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.

Dec 15, 2015

A Musical Haunting

Chris Mann as The Phantom and Katie Travis as Christine Daaé. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Many of my regular readers will know I'm an opera fan. Through my formal reviews, features, and profiles, as well as my blog posts and tweets, I've not exactly made my opera passion a secret. I feel deeply blessed to have been able to so frequently combine my two loves — writing and opera — into a professional pursuit. I've always had mixed feelings toward musicals, however. Classic works like Guys and Dolls, Showboat, and Oklahoma! are forever favorites, while the more recent(ish) ones, like Les MiserablesJersey Boys, and Miss Saigon, leave me with a vaguely discomforted feeling. Productions values in all of them are consistently exceptional, it's true, but emotionally, much of their content leaves me utterly cold.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1986 work The Phantom of the Opera, was, until recently, very much in the latter category, with the damning addendum that it was also unnecessarily mean-spirited to actual, real opera, something I still believe to be partially true. But the new production of Phantom (currently running at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre as part of a North American tour) was a delightful surprise from my first viewings in the 1980s and 1990s. Based on the 1909-1910 serial novel (Le Fantôme de l'Opéra) by Gaston LeRoux, the musical follows strange and scary happenings at the Paris Opera House in the late 19th century; a ghost (the phantom of the title) haunts the theatre, living beneath the house and controlling what productions and performers will and won't be on its stage. Ingenue dancer/singer Christine Daaé catches the phantom's attention, and his fancy. Initially she is fascinated by him, and the connection he seems to have with her late musician-father, but she instead falls for childhood love Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. When the Phantom's real background, and then underground lair, are both revealed, tragedy ensues.

The dread-filled atmosphere and rich, velvet-vintage production stylings of The Phantom of the Opera conjure up Jean Cocteau's beautiful 1946 film Beauty and the Beast and Tim Burton's stream of goth-y outsider movies (notably Edward Scissorhands). There's something about that aesthetic I enjoy immensely –the dark opulence of each feels comforting, cozy, a good place to hide. Lloyd Webber's score is one I taught a seemingly endless stream of piano students two decades ago; now, I can honestly say thumbs up to the whole package. Though it has some creative production differences from the original (including a very cool revolving tower with plank-like, pop-out steps), the new production of The Phantom of the Opera has a fascinating and very involving atmosphere that is less owing to the mechanics (which are impressive, to be sure), and more to do with casting and chemistry. Gone is the pseudo-Grand-Guignol dread that hung over the original, and firmly in place is a sense of relationship between characters, and, notably, a greater, richer sense of the titular phantom. Chris Mann, a finalist on The Voice, infuses his portrayal with a sense of damaged, lovelorn isolation; the commanding, nasty character of old has been (wisely) replaced by a deeply lonely, desperate, rather pathetic figure. Any sense of terror is inextricably linked to (and catalyzed by) a sense of deep despair.

Chris Mann as The Phantom and Katie Travis as Chris tine Daaé. Photo: Matthew Murphy
When, in the final act, we see him surveying the underground world he's known for so long, we don't see a monster, but a damaged little boy begging for love; this is an important revelation, and it goes a long way to validating the kiss Christine plants square on the mouth before she departs. Truthfully, it was a kiss I used to flinch at — it seemed forced, corny, gross, especially considering how the Phantom had been less an "angel" to her than a domineering demon, shouting commands to "sing for me!" (here, that scene is presented as a formal voice lesson, with Mann gesturing across his chest and making wide motions with his arms, imploring her to "breathe") — but that kiss is now one of acceptance and understanding, and it goes a long ways to unpacking the character's psychology. In other words, it's touching. Mann's portrayal is less boorish, more boyish, and reveals the man, not the monster. The Phantom's dangerous pranks — the slamming sandbags, the falling chandelier (which is, in this production, perched literally above the orchestra section of the audience), even the murdered stagehand who'd made fun of him — feel more like childish antics, more emo, less abomination. That may not be what traditional musical-theatre audiences want, but it's what works for 21st century musical theatre. A more identifiable (and indeed, familiar) Phantom is one that hopes to attract a younger audience, one with higher expectations in terms of characterization, and specific cultural touchstones when it comes to portrayals of romantic, tormented outsiders.

In watching this new Phantom, one couldn't help but be reminded of the moody anti-heroes from the Twilight series. The resemblances are, in many respects, striking, and it's smart of producer Cameron Mackintosh to mainline this vibe for a whole new audience. His efforts are greatly enhanced with a young, dynamic cast, and Mann, along with Katie Travis (as Christine) and Storm Lineberger (as Raoul) turn in performances that give this Phantom a youthful vigor, one filled with intense emotions and operatic reactions that, while not matching the dread of the original source material, mines the story for its hormone-laden, tainted-love storyline, not to mention Andrew Lloyd Webber's eminently hummable score. The sense of the work being mean-spirited to opera is still one I can't quite shake (does the formal "opera" presented here have to be so utterly disjointed, snobbish, and generally discordant?) but soprano Jacquelynne Fontaine's stellar performance, as the opera singer Carlotta, helps to elegantly quiet that notion. As with Mann, Fontaine's portrayal is far richer than a cartoonish, one-dimensional, diva cliche. In performing the pseudo-opera "It Muto" (clearly a satire of Mozart's works, particularly The Marriage of Figaro), Fontaine expertly balances annoyance, pathos, humor, ambition, and terror in equal measure, softening the harsh lines between "opera" and actual opera presented in the work, and succeeding, through her remarkable voice and stage presence, in bridging the two worlds with grace and a wink-nudge smile.

Jacquelynne Fontaine as Carlotta Giudicelli. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Still, one comes out of this new production of Phantom less smiling and more haunted at the impression it leaves; the portrait of a damaged, damaging loner with delusions of grandeur and the weak link in a wretched romantic triangle feels uncomfortably near. Never before have I emerged from a Lloyd Webber work hearing a melody in my head long after the curtain comes down, but the famous Phantom tune (a kind of unofficial theme) "Music of the Night" sat, ear-worm like, for several days, its Baroque-influenced lined and haunting orchestration seeping into consciousness along with Mann's entreating expression. A Phantom for all times? I'm not so sure. A Phantom for the 21st century? Definitely. See it and decide for yourself.

Dec 8, 2015

Not Fighting But Living

photo via my flickr
This year has, as many may know, been a difficult one for me.

The death of my mother has been the worst thing, but there's also been a mountain of health issues to deal with, a mountain that has taken the form of multiple surgeries and visits to doctor's offices, to say nothing of personal dramas verging on the surreal. Capping all this off has been the news, just received today, that a spot I had partially biopsied last week has come back with a positive result. That is to say, the positive is a negative.

I recall feeling my heart sink as soon as I glimpsed the word "Melanoma??" scrawled on my doctor's notes a few weeks ago. Me, cancer? I'd been through so much already this year. It seemed like a cruel test of endurance. Could it possibly be? I'd stupidly ignored an ugly, squished-mole-looking spot on the bottom of my foot for most of the year, tied up as I was with other pressing matters; it was only the urging of a dermatologist friend that pushed me to go get it seen to. I can't say I'm not glad, but still, there is something to the 'ignorance-is-bliss' mindset.

So where to now? Only time will tell. A full excision of the area, a raft of tests... and probably more tests, and perhaps even a cocktail of medications and other treatment options. Another surgery that will result in some mobility issues. I'm bound and determined to keep active in my arts reporting, however; add to this a list of cool things for 2016 (including another stint teaching a college course, possibly starting an arts and culture podcast, and an evening hosting an interview with opera singer Christine Goerke) and that means, even if (when) my ability to get around is affected, I still plan on going forwards, as much as I am able to. I have passions and talents and I love exercising them both.

That doesn't mean I'm "fighting." As in the summer, when my mother was fading, a strong desire for normalcy and habit has entrenched itself. Doing things I enjoy, that are meaningful to me, that I know I am good at, things that feel familiar — carrying these tasks out feels vital in order to sustain my sense of well-being. It's been interesting to note how, in announcing my diagnosis on Facebook, so many have responded by writing "you got this," and "fight on," and the like. I know they mean well, and I know it's a testament to the qualities they feel I possess. But honestly, cancer will, as I have learned, do whatever it damn well pleases. Medicine and science are only so effective (though that's apparently quite a lot for melanoma). I've seen cancer's hideous reality firsthand; I saw the strongest person I've ever known give her all — it didn't matter. With cancer, it's not a question of a person "fighting it" — not really; as I once read (and it may've been Susan Sontag who wrote it), if that person dies, does that mean they didn't "fight" hard enough? Is it their fault? Should we blame them? is it my mother's fault she died — she didn't "fight" hard enough? I feel like the language of support, especially around this disease, needs to change, and quickly.

Cancer is not a choice. How one reacts to it is, sure, but pastel -parka'd Pollyannas throwing rainbows and sunshine on what is clearly a dire thing is truly wretched; no amount of sparkly, colorful streamers on poo will make you think that mess on the road is anything other than what it is. And so, there are days when I will be (/have been) terrified, and times when I'm not; times of great sadness and self-pity, times of immense victory and top-of-world-ness. These emotions come and go like waves. I don't think floating through them means I'm "fighting" so much as it means I'm a human being swimming through a really crappy experience. I never expected to be facing cancer. And I never thought of myself as any kind of a fighter (or even — and this may shock some – a lover), so much as a truth-teller; you can put that down to my astrological sign if you wish (some think it's fun) or the fact that, as Frederick Raphael wrote in his wonderful biography of Lord Byron, the only child of a lonely single mother is rarely told to hold his (/her) tongue. Maybe it's that I'm a journalist too, and I like thinking in big-picture terms.

There is a sense of "why-me"ness, yes, mixed with feelings of resignation, disgust, and finally, acceptance. I am blunt, sometimes to the point of inadvertent wounding, so I say this to those who think I've "got this": I don't. And I'm terrified. Normal life goes on — the writing, the reporting, the talking, the teaching. Dealing with the terror is my new normal.

Dec 4, 2015

When We Were Young

photo via
Lately I've set myself the task of slowly cleaning out my house, bit by bit. In the process, I've run across a fair amount of stuff that's reminded me of my younger days: an old sweater, a pair of earrings, high heels.

"I wore this to that show," I'm reminded, "and I remember loving this look at that party."

Alas, I can't remember quite what I wore to see Stone Temple Pilots when they played Toronto's historic Masonic Temple (then a concert venue) back in the early 1990s. It was winter, and awfully cold in the hall, at least until the concert started, when it got steamy; whatever I wore, it was layered, and one by one, those layers, like those of my youthful self-consciousness, were peeled off as the show progressed, until I was left in a tank top, shrieking, sweaty, and wild-eyed at an amazing, beautiful, pure rock-and-roll sound that stays with me to this day.

I'd seen other bands in small and big venus before, but the crowd for STP was different — saucier, louder, more diverse, with a whole lot more young women, one of whom, I distinctly remember, mixed high-waisted mom jeans (then deeply unfashionable) with a tight hornet-green tank top and wayfarer sunglasses. She knew every word of every song, and rocked out from her front-balcony position, trading points and gestures with Scott Weiland now and again, as the lead singer stalked around the space, spitting, crooning, gesticulating wildly; seducing us one moment and ready to punch us the next,  he was, unlike so many other figures I'd seen live or on TV, seemingly unconcerned with garnering good opinions. And he was, I suspect, for so many in the audience that night, me and mum-jeans girl included, the antihero we didn't quite realize we wanted, but nonetheless found ourselves gravitating towards. We may've been outsiders beyond the walls of the Masonic Temple, but we were welcomed within it that night.

photo via
Stone Temple Pilots were just emerging as a loud rock outfit back then, with a few elements of the then-huge grunge sound, trying to get out from under the overbearing mound of Pearl Jam comparisons. They'd made a few videos but no one could quite get a handle on them, except of course, to compare them to others, and to try to strip them of any semblance of originality. Even at the time (never mind in retrospect), it seemed wildly unfair and frustratingly reductive. They were deeply of and yet simultaneously beyond their time. As Rob Harvilla noted, the band became, by the mid-90s, "the armadillo-trousered ’70s arena-rockers of their dreams, a T.Rex for the Jurassic Park era."

As someone who grew up deep into pop as well as the classic sounds of Motown, jazz, and of course, opera, rock and roll was a bit of at thing apart in my house; Queen was okay, Metallica was not. My gravitation toward rock and roll coincided with the rise of so-called grunge and I loved "Sex Type Thing" and "Plush" the first time I heard them— the raw, bitingly aggressive sarcasm of the former, the swirling, surreal sensuality of the latter (and still do) — they're thrilling pieces within the rock pantheon. As years went on, my love of the band's work wavered, but the one thing I always loved, through "Big Empty" and "Interstate Love Song" and "Vasoline" and "Big Bang Baby", through the cacophony of noise both in and outside the band, was the wonderful husky bray of Weiland's voice, a lush baritone call that could be romantically plaintive one moment and blazingly angry the next. It was a voice made for rock and roll, made for belting not above but inside the noisy guitars and thumping bass lines and thrashing drums, straight into the minds and hearts of listeners. It's a voice that still makes me pause in a way that very few in the rock world do. I wish I'd heard it live more often.

photo via
Pop culture is littered with figures who serve as torch-bearers for people who feel the world doesn't understand them. But such a position feels too cliched for someone as vulnerable and self-loathing as Weiland. The last decade or so, he simply didn't look like he had the strength to be any kind of torch-bearer, much less the desire. He wanted to be a rock star, and he was, but he was much more, too. I watched him slink off the stage that night, long ago, and as the lights were just coming up, a thought hit me, quite suddenly, that he looked so small and so damn lonely.  I suspect Weiland cared a great deal about what others thought — what artist doesn't? — and found himself thrown aside, like so much useless detritus. I'd rather not be the one carrying bones of a beloved antihero into some highly stylized, steampunk version of eternity; unbundling the mundane details of a present reality is always more complicated. Weiland passed away at the age of 48, not 27, and had neither burned out nor faded away, but he was clearly damaged, for so many reasons, many of them made baldly public.

We all carry a certain amount of damage around. As I continue clearing out my house of old mementoes, I'm reminded of the person I was then, and can't help but compare that girl, with all of her insecurities and anxieties, with the woman I am now. Some of the old worries are still there, but many have been replaced, if not vanished entirely. Damage isn't something I want to romanticize, but it isn't something to ignore, either; some very eye-widening things can result from some very horrific things. It's not my place to draw lines between Weiland's life and his art, and now, alas, his legacy — but I know one thing for certain: he was the first rock star I saw live who really made me lose my shit, but at the same time, made me think about... everything. I came out into the cold winter air after STP's show that night bathed in sweat, and, for weeks afterwards, kept thinking about him, his voice, the show, that girl in the mom-jeans. Rock and roll has real power; every time I hear his voice, I'm reminded of that. It's the most obvious thing in the world, and yet it bears repeating. it's time to put on Core, Purple, and all the rest; it's time to feel the power again.

Nov 30, 2015

Try A Little Tenderness

Full cast of King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair 
King Lear is one of my favorite plays. The 1606 work examines ideas of family, responsibility, motivation, and obligation in a cutting way few other theatrical works do. The premise is basic: Lear, wanting to divide his kingdom between his three daughters, asks them to express their love. Goneril and Regan go over-the-top in their declamations, while the youngest, Cordelia, says she loves him "according to my bond, no more, nor less." The former are rewarded for their proclamations; the latter, banished for her honesty. Therein ensues a monumental family tragedy, one that incorporates another family's drama (a nasty one involving two sons, each from different mothers), and a dance of damaged children and hurting parents that spirals toward an inevitably tragic conclusion.

In light of my mother's passing earlier this year, I wasn't sure that seeing Lear live wouldn't be a slightly painful ordeal. The dramas, the breakdowns, the unseemly machinations and manipulations, the reconciliation between Lear and Cordelia happening too late and being all too brief – Shakespeare's great work was difficult for me to contemplate watching live. And yet something pulled me in the direction of Theatre Passe Muraille when I heard about the Watershed Shakespeare Festival Collective production

Ostensibly set in Upper Canada in 1837, director Rod Carley uses the theatre's intimate surroundings to incredible effect, with a pared-down cast, simple set design (by Frank Vona), dramatic lighting (by John Batchelor) and sound effects (by Brian Nettlefold), creating a deeply moving portrait of a family in crisis. The tensions between the characters are brought to vivid life via stellar ensemble work, particularly the growing animosity between sisters Goneril (Maureen Cassidy) and Regan (Jennifer Ritchie), and their overall disgust with younger sister Cordelia (an endearingly earnest Kelsey Ruhl).  Joshua Bainbridge, who plays Edmund, bastard son to Gloucester (a fantastically earthy Charlie Tomlinson), offers a deeply fascinating portrait of deceit, using a combination of easy joviality and wide-eyed "integrity" to convince his father that legitimate son Edgar (Ethan Chapman) is up to no good. Hume Baugh is a bitingly angry Fool, frustrated as much with his master as with his own failing health (Carley's production simply, powerfully answers the lingering question of what happens to the Fool), and nicely contrasts with Ethan Chapman's sparky take on Edgar's "Poor Tom" disguise.

David Fox as King Lear and Hume Baugh as the Fool. Photo by Anthony Leclair
The chemistry between the cast is indeed electric, a feeling intensified by the close quarters of the performance space itself; when Regan's husband, the Duke of Cornwall (Jeff Miller), goes to forcibly remove Gloucester's eyes, one winces more than usual — the players are only mere feet away, after all, and though there is no blood or gore, there is a visceral sense to the proceedings made all the more keen because of the immediacy of the players, their words, their conviction to the text and to the world director Carley has placed them in. This is a King Lear that feels very real, its family dramas and power plays disquietingly close, both literally and figuratively.

What powers much of this intimacy, outside of the space itself, is the central performance of David Fox, an actor perhaps best known for his portrayal of school teacher Clive Pettibone on the television series Road to Avonlea. His portrayal of Lear, by turns spitting orders and then stumbling over words, standing over an intransigent Earl of Kent (Tim Nicholson) and then doddering barefoot along wearing a crown of branches later, is shattering. Fox, who is 74 years old, uses his own gangly physicality to complete advantage, standing imperiously at the start of the work, and fumbling in a wheelchair by its end. He plumbs the depths of Lear's failing health, mentally and physically, and bases much of the character's outrage on a very real and palpable sense of damaged pride.

David Fox as King Lear. Photo by Anthony Leclair
This is, as many with aging parents will know, a very big thing with the elderly. Dealing with pride amidst failing health is no small matter. There was something so utterly familiar about the mix of vulnerability, confusion, shame, and theatrical show of pride in Fox's performance of the old King, that more than once I found myself gritting teeth to control tears. A companion who joined me at the performance said something at the intermission about the ungrateful daughters needing to "humour" Lear, but, as I watched the second half, with each appearance of Lear revealing more and more of his fragility, all I could think was, tenderness is key. It is everything in dealing with a failing parent. Tenderness is what Cordelia offers, in abundance; the expression on Ruhl's face as she interacts with Fox brims with this very quality, even as her character must swallow the deep grief at seeing his deterioration. We remember how our parents used to be, and it's hard, if not impossible, to reconcile that with the small, sickly person before us; no matter how large a parent might've loomed in our lives, the fact they shrink, literally and figuratively, bowed before age and infirmity, is heartbreaking. This is what Cordelia deals with when she sees her father again, after he's been rejected by his elder daughters and has wandered the heath in a storm. Time has sped up, only to be stopped, mercifully, in order for the two to beautifully, poetically reconcile. Seeing who he is, past the physical, and embracing it, as opposed to rejecting it, manipulating it, making a play based on personal want, is what makes Cordelia such a unique and moving figure.

Tenderness is the slow, gentle engine that allows great if quiet love to make itself known. It means putting our own ego wants — what we think the parent should be saying or doing or believing or choosing — aside. Tenderness only asks for and manifests in loving presence, little more. Anyone who's experienced the deterioration of a parent, whether through illness or age (or both), will tell you it isn't the easiest thing in the world, not by a longshot; one has to have Herculean levels of patience and fortitude, and, being only human, none of us can manage to be saintly 100% of the time. And when that parent has a moment of self-awareness, and asks for your forgiveness, as Lear does with Cordelia, there is really little to be said or done, but to hold hands, gently, and to simply be there, tenderly, as they make their way into another realm. King Lear reminded me of the importance of tenderness, earlier this year, and now, and moving forwards. All hail, King Tenderness.


Nov 22, 2015

Playful Punk Opera

David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo in Tap:Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
Amidst the many serious features and interviews I've done lately, it came as something of a pleasant surprise to be reminded of the very real importance of play  — even when the notion comes wrapped in some challenging dressing.

The occasion was a creative collaboration between Canadian punk band Fucked Up and Toronto-based opera company Tapestry, which specializes in new works. Following previous collaborations involving electronics and Maria Callas, as well as a daring re-envisioning of the Medea myth this past summer, Tapestry have demonstrated they aren't exactly shy when it comes to pushing the boundaries of opera as an artistic form. Artistic Director Michael Mori has ably, creatively demonstrated his commitment to moving opera into the 21st century, in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways; a recent fundraiser for the company featured a mix of Mozart and contemporary composers, while their latest work, which paired members of Fucked Up with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and tenor David Pomeroy, conveyed a clear desire to challenge audiences in big ways.

Tap: Ex Metallurgy, as the evening was called, was staged at the company's homebase for operations, located in Toronto's historic Distillery District. Amidst the rumble of not-so-distant commuter trains and the din of highway traffic, the evening's first half unfolded as a kind of meditation on loss, with Szabo and Pomeroy singing the roles of two parents grieving the recent loss of a child. A deeply theatrical work staged with elegant economy, Jonah Falco's music and a libretto by Mike Haliechuk and David Hames Brock offered a heart-full take on a painful subject. Production designer David DeGrow's lighting, a panoply of strong, changing colors, conveyed more than mere mood, but painted a psychological portrait of suffering, in all its myriad forms, while Mori's simple, powerful staging featured musicians assembled onstage leaving, one by one, until the only two figures left, Szabo and violinist Yoobin Ahn, performed a kind of conversational duet that ended in quiet grace.

Fucked Up's Mike Haliechuk in Tap: Ex Metallurgy. Photo by Dahlia Katz
It was hardly the stuff one associates with the bald aggression of punk, but the contrast between the actual experience and the perceived cliche was powerful, and the experimentation behind it was a thoughtful sort of playfulness that forced one to re-think boundaries between musical genres. Haliechuk's guitar effects had a kind of loud if soothing effect that was both ethereal and grounding at once — kind of like the best-sung opera arias.

The meditative nature of Metallurgy's first half contrasted nicely with the evening's altogether lighter second half, which featured Szabo and Pomeroy playing out the various stages of a relationship. At one point the tenor even offered his own unique take on Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love", complete with impressive solo on a flying V guitar placed nearby. There was something so refreshing, so powerful, so gorgeously alive about the simple if highly effective (and entertaining) portrayal of the work's "love-at-first-sight-over-a-lifetime" theme, one that lent itself nicely to operatic expression. The work, by librettist David James Brock and music by Ivan Barbotin, neatly captured the intense ups, depressive lows, and inevitable mediocrities of a long-term relationship with grace, power, and a stylish staging that made nice use of the electric chemistry between Pomeroy and Szabo. The maniacal grin on Pomeroy's face as he wailed on guitar offered a hilariously bald contrast to Szabo's patient, amused/unamused expression, and the air was deliciously electric with a crackling audience excitement feeding off this interaction. Between this moment and the big. bold very punk-like sounds of Fucked Up members Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk and Josh Zucker, one could almost hear audience thoughts: this is opera? YESSSS! 

As a disco ball spun overhead and the small, packed space filled with a million little shiny beads of light, I couldn't help but marvel at the importance of play in opera; maybe the medium needs more of it, more than ever. opera really isn't as poe-faced as everyone thinks it is — especially to those who work closely within or beside it. Sometimes it takes a punk band to bring that playfulness out, but the willingness has to already exist. The joyous moments of musical playfulness, whether actualized by kicking down musical boundaries or offering moments of audio abandon, feel too few and far-between, and really, that doesn't need to be the norm in an artform as inherently theatrical and dynamic as opera. Thanks to Tapestry for pressing "play" — and really, really meaning it, maaaan.