Ma quando vien lo sgelo

Well. That escalated, didn’t it.

How is everyone holding up?

I’m at the point where I just want to read big-picture takes, things that put things in perspective, and things that manage to eke out some optimism. Like this from Margaret Atwood, who’s seen it all before.

Take heart! Humanity’s been through it before. There will be an Other Side, eventually. We just need to make it through this part, between Before and After. As novelists know, the middle section is the hardest to figure out. But it can be done.

And this, by psychotherapist Oliver Burkeman:

we might be much better than we think at dealing with radical uncertainty – because in fact, every hour of every day, we already have been.

Magazine The Atlantic has been an amazing resource on the crisis – Anne Applebaum’s piece on how the virus called America’s bluff, and anything by their science writer Ed Yong, especially the article on the likely scenarios of how this may play out long term (in the US… but because they’re so powerful, it’ll have planetary effects). As you probably know by now, the Globe and Mail has de-paywalled their covid19 coverage, and there’s a lot of it and a lot of it is useful. The Star has too, though they produce less content. CBC news website has been doing a good job.

Magazine the Wholenote, where I’m a permalancer (a return freelancer, for over two years) almost did not come out in print this month, due to the province-wide lockdown and the state of emergency in Toronto. It did pull through! The distribution will be reduced but I am hoping to grab a copy at one of the Second Cups which are still open for takeout only. Meanwhile, you can read my profile of baritone Brett Polegato online here.  Brett is a big big reader and an even bigger collector. This is the first time I profiled a singer by going through his library (he was very tolerant!) and I hope you’ll find it a useful source of reading recommendations for these self-isolation days. Here’s a snapshot:

I’ll finish this post with a clip – there is a point in “Si, mi chiamano Mimi” where the music surges while Mimi describes how she feels when the thaw comes after the winter.

Ma quando vien lo sgelo
Il primo sole e mio
Il primo bacio dell’aprile e mio!

But when the thaw comes / The first sun will be mine! / The first April kiss will be mine!

The sun will be ours again. And so will the kisses. As Atwood says, we just have to go through the hard-to-figure-out middle section.

Jacqueline: Tapestry Opera’s new production

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Jacqueline. Photo by Dahlia Katz

Would the much too short and music-filled life of the late cellist Jacqueline Du Pré make for a good opera? Yes, it turns out: this Wednesday, Feb 19th, Tapestry presented Jacqueline, a chamber biopic opera composed by Luna Pearl Woolf and written by Joyce Vavrek in which two performers play the title character. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge and cellist Matt Haimovitz covered, respectively, the verbal, physical side of the musician and her cello and cello-playing. This doubling worked extremely well. Haimovitz, silent and serious but always alert to Jacqueline’s demands and confessions, remained stationary on the soloist podium, while Jackie moved free-range till the very last act. Occasionally I found myself wondering if perhaps a dark mezzo would have been a better voice to have for du Pré to match the cello timbre, but the contrast too makes sense. She is light if chromatic, with musical lines spiky and not exactly beautiful; very playful, spirited, often silly. The musical line on Haimovitz’s cello on the other hand has gravitas; it seems to come out in one smooth, seemingly endless line, and has a dark beauty and no sense of humour.

The librettist Joyce Vavrek structured the work in four acts/fragments. First part follows Jackie’s life until her early rising stardom and marriage to Daniel Barenboim, while the second details the period of her first recordings, and the “delirious excitement, and the continual exhaustion, of life on the road”. First MS symptoms begin to show, but she suspects it’s all due to stress and mental strain. The third fragment finds Jacqueline alone at home ill with multiple sclerosis, slowly saying goodbye to life and finally, in a dramatic dialogue, to the cello. (Remember, 14 years passed between her early retirement from stage and her death). Haimovitz leaves the podium, and Jackie follows, saying “I’m afraid I’ll have to cancel all my engagements.” The final act is a fantasy – or what survives after the physical Jackie is gone. It’s the images and sounds of her in Elgar’s cello concerto before a large orchestra – in this setup the cello is in the back propelling the motion, she out front, in a glamourous red silk dress.

Director Michael Mori places the opera on a slightly awry concert stage, with bits of other scenery put in and removed as the opera progresses. This works well. But there are a lot of things to quibble with which should probably be tweaked in future revivals (and this opera should see many if there’s any justice). If we look at the surviving images of du Pré – she was quite a sex kitten, if I can put it that bluntly, just an extraordinarily attractive young person who could have been played as a Rheinmaiden, a Titania, a Tinkerbell. In this production, she is clad in dull retro clothes in various shades of beige and wears a long, retro wig. This opera has such sound foundations that it would work well, and probably better, if Jackie wore present-day clothes that suit best the soprano who is singing the role. (Haimovitz is in neutral black clothes that do not distract, as is only right.) Soprano Marnie Breckenridge is blond herself and could have easily worn her own hair in the role.

Another tweak in waiting: the way this fictional Jackie speaks. The OUVAH-emphasized posh English pronunciation puts a distance between us and the character and it slightly caricatures her. Her sense of humour is retro and weird enough! Just let her speak regular RP English, and when needed slightly de-poshify. It’s not a documentary, for Pete’s sake.

The extra distance was added by putting all of this on stage, one level up and away from the audience in the otherwise pleasant Betty Oliphant theatre. It would have worked better if the audience was on the same level and closer to the two performers. Imagine observing Jacqueline’s erotic writhing with the cello or her silly jokes or her final angry *fuck yous* – from a much shorter distance. A very different experience, I expect.

And while for the most part Jacqueline admiringly manages to steer clear from sentimentality, the final Elgar-fest act succumbs to it. It’s not treacly, exactly – but it’s way more demonstrative than the rest of the play. Jacqueline could run straight through  with no intermission and easily end on “cancel all my performances” after Haimovitz’s final cello solo. What comes after is sliiiightly over-egging it.

There are so many brilliant details scattered throughout. “Daniel” is scarce after illness strikes, somehow always away on tour. In act 3, the sickness act, there is a polished silvery cello case on a chair next to Jackie that disturbingly reminds of a coffin. And who knew that the phrase “straddling the Strad” can sound so naughty?

Remember Svadba? This opera may live as long, travel as wide and get as many productions as Svadba: it’s small and compact, funny and serious, and packs a punch. To appear in its full glory, tweaks will be needed down the road. But you have three more chances to see it in its diamond-in-the-rough, world-premier-y incarnation at the Betty Oliphant: tonight, tomorrow and Sunday.

Breckenridge as Jacqueline du Pre. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Breckenridge and Haimovitz in Jacqueline. Photo Dahlia Katz

TSO and Koerner Hall announce new seasons

TSO just announced its first season under the new director Gustavo Gimeno, and here’s what I could parse:

+ Samy Moussa to be the inaugural artist-in-residence. He’s one of the more exciting composers this country has, and this could be very good. His work will be wedged in to regular symphonic concerts and he will conduct from time to time. The fact that this Gimeno-led initiative is called “artist-in-residence” and not composer- or musician-in-residence tells me that in the future we may see a stage director, conductor, singer or who knows, playwright or visual/media artist in residence.

+ Dalia Stasevska, Xian Zhang, Barbara Hannigan will conduct a program each. Andrew Davis returns.

-/+ regarding soloists, the picture is more mixed. A lot of the usual crowd (James Ehnes becoming unavoidable, and do we have to hear Karina Gauvin, who is without qualms a fine soprano, every season in Toronto?) A regular at Koerner, Daniil Trifonov will perform at RTH next season. Riding on the wave of great press and hyped as the Icelandic Glenn Gould, Víkingur Ólafsson will too. Baritones Quinn Kelsey (in semi-staged Rigoletto – semi-staged by Joel Ivany) and Vartan Gabrielian, and Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham are always of interest. There is quite a few sopranos and a couple of mezzos whose work I’ve never heard before.

– rep is… the usual. The inevitable Beethoven 250, and the same handful of symphonic composers.

+ an all-Stravinsky night, which includes The Rite of Spring, to be conducted by Gimeno, sounds promising

+ some improvement in the contemporary music department. Press release lists the living composers next season: Hans Abrahamsen, Unsuk Chin, young Spaniard Francisco Coll, Barbara Croall, Philip Glass, Jennifer Higdon, Larysa Kuzmenko, Emilie LeBel, Nicole Lizée, Wynton Marsalis, Gabriela Montero, Samy Moussa, Steve Reich, and the nextGen artists, Adam Scime, Bekah Simms, Roydon Tse. Most of these will probably be smuggled in the otherwise traditionally programmed concerts. Chin, Abrahamsen, Lizee, LeBel, Moussa and the nextGen are the only names I can get remotely excited about. Reich and Glass are becoming unavoidable(tm) too.

+ there’ll be more Bruckner than usual, as far as I can tell.

RCM-Koerner Hall, only partly announced (complete season to be announced later):

+ Anne Sofie von Otter with fortepianist Kristian Bezuidenhout in an early Romantic program, in March 2021.

+ Angelika Kirchschlager doing Schubert’s Winterreise with Julius Drake, Feb 2021.

+ The Distant Voices concert by Jordi Savall Trio sounds good. Music from Afghanistan, Armenia, Istanbul, Bosnia, Persia, and Italy, with Middle-Eastern instruments like kanun and oud.

– I find it hard to get enthusiastic about the rest of the announced stuff. A Beethoven 250 mini festival, of course; again James Ehnes, Stewart Goodyear, Jon Kimura Parker; Pieczonka and Schade in excerpts from Fidelio.

? – potentially maybe good but can’t tell? Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins-commissioned and sung Songs for Murdered Sisters by Jake Heggie and Margaret Atwood – the song cycle that Hopkins had made after his sister was murdered, alongside two other women, in Eastern Ontario. Don’t know what to make of Jake Heggie being asked to do music for this, but maybe I’ll be surprised.

?? – much weirdness here. Gidon Kremer & Kremerata Baltica Chamber Orchestra in a program called Last Words, which includes Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ and Shostakovich’s final string quartet but also the reading (by the violinist Kremer) of texts by Jorge Luis Borges, Harold Pinter, and Steve Jobs (!?)




Recent & coming up

What if true innovation always comes from the outsider, the marginal and the underdog? Prominent American arts journalist and music historian Ted Gioia took this idea for a walk across the centuries in his new book Music: A Subversive History (Basic Books, 2019) and found a lot of evidence for it: musical progression toward new art forms and styles of expression is often pushed from the outside of the mainstream – slaves, foreigners, the underclass, the second sex, the precariat. New ideas become mainstream when the upper classes and musical gatekeepers adopt them too. A Subversive History however, at 487 pages without the index, is much more than its main thesis: it’s a history of human song from the Paleolithic era till the current era of our digital overlords, and a detailed look at the socio-economics of music-making – who earned what working for whom, with what degree of autonomy. Read on

Ted Gioia has a new book out – his most comprehensive yet – and there’s a Q&A about it on the Wholenote website that I did. The book is a doorstopper, but very much worth the time even if you won’t always agree with where he takes the argument.

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Quebecois ensemble Le Chimera and baritone Philippe Sly are touring their semi-staged, semi-improv’ed, semi-Klezmer take on the Winterreise. I did a preview for the Dec-Jan issue of the WN which you can read here.

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The next print WN issue will have my profile of the conductor Speranza Scappucci, who is in charge of the Rossini Barber currently playing at the COC, so keep an eye out for that.



Best of books in 2019

Here are the favourites of 2019. A lot of non-fiction this year, it seems.

Suzy Hansen: Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World (on American cluelessness about their own country’s actions abroad)
Heidi Waleson: Mad Scenes and Exit Arias (the story of the rise and fall of the New York City Opera)
Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone (a group of Syrian refugees in Germany and a retired German bourgeois who volunteers to teach them German get framed as a story of not only one nation/society, but of one kinship too)
Dionne Brand: Theory (if Casaubon was a woke lesbian academic specializing in post-structuralism)
Curzio Malaparte: Skin (the Allies find devastation in post-WW2 Naples and contribute to it)
Emmanuel Carrere: Limonov (torn over this one. Excellent genesis of the Putin-ian society; on the other hand, an intellectual’s obsession with a fascist)
Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary (master piece. Not all of her books are (read one which decidedly is NOT this year) but this one… yes)
Vivian Gornick: The Odd Woman and the City (hmm… dunno. Brilliant and also bitter and petty at times)
Helen Weinzweig: Basic Black with Pearls (A modernist classic set in a Toronto haunted by people from the narrator’s past and a man she needs to meet that may or may not exist. Yes CanLit has had modernists! We’re missing out if we forget them)
Mark Thompson: Birth Certificate: Story of Danilo Kiš
Olja Savićević: Adios,Cowboy 
Caroline Slocock: People Like Us: Margaret Thatcher and Me (a civil servant’s memoir which shows an unexpected side to Thatcher)
Adam Bunch: The Toronto Book of the Dead
Hannah Fry: Hello World: How to be Human in the Age of the Machine
Deborah Cameron: Feminism
Aleksandar Hemon: Book of My Lives
Hemon: Love & Obstacles
Hemon: My Parents/This Does Not Belong to You
Joanna Murray: The Female of the Species
Barbara Hosking: Exceeding My Brief (another intriguing civil servant memoir… by a gay woman who is now 93)
Seth: Clyde Fans
Laura Beatty: Lost Property
Frances Widdowson & Albert Howard: Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry
Gabriel Josipovici: Goldberg Variations
Richard Stursberg: The Tangled Garden: Canada’s Culture Manifesto for the Digital Age
Doug Saunders: Maximum Canada: Toward a Country of 100 Million
Audre Lorde: Your Silence Will Not Protect You
Jon Day: Homing
Denise Riley: Time Lived, Without Its Flow
Ben Lerner: The Topeka School (while I preferred his 10:04 much more, this is also worth reading)
Zadie Smith: Grand Union
Ted Gioia: A Subversive History of Music
Rachel Cusk: Coventry


2019 in rearview mirror

The Pite-Young Revisor was the hightlight of the year. It’s probably harder to be moved by it than by Betroffenheit – which may explain some of the puzzled reviews by Toronto dance critics – but it’s a larger work of art in every sense of the word. The work has multiple co-producers from around the world, so if it comes anywhere near you in 2020, do not miss it. I saw it (twice… and the tickets weren’t cheap) at the Canadian Stage.

Now on to the usual classification.


Tim Albery-directed Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Opera North which I watched in Leeds, was the standout. Completely unknown (to me) singers all impressed, and the set was some sort of golden multi-purpose edifice that revolves (by  Leslie Travers) – absolutely the most was made of it.  Christian Curnyn conducted what turned out to be a spritely, cohesive, gleaming performance.

Lucie Chartin (Cleopatra) and Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare) in a photo by Alastair Muir

Locally, the COC’s Elektra revival with Christine Goerke wasn’t too shabby either. I also saw an oldie Rosenkavalier production in Leipzig with the gorgeous-looking and sounding Wallis Giunta, but though musical side of it all was lush, more actual acting by some of the principals would not have gone amiss. The Little Opera That Could award this year goes to Pomegranate, which I hope to see re-mounted with a different cast. Dud of the Year? The ENO Orphée, which I abandoned at the intermission. Torture. Granted, Alice Coote will never be my cuppa, but even so: had the production been different, I’d have soldiered on.

Via Met in HD, I saw Nico Muhly’s Marnie and I’m glad I did. I read the novel soon after and enjoyed being able to compare the Hitchcock film with the novel with the opera. While in both the movie and the novel, Marnie’s husband rapes her – which in the movie slooowly results in her getting used to her situation and male sexuality, and in the novel things end on the status quo, she’s resigned to her life – the opera removes the rape from the story. Marnie’s husband in the opera accepts her refusal and doesn’t force himself on her. Why the Met-commissioned team made that decision, and whether the opera is better work of art or a less truthful one for it, I’ll leave to you to ponder.


Gemma New conducting Hamilton Philharmonic in Mahler 5
Vesuvius Ensemble’s The Plucking Opera
Agnela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations
The Happenstencers give Bach a re-do, via Vivier, Southam, Dusapin et al.
Barbara Hannigan conducting the TSO


Sir John Soanes Museum (London, UK) all the way! It had a big Hogarth exhibit when I visited, but the museum’s permanent collection is a Disneyworld for anybody interested in the 18th century.
Fondation Luis Vuitton (Paris, France) for Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World.


The Piaf/Dietrich musical was very pleasant (and has been recently extended into January).
Michael Healey’s 1979 has some incredibly accomplished scenes but it relied too much on text projections to let the audience know what’s going on and the cross-sex casting didn’t quite work.
Robert Lepage’s take on Coriolanus was good fun. This I saw in cinema via Stratford in HD.
And that is where I draw a blank. I’ve seen some atrocious Toronto theatre last year – The Cherry Orchard at Crow’s Theatre, Four Sisters at Theatre Centre – which put me off theatre altogether.


A good year. It opened with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which though eeever so slightly sexist, is a work of art quand même. Icelandic film Woman at War about an eco-terrorist who applies to adopt a child from Ukraine has everything a film needs. Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo are fine but I won’t remember them in a few years. Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir on the other hand is ah-mazing, as is her entire opus (I’ve finally seen Exhibition, thanks to a Tiff retrospective, the only remaining film of hers that I hadn’t and… she’s a fecking genius, no ifs or buts). Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily was a riot. Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is Patricia Rozema’s best film. What to say of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the raving critics and the adoring audiences already haven’t? (Which I saw at the London Film Festival, where it was much easier for me to get a ticket than at my local international festival. Tiff is a lost cause. Don’t even bother trying.) The 2019 Palm D’or, Parasite, was good and the Berlin winner, Synonyms, even better, I thought. Official Secrets with Keira Knightly was a decently done whistleblower drama. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (based on Eileen Atkins’ play) was a very smart delight. Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, which puts the Greek heroine in an immigrant family in Quebec, is a sophisticated brain bon-bon, if perhaps not as engaging as one might expect. And 63 Up and Knock Down the House stand out among the documentaries.

I shall return for the 2019 in Books. Till tomorrow!

Conversations about Canada: Monica Garrido

The year is not over yet! The new Conversations about Canada just dropped.

Multi-talented actor, sketch & improv comedian and boy band drag king Monica Garrido talks about:
– why she decided to move to Canada (hint: Degrassi High)
– her early obsession with Marina Abramovic and Matthew Barney
– when not to tell your parents everything
– if we immigrate in order to put big enough distance between us and our parents & community– and then realize we overdid it?
– if it’s easier to make friends with other immigrants than with the locals
– why she is still a little freaked out by the widespread recreational use of drugs in wealthy societies (me too!)
– falling for a local WASP girl
and much more!


And here she is on Baroness von Sketch:

When a woman thinks of man, her thinking is praised

I watched the streaming of Olga Neuwirth’s new opera Orlando (libretto Catherine Filloux and Olga Neuwirth) today and have a few thoughts – mostly on the libretto.

Which is based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando, though the story here continues past the end of WW2 and into our own era. The early scenes follow the novel relatively closely. The events at the court of Elizabeth I when the young and dashing page Orlando catches her eye and is granted a title and land, is followed by him meeting the Russian princess Sasha on the coldest winter in living memory, having his heart broken, and withdrawing to his country pile. Waking up from the stupor, he declares I will become a poet! which leads to his messy aspirational sponsorship of the Prominent Poet Mr. Greene who patronizes him (but whose patron he is) and who eventually writes a parody of Orlando’s long work-in-progress poem The Oak Tree. Dispirited, Orlando cheers himself up by furnishing and learning how to appreciate his ancestral home.

While in Constantinople as the ambassador for the King Charles II, Orlando falls in deep sleep and wakes up a woman. His persistent suitor from previous life, a duchess, continues the pursuit once Orlando as a woman is back home in England, but she is revealed to be a man. This character as far as I can tell was excised in the opera (correct me if I missed her). She (Orlando) continues wanting to write and hosts the great writers of the era, including Pope, Dryden and Addison. Critic Nick Greene still lives (and is getting uglier and uglier features as the opera progresses – he is the ugliest in our own age). While male Orlando’s poetic efforts were mocked because he was an aristocrat, female Orlando’s right to write anything in the first place are questioned because she’s a woman. Still, she presses on – it helps that she’s a wealthy aristocrat — publishes The Oak Tree, gets an award for it, wins a legal dispute over her country mansion (this is fiction after all), meets a feminine male sea captain campily named Mermeduke Shelmerdine. The masculine woman is attracted to the feminine in the man, and he by her butchness, and they marry. The novel ends there, which is the day it was supposed to be published in Oct 1928. The opera aims to continue until the day of the performance, Dec 2019.

There are some very effective scenes in this, novel-based part of the opera. The narrator is initially a very good MC (played by Anna Clementi; the originally scheduled Fiona Shaw bailed out, and I don’t blame her). Throughout the opera she could be the narrator of Orlando, maaybe for a second here and there Virginia Woolf herself, but as the story continues, she’s a narrator who definitely lives today and uses some very contemporary vernacular. In the Elizabethan era, she reads the probably most famous quote attributed to the queen “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king”, which was great: I thought, okay, this libretto gets it, this is a good sign. 

The three fairies of Modesty, Purity and Chastity fussing over the sleeping Orlando’s bed before she wakes up as a woman is fine touch, and the narrator and Orlando are given some good lines about this unfortunate outcome. Visit to a hairdresser now takes an hour… skirts are nothing but a bother… but do I really be chaste year in year out?… etc. The female Orlando is at first clad in a ridiculous pink dress adorned with gajillion flowers – fine, the contrast is the point, sure. The chorus is singing Woman: fold upon fold which is accompanied by appropriately sensuous imagery. Narrator then lists all that Orlando won’t be able to do anymore – and it’s a long list. All she’ll be able to do is pour tea to the lords and ask Do you like it. Next scene: Orlando as she offers Pope, Dryden and Addison sugar cubes for their tea, which quickly leads to a scene of one of the men proposing, propositioning and pestering.

Did I mention, there’s a countertenor singing some sort of Guardian Angel role throughout. That doesn’t exist in the book, and there is no need for it in the opera either. Yet here we are. Even in Orlando, an opera based on a book written by Virginia Woolf for and about her former lover Vita Sackville West, a man has to be cast in a prominent role. Whenever a scene would complete itself, there he’d go, commenting AGAIN as if he mattered.

Because let us remember the basics. Woolf wrote this fanciful multi-century ‘biography’ as her affair with Vita was ending. Both women were roughly what we’d now call female homosexuals – Vita very actively so, and her devastating previous relationships with Violet Trefusis lives on in a number of extraordinary cultural creations, including the Sasha-Orlando story – and both were married to men who they loved (asexually) and who loved them back (same). (While Leonard was as far as anybody knows hetero, Harold Nicolson had numerous affairs with men – while also remaining in a fairly good marriage with Vita. It’s possible that Marmaduke is based on him). But let us not get bogged down in Bloomsbury promiscuity: the point is, lesbianism and any kind of homosexuality was then considered an ‘inversion‘ of sorts, an innate reversal of sex and sexual preference – your inner male desire for the female sex makes you a female invert – and this is probably in part what’s behind the story of the changing of the sex through the centuries. What it also comes from, and this more directly, is Vita’s inability to inherit the ancestral home Knole (look this castle up, will you) due to her sex. It went to some male cousin instead. As far as I know, women still can’t inherit most of the hereditary peerage titles in England, not even if they become trans men.

So potentially, Orlando the opera could have tapped into this and have been indeed an opera about the freedom of the female sex to do whatever it damn well pleases – write and publish, inherit property, become ambassador or soldier, in addition to the more traditionally gendered activities and choices. But this opera is that only up to a point – when it dissipates into I’m not sure what. There is a streak of that, I can’t deny it – Orlando’s struggle to have his/her artistic creation taken seriously does appear at a few key places, and the Mr Greene figure stands for all cultural gate-keepers and powerful critics, and I am guessing some of his features comes from the composer’s and librettist’s own experience with gatekeepers. The Knole business is completely removed from the story. In fact Vita and Virginia are both cast aside about half way in, as the opera moves to some more bizarre areas.

When the history reaches the Victorians the narrator suddenly changes tone to a very different, didactic, humourless, contemporary one. “Patriarchal family was considered ideal family, but there is significant increase in child abuse in the Victorian era,” she declaims while the femininely dressed Orlando observes a chorus of children in pyjamas and the video projects an image of an adult man at a door and a child looking from the pillow. Increase in child abuse, compared to what? Or is it increase in the reporting of child abuse? Middle classes or all classes? Child labour is not of interest, I take it? “Children need care and protection” is an actual line that Lindsey was given to sing in this scene. The narrator goes for some time about the victims of incest feeling guilt and the family members’ inability to stop abuse, and it’s all rather puzzling and feels parachuted. Wise of Fiona Shaw to dodge it. (The production has also lost the original director, Karoline Gruber, and ended up being finalized by Polly Graham, the artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera.) “From now on, Orlando will be committed to rewriting the history from the point of view of the victim and outsider”, says the Narrator, to which I say, sure, let’s go.

But then we get the video sequences that rush us through the milestones of the century. The POV is roughly Anglo-European with the inevitable excursion to some US and Vietnam War imagery and the selection is fairly narrow, whole bunch of Europe (not to mention the world events) ignored. We are rushed to 1980s, back in England it seems, and punk is happening, there’s a girl in plaid suit who Orlando ends up kissing for a long time, but she is soon gone from the proceedings.

The party segment, which is meant to show that all kinds of desires and loves and bodies are allowed to flourish now… is a lucklustre affair. The dominant voice is the performer Justin Vivian Bond, who is meant to be Orlando’s ‘child’ in our own era. Really? You couldn’t find a gender-non-conforming female like dunno any number of living writers or filmmakers or someone like Megan Rapinoe or Kara Swisher or some modern equivalent of Storme DeLarverie or even some of the male drag performers from the RuPaul school of sashaying? The statements declaimed during the party are feeble too. There’s a lot of “born this way” Lady Gaga parroting and yet “it’s glorious to be a they”. “Fuck the patriarchy”: is that the most eloquent that “Orlando’s child” can get?

Justin Vivian Bond is one of those people who insist they be called a “they” and claims s/he is “non-binary”. Everybody else is happy to live the life of a gender stereotype, the classification suggests, except for the “they” people. They have stepped out of sex and gender by fiat, you know! And yet women can’t self-identify out of oppression: women are oppressed because of what their bodies are, what their reproductive function is, what their height and strength is (most women can be easily overpowered by most men), and yes also what gender roles awaits them upon birth. The world will still correctly sex the women who will be raped or who need to gestate offspring, the exploitation will proceed undeterred however we decide to ‘identify’. Plus, any male should be allowed to wear dresses and look like JVB, without having to do anything about their pronouns or body. That is the more radical thing, that is what the Orlando children would do, people like David Bowie, Robert Smith, Boy George, Quentin Crisp, Grayson Perry, Russell Kane.

The inability to inherit, become a writer and other obstacles shown in this opera that Orlando faces are actually relatively lucky ones. In Western Balkans and other parts of the world, this thing still exists which is called selective abortions: early detection of a child’s sex – there’s science for that, you only need to find your way to a private clinic in another jurisdiction – leads to the getting rid of female fetuses. So those girls had no chance to “identify” in any way. As soon as the material reality of their sex was determined, they were doomed. I don’t need to hammer on about the femicide (every two or three days anywhere in the world a woman is killed by a man she knows, often an ex or current partner) and various other things that happen to women that have nothing to do with how individuals declare themselves but with their sex.

So… trans activists are Orlando’s children? Not really. Defiant, non-conforming women who overcome societal limitations posed on them are Orlando’s children,  as well as women who *survive* – there are so many of us now who are surviving and were never meant to, who are finally finding poetry and pleasure in our lives, wrote Audre Lorde. This should never be forgotten.

I conclude that sadly the second half of Orlando the opera which paradoxically aims to step out of the charmed life of the high classes that populate the first part – is somewhat uninformed, oblivious of the current lgbt conversations, massively bourgeois (you have to adore the scene in which the haute couture Comme des garçons-clad chorus and extras shouted WE ARE THE PEOPLE) and rather purposeless. Is it about liberation of women or is it about every single thing under the sun, climate change, the liberation of men from their own gender yokes, exploitation of workers in Amazon dot com depots? (There’s a brief scene showing workers in a huge warehouse filled with goods, packing and shipping things: good idea, but underdeveloped, because this scene quickly ends, as does the contemplation of working conditions in low-wage jobs.) You could make an argument that all that is connected to the liberation of the female sex, but 1) the libretto doesn’t do a good job of it, and 2) opera should have a focus of some kind.

At least there is Kate Lindsey’s vocal stamina (and legs) to hold it all together, just about. We’ll always have that.

The official description of Orlando by the Vienna State Opera

Fugue State

the printed program

The Happenstancers strike again.

A shape-shifting ensemble of musicians formed around clarinetist (not to mention visual artist) Brad Cherwin recently concluded their first proper season with a concert on the theme of fugues: from the actual Bach fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier transcribed for woodwinds and strings to the pieces by our contemporaries whose music, Cherwin argues, is in conversation with Bach. As you can see in the program, the fugues themselves tend to return, but as the evening progresses they are getting more and more unrecognizable. The next to last one is recomposed by Cherwin and cellist Sarah Gans in the manner of Terry Riley’s In C, and the very last one, the Whisperfugue, is played with minimum attack on each instrument (barely any breath coming into the clarinet, the lightest of touches on strings etc) and the phrase that repeats loses the note at the end each time it returns. This was quite a tense (and intense) experience, as everybody performed in an unnatural suspended mode.

The Augusta Read Thomas, Ann Southam, Vivier and Dusapin pieces were all extraordinary. Clearly no fillers in this program! Vivier’s and Dusapin’s pieces only posit one woodwind against one string instrument, but each teases out the difference in the colour of the sound and makes most of that difference. Dusapin’s (clarinet-cello) almost flirt with the klezmer and Piazzolla vibes and it has a certain heat (dare I say warmth) that not a lot of composers in the modernist tradition practice.

l-r Aleh Remezau, Brad Cherwin, Jennifer Murphy, Sarah Gans, Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh

The concert started a little awkwardly with a stiff, brio-less rendition of the first fugue. Inordinate amount of time was spent on tuning before and after each piece, but with a program like this, you just can’t be irritated by it. Do whatcha have to do, I have all the time. The first piece had me wondering though if the instruments were period ones, and if that was the reason the thing sounded so somber and down half a step. Things improved immediately with the second piece when the ensemble found its electrical current and did not let it subside. The only contemporary piece of the evening that sounded ever so slightly dry and academic was Omar Daniel’s Giuoco delle coppie for two violins.

Cherwin creates visuals for each of the concerts — both the imagery and the musical programming are formed at the same time, as one entity. He explained in one of the intervals that what ignited (heh) this show of the superimposed and transposed and transcribed Bach was the Andy Warhol portrait of Friedrich the Great at the Sans-Souci in Potsdam. “As soon as I saw it, I knew: this is it, this is what needs to be done, Bach in electric colours”. The concert took place in the still not entirely gentrified but very popular Geary Avenue area, at the Costume House just east of Dufferin. It’s a new, relatively affordable loft place to rent and it has its charms (ventilation kicking in adds a layer of sound to the performance, as does the looong train passing on nearby tracks). The tinkered-with Bach faces (by Cherwin – pen tablet drawings) were looking at us from every corner. I’m really enjoying the four Bachs in outrageous colours that I brought home.

There will be new good stuff to announce in the next year, maybe even a mini-music festival, and an all-Dusapin evening. Let’s all stay tuned.

The Happenstancers from another angle