Thierry Tidrow at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

ThierryProfile
Thierry Tidrow

Cologne-based Francontarien Thierry Tidrow’s new chamber opera is about to have a world premiere at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the Tischlerei stage, the smaller theatre within the DO dedicated to commissions and experiment. (More on the Tischlerei season here.) A couple of years ago the German opera house in collaboration with the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin held a competition for new composers and librettists and out of about 40 submissions, the jury, which included among others Aribert Reimann, chose three, Thierry Tidrow among them. His librettist was to be Uta Bierbaum. All three operas will premiere as one triptych this Friday in Berlin within the program titled Scenes III at the Tischlerei. (Full cast and creative here.)

Here’s what Thierry told me about his one-acter, My Corporate Identity:

It’s about people pretending to be who they are not, pretending to be happy in order to fit in, in this case in the corporate world, which affects not only their personalities, but the music and the way they speak. In Germany the corporate language is half English, full of vapid buzz words. There is this character in the opera named Boss, and these are his first lines:
Content Content Content Content! Das Wechselspiel von Tradition und Innovation ist die Quelle, die uns immer wieder neu inspiriert. Es geht um bestechende Kreativität! Immer auch um höchste Authentizität! Sich immer neue Ziele setzen, ständig in Bewegung bleiben! Content Content! Das ist digital, das ist Strategie, das hier sind die Key-Notes, das ist kreativ, das ist Social Media, das Wording ist top, die Performance ist GEIL! Noch eine Runde Q&A? Wir sind im Work-Flow, das bringt uns Insight, wir sind hier alle on the same Page, back to WORK NOW. WIR! Danke Danke Danke, TEAM, ihr macht uns zu dem, was wir sind! Rosmarin, Porsche, Lifestyle. Yeah!

The main character, Woman with the green silk blouse, is constantly telling us how happy she is with her life, as if trying to convince us. The whole opera is actually quite violent since the characters are all too worried about the void (which manifests itself as a crack in the coffee room, at first too small for anyone to care, but slowly becoming bigger), that they just continuously talk about how great and perfect everything is. This goes on until the main protagonist exhausts herself to the point where her body decomposes, which is almost sort of freeing for her.

There is also an alter-ego, the other woman also wearing a green silk blouse, who is like the inner child of the protagonist and who has the only lyrical and heartfelt lines of the piece. She is in constant observation of the world around her (seasons changing even though every day of work feels the same) and of her body (of its nature and later of its decay). Her text is very poetic, whereas all the others (our heroine, Boss, and Female Colleague) mostly get run-on sentences and matter-of-fact/common sense/truism speak.

The music plays with these different levels of mask-wearing, and mirrors the characters. For example, the colleague who is cartoonishly happy and constantly laughing to a nauseating degree, has energetic and constantly changing material, ranging from cheesy pop song when she sings about how amazing the weekend is to almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan/Commedia dell’arte melodrama when she talks about the crack she’s seen.

But generally the corporate characters only sing when they are putting a mask on. Otherwise they are in a speaking or half-speaking, half-singing mode, in a syllabic way which exaggerates the prosody of the German language (i.e. which notes are emphasized/high, which are low)

Here are some examples of vocal treatment:

Excerpt 2:

Excerpt 3:

Let’s hope a video clip surfaces for those of us who can’t be in Berlin this month. Meanwhile, here’s a fun chamber music piece by Thierry, STYROPORÖS:

Louis Riel’s Second Coming

Russell Braun as Louis Riel in Canadian Opera Company’s 2017 production of Louis Riel (director Peter Hinton). Photo credit Sophie I’anson

As the saying (approximately) goes, one person’s religious fanatic is another person’s hero, and Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s multilayered opera Louis Riel certainly does not offer itself, in its ur-text, as a piece of simple pro-Riel propaganda. Had Riel fended off the forces of the Canadian federation, his Métis governance state would have probably been a theocracy with a charismatic governor, and not even notionally liberal—though the libretto in his last speech has him saying a verse on “man having rights” (perhaps the meaning here is treaty rights?). His first long aria at the end of Act 1 reveals that he hears God’s voice and feels directly and intimately called—“I am David” is its final verse—and upon his return to Canada from the exile he is given a scene in a Catholic church in Saskatchewan where he is a self-assured prophet with a large following. Riel was a figure akin to Ignazio di Loyola and Joan of Arc: not exactly a democrat. God spoke to him, and even skipped the Pope to go straight for this Prairie prophet.

He was of the future, however, in one way, and it’s an extremely important way: he was a bi-racial North American, and proud of it, while the Anglos in the opera throw around “half-breed” as an insult. He is also today read by some theorists of Canadian citizenship as a harbinger of the post-Trudeau I multiculturalism and bilingualism, the type of post-ethnic nationhood that we’ve been trying to work out in this country over the last 40 years. Not so, says a Métis scholar who contributed an opinion piece in the COC program for this new production of the opera. Dr. Adam Gaudry of University of Alberta argues that for Riel, land treaties were about staying separate but equal, not merging and integrating cultures and ethnicities into something new. And there are a number of Native rights groups today in Canada who argue against the Native integration in the general hodgepodge of Canadian citizenship; we’ve melted far enough in that particular pot, we’re now concerned with protecting the customs, reviving the languages and preserving the bloodlines. (Don’t act shocked. Huge majority of people on this planet still don’t want to marry outside their own ethnic or religious group. Most of your extended family to start with, whatever your ethnic background is.)

So Riel is a contradictory figure. (The periodic think pieces that appear in Canadian media in favour of exonerating and rehabilitating Riel are puzzling to me. Let the contradictory figure of the past be a contradictory figure of the past, why scrub him clean.) But Somers and Moore don’t exactly excoriate him in the opera either and in fact grant him a great, tragic dimension. He *is* a hero, in the sense of hero being a brave man who is blind to his constitutive flaws and who will be done in by those very flaws. Yes, and also by the encroaching armed forces of a nation in the making. Marxist historians would say “world-historical” forces—but that’s retrospective determinism, certainly in the case of Canada, which still feels like an unfinished business and up for grabs as a nation state in so many ways.

Riel is also given the most extraordinary music of this largely atonal score, solo arias of immense expressivity, variety, and power sung a cappella or to sparse instrumentation. In this new COC revival directed by Peter Hinton, Russell Braun sings Riel and as perfectly as anybody can come close to. He is certainly a little less butch, a little more pensive and Hamlet-like than the original Riel, Bernard Turgeon, but this singer-added Riel vulnerability works miracles for the character.

The major new thing that Hinton brought in is the invitation to the First Nations onto the stage and the turning of the spotlight onto the Métis and the Cree even more obviously as the centre of the story. You’d think that it would have occurred somebody in the original production to include a contingent of Native artists in the creative team or among the cast, but looks like it hadn’t. At the time of its first performances in the late 60s and early 70s, Riel was analyzed mainly as an opera on the FrancoCanadian-AngloCanadian conflict that makes up so much of Canadian history, even though more than half of the characters are Métis. Somers actively sought and employed musical material transcribed from the Native sources, for example for the Kuyas aria sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (in this production sung by the soprano Simone Osborne, who handled this insanely demanding aria flawlessly; too bad the role is so short).

Hinton introduced a silent chorus that the original production did not have, what he describes in Director’s Notes as the Land Assembly which silently observes the action in every scene, sometimes apart, sometimes among other characters. He also replaced a scene of drunken revelry of the rebels with a scene of a group dance with the First Nations dancer Justin Many Fingers as the soloist. The quiet presence of Jani Lauzon, a grey-haired Métis singer and performer elegant in her red pant suit improved just about every scene because it somewhat attenuated the significant problem of the invisibility of women in Riel: without Lauzon, there are only three singing roles for women among 25 male singers, and they’re (hold on to your hats) sister, mother and wife to the Main Man.

What didn’t work for me was that the production is pretty minimalist. I think going minimalist in large multilayered operas is a cop-out, but in general too I don’t have a predilection for minimalism on operatic stage. (See Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, Carsen’s Iphigenie, Ivo van Hove’s anything…) There are long scenes of almost legalese debates in Riel during which there’s nowhere to look but at the blond wood panel in the back of the stage and the odd chair and table. About that blond wood panel: it reminds very much of the inside of the Four Seasons Centre, was that a hint? Yes, every opera is about that opera audience sitting right there, Hinton is right, but the set as the sets go was kind of dull.

The “Ottawa” set was better solved, but of course we are never shown the pseudo-Gothic interiors of the Parliament (it’s an iconic and much beloved building that would be perceived more positively than the director would necessarily want). Instead, the architectural plan of the Centre Block drops down as the background to the scenes among Sir John A., Cartier, Bishop Taché and “the representative of the commerce”, Hudson Bay’s Donald Smith. Baritone James Westman as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was another case of vocally and dramatically hand-meets-glove casting. Most of Sir John A.’s material is in the form of Sprechgesang—he doesn’t get any arias, but the only moments in the score that are comedic are to do with him: the trio of powerful men that announces that everything will be well when the opposite is about to happen; the drunk music in a scene of his hangover before dealing with the matters of the state (as Opera Rambling’s partner Katja put it last night, “most people in this opera are drunk most of the time”; fair).

Somers’ score operates in onslaughts and silences (moderation is for later in history) and I had forgotten how eventful and full of contrasts it is. The COC’s brass and percussions in particular get to do a lot of work. The only simpleminded tune in the entire opera is the mobbing chant of the Ontario protestants as they work up the anger against Riel, “We’ll Hang Him Up the River with the yah-yah-yah”. It’s also insidiously earworm-y, which was probably the composer’s naughty joke. Riel’s forces of course are defeated and he is hanged for treason. The silent chorus turns around one by one and looks straight to the audience after Riel goes down. Lights off, curtain calls, out we all go, and then there it is, the mobbing tune reappears, as a strange aftertaste—and a reminder how easy it is to hear, how ever susceptible we are to the call of the mob, then and now.

Continues at the COC April 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, and 13.

(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché. Photo: Michael Cooper
(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Hot Docs 2017 – films of interest

The reliably good Hot Docs is back for another edition this year. Here’s what I can single out on first perusal of printed programs:

Music

Chavela: on the legendary Mexican lezzer singer-songwriter who counted Frida Kahlo among her many lovers. Trailer:

Secondo Me: follows cloakroom attendants (on and off the job) in three opera houses: Vienna Staatsoper, La Scala and Odessa.

The Harvest of Sorrow: a formally inventive biodoc on Sergei Rachmaninov.

Integral Man: mostly on architecture, somewhat on music, the doc on the late mathematician Jim Stewart and his famous house/concert hall.

Writers

Elizabeth Smart: On the Side of the Angels screened with The Mystery of Mazo de la Roche.

Falls the Shadow: The Life and Times of Athol Fugard

Still Tomorrow: “Yu Xiuhua, a rural poetess, becomes an overnight success when her poem Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You goes viral. Sudden fame and fortune afford her the thing she’s always wished for: freedom from her husband of 20 years.”

Life and Death

The Lives of Thérèse: on the extraordinary life of human rights activist Thérèse Leclerc.

The Departure: a Japanese punk-rocker turned Buddhist priest tries to persuade people not to commit suicide and that staying alive is good. He does this daily. It begins to take its toll.

Also!

Derby Crazy Love – on roller-derby girls

A Memory in Khaki – Syrian artists in exile remember Syria. Is it still home, if it’s been destroyed and is now unrecognizable?

Dish: Women Waitressing and the Art of Service

Rat Film: “Baltimore’s history of systemic class and racial segregation intersects with an unusual examination of its dense rodent population–and the culture that surrounds it–in this incisive and unsettling anthropological study of poverty in America.”

Hotel Sunrise: life and pursuit of happiness in a Slovak town called Cierna nad Tisou, once hailed as the Golden Gate of Socialism.

Virginia Woolf as ballet

picture1On February 25th you can watch the acclaimed ROH production of Woolf Works in Toronto, thanks to the good people of the Hot Docs Cinema and the ROH screening series. Choreographed by Wayne McGregor to the music by Max Richter, the piece adapts Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves into three consecutive but unified ballets.

Here’s one of the videos that the ROH made on how the work came to be. The dramaturge Uzma Hameed, Wayne McGregor, Max Richter and principal dancers explain:

The Hot Docs Cinema is not showing much opera over the last two months. The sole screening, taking place tomorrow, is of the first revival of David Bösch’s recent production of Il Trovatore set in present day. Casting is stellar and includes Anita Rachvelishvili, Gregory Kunde and Lianna Haroutounian.

Not with a bang but with a whimper

(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson
(l-r) Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Chris Hutcheson

I can’t say I loved this conclusion to the COC Ring cycle, Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, chiefly because if offers no food for thought. There’s very little for the eye too: Albery’s is an arte povera approach to the work that contains about two ideas and five props. Even lighting is use sparingly. Yes, the twilight of the gods, I get it, but this darkness with squint-inducing lights gets tired after three hours, not to mention five. The overarching set for all locations except the Gibichung quarters are the massive hydro towers and poles left and right and the wiring connecting them (hydro, the Rhine, electricity, geddit?). It’s a good idea that also gets tired by continuous reuse. There’s something of the deserted outskirts of a large city atmosphere in the set, but this never gets developed. The five props remain the five props.

One of these recurring objects is the marital bed which shows Brünnhilde’s implausible happiness in domesticity. After she’s taken away by Gunther, hours into the production, the bed reappears with the Rhinemaidens in Act III–who are also on the shady outskirts of a city among the hydro towers. There’s some inventive changing of costumes there and playing with blue lights which finally gives the brain something to play with. But this doesn’t last. The bed however is sure to reappear for the murder of Siegfried: he is back on it as Hagen and his men track the hero down and murder him. Siegfried recovers his memory of life with Brünnhilde *and* their marital bed.

The opening scene introducing the Norns was a lost opportunity, because it doesn’t pull you into the drama in any way. We’re in the same dark place with three random women pulling on yarn threads. Nothing uncanny or intriguing about any of it. They are just… chatting. Two of the three Norns in jarring voices at that (not Karen Cargill, about whom later). I’ve always found Ileana Montalbetti’s voice an acquired taste, and the colours employed in the opening scene here take some getting used to. Montalbetti was vocally and dramatically a fine Gutrune later in the show, however, so: you lose some, you win some.

Highly problematic for the story is the fact that in this production the gods, the Gibichung and the Nibelung (Alberich appears in one scene) are all indistinguishable in status and power. They’re all just people, some in corporate boardrooms, others roaming around like Siegfried. Take pretty much everything else out of Götterdämmerung and replace it with gas stations and crocodiles, but the decline of the most powerful must be in the production in some shape. Not in this production, where Hagen’s army of men in suits with spears look like the elite reaffirming its power while Siegfried and Brünnhilde read as a hippie couple living humbly in their remote natural abode. And of course there’s not a hint of fire in the immolation scene, don’t be uncouth.

Among the voices, two stood out for me: Estonian bass Ain Anger as Hagen, (consistently larger, more precise, dramatically more committed) and mezzo Karen Cargill as Waltraute and Second Norn, whose ample gravi excited. Christine Goerke too, of course; she remains the punk Brünnhilde of our era, but something unlovely happens to her voice when the open vowel E is on a high note and needs to be sustained.

The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus, just like the Albery production, could have employed more passion and stronger contrasts but even so the music remains the one reliably exciting side of Götterdämmerung while the libretto struggles with endless episode recaps, magic potions and helmets that provide shape-shifting on demand, and an incongruously weak Brünnhilde physically tackled and overcome by the tiny Gunther. (Wagner really should have hired a librettist occasionally… imagine what would have happened had he found his own Da Ponte, his own Hofmannsthal? But that’s another lament altogether.)

The 5h20min Götterdämmerung continues till February 25.

Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Andreas Schager as Siegfried (left) with the Rhinemaidens (l-r: Lauren Eberwein as Wellgunde, Lindsay Ammann as Flosshilde and Danika Lorèn as Woglinde) in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper
Ain Anger as Hagen (far left) with the Canadian Opera Company’s chorus in the COC Götterdämmerung, 2017, photo: Michael Cooper

2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.

I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.

Best concert or recital

This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.

As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.

Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome

TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. 

The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.

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There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”

Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD

The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.

Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.

Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.

I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.

Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)

Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.

Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.

Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.

More ROH at HotDocs Cinema

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Sonya Yoncheva as Norma

ROH returns to Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in December. Here’s the schedule:

Saturday, December 3, 12:00 PM Norma (directed by La Fura dels Baus’ Alex Olle) with Sonya Yoncheva in the title role. It’s the one in which Druids are replaced by a ferocious, women-ordaining Catholic sect.  Sonia Ganassi is Adalgisa, Joseph Calleja Pollione. Antonio Pappano conducts. More info.

Saturday, December 10, 11:00 AM Cosi fan tutte by German director Jan Phillip Gloger, conducted by Semyon Bychkov. With Angela Brower (Dorabella), Corinne Winters (Fiordiligi), Daniel Behle (Ferrando), Alessio Arduini (Guiglielmo). More info.

Friday, December 30, 11:30 AM Les Contes d’Hoffmann by John Schlesinger. Vittorio Grigòlo in the title role, Thomas Hampson doing the four villains, Christine Rice as Giulietta, Sonya Yoncheva is Antonia, Sofia Fomina is Olympia, Kate Lindsey is Nicklausse. Evelino Pidò conducts. More.

Tickets for the general public are $16 (members $12 and down).

East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

In Conversation: Varduhi Abrahamyan, mezzo-soprano

The first time I heard Varduhi Abrahamyan sing was back in 2013 in Paris, at the Salle Pleyel, in a Johanespassion with Concerto Koeln conducted by Laurence Equilbey. It was easy to spot a singular voice: hers is a plush velvety yet nimble coloratura voice that makes you sit up and pay attention. That St. John Passion remains a favourite (thanks to the good person who captured and uploaded much of the France Musique-streamed audio recording onto YouTube), including of course Abrahamyan’s Es ist vollbracht.

The French mezzo of Armenian origin has a busy cross-European career and is covering quite the range of historic repertoire: there aren’t many singers whose repertoire spans Monteverdi to Verdi. It was a treat to discover last year that she would be appearing as Polinesso in the Richard Jones-directed Ariodante at the COC this season, which marks her Canadian, Toronto and COC debut. While researching for this article, I discovered that she would be coming back to the COC, in a production of Onegin in 2018. (The Carsen, possibly?)

We talked in French (with short trips into Italian and English) in her change room at the Four Seasons Centre this past Friday afternoon. She told me she hasn’t seen much of the city yet, but that the three-day window opening before the final performance will finally allow her to see some of it at leisure.

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How do you make this Richard Jones Polinesso living and breathing and credible?

At first I was taken aback by his level of villainy. To this degree, really? Then later I realized it would be impossible to do the character in any other way. You really have to take him on, go inside his skin, for him to work as a character for the audience. I’ll go as far as the role demands. And with this one I’m having fun. He’s changing all the time to hide his true self. He’s very proper, an angel practically, while wearing his cassock—and opposite when he takes it off. So the singer needs to interpret that. And you can’t do it half-heartedly. Much of the plotline depends on Polinesso being the way he is. He’s scheming all the time. I try to imagine and convey what it must be like to live a double life in that way.

He gets some good music, though.

Polinesso’s arias… well, to tell you the truth, there’s not much cantabile to enjoy in there. His music matches his character.

The first one is kinda nice, “Coperta la frode”.

Yeah, it’s OK. Not bellissima, nobody will be moved to tears. It corresponds to the character.

The last one, “Se l’inganno sortisce felice” has some mad coloratura. And you have to sing it all while jumping up and down on Ginevra’s bed.

It isn’t easy, but I am having fun with it now. With this Polinesso there’s a lot of personality to work with. I have to say I prefer roles that come with an interesting character, rather than those that are sort of in the same tone from beginning to end—even if they may be “positive” characters.

Was this a role debut?

No. I have a long history with the role. The very first time I’ve sung Handel on stage was a Polinesso in Geneva, at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. My agent called me to audition in Switzerland—in about 2005?—and that was the first one I was cast in. The COC one will be the last. It’s good to leave the role behind while you’re still having fun with it.

When you have to say no to a role, for what reason is it usually?

I first look at whether the role suits my voice, and whether it’s a character that I’d like to work on. I love theatre and the theatrical side of opera, and it’s important to put equal emphasis on both the musical and the theatrical side. I also like roles that allow me to evaluate and expand the repertoire. Gradually, though: qui va piano, va sano, va lontano.

Verdi is OK at this juncture?

Yes, I sing it already. I’ll be in a Fastaff in Paris soon, I’ve sung in Nabucco already… Rather, when I have to refuse a role, it’s because I think I can do it justice, say, in a few years’ time. Every role I take, I want to perform at the absolute top level. I don’t want to do things at an adequate level, I want to be among the best.

And you’ve already worked with some of the most important directors today. You were part of the already cult Alcina by Christof Loy in Zurich. Cecilia Bartoli, Malena Ernmann and Varduhi Abrahamyan in a love triangle: it doesn’t get better than that.

I love that production so much and I love working with Christof Loy.

There won’t be a DVD?

No, but we’re doing a revival in Zurich this coming December and January, and after that we’ll do it at Covent Garden, and at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, same production and much of the same cast, with Cecilia Bartoli returning. We all really enjoyed that one.

Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Christof Loy-directed Alcina, Zurich 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Bradamante in the Zurich Alcina directed by Christof Loy, 2015. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

You also sang Dalila in a Fura dels Baus production in Valencia?

That was with the wonderful Gregory Kunde as Samson. It was a modern production; a revival from Rome, I think, with a few little changes. I like Samson et Dalila as an opera and it was a pleasure to meet with Gregory again. First time we sang together was in La Donna del Lago at Theater an der Wien, which was directed by Christof Loy, in 2011.

You were Malcolm?

Yes, and just before I came to Toronto, I sang Malcolm in Pesaro. Great production by Damiano Michieletto, with a great conductor Michele Mariotti, and an amazing cast. There will be a DVD release. It was an unforgettable experience. I like Malcolm a lot. I’ll sing the role again at the Marseille Opera in 2018—I hope it’s OK to say this since you mentioned my COC return already–right after the Onegin at the COC. It’s back-to-back all the time. We close Ariodante on November 4; my flight back is November 5, I arrive November 6, unpack, and two days later, on November 8, I pack again and go to Palermo to sing Carmen. [laughs] It’s an interesting life.

Where is home?

In France, in Marseille – for about sixteen years now. France opened its doors to me, it believed in me. First contract for any opera house that I signed was for Opéra de Paris, for a Maddalena in Rigoletto. I was born and grew up in Armenia but moved to France in 2000, and I love it a lot too. Armenia and France, for me that’s like one’s the mother, the other one’s the father. Both are in my heart. I try to make it back to Armenia once a year at least.

You were also Goffredo in Robert Carsen’s Rinaldo at Glyndebourne, in the production set at a boarding school?

We spent about two months in Glyndebourne, back in 2010. That was my first collaboration with Carsen. I really like his openness. His ideas for characters are malleable enough to include the personality of the singer – singer’s own contribution. There’s the character, and then there’s the singer taking it on, and in some productions I guess you can adopt the given character because you are required to, and that’s where the conversation ends, but the acting then comes across as automatic. The audience will notice. The audience notices everything, the smallest movements, the look in the eyes, everything. We are naked on stage. And I will always be me and the character at the same time. And Carsen is a director who knows how to connect the two.

What about Bob Wilson’s L’Incoronazione, then? That must have been a whole different school of thought.

Ha, well yes. When it comes to movement, you don’t get to choose your own. We had something like the “I am sad” posture and the “I am happy” posture [she demonstrates] and it ends there. Nobody is to touch anybody else. Every cast member is placed at a very specific spot, we all share the same limited number of gestures, and  the lighting is extremely important. When you look at the production from the audience and as a whole, it works; I had great feedback from the audience, but for us, there isn’t a whole lot we can do on stage. We express our inner lives through the look in our eyes – and through the music and the text, of course. Since it was Monteverdi, the text was very important, and it all came together. Not sure if it would in every other opera; I can’t imagine a Carmen by Bob Wilson, for example. But with Monteverdi, with the text and the eyes, it was like Стихотворение: sung poetry.

You sang Ottone?

Yes. Again, a man.

Do pants roles give more freedom to the singer?

Not quite, but I enjoy each one of them a lot. In Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini directed by Terry Gilliam I sang Ascanio (Rome/Amsterdam/ENO co-production). Now that production was nothing short of a film. And I was pretty masculine in it too.

Varduhi Abrahamyan in Benvenuto Cellini.
Varduhi Abrahamyan as Ascanio in Benvenuto Cellini. Photo: Yasuko Kageyama

And Arsace?

Musical writing for that role is fabulous. The duos, his character, I love everything about it. I’ve done it a few times and will do it again, in Pesaro, again with Maestro Mariotti in a couple of years.

You also sang Adalgisa?

Yes, with Mariella Devia. When I found out that she would sing Norma, there was some serious fangirling happening on my part.

And then there’s the Bieito Carmen waiting for you early next year in Paris.

Yes! I saw the photos from the production, and am very excited about it. It’s a favourite, Carmen. Rich in character, a strong woman who knows how to love, who’s not afraid of anybody and is ready to risk everything to be true to her heart. She needs somebody next to her who will match her strength, but… in opera as in real life, men don’t particularly like strong women. I don’t know if you’ll agree?

Good grief, yes, absolutely. In all areas of life, as we can see these days.

I sang Carmen at the Bolshoi, and in Toulon, and also in Hamburg, last year. I have a lot of Carmens in the future.

And your foray into contemporary opera was Akhmatova composed by Bruno Mantovani?

Yes, that was the world premiere of the work at the Opera Bastille. And it’s impressive – and different when the composer is around and in the same room as you. There was lots to learn. Lots of changes of tempi… The work was well received. There should be a recording somewhere, at least the audio.

More contemporary music on the agenda?

Not in the near future. I like music that lets me interpret, add nuances. I love music that lets me play with colours. But in contemporary music that’s not often the case. Everything is planned and everything must be followed precisely. Perhaps a singer should make that choice early on, to focus on contemporary music and specialize there, or to dedicate herself to the historic repertoire.

Everybody should do what they do best. I like to set the bar for my singing and acting as high as possible, and bring something new with my interpretation. It’s the same with conductors and stage directors. We’re always trying to inch the bar higher. I am working on myself as a singer all the time, it’s a job that never ends.

You can still catch Ariodante on its closing night on November 4 at the COC.

Top and bottom photos courtesy IMG Artists.

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Norma by Kevin Newbury

(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa in the Canadian Opera Company production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Just about everything can be made better by two women singing in thirds “Mira, o Norma”, including a cold October day and a timid production of Bellini’s Norma. Elza van den Heever as Norma and Isabel Leonard as Adalgisa singing “Mira” is worth the proverbial price of admission, and last night made obvious Kevin Newbury’s vision for the Bellini piece: creating space for the canto and the voices. Not more, not less. It’s not a particularly ambitious directorial vision but there’s focus there and the resulting production is a calm, pleasing, slow-burn of a show.

The libretto is taken more or less literally but distilled into the essentials, with design simplified, made geometric and stylish, potential Monty-Pythonesque edges smoothed off (no centurion garb for Pollione, thankfully). For much of the show, the set is vast and empty, with drama taking place in twos and threes: the chorus is large, but crowd scenes remain few. Most of the time we are within a temple or fortress with high walls and a door opening up into the forest, a sacred place too that changes colour and lighting depending on where we are in the drama. Scenes are distinctly un-busy and nothing will distract from the voices. The sheltering set is sheltering for the same reason.

The women were great together–with the tenor too–each of the voices drawing the best out of the other one. Individually, especially in recits, neither Leonard nor Heever has a particularly memorable timbre or heart-breaking beauty and smoothness of tone. Each however exercises the ability of the instrument to the maximum, withholding nothing, and each possesses impressive technical mastery. Heever’s “Casta diva” had control, trill, coloratura, messa di voce, while keeping it all at an intimate p to mf level.

Russell Thomas was a total star. Let me get my superficiality out of the way first: did he lose weight,  gain muscle, take acting lessons, since last time I checked? He was a complete singing-actor as Pollione, dramatically nimble and vocally… vocally, positively Pavarotti. Not everything was perfect (the outer reaches of the top could have been reached with a bit more ease at certain points) but by golly, you know a star when it smacks you in your operatic jadedness. His voice is so elegant and even throughout the register and so consistently compelling that notions of a perpetuum mobile engine come to mind. One patented by Pavarotti, to boot.

The pit under Stephen Lord gave a competent reading of the score, but didn’t go out of its way to seduce us with subtle accents or daring innovation. Mostly it got out of the way of the voices, just like the production itself.

Norma continues at the Canadian Opera Company Oct 28 and Nov 5. Tickets & more.

Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Russell Thomas as Pollione and Elza van den Heever as Norma in the COC production of Norma, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper
Elza van den Heever as Norma (COC, 2016). Photo: Michael Cooper