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.