If you happen to be anywhere near Scotland this summer, make sure you check out the Edinburgh Fringe, the probably globally best known r&d festival of theatrical expression which usually doesn’t have much opera on offer. This year, however, one operatic indie, in part crowd-funded and entirely written, composed and directed by women, caught my eye: a chamber opera about Flora Sandes, the British volunteer combatant who donned the trouser and joined Serbian Army at the start of World War I, and her contemporary Emily Simmonds who travelled to the Balkan front as a nurse. In the second act, the story moves to our era and follows British female soldiers who come to Afghanistan as medics and tackles the questions around women’s front-line participation (finally officially allowed by the British Army in 2016, but in effect present in some form or other since 1999), unit cohesion in heterosocial context, soldier attachment, why choose a life of professional warfare etc. There is a Canadian connection: soprano Teiya Kasahara sings the role of Flora Sandes in the Edinburgh production and is happily Instagramming about the experience, if you’re on there (the odd tweet appears too).
First, the good news. Pomegranate, subtitled A lesbian chamber opera, composed by Kye Marshall, written by Amanda Hale, directed by Michael Mori and conducted by Jennifer Tung, which just closed its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Theatre – works as a piece of art. It is alive and ticking – and that is the first and most important test a new opera must pass.
Kye Marshall has composed a distinct musical material for each of the two acts, though what unites them is a melancholy timbre of both eras, the Pompeii girlhood and 1980s Toronto youth. The three cellos, a keyboard, a harp, an oboe, and a flute for act one and saxophone in act two, are an unusual but perfectly sufficient mix of instrumental forces. There is a lot of harp in act one, and oboe gets good air time, but any quotations of the pastoral employment of harp and woodwinds are wrung through contemporary musical idiom, and come free of nostalgia for the melodic operatic tradition. Act One is almost consistently dissonant, with the only bit of lyrical arioso given to the representative of the brute force in the story, the Roman soldier who is about to capture one of the girls and marry her against her will. He seems genuinely in love (beware of beautiful music) and genuinely a brute, and a lot of the brutes in opera have been given pretty and memorable melodies over the centuries—and the composers have been manipulating opera lovers this way for some time.
This was something of a naughty wink in the score, and there were others.
The sex scene that builds to a climax in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier overture, for example, which was wittily directed as an interruption with one of the women stopping and sitting up and the other one trying to talk her out of dark thoughts while the music is doing its culminating. Or the unsentimental, almost unjazzy use of saxophone in Act Two – which is employed with great restraint in the bar scene that would have been in real life hopping with synth pop. There’s more. The first interaction the two Pompeii girls have is through the percussion instrument that each is holding – they harmonize their rhythms before they even have their first conversation. Marshall has also avoided cliché by giving the mezzo tessitura to the more helpless character of the two (when it’s usually the mezzos who have some agency in opera) while the soprano role in Pomegranate goes to the more self-assured and determined character. Last but not least, Marshall can write a mean vocal trio and quartet.
In short, there is much to be saluted in this score and how it works with the text.
And now, the less good news. The production itself had a host of issues. The text was frequently unintelligible, especially on high notes but not exclusively, and even I, who had read the libretto beforehand, occasionally missed what was being communicated. Surtitles were badly needed and it’s a (Pompeiian) mystery why they weren’t created as the text didn’t require paying a translator and the sets were largely made up of video projections anyway. Singers being native English speakers never guarantees that they will be expert enunciators of operatic and song verses in English, and Pomegranate confirms this.
The two young principals, soprano Rebecca Gray and mezzo Camille Rogers, were vocally the weakest pillars in the edifice when they should have been the strongest (temple, pillars, see what I did there? OK, I’ll stop now). Rogers was striking in the bel canto role of Isabella in an indie production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri some years ago, but in contemporary musical idiom with an English language libretto containing a ton of Sprechgesang the mezzo seemed reserved, ill at ease, risk averse and resigned into using that impressive voice most unimpressively. Rebecca Gray had much more to do as the narrator for the opera and the character of Cassia/Cass. Her dramatic commitment was stronger—she can definitely act and did–but her beauty of voice tended to disappear in the upper register, and that’s where the composer has her going quite frequently. The singer who has most singing to do and who effectively carries the opera should impress with her voice. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. (Gray is also a composer. I’m looking forward to hearing her work and wonder if perhaps this is where the best of her musicianship is to emerge.)
Teiya Kasahara (Priestess/Bartender) and Aaron Durand (Centurion/Suzie’s Uncle) were the two strongest voices on cast: voluminous, consistent throughout the register, with precisely controlled breath and strong grasp of the text. Stephanie Tritchew roles of the Handmaiden in the temple and Suzie’s mother in Act Two were small – dramatically important but musically modest. She has an undeniable stage presence which I hope to see properly exercised in a larger role, and which here had to remain muted.
Set and costume designer Rachel Forbes took the straightforward Roman and stylized Roman route for the costumes for the first act (though Kasahara’s Priestess had a touch of the Queen of the Night). The urge for the 1980s ‘authenticity’ in Act Two was however too keen: the deep-cut jeans, the large print blouses, the ill-fitting blazer and the red shoes were almost comic in the context and certainly distracting. A little less period costuming next time, please.
For there should be a next time: this opera should see a revival. There is a living, breathing work of operatic art under those tunics and plaid shirts.
Amanda Hale, novelist, poet and now the librettist for Pomegranate (June 5-9, Buddies in Bad Times), is a fascinating interlocutor. Watch this space for more about her work in the near future.
But first, the Summer Wholenote Art of Song – because Pomegranate started as a song cycle – HERE
She still travels to England to visit family. “It was a good thing, leaving England, because when you leave a place, you can see it.” Her family’s story has been far from ordinary: Hale’s father was a supporter of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists during the Second World War, and died by suicide some years after the war. “That legacy has hung over me all my life,” says Hale, who has written about it in her latest novel, Mad Hatter (Guernica, Toronto), to be launched in September. “I feel absolutely liberated for having told that story. It’s been a great shame and humiliation so it was good for me to leave England and be able to see all that. But it’s taken my lifetime to process it.”
Hale’s own politics are at the opposite end of the spectrum to her father’s. She often travels to Cuba and has developed a lot of connections, personal and professional, over the last 15 years. “I went there first to paint a mural with Lynn Hutchinson in solidarity with the revolution and we made a connection with a gallery in Havana and did an installation there on colonialism and sugar, then another one about surveillance, which Cubans really understand.” Latin America was always of great interest. “I’ve had a lot of connections with Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. A big change I saw here in Toronto in the 1980s was the refugees coming from those countries who’d experienced American interference, people who enriched Toronto tremendously during the 1970s and 1980s. There were Greeks coming here after the Junta and people emigrating to Canada after the Iranian Revolution. On Hornby Island we have an Iranian man who’s taken refuge there, who is a wonderful potter.”
Pics from the recent Opera Atelier production of Idomeneo. Wallis Giunta (Idamante) and Meghan Lindsay (Ilia). Did not go to see this because ~ Opera Atelier be Opera Ateliering ~ but if the OA Alcina from a few years back is anything to go by, the two women must have been excellent together. All photos by Bruce Zinger.
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.
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
After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.
It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.
Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.
This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.
For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.
Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.
Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow, piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.
And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.
On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.
The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.
All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.
Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.
A few (belatedly posted) thoughts on the Joyce El-K and Beste K recent concert at the RCM, on the Wholenote website.
Art songs delivered in a full-on operatic register within a small resonant space such as Mazzoleni Hall can be hard to take, I’ve learned last Sunday.
On the program at the RCM’s intimate, chapel-like hall were French a few of the mélodies with an Orientalist flair, as well as a selection of Lebanese and Turkish folk songs in new arrangements chosen by the two singers, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender. Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist accompanied from the piano, and for one Ravel cycle Nora Shulman (flute) and David Hetherington (cello) joined the mezzo onstage. It was a well-programmed concert, diverse and thematically unified at the same time.
El-Khoury, Lebanese-Canadian soprano highly in-demand internationally as Violetta and Mimi, is a singer of exceptional glamour and stage presence. Her voice is opulent, with a beautiful upper top, but it did not seem like El-Khoury recalibrated it for the more contained, subtle and withholding recital genre. Most of the singing, whether that was the intention or not, came through as fairly loud—and I was seated in the last row. On that level, Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from Shéhérazade sounds almost irate. ‘Île inconnu’ from Berlioz and Gautier’s masterwork Les nuits d’été was a very loud statement, rather than a cheery invitation to voyage that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But things changed in part two of the concert, in El-Khoury’s program of Lebanese songs which she introduced and which are personally meaningful to her. As if by a magic wand, there it was: the real song intimacy. As if a camera zoomed in to a private moment between friends. This was an entirely different singer, very much capable of pianissimi, full of thoughtful inwardness, implicit rather than explicit, and generous.
Mezzo Beste Kalender was more consistent. A fine French diction and rich dark timbre enhanced every song. Seductive and mischievous in ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ by Fauré, Kalender added some wicked castanets playing to her gamut in Ravel’s ‘Zaïde: Boléro’. She was particularly memorable in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, alongside the flute and the cello. ‘Nahandove’ is unusually sensuous, even for a French song, and it would be fair to describe it as, in fact, sexual (‘Arrête, ou je vais mourir / Meurt-on de volupté’). It, and the third song ‘Il est doux’, are voiced by a male narrator. He greets the female lover in the first, and orders female servants gently about in the third, but the middle song ‘Awa!’ is an outburst and a warning against such men. ‘Do not trust the white men’ is its refrain, and the verses explain what will happen when they arrive on distant shores and settle.
In part two, Kalender presented a selection of Turkish songs. One among them, ‘My Nightingale is in a Golden Cage’, she explained, was Kemal Ataturk’s favourite, so she would sing it in homage to the Turkish statesman—the modernizer and secularizer of Turkey after the end of Ottoman Empire and the republic’s first president. *
The two women finished the program with Delibes’ mega hit from opera Lakmé, The Flower Duet.
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*which I thought was interesting, bc he wasn’t exactly a democrat. What is Ataturk’s status currently, in the Turkey of Erdogan?