Barbara Hannigan conducts the TSO

Barbara Hannigan and the TSO. Photo: Jag Gundu

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s one more performance tonight

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

When Cross-Sex Casting Doesn’t Quite Work

Philip Riccio as Joe Clark and Christopher Hunt (in the background) as John Crosbie in Michael Healey’s 1979, directed by Miles Potter. Photo: Benjamin Laird Arts Photography

Here’s an argument you’ve never heard me make before: in a limited number of cases, women should not be cast in male roles.

Cross-sex or ‘gender-neutral’ casting is now customary across English-speaking world because so many classical works (see first of all: Shakespeare) have so few great female roles. Woman playing Hamlet, or Lear, or Cesar, or Prospero, can work really really well–and there have been many notable cases where it did.

But cross-sex casting in contemporary plays? Why not write plays with women in them, rather than write all-male plays and then hire women for some of the male roles?

A couple of days ago I went to see Michael Healey’s latest, 1979. As readers of this blog will already know, I am a fan of Michael Healey’s work, both as playwright and actor. 1979 dramatizes the night when Joe Clark, Canada’s first Progressive Conservative Prime Minister after a 15-year hegemony by Trudeau’s Liberals, is about to lose his first budget vote and with it the government. Clark is PM for a few months only before PET returns as the leader of the Liberals and beats him in the next election–and goes on to campaign for the unity side in the Quebec referendum, repatriate the Constitution and introduce the Charter of Rights.

First Conservative Leader and first PM from out west, the non-charismatic Joe Who? however has integrity to burn–and a Red Tory vision of the country that does not pit region vs region, refrains from patronage and pork-barrelling, and is fundamentally anti-Thatcherist (Thatcher has just won the UK general election across the pond by antagonizing rather than unifying). Canada is different, Joe Clark is certain. The NDP and the Liberals are united in wanting to take his minority government down–everybody hates the gas tax he’s about to introduce, does nothing ever change in federal politics–while six of the members of his own caucus don’t bother showing up for this life-or-death vote. Does he start bargaining, threatening, cajoling in order to convert some opposition MPs? Does he simply postpone the vote for however long the government needs to line the ducks in a row, the not-unheard of and legal and legit parliamentary move? (Employed as recently as last month by one Theresa May before her Brexit deal vote in the UK Parliament, btw.)

Neither, actually. The Clark of 1979 (and this is probably close to what happened in real life) believes that if he can’t get the votes for the budget, he does not have the moral right to govern. And that’s it. The country will go back to the polls, where he will, he believes, properly beat PET this time and return with a majority.

Several figures visit Clark on this fateful night. Actor Christopher Hunt plays John Crosbie, Clark’s finance minister, and Pierre Elliott Trudeau, and for a few brief and pointless minutes in hard-to-pull-off-without-camp drag, Flora MacDonald. Just the glorious conversation between PET and Clark is in itself worth going to this play for, as is the one near the end, between the young page Stephen Harper and PM Clark. But Harper is played by a woman.

Namely, there’s a third actor in the cast, and her name is Jamie Konchak. She shines as Flora MacDonald and Clark’s wife Maureen McTeer, but as a very sleazy Brian Mulroney who will go on to win the next PC leadership race and become Canada’s answer to Reagan and Thatcher, she is drag-kinging it, parodying, camping it up. Not for a second did I believe that female-bodied and female-voiced Mulroney is in any way threatening to Clark in their scene of confrontation.

Worse, the final big conversation between the “Steve”, who has the advantage of knowing the future, in particular the future of the united Reform+PC Conservative Party too, and the amused and tolerant Clark just doesn’t work: the passionate monologues about hegemony, Thatcherism, the electoral benefits of charisma-less leaders, Canadian West, and how to hold on to power–none of that really rings through when told by a young woman performing a man. (Plus… the wigs are so bad I wondered if they were purchased at Dollarama)

The two female characters both complain at various points how sexist the Parliament Hill is–and how men’s hands on women’s behinds, including theirs, are not exactly a rare occurrence. That is a fact: the 1979 parliamentary life was still a colossal sausage-fest. Women in public life or adjacent to it via their husbands were being treated badly and patronized. Biggest decisions have been made by men and men only. The single-minded Stephen Harper and the sleazy, threatening Mulroney should have been played by men. The federal power circles were (and probably still are) that claustrophobic. A male body and deep-speaking voice is almost necessary in order to be granted admission. (Crystia Freeland is changing this now, luckily.)

There exist plays without women that are extremely good. I am not a fan of any kind of creation that denies the existence of women but I can’t pretend that such creations can’t be, in a limited number of existing cases, superb. Who would you cross-sex cast in Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross? I don’t think it would work. What about, say, Michael Frayn’s Democracy, the play about Willy Brandt without a single female character? (It’s a good play, I was shocked to discover.) Or what about James Graham’s This House, which has one (1) female character, or his latest drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, which is largely an affair between factions of men? Or any of the BBC movies on British political life, like The Deal by Peter Morgan, on the deal between Blair and Brown? None of these would have worked I think with women playing characters like Blair and Brandt.

It’s hard to write women into historical political events, innit? because they are, to this day, most often excluded.  Casting women in roles of powerful men is kind of like asking us to pretend that this wasn’t the case.

But do see the play though and tell me if I’m wrong. Tickets here. They’re really affordable for arts workers, seniors, students, people willing to rush it (rush it, it’s never sold out); I got an excellent seat for $20.

2018 in books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 in arts – continues


Canadian Stage brought over Yann Bourgeois’s troupe for a performance of He Who Falls, the gravity defying, wordless (but not music-less) piece in which a handful of performers tell a story with nothing but running, walking, hanging off things, falling off and jumping. Jordan Tannahill’s Declarations, also at CanStage, told of death of a parent through a build-up of verbal declarations (often descriptions of things and people) each tied to specific physical gestures. The production of Michael Healey’s Drawer Boy at Passe Muraille wasn’t very good, but this was the first time I’ve seen the piece and it’s one of those perfectly ticking, discursive, multi-layered plays that we don’t often find today. Lulu v.7 // Aspects of a Femme Fatale by BIBT and The Red Light District at Buddies–a wack-out-loud adaptation of Wedekind’s play Pandora’s Box on which Berg’s opera Lulu was based–was a brilliant and audacious mess. Loved loved loved the new production of Linda Griffiths’ one-woman play Maggie and Pierre at Tarragon Workspace. Julius Caesar via National Theatre Live was a brisk and intelligent interpretation of the Shakespeare classic with cross-sex (and of course race-indifferent) casting. A few mehs too, some abroad, some local: Vincent Macaigne’s absurdly loud and spectacular Je suis un pays at Theatre de la Colline, the NT’s Absolute Hell, and Theory at Tarragon, which unfolds gloriously until about 3/4 in, when it completely switches to another genre and wrecks itself.


Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art finally reopened this year! Without a cafe or anything like that, so come well fed or you will have to trek back to Bloor to get a bite, or dine, if there’s room, in the posh Drake resto two parking lots away. Forno Cultura cafe apparently ought to appear on the ground floor of Moca eventually? That aside, I saw an excellent video installation Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape by British artist Andy Holden which uses Looney Tunes animation to talk about human predicament–economic, political, existential. It was worth sitting through the whole thing, and the room was constantly full.

In early spring this year, I caught the big Vikings exhibit at the ROM just before it closed. I did not know that the followers of Wotan (and accompanying gods which any opera lover will know from Wagner) had objects like tweezers and Buddha statuettes in their homes. They pillaged far and wide, and they traded as extensively. There was some evidence (not too much of it on display) that some women too, sometimes, have been trained as warriors.

The rest is all abroad: my first visit to the Musee Rodin, a return to Centre Pompidou for an exhibit on El Lissitsky & friends, both in Paris, and in Munich the Lenbachhaus museum for the Alfred Kubin retrospective (extraordinary; among the highlights of the decade), the Museum of the City of Munich (history of the city, and city’s present) and Museum Brandhorst for Cy Twombly.

A very special mention on this list goes to Toronto’s  Gibson House, which was, as far as I can tell, the only space in the city to mark the centenary of the granting of the female franchise on the federal level to the majority of Canadian women. Are there no feminist or women’s studies historians left in the museum circles in Toronto? I am puzzled. The Brits marked the anniversary throughout 2018, erected statues, covered the issue extensively in all kinds of media.


Loveless directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Sally Potter’s The Party
Steven Spielberg’s The Post
Armando Ianucci’s Death of Stalin
Disobedience, based on Naomi Alderman’s eponymous novel, dir. Sebastian Lelio
The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Did not live up to expectations: Haneke’s Happy End, On Chesil Beach, Hereditary (awful), Can You Ever Forgive Me (never reading the NYT film criticism again), Nothing Like a Dame (probably better for TV than the big screen; nothing new said, a few dull moments and a couple of awkward ones)

The Party trailer:


Stay tuned for 2018 in Books before end of year

2018 in Music

Bavarian State Opera, October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Verbotenlieder, or women take over men’s repertoire

Marcello & Rodolfo aka Vanessa Oude-Reimerink & Alexandra Beley

After an all-male, all-baritone and crowded Die Winterreise this summer, baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby a.k.a. the Tongue-in-Cheek Productions decided in the interest of fairness and variety to throw an all-female do. Verbotenlieder, or the Forbidden Songs, came together as a program for the sopranos and mezzos who always wanted to sing certain arias, duos or songs that remained off limits because they were written for and exclusively performed by men.

It’s a brilliant idea that was only half executed with the December concert at Lula Lounge. A wide mix of singers and songs followed one another with no introduction, and no reason offered why those choices and not others. The repertoire that is never sung by women or specific voice types is vast. Was the choice random, or did it always mean something special for the singer? Nyby and Durand and one or two singers did manage to say a few words here and there, but all this just made obvious one big lack in the programming: a cabaret style MC who can talk competently, succinctly and with humour about these songs and spin the show’s red thread.

Another thing that was missing and that usually comes with real cabaret: naughtiness. Raunch. Some of the men-narrated songs in the program are love songs for women. There is a long and honourable tradition of women singing pants roles and pants Lieder and mélodies. As the societies of origin liberalized in the twentieth and twenty first centuries, so did cultural interpretations of these songs. There are now lively interpretive cultures of this rep for which, say, a male POV German Lied written for a mezzo is not a mezzo voicing a guy, but a mezzo voicing women-to-woman love of some sort, or in some cases explicitly lesbian desire.

This remained underexplored, but it did make an appearance.

For example in the transposed for soprano Lensky aria from Eugene Onegin, exquisitely rendered by Natalya Gennadi with Natasha Fransblow on piano. This Lensky’s farewell to youth and life is brought about by the love of his life Olga flirting with Onegin at the ball. Gennadi additionally honoured the trouser role tradition by wearing an elegant pant suit and camouflaging her long hair into a modest bob.

Or in the tenor-baritone duo from The Pearl Fishers ‘Au fond du temple saint’, which got a lavish and genuinely new take by soprano Jennifer Taverner and mezzo Beste Kalender (Elina Kelebeeva on piano). In it, the two men reminisce on the moment they first saw the woman they both fell in love with, a veiled Brahmin priestess, but rush to give up the phantom in favour of their own mutual bond before the song is over. An intriguing twist, to see this ode to bro-hood sung by women and effectively turned into a song about bond between women who are resisting the lures of a fantasy.

Soprano Vanessa Oude-Reimerink and mezzo Alexandra Beley (Natasha Fransblow,  piano) took on the Marcello-Rodolfo duo from La Bohème, in which they gossip and pine after Mimi and Musetta. There was some awkward stage movement at the beginning, and it appeared to me that the chuckles from the audience indicated that most of us weren’t sure if the women were singing to each other. The surtitles cleared up some of the confusion, but again, a good intro, even by the singers themselves, would have made all the difference.

Lauren Margison

And then there’s Lauren Margison. First, accompanied by Natasha Fransblow, she took on ‘Addio, fiorito asil’, unofficially known as the Bastard is Leaving, from Madama Butterfly. Puccini gives Pinkerton this manipulatively beautiful and highly emotional tenor aria while he is secretly running off and leaving Butterfly to face ignominy. Margison somehow managed to sing this aria in a pissed off manner and still gloriously—exactly the right formula. Her second one was ‘Nessun dorma’ and it too came with the right attitude and glorious top notes. The attitude was, If you think Pavarotti is the last word in this department, I have a soprano to show you. At one point she invited the audience to fill in a couple of verses of the aria, which we happily did. Already during the Pinkerton aria, people got engaged and rowdy almost immediately, and a loud Brava flew her way at the right place during the aria—something you rarely hear Toronto opera audiences do. But that’s the virtuous circle that comes with a good performance: the more daring a singer is, the more reactive the audience.

On the other hand, there was stuff that didn’t light the spark. It wasn’t clear to me why ‘O sole mio’, Ravel’s Don Quixote songs to Dulcinea and one of Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel were in the program. They’re all fine songs, but why should we hear women singing them? What do women add to them that’s missing? I have my theories, but I was more interested in hearing the singers’, and the performances themselves did not make strong enough case. Elsewhere in the program, the soprano version of the Count’s aria from Marriage of Figaro, in which he plots the destruction of Susanna’s announced wedding out of jealousy, was delivered in English and adapted—I am guessing, I could not hear everything clearly and there were no surtitles for songs in English—as Susanna’s resistance song of sorts? The Great Inquisitor scene from Don Carlo with two mezzos taking their low notes for a wild ride is a great idea, but the performance was hampered by Leah Giselle Field’s mocking and hammed-up take on the Inquisitor. Catherine Daniel sang King Philip in earnest—no panto and no distancing, she really played a king, and it was a pleasure to watch.

The evening ended with the ironic takeover of the men’s chorus singing about the trickiness of women from The Merry Widow.

All in all: an excellent concept delivered as a disjointed hodgepodge of highs and huhs. But the gents of the TICP have my attention.

The gang

Review originally written for the Wholenote and published here.

So you just received an interview request…

You’re nervous. In a panic, even. (All normal, btw.) What do you do? Do you:

A – ask the writer to send you the questions in advance? Tell you in advance how the conversation is going to transpire?

B – do a bit of research about the writer’s previous work (search engines, social media, writer’s website, writer’s magazine(s)’ website(s), word of mouth, colleagues etc.) and their approach to interviewing and based on that you decide whether you trust her/him to write about you or not. You say yes, and come what may. You exercised your judgment. Or you decline. You won’t be the first or the last, par for the course.

12 hours… then 24 hours after the interview request, you still haven’t replied. Do you:

A1 – continue making up your mind until you are certain. Two, three, four days pass. You eventually reply, in your own time.

A2 – you don’t feel like doing it, or you can’t make up your mind whether you want to do it, so you don’t bother replying. You ghost the interview request. They’ll figure out on their own that it’s a no, right? If you do do the interview and you get tired of having to deal with the thing, you can ghost later on, as can your manager, when for example the editor or that same writer asks if you can provide hi-res photos which it says on your website that you can provide for the media. Always do what you feel like. Ghost away.

B – you suddenly realize the writers are working people too and that they work, that this is their work, that they plan their days, weeks and months and try to make a working schedule according to which they then work. And that freelancers juggle any number of projects at the same time, and that having one of those left hanging as a maybe won’t help with the overall planning of life and writing. If they’re freelancer, that they pitched you / your topic to the editor who assigned the piece. That they went out of their way to convince the assignment editor that you are worth writing about, and that they got assigned the deadline and are doing anything they can to meet it. You reply asap.

So you accepted the interview, but you’re still panicking. How about you invite one of your colleagues to join you for an interview? You both worked on this opera in different capacity, but closely – it’s better if both of you are talking about it. Beside, it’s only fair. (Are you a woman? Of course you are. Few men will have thoughts of that kind. But I digress.) You:

A – say to the writer (or ask your publicist to do it for you) Hey how about we invite So and So to join us? It’ll be much better.

B – do nothing. Whether you’d personally feel more comfortable with another person next to you, or you think the writer would get more information from two people rather than only you, or whatever your reason — you do nothing. It’s you who got the interview request, not you and whoever else you feel like inviting. Beside, two people interviews are a different beast than one-on-ones, in terms of format, deciding what matters and what remains on the cutting room floor, and the amount of required time to think the blob of conversation through and shape it up.

You are an artist who has a publicist — or is working with an organization that has publicists. You are still nervous about the interview, so it occurs to you that you should invite the publicist to sit in. Or–more likely–the organization for which you work has as a policy that all interviews must include a publicist present. You:

A – breathe a sigh of relief. Fabulous. There will be you, the journalist, and the publicist monitoring every word uttered. What could be better!

B – try everything you can to persuade the publicist or the organization to skip the monitoring. Writers dislike surveillance of this kind, and are known to cancel interviews when a publicist enters the equation. Again, three people in the room is different than two people. Sometimes, or so you’ve heard, the writers will do the laziest possible job on the piece as a sort of silent revenge on the publicity micromanaging from the other side. Or so you’ve heard. Entertainment journalism is so shitey precisely for this reason. Movie promotion onslaught meets compliant media. We don’t need that in other kinds of art now, do we?

So the interview is finished, over with, phew. Now you’re worried if you said something silly. (Again, all normal.) In fact, you start remembering that thing that you said that may be misconstrued or blown out of proportions if quoted verbatim. Do you:

A1- contact the writer to ask to see the finished piece so you can decide if it shows you in a good light and approve or withdraw accordingly

A2 – you ask your publicist or agent to do that for you, or to ask the writer to exclude any mention of X, Y or Z from the piece.

B – continue living your life and doing the work. Because you went over this (see under the very first B in the first question), and you’ve made a decision to trust the writer. You continue doing you and the writer will do their job, and that’s life.

Do not do the As.

Joyce El-Khoury and Beste Kalender in recital

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . . . . . .

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

What are the land acknowledgements for

Due to an impending cold, I had to leave the TSO’s Britten Requiem today barely 20 min in, but I did stay long enough to hear the conductor read a land acknowledgement before saying a few words about the piece we were about to hear.

I have never heard a land acknowledgement from the TSO podium before. Will all visiting TSO conductors now have to rattle it off, be they Japanese, Hispanic, East European or Canadian?

The acknowledgements that we are on “traditional lands” of this or that First Nation or a mix of Nations is spreading among Toronto’s arts organizations faster than you can say “performative wokeness”. It’s already obligatory in the public school system and in many corners of higher education. I haven’t been to many party political events lately, but I expect they’re heard there as well.

I am, on principle, against the mandatory “land acknowledgements” before arts events, because:

  • it’s an empty gesture that produces a lot of warm and fuzzy feelings in a whole lot of people, but does not improve material conditions of life of a single Native person. I suspect it’s getting so extremely popular because it makes the acknowledger look good while costing them precisely nothing, and meaning as much. Disproportionate poverty among Native Canadians? Inadequate infrastructure such as water supply? Access to education, broadband and medical care? Access to parliamentary representation? Facility of travel? Unsustainable resource extraction next to or on the majority Native territories? Reserve governance? Nevermind all that. What’s more pressing is that we ceremoniously utter certain words about who was first on the “lands”.
  • it’s historically inaccurate in that glosses over, well, the history of contentious claims over the territory among First Nations themselves. For denser locales with layers of history, like say Toronto, things get complicated. As a York U historian put it in this look at the L.A. by Stephen Marche for TNY, “Haudenosaunee people, some of them, don’t want to recognize that the Anishnabe took control and were here historically. Some Anishnabe people will not recognize that the Haudenosaunee people were here. And both those people sometimes want to erase the Wendat.” We also seem to forget that the this or that nation of the First Nations formed alliances with the French and the British in the course of the country’s settling history, and that the story of the omnipotent colonizer and the powerless colonized is far from neat and linear.
  • it’s historically, anthropologically and politically inaccurate in that no race, no people, has a pure and primordial relation to the land in this Canada of ours, AD 2018 (nor ever, really; but that’s a longer essay). We are all modern, we are all of 2018. We are all affected by the capital and the global communications and technology and medical developments and the bloody unavoidable Americans. All races (an unscientific concept that the left, it seems, now insists on as much as the right) and all ethnicities jostling north of 49th are equally close or equally far from the “land”. And yes, that means the Inuit too, who hunt seal for sustenance and send representatives to advocate before international bodies and use social media for mobilization. To presume that somehow the Native component of the hodge-podge that is Canada retains some sort of special contact to the land and nature is an ideology that’s had some unfortunate consequences in other historical periods around the world. No blood and belonging, please.
  • it’s politically naive in that while pretending to address an issue (of cultural inclusion of Native cultures into the Canadiana) it in fact masks many more. How many nations are we, one or multiple? What is the we in the Canadian project? Are its first nations and later waves of nations including today’s very new comers to forever remain separate quantities? What is the chance in hell that some of us who came here in, say, 1999, will ever belong? Will First Nations end up fully developing their own legal and medical systems? Is it possible to imagine this country whole, rather than a bunch of component parts? More than 50 percent of Torontonians were born in another country. I’m sure I’m not the only immigrant who’s ever thought Hang on a sec, if we are now to understand the life of this country as an ongoing settling and colonization, maybe I shouldn’t have come over and joined in the horror show? How do we indeed propose to wed this notion of indigeneity with the waves of immigration into Canada?

I grew up in a communist country where every public event had to include the prominently placed images of the Yugoslav leader Tito and (all or combination of) Marx, Engels and Lenin. There were also concepts that the officials, while speechifying for this or that occasion, had to give a nod to (for ex the people’s liberation struggle, the proletariat, the brotherhood and the unity, and post-1974 the self-government). Now I do love much about my old, now unfortunately non-existent country, and I miss it, but this kind of compelled speech during public events, and the other side of the same coin, the forbidden speech, is not something I miss. Is there any kind of compelled speech circulating about in the high income, free speech country like Canada? Is wearing poppies around Nov 11 it? Can you say no to reading a land acknowledgment–as an individual or as an organization? I sincerely hope my apprehension is baseless and my parallel exaggerated. And that those who’re not entirely sure about this public wokeness ritual that the LA is becoming can choose to skip it.