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.

My First Art of Song column in The Wholenote

Sapphic February

There was a time when men loved lesbians and considered them essential for their own artistic output. No, stay with me, it’s is true: that time is the latter half of the nineteenth century, the place is France, and the men are the poets of emerging modernism.

Charles Baudelaire’s Les fleurs de mal’s working title was Les lesbiennes and the section that got him censored and fined includes poems “Lesbos” and “Delpine et Hippolyte” (“Femmes damnée”, somehow, got away, in spite its cries of solidarity: Vous que dans votre enfer mon âme a pursuivies / Pauvres soeurs, je vous aime autant que je vous plains). Paul Verlaine’s series of sonnets around amorous encounters between young women Les amies is more specific, more explicitly visual and sensual. His “Ariette oubliée” IV from the later Romances sans paroles is a poetic embrace of the care-free female same-sex coupledom that, some critics argue, masks poet’s own embrace of male homoeroticism. Soyons deux jeunes filles / Éprises de rien et de tout étonnées, says the poem to the reader of either sex.

Sappho was mythologized and loomed large for male poets of the era, and Théodore de Banville and Henri de Régnier were just two of the poets who wrote lesbian poems set in some version of ancient Greece. In the words of Gretchen Schultz who wrote an entire book about this era of literary cross-sex fascination (Sapphic Fathers: Discourses of Same-Sex Desire from Nineteenth Century France), male poets’ quest for selfhood took detours through lesbian personae.

Best known in the classical world of all the lesbophile song cycles of this era remains Pierre Louÿs’s 1894 Chansons de Bilitis, an elaborate pseudotranslation of an ‘ancient Greek’ Sappho-like figure Bilitis—in fact, entirely concocted by Louÿs–whose biography of the senses the song cycle follows, from heterosexual beginnings through lesbian blossoming to the reminiscing old age. Louÿs’ friend Claude Debussy set three of the poems to music in 1897 to create the lush piano and voice opus now known as Trois Chansons de Bilitis. Debussy then worked on another, longer cycle titled Musique de scène pour les Chansons de Bilitis with twelve of Louÿs’s poems, but the text there is recited within the tableaux vivants with musical interludes scored for a small orchestra of flutes, harps and celesta. Recorded only a modest number of times—there’s a Deutsche Grammophon recording with Catherine Deneuve as the recitant—this other version of Chansons is extremely rarely performed.

The three-song cycle to piano is another story: it is widely claimed by both mezzos and sopranos and has been recorded frequently. At the February 9th noon Ensemble Studio concert at the COC, it will be sung by the young mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo accompanied by Hyejin Kwon at the piano. Both piano and vocal writing are of great richness, both of heightened sensuality of the Anaïs Nin kind. The well-curated program that abounds in literary references will also include…

Full piece here [PDF]– or even better, pick up a free copy of the magazine.

gustave_courbet_-_le_sommeil_1866_paris_petit_palais
Painter Gustave Courbet was one of the many French lesbophile artists from the mid to latter half of the nineteenth century. This painting is called Le Sommeil (1866).

Holland Festival: Brilliant and Unfussy

I went to Amsterdam for the first time in June this year and wrote about the Holland Festival for Opera Canada. The print/digital issue is just about to come out, and this piece will come with different photos, different dek and a better layout.

LETTER  FROM AMSTERDAM

A view from the Dutch National Opera
A view from the Dutch National Opera

Torontonians who dare move around their hometown on a bicycle will find themselves disbelieving the very possibility of Amsterdam, a city specifically planned for two-wheeled transit and adventuring. No corner of the city is out of reach; the lanes now even run through the Rijskmuseum. Amsterdam’s uncompromising bikeability is how I found myself breezily crossing dozens of kilometres in between Holland Festival per­formances last June. From my rented garret on Haarlemmerweg out west to the magnificent De Dageraad heritage housing in the south (the city has a proud history of employing star architects for low-income housing projects), from the docklands in the north to the National Maritime Museum out east, the city was a work of art as appealing as anything on offer at its long-standing performing-arts festival.

And both are equally accommodating to visitors. The Hol­land Festival website is available in English in its entirety, and there are English and Dutch subtitles to all live performances (and at Dutch National Opera year-round, too). Every ticket-booth staffer, usher and greeter I encountered spoke English, but then that’s the case for Amsterdam in general, where every facet of the service industries, private or public, proved itself gener­ously Anglophone. Holland Festival tickets will give you access to any of Amsterdam’s public-transport streetcar and bus lines for free, from three hours before to four hours after a performance. There was free Wi-Fi at all the major cultural institutions I visited—the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, Amsterdam Museum, Maritime Museum, the Concertgebouw café, Stedelijk Museum, the patio café on top of the central Bibliotheek, and the Dutch National Opera. Unlike many North American opera houses that have restricted areas for donor receptions and private gatherings and train staff in crowd control, the DNO is one of the most audience laissez-faire opera establishments around. Due to the half-circle layout of the hall, there are practically no bad seats: do not hesitate to book any of the cheaper seats on the Second Balcony, including the higher rows.

A city less than half the size of Toronto, Amsterdam easily sus­tains an opera house with more than twice as many productions a season as the Canadian Opera Company. Yes, there are tourists to count in—estimated at about 17 million a year—but they tend to visit for the museums, the canals and the Red Light District rather than the performing arts. The Holland Festival itself is in June, a month when the tourist onslaught is somewhat lesser than in always-hectic July and August. Created in 1947, the festival is known today for bold programming tipped in favour of the con­temporary (commissioning, co-producing and presenting). If a classic is performed, it will be a new take, such as, this year, Haydn’s Die Schöpfung: it was performed by the B’rock Orchestra and Col­legium Vocale Ghent conducted by René Jacobs with simultaneous projections by video artist Julian Rosefeldt. The camera moved in complicity with Jacobs’ tempi across vast areas of arid land and abandoned industrial sites, sometimes showing groups of humans walking across the rough hills and plains. Two days later, at the opera house, I saw the Stefan Herheim-directed production of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades, a stirring meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness. The composer himself appears as a non-speaking character, on stage in almost every scene—and also as Liza’s quiet and self-effacing fiancé Yeletsky, and Liza and Polina’s personal pianist.

My festival experience began however with a straight theatre piece—if there’s anything at all straight about Joël Pommerat’s innovative contemporary reconstruction of the first stage of the French Revolution, titled Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis. The National Arts Centre’s French-language division is one of the co-producers of this electrifying piece, and the play was in fact performed at the NAC in Ottawa last March, unnoticed by the English-speaking media in Canada. Over the course of four hours and thirty minutes at the Stadsschouwburg theatre, the audience wit­nessed the creation and became part of the first National Assembly, the Third Estate transforming its powerlessness into the source of legitimacy for the nascent constitutional monarchy. We’re only at the outset of the revolution, of course, so the piece ends as things ever so slightly begin to get out of hand. During the raging debates, the actors and about 15 extras who cheer, heckle and applaud are planted in the audience, stand up for their contri­butions, discreetly move around the auditorium and dip behind the stage to come back as different characters. Pom­merat based everything on historical documents, but the piece unfolds as a great drama of a collective. We witness the way the crowd incrementally forms itself into a political and historical subject, how a special-interest grievance may or may not morph into a public good, and how a feeling of oppression works itself into political consciousness.

Much of the Holland Festival’s theatrical and visual/media arts programming engages with pressing issues on the planet right now: it’s just about impossible to find anything on the program that serves as purely entertaining escapism. Wunderbaum, a Dutch-Flemish actors collective, performed a piece on the future of sexual relations in the digital era. In The Dark Ages, Swiss dir­ector Milo Rau brought together a group of actors from Bosnia, Germany and Russia to retell their own experiences of exile, displacement and homelessness as part of the “dark history of Europe’s unification.” In her interactive sound installation, Gardens Speak, Lebanese-British artist Tania El Khoury reconstructs the lives of 10 Syrians who were killed by Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The festival also cultivates the art of the panel and public conversation. At one such event, Chinese philosopher Tu Weiming talked about Europe from a Chinese perspective. Another panel, which I was lucky to attend, looked at the evolution of listening and the classical-music audience. Among the speakers were Jutta Toelle of Frankfurt’s Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Henkjan Honing, who teaches Musical Cognition at Amsterdam University, and Austrian composer Olga Neuwrith, who talked about using binaural sound and the “spacialization” of music in her own piece at the festival, Le Encantadas o le avventure nel mare delle meraviglie (The Enchanted Isles or Adventures in a Sea of Wonders). It was performed at one of the out-of-the-way festival locations, Westergasfabriek, where the Ensemble Intercontemporaine con­ducted by Matthias Pintscher was strategically divided into islands, with electronics managed by sound engineers from the Centre Pompidou’s IRCAM in Paris.

Another contemporary piece at the festival, The Transmigration of Morton Feldman, had its world premiere online—and lives on at mortonf.net. The cinematic digital opera with elements of video gaming—levels and perspectives can be chosen at various points—features music by Morton Feldman and Anat Spiegel. In the film, vocal artist Joan La Barbara wanders around Amsterdam pursued by, or so she thinks, a reincarnated Morton Feldman. There’s a significant choose-your-own-adventure aspect to this piece, which the festival co-commissioned with the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brus­sels, and with this director Sjaron Minailo might have discovered a way to make sup­posedly difficult and inaccessible contemporary music an exciting pursuit.Just give the audience something to do and a bit of freedom, and it will follow you where it otherwise wouldn’t. The Art of Listening panel also suggested as much, offering examples of live performance where the movement of listeners and their positioning through the performance space made the music a more compelling and individual experience.

This year’s Holland Festival was Artistic Director Ruth Mack­enzie’s second: the former General Director of the Manchester International Festival and director of London’s 2012 Cultural Olympiad was appointed in Amsterdam in 2014. Will the already international, in-tune-with-the-times and innovative festival become even more so during her tenure? Will the English-speaking media and culture lovers that travel to Edinburgh, Lucerne, Bayreuth, Munich and Salzburg in Europe’s summer festival season take a turn to the Low Countries? In some respects, hopefully not. It’s better not to have the queues at the venues, ticket prices in three-digits, ticket purchasing as a blood sport, and a fleet of publicists with one’s festival. Those who already appreciate it will surely want their Holland Festival to remain brilliant and unfussy.

Lydia Perović

for Opera Canada

Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
Joel Pommerat & compagnie, post-Revolution curtain call
From inside the Amsterdam Museum reconstruction of the first dyke-owned bar in Amsterdam

I’ll be the woman. I’ll be all the women.

The Dutch National Opera’s new production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique dame by Stefan Herheim proves that the right director can turn a meh opera into a great work of art. Musically a conventional garden-variety nineteenth century work with a sprinkling of melodramatic accents of storm, otherworldly sightings, unrequited love arias and pastiche, in Herheim’s hands becomes a moving meditation on the closet, artistic creation and sublimation, and loneliness.

The letter of the libretto has it that the gambling-addicted, impecunious Hermann falls in love with an aristocratic friend’s fiancée Liza, but after winning her over realizes his priorities are elsewhere: trading his soul for the fail-proof card combination from Liza’s grandmother, the aged Countess. She had herself paid for it in dearly but willingly as a young gambling addict. Hermann gets it eventually from the dead woman’s ghost—the actual Countess having died in horror when he tried to pry the numbers out of her. There are a handful of male characters who always appear together, among whom Liza’s original fiancé, Yeletsky—a one-aria role, all in all. They reconvene for the final scene at the gambling house (Liza’s also dead at this point, having thrown herself in the Winter Canal) and Yeletsky challenges him to a duel. Before Hermann completes his winnings with the third card, the Countess appears as his actual ‘final card’, Queen of Spades, after which he too dies.

Herheim’s Dame starts in Tchaikovsky’s living room, variations of which are the set for the opera. First scene is a silent one. Stage right, the composer is performing fellatio on an indifferent man (both are completely clothed) who’s agreed to it in exchange for money. The man recoils at the composer’s shy attempt to kiss his hand, and leaves laughing in his face. It’s at this point that Tchaikovsky sits at the piano and starts composing the opera Pique dame which we are about to watch as it’s being composed. The hateful man who doesn’t acknowledge his existence is transposed into Hermann (sung by Misha Didyk), the character who destroys lives and is incapable of love. Is he perhaps akin to the figure of the masculine, emotionally inscrutable Top that appears in a number of cultural creations by gay men (Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendrons le train, and Xavier Dolan’s Tom à la ferme are just two examples)? The composer himself is present in most scenes, sometimes conducting the chorus, other times “playing” at the piano what the orchestra of a future performance—our own—is playing full-on. He also appears as an actual character, if not very frequently: as a gentle, self-effacing Yeletsky (sung by Vladimir Stoyanov).

There’s no consensus on how Tchaikovsky died, but some have argued that he intentionally drank the cholera-contaminated water so he would avoid an ignominious public outing. Herheim made the contaminated glass of water a recurring symbol in the opera: the menacing male chorus members keep carrying the glasses around and offering them to the composer at the drop of a hat; Liza dies awash in it; the Countess too drinks her own glass. There is a lot of public shaming and laughing at the composer—Hermann is a figure of fun by the other men of the pack, but he commands some degree of respect: it’s the composer who’s despised. In the scene of the Empress’ entrance, he bows and kisses her hand, and the Empress takes off her clothes to reveal Hermann in drag, to the delight of the jeering crowds.

While Ken Russell’s Music Lovers imagines a Tchaikovsky  horrified by women and women’s bodies, Herheim’s Tchaikovsky is clearly more at ease with women than with anybody in the pack. He is present in the sweet scene with Liza (Svetlana Aksenova) and her best friend Polina (Anna Goryachova) while they sing to each other. Polina is reinvented as a trouser role and the two women are amourous friends and each other’s favourites. That, and another scene with Tchaikovsky observing/creating/enjoying two women, are two gentlest, least emotionally problematic scenes that even have something idyllic about them. The second scene is the Daphnis & Chloe play-within-a-play (glorious Goryachova returning as Daphnis, with Pelageya Kurennaya) supposed to be happening at a ball, but here starts in the intimacy of Tchaikovsky’s room and only later turns into a performance of the naturalness of heterosexuality for the crowd at the ball. Musically the piece is a pastiche of Mozart’s Pappageno and Pappagena, and there are many other nods to the Rococo and Mozart in the opera which Herheim honours.

The Dame libretto was written by Tchaikovsky’s equally gay brother Modest, but Herheim makes a shortcut here for dramatic effect: the composer is the absolute creator of his work, libretto included. He is indeed in many ways all of his characters, but he is closest to and voices most directly the leading women, Liza and the Countess. There is so much love and tenderness towards these two, the darling tomboy Polina as well. And they love him back. Hermann is relatively insignificant in the scene of the Countess’s death: it’s her show, and deeply felt goodbye to the world.

All naturalness is removed from the scene in which Hermann and Liza declare each other’s love. Herheim has them reading their words off the composer-supplied score, as if trying out a staging approach to the roles they’ve just been assigned. Hermann, rightly, loses his centrality in the final scene as well: it’s in fact the composer who dies at the end of the opera as the chorus, hypocritically, sings “Give rest to his turbulent troubled spirit”.

No actual playing cards appear once in the production. The men in the final gambling scene deal in sheets of Tchaikovsky’s score.

Musically, things were less thrilling, but this fact didn’t spoil anything. Legendary Mariss Jansons conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in the pit and I expected fireworks, but it could be that this music is incapable of fireworks? It was all rather… adequate. The were minor issues of the odd instance of lateness and of the stage and orchestra coordination. Didyk’s was a barely audible Hermann and lost his centrality to the story in this way too. The Pack were uniformly good, if dramatically fairly insignificant. Aksenova’s Liza and Goryachova’s Polina were complex, multi-dimensional characters—often literally, Polina as Daphnis/Pappageno and Aksenova as an angel of compassion appearing to the composer. Larissa Diadkova’s Countess was decidedly not an ogre, but a thinking, feeling creature succumbing under the weight of the Weltschmerz.

Dame pique will be streamed on Opera Platform on June 21

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A year in books

Paris, 18th arr
Paris, 18th arr

It’s been a good year in books. This time around I tried to read more recent works, by the living writers, and a bit more in French. Here are the books that stand out (the mehs and the good-enoughs I’m leaving out), in order of appearance:

January

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck and Other Stories (a remarkable feat: stories of loss, death, lack and failure written in sentences packed with wit and verve)

Oscar Wilde, The Decay in Lying: An Observation (the olden goldie on life imitating art–rather than the other way round–is available online in its entirety)

February

Christine Angot, La Petite Foule (moving through a crowd of characters–perhaps types?–living in today’s Paris. Some are given chapter-length space and a ‘story’, others a Lydia Davis-esque sketch. Fun and good gossip.)

March

Jim Crace, Being Dead. (Unique. A novel that starts with the death of the two protagonists.)

April

Lydia Goehr,  The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works (a classic for a reason)

Susan Lanser, The Sexuality of History (will become a classic. Interview with Dr L. here)

Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter (still my favourite Ferrante. I’ve read 1 and 2 of the Neapolitan Series, and had enough of it for now)

May

Mathias Enard, Zone (something of a modern mercenary, a man working for the darkest recess of the French secret service recollecting his life and the last twenty years of wars in Europe, Middle East and Northern Africa while on a slow train ride to Rome)

E.M. Forster, Howards End (finally read it. Now think about it almost daily. Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.)

June

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (What is the post-biological family? How to love? How to mother? A memoir)

J. M. Coetzee, Elizabeth Costello (Told in the form of essays and conference presentations by a world renown (fictitious) writer Elizabeth Costello, who recurs in Coetzee’s novels–in the more straightforwardly narrative Slow Man for ex, one of my favourites from last year. Unlike anything else.)

July

Virginie Despentes, Mordre au travers (Short stories. Brutal, in the best possible way.)

August

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex I (This is Despentes doing the full-blown social novel for the very first time, and how. It’s set in Paris’s ‘creative classes’ circles, covering the powerful and the margins and the ecosystem in between. A joy.)

September

Keith Ridgway, Animals (Extraordinary. No description can do it justice. A line from it has been my Twitter bio for most of this year.)

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children (Believe the hype. The last chapter in particular locks it as a work of dark, dark brilliance.)

October

Virginie Despentes, Vernon Subutex II (In the second volume, the ragtag precariat seems to be forming itself as a group connected by a growing solidarity? Could this be a French Indignados novel? We will tune in for Vol III.)

Laurent Binet,  La septième function du language. (Well, I liked this one so much that I had to interview the author and tell the Angloworld about it. Here’s our conversation.)

November

Hugo Wilcken, Reflection (Another one that defies categorization. Loving somebody, even if they’re not part of your life any longer, also means counting on their gaze upon your life. What if that central person dies? And your life starts dissolving without the reliance on that remote gaze? A gorgeous, devastating work under the guise of a noir thriller set in 1940s NYC.)

Miranda July, The First Bad Man (Seriously, get this one. If I start describing it, I’ll spoil its many wild turns.  Exploring what it means to love and what it means to mother in the age of neoliberalism, unfettered personal choice, and the ongoing redefinition of gender.)

Misha Glouberman, Sheila Heti, The Chairs are Where the People Go. (This is a delight: full of wit, sensibleness and Torontoniana.)

December

Zadie Smith, N-W (finally read it. Did not regret it.)

Rachel Cusk, Outline (we dip into the consciousness of a handful of characters who cross paths during a summer writing course in Athens. Like in VW’s The Waves, they’re not distinguished by degrees of intelligence–it’s one of those consciousness-is-one novels–but by experience and the account each gives of her/himself. While the speakers are articulate about their many failures and self-deceptions, the writer too is candid on the deception that is narration and the failure that is the novel-writing.)

Patricia Highsmith, Carol (Mrs. Robichek, a side character. The East-European old lady who works in the hell that is that department store full-time, not seasonally like the narrator. Mrs. Robichek, who has always been poor, and will always be poor. Who invites the narrator over for a meagre dinner after work. Mrs Robichek–not Carol and not Terese–is what’s been haunting me.)

May 2016 be good to the readers, dear reader.

You take all of you: John Coulbourn on the challenges and pleasures of art criticism

JCoulbournIt was around the time of Tim Albery’s Aida at the COC that I started reading John Coulbourn. He was the only critic in any of the big media in town who actually got the Albery production and did not cry for the missing pyramids, so I realized I ought to pay attention. At that time, however, John was already approaching his retirement after 35 years of journalism and performing arts criticism. How could I have missed him before? My own anti-Sun prejudice, I suspect; who goes to the Sun for art coverage, I used to think? It turns out, during Coulbourn’s years at the Sun, the paper has been covering the arts at least as much as the other dailies, and in one particular case even more (“TIFF would probably never have gotten off the ground were it not for the Sun’s early boosterism. The other dailies roundly ignored the festival in its early years,” he recalls.)

A couple of weeks ago, JC agreed to meet me at the RCM Espresso Bar for a kaffeeklatsch and some shop talk. My secret agenda was to urge him to start writing an arts blog, the idea that he very sweetly but firmly rejected each time I re-proposed it. It turns out his enjoyment of theatre has become more immersive and more communal now that he doesn’t have to review what he sees. “The way I use to watch a show was in this fairly stiff posture and bent toward the stage. When I recline back on my chair, you could tell I found the lead. I was doing it all unconsciously, my husband Grant first noticed this and told me about it. The hardest part of writing for me was always finding the lead.” Writing for a tabloid meant, for him, “keeping it tight and keeping it bright”. The reviews of any kind of entertainment should be entertaining themselves. Not light—you can be weighty and entertaining, and that’s the challenge of your job, that’s what you’re paid to figure out how to do.

Coulbourn started as a movie critic, but after a couple of years realized that he didn’t want to “be part of even an alternate reality that gets saved by Sylvester Stalone or Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Yes, there are good movies, he concedes, but the percentage of good vs. bad is lower than in any other artistic discipline. He’s obviously kept the cheek and has no qualms classifying entertainment/art in order of greatness. He puts literature on top (“I have travelled the world by the time I was sixteen without ever leaving home”), and close to it the performing arts: theatre, opera, ballet, dance, concerts. Down  the spectrum are good movies and “right at the bottom, television, which is basically furniture”. How refreshing to hear this in an age when the media put so many resources into covering TV shows, both here and the US. We are in the Golden Age of Television Drama, we are repeatedly being told. Netflix and HBO have become words of religious import. “I don’t get why the performing arts aren’t the go-to entertainment of our day,” he says. “I want to be in the world where you can have your heart broken by a great story, or a magnificent aria, or breath-taking pas de deux. You go to a performance because it can change your life. And I think we should always go to the theatre with a bit of that expectation. That’s how theatre should be sold.”

II.

And so our conversation returns to the barriers that keep some demographics away from the theatre, opera and classical music. He spent his writing career at a paper perceived to be ‘blue collar’—and we both wondered how accurate that was and wished there were studies of the readership of each of the Toronto dailies. I suggest that beside the lack of disposable income, there’s the perhaps an even more important psychological barrier that prevents the low earning or the less educated audience from realizing that the so called elite arts are for them as much as for anybody else. And that perhaps the first task of arts journalism is this question of class and the opening of the doors. “I couldn’t agree more,” he says. “I was so lucky, I had one of the finest editors in the world—Kathy Brooks—who transitioned from being my editor to being one of my best friends. She’s now retired, but she was Assistant Entertainment Editor at the Sun, and she loved all of the arts, high and low. The one thing that she hated more than anything was when the writers get too inside baseball. When you appear to be writing only for a certain percentage of people who already understand the issues. And not writing like that can be really difficult. I mean, you sit down to review a great tragedy and how could you not be all inside baseball. But that’s what you get paid for.”

“The other end of it is, you can’t review that great tragedy so that people who’ve studied tragedy would dismiss you. So you’re constantly juggling. And that’s the fun. That’s the tightrope walking.”

Why then, I wonder out loud, is it that the Toronto dailies (not to mention the CBC) have stopped cultivating critics. No media in Canada now lets someone spend all her or his time consuming art, studying the beat, perfecting the craft. Opera and classical criticism are assigned ad hoc to freelancer(s) of choice who are either kept on a meagre contract or are engaged pitch by randomly accepted pitch. Coulbourn seems to be one of the last in the generation of art critics who worked and retired at a media organization that was willing seriously to invest in them. “Arts commentary is a really vital component for any art scene”, he says. There is no art scene without the records of that art scene. “And when the Toronto papers reduce space for art coverage, they’re cutting local, Canadian content. They’re cutting the only thing that distinguishes them from People magazine, TMZ and Perez Hilton.”

III.

What was his approach to reviewing, I wanted to know. I tell him that I don’t review a lot but when I do it’s usually for my blog, where I allow myself wildly idiosyncratic reviews meant to be read by my couple of hundred returning readers and subscribers. In order to avoid lambasting somebody, I skip mentioning them at all. In a big, mainstream media review, none of this is allowed. You’re performing public service, and you simply have to cover all the principals of the cast and the creative. What are his principles of reviewing?

“My saving grace might have been the fact that I learned very early on that you should never write anything that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face.” In other words, when buttonholed at a party by somebody who disagrees with you, or is the person’s sibling, or is the person himself, you need to be prepared to stand by your argument. “That, and the fact that in what we do, there is no right or wrong.” And there’s no true and untrue, I riff – maybe we should even drop fair and unfair in artistic judgment? “I think we should keep fairness as an ideal,” he demurs. “I can’t think of any critic who’s been consistently fair, but some of the best have always tried to be.”

And what does he do about going negative? “If you absolutely hated somebody’s performance, I’d try to express it in the fewest words possible in the funniest way possible. Do it briefly, and soften the edge with humour.”

Coulbourn is currently mentoring a group of young people interested in becoming art critics: he’s collaborating with the National Ballet and a dance magazine in a program for the emerging dance writers. They’re often told to read everything they can about dance, and to that Coulbourn always adds “Read everything you can”, period. “If you want to review a dance performance, and your only frame of reference is dance…you’re going to miss a lot,” he says.

And you won’t just be taking your knowledge of theatre (opera, or ballet) with you–you will take all of you, and you will use all of you to write the review. Which is excellent but also occasionally gets in the way. He remembers his impassioned reaction after seeing the musical Carousel for the first time. “I’ve reviewed it then and will never ever review it again. It’s got some beautiful music and a most hateful story. The short story on which it’s based is about Billy Bigelow who gets a second chance, comes back to earth, hits his daughter, and goes to hell. Rodgers and Hammerstein thought that wasn’t American, so they did a rewrite or two. In their musical, the daughter says to her mother, ‘Is it possible for someone to hit you and for you not to feel a thing,’ and the mother: ‘Yes, if you love them.’ The logical thing would be to do away with that part if you’re staging the piece today. Because you can hear every wife abuser and child abuser go, “SEE? I told you” after that scene. My dad loved me, but that’s not the point, he damn near killed me on numerous occasions. I was an abused child and I know that even if the person who’s hitting you loves you, it still hurts.”

Did he manage to say any of that in the review, I ask him. “That particular review I think I blew,” he says. “I just said this should never be done. I was so upset. Like I said: you take all of you.”

IV.

Oftentimes the readers who disagreed with his opinion would write letters along the lines of “Mr. Coulbourn obviously didn’t see the same show that we did”. His response to that is always: of course not. “Everybody saw a different show. Theatre happens half way between the stage and the person in the seat. The actors do the broad strokes, you do the shading.”

What about managing praise, how is the critic to control his or her enthusiasms? JC recommends staying away from hyperbole. Anything along the lines of “Best in the world”, “best in the country” or even “best within a very specific category X” is silly and just about always baseless. “One of the worst fights I had at the Sun was when they asked me to do the Top Ten Canadian Plays of all time. To which I said, Fuck you. But how hard can that be, they asked. It’s impossible, I said, I haven’t read, let alone seen all Canadian plays. Oh but the movie critics didn’t give us any grief, they said. Well, that’s their problem. It’s presumptuous to say top ten of anything. If really pressed, I can choose top ten personal favourites. And one of them would be singing ‘O, Canada’ before the National Ballet performance the day after the 1995 referendum, when everybody in the audience really noticed the line ‘God keep our land’ and gasped and sighed collectively. Life is theatre.”

 Toronto, November 2015

I did press JC for a handful of his personal standouts, and this is what he said:

  • Death in Venice at the COC, directed by Yoshi Oida. I was riveted. I’d see that again tomorrow.
  • At Stratford, the rock’n’roll Midsummer Night’s Dream circa 1991-92. Colm Feore sliding down plastic inflatable penises, Lucy Peacock in a bustier, and it was just delightful from start to finish.
  • Robert Lepage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream in London’s West End, set in a mud puddle. Which was completely different, but amazing.
  • The very first musical I ever saw: You Two Stay Here, The Rest Come With Me, in Calgary. I grew up in a village of 36 people smack bang in the middle of Alberta, so I didn’t get to see a lot of professional theatre, and went to see this musical. It was fantastic.
  • The National Ballet’s Nutcracker. I’ve seen it every year, and every year I find something new.
  • Normal Heart by Larry Kramer, the original production. I was living in Calgary at the time, just coming out, and hadn’t heard that much about AIDS. I was visiting NYC and I bought the ticket at the half-price booth. I’d never heard of the play. Well, I was so devastated at the end, sitting in my seat crying, that a couple approached me to ask me if I was alright and took me out for a drink. Never saw them again, but they were a wonderful couple of New Yorkers. I went back to Calgary and told my friends about it, and I think because of that we’re all still alive. I can honestly say that theatre saved my life.

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

The sapphic of history: Susan Lanser’s groundbreaking book

Lanser2My interview with Professor Susan S. Lanser just came out on DailyXtra. It’s a much condensed and edited version of the director’s cut below, which is way more fun and twice the length. Do dive in, let me know what you think.

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When was the last time an academic book made you tremble with excitement? Made you talk to it out loud, interrupt your reading to run and tweet about it feverishly? You can’t recall? Pick up Susan S. Lanser’s The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565-1830 (University of Chicago Press) the soonest, then.

The 2014 book by the Brandeis University Prof will likely become a game-changer in the fields of literary history and queer studies. The research focuses on the huge increase in textual representation of the female same-sex relations—be that fiction, proto-anthropology, poetry, drama, travelogues, political theory, court trial records, medical treatises–and the fuss that some of the most developed Atlantic economies were beginning to kick up about the girl-on-girl and girl-with-girl from about 1600s on. She argues that modernity itself spoke through the phenomenon of the sapphic—that the female homosociality and homosexuality and their cultural representations were crucial for the emergence of human rights, equality before law, social experimentation, and even the novel as an art form.

There is a whole lot of good news and bold erudite hypothesizing in this book. We managed to cover some of the ground in our recent Skype chat with Prof. Lanser.

This term that you use, ‘sapphic’, is a gift that keeps giving. A lot of the queer history are investigations into whether A and B ‘really did it’ and whether a piece of writing really is about sexual practices, but you offer a way out of that impasse. The sapphic is a sort of a continuum.

Sapphic is a wide umbrella for female intimacies, as I use the word. I also agree with Martha Vicinus and other theorists who argue that same-sex relations should not be held to a higher evidentiary standard (i.e. proof that someone engaged in certain practices or even acknowledged certain forms of desire) than that to which we hold heterosexual relationships. And we have to put historical pressure—and cross-cultural pressure—on words such as “chaste” and “innocent.”

What’s also interesting is your thesis about how the sapphic worked in conjunction with modernity. Let’s see if I got it correctly: the sapphic in culture was a way for the modernity to voice itself. It was a “prospect of political levelling” much more radical than man + man.

Yes, engaging the sapphic was a way in which the culture grappled with some of the most radical challenges of modernity-in-the-making. When I say that the prospect of levelling embodied in the sapphic is more radical than “man + man”, I do not mean to suggest some kind of sanction for male-male relations; men were far more likely than women to be prosecuted for sodomy—but that the idea of relations between women radically challenged a set of assumptions about the hierarchical social order on which traditional societies were built. In a sense, the sapphic exposes the centrality of women’s subordination in the construction of social and cultural systems.

If a woman had a passionate friendship with another woman, her attention would be taken away from the marriage and the household, her primary duties.

Absolutely. And any kind of primary relationship between women stood as an implicit claim that a woman did not need to be under the legal and social rule of a man, whether husband, father, or brother.

Some of those early narratives that you analyze, I think just around the 1600, involve bonding across class too–there are maids and noblewomen pairings. And some of the utopias of 1700s go across classes.

Yes. Cross-class relations are threatening, of course, whether they involve men, women or male-female couples. But it’s significant that the sapphic becomes a site where the dangers (and sometimes the benefits) of relations across class are so frequently explored. Scholars have sometimes argued that gender and class can function interchangeably in the early modern imagination. I also think that the loosening of hierarchy implied by female-female relationships raises the spectre that relations between women will undo all social hierarchies. One the other hand, there is certainly elitism in many of the representations I study.

There were periods, as you show, when the sapphic was a tale of how things are done in some other places–whatever the other of the day was, for whatever national culture. It’s something done in France, or in Spain, or very frequently in Ottoman Empire.

This recognition that the sapphic is tied up with other social phenomena is really at the heart of the book. The language that pervades sapphic representations in the early modern period is language shared by other discourses— whether about governance, difference, status, the place of the individual in a community, etc. That pulls the sapphic into the mainstream of history and indeed explains the reversal of terms that shaped my title and indeed shaped the book as a whole. When I started working on this project, I was looking for representations of the sapphic but I hadn’t yet recognized the potential to turn the history of sexuality into what I call the sexuality of history—i.e., not just to uncover a history of sapphic texts but to see that those sapphic texts were serving larger purposes not necessarily tied to the sexual in an obvious way.  It was an exciting moment indeed when the project made this flip of the coin.

Moreover, the colonial project seems to me of specific importance to representations of the sapphic in a somewhat more oblique way: the rise of colonialism and the rise of the sapphic share cultural space. It’s also illuminating to see the repeated association of the sapphic with Turkey and other near-East societies as a sign not simply of orientalist connections with the “harem” but as a site of anxiety about competing empires and especially about Ottoman power.

And sometimes the sapphic is indeed tied to the sexual directly. Nicholas Rowe’s ‘Song’ for example. That poem is ahead of our time, let alone its. The female intimacy in which the ruler and the ruled change roles freely–where everybody is both the top and the bottom, to put it in contemporary parlance–as a vision of a non-hierarchical society.

You’re right about that one! Each one is “fierce Youth and yielding Maid,” and since both are women, we’re definitely in a gender-queer space. And without suggesting that early modernity is some kind of golden age for queerness—we know better!—Rowe’s “Song” is by far not the only text that plays with gender in this way.

Lanser Book CoverI have to bring in the sapphic apostrophe. You describe those poems as ‘incredibly intense’ but I’ll be the brat and say that they are incredibly hot. Though you do show later in that chapter that if the apostrophe was between two ladies, chastity was presumed.

Yes, and as you see from that chapter (though this idea may get me intro trouble), I don’t think the intensity is entirely due to personal desire: I think there’s a feminist project here in which same-sex desire is helping to produce female subjectivity. As for hot: that chastity is presumed doesn’t mean it existed, and in any case what do we mean by chastity?  There is erotic intensity in these poems whatever the acts or even desires of their authors. (And we should not forget poems by men—for example, John Donne’s “Sapho to Philaenis” which you might also consider “hot”. Do you?).

OMG yes. But where was I? As we approach the French Revolution, the sapphic begins to acquire some sinister traits—a presumed secrecy, an aristocratic pedigree, anti-maleness, an anti-republican spirit.

The sapphic has both positive and negative valance for much of the early modern period.  But yes, at a certain point, for a certain period, it is so tightly associated (especially but not only in France) with negative figures, forces, and values that it is not available for some of its more positive purposes. Yet in a somewhat transmuted and domesticated form, female intimacy later becomes a Romantic embodiment of the utopian.

Perhaps because the republican clubs are largely masculine, and the Enlightenment philosophes are for the most part anti-feminist? What was it that expelled women from the public life and moreover relegated them to the reactionary corner?

That’s a large and controversial question. Scholars disagree about whether the French Revolution opened or foreclosed opportunities for women. The answer depends to some extent on where one looks—that is, on where one locates public power. Certainly there was a backlash against women influencing the political order and little interest among the revolutionaries (with a few exceptions such as Condorcet, and that was early in the Revolution) in giving women formal political power. On the other hand, French women were better able, in the wake of the Revolution, to bring legal suits, and the historian Carla Hesse has argued that more works by women were published during and after the Revolution than before. In England, patriotism, as Linda Colley has argued in Britons, became a way for women to exercise increased public-sphere power in the Revolutionary period. But we can heed the lesson of the French Revolution that women’s rights is in no way a linear struggle and that advocating for rights for other groups does not necessarily entail advocating for women’s rights. And that, again, is evidence of how critical the subordination or domestication of women has been to the social order.

By the end of the eighteenth, you write, the “explicitly sexual representation are more or less foreclosed from polite discourse.” Would you say the nineteenth century in Europe and in North America turned out to be more puritan, private, with gender roles more ossified, nuclear family-centered time than the two centuries preceding?

If we follow an argument like that of Thomas Laqueur’s Making Sex there emerges by the end of the eighteenth century a biological legitimation for sexual difference that does ossify gender roles as a way of preserving them. What I mean (and he means) is that the old hierarchies of male-over-female are reimagined as putatively equal-but-different–and of course we know that equal but different is never equal. So instead of arguments that women aren’t, say, intelligent enough to vote, we get the argument that the corrupt world of politics will taint women and make them unfit for motherhood. Or the theory that nourishment drawn to the brain by intense study will deprive the uterus of necessary nourishment for a fetus. But I think there is something of a split in culture in the nineteenth century—we see it in the Romantic period and later in the avant-garde movements of the fin-de-siècle—in which the rigidified gender roles of the bourgeois social imaginary find their antithesis in radical challenges including challenges to the status quo of both gender and sexuality.

Did the long nineteenth century ever end? It often feels like we’re still in it.

I’m not sure at any century ever ends: we are heirs to our past and that past also keeps revising itself as we revisit it. In at least that sense, we always live in queer times. We might also recall the first words of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: it was 1775, and yet so far like the present period: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

At the same time, things change, and I would not have been able to write this book (or to be legally married, for that matter) if modernity had not been in some important sense sapphic.

Bob Gilmore’s book Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life

Bob Gilmore’s book Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life

What is Vivier’s status right now internationally? Is he being performed, known by the concert-going public?

I would say the knowledge of his work is growing all the time. Several factors led to that: one, its being taken up by a major publisher in 2005, Boosey & Hawkes. The availability of scores and materials has boosted performances, no question about that. There are also a number of young composers who are interested in his work, in what he did technically, in terms of his musical language. As for how much he’s known to the public, contemporary music of this sort will never draw huge crowds, but the performances are increasing, and there’s more and more sense that this was a major figure and a very original one. There’s nobody who, like Vivier, really manages to combine this extremely strong emotional content — lots of his work is overwhelmingly emotional — with the compositional rigor of the sort that he was able to employ. His work will continue to be better known as the years go by.

My conversation with Bob Gilmore on arguably the most internationally renowned of all twentieth-century Canadian composers, available in full here.

ClaudeVivier

Christina, the Girl King

Claire Lautier (left) as Countess Ebba Sparre and Jenny Young as Christina in CHRISTINA, THE GIRL KING. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

I just returned from Stratford, went to see this play by Michel Marc Bouchard — only three more performances left before they close the almost-sold-out run. Highly recommended. Jenny Young is to be added to the Best of En Travesti, opera or spoken theatre, no question.

More info, booking and more photos HERE.

HEY HO

Hey H

Photo captions & credits as above, Claire Lautier (left) as Countess Ebba Sparre and Jenny Young as Christina. Photos by Cylla von Tiedemann.