Still Alice’s Alzheimer’s

There’s a film from a few years ago called Away From Her, starring Gordon Pinsent & Julie Christie. IMDB tells me it was made in 2006. I waited quite awhile to see it because the subject was very close to home. A family member had developed Alzheimer’s and died in 2010. The DVD had sat on the shelf unopened, too painful to contemplate until earlier this year.

The irony of that wait was that when the film finally turned up on the small screen (that DVD) , it didn’t resemble a story I knew or could recognize, a struggle like those in this family. But of course there’s not just one story, anymore than there’s only one case of the disease. Every case is different, and the impact can reach into families touching everyone. Away From Her didn’t resemble this family’s struggles enough to really speak to us. I found it puzzling, even if the performances seemed to be good.

There’s another film concerning Alzheimer’s. It’s called Still Alice. It won Julianne Moore the best actress Academy Award half a year ago for her portrayal of an afflicted linguistics professor. I say all that because I just watched it. The Alzheimer’s in this film –early onset Alzheimer’s, hitting an intellectual in their early 50s—was a very different sort to what we saw develop in this family.

Where Alice gradually had trouble remembering, Still Alice recalls the disease rather well.

Where Alice gradually had trouble speaking, Still Alice speaks eloquently.

I reviewed the film, based on this novel by Lisa Genova.

Throughout the film I experienced flashbacks. There was a moment in the film to do with incontinence, reminding me of that visible expression of shame that you couldn’t forget, that you wished you didn’t have to see, as well as moments of family members struggling to understand, struggling with judgment and subsequent guilt. There was the bewildering collision between who the person had been and who they’d become, the startling transformation from someone strong and impressive into someone lost and vulnerable.

There’s a dynamic I saw in Still Alice that spoke to me about my own issues with a disability, the fakery of someone trying to fit in, concealing their ailment to avoid pity. My attempts to cover up a limp or bad posture are as nothing, however, compared to the struggles of someone with Alzheimer’s. This is the nastiest disease for what it does to you. You’re not you anymore. The family can’t mourn in the usual ways because there’s a body-snatcher at work, stealing you away even as you continue to live after a fashion.

I will watch it again tomorrow. I recommend this film to anyone who has been afflicted, but also to anyone who is simply curious. There were a great many moments with the ring of authenticity, a familiarity that was both comforting and disturbing, often at the same time.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception, Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Questions for Lisa Campbell, Cannabis Activist

Lisa Campbell's United Nations ID

Lisa Campbell’s United Nations ID

Lisa Campbell has been the Outreach Director for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy since 2013. As the former Trip! Project Coordinator and having worked as the manager of a needle exchange, Lisa has worked with a diversity of young people who use drugs and continues to advocate for drug policy reform across the globe. She has a plethora of experience in drug policy reform, having served as the Senior North American Representative for Youth RISE’s International Working Group and continues to work tirelessly to end the war on drugs.

Lisa’s work in drug policy reform has brought her around the world as an advocate for young people who use drugs including Lebanon, Portugal, Mexico, UK and the US. She has been featured in both local and international media, including National Geographic, BBC, VICE and the National Post. Most recently she has joined the Pot TV Network as the co-host of TMZ with Matt Mernagh at Vapor Central. On top of her work advocating for youth harm reduction services, Lisa has become one of the top cannabis activists in Canada and is leading the charge towards legalization.

Lisa recently started a cannabis industry lobby group called Women Grow in Toronto, and has just released a drug policy election report card for the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy (aka CSSDP), which will also be distributed through the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition.

Women Grow

Women Grow

As an arthritis-suffferer I wonder about available alternatives to the powerful meds that are sometimes worse than the disease they’re meant to cure. I wish I had the option of legal cannabis. As the election comes closer, on the occasion of the CSSDP drug policy election report card, I wanted to interview Lisa Campbell. I asked her fifteen questions: five about herself and ten more about the issues.

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

I think I’m equally influenced by both my parents, who I like to tease about both being legal drug dealers. My mom is very creative and had a long career as a modern dancer, before she trained to be a psychiatrist. I think I get a lot of my creativity and knack for public health and research from her. My father is a successful businessman who imports wine from around the world. Due to these restrictive laws against alcohol sales my dad found himself in a 5 year court battle with the LCBO, and the business had to close temporarily as a punishment by the government. My father’s fight against prohibition inspires me, especially as he’s in an industry that was once completely illegal and still suffers from over regulation. As well, my great grandmother was a bootlegger, and my bubby grew up selling bathtub moonshine as a young girl in inner city Detroit. It’s huge that we’ve taken a once underground illegal industry, legalized it and taken it out of the hands of organized crime. We can do exactly the same thing with cannabis in Canada! We need some policy to regulate based on research and principals of public health.

Cannabis activist Lisa Campbell

Cannabis activist Lisa Campbell

2) What is the best thing about being an activist?

Being around people who are passionate about what they do! I love the youth volunteers who I get to work with at Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy who are so dedicated to ending prohibition in our lifetime. As well, it’s been so cool to start Women Grow in Toronto as I get to meet so many cool women entrepreneurs with products that are helping people heal.

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

I’ve really been into Narcos on Netflix lately, but just because it’s pure DEA propaganda. Similarly I can’t get enough of shows like Weeds or Orange as the New Black that show the ridiculousness of the war on drugs while also incorporating a gender perspective. Jenji Kohan is my heroine! As well, Broad City is doing a lot for cannabis reform in terms of normalization. I also listen to a lot of electronic music and you can follow me on Soundcloud (!

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

I wish I had a better memory!

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

I really enjoy cannabis and it is a full time hobby. It’s finally starting to become a job, which is exciting.

LisaCampbell (right) with Nazlee Maghsoudi

Lisa Campbell (right) with Nazlee Maghsoudi


Ten more about lobbying for marijuana reform in the federal election.

1) “Women Grow in Toronto” is a cannabis industry lobby group. Talk to me about the hazards of being an activist, and what you are seeking.

Women Grow was started a year ago in Colorado and has grown to be a global movement highlighting the voices of women leaders in the emerging legal cannabis industry. Unlike other established industries with strong gender divides (like tech), if we promote equity from the beginning we can create an inclusive cannabis industry. Women were the founders of the cannabis industry in Canada, with Hillary Black cofounding the BC Compassion Club Society, the first cannabis dispensary back in 1997. Many of the original activists pushing for legalization have been left out of this new cannabis industry, with corporations stepping in mostly run by white guys (no offense). Women Grow is about honouring our roots and promoting more women getting involved as leaders in the cannabis industry, despite the barriers.

Lisa Campbell

Lisa Campbell

Women Grow promotes women entrepreneurs in the emerging cannabis industry in Canada through running Signature Networking Events. While much of this industry is 100% legal, we work with all sides of the cannabis community from grey market businesses like bakers or dispensaries, to Health Canada certified Licensed Producers. Women have always been at the forefront of the cannabis industry as podcasters, bakers, dispensary and vapour lounge owners. None of those businesses fit into the federal governments MMPR regulations for cannabis, although many of them have been existence since the 90s. As Women Grow we represent women from all aspects of the cannabis industry and together we are united for full legalization.

2) Talk to me about marijuana for a moment compared to such ubiquitous products as the valium, and Tylenol in medicine cabinets, or the tobacco & alcohol all around us. How safe is it?

Cannabis can be used as an alternative medicine to many pharmaceuticals and is less physically addictive than benzodiazepines and opiates. In some trials cannabis has shown promise in opiate substitution therapy and for this reason there are many cannabis clinics opening specializing in chronic pain. It is also much less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, although I think it’s important to acknowledge that cannabis use is not without risk. Just like we need regulation for tobacco and alcohol, we need the same for cannabis in order to control sale to minors. While we also need controls for cannabis, we need to find a balance to ensure patient access.

3) What are the criteria you’ll have on the report card?

On top of my work with Women Grow I also am the Outreach Director for Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy. CSSDP recently published an Election Drug Policy Report Card evaluating our federal party leaders on cannabis, harm reduction and mandatory minimums. Not surprisingly the Green Party scored the highest in drug policy, with the Liberals and NDP not too far behind. The only thing the Conservatives didn’t fail was cannabis, as they privatized the medical marijuana program, breaking the federal government monopoly on production. Unfortunately the new MMPR introduced by the conservatives took away patients’ right to grow, but did create a billion dollar industry of over 25 licenced cannabis producers. Meanwhile, Health Canada ironically insists marijuana is not a medicine and that dispensaries are illegal. You can see the whole report card here to see how the party leaders did overall:

4) Is there a clear choice in the election?

Why are these men smiling? (MARK BLINCH / REUTERS)

The Liberal Party and NDP have relatively similar platforms on marijuana. The Liberals are pro-legalization but include little details on how to get there, including timelines. The NDP have said that they would decriminalize cannabis immediately and create a commission to study legalization. Considering the Canadian Medical Association Journal just called legalization a best practice in public health policy, we can guess what kind of policy such a commission would craft. While the Greens have the best drug policy, you should ultimately vote for the candidate with the best choice of beating Harper.

5) How many users are currently estimated to use marijuana? And if so, are there any estimates of how much possible tax revenue legal marijuana could bring in to the government?

Here’s some old stats from the University of Ottawa:

  • Estimated number of marijuana users in Canada: 2.3 million
  • Average age of introduction to marijuana: 15 years old
  • Number of people aged 12 – 17 who use daily: 225,0005
  • 10% of regular users develop dependency
  • Annual Canadian consumption: 770,000 kg.
  • Annual production: 2.6 million kg.
  • Amount of domestic production consumed in Canada: 30%
  • Number of grow operations: 215,000
  • Number of people employed in grow operations: 500,000
  • Price of 1 ounce of top grade product (enough to produce 20-50 joints: $250
  • Annual number of arrests for all offences concerning illegal drugs: 90,000
  • Number of reported marijuana offences (1999): 35,000
  • Number of reported marijuana offences in 2001: 71,600 (70% for possession)
  • Annual cost of enforcing marijuana laws (police and courts): $500 million
  • Estimated annual costs associated with substance abuse in Canada:
    $1.4 billion for illegal drugs; $7.5 billion for alcohol and $9.6 billion for tobacco.

To top off those old statistics, the new emerging cannabis industry includes 25 Health Canada Licensed Producers (and growing). While I don’t think medical marijuana should be taxed, if we were to expand the MMPR program to allow taxed and regulated recreational production we could eliminate black market production entirely and produce millions in tax revenue.

6) Could you talk about the many good things marijuana does?

Cannabis is a great medicine for so many conditions, including epilepsy, arthritis, chronic pain and nausea. There is a lot of research on cannabis, but very few clinical trials due to its legal status. This makes it hard for governments to regulate it as a medicine and puts physicians in a tough bind. Now that we have licenced producers in Canada, many are starting clinical trials to produce evidence.

Medical cannabis became a movement around the time of the HIV crisis, and to this day medical marijuana dispensaries work closely to help patients coping with the symptoms of HIV and AIDS. I find learned about dispensaries at the World AIDS Conference in Toronto where I met the folks from Cannabis As Living Medicine (CALM) in the harm reduction area. Cannabis is harm reduction as it reduces dependency on pharmaceutical medicine and can be used as complimentary medicine for a variety of conditions.

Personally I enjoy using cannabis for so many reasons. Sometimes I use it as medication for pain or nausea or cramps, other times just for fun! I also have anxiety, so I find that cannabis in low doses can be effective at preventing panic attacks. Ultimately cannabis does not work for everyone, but it helps a lot of patients!

7) What are the current prospects for getting marijuana legalized? Are there any obstacles other than getting the right party elected?

I think that cannabis will be legalized but we need to do it in conjunction with international bodies like the United Nations. In April 2016 the United Nations General Assembly is holding a meeting on drugs during 420. If we can vote in a new government it could mean a progressive voice for legalization at the international table. If Canada and the United States can come out prolegalization at the UN in 2016 then there is hope for a commission which would move towards a flexible interpretation of the drug conventions for cannabis. This commission could also suggest that cannabis be removed as a schedule substance, which might mean that a new convention would be created similar to Tobacco. This would take cannabis out of the control of the International Narcotics Control Board and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and it would become a global commodity similar to alcohol. Ultimately I think global free trade law ironically will be what spearheads legalization, as the new cannabis lobby will take full advantage to get their products to market post legalization.

8) Rona Ambrose attacked the Supreme Court for declaring that medical marijuana could include brownies (with a second side shot at Justin Trudeau for good measure). Please talk about the alternatives to smoking, thinking less of home-baked items than the commercially available products.

The Supreme Court of Canada declared that all medical cannabis patients have the right to cannabis in all of its various forms, including cookies and brownies. There are many ways to extract and consume cannabis, as THC is fat and alcohol soluble. You can extract it in oils like butter or olive oil to use in cooking, or you could use alcohol to create a tincture. There are a few other solvents you can use to create things like Rick Simpson Oil, BHO, CO2 and other cannabis oils but I wouldn’t suggest trying them at home. RSO is available for $25 a syringe and is very popular with cancer and epilepsy patients as you just take a small dose once or twice a day. While oils are starting to become available through Licensed Producers, many patients rely on compassion clubs to find their medicine. The City of Vancouver has banned the sale of food at dispensaries, so now you can just buy oil or butter. Toronto dispensaries sell edibles still, but be careful to read the strength and mind your dose!

9) In an election where we talk about the economy, immigrants dying while escaping foreign tyranny, deployments of our military, and the behaviour of our Prime Minister in suppressing democracy, how important is cannabis as an election issue?

Over 60,000 Canadians are charged with cannabis offenses annually, with ¼ of Ontario students having tried the drug. That’s one and four families that are affected by cannabis prohibition! If you were to take ¼ of families of MPs and put them in jail then it would be a political issue, but most people with power in Canada aren’t affected. It’s poor people, people of colour, the homeless, etc. who are charged for cannabis. Most rich people have the privilege to smoke pot in their back yard and ignore the war on drugs, while youth of colour are incarcerated. To top this off native communities are disproportionately represented in our prison system, many for non-violent drug crimes. Cannabis is an election issue because it is a social justice issue!

10) Do you have any influences teachers or mentors you admire in your activism?

I grew up in the cannabis culture, reading Cannabis Culture Magazine, attending Freedom Festival in my teens and 420 rallies through my 20s. I used to idolize people like Marc Emery but now that I’m a grown up these people are also my peers. My biggest mentors in the movement are folks like Dana Larsen from Sensible BC and Matt Mernagh from 420 Toronto. These are guys that understand social justice and support grassroots cannabis activists from all stripes. They’re politically engaged, media savy and they fight to win!

Now that I’m older and more involved in the movement from a leadership perspective I realize that there are so many women warriors who have been fighting from the beginning. Women like Hillary Black and Rielle Capler from the early days of the BC Compassion Club Society, Abi Roach from Hot Box Café, Erin Goodwin from Vapor Central and activist Tracy Curley. Jamie Shaw and Shega A’Mula from Women Grow Vancouver / CAMCD also rock my world!


The Canadian Federal election is October 19th, when there is a clear choice as far as drug policy choices. The Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy report card offers a perspective.

Please vote!

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Soundstreams: Beyond the Aria but not beyond Virtuosity

Tonight in a Soundstreams concert titled “Adrianne Pieczonka: Beyond the Aria” we saw and heard two great operatic artists go beyond their usual boundaries, using their instruments in unexpected ways.  Soprano Pieczonka was joined by mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabó in a program whose oldest items date from  the 1960s, in keeping with Soundstreams mandate to present contemporary music.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka (Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Earlier at today’s Array concert at the RBA I wondered whether virtuosity is over or just out of fashion, hearing gentle sounds in minimalist compositions requiring none of the usual vocal fireworks one expects in an opera house.  I had wondered if Soundstreams were merely seeking Pieczonka –the world-famous singer –as a draw to attract a bigger audience. While it’s true that the concert at Koerner Hall was packed, this was a unique concert. We heard singers go in several non-operatic directions, but with the expressive capabilities of the voice always front and centre.

The program was framed (beginning and ending) by works composed by American George Crumb.  We began with five excerpts from American Songbook, Crumb’s bold paraphrases of traditional materials mixed and reframed in flamboyant arrangements employing both singers either in solos or duets.  “Dry Bones” uses the well-known song complete with percussion to make you shiver in their grotesquely comical resemblance to skeletons.  And while the Saints may indeed go marching in, it’s in an abrasive 5/4.  The ensemble was extremely tight, led by conductor Leslie Dala.

The light-hearted beginning was followed by a contrasting world premiere, namely Canadian composer Analia Llugdar’s Romance de la luna, luna.  Soundstreams sought to commission a work that would underscore the Crumb piece that concludes the program—Ancient Voices of Children—which Pieczonka performed with Soundstreams a quarter of a century ago, when she was just beginning her career.  Both works utilized texts by Federico Garcia Lorca and have similar instrumentation.  Szabó faced a different set of challenges, in a work that is more recognizably Hispanic in its rhythms and harmonic idiom, which shouldn’t be a surprise, given that Llugdar was born in Argentina.  The work is a tour de force, a showpiece, and perhaps so full of flamboyant challenges as to at times obscure some of the simplest elements in the text. But Szabó and Dala were more than equal to its challenges.

The last item before intermission was a bit of a departure, and probably the moment when the audience were most attentive, namely three of Berio’s arrangements of Beatles songs.  While there is an element of surprise in the framing of “Michelle” among unexpected chord progressions and a moody opening, the other two songs (“Yesterday” and “Ticket to Ride”) generated a bit of hilarity in their ironic packaging, particularly the former in its near-exact quoting of Bach’s “Air on the G String”.  There was the usual discomfort in trying to orient ourselves vis a vis the genre, calibrating the choice to sing in pop or classical style.  Pieczonka can’t turn off her legato, which does betray her slightly in creating a smoother phrase than is idiomatic for pop.  But the combination of the new arrangements with that stunning voice still brought down the house,.

After the interval Pieczonka and boy soprano Andrew Lowe gave us Ancient Voices of Children.  We began with a singer projecting her sound into the depths of a grand piano, the strings resonating with her many different approaches to singing.   She emerged to join with Soundstreams for the wonderful variety of sonorities Crumb calls up in support, from toy pianos to harmonicas to bells and percussion.

Vocal pedagogue Mary Morrison (click for bio)

With the contrasting approaches to singing I remarked upon (the gentle softness this afternoon, the flamboyance from both women tonight) it’s worth noting that a voice teacher was singled out by both programs, namely Mary Morrison.  This afternoon she was given a shout-out by Rick Sacks of Array, and acknowledged by Pieczonka both in the program tonight and in our interview.  The program mentions the vocal techniques Morrison showed her.  In the interview Pieczonka said

I performed Crumb’s Ancient Voices of Children nearly 30 years ago (with the group before it became Soundstreams). I was still a student at U of T at the time. I’m sure Mary Morrison, with whom I then studied, was somehow instrumental in this engagement.

It’s intriguing that Morrison is so influential among singers of such divergent approaches, both among singers who employ a soft minimalist approach, and also one of our biggest stars of the operatic stage.

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Love Shards of Sappho at RBA

Today’s free noon-hour concert in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre (the upper lobby of the Four Seasons Centre) offered a rich pairing of matched works, presented by the Array Ensemble & a pair of sopranos.  Today feels especially like a preparation for Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe, an opera that gets its world premiere October 20th with the Canadian Opera Company.  A concert like this one feels like a win-win partnership, exposing the magic of Array’s music to a broader audience, helping COC fans to explore outside their usual comfort zone, while helping introduce a style of music we will be encountering shortly.

Composer Linda Catlin Smith

The first work was Linda Catlin Smith’s Hieroglyphs (1998), using violins, cello & percussion and soprano Brooke Dufton.  I’m tempted to look up the meaning of “hieroglyph”, given that the text was assembled from definitions in dictionaries dating from 1859, 1906 and 1939.  I think it’s fair to say that the text aims to capture something from another time, not unlike the picture-words embedded in a wall as hieroglyphics.  That notion of a fixed paraphrase –something embedded in a wall—places the composition beyond the usual realm of interpretation.  Sure, Dufton sings, and Array’s Artistic Director Rick Sacks led the players through the score.  Yet we’re not in that kind of exuberant vivid enactment of life, not experiencing opera nor even a ballad or song, but into a reified place of reflection and ideas about things.  It’s a quiet place, one where the singer is a gentle medium, and you wouldn’t expect ringing high notes.  There were indeed two songs (as I recall: if they should even be called “songs”) that took Dufton to each extreme of her range, but it was a calm traversal of that remote place, done without drama or tension.

Array Artistic Director & Conductor Rick Sacks

As this is my first concert of the season I may be overly fulsome in my response simply because I have missed these daylight explorations.  At one point an ambulance siren added a charming obbligato voice to the composition we were hearing.  Both pieces on the program dialled the dynamics down several notches, quieter than what most of us usually experience, especially in an opera house, where virtuosity usually manifests itself via extroversion and flamboyance.  I have to wonder if virtuosity is merely out of fashion or completely over, listening to this mature kind of expression, as though the species has outgrown ego and the performer’s egomania,  the need to belt or blast, and instead is in a tranquil place of reflection.

One can dream.

While this might be the longest such concert I’ve ever been to (the COC concerts normally start at noon and end before 1:00, whereas this one went past 1:00): I didn’t want it to end.  I believe any art implies an interface, as we learn how to watch & listen in the encounter.  I experienced a kind of altered reality, surprised at how the time had gone, and listening extra carefully to every quiet little nuance.  I have to think that if I could have gone back to the beginning with the ear I had at the end, I would have been more appreciative, more sensitive. I hope i remember this when i see the opera later this month.

I think –but can’t be sure—that Smith’s composition was the longer one on the program, at least based on the number of words in the program.   Yet I totally lost my sense of time, listening to the second composition, Barbara Monk Feldman’s The Love Shards of Sappho(2001).  I was reminded of the way I felt the first time I heard the ending to Mahler’s “Der Abschied”, the last of the songs in his Lied von der Erde, with its repeated patterns of notes, and oh so gradual diminuendo, as though one were lost in a slow sunset that is a long goodbye.  She might hate the comparison, given that I am speaking of a piece with a telos and a genuine sense of ending, whereas I think Feldman’s piece has even more of a labyrinthine quality: where we are very gently disoriented, among very soft sonorities, safely enclosed and protected.

At the risk of projecting –in a program with two women singing works by two women composers—I find myself embracing the alternative that I think they present to the masculine option, where we are in a realm of soft sounds that are not required to be explicit or dramatic, where the expression seems to transcend ego.  We are on the boundaries of meaning, sound for the sake of sound, beautiful sounds that signify, but also, sounds that simply are.  The chunks of the various words are genuinely shards, as though the words were fragmented.  Is this merely the arbitrary syntax of the composition & its procedures, or rather the fragmentation of experience itself? Or of love? I can’t say.  There is also the element of history –again—as we might wonder if Sappho’s text, paraphrased millennia later in this form, must inevitably shatter, an encounter across distances of miles & years, meaning failing like a soap bubble stretched too far.

Feldman’s piece is for a violin, clarinet, piano & percussion, plus soprano Ilana Zarankin, who sang with such remarkable softness for such a long time, I went into an altered state.  I am reminded of what Phillip Addis said in our recent interview, which now makes a great deal of sense:

Singing Pyramus and Thisbe is challenging not in its virtuosity but in its minimalism. In rehearsal we are striving for such a spare aesthetic that we are having to let go of habit, ego and expectation in order to participate in any given moment. There is very little dynamic variation and the range of my part is just an octave, meaning that any move towards the extremes of these narrow parameters is more deeply felt, like one wave on otherwise still waters.

I can’t wait to see Feldman’s opera  later this month.

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10 questions for Phillip Addis: Pyramus and Thisbe

Canadian Baritone Phillip Addis “is praised for his creamy, bright, smooth voice as much as for his spell-binding, daring, yet sensitive interpretations. A rising star on the international stage, Addis has performed in opera, concerts and recitals throughout Canada, the United States, Europe and Japan.” (additional biographical info can be found on his website)

Addis has already made an impact on the Toronto stage, especially impressive as Don Giovanni in the Opera Atelier production in 2011.

Addis returns to the Canadian Opera Company (where he debuted in their production of la Boheme in 2013) in October in  Pyramus and Thisbe, a program combining operas from the 17th and 21st centuries.  I asked Addis ten questions: five about himself and five about the upcoming project.

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

My parents were very supportive as I found my way through my education, despite being very surprised when I switched from the sciences to music and then specifically to vocal studies. I certainly have inherited traits from both of them that have been useful in being myself both on and off the stage. They both have good singing voices and a strong memory for songs and lyrics, far better than my memory has ever been. They are great collaborators in their fields, and this has been a good example to me as I strive to put projects ahead of my own ego.

2) What is the best thing about being a singer?

As French Lt. Audebert in the Opéra de Montréal production of Silent Night (photo: Philip Groshong)

The greatest reward is the experience of using one’s body as an instrument of the mind, in sync with one’s musical partners, and feeling the rush of pleasure when the imagined ideal is fairly realised. Basically, when things go even better than rehearsed thanks to adrenaline.

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

I like to be surprised, whether by a comedian who sheds new light on a subject, a musician who ruptures my prejudices about how a sound can be used, or a filmmaker who leads me down one path, only to reach an unanticipated destination. These three things meet at a point known as the musical-parody/comedy video.

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

Organisation. I would probably achieve more of my dreams if I knew how to  plan to make them happen.

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

I don’t have one favourite activity. A short list would include connecting with my wife over food and drink; reading, playing and creating with my son; getting slightly lost while exploring new places; stargazing; birding; and photography.

Baritone Phillip Addis

Baritone Phillip Addis


Five more about the upcoming COC production Pyramus and Thisbe.

1. Please talk about Barbara Monk Feldman’s vocal writing, and how it feels to sing her composition.

Singing Pyramus and Thisbe is challenging not in its virtuosity but in its minimalism. In rehearsal we are striving for such a spare aesthetic that we are having to let go of habit, ego and expectation in order to participate in any given moment. There is very little dynamic variation and the range of my part is just an octave, meaning that any move towards the extremes of these narrow parameters is more deeply felt, like one wave on otherwise still waters.

2. You’ve sung several modern classics, such as Jauffré in Love from Afar, George in Of Mice and Men¸ and last year Lt Audebert in Silent Night, yet you also played Don Giovanni for Opera Atelier. As you prepare for this intriguing mix –both the 17th century composer Monteverdi and the contemporary Barbara Monk Feldman—please reflect on how you approach the mix of repertoire.

In fact these two composers are a good pairing and not so far removed from one another. If anything, the writing of Monk Feldman almost seems like a renaissance antecedent to Monteverdi’s baroque sentiments. Singing these works is no great challenge in terms of vocal stamina, but is a major endeavour mentally and physically. We’ve decided that the characters have an arc through the whole production, so we’ve made efforts to harmonize the pieces and hide the seams. Our movement through the piece is as important as anything we’re doing vocally, and that has required a strong discipline and an exploration of our physical limits.

3. What is your favourite moment in the show?

We’re still rehearsing, but what I like best about this production are the moments where the lovers have a kind of near miss, that is to say, when they almost connect in a positive way, but then things turn for the worse. The tension created by the frustration is what’s interesting.

4. Please talk about the psychology of your portrayals and how you come at the character.

I begin with the text, under the assumption that this is also what the composer had as inspiration, and I read it dryly, then in the rhythm that has been established in the score. These I alternate to explore possible meanings, or double meanings, of specific words. Then I consider the pitch and melody as contours which drive the inflection. It’s sometimes frustrating when you want to stress a word a certain way, but the composer has had other ideas. Sometimes you can keep a kernel of your original idea, but usually you have to submit to the composer’s will in this case. As for any psychology, it would be false to say that I embody the character. I’m constantly aware of what words I need to deliver next and how and when. If I look like I’m in an emotional state, it’s because I’m imagining how it ought to look, and then creating the appropriate mask. One can’t get too worked up on the inside in opera, not really, or the very instrument upon which you rely will not function. The only time I can really remember losing it was in a final chorus of Hänsel and Gretel, as the father, at a time when my wife was expecting our son. I was blubbering away and it was all rather overwhelming.

5. What is your next big gig?

I’m looking forward to a return to the role of Pelléas, this time in Hamburg. Pelléas et Mélisande has, to my great fortune, become a niche for me over the years, and I never grow tired of it. It is such a masterful score and the general aesthetic lies very close to my heart. This upcoming production is new to me, but I feel like I could be happy telling this story with almost any setting. Kent Nagano will conduct, and I can’t wait to see what musical ideas he brings to this score.


Phillip Addis stars in the new Canadian Opera Company production Pyramus and Thisbe, a combination of baroque masterworks by Monteverdi and a new work by Canadian Barbara Monk Feldman, opening October 20th at the Four Seasons Centre.  For further information click the image below.

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Gábor Maté: Ayahuasca and the authentic self

Sunday morning instead of church I went to hear Doctor Gábor Maté address a mixed crowd at the George Ignatieff Theatre. Maté has a huge following from his writings & lectures exploring such pathways as the role of trauma & stress in addiction, ADHD, and the mind-body connection. Whatever mysterious process brought this small crowd together, they were decidedly sympathetic to the homily from their guru at the pulpit, a message titled “Ayahuasca transformation & a truer life”.

Dr Gábor Maté

If you google “Gábor Maté Ayahuasca” you’ll find words from both him and his supporters, but also dissenting opinions. Nobody has all the answers, or so we’re told. Maybe so, but I’ve never heard such an elegant explanation of so many things. While Ayahuasca may have been the subject, the discussion of this herbal brew with psychedelic properties was the occasion for Maté to articulate a simple but lucid understanding of human consciousness under the influence of trauma and stress. Our time in the theatre was an escape from the world of blame & stigmatization, into a parallel realm of unconditional love, forgiveness, support and healing, in some respects a lot like a church service.

Speaking of parallel worlds, Maté walks the dividing line between the positivistic world of measurements & scientific proofs and the realm of metaphysical belief. At the very least he is aware of the requirements, the rules the scientists play by, even if they don’t really work for the kinds of questions Maté probes.  Yet he seems reluctant to fully surrender to the world of his followers, at least using the language of science even as he mocks so many of the tenets they hold sacred.  In that world Ayahuasca can be employed in a coldly clinical way, or within a more spiritual context such as that of the South America shamanic communities who were the first to brew the mind-altering drinks. The assembled listeners were not skeptics demanding proof, but rather a group of believers dissatisfied with the failings of traditional medicine, eager to hear his wisdom.

While I am comparatively new to Maté and even newer to Ayahuasca, I share their skepticism from my lifelong struggles with Ankylosing Spondylitis, an auto-immune disorder. Or perhaps I should speak of my experiences with the medical profession, a noble cause whose banner is sometimes carried by dogmatic practitioners who seem to be throwbacks to the Dark Ages given the rigidity of their thinking.

But Maté strikes me as a genuinely humble man who doesn’t claim to have all the answers, using a no-bullshit language that deconstructs his own status as a media darling, a reluctant icon if ever there was one. At one point he alluded to that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where the prophet loses patience with the flock and tells them where to go. And even after that rather colourful command, they simply ask for his instructions on how to F-off.  

Maté doesn’t want to be anyone’s messiah, but one who empowers by offering ways to find out for ourselves. We heard a number of anecdotes about healing, stimulated by the encounter with Ayahuasca. As a retired doctor Maté can testify to the usual approach of western medicine, its cultural assumptions and ultimate limits.

What I think I saw was someone who has learned to respect the limits of the conservative establishment, after championing harm-reduction in his role at a Vancouver clinic. If we accept that psychedelics –such as LSD, psilocybin or Ayahuasca—can all be powerful, Maté makes a big deal out of context:

  • There is a difference between an experience under the supervision of a shaman who is part of a community, the drug part of their belief system, as opposed to drugs without the sheltering context
  • At one point he stopped a questioner from the floor who spoke of “mood-altering” to offer another goal, namely “consciousness-altering”
  • And there is a third item that touches upon context at least in a metaphorical sense, in the distinction between drugs that come from plants as opposed to those that are chemically synthesized. Does it matter that the shaman connects to the plant? You tell me.

But I see Maté taking a safer pathway –where the drug is grounded in something quasi-religious—to avoid some of the resistance encountered previously, and perhaps to get a kind of legitimacy.  I believe this context question is vital, because it removes quibbles like the sort raised by the government & policies resisting harm-reduction initiatives.  There is for example a letter of his I saw re-produced online that’s directed to Rona Ambrose, the Minister of Health, concerning government policies.

And –perhaps as an indication of the man and his choices—there’s the indirect evidence of a question from the floor, a totally charming inquiry from a young U of T medical student, asking how the paradigm of medicine could be fixed. His reply, a self-deprecatory joke about the limits on his time and energies, suggests that he is picking his battles carefully, a man humbled but not daunted.

I am grateful for the simple construct Maté gave me to explain the power of psychedelics, namely how they put you in touch with your authentic self, the version of yourself that you may repress or perhaps not even know. In passing Maté said “there are no bad trips”, perhaps because context is really the key. If we approach these powerful consciousness altering tools not as a roller-coaster to offer a fun ride, but rather with the respect & awe that is their due, we will make great discoveries about ourselves. We could possibly help to heal illnesses such as auto-immune disorders that have a psychic component. I’m not saying I am going to turn to Ayahuasca to fix my AS, but I do see how there is surely merit in the investigation of these pathways.

After the lecture I bought one of his books complete with an autograph.  I will be reading Maté’s book When the Body Says No, as I seek clues to find health & wellness.

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Thoughts of youth and mentorship open Toronto Symphony’s 2015-16 season

Peter Oundjian and the TSO

One of my favourite things about Toronto Symphony concerts is the steady stream of gratitude in the speeches that usually precede performances.  While opening night may be weighed down with ritual, the language was sincere, tonight’s season opener at Roy Thomson Hall offering more reasons than usual to give thanks.

Music Director Peter Oundjian spoke of preparing to enter Juilliard to study violin, encounters with the two great violinists –both of whom served as mentors– namely Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman on the path that eventually led Oundjian to the podium of the TSO.  This put the concert in proper context, as Perlman’s abrupt cancellation due to emergency surgery was followed by the fortunate substitution by Zukerman in the same work, namely Bruch’s 1st violin concerto in G.

I am certainly grateful. I first heard this work performed by Zukerman a very long time ago at Massey Hall, when we were all much younger.

Violinist Pinchas Zukerman

My impression at the time was first and foremost a kind of visceral shock: that I’d never heard a violin sound like that.  Tonight I heard something similar from a more mature version of the violinist.  I can’t imagine how many times he’s played this concerto, but it flows out of him as naturally as the sweat on his brow or the air out of his nostrils.  Zukerman gets sounds from his violin that open up dynamic possibilities both loud and soft, changing everything. I was especially transported by the second movement and its elaborate dialogue between soloist and orchestra, Oundjian leading a particularly urgent & passionate reading.   For an encore Zukerman and the orchestra offered a soulful reading of Nigel Hess’s “Ladies in Lavender”.

Between the opening and closing items that were conducted by Oundjian, we heard one led by Resident Conductor Earl Lee.   This is that study in mentorship gone wrong, namely Paul Dukas’s tone-poem L’apprenti sorcier.   The piece could be understood as a study in gothic horror if it hadn’t been forever re-framed via Fantasia and Disney as something seen merely as the mickey-mousing for a cartoon.  But it’s so much more than that.  As I sat watching Lee I didn’t envy him, reminded suddenly of the young apprentice in the symphonic poem confronted by huge forces threatening to spiral wildly out of control: not unlike the players in Dukas’ orchestra. As the brave conductor faced an unruly orchestra getting louder and louder, i thought “better him than me”.

We began with a completely indirect invocation of youth in the first Peer Gynt Suite, one of the very first pieces I got to know as a small child.  I never stop being impressed by the bold clarity of Grieg’s writing, phrases that instantly invoke morning or mourning or the unforgettable grotesquerie of “In the Hall of the Mountain King”.  Oundjian led a clear reading building to its climax, a wonderful opening to the season.

The TSO will be back tomorrow to play a classic program of the three B’s Friday through Sunday: Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D Minor (and speaking of Fantasia, it’s in Stokowski’s arrangement), Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Brahms double concerto.

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