Bill Blair at the door

He wasn’t knocking on the door. He was in an SUV.

One of the members of the Lberal team had come to our front door and we immediately said we wanted a sign.

I had planned to wait until I returned from my vacation, perhaps getting a sign sometime around Labour Day. Today? well as the last day of August, with a guy at the door,  why not, we figured.

What we didn’t figure on was the candidate coming up to us and saying hello. I always put signs on my lawn because I’m a bit of a loud-mouth. I always take a position, which means I always have a sign. But since when does the candidate come and say hi?

We were a bit astonished, and maybe also a bit star-struck. Bill Blair is a tall friendly guy, one of the most recognizable people in this city over the past decade even without his police uniform. We shook hands, a kind handshake rather than the bone-crusher assault you might fear from such a big strong guy.

And he stood at the door talking to us for a good 15-20 minutes. I kept expecting him to need to run off but we had a wonderful conversation like none I’ve ever had with a politician, possibly because Blair isn’t a politician.

Now please note, I say that as a compliment.  Bill Blair may be running for office but he is not a politician.  In the ugly attack ads that try to suggest Justin Trudeau “isn’t ready”, i figure they might be right only in the sense that he isn’t ready to be the usual sort of politician.   After all, who needs the usual sort of politician?

Neither Trudeau nor Blair resembles the old-style politician: thank goodness.

At the doorway, we talked about several things, a rambling conversation. Rob Ford came up, because in our neighbourhood most of the signage (in the election that he won, that is) was for Ford, whereas we supported Smitherman.

I feel very lucky, as we were given some remarkable moments of insight in our conversation. Blair told us that the three parties all approached him about running.

  • The NDP asked him.
    Blair said he’d been a friend of Jack Layton, a man Blair clearly admired, but that’s not who the NDP is anymore he said. Forgive me if my paraphrase is off, but I was a bit starstruck listening to what Blair had to say.
  • The Conservatives asked him.
    Blair said the Harper Conservatives said “they’d let me run for them”. And then what? Blair more or less said he couldn’t abide a situation where he’d be a robot always on a tight leash, told what to say, with no autonomy. Mike Harris also came to talk to him (trying to persuade him to run for the Conservatives), and this was, I think a warmer conversation where Blair admitted he could not see himself working in the Harper government. As a person who never liked Harris’ policies, I have to say, I admire very much what Blair reports as Harris’s very gentle reply: that old MH said “have a good look and decide which one you admire the most, and then follow him”. Which brings us to the third party.
  • The Liberals asked him.
    And the thing Blair remarked upon at this point was that Trudeau said he wanted him to be part of his team. Trudeau recognized Blair’s huge expertise in law enforcement. And Blair spoke of his excitement that so many talented people were being brought together to form a strong team.

There was more said at the door than this of course. There was a big conflict between Harper and Blair (and other police chiefs, with whom he was in a solid consensus) concerning the long gun registry. Police chiefs wanted it kept but the Harper government wanted it gone, and so of course it went. Blair jokingly told us that Harper said Blair was a “leader of a cult”. The police chiefs a cult??

What a weird thing to say.

Trudeau and Blair (click for Ottawa Citizen piece by Mark Kennedy)

I’ve talked about attack ads. Whatever their purpose or affiliation I don’t like them. They are the ugliest kind of manipulation, distorting the conversation. Shouldn’t our political discourse be about vision rather than harping on mistakes, about possibilities rather than covering your butt? Yes the average person is probably too afraid to step into the public eye, too afraid to submit to the kind of scrutiny that one gets in attack ads. That in itself is one of the things wrong with attack ads.  Politics should be open to average people too. Anyone with ideas should be welcomed into the conversation. If I had my druthers the spending limit would be much much lower, so that anyone with an idea could immediately get into the race. Why are we limiting our conversation to the guys who have tons of money?

And the polls? I wonder about that. The early lead enjoyed by Mulcair reminds me a lot of the early lead enjoyed in Toronto’s mayoralty election by Olivia Chow. At first, when everyone was in terror of the bogeyman (someone named “Ford”), Chow’s candidacy was welcomed. In due course when the electorate got a better look at the field, saw Tory and Chow, and realized that they didn’t need to fear a Ford, that changed. I wonder if the same dynamics might be at work among those wanting “anyone but Harper” in the Prime Minister’s Office? Mulcair may have solid support in Quebec, but as this super long election campaign goes on I wonder if voters will discover Trudeau’s team?

Blair is not at my door anymore. No, but he is knocking on the door of Parliament.  I believe he’ll win in our riding, a star candidate whose support transcends party lines. Every party wanted him.

I know who I am voting for here in Scarborough Southwest.

Posted in Personal ruminations | 12 Comments

Scary music in Theatres of Terror

Halloween is still several weeks away but already terror is more than a gleam in the eye of some.

Opera By Request are presenting Carl Maria von Weber’s gothic masterpiece Der Freischutz on Friday Sept 18th.  There will be no special effects in the wolfs-glen scene except what Weber wrote into the score.  Der Wilde Heer come riding, led by Samiel himself.

Eric Woolfe is planning a double feature with Eldritch Theatre

  • THE HOUSE AT POE CORNER follows Oct 29- Nov 7.

And all over the continent, kids are thinking about their costumes. What will they wear? Will they be scary?

And I have my own little horror show planned.  I am presenting a course at the Royal Conservatory of Music that’s called “Theatres of Terror”  beginning September 22nd.
Tonight? I practiced the last few movements of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which contain more than their share of scary moments.  Sure, the piano player may be afraid: afraid of hitting a wrong note! but this composition is not for the faint of heart.  The piece is so powerful you can almost see the witch flying.  

Lots of music was meant to scare you. For example there’s Schubert’s Erlkonig, a song telling a story.    If the shadow puppets and the song aren’t compelling enough for you, here’s a site where you can see the German text with a parallel translation here.

And here are a pair of nightmare pieces that are not long after Schubert’s 1815 song, by Hector Berlioz.  His Symphonie Fantastique (1830) concludes with a pair of nightmarish movements.  They’re awesome in Liszt’s piano transcriptions that helped popularize the piece but originally were composed as orchestral pieces (unlike the Pictures,  where the piano pieces were later orchestrated to great effect by Maurice Ravel).

First there’s the “March to the Scaffold.”  I don’t listen to it too often because I want to preserve its power to move me.  It’s one of my absolute favourite pieces.    The hero of the piece has murdered his girl-friend and is being taken to execution.  Fear builds throughout, until, we hear the drums and then the guillotine, including the plunk of a severed head bouncing on the ground.


And then there’s the Gothic “Dream of a Witches’ Sabbath” to conclude the work:

This is just the bare beginning of horror in music, before Weber’s infernal Wolfs Glen Scene in Der Freischutz, before the ghosts come out in the Flying Dutchman.

Do you dare see where it leads? We’ve had a century of film and more…

Posted in Cinema, Film Music Course, Music and musicology, Opera | 3 Comments

Introducing you to opera

How should one be introduced to opera?  It’s a question I’ve thought about, one I have seen tossed around lately.

  1. American opera educator & broadcaster Fred Plotkin was asked the question “how does one become an opera buff?” Here are his seven steps.
  2. The Canadian Opera Company has launched a new free series for adults entitled “Opera Insights”, designed to connect audiences to the 2015-2016 season. The details of the program along with bios of all the presenters and participants can be found at
  3. And then there’s my own course at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, called The Most Popular Operas.  I have taught it for several years, adjusting it each year to include the operas being offered by the COC & Opera Atelier,  with a special emphasis on the operas that are most popular.  Are they “the best” or is something else at work in making them popular?  Some of you love a particular opera, while others love a particular singer, so there is also the question of opera as an artform vs opera as a vehicle for singers. . If we can’t reconcile these two pathways we can enjoy the contradictions between each point of view.  But at the very least the discovery of what we love is a great way to get started.

Most Popular Operas begins Sept 16th.

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Karita Mattila at Koerner Hall: personalities on parade

There was more drama in this recital than any recital I can ever recall.  Karita Mattila assumed several roles, in several distinct voices in her concert tonight at Koerner Hall in Toronto as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival.

It’s almost exactly a year since the biggest coup of last year’s TSM, namely, Sondra Radvanovsky’s concert.  Mattila’s concert is a perfect follow-up for Artistic Director Douglas McNabney, and surely a highlight of this year’s Festival.

One would not usually think of the broad range of sounds as a good thing, if it weren’t abundantly clear that Mattila is an artist of rare intelligence, exploring sound masterfully.  I have to think she sees her voice in a kind of transition as she prepares to undertake Kostelnička.  She is now in her mid-50s,  transitioning to a more mature kind of role (for instance Kostenička, who is older and sung in the mezzo-soprano range) as opposed to Jenufa (the young soprano role), a role she’s sung previously.

Karita Mattila (photo: Lauri Eriksson)

Karita Mattila (photo: Lauri Eriksson)

For parts of the concert we were listening not just to low notes but a voice blended with a great deal of the lower register mixed in, even on higher notes: the way one might sound as a mezzo-soprano.  And towards the end, we heard something different, as her youthful soprano sound put in an appearance singing Richard Strauss.  Obviously she can still sing this way –with the lighter colour that comes from using the high register without so much of the lower one blended in—but recognizes that the darker colour is more appropriate.

Or to put it another way, –and excuse me if I have to be negative for a moment—when Placido Domingo undertakes the baritone role of Giorgio Germont in la Traviata a generation after having sung the tenor role of Alfredo (Giorgio’s son), it is hugely frustrating to still hear the tenor colour, in a singer who has changed only in his loss of his top notes, but not in his essential timbre.  It sounds all wrong to my ear. What I realize tonight is that what Domingo would have to do is undertake something as bold as what Mattila seems to be doing, which is to make technical adjustments.  It is not enough just to sing lower notes, but one must sing with a different technique so that you acquire a different colour throughout your range, which is nothing less than the proper colour the composer would expect.  (end of rant)

The programme gave us three languages, five composers, nineteen songs, all strongly supported by pianist Bryan Wagorn.  Mattila can be playful & fun, or tragic& intense.  The Brahms songs to open were extremely accurate, a bit on the histrionic side, but gorgeous to hear.  The Duparc set that followed were suavely executed, flowing easily, even if we were again in territory that was more extroverted than what one usually encounters from such songs, both in terms of the voice and the physical presentation.  The songs from the two Finnish composers were especially dark, yet seemed especially congenial to her, the sound she made being especially congruent with her body, without any sense of effort or conflict in the production of the sound when she was singing in her native language.

When we came to the closing quartet of songs by Richard Strauss, it was as though a veil had been lifted, and indeed Mattila emerged as from a dream.  This was the soprano, the youthful sound. While almost the entire concert was pitch-perfect, there had been times that the singing was emotionally remote, even austere in the darkness created, the roles assumed.  Were these understood by her as part of her preparation for the lower roles? Or perhaps she simply loves this music, as she seems to get inside them completely with her entire being.  But I would assume that her vocal health requires that she use her whole voice.  And delightful as the first three Strauss songs had been, she kicked it into a higher gear for the last song, “Frühlingsfeier”, as much pagan ritual enactment as mere song.  The abandon with which she threw herself into this delightful piece brought the house down.

Towards the end of the concert we got a glimpse of her sense of humour, as she let the mask slip, possibly because she was now relaxed in the Strauss, singing in a fach and a style to which she was accustomed.  For the first part of the concert she was far more serious, more intense in her portrayals, whereas at the end it was as though this was closer to the real Mattila.  But I am being presumptuous, as I am not sure who that is, as she seems to be boldly inventing a new version of herself.  Throughout, though, it must be said that there was more facial expression, more gesture, more dramatization than I am accustomed to in a song recital.  But she made it work, creating some electrifying moments.  I have never seen such a kaleidoscope of voices in one recital.

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

SOLT’s Der Vampyr

It might seem dangerous to see Marschner’s opera Der Vampyr (The Vampire) on a full moon, but we lived to tell the tale.

Guillermo Silva-Marin, Artistic Director of SOLT

Der Vampyr was staged by Summer Opera Lyric Theatre and Research Centre (aka “SOLT”).  While SOLT offers training for advanced performers, these productions are also invaluable to the opera-going community, another opportunity to see an unfamiliar opera courtesy of SOLT Artistic Director Guillermo Silva-Marin, who regularly offers rarities in his other incarnation as AD of Opera in Concert (for example La Vida Breve & Louise last season).

Der Vampyr is a fascinating study, a work premiered in 1828 that hasn’t managed to catch on.  In places it’s similar to other operas, other music.  At times I felt we were listening to Schubert’s “Erlkonig”, both in the unfolding of the music and in the telling of a story that is very melodramatic.  Perhaps that was how story-tellers built suspense and created fear in the listener in the early 19th century. To a modern viewer? it’s a charming relic.

The subject fascinates me as I prepare to teach a course called “Theatres of Terror: Gothic Horror in Music, Opera and Film.”  Watching Der Vampyr¸one sees the continuity with other works of the time, such as Weber’s Der Freischütz and Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.   I remember hearing in a course that Wagner supposedly listened closely to Marschner even if the dramatic styles of the two works are very different.

The cast were mostly professional sounding, including a wonderful contest of wills between the two men, namely baritone Andrey Andreychik as Lord Ruthven the vampire, struggling with tenor Cian Horrobin as Sir Edgar Aubry.  It’s fascinating to observe the vocal writing of a transitional work such as Der Vampyr, noticing how both the tenor & baritone seem to be in transition from lighter roles in earlier operas, pointing unmistakably to the heavier roles to follow.  One of the advantages of playing in the Robert Gill Theatre with a piano –instead of an opera house accompanied by orchestra—is that it’s not quite so taxing for the young singers.

The vampire stories we see in films of the last century aren’t so different from Der Vampyr, with erotic tension at the heart of the story.  There are three young women, two of whom are victimized by Ruthven.  Each of these speak of forbidden pleasures, while the third, who shows a more properly Christian outlook, is saved.

Maria H.Y. Jung led a tight performance from the piano, playing the score with bold dynamics.  Silva-Marin’s direction was suspenseful throughout.

SOLT will also be presenting von Flotow’s Martha and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos in rotation with Der Vampyr this weekend & next at the Robert Gill Theatre. Click the logo (below) for more information.

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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

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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