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.

And Glyndebourne happened

To pay homage and celebrate the final Cesare sung by Sarah Connolly–possibly the final mezzo Cesare on a major stage, as the CTs have just about completely taken over the role–a few of us made the trip to that little opera house on private property in Lewes. National representation, l-r: UK, Finland, Canada, Australia.

Photo is a deft multi-head selfie taken by Monique C (far right)
The house
Around the house

Back to us on a picnic blanket, minus the UK, who took the photo

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

Oh the uproar

I don’t mind when readers and opera goers review my reviews. Fair game. And I welcome the interaction. But I don’t understand the upset that I hear is brewing on Facebook and through emails to my editor around my review of Anna Bolena at the COC. It’s a fairly sedate review, but even that amount of disagreement comes across as RADICAL in a reviewing environment that has become extremely timid and let’s-all-get-along. Perhaps people should read some British, French or American negative reviews for comparison?

I don’t give negative reviews in a cavalier and off-hand manner. If something’s not working for me, I try to explain why. Large budget and established, stable organizations and in-demand, established singers and the fans of each should be able take a negative review without a hissy fit. Or not? Is it allowed not to like a certain opera? A certain production? A certain singer? Just keep that in mind. That not everybody will like every singer and every production and every composer. And some times they’ll have a public forum to say so and be lucky enough to have readers interested in their opinion (yes, this is a privilege and I do my darnest to earn it.)

To artists and arts administrators I say: just go on with your job and focus on your work. That should be your response.

And I am not talking out of school: I have been on both sides. My two books have received some good reviews and award shortlists, and some mixed reviews and a couple of negative reviews and some indifference/no reviews too. I think indifference is probably something you want the least. But it’s true: we remember certain sentences from negative reviews for a long time to come, and the stuff from positive reviews pales with time. (Unless you’re a massive narcissist… in which case, viceversa.)

Those of us who have had our work reviewed should also keep in mind: it’s incomparably better to create something and have it commented upon by other people, than spending your life commenting on other people’s work. Some of criticism certainly equals creation: but that takes more time, more studiousness, knowledge of wider culture, a longer view, maybe the book format or film or TV documentary format. And some of the ad hoc reviews for the media, which do an extremely important public service, will also be works of art, if the luck strikes. But overall, reviewing is derivative because it depends on something else for it to exist, whereas creation is creation.

So: stop worrying and get on with the work. Neither good reviews nor bad reviews should matter to a creator. You do your art the way you feel it must be done and keep going and growing.

There’s something else that’s been worrying me lately regarding Toronto’s opera and classical scene: a certain uniformization and overlap of reviewing and performing circles. Everybody is friends with everybody. These writers went to same music school and performed with those other people. This reviewer being hired by an arts organization for task X or Y, then a few months later writing about the same organization as a journalist or critic. This editor hanging out with this executive, this donor or board member working for both an org and a magazine. This person dating that person, and having the same social circles as that other person. Everybody schmoozing at the same parties.

Under similar circumstances, it becomes extremely difficult to express disagreement of any substantial kind, or to even soberly look at a work of art. Everything will be great, everything will be a miracle.

And that’s simply not healthy. And it destroys the art of the positive review too: if everything is good, nothing is. The positive review loses its purpose and its credibility.

Now, carry on. And–genuinely–thanks for reading.

Gerald Finley & Julius Drake go German and Russian

This concert report originally published in the Wholenote online

Gerald Finley photo by Sim Canetty-Clarke

Gerald Finley has a baritone which casts a bass shadow. A voice dark and ripe and opulent that doesn’t lighten gladly, but the ear won’t mind two hours of it because Gerald Finley the dramatic interpreter and wizard of inflection comes with it.

Finley and one of the most in-demand accompanists today, Julius Drake, presented a German and Russian program at Koerner Hall this past Sunday, April 22. The first part assembled poems by Goethe set to music by Beethoven and Schubert, two almost exact contemporaries (the older man died 1827, the young one the year after) whose songs however belong to two different eras. Beethoven is not known for his vocal music and next to Schubert’s songs his come across as plainer, simpler melodies, playful or curious rather than stirring. In Finley’s hands the songs grew to become little scenes, delivered smoothly in his precise enunciation.

Schubert’s Goethe was a different Goethe. The set was capped with arguably the best known Schubert song, the infanticidal Erl King, but began with the long Prometheus lied, D 674. The Prometheus of this poem is defiant, not yet punished by Zeus, proudly creating humans after his own image. At the time of its creation the song could have signified political rebellion against the powers of the state, or personal rebellion of young creative men against their fathers, but the text has lost much of its resonance for audiences of our time and is potentially overlong and self-important. Not here: again, Finley worked his magic with the text and the song became a meaningful cri de coeur.

An den Mond (To the Moon) stood out from the set by its languid pace and silvery lyrics, while An Schwager Kronos (To Coachman Chronos) swept though in a gallop.

The secondhalf, all-Russian, was shared between Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff. Tchaikovsky’s four songs came out as positively moderate next to the Rachmaninoff set. Rachmaninoff gives the pianist a lot to do, and is no stranger to a sweeping cinematic statement. An orchestra might have been present in the downers-with-high-dramatic-peaks O nyet, molyu, ne ukhodi! (Oh No, I Pray, Don’t Leave), O, dolgo budu ya (In the Silence of the Night), and Na smert chizhika (On the Death of a Linnet) but it was indeed just these two men onstage. A lot of chiaroscuro is required there, which Finley created through sensitivity to the text rather than vocal timbre (which stayed consistently as dark as plush velvet). Julius Drake from the keyboard supplied Romantic excess where Rachmaninoff calls for it.

One number in the Rachmaninoff set was actually fun: Sudba (Fate) – a song in which the singer voices more than one persona, in the vein of Schubert’s Erlkönig – had Finley (and us with him) delighting in the onomatopoeic sound of fate knocking on various people’s doors. The final song in the official program was the astonishing and astonishingly exaggerated Vesennye vody (Spring Streams), which starts by cranking up to 10 and stays there for its remaining two minutes. But Finley and Drake made it sound almost natural.

The encore was reserved for songs in the English language – Barber, Copland, Healey Willan, and a Britten arrangement of The Crocodile, a folk song recounting how a man ended up eaten up by the gigantic reptile and spent ten years inside it, “very well contented.”

As was the audience on this night.

Gerald Finley and Julius Drake presented a recital program on April 22, at Koerner Hall, Toronto. They continue to tour this program to Washington DC, Georgia and NYC. Finley will have an extra stop in Montreal, with pianist Michael McMahon (Info).

Nightingale, oh Nightingale

(l-r) Bruno Roy as Japanese Envoy 3, Samuel Chan as Japanese Envoy 2, Jane Archibald as the Nightingale, Oleg Tsibulko as the Emperor and Miles Mykkanen as Japanese Envoy 1 in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2018. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Robert Lepage, set designer Carl Fillion, costume designer Mara Gottler and lighting designer Etienne Boucher. Photo: Michael Cooper

The COC’s nine-year-old production of Stravinsky’s shorts, The Nightingale and Other Short Fables directed by Robert Lepage has aged well — as family entertainment. It sells well, it brings children and rookies to the opera house, and this time around it put to work much of the COC Ensemble Studio.

For those of us who have seen it when it opened, the excitement has subsided. The production stitches together a selection of Stravinsky songs and instrumental pieces with the short opera The Nightingale into a puppetry-themed revue. While the children may rejoice the shadow puppetry illustrations during Pribaoutki and The Fox, the adults may wonder why this modernist composer is being given the Russian folklore treatment. In the pre-Nightingale pieces all the singers wear peasant clothes, and while this makes sense for Four Russian Peasant Songs (women of the COC Chorus, underpowered on the opening night), it does not for Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont (Danika Loren, bright-voiced and exquisite in Russian language) or Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (the very engaging Juan Olivares).

The Nightingale itself is a strange bird, and Stravinsky thought so too. He composed Acts 2 and 3 after he had completed The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, thanks to a commission he couldn’t refuse, and Act 1 does remain stylistically apart. The opening song of the Fisherman and some of the surrounding woodwinds could have come from the Russian nineteenth-century opera, whereas the rest of the work fits in better with the invention, the sharp edges, the crafted-ness of Stravinsky’s mature oeuvre.

The story is, fittingly, bizarre. In the libretto by Stepan Mitussov based on H.C. Andersen, the courtiers of the Chinese Emperor are taken out into the nature to hear the nightingale. The cow and the frog confuse them at first, as they’ve never heard any sounds from the nature, but the live nightingale is finally found and they invite it to court. The Emperor is moved when the bird sings at his quarters, yet the Japanese visitors interrupt the jam with their gift, a mechanical nightingale, which also impresses the Emperor. The real nightingale leaves unnoticed and is subsequently banned for disobedience but returns for Act 3 to negotiate the Emperor’s release from death throes. Morning dawns, Emperor is alive and well, Death chased away with song.

Parable on the supremacy of nature over artifice? Not so fast. The music Stravinsky gives to the Nightingale is a whole lot of beautiful but also rather cool and detached coloratura atop of the text describing wet foliage in the night. Yet to the stilted and ceremonious figures of the imperial court—and to Death—it sounds extraordinary, perhaps because free. Free from emoting too, as will operatic expression attempt to free itself from voicing and enticing straightforward emotion for much of the rest of the twentieth century to come, excepting Puccini. “For me, music is reality… and like Baudelaire, but unlike Messiaen, J’aime mieux une boîte à musique qu’un rossignol,” Stravinsky said in his Dialogues with Robert Craft (’82).

Robert Lepage and his collaborators in Ex machina intuited exactly right this artificial, laboured over and crafted nature of everything in this piece, and gave every character a puppet double to speak through – except, again, the Nightingale, whose mechanical double flies around as it pleases (on a long stick supported by a handler disguised in black). This is a perfect role for Jane Archibald who, when not holding the bird, roams freely among the characters and supplies self-contained coloratura utterances. Other principals are all in the pool of water occupying the orchestra pit, while the orchestra is on stage, behind the action. The original Dyagilev production designed by Alexandre Benois also played with upstairs-downstairs, and placed the Nightingale and the Fisherman inside the orchestra pit.

While he was barely heard in Part 1 as one of the quartet of The Fox, Oleg Tsibulko got back the volume by the time he returned on stage as the Emperor in Part 2. Lauren Eberwein as the Cook and Lindsay Ammann as Death in a large crowd of small roles had a bit more substance to work with and they managed to leave mark with what they had. Owen McCausland secure, full tenor was very distinct in Part 1 and returned in Part 2 as the Fisherman. He was comfortable in Russian, and vocally even throughout the range. Occasionally a bit more inflection and nuance was called for: there’s certainly sufficient force there, but there’s also a certain over-relying on the oomph of the voice, whereas sometimes modulation is what’s needed in the text or the scene. It will be interesting to watch his voice as it likely grows more dramatic with years.

The crown achievement of the evening is Stravinsky’s music itself, incapable of dullness if honoured properly, and the COC Orchestra conducted by Johannes Debus honoured its crispness and animation. From the Ragtime which served as the overture (and which could have been written yesterday, by John Adams) to the last bars of the rising sun of The Nightingale, the lucid and nimble orchestra kept the evening, potentially weighed down by dolls, gallons of water and crowds of courtiers, in swift and steady motion.

First published in Opera Canada online; will be in print in the next issue.