2019 in rearview mirror

The Pite-Young Revisor was the hightlight of the year. It’s probably harder to be moved by it than by Betroffenheit – which may explain some of the puzzled reviews by Toronto dance critics – but it’s a larger work of art in every sense of the word. The work has multiple co-producers from around the world, so if it comes anywhere near you in 2020, do not miss it. I saw it (twice… and the tickets weren’t cheap) at the Canadian Stage.

Now on to the usual classification.

OPERA

Tim Albery-directed Giulio Cesare in Egitto by Opera North which I watched in Leeds, was the standout. Completely unknown (to me) singers all impressed, and the set was some sort of golden multi-purpose edifice that revolves (by  Leslie Travers) – absolutely the most was made of it.  Christian Curnyn conducted what turned out to be a spritely, cohesive, gleaming performance.

Lucie Chartin (Cleopatra) and Maria Sanner (Giulio Cesare) in a photo by Alastair Muir

Locally, the COC’s Elektra revival with Christine Goerke wasn’t too shabby either. I also saw an oldie Rosenkavalier production in Leipzig with the gorgeous-looking and sounding Wallis Giunta, but though musical side of it all was lush, more actual acting by some of the principals would not have gone amiss. The Little Opera That Could award this year goes to Pomegranate, which I hope to see re-mounted with a different cast. Dud of the Year? The ENO Orphée, which I abandoned at the intermission. Torture. Granted, Alice Coote will never be my cuppa, but even so: had the production been different, I’d have soldiered on.

Via Met in HD, I saw Nico Muhly’s Marnie and I’m glad I did. I read the novel soon after and enjoyed being able to compare the Hitchcock film with the novel with the opera. While in both the movie and the novel, Marnie’s husband rapes her – which in the movie slooowly results in her getting used to her situation and male sexuality, and in the novel things end on the status quo, she’s resigned to her life – the opera removes the rape from the story. Marnie’s husband in the opera accepts her refusal and doesn’t force himself on her. Why the Met-commissioned team made that decision, and whether the opera is better work of art or a less truthful one for it, I’ll leave to you to ponder.

IN CONCERT

Gemma New conducting Hamilton Philharmonic in Mahler 5
Vesuvius Ensemble’s The Plucking Opera
Agnela Hewitt playing Goldberg Variations
The Happenstencers give Bach a re-do, via Vivier, Southam, Dusapin et al.
Barbara Hannigan conducting the TSO

MUSEUMS, GALLERIES

Sir John Soanes Museum (London, UK) all the way! It had a big Hogarth exhibit when I visited, but the museum’s permanent collection is a Disneyworld for anybody interested in the 18th century.
Fondation Luis Vuitton (Paris, France) for Charlotte Perriand: Inventing a New World.

THEATRE

The Piaf/Dietrich musical was very pleasant (and has been recently extended into January).
Michael Healey’s 1979 has some incredibly accomplished scenes but it relied too much on text projections to let the audience know what’s going on and the cross-sex casting didn’t quite work.
Robert Lepage’s take on Coriolanus was good fun. This I saw in cinema via Stratford in HD.
And that is where I draw a blank. I’ve seen some atrocious Toronto theatre last year – The Cherry Orchard at Crow’s Theatre, Four Sisters at Theatre Centre – which put me off theatre altogether.

CINEMA

A good year. It opened with Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War, which though eeever so slightly sexist, is a work of art quand même. Icelandic film Woman at War about an eco-terrorist who applies to adopt a child from Ukraine has everything a film needs. Olivier Assayas’ Non-Fiction and Mike Leigh’s Peterloo are fine but I won’t remember them in a few years. Johanna Hogg’s The Souvenir on the other hand is ah-mazing, as is her entire opus (I’ve finally seen Exhibition, thanks to a Tiff retrospective, the only remaining film of hers that I hadn’t and… she’s a fecking genius, no ifs or buts). Madeleine Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily was a riot. Patricia Rozema’s Mouthpiece is Patricia Rozema’s best film. What to say of Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire that the raving critics and the adoring audiences already haven’t? (Which I saw at the London Film Festival, where it was much easier for me to get a ticket than at my local international festival. Tiff is a lost cause. Don’t even bother trying.) The 2019 Palm D’or, Parasite, was good and the Berlin winner, Synonyms, even better, I thought. Official Secrets with Keira Knightly was a decently done whistleblower drama. Chanya Button’s Vita & Virginia (based on Eileen Atkins’ play) was a very smart delight. Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone, which puts the Greek heroine in an immigrant family in Quebec, is a sophisticated brain bon-bon, if perhaps not as engaging as one might expect. And 63 Up and Knock Down the House stand out among the documentaries.

I shall return for the 2019 in Books. Till tomorrow!

Conversations about Canada: Monica Garrido

The year is not over yet! The new Conversations about Canada just dropped.

Multi-talented actor, sketch & improv comedian and boy band drag king Monica Garrido talks about:
– why she decided to move to Canada (hint: Degrassi High)
– her early obsession with Marina Abramovic and Matthew Barney
– when not to tell your parents everything
– if we immigrate in order to put big enough distance between us and our parents & community– and then realize we overdid it?
– if it’s easier to make friends with other immigrants than with the locals
– why she is still a little freaked out by the widespread recreational use of drugs in wealthy societies (me too!)
– falling for a local WASP girl
and much more!

HERE

And here she is on Baroness von Sketch:

Conversations about Canada: John Doyle

Why, look at the time!

Next month, it will be 20 years since I first moved to Canada. This anniversary got me thinking… about many things. And I decided to talk to people, Canadians old and new, and long-time Canadian residents, about this country that I feel I know less now than I thought I did a decade ago. I have been trying to fend off a feeling that I belong less to it now than years ago, when I had just moved to Toronto from Nova Scotia. Everything seemed possible back then. Now, twenty years later, perhaps I have hit enough walls to start noticing them and a different map of the possible territory of life here begins to take shape.

But these conversations are meant to be more about other people – and how they live here and how they make sense of Canada.

My first interlocutor is TV critic and author John Doyle, who grew up in Ireland and moved to Canada by the same method as I (an MA scholarship). Some of the topics that we cover:

– immigration
– Canadian TV
– whether Canadians should be less nice and more raucous
– whether we are now practically an American cultural province
– privatized vs public medicare (I had no idea that Ireland switched from latter to former)
– if literary publishers today expect the novel to be more like TV
– whether the CBC cancels all the best dramas, and
– how is it possible that Netflix and Amazon Prime streaming services manage to avoid sales tax.

Listen here: https://soundcloud.com/lperovic/johndoyle (c. 45min)

September matters

The Flowers: Sophia Di Martino (Amy), Julian Barratt (Maurice), Olivia Colman (Deborah) and Daniel Rigby (Donald)

How accurate are the arts about mental health issues? I got thinking about this while working on the September piece for the Wholenote, which is an interview with soprano Monica Whicher about the concert series organized each year at the U of T during the Suicide Prevention Week. It’s a good occasion to talk about mental health issues in university context, and remind people what services there are for those who may need them. In the article, I leave the university grounds and look at the availability of talk therapy for general population. It’s not great.

There was no room for this sidebar, so here it is. Some recent creations and two old ones, which approach mental health problems in intelligent ways:

Flowers (British TV Series, 2016-2018). The two-season Channel 4 / Netflix series looks inside a family in which the father is struggling with depression and – in the following season – the young daughter with bipolar disorder. Somehow it manages to be a comedy while also being devastating. Stars Olivia Colman and Harriet Walter, but entire cast is brilliant.

Maria Bamford’s stand-up. Bamford has been very open about her own life with mental illness, both in her standup and in media interviews. It’s not always easy to watch her – she is not a polished communicator always in control, she is visibly struggling but just about functioning while also creating smart and funny material and living her life and staying in a relationship. Respect.

Imagine Me Gone, a 2016 novel by Adam Haslett. Story of a family which loses one member to suicide, and another, gradually, to a multifaceted, elusive psychological distress which often appears as… being extremely good and alert to injustices in the world. All the characters are drawn out in subtle detail, as are their sufferings and joys. At the end, the family reconstitutes after the losses as best they can.

Virginia Woolf – the 1926 essay on ‘On Being Ill’ and the 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway, which has a character trying to live with what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. His experience of the city of London and of being in the world in the 1920s after the Great War is entirely different from those that the central, well-off characters of the novel have, including the lovely and yet thoroughly oblivious Mrs. Dalloway herself.

Homer’s Iliad, any translation: the section The Grief of Achilles and the New Armour Made Him by Vulcan. As we’ve known at least since Homer, the problem with the dead is that they never die.

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

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

Photo by Gaetz Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pomegranate reviewed

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

First, the good news. Pomegranate, subtitled A lesbian chamber opera, composed by Kye Marshall, written by Amanda Hale, directed by Michael Mori and conducted by Jennifer Tung, which just closed its world premiere run at Buddies in Bad Theatre – works as a piece of art. It is alive and ticking – and that is the first and most important test a new opera must pass.

Kye Marshall has composed a distinct musical material for each of the two acts, though what unites them is a melancholy timbre of both eras, the Pompeii girlhood and 1980s Toronto youth. The three cellos, a keyboard, a harp, an oboe, and a flute for act one and saxophone in act two, are an unusual but perfectly sufficient mix of instrumental forces. There is a lot of harp in act one, and oboe gets good air time, but any quotations of the pastoral employment of harp and woodwinds are wrung through contemporary musical idiom, and come free of nostalgia for the melodic operatic tradition. Act One is almost consistently dissonant, with the only bit of lyrical arioso given to the representative of the brute force in the story, the Roman soldier who is about to capture one of the girls and marry her against her will. He seems genuinely in love (beware of beautiful music) and genuinely a brute, and a lot of the brutes in opera have been given pretty and memorable melodies over the centuries—and the composers have been manipulating opera lovers this way for some time.

This was something of a naughty wink in the score, and there were others.

The sex scene that builds to a climax in the vein of Der Rosenkavalier overture, for example, which was wittily directed as an interruption with one of the women stopping and sitting up and the other one trying to talk her out of dark thoughts while the music is doing its culminating. Or the unsentimental, almost unjazzy use of saxophone in Act Two – which is employed with great restraint in the bar scene that would have been in real life hopping with synth pop. There’s more. The first interaction the two Pompeii girls have is through the percussion instrument that each is holding – they harmonize their rhythms before they even have their first conversation. Marshall has also avoided cliché by giving the mezzo tessitura to the more helpless character of the two (when it’s usually the mezzos who have some agency in opera) while the soprano role in Pomegranate goes to the more self-assured and determined character. Last but not least, Marshall can write a mean vocal trio and quartet.

In short, there is much to be saluted in this score and how it works with the text.

And now, the less good news. The production itself had a host of issues. The text was frequently unintelligible, especially on high notes but not exclusively, and even I, who had read the libretto beforehand, occasionally missed what was being communicated. Surtitles were badly needed and it’s a (Pompeiian) mystery why they weren’t created as the text didn’t require paying a translator and the sets were largely made up of video projections anyway. Singers being native English speakers never guarantees that they will be expert enunciators of operatic and song verses in English, and Pomegranate confirms this.

The two young principals, soprano Rebecca Gray and mezzo Camille Rogers, were vocally the weakest pillars in the edifice when they should have been the strongest (temple, pillars, see what I did there? OK, I’ll stop now). Rogers was striking in the bel canto role of Isabella in an indie production of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri some years ago, but in contemporary musical idiom with an English language libretto containing a ton of Sprechgesang the mezzo seemed reserved, ill at ease, risk averse and resigned into using that impressive voice most unimpressively. Rebecca Gray had much more to do as the narrator for the opera and the character of Cassia/Cass. Her dramatic commitment was stronger—she can definitely act and did–but her beauty of voice tended to disappear in the upper register, and that’s where the composer has her going quite frequently. The singer who has most singing to do and who effectively carries the opera should impress with her voice. That’s not an unreasonable expectation. (Gray is also a composer. I’m looking forward to hearing her work and wonder if perhaps this is where the best of her musicianship is to emerge.)

Teiya Kasahara (Priestess/Bartender) and Aaron Durand (Centurion/Suzie’s Uncle) were the two strongest voices on cast: voluminous, consistent throughout the register, with precisely controlled breath and strong grasp of the text. Stephanie Tritchew roles of the Handmaiden in the temple and Suzie’s mother in Act Two were small – dramatically important but musically modest. She has an undeniable stage presence which I hope to see properly exercised in a larger role, and which here had to remain muted.

Set and costume designer Rachel Forbes took the straightforward Roman and stylized Roman route for the costumes for the first act (though Kasahara’s Priestess had a touch of the Queen of the Night). The urge for the 1980s ‘authenticity’ in Act Two was however too keen: the deep-cut jeans, the large print blouses, the ill-fitting blazer and the red shoes were almost comic in the context and certainly distracting. A little less period costuming next time, please.

For there should be a next time: this opera should see a revival. There is a living, breathing work of operatic art under those tunics and plaid shirts.

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

Coming up: Pomegranate

Amanda Hale, novelist, poet and now the librettist for Pomegranate (June 5-9, Buddies in Bad Times), is a fascinating interlocutor. Watch this space for more about her work in the near future.

But first, the Summer Wholenote Art of Song – because Pomegranate started as a song cycle – HERE 

For example:

She still travels to England to visit family. “It was a good thing, leaving England, because when you leave a place, you can see it.” Her family’s story has been far from ordinary: Hale’s father was a supporter of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists during the Second World War, and died by suicide some years after the war. “That legacy has hung over me all my life,” says Hale, who has written about it in her latest novel, Mad Hatter (Guernica, Toronto), to be launched in September. “I feel absolutely liberated for having told that story. It’s been a great shame and humiliation so it was good for me to leave England and be able to see all that. But it’s taken my lifetime to process it.”

Hale’s own politics are at the opposite end of the spectrum to her father’s. She often travels to Cuba and has developed a lot of connections, personal and professional, over the last 15 years. “I went there first to paint a mural with Lynn Hutchinson in solidarity with the revolution and we made a connection with a gallery in Havana and did an installation there on colonialism and sugar, then another one about surveillance, which Cubans really understand.” Latin America was always of great interest. “I’ve had a lot of connections with Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile. A big change I saw here in Toronto in the 1980s was the refugees coming from those countries who’d experienced American interference, people who enriched Toronto tremendously during the 1970s and 1980s. There were Greeks coming here after the Junta and people emigrating to Canada after the Iranian Revolution. On Hornby Island we have an Iranian man who’s taken refuge there, who is a wonderful potter.”

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

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.

+ + +

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.