Interview: David McVicar

Stills from the documentary David McVicar’s Salome, A work in progress: Backstage in Covent Garden, ITV Productions, 2008.

“You are my only interview,” says the director David McVicar as he joins me in the boardroom that has been reserved for us for this purpose at the COC’s Front Street HQ, and I presume he implies “so make it good.” Fifty minutes later, it looks like both of us could very much go on, but the Rusalka rehearsal is about to start down the hallway and he is needed there.

In person, McVicar has a punk, no-bs attitude and the gruff, butch energy of a character from one of the fast-paced Patrice Chéreau movies. He fully invests himself in the conversation, though, and doesn’t hesitate to reveal his vulnerabilities. He often makes long pauses and here’s a tip for the next interviewer: there’s usually good stuff coming at the end of each.

Now, I was going to write that he is one of my favourite opera directors, but that is not quite it, because in his shtick, McVicar is unsurpassed. That shtick is human intimacy, the way we are with each other behind closed doors, and that entire ugly to sublime gamut of the human psyche. I’ve adored productions by Herheim, C. Alden, Albery, Kosky, Mitchell, but I don’t obsessively replay any bits of them the way I (and many opera lovers that I know) do with for ex. the McVicar Cesare, or Clemenza. While the Konzept school of opera directing is top-down, McVicar, in the best tradition of British liberalism, starts pointilistically, from the individual character, from the ground up.

There is a lot left that I still want to ask him. As somebody who’s refused the obligatory Bible in his Desert Island Discs episode on Radio 4, what does he make of the Christian eschatology at the end of The Rape of Lucretia? Does he really re-read Thackeray’s Vanity Fair with regularity? Do film and TV influence him to any extent? That will have to wait for the next time. Here’s what we did manage to cover.

I.

What a lot of your productions have in common, I think…

What have you seen?

Let’s see… Enführung on DVD, Figaro in cinema, Giulio Cesare live and DVD… Some Donizetti thing on the Met in HD, but I don’t really care about that opera so didn’t really get much out of the production…

I probably didn’t like it either.

…I watched the Ariodante from Vienna online, and I thought was exceptionally coherent. It’s hard to make that opera cohere. Also seen The Rape of Lucretia. There’s probably more.

That’s a good number.

So what I often find in your productions is… this coherence. And depth of characterization. People behave as they would actually behave in life. How do you get to that point?

That’s probably because of my training as an actor. I didn’t go to university [Ed: He attended to the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] so my solution to directing an opera is to approach it as an actor, and my solution to directing a singer is: How would I play this. I’m weak on concept. Though there is always a conceptual foundation to everything I’m doing – there’s always a reason why things are happening. But the conceptual interpretation is not the overriding thing for me: it’s how the performers perform it, that’s the primary concern. How the performers invest in the character and tell the story, and is the story clear to the audience. That’s really important. Anything that I do that obfuscates the story, that gets in the way is something that I try to edit out. Because at the end of the day people are sitting in the theatre and watching the performance. It’s sort of immaterial whether I was there or not. The relationship is between the people on the stage and the audience.

I watched the documentary about the making of your Salome at Covent Garden, and took from it that every minute of a production is fussed over and thought through.

It is thought through. Even when I did a title like Il Trovatore, which I absolutely don’t like – I’ve learned a big lesson doing it: never take on something you don’t fundamentally believe in – but even with that, I thought, OK, we’re going to make this work somehow. We’re gonna damn try and make this coherent and hang together and make the audience believe in it.

That was the Met production?

Yes. But I don’t like Trovatore and I don’t think I did a good job. I don’t like it. It’s such a retrograde step, after Traviata and Rigoletto, to tell that kind of story in that kind of way. And also, you’ve got a tenor with absolutely zero psychological interest. Every time Manrico’s on stage, I’m like, that’s 12 minutes of my life I’m not getting back.

But you try. You latch on to other things, in Manrico’s case his mother and his lover and their reactions to him, to try to generate some interest.

I’ve read somewhere that you much prefer the eighteenth century to the nineteenth?

I feel really at home doing eighteenth-century opera, whether it’s Mozartian Classical period or whether it’s the baroque period. I find opera, especially Italian opera, in the first 40 years of the nineteenth century very problematic. The forms, that is. I’ve done some but I’m not doing another bel canto opera. I’ve done enough.

Ross…

I hate Rossini, oh my god! I listen to Rossini and think, How did you get away with this. You just repeat the same bar fifteen times? I’ve been asked to do Barber about four times and I’ve always said no.

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

But you really get the trouser role. In fact, your trouser roles, with Sarah Connolly in particular, I don’t know if you know this, have a huge lesbian fan base from all over the world. How do you know so well what happens between two women?

I can imagine it and I can guess. And because I’m coming into it with an actor’s background and I’m always observing people. And I’m fascinated by what I can observe and the interactions that people have in real life and things we’re not even conscious of and don’t even think about. Sometimes with an opera singer, you just have to make them aware of the simplest things to unlock them. Imagine this is a glass of wine [he’s pointing at the bottle of mineral water on the table between us]. How would I pass this glass of wine with intent? [Grabs the bottle and takes a sip inattentively and places it in front of me while carrying the conversation] …anyway we’re talking about this and that and I’m not even looking at you and you won’t notice I took a sip because we’re talking about something else. But if I want to do it with intent, I’d go like this [he makes direct eye contact and slowly draws the bottle toward me in a straight line]. It’s really good to ground singers and make them think about little details of life like that. And then you can get somebody to act if you can get them focused. Focused, and having thoughts.

Of course some people are lost cases and some are not interested and some of them don’t know what’s going on when they’re not singing. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know what’s going on when it’s not their music.

Sarah Connolly said in an interview that she started really acting in opera since she started working with you. From your first Alcina, and her first Ruggiero. Do you remember that production?

Yes, of course. It was at the ENO in London.

How do you unlock people? Do you… antagonize them?

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

Noooooo. I never have an antagonistic relationship with the singers. Never, there’s no point. You’ll never get anything out of them.

Sarah really has got it by the dress rehearsal. Early in the process she needs my help because I need to tease out the strands which are useful to her. Otherwise stuff which isn’t necessarily useful will distract her. And then something just happens to her. Normally I would do the piano dress before we move onto the stage and at that transfer point she locks it in the place, she gets it. And with the stage and the orchestra it just gets better and better.

She trusts me and I trust her. It’s a good relationship. There’s several ladies with whom I have a strong relationship of trust. We don’t have to say very much to each other when we’re working together. We hardly say things explicitly very much. Sarah follows my body language. She watches me a great deal. Sometimes when we’re doing an aria, I’ll be acting it for her, and she watches me and then she gets into her own body.

I remember watching parts of your La Clemenza from Aix-en-Provence where she’s a Byron-like Sesto and watching those long arias like Parto, parto, and how she and Vitellia interact and how she walks – and thinking, you filled every moment of that aria, nothing’s random or loose, everything holds together.

Well, yes, but Mozart filled every moment of it. I’m just paying attention to what Mozart wrote.

II.

I’ve noticed that your first instinct isn’t to transfer the opera you’re working on to another setting, or to present day.

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

Like, I don’t think we can do Agrippina in togas anymore. Yours isn’t in togas either.

You could do Agrippina in togas. I, Claudius is in togas so it can still work. I think the sense of humour in Agrippina is so extraordinarily modern to us, though. The premise of it is, just imagine a world where the Roman Empire never came to an end. Which, in a way, it never did. And what would that world be like. And would it be a lot like contemporary America.

You also transposed Salome, to a sort of Pasolinian Salò setting.

Yes, Salò was a big influence. To understand Salome, you have to understand the world in which she lives. I wanted to correct a misapprehension about Salome that she’s this monstrous virago – it’s actually a story about a woman who’s obsessed with virginity and with not being touch. It’s very important to her. All the characters in Salome are lusting after each other and wanting something from the other person, but no one ever obtains what they want. The fascist era helps to tell the story but it’s even more important that it’s all set in this sterile kitchen/bathroom area with sinks and urinals and tiles everywhere. I wanted to find a very sterile place to tell the story; I didn’t want to make it sensuous and lush, I wanted it quite brutal. It’s a place where people are washing all the time.

From David McVicar-directed Marriage of Figaro (Royal Opera House)

But your ROH Figaro stays in its own time. What intrigued me about the production is that it full-on centres the servants. We can see their living quarters well, and their labour is out in the open, not hidden away.

Figaro is about servants! It’s from their perspective. And that whole production is all about them. The aristocrats are almost interlopers into that world. That’s the way I saw it. It would be like if you do Downton Abbey but only from the perspective of the servants. But Figaro was interesting… I’ve done Figaro quite a few times now. I actually did a different production of it in Australia, and the battle is always getting the cast to understand master-servant relationships, because it’s something that they haven’t experienced and don’t understand. Getting the singers who sing Susanna to understand the sexual politics around her character. When she’s trapped in that room with the Count, I always say to them, what are your options. Where are you going to go, what are you  going to do, how are you going to manage this man who wants something from you. Your options are so limited. You can’t walk out, you can’t slap him, you can’t say no. And that unlocks the scene.

That opera, like Don Giovanni, needs to be in a period where the female characters’ options are more limited than they would be today because it makes their actions so much more understandable, and also dignifies them. Whenever I see a modern-dress Giovanni, and most of them today are, Zerlina makes no sense to me. I think it puts a misogynist gloss on her character. Whereas if she’s in a feudal society and an aristocrat comes to her wedding, he has the authority to send the bridegroom away and say I want to marry you. What are her options?

Would you agree that Figaro and Don Giovanni kinda have different politics? In Figaro, we’re all in this together against the tyrant; and in Don Giovanni, well: this newly emerging community will demand conformity for greater good.

There’s no question in Don Giovanni that society is going to change. But you never feel that Masetto and Leporello and Zerlina are going to be besties at the end of Giovanni. The societal order re-establishes itself after this lord of misrule has been consigned to hell. I think the sexual politics in Don Giovani is as intense as in Figaro, but has a different aspect to it. The female characters are fascinating.

Isn’t Don Giovanni the most interesting character of Don Giovanni?

Except that he doesn’t exist as a character. He only exists by the effect he has on other people. He doesn’t have a single moment of self-reflection. Which is interesting because that’s what psychopaths and sociopaths are like. Not a moment of self reflection is an interesting thing to play. There are few baritones who can do it – who can actually anchor it to anything in their lives. The baritone has to think: I can do anything and I can get away with it. And I am always pushing the boundaries of what I can get away with. But what if. What if retribution is real. What if those things which we’ve decided are not real turn out to be real. That’s why this opera bridges the Classical world and the Romantic world.

Goldoni’s Don Giovanni for example is the ultimate rational eighteenth century version coz he’s despatched by a bolt of lightening which may or may not be the judgment of God. And Mozart and Da Ponte explicitly gives us heavenly retribution, don’t they.

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

He wouldn’t conform. He would be free, and is punished for it.

When you say the community kills him, you mean the order that the others believe in that crushes him?

Yes, that’s it.

It’s the cosmic order that he subverts and that they want to cling to and that ultimately is the thing that crumbles Giovanni. It is a seminal Romantic piece.

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

That’s one of my favourite operas and the uncomfortable truth is that, like another favourite, L’Incoronazione, it totally glams up evil.

Of course. But L’Incoronazione is about life. Shits get away with it, don’t they.

Why do we cling to this – well, partly eighteenth-century – idea of what stage representation should be? That it should be morally enlightening, and that we should see evil punished, we should always get a happy end, when actually we don’t.

You know there’s a big fashion right now with productions of Carmen where she doesn’t die at the end. But if she doesn’t die, you’ve written politics out of it. We’re not celebrating that she’s dead; women are killed by their partners, and if she doesn’t die and walks away, then you’ve ripped all the meaning and all the political power out of Carmen. So get over yourselves.

Yes. Every few days, anywhere in the world that we want to look, a woman is killed by either a male partner, an ex or a male family member. Why suddenly decide to hide this?

We shouldn’t, and one of the great things about Carmen is the truthfulness of the depiction of that relationship. And how she fails to pick up the warning signals. From Flower Song even, after which she should be saying, ‘Right, so nice knowing you’, but she doesn’t, she chooses the other course. She decides to pursue the relationships. And he’s the biggest mistake of her life. I don’t think Carmen is about a “tragically doomed romantic passion”. It’s a piece about a relationship which was fucked up from the very beginning and goes horribly wrong. And he has this unusual attachment to the mother…

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment longer, because I wanted to ask you about Die Entführung. You didn’t update at all. You took it at face value, and made it work. Were you ever worried about a potential charge of ‘Orientalism’ and criticism of that kind?

Of course. But my version really wanted to bring out the Ottoman Empire side of the story. We really researched it. We were interested in that extraordinary clash of cultures, the Ottoman Empire beating at the doors of the Holy Roman Empire.

If you think that Entführung is an Arabian Nights-like fairly tale, which it too often can be, then I think that you are getting into a really tricky territory with cultural appropriation. If you say, no, this is set in a real political climate and a real place, these people’s lives are being defined from this clash of two opposing worldviews – it’s defining the story, the way these people behave towards each other – then it becomes a more serious piece.

We kept a lot of the dialogue. OK, it’s not Shakespeare, but you’ve got a lot of really great information and a lot of acting opportunity. And certainly the relationship between Konstanze and Bassa has so many more colours.

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

I put “Martern aller Arten” in the bedroom. What does that aria mean? What does the extremity of the coloratura writing mean? So I had to put her in a situation where every single line of that coloratura is imbued with meaning. It’s a situation of so much danger but also in a situation of mutual attraction which can hardly be contained – my goodness, I’ll never forget rehearsing that for the first time. Everyone in the room was alert. And it helped that the actor who played the Bassa had learned all her music. It was a duet, he knew everything that she was going to sing to him. He’s as much part of the music as she is.

Then there’s the tense scene between Blonde and Osmin. In the production, both Osmin and Bassa are honourable characters in that they don’t force themselves on the women, but ask for consent and ultimately back off when they don’t get it. Where were Blonde and Osmin having a fight, in the kitchen was it?

I thought, what is Blonde doing in a crisis? She bakes. It’s a crisis because she’s been given as a slave to this man who wants to have sex with her, and how will she keep him at bay? She’s angry when Pedrillo questions her fidelity. That’s their domestic situation: Osmin tries something, and she has to wreck things to get him off her. She has to work so hard and be assertive, and hurt his feelings to keep him at bay. It was important to show how she manipulates him – it’s important for her character, and for Osmin’s, to show how he’s frustrated in his desire. There’s nothing more interesting than watching a big scary macho man who finds himself in a relationship with a woman who treats him like a kid. And he accepts that.

Tobias Kehrer and Mari Eriksmoen in the Serail (2015). Photo by Richard Hubert Smith

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

Ariodante for me is a piece about how easy it is for the forces of chaos to subvert society if we take our eyes off the ball. And how deceitful those forces will be and how someone like Polinesso can obtain so much power based on lies. He’s becoming the de facto ruler of Scotland.

What was new about your Ariodante is how strong you made the character. Usually he’s a hapless young man mindlessly following where other people’s action takes him; somehow in this Vienna production he is assertive.

But his flaw is Othello’s flaw. That’s what sends him off deep end. He should learn how to trust. He should never have doubted Ginevra in the first place. And Dalinda is fascinating – what a dark little character. All of her crazy coloratura is there for a reason. Her realization that this man that she’s obsessed with doesn’t give a shit about her. And the revenge that she then takes. It’s… They’re all real to me. All the characters in all the operas – well, most of them; some of them, like Manrico, are a lost cause. But they’re very real to me. In opera plots you find yourself in extraordinary situations; but then just think, if I was in that extraordinary situation, how would I behave, what would be my objective, how would I get out of it.

The Glyndebourne Cesare is today the best know and most popular Cesare that exists. So the directors pretty much save the operatic works with productions that strongly resonate in their own era. They carry the opera over, past our lifetimes, like a relay.

Oh but Cesare‘s been saved before. There have been productions… John Copley’s now…

Productions with staying power, though?

John Copley’s now looks very outdated, okay, but at the time it was extraordinary. Because he treated it seriously. He did it in a certain style, he drew on the paintings of Tiepolo for the visual world, and it’s all very statuesque – it’s a serious piece of work.

Then Peter Sellars comes along and does his version. With Cesar that’s a Reagan-esque figure.

I’ve never seen that one. There have been some other ones lately, like the Salzburg one with Bartoli, but I’m not sure that we will treat them as reference pieces in 10 years.

Our version is about colonialism, and about the British Empire. It was my idea to do it. Gus Christie’s dad George, who was running things at that point, told me [assumes posh British baritone] I’ve got to plan the season, David, what’d you want to do? I said, let’s do Julius Cesar, please. And some time passes and next time we meet he says: I’ve spoken to Bill Christie about it and… yeah. Let’s do it.

I also had casting control over that one; Bill was quite happy for me to take care of it. And then the final thing was, at the last second, Dani (Ed: Danielle de Niese) came. We had somebody else but she had to drop out due to surgery and 10 days before we were due to start we got Dani. And I didn’t know anything about her. Absolutely nothing, and was like, Fingers crossed.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

…and at the Met, which I wasn’t very happy with. The place is just too big.

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

Yeah, he was good. [whispers] But Sarah was… magnificent.

 OMFG where to start.

She is magnificent in it. It’s a career-defining role for her. And you never question it – it’s a thing of beauty, you absolutely accept that it doesn’t matter that it is a woman playing a man.

Welllll… We know there’s a female body there. (My ilk certainly does.)

Yes we know there’s a female body there but it’s the way she plays it. She believes that she is that man. And she carries it off.

I was passionate about Giulio Cesare from the word go, I just love it so much. And I’ve seen that our production has been imitated — for example in how far you can take the choreography in opera productions. And I’ve seen productions that are just aria after aria after aria. And productions where Cleopatra’s scenes are just plain tacky. But somehow we found the right way, we pulled it off. We did it, somehow.

I know you have to go, so this will be my last question. What the everlasting tuck is happening with the UK?

I moved back from London to Scotland last year because I couldn’t stand it anymore. Brexit ripped the lid off Pandora’s Box and things have emerged that we’ll never to be able to get back in there. One of the ugliest things was that English nationalism found a cause and a voice. And it’s a very ugly thing. And what the Leavers understood, and us Remainers it took a while to understand, is that this was an existential vote about identity. It’s now clear that that’s what it was about. The country is so split and the atmosphere is so hostile… and now we have our very own pound store Trump in Boris Johnson, who is learning the lessons of his master well. Is that going to play well in Britain, we won’t find out till the general election, but it’s scary.

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

There’ll have to be. What’s also coming out loud and clear is the total disregard for other parts of the union from the English parliament. Ian Blackford, who’s one of the SNP representatives at Westminster, every time he stands up to make what are actually intelligent speeches, the Tory backbenchers shout Go back home, Go back home. That’s the rhetoric that Trump’s using. They should be ashamed of themselves. They’re the Conservative and Unionist party and they should be listening to our voices and the voices of Northern Ireland which is not just their devilish friends, the DUP. And this whole process has made it abundantly clear that in the thinking of Westminster Parliament, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are colonies. I didn’t live in Scotland when the last referendum happened so I didn’t vote because I didn’t feel I should. Now I do live there and would vote for independence. I moved back to Glasgow for some sanity. It’s the best thing I ever did.

Rusalka opens at the COC on October 12th. Torontonians can watch several David McVicar productions, including Cesare, Troyens and the Meistersinger, on Medici.tv for free by logging on with a Toronto Public Library card via tpl.ca/medici.

Source and inspiration of a Saturday: a bit more Sarah Slean

Sarah Slean / photo Art of Time website

Art of Time Ensemble’s AD Andrew Burashko prepared another concert for the TSMF this year, a mid-day do at Walter Hall this Saturday, the time slot usually reserved for the song or chamber music academy boys and gals. This was different: instead of a master class or a young talent showcase, Burashko, the Rolston String Quartet and the guest singers gave us a sample of songs that have come out the AoT Banff residence created to get composers/arrangers, popular singers and classical instrumentalists to re-work some of  the classical chamber pieces into something new and their own.

Some years before the Banff collab, Burashko had commissioned 4 singer-songwriters to do something with the Schubert piano trio (discussed in the previous post on this blog and performed on July 25 in Koerner Hall). 9 new popular songs came out of the Trio and ended up being recorded on different albums. Burashko repeated this experiment with a Schumann piano quintet and a Korngold piece, at which point Banff asked him to do the program under their auspices. And soon enough, 6 singer-songwriters and 6 composers met in Banff Centre for a three-week collaboration on making new pop songs with elaborate musical tapestries based on a piece out of the classical canon.

Sarah Slean and John Southworth mentored the singers in Banff, and for this concert on Saturday they sang some of what came out of those three weeks. They were joined by two other singers whose names I didn’t manage to write down correctly and could not find online after. One was possibly Neil Hannon, Northern Irish singer-songwriter? Another one, who also arranged one of the songs, had the first name of Kelsey? Alas, AoT doesn’t print detailed programs in advance (they do post them after – this is a good archive of past performances), and as long as that’s the case, the info that I can share about their concerts will unfortunately have to be partial.

Among the singers, La Slean stood out again – not least because her lyrics are unusually clearly enunciated, whereas I missed most of the lyrics in songs performed by other singers. I promise you it’s not my classical art song snobbery talking; I genuinely couldn’t understand what was said and some of those lyrics are probably quite good. Second song of the two that Slean did she explained that she wrote for Rilke – specifically in solidarity to his claim that he communicated with the supernatural. Slean really has the Romantic mythemes down pat, doesn’t she? There are often interesting stories behind her songs; she really is a delightful song artist.

Rolston Quartet, after it accompanied all the singers and Burashko at the piano in the song program, was then joined by pianist Todd Yaniw for an energetic Dvorak’s Piano Quintet No. 2 Op 81. Some of the preceding songs, it became clear, had recognizable affiliation with the Quintet.

TSMF continues apace; I will report on at least two other concerts coming up next week.

Art of Time in Schubert, Hatzis, Cohen, Brel, Gershwin and Freddie Mercury

Sarah Slean (singing), l-r Berick, Mercer, Burashko

Last night at the TSMF, Art of Time did that thing that they always do well: a concert of popular songs in classical arrangements for a chamber orchestra with a piano. I’m always curious about the arrangements side of things: the composers that the AoT engages for this purpose come from a variety of backgrounds and styles, and the combinations are sometimes quite inventive. There was a Leonard Cohen song arranged by British composer Gavin Bryars, and I remember hearing Kevin Lau’s name in one of the songs (full list of arrangers updated below).

The traffic went the other way too: pop singer-songwriters taking over classical pieces and making them their own. Projects like this one are among the beacons of this approach, and I’m always on the lookout of good treatments of the classics by the musicians of other genres. Singer-songwriter Sarah Slean has been one of those musicians for a while now, at least since she decided to take a turn from the pop stardom business to classical, chamber orchestras, piano-with-live strings, and smaller venues. Her song Lonely Side of the Moon is a direct response to Schubert’s piano trio op. 100, the movement Andante con moto. In the concert, the two were played side by side. First the AoT artistic director Andrew Burashko (piano) played the trio with Yehonatan Berick (violin) and Rachel Mercer (cello). Slean followed, explaining what she changed (the meter in the opening bars on the piano, as you’ll spot!) and what she developed.

From this (by a different trio, not AoT):

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e52IMaE-3As

…to this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mlADcEegX9Q

The song can of course stand on its own: we have a very German Romantic preoccupation that is the Nature here revived as a song topic, through an environmentalist perspective. I think she’s onto something. We already have the novel of the climate change and perhaps trad Romanticism will see a revival thanks to the poetry of the climate change?

Slean was also excellent in Leonard Cohen’s rearranged Anthem and Take This Waltz. While Cohen himself was around to perform these songs, what he’s saying and how was of greatest interest (as you can read in the recently published Nick Mount’s Arrival: The Story of CanLit, Cohen started out as part of the early CanLit poetry contingent and published in small presses before he decided to move to the all-powerful melting pot of American song and become a star). His songs can be read from the page as poems and not a whole lot would be lost (OK! the spoken poetry people will disagree; yes, the delivery etc, but let’s move on). The luxurious arrangements that add layering to the musical side of his songs are therefore a pretty exciting thing to discover. Slean also did a solid job with Brel’s Ne me quitte pas and almost almost managed to make Queen’s spectacular The Show Must Go On intimate.

Singer-songwriter John Southworth was also in the program, performing some of George Gershwin and Cohen songs. He happens to be not the most communicative of performers. I was trying to understand his low-key, coarse-voiced, dispassionate approach and the best I could come up with is: imagine if the characters from Beckett’s Waiting for Godot decided to take up singer-songwriting? That. It’s certainly an original mode to operate in but I have yet catch the bug. Here’s a sample from his songbook.

A  very lively opener started the proceedings: a piece by Christos Hatzis from Constantinople. I believe it was this one: https://youtu.be/o3aUenb2xz0?t=26

AoT return to the TSMF for the reGeneration concert with young musicians of the song academy this Saturday July 27, Walter Hall. AoT were, beside Burashko, Berick and Mercer, Peter Lutek at woodwinds, Rob Piltch on electric guitar, and Joe Phillips on double bass.

Edited to add: Here’s the full list of pieces and composers with (in most cases) arrangers:

Old Photographs by Christos Hatzis
 
Anthem by Leonard Cohen was arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Who Cares by George and Ira Gershwin arranged by Andrew Downing
 
Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Gavin Bryars
 
Darkness – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Kevin Breit
 
Man I Love – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Kevin Lau
 
Swanee – George & Ira Gershwin, arranged by Shelley Berger
 
Take This Waltz – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2 in Eb major, ii. Andante con moto
 
Good Mourning by John Southworth
 
Lonely Side of the Moon by Sarah Slean
 
The Partisan – Anna Marly, arranged by Bryden Baird
 
Ne Me Quitte Pas – Jacques Brel, arranged by Jim McGrath
 
Dance Me to the End of Love – Leonard Cohen, arranged by Andrew Downing
 
The Show Must Go On – Queen, arranged by Rob Carli
John Southworth with Berick, Mercer, Burashko and Phillips. Photo: Art of Time

The Liz Upchurch magic

My Liz Upchurch profile is now online and of course in physical copy wherever you pick up the Wholenote magazine.

I’d like to share here this bit that I had to leave on the cutting room floor, as the space was limited.

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What about the visual ‘packaging’ of female singers in competitions and concerts? It seems to me they’re all in prom dresses, have long locks, makeup, all are presenting in the high femme style? When somebody like Emily D’Angelo appears, who already has her own very elegant and not at all highly sexed up style, one notices.

It’s changing. The next wave of singers will reject it. You know those recordings from the 1960s where everybody’s got the same up-do, everybody’s wearing the same neckline? I think the millennials are our true leaders at this point. They are going to show us what should have happened one way or the other, and quite right too, there’s a lot of change that needs to come.

But then, there are a lot of archetypes in the opera world.

Yes… Singers kinda have to create a fantasy, or speak to a fantasy. Female singers, that is. Men get to wear a uniform, and be sexy without ever changing it.

Imagine being a high high voice playing all the fluttery silly soubrettes and being one of the most serious people in the world.

But you’re an actor. And if you’re an actor, an actor would say That’s my character, that I have to figure out and understand.

There are certain expectations, yes. But I’m not a big media fan, I don’t have enough time to follow it. All I’m interested in is, can you sing well. And that they are prepared, that they become better artist, have the opportunity to do that. And don’t show up with jeans with the great big holes – unless the piece is written like that. It’s up to them; they are their own agents, at the end of the day.

It’s interesting to think how things have changed over the years. Beginning of every rehearsal at the COC now, and I think this is a direct result of the #MeeToo awareness, somebody will get up and talk about the policies that are in place in the company, who to go to if there are issues, where the information is, etc. Two years ago that wasn’t even there.

I was happy to see that a recent run of Hadrian, which had an “intimacy coach”, also had a seriously erotic sex scene. Not an operatic love scene: a properly sexy sex scene.

Yes, good point. This new awareness won’t abolish eroticism on stage – on the contrary.

April in Art Song: Judy Loman (82), the harp godess

When she joined the TSO, Loman was by no means the only woman, she tells me; while some of the internationally prominent orchestras to this day struggle with the issue of too few women in the ranks, she wasn’t an oddity in the TSO of the 1960s. Though she did help set a positive precedent that eventually changed a particular bit of orchestral culture that will sound unusual to us today. “Well, a funny story. If a female player got pregnant,” Loman says, “she was expected to stop playing in the orchestra as soon as the pregnancy was beginning to show. But what happened with me is that I stayed for as long as I could comfortably embrace the instrument, because there weren’t many harpists that the TSO could hire while I’m away on maternity leave for months. So I played through pregnancy, and after that, other women in the orchestra could too.”

Continues here

Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

The concert started with the lights down and a Debussy flute solo, Syrinx, by Kelly Zimba placed not on the stage but up on the centre-mezzanine. The three-minute piece led uninterrupted into Hannigan conducting and singing Sibelius’s Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra. The work uses the first poem from Elias Lönnrot’s nineteenth-century epic cycle Kalevala, on the female nature-spirit of the air who comes down to the water and… interacts with the elements to create the universe. So we start with nothing less than the creation of the universe. The Sibelius tone poem sounds much later than mid-19th–it sounds in fact early modernist with unRomantic, unmelodic, not straightforwardly emo orchestral colours and vocal material for the soprano and with a kinda overall abstractness. We tend to (well, I do) paint the nineteenth with the same brush, but that’s where modernism started–Turner was already painting, Debussy composing, and Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Emily Dickinson writing poems. Hannigan added her Hannigan performing magic to the poem and melded singing and conducting into singer-conducting, and this sometimes meant she wasn’t going to turn to the audience but sing facing the orchestra. It made perfect sense in the context.

Off we went, with a halved orchestra, to Haydn’t upbeat Symphony 86, a delight in all its four movements. I think I heard La Hannigan intone the first bars to the orchestra before the second, Largo, movement, and that too felt perfectly fine. A singer is conducting, why wouldn’t she hum at some point or other?

After the intermission, Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu, which clocks at about 30 min, was the chunkiest chunk on this eclectic menu. The moods of the Rondo, Ostinato, the song, the variations and the Adagio are diverse enough to keep you involved, and while the orchestral forces are considerable, they did not trundle but dance. Midway in, the singing returns, and Hannigan turns around and sings the Lied der Lulu with a fresh, girly voice.

The George Gershwin suite from the musical Girl Grazy, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott and orchestrated by Elliott, concluded the set. The four songs were flowing into one another, without interruptions for applause (excellent decision), and for this performance the singer was miked (logical as she, for the most part, did not sing in operatic voice and the brass section can get intense). I would probably describe this arrangement as a touch Bergian: Gershwin meets Berg in ‘But not for me’, ‘Strike up the band’, ‘Embraceable you’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’. Hannigan had the men of the TSO sing a section of ‘Embraceable you’ and now we know they can definitely carry a tune. Get that hidden choir out for a walk more frequently, conductors.

Hannigan has nothing left to prove as a musician at this point and if orchestras are asking her to conduct and program, more power to her and them. I was skeptical at first–there are a lot of women who have undergone long/endless training to be conductors for whom these doors remain closed shut, and Hannigan’s celebrity certainly precedes her. But so does her musicianship and artistry, which are undeniable. So after initial misgivings I am now completely favour of the already established singers switching to conducting (like Nathalie Stutzmann, and Hannigan herself). Whoever’s in position to make a crack in that stubborn glass ceiling, I’ll celebrate it. Sometimes it will be musicians who have had a career in another area, and that is fine.

As Hannigan’s singer-conducting programs with the TSO and other orchestras show, she can be an innovative programmer and innovative performance director. She may become even freer and more experimental as her reputation as a conductor grows, and I’ll be curious to see where La Ha and partner orchestras will take the concert format in the future.

There’s one more performance tonight

Top and bottom: Hannigan with the TSO. Both photos by Jag Gundu.

Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.

It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.

Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.

For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.

Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow,  piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.

Lauren Margison

And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.

On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.

The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.

All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

Animula vagula blandula

Anima Vagula Blandula in Hadrian’s Mausoleum

I first visited Rome in 2006 and for a long while before and after it was my favourite city of all actual and possible cities. I had read the Yourcenar novel about the Emperor Hadrian especially before the trip and enjoyed it much more than I enjoy the memory of it now. Then, I thought it was a terribly sophisticated, subterranean investigation of a “good” emperor’s public and (verrrrry subtly) private life. Now I find Yourcenar’s académicienne sentence a bore, and the multiply veiled story coy (the way exciting literature usually isn’t): a writer writing from deep within the closet.

At any rate, I of course went to Hadrian’s Mausoleum and loved it. The only picture I seem to have taken is this one above, with Hadrian’s poetry chiseled fairly recently onto a stone plate and placed high up (or was it low down? I forget) on a wall inside the mausoleum. There’s a modern-day Italian intro at the top: “Words from the dying Emperor Hadrian to his soul”.

Hadrian likely wrote more, but as far as I know only this poem remains, & has been translated in multiple versions. Yourcenar amplified further its importance in the novel.

I was surprised after I’ve read Daniel MacIvor’s libretto for Hadrian, his and Rufus Wainwright’s operatic child which just premiered at the COC, that he did not include this famous bit of Hadriana in the text. All the same, it’s a decent libretto, and a functioning (if clunkily) opera which has alas been given a commercial theatre-type production. Why nobody said at any point Waiiit that’s just too many bare bottoms mixed in with the extras from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I don’t know.

Here’s my Opera Canada review.

I think it’s a touch of (devious gay) genius that Antinous tops the Emperor in their very detailed and leisurely sex scene. If any of you have read Alan Hollingurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, the brilliant last sex scene in that book comes to mind. You know, the one where the wealthy English aristocratic narrator who’s been topping everybody in the book finally gets bottomed–and totally naturally and ordinarily, with no words exchanged on the topic–by a working class guy of Middle Eastern origin. Hollinghurst has this incredibly poetic, uber-stylish way of describing the filthiest sex between men, and he doesn’t disappoint here. “He fucked him with leisurely vehemence”, he writes of the guy topping Will the aristocratic narrator. Leisurely vehemence! A phrase to make you guffaw and blush at the same time. Well yes. Quite. There was some leisurely vehemence in evidence in that Hadrian-Antinous encounter.