Turandot by Bob Wilson: A Doll’s House

Photo by Michael Cooper. Tamara Wilson (foreground) as Turandot in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Conductor Carlo Rizzi; direction, design, and lighting concept by Robert Wilson; co-director Nicola Panzer; costume designer Jacques Reynaud; co-set designer Stephanie Engeln; co-lighting designer John Torres

There was a bright streak of joy running through Puccini’s Turandot as conceived by Bob Wilson, contrary to this opera’s reputation as a solemn, staid affair made up of a series of proclamations. Perhaps it’s because Wilson’s famous white makeup ‘masks’ reminded so much of Buster Keaton and the comedy figures of the silent film era? Or that the Ping-Pang-Pong, renamed Jim, Bob and Bill (Adrian Timpau, Julius Ahn, Joseph Hu), kept the beat of the production going by clowning and carnivaling in the commedia dell’arte manner around the rest of the very serious characters? Or was it due to the strength of singing by the two principals, Tamara Wilson (Turandot) and Sergey Skorokhodov (Calaf)?

Not the most persuasive of librettos (by Giuseppe Adami and Renato Simoni, based on the play by Carlo Gozzi) in the history of opera, this one – so the director is essential. The icy Chinese princess keeps saying no to suitors until one, Calaf, solves her riddles and is persistent enough for her to give in. Just because a woman absolutely HAS to die in a Puccini opera, there’s also the character of Liu who kind of follows Calaf around and sacrifices her life for him.  None of the interactions make remotest sense. Calaf meets Liu, and an old man who turns out is his long lost father (don’t @ me), at a well-attended public execution. After Calaf solves Turandot’s riddles, he… gives her the task of finding out his real name if she wants to get out of the marriage. (I said don’t @ me.) Anyway, fast forward, his persistence and his willingness to give his life for her turn Turandot and when Calaf tells her that his name is Captain Love, she doesn’t laugh him off the imperial court. The End.

Probably none of this struck Bob Wilson & team as serious dramatic propositions and they created a piece that is a visual feast, foremost. Instead of trying to diminish the static, tableau nature of the scenes, they emphasized it. Arms are not to be moved except in a very proscribed way in a Wilson production, and walking in Act 1 only used as accent on the expressed words, so in a couple of early sequences some  of the singers move back and forth in and out of the crowd on a cuckoo clock line. Powerful characters are wheeled into the tableaux by special contraptions – like the Emperor and early on Turandot herself. It is all beautifully apposite, including the occasional facial expressions of silent screams on this face or that, that are a pleasing mix of comic and horrified. Empire courts are highly ceremonial, and so is this production.

Later on, Turandot glides across the stage as if on a track. She is the only person on stage in a bold red dress amidst the cooler colours of gray, black, white and blue. The night he’s singing Nessun dorma, Calaf walks through some sort of stylized forest of thorn.

(l-r) Joseph Hu as Bill/Pong, Sergey Skorokhodov as Calaf, Julius Ahn as Bob/Pang, Adrian Timpau as Jim/Ping in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Turandot, 2019. Photo: Michael Cooper

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov give life to their characters chiefly by being very much vocally up to the task. The tenor has probably the best known operatic aria in the history of opera in “Nessun dorma”, and the soprano gets no such thing with “In questa reggia” but Tamara Wilson made her vocal lines sound easy and conversational. David Leigh (Timur), Adrian Thompson (Emperor) and Joyce El-Khoury (Liu) were all respectable in their roles. While dramatically effective and essential for the proceedings, the Timpau, Ahn, Hu trio were mixed vocally, with higher voices a bit strained higher up and the lower one more assured and distinct. Carlo Rizzi conducted the COC orchestra capably, with sensible tempi. Can this score be more visceral and engaging? One for Puccini completists to tell me.

The Wilson Turandot is extremely visually pleasing, and comes with unexpected joys, occasionally even humour. It is also without a strong pulse, alas – like a beautiful automaton. It felt like we were observing the happenings inside a doll’s house with elaborate, beautifully designed components, or rifling though a box of photographs: stunning though they may be, they are quite dead. The music is full of chinoiserie and the stylized, simplified, monochromatic imperial China costumes (designer Jacques Reynaud) riff freely and elegantly off that. There is much to enjoy in this Turandot, and in many way this is an all-ages show that children in your life may like too. But an exciting and visceral piece of theatre it is not. Feast for the eyes that will somehow manage to leave you hungry.

Tamara Wilson and Sergey Skorokhodov in Bob Wilson-directed Turandot (COC, 2019). Photo by Michael Cooper.

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.

Dead Equal, a new opera about women in combat

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).

I seriously hope that after Edinburgh this will be revived somewhere in the UK, which will increase the chance of my crossing its path. The Brits can catch it on August 13-15 and 20-25. Dead Equal is written by Lila Palmer, composed by Rose Miranda Hall and directed by Miranda Cromwell.

A brilliant BBC backgrounder on possible reasons why Sandes is still fairly unknown by the Britons is worth a read.

And the excellent Margaret MacMillan’s Reith Lectures on the changing nature of war and the warrior are still up. Women war historians are pretty much as few as women warriors.

Flora Sandes with Serbian soldiers

Le Figaro reports that Alexander Neef will be the next director of the Paris Opera

Photo by Gaetz Photography

Le Figaro reports, pretty unequivocally and quoting sources close to the current director Stéphane Lissner, that Neef is getting the job.

First, let me bask for a minute in Lokalpatriotismus. How cool is this? *Basking, with sunglasses on. Basking, basking, basking*

Congratulations to Neef on this not at all small accomplishment. We haven’t always agreed on details, but I generally agreed with his approach to programming opera, from that notorious Tim Albery Aida a decade ago on. What I think about his decade at the COC I wrote in 2017 in this piece for the Globe and Mail.

On a personal note: we are precisely the same age. Good to see a GenXer take this important position in the opera world. We’re talking about a house that was founded by Louis XIV.

Now. According to the Figaro, Neef won’t take on the role until June 2022 and Lissner is to continue in this transition period. The paper (and ForumOpera agrees) is not too happy that some of  the labour reforms announced will now have to be done by a lame-duck director, and how much authority will he have to execute those, they wonder. I’d speculate that Neef needed a sufficient withdrawal period to wrap up the COC projects – but I don’t know. A lot of drive-by-appointed CEOs in Toronto’s cultural life simply do a runner and announce they’ll be gone next season, period. This won’t be the case here, and I think that’s good. (Maybe the Santa Fe festival will also benefit from this slow shift.)

End of an era. Who will come after? Send in those bets.

Pomegranate reviewed

Aaron Durand, Teiya Kasahara, Stephanie Tritchew, Camille Rogers and Rebecca Gray in Pomegranate. Photo by Dahlia Katz

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.

Teiya Kasahara as the bar(wo)man in Fly-By-Night, based on an actual lesbian bar in 1980s Toronto. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Camille Rogers & Rebecca Gray in Pomegranate. Photo: Dahlia Katz

Coming up: Pomegranate

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 

For example:

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.”

Pomegranate the opera
Camille Rogers (l) and Rebecca Gray as Suzie and Cass in a Toronto lesbian bar in 1980s in Pomegranate. Music by Kye Marshall, libretto Amanda Hale. Stage director Michael Mori, music director Jennifer Tung. June 5-9, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. Photo by Greg Wong.

Still no news from Paris

As those who follow these things know, COC’s decade-plus General Director (and recently appointed AD of the Opera Santa Fe) Alexander Neef is one of the four candidates shortlisted for the position of the director of the Paris Opera – where he used to be the casting director during the reign of Gerard Mortier, before his appointment at the COC. Paris is arguably the biggest, busiest, and most prestigious opera house in the world today – though not the nimblest or most adventurous or most independent from political power. A number of French and Belgian media have been reporting on this hiring process steadily at least since March, and since Dominique Meyer is in the running, I expect the Austrian media have been at it too. So here are the last four standing: Peter de Caluwe (current La Monnaie director),  Meyer (Wien Staatsoper), Olivier Mantei of the Opera-Comique in Paris, and Neef.

In the March 7 paper, Ariane Bavelier of Le Figaro reported that the French culture minister Franck Riester had appointed an “audition committee” which will make recommendations to him after interviewing the long-listed candidates. There were many more at that point, including the sole woman, Christina Scheppelmann, who has since been hired as the Seattle Opera’s General Director. According to the Figaro, the candidates will have presented their respective “projects” for the opera house on 9th and 10th March — I expect this was a sort of a general vision for the house and its future, with strategies how to get there — in 20 min presentations, followed by an hour of questions from the committee. The committee itself consists of people who, while experts in their respective fields, has neither run an opera house, as the Figaro points out with some pique. President of the board of directors of Paris Opera chairs the committee: Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, CEO of the Engie, the French multinational electric utility company and Macron’s proche. Laurent Bayle, CEO of Paris Philharmonie is on the cttee (which the paper describes as homme fort du comité – perhaps the one whose voice will be decisive), as are the conductor James Conlon, choreographer Sasha Waltz, and Sylviane Tarsot-Gillery, who has the following untranslatable title: directrice générale de la création artistique du ministère de la Culture (a high civil servant or political appointee? I’m rusty on the ins and outs of French administration).

There’s been a lot of punditizing, some of it quite good, in the Francophone media on what the new director should fix and what enhance, and the place of opera in contemporary French society. Macron’s former chief speech-writer Sylvain Fort, who recently returned to his old profession of opera critic and arts journalist, wrote an editorial on the ONP hiring and argued that the plan is more important than the name, and that whoever ends up being appointed, he’ll have to work with the staff to answer the question looming before opera as an art form today: how does opera fit in our modern times, what is its purpose and function today

N’importera que son projet, qui ne saurait être qu’un projet conçu pour renouer les fils défaits et inventer des fils nouveaux qui rendront à l’institution, et donc à l’art même qu’il porte, une place dans notre modernité.

It’s been almost two months since that committee audition, and no decision has been announced. Is the Paris Opera going to have the 2021 season or not, the way things are going, asked the Figaro a couple of days ago. The paper says that Macron wants to meet the shortlisted personally, and that his schedule hasn’t allowed it so far. Belgian paper L’Echo, rooting for the home candidate, is also wondering what’s in the offing and affirming that de Caluwe is still in the running.

Now, who to bet on, that is the question…