Animula vagula blandula

Anima Vagula Blandula in Hadrian’s Mausoleum

I first visited Rome in 2006 and for a long while before and after it was my favourite city of all actual and possible cities. I had read the Yourcenar novel about the Emperor Hadrian especially before the trip and enjoyed it much more than I enjoy the memory of it now. Then, I thought it was a terribly sophisticated, subterranean investigation of a “good” emperor’s public and (verrrrry subtly) private life. Now I find Yourcenar’s académicienne sentence a bore, and the multiply veiled story coy (the way exciting literature usually isn’t): a writer writing from deep within the closet.

At any rate, I of course went to Hadrian’s Mausoleum and loved it. The only picture I seem to have taken is this one above, with Hadrian’s poetry chiseled fairly recently onto a stone plate and placed high up (or was it low down? I forget) on a wall inside the mausoleum. There’s a modern-day Italian intro at the top: “Words from the dying Emperor Hadrian to his soul”.

Hadrian likely wrote more, but as far as I know only this poem remains, & has been translated in multiple versions. Yourcenar amplified further its importance in the novel.

I was surprised after I’ve read Daniel MacIvor’s libretto for Hadrian, his and Rufus Wainwright’s operatic child which just premiered at the COC, that he did not include this famous bit of Hadriana in the text. All the same, it’s a decent libretto, and a functioning (if clunkily) opera which has alas been given a commercial theatre-type production. Why nobody said at any point Waiiit that’s just too many bare bottoms mixed in with the extras from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I don’t know.

Here’s my Opera Canada review.

I think it’s a touch of (devious gay) genius that Antinous tops the Emperor in their very detailed and leisurely sex scene. If any of you have read Alan Hollingurst’s The Swimming Pool Library, the brilliant last sex scene in that book comes to mind. You know, the one where the wealthy English aristocratic narrator who’s been topping everybody in the book finally gets bottomed–and totally naturally and ordinarily, with no words exchanged on the topic–by a working class guy of Middle Eastern origin. Hollinghurst has this incredibly poetic, uber-stylish way of describing the filthiest sex between men, and he doesn’t disappoint here. “He fucked him with leisurely vehemence”, he writes of the guy topping Will the aristocratic narrator. Leisurely vehemence! A phrase to make you guffaw and blush at the same time. Well yes. Quite. There was some leisurely vehemence in evidence in that Hadrian-Antinous encounter.

 

Live-streaming: why are Canadian opera productions missing from the worldwide phenomenon?

I’d love you to give this a read, as it’s an issue that’s been on the Canadian opera radar for a while now. http://operacanada.ca/live-streaming-opera-canada/ Why are there no Canadian operatic productions online or DVD? I talked to a CultureBox exec, media people from the Bavarian State Opera and Komische Oper Berlin, Stratford Festival’s ED, COC’s ED, Equity’s ED, TSO’s former digital initiatives man Michael Morreale, and CBC’s classical music producer Denise Ball.

TL; DR? Canadian situation is a cluster-fuck of unfortunate elements: the CBC is not interested (bless their hockey and crime reporting soul), opera companies can’t afford to do it themselves, the unions want their members to be paid for this extra usage (and that’s not an unreasonable request), and Canada Council’s Digital Fund won’t fund the streaming or digital archives because they consider it all marketing and therefore going under existing operating grants, for those orgs that get them.

But do give it a read and tell me what you think.

A question for another article though: are streaming and VOD going to put paid to proper DVD recordings that you buy and take home, like music streaming put paid to CD recordings, and CD recordings to LPs? I think that would be a terrible development, because we can’t count on Medici and OperaVision to work as the historical performance archives. Are they going to keep those videos in perpetuity on their servers? I’d guess they’re more likely to do so than the Spotify corporation is, and probably less likely than CultureBox, owned by France’s public television channels, which have the mandate to do so. As the CBC did once, long time ago: recorded and preserved the best of nation’s performing arts.

Altogether another question is: is this era of digital transmission of performing arts here to stay, or is it a temporary trend? Are people going to lose interest in internet VOD of opera in, say, 20 years–because the experience definitely cannot compare to the Real Thang? Or is it, gasp, going to eat into the live audience, like Met in HD does in some regions?

Can you talk about me without me

As many of you locals know by now, the Theatre du Soleil’s play on the making of Canada–early days, so La Nouvelle France and the First Nations, I presume they won’t go as far into the era after the British takeover–is going to go ahead after all in the TdS’s Paris HQ, with a diminished budget and only Robert Lepage’s nominal engagement / blessing. The NYC co-producer pulled out due to the controversy in the North American media, social media and among activists national and cultural. Which erupted after it was learned that Lepage & Ex Machina did not engage any actors or creatives of Native origin for the play that was to have quite a few scenes involving Native people.

The way the thing was covered and debated in Canada’s English language media (and what made it into the US coverage) left much to be desired. The falsehood that this is Lepage doing an all-white play in Paris about First Nations became a currency and swiftly moved from one outraged take to another. It did not help  that Lepage just came out of another controversy (see under SLAV) and people were ready to pounce along these lines again. It did not help that Lepage did not give any interviews to the English language media, and gave only one to Radio Canada (this one). It did not help either that apparently nobody who is paid to opine or report on these things in our big media actually reads French, or consults any non-English sources. Due to the years of editorial and publisher neglect, we don’t really have actual arts journalism in this town any longer–people who do in-depth research, speak other languages (or at least French), read a lot within and without their beat, follow foreign media and don’t base their opinion columns on their emotions solely.

What nobody cared to report on was that: 1) Theatre du Soleil has its own ensemble–multinational and multiracial, with a lot of refugees who’ve moved to France, people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Togo, etc. It’s people like that who would be playing characters from Canadian history. An Iraqi was to play the King of England, for example; 2) TdS has its own esthetic: workerist-egalitarian, internationalist, large-scale, epic sometimes (see this TNY profile); physical, with elements of mime (Mnouchkine trained in Lecoq method; for local echoes of that kind of theatre, see Mouthpiece coproduced by Buddies and Nightwood Theatre), collectivist way of creating a play. Was Lepage to insist on introducing a few Canadian actors into the ensemble, they’d have to undergo a crash course on TdS method/approach. 3) related – Lepage says in that interview with RC that he had no say in casting. He was, he says, invited to co-direct an already formed ensemble. If this is true, what he would have to have done then, and what Canadian pundits apparently have wanted him to do, is to say Wait, I’ll replace THESE FIVE PEOPLE because um they belong to the wrong races for these roles, and I’ll put in THESE OTHER FIVE PEOPLE in their stead.

At which point you may–and Stephan Bureau in that linked RC interview indeed did–ask, But wait, you are Robert Lepage, you are co-directing, you can do anything you want, at any stage, even before you were presented with a fully formed ensemble? No, he says. He was brought before the fully formed ensemble. To want to replace people based on their ethnic origin would be extremely bizarre.

While the scandal was raging and churnalism was churning outrage, the TdS, the Ex-Machina, Lepage and Mnouchkine met in July with several Native Canadian organizations and had a long conversation–a symposium, in a way–and parted ways on friendly terms but with no agreed solution. Soon after the Park Armory withdrew its funding, and Lepage threw in the towel.

Until Mnouchkine decided the show will after all go on, by the TdS for Parisian audiences, with no formal or financial involvement from any North American producer.

All this by way of intro to this: the other day, Telerama, a culture magazine from Paris, dedicated a special dossier to this story, and tweeted out their interview with Mnouchkine. Since it was in the subs section of the magazine only, I asked around and a friend from Lyon who has access logged on, got the PDF of the relevant pages and mailed them to me. Here they are. There’s the Mnouchkine interview, and the longer piece which includes conflicting views on the issue of the so-called cultural appropriation and what it might entail. I have to say although I disagree with some of what he argues, David Bobee makes some beautiful points there (“Je n’ai pas de leçon à donner, mais je pense que ça n’aurait pas été compliqué d’enrichir la troupe du Soleil de quelques artistes et penseurs directement concernés par le sujet. Nous devons tous apprendre à décentrer nos regards, nos pratiques, nos imaginaires.” It’s exactly what Lepage says was very complicated to do indeed, logistics-wise. I tend to believe him, but Bobee sounds perfectly reasonable as well.)

The piece concludes with the grim diagnosis of the state of discourse on these topics — it’s worrisome that the loudest, crudest voices dominate these conversations for everybody else and shut things down, rather than let actual hard dialogue take place and from it, change–in representation, in practices, in, as Bobee says, imaginations.

This new/old Kanata will take place from December through mid-February in TdS HQ La Cartoucherie, a repurposed factory.

reGeneration, part the final – Nostalgic Romanticism

And so the Art of Song Academy concerts come to an end. Today I managed to get to the final one, the mostly German program with a Chausson piano quintet thrown in for a change of scenery.

Renee Fajardo with Janhee Park on piano sang Schumann’s Der Soldat, Clara Schumann’s Die Lorelei and Schoenberg’s Galathea, the last song standing out as the most intriguing and accomplished of the three. Meave Palmer with Leona Cheung sang Wolf’s Kennst du das Land? and what felt like a scene by Strauss, Säusle, liebe Myrthe – Rustle, dear Myrtle, with lots of onomatopoeic effects of cooing, rustling and crickets. Again, the dramatic commitment was unreserved with Palmer, for which kudos; there is perhaps an over-reliance on feminine fragility in her choice of songs and expression. I’d love to see this singer stretch her talent into other moods in art song rep. I am sure the voice will sound differently then too, not as pure and child-like as it does now.

Danielle Vaillancourt (+ Frances Armstrong, piano) did a Wolf song (finely) before an Alma Mahler three-song set with Die stille Stadt, Laue Sommernacht and Bei dir ist es Traut. There is great beauty of tone in this dark mezzo voice, but also perhaps a certain uniformity of colour where a wider palette would be welcome. Tenor Asitha Tennekoon sang his beloved Der Doppelgänger, a Wolf and a couple of other talky Schuberts, and his precision and gusto with the text were out of ordinary. He did not interpret as much as inhabit the songs–just like Palmer did earlier in the concert.

All of the singers obviously worked hard on the German text and engaged intensely with it. If I had to pick at something, it’s that frequently there was a certain naturalness with it lacking across the board–because the preparedness and hard work was still visible. I would however gladly see each of these singers again.

Chausson’s Chanson perpetuelle was also on the program, with mezzo Lyndsay Promane, Steve Sang Koh and Julia Mirzoev (violins), Julia Swain (viola), John Belk (cello) and Alexey Pudinov (piano), but for some reason it did not engage me at all. The Chamber Music fellows with mentor Yehonatan Berick rounded the evening with Dohnanyi’s overlong Piano Quintet No. 2.

Now, song academy is over but the song is not: Steven Philcox and Krisztina Szabo are scheduled to perform a yet undisclosed program of songs by Canadian composers on July 24 at 5pm at Heliconian Hall. It’s a free (sponsored) series and I hope it gets a solid turnout, unusual start time notwithstanding. Also in this series, Alice Ping Yee Ho’s opera in concert, Your Daughter Fanny.

Toronto Summer Music Art of Song Academy – first concerts

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

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

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

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

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

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

+ + + +

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

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

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

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

Kudos where kudos due

One of COC’s 18/19 season posters spotted on the subway.

I’ve only recently found this out, but: the COC actually engaged their own administrative and artistic staff as the models in the promotional photos for the new season. The lovely people we see in those B&W pics in posters and programs for Otello, Hadrian, Cosi, Onegin etc are the COC staff. I’ve read somewhere (I think it was John in Opera Ramblings) that they also honoured their staff in the 18/19 season launch event, which is equally fabulous.

Reminder that only about 15 percent of the COC budget comes from the government. The rest needs to be self-generated year after year. Chapeau to all who make that happen.

Hmmmm…

Not sure what to think of this. Grandstanding, is my first thought. When did funding cuts help diversify anything?

I get that the board members of the majors like the COC and the TSO need diversifying. But the main job of a board member is to fund-raise for the organization — such is our art funding structure, there’s no escaping it. And what is the best connected, wealthiest demographic that can bring in most buck and best connections? Are we expecting from board rooms of large arts organizations to diversify faster than other structures, than business boardrooms, arts journalism, government (hello, City Council. Not exactly diverse, and each member elected on, like, 40 percent turnout).

If anybody’s willing to explain to me how a funding cut might achieve the desired effects of “diversifying board rooms, staff, audiences and what we see on stage”, I’m happy to listen.

We interrupt this program

Oh hi

Seeing this on June 15th, btw. Managed to find a good return that’s also within my budget.

Noir as the Puck

Hockey Noir in Montreal. Photo credit Maxime Boisvert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A scene from Hockey Noir. Photo by Maxime Boisvert