Vivier’s Kopernikus in rehearsal at Banff

I just attended a rehearsal performance of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus at Banff Centre for the Arts staged by the AtG’s Joel Ivany and conducted by Topher Mokrzewski and my first impression is ALERT — this is going to be a special thing. The piece runs roughly about an hour and it involves a deceased character named Agni (mezzo Danielle MacMillan) after she braved, as they call it in some operas, le trépas. It’s not a narrative piece and often doesn’t even have sentences–there’s tons of extended techniques for voice, strategic miking of certain singers, some spoken text, and everybody, including the woodwinds and brass dominated orchestra of 7, has movement, costumes, and is part of the drama.

I won’t say too much–Kopernikus is opening on Thursday–except that Ivany brilliantly got rid of what is often read as the mystical and New Age nature of the piece and sketched the world that Agni is joining as a construction site populated by creatures in worker overalls who dialogue with or monologue at Agni. If you’ve read George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the best novels of the last few years, this will bring that book to mind. It’s sort of a bardo, this perpetual construction site, where spirits (and memories, and episodes, and events) tarry.

Music is immersive and highly charged while it on the whole defies sense-making. The characters that nominally appear in the opera (except nobody fussed around making them recognizable, so they actually don’t—though there are occasional clues in the sung text) are Lewis Carroll, Merlin, the Queen of the Night, a blind prophet, an old monk, Tristan, Isolde, Mozart, and Copernicus.

A couple of nice photos courtesy of the fellow rehearsal audience member Isaac Fernandez.

Now if only there’s a way to see this in Toronto after Banff.

Christopher Mokrzewski and Danielle MacMillan et al. during rehearsal for Kopernikus by Claude Vivier.
Danika Loren and Danielle MacMillan in Kopernikus
The team of Kopernikus – Jennifer Taverner on the far right

Opera 5 introducing Ethel Smyth

Alexandra Smither as Mrs. Waters with Jonathan MacArthur and other Pub Crawlers in Opera 5’s The Boatswain’s Mate. Emily Ding Photography

Opera 5’s staging of two one-acts, Fête Galante and The Boatswain’s Mate, is probably Ethel Smyth’s (1858–1944) operatic debut in Toronto. The general and artistic directors of the company Rachel Krehm and Aria Umezawa as well as the director Jessica Derventzis and conductor Evan Mitchell deserve kudos for shedding light on this unexplored corner of the early twentieth century creation. Both librettos show their age, though — former is based on a story by Maurice Baring (read it here), and latter is adopted from a story by W.W. Jacobs (which in turn you can read here). Smyth adapted both. Umezawa rewrote the dialogues from the Mate libretto and that, together with a filmic, naturalistic direction of an ensemble of capable young singer-actors who unreservedly advocated for each of the characters salvaged the piece and gave it new life.

Fête Galante was a different story. It’s a fast one acter on betrayal and mistaken identities and courting outside your marital unit. There are characters in it called the King and the Queen as well as characters from commedia dell’arte. It’s more oneiric and fantastical than naturalistic, yet it mostly got a naturalistic directorial treatment. Its absurd and comedic elements probably needed drawing out. As your regular old naturalistic narrative, it didn’t quite tick. Perhaps if it was treated as akin to an opera like, say, Pelléas, the engine might have revved up.

It was, luckily, followed by the Mate which straight from scene one blossomed into a full-blown comedic opera–in this case, in the chamber orchestra score reduction obtained, as Mitchell explains in the program, thanks to Retrospect Opera. The story is of a pub owner Mrs. Waters (Alexandra Smither), her persistent suitor and customer Harry (Asitha Tennekoon), and a random pub goer Ned (Jeremy Ludwig) who’s recruited by Harry to pretend to be a burglar so Harry can fight him off and “save” Mrs. Waters. In a large-ish cast of young singers, there wasn’t a single weak link – a rare occurrence. A group of drunk revelers barged into the pub half-way into the proceedings, and everything was sung and done with impeccable timing and just the right kind of rowdiness and noise (the revelers were Kevin Myers, Alan MacDonald, Jean-Philippe McClish, Elizabeth Polese, Eugenia Dermentzis and Michael Dickey, who plays Mrs. Waters’ waitress on staff). If I had to pick a dramatic standout among the principals, it would be tenor Asitha Tennekoon who has a gift for physical comedy rarely found among opera singers. His smooth tenor all the while never wavered. Alexandra Smither was equally impressive — vocally as well as in her acting: here is a singer who is already in possession of a fully developed instrument and undeniable charisma. Jeremy Ludwig as Ned too struck the right note with his character and while maintaining the required supply of goofiness never fell into caricature.

Mrs. Waters discovers the awkward “burglar” Ned in her pub before the plot by the two men could even hatch and after Ned confesses everything, they concoct a plan on their own for Harry (fast asleep on guard by the cat flap). She leads Harry to believe that she had killed the house intruder with a baseball bat, which gives the tenor even more room to exercise his comedic gifts. A policeman gets involved and after the resolution of the farce, and some additional flirting, Mrs. Waters agrees to see Ned again. She’s again alone in her inn when waitress Mary Ann arrives and the two sit down to talk over what happened since they last saw each other. Curtain.

Ethel Smyth’s music in the Mate is certainly not along the lines of Puccini–it’s not particularly melodic or emotional except when she’s quoting, her own suffragette anthem The March of Women composed for the Women’s Social and Political Union, for example, or folk melodies–but it’s neither along the lines of the Second Viennese School either. It’s tonal, if ruggedly so, often chromatic and unrepetitive and eager to experiment with the pairing of instrument and voice and with instrumental solos. The transition between spoken and sung text worked well.

And while Smyth herself had a fascinating life, the libretto for the Mate, which turns the smart female protagonist soup-brained and romantically interested in a hapless stranger who broke into her house, resorts to some implausible old tropes on women. Consent is important throughout, which I suppose is new–and having the romantic couple in the making not romance each other immediately, but agree to meet and get to know each other later (Mrs. Waters has a business to run after all) is a nice twist. But imagine if Smyth had worked with a libretto that actually reflected at least some of her own life: defied her militaristic father’s wishes, did what she wanted to do; doggedly pursued music education in UK and Europe against all odds; as a young person met and worked with Brahms; spent two months in jail after being arrested for breaking a window at a suffragist protest; had affairs with women; was friends with Virginia Woolf; worked as a nurse during World War 1; became a successful writer later in life.

But I think we are still waiting for operas with female characters of even remotely that kind of scope. A lot of the contemporary composers still love the victimized or dead woman in opera, and even if you’re a singer specializing in contemporary music, you’re probably still likelier to sing Ophelia than a woman with any kind of agency. So it’s a question that still lingers. While Smyth put some of her politics in other musical forms–in choral piece titled 1910, for ex, which her obit describes as the “hullabaloo of a Parliament Square riot”–in choosing her operatic librettos she resorted to the paths more travelled. Mrs. Waters has rare pizzazz, but up to a point. We’ll relish it up to that point.

Smyth’s opus, meanwhile, remains of interest and worth exploring in the twenty-first century. Thanks Opera 5 for the discovery.

 

From Opera 5’s production of The Boatswain’s Mate. L-r: Jean-Philippe McClish (Policeman), Jeremy Ludwig (Ned Travers), Asitha Tennekoon (Harry Benn), Alexandra Smith (Mrs. Waters). Emily Ding Photography
Oepra 5’s production of Fete Galante. L-r: Eugenia Dermentzis (The Queen), Alexandra Smither (Puppet). Jonathan MacArthur (Harlequin), Philippe McClish (The King), Jeremy Ludwig (Puppet). Emily Ding Photography

Anna & Anna in elegant minimalism

Jennifer McNichols (centre), Wallis Giunta. Photo by Jag Gundu

Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht’s The Seven Deadly Sins is a strange creature. A 40 minute long communist morality play in the form of a ballet with singing to a full orchestra was never going to be easy to stage.  To this day it’s more often recorded than performed, and the TSO programming it and hiring Joel Ivany to stage it–as much as the Roy Thomson Hall allows for any staging–was a fresh and bold move. To quote Nicole Paiement, the 20th and 21st century pieces are more easily accepted by today’s audience if there’s a scenic component added to the mix, and this is probably going to be a growing practice around the presenting of the 20thC works. There’s a good expression in French: mise en espace (while full-on staging is mise en scène), making the most of whatever the available space happens to be to dramatize the performance.  Sometimes a scenic component is added to the originally non-scenic, “pure music” work, and sometimes a thoroughly scenic work is intentionally reduced to a mise en espace. There have been some good cases lately (for example the 2016 Lucio Silla by Rita Cosentino, the precise opposite of Opera Atelier’s approach) and we’ll be seeing more.

Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols, who also danced as Anna II, opted for what could be described as elegant minimalism in this Sins production. The TSO conducted by Peter Oundjian was moved to the back of the stage, the front stage covered by the black, dancer-friendly flooring. Two video screens above the orchestra showed both the supertitles and, in interludes between the themed numbers, pre-recorded black-and-white videos of the two principals, Anna I (Wallis Giunta) and Anna II (Nichols). Videos are simple–close ups, mirroring and merging of the two faces, a female figure walking on the train tracks at the beginning and the end. Nichols and Giunta on stage wear similar dresses and hair (Nichols had to dance and be carried around the stage while wearing a long Giunta-lookalike wig). Movement-wise, Nichols opted for fairly modern choreography delivered however en pointe: an interesting choice, perhaps meant to add to the constraints that the character of Anna II is under in the piece.

The Seven Deadly Sins is probably the most overtly feminist thing that Weill and Brecht created together, which is not to say that it’s an uncomplicated call to arms for the cause of sisterhood. Anna I and II are two sides of the same character that is sent across the mythical Weill-Brecht America (always in the primitive accumulation of capital stage, ever the Wild West) in pursuit of success and money and the American Dream business. There’s an all-male chorus, the “family” that comments on the action and eggs her on. They’re also the ones naming Anna II’s actions as sins while also benefiting from them and expecting to benefit even more in the future.

The split Anna character is an intriguing interpretive challenge. Only Anna II goes places, does things, commits sins, lives the impure, while the singing, analyzing Anna II comments, justifies, shrugs off. It’s possible that Anna I-II is an image of woman’s life under patriarchal capitalism: we will be asked to sacrifice so others could benefit, for which we will be condemned too (Anna II); we will see clearly that this is the case and will be able to do nothing about it and may even become articulate in the oppressive vernacular (Anna I, but also the Mother of the chorus).

Ivany, I think wisely, leaves it to the viewer to wrangle these questions and clears up and simplifies the proceedings as much as possible. The male chorus sings from the aisles and the wings as well as on stage, and is given dance-like movements by Nichols to great effect. They’re all dressed in black and white with suspenders and fedoras as the only accents (costumes are by Krista Dowson). Isaiah Bell (Father), Owen McCausland (Brother), Geoffrey Sirett (Brother) and Stephen Hegedus (Mother) sounded like a madrigalist ensemble at times, they were that polished and multi-coloured. All singers, including Giunta, were miked, which was surprising to hear at first, but kinda understandable later on: a noisy orchestra, RTH acoustics, lots of movement for singers and small- to medium-size voices all around is a combination begging for voice microphones.

Music was of the familiar Weill-Brecht sort, noisy, brassy and clangy that plays with then twists and abandons anything smacking of lyricism. The Sins were part of the TSO’s Decades project, which joins together wildly disparate works from the shared decade in the same concert. It was premiered in 1930s, as was Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (TSO’s was a subtle take on the old hit) and Bartok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (utterly sui generis,  wouldn’t  sound out of place at the New Creations Festival). It worked great in this case: the three works couldn’t have been more different, yet the program cohered.

Peter Oundjian, Wallis Giunta and Jennifer Nichols. Photo Jag Gundu

Against the Grain’s La Bohème II closes a sold-out run

Kimy McLaren and Owen McCausland in Against the Grain’s revived Le Boheme.

How is it possible that I hadn’t heard of Canadian soprano Kimy McLaren? Might be because she has a French management company and performs mostly in the French opera houses (Rhin, Marseille, Rouen, Bordeaux, and Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris). En tout cas, she was the revelation of the AtG’s remount of their now alt-classic Transac La Bohème, which I managed to catch on the closing night last night. There are voices that manage to impress even in simple dialogue lines, and it was obvious that we were in for a treat during McLaren first exchanges with Owen McCausland’s Rodolfo. It’s like there’s an engine there at the centre of the voice, a perfectly controlled yet obviously powerful instrument that keeps creating beautiful sound. McLaren is an excellent actor too–subtle changes in her facial expression or body language meant a whole lot, and she makes you pay attention. Too, her voice blended sweetly with McCausland’s; a good Rodolfo-Mimi pair isn’t as easy to find, but there it was in the AtG transladaptation at the Transac.

McCausland was reliably good, his Rodolfo an earnest, thoughtful egg. Boys were uniformly excellent: Andrew Love as Marcello, Micah Schroeder as the gay Schaunard, Kenneth Kellogg as a serious, brooding Colline and Gregory Finney, extra spicy and against type, as perfectly sleazy Landlord and Musetta’s sugar daddy Alcindoro.

Speaking of playing against type, Adanya Dunn the Sexed-Up Version (Musetta) was the second revelation of the evening. There was some pretty serious action on the bar counter after the “Quando m’en vo” and that’s after she’s made her seduction tour of the chosen people in the audience and the extras (including kissing one woman, and rubbing against the back of the music director Topher Mokrzewski at the piano).

So it was special–and not only for nostalgic reasons. This production, that is, its bare minimum version, rose the AtG Theatre to prominence six years ago. They have since become a major player on the Toronto operatic scene, their imaginative takes on the classics a highlight of each season. The old La Bohème, turns out, is still good, and still has loads of that signature AtG-ian magic dust.

Oksana G. is shockingly bad

I left the May 26 performance of Oksana G. stunned. The most ambitious operatic project by our biggest contemporary opera producer in recent years made a lot of us excited and keen to embrace it. The topic hinted at seriousness of purpose, boldness in the face of potential controversy and rootedness in our age. The libretto took the road less travelled by letting the characters speak in their original languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Italian in addition to English. The action, ambitiously, moves across several borders. The casting promised the right mix of the newcomers and the acclaimed.

The result of those ten years of work is, turns out, an atrociously banal libretto with music which serves as faded wallpaper or, in those rare moments of visibility, as an injection of lyricism for purposes of telling us what to feel.

The story of a young Ukrainian woman Oksana who is promised a job in a high income country but then taken into sexual slavery by her smuggler is told in the manner of a TV special for very slow children. We follow her life in chronological sketches and each leaden scene is designed to highlight a problem or explain a point. We are being walked through, with a heavy stomp. In between the acts, there are documentary intertitles that tell the place of action and the exact date.  There are moments of extraordinary vacuity. Middle-aged East-European women that Oksana leaves behind keep looking at tarot card to learn about her fate. (That’s how East European women inform themselves about world events, FYI.) Oksana’s guide-turned-pimp in one dramatic moment in the woods removes his glasses and she is horrified that his eyes are of different colour (bad omen, evil is ahead). Later, escaped and among other women in a recovery camp in Italy, Oksana and her girlfriends play folk dances to remind themselves of home. (Slavs = folk dances, FYI.) Speaking of Slavs, every woman in the story is clad in the style that can be best described as a cheap made-in-China quasi-glamour, which I suppose is there to suggest that they all, as a demographic, not only lack means, but also pine for western glam and try to scramble a knockout version of it.

But the most serious issue with the libretto is structural. The story of Oksana’s life is told through her passive relationship to two men who have agency in the story: her captor Konstantin, and then later, her savior, priest Father Alexander. Oh, and: Father Alexander is a blonde and muscular Canadian hunk who happens to live in southern Italy, where he runs the centre for the escaped trafficked women like Oskana G. It’s the myth we like telling each other, the peace-keeper Canadian who saves the day in the less fortunate parts of the world, and astoundingly, here it is served again, unexamined, in a 2017 opera.

The quiet scene between the priest and the recovering Oksana is jaw-dropping: he tells her there is still time for her, maybe she will meet a man one day who will lover her and she will have children, and a happy family life, and not to give up hope. Music heard from the orchestra stage right, amping up the sentiment, comes in unsubtly and signals that yes, this is sincere, this is a moment of rare intimacy between the two, his words are to be taken seriously.

There is the odd collective scene with other women in captivity but while a different librettist and composer pair would have made something out of it–a slave chorus, a gathering of forces, a lament of the kind that Britten created for the women of Peter Grimes–zero luck here. The women remain atomized.

The ending made everything that one final degree worse. There’s a very old operatic trope that goes like this. The impure woman has to die at the end of an opera – either by her own hand, by a man’s hand or due to an illness – as that is the only way we can feel for her. With no dramatic reason except this one, that we can finally be allowed to love and pity her, Oksana, finally free from her enslaver, commits suicide out of shame. What fresh Butterfly BS is this, librettist Colleen Murphy, composer Aaron Gervais, director Tom Diamond, and Tapestry Opera?

Singers are generally fine–Jacqueline Woodley as Oksana’s friend Nataliya, Keith Klassen as Konstantin, and Natalya Gennadi as Oksana in particular leave a mark–but colossally wasted by this production. Krisztina Szabo as Oksana’s mother is not given much to do except fret. (See also under: East European mothers) Adam Fisher as the priest was in fine voice, but his gym bunny physique and his stylish coif stood comically incongruous with his character’s profession.

And what to say of Gervais’ music which overall takes leave to the far background and lets the B-movie libretto take up all the air?

I don’t enjoy writing reviews this disappointed and hope to never have to do it again. So let’s end here.

Banging Was Heard

Another good thing about the 21C Festival is that you always end up going to things that you wouldn’t usually go to any other time. Last night I went to hear a band I didn’t know anything about — except its pianist Vicky Chow. The group consists of percussion, electric guitar, double bass and cello, keyboards, and clarinet/bass clarinet, plus the electronic component handled by an off-stage sound man and in most of the numbers tonight video as well.

Those of you who’ve seen Nicole Lizée’s work, this will bring it to mind, but unlike Lizee who makes her musicvideo forms herself, the BoaC band performs other composers’ works. One of the pieces that stood out for me was Christian Marclay’s Fade to Slide, which was played alongside his own film, an incongruous, compelling montage of short cuts from old movies that was accompanied by the live performance with split-second precision. John Oswald’s Fee Fie Foe Fum gave a pop hit from 1960s his signature plunderphonic treatment (take the existing sound, transform it) and a suitable video component to go with it. René Lussier used a recording of his wife’s snoring to compose within it a new work titled Nocturne. It’s a piece that’s not really played for laughs: while pre-recorded snoring was distinctly heard, the piece mainly fills in with instruments the space between two intakes of breath of a snorer. The inconsistent breaks between noise and silence in the snoring pattern is rendered faithfully. You are kept alert and guessing throughout – as a sleeper forced to stay alert to the erratic production of sound next to him. Will the snorer will go quiet with the next intake of breath, or is it going to be louder; is he changing rhythm or staying consistent. All of this is in the piece.

Caroline Shaw (in Really Craft When You) and Anna Clyne (A Wonderful Day) both used recordings of spoken word as the basis on which to compose. Shaw used archival recordings from the 1970s of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia and Clyne an old man’s singing–it’s hard to describe it, so head here for a shot of joy and wonder.

Gene Takes a Drink, a piece by Michael Gordon to the footage filmed by a cat going about his day, which was made into a film by Bill Morrison, holds your attention. David Lang’s unused swan was an extraordinary experience: an ensemble of instruments overpowered by–of all things–the closely miked chains coming to contact with the metal platform.

21C continues today (Sunday, May 28) with two more concerts: an Unsuk Chin extravaganza, and a Benjamin Bowman and Claudia Chan violin and piano tango.

What was that?

Alternate title for this concert review: Is Brian Current turning to religious mysticism and why??

Also: WTAF was that, Samy Moussa?

But let’s proceed.

21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.

D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.

Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.

Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of  heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?

But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird’s eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.

Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.

First published on The Wholenote website

 

The Cav does it again

Even though only his La Calisto is now performed with regularity, Francesco Cavalli (1602-1676) was a prolific operatic composer. Elena, one of a handful of his other operas making cross-century comeback, was first revived in 2013 and we are lucky that the Toronto Consort nimbly followed suit and programmed it as their opera-in-concert this season. The printed program adapts the opera’s title as Helen of Troy, but it might have been more accurate to call it Helen Before Troy, as the libretto invents the shenanigans around the kidnapping of the mythical Helen before she was married to the Mycenaean king Menelaus (of Iliad and Odyssey fame), from whom she was later to be abducted by Paris of Troy. The original story of Helen’s marriage to Menelaus is a more sedate affair involving the drawing of straws—attention, I am about to compare the “official” Greek mythology line with its Italian baroque riff, I love my job—and therefore not particularly useful to the early opera. Librettists of Elena Nicolò Minato and Giovanni Faustini needed a much wilder story of how Menelaus and Helen ended up together, so they created one.

Men in dresses are not unheard of in Greco-Roman mythology (see Achilles on Skyros) but there are more to be found in Italian baroque opera. Menelaus of Elena spends most of the time cross-dressed as an extraordinarily muscular Amazon who impresses young Helen with her wrestling prowess and becomes her intimate. Both of them, helpless women that they are, get abducted by Theseus (who also has a yen for Helen) and his sidekick Pirithous (who casts his eye on “Elisa” the Amazon) and are brought to the court of King Creon. There, Creon’s son Menestheus—you guessed it—also falls for Helen, and we learn that Theseus is actually already engaged to Hippolyta, who is one of those low-voiced, no-nonsense, sword-wielding women in the style of the female knight Bradamante of the Italian epic poems on the adventures of Orlando. Intrigues ensue. Helen finally decides that of all the suitors she prefers Menelaus—who finally comes out as a man—and Theseus returns to Hippolyta.

Musically too, Elena is an entertaining hodgepodge of comedic and solemn elements. The required instrumentation can be as small as half a dozen people at most points, one or two melody instruments against the basic continuo. (For a more luxurious sound with a bigger period ensemble, see the 2013 DVD of Elena from Aix-en-Provence with Cappella Mediterranea in the pit.) In the Toronto Consort’s version, Lucas Harris (theorbo), Felix Deak (cello) and Paul Jenkins (harpsichord) made up the continuo, which was joined, as required, by violins (Patricia Ahern and Julia Wedman) or recorders (Alison Melville and Colin Savage). Bud Roach, a one-man show as the court fool Iro, both sang and played baroque guitar.

There are five pants roles inherited from the castrati roles in Elena, and for this fan of pants roles that is not a small thing. TC’s music director and conductor David Fallis honoured all but one: Menelaus is sung by a tenor (Kevin Skelton), while Pirithous, Menestheus, Castor and Pollux were all indeed sung by women—Vicki St. Pierre, Katherine Hill, Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova respectively. Kevin Skelton, luckily, has a beautiful and agile tenor voice that made this Menelaus rather a good catch. His cross-dressing was achieved by way of a Wonderwoman apron. Cory Knight’s Theseus was paired with the ever reliable and the velvetiest mezzo of the TC ensemble, Laura Pudwell. That this Hippolyta was slightly older than her betrothed added a welcome May to December (or should I say, Emmanuel Macron-ian?) dimension to the story.

Mezzo Vicki St. Pierre’s pinpoint dexterity with melismas was back in town (the singer now lives and teaches in New Brunswick) for a spirited take on Pirithous. The young Emma Hannan and Veronika Anissimova were an intriguingly girly take on brothers Castor and Pollux, who happen to stop by Creon’s Tegea on their way from capturing the Golden Fleece. Their voices were bright and youthful.

Delicate sopranos are a mainstay of Toronto’s early music scene, which favours l’esprit de corps (those sopranos often play one or more period instruments too) to individual vocal vim. Oftentimes a pretty, light, vibrato-less voice is all one needs for particular pieces; but sometimes I wish the music director looked further from his usual pool of voices. Katherine Hill was somewhat underpowered as Menestheus who needed more vocal heft to come alive. Michele deBoer made a fine if at times pale Helen, the arm wrestling scene with Kevin Skelton notwithstanding.

But no matter: all said and done, this Elena was a big treat. David Fallis’ translation of the libretto, projected in the form of supertitles, added entertaining contemporary touches at many a turn. And when the voices were called to come together, as in the choir of the Argonauts, we were given moments of breath-taking beauty. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to see this staged (by a company other than Opera Atelier). Directors coming out of Toronto’s independent opera scene—Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Amanda Smith, the Applin sisters—your turn.

Review first appeared in the Wholenote online.

Aaron Gervais

It took about 10 years due to the vagaries of opera funding, but Aaron Gervais’s first full-length opera finally has its world premiere this spring. He met librettist Colleen Murphy in one of Toronto-based Tapestry Opera’s LibLab collaborations and immediately knew they wanted to work together on a story of a woman caught in a web of international sex trafficking. Fast forward through workshopping, fundraising, planning, a change of leadership at Tapestry and a casting change or two, and Oksana G, scored for an orchestra of 18, three principal singers and a dozen secondary roles, will bring Tapestry’s season to a resounding close in May.

From early days Gervais developed an “in-depth dramaturgic back-and-forth” with Murphy that made it easier for him to understand the characters and write them in music. “The relationship with the librettist is extremely important and I think that’s something a lot of composers don’t take seriously enough,” he says. “But I’ve learned so much, and the piece is so much better from Colleen’s contribution.” A lot of the librettist-composer collaboration happens on the deeply technical side of things—what kinds of vowels and consonants can be used on the key words: “If you’re going to land on a specific note, it has to come through, both in terms of text and emotions.”

Additional challenges comes from using four languages. Oksana G is in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Italian—more complicated, but more authentic to the story than an all-English libretto. Each language, Gervais realized, comes with its own musicality. “This changed the kind of lines I wrote for the singers. Even in Russian and Ukrainian, which are similar, the placement of the vowels is somewhat different and a line that worked well in Ukrainian may seem awkward in Russian, so you’d have to change.”

Earlier in his career, as a young composer eager to expand his horizons, Gervais took singing lessons for a year. One session he remembers as paradigm-changing: he came well prepared and sang everything correctly, yet the teacher interrupted him and told him it wasn’t good. “‘But I did everything correctly,’ I protested. ‘None of that stuff matters,’ she said. ‘It’s about the emotion of the character, and the phrasing.’ This opened my eyes to how different singing is, and how dynamic it can be.” Ever since, he’s enjoyed working with singers precisely because they make the music so thoroughly their own and personal. “I think a lot of composers don’t realize that that’s possible, so they write in a way that straitjackets the singers a little bit. I try very hard to write vocal lines that singers are going to enjoy and be able to make their own.”

Gervais has called San Francisco home since 2009, and still occasionally works on Canadian commissions. Asked if it’s harder to make a living as a composer under the American arts-funding regime, he offers a nuanced view. Different models of arts funding result in different default strategies. “In Canada, it usually goes like this: ‘I’m going to apply for this grant, and if we get it, we’ll do the project.’ In the U.S., it’s more like: ‘I’m going to network and find all these philanthropists, and, hopefully, by building this team over the next couple of years, I’ll be able to get enough funding to make this project work.’” Opera, however, significantly more complex and expensive, is funded that way in Canada, too. Besides, no two composers make a living the same way. “Art is a reflection of your lived experiences, so the kind of art that makes sense in the place where you live will be different from the kind of art that makes sense somewhere else.”

His next big U.S. premiere is Prescription Drug Nation, a piece that recently became even more topical due to the opioid crisis in the U.S. His original intent was to probe some of the meaning attached to prescription drugs in American society as the low-class relatives to more glamourous controlled substances. Six of the drugs get a musical portrait each—aided by a choreographer and a guitar trio. Also in San Francisco, Gervais recently premiered Louis C.K. am Spinnrade, a piece in which the standup comic Louis C.K.’s musings on why we text and drive get mashed up with Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” then recomposed for cello and soprano. It’s all about filling in the empty time of waiting and distracting oneself from the existential dread. What did the audience make of it? “It went well. Laughter was heard, as I was hoping it would be.”

Opera Canada, Vol. 57, No. 4

Photo: Stella Kim. Screen grab from Opera Canada print article.

James Rolfe

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I’ve two composer profiles in the new issue of Opera Canada. Here’s James Rolfe; I’ll post Aaron Gervais interview tomorrow. Both have interesting things coming up.

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One of our most literary composers, James Rolfe is about to complete his biggest literary opera yet. Canadian Stage recently announced the premiere of The Overcoat in March 2018, an opera with libretto by Morris Panych based on one of Gogol’s best-known short stories. Based on more than one, in fact—most of The Overcoat is there, but the ending is from Diary of a Madman.

Akaky Akakievich, the low-ranking government copyist, therefore, does not die from a fever caught walking around St. Petersburg without the overcoat, but is confined in an asylum. New characters are added, too. “There’s a chorus of three women throughout the piece,” Rolfe says. “At the beginning, it’s ambiguous who they are. We accept right away that they are not visible. They are sort of adjunct to the action, but the characters don’t see them. It’s clear by the end”—spoiler alert—“that they’re inmates of the mental asylum where the protagonist ends up.”

Much of what Rolfe has composed for voice so far has strong literary ties. He enjoys working with award-winning author André Alexis (“There’s a great musical sense in is writing”) and is currently working on a piece based on poems by 2016 Governor General Award winner Steven Heighton. One gets the sense he is not only a serious reader, but someone who reads with the composing mind fully on. “I absolutely am. And poetry is already half way music anyway. There’s certain poetry I go back to again and again; Whitman, Rimbaud, and Archibald Lampman, a Canadian poet from the end of the 19th century. If something speaks to you, that’s the most important thing. You have to have strong feelings about a piece of writing to want to put music to it.”

The Overcoat as opera germinated at a LibLab librettist-composer sessions held by Toronto-based Tapestry Opera. (Tapestry is co-producer of the work, which goes on to the Vancouver Opera Festival after its CanStage premiere.) Panych had already adapted Gogol’s The Overcoat with Wendy Gorling into a nonverbal stage play that toured the world, but the Rolfe-Panych Overcoat was to be tailored out of very different cloth. Panych worked on the libretto for a time and submitted it to Rolfe completed. There followed a piano workshop in 2014 and a fuller workshop a year later. Early this March, Rolfe was in the final stages of composing and, in his words “tweaking the orchestration… There will be 11 singers—some will play more than one part—and 12 instrumentalists.” How would he describe the texture of the score? “Pretty clear and simple for the most part. I tried to keep it not overly musically complex or challenging for its own sake. I try to keep the musical imagery quite clear. I think it’s in the spirit of the libretto that Morris created.”

Composing something that is of our time is, in his view, probably the biggest challenge opera composers face today. “By that I mean something that’s relevant, dramatically and musically, because we live in an era with an embarrassment of riches, with so many possibilities and choices at every turn. Bringing out the tone and the style in opera for the people of today is the goal.” He has several projects on the go. Aeneas and Dido (with André Alexis) will be remounted by Toronto Masque Theatre in the company’s final season. Crush, his modern take on Don Giovanni (with Anna Chatterton), commissioned in 2007 by Richard Bradshaw, lived to see a workshop production at Banff last July with six emerging singers and a piano trio. “We’re still looking for a production partner and are talking to theatres in Toronto about it. Hopefully, we’ll get it off the ground.” In their version, the title character is a woman and Elvira and Zerlina are merged into one person, though the statue’s revenge and the fires of hell they decided to keep.

Rolfe lives in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood with his partner, composer Juliet Palmer, and their daughter. He runs every morning and bakes almost as frequently. “Food and running kind of go together—and balance each other out.” He teaches part-time, tries to get out to as many concerts as possible and is one of those composers who, no matter their own workload, remain interested in other people’s work. “I like to stay in touch. Best thing about teaching is that I get to listen to new things by younger people, and I listen to what they’re listening to as well.”

Opera Canada, Vol. 57, No. 4

JR