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).
Pics from the recent Opera Atelier production of Idomeneo. Wallis Giunta (Idamante) and Meghan Lindsay (Ilia). Did not go to see this because ~ Opera Atelier be Opera Ateliering ~ but if the OA Alcina from a few years back is anything to go by, the two women must have been excellent together. All photos by Bruce Zinger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo