Louis Riel’s Second Coming

Russell Braun as Louis Riel in Canadian Opera Company’s 2017 production of Louis Riel (director Peter Hinton). Photo credit Sophie I’anson

As the saying (approximately) goes, one person’s religious fanatic is another person’s hero, and Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s multilayered opera Louis Riel certainly does not offer itself, in its ur-text, as a piece of simple pro-Riel propaganda. Had Riel fended off the forces of the Canadian federation, his Métis governance state would have probably been a theocracy with a charismatic governor, and not even notionally liberal—though the libretto in his last speech has him saying a verse on “man having rights” (perhaps the meaning here is treaty rights?). His first long aria at the end of Act 1 reveals that he hears God’s voice and feels directly and intimately called—“I am David” is its final verse—and upon his return to Canada from the exile he is given a scene in a Catholic church in Saskatchewan where he is a self-assured prophet with a large following. Riel was a figure akin to Ignazio di Loyola and Joan of Arc: not exactly a democrat. God spoke to him, and even skipped the Pope to go straight for this Prairie prophet.

He was of the future, however, in one way, and it’s an extremely important way: he was a bi-racial North American, and proud of it, while the Anglos in the opera throw around “half-breed” as an insult. He is also today read by some theorists of Canadian citizenship as a harbinger of the post-Trudeau I multiculturalism and bilingualism, the type of post-ethnic nationhood that we’ve been trying to work out in this country over the last 40 years. Not so, says a Métis scholar who contributed an opinion piece in the COC program for this new production of the opera. Dr. Adam Gaudry of University of Alberta argues that for Riel, land treaties were about staying separate but equal, not merging and integrating cultures and ethnicities into something new. And there are a number of Native rights groups today in Canada who argue against the Native integration in the general hodgepodge of Canadian citizenship; we’ve melted far enough in that particular pot, we’re now concerned with protecting the customs, reviving the languages and preserving the bloodlines. (Don’t act shocked. Huge majority of people on this planet still don’t want to marry outside their own ethnic or religious group. Most of your extended family to start with, whatever your ethnic background is.)

So Riel is a contradictory figure. (The periodic think pieces that appear in Canadian media in favour of exonerating and rehabilitating Riel are puzzling to me. Let the contradictory figure of the past be a contradictory figure of the past, why scrub him clean.) But Somers and Moore don’t exactly excoriate him in the opera either and in fact grant him a great, tragic dimension. He *is* a hero, in the sense of hero being a brave man who is blind to his constitutive flaws and who will be done in by those very flaws. Yes, and also by the encroaching armed forces of a nation in the making. Marxist historians would say “world-historical” forces—but that’s retrospective determinism, certainly in the case of Canada, which still feels like an unfinished business and up for grabs as a nation state in so many ways.

Riel is also given the most extraordinary music of this largely atonal score, solo arias of immense expressivity, variety, and power sung a cappella or to sparse instrumentation. In this new COC revival directed by Peter Hinton, Russell Braun sings Riel and as perfectly as anybody can come close to. He is certainly a little less butch, a little more pensive and Hamlet-like than the original Riel, Bernard Turgeon, but this singer-added Riel vulnerability works miracles for the character.

The major new thing that Hinton brought in is the invitation to the First Nations onto the stage and the turning of the spotlight onto the Métis and the Cree even more obviously as the centre of the story. You’d think that it would have occurred somebody in the original production to include a contingent of Native artists in the creative team or among the cast, but looks like it hadn’t. At the time of its first performances in the late 60s and early 70s, Riel was analyzed mainly as an opera on the FrancoCanadian-AngloCanadian conflict that makes up so much of Canadian history, even though more than half of the characters are Métis. Somers actively sought and employed musical material transcribed from the Native sources, for example for the Kuyas aria sung by Riel’s wife Marguerite (in this production sung by the soprano Simone Osborne, who handled this insanely demanding aria flawlessly; too bad the role is so short).

Hinton introduced a silent chorus that the original production did not have, what he describes in Director’s Notes as the Land Assembly which silently observes the action in every scene, sometimes apart, sometimes among other characters. He also replaced a scene of drunken revelry of the rebels with a scene of a group dance with the First Nations dancer Justin Many Fingers as the soloist. The quiet presence of Jani Lauzon, a grey-haired Métis singer and performer elegant in her red pant suit improved just about every scene because it somewhat attenuated the significant problem of the invisibility of women in Riel: without Lauzon, there are only three singing roles for women among 25 male singers, and they’re (hold on to your hats) sister, mother and wife to the Main Man.

What didn’t work for me was that the production is pretty minimalist. I think going minimalist in large multilayered operas is a cop-out, but in general too I don’t have a predilection for minimalism on operatic stage. (See Tim Albery’s Götterdämmerung, Carsen’s Iphigenie, Ivo van Hove’s anything…) There are long scenes of almost legalese debates in Riel during which there’s nowhere to look but at the blond wood panel in the back of the stage and the odd chair and table. About that blond wood panel: it reminds very much of the inside of the Four Seasons Centre, was that a hint? Yes, every opera is about that opera audience sitting right there, Hinton is right, but the set as the sets go was kind of dull.

The “Ottawa” set was better solved, but of course we are never shown the pseudo-Gothic interiors of the Parliament (it’s an iconic and much beloved building that would be perceived more positively than the director would necessarily want). Instead, the architectural plan of the Centre Block drops down as the background to the scenes among Sir John A., Cartier, Bishop Taché and “the representative of the commerce”, Hudson Bay’s Donald Smith. Baritone James Westman as Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald was another case of vocally and dramatically hand-meets-glove casting. Most of Sir John A.’s material is in the form of Sprechgesang—he doesn’t get any arias, but the only moments in the score that are comedic are to do with him: the trio of powerful men that announces that everything will be well when the opposite is about to happen; the drunk music in a scene of his hangover before dealing with the matters of the state (as Opera Rambling’s partner Katja put it last night, “most people in this opera are drunk most of the time”; fair).

Somers’ score operates in onslaughts and silences (moderation is for later in history) and I had forgotten how eventful and full of contrasts it is. The COC’s brass and percussions in particular get to do a lot of work. The only simpleminded tune in the entire opera is the mobbing chant of the Ontario protestants as they work up the anger against Riel, “We’ll Hang Him Up the River with the yah-yah-yah”. It’s also insidiously earworm-y, which was probably the composer’s naughty joke. Riel’s forces of course are defeated and he is hanged for treason. The silent chorus turns around one by one and looks straight to the audience after Riel goes down. Lights off, curtain calls, out we all go, and then there it is, the mobbing tune reappears, as a strange aftertaste—and a reminder how easy it is to hear, how ever susceptible we are to the call of the mob, then and now.

Continues at the COC April 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, and 13.

(l-r, foreground) Russell Braun as Louis Riel, Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott and Charles Sy as Ambroise Lépine in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper
(l-r) Peter Barrett as Col. Garnet Wolseley, James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald, Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure as Sir George-Étienne Cartier and Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché. Photo: Michael Cooper
(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Odditorium

Judy Loman at the harp / Odditorium / Photo by Trevor Haldenby

Review originally published in the Wholenote.

How to approach a massive work that may put off potential audiences by coming off as a wee bit megalomaniac? You distill it, and stage the highlights as a piece unto itself, is the lesson to take from Laurence Cherney’s selection of parts from R. Murray Schafer’s Patria cycle into Odditorium, which opened on March 2 at the Crow’s Theatre. Schafer’s Patria is a decades-long project consisting of a dozen works that follow a hero and a heroine in various disguises through the mythology of the ancient Crete and Egypt and even further through the Schafer-authored mythologies, but for this occasion Cherney, Schafer’s frequent collaborator, wisely chose four excerpts only, and invited director Chris Abraham and dancer Andrea Nann to find the red thread.

And threads were very much in evidence in the modest but effective set (Shannon Lea Doyle), as they are used to outline the walls of the labyrinth with the mannequin body parts of those who did not manage to find the exit piled up in corners. The overarching theme therefore came from the final, best known and multiple times recorded The Crown of Ariadne (1979), an elaboration on the myth of Ariadne, the Minotaur and Theseus through the voice of the harp and a series of percussive instruments. The Crown was originally written for Judy Loman, who plays it (fair to say, performs it) compellingly in Odditorium. There’s drama in the procession of unexpected soundscapes and instrument pairings of this piece, of course, but there’s additional drama in observing the demands on the musician, the extravagant arm movements and the comings and goings of smaller instruments while the other hand is always on the harp. It’s a good choice for the end piece.

The preceding two, Tantrika (1986) and an Egyptian fantasy Amente-Nufe (1982) involve a mezzo-soprano and impressive sets of percussions – again, the prominent instruments are themselves part of the set. Mezzo Andrea Ludwig, always charismatic, produces an endless variety of extended technique sounds, moves around, handles the odd percussive task and employs acting where acting is required: in the tantric piece, for example, she observes, perhaps voices, the male-female dance of merging and separation (Nann with Brendan Wyatt centre stage). In Amente-Nufe from the section of Patria called Ra, the singer voices words in what a scholarly guess says the Middle Egyptian might have sounded like, but feel free to ignore this backdrop: the words are best taken in for the texture of their sounds, not for their meaning. The culmination of the segment, with all the gongs and bells going full blast, is an experience rarely available in concert halls – or houses of religious worship. Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy manned the considerable assortment of percussions (including gamelan) throughout the show with tireless focus and aplomb.

It all started with a scene best described as Felliniesque: the accordionist (Joseph Macerollo, in clown makeup) trots onto the stage and uncovers a severed head that speaks. Well, speaks: voices outrageous sounds is more accurate, as there are no words, but quite a lot of conversation happening between the accordion and the soprano head (belonging to the crystalline-voiced Carla Huhtanen). It’s a funny, charming opening to a performance that gets pretty serious immediately after.

Yes, but what does it all mean, you may ask? A question best left home for the occasion, I think. It’s slippery to pin meaning to music at the best of times, and this electrifying selection of oddities really rubs it in. It’s an immersive trip into what humans can do with their voices and their hands operating on metal, wood, strings and boxed air.

Still, Odditorium is an open work so should you need to, you may work out your own narrative out of it. Given its four prominent and very different women—a dancer, a virtuoso harpist, high- and low-voiced singers—the piece may indeed cohere, as Andrea Ludwig suggested after the opening night show, as an enactment of female empowerment. The world of classical music still leaves too little room for that, and any occasion that resembles it should be welcomed.

Or you can approach it as a ritual of sorts—a non-religious one. Schafer composed most of the Patria in 12-tone, and the unpinnable micro-intervals heard in Odditorium and the vocal acrobatics that evoke wonder rather than beauty keep the work refreshingly unfamiliar. And though your mind may drift in and out of it, it’s music that doesn’t lull you, but keeps the cogs turning and surprise in steady supply.

Andrea Ludwig and Ryan Scott in Odditorium. Photo by Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Ludwig and Ryan Scott in Odditorium. Photo by Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt with Andrea Ludwig in the background. Photo Trevor Haldenby.
Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt with Andrea Ludwig in the background and Daniel Morphy behind her. Photo Trevor Haldenby.

2016: A year in reading

img_20160310_0959032Best of 2016 book reading, dear readers. Forgive me for not including the publisher info or year of publication–I’m trying not to spend this entire day blogging.

J.M. Coetzee and Arabella Kurts: The Good Story: Exchanges on Truth, Fiction and Psychotherapy. (Coetzee is no surprise on these lists, I know, but waittaminute this was the year in which I stumbled upon a Coetzee book that I ended up abandoning: Diary of a Bad Year. It’s still around, on one of the Limbo desks, but not sure where it’ll go from there.)

Eric Chevillard: Juste ciel. A little too cute for its own good, and with a surprisingly Hollywoodian ending, but sufficiently smart and imaginative–a witty contemporary riff on Plato’s vision of the other world–to make this list.

img_20160128_1150471Jean Guerreschi: Seins. A book of short pieces that ficto-recall the narrator’s most overwhelming encounters with female breasts. This and the Chevillard I picked up from Jeremy’s last year’s Year in Reading so merci, ami. Another one from that list that I read, Maylis de Kerangal’s planetary successful Mend the Living (translated and published in Canada by Talon Books) I’m leaving out. Fantastic concept–why don’t people put medicine and the issues around organ transplant more in fiction, boggles the mind–but each sentence of the novel so overwritten to be beautiful that it alienates the reader.

A mini Jean-Philippe Toussaint binge: Television (hysterical), Self-Portrait Abroad and The Truth About Marie all amazed. I’ve also read his Bathroom and due to its ever so slightly iffy sexual politics, I’m leaving it out (the sole prominent female character serves as a sounding board for the male narrator’s increasing existential dread and madness).

Rick Moody’s Hotels of North America: a solitary, alienated American life narrated through dark-funny reviews of North American hotels and motels. Also, the second excellent novel I’ve read almost in a row (first being The Truth About Marie) in which the straight narrator writes lovingly about sexual encounters with women while they’re on their periods. Bravo, Team Hetero Men.

img_20160327_1133301Sarah Bakewell, At the Existentialist Cafe. Superb light touch to this substantial overview of the chief existentialist and phenomenologist philosophers, their work and lives as lovers and citizens all. Probably the only place this year in the entire world of English-language writing for general public where you can find a fair trial given to Heidegger’s philosophy, and a good intro to it. Husserl, Jaspers and Merleau-Ponty are all well-introduced, and their lives are narrated novelistically. Most of the space is of course taken up by Beauvoir and Sartre, but nobody is left short-changed. A joyous polyphony that renders a group of thinkers beautifully, and treats both life and philosophy as part of the same fabric: life and oeuvre together are the oeuvre.

Heidi Julavitz: The Folded Clock: A Diary. The diary entries of the writing (teaching, residence-ing, travelling) life of an East Coast woman who is also raising a family and happens to be married to another writer, Ben Marcus.

Jonathan Lynn: The Patriotic Traitor: A Play. The creator of Yes, Minister and much else excellent fictionalizes here the young General de Gaulle and the much older Maréchal Pétain, a World War One hero turning into a World War Two traitor. I borrowed this thin but intense volume from soprano Ambur Braid, who’s seen the play in London (and knows Lynn!).

Elizabeth McCracken’s memoir on the death of her first baby just before it was to be born, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. She is as sharp and moving as usual, but this is no fiction, and matters around the politics and sociology of giving birth are tackled. The loss of child happened in France, a country which for them, as one of their France-loving friends sadly states, “is now forever spoiled”–and so is, though McCracken insists both only coincidentally, the midwife-centric birth planning.

Cees Nooteboom, The Following Story. Probably my favourite book this year amid some impossibly tough competition. A classics professor goes to bed in his Amsterdam apartment, wakes up twenty years earlier in Lisbon, in bed with a married woman he loves. There’s lots of Ovid and Greek and Roman mythology weaved into the day-to-day concerns and struggles. This section near the end, from which I took this paragraph, has to be the best non-religious literary rendering of what happens after death I’ve ever found.

ceesnOK, let me rush through the remaining recommendations, as this is getting too long. Though there’s no commentary around them, they’re still as good as the upper side of the post:

Jack Robinson: by the same author

Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin

Claire-Louise Bennett: Pond

Adam Haslett: Imagine Me Gone

Douglas Glover: Elle (CANLIT finally)

Eimear McBride: The Lesser Bohemians

Marina Abramovic’s memoir

Kathrine Marçal: Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner

James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time

Jeff Connaughton: The Payoff: Why the Wall Street Always Wins

Jamaica Kincaid: At the Bottom of the River

Select chapters from George Packer’s The Unwinding and Charlotte Gray’s The Promise of Canada. Worth sampling; your call if you stay for the entire thing.

What was your reading year like, reader?

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Oh yeah: my own book came out too this year

2016: A year in performing arts

Best spoken theatre

Best theatre was nontraditional: Germinal at World Stage 2016, Les Liaisons Dangereuses at NT Live in cinemas, Independent Aunties’ Gertrude and Alice at Buddies in Bad Times, Joel Pommerat’s Ça Ira (1), La fin de Louis in Amsterdam at Holland Festival in June.

Best opera

Stefan Herheim’s The Queen of Spades in Amsterdam.

A very non-grand Traviata sung and spoken gorgeously by non-operatic singer-actors at Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris in October.

François Girard’s Siegfried at the COC. (But see opera on DVD for the verdict on his Parsifal.)

Scottish-Welsh-Tapestry Opera presented The Devil Inside.

The David Alden’s Maometto was irreverent and fun (and tangentially caused a bizarre media storm in which the most conservative of Canada’s opera critics ended up getting a global platform for his pearl-clutching). While most people praised the singing, I was more into the production. I don’t include it here as one of the best opera performances ever seen, but rather as a major operatic event of the year for various non-operatic reasons. Kudos to David Alden for daring to put a little bit of an Islamic culture on stage without kid gloves and fear.

I’ll add Damiano Michieletto’s Samson et Dalila at Opera de Bastille in Paris in October for these things primarily: the brilliant coup de théâtre ending, the sexy as hell Anita Rachvelishvili as Dalila. Also, for the opera house itself. Bastille gets a lot of flak, and unjustly: it’s a very pleasant space inside and outside the hall.

Best concert or recital

This all-Beethoven on period instruments concert in Paris with Viktoria Mullova and Sarah Alice Ott as soloists. First visit to Paris’s new Philharmonie, so that was exciting. The hall is fantastic. The outside spaces, where people mingle in between and after performances, not so much: they’re narrow and like an after-thought to the hall.

As a Stranger, by the Collectif Toronto. I didn’t write about this all-female take on the Winterreise back then, but it was tremendous.

Lineage, the vocal + chamber orchestra program on 19th-20th-21st century musical lineage.

Dean Burry goes Schoenberg on Romanticism with Talisker Players.

Scenes of the Mediterranean: Stéphane Denève conducts TSO in Berlioz: Roman Carnival Overture, Saint-Saëns: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Egyptian” – Jean-Yves Thibaudet at the piano, Ibert: Escales (Ports of Call) and Respighi: Pines of Rome

TSO and Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto (soloist discovery of the year for me) in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto. The program also had Ravel: Daphnis et Chloé (conductor Juanjo Mena, with Toronto Mendelssohn Choir) and Granados’ Intermezzo from Goyescas. 

The entire New Creations Festival 2016: first night of the Fragile Absolute, and subsequent nights. The TSO removes the concert web page as soon as the concert’s over, so I had to search through my emails for concert reminders and save them as JPGs.

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There was also a TSO concert with Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique on the program, with Barbara Hannigan singing Dutilleux, that I attended in January, but I can’t remember much about it (it kinda pales) – so let’s include it as “it sounded so great on paper, but then IRL…”

Best opera: streaming, cinema & DVD

The Royal Opera House Boris Godunov, a Richard Jones production, at Bloor Hot Docs cinema. It was an unexpected joy.

Katie Mitchell’s Lucia di Lammermoor (same cinema): excellent with no reservations.

Katie Mitchell’s Pelléas et Mélisande from Aix-en-Provence: ground-breaking. Historians of operatic theatre will look on this production as a milestone, I have no doubts. I have saved an ungeoblocked URL with English subtitles here — do watch it the soonest, because Arte won’t keep it online forever.

I finally watched Girard’s Met-COC Parsifal on DVD and am sorry to report that I was disappointed. Too literal, too Christian-propaganda-y, especially the final act, which was an endless bro-ness renewed, Kundry humiliated agony. So the COC can keep postponing that production for as long as it wants, as far as I’m concerned.

Dance (of which I’ve seen very little this year)

Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit at Canadian Stage; Toronto Dance Theatre’s Marienbad which wordlessly explored the dynamics of intimacy between two men.

Another good thing about 2016: meeting opera Twitter friends in real life.

Now let me see if I can do a quick post on the 2016 in reading.

Lineage: German Romantics with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm

recitalIt rarely happens that a recital series strikes excellence in programming from the word go, but the group of musicians that include soprano Adanya Dunn, clarinetist Brad Cherwin, Alice Hwang at the piano and visiting musicians–last night those were violinist Madlen Horsch Breckbill and bassoonist Kevin Harris–are doing just that. The group doesn’t even call itself an ensemble and the series itself doesn’t have a name, which is sort of refreshing to stumble across among their branding-over-conscious generational cohort.

Last night was the second recital in this unofficial series. Lineage was programmed as an extended family gathering between the old, (Schubert and Mendelssohn), the twentieth-century middle (Webern, Schoenberg and Berg), and the living (Wolfgang Rihm). There is succinct one-paragraph artistic statement in the program, which is just the right amount of text, and we were handed the original Lieder with side translations, some by Dunn, others credited. (Extra points for crediting the translators. Not a practice often observed.)

Mendelssohn’s piano pieces “Lieder ohne worte” (1841) opened each of the thematic sections of the recital. A Rihm Lied would then follow — “Hochroth” from Das Roth cycle (1990) first, an atmospherically grim song that belies the optimistic tenor of the text by a Goethe-generation poet, Karoline von Günderrode. It was a pleasant contrast, and Dunn sang expressively. What followed was Berg’s Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano Op. 5 (1913), three in three different kinds of slow tempo and one in quick, in which Cherwin gets to have some fun.

A Lied ohne worte from Op. 102 opened the second section, followed by Rihm’s “Blaupause” from “The End of Handwriting” cycle by Heiner Müller. That the subsequent Anton Webern Quartet Op. 22 (1930) was in the middle of the recital attests once more to the excellent programming instincts of the group. More musicians on stage than at any other point that evening, and the piece itself a witty and an extremely eventful conversation between the violin, clarinet, piano and bassoon (subbing for tenor saxophone). A brief “Gebet an Pierrot” (1912) from Schoenberg’s much heftier Pierrot Lunaire cycle followed, in the piano-soprano version. Dunn was immediately dramatic and gave a good idea of the mood of the entire piece. It was again a brief sample that left me wanting to hear more from where that came from.

Schubert’s “Der Hirt auf dem Felsen” (1828) was the crowd pleaser of the night (to me it felt a wee too long), a Lied that could equally be a pocket opera or at least a scena, scored for soprano, piano and clarinet.  It’s structured into the light, melodic first part, the sad part, the the uplifting finale. That kind of a traditionally beautiful Romantic piece absolutely has a place in a mixed recital of this kind, and its colours were welcome.

For the epilogue, Rihm and Mendelssohn switched places, and for good reason. The chosen Linz Fragmente by Rihm was rather monotone, but the final Lied without words by Mendelssohn (Op. 67, No. 4) was while cheerful and melodic also hinting at some of the chaos and intensity that the oncoming musical decades will embrace.

So: a superbly planned recital, with a rich banquet of textures and colours, most of which we rarely get to sample here in Toronto. I’ve been re-listening to the entire program on the Naxos Online Library, piece by piece, all morning. Next time these people throw a recital, run don’t walk.

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East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Healey Willan and the Art Song: A New CASP project

healey-willanSince I didn’t grow up in the Anglo tradition, the name Healey Willan was completely unknown to me before this concert. I’m told anybody who’s ever attended a protestant church service in Toronto–or sung in one–would know of Willan, but they will know him primarily as a composer of music to accompany church functions, and likely think of him as part of the stuffy hardcore British line of the (pre-)Canadian music in Toronto. The Canadian Art Song Project people thought that that judgment is unfair, and opened up and sifted through the vault of Willan’s little performed art songs. And they found some gems that absolutely withstand the test of time.

The pre-concert talk given by the composer Dean Burry, with occasional footnotes from a singer’s perspective by Lawrence Wiliford, helped situate the man in the history of music and the history of Canada. British (Empire) music at the turn of the twentieth century lagged behind the European Continent in experiment and innovation, and still very much looked back to the nineteenth century. Most frequently performed composers were of Elgar’s ilk, and this musical culture spilled over to the ex-colonies. Willan moved to Toronto in 1913, became a big fish in a small pond and continued to compose in the late Romantic tradition.

But within that idiom, he created some mesmerizing art songs. There are composers who function as brilliant systemathizers of the established and popular musical idioms of the recent past–Reynaldo Hahn, for instance–and Willan himself would probably belong to that group. Some his early songs, which opened the recital last night, would not stand out if found in a Schubert or a Rachmaninov song book. Others expand on the French mélodies vocabulary: those selected last night (“Eve”, “Dreams” and “Dawn”, all from 1912, sung by soprano Martha Guth, mezzo Allyson McHardy and baritone Peter Barrett, with Helen Becqué at the piano) remained unpublished during his lifetime, hélas. As did, said Lawrence Wiliford at the pre-talk, the most experimental songs in his portfolio: Willan’s playing with the form and potential new languages remained hidden in his unpublished works.

There were a number of folk songs in the program last night, and some are clearly better left aside as artifacts  from the past: the jolly England “Drake’s Drum” and his take on the Scottish folksong don’t really add much to the conversation. Dean Burry was right, though: “Lake Isle of Innisfree” sounds spacious and new. Willan’s effort with Canadian francophone folk is also interesting: “Rossignol du vert bocage” and “Laquelle marierons-nous”, sung by McHardy with Becqué at the piano, were not in any way predictable.

The concert finished with the 1914-1920 set “War and Innocence” and the only trio of the evening, “A Song of Canada” (1930) which, as ‘patriotic songs’ go, was almost pleasant.

All in all, I’m glad for this discovery. My understanding is that some chosen items of the Willan songbook may end up being recorded on a future CASP CD. For that and other updates on CASP ongoing research, revival and commissioning projects, head here.

Dean Burry does a Schoenberg on Romanticism

Talisker Players’ latest recital-with-reading program Cross’d By The Stars looks at the doomed lovers in vocal repertoire and classical literature. Krisztina Szabó started the concert with an immediately enthralling Dido’s Lament. Laura Jones at the cello within the continuo opened with a long, beautifully vibrated line reminding us that this music can be equally stunning on modern instruments (there was a harpsichord in the continuo, but the rest of the strings, as far as I can tell, were modern).

The same instrumental ensemble remained on stage for the ever forgettable “Che farò senza Euridice”, the most incongruously cheerful lament in the history of Western music, here sung by baritone Aaron Durand. That was mercifully short, followed by the evening’s central piece.

Namely, Dean Burry’s musical dramatization of Alfred Noyes’s poem “The Highwayman.” It was prefaced by a reading (Stewart Arnott) from Wuthering Heights, and the two texts definitely have things in common. Noyes’ is an early twentieth-century poem but decidedly retro already then—neo-Gothic Romantic in its themes (night is wild, nature a danger and doomed lovers, a highway robber and an innkeeper’s daughter, can only be together in death) and anti-modernist in its narrative drive, rhyme and structure (AABCCB). Burry however fortunately looked elsewhere in the same early 20thC period for musical influence and found it in Schoenberg’s 1912 Pierrot Lunaire: the instrumental make-up of the chamber orchestra last night was the same, comprising violin, cello, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, piano plus a mezzo soprano.

It’s an exciting piece that not only honours but kind of alchemizes the onomatopoeia and the viscerality of the original poem. It’s also a piece that should be seen and heard under more favourable conditions—while the mezzo part was extremely expressive, to a lot of us seated in the middle Szabó was invisible due to the presence of a conductor. Too, it was too dark to read the very long text and there were no surtitles, so unless you knew the poem by heart, you were bound to miss stuff out.

Further, it’s a piece that calls for some sort of staging, perhaps video projections, some imaginative lighting at least. Can some of the Toronto’s indie companies do us all a favour and take up this challenge?

I left at the intermission, reader. I was seriously under the weather but also did not want to mix the experience of The Highwayman with musical theatre that was coming up, the three songs from West Side Story (“Maria, Maria, Mariaaaa”). Would have been good to hear the chamber arrangement of Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, especially “Zwei blauen Augen”—baritone-, not mezzo-sung, alas–at the far end of the program, but it wasn’t meant to be last night.

And the concert couldn’t have gotten any better than the Burry/Szabó extravaganza. Now let’s hear it again, Toronto.

Ave atque vale, Lucretia

Lucretia-BannerThere are barely any operatic works that I’d consider unstageable or irredeemably irrelevant. But last year, after seeing the Glyndebourne streaming of The Rape of Lucretia in the oddly respectful, libretto-at-face-value staging by Fiona Shaw, I realized that TROL would from then on be one such work for me. And not because of the detailed scene of rape, or the fact that the male leads use women’s bodies as currency in intra-military and political competition with impunity, or that the division of women into the whores and the chaste gets all of the airtime, or that the victim of rape takes upon herself the ‘spoiled goods’ stigma and kills herself out of shame and guilt.

No, not because of that. An intelligent staging could rework the bits of this ghastly puzzle into something that subverts its surface meaning instead of amplifying it.

It’s because of its ending, in fact: after Lucretia’s death, the chorus wonder among themselves whether the suffering and pain is all there is, and reassure us that no, that Christ the Saviour will come soon and be crucified and with His wounds redeem the wounds of the suffering humanity, including the poor Lucretia. Just you wait: she will not have suffered and died in vain.

What.the.actual.fuck.

Last time I got that angry after a show had to be after a Lars von Trier film—could be Breaking the Waves, could be the one with Nicole Kidman, could be any random misogynist crap that his funders and film critics encourage him to produce. One of his favourite tropes is Woman as the Sacrificial Lamb: an innocent, good woman being excruciatingly annihilated by a group/community, and this event, there are hints, works as an exorcism and brings catharsis for said community (or bro).

And von Trier is not alone: this trope is widespread in culture, its cinematic and operatic corners in particular, but everywhere else too.

TROL itself is so cavalier, so I-don’t-give-a-shit patriarchal, so unlayered dramatically, containing such simpleminded theology that would horrify or make laugh even a deeply religious Christian who indeed does believe that the Son of God had come to earth, died to redeem our sins and will return to abolish death and pain and reward the victims of injustice. (Any Christians reading this: I know you’re more sophisticated than this opera suggests. This is an insult to you, too.)

So imagine my surprise when I discovered that not one but two of the indie opera companies in Toronto would be doing TROL within a short time span. Of all the chamber-size operas around, it’s this one that got chosen—twice. Against the Grain will be co-producing it with various other organizations later this year, but MY Opera, a smart upstart run by the young & talented women who program lesser known rep gems and (equally important) pay the performers, surprised me much more.

The MYO press release also hinted that the director Anna Theodosakis would take considerable liberties with the work and set it in a very different historical period, with not a toga in sight. Company’s press materials also make obvious a sharply attuned awareness of the today widely and hotly debated issues around assault, consent, and artistic representation of same.

So I got curious: to see that a local small company has a more sophisticated approach to TROL than the kinda ideologically naïve one that Fiona Shaw and Glyndebourne took last summer was heartening. But when I emailed company’s General Manager Stephanie Applin, to ask if Theodosakis and the Artistic Director Kate Applin can meet me for tea and conversation, I warned them about my anti-TROL judgment.

They weren’t deterred: Anna and the Applin sisters were game to being challenged and talked to me about the concept and their reasons for doing the work for about an hour. I left in a better mood than the one I came in—which however is not to say that I’m converted to the work. This desperate piece is in capable hands, is what I can say: if anybody can do anything meaningful with it, it’s people like these three women who have thought through every political aspect of putting it on stage and are boldly ploughing though it for reinterpretation and salvage.

In Theodosakis’ regie, Lucretia takes place in Italy at the end of the Second World War. This chimes neatly with the libretto, as the original setting is the (un)rule of the kings before Rome became Rome, i.e. Roman Republic and later the Empire. With Theodosakis we’re still in Rome, but it’s a Rome at the twilight of a regime of a different kind. The militaristic rule is floundering, Italy clearly losing the war, and an internal Italian strife shaping up between the old monarchic regime tainted by its fascist ties, and the new forces of republicanism.

And while Tarquinius and Collatinus, Lucretia’s husband, are in the same army, their political loyalties are beginning to diverge.

So the rape does not exactly happen as an instrument of war—something that I expected we’d see, since the setting is the latter part of WW2. Rather, it’s a tool in the emerging civil conflict–perhaps even a retaliation?

While Tarquinius of the libretto, a vile Etruscan who bullied his way to the (Roman) top carries marks of the racially other, Theodosakis eliminated that complication: her Tarquinius is an insider through and through.

The male chorus and the female chorus are the greatest challenge in this opera. Theodosakis, wisely, puts the pious commenters smack in the middle of the drama. I won’t spoil everything ahead of the premiere, but I can say that they are a couple of functionaries with very specific allegiances and an agenda. The final words that usually irk me so much are uttered with political goals in mind—as something of a calculated manipulation by the means of Catholic vernacular in order to mobilize the populace.

As for the long scene of the assault, the MY Opera ladies tell me that it was important to them to avoid two pitfalls: one, of being gratuitous and voyeuristic, and the opposite one, of softening the scene and making the crime appear more bearable.

Will the production achieve the goals? The approach is certainly well-informed and thought-through. But can they accomplish the miracle of opening up to interpretation the work’s ossified core? We’ll all be able to see April 29 to May 1. Toi, toi, toi, gals.

In the banner photo: Christina Campsall (Lucretia).

COC16/17 announced

Keri-Lynn-WilsonThe Hurrahs:

The podium sausage fest spell broooooo-ken! Keri-Lynn Wilson will conduct the Tosca revival. The production is underwhelming, Ramón Vargas is an unusual choice for Cavaradossi, but on the upside, Adrianne Pieczonka returns in the role, and KLW makes her COC debut. I hear she is one of the best Puccini conductors around, male or female. Can’t wait.

Bernard Labadie’s COC conducting debut in Mozart’s The Magic Flute (albeit in the YA-tailored Diane Paulus production).

The Dutch-Aix-COC co-pro Ariodante by Richard Jones is a-coming this side of the Atlantic.

The phenomenal Varduhi Abrahamyan will role-debut Polinesso in the same opera and make her Canadian debut.

Die Goerke returns for Götterdämmerung

Sondra Radvanovsky and Isabel Leonard will sing together “Mira, o Norma” and be a hot pair in the SFO-Liceu-LOC-COC Norma by Kevin Newbury that incorporates, we are told, elements of sci-fi.

Harry SomersRiel in a spanking new production by Peter Hinton. I am not too familiar with Hinton’s work, but I liked what he said in the video (too bad he wasn’t on stage to talk about the production–I suppose it’s still too early?). To the effect that the production won’t be of the “preserved in aspic” kind but will directly engage with the state of Canadian polity, AD 2017. I can’t wait for this one. Allyson McHardy is in it, Russell Braun takes the title role. Note: for a crash course on Riel, you could do worse than Chester Brown’s Louis Riel: A Comic Strip Biography. A few random panels from it:

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The Okay, That’s Enough of That:

Nationalist rhetoric. It’s getting a bit much. Who still needs to be appeased? Who needs to be convinced? Certain journalists who raised the same question about “the lack of Canadian content at the COC” over and over at press conferences? (Meaning, only and always, the composers–as if, say, a Mozart or a Verdi put together by cast and creative that are 95 percent Canadian isn’t a Canadian piece in every conceivable way.) Certain clueless musicians who did the same through the social media? It looks like the pearl-clutching nationalists finally shut up and found other things to pearl-clutch about, a couple of seasons ago. So, can the brags like “the cast in such-and-such a production is entirely Canadian”(!?) be dropped? Can I come out of the closet and say that I don’t care what ethnicity or citizenship papers my opera artists have?

The One Big Nooooooooooo:

Alice Coote takes the title role in Ariodante. She has a considerable chunk of ardent fans, and she’s done some really interesting programs (the trouser role-themed program with Ali Smith in the UK, for example), but all I see and hear in Alice Coote is effort…effort, strain, discomfort, with singing, acting, and even being in a body. It’ll be tough without Sarah Connolly in this role. (Or Allyson McHardy, whom I dream-cast the other day. Naughty, naughty COC clues.)

The Yeah That’s A Good Idea

Instead of presenting an Ensemble Studio production, this year the young talent will be showcased in a concert of as yet to be determined scenes from operas alongside the full COC orchestra.

But there’s much of COC15/16 left to go. More on that soon.