Opera Atelier’s 30th Anniversary Season

2015-2016 Toronto season includes internationally lauded Armide and Lucio Silla

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Toronto, ON (January 27, 2015) – Opera Atelier’s 30th Anniversary Season will celebrate the company’s status as the busiest touring opera company in North America. A new Canadian production of Mozart’s Lucio Silla (Apr. 7-16, 2016) will form the cornerstone of Opera Atelier’s anniversary season in Toronto, paired with a revival of its landmark production of Armide (Oct. 22-31, 2015). The company has secured a recurring engagement at the Palace of Versailles and will present one of its Canadian-made productions at the famed Opéra Royal every second year. Armide will return to Versailles following its Toronto run in the fall of 2015. Today’s announcement by founding artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg comes just weeks before they make their debuts at La Scala Opera House in Milan with their celebrated staging of Lucio Silla. Both operas in the 30th Anniversary Season are rarely performed works that have recently been given international profile by the artists of Opera Atelier.

For this important occasion, director Pynkoski and choreographer Zingg are proud to announce their ongoing collaboration with a group of Canadian artists whose work has helped make Opera Atelier an internationally sought-after brand. “We are privileged to have enjoyed such longstanding and fruitful partnerships with these artists, several of whom have been with the company since our first performances in 1985,” say the pair. Both productions in the 15-16 season will feature Toronto’s acclaimed Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra conducted by David Fallis, and Canadian designers Gerard Gauci (sets) and Bonnie Beecher (lighting), as well as the Artists of Atelier Ballet.

Pynkoski and Zingg’s staging of Lucio Silla created a sensation at the Salzburg Festival and Mozartwöche in 2013 and will soon appear at the La Scala Opera House in Milan (February 26 – March 17, 2015). Opera Atelier will bring this staging to Toronto audiences with a new Canadian production with brand new sets and costumes. The titular ruler will be sung by Kresimir Spicer, alongside Inga Kalna (as Cinna), Mireille Asselin (as Celia), Peggy Kriha Dye (as Cecillio) and Meghan Lindsay (as Giunia). Written by a 16-year-old Mozart, this astonishingly inventive opera seria contains some of his most memorable music for soloists, chorus and ballet. Lucio Silla will be sung in Italian with English surtitles.

Armide will reunite the cast that created Opera Atelier’s 2012 production, which enjoyed sold-out houses and critical acclaim in Toronto and Versailles. Reprising their roles as the ill-fated lovers are soprano Peggy Kriha Dye (as Armide) and tenor Colin Ainsworth (as Renaud), along with soprano Carla Huhtanen, bass-baritone Olivier Laquerre, soprano Meghan Lindsay, and tenor Aaron Ferguson. Joining the cast are Stephen Hegedus (as Hidraot) and Daniel Belcher (as La Haine & Aronte). Armide will return to the Opéra Royal at the Palace of Versailles, France (Nov. 20-22, 2015) to participate in the events commemorating 300 years since the death of Palace creator King Louis XIV. This French Baroque masterpiece by Jean-Baptiste Lully (libretto by Philippe Quinault) was first performed in 1686. Armide will be sung in French with English surtitles.

The company has recently undergone a change of leadership, with John MacKinlay of PricewaterhouseCoopers becoming chair of the12-person board of directors. National leadership partner for the Financial Services Consulting practice of PwC, MacKinlay brings his strong corporate network to Opera Atelier to complement the company’s artistic excellence with business savvy. He took over from Bryan Graham at Opera Atelier’s Annual General Meeting on November 18, 2014.

Performances for Opera Atelier’s 2015-2016 season will take place at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge Street) in Toronto. Armide runs October 22 (media night), 24, 25 (3:00pm), 27, 30, and 31 (4:30pm), 2015 (start times 7:30 pm except where noted). Lucio Silla runs April 7 (media night), 9, 10 (3:00pm), 12, 15, and 16 (4:30pm), 2016 (start times 7:30 pm except where noted). Subscriptions start at $95 and are on sale now by calling 416-703-3767 x222. Single tickets go on sale on August 10, 2015. For more information visit Opera Atelier’s website: http://www.operaatelier.com.

2015-2016 Major Sponsors
Season Presenting Sponsor: BMO Financial Group
Season Underwriter: Michael A. Wekerle of Difference Capital
Production Sponsor: Scotiabank

Opera Atelier gratefully acknowledges the ongoing support of The Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council.

Opera Atelier is North America’s premier period opera/ballet company, producing the opera, ballet and drama of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. While drawing upon the aesthetics and ideals of the period, Opera Atelier goes beyond “reconstruction” and infuses each production with an inventive theatricality that resonates with modern audiences. Led by founding artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg since 1985, Opera Atelier has garnered acclaim for its performances at home as well as in the United States, Europe and Asia.

“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Old review of Egoyan’s Die Walküre

I posted this –a review of the current production in a different theatre from a decade ago– on a different website.  I am re-posting it because i won’t be able to see the opening of the new production at the Four Seasons Centre.  I’m busy with a production of Tales from the Vienna Woods at Ryerson Theatre, but FYI the COC Walküre opens January 31st.

Here’s what i wrote back in 2004.

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Only a control freak posts an opera review after everyone else has offered their opinion on the matter in question: the Canadian Opera Company’s Die Walküre directed by Atom Egoyan and designed by Michael Levine. This is more of an appreciation than a review.

New productions of Wagner operas can generate international interest, especially when part of a projected Ring Cycle, as this one is. Opera is one of the artforms most welcome in our global village. Wagner addicts will jet across the sea for a fix, especially when the grapevine (also known as the internet) whispers about an important find. And the word on the new COC Ring—so far at least—is very positive. Reviews have consistently credited the production with a degree of depth at least worthy of a second look.

Opera production and set design can be imagined to fall somewhere between two extremes on the following spectrum. At one end you find the most literal and faithful choices, that respect the instructions in the score above all. While for some people this is ideal, to others, such slavish respect is anathema to the creative spirit. The alternative demands approaches to staging that challenge and problematize the instructions in the original text. When one is staging a particularly well-known work, audiences sometimes become so familiar with the plot and music that they won’t tolerate anything lacking in originality and freshness. One of the concerns with such an expensive undertaking as a production of Wagner’s work, is that one is likely to alienate one side or the other of this ongoing debate.

Surprisingly Egoyan-Levine offer an approach that is sufficiently intelligent to be cutting edge, yet without turning its back on the tale-telling that conservatives usually miss in modern approaches. What’s more, the presentation is essentially coherent, and clearly an attempt to honour Wagner fully with an intelligent and probing exploration. In other words this production is modern without necessarily alienating the more fundamentalist members of the audience.

Act One begins in a manner that at first glance appears to be very conservative. Notwithstanding the hints of modernist steel and light that are central to the entire design, the stage picture we first encounter is recognizably Hunding’s home, albeit with a tree that has been cut down, and with strange things happening on the fringes of that stage picture. There is a curious tension between the centre of the stage and the edges of the frame throughout.

I was confused (but not troubled), in my first impression. Where there should be a big healthy tree, we saw instead, chunks of hewn wood: as though we were seeing a post-modern tree, a tree spoken of as alive while we see it as it shall be once it has fallen down and been hacked to pieces. In fact this is clearly an allusion to one of the central symbols of the Ring that is spoken of but never enacted onstage, namely the World Ash Tree. At various times in the Ring Cycle, we are told that Wotan has taken a branch from the Tree for his spear; later, that the Tree has become unwell (a sign of the rot in the world); and eventually we hear that Wotan has commanded the heroes of Valhalla to cut down the tree and pile its logs around Valhalla, in anticipation of the Twilight of the Gods. The only big strong ash tree we get onstage is the healthy one growing through the roof of Hunding’s dwelling in the first act of Die Walküre, long before the catastrophe of the cycle. But as I said, Levine’s design gives us a tree that has been destroyed surrounded by people who behave as though it were alive and well: a discrepancy that is not clarified until later.

Throughout this production we will be confronted with various kinds of fragments and edges in the stage picture, just as in the story. In Egoyan’s reading, memories keep coming back, not just for the character but for everyone else listening as well. Whereas other productions usually present those flashbacks as entertaining stories presented objectively by a tale-teller addressing passive listeners, the originality of this production is to recognize the reality of flashbacks, often privileging the subjective reality of that flashback in the mise-en-scène.

For example, Siegmund tells Hunding and Sieglinde the story of a bride whose enforced wedding he recently was asked to stop, leading to his current plight, lost and weaponless in the forest. At the end of the tale we hear Hunding’s self-righteous answer. As a relative of the people slain by Siegmund’s unhappy intervention this is an unanticipated surprise (unless you’ve seen the opera before, of course). Egoyan’s addition of a flashback throughout Siegmund’s narration changes it from a simple story into a re-enactment, as the disaster is balletically enacted on the stage. We also see Hunding walk into Siegmund’s flashback, embracing a dead relative, and then returning to the “present”. Hunding as a result is far less the usual two-dimensional villain, and more problematic, as a person with genuine reason to be enraged with Siegmund.

Egoyan seems to be particularly keen to delve into Sieglinde’s reality, a choice that pays rich dividends when you have a strong singing-actor such as Adrienne Pieczonka. As a bride forced to the altar by this same thuggish family, Sieglinde listens wide-eyed to a tale of a failed attempt to rescue a different bride, and then a short time later tells us about her own enforced marriage, clearly in search of her rescuer. When, at the end of Act Two she talks in her sleep, regressed to the nightmare moment in childhood when the thugs arrived, her mother slain and her home was set ablaze, the final straw that Levine and Egoyan add is to locate this moment onstage in a virtual replica of the original event. It is not clear where we are.  While we most definitely are not in the prescribed location of the score (on a mountain somewhere), this could be Hunding’s home, or it might even be Sieglinde’s childhood home, when marauders carried her off. The problematic set allows us to be in all places at once, in the same way that a memory takes us back in time. In the same way it makes emotional sense that a tree spoken of as alive can lie in pieces across the stage.

When so much of a story is linked to the past, it’s as though the here and now have been problematized, and the space undermined. Where are we, for example, if someone onstage has a flashback to an earlier event? When Hunding steps out of the flashback and into his home, one can question where he is. I was reminded of the edge of the baseball diamond in Field of Dreams, where Burt Lancaster/Fred Whaley’s joint character (Moonlight Graham) is forced to change from a young ballplayer into an old country doctor. In a conventional fourth-wall representation flashbacks are easily discounted as symptoms, as the viewer fends off the implicit threat to their own reality. But when the viewer is complicit, participating in such hallucinations, one is invited to time-travel, using symbol and allusion to slide through simultaneities. That is the promise that I felt on several occasions in Levine’s design, and fulfilled admirably by Egoyan’s reading.

And that is how we can you have it both ways; this production is both problematically postmodern, and also, a remarkably reverent representation at the same time. The fragments are of the real, encased in a somewhat alien frame. Glimmering at the edges of the stage, one finds bright lights, often glaring directly into the eyes of the audience. And metallic structures run in every direction, chaotically, above the stage floor. These are hard to discern in the darkness that is Act One, a darkness that does not interfere with the story Wagner would normally have expected a director and his cast to tell.

The opening of Act Two, in contrast is not just a breath-taking blast of light, but a virtual gloss on what we have seen, as though to tell us what we were really seeing in the previous act. In a reverent reading, Act Two takes us somewhere else: a mountain top far from Hunding’s forest home of Act One. In Levine and Egoyan’s production, Act Two appears to open in exactly the same place. Siegmund and Sieglinde are apparently sleeping off their love-making of the previous scene.

At first glance Act Two suggests an opera-within-an-opera, as though the set were a traditional representational set, framed within a modern Hollywood soundstage. Upon closer inspection this doesn’t completely hold up, not least, because the resemblance to a soundstage is only via allusion. But notwithstanding the director’s denial—and yes, I did ask him about filmic connections at a conference (he said this was not what it meant, adding that all would be clear once we’d seen the entire cycle)—here’s the evidence.

Egoyan is a film director. When I glibly said that Wotan is like a film director, perhaps his denial meant that Wotan is not ONLY like a film director, which is true. While I made the assertion as much in jest as anything else, the connections are more than superficial. In his production of Salome Egoyan milked every voyeuristic suggestion. If we were to find the director somewhere onstage in that opera, thinking of Hitchcock’s tendencies, I suppose, it would surely be as Narraboth, the frustrated voyeur. The entire production put us into the position of Narraboth. To complete the self-portrait, Narraboth should perhaps walk the stage carrying a handheld camera. Wotan also resembles a film director. Just as Narraboth is unable to control his project or his diva (and makes that most artistic gesture, suicide), Wotan too, loses control of a complex project. But these are only the most superficial connections to film.

The real suggestions of an opera within an opera are the ones that everyone can see (and that were spotted by at least two other Toronto area reviewers). The set floor is a series of tiles, broken by the forces of nature and decay (including that large ash tree), as though the whole world were inside a building: Valhalla resembles a vast art-deco soundstage. Notwithstanding the natural materials that have been lit centre-stage amidst the darkness of Act One, steel rigging, lights, and ropes over-hang that foresty space, suggesting that Hunding’s home was being filmed in the first Act.

And once the lights come up to open the Second Act, it is as though the Director shouted “CUT!” as a throng of support staff (the valkyries) work to clean up the aftermath of the previous scene. At least one of the valkyies wields light as though it were a weapon; others wrap bodies in cloth (shrouds?) as part of their mission to bring heroes to Valhalla, suggesting both the impersonality of forensic investigators at a crime scene or costuming staff. Perhaps most significant is the simple fact of the location of this scene. In a faithful presentation Wotan and Fricka debate on a mountain top, abstractly discussing Siegmund and Sieglinde. By re-locating their debate to this mysterious location (soundstage or centre of the world) Wotan can literally touch his children as he discusses their fate, personalizing and humanizing his struggles.

As a result, Wotan and Fricka are behaving a lot like what we’re told Gods do, at least according to mainstream media. It’s a truism that the gods—or ghosts—walk among us. And counterbalancing all these Gods and Valkyries, is the most mortal of all the characters onstage, namely Sieglinde, whose personal history acts as a thread to pull the work together. But one has to remember that this is opera, where one is moved by resonances & allusions, but without denotative meaning. At his best Wagner is highly symbolic, as in this production. One can make the effort to meet the production halfway by opening oneself to those allusions, or one misses out on that richness.

Musically, too, I was impressed, as both the singing and orchestra playing sounded wonderful. No, it’s not the Met orchestra and the soloists are not the singers one knows from the Met, but perhaps that is a good thing. The COC is probably using microphones to enhance the acoustics of the Hummingbird Centre, but the results are tremendous. I think purists are misguided in their objections when one considers that the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (the opera house Wagner designed himself, where the Ring premiered in 1876 and has been literally enshrined ever since) attempts to do the architectural equivalent to acoustical enhancement by putting a huge orchestra into a covered pit under the stage. Until Toronto’s new opera house is built this is the best we can do: and it sounds very good.

Richard Bradshaw –the conductor and General Director of the company–at times took tempi that were startlingly fast, so much so that Peteris Eglitis’s Wotan reminded me a bit of those portions of Loge or Mime who have such quick lines to deliver that they are declaimed rather than sung. Wotan’s lengthy monologue in Act II was shorter for me than ever: partly due to inspired staging, partly due to Bradshaw’s bat-out-of-hell tempi. How ironic, that Bradshaw made Wotan’s monologue more singable by de-emphasizing singing with such fast tempi. For those enamoured of long and sentimental readings this might sound disastrous; but I believe it worked extremely well. Arguably a fast reading is not just an aid to dramatic intelligibility, but also more historically informed than the slower readings that became popular through most of the 20th century.

Eglitis’s Wotan, sounding at times like George London, while reminding me physically of a young Donald McIntyre in the Chereau RING, was called upon to carry the work through several long monologues. Fortunately he has star quality, his only sin being his willingness to throw himself into the performance without restraint or fear, like the other star of the show, namely Pieczonka.

The twins are a most unequal pair. Clifton Forbis’ Siegmund reminded me at times of that baritonal sound of a Suthaus or a Vinay, but dramatically was only adequate. On the other hand, Adrianne Pieczonka, as his sister-bride Sieglinde, not only sang the part wonderfully, but was the dramatic heart of the production. At times her histrionics could be called over-the-top, but without her commitment everything else would have felt more like abstractions and ideas rather than passion and real life. Sieglinde’s flashbacks are the most convincing moments in the opera, whether in her powerful reading of “der manner sippe” (her marriage tale), or in her dream at the end of the second act. In comparison, Forbis’ Siegmund is merely the usual stiff and stoic Wagnerian hero, although his singing was truly splendid.

As Hunding, Pavlo Hunka makes more of his role than usual, but a great deal of credit is again due to Egoyan’s direction, freeing Hunka of the usual stodginess. Frances Ginzer was at times an affecting Brunnhilde, and properly Wagnerian in tone. There are many wonderful moments, such as the hysterical Ride of the Valkyries, and the delicate Magic Fire music, a quiet ritual to close the evening.

I am sure I have a lot of company eagerly anticipating the complete cycle in 2006. Thank goodness I don’t have to wait that long for François Girard’s Siegfried, coming in January and February of 2005.

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And now Walküre comes to the Four Seasons Centre.  I won’t see it for 3 weeks (busy with my own show) but don’t let that stop you.  The fun starts January 31st.

The Valkyries, Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in the Canadian Opera Company's production of Die Walküre, 2006.  directed by Atom Egoyan, Set and Costume Designer: Michael Levine (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The Valkyries, Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde and Adrianne Pieczonka as Sieglinde in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walküre, 2006. directed by Atom Egoyan, Set and Costume Designer: Michael Levine (Photo: Michael Cooper)

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Tafelmusik’s Beethoven: the romance continues

Let’s begin by saying I’m not your typical Tafelmusik fan.  Yes I love their work with Opera Atelier under David Fallis & at Messiah time with Ivars Taurins (aka Herr Handel), but I am often frustrated by them.  Tafelmusik could be seductive Donna Anna, and I’d be Don Ottavio (thinking of last night’s Don Giovanni), the perpetually frustrated fiancé kept at arm’s length.  When Lord when?

No I don’t want to marry Tafelmusik.

But it’s confession time.  While I admire their baroque performances I am a romantic at heart.   Schumann,Berlioz, Wagner & Debussy are my favourite composers.  And while it’s true that we have the Toronto Symphony, as far as transitional repertoire (from Mozart to Beethoven & Schubert) or the romantics (Chopin, Mendelssohn, Berlioz,  Schumann and beyond),  I prefer the authentic sounds of an original instrument band such as Tafelmusik playing in the intimate confines of Koerner Hall or Trinity-St-Paul’s, to the modern sound of the TSO swimming in the vastness of Roy Thompson Hall.  If I want music by Beethoven (let alone anyone that follows) that usually means biting the bullet and going to the big helmet on King St.

They’re called “Tafelmusik baroque orchestra” for a reason, and that clear sense of identity has served them brilliantly over the years.  They’re solvent and even wealthy because they have a clear business model, they know who they are, as do their loyal audience.  That they only occasionally venture into romantic territory makes it a colossal tease for me (ergo the reference to poor frustrated Don Ottavio).

I wonder if I’m the only one who feels like they’ve been teased?

Roger Norrington and his London Classical players recorded the Beethoven symphonies over a quarter of a century ago.  Since that seminal set (one of many competing sets now available from historically informed bands), Norrington went on to record even more radical music such as Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, symphonies from Schumann & Mendelssohn, early Wagner and even such late romantic composers as Smetana and Brahms.  Yet Tafelmusik only gave us the Eroica in performance in May 2012 for the first time (having recorded it a bit before that time).   And whenever they’ve ventured past 1780 I’ve seen full houses and rhapsodic applause: like I saw and heard today.  Every ticket was sold, every seat was occupied.

Speaking of romance & partnerships, Tafelmusik must be contemplating their future.  With Jeanne Lamon their brilliant leader & music-director of many years having stepped down in 2014, I can’t help wondering about their future direction.   Who will be their next music director and what direction will Tafelmusik take?  Maybe I’m the only one wishing they’d do less baroque and finally claim the 19th century as their own.  That’s my context for listening to today’s Beethoven concert led by Japanese-American conductor Kent Nagano, a program featuring the Mass in C and the Fifth symphony.  Maybe Nagano is just a guest and this will be the only appearance with Tafelmusik by the conductor who currently leads L’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.   Whether or not Nagano is a prospect for the job, the management may not believe they need a star at the podium.  They’ve done just fine without one.

Whatever the context –that is, whether or not Tafelmusik would be interested in bringing in a name conductor such as Nagano, whether or not they’d be open to programming more romantic music –there’s the matter of the concert.  It was fabulous.

We began with Beethoven’s Mass in C including soloists Nathalie Paulin, Laura Pudwell, Sumner Thompson & Lawrence Wiliford, and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir.  It’s a magnificent work that deserves to be heard more often, its unaffected spirituality leading the composer into collision with the usual forms we’re accustomed to hearing.  The words and sentiments are completely intelligible, the soloists’ vocal lines gently mixing with the larger forces without conflict or a lot of drama.

While I credit the composition for the coherence of what we heard, it begins with Nagano, whose decisiveness at the podium was unmistakable. Nagano’s Beethoven matches the expectations of the historically informed performance community: which is to say, faster, and minus the excess vibrato of the previous generation’s performance conventions (although that’s the Tafelmusik sound whoever is leading the band).

This city loves Beethoven, as the TSO have noticed.  The weekend concerts were sold out. As we resumed our seats for the second half, every seat occupied, someone joked that it was like getting into our seats on an airplane, with all the attendant adrenaline.  We knew we were about to take off.

Because of course Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony followed the intermission in a wonderfully accomplished reading.  I’m trying to calibrate my gut feeling, that Nagano’s Beethoven sounds more like the Beethoven that I know, trying to figure out whether that’s even a good thing.  Is that because Nagano is more of a conventional /conservative conductor doing the usual things?   Previously I’ve heard Tafelmusik led by Bruno Weil.  What’s the difference?   Weil somehow had Tafelmusik playing Beethoven and still somehow sounding more like a baroque orchestra.  Maybe it’s because Weil bends more, is flexible with the players, whereas I felt Nagano was leading an edgy & polished performance.  While the sweetness is still there, particularly in that second movement, it moved at a breath-taking clip.  The pace in the scherzo dazzles, the strings fabulously accurate when they come to those speedy triplet passages.  When we came to that unforgettable last movement, presented fearlessly with great commitment and a flamboyant sense of drama I was wishing Nagano could be a regular feature here, at least as a visitor if not as their new music director.

In the meantime I’ll be pining for them. I wonder if I’m the only one..?

Kent Nagano & Beethoven

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Some resist seduction by Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni

Today’s opening of the Canadian Opera co-production of Don Giovanni directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov met with a mixed reception at the Four Seasons Centre. I heard a few boos, saw some empty seats at the end and heard an earful from my companion. That doesn’t mean it’s not a success, given that the COC knew going in that some people wouldn’t like it. You can’t please everyone, especially when you hand your opera over to someone with a reputation for radical & provocative direction. People wanting a conservative approach –such as those who boo’d when Tcherniakov came out for his bow—likely knew that this wasn’t that kind of show.  But then again this review isn’t really addressed to those people.

I’ve seen a few of Tcherniakov’s productions on video, and I liked some better than others. I adored his Prince Igor and Wozzeck, quite liked Ruslan and Ludmilla, but wasn’t as infatuated with either Il trovatore or Don Giovanni. You’ll notice that the two I liked least are so well-known as to be warhorses, operas whose familiarity likely represented a challenge to the director: to do something new with those overly familiar texts, whereas the other three were all works where I felt the director was free to simply direct. And so I think Tcherniakov came in feeling the need to shake things up, to get the dust off the stone guest and everything else in the story as well. While I didn’t like every second it was stimulating and better than most DG’s I’ve seen, a great piece of theatre. And I can’t deny that the dynamic with the resistant ones (including the conversations with my companion) was an added bit of entertainment. Some of the scenes seem designed to deliberately play with our expectations, none more so than the usually sentimental “vedrai carino”, where Masetto and Zerlina usually reconcile. But in an anti-romantic universe the happy ending is elusive, especially when you have Tcherniakov teasing you without mercy.

Tcherniakov’s set design could be a distant cousin to the one for Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte.  While this opera isn’t a school for lovers –or seducers– the whole opera happens in a kind of library that in some sense represents the collective mind.  It’s a mythical place, a big metaphor, but i won’t pretend i’ve decoded its implications.  Not by a long shot.

There are at least two big changes from the original text in Tcherniakov’s production. One is the insertion of big lapses of time. A curtain will come down, while a projected title informs us that a certain number of days or weeks has gone by. For some scenes this is pure magic. For example in the first ensemble, where Donna Anna runs off to get help, she returns moments later with Don Ottavio & servants, to find her father slain. Instead, a few days pass, and now we get the same formal lines from Donna Anna in a funeral parlour, lines that seem to make much more sense in Tcherniakov’s version. My one problem with these insertions has to do with overall pace. Tcherniakov sometimes has his cast performing their recit as though it were Pinter, inserting colossal pauses (in addition to the ones when the curtain suddenly flops down, telling us of a new delay in the story), that might be meaningful, and add gravitas. But the weight comes at the expense of energy, and makes DG a longer and darker night than it has to be.   I suppose that’s how Tcherniakov likes it.

The second change is a profound revision to the relationships between the personages in the story. This too adds depths & gravitas, due to new familial connections. There’s a Jungian dimension when we start wondering about all the interactions as having overtones of other kinds of connection. The word I think I need to use is “problematize” for almost everything that one could take for granted in the text. Zerlina now has a family relationship to Don Giovanni, so the seduction scene has a different meaning.

Tcherniakov always seems to get full commitment from his cast, so that they’re never out of character for the entire night, and there are always several places you can look in his stage picture. But there are moments when the lines that are sung seem to make no literal sense, because one has to decode what’s happening, to step over the virtual corpse of the original text that’s been knocked down at times. So long as you don’t resent that imposition of new meanings, it can be hugely enjoyable.  Maybe it makes sense in his alternate world, but several times I was puzzled, speaking as someone who knows this opera so well that I know almost every line by heart. Maybe I am in need of an intervention, a visit by a bunch of people dressed up as the characters in Don Giovanni to rescue me from my dysfunctional relationship with the text. But then again the last scene was a lot like an intervention for DG, even if the addict being helped could be the conservative listener/viewer as much as that womanizing Don.

I’m a lover of abstract art and someone who enjoys ambiguity, not someone who needs to have everything explained. For example I don’t know what happened at the end, when the fellow who sang the Commendatore re-appears at the end and the lines seems to suggest that the Don is going to Hell. I don’t mind, it’s fabulous music. The final moments—when the Don is alive, and those who have been in thrall to him have finally shaken off his control and celebrate their freedom—are wonderful. While there are moments that are confusing, that are still enjoyable, presented with commitment & passion; and quite a few stretches of the opera that make more sense in this production than in any Don Giovanni I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen lots of them. While I like that sense of being disoriented & challenged, some in the audience don’t like that, and they voiced their displeasure.

The cast is strong. Russell Braun continues to captivate with the COC, a winning streak going back over several productions. The voice is sometimes delicate as in his Act II serenade, sometimes powerful, as in the finale to Act I. Everything Tcherniakov is doing with the Don seems to work for Braun, whether he’s at the centre of our focus or simply lurking in the shadows.

Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello is every bit as watchable. The voice is stunning and never less than beautiful, while the body-language is strongly suggestive of a playful servant right out of Commedia dell’arte even if Tcherniakov’s modernized reading makes no direct references to the style. Leporello is not actually a servant, his relationship with the Don being left quite ambiguous. Whenever KK was onstage he was usually the one I was watching.

(l-r) Russell Braun as Don Giovanni and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello  (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

(l-r) Russell Braun as Don Giovanni and Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello (Photo: Chris Hutcheson)

Michael Schade’s Don Ottavio isn’t like what one usually gets in this role. With the passing of the Commendatore Ottavio becomes something like the leader of the family, a leadership that’s visible in Schade’s performance. The singing was as flawless as ever: meaning that I don’t think I’ve ever heard this man sing sharp or flat in years and years of roles here at the COC. Some lines were exquisitely delicate, others more powerful. This might be the most macho & confident “Il mio tesoro” I’ve ever seen, sung to a group of characters who seemed to be lost in the slough of despond. Yet his “dalla sua pace” is achingly vulnerable, some of it sung in a foetal position.

Jane Archibald as Donna Anna and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Jane Archibald as Donna Anna and Michael Schade as Don Ottavio (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Jane Archibald sings a wonderful Donna Anna even if Tcherniakov seems to dislike the character & what she represents, considering what he puts her through. At the end we find a genuine reconciliation both with her and the entire cast in the final great aria, which the director used as a kind of abstract template for everyone to drift back in the direction of sanity & possible fulfillment after the travails of earlier scenes. While her lines resist sense—because the lines are meant for Ottavio, not the others—I was grateful that for once the aria seemed to have a central purpose in the story instead of feeling like something Mozart tacked on (as it can in some productions).  It’s such a beautiful piece of music, especially once Archibald cuts loose in the last part that I completely teared up watching this music used in such an original way.

Jennifer Holloway is given a great deal to digest as Elvira, the most interesting of the women in most DG productions that i can recall. She is both an agent and also a reactive canvas, as we watch her reactions. Holloway’s intensity was often the most profound of anyone on the stage, and every moment of her role made sense to me (something I can’t say of everyone in the opera).

I’ll be seeing DG again from up close, hoping I understand it better next time. The production runs until Feb 21st. I’d recommend that you see it if you can.

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Opera 5: Modern (Family) Opera

I was invited to think and feel at tonight’s first performance of the Opera 5 program “Modern (Family) Opera”. I laughed a lot, I felt a lot, and my mind’s awhirl.

The family theme is approached from two very different directions. After Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s fun 1909 romp Il segreto di Susanna, we embarked on a much more serious journey with Darren Russo’s Storybook. It’s a very stimulating program.

The first opera made me laugh, pure and simple. Geoffrey Sirett gave a remarkable interpretation of the role of Gil, employing such a variety of timbres & sounds to his voice, that you’d think he was giving a master class in buffo singing. Director Grace Smith was aided by the choice to present the opera in Italian, making it that much sillier once Sirett cranked up the physical comedy, as though he were a big cartoon. Rachel Krehm’s voice sounded full, perhaps bigger than the last time i heard it, filling the Arts & Letters Club space.  Her deadpan cuteness as Susanna seemed to ignite Sirett’s red-hot conniptions. Their chemistry was delightful, and certainly a good beginning in a study of the family.

Rachel Krehm and Geoffrey Sirett in Il segreto di Susanna

Rachel Krehm and Geoffrey Sirett in Il segreto di Susanna

And then after intermission came the world premiere of Darren Russo’s Storybook. This is an accomplished piece of work musically, delicately scored for a small ensemble that was mostly tonal. Russo writes very sympathetically for the voice, sometimes playing with his singers but never requiring any pointless virtuosity. No, this was more relaxed than that, allowing us mostly to be lost in the wash of luscious sound.

Storybook is composed for an ensemble of five, named for the vocal register: a pair of sopranos, plus a bass, baritone and tenor. To be accurate, the parts are “Soprano, Soprano, Baritone, Tenor and Bass” even though –for example, “Baritone” is required to sing in a falsetto at one point.

We were in a post-modern place, I think. The stage was divided in director Aria Umezawa’s mise-en-scène (set designed by Matthew Vaile) into five more or less identical boxes with an IKEA chair that more or less held each performer plus a small table with a glass of water, circumscribed by a rectangular line on the floor. The libretto was a composite by several writers including Russo himself, assembled but not synopsized in the program. Do we need a synopsis, do we need to know where the story is going? I’ve joked that we live in a trailer culture, where it seems that our movies are presented with so much information in the trailer that we know exactly how it will turn out. I love that I had no idea where this opera was going.  Indeed, it didn’t “go” in any real sense. It’s a wonderful gift that we can be lost and properly disoriented in this world of GPSs and perpetual surveillance.

I find myself referring to questions of meaning and signification, wanting to remind myself just how it is that music signifies, or at least how it usually works. Yesterday I was immersed in poignantly meaningful music, listening especially to politically charged texts by Brecht & Owen & Apollinaire (for example), music by Poulenc & Eisler. Tomorrow it will be Mozart & Da Ponte as the Canadian Opera Company’s Don Giovanni opens, and then Sunday I get to hear Kent Nagano conduct Beethoven’s Fifth, a touchstone for meaning in music.  But more fundamentally this work has me wondering: must opera always mean something? Tomorrow I’ll be watching Dmitri Tcherniakov overlay meaning on top of the centuries of meaning already imprinted on the Don Giovanni story.  As I sat there, i wondered:  must it mean anything? We have been going to art galleries and staring at abstract images for the better part of a century. There are artists teasing us with a little bit of the old and a lot of the new, pushing familiar buttons while doing things in a different way than what we expect, perhaps changing up the procedure and in so doing altering our understanding. Umezawa presents Russo with phenomenal clarity, which isn’t necessarily a service, because we don’t miss a thing. The stage could afford to be more cluttered, messed up, more chaotic, concealing or shadowing some of this work, whereas Umezawa shows every word and every note with clinical precision. Some directors might have been tempted to overlay textures & movement, to add extras.  Tcherniakov’s extras can be like the plastic surgery that enhances something so aggressively that we can no longer see the original (but then again, some would say the old has become tired and needs the enhancements).  Umezawa’s approach shows integrity and a most authentic sort of faith in the material (this is on my mind after the lack of faith I saw at the COC concert yesterday, in the excessive preambles).

Composer Darren Russo (click for Russo's interview)

Composer Darren Russo (click for Russo’s interview)

Russo’s texts arbitrarily take us to diverse places. At one moment it may be sad and depressive, at others, ecstatic, joyful, or just plain silly. There doesn’t need to be a dramatic through – line. At times I was thinking it was like a modern madrigal, five singers (or fewer) making a rarefied kind of music.  I was reminded a bit of Ana Sokolovic’s Svadba-Wedding, with the group of singers standing there belting directly at us, an experience i found quite enjoyable. At times it was a little precious, but so what? This is Russo’s first opera, his first chance to hear this large-scale work not just performed but with a live audience response and churls like me being picky & critical. It took Verdi and Wagner several experiments before they hit their stride, and found their authentic voice.  I believe Russo already has a genuine voice, one that deserves to be heard.

The family connection in Russo’s piece is much more that of children than parents although we do hear from the parents a few times. I don’t want to misrepresent the work, one that’s still resonating within me. Dreams are invoked near the beginning and again at the end. Madness is also a theme, although it’s more the sort where we fear we’re going crazy, as in the children’s song “I am slowly going crazy, 1,2,3,4,5,6 switch”.
But when the children’s song is coming at you in five-part counterpoint it can begin to suggest genuine madness. That the five performers –adults singing and enacting childhood—are all in their discreet boxes lends additional weight to the possibilities for madness, as though we were watching five different solipsists unable to make any real contact with the outside world.

Aria Umezawa said the following in her program note:

It is my hope that in viewing “Storybook” you can begin a dialogue in your own mind not only about what it means to lose one’s innocence, but also about what it means to be a Canadian opera.

I’m grateful to Russo, Umezawa and Opera 5 for the splendid conversation.  Opera 5’s program “Modern (Family) Opera” will be presented again January 24 & 25 at 7:30 pm at the Arts and Letters Club.

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Songs of Love and War

The title of today’s noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre –“Songs  of Love and War”—is  a curious umbrella sheltering a diverse group of songs & composers.  I can only speculate on the rationale for the programme, created for members of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio, except that it strikes me as ambitious and well-intended.  We were told that it started with the observation of the 25th anniversary of the end of the USSR & the removal of the Berlin Wall, but the songs remind me of other wars of the last hundred years of history, the same issues & the same horrible mistakes over and over.  It seems apt that I’m immersed in a production of Ödön von Horvath’s play Tales from the Vienna Woodsa play that premiered in 1931; the issues that hadn’t been settled in the Great War of 1914-1918 would resurface in the war that followed in 1939, issues that are still here even now.

World peace? we’re not there yet.

The five composers had completely different experiences of war & vocal music.   Korngold, Ives, Eisler, Poulenc & Britten are a wonderfully diverse group.

We began with five Korngold songs that date from after his emigration to the USA in the 1930s.  The title “Songs of Love and War” seems to be needed with Korngold, an exile in America whose songs don’t really show us pain or loss the way that the others do, which might be why we start with him, perhaps the happiest exile, a fortunate refugee in Hollywood.  I suspect Clarence Frazer (who sang the tunes elegantly in two languages) is a Korngold fan, as I clearly recall how beautifully he sang an aria from Die Tote Stadt at a previous concert.

Next came Charles Ives’ Three Songs of War, including two with texts by John McCrae (yes that John McCrae).  I quite love what Ives does with that famous text –“In Flanders Fields”—especially when we get to hear it without the politically correct framework of Remembrance Day.  I was surprised at how fresh it felt, particularly in Iain MacNeil’s reading.  The second of the three songs –also a McCrae text—is as joyful as the first is sad.  With the benefit of a century’s hindsight I pondered whether there was any irony meant in Ives’ quotes of American anthems such as “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean”; chances are it’s my jaded ear, not anything Ives meant.

We were next treated to a two-man sampling by Frazer and MacNeil from Hanns Eisler’s Hollywooder Liederbuch, a much bigger collection of short songs & fragments than the nine songs we heard.  I wonder if the original concept for the concert began with Frazer & MacNeil singing Korngold & Eisler, and the other composers & singers were added later…? The net effect today was that the Ives & Poulenc were wonderful escapes & relief from the dark profundities of the two Germans, with the Britten as an intriguing epilogue at the end.

I suppose I felt this because Korngold & Eisler are such an amazing & interesting pair, both exiles from the Third Reich, both to become successful film composers (and film music is an obsession of mine & an academic area of study).  Yet they are a contrasting pair to be sure.  Where Korngold was a darling of the conservatory & concert world, acclaimed as a child prodigy, Eisler turned his back on many of his classical connections, becoming disenchanted with the second Viennese school composers such as Webern, Berg and their leader Schönberg –to which he could claim membership if not an actual allegiance—and instead aiming for something genuinely popular rather than elitist.  Where Korngold seemed to lead a charmed life, narrowly escaping the Nazis, and arriving in Hollywood at precisely the right time to be Warner Brothers’ poster boy for their new artistic legitimacy (as the studio sought to reinvent itself through such high-brow projects as Reinhardt’s Midsummernight’s Dream), Eisler was exile from not one but two countries.

I associate Eisler with his most famous composition, that is itself a perfect image of his tragic life, namely  the anthem of the German Democratic Republic (aka “East Germany”), the country to which he was deported during the American red scare.  The tune is a fond and idealistic song for a country rebuilding after the horrors of the world war, even if it came to symbolize the very lies told to the composer and all the believers who would become disillusioned. 

Seven of the nine Eisler’s songs sung today were settings of texts by Berthold Brecht, another exile who would go back to East Germany, but without the tragic ending.  I wish we could have heard a bigger portion of the book, but I suspect that the organizers might have thought it to be too risky, too darkly ironic.  Speaking of the organizers, I only wish the programmers had trusted the music a bit more.  We were treated to some fascinating pieces of music but also a great deal of text explaining it all, as if to suggest that maybe someone was looking over their shoulders, not believing we’d understand it or like it.

I know I liked it.

As with the Ives, the three Poulenc songs that followed were a wonderful escape, especially in Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure’s bravura reading of “Fêtes galantes” (Aragon not Verlaine), one of the most impressive pieces of singing I’ve heard at one of these noon-hour concerts.    We closed with Andrew Haji’s lovely reading of “What passing bells” from Britten’s War Requiem.  Again I felt the organizers didn’t trust the material enough.  After a brief explanatory lecture did we need to hear Haji read the Wilfrid Owen poem that is the text? It’s in English.  We’re sitting close to a singer with wonderful diction, and we have the words in the printed program as well.  I love ambition, I enjoyed every piece on this concert, but only wish there had been less talk and more silence around the songs.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention pianist Jennifer Szeto who navigated so many different styles and idioms of music, bringing us home splendidly in each wonderful song.

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10 Questions for Kyle Ketelsen

Kyle Ketelsen is a special talent, a wonderful voice with extraordinary dramatic presence. I’ve seen him twice. The first time he was in the Canadian Opera Company’s La Cenerentola, when I said that he “brought a majestic sound to the role of Alidoro, the philosopher”. The second time was in the video-recording of the Aix-en-Province production of Don Giovanni directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov broadcast on TFO last year, playing a Leporello unlike any I’ve seen before.

More on that in a moment.

Ketelsen is in demand all over the world, with the world’s leading opera houses and orchestras. You can read more details of his bio here. This weekend that same production of Don Giovanni (the COC’s co-production with Teatro Real Madrid (TRM)/Festival d’Aix-en-Provence/Bolshoi Theatre) opens at the Four Seasons Centre. I had to ask Kyle Ketelsen ten questions: five about himself and five more about his work in Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni.

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (photo: Dario Acosta)

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (photo: Dario Acosta)

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

Well, of course the appropriate answer is difficult to gauge, since we are invariably an amalgam of DNA. I suppose it’s my father, though I do see my mother in me quite a bit. By appearance, naturally, I’m nearly a clone of my dad. Same size and build, same voice. Same thin face with close-set eyes, just without the firefighter’s moustache he brandished for virtually all of his adult life. The older I become, the more frequently I see him in the mirror. Funny how that happens.

Dad was such a gentle soul, a devoted husband and caring father. He truly was my hero. He wasn’t without a temper, which he inherited from his father, but managed to tone down quite a bit. Much the same as I have with the temper he gave me. That’s the challenge of each new generation – to build on our parentally-taught positive traits, and dull the sharp edges of the negatives. He surely did, and I am.

My sisters and I kept a list of “Dadisms” when we were young. Things dad said that struck us as particularly funny. For example, “He’s ugly as a burnt rope.” Or “Baker Baker,” code for bad breath. “Let the big dog run” was one of our favorites. Many others not fit for printing in a family publication. My sisters and I continue his legacy by repeating as many of these little sayings as we can. It’s not difficult, as they naturally pour out of us. I hear my kids repeating them as well. Passing it down.

Physically, I’m hard-pressed to see my mother in me. I’m 6 feet & 192 pounds. At her apex, she reached 5’2” and maybe 110 pounds. I could heft her like a sack of flour, but mentally she was Plymouth Rock. As in many families, she was the glue that bound us, and the driving force creatively. I have her emotional (read: sappy!) perspectives of things like family, music, nature, movies, and the world in general. Which quite often will leave me in satisfying tears. The happy curse of having sympathy, I suppose. I see it in my kids as well, which is quite beautiful.

There’s an interesting (albeit indirect) connection my mom has with the COC. She was a devourer of books and, until I was out of grad school, ironically, I myself resisted reading. Couldn’t see the point in it when there was a perfectly good television sitting right there in my living room. My mother died much too young just before I was to debut at COC with “La Fanciulla del West” in the 2000-2001 season. My role of Ashby was pretty minimal, so I found I had significant chunks of free time at rehearsals. I remember thinking that there’s probably a reader somewhere in my genes, so I started with Catcher in the Rye in those COC rehearsals 14 years ago. I’m so grateful to have discovered that part of mom in me.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. Kyle Ketelsen as Escamillo. Fabio Armiliato as José. 2011 (Photo by Antoni Bofill).

Allow me to make one thing clear: to do what you love for a living is a gift! Plain and simple. I try my best to never take it for granted. Don’t hate me, but I have one of the best (and BIG quotes here!) “jobs” in existence. There’s a lot to choose from when it comes to finding the best thing about being a singer. Is it getting as much sleep as I want every night, or not working in a cubicle, or not attending committee meetings, or playing dress-up for money, or that I have collaborators in lieu of a “boss?” Quite possibly, speaking for my soul, it is that I’m fortunate enough to be fulfilled artistically while at work. That intangible capital, at the same time fleeting and yet somehow cumulative, that you hold inside which gives you pleasure in being artistically alive. Or perhaps this is just from hearing the applause, and feeding my ego. I think maybe these things are related…

Even on the worst day of rehearsal, it doesn’t rate compared to so many other possible scenarios. I like to say, “No one died on the table today.” That said, easily for me the worst part of being a singer is spending so much time away from my family. Becoming a husband and father was always a part of my life plan – well before the idea of becoming a professional singer – so I hold it above all other priorities. Traveling to foreign lands can seem exotic and exciting, which it sometimes is. However, it’s often overpowered by the painful separation from my wife and children.

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

I’m a rock-n-roller, for sure. I do enjoy opera, but I hear it all day at work. So it’s usually Led Zeppelin, Stones, Beatles, Jack White, STP, Radiohead, and many others to a lesser extent. Just about every genre of music (shy of country or, say, death metal!) makes it onto the air in the Ketelsen household, including jazz, bluegrass, standards, showtunes, movie soundtracks, pop, blues, and heavy metal. The mainstay of my playlist lately has been Rival Sons, a kind of neo-Classic Blues Rock group with four albums under their belt. Very reminiscent of ‘70s-style rock n roll. I just can’t get enough!

I’m a huge fan of movies, and I’ll see quite a few on the road. Binging TV series is a favorite pastime as well. I’m currently rewatching HBO’s The Wire. Others on my faves list (in alphabetical order) are: The Americans, Archer, Betas, Bron/Broen, Derek, Homeland, House of Cards, Justified, Ray Donovan, Silicon Valley, The Walking Dead, True Detective, and Veep.

I’ll also watch just about any NBA or NFL game. Cubs/Bears/Bulls are always my priority.

NHL??? Sorry, Canada, I can’t follow the puck!!

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

Having played pick-up basketball passionately for over 20 years, I used to actually have dreams about dunking the ball. I could always grab the rim, and even dunk things like a tennis ball, or my sweaty jersey. It’s as close to flying under my own power as I can imagine. So much beauty in that act.

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

Some days on the road it’s just good to do nothing at all; let the brain and body rejuvenate. Most free days, though, I’ll either work out, take a long walk, read a book over dinner at a nice restaurant, see a movie, take in a museum or sporting event. Hopefully I have good colleagues, with whom I enjoy spending time. Quite often I’m working in a city where I have friends or relatives, so it’s a treat to be able catch up with them. This job certainly affords me the opportunity to stay in touch with people I might not otherwise ever see.

When I’m home, it’s all about family. My wife is endlessly creative in finding activities for our kids. I’m on the go quite a bit, taking them to karate, piano, guitar, and ALL manner of sports. Not to mention intellectually enriching classes & events. It’s truly a pleasure to witness your kids thriving and finding things they like and have a talent for.

Five more about Leporello in the new COC Don Giovanni opening this week.

1-Please talk for a moment about the rationale or subtext of Leporello, in Dmitri Tcherniakov’s reading of Don Giovanni.

In this production the roles of master & servant are set aside in favor of a more modern take. Leporello is a wayward youth in desperate need of a father figure, which he finds in Giovanni. It’s established in the staged overture that the two have previously met, though is appears that they’re not yet friends. My character is in his late teens or early twenties, and has been a sort of ward of the state. He’s allowed to live in the house of the Commendatore, to whom he’s related in some obscure way.

Like any youth Leporello has learned how to relate to others from adults – in this case Giovanni. It’s clear he’s been misguided when dealing with just about every other character in the show. Where a son might mimic how his father treats women, such is the manner by which Leporello acts toward the gender. His notions of what makes a relationship are severely warped, clearly demonstrated (I hope!) in his interactions with Elvira. He makes a pathetic attempt at wooing her during the Catalogue Aria, and later tries to impress her with an eerily cold, lifeless kiss.

The mutual contempt he holds for his peers – played by the members of the chorus in one scene – is made clear as well. Every relationship Leporello has is horribly dysfunctional. He’s just a lost little boy at heart.

2-Please talk about working with Dmitri Tcherniakov, his methods and his manners.

I honestly believe Dima is an artistic genius. He creates layer upon layer upon layer of motivation and back-story for each character, and commits an unbelievable amount of rehearsal time to each character, in each scene. Many directors will have holes in their plan, not knowing exactly what to do in certain places. No such thing with Tcherniakov! He arrives the first day of rehearsal with his entire story so well conceived, it’s a Russian novel unto itself. That’s not to say he’s inflexible with his concept. He does allow for artistic interpretation, and honestly considers any input. If he doesn’t agree with a suggestion from a singer or conductor, he will give you a thoughtful reason why he doesn’t want it. No decision is made willy-nilly in his productions. There’s multi-level reasoning behind nearly EVERY move made onstage. Astonishing depth.

3-What’s your favourite moment in this Don Giovanni?

It does happen to be the first act recit and trio with Giovanni and Elvira, leading to the catalogue aria. It establishes in detail what my character is all about, as well as my relationship with the two. It begins with my expressing disapproval of Giovanni’s lifestyle, segueing into flirtatious infatuation with his former love, Elvira. My action during the aria demonstrates my character’s immaturity. In attempting to impress Elvira, I invent sums of the Don’s conquests, mock the contents of her purse, show off with a yo-yo (!), make faces at her through a window, make light of the Commendatore’s memorial, pose and preen as he believes a desirable man would, before moving in for the overt seduction attempt. It all reinforces Tcherniakov’s architecture of the character, to be very boy-like, mocking and insulting instead of praising and positive attention, in an attempt to impress a female.

4- The arts often feel very precarious in this country, spoken of as a luxury even as they starve alongside wealthy sports teams. Please comment on the business and how you observe it unfolding as an artist and as a citizen.

Indeed we’re in an age where the arts are often seen as an elitist indulgence. As a form of entertainment, opera thrived well into the 20th Century with very little competition for viewership. Today’s entertainment options are seemingly unlimited, therefore we need to fight for exposure and relevance. If we’re to guarantee opera’s survival and prosperity, each must do his part. It’s why outreach to schools, creative marketing and audience development are absolutely vital, as well as inventively incorporating social and mass media.

I am concerned about the survival of this very special art form. Public and private financial support are continually scaled back in favor of more “tangible” causes. This is incredibly short-sighted and ignorant. Intangible benefits are benefits nonetheless, and fulfill the soul. Art for art’s sake benefits society, and is indeed for humanity’s sake.

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

I’ve had the incredibly great fortune to encounter the perfect voice teachers at the appropriate moments in my development as a singer. My voice teacher in undergrad at the University of Iowa was a man named Albert Gammon. He was a perfectionist when it came to vocal technique and diction. He was a living legend 25 years ago, and has a remarkable enduring legacy with hundreds of his students, and their students.

My teacher in grad school at Indiana University was Giorgio Tozzi. Readers who aren’t familiar with him should just search YouTube.

One of the most famous basses in history, he was a caring, insightful teacher. Always positive, famously friendly and generous, he was also incredibly intelligent, and had diverse interests like art, politics and hypnosis!

He very quickly opened my upper vocal register with his Italianate technique. For years we concentrated on legato, warmth of tone, and overall interpretation. He became very much a grandfather figure to me.

click for more information about the production

I’m so very lucky to have encountered these two men at the ends of their careers.

*******

The COC production of Don Giovanni opens Saturday January 24th at the Four Seasons Centre.

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