The COC’s nine-year-old production of Stravinsky’s shorts, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables directed by Robert Lepage has aged well — as family entertainment. It sells well, it brings children and rookies to the opera house, and this time around it put to work much of the COC Ensemble Studio.
For those of us who have seen it when it opened, the excitement has subsided. The production stitches together a selection of Stravinsky songs and instrumental pieces with the short opera The Nightingale into a puppetry-themed revue. While the children may rejoice the shadow puppetry illustrations during Pribaoutki and The Fox, the adults may wonder why this modernist composer is being given the Russian folklore treatment. In the pre-Nightingale pieces all the singers wear peasant clothes, and while this makes sense for Four Russian Peasant Songs (women of the COC Chorus, underpowered on the opening night), it does not for Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (Danika Loren, bright-voiced and exquisite in Russian language) or Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (the very engaging Juan Olivares).
The Nightingale itself is a strange bird, and Stravinsky thought so too. He composed Acts 2 and 3 after he had completed The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, thanks to a commission he couldn’t refuse, and Act 1 does remain stylistically apart. The opening song of the Fisherman and some of the surrounding woodwinds could have come from the Russian nineteenth-century opera, whereas the rest of the work fits in better with the invention, the sharp edges, the crafted-ness of Stravinsky’s mature oeuvre.
The story is, fittingly, bizarre. In the libretto by Stepan Mitussov based on H.C. Andersen, the courtiers of the Chinese Emperor are taken out into the nature to hear the nightingale. The cow and the frog confuse them at first, as they’ve never heard any sounds from the nature, but the live nightingale is finally found and they invite it to court. The Emperor is moved when the bird sings at his quarters, yet the Japanese visitors interrupt the jam with their gift, a mechanical nightingale, which also impresses the Emperor. The real nightingale leaves unnoticed and is subsequently banned for disobedience but returns for Act 3 to negotiate the Emperor’s release from death throes. Morning dawns, Emperor is alive and well, Death chased away with song.
Parable on the supremacy of nature over artifice? Not so fast. The music Stravinsky gives to the Nightingale is a whole lot of beautiful but also rather cool and detached coloratura atop of the text describing wet foliage in the night. Yet to the stilted and ceremonious figures of the imperial court—and to Death—it sounds extraordinary, perhaps because free. Free from emoting too, as will operatic expression attempt to free itself from voicing and enticing straightforward emotion for much of the rest of the twentieth century to come, excepting Puccini. “For me, music is reality… and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, J’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol,” Stravinsky said in his Dialogues with Robert Craft (’82).
Robert Lepage and his collaborators in Ex machina intuited exactly right this artificial, laboured over and crafted nature of everything in this piece, and gave every character a puppet double to speak through – except, again, the Nightingale, whose mechanical double flies around as it pleases (on a long stick supported by a handler disguised in black). This is a perfect role for Jane Archibald who, when not holding the bird, roams freely among the characters and supplies self-contained coloratura utterances. Other principals are all in the pool of water occupying the orchestra pit, while the orchestra is on stage, behind the action. The original Dyagilev production designed by Alexandre Benois also played with upstairs-downstairs, and placed the Nightingale and the Fisherman inside the orchestra pit.
While he was barely heard in Part 1 as one of the quartet of The Fox, Oleg Tsibulko got back the volume by the time he returned on stage as the Emperor in Part 2. Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Lindsay Ammann as Death in a large crowd of small roles had a bit more substance to work with and they managed to leave mark with what they had. Owen McCausland secure, full tenor was very distinct in Part 1 and returned in Part 2 as the Fisherman. He was comfortable in Russian, and vocally even throughout the range. Occasionally a bit more inflection and nuance was called for: there’s certainly sufficient force there, but there’s also a certain over-relying on the oomph of the voice, whereas sometimes modulation is what’s needed in the text or the scene. It will be interesting to watch his voice as it likely grows more dramatic with years.
The crown achievement of the evening is Stravinsky’s music itself, incapable of dullness if honoured properly, and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus honoured its crispness and animation. From the Ragtime which served as the overture (and which could have been written yesterday, by John Adams) to the last bars of the rising sun of The Nightingale, the lucid and nimble orchestra kept the evening, potentially weighed down by dolls, gallons of water and crowds of courtiers, in swift and steady motion.
Not a review – it’s video direction vs. stage direction with these things, and I only got the video – but a few thoughts.
This wasn’t a catastrophe, as many people led me to believe! It had some brilliant moments, some WTF moments, and some moments where it felt the director just couldn’t be bothered. Overall, though, the chutzpah tips the scales: it’s a wildly imaginative production–a bold and flawed (but which one is perfect) attempt to do something new with a popular classic that resists radical re-reading. It’s also one that goes deep into the score and connects it directly to dance (tons of dance) and movement of the actors, often at the expense of the textual layer of meaning.
Namely, in most of the scenes with more than one person, Kosky and his choreographer Otto Pichler find the rhythm, the clang, the pulsing brass, the percussion and make that the currency of communication, while text may or may not be in accord. If it’s not, then tant pis for the text. And it’s kind of all right – the scenes work all the same. For example, the scene in which Carmen dances for Jose, first time after he’s out of jail and comes looking for her, is unlike anything usually seen in Carmen productions. Ordinarily, we’d see a scene of seduction, more or less explicitly acted, but here Carmen (Anna Goryachova) barely moves while following the percussion beat with her hands on her hips. In a way, there’s not much happening other than Carmen enjoying the beat on her own. She is being watched while she’s busying herself with her own pleasure.
In the scene of arrival of Don Escamillo (Kostas Smoriginas), the man gets three male background dancers who amplify, mime or make fun of his statement. In the scene of cigarette girls and ogling soldiers, female chorus is on the left, male on the right, and the men are slowly creeping towards the women and get stuck in various positions on first contact, as the female chorus is not at all permeable. Near the end, as the various ranks of the corrida are introduced before the grand entrance by Escamillo, nothing really changes with the staged tableau other than choreography by the handful of dancers higher up on the stairs, and the jumping up and down of the crowd.
The one scene which was destroyed for me by this supremacy of choreography over text was the quintet of the three women with the smugglers at Lillas Pastia’s. It’s delivered as an absurd Rossinian act finale, with three dancers in between the line of singers, each person popping up and down in the game of whac-a-mole precisely to the rhythm in the music.
I did not mind that there’s not much of a set apart from that Busby Berkeley staircase. I did not miss the mountain and smugglers’ camp in Act 3, most of all, nor the pre-corrida parade.
Score-wise, this version is not the one with spoken dialogues, unfortunately, but some of the recits have been cut and replaced by female voice-over reading from Prosper Mérimée‘s novel. I really like how this connected the scenes, and sometimes revealed what a character was actually feeling, or some background information usually not available in the opera (for ex that Carmen had a mother in a distant city who depended on her for financial support).
Another interesting contribution to the meaning of Carmen: Goryachova dressed as a female toreador is present in all the early scenes, even before her scheduled grand entrance. The opera opens with her, thusly clad, seated on the staircase, while the voice-over is reading a description of what the ultimate fantasy woman looks like, “according to the Spaniards”. The voice takes its time going part by part of the female body, as the character starts slowly descending, with a knowing, almost “whatever, this is a game” smirk. She stays on for the early scenes as the fantasy that everybody there, men, women, need – and briefly disappears and reappears for the Habanera. She is dressed butch for the aria (don’t ask me to explain the minute inside the gorilla costume) and is also dressed butch in the scene of the fight with that other cigarette girl whose name escapes me. The other cigarette girl however wears an ultra femme gown, and is dragged and kicked by the much more aggressive Carmen. There’s a possible subtext here, but which one precisely, up to you (is she repudiating femininity? interesting that in later Acts she sartorially embraces it. Or is this just a measure-for-measure, if you clap, I clap back one-off violence?) Elsewhere in the opera, she is one of the girl gang and it’s possible that both Mercedes and Frasquita are or have been sexual liaisons too (for what’s a little sex among friends?).
The voiceover in the smuggling-in-the-mountain scene informs us that Don Jose has been treating her badly, there’s a hint that he’s been violent to her, and she won’t take it anymore. She won’t take any crap from men, type thing.
The big emo solo arias are largely left intact (Micaela’s in Act 3, the big Don Jose aria at Lillas Pastia) as they’re musically pretty much unassailable.
Micaela (Kristina Mkhitaryan) is, interestingly, something of a girlish, pre-sexual, flustered, innocent white-dress-wearing version of Carmen herself.
Goryachova’s voice is OK if a bit monocromatic at times, under-inflected and under-nuanced. There’s a certain range of a dark bass-y drone that feels like a default place of her voice where it likes settling itself, and though it’s full and beautiful, there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing. She gave it a workout in the “Pres des ramparts de Seville” and it was wonderful; most of the opera though the voice stayed in its default setting.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of the final shrug. So Don Jose stabs Carmen, she falls and (for all intents and purposes) dies; he sings what’s left for him to sing, Arrest me, I killed her, etc, and disappears off stage. Carmen, only her body visible in the spotlight of the dark stage, then gets up, dead serious, and looks straight into audience. And the she shrugs and smirks. I was expecting something more poignant, more… sisterhood. WHAT WAS THAT ABOUT??
I’m sure I’ll remember several more things I wanted to add the moment I post this, but right now, that’s all I can think of. It’s a carefully thought-out production with some fascinating moments; Kosky deconstructs the work into unexpected pieces (beat-cum-body units) and reconstructs it back, with text re-wiring itself into a different kind of dramatic coherence.
And I’m now pretty sure Margaret Atwood phrased the famous line “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them” right after coming out of the final act of Carmen. Could be legit used as the subtitle of the work, en fait.
Because my credits here are sporadic, full list here.
The Barrie Kosky Carmen (that all British people in my Twitter feed hated) will be screened in Toronto this Sunday, April 8, starting 1:30 p.m. I’m curious about this consensus and will go; will see if I abandon it or stay till the end (there will be two 15-min intermissions, so count the entire afternoon off). Here’s more about this Carmen in the ROH Insights series:
The spectacular (in every way: good and… other, I hear) Macbeth with Anna Netrebko and Zeljko Lucic, directed by Phyllida Lloyd, will also be screened in a delayed encore, on Sunday May 20, starting 12 p.m. Trailer:
For ballet-heads, there’s the Royal Ballet Manon and a Bernstein Centenary event also in May.
Tickets are $17 for non-members. I think they’ve gone up – I think they’ve been $16 last time I went. More info here.
So, Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra partnered with the French tech company Meludia to make more than 600 ear training and music theory exercises available to anybody with a Canadian IP address free of cost for a period of one year. As of December last year, the interactive Meludia method is available to Canadians of all skill levels, chiefly thanks to the CPO, its Music Director Rune Bergmann who will be the program’s Canadian ambassador, and the CPO donors who are covering much of the cost associated with the project.
So I did a bit of research and from what I could gather, what distinguishes Meludia in the music e-learning field populated by software like Ear Training HQ, SingTrue and Ear Master is the method itself, created by the French educator and composer Vincent Chaintrier. A log-in (there’s a quick sign-in process where you have to give your email address) takes the user to a game-like universe where, the idea is, the instruction is imperceptible. Whether the level is Discovery, Intermediate, Advanced or Expert, as far as I can tell there is no musical grid in sight and no notation. The games on the density of the sound, ascending or descending melodies, contained or unresolved chords and “pitch identification gymnastics” grow in complexity with every new round. Tones and half-tones are introduced via intuitive visuals and an understanding of scales is built up by stealth.
While Meludia won’t train you to read notated music from the stave, its emphasis on the sensorial and play side of music is meant to develop your musical mind before you take the first piano or solfège lesson. Most of us start by taking that lesson, which kinda ties music-making to homework.
The 625 progressive exercises are now accessible to all Canadian internet provider addresses until December 2018 on meludia.com. I started it recently; if you give it a try, let me know how you get on.
Here’s my March art song column in this month’s Whole Note.
It looks better in print, as always, so do grab a copy somewhere. It is, as usual, free and priceless.
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On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.
The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.
I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?
The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.
The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.
I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)
So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?
Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?
I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?
In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.
Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.
Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.
Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.
In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.
I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”
He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.
Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.
“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.
There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.
But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.
Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.
Will Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?
With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.
Some March highlights
Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.
March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.
March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.
March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.
Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.
I’m really liking the number of the TSO conducting debuts in the new concert season announced yesterday. Han-Na Chang, Trondheim Symfoniorkester’s Chief Conductor is coming to Toronto next season, and so is Hamilton Philharmonic’s Gemma New. Barbara Hannigan and Tania Miller return. Melanie Leonard, the Sudbury SO’s MD, debuts with an, alas, Fred Penner program, mais bon.
Among the notable non-returns this season, Keri-Lyn Wilson. I was hoping she was on the list of potential MDs, but maybe she is indeed but the scheduling just couldn’t be worked out this season.
Among notable returns, the TSO regulars Juanjo Mena, Andrey Boreyko, Thomas Dausgaard, Donald Runnicles. TSO regulars who are otherwise engaged this season: Stephane Deneve, Hannu Lintu and Gianandrea Noseda, and that is just fine. It’s good to mix it up.
Because the conductors we don’t usually see on the TSO roster who will be there next season: Louis Langree, the French-born, Cincinnati SO MD, Karl-Heinz Steffens, German-born MD director of the Oslo Opera, Aurora Orchestra’s Nicholas Collon and Kirill Karabits, Bournemouth SO’s and Staatskapelle Weimar’s MD. Interestingly, Aziz Shokhakimov, known to the readers of this blog the very young, underdog candidate from the documentary Dirigenten! that I recently reviewed, will also have his TSO debut.
Not a whole lot of new in the soloists department – a lot of names we see just about every year (Zukerman, Lisiecki, Goodyear, Josefowicz). Repertoire-wise, the interim era in an orchestra’s life is not usually time to experiment and try out new programming visions, so the war horses it’ll be. An extremely modest sprinkling of Debussy and Ravel, exactly one Stravinsky and one Berlioz, zero R Strauss and Scriabin, and not much past early 20th century. New Creations Festival is usually announced much closer to the date of the festival, and there is a chunk of empty dates in early March so I’m hoping it’ll return. New Creations Festival, it has been confirmed, is cancelled for good. BTW, the TSO website now has a nifty search engine for the 2018-19 season, worth spending some time with.
And what’s ahead for Peter Oundjian? His tenure as the MD of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra too ends this year, Thomas Søndergård taking over (also one of the regulars returning for a TSO gig next season). Oundjian’s agency website offers the following on the artist’s page: Oundjian was recently named Artistic Advisor for the Colorado Music Festival, and this season he returns to the Baltimore, Atlanta, and NHK Symphonies, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Maybe a few years of freelancing after two busy MD-ships, I am guessing.
This and next season’s Interim MD will be Andrew Davis. As Opera Ramblings put it in his recent post, he won’t be “hogging the podium”, which is an excellent thing for an interim MD to do.
Really eager for some TSO news soon, though.
(And let’s hope for no more program copy faux pas like the unfortunate Ligeti graf that went globally viral-ish on Twitter. I found myself having to explain to Twitter friends from Seattle and Paris that no, the TSO is not usually terrified of the twentieth century and new music and that no, we don’t usually print warnings in programs and that I’d attribute the graf to a distracted program editor rather than read too much into it etc etc. )
Bass Goran Jurić (Osmin in the COC’s The Abduction from the Seraglio until February 24) is finishing his six year stint as the ensemble member at the Bavarian Opera and heading to Stuttgart next season. We met at the COC offices for a chat.
Tell me about your trajectory, Munich-based Croatian bass Goran Jurić.
I graduated from the University of Zagreb – I did opera studies there, and also Italian studies and general phonetics. My first operatic experiences were at the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, where I sang Sarastro, among others…
When did you discover you’re a bass?
My low notes were immediately evident. When I was sixteen, seventeen, I developed my top notes in the course of my studies, but my base was clear early on.
And you knew immediately you wanted to sing – no instrument tempted you?
Music education at all levels is funded by the state in Croatia, and classical musician gets to go to a music-focused high school first and then on to university – what we call the Music Academy. So I went to music high school, where my primary subject was singing, but I had a minor too, the flute. I played the flute for a few years.
Completely different sound from the bass voice?
Yes, but there’s overlap – breathing technique has some similarities, it’s interesting. Then at university, I added Italian and phonetics to my studies. I’m really interested in linguistics, and Italian language and literature, even though I’ve always known I’d never work in the field of language. By the time I was 20, I knew I wanted to be an opera singer.
Do you come from a musical family?
Not at all. I come from a working class family, my dad is an electrician, my mom was a clerk. I don’t come from a family where you take private lessons in French or piano… I had “private lessons” in how to chop wood and stuff like that. If I was to become a musician at all, it was likelier I’d become a folk musician, because I grew up in a village. But somehow, through my education, primary school and high school, in my music classes, I discovered all these composers—and plus the TV probably helped and the occasional concert—and realized I have this great love of classical music. I started to sing in choirs, and my voice was being noticed etc. It’s thanks to our education system that I discovered I could be an opera singer. As it’s usually the case with children who come from rural backgrounds: what you don’t find at home, you’ll find thanks to a good public education system. One of the good things about the old Yugoslav socialist system was the free public schools with music education at every level.
And after the university?
After Croatia, I went to (what we call in our respective countries) “Europe” for singing competitions and I won a few. And that’s how I found my manager. The agency was then called Caecilia, out of Zurich, but now its former lyric section is its own agency, the Amman-Horak Agency for Opera Artists, and it’s remained Swiss. One of the first auditions that they sent me to was the Munich opera house. I had no idea what if anything I’ll get out of it. A chorus position, an opera studio job, an ensemble contract, a one-off role, nothing at all? I just wanted to work. I knew I wanted to move out from Croatia to a bigger operatic centre. And they offered me immediately to come on as an ensemble member. That was my big break. Munich is, well, probably the best opera house in Germany.
I hear Munich loves its opera.
Not only do they have a full season, but a summer festival too, and there’s a different opera on every day, and every day it’s packed. Ticket prices can hit substantial three digit numbers, due to demand. And Munich is the centre of southern Germany, with a really strong economy. BMW is there, Siemens, Bayers. It’s a wealthy city and its budget for culture is equally big, and Munich audiences love opera. There are two operatic theatres in town in addition to the Bayerische and they’re also doing well.
You’ll be in Munich a while longer?
I actually just finished my fest contract there. Learned a lot, sang a lot of roles, and they were careful of Fach. I was never forced to try anything that wasn’t good for my voice; and how they saw me matched exactly how I understood my own voice. They saw me more in Italian, with a little bit of German and Russian rep, and I appreciated that. I sang Banquo in Macbeth, Timur in Turandot, Colline in La Boheme, Ferrando in Trovatore, Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma… Rarely baroque, but I did Plutone in L’Orfeo, and we did Rameau’s Les Indes galantes, where I did…
Wait, Rameau has bass roles?
Not only that, it was a female role, written for a bass, and the character is goddess of war by the name of Bellona.
Now I have to get that DVD.
It’s available! I rarely sing baroque these days, though I used to sing some baroque oratorio rep. After six years in Munich, next season I am starting an artist in residence contract at the Stuttgart Opera. It’s similar to being an ensemble member, but you sing much less and have much more available time to guest in other opera houses.
Where do you see your voice going in the next, say, five years?
I will try to keep my voice where it is now. This is my first Osmin at the COC, and I’m enjoying it a lot. I’m not a typical Mozart singer, I don’t do Figaro, Leporello, Don Giovanni. The three Mozart roles I’ve done are Il Commendatore, Sarastro and this one. And I did a Sarastro at the COC last year, and am glad to do Osmin in a house that I know well.
What are your composers now?
So, when it comes to bel canto. I’m not a Rossini singer, but I did sing Moses in Rossini’s Moses in Egypt in Bregenz this summer. I’m returning to Moses right after the Abduction, I’ll sing it in Naples. Raimondo in Lucia, Oroveso in Norma. That’s for bel canto. Then, Verdi. I would still wait for Filippo, but the Inquisitor I would do now. It’s quite short, it’s a big and important scene, but not as demanding as Filippo. For Filippo, you have to have the vocal maturity and also be mature as a person. Otherwise it’s just… not complete. In Don Carlo, I did already the Monk, and my next rank in that church would be the Inquisitor. Other Verdi, I do Sparafucile, Banquo, Ferrando, and happy with how that’s going. I’d like to do Ramphis as well. But I’ll wait out Filippo, Zaccharia, Attila. There’s still time.
What about the Russians?
I adore Russian composers. Last season here at the COC I did an all-Russian recital, with songs by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov and Sviridov. I would still wait for Boris a while. I will first do Pimen, which I will sing in Stuttgart in the near future. Pimen has some beautiful monologues. I would like to do King Rene in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta. And Susanin in Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar. But for now—I’m 34, and that’s still young for a bass—I’d like to keep my voice between Mozart, bel canto and Verdi. I’ve been saying no to offers from the heavier rep. I’m often offered Wagner and most of those I decline. I will take Heinrich from Lohengrin – it’s written in an oratorio manner, the orchestra is not too thick, I don’t have to sing too dramatically. Let’s say King Mark from Tristan would be like like Filippo from Don Carlo for me; something I will wait for. That’s the role that I’d really like to do in the future. People tell me they can see me as Gurnemanz. I’ve sung Titurel, and there you can hear if someone would be good as Gurnemanz or not. But – there’s time.
I wanted to ask you about the Slavs in opera. I’ve read an interview with the Bulgarian singer Vesselina Kasarova in which, well, she put it like this: she encountered racism in the opera world around Slavic voices. Who are booming, unsophisticated, the “Russian School” etc. Does this sound familiar?
Yes! I’ve heard that before. There’s even some truth in what’s otherwise a crass stereotype. But this is how. What we think when we say “Slavs in opera”, it’s the Russian school of singing and the Bulgarian school of singing. Sometimes we add to that the ex-Yugoslav singers. Our languages probably affect our singing cultures. Our Slavic languages are kind of more guttural, throaty… and our folk music is written in a more virtuosic way than the folk music from the west. One of my Profs in Zagreb once told me that the nations that have long and complex tradition of folk music don’t have long and complex traditions of classical music, and vice versa. Perhaps the Slavic singing does come with and require bigger voices and differently coloured voices due to our folk traditions and religious singing, especially the Orthodox influence?
And maybe it’s our way of speaking as well. Perhaps the difference between the European east and the European west is like the difference between south America and north America. There’s a different kind of… expressivity.
Russian operas are full of basses. More of them there than anywhere else.
That’s probably due to their sacred music. Bass is a major voice in Russian Orthodox music. Different from Italian operas, where tenor tends to be the leading voice.
And women’s voices have not exactly been dominating Orthodox chants and liturgies; it’s the male voices, and low ones, in choirs that are the more familiar colour.
Yes, though they also have some really awesome nuns’ choirs. I wish there was an extensive study on this, I’d love to read it. On these differences.
When you listen to a western European choir do Rachmaninov Vespers, like the French choir Accentus, for example, which recorded the Vespers with Eric Ericson Chamber Choir, it’s a very different piece. Gossamer light in comparison to some Russian recordings.
I can believe it.
And then the Balkans are similar but also apart. I grew up in Croatia and Croatia is at a crossroads between the Mediterranean, Central European and Balkan cultures. That’s why the Croatian singers are part of the so-called “Slavic school” but we also have the Mediterranean touch and the Germanic touch via Austria. Croatia, Montenegro too, at a crossroads between larger countries and the empires that occupied us. But we made use of these cultural influences.
Croatia, within and without Yugoslavia, gave quite a few opera singers to the world. Was Sena Jurinac Croatian?
Yes. Also Dunja Vejzović. And Ruža Pospiš-Baldani.
I remember reading about Dunja in my adolescence, in Svijet magazine. Fast forward to much later, I last watched her in a DVD of Il trittico a few years back.
She is now in her 70s and she’s training as a conductor. She went back to school and she’s going to add that to her degrees.
Then there’s Renata Pokupić.
That’s right, she’s a baroque and Rossini singer. And let’s not forget Vlatka Oršanić. She’s my voice teacher and she’s sung in all of Europe really and now teaches at the opera studies department in Zagreb. And if we broaden our search to the entire ex-Yu territory, there’s of course Željko Lučić (b. in Serbia), really one of the best Verdi baritones around.
And Marijana Mijanović, also from Serbia, but she kind of retired.
Oh yes, Marijana! A real baroque contralto. I’ve never met her, but I remember when I was a student watching clips of her on Youtube, she is incredible.
And her former partner, Krešimir Špicer, who is often in Toronto thanks to Opera Atelier.
Krešimir is from Slavonski Brod, in Croatia. Actually, my very first opera, when I was in my second year at university, was Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, and Krešimir was Orfeo in it.
There’s a lot of Slavs in German and Austrian opera. There’s the gruff Croatian count in Arabella and who knows, maybe you’ll end up singing the role eventually… or is it too high for a bass?
I’m not touching Strauss yet! In due course, I’ll take a peek.
But Haydn, too, was inspired by folk songs from Croatia. There were times when the Balkans were inspiring to the west European musicians. Nowadays, the word balkanization is a pejorative… And the stereotyping of Slav singers, yes, it’s a thing.
But this stereotyping maybe works in Slav basses’ favour?
Well let’s be honest, a huge chunk of basses come from Slavic countries. Come on. I’ve met Croatian basses, and Russian ones, Belorussian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian especially. It is something that’s ours. Provided that this we exists in the first place, of course.
OMG that’s right. Of course it doesn’t.
A friend from Croatia recently asked me: so when you’re away and you miss home, what do you miss: Croatia as Croatia, or Karlovac, your hometown, or Zagreb where you studied, or Munich where you live? My answer is, I never feel complete. From every city I live in or work in, I get something. But I leave a bit of myself there as well.
Toronto Masque Theatre is playing its third last show ever at the historical Enoch Turner House Feb 8-10 and I was there last night. (There’s still the Shaftesbury Avenue salon on April 23 and the final celebration on May 12.) Here comes a wee photo reportage, as it was my first time in this cozy heritage building which should def be used more for concerts and book launches.
Patricia O’Callaghan and Giles Tomkins sang Bach’s The Peasant Cantata – We Have a New Governor Cantata Burlesque, in English. Belonging to the less known goofy side of Bach’s output, the piece involves a visit to the pub, imbibing, the praising (ironic and not) of the peasant’s feudal master, and the grousing about tax collectors. It ends in good spirits.
The small orchestra on period instruments accompanying the shenanigans: Larry Beckwith (violin), Kathleen Kajioka (viola), Margaret Gay (cello), Sibylle Merquardt (flute), Scott Wevers (horn) and Christopher Bagan (harpsichord). Stage direction by Guillermo Silva-Marin.
A couple of photos from the intermission.
Second part had an amplified band — Bagan back at the piano, with Ed Reifel on percussion, John Gzowski electric guitar, Andrew Downing double-bass, with mezzo Marion Newman and Larry Beckwith joining the quartet of singers as the tenor of the group. This was a mix of songs (cabaret, Broadway, pop, a couple of Lieder and a lullaby composed by Marion Newman) on the theme of dark nights and bright stars. Actor Martin Julien read poems by Dickinson, Shelley, Byron, Sara Teasdale, et al.
Wajdi Mouawad, playwright and director entirely new to opera, read the libretto to Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio one day and decided it was not woke enough. Instead of looking at some other productions of this opera and and reading up on in and on Mozart’s own politics and oeuvre, he decided that, according to his notes:
-it condemns one civilization at the expense of another [it does not]
-that it might be read today as an exercise in caricature, or casual racism [libretto does not inevitably read as anything. If you decide to stage it like that, sure]
-it could constitute an argument for the “wholesale rejection of Islam and the East, thereby falling into larger patterns of Islamophobia in the West which would have us blame all our problems on the threat of an undifferentiated “Arabic” Other”. [What to do with this? I’ll just add that Ottomans weren’t Arabic and nobody in the libretto calls them that.]
So Mouawad rewrote the libretto (or Lyon-COC asked them to do it) to make the western side of the east-west encounter more obviously nasty. Like, really really nasty – and he wants you to know how nasty they are by opening the opera with the scene of a party in which the smug Europeans drunkenly discuss the escape from the Seraglio (the retelling of which we are about to see) by making fun of those awful Muhammedans and by desecrating the representations of the Prophet. This is entirely made up by Mouawad and is nowhere in the libretto.
What’s already in the original libretto, and what a good director can easily bring forward, is precisely the undermining of the idea that “west is best” and that “east is backward”– and the questioning of the east-west division tout court. But Mouaward keeps putting these ideas into the libretto with his own rewrites.
Terrified that any sign of cultural differences could be read as ‘Orientalist‘, Mouawad opted for a set of grey blocks and dresses all the principals in plan robes at the Pasha court (well, I say court… grey walls, on a planet, somewhere). The Janissaries and courtiers are all bald-headed creatures of indeterminate sex. While talking happens face to face, much of aria singing is to the audience: the old-fashioned p&b or a wish to de-naturalize the staging, I couldn’t decide.
Mouawad wants us to know loud and clear that the “Muslim” side (that’s what the Pasha & comp are reduced to here) are not the bad guys; that the pompous, prancing, moneyed idiot that is Belmonte represents the awful Europeans accurately (that’s already in the original libretto, hello). The abducting of women and their captivity is actually quite a sedate business. The Act II Blonde-Osmin battle of the sexes over consent is presented as purged of any real danger of violence ever breaking: it’s a teasing performance. So is Osmin’s rage in another scene.
There are a couple of extraordinary moments in the staging which stand out amidst all the blandness. After the intermission, the opera re-opens with a muezzin chant and we’re in a mosque, with women and men of the Pasha’s court praying — separated, and this is used well for the secret Pedrillo-Blonde exchange. It’s a moment of stillness: the Allahu Akbar chant and the swishing of the clothes as the worshipers bow and rise in prayer. (Did Ottoman Turks use Arabic in prayer? But of course Mouawad’s Pasha is not very Turkish; Mouawad is more interested in placing him and Osmin as the “Muslim Arabic Other” of the Bush Jr. era Pentagon and the American cable news.) Another intriguing tidbit: Blonde leaves the Seraglio pregnant. (This does not make the Act II negotiation between Osmin and Blonde entirely meaningless: they’re already in a relationship, but the question of consent of course remains.)
The musical side too was unusually clunky last night – disjointed, until almost two thirds in, when music finally gained its polish and the stage and the pit finally danced to the same tune. (Johannes Debus at the podium.) The fizz sorely lacked from the overture, and the act 1 continued as a very deflated, fatigued Mozart. Jane Archibald as Konstanze had her ups and downs, vocally, but credit to her for carrying this production in German — the Lyon one was with French dialogues, and this was a whole new chunk of spoken text to learn. Goran Juric as Osmin and Claire de Sevigne as Blonde were more evenly fueled throughout the evening, with Juric’s bass tireless and precise, and de Sevigne’s sharp, bright, exact singing, though a bit more volume wouldn’t have gone amiss. The actor of Israeli origin, Raphael Weinstock, played the Pasha. Mauro Peter was a decent Belmonte and got to shine in a lot of pretty music, though the character itself is a pompous balloon in need of piercing. It’s a tough act to pull, making Belmonte lovable, and he eventually gets there.
Yet the greatest sin of this production is not that it tries to make an 18th century libretto as inoffensive and didactic as possible; its greatest sin is that it’s deadly boring. The dialogues are endless because they are explanatory; the drama is expunged entirely, because that’s what happens when you eliminate any hint of genuine conflict, disagreement or even difference.
And I must add one last thing. Mouawad was probably asked to rewrite the libretto because he was born in Lebanon and has lived both in Middle East and “the west’ (Canada, and now France). Which is great. But if a woman of any culture was asked for her take on the libretto, it would have been a different take — and a different staging. For example, Leila Slimani, I wonder what she’d make of it? Mouawad’s now flaunted feminist record is not entirely impeccable (7 years ago, he chose to hire Bernard Cantat as a collaborator, the pop singer who served a sentence for killing his girlfriend Marie Trintignant, explaining that the singer had “already paid his debt to society” in, among other places, this insufferable Letter to My Daughter).
Bon ben. Men continue to write and rewrite the canon and decide what is and isn’t culturally offensive and what is and isn’t feminist in it.
Instead of leaving the production thrilled by its directorial vision and musical interpretation, I left Mouawad’s Seraglio thinking about that instead. And of that woker-than-thou correction our Prime Minister recently offered to a woman speaking in public.