Against the Grain’s La Bohème II closes a sold-out run

Kimy McLaren and Owen McCausland in Against the Grain’s revived Le Boheme.

How is it possible that I hadn’t heard of Canadian soprano Kimy McLaren? Might be because she has a French management company and performs mostly in the French opera houses (Rhin, Marseille, Rouen, Bordeaux, and Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris). En tout cas, she was the revelation of the AtG’s remount of their now alt-classic Transac La Bohème, which I managed to catch on the closing night last night. There are voices that manage to impress even in simple dialogue lines, and it was obvious that we were in for a treat during McLaren first exchanges with Owen McCausland’s Rodolfo. It’s like there’s an engine there at the centre of the voice, a perfectly controlled yet obviously powerful instrument that keeps creating beautiful sound. McLaren is an excellent actor too–subtle changes in her facial expression or body language meant a whole lot, and she makes you pay attention. Too, her voice blended sweetly with McCausland’s; a good Rodolfo-Mimi pair isn’t as easy to find, but there it was in the AtG transladaptation at the Transac.

McCausland was reliably good, his Rodolfo an earnest, thoughtful egg. Boys were uniformly excellent: Andrew Love as Marcello, Micah Schroeder as the gay Schaunard, Kenneth Kellogg as a serious, brooding Colline and Gregory Finney, extra spicy and against type, as perfectly sleazy Landlord and Musetta’s sugar daddy Alcindoro.

Speaking of playing against type, Adanya Dunn the Sexed-Up Version (Musetta) was the second revelation of the evening. There was some pretty serious action on the bar counter after the “Quando m’en vo” and that’s after she’s made her seduction tour of the chosen people in the audience and the extras (including kissing one woman, and rubbing against the back of the music director Topher Mokrzewski at the piano).

So it was special–and not only for nostalgic reasons. This production, that is, its bare minimum version, rose the AtG Theatre to prominence six years ago. They have since become a major player on the Toronto operatic scene, their imaginative takes on the classics a highlight of each season. The old La Bohème, turns out, is still good, and still has loads of that signature AtG-ian magic dust.

What was that?

Alternate title for this concert review: Is Brian Current turning to religious mysticism and why??

Also: WTAF was that, Samy Moussa?

But let’s proceed.

21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.

D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.

Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.

Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of  heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?

But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird’s eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.

Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.

First published on The Wholenote website

 

Louis Riel’s Second Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hot Docs 2017 – films of interest

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

Music

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

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

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

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

Writers

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

Falls the Shadow: The Life and Times of Athol Fugard

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

Life and Death

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

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

Also!

Derby Crazy Love – on roller-derby girls

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

Dish: Women Waitressing and the Art of Service

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

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

Program? Meh. Can’t be bothered.

A whinge, if I may.

If there’s one concert “promotion” practice that bothers me to the point of hot tears of frustration, it’s this: musicians not bothering to list the exact program of what they’ll be performing on any platform or medium anywhere before the concert. It frustrates me as a concert-goer and it frustrates me even more as a writer trying to announce, preview, possibly recommend said concerts.

I used to be a regular punter at I Furiosi concerts years ago, but I stopped going since they keep refusing to list what is it that they’re going to be playing. They like to organize their concerts by the theme, which is a decent practice, but the blurb explaining the theme would AT BEST list only the names of the composers. At worst, not even that. I took a peek at their forthcoming season, and sure enough: nothing. “Come to our concert on the topic of X! What will we play? We don’t know, but trust us! It’ll be great.”

As a journo, I’ve been noticing this with increasing frequency. Press releases with no program information, ensembles with no online presence or zero social media and a website that hasn’t been updated for years… and even the odd big guy not listing full program but relying on the list of composers in their releases.

This evening, I’m in the process of narrowing down what I’ll be writing in my next Wholenote column on the art of song. How I usually go about the business is I have the basic listings–the magazine has a great search engine called Ask Ludwig–for the entire month, and I go item by item, googling, looking at event pages, ensemble or singer website, researching the program and the composers, and then deciding what two strong highlights and what three or four quick picks I will feature.

Well. You can guess where this is going. There’s this concert, for example, by a group called Musicians in Ordinary (lute and soprano, with occasional guest soloists or readers) titled John Donne’s A Nocturnall on S. Lucies Day. I have the listing: “Works by Dowland and his contemporaries. Ruby Joy, reader; Hallie Fishel, soprano; John Edwards, lute; Musicians In Ordinary. Emmanuel College Chapel,” address, time. And that is literally all. No information about it on Emmanuel College Chapel website. The MiO’s own blog hasn’t been updated since September last year. Nothing on Facebook. Nothing on Twitter. What Dowland’s contemporaries? What works by Dowland? I happen to love Dowland, and would have liked to write about this concert. But that’s now impossible.

Elsewhere, all that anybody knows about this concert with tenor Andrew Haji and baritone Jason Howard is that it’ll be called English Song Treasures. Are they singing a capella? It’s a mystery.

The always gloriously looking Measha B will have a concert at the Isabel Bader in Kingston end of March. Freedom Songs, her exploration of African-American spirituals, looks intriguing, let’s find out more, go to the Isabel Bader website… oh. An artistic statement instead of the program. Okay. (There’s a Songs of Freedom website that you’d have to find to find out about the potential program. Some or most of these will be sung, I expect?)

Toronto Consort’s first encounters-themed concert last month gave me a bit of a headache too. See how it’s all described? Who sings in what piece, are all the listed soloists part of the Beckwith piece? And what music from the early colonists? I had to do further googling and send emails to find out. A lot of journalists wouldn’t bother, and if I was a civilian concert-goer, I wouldn’t rush to hear a program that’s approximated rather than detailed.

Across town, in Distillery District… I would have loved to write about Tapestry’s Songbook VII, either in advance or to review it. But… there’ has been no information available regarding what will be in the songbook. Zilch.

Or have a look at this Art of Time Ensemble Northern Songs 2 program. “A selection of works by Canadian jazz and classical composers including R. Murray Schafer, Christos Hatzis, Oscar Peterson, Nicole Lizee and more.” And more and and others are becoming my favourite friends. I happened to have been there last night and it was a seriously good lineup of pieces which deserved to be publicized in advance. You know, so more people can come to the concert and some of us can preview it?

Musicians, programmers, promoters: why make it difficult?

There’s a band that’s consistently good about keeping its own programs absolutely up to date and well ahead of the concerts: Talisker Players. Sometimes they’d even post audio samples. I may have to introduce my own private award for this kind of thing? Seriously. But even they got wobbly ahead of their March concert. Which of the 25 Beethoven Scottish folk songs exactly? Vaughan Williams’ “Three Old English Folk Songs”? Tut tut. Just a glitch, right? Back to your old informative self in no time.

Zing-Along Messiah mit Herr Handel at Massey Hall: Instructions for Use

sing-along-messiah_garybeechey
Tafelmusik with conductor Ivars Taurins (as Handel) and the audience in a sing-along Messiah at Massey Hall. Photo credit Gary Beechey.

I am happy to report that I finally experienced my first Tafelmusik Sing-Along Messiah in which the audience too sings the choruses (grazie, Luisa!). The 30-year-old event has a cult status and is sold out every year; there were people there who have been coming every year for 10, 20, 30 years. (Conductor Ivars Taurins, he under the Handel costume and wig, asked for the show of hands last night for each of the decades.)  The full libretto can be downloaded beforehand or picked up at the Massey Hall. The soloists that Tafelmusik brings for the Messiah series each December–all concerts of that series but one are performed traditionally, without audience participation, and in a smaller hall–tend to be international HIP stars, and always a good mix of familiar and new-to-Toronto singers.

Since it’s a big, potentially unwieldy, practically pop concert, you should know what to expect from the Sing-Along (or Zing-Along, as Taurins/Haendel called it), and come prepared.

+ Avoid the gallery like the plague. I arrived 30 min before start time and the parterre and the mezzanine were already full so we were directed to the galleries. The seats are wooden there, without any upholstery, and with no leg room. I am not exaggerating: those with sensitive knees should think twice. There’s no room for the jacket behind your back, no room for a bag, let alone a backpack. In the course of the concert you are asked to rise and sit down multiple times. You will know your four neighbours N-S-E-W very closely by the end of it. How do you avoid the gallery? Come earlier, but if you come too early, there will be a long queue to join in the cold. There’s got to be a time when you arrive just as the queue starts being let in? Toronto practices long queues during Tiff, so treat this is a Tiff-size event. Come early.

+ OK so you ended up in  the gallery. If you spot any free seats in the mezzanine during the first half, you can at least move down and take ’em during intermission. It’s general seating, so you’re more than welcome to. Mezzanine and parterre seats are actually decent. This is what I did.

+ It’s a family-friendly event, so there will be children. Toddlers and babies too. Some of them will sit on their parent’s lap and be shown how to follow the score, maybe for the first time in their wee lives. So: don’t be a grump. [It takes one to know one.] These are future classical music audiences and performers. It’s all good. And they tend to be really well-behaved.

+ What I didn’t know was how ethnically diverse the Sing-Along audience is becoming. Lots of Asian families, multi-racial couples, black Canadians, together with the usual hardcore WASP contingent. It wasn’t entirely as diverse as Toronto Islands of a weekend, but it’s definitely  getting there.

+ The Sing-Along is not primarily a music experience, necessarily. Let me explain what I mean. If you like the choruses of The Messiah, you may feel shortchanged, because what you will hear around you will not be particularly pleasant. You won’t be able to hear the choir on stage at all, and depending on what section you’re in, your experience of the choruses may range from OK (the Altos area) to ugh (the Mixed section, where I spent the first half). There will be a lot of smudged coloratura, missed notes and creative tempo-keeping around you. This was particularly the case in the Mixed voices area, with two very loud elderly sopranos behind me, a quiet alto to the left, a guy who sang I’ve no idea what voice part to the right. When I moved to the last row of the Mezzanine Altos, it was like being within a gentle wave of alto base that included me (when I could find it, tonally) or left me alone, whichever I preferred in any given moment.

+ Oh yes: find an edge seat, a top row seat. That way, if you don’t want to get up for every chorus, you won’t attract attention. There were a few of us scattered who sang while remaining seated. It wasn’t unusual.

+ There may be people around you who will quietly “join” the soloist while s/he’s singing. This behaviour is deserving of a glare. Again, I heard it in the Mixed area from two of the sopranos, and there was some arm chair conducting from the guy to the right, but down among the altos, nothing of the sort. While the opposite does happen occasionally, your enjoyment of the soloists will for the most part be undisturbed. Amanda Forsythe’s laser-sharp coloratura stunned everybody into silence last night. (There’s an added task for the soloists here: stun the unruly audience into shutting up.) Tenor Colin Balzer (“Ev’ry valley” kicked the entire engine into motion) and baritone Tyler Duncan (whose “Trumpet will sound” closed it with a glorious clarity of tone) were just as good, and Krisztina Szabó got to shine in “O Thou that tellest” with the chorus/audience coming in at the end.

+ In conclusion, I think my next Messiah will be of the traditional sort. I like my choruses cleanly sung. (You should have heard what dog’s breakfast we all made of “Amen”. Or rather you shoudn’t.) But the Zing-Along has its own culture, its own following and–judging by the diverse multigenerational audience–a very bright future. And there’s room for both forms of concerts, and for some new forms to boot. Could a baroque concert in which the audience are allowed to dance be far behind? I see your sing-along, and I raise you dance, Tafelvolk.

Books and coffee

I’m having a little book do this evening, come on out if you’re in town.

Thursday, June 30 at 7:00 pm
Full of Beans Coffee House and Roastery
1348 Dundas Street West, Toronto
647.347.4161
Join us on Thursday, June 30th at the Full of Beans Coffee House and Roastery in Toronto for the launch of Lydia Perović’s All That Sang.
Lydia Perović will be talking about her new book with musician and radio host
Kathleen Kajioka, followed by a brief reading. Their conversation will consider such questions as: Can women be muses to other women? Why is orchestral conducting chiefly gendered male? And how do different kinds of writing approach music?

How the book came about.

The Globe & Mail review. The Montreal Review of Books review. The Winnipeg Review review.  The Barcza Blog review.

Some thoughts on comping

Buy-TicketsI’ve been thinking about the practice of comping the media lately (alternative and mainstream: art blogs are as much the media as the G&M, bound by the same ideals of integrity, relative impartiality etc–what supposedly distinguishes us from marketing).

It’s customary for performing arts organizations to offer complimentary tickets to members of the media–usually a pair, sometimes if it’s a small space just the one. What is expected in turn is a review of some kind, though the media and the writer maintain the right not to write or run one, for whatever reason.  So, roughly: a pair of tickets for some kind of documented response to the performance.

There’s a lot in this practice that I’m not sure about, concerning both sides.

Writers: are we sure a pair of free tickets cannot affect our judgment, esp for shows that we know cost hundreds of dollars to see? Or, conversely, esp for small productions by scrappy, heart-in-the-right-place upstarts trying to make their name? Do you feel bad about having to write a bad review for a show you got to see for free? What if this keeps repeating itself–free tickets, but the shows are still no good? Are you accruing any obligation here?

One thing I’ve learned is that the process of easy-come tickets separates our experience of getting to shows from the experience of the members of the public. As a buying customer of a Toronto new music festival, for example, I got to learn how chaotic and inconvenient the process of getting your ticket and getting into the venue usually gets. Before I started buying tickets for the second-best-known Toronto opera company, I did not know that their lowest cost, prominently advertised ticket price was fiction (the cheapest ticket for their shows is a dozen dollars more).

Meanwhile, in some quarters, the script for what you feel entitled to upon comping is changing. The other month I got an invitation to a show that also came with an offer of writing a preview for that same show. I said I’d consider the idea and would let them know if I want to do one. When the email with actual tickets came in a couple of weeks later, so did the reminder of doing the preview. I don’t usually do a preview and a review of the same show, but this dual suggestion came kind of tied in with the ticket offer.

Another company’s publicity company got into a habit of emailing the comp’d writers first thing in the morning after the show to check when the review is coming out. When it happened to me, I saw this as a nudge and I told them they should stop doing it, and that no other company does it. I don’t think they are going to stop (theirs is a pretty aggressive publicity company), but they did stop inviting me to their shows, looks like it.

At one point I thought, why don’t the big media buy their own tickets? They can afford them. And no obligations are unconsciously accrued between the writer and the artists. What about freelancers (and bloggers), though? Should we be comped, because we usually don’t have large spending budgets (we can claim the tickets as expenses on self-employed tax returns, but that doesn’t help with the current month’s budgeting)? When I buy my own ticket because I want to support a company, more often than not I end up not reviewing the production. It could be only me; I find reviewing a huge responsibility, and something that’s easy to do lazily, so I try not to, which is a lot of work. Which, if given half a chance, I’ll get myself out of.

Should we, when pairs of tickets come easily, privately take it upon ourselves to bring to the show people in our lives who don’t usually go to the opera–should we be introducing new opera goers to the art form? (I’ve been trying to do this for a couple of years.)

I can’t say I have the answers. What I do now for sure is:

  • companies should know that comping is offered with no strings attached
  • writers should be aware that seeing stuff for free, being greeted by a comm person you know well (sometimes even like), getting to your excellent seat with no hassle is a privileged, pampered way to encounter a show. It will inevitably colour your judgment. (Try a long wait in an unruly line at -7C outside RTH for your discounted festival pass one winter, and we’ll compare notes.)
  • we should all keep in mind the that review is just one person’s opinion based on one particular performance and the reviewer’s own history, preferences, circumstance. It’s not a truth-seeking exercise. It’s not a judgment for all times.

The ideas of March

I was a guest columnist for the Wholenote, selecting a few worthwhile operatic dos coming up in March. Give it a read here or if you’re a local, pick up a free issue at your concert venue, cafe or library.

NCF2016Meanwhile, New Creations Festival (2016 programmer Brett Dean) has started and the second of three concerts is tonight. The tickets are insanely cheap (the 3-concert pass is about $30). A standout in the first concert in the series was for me Anthony Pateras’ Fragile Absolute for winds, percussion, electronics & celeste–the recording of which, lucky for us, the streaming-friendly composer posted here. Another special moment was György Kurtág’s ppp The Answered Unanswered Question, played by four players tucked away off stage, to the RTH with dimmed lights. Nobody coughed. I’ve never seen Toronto audience this focused. The crucial component of this piece is precisely this: the audience (a crowd of strangers) being absolutely quiet together for a few minutes in half-dark.

 

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.