Turner and Music at the AGO

Snow-Storm-Steam-Boat-off-a-Harbours-Mouth
Snow Storm: Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842) by Joseph Mallord William Turner

J.M.W. Turner: Painting Set Free, occupying the second floor of the AGO till January 31, is an exhibition of Turner’s later works. It’s Turner at his least ‘realist’ and most experimental, pushing the boundaries of the form this way and that. What’s really new at the AGO, however, is the musical soirees programmed alongside and presented each Friday to the audience that happens to be in the gallery during the AGO Friday Nights extended hours. The music is meant to relate to the exhibition in some way–it’s up to the programmer to establish the connection. One of those pieces is always to be a work especially commissioned for the occasion.

Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori is the first music programmer of the November series. He chose an interesting mix of literally and indirectly Turner-related pieces, first half of which is piano only (Adam Sherkin) and second more of a Liederabend (with mezzo Marion Newman). The commissioned works concluded the concert, the atmospheric “Shade and Darkness” and “Light and Colour” composed by Adam Sherkin and inspired by some of the Turner paintings exhibited.

In Part I, Sherkin played Liszt’s “Orage” (1848) and “La lugubre gondola I” (1882), Beethoven’s Bagatelle Op. 126 (1824), a piano quickie by John Adams, “China Gates” (1978), and Sherkin’s own “The Fire Maker” (2013). The acoustics of the Walker Court dispersed the sound and did not entirely do justice to the evident drive and focus of Sherkin’s playing. People are also bound to mill about, clink glasses and drop programs, but the informality and the extraneous sounds soon enough became a legit part of the experience. As the available chairs quickly filled up, people sat on the stairs, and the un-concert-like seating arrangements abetted an intimate atmosphere.

The sound got much better once the mezzo started singing: Marion Newman rocked the place with her powerful voice and cabaret cheekiness. After Schubert’s sedate “Gretchen am Spinnrade” (1814), the gear switched to flirtatious with Carmen’s “Habanera” (1875) and settled down on poignant with Dido’s Lament. The bright and pretty “Where Corals Lie” from Elgar’s Sea Pictures concluded the historical part of the concert, while Sherkin’s commission concluded the evening.

The program repeats November 20 and 27, 7:30, Walker Court at the AGO. Definitely worth experiencing after a proper visit with Mr. Turner upstairs.

The Opera Questionnaire: Brent Bambury

CBC Radio journalist Brent Bambury will be known to many across Canada as the host of Day 6, but only Torontonians will know about his love of opera: Brent often MC’s opera-related events in Toronto, including one of the most successful education programs by the COC, the Opera Connect/Opera 101. (And Barihunk curators, take note. A potential honorary barihunk inductee here, non?) Here is his insightful and funny take on the Opera Questionnaire:

+

Brent B

The opera (or the scene) with which to intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

Pop music is structurally simple, verse-chorus or even less. And sometimes it tells a story, but often it’s a simple emotion set to music. Simplicity, quirky, bit of an attitude: oddly a scene I think might work is “Kleinzach” from Hoffmann. It’s got a narrative, some tension, sing-along potential and a hook.

And a film buff?

Hands down, Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now.

The work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued by opera?

There are so many pieces of music that have made their way into the popular culture which most teens would recognize instantly and never know the work from which they were excerpted. I’m thinking:

-Anvil Chorus
-La Habanera
-Ride of the Valkyries
-Flower Duet
-Nessun Dorma

But I’m sure that recontextualizing these works into the complete opera is the best way to bring young people on board. A huge chorus, fast tempi, action scenes, murder and mayhem are always good bets. No shortage of these in opera.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

Great art speaks to the present as well as the past. Just as musical interpretations allow for infinite variety so do possible productions. Tie it all to one idea and you risk making it moribund and irrelevant.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

Of course.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Not nearly. Entirely. But I was jet lagged.

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

I try to be zen about audience noise and have sat through whispering, candy unwrapping, the zipping of purses, the shushing of others. It’s usually over quickly.

I do find it rude and distracting when people are checking a phone or opening a screen during a performance. I wish conversations would end the moment the orchestra starts and not as the curtain opens. And I don’t like it when people leave the theater while performers are still onstage.

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

-Natalie Dessay – Zerbinetta Met 97
-Ben Heppner  – Tristan COC 13
-Gwyneth Jones – Turandot Met 95

Something that illustrates how well opera understands love and desire.

Mild und leise – Wagner

Your choice of segments or arias that show how political opera can be.

Nixon in China, The whole thing.

The Met in HD – good, bad, a mixed bag?

Haven’t seen but I like the fact that people are debating it. The popularity of the screenings seems to be a good thing but the argument that opera is a large scale experience, not a multi-camera offering like a Superbowl broadcast, is a fair one.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

Strauss

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

Parsifal

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch to me three new opera commissions.

Hey Lucy – opera about how Lucille Ball became the biggest female star on TV, launched a production company and made mixed marriage acceptable to America.

Turing – Alan Turing, eccentric cryptologist, wins war for allies but is prosecuted by his government for homosexuality, dies eating poisoned apple.

Mulroney – Bigger than life flawed politician leads party to historic victory, succumbs to graft, just wants to be loved.

+

Brent Bambury has always had a deep connection to radio and was still a teenager when he launched his career at CBC working in Saint John, Halifax and Montreal. He spent most of the ’80s and half of the ’90s staying up late sharing his love for obscure and emerging music hosting Radio 2’s all-night underground music show Brave New Waves. Later he worked as an entertainment reporter and co-host of Midday and and in 2000 he helped Kai Black and David Carroll re-invent the game show genre with their popular Radio 1 show, Off the Cuff. After that, he hosted All in a Day (2002) and also helped design and host the national music quiz show GrooveShinny. In 2008, he returned to television to co-host Test the Nation with Wendy Mesley. The Saturday morning playhouse GO! was created around this time; with Brent as the host, the show was broadcast nationally for eight years. Day 6, his latest creation, blends journalism, current affairs, comedy and opinion. 

The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

The Opera Questionnaire: Cecily Carver

If there is one person who we can blame the most for the fact that I started this blog back in 2010 (David Miller was Mayor… YNS was just taking over the Philly… screamers were screaming over Tim Albery’s Aida…), it’s Cecily. I discovered her own blog All Time Coloratura while desperately looking for Toronto-area opera blogs and found out the COC had scooped her as a digital publicist that very month (Cecily has since returned to IT and feminist gaming). I emailed her about the logistics of starting an opera blog, telling her that I had no idea how to run the thing, that there were so many wonderful opera blogs already, that I didn’t know if I’d add anything, and if I’d get the tone right, eccetera, and she said “But you must start it, it’ll be great! Never you mind the details, you’ll figure them out soon enough. Just get going.” So I followed her advice. We can blame her for what ensued.

We’ve met and talked and kaffee-klatsched a number of times since, and it’s always been a pleasure. This latest edition of The Opera Questionnaire will give you a hint of how brilliant and lovely she is.

+

Cecily CarverThe work (or the scene) that is most likely to make a teen intrigued?

As someone who became an opera addict during my teenhood, it seems to me that opera is very well-suited for teenagers already – with its romanticism and big emotions. My adolescence wasn’t particularly painful or traumatic, but I was a very inward-focused, anxious, and emotional teenager. I was half in love with most of my friends but also desperately shy.

I lived in a drab city with drab weather, I didn’t drive, and since my high school was far from my home, I spent a lot of time riding the bus. Most of my music-listening was done while riding a bus through the city streets in winter. Opera fit me like a glove back then, because I was hungry for beauty and romance. I wanted beautiful clothes and beautiful surroundings, and wanted to be beautiful myself. Opera sounded beautiful, it looked beautiful on stage, and it took all my feelings and dressed them up and painted them in bright colours. And because none of my friends listened to opera, it made me feel like I was a special person for liking it.

A lot of what I liked were things I’d be a little ashamed to admit to now in serious company, like Rachmaninov, Puccini, and operetta. But those things were absolutely perfect for a shy teenager full of feelings to listen to on long bus rides through the snow. Tales of Hoffmann was a favourite. I also really liked Mahler (Still do. When I read the TSO’s brochure every year my first thought is usually: When is the Mahler).

The trouble with trying to “intrigue a teen” in opera is that it’s usually presented in such a pandering way. “Mozart was like a rock star in his day,” or “Rigoletto is all about sex and violence, just like those movies you like,” etc. Teenagers tend to be resistant to loving things that adults try to foist on them, especially if it’s wearing “high culture” clothing. And, opera is such a strange and stylized beast that trying to present it as connected to mainstream pop culture in any way is doomed to failure. A lot of ad campaigns for opera make me cringe, for this reason.

I don’t know if I’d have loved opera as much if it didn’t feel like something I found on my own, something that belonged to me.

I did make opera mixtapes for my friends. I would still make opera mixtapes for my friends if they asked me. To actually answer your question, I remember one selection that usually went over well was the trio from Der Rosenkavalier.

The opera (or the scene) with which to intrigue a pop-music-savvy adult?

With my own friends who are not Opera People, I’ve had the most success with John Adams and other composers who are (mostly) tonal without being old-fashioned.

And a film buff?

The “culturally elite” adults – the kind who go to art-house films and art galleries and keep up with literature, but who have never set foot in an opera house – I think they’re most likely to be intrigued by something subversive, ironic, or political. Anything by Kurt Weill is perfect, I think, as is the aforementioned John Adams, or maybe something like Anna Nicole. Usually I can convince someone to go to the cleavage-and-sequins traditional productions of romantic-era rep, and usually they have a good time, but they tend to approach it like a tourist, rather than someone engaging with a living art.

The best argument to use with opera traditionalists who argue that productions should be done the one “faithful” way and no other way?

I try never to have those conversations, because I usually end up boiling with rage. When part of my job involved sometimes encountering angry traditionalists, I never argued, just let them talk and asked questions. It amazes me how some of them can be still so angry about a production they saw years ago. I always want to say, “It must have made a very profound impression on you, for you to still be talking about it three years later.”

If you want to be tactful and persuasive, I think the best approach is to ask them more questions about how they think it “should” look. When pressed, they usually don’t want to return to the days of painted backdrops, suitcase arias, or park-and-bark staging. Often they have fond memories of a particular production they saw decades ago, which itself would have been different from what came before, and they can be brought around to the idea that production styles have always changed.

Often they’ll say things like, “I’m not opposed to updated productions, as long as they’re done well.” That’s usually a cop-out, and usually means “nothing that might be uncomfortable or confusing,” which is why Toronto critics are always patting themselves on the back for loving the Robert Carsen productions that come through town. But at least it’s not totally reactionary.

On the other hand, if you want to be snarky, the idea of “the composer’s intent” is ripe for ribbing. Any serious Regie warrior should be able to pluck numerous examples of composers who “intended” to make a quick buck, or placate a famous diva, or capitalize on a short-lived trend. They were also constantly re-jigging their “eternal, timeless” masterpieces for different audiences and changing tastes.

Have you ever been moved to tears at the opera?

Oh, all the time. Most recently during Tristan und Isolde, which was a semi-embarrassing cry-fest for me. Tristan also marks the only time I’ve cried during a director’s concept discussion, and I know I wasn’t alone in that one.

Have you ever nearly dozed off at the opera?

Never dozed off as far as I can remember, but some operas I find dreadfully boring. I will never understand the appeal of Simon Boccanegra, Capriccio, or La clemenza di Tito.

What kind of behaviour by the fellow audience members do you easily tolerate and what kind inevitably distracts?

I’m pretty tolerant of coughing these days, especially after having attended the COC’s spring run while sick and miserable myself, but any kind of whispering annoys me to no end. Also, I’m a small person and often the person sitting in front of me blocks my view of half the stage. Usually they can’t be faulted – tall people love opera too – but if they lean forward in their seat it blocks the stage out entirely and I gnash my teeth in frustration.

Name three performances about which you always say to your friends, “You had to be there…!”

TristanI really do feel like the recent Tristan was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. And the COC’s 2010 Aida looms large in my mind for many reasons, and has informed so much of how I think about opera that I love to talk about it with people who have seen it. I saw Against the Grain Theatre’s Turn of the Screw in all four performances (full disclosure: AtG is run by my close friends and I am a member of its admin team) and it really achieved a level of intimacy and involvement that is much more difficult to accomplish in a bigger, traditional venue. The most memorable operatic experience of my life might be when I saw Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung (originally a COC production) in Edmonton in 2006. I hope they revive it soon.

Your choice of arias or segments that illustrate how well opera understands love and desire.

R. Strauss is it for me here, especially the end of Rosenkavalier. Opera (and probably most art forms, when I think about it) are reluctant to deal with love that is not assumed to be permanent, that ends for reasons other than all-caps BETRAYAL or MISFORTUNE or DEATH, that when an opera deals in a mature way with the fading of love, and the ways it can be transitory and changing, it is so much more interesting and sophisticated.

If you’ll permit me to quote myself, I also wrote this a while ago about Carmen, which despite the ways in which it’s gotten tired-out from overplaying I think is just a dynamite piece of music theatre:

“The love-from-first-sight-until-death-yours-forever-most-beautiful-woman-in-the-world-I’ll-kill-myself-if-I-can’t-be-with-you attitude that characterizes a lot of the operatic repertoire – Verdi, I’m looking at you – can seem naive and one-dimensional to an audience accustomed to more complex relationships. Carmen, however, gives us a “love story” where passions ebb and flow; where lovers are alternately kind, cruel, and manipulative; where sex is a concrete and foreground presence rather than a subtext; where love comes into conflict with career and family and it isn’t immediately obvious that love should come first. I was struck for the first time by a moment in the last act where Carmen tells Escamillo that she loves him more than she’s ever loved any other man. It’s possible she tells that to all the men, of course. But that the librettist didn’t even bother to pretend that Don Jose was Carmen’s grand amour, that her most passionate romance might be with a supporting character, struck me as key to what makes Carmen so different from other operas.”

Your choice of segments or arias that show that in effect opera is as political as art gets.

All operas (like all narratives) are political in some way, because they all communicate something about how the creators think the world should be. What makes for a good monarch, a good woman, a good parent? And what are the ills that, more often than not, cause things to go horribly wrong? And, of course, we live in a time of interesting productions that interrogate these messages, whatever they are.

It’s interesting to think about the ways that historical operas bend the stories of their subjects. Like Donizetti’s Tudor operas. The history they’re based on is already jam-packed with confrontation, betrayal and death, so why did the operas wind up with wildly different plots? Why, in Roberto Devereux, do we have Queen Elizabeth I going mad and dying of grief after wrongfully causing the death of her lover?

Wagner is also really interesting for this. Scholars argue a lot about what he’s trying to tell us about the world, especially in the Ring Cycle. We know that a lot of it is racist and unsavoury. At the same time, “burn the whole thing down” is certainly part of the message, and it’s a woman who does it.

The Met in HD – overall good or overall bad?

I myself don’t like it (and almost never go), but whether it’s “good” for opera is an open question. I think it’s a mixed bag, like most things.

It’s certainly made opera more accessible to people who for whatever reason can’t get into an opera house. I’m always a little tickled when I see ads for the Met playing before whatever mainstream popcorn movie I’m seeing at the Cineplex. Whether it’s “introducing opera to a new audience” is definitely debatable. From what people tell me, and from what audience statistics are showing, the audiences aren’t any younger and less white than for live opera – quite the opposite, in fact.

Also, a lot of opera companies are now competing with The Met for their audiences. I know that many people in smaller communities who used to make trips to their nearest opera company are now opting to stay put and go to the Cinecasts instead. I can’t blame them – it’s cheaper and more convenient, after all – but I think this is a real shame.

The idea of the Met as the gold standard in opera, the Best in the World, also mildly irritates me. I’ve seen a fair amount of live opera at the Met, but when I think of the most memorable opera experiences of my life, they’ve mostly been elsewhere. The Met gets away with a lot of mediocrity.

I worry that the opera world in North America will concentrate into a few massive companies doing HD broadcasts on one end, and community theatre on the other end, with all the mid-tier companies wiped out. Not that I have anything against the big players, or against community theatre, but a healthy opera ecosystem should have a number of companies of different sizes. It’s a bit like the concern about “big box” retailers gobbling up everything around them. I remember the outcry in the 90’s about giant bookstore chains destroying the independents. Now those big chains aren’t faring so well themselves.

A composer that never ceases to amaze?

I’m an R. Strauss girl all the way. I try not to think too hard about it.

A work that keeps revealing new and new layers of meaning and pleasure each time?

Figaro and Don Giovanni do this for me. I always hear something new.

Imagine I’m an opera house or a funder. Pitch to me some new opera commissions.

I would be tickled by an opera that mimics the structure of reality television, while turning up the frightening maw of glitzy emptiness to the maximum. Big personalities, meaningless contrived conflict, consumption, glamour, camp – what could be more operatic? Let’s put Angela Gheorghiu in it.

I’d also love to see more opera as cinema – written to be filmed, Umbrellas of Cherbourg-style. That’s largely unexplored territory.

+

dmg_toronto_logo_200_altCecily Carver, an opera-lover since her teens, was the Canadian Opera Company’s social media co-ordinator (and later, digital marketing manager) from 2010 to early 2013. She is also the community outreach advisor for Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre and the author of the now-dormant opera blog All Time Coloratura. Her non-operatic career involves building software and running the video game community organization Dames Making Games. You can learn more about Cecily’s work at http://cecilycarver.com.

 

Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

Evelyn Glennie conjures the spirits

New Creations 2011 opened last night at Roy Thomson Hall with Toronto Symphony Orchestra (c Peter Oundjian) performing a brief and amusing piece by John Adams, A Short Ride on in a Fast Machine. The twisted take on the fanfares was a good appetizer before the two pièces de résistance that made up the evening: The Shaman that Vincent Ho composed for the percussion shaman superstar Evelyn Glennie and the full performance of John Adams’s (no point in hesitating) masterpiece Harmonielehre.

In recording, Harmonielehre is compelling aplenty, but hearing it live and played by the TSO is — let’s reclaim this word from the teenage misuse — in the realm of awesome. It’s a three-movement symphony, in which Adams makes the propulsion, repetition and discordant tempi of minimalism converse with the vocabulary of the later Romantic symphonies and orchestral pieces. Part one begins recognizably minimalist and gung-ho, and as it progresses the seeds of its dissolution develop from the margins and gradually take over, when you find yourself in what you can swear is Mahler or Sibelius. This completely different atmosphere and different textures then free themselves and as they overgrow they start changing shape into more strident, machine-like, atypically tonal, increasingly irregular until you’re back in the familiar territory that Adams started with. But of course, by then, neither territory is safe and at one with itself. Our habit in identifying what’s musically what is by then well disturbed.

This movement is followed by the more lento  The Anfortas Wound (composed at the time when John Adams thought a lot about the place of grace and the unconscious in music making) and the final movement, Meister Eckhardt and Quackie which begins as a berceuse and ends in full blast noise explosion.

To observe such a complex structure come live before one’s eyes, player by player and instrument by instrument, is extraordinary experience. (Get the higher up seats for the rest of the festival!) The TSO under its conductor performed with ferocity and mean precision. Bravi tutti, and no wonder John Adams grinned and looked happy for the entire oh, how many? four-five curtain calls?

In his piece created specifically for Evelyn Glennie, Vincent Ho wrote the orchestra first, then added the percussions as counterpoint (he explained this during the intermission chat). They collaborated throughout and the finished piece leaves considerable ad hoc composing room to the percussionist.  Glennie moved quickly between the full gamut of percussion instruments and even played with the delayed waves of her own amplified voice (Can somebody provide more information about what that was? I am guessing it was artistic manipulation of the miked sound. And tell more about those myriad bells, while you’re at it.) It was she who carried the orchestra and surfed its wave. In this case, the TSO was but a dance partner.  The evening of Shamanism it was: the RTH was already packed with humans when all the spirits happily showed up for duty.

Here’s the amazing Evelyn Glennie — who, did I forget to mention, happens to be deaf — talking about how we hear music with our bodies not with our ears, and why the most important thing in music is what’s not legible in the score.

This production will be fully televised

This production will be fully televised

Nixon in China at the Canadian Opera Company, Toronto. Seen on February 5, 2011. Full Cast & Creative here.

We are greeted by the terracotta warriors first, about a meter high and lined in an orderly fashion like the figures in chess. The stage stays awash in the light wallpaper of red while one by one the tai chi practitioners all wearing the same grey Maoist uniform come out and begin moving in relative unison. The only person standing out is the elderly Chinese who will later ramble in and out of various scenes and observe the proceedings in wonderment. The music starts and the crowd, now obviously a chorus, sings The People Are The Heroes Now (‘The Three Main Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention’). Alice Goodman’s Synopsis specifies that the scene is showing the “contingents of army, navy and air force”. Instead of President Nixon’s plane strolling onto the runway – thank Thalia, no fake Air Force One is rolled onto the stage – the television sets are floated down, each showing a plane descending. The moment the TV planes touch the ground and doors open, Nixon (Robert Orth) and Pat (Maria Kanyova) appear at the top of the high stairs on the left. Welcome to the new and not naturalist production of Nixon in China, Mr. President.

It’s not exactly a new, unseen and unreviewed production: more new-ish (2004) and already seen in other co-prod cities (here’s the list: Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Colorado, Houston Grand Opera, Minnesota Opera and Portland Opera), but the director James Robinson’s production won’t age any time soon. The mainstay of the minimalist set are the TV screens of several sizes and arrangements, a fantastically clever choice by Robinson and the set designer Allen Moyer given the importance the television had for the event itself. Later in the opera when Nixon thinks about the solid stock, middle-American family (what would now be called his demographics) they appear on stage, dinner plates on their laps, in the glow of television light. In the first scene of Act II, while Pat is on the mandatory tour of various communes, factories and points of local pride, the documentary images in the levitating TV sets match exactly what is going on stage, so the stage props have some room for abstraction and play. (Pigs, for example, come onto the stage carried by the peasants as three-dimensional placards.) In the last scene of the opera, as each of the four principals plus Henry Kissinger undress and get ready for bed, it is on top of the large TV sets, permanently on, that they all sit and lie.

What of the music, then? I may not be the most representative audience member in that I can happily take endless hours of anything resembling minimalism, but most people don’t have similar idiosyncrasies of taste. By now our ears have been well-trained for minimalism thanks to the many minimalist composers who work in film – Michael Nyman (The Piano etc.) Yann Thiersen (Amélie), also Philip Glass (The Hours, Notes on a Scandal and The Fog of War among many others), and anybody who’s exposed to minimalism is usually swept away by its exuberance. But what if the piece is three hours long? Three hours of oceanic buildup and exuberance can annihilate all exuberance out of one. Also, part of the listening of minimalism is that our expectations of ending and resolution get rolfed. “How can this ever end without a painful deflation and tumble to the ground? Nah, we’re going to be on this wave forever.” In Nixon in China there are many changes of colour and passages connecting the different bouts –what in a more traditional operatic language could be called the set pieces – and how well they’re executed depends on the conductor. At the opening night, Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado marshaled his pit army valiantly, and the orchestra maintained consistent sound and high energy.

The cast had no weak links. Baritone Robert Orth sang his (by now, signature) role with aplomb and twinkle in the eye, steering clear from any hint of caricature. The role of Pat Nixon may even be trickier than Dick’s because it requires restraint and deglamourizing of the singer, both dramatic and vocal, and Maria Kanyova’s Pat, fluttering and never quite sure if she’s allowed to have an opinion yet always obliged to speak, was tone perfect. The opera shows the Nixons as a genuinely close and caring couple – Mao and Mrs Mao get a similar break — which is in contrast to the Oliver Stone & Anthony Hopkins possibly hatchet-y portrait of Nixon as a domestic abuser. The character of Kissinger is masterfully delegated to the sidelines, in contradiction to the myth which Kissinger himself and many Nixon-era scholars and pundits perpetuated, that Kissinger ran the place while Nixon was President. He is also given a touch of caricature, the (probably again self-produced) myth of his womanizing is taken for a walk and mocked, and his sinister side aired in the funniest way possible during the Red Detachment of Women ballet. Bass-baritone Thomas Hammons sung Kissinger in the original Sellars production and here relives the hilarious standard. Baritone Chen-Ye Yuan (Chu-En Lai) was rock-solid throughout: whatever the scene, you could count on his secure voice and discreet melancholy to anchor it. The only tenor in the cast is the old Mao, sung by Adrian Thomson, who managed to give his often mystifying lines and behaviour what they needed the most: believability. He even earns some sympathy in the final scene with Mrs. Mao, this time the frisky young coloratura thing, maybe a nod to her days as a starlet which Mao reminisces on, sung by Marisol Montalvo.

The scene in which he is introduced, however, was difficult to follow. The words he is saying and the non-exchange that Nixon and he (enforced by the echoing entourage) have it’s probably meant to show the dissonance and talking at cross-purpose, but there was something off that night either in the execution or the libretto itself that almost forced me to tune out. For some reason, possibly of unbalanced sound engineering in this amplified opera, Robert Orth’s singing started at too low a volume and kept being overwhelmed by the orchestra decibels (I was in the mid-parterre). When the first Mao-Nixon scene came on, everything appeared to go out of joint: the timing of the exchange, the sound levels among the singers, the orchestral veil became almost jarring. No idea where to put the blame, but let’s try with Alice Goodman.

Namely, I am not sure I want my librettos written by poets. Alice Goodman’s research for the libretto was very thorough, and her poetic gift is undeniable (according to John Adams’s bio, she is now an Anglican priest in England). But words of poetry require slow consummation and full attention, which the opera libretto must divide with and sometimes surrender to other elements: the music and the action on stage. Perhaps this scene would have been more manageable if the words didn’t require our monopoly of attention? There was simply no time to contemplate the polysemic layers of Mao’s words while that scene was taking place.

But that and the odd moment of illogical sound engineering are my only reservations. Overall, this is one rocking production with the most rocking score.

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon in the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Robert Orth as Richard Nixon and Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon in the Canadian Opera Company production of Nixon in China, 2011. Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, director James Robinson, set designer Allen Moyer, costume designer James Schuette, choreographer Seán Curran, lighting designer Paul Palazzo, sound designer Brian Mohr and video designer Wendall K. Harrington. Photo: Michael Cooper

Should you read this autobiography: Hallelujah Junction by John Adams

Should you read this autobiography: Hallelujah Junction by John Adams

Name: John Adams. Occupation: The Mensch

In 1981, the newly created Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles commissioned a multi-media performance for its opening at a temporary site, the warehouse that used to house the car repair shop for the LA Police Department. John Adams was to write the music, Lucinda Childs was going to do the choreography, and in charge of the set was “a local architect [Adams] never heard of”, Frank Gehry. The title of the piece, Available Light, was a suggestion from Lucinda Childs’ “close friend and companion”, one Susan Sontag.

Adams’ autobiography is full of episodes of this kind, the low key, devoid of pomp and self-importance descriptions of how a project or a collaboration came to be, peppered with names that have since become legendary. In Leningrad for a conference on the musical avant-garde, we’ll see Adams at a remote table of an empty hotel dining room deep in conversation with John Cage. He has known Lorraine Hunt since she was a violist of some renown in Northern California and he’ll give us a glimpse of LH arriving, recently awoken and charmingly disheveled, to an early morning rehearsal. As still a young composer, he recollects approaching Allen Ginsberg at a café in San Francisco and asking him for William Burroughs’ address so he can send him a copy of his piece Heavy Metal. (“Send it to him”, was Ginsberg’s reply. “He’s always interested.”) The descriptions of Peter Sellars and the many productive and hilarious moments of their long collaboration alone are worth the price of admission. No matter how wide Adams’ own reading range is, he always gives the impression that Sellars’ is much wider and that he keeps surprising him with new discoveries. (A typical start of the work on a libretto would be Sellars pulling from his backpack an obscure collection of poetry in its original language and saying to Adams, “You have, of course, heard of this…”)

Still. However many Indexical pleasures this book will hold for us indexical addicts*, they’re not the most important thing about Hallelujah Junction. It’s the fact that the book gives us the privilege of a peek into the mind of a composer with a great mind. It’s also a frank account of a life as an artist (hint: there’s a lot of trial and error). Adams is equally at ease discussing good times and bad, acclaim and criticism, and, surprisingly for an autobiography, a form often used to settle old scores and reiterate one’s side in every story, Junction is remarkably magnanimous.

Therefore, the avant-garde tradition into which the young Harvard composition graduate emerged in the sixties gets an excellent hearing across the chapters and only by the end of the book we realize that it is something that Adams in his composing practices actually repudiated or more precisely overcame (augehoben). Like many of his contemporaries, he was interested in Pierre Boulez and Milton Babbitt, while simultaneously being put off by their exclusivity (Boulez’s writing was a “dense thicket of procedural dicta”; Babbitt’s article “Who cares if you listen?” will be what he’s more widely known for than his music). John Cage was the composer with a much greater role for Adams, and his work and writing spoke to Adams “in terms both radical and illuminating”. He was also a rare artist who gave proper acknowledgment to chance and incorporated the aleatory in his composing. But ever so slightly, as termites working through an edifice, Adams brings us to understand why he ended up thinking of the avant-garde of that time as a desert and a dead-end. (Boredom these works inevitably caused was an important factor. Another one: it was music capable of surviving only through the composer’s charisma, but not in transmission. Pseudo-scientific models, lack of interest in whether anybody was listening were among others.) Discovering minimalism for Adams meant a renaissance.

Although he’s still sometimes classified as a minimalist, to follow the many trajectories that John Adams took from minimalism one is advised to read this treasure of a book. He argues, for example, that the late Romantic language developed by Schumann and Wagner did not die with the onset of Modernism, but rather continued to live in places like American jazz, show music and pop song. “The harmonic essence of the early popular American composers like Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Ellington was not all that different from the chromaticism of the late Romantic composers.” (A Harmony Lesson, p 105) That is another tradition that Adams relates to. Other influential events and procedures: the electronic music; the alternative tuning (this is some fascinating stuff); non-Western musical traditions and instruments; the sound equivalent of ‘found objects’; computer programs that facilitate the creation of the alternative tempi for the instruments in the same piece and the spacial effects in composing (the far and near sounds, the ambiance sounds); the rhythms of poetry in different languages; and of course, what is known as the Western musical canon. And these are just a few things that I can immediately remember.

Adams shows us the detailed genealogy of each of his piece. As if it’s not enough that the music is so inventive and complex, the librettos to his operatic works zoom in to some of the toughest issues his country has faced or self-created. Urban class warfare, racial inequalities, xenophobic response to immigration, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, complicity of scientists with nefariousness of political power, environmental degradation, yes, all that is in, but Adams has probably received the greatest flak for his Death of Klinghoffer and the criticism of his country’s blind support for Israel. Even when he gives account of the many controversies and media storms that have followed his choice of topics, in his customary gentlemanly Adamsian way he lets his opponents speak. And a lot. And you realize that that’s the best way of embarrassing their argument. There’s a segment in the chapter on the Death of Kinghoffer which deals with the reception of this opera after September 11, when many used the opportunity to grandstand by qualifying Klinghoffer as ‘dangerous’. Richard Taruskin, for example. If you ever suspected that RT was a dick, but were hesitant to conclude it once and for all, that question will be put to rest after reading his opportunistic attack on Klinghoffer.

In his book Adams will often express admiration for performers and instrumentalists. He has no doubt that they are the integral part of what a work is and that they make or break a composition. Many times he would mention a name and follow it with “s/he taught me what it is that I composed; showed me there was more in the work than I even suspected.”

Own this book.

* Indexical pleasure: the pleasure of checking the bio’s index first, then reading the text so we can see what context the names of interest emerge in.

Nixon in China opens at the COC on Saturday, February 5. It had its Met debut this week.

John Adams blogs here.