Christina, the Girl King

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

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

More info, booking and more photos HERE.


Hey H

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

When the Sun Comes Out – the Toronto Concert Premiere

When the Sun Comes Out – the Toronto Concert Premiere
Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara
Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara. Photo credit: Avenue One.

Let’s hope that we will be able to see When the Sun Comes Out properly staged and orchestrated for at least a handful of instruments in the near future. (AtG, I’m looking at you?) Vancouver has seen the work staged (albeit minimalistically) and orchestrated for single violin, flute, clarinet cello and the piano and conducted by the composer Leslie Uyeda herself. All the thanks should go to Tapestry for bringing the concert version to Toronto.

It is a work that breaks new grounds, thematically, and opens up new ways of talking about love and the gendering within the couple. Leslie Uyeda’s music is consistently on edge and dissonant, without a single sentimental or sappy note. The only remotely post-Romantic sounding passage is when the two female protagonists kiss for the first time (I take it it’s much more than just kissing in the staged version), which sounds appropriately reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. There are moments of romantic relief here and there, but Uyeda thankfully steered clear of ‘beautiful melodies’ (of the kind found, say, in Rufus Wainwright’s Primadonna and will likely be found in his future COC opera). Uyeda is a composer who doesn’t compose as if the twentieth century never happened—nor as if there’s a lurking harmony and a key resolution to two women loving each other. It’s always complicated, the music doesn’t cease to remind us, never easy. Notably, there are no duos between the lovers, no singing in thirds for the Monteverdi dykes in the audience like myself. There is no escaping the harsh realities.

Props to music director Maika’i Nash who had the task of conveying the complexities of the score with only the piano at his disposal.

The libretto itself, I felt, needs the staging to come into full effect. Also, the surtitles. Poet Rachel Rose probably wrestled over every word, and those words should be known even when the soprano hangs out in the top of the top of her register. If we look at it as the text for a full-blown operatic piece, the libretto is not particularly convincing. (Not many operatic librettos make sense, I know, but many do within their own unique parameters.) A wandering heroine from a freer territory falls in love with a citizen of an oppressive country where same-sex love is punishable by death. The local woman is married, has children and many more constraints upon her freedom. What works really well is that the story reads semi-mythic, semi-all-too-recognizable—there are long thoughtful monologues recollecting past actions and brooding over the impossible future that bring to mind Tristan und Isolde, but there are also moments of the easily recognizable present. So far, so good.

The emergence of the husband and his attempt at murder after having caught them in flagrante and the subsequent emotional dissolution into confessing his own past same-sex love and loss… I’m still not sure what to make of that. Perhaps the idea was to show that the heteronormative patriarchy punishes equally its daughters and its sons? And I get that. But his quick switch from a brute to a crying mess is a bit too convenient a solution.

But perhaps we shouldn’t look for a typical full-blown operatic libretto in Rose’s text—perhaps it is, as one reviewer suggested, a dramatic poem more than a drama; and perhaps it is closer, as I kept thinking while watching it, to the melodramatic one-acters like Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. In which case, with a lot of things abstracted out, a lot distilled to the one to three characters, and a touch of absurd here and there, it would be a good representative of the family.

Teiya Kasahara, for whom Uyeda wrote the character of Solana, displayed her usual stage charisma and sang (owned!) an extremely high role with great stamina. Solana is not a particularly complex character—she is angry, brave, wanderlust-y, reckless, never doubtful, always demanding, from the beginning till the end. Lilah, however, now there’s a novel in there somewhere. Stephanie Yelovich gave us a complex portrait of a human in an existential crisis, who can lose everything by loving who she loves. Her voice—and I am guessing the role tessitura–was a shade darker and lower than Solana’s and a respite next to Solana’s relentlessness and moral certitudes. (The Vancouver Lilah was a mezzo, NB.) The two women were good together, and what was also unique about this performance was that the kissing and the making out were devoid of the awkwardness between two straight singers that’s frequently seen on mainstream stage. If their music wasn’t easily harmonious, their bodies were, and very natural with one another.

A very special mention should go to Keith Lam who brilliantly acted and sang the character of the husband. The dude almost stole the show. (And he was tasked with inhabiting an implausible character, so imagine the degree of accomplishment.)

To sum up: WTSCO is an exciting new chamber opera-poem with great potential, deserving a serious staging or two.


Kasahara, Yelovich, Lam. Photo by Avenue One.

Opera Atelier’s new production of Der Freischütz

Opera Atelier’s new production of Der Freischütz

Der Freischütz (The Marksman) by Carl Maria von Weber (1821), libretto by Johann Friedrich Kind. Conductor David Fallis, director Marshall Pynkoski, choreography Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg. Principals are Krešimir Špicer (Max), Meghan Lindsay (Agathe), Vasil Garvanliev (Kaspar), Carla Huhtanen (Äanchen). Full cast and creative, plus dates and tickets here.

One of the earliest of the German Romantic operas, The Marksman is today rarely performed outside Germany, and after seeing it revived in the new OA production, I have some idea why.

Its first two acts chug along fine, but the third act’s inadvertently funny missed bullet, followed by the death of the villain, followed by the chorus to the Heavens, make the entire work a thoroughly alien type of soap opera. Unless, that is, it is radically reimagined in a staging by a brave director – though I’m not sure that would help either. (There are a few DVD recordings available: one from ’68, one more recent by Ruth Berghaus, from Hamburg in contemporary clothes this one, and one or two others). But Opera Atelier, as we know, is not the business of asking the question “What does this work tell us about our own time.” Pynkoski remains faithful to the idea of the ‘original intent of the composer’ and to employing the staging devices available at the time of the creation (or his stylization of the same). Lajeunesse Zingg continues to research and employ period choreography; it’s really interesting to read her program notes each time, but the dancing to a non-expert eye looks exactly the same from one OA production to another. Many other aesthetic choices keep recurring from production to production: beefcake in every scene, gestural  (non)acting, the cut of women’s costumes, the tights and the codpieces in male costumes, the painted ‘period’ set. The OA also always works with the same conductor. Their donors apparently like this state of the affairs, and so do their subscribers, so my outsider dissent doesn’t really matter all that much.

The first two acts before the intermission are actually solid – the liveliest part of the production, with fewer of the usual OA mannerisms, and some elements of the unexpected. The warm-timbred tenor Krešimir Špicer is in his usual fine vocal form and he is even allowed to act a little beyond the gesturalism as the disconsolate Max who keeps losing at target practice. He is soon to take part in the marksmanship competition in order to win the hand of the beloved Agathe, and worried that the bad luck will continue, falls under the influence of a shady character Kaspar (baritone Vasil Garvanliev) who promises to supply him with infallible bullets, provided he pays in kind. Macedonian bari Garvanliev has an incredibly rich, resonant and (when called for) beautiful voice. His voice was one of the best things of the entire production. His acting – Pynkoski, I’m blaming you – was one of the worst. Kaspar, rather than being any shade of ominous, is campy to the point of hysteria, and completely undermines the seriousness of the dark side in this tale of darkness vs. light. Kaspar, in the tale, has known and traded with the Devil, and is running out of time, which is why he concocts this scheme with Max. Kaspar, in the OA production, is Jack from Will and Grace.

Both men have plenty of chance to shine vocally, the tenor getting a sad aria, the bari singing an incantation song and the closing aria “Silence, let no one warn him” (Garvanliev in full splendor, if you can ignore the hand-clasp, hand-to-the-sky gesturing). There is also a chorus of villagers, a trio, dance numbers of course, and much else, including the on-stage violin solo by Aisslinn Nosky.

Act 2 opens in women’s quarters, with Äanchen (Carla Huhtanen) leading the happenings with great comic flourish. She is the more practical and infinitely funnier – also a lighter soprano — ladyfriend to Meghan Lindsay’s Agathe. The two women are finely cast, and Lindsay’s voice has a very different, somewhat metallic colour, certainly appealing and certainly heavier in capacity, as her character is darker. The banter from Äanchen about boys she is attracted to could have been written today. Her comic mode continues even after Max arrives for a rendez-vous with Agatha.

After a change of scene, we are at the Wolf’s Glen, where Kaspar and Max are supposed to meet Kaspar’s underworld connection, actually Satan himself, here under the name of Samiel. Max has visions that prevent him coming down to join Kaspar. As Gerard Gauci explains in his Set Designer Notes, for these he used the period theatrical device called Fantascope, which projects images into walls and screens. The images projected do produce some creepiness, although the same and more would have been achieved with a regular overhead projector à la Daniel Barrow. The dancers who come in with the long waves of cloth and the choreography distract from the dread. The casting of the bullets, however, works really well: a flame consisting of human of hands comes out from under the stage and precisely to the music, each time one of the hand remains and gives the ring to Kaspar.

The less said about the naked Beefcake Satan (admirably stoic Curtis Sullivan), the better.

Intermission follows, and after it, we are back at Agathe’s room, where she is telling Äanchen about a nightmare she had. Von Weber reduced orchestration to strings here, and the setting becomes very intimate. The star of the much of this part of opera is the cello in the pit, which was the primary mover and colour-provider for most of what was happening. (Violas? Sounded like one cello to me, but I’d have to check the score to be sure.) Back up on the stage, it seems that Pynkoski doesn’t like the idea of leaving the two women without male presence for a minute, so we get the dancer/butler who watches over the two friends in silence, just like in the act 2.

It’s downhill from there. The competition takes place, Max misses and the bullet ends up going in the direction of the falling Agathe. Everybody weeps and mourns gesturally, until Agathe comes to, and the crowd parts to reveal the wounded Kaspar, whose buddy Samiel finally gets his payback. All is revealed and Max’s lack of faith and constancy publicly excoriated until a Wise Hermit (a really good bass, Gustav Andreassen) emerges from the crowd to remind them that clemency is among the highest virtues, that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, and so on. Let us all praise the Heavens Above, that are clement to us, he sings, and everybody points to the sky and sings. Agathe’s father promises to end the shootouts as a practice of testing valour. There is a nice sextet at the end, but it is drowned in the glaring ultra-conservative ideology of the scene.

Those who are already OA devotees will like this production as something a little bit different but safely within the permanently preset parameters of the OA aesthetic. Others can enjoy the two first acts as competently done escapism, and scratch their heads over the rest, and then the nature of this work, and how it could be credibly staged today.

Revealing Anne Lister: a BBC doc with Sue Perkins

Revealing Anne Lister: a BBC doc with Sue Perkins

Glorious find: comedienne/conductor Sue Perkins explores the life of Anne Lister, a Regency landowner who left a coded diary recording her sexual encounters and love affairs with “the fairer sex.” She also managed to get married to a woman. In a church. A fantastic documentary with not a trace of Regency-stalgia, with interviews with Amanda Vickery (of Behind Closed Doors fame), Helena Whitbread (who was the first historian ever to manage to publish the notorious diaries in the eighties), Margaret Reynolds, and more.

Run, don’t walk to see this (also because when the Beeb notices, it will act). Part one:

Part two:

Part three:

Part four:

On my way to ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’…

On my way to ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’…

…I bumped into Marivaux. And I’ll be delayed for a while.

Been trying to find  the best way to approach Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for some time now, and lately chatting with Lucia of OpOb about it. All sources I consulted directed me to Marivaux and  that particular genre of drama that boomed in the ancien regime (Marivaux, Des Laclos, Goldoni, Beaumarchais) and Restoration (Congreve) which is often about the interchangeability of human beings, mechanical love, and the importance of money in most intimate human affairs. Some of these are incredibly contemporary — moreover, they are more accurate and with more radical sexual politics than anything we see on TV or pop culture today.

So I started reading Marivaux with the 2004 Martin Crimp’s translation and adaptation of The False Servant, which was also staged at the National Theatre in London that year. And what do you know: it’s a play with one the most fantastic en travesti (or White Shirt if you will) role I’ve ever seen, in opera or off.

Nancy Carroll plays a young woman who dresses as a man (Chevalier – Kavalier, anybody?) in order to befriend and discredit a potential unsuitable suitor, the money-chaser Lelio. Meanwhile, Lelio’s waning love interest, the Countess (played by the ever divine Charlotte Rampling) falls for the Chevalier. Seemingly, the twists of the plot require it, but actually Chevalier seduces the Countess because she wants to seduce the Countess. The long, tension-filled exchanges between the two make the central part of the play.

And the ending… is no usual denouement. There’s no denouement, period. In this regard, the reversals and plays of sexual differences are not reordered back together to their conservative early state. The play leaves everything open, and could have been written by a 20C modernist.

Chevalier: …The fact is, you love me, and your heart is mine. I’ll do whatever I want with it, just as you can do whatever you please with mine: those are the rules — which you will observe — because I say so.

“Love needs love scenes: being in love means / playing the lover’s part: / your eyes look into mine, I know that’s the sign / the cue I take from you to start.” [Musicians]

Cast & creative for the 2004 NT production here.

We interrupt this program…

We interrupt this program…

… to deliver a short message.

Pride Parade in Belgrade, 2010

After several attempts and cancellations, the Belgrade Pride Parade, only the second ever in the city, took place.  It actually did. So. No matter what you read about the rest of the day, my friend Jim Bartley summed it up best: “Successful Pride March in Belgrade today as hundreds of thugs trashed the city after cops barred them from attacking happy queers.” And another friend on the ground, Radmila Stojanovic: “Gay Pride marchers in Belgrade today walked through streets free of hate. Those who disapproved where kept far far away by cordons of police who were at the receiving end of the bricks & sticks meant for the Pride marchers.” Her photo reportage here.

Gay around the world, while we’re at it.

What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

What happens in Venice, stays in the canon

Alan Bennett‘s latest National Theatre play The Habit of Art spurred more interest in an opera that is already firmly in the operatic canon, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice. The play was simulcast in movie theatres across the world earlier this year and if you missed it you ought to get a DVD when it becomes available. It brings together W H Auden and Benjamin Britten for a tension-filled chat about the opera Britten’s working on, based on the novella by Thomas Mann and involving a man obsessed by a boy. The encounter is imaginary — it seems that Britten never considered Auden as a potential librettist for the Death — but the history between the two men in the play isn’t.

Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London
Richard Griffiths (Auden), Adrian Scarborough (biographer Humphrey Carpenter) and Alex Jennings (Britten), in the Habit of Art, National Theatre London

There is plenty in the play for the lovers of Britten’s music. The strategically placed audio excerpts from Peter Grimes and his other works are an important part of the play, but there’s also a lot of lively give and take between the two about Britten’s way of working, his place in the western music canon, his de facto husband Peter Pears (who, as we hear more than once with a tone of foreboding, is at the moment far away, “in Toronto”) and his coping with his inner censor. “Death in Venice! Imagine what Strauss would do with that,” says Auden/Fitz wistfully on one occasion. “Yes, sea is your thing, isn’t it,” it occurs to him how to classify Britten on another. In one particularly heated exchange, he urges Britten to drop the mythological mystification, Apollos and Dionysuses and all the high brow obfuscation about lost innocence when it’s really all about boys to begin with. He urges Britten to admit to himself that it is all about boys, and that that is just as good.

Worth reading is Alan Bennett’s own account on why he wrote the play, what sources he used and why he believes himself to be closer to Britten, and even the visiting rent boy, rather than Auden. UK’s National Theatre also posted a short clip from the documentary about the two lives and the play, which contains many gems. (If you go here and click on Alan Bennett Short Film, you’ll get there. NT is keeping its clips close to its Flash chest.)

Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation
Benjamin Britten on Lowestoft sea wall, 1929. Photo: Britten-Pears Foundation

The Canadian Opera Company is putting on Death in Venice in mid-October this year, with Alan Oke as Gustav von Aschenbach. Oke already performed in the role in many productions to acclaim (“Ever since Peter Pears and Anthony Rolfe Johnson…” and so on). There is a photo gallery on the COC site of a Opera Lyon production with Oke, but in thumbnail size. The audio files — yes, those still exist on some websites, and COC has yet to discover YouTube — are from an earlier Death conducted by Steuart Bedford, with the English Chamber Orchestra, Members of The English Opera Group and Peter Pears as Aschenbach. Bedford will conduct the upcoming COC production.

Meanwhile, here’s a reportage from the recent gorgeous Staatsoper Hamburg staging: