DIVE preview mesmerizing

I attended the preview performance of DIVE tonight, a new work from The Mermaid Collective: Nik Beeson, Alex Fallis, Fides Krucker and Richard Sanger. It’s quite erotic & funny, a little bit political and a powerful evocation of remembered passion.

For the past few weeks I’d been listening to a recent CD of music for this project titled DIVE: Odes for Lighea (which might be the title they were working with before, although tonight the program says DIVE and nothing further). I mistakenly spoke of it as “Nik Beeson’s new opera”, when I should have acknowledged the collective creation, and here I take a stab at identifying the roles in that Collective, even if I may be wrong again (luckily for me they’re a forgiving bunch):

  • Richard Sanger adapted a story by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa “The Professor and the Siren” into a libretto of sorts (I’ll explain further in a moment)
  • Nik Beeson composed music, even though
  • Fides Krucker, who sings the most throughout has a compositional role as well, at least via improvisations; her credit says “Musical Dramaturgy and Improvisation by…”
  • Alex Fallis has the director’s credit, although for a new work I have to think that in addition to directing the staging that he too contributed to some of what we saw

There are three players in DIVE, encompassing several characters:

  • Earl Pastko is Rosario, the aging classics scholar who seems to be misogynistic, but only because he had a brief magical fling with an immortal siren
  • Matthew Gouveia is Paolo, a young writer who functions as a kind of observer / confessor in the manner of Nick Carroway in Great Gatsby or the wedding guest in “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”
  • Krucker is the Siren (or mermaid) Lighea, as well as a few other incarnations, including Paolo’s ex-GFs and the server in a grungy bar

Richard Sanger

When you’re describing something new one works from existing models to make the newness intelligible. For the first half or more of the work, it didn’t seem operatic. There’s incidental music while Sanger’s words set up the key incidents of the story. I don’t think this is anything to worry about so much as a matter of seeking to understand. The core of the story, the last fifteen-twenty minutes is intensely operatic (although I am speaking of a subjective experience, so I might have the timing completely wrong). Where baroque and classical opera, or even modern musicals typically go back and forth between purely lyrical bits (numbers: songs, arias or ensembles), and either dialogue or recitative, here there is a gradual deepening of the musical side.

I am wary of using genre in a discussion, particularly when making a first acquaintance with a piece. The first half-hour is full of pithy dialogue and big laughs, sometimes bawdy, sometimes political. Pastko and Gouveia are a hugely likeable pair, drawing us in inexorably via the charm of the writing and the quirky characters each of them brings to life for us. They’re pulling us closer, to set up the scenario for the climactic set-piece, as though –to use one of the main metaphors of Sanger’s poetic text—we were opening a shell (the different pieces of dialogue setting up the scenario), that enables us to discover the pearl (the complex music number that ends the work) nestled inside. Speaking as someone who is no longer so young, this is one of the most sensitive portrayals of age & aging I’ve ever encountered.

Scott Penner’s set design puts the action in the midst of an audience surrounding the performers on each side, making the work even more theatrical (as if our imaginations weren’t already engaged by mermaids & singing).

Beeson and Krucker are real-life partners, so it stands to reason that he wrote with her in mind, that the composition is designed for her unique gifts. I’ve heard her before, and this time her special sounds seem to work especially well. Krucker’s performance is something to marvel at, in some of her characteristic uses of a trained voice to sound sometimes operatic, sometimes gently lyrical, sometimes taking on sounds that are superhuman with what sounds like extra over-tones. Lighea can’t be mistaken for Ariel, the cute Disney mermaid, oh no. As in the classical stories, the eroticism is there, but also danger. She is powerful, an immortal goddess. Odysseus had to cover his ears to protect himself from the irresistible sirens’ songs. The project is highly operatic in the traditional sense, when we recall that composers at one time would write with a singer in mind. But in truth it’s a collaboration, as Krucker’s improvisations bring the score to life.

The old saying about musicals is that the singing must begin where you can’t speak any more, where the music is necessary to illustrate or to tell the story. Indeed that’s the case here, as reality seems to change. We move into a realm that is ambiguous and unreal, and progressively more and more musical. We listen simultaneously to live performance and tape, to Krucker singing live and off a recording as though –as the Professor remembers and relives the ecstatic experiences of his youth—we are seeing it enacted and remembered. The experience is poised brilliantly on the edge between recollection and enactment, simultaneously in the present and the past, the Professor both young and old in the same moment.

DIVE is a spectacular new creation that deserves to be heard, running every day except Monday until August 9th , at 8 pm every night except Sundays (which are matinees) at the Array Space, 155 Walnut Ave.postcard

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | Leave a comment

Der Vampyr and the birth of horror

click the picture, if you dare..(!)

I’ve been immersed in blood for the past few weeks. No I am not training to be a butcher or a surgeon.  None of this gore is real. I’ll be teaching a new course at the Royal Conservatory of Music in the fall titled “Theatres of Terror: Gothic Horror in Music, Opera and Film.” (click link for info), and it has been my pleasure to watch films, listen to operas, and read stories designed to elicit terror.

Here’s the course description from the RCM website:

As long ago as Aristotle’s Poetics, tragedy was understood to achieve catharsis by means of pity and terror. Do you scare easily? While music and drama seek to stir the audience, not everyone likes to be terrified. However, theatre has long played upon our emotions, often pushing us to extremes. Over the centuries, the technologies of terror have been refined, so that the thrill of pure horror is now sought out as an end in itself: because of course it is now its own genre.
From the musical and dramatic perspectives, this course will investigate how terror has been done best. As artists, and as audience members, we will explore how this genre works when it works well. We will dissect a few bodies – the scores and films that is – to see what makes them tick or bleed. Maybe as we explore their anatomy AND our own we can discover a few things about what makes us scream.

This week Summer Opera Lyric Theatre will begin performances of Marschner’s Der Vampyr (1828) a romantic opera that has not quite found a place in the standard repertoire. It’s a tuneful work that brings out the best in its singers, and ideal for the students of SOLT.  For example here’s an aria sung by Jonas Kaufmann.

Like its predecessor Der Freischütz (1821) by Carl Maria von Weber, it encases dark deeds in a story of Christian redemption.

While Gothic novels were already being written (the first, Walpole’s the Castle of Otranto, dates from half a century before these two operas), the horror genre had not really been born as a recognizable type of drama or theatre.  Horror had a purpose, aiding mightily in the telling of a tale, but was not yet an end in itself, the reason to go to the theatre. Edgar Allan Poe –one of the masters –was only born in 1809. The first edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dates from 1818.  Classics such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula & Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde date from the 1890s, while Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra only appears in 1909.

I am looking forward to hearing the young talent of SOLT on Friday singing Marschner’s lovely music, not expecting to be scared but certainly charmed.

Perhaps we’ll meet there, in the dark…(?)

Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, video & DVDs, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, what's Leslie Barcza up to | Leave a comment

Ten Questions for Nicole Brooks

Nicole Brooks is a filmmaker, director, performer, singer, playwright, composer, curator, teacher and “art-ivist,” who has devoted over 15 years producing innovative content (for the stage and screen), with a focus on narratives that illuminate the peoples of the African Diaspora. In 2012 Brooks officially added playwright to her list of talents with her debut theatrical work OBEAH OPERA which has been staged in various incarnations from festivals to staged workshop productions in Toronto between 2009 and 2014. Honoured with a Dora nomination in 2012 and with continued development thereafter, OBEAH OPERA now has its world premiere as a prestigious commission from Panamania, the cultural arm of the Toronto 2015 Pan American/Parapan American Games. She was also the 2014 recipient of the prestigious Harry Jerome Arts Award for her outstanding achievements in the arts. Brooks is Co-Artistic Director of Culchahworks alongside acclaimed musician and founder Andrew Craig as well as founder and Director of Asah Productions Inc.

The 2015 Panamania commission Obeah Opera begins next week.  Watch a flash mob performance of “Di Moon Song” from Obeah Opera.

I am thrilled to interview Nicole Brooks, asking her ten questions: five about herself and five more about the premiere.

Nicole Brooks

Nicole Brooks (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

When reading this question, my knee jerk reaction had me thinking I would love to say my mother – but that is so inherently untrue – she is the strong, silent type and for those who meet my mother are shocked that she gave birth to a being like me.


When people meet my dad (who I have not been close to for many years) they say ‘now it all makes sense!’  My father is one of the most outgoing, entrepreneurial, talkative, outrageous personalities you will ever meet.  Through example, and dare I say osmosis, he taught me the art of being a personable and irresistible sales person.  He has a gift in sales … and apparently so do I.     ;)

2-what is the best thing about what you do?

I’ve been very fortunate in my life and career – the majority of the projects that I have embarked upon have all come to life and been presented to the world in the most amazing ways.  My career is my love and hobby – I am a storyteller and I have had the opportunity to express my stories through various mediums including film, television, music, teaching, and now theatre.  But in regards to this specific question I have to say the best thing about what I do:

I love collaboration.

For me this is where the true magic is created.

There is one thing to create a work but it is another to see it come to life – and I have found that a work can only come to life with the gifts and mastery of others.  I wish I can say I am good at absolutely everything, but hey I am not, so when I get in a room with masters of design, directing, producing, cinematography, visual art, choreography or any other medium that is required for that specific work, and then begin to experience their genius that adds to the work, it is just simply extraordinary.  It truly is a gift to have an army of artistic ‘gods’ and ‘goddesses’ make your work stellar – I have learned throughout the years that it truly does take a village to ‘raise’ a work.

3-who do you like to listen to or watch?

Wow not sure how to answer this one – as a filmmaker, I tend to watch a lot when I have the time.

Hmmm and the same applies to music.

But I guess upon reflection, I will say that I have observed in my time of great stress or a desperate need for an opening for inspiration, or even just to feel good, my go-to is gospel music.  For those who know me well, they know that I am girl who was not only raised in the church but I was a choir leader and led the church in song regularly.  Gospel music over the years has become my meditation I realize. Nothing in the world to me is more uplifting.  The realm of gospel artists that I listen to is quite extensive and ranges from groups to individuals. 

Richard Smallwood, James Hall, Kirk Carr, Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Leandria Johnson, Smokey Norful, Tamala Mann, Kirk Franklin, Fred Hammond, Commissioned are just a handful of artists in that genre that I grew up with and love to listen to even to this day.

You can take the girl out of the church, but you can’t take the church out of the girl.

4-what ability or skill do you wish you had that you don’t have.

Great question.  I have always wished I had the skill of a visual artist.  I envy and admire that talent – paintings, pottery, sculpting, needlepoint (yes I said needlepoint) – anything to do with the hands in this manner is amazing to me.

Answering this question makes me want to take a painting 101 class right now, LOL.

5-when you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

OK, for the record, I don’t know how to engage in the art of relaxing – “no” to me is an art form that I am desperate to embrace.  My time when not working is usually spent with my 2 kids which is a combination of heaven and hell depending on the day, LOL.

Outside of that – sleeping is most likely my favourite thing to do.  A good sleep calls in the most amazing dreams, and those dreams usually manifest the next work I am called to do.


Nightwood Theatte, Obeah

Obeah Opera (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)

Five more about preparing Obeah Opera as part of Panamania.

1-Tell us about the first version of Obeah Opera, what it meant to you.

The first version of Obeah Opera meant possibility.

I had the great fortune of meeting and working with ahri zina mandiela, the founder and artistic director of b current at the time.  Obeah Opera was submitted to b current’s rock.paper.sistahs festival (a festival specifically for presentation of new works for women of colour) as a concept, an idea in a form never been done before and when asked, I admitted to her that in addition to this new ‘form’ of expression, this would be my first attempt to write a piece for the stage and my first time really ever composing a musical work. It was ahdri who encouraged me to begin the process with writing 10 minutes with 5 women and see what would emerge.  That was in 2009 – what has happened each year for the following 6 years has been nothing short of amazing.

Each year the piece grew from 10 to 20 to 30 minutes until I was told ‘enough’ and write the play in its entirety. Each year I was pushed way out of my comfort zone, not only learning the new art of theatre but telling a theatrical story entirely sung.

I know that I was given an extraordinary privilege to have my first theatrical work mounted – and it is a privilege that I do not ever take for granted.  I am grateful for everything and everyone who has crossed my path in the Obeah Opera creation journey (good, bad or indifferent) because it is these experiences that have led me to where I am today.

Beyond what I have shared above, I also learned how imperative it is to share ‘your’ story.  One of the catalysts for me writing this work was simply a challenge from djanet sears (writer/director Adventures of a Black Girl In Search of God – a show I had the pleasure to be in) who, over the years, would counsel us as we would come to her and beg her to find a way to remount this show because of the content and our experience of being in a show.  She would always tell us, do not rely on me to tell these/our stories alone, go and write your own – we need it, the world needs it.  I listened.

2- the current version of Obeah Opera is apparently different, is much longer.  Please talk about the development of this new work, and how the work has changed from its original version.

Yes the current version of Obeah Opera is very different and indeed much longer. When the earlier incarnation of the work was mounted in 2012, I knew in my heart it was not finished and it was underdeveloped and a lot of the critics made the same observation even though it received strong and positive reviews.  I took this criticism to heart and, to a lot of people’s surprise, went back into development for about a year in 2013 with dramaturg Erica Kopyto (Nightwood Theatre) to really develop the narrative specifically – she was only interested in looking at the story arc and not the music ­– to really flesh out the journey to ensure that a strong narrative with a beginning, middle and end was carved out and created.

In addition, my colleague Andrew Craig also aided the process after hearing of my difficulty articulating the music (I do not write music or have any formal training) and supplied me with a multi- track recording device and encouraged me to sing all parts of every song and create guide tracks so everyone could hear what was indeed in my head.  The combination of those two things changed the work dramatically.

Most recently, I also had the privilege to have an intensive 6 weeks with New York director and dramaturg Kim Wield who I have to mention also brought the work to the next level – she really understood the new style of writing that I was doing and helped me identify more the ‘language’ of the piece which I didn’t really notice before.  One of my Oprah ‘aha’ moments in this development phase is that I discovered, most recently, that this work truly embraces the notions of Carnival, its archetypes, history and such.

It was such a huge learning for me and I was really grateful for the critique.  I would have done a huge disservice if I didn’t take that exclusive time off to work on it and present it to the world again.  The earlier incarnation can be now described as a piece that was presented in tableaux – it is now a full narrative of Tituba’s journey from even before she arrives in Salem to the moment of her trial.

This meant development and addition of characters – in the earlier version it only had 5 main characters including Tituba, The Elder and the 3 other slave women who accompany Tituba on her journey (Mary, Candy and Sarah).

The only Puritan that was really ‘showcased’ was Rev Parris – Betty, Abigail, Mercy, Captain, Doc Griggs and Elizabeth did not exist. So this version includes more of a ‘balance’ of white and black characters in the story.

Also, unlike many theatre shows (and this may be a critique in the end), the story actually begins with Tituba’s past in a flashback ­– the entire prologue shows Tituba’s beginning as a runaway slave and her spiritual encounter and thus ‘quest’ in the beginning; then she is shipped to Salem.  In that way, there is way more context as to what her journey is and, may I add, it is also more well rounded; it actually coincides more closely to the Crucible story line but has my take on the motivations behind why the hysteria occurs which lies in Abigail’s deep-rooted envy of Tituba’s relationship with Betty and her wanting power and attention, vowing to ‘bring her down’.

Panamania only commissions new works/world premieres.  To this end, part of my commission was to mount a workshop production in 2014 for them to see the new development.  I’m happy that it was clear to everyone that this was indeed a new piece and they were eager to have this new work be staged during the Games.

3-In traditional opera, women are the ones privileged to sing of their pain and suffering.   Please talk about how you see Obeah Opera either within this tradition or possibly breaking with that tradition.

Obeah Opera both stays within and breaks the traditional Opera form.

Indeed, this piece allows for women to have the privilege to sing of their pain and suffering so this piece works within that realm.

However what has to be noted is that this work is told exclusively by women.  There are no men in this piece – hence, we have gender-bending and all that good stuff presented here.  This is a piece written by a woman, told by women and, for me, that is seriously powerful.

Also traditional opera is usually akin to European classical genres of music – this work is definitely not that.  Obeah Opera tells the story of the Salem witch trials through the vantage point of the Caribbean slave Tituba and as such, the musical journey is also told through that experience.

A cast member just shared with me that she thought it was awesome that Obeah Opera in itself is a musical journey of the different arrays of Black music – this story is about Black women’s experience during the witch hunt so the music and words reflect that experience as well.

“Until Lion(esses) have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.” ~ Ashanti Proverb

4-Please talk about the women in this show, what they bring to the production.

OK, so how do I do this?  The current cast of 14 – they are ALL superstars within their own right…ugggh! I’m going to have to resort to the amazing Press Release just released that sums up each of the stars found in this cast:

Juno Award winner Divine Brown (Mary), Jesus Christ Superstar Broadway cast member Karen Burthwright (Candy), Jean A. Chalmers Award winner Diana Coatsworth (Captain/Doctor), musical theatre maverick Saphire Demitro (Auctioneer/Shapeshifter), versatile vocalist Deidrey Francois (Sarah), Collective of Black Artists – COBA – dancer Nickeshia Garrick (Shapeshifter), Acting Up Stage’s Falsettos company member Sarah Gibbons (Abigail), Mary Poppins Broadway and U.S. national tour cast member Janet MacEwen (Parris), artist educator and multi-forms dancer Debbie Nicholls-Skerrit (Shapeshifter), Afro-Cuban drum and dance ensemble Ilédè Artistic Director Melissa Noventa (Mercy/Shapeshifter), Juno-Nominated God Made ME Funky lead singer Dana Jean Phoenix (Betty), Dora Award nominee Sabryn Rock (Elizabeth) and international Calypso star Singing Sandra (Cultural Ambassador of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, two-time Calypso Monarch) as The Elder…

See what I mean in way of collaboration – I play Tituba and I am so honoured to be sharing the stage with these mega-song goddesses who just bring Obeah Opera to the next level.

5- Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I have to say that there are too many teachers and, dare I say, supporters of this work that I especially admire – I wouldn’t feel comfortable just naming one.

So I opt to talk about one of the major influences in my life and specifically in this work:  Bobby McFerrin.

For many years, I have followed his work and admired his greatness in improvisation, his ability to create ‘voices’ and his mastery of the a cappella musical style.  Many don’t know of his impressive body of work that goes wayyyy beyond his hit single ‘Don’t worry be, be happy’.  He is a 10-time Grammy award winner, defined as a music industry rebel, exploring uncharted vocal territory; he is an instrumentalist, a band leader and an orchestral conductor, just to name a few.  

I will share that his album ‘Medicine Man’ would be the base and launching pad for Obeah Opera – this album was released in 1990 and forever changed my life, musically and otherwise.  I was amazed that one person could create such a musical odyssey with just his voice and I would practice along with him and do my best to imitate his genius in sound and writing.

I had no idea that over 20 years later I would have a work that promotes ‘uncharted vocal territory’ similar to his work and, although I do not have his musical educational background or experience to any degree, in hindsight, I see that I, to some degree, have taken the term “imitation is the best form of flattery” to a whole other level.  One of my dreams come true would be to have him musically direct this piece – I WOULD DIE and go to heaven quite happily.

Forever grateful for his genius and influence in my life. Thank you Bobby.

Nicole Brooks
July 2015


Culchahworks Arts Collective and Panamania presented by CIBC
Present the world premiere of
Obeah Opera
A Nicole Brooks Vision
in association with Nightwood Theatre and b current

Tuesday, August 4 to Saturday, August 8, 2015
Tuesday-Saturday @7pm; Saturday matinee @1pm
Baillie Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts
in The Distillery District
50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON, M5A 3C4

For tickets, call the Young Centre Box Office at 416.866.8666 or visit http://tickets.youngcentre.ca/single/PSDetail.aspx?psn=8461  or http://obeahopera.com/

For more information, visit Facebook/ObeahOpera and follow Obeah Opera on Twitter: @ObeahOpera

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Mussolini vs The Mermaid: what little girls –and boys—dream

Thursday night is the preview performance of DIVE: Odes for Lighea, Nik Beeson’s new opera at The Array Space. DIVE is based on Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s short story The Professor and the Siren.

That’s “siren” as in mermaid. I am feeling a bit guilty that I get to see this mermaid show, when a young girl I know –daughter of a family member– is obsessed with mermaids. I suppose this is normal, that mermaids likely succeed ponies as objects of fascination for girls of her age.

And she is not alone of course.

I could point to many great composers —for instance Schubert, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, to name the first few who come to mind—who wrote music for someone that this little girl would instantly recognize. The stories inspiring those composers come from a multitude of places.

I recall her delight when i showed her some of the Lepage Rheingold on video with me last year, as enraptured as if she were another Alberich, seduced by the cavorting Rhine-maidens.  The first 30 seconds of this clip gives you an idea.  

I got her Splash on DVD, a film that helped launch the careers of Daryl Hannah and Tom Hanks, with a generous assist from John Candy & Eugene Levy. The film certainly touched a nerve in its depiction of a romance under the sea.

And I have seen a few times in the media that women can train to be mermaids: which sounds really odd when I read that. But what they’re doing is putting on some sort of fake tail, and learning how to swim as though they were mermaids.  There was something on television news just a few days ago, showing this phenomenon.

Is this so different from the romantic image? For example “Ondine” appears in a poem by Aloysius Bertand and Gaugin’s painting inspired by the poem, images inviting us to dive in and drown in beauty. But the human is rejected furiously when she discovers what, we already have a mortal girlfriend? See of you notice the moment of rage when she turns away from humanity and swims off.
First Ravel 
Or there’s Debussy’s less famous Prelude on the same poem.  
The show I am seeing Thursday is perhaps a bit more serious, both in its sonorities and its philosophical ambitions –putting a mermaid (as an exemplar of the wild) and fascism (or extreme sorts of control) into a kind of dialectical opposition. Indeed when you think about it, they are perfect opposites, the difference between enforced order & natural order, or possibly order and entropy.

I say all this without having seen the show yet, but having listened to the CD a few times in my car. We no longer inhabit the sonic world of Ravel & Debussy & Wagner. Beeson & his muse Fides Krucker are 21st century visionaries.  I’m eager to hear their take on a very old myth. postcard

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, Politics | 1 Comment

10 Questions for Timothy Vernon

One of the biggest opera stories of the year will come to fruition this fall.  Timothy Vernon, already founder & Artistic Director with Pacific Opera Victoria, will take on the additional role as Artistic Director with Opera Lyra Ottawa, sometimes conducting as well.

There’s an old management problem that comes to mind when I think of Vernon. If you were to walk into an office needing something done and see two people, one working hard, the other reading a newspaper, to whom do you give your task?

While it’s counter-intuitive (because the one reading the newspaper is not actually working and should be available) the best choice is actually to turn to the busy person: because they can be trusted to get it done.

I wonder if the search committee at Opera Lyra Ottawa had heard this axiom when they sought a new artistic director, although Vernon’s appearances with the National Arts Centre Orchestra likely were a factor as well. Vernon—the driving force behind Pacific Opera Victoria (both as its founder and Artistic Director) at the other end of the country in British Columbia—becomes the first person to simultaneously be artistic director of two major Canadian opera companies.  He is Conductor Laureate of Orchestra London, and has been engaged as a guest conductor by Calgary Philharmonic, Vancouver Symphony, Edmonton Symphony, L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, the Winnipeg and Toronto symphonies, Ottawa’s Thirteen Strings, Symphony Nova Scotia, and the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra.

I dared to hope that such a busy man might answer my questions.  And just as in the story, the busy person got the job done. I asked him ten questions: five about himself, five more about leading two opera companies at opposite ends of the country.

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

Self-knowledge, enjoined of old in the Delphic maxim, does imply knowledge of one’s parents; can I be sufficiently dispassionate in assessing what traits come from which side? My father was the kindest man I ever knew – I sense how far short of his standard I fall, but know there is no shame in trying to meet it. Devoted to family, but quietly self-dramatizing and with a censorious instinct where human foibles are concerned, my mother tended to inspire in people – as a cousin once told me – a desire to stand up when she entered the room. Louder in my own drama, I’ve tried to be less disapproving of behavior I don’t understand.

Both had a great sense of duty – my father to his students, my mother to the disadvantaged or alienated. It took me half a lifetime to achieve that commitment.
My father loved music deeply, instinctively, tending towards orchestral or instrumental, Mother, with her love of poetry and text, towards voice and chorus.

I’ve spent my life studying, performing it all. My father loved the outdoors and had an explorer’s instinct, always wanting to take the inviting, less obvious road or trail to a beckoning horizon; mother’s outdoors was the garden. I’ve come to love both. When I take time to drive idly down smaller unknown country roads even near my house just to look at the terrain, my Dad comes to mind and I know he’d approve. I wonder how Mother would like our borders or the many flower boxes around the place. Both these ways of relating to nature are strong in me.

Dad was patient, contemplative – me? Not so much. Mom liked to read in depth, to ‘get to the bottom’ – I do recognize this in myself. My father loved to make and build things, something as a child I found boring or even somehow embarrassing. Now it is among my chiefest delights – the four structures on our property are proof. I wish he had lived long enough to see my garden studio, and for me to see the look on his face at the thought that, with help, I designed and built it myself. My father was content with simplicity around him, whereas in me my mother’s modest tendency to embellish has burgeoned into baroqueishness.

Mother loved language and languages – she studied, read, and spoke German (ancestral tongue) and French. For my Dad, despite his ear for music, languages were unknown continents. I remember early travels in Europe; Dad would have wrestled to the ground a phrase in one language just in time to cross a border into yet another Sprachwelt, where he would produce his phrase proudly and be bewildered at the response – I was immature and insecure enough to find this excruciatingly embarrassing. Whatever gift I have for languages – and the love of all literatures – is undoubtedly maternal! If I could work it in, I’d learn Russian just to read Pushkin.

Physically more like my mother’s family, I regret not having my tall father’s ability to eat a lot without gaining weight. Since early youth, I’ve lived mostly in my head, dragging my body through life until it started to complain. My father would be amused, my mother slightly horrified, that I now go to Crossfit training three times a week.

2) What is the best thing about what you do?

Timothy Vernon

Short answer: Spending time every day with genius (I can hear my wife interject: ‘He means when he’s alone…’).

As Conductor: Qualifying to become what Bruno Walter definitively called “a necessary focus of attention among equals” requires devotion to, and almost total absorption in, the works of others. Erich Leinsdorf, unflashy, rigorous, and extremely discerning, called his memoirs, memorably, The Composer’s Advocate (I might have said Executor, but for a mighty interest in the living!) Deciphering text – trying to find the meaning in those symbols on the page, amassing background and historical information about a composer’s intention and expectation, all as a prelude to igniting, sparking a spontaneous bringing-to-life of the piece – the satisfaction is profound before a note is played. My only ambition on the podium is to share whatever insights I’ve gleaned, and my developing convictions about how the work should go. I’m not, or try not to be, a fear-of-God disciplinarian (even though orchestras have during my lifetime begun to drop that requirement from their assessments); rather, in Walter’s spirit, I hope to encourage, to negotiate, to set free the collective powers and talents of the group. Coming out of silence, as we do from the dark, music returns to silence just as the dark claims us once more. One can see performance as a metaphor for mortality.

As Artistic Director: Deciding repertoire is primary. If the company is to be led by the art – and I know of no truly successful artistic entity that isn’t – the choice of what is presented must reflect a spectrum of considerations but be made in the end by a single sensibility (otherwise, why have an AD?). Choices made by committee, or by the marketing department, no matter how successful at the box office, are doomed (stop reading now if ticket sales are your success-defining factor). Personal taste surely contributes something – in fact, can shape the profile of a company – but its exercise should be tempered by a desire to curate four centuries of opera, to provide a range of opportunities for the performers you love and admire, and to bring your audience to understand the deep human values in the art. Relevance? The humanity in a work is its relevance. Seeking, casting light on, the truths of human nature and human relationships – this is at the core of the whole theatrical endeavour, a mission in which opera can be supreme.

The human voice is central to music; I love ‘the singing animal’. Full of admiration for any and all music-making, I feel a special kind of awe for a human’s capacity to stand alone and produce sound from his or her body that speaks – sings – for all of us, and can say everything we know about ourselves, yet reveal something more. Assembling a cast that can meet if not transcend the demands of the score, and still form (more important in some works that others) a coherent ensemble of generous, mutually respectful – and even reliant – artists, is a skill, subject to availability and the unforeseen, that can never be free of risk. The challenge, though, is always bracing, and I cannot imagine relinquishing it.

There are directors who announce that the story they want to tell really has nothing to do with the opera they have been invited to direct– most of us will have seen at least one such production. Eurotrash has now a longish history. Here, we aren’t so tired of the repertoire that we need a dose of incoherence in its presentation, or the replacement of comprehensible motivation with sheer shock and schlock. Surely, telling the story of opera is a variable challenge. A great master is his own best dramaturge: Mozart will survive every effort to update or distort, because his characters, as is, are so from life that we meet them on the street. For me, the director’s test-piece is exposition – who can deliver a really dramatic, compelling Act I? If the setting or period of the opera is to be moved – and there are brilliant examples – my only requirement of the director is that he/she account for everything in the work, local references not excepted. Working with directors has been an almost unalloyed pleasure, no doubt because I get to choose them, and my general expectations are clear.

For a long time, I resisted thinking of myself as in any way a pedagogue – even as a tenured professor in a big university. I still feel I don’t know enough to call myself a teacher; on the other hand I have come to see years of work with young players and singers as the happiest – and often most immediately rewarding – times in my life, and have become gradually less inhibited about sharing (or even trying to articulate) what my experience may have taught me. Perhaps because my general stance is optimistic, I find the company of young and ambitious musicians of every stripe especially congenial; idealism and preparedness for discovery is a given – for whom is that not refreshing and inspiring? My only sadness: the rapid disappearance of any awareness – let alone reverence – for the great tradition of Western musical performance. Used to hearing almost immediately everyone’s latest performances of everything, students tend to be aware of the now, and often surprised to hear that something might be gleaned from, say, a fifty- or sixty-year-old recording. (NB I am not an advocate of learning from recordings!) Demonstrably, the technical achievements of young players worldwide is astonishing and unparalleled; is there a similar growth in understanding, in profound engagement with the substance of the art? I don’t hear it.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Favourite composers: Monteverdi, Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, Strauss, Berg, Britten, Shostakovich, Schnittke (This is the A+ list; the A list is endless).

Other genres: Classical Operetta, Broadway, Jazz, acapella groups, Be-bop, Boogie-Woogie, Latin

Of course I admire virtuosity – Art Tatum makes me hold my breath, then laugh with glee – but in the end as a listener I want more than that. My very dear friend Joel Quarrington may be the greatest virtuoso in the history of the bass; the truly moving aspect of his playing is for me that unequalled espressivo tone; his masterful understanding of how a phrase is built and coloured. Every young singer should hear him and learn to phrase – even breathe – from his bow. Smart young things like to make – or parrot – remarks about Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (whose name they are more and more at a loss to spell) becoming ‘mannered’ and his tone ‘drying out’. One of the very greatest musicians of the last century, he seldom drew attention to his flawless technique, but rather used it to convey a remarkable sensitivity to text, even in languages not his own. Unrivalled the expressive nuances he finds in the Wilfred Owen poems Britten set in the War Requiem. Whose Mozart should I hear? young singers often ask – almost inevitably I find myself writing down my response: Sena Jurinac. I listen to much chamber music, and am proud to realize that Canadian R. Murray Schafer has written the greatest series of String Quartets since Shostakovich. Recently, someone posed the desert island question: What single composer’s works would you choose? For the first time the answer rang clear and uncontested in my mind: Bach. I envy those who have been able to work through the great cycles of Cantatas. Given a chance, I would drop everything to do that.

4) What skill or ability do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Managerial savvy, and a better understanding of and way with (my own) money. Also, an instinctive aptitude for tools, and the real mastery of an instrument.

5) When you are not working and just relaxing, what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m an inveterate reader, usually with three or four books on the go. I cannot sleep without a good read first, and often wake early to finish something. I love being outside, and regret the demise of my tractor-mower that enabled me to cut our fields myself. I am an enthusiastic but inattentive gardener. Fond of word games, I am beaten in Boggle about every three years by someone in the family. I love to cook and to entertain; sitting about talking with smarter friends over and after dinner is heaven.

Timothy Vernon (photo: David Cooper)

Timothy Vernon (photo: David Cooper)

Five more about the upcoming year as artistic director with both Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera Lyra Ottawa.

1) Gulp, before getting too deep, for this coming season, what does it mean in terms of logistics alone, that you’re Artistic Director of both Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera Lyra Ottawa?  How many shows does each company offer, how many will you be conducting, and when will you next have a moment to take a breath?

With a history of artistic achievement well beyond what anyone could have foreseen, Pacific Opera Victoria at this point in its slow incremental development, has emerged as a healthy, well-run, professionalized organization that enjoys true allegiance and active support in the community. It would be too easy simply to relax and bask. I know about myself that I prefer building to maintaining (just ask anyone in my household), so the chance to apply what I may have learned to the challenges facing Opera Lyra proved irresistible. I will be able to conduct at least one production in Ottawa annually, and hope that in the beginning of my affiliation, more will be possible so that I can learn on the job how best to help steer the company. I shall be in Ottawa about a half-dozen times a year, and will attend board and staff meetings long-distance in between visits. If Pacific Opera is my baby, Opera Lyra has become what in German is called my Sorgenkind. I do believe that better days are ahead for OL, that there are many people ready to support a serious effort to bring performances of international standard to the stage of the NAC, and that a purposeful and energetic campaign to engage and maintain wide-spread investment and trust cannot fail.

2) What are the differences you see in the two companies, and should we expect to see similarities as time goes by?

I live, like POV, on what I refer to as ‘an island in the Pacific Ocean’. Not too long ago, one could hear on the CBC the following: “Canada coast to coast – from Vancouver to Halifax”. Victoria is still seen as an enclave of the retired, a place of kind climate and unserious elderfun. Events, though, have shown that its cultural roots go deeper and hold better than its bigger mainland neighbor; certainly there is per capita involvement in the arts in Victoria that is more than twice the national average.

The company began, in 1980, playing in an un-unionized hall with found sets and costumes. We built our own productions faute de mieux – none of the rentals would fit into our smaller theatre, but then, even when the company moved to the larger Royal Theatre, we persisted in designing and building. To date, from 105 productions, only three have been rentals. This is a distinguishing feature, certainly in our country, and has earned POV the allegiance of directors and designers who are invited to conceive the work afresh every time. With its great scene shop and splendid artisans, POV has become a leader in co-productions, supplying to sister companies all over North America. There is no doubt that Opera Lyra will become involved and, we hope, benefit from all this.

The Royal Theatre, by far no ideal producing venue, nonetheless more nearly resembles a European opera house than any in Canada, Toronto’s purpose-built space excepted. This allows a certain approach to casting – bigger halls need bigger voices, and everywhere here there are bigger halls than is healthy for singers. The NAC is no exception. Singers must know how to project into that space, and must be chosen with the demands of the hall itself in mind.

The Victoria Symphony, which has played for all 105 POV productions, has become a true opera orchestra, its performance vastly improved especially over the past decade. Opera Lyra has the great strength of its partnership with NACO – a very large part of the appeal of this position to the conductor in me. The shorthand version of my ambition for the company: to raise all the elements to the standards of NACO. That is how Ottawa becomes a player in the opera world.

3) Pacific Opera Victoria have produced a fair share of new and recent operas.  Could you speak for a moment about the importance you place on new works, especially from Canadians?

Canadian paintings hang in the great galleries of the world; our literature in two languages fills the shelves of libraries everywhere, but not a single Canadian opera has been taken up for new production by a company outside the country. Latterly, there has been a big push to develop a Canadian repertoire; POV participated with its commission ‘Mary’s Wedding ‘ a telling and touching setting of Stephen Massicotte’s now famous play by Andrew MacDonald. I believe it is important to foster interest among composers and potential librettists, and hope that Opera Lyra may make some strides in this direction.

It is not uncommon to note that opera companies will program up to and including Turandot and then jump to the newly commissioned world premiere….I would argue that finding the idiom for opera in 2015, never easy, is made harder by ignoring all the great creativity in the form for the past century. Berg, Hindemith, Britten, Prokofiev, Henze, Adams, and many more ‘one-hit-wonders’: a body of work unknown for the most part across the land. I believe all four hundred years of opera creation should be seen on our stages, providing a fuller context (and perhaps inspiration) for indigenous developments.’

In case it be thought my position is mere theory, here is a tally of works presented in full professional staging for the first time in Canada by Pacific Opera Victoria:

Der Freischuetz
The Love of Three Kings
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest

(A full repertoire list, including many works seen only in one or two other cities here, may be found at: pov.bc.ca)

4) While we are speaking of Canadian opera companies presenting Canadian opera, please address the other big question.  How much of a priority do you place on putting Canadian talent onstage? 

Opera is international; there are no borders in art.

Canada enjoys a huge reputation abroad for the number and caliber of fine singers we have produced over at least four generations. In a recent three-week period, I saw eleven operas in seven different European houses; Canadians were present in four casts, two of them in leading roles.

At POV, knowing how hard it had been to find work in opera in my own country, I determined that we would welcome every worthy Canadian opera artist in every capacity; that we would focus especially on giving main roles and major assignments to younger singers where appropriate, and new and challenging offers to people further along. Richard Margison may serve as a poster-child; I met him in his teens – he sang thirteen roles at POV at the start of that wonderful career., and we feel proud to have contributed to fostering his talent. By contrast, Gerald Finlay, educated in music in St Matthew’s Anglican Church and at U of O, has never appeared on Opera Lyra’s stage.

I do believe in ‘Canada first’. If there is a Canadian I believe to be right for a particular assignment, I will make that offer before any other. That applies across the board to every aspect of the art. And where should Canadians have the chance to shine if not in our capital city?

5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

One’s debt to teachers and mentors is too profound to fathom, but I shall mention three:

Otto-Werner Mueller (click for Curtis Institute tribute upon Mueller’s retirement from teaching)

i) Otto-Werner Mueller: I was a theatre-besotted teenager with much love for music and a freshly cracked solo treble voice, but little rigorous training, when Otto came to Victoria for three years as Music Director of the Symphony. He was, and in some respects remains, the most formidable musician I had ever met. Hugely tall, impatiently omniscient, burning with holy zeal, and a tireless perfectionist, he picked me up as by the scruff, gave me a good shake, and devoted more time than I deserved trying to make a musician of me. For years I would wonder at every turn (choosing socks, giving an upbeat): “What would Otto think?” Of course he went on to Juilliard and Curtis to become the master teacher of N American conductors; many are in his debt, but I am proud to have been his first full-time pupil.

ii) Hans Swarowsky: Clearly, I had to get out of Victoria. And the years with Otto made me want to become that essential thing in music – a composer. At 18, never having been in an airplane, I flew from Victoria to Vienna, where I lived for eleven years. I found within one year that I didn’t need to write music to be happy. This was devastating. I could write, to be sure, but not of necessity, not to survive….So I applied to the conducting School at what is now the University of Music, and was admitted to the famous conducting class of Hans Swarowsky, graduating a scant few years before his death. Swarowsky was a dogmatist and insisted on scrupulous and detailed engagement with the musical text. He didn’t care about our feelings for the music – he was interested only in what we knew. He had little to impart about technique – his own was clear if not compelling – and not much to say about rehearsing, either. But we had to know the score: the notes, their connection, the structures they build, and how the placement of every note in a masterwork can be explained by analysis on classical principles. Intellectually, his class was constantly stimulating. He was versed in all of European literature, art and cultural history and psychology (his first wife had been a Freud pupil). He knew the Second Viennese School, and had been amanuensis to Richard Strauss at Garmisch-Partenkirchen throughout WWII. He was intrepid in rejecting the temporizing, exculpatory and insincere attitude of the Viennese to their own recent history and fought publicly with the direction of the Staatsoper. His humour was often sardonic, his German elegant. He said many memorable things, but one we heard often: ‘Gentlemen, this is the way this piece goes. If you want something else, go somewhere else!’ A collection of his occasional writings, published posthumously by a pupil and entitled “Wahrung der Gestalt” (Preservation of Form) is full of nuggets.

iii) Franco Ferrara: Conducting students spoke of him in whispers, or so it now seems. He had been Toscanini’s concertmaster, was now the greatest living conductor, whose career was made impossible by a condition resembling epilepsy. I attended his summer course at the Accademia Chigiana in Siena thee times, and followed him to Hilversum in the Netherlands, all while still living in Vienna. Everything one heard was true. Nothing could have been further from Swarowsky’s dissections of a score. Just thinking about music, Ferrara somehow generated a white, incandescent heat unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. He had little to say, but every syllable was a dart to the heart. Occasionally he would demonstrate a beginning or a transition, and it was blinding – forever memorable, but somehow like looking into a furnace, or at the sun. His wrath, at sloppiness or lack of effort (or talent) from students felt apocalyptic, the more so if it climaxed in a fit which left him kicking on the floor. His Sicilian face with its black eyes could seem carved from thousand-year-old stone. The inspiration he gave was personal emanation; he was a magus of music. The greatest thing ever said to me as a musician was a phrase of Ferrara’s: seeking me out after a concert, he put his hand on my shoulder and murmured: “Ho sentito la tua anima”. I still live from that.


Timothy Vernon’s two opera companies go into action this fall.  Click logo below for further details.

  • Opera Lyra Ottawa begin their season September 26 with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.
  • Pacific Opera Victoria begin their season October 15th with Verdi’s Otello.
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Partnerships: the next evolutionary step

Over the past few years we’ve been watching a new model for opera in Ontario, with the appearance of several small companies:

  • Against the Grain
  • Essential Opera
  • Opera 5

I couldn’t help noticing the latest development, namely companies entering into partnerships with their larger brethren.

  • AtG started first, having an ongoing relationship with the Canadian Opera Company and the Banff Centre
  • Essential Opera will be partnering with Opera Lyra in Ottawa.  In October 2015, OLO partner with Essential Opera to present a double-bill of new, one-act operas by young Canadian composters, Etiquette and Regina.
  • Opera 5 have a fundraiser coming up with Volcano Theatre
    on August 15th.
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Trudeau against the puritans

I hate attack ads. I previously wrote about this detestable tool before.  In vaudeville, when a performer didn’t get applause they would pull them offstage with a hook. Attack ads are like rhetorical hooks, grabbing at people to trip them, but without even the dignity of context.

I have arthritis.  I had trouble sleeping last night, because I sometimes have some serious sciatica.  The pain in my left leg isn’t so bad now—hours later—because I took my meds.

What did I take to relieve the pain? Medications that, if I am not careful, have serious side-effects. Meanwhile, there are alternatives.  Would my pain be amenable to management if I had access to something like marijuana?  All I know is that I sometimes use alcohol to help me sleep.  It’s nothing I am terribly proud of.  But i am not comfortable trying to “legally” obtain marijuana.  Is it legal, even if you ask for medical marijuana?

You tell me.

Meanwhile in the attack ads, Justin Trudeau is being mocked for words taken out of context.  I wonder if he still supports marijuana legalization, especially now that he is being hounded by these moronic ads?

Pardon me, those are parodies.  Anyone who can be influenced by attack ads is welcome to Stephen Harper, who –seriously– is not up to the job (to quote his own advertising), unless the job is to put Canada deeper in debt.

Our economy is in the toilet.

But let’s talk about a tiny measure that could help that weak economy.  If Trudeau were to promise to legalize marijuana, I would happily vote for him.   But given the ridicule i think he can be forgiven for hesitating.

THANK YOU Conservative puritans!

Legal marijuana would generate new tax revenues (why shouldn’t the government get a slice, the way they do with tobacco?), and likely increase tourism.  And yes, old arthritic codgers like me should be able to get high legally.

I wish!

In fact, we have some ridiculous inconsistencies in our laws.

  • If I am of age I can get alcohol or cigarettes.  Both will kill me if I am not careful.
  • I can supposedly get medicinal marijuana, although I have no idea where I would obtain such a thing.  Why not my drug store?

Yet the Supreme Court had to make a ruling that one has a right to consume medical marijuana in brownies.  Duh! anyone who understands right from wrong should see that this is only fair. You’d think medical marijuana is a crime (i know i think it is a crime because i can’t simply get it from my drug store).

And the Health Minister mocked the decision.  Is medical marijuana legal or not? She was apparently “outraged” (news report).  If you read the report, you have to wonder: is making medical marijuana available via cookies going to corrupt Canada’s youth?  I am more concerned that people in other countries reading this article will be worried that Canada is being governed by a gang of puritanical idiots, who clearly don’t have a very good sense of the different between right and wrong.  From a strictly moral perspective, i find Rona’s commentary astonishing.

Outraged? oh, is that because cancer-causing smoke is a better choice?

I will never seek a prescription from my rheumatologist to buy medical marijuana until I know that the government isn’t about to treat me like a criminal.

But of course the attack ads suggest the same mindless knee-jerk puritanism.

When I was very young I recall encountering JFK & RFK, a pair of brothers who used visionary language.  I remember the commitment to put a man on the moon before the end of that decade, a commitment that was met. This was positive, and it inspired a whole generation.

Vision doesn’t fit into a discourse that is all about catching people making mistakes.  Our political conversation is entirely lacking in vision, nothing more than a fear of saying something that will be mocked.  How small-minded.  What I get out of all that harping on little comments, especially comments taken out of context in those vile attack ads, is that the members of the Government are the same.  They have nothing positive to offer, just negativity. Actually, that’s not fair, because their action plan spending was useful, even if subsidies are usually anathema to conservatives.

Speaking of spending, it is a good thing they have spent all that money on advertising (both the economic action plan ads and the attack ads).  At least those actors will still have work.

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