Jul 13, 2016

"I like to build things."

Douglas McNabney / Photo by Bo Huang
Eleven years ago, the Toronto Summer Music Festival kicked off in fine style. I remember being curious if cautious in my excitement, happy to see it unfolding, if unsure a classical music festival would catch on in Toronto; this isn't exactly an environment that would support a Tanglewood, I reasoned, and come summertime, there was already so much to do in the city. It didn't feel like classical music would get a foothold amidst all the festivals, street parties, and other summery cultural events. How wrong I was.

The TSMF has grown to become a very big, very popular part of Toronto's cultural calendar. This year's edition opens July 14th (this Thursday) and runs to August 7th, with a particular focus on the music of Great Britain. it sounds like a hoary old trope, but it's true: the festival has something for everyone. You want fancy and big? Try the big-name concerts at Koerner Hall. You want smaller? Try Heliconian Hall. There's also student performances, talks, and a generous helping of off-the-radar work too. And, there's the Academy, perhaps the most vital part of the Festival, which offers a training and performance space for young musicians to work with established artists. And there's a very casual, relaxed, entirely unpretentious approach to all of it.

That's largely because of the work of one man, musician/academic Douglas McNabney, who's been with the festival as Artistic Director since 2010. This year he's stepping down, and will be replaced in the job by Toronto Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, with whom he's worked in the past. Widely considered one of Canada's finest chamber musicians, McNabney has performed all over the world, in every festival you can think of, and is currently Professor of Chamber Music at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University.

For someone so accomplished within the classical realm, you might think he'd come off snobbish, uppity — all the usual tropes associates with the culture. As you'll hear from our chat, McNabney is none of those things; conversational, funny, and wickedly smart, he's truly a Canadian cultural treasure who will be sorely missed by the Toronto music community. But, as he tells me, he's a builder at heart.. so, onto a new (mystery) project, then! We also discuss the issue of diversity within the classical music world, and how the Festival, and the Festival Academy, is helping to bring about change.







Opera: Relevant.

Leontyne Price. Photo via
I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience -- and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.

As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”

Russell Thomas and Anita Rachvelishvili in the Canadian Opera Company's Carmen. Photo via
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages —  sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.

So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.

Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera's Elektra. Photo via
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto;  Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.

So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.

May 28, 2016

#Fancy (or not)

Photo via
If you don't know the name James Ehnes, you should.

The lively Canadian violinist is currently on a tour that brings him to Toronto on Sunday, May 29th, where, along with pianist Andrew Armstrong, he'll close the eclectic 21C Music Festival at Koerner Hall, a beautiful performance space attached to the Royal Conservatory of Music.

Lest you think any concert that takes place within the proximity of a conservatory is fusty, stilted, old-fashioned, or (shock!) outright boring, Ehnes' concert will feature one Canadian debut, one Ontario debut, and one Toronto debut. All the composers for the respective works are living: Aaron Jay Kermis is a Pulitzer Prize winner who studied with (among others) John Adams and electronic music pioneer Morton Subotnick; Carmen Braden, based in Yellowknife, integrates the sounds of nature within her work; Bramwell Tovey is a Grammy and Juno Award-winning conductor and composer who was once described by Leonard Bernstein as a "hero."

21C, launched in 2014, was created by Koerner Hall 's Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, to, as he puts it, present "artists and composers I think have distinctive voices. [...] I want to give audiences music, not medicine." The danger with contemporary composition is, of course, that audiences might find it too cerebral, not melodic, odd, discomforting. The Ehnes concert, like so many others in the 21C program (including the kickoff concert, which featured Tanya Tagaq), mixes the old and the new with aplomb, and, in addition to the works of Kernis, Braden, and Tovey, will also feature the music of Beethoven and Handel, as well as a piece by James Newton Howard, perhaps best-known for composing the scores to The Hunger Games movies, along with numerous Hollywood hits. Oh, and it'll be live-streamed. The online world is something many classical organizations are still coming to grips with, though some (and I'd include the Royal Conservatory here) recognize its potential and are doing very creative and unique (for the classical world) things in order to make the medium more friendly, and less daunting for newbies.

Making this world less daunting feels like an M.O. for many artists and arts administrators the last decade or so. Having interviewed Mehta prior to the start of last year's 21C Festival, I wanted to speak with a performer at the tail-end of this year's edition; since I've seen Ehnes perform many times (though I've never seen him perform contemporary work), I was curious to get his thoughts around the program, the role of modern music, why he uses Instgram (and makes it fun!), and what new audiences want and expect when it comes to classical music and culture.

(And for the record, yes, this new audio format is something I'm experimenting with; it may expand over the next few months. Stay tuned!)

May 27, 2016

Only the Essentials

Photo via Tapestry Opera
What does "keeping the essence" of something really mean?

I recently attended a preview of Tapestry Opera's latest offering, an adaptation of DH Lawrence's short story The Rocking Horse Winner, which opens in Toronto tomorrow night (May 28th). The tale, published in 1926, revolves around a boy who accurately predicts racehorse winners based on what he believes are tips from his rocking horse, in order to satisfy get the money to satisfy his upward-mobility-seeking mother. The company's adaptation integrates contemporary elements with Lawrence's original story, notably in its making Paul, the main character, autistic, and having the house he and Hester (his mother) share as being a real, actual character within Anna Chatterton's libretto and Gareth Williams' score.

During last week's preview, Tapestry's Artistic Director Michael Mori was asked, at one point, why such radical changes were necessary. Why alter something so dramatically from the original? What's the point? Being curious about the art of adaptation, and passionate about opera as an art form, I thought it was worth asking both Michael and Anna for their thoughts — about the show, the adaptation, inspiration, and why and how change is a part of any adaptive process, especially for opera in the 21st century.

Why this particular story? Why did you think it would make a good opera?

Anna Chatterton (AC): D.H. Lawrence writes complex characters with a strong story structure. Composer Gareth Williams proposed the story to me, he particularly loved that the house whispers to Paul (the protagonist of the story) that was a clear singing opportunity. We could both see that the story could be distilled down and yet also expanded to tell a moving tale about greed, entitlement, and a complicated relationship between a mother and son.

Michael Mori (MM): He is one of the authors whose stories have stuck in my head ever since I was a child. And this story has great love, great loss, supernatural elements, and a house and horse that whisper and talk… so the space for music to animate the story is wonderful! Also, it is refreshing to have a break from romance and betrayal while still engaging in a subject with high dramatic stakes.
Carla Huhtanen and Asitha Tennekoon. Photo by Dehlia Katz / Tapestry Opera
At the preview last week, one particular patron was upset at the changes you discussed around the adaptation. First: why make the title character autistic? Secondly, can you elaborate on what you mean about keeping the "essence" of the piece intact (the word you used last week)? 

AC: As it happens, that patron apologized to me afterwards, recognizing that we aren’t calling this opera “a dramatization of The Rocking Horse Winner” but “based” on The Rocking Horse Winner. (But) there's a disconnect between everyone in the original story; so much is unsaid. We wanted to examine what was making the characters detach from one another — what barriers could be stopping them from understanding one another? From hugging one another? We've tried to keep this aspect of our adaptation present, yet also unsaid and under-the-surface. We wanted to explain yet still hang on to the otherliness of the boy at the heart of the story. There is a moodiness about the story, almost a nightmarish quality, which we followed; I would say in many ways the music is keeping the essence of the story intact. About a third of the original text is in the libretto. 

MM: There are people who love period pieces being done in period costumes and re-constructed Victorian theatres – for example, Shakespeare at the Globe or La Traviata directed, designed, costumed, and set exactly as the score details. I am of the school of thinking that capturing the essence of the work involves interpreting it for a contemporary world. What Verdi, Shakespeare or D.H. Lawrence meant when they were speaking to the public of their generation and location would not be received the same today if performed or read exactly as it was. The essence of Rocking Horse Winner involves a plot structure, a specific dynamic between a mother and a misunderstood son, a class commentary in a period of time when entitlement is being challenged, and a loaded question of what is “luck” (which I take to mean, what is love)— all things explicitly included in the opera adaptation. Making Paul a young man on the autistic spectrum allows us to invoke a similar dynamic. Where the parenting role of an upper class mother in the early 20th century was being redefined in the time of the short story, the opera examines the role of an upper class single mother dealing with a developmentally challenged child, a situation and dynamic that, in 2016, we are continuing to learn how to better deal with.

Why have the house "talk" and not the horse?

AC: Because the house whispers to Paul in the original story, but the horse doesn’t. It didn’t even occur to us to have the horse talk…

MM: The house is the pressure, the question, the demand, the coaxing, and, therefore, the Mephistopheles to this family; a far more dynamic character and a more interesting expansion considering the potential of music.

Anna, how did having a child change or influence your approach to this work in particular?
Photo via NOW Toronto

AC: Having a child and becoming a mother instantly made me very aware of the complexities that are born at the same time as your child. It made me really understand and feel more empathetic about the mother character in D.H. Lawrence’s story. You can feel many emotions about being mother, and about your child. Even though I desperately love my daughter more than anything, I can feel differently towards her moment to moment. I can feel so proud of her and then for a few moments can secretly judge her and compare her to other children, then in the next moment go back to thinking she is the greatest child in the whole world and feel terrible about thinking anything negative about her. I can watch her and think “this is heaven” and then get so frustrated when she is acting up and think “this is hell.” What I love about the character that D.H. Lawrence wrote was that it was a brutally honest portrayal of motherhood. She is flawed, she exists, she tries to make up for her flaws, but badly. 

Michael, your M’dea Undone last year was staged outside at the Brickworks, while Rocking Horse Winner is in a more traditional theatre setting. How do these locales influence and alter your decisions as a director?

MM: I would say rather that our shows influence our locales… When we see a place with the most potential for the work, we go forward. M’dea Undone has a truly expansive feel and, when we considered the scope of it, we fell in love with the idea of setting it in the Brickworks and accessing that urban, raw, and shabby-grand feeling that it invoked, so in keeping with John and Marjorie’s M’dea. Rocking Horse Winner is an intimate story, set mostly in a house… and the Berkeley Street Theatre became a wonderful place for us to bring a house to life, while inviting the audience inside.

What sorts of things within the score do you think are important to emphasize directorially?

MM: There are motifs that recur: the race, the mother, Paul… all appearing and reappearing in different ways. Since my direction is always driven by the music, I would rather say that clarity of drama in areas where the music is loud and raucous (where the words may be hard to understand) is one of the things that I strive for.

Why are works like these important for opera ecology in Canada?
Photo via Tapestry Opera

MM: A simple answer would be that new works are important for the same reason that reproduction is important to any living ecology. Without reproduction, survival is endangered. If we allow the perception that opera is a museum form with an ossified and static repertoire, then growth and inspiration within the genre and its performance practice will be stymied. As we return to accepting new works (in new ways) into our understanding of opera, we not only engage new artists and audiences in a form that is more relevant to them, but we also are training a new generation of masters. Just think about Mozart or Verdi’s first two operas – they had to have had opportunities to grow towards their masterworks. This show in particular will be a valuable piece, as it proves that a beautiful musical aesthetic in opera doesn’t mean a derivative or overly programmatic composition.

May 14, 2016

Change the Channel

Photo by Darryl Block
Attending and writing about opera on a regular basis, it becomes all too easy to take space for granted. The setting becomes almost secondary: the vast space of an auditorium, the plush nape of seats, the hushed, reverential silence during a performance. If you're used to going to the opera, these are elements you don't consider too deeply, if at all.

And yet, Against the Grain wants you to think, and feel, and reassess — and to approach opera in a whole new way. The Toronto-based independent company has built an acclaimed reputation on producing opera in unusual spaces; La Boheme took place in a bar, Don Giovanni was staged in an old theatre set up as a wedding reception, and now, Cosi fan tutte takes place in a television studio. Why should this matter? Well, for those of you who may never consider going to the opera, who find its formalities daunting, who feel it has "nothing for them," AtG aims to make you re-think.

For opera fans like me, entering Studio 42 at the Canadian Broadcasting Company's so-called "mothership" building in Toronto for A Little Too Cozy (AtG's updated title for Mozart's 1790 opera) was a strange if exhilarating experience — there's a thrill of the new combined with a slight anxiety over gimmickry, and how much the old will be incorporated without being arch. While many directors approach operatic works with an attitude approaching holiness, some new productions are also occasionally done with an art-for-capital-A-art's-sake approach. There's still a widely held perception (one not completely incorrect) that curiosity, mischief and whimsy are missing in the opera world; Joel Ivany (who is AtG's Artistic Director) keeps the proper reverence for the music (as he has in all his past works) but loses the poe-faced seriousness which opera neophytes might perceive comes with the territory, instead injecting a playfulness into the proceedings that is entirely fresh and creative.

Photo by Darryl Block
A Little Too Cozy is presented as a reality TV dating series, with each of the work's characters as contestants vying to win love, and, it would seem, a measure of fame and validation. Felicity (soprano Shantelle Przybylo), Fernando (tenor Aaron Sheppard), Dora (mezzo soprano Rihab Chaieb) and Elmo (baritone Clarence Frazer) perform with phones in-hand, delivering punchy, swear-word-laden songs dressed in swishy club clobber, with sleazy Donald L. Fonzo (Cairan Ryan) hosting the proceedings and randy Despina handing the show's talent relations. The latter two characters are, in the Mozart original, somewhat "controllers" of the situation, and the adaptation of them here, with more than a frisson of underlying sexual tension extant, makes perfect, zesty sense. What also makes this transposition work for the opera crowd is Ivany's keen awareness of the source material being somewhat... silly, shall we say. In using a popular, mainstream medium to both mock and milk it at once, Ivany creates a foundation that is at once satisfying to opera regulars and enlivening to newbies.

After all,  Cosi fan tutte (which translates roughly as "women are like that") is not exactly what I'd call a work of great narrative genius; some of us (myself included) find the plot (which revolves around couples testing one another's affections) rather unsatisfying, if not entirely asinine. But, by using a recognizable cultural outlet that has gained particular traction in the last decade-plus,  Ivany betrays a deep awareness of both the power of media and the power of music, and marries them in a way that is entirely beguiling and extremely familiar. A Little Too Cozy is smart and fun and modern — it's also very much opera. More fully than in past productions, Ivany and the AtG team here heartily embraced old and new, forging a sexy, sassy mix that will (and does) appeal to the social media set.

And so it was, the audience was reminded of related hashtags (#TeamDora, etc) and encouraged to use cell phones during the production. The immersive taping experience was deepened with "commercial" breaks, which allowed Ivany's adapted libretto the opportunity to cleverly utilize and explore the re-imagined recitatives and arias (translated into English and matched to the proceedings) that provided further characterization and insight. It would be merely clever if it wasn't also involving, entertaining, and deeply respectful to its source material.

Photo by Darryl Block
Perhaps AtG's next project should be called, "So, You Think You Hate Opera" — I'd bet by the end of the night a few hearts and minds would be changed. Never mind the plush seats, here's a beer and Twitter — sit back and enjoy. Opera can, and should be, for everyone.

Feb 3, 2016

An Evolving Tapestry

Photo via my Flickr
Canadian company Tapestry Opera are known for being inventive. Their creative takes on presentation, production, and composition are, in many senses, helping to redefine what opera's role is (and perhaps should be) moving into the 21st century. Next month they'll be presenting the North American premiere of The Devil Inside, an adaptation of a scary tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that has been given a contemporary update. A co-commission and co-production by Scottish Opera & Music Theatre Wales, the show was lauded upon its premiere last month in Glasgow and is already creating something of a stir in Toronto's music scene.

Before that, Tapestry is getting set to present Songbook VI, which continues their popular songbook series. The evenings are notable for their mix of old and new with a kind of aplomb that keeps respect of opera's history intact while throwing its starchy pretensions out the window. Past concerts have heartily thrown together opera and electronic music, and presented the mournful with the playful in equal measure (and sometimes on the same bill). The concert, happening this Friday and Saturday (February 5th and 6th, respectively), is set in the intimate confines of the company's studio spaces in Toronto's historic Distillery District. The physical environment makes one feel as though dropped in the middle of a no-holds-barred rehearsal and an ever-unfolding artwork whose resolution is decidedly unknown.

No details from the evening have been released yet, but audiences are being promised snatches of works from some of Tapestry's most popular shows, including 1992's award-winning Nigredo Hotel, which features a libretto by acclaimed Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald. While we can't expect any murderous wives or mid-aria heavy metal guitar solos, I'm also thinking: it's a Tapestry show, so go with the flow. Anything could happen. That's the great appeal of Tapestry's approach, and, perhaps, of modern opera itself. 

Songbook VI will feature the talents of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and Tapestry Resident Conductor Jordan de Souza. Giunta, whom Toronto audiences may remember from her turn in the memorable Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte at the Canadian Opera Company in early 2014, took some time between gigs recently to answer a few questions about singing and repertoire; Tapestry's Artistic Director Michael Mori, who was a regular panelist on my radio show last year, adds his thoughts about diversity in opera.

Photo by Michael Edwards
Last year you performed in a recital that featured music written from both male and female perspectives; what do you get out of singing parts written for men? 

WG: It always adds a layer of interest and intrigue when a person performs in drag, whether male or female. I’m hired to perform many male roles in opera, because of my voice and body type. It’s just what I do, and I’m totally used to it. (I also love it!) Whether in opera or recital, it’s very interesting to witness a character interpreted by a performer of the opposite gender. That artist can bring something to it, perhaps a more conscious approach, that a performer of the “correct” gender would not necessarily be able to do.

How difficult is it for you as a singer to go between various ‘sounds’ - from Mozart to modern work like that of Gordon Lightfoot?

WG: Not difficult at all. In fact, it is a joy for me, and often a welcome feeling for my voice to switch between different styles of singing, either within one performance or from contract to contract. There are basic principles of my vocal production that stay consistent no matter what the style is, like how I breathe, but for the rest of it, it’s like one part of my voice get a little break, while the other takes over.

Do you think it’s important for singers to embrace genres other than opera? 

WG: I think it’s totally up to each performer, and where their interests and abilities can take them. It’s neither important, nor necessary, for all of us performers to be terribly diverse. To each their own. There are some people who can sing the bejeezus out of one particular style or role, better than anyone in the world, and then there are people like me: chameleons. As long as we have all the bases covered in this industry (and with the amount of singers on the market, that will never be an issue) I think artists can define themselves as they choose, and stray from the trodden path as much or as little as they like.

Photo by Amy Gottung
What are your thoughts around diversity in opera? 

MM: Diversity in opera is a loaded topic. The traditional repertoire is filled with works that stereotype, exoticize, villainize, parody, and/or simply exclude (perceived) “others”. Larger houses similarly face challenges in existing in the present, with diversity as one of many things that has not been dealt well with. (Name a big-house General Director, Composer, or Conductor that is either a woman or a minority.) 

Contemporary opera, on the other hand, if true to its etymological roots (con meaning "with"; tempo meaning "times," or "with the times") should reflect the time and place that it is created in. So if a producer / commissioner / arts council does their job, it is a welcoming, inclusive… a normal place to be for a diverse public.
There is an old rule that if you can see yourself reflected in the thing you are looking at, then it is more attractive and welcoming. (Potential “things” can include administrative leadership, performers, stories, creators, audiences, design, style, and language.) Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the world; why wouldn’t its contemporary opera embrace that? Tapestry has a history and practice of representing gender and race diversity at all levels. Inclusion is a great opportunity to take advantage of a wealth of talent and perspective that reflects and informs who we are today.

Why is contemporary opera important?

MM: For the same reason that sex is important to humankind. Without contemporary opera
collaborations and the subsequent conception and birth of works, the art form is doomed. A new generation of art builds a new generation of art goers…and when it is really good, there is nothing quite like it!

WG: It is relevant today and speaks directly to people’s experiences in life. Sure, the usual themes of opera drama will always be the same (love, revenge, and betrayal), but with modern opera, we hear stories that we know, and socio-cultural references that make sense to us, just as our classical operas did to the audiences of their time. I think this is very exciting and very important for the future of opera.

Dec 31, 2015

Auld Lang Sigh

photo via my Instagram
At this time last year, I was laid up on a sofa, tissues at the ready, sick with the flu. My mother had gone to a nearby friend's for the New Year's Eve countdown, with my assurance that was fine to leave me alone; I just needed rest and relaxation, and there was nothing further she could do past the jello-making and soup-heating and tea-freshening she'd been doing for twenty-four hours.

Wrapping herself in a thick, woolly, vintage Hudson's Bay coat, a jaunty hat, and chunky knitted scarf, she sauntered down the snowy street around 8pm, returning just after midnight, eyes watering from the cold, but her face flushed with happiness.

"I had three glasses of wine!" she marveled.

It seems incredible, thinking back on that night, how physically strong she was, how capable I was, even with the flu, and how much 2015, as it rolled further and further along, took out of us both.

There's a belief that hardships are sent to teach us something — about ourselves, about our attitudes; we endure them as a means of hardening our survival instincts and honing our notions of identity. It's true, I'm grateful for the lessons each year has brought me, but no year has taught me more, on so many levels and in so many ways. No year has made me more cynical and yet more curious, more angry and yet more accepting, more honest and yet more aware of the drive to deceive and the great, frightening need some have to throw a theatrical, rosy cover across motive, intention, behaviour, and character. 2015: harsh, painful, important. I'm glad it's over.

Realizing many of my local relationships aren't as true as I thought has been a good thing, but it's also been a painful lesson. I'm grateful to the good souls who call to check on me, who take time to visit or meet up despite poor weather and busy schedules, who don't make excuses but make time. I'm equally grateful to the far-off people who send good wishes via social media, who follow my updates and share my work —they're people who engage, interact, actively encourage and communicate; they take the initiative to stay in touch. They get it. Expressions of support and basic concern over the course of this horrendous year, many from quarters I hadn't expected, were, and remain, very moving. It's meaningful to know there are people out there listening and watching, who take the time and energy to stay in touch despite busy lives and schedules.

photo via my Instagram
Of course, nothing beats an in-person conversation. Taking the initiative to gently, lovingly pull me out of the cave of grief I frequently (and often unconsciously) retreat into is something I cherish, and to be perfectly frank, I wish it happened more often. In years past, I would always be the one planning, producing, pulling people together. I stopped doing that in 2015; illness and death left me too exhausted and grief-stricken. When the realization recently hit that the only holiday party I attended this year was the one I threw myself, I became both troubled and curious; should I work on being more popular? Should I find an outside job? Ought I to subscribe to the hegemony of coupledom? What about me needed to change? Then I realized, as I have so often throughout 2015, that some people — many people — are, in fact, self-involved assholes. There's no getting around that harsh, if unfortunately true, fact.

Good moments from 2015 happened in direct relation with, or as a direct result of, my work. Teaching in the early part of this year was one of the best professional experiences of my life; being around students with an abundance of energy, curiosity, and so many incredible stories and passions was a life-enriching thing, and I am greatly looking forward to returning to it. Deeply satisfying writing and reporting opportunities blossomed with CBC, HyperallergicOpera News and Opera Canada magazines, as well as the Toronto Symphony. Likewise, many of the best conversations, connections, and concentrations happened in and around, or because of, music and art. Good people and great moments came into my life because of shared passions. Such happenings were like shooting stars: bright, magical, brief. That is, perhaps, all they were meant to be, but their memory is beautiful, a work of art, something I go to and stare at in mute wonder.

Wonder is what shimmers around my favorite cultural things from 2015. I generally dislike "Best of/Worst of" year-end lists — to use one of my mother's old phrases, it's no fun looking up a dead horse's ass — but there are certain moments that stick out: the thick, heavy lines of Basquiat's paintings, bass baritone Philip Addis' expression as he leaned, Brando-like, against the set of Pyramus and Thisbe, Daphne Odjig's bright, vital colors, the way soprano Kristin Szabo and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus looked at each other in Death and Desire, Carrol Anne Curry's laugh. I don't want to get too trite and say "art saved my life this year," but, in many ways, working in and around culture, sometimes through very harsh conditions and circumstances, was the best kind of therapy. My mother worked for as long as she could; it gave her a sense of accomplishment, pride in a job well and thoroughly done. Work for her was, I realize, a necessary distraction through the horrible illnesses she faced in her fifteen years of her cancer. More than a distraction, work was a kind of beacon of security, even when the nature of the work wasn't entirely secure; the nature of the work, and the feeling it gave her, were. I get that.

photo via my Instagram
And so, as 2016 dawns, I'm tempted to want for more: more art, more magic, more satisfying work. But as 2015 so succinctly taught me, you can't plan for pain; you can only ride its high waves, and hope, when you get sucked under, you don't swallow too much salt water. I didn't emerge from that sea a tinfoil mermaid; I emerged battered, bruised, with an injured foot and a sore heart. I don't feel strong as 2015 comes to a close; I feel different. I'm more suspicious of peoples' motives, less tolerant of bullshit. I love my work, and the possibilities it affords. There are places I want to travel, people I want to meet, things I want to see. I wish for more sincerity. Such a desire isn't on a timetable, unfolding precisely over the course of one year, but I suspect that it helps to stay curious, critical, controlled in reactions and devoid of drama.

2016: less assholes, more authenticity. It's a start.

Dec 24, 2015

Christmas Love

There was once a time when Christmas was a very big deal in my life. Christmas Eve was a swirl of hot chocolate, cartoons, and peeks under the tree; the day itself was filled with a bevy of boxes, shiny ribbons, stockings filled to the brim.

My mother would always laugh and say I was the last kid to get up on Christmas morning; sleeping in felt like another gift, and I wanted to indulge. One year my mother got sick of cooking, so she took six-year-old me down to one of her favorite old hang-outs, the Royal York Hotel. Me, in a long red velvet gown, and my mother, in a fancy, flouncy dress, enjoyed several courses, as I took in the spectacle of the room, the fancily-attired waiters marching through before dinner started with a succession of Christmas delicacies carefully laid out on silver platters.  Later, she would drive through the city, and we'd look at the festive lights and decorations; I'd be asleep by the time we got home, and would be carried into the house, changed into fuzzy pajamas, and tucked into bed. Boxing Day (and many days thereafter) were filled with play.

As both my mother and I grew older, our gift exchanges became decadent, dare I say exorbitant. I still remember her, one Christmas morning about a decade ago, sitting on a cream-color sofa near the tree and looking beautiful in a red satin dress, exclaiming, not in judgment but in simple awe, "We are very extravagant!" I think something about the sheer volume shocked her, having come from such a meagre life as a youngster, when Christmas meant little more than an orange and an apple. 

Not long after this, we mutually decided to end gift exchanges; her, sensing my writing didn't really pay that well, and being exhausted with the entire shopping/wrapping process. Also, we both acknowledged, gift-giving tended to happen throughout the year anyway — I'd go grocery shopping, to posh grocers, picking up special, lovely delicacies and cooking them up — sometimes (frequently), it was for no occasion at all, but for the simple pleasure of sharing, preparing, and enjoying them with someone I loved. It was also gratifying seeing my rapidly-shrinking mother eat. One of my most cherished memories of this year is grilling sea scallops for her; I shall always cherish that look of love and gratitude she gave me, more than once, as she carefully carved and them ravenously devoured them. That enjoyment, to me, is worth more than anything you could buy in a store.


Value comes in many forms, of course. Having dear friends coming over through the holidays this year, people close to both of mother and me, is a gift in and of itself. I thought it would be fitting (and fun) to look back at old times. Going through the many old photo albums stored in my basement has forced me to admit it something I've been avoiding the last month or so: the holidays hurt. I've been keeping myself busy with writing, baking, all manner of household thing, but the shock of my mother's absence this year is sharp, unrelenting, brutal. Beyond going to the Royal York, and, more recently, my cooking up a beautiful Christmas dinner for us, we didn't have many traditions. That doesn't mean her presence in and around the house — as I baked, wrapped presents, drove her to friends' for merry deliveries — isn't sorely missed. She'd always laugh whenever I'd put on How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown

"You're a big kid at heart!" she'd say. True, I'd admit. I have to be; I never had any of my own.

Other memories of her at this festive time of year are dim, though I have some lovely photos to remind me of the wonder of childhood; a veritable smell of gingerbread and vanilla wafts off them, dreams of sugar plums and plush red dresses and the smooth threads of a Barbie's hair. My world was cozy, cradling, perfect. Small snippets of that feeling came through in subsequent years; though I don't have any photos from last year's Christmas, I distinctly remember the absolute thrill I felt at seeing her take a second helping of turkey, exclaiming, "your chestnut stuffing is sooooo good!" 

An overpowering love pervades everything; that is what I see and what I feel when I think of Christmases past. The tidal-wave-power of that love is one I'm not sure I'll experience again; I chose not to have my own children a long time ago, and I am really not the maternal sort (something my mother also acknowledged), though I admit it's been very joyful to see updates of others' families on social media.  "Christmas is for kids," my mother dryly observed over the last few years. I couldn't agree more. So it's nice to experience the joy of the holidays vicariously, through the many hilarious/touching/smart updates I've seen on my Facebook feed; those photos and updates have brought many much-needed smiles and even laughter. To those who've provided such therapy: thank you.  

So, as 2016 rapidly approaches, the only way to move forwards — now, at the holidays, and after them, too — is to allow the memory of my mother's love to power me forwards, through the scary melanoma stuff, through the work stuff, through the frequently lonely days and weeks that characterize so much of my life now. It also means remembering the kid who wants to play, and making room for that in my new normal; maybe that's the best way to honor my mother, and the best way to keep the Christmas spirit alive, year round.

Dec 18, 2015

A Joyful Noise

Stephen Hegedus and chorus members in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block
Handel's great Messiah is associated with many things: ceremony, contemplation,  a quiet joy. One thing it is not widely noted for is playfulness. That's just where Toronto's Against the Grain Theatre comes in. The company, known for their creative updates of opera works, is currently presenting a reimagined Messiah at Harbourfront Centre, one that fuses theatricality and musicality, and riffs off many moods: anger, fear, joy, rejection, abandonment, and... fun.

What makes this Messiah so special is the extent to which intimacy works as a strong, spicy partner to the essential grandeur of the work, which was composed as an oratorio and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Generally presented with an orchestra and soloists on a large stage, in a church, concert hall or auditorium, Against the Grain's Messiah uses the audience as an integral part of the production, allowing us to experience the music in a closer and more revelatory way. At one point the chorus, divided by gender, fills the aisles on either side of the theatre and immerses the audience in a cascading waterfall of harmonies; it's as if the God-made-flesh tale is being paralleled by the singers via musical metaphor, the heaven-to-earth connection made real. During the famous "Hallelujah" chorus, the ensemble is again in the aisles, singing and urging members to stand. (Some audience members at the performance I attended even proudly and loudly sang along.) Immersion and interactivity are not unusual for Against the Grain productions; their successful show #UncleJohn, a re-envisioning of Mozart's Don Giovanni (produced in Toronto last winter) placed the audience in the middle of a wedding reception, with the action in the libretto unfolding with a delicious immediacy. What makes stagings like these so special is that one gets to experience the singularly unique experience of opera singing mere inches away, as opposed to several feet; the stage isn't formalized, the performers aren't distant. This choice of presentation has the effect of bringing the work — perhaps previously considered starchy, unapproachable, snobbish – into close relief, allowing an experiential understanding that frequently moves beyond the verbal. In Messiah, such an understanding approaches the divine, but it skillfully integrates an earthy aspect that is at once highly inspired and deeply moving.

Andrea Ludwig and Owen McCausland in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block
While many symphonies program the Messiah this time of year (some featuring creative re-orchestrations), Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski make elegant use of a small ensemble to showcase ideas around beauty, spirituality, and play, within an intimate and ultimately enriching context. With an eighteen-piece orchestra and sixteen-person chorus, the work's two-and-a-half-hour running time flies by, moving seamlessly through the various stages of the life of Jesus Christ. The work opens with tenor Joshua Davis carefully moving to Jennifer Nichols's highly stylized choreography, eventually draping himself (in a rather impressive back bend) across a block. The music that accompanies is mournful and stately; as the work progresses, the musicians and performers onstage develop a synergistic chemistry that allows an equal and vivid exchange of energy that extends to the audience. Ivany features some nice meta-theatrical moments, throwing off the formalism of the work and its starchy classical associations. Tenor Owen McCausland removes his suit jacket, bow tie, shoes and socks near the start of the work; the female soloists (alto Andrea Ludwig and soprano Miriam Khalil) follow suit, their draping skirts revealing puffy layers of tulle beneath. The entire chorus and four soloists (including bass baritone Stephen Hegedus, who performs his own kind of strip-down later on) are barefoot throughout the production, despite their formal wear, pointing at an earthy experience, free of past constraints in either music or religion, though to some of course, they are one in the same. This Messiah doesn't let you forget that.

Joshua Wales in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block
The color scheme employed throughout the work is expressed via the rich, wintery tones of the dresses and suits — it's a blend of wine reds and aquamarine blues — and helps to offset the stark, near-clinical simplicity of the set, which is composed of a few white blocks on a black floor. These blocks — picked up, carried, lain across, stood upon — resemble recognizable shapes (a cityscape, furniture, oversized toys) as different passages of music are performed; at one point, two tall rectangular shapes resemble nothing so much as the fallen World Trade towers, while at others, they're a plinth for statuesque bodies and sensuous fabrics. Ivany marries Handel's score with striking visuals to create a kind of Rorschach Test that integrates Baroque sounds and contemporary performance, where narrative is entirely secondary —or more specifically, non-existent. Ivany trusts his audience enough to allow us to to knit together the various fragments of the work. As opposed to emotional dictation, Ivany and AtG have opted for imaginative individuation, with elements of potential meaning (or non-meaning, in the form of pure experiential beauty) poking out like welcoming tentacles from a much older body.

The idea of "playing" — playing music, playing games, playing with each other, playing with notes, playing with ideas and identities — takes on huge significance in Ivany's vision. As I've written about before, play is something I believe is central to creation; the act of play itself is akin to taking a ride on a highway of experimentation and imagination, and with Against the Grain's Messiah, it's given a robust workout. The famous passage "All We Like Sheep" is done with members of the chorus in a circular "flock," shuffling back and forth across the stage, warily eyeing soloist Stephen Hegedus, who haplessly bleats out a few "baaaahs" after the chorus sings the title, as if against his own will. Watching the scene unfold, I couldn't help but be reminded of a few pop culture corollaries; it's strange to think of cartoons and puppets when one is watching a classic oratorio, but then, why wouldn't you? Against the Grain seems to welcome these kinds of associations, and to see them as valid as references to Nordic mythology and gypsies. Why should classical culture be strictly self-referential? Surely a fusty insularity doesn't help its broader appeal; a bit of pop culture might be just the thing — and with it, a bit of playfulness.

Stephen Hegedus in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block
It's that very sensibility, of playfulness fused with a kind of pop culture knowingness, that permeates one of the most memorable scenes in Messiah, which that occurs during "The Trumpet Shall Sound." Stephen Hegedus, last seen for Against the Grain in their summer production, Death and Desire, jauntily delivers in his signature rich, robust tone, before stripping down to a gold unitard, striking various statuesque poses, and gleefully tossing glitter. What a refreshing contrast to his dour, serious expression in earlier scenes, and what a wonderful way to physicalize the joyousness of this passage! Dr. Frank-n-furter would surely approve, as would the travelers on the Priscilla. Ivany brings a fresh approach and wonderfully experimental spirit to each of these theatrical scenes, making Handel's rich and (to my ears) sometimes dense score a highly digestible, vibrant, and yes, playful piece of music-performance art that suits the tone and tenor of the times, to say nothing of the direction opera and live performance may be moving in. By the end of Against the Grain's Messiah, you feel buoyed by the energy, moved by the intimacy, and inspired by the sheer imaginative bravado it took to bring this piece to vivid life. Baroque music: ballsy, brave, and... fun? In AtG's hands, you bet. Bravo.

Dec 17, 2015

Cracking Open


Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger
There's always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies' holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" and the National Ballet of Canada's annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky's famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various "dolls" through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it's these integrations that make it so successful. You know you're seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto's set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can't help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it's the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.
It's equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they're from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That's an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there's always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year's presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn't to say ballet can't be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as "girlie," from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. "I love doing this!" their bodies seemed to hum, "I love it!"

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.
Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka's choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden's Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen's Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There's something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet's production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it's nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.