Interview: David McVicar

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

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

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

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

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

I.

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

What have you seen?

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

I probably didn’t like it either.

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

That’s a good number.

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

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

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

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

That was the Met production?

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

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

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

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

Ross…

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

What about I Capuletti?

I don’t want to do that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noooooooo!

Some film directors do that.

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

I’ll do it if it tells the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes but the ‘community’ kills Don Giovanni.

Does it though? Does it?

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

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

Yes, that’s it.

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

Does it glamourize evil?

Of course it does.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He also has a criminal record I think?

He’s a murderer.

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

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

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

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

You put the negotiation scene in the bedroom.

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

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

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

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

III.

Your Vienna Staatsoper debut was last year in Ariodante?

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

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

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

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

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

Productions with staying power, though?

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

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

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

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

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

And the rest, as they say, is history.

It’s been revived various places, Chicago…

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

And a countertenor sang it, alas.

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

 OMFG where to start.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there going to be another independence vote for Scotland?

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

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

Dead Equal, a new opera about women in combat

If you happen to be anywhere near Scotland this summer, make sure you check out the Edinburgh Fringe, the probably globally best known r&d festival of theatrical expression which usually doesn’t have much opera on offer. This year, however, one operatic indie, in part crowd-funded and entirely written, composed and directed by women, caught my eye: a chamber opera about Flora Sandes, the British volunteer combatant who donned the trouser and joined Serbian Army at the start of World War I, and her contemporary Emily Simmonds who travelled to the Balkan front as a nurse. In the second act, the story moves to our era and follows British female soldiers who come to Afghanistan as medics and tackles the questions around women’s front-line participation (finally officially allowed by the British Army in 2016, but in effect present in some form or other since 1999), unit cohesion in heterosocial context, soldier attachment, why choose a life of professional warfare etc. There is a Canadian connection: soprano Teiya Kasahara sings the role of Flora Sandes in the Edinburgh production and is happily Instagramming about the experience, if you’re on there (the odd tweet appears too).

I seriously hope that after Edinburgh this will be revived somewhere in the UK, which will increase the chance of my crossing its path. The Brits can catch it on August 13-15 and 20-25. Dead Equal is written by Lila Palmer, composed by Rose Miranda Hall and directed by Miranda Cromwell.

A brilliant BBC backgrounder on possible reasons why Sandes is still fairly unknown by the Britons is worth a read.

And the excellent Margaret MacMillan’s Reith Lectures on the changing nature of war and the warrior are still up. Women war historians are pretty much as few as women warriors.

Flora Sandes with Serbian soldiers

ALERT: A mezzo Cesare coming up

Britain’s Opera North recently announced the 19/20 season and whaddaya know: a mezzo Cesare is in the offing, that precious and almost extinct species.

This fall, the northern four-city opera is reviving Tim Albery’s 2012 Cesare, which also starred a mezzo in the title role, Pamela Helen Stephen (below). This year, the role goes to Lithuanian mezzo Justina Gringyte alongside Sophie Bevan’s Cleopatra.

Pamela Helen Stephen in Opera North’s 2012 production of Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Photo: Tristram Kenton

When Cross-Sex Casting Doesn’t Quite Work

Philip Riccio as Joe Clark and Christopher Hunt (in the background) as John Crosbie in Michael Healey’s 1979, directed by Miles Potter. Photo: Benjamin Laird Arts Photography

Here’s an argument you’ve never heard me make before: in a limited number of cases, women should not be cast in male roles.

Cross-sex or ‘gender-neutral’ casting is now customary across English-speaking world because so many classical works (see first of all: Shakespeare) have so few great female roles. Woman playing Hamlet, or Lear, or Cesar, or Prospero, can work really really well–and there have been many notable cases where it did.

But cross-sex casting in contemporary plays? Why not write plays with women in them, rather than write all-male plays and then hire women for some of the male roles?

A couple of days ago I went to see Michael Healey’s latest, 1979. As readers of this blog will already know, I am a fan of Michael Healey’s work, both as playwright and actor. 1979 dramatizes the night when Joe Clark, Canada’s first Progressive Conservative Prime Minister after a 15-year hegemony by Trudeau’s Liberals, is about to lose his first budget vote and with it the government. Clark is PM for a few months only before PET returns as the leader of the Liberals and beats him in the next election–and goes on to campaign for the unity side in the Quebec referendum, repatriate the Constitution and introduce the Charter of Rights.

First Conservative Leader and first PM from out west, the non-charismatic Joe Who? however has integrity to burn–and a Red Tory vision of the country that does not pit region vs region, refrains from patronage and pork-barrelling, and is fundamentally anti-Thatcherist (Thatcher has just won the UK general election across the pond by antagonizing rather than unifying). Canada is different, Joe Clark is certain. The NDP and the Liberals are united in wanting to take his minority government down–everybody hates the gas tax he’s about to introduce, does nothing ever change in federal politics–while six of the members of his own caucus don’t bother showing up for this life-or-death vote. Does he start bargaining, threatening, cajoling in order to convert some opposition MPs? Does he simply postpone the vote for however long the government needs to line the ducks in a row, the not-unheard of and legal and legit parliamentary move? (Employed as recently as last month by one Theresa May before her Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament, btw.)

Neither, actually. The Clark of 1979 (and this is probably close to what happened in real life) believes that if he can’t get the votes for the budget, he does not have the moral right to govern. And that’s it. The country will go back to the polls, where he will, he believes, properly beat PET this time and return with a majority.

Several figures visit Clark on this fateful night. Actor Christopher Hunt plays John Crosbie, Clark’s finance minister, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and for a few brief and pointless minutes in hard-to-pull-off-without-camp drag, Flora MacDonald. Just the glorious conversation between PET and Clark is in itself worth going to this play for, as is the one near the end, between the young page Stephen Harper and PM Clark. But Harper is played by a woman.

Namely, there’s a third actor in the cast, and her name is Jamie Konchak. She shines as Flora MacDonald and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer, but as a very sleazy Brian Mulroney who will go on to win the next PC leadership race and become Canada’s answer to Reagan and Thatcher, she is drag-kinging it, parodying, camping it up. Not for a second did I believe that female-bodied and female-voiced Mulroney is in any way threatening to Clark in their scene of confrontation.

Worse, the final big conversation between the “Steve”, who has the advantage of knowing the future, in particular the future of the united Reform+PC Conservative Party too, and the amused and tolerant Clark just doesn’t work: the passionate monologues about hegemony, Thatcherism, the electoral benefits of charisma-less leaders, Canadian West, and how to hold on to power–none of that really rings through when told by a young woman performing a man. (Plus… the wigs are so bad I wondered if they were purchased at Dollarama)

The two female characters both complain at various points how sexist the Parliament Hill is–and how men’s hands on women’s behinds, including theirs, are not exactly a rare occurrence. That is a fact: the 1979 parliamentary life was still a colossal sausage-fest. Women in public life or adjacent to it via their husbands were being treated badly and patronized. Biggest decisions have been made by men and men only. The single-minded Stephen Harper and the sleazy, threatening Mulroney should have been played by men. The federal power circles were (and probably still are) that claustrophobic. A male body and deep-speaking voice is almost necessary in order to be granted admission. (Crystia Freeland is changing this now, luckily.)

There exist plays without women that are extremely good. I am not a fan of any kind of creation that denies the existence of women but I can’t pretend that such creations can’t be, in a limited number of existing cases, superb. Who would you cross-sex cast in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross? I don’t think it would work. What about, say, Michael Frayn’s Democracy, the play about Willy Brandt without a single female character? (It’s a good play, I was shocked to discover.) Or what about James Graham’s This House, which has one (1) female character, or his latest drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, which is largely an affair between factions of men? Or any of the BBC movies on British political life, like The Deal by Peter Morgan, on the deal between Blair and Brown? None of these would have worked I think with women playing characters like Blair and Brandt.

It’s hard to write women into historical political events, innit? because they are, to this day, most often excluded.  Casting women in roles of powerful men is kind of like asking us to pretend that this wasn’t the case.

But do see the play though and tell me if I’m wrong. Tickets here. They’re really affordable for arts workers, seniors, students, people willing to rush it (rush it, it’s never sold out); I got an excellent seat for $20.

Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

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

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

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

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.

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

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

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

Lauren Margison

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

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

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

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

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

L’Histoire de la soldate

Suzanne Roberts Smith and Jonathan Crow in L’Histoire du soldat directed by Alaina Viau for the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Photographer James Ireland.

By casting a woman in the title role in Stravinsky’s kind-of staged L’Histoire du soldat performed last night at Koerner Hall in the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Alaina Viau effectively rescued this rather thin story from the fate of being but a curious Russian folkloric riff on Faustian bargaining. The text, based on a story by Aleksandr Afanasjev, involves a returning soldier striking a bargain with the devil and losing everything in exchange for the magic ability to create wealth with the help of, um, a magic book. He eventually saves an ailing yet dancing princess (dancer and choreographer Jennifer Nichols) but by the end loses her again by disobeying the devil’s injunction never to leave the confines of the palace? It’s a tale alternating between confusing and tedious, with not enough Stravinsky’s music to make it all worthwhile. It is a piece in need of directorial intervention.

We did get that in one respect: the Soldier-Princess storyline is livened up with the woman + woman casting; the travails and tribulations of a wandering soldier, and the obstacles to charming a princess, are a very different game when a female principal is involved. Suzanne Roberts Smith, give or take a spot of goofy miming of fiddle playing, was a credible and handsome soldier, sometimes clueless, sometimes foolhardy, always engaging. Jennifer Nichols was appropriately enigmatic and distant as the Princess on pointe.

The Narrator and the Devil on the other hand were merged into one, which didn’t work as well. L’Histoire is often performed with one person taking on all the roles, but once you begin to distinguish the characters, there is no reason to leave any two merged. The fact that Derek Boyes (who performed in L’Histoire many times before) read his words from the script wasn’t ideal either. It felt like some parts of the production were staged and others not.

More work could have been done in the visual side of story-telling. The lighting and the video remained modest; I am not of course expecting the William Kentridge scale, but a stronger presence of the visuals would have considerably improved things, which remained under-defined, as if grappling towards an idea. On the upside, Viau did give bits of stage business to the orchestra, the TSO Chamber Soloists with TSMF’s AD Jonathan Crow on the violin.

The Soldat was preceded by a concert performance of Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland. Scored for more instruments than the Stravinsky piece, Spring brought to the stage some of the TSMF Academy Chamber Music fellows. There are parts of stunning lyricism in Spring that otherwise sounds very familiarly American, with citations from folk and dance, and an overall upbeat-ness.

At the opposite end of that, and at opposite end of the night, there was Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time at 10:30pm, billed as the TSMF Late Night Encore. The hall was emptied to one third of occupied seats when Jonathan Crow, Julie Albers (cello), Miles Jaques (clarinet) and Natasha Paremski (piano) came out and dug into the first movement, ‘Liturgie de cristal’. As one movement followed the other, the narrow vertical screen showed video, mostly abstract shapes changing ever so slightly. For the movement with clarinet solo, the lights went down in the house and the only things remaining lit were musicians’ stands.

Good ideas, but not enough of them, and executed modestly.

Messiaen’s war camp quartet is a tricky choice for a late night performance. It has long stretches of mournful and/or monotonous sound-making: a long violin line sul ponticello that varies in intensity and stretches eeeever so slowly to its extinction, is just one example. There was not much demanding our attention from the stage (except when trying to fend off the idea this video art looks too much like a screensaver I used to have…) and as we were pushing past 11pm, there was quite bit of nodding off all around me. Again, more directing wouldn’t have gone amiss – more doing stuff with the lights, both house lights and stage lighting. Still, there was something pleasantly taboo-breaking about a late night concert. It had a less formal atmosphere perhaps, and breaking the house lights rules contributed to that.

TSMF continues apace. There is a Russo-German chamber program tonight, and on Saturday it’s back to reGeneration, the final round.

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A quick snapshot at the end of the Quartet for the End of Time: l-r Natasha Paremski, Julie Albers, Miles Jaques and Jonathan Crow

Toronto Summer Music Art of Song Academy – first concerts

I wrote a bit of a preview on the TSMF’s Art of Song Academy in the summer issue of Wholenote.

The first of the recitals have just started happening. Yesterday, Julius Drake, who’s been working with the singers the preceding week, held a Master Class with four of them — four mezzo-sopranos, as it happens. It was really interesting to follow a master class that assigns equal amount of importance to the piano as to the voice. There is repertoire which fundamentally *comes* from the piano, and if that side isn’t finessed out or painted boldly, there’s no amount of voice and textual interpretation that’ll save the song.

This was extremely clear in his work around Fauré‘s A Clymene (Danielle Vaillancourt with Jinhee Park at the piano), Grieg’s Ein Traum (Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong, piano). In Britten’s song about a mother losing patience with the baby who won’t sleep from A Charm of Lullabies (Lyndsay Promane with Leona Cheung) Drake pointed out something else: that the singing wasn’t interacting with the piano — whereas the text should be coming as a response to it.

And always, always, insistence on the text. That the singer look at it very closely and carefully and understand all the nuances. Should an important nuance be lost (say, the foreboding in Berg’s Nacht), the song is lost. After Vaillancourt sang Jean Coulthard’s The White Rose, quite a bit of time was spent on saying the words passion and love and what it means to colour each differently.

And in Rossini’s song Il rimprovero, the operatic virtuosity needed to be dialled down to a salon song. Renee Fajardo (with Pierre-André Doucet on piano), whose voice is indeed the embarrassment of riches, had to switch from the operatic AAAAH into the sigh-like Aah. Similarly, Drake asked Doucet to tone down the cheeriness and make the fiorituras in the piano score more laden and melodic by changing the dynamic. It was quite interesting to observe.

I came out of the class quite a fan of Drake. He is soft-spoken–had to move closer to hear what he was saying to the pianists–and wastes no words. At every turn he shows sharpness, sound judgment and impeccable instincts, but without any flashiness or self-importance. I did know he was good communicator since I attended his concert with Gerald Finley earlier in the year (while GF on the other hand can’t really do chatty informal eloquence…), and yesterday he impressed further. He reminded me of this piece by one my favourite columnists Janice Turner that just came out on the weekend, on the quiet, non-self-promoting heroism; there is such a thing as the quiet, non-self-promoting brilliance in art.

+ + + +

The first reGENERATION concert (why they insist on that awkward moniker, beats me) took place today at 1 p.m. There was no detailed program, and I neglected to write down everything, so I’m working from memory here, pardon. Karen Schriesheim and Frances Armstrong returned with Ein Traum, which sounded more polished and energetic than the day before, though the piano could go much more wild — I felt Armstrong was still too polite with it. Schriesheim’s voice is already beautiful and voluminous – a high, bright, soprano-y mezzo that, as the song demands, bursts out by the end. Where there’s perhaps a bit more work to do is in the interpretation department; cockiness is all right–who among us didn’t know everything in our twenties?–but may put the blinkers on a singer.

Florence Bourget and Leona Cheung opened with Debussy’s Songs of Bilitis and it was I think the most accomplished set of the four. It was an artistically mature, well thought-out presentation of this sensuous cycle that’s available in some top notch recordings. Bourget is one of the contralto-y timbre’d mezzos in this year’s Academy. The voice is nimble and elastic, its opulence doesn’t hinder it. Extra points for the elegantissimo yet neutral black jump suit, an atypical dress choice. (Tip: elaborate dresses and hair may distract the listener from the job at hand, which is imaging a world based on the words and the music.)

Soprano Meave Palmer (piano: Jinhee Park) sang Strauss’ Ophelia songs. Although the voice is still very young and in the bud, she has a great dramatic gift already and a keen interest in contemporary music, which is always exciting to see. Toronto tenor Joey Jang is also young and possibly found himself undermined by a bad case of nerves. His singing was tentative, but there’s a sumptuous tenor tone in there waiting to come into development.

The level of singing overall is really quite something. Each of the musicians at the TSMF AofS Academy is on a donor sponsorship–a scholarship, really. You can catch them for another round of recitals next Saturday. I’ll be there again, at least for one, possibly both. Julius Drake and Christoph Pregardien meanwhile (on Tuesday, to be precise) will do a recital before the German tenor takes over the class of 2018.

And Glyndebourne happened

To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.

Photo is a deft multi-head selfie taken by Monique C (far right)
The house
Around the house

Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo