to ask what happened to the Symphony Orchestra of RTS, which, according to the rules of the European Union, cannot be a national institution if it does not have a national orchestra, jazz orchestra and production? What will we do about the constant erosion of the artistic integrity of that organism? What will we do about the constant erosion of the integrity of the artistic organism called the National Theatre?
The National Theatre, like every great national institution, is a miniature version of the state. You can determine precisely the level of corruption, the strength, or impotence, of the unions. It is a demonstrative exercise that serves to show the people what culture is for, that this is a gathering of malcontents, disrespectful individuals and people who are unbecoming of even the worst epithets. In my eyes, the National Theatre is today a political playground approved by the state in which you have two guys who are playing – one is in the house, the other is out of the house, and they use this house as their terrain for “outwitting”.
I would say the latter is closer to the truth.
– It is closer to the truth because this government is not interested in culture at all. Just look at the mockery it has made of national pensions. How has it come to be that this is a critical political issue, with the prime minister, has said that there will be a national pension again? And this is, in fact, a social issue par excellence. What kind of a hellish idea is it to force an artist to declare and explain their own work and their own achievements, while you have a commission that works for money and that should do that job, along with a bunch of bureaucrats at the Ministry? They should be responsible for the selection of the best in a given year. That is not thousands of people, but rather a few dozen people a year who retire and whose contribution to culture should be decided by the selected committee.
Does it seem that the system of values has been disturbed to unimagined limits?
– It is enough, for example, to look at the television programming of the three most-watched channels with a national frequency, which are Pink, Happy and Prva. This is a hellish, devilish machine of distaste of the lowest motivations that should not be broadcast, no way and never. When you add to that the state of the National Theatre, and the state in culture generally, you can see how we have the impoverishment of ideas and the impoverishment of the spirit. And when something good and interesting emerges, it seems to disappear in a flood of mediocrity.
Judging by what you have been doing in recent years on the local scene, it can be concluded that you belong to that circle of artists who survive by self-organising. There are increasing numbers of those who are seeking new ways and new places to appear before the audience?
– That’s true, but such activities do not produce any actual artistic and social power. That’s because the state has successfully destroyed the importance of such a social context. It has been placed ad Acta. And then artists, self-organised in such a way, deal with the moment in which they live. Sometimes they act with irony, while sometimes they literally show their great displeasure with the authorities and official so-called culture workers. On the other hand, even these attempts at artistic activity lose their power when they enter the literal-day political showdown with what is around us. Art is a much finer and subtler tool than some crash boom moment.
Nobody from the National Theatre called you in the last year to make a guest appearance in one of the operas in which you used to sing?
– Nobody. No one attempted to offer me the chance to sing in the operas in which I used to sing, such as The Marriage of Figaro, or A Masked Ball. I debuted at the National Theatre in La Traviata and sang in Il Trovatore, Onegin, Faust etc.
My art here and today is the product of what a group of friends and artists agree on and arrange, such as, say, the Small Town Philosophy, devised as a Christmas oratorio of Radomir Konstantinović. That’s like a combat unit that aims to protect the health and integrity of members of the combat unit. That’s how Bunt originated, that’s how the Dunav Fest functioned, that’s how the festival I created in Aleksandrovac functioned and ran until it was abolished. And all of this takes place on some kind of alternative stages. To me that’s nothing strange; I learned to do that at the very beginning because I thought the system is wrong, be it political or cultural.
What is happening today inevitably reminds me of the ‘90s, although without baseball bats in the streets.
Does that mean you wouldn’t sing if you were invited to perform at the National Theatre?
– Let’s consider that possibility from the other side. Suppose someone calls me and I need to sign a contract, which means I would have to place my signature beside to the signature of the current acting director. I would have no confidence that that man would fulfil his obligations towards me because he has proved that from day to day since he has held that post. The way he treats freelance associates, and above all young people in that institution, only confirms that he does not enable young, good artists to sing on the stage of the National Theatre, because they are not ready to make any kind of deal with the manager.
In this life of mine, or more precisely in my artistic biography, there is nothing that worries me. I know exactly where I have made mistakes, what my weaknesses are, but there is nothing that gives me a reason to be unhappy
If New York Metropolitan Opera favourite Željko Lučić had stayed in Belgrade, where would he be today?
– I know Željko and that gentleman could not have stayed here. That intelligence was unable to work here. But what is more important is not contained in your question. And that is the fact that every talented young artist, such as Željko or myself, had to abandon our environment and had to go out into the world, to test ourselves. It is the obligation of every true artist to relocate from their own environment, to go to another latitude and longitude and see what is being done there.
Are you able to explain to yourself the very simple sentence when you say that your neutral status is one of fermentation? What does that mean today?
– The same as it meant yesterday. I am that kind of person. I am always heated and I always have an elevated artistic temperature. That’s not easy for me, let alone for others, but I finally accepted myself as I am and I live in harmony with that. I am aware of how tough it is to survive on the scene, with the cruelty of an audience that today has no time to stop and listen to phrases, to calm themselves. You need to introduce electronic jammers into concert halls to stop people from using their telephones during a performance. That is the horror in which we live, in which we have to fight for our art while the meat grinder takes its digital momentum.
In this life of mine, or more precisely in my artistic biography, there is nothing that worries me. I know exactly where I have made mistakes, what my weaknesses are, but there is nothing that gives me a reason to be unhappy. I have achieved some things that were important to me, while there are many things I will never achieve and much more that is still in front of me to do.
I learned the most important thing that I want to convey to my students: you can fall, you can smash every bone, but you must learn to get up and do it all over again from the beginning. There is no suffering as a result of wrong moves and defeat. You learn the most from defeat. All great artists endured artistic death and rose again from the grave to show that they are alive and once again feel every nerve. It’s like with skiing – the first thing you learn is how to fall. This is the simplest rule for survival in life: knowing how to get up when you fall.