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.”


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.”


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.”


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.

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

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: