Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

The concert started with the lights down and a Debussy flute solo, Syrinx, by Kelly Zimba placed not on the stage but up on the centre-mezzanine. The three-minute piece led uninterrupted into Hannigan conducting and singing Sibelius’s Luonnotar for soprano and orchestra. The work uses the first poem from Elias Lönnrot’s nineteenth-century epic cycle Kalevala, on the female nature-spirit of the air who comes down to the water and… interacts with the elements to create the universe. So we start with nothing less than the creation of the universe. The Sibelius tone poem sounds much later than mid-19th–it sounds in fact early modernist with unRomantic, unmelodic, not straightforwardly emo orchestral colours and vocal material for the soprano and with a kinda overall abstractness. We tend to (well, I do) paint the nineteenth with the same brush, but that’s where modernism started–Turner was already painting, Debussy composing, and Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé and Emily Dickinson writing poems. Hannigan added her Hannigan performing magic to the poem and melded singing and conducting into singer-conducting, and this sometimes meant she wasn’t going to turn to the audience but sing facing the orchestra. It made perfect sense in the context.

Off we went, with a halved orchestra, to Haydn’t upbeat Symphony 86, a delight in all its four movements. I think I heard La Hannigan intone the first bars to the orchestra before the second, Largo, movement, and that too felt perfectly fine. A singer is conducting, why wouldn’t she hum at some point or other?

After the intermission, Alban Berg’s Symphonic Pieces from the Opera Lulu, which clocks at about 30 min, was the chunkiest chunk on this eclectic menu. The moods of the Rondo, Ostinato, the song, the variations and the Adagio are diverse enough to keep you involved, and while the orchestral forces are considerable, they did not trundle but dance. Midway in, the singing returns, and Hannigan turns around and sings the Lied der Lulu with a fresh, girly voice.

The George Gershwin suite from the musical Girl Grazy, arranged by Hannigan and Bill Elliott and orchestrated by Elliott, concluded the set. The four songs were flowing into one another, without interruptions for applause (excellent decision), and for this performance the singer was miked (logical as she, for the most part, did not sing in operatic voice and the brass section can get intense). I would probably describe this arrangement as a touch Bergian: Gershwin meets Berg in ‘But not for me’, ‘Strike up the band’, ‘Embraceable you’ and ‘I Got Rhythm’. Hannigan had the men of the TSO sing a section of ‘Embraceable you’ and now we know they can definitely carry a tune. Get that hidden choir out for a walk more frequently, conductors.

Hannigan has nothing left to prove as a musician at this point and if orchestras are asking her to conduct and program, more power to her and them. I was skeptical at first–there are a lot of women who have undergone long/endless training to be conductors for whom these doors remain closed shut, and Hannigan’s celebrity certainly precedes her. But so does her musicianship and artistry, which are undeniable. So after initial misgivings I am now completely favour of the already established singers switching to conducting (like Nathalie Stutzmann, and Hannigan herself). Whoever’s in position to make a crack in that stubborn glass ceiling, I’ll celebrate it. Sometimes it will be musicians who have had a career in another area, and that is fine.

As Hannigan’s singer-conducting programs with the TSO and other orchestras show, she can be an innovative programmer and innovative performance director. She may become even freer and more experimental as her reputation as a conductor grows, and I’ll be curious to see where La Ha and partner orchestras will take the concert format in the future.

There’s one more performance tonight

Top and bottom: Hannigan with the TSO. Both photos by Jag Gundu.

2018 in books

It was an odd year in books, with some notable disappointments and some unexpected delights.

January started well, with Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, a witty memoir of how one man reorganized his life–and retrained his concentration–to make room for book reading. A lot more book reading, that is, and most of it literary fiction, which improved pretty much every other aspect of his life, and lifted off the fog of general discontent and inertia. I followed it with a sociological classic, Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, which is a study of the British working class culture before American pop culture and American mass media took over there, as would everywhere else around the globe. The month ended with Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies, a look at the darker corners of the internet manosphere like 4chan, an activist book that has since come under scrutiny for unreliable referencing. (The publisher, Zero Books, replied with a “we never claimed this was a work of academic research”. ^^)

What the hell happened in February that kept me from reading? There’s a single book in my records for that month, and my memory is blank. I didn’t travel anywhere, and I don’t think I had any huge writing assignments? In any case, the book is Kapka Kassabova’s Border, which disappointed mightily and which I started skipping near the end. It looked promising on paper: a Bulgarian expat returns to the permeable borders of the Balkans to write about the then and the now. Ah but a couple of chapters in and we are settled in the Balkanism genre: Jungian mysticism (collective unconscious! archetypes!) meets magic realism meets lazy writing. No.

March improved the state of the affairs: Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work (her memoir of motherhood which brought her so much flak for daring to voice some ambiguities), Leila Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny (it’s fine, and Slimani’s public engagement is fabulous, but the book won’t be one of my favourite psychological thrillers of all time). Chris Power’s collection of short stories, Mothers, completes the month.

In April, I got round to reading Jose Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (which was an intriguing look at a writer who doesn’t want to engage politically while the world is being set on fire), Peter Boyle’s indescribable poetry ‘anthology’ Ghostspeaking (where he voices a number of invented poets, gives them biographies and distinct esthetic approaches), Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox (my favourite that month and a highlight of the year. One of  the best things that Galley Beggars published) and Lisa Halliday’s Assymetry (in which she puts her former lover Philip Roth and their May-December affair into fiction… but also she is aware that that’s an exercise in narcissism, so she counteracts the affair part of the book with a section where an American of Iraqi origin tells about his complicated Americannes and troubles in belonging and the war in Iraq… One of those beautifully written books that do nothing for me).

Apart from Esther Kinsky’s River (another book where somebody with means to travel does travel and wanders slightly unfamiliar landscapes for a while (in this case, London’s outer edges), without much pressure to earn a living, and tells us how uprooted she is, but it’s the human condition innit), May was good. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood is for the most part brilliant; I would have excised or reworked the slumped mid section where the narrator is doing nothing by staying home, crying and having arguments with live-in partner–over and over. Dimitri Nasrallah’s The Bleeds is a funny and fast-paced take on a certain kind of exaggerated east Mediterranean masculinity–and the way it’s entangled (wedded?) with the region’s political culture. Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger was a delight–her voice is always lively–although it only contains well off people. That it kept me interested and entertained in spite of that is a credit to its author.

Janet Malcolm’s Psychoanalysis was one of the best books I’ve read all year, and one of the best books ever written on psychotherapy period. Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex 3 is the other book I managed to finagle this month of travel. While Vernon 1 and 2 built up the expectations for the creation (at least in fiction) of a new radical collectivity, Vernon 3 deflated them. The group around Vernon falls apart, Paris is wounded by terrorist attacks.

Deborah Cameron’s gorgeous (and you can almost hear her deep contralto speaking voice in the tone of the writing–unamused, wry, fair) The Myth of Mars and Venus dissects how pervasive the “women are naturally like this, men are naturally like that” myth in neuroscience, language studies, and popular culture is. Edith Hall’s Aristotle’s Way was surprisingly humdrum and would have worked better as a long-form essay. Rosalie Knecht’s Who is Vera Kelly? was joy from start to finish. Imagine if Patricia Highsmith was out, and imagine if she was a feminist, and also imagine if she centred female characters? That’ll  give you an idea of what Knecht’s Argentinial spy romp, Vera, is like. Olga Tokarczuk’s extraordinary Flights (Int’l Man Booker Winner; beat Binet’s Seventh Function of Language, and Despentes’ Vernon, among others) rounds up the month.

Rachel Cusk Kudos, Kitty Aldridge’s A Trick I Learned From Dead Men, Andrew Sheer Greer’s Less and Dasa Drndic’s EEG filled up my August reading time. September, Drndic continues (I won’t say much about her work here as I’m working on a longer Thing for an Online Literary Magazine) with Dying in Toronto, Belladonna and Trieste. Catherine Price’s How to Break Up With Your Phone made me stop and think. And adopt a re-training of attention regime, part-time. It’s a struggle. Jacqueline Rose’s Mothers was tremendous: a collection of psychoanalytic essays on what we expect of mothers and why.

October was a travel month, so only two to report: Daniel de Roulet’s Quand vos nuits se morcellent (written in the form of letters to Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler) and Drndic’s April in Berlin.

Paul Ewen/Francis Plug’s Writer in Residence, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, Ivana Sajko’s The History of My Family from 1941 to 1991 and Further, and Drndic’ Leica Format were what you would call books in traditional format of the month of November. I say traditional, because I’ve discovered Posy Simmonds’ graphic art by this time and really got into it. PS’s Mrs Weber Omnibus (the entire collection of her comic strips written for the Guardian over the many years), Gemma Bovery and this year’s offering, Cassandra Darke, have been a shining light in a darkening winter.

I finished off this bout of PS with Tamara Drewe in December. Then I turned to the latest collection of short stories by Ben Marcus Notes from the Fog, which didn’t go down well. His Leaving the Sea I thought was genius; this one is clearly what BM sounds like when he’s coasting. Every story is in the same mode (a less imaginative Black Mirror) and contains the same heterosexual couple who are falling apart. I also read Drndic’ Doppelgaenger; KD Miller’s stories inspired by Alex Colville paintings, Late Breaking; Nicola Pugliese’s Malacqua (endless rain in Naples and some inexplicable local events are messing up the locals). Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (fun fun fun) and Alexandra Oliver’s excellent poetry collection Let the Empire Down complete my December and my year.

Edited to add: This is the first time in, like, probably ever that I’ve read more women than men in a calendar year. Waaaaay more women than men, and not on purpose, I did not set out to do that. Which is a good & hope-giving note to end the year on.

2018 in Music

Bavarian State Opera, October 2018

Music-wise, this is what stood out, locally and internationally.

TOP FIVE: In Toronto, Han-na Chang guest-conducting the TSO in Mahler 5 was an experience out of the ordinary. Nicole Lizee’s Tables Turned at Tapestry/Luminato, though small in scale and budget, was large in innovation and theatre magic. Tafelmusik’s Safe Haven, programmed around the themes of refugees and immigration from baroque onward was a musical statement that we all needed. I went to Hockey Noir, an opera by Andre Ristic, not expecting much as I’ve no great interest in hockey, but I was hooked immediately. Fun Home, a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel, was joy and tears from start to finish.

At home, the most significant event in large scale opera was arguably Rufus Wainwright and Daniel McIvor’s Hadrian. It looks like of all the Toronto-area opera critics I’ve liked it the most? Which is not to say I was a fan, but its ambition, I have to say, appealed, and the fact that it engaged the brain as well as the raw emotion. McVicar’s Glyndebourne revival of Cesare, which is a hit after hit after hit and which I own on DVD, tops my Big Opera list, as does Opera Comique’s revival of the bizarre Gounod werk, La Nonne sanglante. The staging by David Bobee is a lesson in how to salvage a work with a smart production. In Munich, I saw Castorf’s From the House of the Dead, and while the production did not engage, the BSO’s orchestra under Simone Young was this opera’s Technicolor dream coat and worth the price of admission. For the brazen deconstruction of Carmen that paid off, the ROH cinemacast of Barrie Kosky’s production is definitely among the highlights of the year. The biggest opera disappointment this year was, in a highly competitive field, Ivo van Hove’s Boris Godunov at the Bastille. It was “people in suits, singing before some video projections” concept. And I paid E100 for the pleasure of squinting from the Bastille balcony. I am not going back; I’m taking the Bastille only in streaming from now on.

Also worth mentioning this year: Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage, Soundstreams presents Andre Ristic, Juliet Palmer & Steve Reich in Six Pianos, and the very last edition of New Creations Festival at the TSO.

Coming up tomorrow: 2018 in theatre, visual arts and film

Joyce El-Khoury and Beste Kalender in recital

A few (belatedly posted) thoughts on the Joyce El-K and Beste K recent concert at the RCM, on the Wholenote website.

Art songs delivered in a full-on operatic register within a small resonant space such as Mazzoleni Hall can be hard to take, I’ve learned last Sunday.

On the program at the RCM’s intimate, chapel-like hall were French a few of the mélodies with an Orientalist flair, as well as a selection of Lebanese and Turkish folk songs in new arrangements chosen by the two singers, soprano Joyce El-Khoury and mezzo Beste Kalender. Robert Kortgaard and Rachel Andrist accompanied from the piano, and for one Ravel cycle Nora Shulman (flute) and David Hetherington (cello) joined the mezzo onstage. It was a well-programmed concert, diverse and thematically unified at the same time.

Joyce El-Khoury (c) Fay FoxEl-Khoury, Lebanese-Canadian soprano highly in-demand internationally as Violetta and Mimi, is a singer of exceptional glamour and stage presence. Her voice is opulent, with a beautiful upper top, but it did not seem like El-Khoury recalibrated it for the more contained, subtle and withholding recital genre. Most of the singing, whether that was the intention or not, came through as fairly loud—and I was seated in the last row. On that level, Ravel’s ‘Asie’ from Shéhérazade sounds almost irate. ‘Île inconnu’ from Berlioz and Gautier’s masterwork Les nuits d’été was a very loud statement, rather than a cheery invitation to voyage that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But things changed in part two of the concert, in El-Khoury’s program of Lebanese songs which she introduced and which are personally meaningful to her. As if by a magic wand, there it was: the real song intimacy. As if a camera zoomed in to a private moment between friends. This was an entirely different singer, very much capable of pianissimi, full of thoughtful inwardness, implicit rather than explicit, and generous.

Beste Kalender. Photo by Codrut ToleaMezzo Beste Kalender was more consistent. A fine French diction and rich dark timbre enhanced every song. Seductive and mischievous in ‘Les roses d’Ispahan’ by Fauré, Kalender added some wicked castanets playing to her gamut in Ravel’s ‘Zaïde: Boléro’. She was particularly memorable in Ravel’s Chansons madécasses, alongside the flute and the cello. ‘Nahandove’ is unusually sensuous, even for a French song, and it would be fair to describe it as, in fact, sexual (‘Arrête, ou je vais mourir / Meurt-on de volupté’). It, and the third song ‘Il est doux’, are voiced by a male narrator. He greets the female lover in the first, and orders female servants gently about in the third, but the middle song ‘Awa!’ is an outburst and a warning against such men. ‘Do not trust the white men’ is its refrain, and the verses explain what will happen when they arrive on distant shores and settle.

In part two, Kalender presented a selection of Turkish songs. One among them, ‘My Nightingale is in a Golden Cage’, she explained, was Kemal Ataturk’s favourite, so she would sing it in homage to the Turkish statesman—the modernizer and secularizer of Turkey after the end of Ottoman Empire and the republic’s first president. *

The two women finished the program with Delibes’ mega hit from opera Lakmé, The Flower Duet.

. . . . . . . . . .

*which I thought was interesting, bc he wasn’t exactly a democrat. What is Ataturk’s status currently, in the Turkey of Erdogan?

New songsters on the block

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Anna Theodosakis photo by Dahlia Katz

A whole bunch of us missed the Muse 9 staging of Dominick Argento’s song cycle From the Diary of Virginia Woolf because it took place on the night of the Nightingale premiere at the COC. There’s a chance to see the same cast in a more or less concert version of the piece coming up at the RBA on November 13. I talked with the director Anna Theodosakis (pictured above) about what the Muse 9 Productions is, and how they ended up working on this particular piece. She’s one of the bright young things in Toronto’s opera world that give me great hope. Read the profile here.

Another new thing that piqued my interest, as you’ll see in the Wholenote article, is the recently created song series The Linden Project, based in Hamilton. Singer-spouses Julie and Jeremy Ludwig have announced the inaugural two-concert series, and have expansion plans and some really good ideas about the presentation and *purpose* of song recitals. The first concert took place earlier in the month, the second one is booked for early spring.

And here are my Quick Picks for November. The endemic Toronto problem of people not publicizing (deciding on) the program until close to the performance day persists, so I’m not sure what’s going to be heard in some of these, but the blurb copy sounds intriguing enough.

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.

Noir as the Puck

Hockey Noir in Montreal. Photo credit Maxime Boisvert

On paper, it looks like hubris: how can film noir, hockey, comics and opera tolerate (let alone enhance) one another? But ten minutes into Hockey Noir, a graphic opera composed by Andre Ristic to the libretto by Cecil Castellucci and video-projected comic book panels by Kimberlyn Porter, the resistance was futile. I sat up and got drawn in; the stock characters came alive to subvert the stereotype; the music became driven, full of energy and surprising at every turn.

You know that an opera succeeds if the words, the visuals, and the music blend just so, that intangible quality that makes or breaks the piece. It almost doesn’t matter what an opera is made of or what it is ‘about’, as long as this particular alchemy happens. I have no interest in hockey nor can I fathom our obsession with it. I don’t read comic books very often and to film noir I much prefer the screwball talkies. And yet and yet, none of that mattered in this case. The libretto (Cecil Castellucci, who collaborated with Ristic on another comic book opera) uses the clichés from noir films—stock characters of the double-crossing dame and the mobster, and some cliched lines in the dialogue–which can potentially dull down the piece. But they are used knowingly, for mimetic exacerbation, and put through the wringer of the two languages, or to be more precise through the hard-boiled, lumpen and underground versions of the two languages. It’s Montreal of the 1950s, pre-Quiet Revolution, when the boss (corporate and criminal, both) indeed did speak English, if not exactly posh English, but the dominant language of the libretto is the joual, rough, rudimentary, spiked with anglicisms, and creative spelling and grammar.

To that, some singers have to add another layer: soprano Pascale Beaudin, who sings the “hotshot player” Bigowsky, has to sing in French with a heavy Anglo accent, and this tells us that Bigowsky followed the trajectory of many allophone immigrants families to Quebec: English first, then French (maybe) later. Bigowsky is, as Gretzky is too, an East European name, possibly Russian or Polish, and in one scene Beaudin/Bigowsky has a line in Russian (was it Russian?), preceded by “As my mother always said.” Another East European name gets a tangle of Anglo-Franco textual material: the mobster boss Romanov (baritone Pierre-Etienne Bergeron), who while technically a total Anglo, swears and threatens in both official languages. I have never encountered a swearing aria that relishes the words and ties them to music so effectively, let alone one in two languages, let alone one that employs Quebec’s Catholic treasure box of swears, let alone one in which the music intervenes to bleep the swear words before they’re completed.

So what happens in the opera? Well, as in many noirs, the plot is somewhat obscure, and in the event doesn’t matter all that much. The aforementioned young hotshot hockey player Bigowsky refuses to fix the Montreal-Toronto match on behalf of Romanov, who plans on putting a lot of money on a Toronto win. To avoid the consequences, and in a nod to Some Like It Hot, Bigowsky goes underground and starts dressing as a woman. His cloche hat is very much Jack Lemmon as Daphne, but without the camp and the winks – this is, thankfully, a touch darker and angstier. His best team mate Lafeuille (tenor Michiel Schrey) bonds with a fan girl who, it transpires, is a brilliant coach—in fact, Bigowsky en feminine who just can’t resist the call of the rink. The character is called Gal Friday, so Howard Hawks lovers also get a nod, as does the recurring character of the super competent female professional from the talkies like His Girl Friday. It’s raining references to opera’s own history too. The Dame/Madame Lasalle (mezzo Marie-Annick Beliveau) who’s plotting for the overthrow of Romanov gets a Queen of the Night-like aria–only grubby, low-rent and from within a deep existential crisis. Bigowsky is a trouser role in the best tradition of trouser roles, and as such of course gets a feminine attire act too so we can observe a soprano singing a man who for plot purposes cross-dresses as a woman. Another way the tradition is honoured is that Beliveau gets a romantic thing with a female singer – Madame Lasalle – and a proper seduction/recognition scene. Elsewhere in the opera, there’s a catalogue aria. Of sorts. In a thoroughly non-sexy version of a Don Giovanni standard, Lafeuille and Romanov in “Games played: 1123” list Lafeuille’s hockey stats.

Marie-Annick Beliveau (Madame Lasalle) with Pascale Beaudin (Bigowsky). Photo by Maxime Boisvert

Ristić’s compelling music is the circulation that keeps this work so alive at all times. Ensemble Contemporain de Montreal is on stage, a string quartet, an electronic keyboard and a set of percussion instruments, all conducted by the ECM’s AD Veronique Lacroix. As needed, the keyboard stands in for a Hammond organ, the electric instrument often heard in hockey matches of the era. The score is made up of the segments—arias, duos, ensembles—held together by detective voice-over (Jean Marchand). There’s a pervading atmospheric darkness, continuously disturbed by the forces of angular twisted sounds, unusual pairings of timbre via voice with instrument or instrument with instrument, mimetic details like the swoosh of skates against the ice and pre-recorded sounds like the crowd cheering. No film noir music is directly quoted that I could tell, so no echoes of saxophone, fortunately. Madame Lasalle’s arias involve some extended techniquing such as screaming in thinned out falsetto, and yo-yo-ing on a note for comic effect, but among other solos Bigowsky’s going underground aria stands out – “How do you become invisible to men? Become a woman”. The ensembles though is what I found most exciting of all. In “Quand l’avez-vu la derniere fois?” each character comes out of an electronic sound-field, which is pleasantly unpleasant and indeterminate, to tell of their last encounter with Bigowsky. The scenes of a hockey match at the end are fast and fun, as the projections, the characters and the instruments play without friction together. Shots are fired just before the final tutti, “J’aurais pu mourir”, which works as an epilogue. Everybody survived, but the music is grim. Bigowsky’s career continued going great until it didn’t, Lafeuille retired to the suburbs, Lasalle became the new Montreal Boss and Romanov… well, ran for city council and later became prime minister (to accompany this statement, the projection showed an orange-haired Romanov).

I’m not entirely sure why the singers were miked. Were some voices distorted in real time, and had to stay plugged to the grid? I couldn’t tell. But the small Jane Mallet certainly did not need singer amplification and the miking is perhaps the only component that diminished the show, not enhanced it.

The panels by Kimberlyn Porter are unfussy and vintage, no distracting details, and thanks to the video design by Serge Maheu they get some camera-like movement–closing in, gros plan, moving lense. They stay low key, and are there to complement the stage. Comic book panels may feel archaic and certainly less lively than film projections, but there’s pleasure in that tech delay, and it works well with the 1940s and 1950s aesthetic.

Closes tonight at the Jane Mallet Theatre, and tours Belgium in Nov/Dec. Tickets here.

A scene from Hockey Noir. Photo by Maxime Boisvert