Interview: David McVicar

Stills from the documentary David McVicar’s Salome, A work in progress: Backstage in Covent Garden, ITV Productions, 2008.

“You are my only interview,” says the director David McVicar as he joins me in the boardroom that has been reserved for us for this purpose at the COC’s Front Street HQ, and I presume he implies “so make it good.” Fifty minutes later, it looks like both of us could very much go on, but the Rusalka rehearsal is about to start down the hallway and he is needed there.

In person, McVicar has a punk, no-bs attitude and the gruff, butch energy of a character from one of the fast-paced Patrice Chéreau movies. He fully invests himself in the conversation, though, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal his vulnerabilities. He often makes long pauses and here’s a tip for the next interviewer: there’s usually good stuff coming at the end of each.

Now, I was going to write that he is one of my favourite opera directors, but that is not quite it, because in his shtick, McVicar is unsurpassed. That shtick is human intimacy, the way we are with each other behind closed doors, and that entire ugly to sublime gamut of the human psyche. I’ve adored productions by Herheim, C. Alden, Albery, Kosky, Mitchell, but I don’t obsessively replay any bits of them the way I (and many opera lovers that I know) do with for ex. the McVicar Cesare, or Clemenza. While the Konzept school of opera directing is top-down, McVicar, in the best tradition of British liberalism, starts pointilistically, from the individual character, from the ground up.

There is a lot left that I still want to ask him. As somebody who’s refused the obligatory Bible in his Desert Island Discs episode on Radio 4, what does he make of the Christian eschatology at the end of The Rape of Lucretia? Does he really re-read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with regularity? Do film and TV influence him to any extent? That will have to wait for the next time. Here’s what we did manage to cover.

I.

What a lot of your productions have in common, I think…

What have you seen?

Let’s see… Enführung on DVD, Figaro in cinema, Giulio Cesare live and DVD… Some Donizetti thing on the Met in HD, but I don’t really care about that opera so didn’t really get much out of the production…

I probably didn’t like it either.

…I watched the Ariodante from Vienna online, and I thought was exceptionally coherent. It’s hard to make that opera cohere. Also seen The Rape of Lucretia. There’s probably more.

That’s a good number.

So what I often find in your productions is… this coherence. And depth of characterization. People behave as they would actually behave in life. How do you get to that point?

That’s probably because of my training as an actor. I didn’t go to university [Ed: He attended to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] so my solution to directing an opera is to approach it as an actor, and my solution to directing a singer is: How would I play this. I’m weak on concept. Though there is always a conceptual foundation to everything I’m doing – there’s always a reason why things are happening. But the conceptual interpretation is not the overriding thing for me: it’s how the performers perform it, that’s the primary concern. How the performers invest in the character and tell the story, and is the story clear to the audience. That’s really important. Anything that I do that obfuscates the story, that gets in the way is something that I try to edit out. Because at the end of the day people are sitting in the theatre and watching the performance. It’s sort of immaterial whether I was there or not. The relationship is between the people on the stage and the audience.

I watched the documentary about the making of your Salome at Covent Garden, and took from it that every minute of a production is fussed over and thought through.

It is thought through. Even when I did a title like Il Trovatore, which I absolutely don’t like – I’ve learned a big lesson doing it: never take on something you don’t fundamentally believe in – but even with that, I thought, OK, we’re going to make this work somehow. We’re gonna damn try and make this coherent and hang together and make the audience believe in it.

That was the Met production?

Yes. But I don’t like Trovatore and I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t like it. It’s such a retrograde step, after Traviata and Rigoletto, to tell that kind of story in that kind of way. And also, you’ve got a tenor with absolutely zero psychological interest. Every time Manrico’s on stage, I’m like, that’s 12 minutes of my life I’m not getting back.

But you try. You latch on to other things, in Manrico’s case his mother and his lover and their reactions to him, to try to generate some interest.

I’ve read somewhere that you much prefer the eighteenth century to the nineteenth?

I feel really at home doing eighteenth-century opera, whether it’s Mozartian Classical period or whether it’s the baroque period. I find opera, especially Italian opera, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century very problematic. The forms, that is. I’ve done some but I’m not doing another bel canto opera. I’ve done enough.

Ross…

I hate Rossini, oh my god! I listen to Rossini and think, How did you get away with this. You just repeat the same bar fifteen times? I’ve been asked to do Barber about four times and I’ve always said no.

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

But you really get the trouser role. In fact, your trouser roles, with Sarah Connolly in particular, I don’t know if you know this, have a huge lesbian fan base from all over the world. How do you know so well what happens between two women?

I can imagine it and I can guess. And because I’m coming into it with an actor’s background and I’m always observing people. And I’m fascinated by what I can observe and the interactions that people have in real life and things we’re not even conscious of and don’t even think about. Sometimes with an opera singer, you just have to make them aware of the simplest things to unlock them. Imagine this is a glass of wine [he’s pointing at the bottle of mineral water on the table between us]. How would I pass this glass of wine with intent? [Grabs the bottle and takes a sip inattentively and places it in front of me while carrying the conversation] …anyway we’re talking about this and that and I’m not even looking at you and you won’t notice I took a sip because we’re talking about something else. But if I want to do it with intent, I’d go like this [he makes direct eye contact and slowly draws the bottle toward me in a straight line]. It’s really good to ground singers and make them think about little details of life like that. And then you can get somebody to act if you can get them focused. Focused, and having thoughts.

Of course some people are lost cases and some are not interested and some of them don’t know what’s going on when they’re not singing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on when it’s not their music.

Sarah Connolly said in an interview that she started really acting in opera since she started working with you. From your first Alcina, and her first Ruggiero. Do you remember that production?

Yes, of course. It was at the ENO in London.

How do you unlock people? Do you… antagonize them?

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

Noooooo. I never have an antagonistic relationship with the singers. Never, there’s no point. You’ll never get anything out of them.

Sarah really has got it by the dress rehearsal. Early in the process she needs my help because I need to tease out the strands which are useful to her. Otherwise stuff which isn’t necessarily useful will distract her. And then something just happens to her. Normally I would do the piano dress before we move onto the stage and at that transfer point she locks it in the place, she gets it. And with the stage and the orchestra it just gets better and better.

She trusts me and I trust her. It’s a good relationship. There’s several ladies with whom I have a strong relationship of trust. We don’t have to say very much to each other when we’re working together. We hardly say things explicitly very much. Sarah follows my body language. She watches me a great deal. Sometimes when we’re doing an aria, I’ll be acting it for her, and she watches me and then she gets into her own body.

I remember watching parts of your La Clemenza from Aix-en-Provence where she’s a Byron-like Sesto and watching those long arias like Parto, parto, and how she and Vitellia interact and how she walks – and thinking, you filled every moment of that aria, nothing’s random or loose, everything holds together.

Well, yes, but Mozart filled every moment of it. I’m just paying attention to what Mozart wrote.

II.

I’ve noticed that your first instinct isn’t to transfer the opera you’re working on to another setting, or to present day.

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

Like, I don’t think we can do Agrippina in togas anymore. Yours isn’t in togas either.

You could do Agrippina in togas. I, Claudius is in togas so it can still work. I think the sense of humour in Agrippina is so extraordinarily modern to us, though. The premise of it is, just imagine a world where the Roman Empire never came to an end. Which, in a way, it never did. And what would that world be like. And would it be a lot like contemporary America.

You also transposed Salome, to a sort of Pasolinian Salò setting.

Yes, Salò was a big influence. To understand Salome, you have to understand the world in which she lives. I wanted to correct a misapprehension about Salome that she’s this monstrous virago – it’s actually a story about a woman who’s obsessed with virginity and with not being touch. It’s very important to her. All the characters in Salome are lusting after each other and wanting something from the other person, but no one ever obtains what they want. The fascist era helps to tell the story but it’s even more important that it’s all set in this sterile kitchen/bathroom area with sinks and urinals and tiles everywhere. I wanted to find a very sterile place to tell the story; I didn’t want to make it sensuous and lush, I wanted it quite brutal. It’s a place where people are washing all the time.

From David McVicar-directed Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera House)

But your ROH Figaro stays in its own time. What intrigued me about the production is that it full-on centres the servants. We can see their living quarters well, and their labour is out in the open, not hidden away.

Figaro is about servants! It’s from their perspective. And that whole production is all about them. The aristocrats are almost interlopers into that world. That’s the way I saw it. It would be like if you do Downton Abbey but only from the perspective of the servants. But Figaro was interesting… I’ve done Figaro quite a few times now. I actually did a different production of it in Australia, and the battle is always getting the cast to understand master-servant relationships, because it’s something that they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Getting the singers who sing Susanna to understand the sexual politics around her character. When she’s trapped in that room with the Count, I always say to them, what are your options. Where are you going to go, what are you  going to do, how are you going to manage this man who wants something from you. Your options are so limited. You can’t walk out, you can’t slap him, you can’t say no. And that unlocks the scene.

That opera, like Don Giovanni, needs to be in a period where the female characters’ options are more limited than they would be today because it makes their actions so much more understandable, and also dignifies them. Whenever I see a modern-dress Giovanni, and most of them today are, Zerlina makes no sense to me. I think it puts a misogynist gloss on her character. Whereas if she’s in a feudal society and an aristocrat comes to her wedding, he has the authority to send the bridegroom away and say I want to marry you. What are her options?

Would you agree that Figaro and Don Giovanni kinda have different politics? In Figaro, we’re all in this together against the tyrant; and in Don Giovanni, well: this newly emerging community will demand conformity for greater good.

There’s no question in Don Giovanni that society is going to change. But you never feel that Masetto and Leporello and Zerlina are going to be besties at the end of Giovanni. The societal order re-establishes itself after this lord of misrule has been consigned to hell. I think the sexual politics in Don Giovani is as intense as in Figaro, but has a different aspect to it. The female characters are fascinating.

Isn’t Don Giovanni the most interesting character of Don Giovanni?

Except that he doesn’t exist as a character. He only exists by the effect he has on other people. He doesn’t have a single moment of self-reflection. Which is interesting because that’s what psychopaths and sociopaths are like. Not a moment of self reflection is an interesting thing to play. There are few baritones who can do it – who can actually anchor it to anything in their lives. The baritone has to think: I can do anything and I can get away with it. And I am always pushing the boundaries of what I can get away with. But what if. What if retribution is real. What if those things which we’ve decided are not real turn out to be real. That’s why this opera bridges the Classical world and the Romantic world.

Goldoni’s Don Giovanni for example is the ultimate rational eighteenth century version coz he’s despatched by a bolt of lightening which may or may not be the judgment of God. And Mozart and Da Ponte explicitly gives us heavenly retribution, don’t they.

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

He wouldn’t conform. He would be free, and is punished for it.

When you say the community kills him, you mean the order that the others believe in that crushes him?

Yes, that’s it.

It’s the cosmic order that he subverts and that they want to cling to and that ultimately is the thing that crumbles Giovanni. It is a seminal Romantic piece.

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

That’s one of my favourite operas and the uncomfortable truth is that, like another favourite, L’Incoronazione, it totally glams up evil.

Of course. But L’Incoronazione is about life. Shits get away with it, don’t they.

Why do we cling to this – well, partly eighteenth-century – idea of what stage representation should be? That it should be morally enlightening, and that we should see evil punished, we should always get a happy end, when actually we don’t.

You know there’s a big fashion right now with productions of Carmen where she doesn’t die at the end. But if she doesn’t die, you’ve written politics out of it. We’re not celebrating that she’s dead; women are killed by their partners, and if she doesn’t die and walks away, then you’ve ripped all the meaning and all the political power out of Carmen. So get over yourselves.

Yes. Every few days, anywhere in the world that we want to look, a woman is killed by either a male partner, an ex or a male family member. Why suddenly decide to hide this?

We shouldn’t, and one of the great things about Carmen is the truthfulness of the depiction of that relationship. And how she fails to pick up the warning signals. From Flower Song even, after which she should be saying, ‘Right, so nice knowing you’, but she doesn’t, she chooses the other course. She decides to pursue the relationships. And he’s the biggest mistake of her life. I don’t think Carmen is about a “tragically doomed romantic passion”. It’s a piece about a relationship which was fucked up from the very beginning and goes horribly wrong. And he has this unusual attachment to the mother…

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment longer, because I wanted to ask you about Die Entführung. You didn’t update at all. You took it at face value, and made it work. Were you ever worried about a potential charge of ‘Orientalism’ and criticism of that kind?

Of course. But my version really wanted to bring out the Ottoman Empire side of the story. We really researched it. We were interested in that extraordinary clash of cultures, the Ottoman Empire beating at the doors of the Holy Roman Empire.

If you think that Entführung is an Arabian Nights-like fairly tale, which it too often can be, then I think that you are getting into a really tricky territory with cultural appropriation. If you say, no, this is set in a real political climate and a real place, these people’s lives are being defined from this clash of two opposing worldviews – it’s defining the story, the way these people behave towards each other – then it becomes a more serious piece.

We kept a lot of the dialogue. OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you’ve got a lot of really great information and a lot of acting opportunity. And certainly the relationship between Konstanze and Bassa has so many more colours.

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

I put “Martern aller Arten” in the bedroom. What does that aria mean? What does the extremity of the coloratura writing mean? So I had to put her in a situation where every single line of that coloratura is imbued with meaning. It’s a situation of so much danger but also in a situation of mutual attraction which can hardly be contained – my goodness, I’ll never forget rehearsing that for the first time. Everyone in the room was alert. And it helped that the actor who played the Bassa had learned all her music. It was a duet, he knew everything that she was going to sing to him. He’s as much part of the music as she is.

Then there’s the tense scene between Blonde and Osmin. In the production, both Osmin and Bassa are honourable characters in that they don’t force themselves on the women, but ask for consent and ultimately back off when they don’t get it. Where were Blonde and Osmin having a fight, in the kitchen was it?

I thought, what is Blonde doing in a crisis? She bakes. It’s a crisis because she’s been given as a slave to this man who wants to have sex with her, and how will she keep him at bay? She’s angry when Pedrillo questions her fidelity. That’s their domestic situation: Osmin tries something, and she has to wreck things to get him off her. She has to work so hard and be assertive, and hurt his feelings to keep him at bay. It was important to show how she manipulates him – it’s important for her character, and for Osmin’s, to show how he’s frustrated in his desire. There’s nothing more interesting than watching a big scary macho man who finds himself in a relationship with a woman who treats him like a kid. And he accepts that.

Tobias Kehrer and Mari Eriksmoen in the Serail (2015). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

Ariodante for me is a piece about how easy it is for the forces of chaos to subvert society if we take our eyes off the ball. And how deceitful those forces will be and how someone like Polinesso can obtain so much power based on lies. He’s becoming the de facto ruler of Scotland.

What was new about your Ariodante is how strong you made the character. Usually he’s a hapless young man mindlessly following where other people’s action takes him; somehow in this Vienna production he is assertive.

But his flaw is Othello’s flaw. That’s what sends him off deep end. He should learn how to trust. He should never have doubted Ginevra in the first place. And Dalinda is fascinating – what a dark little character. All of her crazy coloratura is there for a reason. Her realization that this man that she’s obsessed with doesn’t give a shit about her. And the revenge that she then takes. It’s… They’re all real to me. All the characters in all the operas – well, most of them; some of them, like Manrico, are a lost cause. But they’re very real to me. In opera plots you find yourself in extraordinary situations; but then just think, if I was in that extraordinary situation, how would I behave, what would be my objective, how would I get out of it.

The Glyndebourne Cesare is today the best know and most popular Cesare that exists. So the directors pretty much save the operatic works with productions that strongly resonate in their own era. They carry the opera over, past our lifetimes, like a relay.

Oh but Cesare‘s been saved before. There have been productions… John Copley’s now…

Productions with staying power, though?

John Copley’s now looks very outdated, okay, but at the time it was extraordinary. Because he treated it seriously. He did it in a certain style, he drew on the paintings of Tiepolo for the visual world, and it’s all very statuesque – it’s a serious piece of work.

Then Peter Sellars comes along and does his version. With Cesar that’s a Reagan-esque figure.

I’ve never seen that one. There have been some other ones lately, like the Salzburg one with Bartoli, but I’m not sure that we will treat them as reference pieces in 10 years.

Our version is about colonialism, and about the British Empire. It was my idea to do it. Gus Christie’s dad George, who was running things at that point, told me [assumes posh British baritone] I’ve got to plan the season, David, what’d you want to do? I said, let’s do Julius Cesar, please. And some time passes and next time we meet he says: I’ve spoken to Bill Christie about it and… yeah. Let’s do it.

I also had casting control over that one; Bill was quite happy for me to take care of it. And then the final thing was, at the last second, Dani (Ed: Danielle de Niese) came. We had somebody else but she had to drop out due to surgery and 10 days before we were due to start we got Dani. And I didn’t know anything about her. Absolutely nothing, and was like, Fingers crossed.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

…and at the Met, which I wasn’t very happy with. The place is just too big.

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

Yeah, he was good. [whispers] But Sarah was… magnificent.

 OMFG where to start.

She is magnificent in it. It’s a career-defining role for her. And you never question it – it’s a thing of beauty, you absolutely accept that it doesn’t matter that it is a woman playing a man.

Welllll… We know there’s a female body there. (My ilk certainly does.)

Yes we know there’s a female body there but it’s the way she plays it. She believes that she is that man. And she carries it off.

I was passionate about Giulio Cesare from the word go, I just love it so much. And I’ve seen that our production has been imitated — for example in how far you can take the choreography in opera productions. And I’ve seen productions that are just aria after aria after aria. And productions where Cleopatra’s scenes are just plain tacky. But somehow we found the right way, we pulled it off. We did it, somehow.

I know you have to go, so this will be my last question. What the everlasting tuck is happening with the UK?

I moved back from London to Scotland last year because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Brexit ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box and things have emerged that we’ll never to be able to get back in there. One of the ugliest things was that English nationalism found a cause and a voice. And it’s a very ugly thing. And what the Leavers understood, and us Remainers it took a while to understand, is that this was an existential vote about identity. It’s now clear that that’s what it was about. The country is so split and the atmosphere is so hostile… and now we have our very own pound store Trump in Boris Johnson, who is learning the lessons of his master well. Is that going to play well in Britain, we won’t find out till the general election, but it’s scary.

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

There’ll have to be. What’s also coming out loud and clear is the total disregard for other parts of the union from the English parliament. Ian Blackford, who’s one of the SNP representatives at Westminster, every time he stands up to make what are actually intelligent speeches, the Tory backbenchers shout Go back home, Go back home. That’s the rhetoric that Trump’s using. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re the Conservative and Unionist party and they should be listening to our voices and the voices of Northern Ireland which is not just their devilish friends, the DUP. And this whole process has made it abundantly clear that in the thinking of Westminster Parliament, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are colonies. I didn’t live in Scotland when the last referendum happened so I didn’t vote because I didn’t feel I should. Now I do live there and would vote for independence. I moved back to Glasgow for some sanity. It’s the best thing I ever did.

Rusalka opens at the COC on October 12th. Torontonians can watch several David McVicar productions, including Cesare, Troyens and the Meistersinger, on Medici.tv for free by logging on with a Toronto Public Library card via tpl.ca/medici.

Angela Hewitt in Goldberg Variations

Angela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations at Toronto Summer Music Festival at the Koerner Hall. Photo by James Ireland

There is a scene in Ian McEwan’s Saturday in which Angela Hewitt makes an appearance — indirectly, in a recording. The protagonist, an haute bourgeois surgeon Dr Perowne, likes listening to classical music in his operating theatre, and on one such occasion he puts on Bach’s Goldberg Variations on modern piano, played by Angela Hewitt. (McEwan has since shared in many interviews why he prefers Hewitt’s Bach best; Saturday is not among best books, but given that he’s written a lot of novels that take place in the past before Hewitt, the possibilities of placing her in other novels I suspect weren’t many.) Goldberg Variations has had an eventful career in literature. There is the Nancy Huston’s eponymous novel, and Gabriel Josipovici’s Goldberg: Variations. Thomas Bernhard also uses it in his bizarre Americanized fantasy of Glenn Gould, The Loser. McEwan however seems to have been gently–and rightly–insisting on decoupling the Goldberg from its most legendary proponent, Gould, and hearing it as very much an open, contemporary, everybody’s (not GG’s) work of art, and not an insurmountable massif.

The association it gives it in Saturday — with upper middle classes with refined leisure pursuits — is less fortunate and echoes the one that’s followed the Variations since the beginning. For the longest time it was accepted as true that Bach composed the work so an anxious insomniac noble could have his late nights and early mornings filled with entertainment, but that theory has since been demoted as apocryphal. It’s not certain who or why commissioned it and whether Johann Gottlieb Goldberg was in fact its first performer, but the piece was published mid-18th century and a few first edition copies still exist in the world. Its description was Keyboard exercise, consisting of an Aria with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. The playing of a piece written for an instrument with upper and lower keyboards on a modern single-manual piano is fascinating to watch too, as hands do an incredible amount of crossing and fluttering about.

What struck me the most in Hewitt’s performance is the humanity of it. I expect the two extremes in the interpretation of the Variations on modern piano are 1 – the mechanical, super-precise, unsentimental roll-out (and the emotion will, proponents of this approach would tell you, communicate itself and take care of itself), and 2 – a post-Romantic take with a whole gamut of idiosyncrasies of what Gould mocked while commenting on his 1980s recording of Variations as a lot of piano-playing (eg. rubato, extreme contrasts, open sentiment, intimacy). Hewitt was closer to the 2, and I’m glad of it. There’s a huge difference between a live Goldberg and a recorded one, and not only because the recorded ones will be unrealistically polished: there’s a body present in a live concert and observing it negotiating the work’s twists and turns becomes an important dimension of the work itself. Hewitt’s nods, bright smiles, frowns, the raising of eyebrows, all added a dimension to the music.

Hewitt held the reins securely. In a couple of tangled spots the hold on the the ultrasonic speed of beat was tenuous — but mostly she was one with the piece, which she’s recorded and performed many times and plays from memory. Aria that opens the work was calm and embellished in moderation; when it returned at the end, it came more daringly ornamented, with appropriately messy hair after a wild ride.

The piano nerdery that accompanies the Goldberg can enhance the listening but is not essential. Here’s some of it. The initial Aria is the base from which variations are supposed to ensue, but only the baseline (left hand, lower pitch part of score) of the Aria is used for that purpose, not its melody – so what follows are variations only loosely. Soon enough Bach starts playing with the canon format – a unison canon on one keyboard (when the melody and its echo barging in are on same notes, octave up or down) at No. 3, Canon from the second (two notes difference between initial canon and its echo) in 6, Canone alla terza (a third up) at 9 et cetera with the gradual progression to nine notes distance and a switch to a new thing altogether, a quodlibet that quotes from the songs that the listeners of the era would have recognized, before finishing with the Aria. Each of these is followed by further variations, some specified for 2 keyboards, some for 1. None of this the listener needs to know to enjoy the piece. About 80 percent of Goldberg does not sound at all like a keyboard exercise, and the 20 percent that does is sandwiched amidst so much trippy beauty that you easily don’t notice it.

What’s the future of the Goldberg Variations? Not a huge number of pianists, harpsichordists and fortepianists are its advocates today, perhaps believing that it doesn’t need advocating what with the Gould colossus still casting its shadow. It is not often performed in Canada (I expect neither in the US) as it usually demands a concert with nothing else on the program and a passionate performer-advocate, not to mention a crowd of devoted Goldbergphiles who will come out for this work specifically. Perhaps future concerts will include video projections, lighting design, choreography, or choral transcriptions in the style of Accentus? Multiple performers on different keyboards? Why has this not happened yet? Perhaps because while preserved in aspic of admiration in recordings and literature, Goldberg Variations live performance is not on the up? I am surprised by how few people love it (while many more easily declare admiration).

In any case, Angela Hewitt is doing her part (and how) in keeping the GV alive and circulating, especially among the more easily distracted anglophone populations. Should she come with a Goldberg to a hall near you, don’t miss it.

ALERT: A mezzo Cesare coming up

Britain’s Opera North recently announced the 19/20 season and whaddaya know: a mezzo Cesare is in the offing, that precious and almost extinct species.

This fall, the northern four-city opera is reviving Tim Albery’s 2012 Cesare, which also starred a mezzo in the title role, Pamela Helen Stephen (below). This year, the role goes to Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte alongside Sophie Bevan’s Cleopatra.

Pamela Helen Stephen in Opera North’s 2012 production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Leipzig and Damascus Meet Again

Tale of Two Cities, Toronto 2019 – Photo by Bruce Zinger. Front: Christopher Verrette, Maryem Tollar, Demetri Petsalakis and Naghmeh Farahmand

Tales of Two Cities: The Leipzig-Damascus Coffee House, one of Alison Mackay’s most popular and talked about programs for Tafelmusik, is about to travel to the US and I wonder what Americans will take from it. ISIL came out of the wreckage of Iraq after the US-led war on Iraq, and proceeded to, among other kinds of destruction, flare up the Syrian civil war resulting in millions of displaced people. More directly, the US history in the region has been er let’s say colourful with respect to literally every country there. This includes being a staunch ally to one of the worst regimes on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Yes, Canada is still trading with the Saudis, thanks for that reminder, but maybe the recent welcome change in rhetoric will result in a more substantial change in foreign policy?

The country that stopped trading with Saudis tout court is Germany, which also holds a distinction of being the EU country that accepted the greatest number of Syrian and other refugees when the wave of arrivals started in 2015. And German states have, deservedly, the most prominent place in the Leipzig-Damascus program. I expect the idea for the L-D program came out of the EU refugee crisis headlines though the L-D stays mostly in the past and looks at trade, scholarship and coffee drinking as just some of the many things that Leipzig and Damascus shared in the course of their respective histories.

Actor Alon Nashman narrates in between the musical numbers, and Marshall Pynkoski’s direction has him enacting Don Quixote — during Telemann’s Burlesque de Quixotte — and falling and rolling on the floor in one of the fights. None of this is weird, and the musicians move around quite a bit, with no traffic accidents. Nashman is a key to getting the whole production to gel: his tone is fairly neutral, occasionally cheeky, and there’s no overacting or self-importance. Trio Arabica consists of Maryem Tollar (voice and quanun – a flat plucked-string instrument), Naghmeh Farahmand (percussion) and Demetri Petsalakis (oud, a magnificent cousin to lute). They mostly performed traditional Arabic songs from the region and occasionally joined a western baroque piece for an east-west arrangement. The Arabic music in part one of the show wasn’t as exciting as in the second part, where each member of the trio performed a thrilling solo and we got treated to an ecstatic finale with a trad Arabic song mixed in with a Telemann Ritornello. Oud being not as flashy as the voice or as visceral as the percussion, Petsalakis did not get the applause on finishing his remarkable solo so let me use this opportunity: applause. It’s too bad we get to hear virtuoso oud players so infrequently in Toronto.

Apart from the short appearances by Monteverdi, Lully and an allegro movement from a Torelli violin concerto (which was spectacular to watch as it requires a lot of elbow grease from the soloist, in this case Elisa Citterio), it was a German show, by the composers who had lived in Leipzig, Telemann and Bach primarily. Telemann’s Concerto for 4 violins in G Major got the musicians moving, with each of the four soloists coming forward and returning to the background. Viola concertos are not that frequently programmed, but this time we got to enjoy the instrument’s velvety tone in the Presto movement from Telemann’s viola concerto in G major. The allegro chorus “Ehre sei dir, Gott” from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio was performed in a version without the singing, with the bassoon and the oboes to the front.

Tale of Two Cities goes to State College, Boulder, Denver and Stanford (university concert halls), Santa Barbara (Lobero Theatre) and L.A (the Walt Disney), then to NAC in Ottawa with potential May dates still in the works. More info here.

 

2018 in Music

Bavarian State Opera, October 2018

Music-wise, this is what stood out, locally and internationally.

TOP FIVE: In Toronto, Han-na Chang guest-conducting the TSO in Mahler 5 was an experience out of the ordinary. Nicole Lizee’s Tables Turned at Tapestry/Luminato, though small in scale and budget, was large in innovation and theatre magic. Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, programmed around the themes of refugees and immigration from baroque onward was a musical statement that we all needed. I went to Hockey Noir, an opera by Andre Ristic, not expecting much as I’ve no great interest in hockey, but I was hooked immediately. Fun Home, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, was joy and tears from start to finish.

At home, the most significant event in large scale opera was arguably Rufus Wainwright and Daniel McIvor’s Hadrian. It looks like of all the Toronto-area opera critics I’ve liked it the most? Which is not to say I was a fan, but its ambition, I have to say, appealed, and the fact that it engaged the brain as well as the raw emotion. McVicar’s Glyndebourne revival of Cesare, which is a hit after hit after hit and which I own on DVD, tops my Big Opera list, as does Opera Comique’s revival of the bizarre Gounod werk, La Nonne sanglante. The staging by David Bobee is a lesson in how to salvage a work with a smart production. In Munich, I saw Castorf’s From the House of the Dead, and while the production did not engage, the BSO’s orchestra under Simone Young was this opera’s Technicolor dream coat and worth the price of admission. For the brazen deconstruction of Carmen that paid off, the ROH cinemacast of Barrie Kosky’s production is definitely among the highlights of the year. The biggest opera disappointment this year was, in a highly competitive field, Ivo van Hove’s Boris Godunov at the Bastille. It was “people in suits, singing before some video projections” concept. And I paid E100 for the pleasure of squinting from the Bastille balcony. I am not going back; I’m taking the Bastille only in streaming from now on.

Also worth mentioning this year: Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage, Soundstreams presents Andre Ristic, Juliet Palmer & Steve Reich in Six Pianos, and the very last edition of New Creations Festival at the TSO.

Coming up tomorrow: 2018 in theatre, visual arts and film

And Glyndebourne happened

To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.

Photo is a deft multi-head selfie taken by Monique C (far right)
The house
Around the house

Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo

We interrupt this program

Oh hi

Seeing this on June 15th, btw. Managed to find a good return that’s also within my budget.

Art song recital in Toronto, AD 2100?

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.

Collectìf

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.

Happenstance

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.

Happenstance (from left: Adanya Dunn, Brad Cherwin and Nahre Sol)

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.

Boldly Go

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.

Against the Grain's Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club
Against the Grain’s Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club

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.

Am I wrong about the future of art song in Toronto? Send me an email at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Songs pastoral, songs nocturnal

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.

Giles Tomkins and Patricia O’Callaghan in The Peasant Cantata / Feb 2018

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.

A scene from Toronto Masque Theatre’s The Peasant Cantata

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 window at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse.

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.

Martin Julien (centre) with colleagues around him. Toronto Masque Theatre’s winter show of the company’s last season.

One more show tonight, and one tomorrow. Tickets at the door and on Brown Paper Tickets.

New podcast episode out

January Alto is out.

First guest is Victorine de Oliveira, contributing writer @ Philosophie Magazine in France, who talks about her opera and classical highlights this season, books she’s been reading and also the French opposition to the MeToo. (Recorded on Skype, please forgive the extraneous sounds) People mentioned: Lea Desandre, Claus Guth, Kaija Saariaho, Terry Gillian, Paris opera loggionisti, Sarah Bakewell, a historian of the May ’68 Ludivine Bantigny, sociologist Eva Illouz, Virginie Despentes, Catherine Millet & the signatories of the PasMois letter.

Song: Emoke Baráth with Emese Virág on piano, Debussy’s “Nuit d’etoiles” (Hungaroton label, May 2017)

Followed by the conversation with opera director Christoper Alden on directing Rigoletto at the COC, the figure of the “Fallen Woman” in Verdi, working on a Peter Pan play via Leonard Bernstein and Nina Simone, whether his (rent-controlled) apartment in NYC is more Zeffirelli or minimalism, what his worry would be if the Met ever came calling, and what is opera to do in the age of Trump and the internet domination of culture.