One week late (due to technical difficulties at The Wholenote blog, where this appears originally), here are my thoughts about Against the Grain’s pairing up with Kyrie Kristmanson. ‘Twas good.
Who knew that an album launch could become a unique theatrical experience? Yes, all right, the stars of pop music with mega-budgets and production companies do, but experimental mixed genre pop singers and small opera production companies don’t usually seek each other out for projects. Singer Kyrie Kristmanson invited the team of Against the Grain Theatre to create a theatrical component to the Canadian launch of her songs from Modern Ruin, and Friday night’s delightful do “Une rêverie musicale,” at the small theatre space at the Alliance Française, was the result.
Amanda Smith directed the first act. The little fantasy with a dancer (Mary-Dora Bloch-Hansen, in her own choreography) and a baritone (Adam Harris) had few props – some chairs covered with shiny metallic paper and some balloons. Music was a combination of purely instrumental and vocal, mostly French except for a bit near the end from Philip Glass’ Glassworks. It all sounded like one atmospheric piece thanks to the instrument that carried it all, marimba (Nathan Petitpas). Satie’s Gymnopedie 1 started the proceedings, and we got to meet the androgynous dancer (with glorious face make-up) first. The baritone entered as a late audience member and joined her onstage. Their interaction had, refreshingly, nothing to do with a potential seduction or couple formation. They were, more imaginatively, like two creatures from different planets trying to communicate through play.
Petitpas also played Satie’s Gnossiennes 2, 3 and 5, and accompanied Harris in Poulenc’s Hôtel and the final Après un rêve by Fauré, which I’ve never before heard in baritone register. A lot of sopranos perform this song, but it’s obvious to me now that it’s more appealing in a lower voice. Marimba added a dream-like quality.
It’s how opera as an art form began, really – as an intermedio between something else, between the acts of a theatre play for example. “Une rêverie” reminded us that it can still work perfectly fine like that – in this case, as an album launch with an operatic interlude of its own.
The second half of the show was Kyrie Kristmanson’s set. Kyrie Kristmanson is a new artist to me, but I’m glad I discovered her. The labels “folk” or “pop” or “baroque” don’t quite do her justice. Friday night she performed a set with the amplified Warhol Dervish string quartet. Among her singer-songwriter interests are recomposing and arranging what’s left of the songs of the trobairitz, the Occitan female version of the troubadours, and some of the songs in the program did have a distant medieval musical ring to them. Mostly the numbers they performed were musically more complex than medieval music, and more complex than any of the stuff performed by folk or pop or cabaret musicians. Few songs had a predictable danceable beat prevalent in pop concoctions. At first I thought I had finally found a Canadian version of what Rosemary Standley does in her baroque/folk work, but the music that Kyrie and the Warhol Dervish quartet play is more contemporary instrumental, with none of the simple and immediate appeal of pop songs. Kudos to them for smuggling in quite a bit of demanding listening into the popular song form and taking the road less travelled but more adventurous.
Kyrie Kristmanson, the Warhol Dervish quartet and artists from Against the Grain Theatre presented “Une rêverie musicale” on Friday, October 13 at Alliance Française, Toronto. Kristmanson’s next concert is at the NAC in Ottawa (October 19), after which she is off to Regina, Montreal and to a festival in France.
A few interesting things coming up in September. In my new The Wholenote article, I go on a bit about the Sept 23 recital (see below), but there will be more concerts of interest. For ex:
10 September 2017, 12 PM: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. World of Music: Mysterious Barricades. A cross-Canada concert in honour of World Suicide Prevention Day. Lorna MacDonald, soprano; Nathalie Paulin, soprano; Monica Whicher, soprano; Russell Braun, baritone; Judy Loman, harp; Carolyn Maule, piano; Tracy Wong, conductor. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto, 80 Queen’s Park. 416-408-0208. Free. [I may write about this one.]
19 September 2017, 12:10 PM: Rising Stars Recital. Students from the Glenn Gould School. Nine Sparrows Arts Foundation/Yorkminster Park Baptist Church. Yorkminster Park Baptist Church, 1585 Yonge St. Free; donations welcomed. [Still no info about who is singing and what.]
25 September 2017, 7:30 PM: Canada in Words and Music. Toronto Masque Theatre Salon Series. Shaftesbury Atrium, 21 Shaftesbury Ave. $25.
Now, though, more on the Imperfect Recital – – – – – – – – – –
There are several song events worth your time this month, but the one that stands out will require a trip to upper Parkdale and Gallery 345, an unusually shaped space that’s becoming the recital hub of West Toronto. On the program for “The Imperfect Art Song Recital” (September 23 at 6pm), conceived by the soprano Lindsay Lalla, there is music by two living composers – Toronto’s Cecilia Livingston and Brooklyn-based Christopher Cerrone – as well as Strauss’ Mädchenblumen, an Anne Trulove recitative and aria from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, and a brief musical theatre set with Carousel and Showboat songs.
The imperfect as a recital theme may sound unusual, but it’s a question as old as the arts. It’s also a personal notion that kept Lalla focused on teaching and the vocal health of her students and at a distance from performing and concert stage. “My strong technical focus in my teaching carried over to my singing and I felt almost paralyzed trying to find perfection,” she explained when I asked what the story was behind the title. After years of working on other singers’ voices, the minutiae of their development, health and rehabilitation, the goal of perfection struck Lalla as a little overbearing. What if she created a whole program around the fact that there’s no such thing as perfect singing, a perfect lover, a perfect human?
The theme of imperfection runs loosely – er, imperfectly – through the texts of the pieces on the program. “The Strauss songs compare women to flowers and to me represent ‘old school’ classical music where perfection is an appreciated aesthetic,” she says. Livingston’s songs “explore the theme of an absent lover, and I find it really interesting that absent lovers are always perfect.” The character of Penelope, that mythical perfect wife of antiquity, appears in a Livingston song as well as Lalla’s own drawings (she admits to something of an obsession about Penelope) which will be on display at the gallery along with art by clarinetist Sue Farrow created during rehearsals.
Then there’s the Cerrone song cycle on the poetry of Tao Lin. The 18-minute piece for soprano, clarinet, percussion and piano, I Will Learn to Love a Person, can be found in its entirety on the composer’s website; on first listening it sounded to me like plainchant meets American minimalism, with shades of Ann Southam. Its engagement with text is fascinating – and I don’t use this word lightly. Lin is now primarily known as a novelist – Shoplifting from American Apparel, Taipei, Eeeee eee eeee – but he had published poetry as a young writer and Cerrone made a selection of poems that rang particularly true to his experience. The composer’s own statement highlights Lin’s accuracy about “millennial lives” and Lalla agrees, but this Gen X-er can tell you that Cerrone’s piece, like any good music, speaks to all cohorts. (Some of Lin’s fiction, Shoplifting for example, a novella of young impecunious lives in NYC’s emerging ‘creative classes’ flowing on vegan smoothies, band following, brand savvyness, internet, psychological opaqueness of characters and overall scarcity of explicit feeling will remind of Douglas Copeland, who’s probably an ancient writer to the millennials.) Lin made a selection of his poems available online, and I’d recommend listening to I Will Learn to Love a Person alongside the poem i will learn how to love a person and then i will teach you and then we will know to appreciate fully how they enhance one another.
The first piece by Cerrone that Lalla ever heard was this song cycle, and it impressed immediately. To wit: “It hit me hard!” She decided to do the chamber music version and invited two of her best friends, husband and wife Brian Farrow (percussion) and Sue Farrow (clarinet). The pianist and Lalla’s accompanist in other songs on the program, Tanya Paradowski, happens to be their niece. “We’ve been rehearsing up at their cottage, with the sounds of vibraphone over the lake… I can’t imagine what the neighbours must think.
“Because there is so much repetition on just a few notes, the focus goes to the text,” she says of the inner mechanism of the cycle. “Just like in the recitative of an opera, it’s now about the words, and the emotion behind the words. And the accompanying instrumental part is very repetitive, so you instinctively listen to the words to find out what’s going on. So, over top of this unconventionally textured background (quite an unusual mix of instruments!), you get just words. And they happen to be on notes. I think this is a brilliant way that Cerrone is highlighting the directness of Tao Lin’s text.”
It was actually composer Cecilia Livingston who first recommended Cerrone among a few other composers to Lalla (the two women have known each other from high school). Livingston’s own songs, too, Penelope, Kalypso and Parting, are going to be in the recital. Livingston’s website lists an impressive number of commissions, collaborations and fellowships – including a recent research fellowship at King’s College in London with one of the most interesting Verdian thinkers today, Roger Parker – but also an array of publications and papers both academic and journalistic, including her U of T PhD thesis on “the musical sublime in 20th-century opera, with a particular focus on the connections between the sublime, the grotesque, minimalism and musical silence.” There are also audio files of her work, including a good number of songs. I was eager to ask this vast and curious creative mind about her work.
In which art song features prominently, it turns out. “I just finished a commission for the Canadian Art Song Project, which reminded me that art song is one of my favourite things to write, period! It calls for this very strange close reading: scrutiny of a text combined with a huge, bird’s-eye view of its emotional terrain,” Livingston says. “Northrop Frye wrote about this, and he titled his book from Blake: The Double Vision – seeing a text both for what it is, and for what it can be in the imagination. And then also – for a composer – in the musical imagination, in the ear.”
Her three songs in the Imperfect recital explore a style that she describes as “somewhere between art song and torch song. Penelope and Kalypso are both portraits of Homer’s characters, of women who are waiting; both songs have weird, dark middle sections: one is sort-of-aleatoric and one isn’t, and I can see I was working out different solutions.” With Kalypso, Livingston was looking for a new way to write for coloratura soprano and ended up thinking about scat singing and the Harold Arlen songs she loves, like Stormy Weather. “I think Duncan [McFarlane]’s lyrics for Kalypso are one of the most extraordinary texts I’ve ever worked with: beautiful, intricate layers of language; so much that the music can shade and shadow and shape.”
A pianist by training, Livingston composes by singing as she writes: “It helps me build on the natural prosody of the language and makes sure the vocal line is comfortable: that there’s time for breath, that it’s well supported musically, that it sits comfortably in the tessitura, etc. – even when it’s challenging.” The process of finding a text that will lead to a song is more intuitive, harder to pin down. “I’m looking for something that catches my inner ear: an image, mood, the sound of a phrase. When I come across that, I can sort of hear the music for it, and then I know I can work with it. I don’t hear actual music yet, but I can hear the intensification that music can bring. Which sounds slightly bizarre; it’s probably easier to say I get a particular feeling in the pit of my stomach.”
She doesn’t entirely buy the argument that simple, unambitious or bad poetry makes better (because easier) text to set to music. “Look at the riches of Alice Goodman’s libretti, or the ways that Britten illuminated all sorts of texts. If a writer savours language – its sounds and its meanings – then I’m interested.”
Among the larger projects on Livingston’s agenda, there’s a full-length opera in the works for TorQ Percussion Quartet and Opera 5, with the world premiere in Toronto scheduled for the 2018/19 season and a European premiere in 2020. “I’ve admired TorQ Percussion Quartet’s musicianship since we met in 2008, and I wanted to write an opera with them the moment I saw their incredible performance of John Luther Adams’ Strange and Sacred Noise,” says Livingston. “They have a dramatic physicality to their performances that is perfect for contemporary opera.” And Opera 5 produced her first chamber opera: “We built the kind of really supportive friendship that I wish all young composers could have.”
And what does her music feel like to a singer? Let’s let Lindsay Lalla have the last word: “I adore how lyrical and melodic Cecilia’s songs are. I feel that they were written like mini operas, with so much emotion to explore in once piece… One of her musical instructions in the Kalypso (over the introductory coloratura) says: “Ella-Fitzgerald-meets-Chopin, vocalise-meets-scat.” As a singer, I fell in love with her just from that.”
I left the May 26 performance of Oksana G. stunned. The most ambitious operatic project by our biggest contemporary opera producer in recent years made a lot of us excited and keen to embrace it. The topic hinted at seriousness of purpose, boldness in the face of potential controversy and rootedness in our age. The libretto took the road less travelled by letting the characters speak in their original languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Italian in addition to English. The action, ambitiously, moves across several borders. The casting promised the right mix of the newcomers and the acclaimed.
The result of those ten years of work is, turns out, an atrociously banal libretto with music which serves as faded wallpaper or, in those rare moments of visibility, as an injection of lyricism for purposes of telling us what to feel.
The story of a young Ukrainian woman Oksana who is promised a job in a high income country but then taken into sexual slavery by her smuggler is told in the manner of a TV special for very slow children. We follow her life in chronological sketches and each leaden scene is designed to highlight a problem or explain a point. We are being walked through, with a heavy stomp. In between the acts, there are documentary intertitles that tell the place of action and the exact date. There are moments of extraordinary vacuity. Middle-aged East-European women that Oksana leaves behind keep looking at tarot card to learn about her fate. (That’s how East European women inform themselves about world events, FYI.) Oksana’s guide-turned-pimp in one dramatic moment in the woods removes his glasses and she is horrified that his eyes are of different colour (bad omen, evil is ahead). Later, escaped and among other women in a recovery camp in Italy, Oksana and her girlfriends play folk dances to remind themselves of home. (Slavs = folk dances, FYI.) Speaking of Slavs, every woman in the story is clad in the style that can be best described as a cheap made-in-China quasi-glamour, which I suppose is there to suggest that they all, as a demographic, not only lack means, but also pine for western glam and try to scramble a knockout version of it.
But the most serious issue with the libretto is structural. The story of Oksana’s life is told through her passive relationship to two men who have agency in the story: her captor Konstantin, and then later, her savior, priest Father Alexander. Oh, and: Father Alexander is a blonde and muscular Canadian hunk who happens to live in southern Italy, where he runs the centre for the escaped trafficked women like Oskana G. It’s the myth we like telling each other, the peace-keeper Canadian who saves the day in the less fortunate parts of the world, and astoundingly, here it is served again, unexamined, in a 2017 opera.
The quiet scene between the priest and the recovering Oksana is jaw-dropping: he tells her there is still time for her, maybe she will meet a man one day who will lover her and she will have children, and a happy family life, and not to give up hope. Music heard from the orchestra stage right, amping up the sentiment, comes in unsubtly and signals that yes, this is sincere, this is a moment of rare intimacy between the two, his words are to be taken seriously.
There is the odd collective scene with other women in captivity but while a different librettist and composer pair would have made something out of it–a slave chorus, a gathering of forces, a lament of the kind that Britten created for the women of Peter Grimes–zero luck here. The women remain atomized.
The ending made everything that one final degree worse. There’s a very old operatic trope that goes like this. The impure woman has to die at the end of an opera – either by her own hand, by a man’s hand or due to an illness – as that is the only way we can feel for her. With no dramatic reason except this one, that we can finally be allowed to love and pity her, Oksana, finally free from her enslaver, commits suicide out of shame. What fresh Butterfly BS is this, librettist Colleen Murphy, composer Aaron Gervais, director Tom Diamond, and Tapestry Opera?
Singers are generally fine–Jacqueline Woodley as Oksana’s friend Nataliya, Keith Klassen as Konstantin, and Natalya Gennadi as Oksana in particular leave a mark–but colossally wasted by this production. Krisztina Szabo as Oksana’s mother is not given much to do except fret. (See also under: East European mothers) Adam Fisher as the priest was in fine voice, but his gym bunny physique and his stylish coif stood comically incongruous with his character’s profession.
And what to say of Gervais’ music which overall takes leave to the far background and lets the B-movie libretto take up all the air?
I don’t enjoy writing reviews this disappointed and hope to never have to do it again. So let’s end here.
Another good thing about the 21C Festival is that you always end up going to things that you wouldn’t usually go to any other time. Last night I went to hear a band I didn’t know anything about — except its pianist Vicky Chow. The group consists of percussion, electric guitar, double bass and cello, keyboards, and clarinet/bass clarinet, plus the electronic component handled by an off-stage sound man and in most of the numbers tonight video as well.
Those of you who’ve seen Nicole Lizée’s work, this will bring it to mind, but unlike Lizee who makes her musicvideo forms herself,the BoaC band performs other composers’ works. One of the pieces that stood out for me was Christian Marclay’s Fade to Slide, which was played alongside his own film, an incongruous, compelling montage of short cuts from old movies that was accompanied by the live performance with split-second precision. John Oswald’s Fee Fie Foe Fum gave a pop hit from 1960s his signature plunderphonic treatment (take the existing sound, transform it) and a suitable video component to go with it. René Lussier used a recording of his wife’s snoring to compose within it a new work titled Nocturne. It’s a piece that’s not really played for laughs: while pre-recorded snoring was distinctly heard, the piece mainly fills in with instruments the space between two intakes of breath of a snorer. The inconsistent breaks between noise and silence in the snoring pattern is rendered faithfully. You are kept alert and guessing throughout – as a sleeper forced to stay alert to the erratic production of sound next to him. Will the snorer will go quiet with the next intake of breath, or is it going to be louder; is he changing rhythm or staying consistent. All of this is in the piece.
Caroline Shaw (in Really Craft When You) and Anna Clyne (A Wonderful Day) both used recordings of spoken word as the basis on which to compose. Shaw used archival recordings from the 1970s of quilters from North Carolina and Virginia and Clyne an old man’s singing–it’s hard to describe it, so head here for a shot of joy and wonder.
Gene Takes a Drink, a piece by Michael Gordon to the footage filmed by a cat going about his day, which was made into a film by Bill Morrison, holds your attention. David Lang’s unused swan was an extraordinary experience: an ensemble of instruments overpowered by–of all things–the closely miked chains coming to contact with the metal platform.
21C continues today (Sunday, May 28) with two more concerts: an Unsuk Chin extravaganza, and a Benjamin Bowman and Claudia Chan violin and piano tango.
Alternate title for this concert review: Is Brian Current turning to religious mysticism and why??
Also: WTAF was that, Samy Moussa?
But let’s proceed.
21C, the reliably stimulating and boundary-pushing new music festival, opened last night at RCM’s Koerner Hall with concert that was a bit of a mixed bag, program-wise and in execution. Canadian Opera Company Orchestra and its music director Johannes Debus gave us a world premiere – Brian Current’s Naka / Northern Lights – and a selection of recent works by Unsuk Chin, Samy Moussa, Matthew Aucoin and Current. Mezzo Emily D’Angelo sang with verve the wittiest part of the program, Chin’s snagS&Snarls, the song-studies for what was to be Chin’s Alice in Wonderland opera which was premiered at the Bavarian State Opera in 2007. Two songs were particularly captivating: “The Tale-Tail of the Mouse”, with voice required to writhe and wind itself down as if through a mouse hole, and “Speak roughly to your little boy”, with some well-managed screaming that grows in intensity. There were, however, serious issues with the voice-orchestra balance, and most of the cycle D’Angelo found herself drowned by the orchestra. The intricate textual lace of “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” was completely erased and there was very little voice heard amid the fervent orchestra.
D’Angelo was much better heard in Matthew Aucoin’s dramatic cantata on the theme of Orpheus, The Orphic Moment (2014). Hearing it sung by a mezzo is a treat: the history of the piece shows a countertenor singing the role every time. Aucoin assigned the role of Eurydice to the first violin (here the COC Orchestra’s concertmaster Marie Bérard) and there were some exquisite moments of attempted communication and unbridgeable distance between the voice and the instrument in the Moment. Composer’s notes in the program hint at a flippant, hubristic Orpheus, but it wasn’t possible to observe those nuances without the text which was, you discover after a good chunk of time into the performance looking for it, left out of the booklet.
Brian Current’s Naka, a northern lights-themed work for orchestra, choir and narrator, came out of the composer’s residence in the Northwest Territories and his collaboration with the Tłı̨chǫ First Nation (in anglicized spelling: Tlicho). Richard Van Camp, who also wrote the libretto, narrated the text in Tlicho and English. Rosa Mantla, a Tlicho Elder, translated the text and was the pronunciation coach for the Elmer Iseler Singers choir. It is a serene, playful, occasionally droll, animated through-and-through piece, set up as a conversation between the Tlicho-speaking choir and the bilingual narrator. Van Camp’s twinkle-in-the-eye delivery was a particularly effective foil to the choir’s more ghostly character that spoke as forces of nature.
Current’s second piece in the program I found, at best, puzzling. Is Current taking a mystical turn? He of all composers, who is often heard saying that what contemporary music does best is trying to explore and express how we live our lives today? The composer is, we learn from the program, at work on a multi-movement cycle The River of Light with the texts of several religious traditions (Hindu, Christian, First Nations Canadian – which was Naka – Sufi, etc.) “that describe mystical journeys towards an exalted state.” The Seven Heavenly Halls from the concert program was composed on the texts from a particularly mystical book of the Kabbalah. The passage through the heavenly halls is the passage of a man through the levels of heavenly exaltation. Or something? Reader, I lost interest halfway through the program note, and the music didn’t manage to draw me back in at any turn. The music, alas, sounds almost programmatic: vast, swelling, spirit-rousing sounds, meant to evoke solemnity, meant to be epic; suitable enough for a religious ceremony. Tenor Andrew Haji maintained a modicum of individuality and pushed through amid all the choral and orchestral solemnity, but not even his precise and warm – if occasionally drowned by the orchestra – tenor could breathe life into this religious painting. My first question to composers eager to explore this or that side of religion in their new work is Why? If most of western choral music is religious already, and where are we, the non-religious, to go?
But then there was the Samy Moussa piece in the program, the orchestral non-concerto cheekily titled Kammerkonzert which he wrote ten years ago, just before he left Montreal for Berlin. My Samy Moussa luck has been such that whenever I happen to attend a concert containing a piece by him, that piece will be unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. This happened again last night. Kammerkonzert is a series of sound explosions multiplying into a theatre of war that is somehow contained within a symphonic orchestra of unamplified instruments. This comes nowhere near exhausting its interpretation – and another person would probably tell you they heard something different – but I witnessed something akin to a camera zooming out from sporadic shots to a bird’s eye view of an out-and-out battlefield.
Or were we thrust in a particularly noisy cacophony of a large city, distilled to its harshest sound essence? Or should we abandon the imagery and the narrative altogether, and take Kammerkonzert as a visceral sound onslaught to be experienced and not overanalyzed? I hope I get a chance to hear it again in some form and make up my mind – or abandon any attempt to contain it in words.
It took about 10 years due to the vagaries of opera funding, but Aaron Gervais’s first full-length opera finally has its world premiere this spring. He met librettist Colleen Murphy in one of Toronto-based Tapestry Opera’s LibLab collaborations and immediately knew they wanted to work together on a story of a woman caught in a web of international sex trafficking. Fast forward through workshopping, fundraising, planning, a change of leadership at Tapestry and a casting change or two, and Oksana G, scored for an orchestra of 18, three principal singers and a dozen secondary roles, will bring Tapestry’s season to a resounding close in May.
From early days Gervais developed an “in-depth dramaturgic back-and-forth” with Murphy that made it easier for him to understand the characters and write them in music. “The relationship with the librettist is extremely important and I think that’s something a lot of composers don’t take seriously enough,” he says. “But I’ve learned so much, and the piece is so much better from Colleen’s contribution.” A lot of the librettist-composer collaboration happens on the deeply technical side of things—what kinds of vowels and consonants can be used on the key words: “If you’re going to land on a specific note, it has to come through, both in terms of text and emotions.”
Additional challenges comes from using four languages. Oksana G is in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Italian—more complicated, but more authentic to the story than an all-English libretto. Each language, Gervais realized, comes with its own musicality. “This changed the kind of lines I wrote for the singers. Even in Russian and Ukrainian, which are similar, the placement of the vowels is somewhat different and a line that worked well in Ukrainian may seem awkward in Russian, so you’d have to change.”
Earlier in his career, as a young composer eager to expand his horizons, Gervais took singing lessons for a year. One session he remembers as paradigm-changing: he came well prepared and sang everything correctly, yet the teacher interrupted him and told him it wasn’t good. “‘But I did everything correctly,’ I protested. ‘None of that stuff matters,’ she said. ‘It’s about the emotion of the character, and the phrasing.’ This opened my eyes to how different singing is, and how dynamic it can be.” Ever since, he’s enjoyed working with singers precisely because they make the music so thoroughly their own and personal. “I think a lot of composers don’t realize that that’s possible, so they write in a way that straitjackets the singers a little bit. I try very hard to write vocal lines that singers are going to enjoy and be able to make their own.”
Gervais has called San Francisco home since 2009, and still occasionally works on Canadian commissions. Asked if it’s harder to make a living as a composer under the American arts-funding regime, he offers a nuanced view. Different models of arts funding result in different default strategies. “In Canada, it usually goes like this: ‘I’m going to apply for this grant, and if we get it, we’ll do the project.’ In the U.S., it’s more like: ‘I’m going to network and find all these philanthropists, and, hopefully, by building this team over the next couple of years, I’ll be able to get enough funding to make this project work.’” Opera, however, significantly more complex and expensive, is funded that way in Canada, too. Besides, no two composers make a living the same way. “Art is a reflection of your lived experiences, so the kind of art that makes sense in the place where you live will be different from the kind of art that makes sense somewhere else.”
His next big U.S. premiere is Prescription Drug Nation, a piece that recently became even more topical due to the opioid crisis in the U.S. His original intent was to probe some of the meaning attached to prescription drugs in American society as the low-class relatives to more glamourous controlled substances. Six of the drugs get a musical portrait each—aided by a choreographer and a guitar trio. Also in San Francisco, Gervais recently premiered Louis C.K. am Spinnrade, a piece in which the standup comic Louis C.K.’s musings on why we text and drive get mashed up with Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” then recomposed for cello and soprano. It’s all about filling in the empty time of waiting and distracting oneself from the existential dread. What did the audience make of it? “It went well. Laughter was heard, as I was hoping it would be.”
One of our most literary composers, James Rolfe is about to complete his biggest literary opera yet. Canadian Stage recently announced the premiere of The Overcoat in March 2018, an opera with libretto by Morris Panych based on one of Gogol’s best-known short stories. Based on more than one, in fact—most of The Overcoat is there, but the ending is from Diary of a Madman.
Akaky Akakievich, the low-ranking government copyist, therefore, does not die from a fever caught walking around St. Petersburg without the overcoat, but is confined in an asylum. New characters are added, too. “There’s a chorus of three women throughout the piece,” Rolfe says. “At the beginning, it’s ambiguous who they are. We accept right away that they are not visible. They are sort of adjunct to the action, but the characters don’t see them. It’s clear by the end”—spoiler alert—“that they’re inmates of the mental asylum where the protagonist ends up.”
Much of what Rolfe has composed for voice so far has strong literary ties. He enjoys working with award-winning author André Alexis (“There’s a great musical sense in is writing”) and is currently working on a piece based on poems by 2016 Governor General Award winner Steven Heighton. One gets the sense he is not only a serious reader, but someone who reads with the composing mind fully on. “I absolutely am. And poetry is already half way music anyway. There’s certain poetry I go back to again and again; Whitman, Rimbaud, and Archibald Lampman, a Canadian poet from the end of the 19th century. If something speaks to you, that’s the most important thing. You have to have strong feelings about a piece of writing to want to put music to it.”
The Overcoat as opera germinated at a LibLab librettist-composer sessions held by Toronto-based Tapestry Opera. (Tapestry is co-producer of the work, which goes on to the Vancouver Opera Festival after its CanStage premiere.) Panych had already adapted Gogol’s The Overcoat with Wendy Gorling into a nonverbal stage play that toured the world, but the Rolfe-Panych Overcoat was to be tailored out of very different cloth. Panych worked on the libretto for a time and submitted it to Rolfe completed. There followed a piano workshop in 2014 and a fuller workshop a year later. Early this March, Rolfe was in the final stages of composing and, in his words “tweaking the orchestration… There will be 11 singers—some will play more than one part—and 12 instrumentalists.” How would he describe the texture of the score? “Pretty clear and simple for the most part. I tried to keep it not overly musically complex or challenging for its own sake. I try to keep the musical imagery quite clear. I think it’s in the spirit of the libretto that Morris created.”
Composing something that is of our time is, in his view, probably the biggest challenge opera composers face today. “By that I mean something that’s relevant, dramatically and musically, because we live in an era with an embarrassment of riches, with so many possibilities and choices at every turn. Bringing out the tone and the style in opera for the people of today is the goal.” He has several projects on the go. Aeneas and Dido (with André Alexis) will be remounted by Toronto Masque Theatre in the company’s final season. Crush, his modern take on Don Giovanni (with Anna Chatterton), commissioned in 2007 by Richard Bradshaw, lived to see a workshop production at Banff last July with six emerging singers and a piano trio. “We’re still looking for a production partner and are talking to theatres in Toronto about it. Hopefully, we’ll get it off the ground.” In their version, the title character is a woman and Elvira and Zerlina are merged into one person, though the statue’s revenge and the fires of hell they decided to keep.
Rolfe lives in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood with his partner, composer Juliet Palmer, and their daughter. He runs every morning and bakes almost as frequently. “Food and running kind of go together—and balance each other out.” He teaches part-time, tries to get out to as many concerts as possible and is one of those composers who, no matter their own workload, remain interested in other people’s work. “I like to stay in touch. Best thing about teaching is that I get to listen to new things by younger people, and I listen to what they’re listening to as well.”
Cologne-based Francontarien Thierry Tidrow’s new chamber opera is about to have a world premiere at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin at the Tischlerei stage, the smaller theatre within the DO dedicated to commissions and experiment. (More on the Tischlerei season here.) A couple of years ago the German opera house in collaboration with the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin held a competition for new composers and librettists and out of about 40 submissions, the jury, which included among others Aribert Reimann, chose three, Thierry Tidrow among them. His librettist was to be Uta Bierbaum. All three operas will premiere as one triptych this Friday in Berlin within the program titled Scenes III at the Tischlerei. (Full cast and creative here.)
Here’s what Thierry told me about his one-acter, My Corporate Identity:
It’s about people pretending to be who they are not, pretending to be happy in order to fit in, in this case in the corporate world, which affects not only their personalities, but the music and the way they speak. In Germany the corporate language is half English, full of vapid buzz words. There is this character in the opera named Boss, and these are his first lines:
Content Content Content Content! Das Wechselspiel von Tradition und Innovation ist die Quelle, die uns immer wieder neu inspiriert. Es geht um bestechende Kreativität! Immer auch um höchste Authentizität! Sich immer neue Ziele setzen, ständig in Bewegung bleiben! Content Content! Das ist digital, das ist Strategie, das hier sind die Key-Notes, das ist kreativ, das ist Social Media, das Wording ist top, die Performance ist GEIL! Noch eine Runde Q&A? Wir sind im Work-Flow, das bringt uns Insight, wir sind hier alle on the same Page, back to WORK NOW. WIR! Danke Danke Danke, TEAM, ihr macht uns zu dem, was wir sind! Rosmarin, Porsche, Lifestyle. Yeah!
The main character, Woman with the green silk blouse, is constantly telling us how happy she is with her life, as if trying to convince us. The whole opera is actually quite violent since the characters are all too worried about the void (which manifests itself as a crack in the coffee room, at first too small for anyone to care, but slowly becoming bigger), that they just continuously talk about how great and perfect everything is. This goes on until the main protagonist exhausts herself to the point where her body decomposes, which is almost sort of freeing for her.
There is also an alter-ego, the other woman also wearing a green silk blouse, who is like the inner child of the protagonist and who has the only lyrical and heartfelt lines of the piece. She is in constant observation of the world around her (seasons changing even though every day of work feels the same) and of her body (of its nature and later of its decay).Her text is very poetic, whereas all the others (our heroine, Boss, and Female Colleague) mostly get run-on sentences and matter-of-fact/common sense/truism speak.
The music plays with these different levels of mask-wearing, and mirrors the characters. For example, the colleague who is cartoonishly happy and constantly laughing to a nauseating degree, has energetic and constantly changing material, ranging from cheesy pop song when she sings about how amazing the weekend is to almost Gilbert-and-Sullivan/Commedia dell’arte melodrama when she talks about the crack she’s seen.
But generally the corporate characters only sing when they are putting a mask on. Otherwise they are in a speaking or half-speaking, half-singing mode, in a syllabic way which exaggerates the prosody of the German language (i.e. which notes are emphasized/high, which are low)
Here are some examples of vocal treatment:
Let’s hope a video clip surfaces for those of us who can’t be in Berlin this month. Meanwhile, here’s a fun chamber music piece by Thierry, STYROPORÖS:
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.
Still Tomorrow: “Yu Xiuhua, a rural poetess, becomes an overnight success when her poem Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You goes viral. Sudden fame and fortune afford her the thing she’s always wished for: freedom from her husband of 20 years.”
Rat Film: “Baltimore’s history of systemic class and racial segregation intersects with an unusual examination of its dense rodent population–and the culture that surrounds it–in this incisive and unsettling anthropological study of poverty in America.”
Hotel Sunrise: life and pursuit of happiness in a Slovak town called Cierna nad Tisou, once hailed as the Golden Gate of Socialism.