Concerts online – the good, the better and the spectacular

I’m in the Saturday Star, with a list of best concerts available online right now. There’s Julie Andrews doing MeToo jokes, Laurie Anderson playing the tape-violin she invented, Diane Dufresne being batshit wacko, Insula Orchestra with Laurence Equilbey (I had to), a lot of Gen-X nostalgia and Pretty Yende in that Instagram-Influencer Traviata. Read here.

Remember Hansel & Gretel?

I seem to have liked that production more than any other critic, judging by the reviews I’ve read since. My own review is finally in the print issue of Opera News. And here, for my blog readers. //

IN FILMS, Toronto often plays the part of other cities, but the new Canadian Opera Company production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic Hänsel und Gretel, billed here as Hansel & Gretel, puts Canada’s largest city center stage, swapping the grim Brothers Grimm forest for a high-rise apartment building. The switch works a treat. Black-and-white bird’s-eye footage of the city rolls out during the melodic overture, with warm brass and irreverent woodwinds, and the video zooms in on a concrete building as the curtain goes up. The two-story set—four occupied apartments, two staircases and later a video-projected elevator—fills the entire stage. (Sets and projection design were by S. Katy Tucker.) 

We find Hänsel (Emily Fons) and Gretel (Simone Osborne) on the lower floor, playing alone in an apartment where the fridge is empty and the kitchen counters bare. When the mother (Krisztina Szabó) arrives from work, she is still wearing her uniform with the name tag, possibly from a fast-food outlet or pharmacy chain. There is activity in every apartment: the man across the landing is fixing things, the woman one floor up switching TV channels, other residents passing through the hallways. Above Hänsel and Gretel’s place is a friendly elderly hoarder whose apartment looks overstuffed and drab until the kids arrive for a visit, when the change in lighting turns it to a forest full of magic surprises. Other neighbors visit him and bring food, and this fictional Toronto high-rise looks a real, functioning community where the neighbors socialize. In Adelheid Wette’s libretto, the mother sends the children out to pick berries, while in this staging the children go floor to floor asking for food staples, in between whiling away their time and playing. Downstairs, their father (Russell Braun) comes home from work and shares the day’s spoils with his wife. 

Osborne, Fons and Szabó have voices that sound a notch too light in this opera, and each occasionally paled before the volume and the shine of the almost-Wagnerian house orchestra. But they were precise, articulate and solid actors, Osborne in particular looking uncannily like a six-year-old. Braun’s baritone was more robust and at home, as was Anna-Sophie Neher’s bold, lush soprano in the short roles of the Sandman and the Dew Fairy. The children fall asleep in the apartment of the hoarder, who reappears as the Sandman and sprinkles the magic dust of slumber. Meanwhile, the parents and the neighbors downstairs are getting the apartment ready—moving furniture, hanging drapes, preparing the cardboard cage and the closet-size pretend-oven for the play that will take place when the children wake up in the morning. The activity stops in every apartment for the lullaby-like evening-prayer duet, while for the cinematic orchestral Act II finale, all the neighbors come out as one to admire the starry sky.  

There you have it: Hänsel and Gretel getting abducted by a wily gingerbread-dwelling witch is actually part of the play put on by their parents and neighbors, which the children enjoy and go along with. The bearded next-door neighbor in disguise is the Witch (tenor Michael Colvin), and the other children rescued from captivity are the kids from the building who have been patiently waiting in the next room for their cue. 

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus did Humperdinck’s rich score justice, but the star of the evening was Joel Ivany’s imaginative staging. In Act II, video projections take a turn for exuberant, childhood holiday psychedelia. There is something of Sean Baker’s Florida Project in this production and the way it amplifies vivacious colors and the unrelenting pursuit of joy in a low-income childhood, but this Hansel is more optimistic. Concrete high-rises can be real communities, it insists; and it’s through the play, stories and art that we expand our lives from their confines. —Lydia Perovic


Met At Home Gala

Opera Twitter was abuzz and at its absolute best for 4+ hours today under the hashtag #MetAtHomeGala, an online streaming concert with singers with Met ties each performing arias from their home. There was a lot of humour and – this was new — a lot of earnest tears. I did not watch it while it livestreamed, but came back later to the on-demand video on the Met website for a personal pick and mix.  I did read the commentary for a good couple of hours, and later caught up with more of it.

Renee Fleming’s Ave Maria from Otello was my highlight – it sounds like she sang mostly a cappella to the pre-recorded piano part on a phone app or something? Anyway, no pianist was introduced and the piano was only heard during the odd passage here and there. The silver blazer, the boobage, the living room opening onto a garden (“somewhere in Virginia”, said the credits), the exquisite singing, and… a Cy Twombly, one of my favourite painters, behind her on the wall? Impeccable taste all around.

I screengrabbed this awkward shot because that’s where the paining/drawing is most visible.

Otherwise, the Met continues to stream its Met in HD productions about every other night and leaves them available for about 48 hours. I am hoping against hope that the McVicar Agrippina with Kate Lindsey Nerone will make the lineup one of these days.

Confinement, une conversation mondiale: Alexander Neef

French radio show Le Temps du Débat asked a number of figures in international art circles to contribute an opinion piece on how they see the current situation. Here’s what Alexander Neef wrote (translation from French mine):

What we lose when we close the performing arts venues

The worst aspect of this period of rupture is not being able to get together with others in public. Society in which we live relies on the freedom of movement for its functioning. It’s also the essence of the performing arts: coming together with other people in a designated space so we can share a collective experience and come each one of us to our own individual conclusions.

Theatre was created to identify the pressing questions of our lives, put them on stage, and create a certain distance, a mediation, so we can collectively look at those questions and perhaps put our opinion in perspective, or come to a different view of ourselves and our society.

In a world where we’re frequently expected to think in a certain way, being a performing arts audience enables us – it demands of us – to have an opinion, be free, make choices. With a video recording, somebody has already made the choices for us. In a theatre or opera house, you are your own camera, you have agency while taking in the show, you construct your own relation to it. It’s how we belong to a larger society too.

Gérard Mortier, former director of La Monnaie in Brussels and the Paris Opera, always used to say, There is no democracy without theatre. I think we can understand what he was getting at: we need to develop our capacity to make choices and to think. Reflection and decision-making are our responsibilities [as citizens of democracies]. And theatre can teach us to do that.

The entry point to performing arts is always the emotion: “I like this”, “I hate that”, but there’s another step after that, the “why” step, and if we get there, then we can have a dialogue with other people who don’t share our opinions. It’s the principle of a democratic society: we don’t have to agree on everything, as long as we agree that there is room for conversation.

Being without performing arts – while we understand why everything had to be closed down – means being deprived of something that taps directly into our capacity to be with other people in a society. Now we have to make do with what we have. Watching performances on screen, perhaps so we can keep alive the memory of the real thing…