Ten Questions for Seán Dagher and Sylvain Bergeron

click for information about the CD

Sometimes the art that excites me takes a while to catch on with others.  This is among the most poignant aspects of culture.  Mainstream acceptance often seems to be reserved for that which is average, obvious, or just plain conservative, while the more offbeat or quirky creations may never fully catch on.  At the heart of the whole question of sophistication is this puzzle, that the works that move the sophisticate are not usually embraced by the masses.

In early 2012 I had the good fortune to be sent a CD called Dowland in Dublin.  Its daring approach to the composer may have been a bit ahead of its time then.  I loved it but as time went by couldn’t understand why i didn’t see comparable enthusiasm around me. Sigh, there wasn’t a huge response.  Maybe the idea is just a bit too sophisticated (sorry that word again) to generate a huge response.  In fact the performances on the CD are almost shockingly unpretentious.  The CD is inter-disciplinary, on the boundary between “folk” and early music. Michael Slattery’s singing is wonderfully direct, and some of the most beautifully moving vocals I’ve ever heard, speaking as someone who is a fan of everything from opera to lieder to rock & jazz and tin pan alley.  I like Fred Astaire, Leontyne Price, Robert Merrill, Lady Gaga and lots of other people.  Slattery’s singing on this CD deserves the kind of attention regularly lavished upon the people I listed. I did an interview with him, and a couple of times I alluded to Dowland via Slattery on that CD (for instance when I saw the COC’s ensemble competition more than half a year later, in November 2012).

Dowland in Dublin is not about to go platinum, even if the world gradually seems to be waking up to this remarkable recording.  The Toronto Consort are inviting the conspirators behind that wonderful album, namely Michael Slattery, and the ensemble La Nef, including Seán Dagher and Sylvain Bergeron, performing two concerts on March 27th & 28th .

I have to quote Sylvain Bergeron of Le Nef from the liner notes of Dowland in Dublin to explain just why this is so extraordinary:

The idea for this project was sparked when, at the end of a La Nef Christmas party, Seán Dagher charmed all who were listening when he took out his cittern and began to sing “Come Again” as a folk song.
Working closely with Michael Slattery, we began to strip some of Dowland’s Ayres of their complex contrapuntal accompaniments, seeking to give them a simple Celtic flavour.  We hope that the music on this CD, midway between folks songs and art songs, charm you as much as it does us.  Cheers!

Charmed is another word for bewitched isn’t it?!?  I’ve been under the spell of this magical CD ever since.  I’m pleased to be interviewing both Seán Dagher & Sylvain Bergeron below, but first let me give you their official biographies.

Seán Dagher, cittern, ‘ud, voice Seán Dagher is an active performer, arranger, and composer of music from various folk and classical music traditions: Celtic, Baroque, Medieval, Arabic, French-Canadian, and Maritime. He is artistic director of Skye Consort and its principal arranger. He often provides arrangements for other ensembles and artists, including La Mandragore, Pierre Lapointe, Shannon Mercer, I Furiosi, Les Voix Baroques, Les Voix Humaines and La Nef. His music has been performed across Canada and the United States. Seán Dagher has worked with the Festival du Monde Arabe creating shows of Middle Eastern and North African music. He has arranged and composed music for audio books, with story-teller and musician Suzanne De Serres Youth Program Director for La Nef, and for American author Sandra Gulland. He has been a composer and sound designer for theatre productions. He has been nominated for numerous Adisq awards and participated in the Adisq-winning CD, La Traverse Miraculeuse with La Nef and Les Charbonniers de l’enfer. Despite all that, Seán Dagher can most frequently be found singing and playing in Irish pubs.

Sylvain Bergeron, lute and theorbo An accomplished performer on the lute and theorbo, Sylvain Bergeron is in high demand on the North American music scene. He gives nearly one hundred concerts each season in and alongside many internationally renowned soloists. Among these are Emma Kirkby, James Bowman, Jordi Savall, David Daniels, Magdalena Kozena, Michael Chance, Charles Daniels, Daniel Taylor, Karina Gauvin, Suzie LeBlanc, Vivica Genaux, Matthew White, Agnes Anne Azema and Agnes Melon. He works regularly with Les Violons du Roy, L’Ensemble Arion, Les Idées Heureuses, Les Boréades, Les Voix Humaines, Les Voix Baroques, Apollo’s Fire, Clavecin en concert, etc.

He has made several tours through the five continents and has performed under the direction of renowned conductors. He has played in the most prestigious halls in the world, including Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Salle Gaveau in Paris and Lincoln Center in New York. He has participated in 70 CD recordings on the ATMA label, Dorian, Analekta, CBC PGM and several of these have won prizes and awards. His most recent solo album “The Balcarres Lute Book” (Atma) has received critical praise.
Sylvain Bergeron teaches the lute and baroque guitar at McGill University and the University of Montreal. He has given numerous lectures, workshops and master classes, including Lute Society of America, Berkeley, Vancouver, Rabat (Morocco). He has participated on panels and is often consulted as a specialist in ancient plucked instruments for various recording projects and publishing.

Sylvain Bergeron (photo by Didier Bertrand)

Sylvain Bergeron (photo by Didier Bertrand)

*********

The ten questions are directed at the pair, with five to get a sense of who they are, and five more to open up a conversation about Dowland in Dublin.

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

Sylvain: I have a bit of both. My father was an intellectual, a history and art lover, quite disconnected from his own time; my mother was a very generous, attentive, and practical person, who also played the piano. I like to think I took the best of each!
Sean: I have elements of both.  They’re pretty similar in their outlooks and mannerisms so it’s hard to tell sometime what comes from whom.  But my mum’s the musician so I definitely identify and connect with that.  Sometimes I catch myself looking or acting like my father without meaning to.  While I don’t mind that, really, I would rather consciously emulate someone than accidentally fall into their quirks.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about your musical life?
Sylvain: The best thing is surely the fact that I’ve managed a successful musical career, playing the lute, playing only the music I like, with people I like. I am grateful to life for that, and to my family who supported me (in both senses of the word).
Sean: The best thing is the diversity.  I play in Irish pubs.  I do arrangements for choirs and chamber ensembles.  I curate 2 concert series, for which I also set up and do the sound reinforcement.  I have recorded sea shanties for video games.  I have played and toured with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.  I play in a band that does medieval Mediterranean music.  I also play in a tavern that sets itself in medieval France.  I am glad I get to do all of that because doing just one of those things might get boring.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Sean: I’d like to listen to lots of different things in small doses.  All styles.  I’m not much of a tv or movie watcher.
Sylvain: I am still very fond of 1970s progressive rock bands : Genesis, Jethro Tull, etc.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Sean: I wish I could speak every language.
Sylvain: I have always been pretty bad with numbers. My wife is also a musician (bad with numbers too), so our daughter is in accounting.

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
Sylvain: I like playing with techno gear and biking (summer only)
Sean: I love playing games.  Cards, board games, trivia games, etc.  I’m terrible at games and lose most of the time.  But I love playing anyway.

*******

Five more about creating Dowland on Dublin, both the CD and the upcoming concert with La Nef, Michael Slattery and Toronto Consort on March 27 & 28.

1-Tell us about the history of your wonderful idea: a musical exploration of the possibility that John Dowland may have been Irish.  The liner notes for the CD (excuse me for repeating myself, I’ve already quoted this) say…

“ The idea for this project was sparked when, at the end of a La Nef Christmas party, Seán Dagher charmed all who were listening when he took out his cittern and began to sing “Come Again” as a folk song.
Working closely with Michael Slattery, we began to strip some of Dowland’s Ayres of their complex contrapuntal accompaniments, seeking to give them a simple Celtic flavour.  We hope that the music on this CD, midway between folks songs and art songs, charm you as much as it does us. Cheers!”

Sylvain: Well, I first hesitated before writing these lines in the booklet – which may seem a bit unorthodox in a normal classical music format – but it really captures the idea quite well.
Sean: I actually didn’t know anything about Dowland’s possible Irish-ness.  I just liked the song, “Come Again”, when I heard someone sing it so I learnt a few verses to sing in pubs or for pleasure.  I knew it worked as a folk-song because nobody ever noticed that there was anything unusual about it.  While I was pleased about that, I sometimes wished that someone would recognize it.

At the La Nef Christmas party we were singing Christmas carols and we were taking turns playing the piano.  The later it got the worse I got at piano so I eventually took out my cittern, which I have gotten used to playing at all hours of the night.  Because I had an early-music crowd on hand I knew they would appreciate Come Again and find humour in my rendition of it.  Never did I think it would lead to anything down the road.

That was 2008.

Seán Dagher

Seán Dagher

2-The CD Dowland in Dublin combines La Nef instrumentals and vocals from Michael Slattery, who are coming to Toronto to perform with the Toronto Consort March 27th & 28th .  How did you find Slattery, and please talk about working with him.

Sylvain: Sean will explain
Sean:  I met Michael Slattery when he was singing at the Lamecque (NB) Baroque Festival in 2003.  My wife Amanda Keesmaat was playing at the festival and I went along with our then 5-month-old baby.  At the lobster party after one of the concerts we all started singing.  Michael sang the best renditions of “She’ll be coming round the mountain” that I have ever heard.  I guessed from his last name that he might know an Irish song or two.  So we sang a couple and that was that.

Tenor Michael Slattery

I had been looking for a direction for the 2nd CD of my group Skye Consort so the next day Michael and I agreed to work together.  He was already planning an Irish CD so it worked out perfectly.  “The Irish Heart” was recorded in the Clayton (NY) Opera House the following summer.  In a way, Dowland in Dublin was a follow-up to that.  But it was the perfect sequel: we had a new direction, Dowland, and a new collaborator, Sylvain.  That brought a whole new batch of ideas and prevented anything from becoming stale or rehashed.

3-What do you love about Dowland & his music?

Sylvain: I have played Dowland’s music for years and years, with respectful singers and ensembles, within the more traditional early music format.
Sean, who was rather green and fresh with Dowland, created most of the arrangements. Michael collaborated quite a lot too – much more than you would expect from a singer – and I acted as an artistic director.
The result of Dowland in Dublin is fascinating because it combines total freedom, respect and excellence of interpretation. Of course, I still play the normal Dowland regularly with great satisfaction too.

Sean:  I love the melodies.  I love that they are so malleable.  His original settings are beautiful and I wasn’t trying to improve on any of them.  But I really love how the same melody can be set in so many different ways with only the smallest of adjustments, or none at all.  I also love the bawdy songs.  They can sound so serious and classical but when you listen closely it can get downright ribald.  Actually all of the poetry is amazing, even the serious and love songs.

4-Please talk about the challenges of exploring & re-framing Dowland into this other context for us.

Sylvain: It was a bit risky but we all agreed that it worth it, so we dove into the project with great commitment and passion. So far, the vast majority of feedback and reviews we have had are extremely positive (but you cannot please everybody). Life is short and artists should not be ruled by dogmas. Our next collaboration with Michael will bring us to Henry Purcell’s music (October 3, 2015 at Salle Bourgie in Montreal).
Sean:  Part of the challenge is in the perception.  The project has sometimes been overlooked by both the classical and the folk worlds.  I don’t mind this, actually.  It means we’re hitting the mark right down the middle.  Mostly, though, people have been open to the idea.  I even heard an audience member say it could have been even more Irish.  The main challenge was keeping the arrangements diverse.  I didn’t want to give all the songs the same treatment I had given to Come Again.  Fortunately Michael and Sylvain were there as co-arrangers so I think we achieved a good balance.

5-Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

Sean:  I’ve been lucky to play with some amazing musicians, both it in the folk and classical worlds and I’ve tried to learn from them all.  The folk and jazz musicians I’ve worked with have really taught me about the value of improvisation.  When I write melodies or counter-melodies I really try to imagine what my colleagues would invent on the spot.  Then I write that down.  The classical musicians I’ve worked with have taught me chamber music skills and precision.  And that it’s important to have a party after a concert.
Sylvain: I always been a big Sean Dhager fan!

********

The Toronto Consort present “Dowland in Dublin” with La Nef and Michael Slattery, 8:00 p.m. March 27th and 28th at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor Street West.
There’s a free Pre-concert lecture  with Guest Speaker Sylvain Bergeron,
Artistic Director, La Nef before each concert at 7pm, in the
Gymnasium.

Posted in Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Questions, Questions | Leave a comment

The Wedding Dress of Susanna for the Marriage of Figaro

store_frontOpera Lyra and McCaffrey Haute Couture invited the media to attend a fitting, a pre-wedding event in celebration of their new production of The Marriage of Figaro, opening March 21st at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

Figaro marries Susanna.  They’re servants to the Count and Countess, who offer a wedding present to Susanna: a dress much nicer than what Mr & Mrs Figaro would otherwise be able to afford, at least in Opera Lyra’s new production.

Of course the Count is generous to Susanna because he desires her for himself.

Baritone James Westman (photo: Dario Acosta), who plays the Count

Baritone James Westman (photo: Dario Acosta), who plays the Count

And Wallis Giunta play Cherubino, a young man who also desires Susanna, as well as the Countess: and every other female in sight.  Although the role calls for trousers (and male attire), she was at the event wearing a beautiful beaded gown designed for her by McCaffrey for concert performances. Ms. Giunta has worn McCaffrey’s gowns for concert performances around the world.

Wallis Giunta

Wallis Giunta

Yesterday the bride-to-be, Susanna (soprano Sasha Djihanian), had her last fitting before opening night.  Her elegant wedding dress was created by David McCaffrey specifically for Opera Lyra’s production of Mozart’s sumptuous social satire set in Edwardian England.

Bride-to-be Susanna (Sasha Djihanian) with designer David McCaffrey

Bride-to-be Susanna (Sasha Djihanian) with designer David McCaffrey

Mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta, who is the face of McCaffrey’s bridal line, approached David McCaffrey about collaboration with Opera Lyra. Instead of picking a dress from his bridal line, McCaffrey decided to design an original for the production. McCaffrey has a long history of creating dresses and costumes for performers.

(left to right) David McCaffrey , Wallis Giunta and  Kevin Mallon, Opera Lyra's Interim Artistic Director & the conductor of Marriage of Figaro.

(left to right) David McCaffrey , Wallis Giunta and
Kevin Mallon, Opera Lyra’s Interim Artistic Director & the conductor of Marriage of Figaro.

David McCaffrey is tall and thin and wearing a white and black shirt.
Kevin Mallon, Opera Lyra’s Interim Artistic Director has small round glasses and brown spiky hair.  Wallis Giunta has red hair and is wearing a McCaffrey Haute Couture gown.

Sasha Djihanian tried on her bridal gown, and then sang an aria for guests and media.

Champagne and mimosas were served.

Photo Credits: TWENTY YORK STREET / MASHAELL Photography

Susanna (Sasha Djihanian)

Susanna (Sasha Djihanian)

Posted in Opera, Press Releases and Announcements | 2 Comments

10 Questions for James Westman

I’ve been hearing the name of Baritone James Westman quite a lot, of late. He’s been in new operas such as Silent Night just this past November in Calgary, or Tovey’s The Inventor.

James Westman plays Lt. Gordon in Calgary Opera’s Silent Night (Photo: Brigitta Diehl)

He was soloist in Messiah with the New York Philharmonic in December, and is fresh from playing Enrico in Pacific Opera’s Lucia di Lammermoor in February. Later this month Westman sings the Count in Opera Lyra’s Marriage of Figaro in Ottawa, and sings Germont in the Canadian Opera Company’s La traviata to open next season.

But first on the occasion of his Count in Opera Lyra’s Figaro I ask Westman ten questions: five about himself and five more about the production.

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

I am definitely more like my mother, Doris Levy-Westman. She recently passed away, which was very difficult for me, as she was a huge influence on my career. She taught music in over twenty regional school houses. A fantastic fiddler; she chorded piano for June Carter Cash, Ward Allen and the Tommy Hunter Show. She was a relentless yet graceful stage mom who nurtured a deep appreciation for all music in my youth. Many weekends were spent on the 1771 heritage farm jamming with great Canadian fiddlers, country stars and even classical musicians. I believe they came for her famous baked goods, nevertheless, I devoured the live music creations often joining in with my fiddle and voice! Her carefully crafted guidance in my youth enabled me to perform and record with Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Zander, Vienna Boys Choir, American Boys’ Choir, Paris Boys’ Choir, Boston Symphony and the Toronto Symphony; all before I was 13 years of age!

My traditional father desperately wanted his son to be a hockey playing farmer. He discouraged my mother from accepting a full scholarship at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto to become a farm house wife. He seldom attends my performances. He inspires me greatly in all my ‘Verdian’ paternal roles!

2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?

James Westman's Ford with Bryn Terfel's Falstaff in Houston

James Westman’s Ford with Bryn Terfel’s Falstaff in Houston

The worst thing about being an opera singer is the traveling – being away from loved ones, friends and family can be disheartening. As a dad, you miss first steps, graduations, first girlfriends, etc.

Just a few years ago I was only home for 25 days out of 365. It is a challenge, yet I must be creative in finding and pursuing ways to be involved in my families lives. My sons, Liam and Hardy are award-winning musicians and furthermore, play hockey at the highest AAA provincial level. I use Skype to coach, parent, and give them as much foundation as I can. My partner Dini is the absolute best and I am nothing without her! She guides the home front to outstanding success.

The best thing about being an opera singer is the beautiful pleasure of creating, healing and communicating with an audience. It is the best job in the world. It is the responsibility of all artists to relentlessly serve the audience by removing, revealing or escaping stresses of everyday life. Like a doctor loves to heal the body, I love to heal the souls of my patients (the audience)!

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

I have collected a huge selection of old operatic 78-RPM records. I have converted many to my ipod and listen to them daily. I love to analyze the traditions of the greats like Warren, Battisti, Caruso, Etc. I play them on any of my several gramophones. The colors and nuances that these early 20th century artists produced continues to astound me.
In general, the current state of opera has little respect for true ‘bel canto’ singing; it’s all about how loud can you sing above an overblown orchestra in a hall usually built for traveling amplified musicals. It is a shame because the audience suffers the most from this trend – of course, there are exceptions to every rule!

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



I am currently [a few days ago, when James sent his answers] performing Lucia di Lammermoor with the great Tracy Dahl (Pacific Opera Victoria) and her coloratura is simply amazing. Furthermore, I studied for many years with Dame Joan Sutherland; I would love to have the ability to sing high dramatic coloratura for just one night. It may be the old boy soprano in me… but to float with that much pure power would be divine!

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

To catch one of my sons hockey games, to hear them practicing their violin/cello. To spend long walks through the bush on my family farm. I never take these family moments for granted.

*******

click for more information about the Opera Lyra production

Five more about playing Count Almaviva in the upcoming Marriage of Figaro in Ottawa.

1) Please talk about the challenges of singing the role of Count Almaviva.

I would like to tell you that Count Almaviva is a challenge, but frankly, compared to some of the Donizetti/Puccini/Verdi roles I perform, Il Conte is a relative walk in the park. I think the recitative causes me the most grief and yet they give me the greatest rewards.

Like in all music the skill of any musician is achieving precise cooperative dynamics. Creating the perfect arched crescendos and diminuendos while maintaining precise Mozart articulation is a challenge with wonderful rewards.

2) The Count is a character who is sometimes seen as the villain of the piece, sometimes as a bit of a rogue. How do you approach your portrayal?

I love this character for his diverse relations to all that surround him. He is a political figure caught up with useless desires, traditional prejudices, and a displaced ego. Played seriously he is a true buffoon. I study regal posturing and mannerisms from different monarchs to give this character a true sense of stage presence. Even Almaviva’s Italian should be of the highest Florentine precision.

3) Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?

My favourite moment in this opera is the finale in Act 2. Having everyone come into the scene to crescendo into chaos demonstrates the true genius of the work.

My favourite Count Almaviva moment is at the end of the opera when he says “Contessa perdono” (Countess forgive me). It is a sublime truthful moment in the opera that finishes the dramatic arch of my Character. I am in tears every time I sing this.

Baritone James Westman (photo: Dario Acosta)

Baritone James Westman (photo: Dario Acosta)

4) As Opera Lyra comes back from the brink, please speak about the importance of cultivating a strong group of Canadian singers.

We have a massive tradition of opera in Canada. It stems from the profound tutelage of the University of Toronto Opera School that was created from talented Italian opera ‘refugees’ after WW2. Most people do not realize that Canada produces more professional opera singers per capita than any other country in the world. Canadian singers have been representing Canada with excellence for many years.

I am to a fault, truly Canadian…… played hockey……made thousands of gallons of maple syrup…….played fiddle with the best of them and …..tinkers on a 1771 heritage farm. I have the authority to say it is our Canadian duty to support and nurture this truly Canadian art form called Opera. It is humankind’s greatest achieved art form and must continue to flourish in one of the world’s greatest societies; Canada. Canadian opera with Canadian singers healing Canadian audiences – we owe that to ourselves.

James Westman with Joan Sutherland

James Westman with Joan Sutherland

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

Miss Patricia Kern is my mentor and without her guidance and vast knowledge I would still be toiling on the family farm. I have had many great close mentors (Dame Joan Sutherland, Martin Katz, Marilyn Horne, Neil Semer, Marlena Malas, Louis Quilico, Sheryl Milnes), however, Miss Kern’s wisdom is in the forefront of my mind every time I sing.

*******

James Westman will be singing the role of Count Almaviva in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Opera Lyra, opening March 21st and running until March 28th.

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TSO – A Mind of Winter

“A Mind of Winter” is the name of a composition as well as the title for tonight’s Toronto Symphony concert in their New Creations Festival, curated by composer George Benjamin and featuring the residency of singer & conductor Barbara Hannigan.

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

The winter-themed composition that gave the name to our evening was Benjamin’s youthful setting of a Wallace Stevens poem sung by Hannigan. This one begins in the most remarkable way, its string harmonics & high winds making me shiver. It was a curious perception to notice that “high” or “low”, like cold or hot are relative concepts, that sometimes a soprano can sound high, and sometimes sound low alongside those shimmering sounds. As in the concert co-presented by the TSO &  COC earlier this week, Hannigan held back, letting her voice emerge from the midst of the orchestral sound, almost as though she were merely another instrument. It seemed to end too soon, but I suppose that’s a sign of a good composition: that you don’t want it to end.

I wonder, does one contemplate winter differently from in the middle of it –as we currently are—or from a distance? Vivian Fung’s second Violin Concerto “Of Snow and Ice” conceived by an expat Canadian living in California received its world premiere tonight. I suspect I’d welcome a chance to be plunged into virtual cold at the height of a heat wave, whereas the desolation of this endless winter might leave me less patient than I might otherwise be. While I was impressed by the playing of TSO concertmaster Jonathan Crow in the concerto, I don’t think I really understood Fung’s composition, a forbidding portrait that had my companion saying “it’s just like winter: because it’s too long”.

Two other pieces on the program with no connection to winter opened & closed the program, respectively Dai Fujikura’s Tocar y Luchar, and Henri Dutilleux’s Métaboles. Benjamin led a sensitive reading of Fujikura’s piece to open the evening, while TSO music director Peter Oundjian and the TSO were especially inspired in Métaboles. As with temperature or pitch, newness too is relative. While the Dutilleux may have been edgy and new at one time, the TSO played with a conviction to suggest that we were hearing a modern classic. When music is played infrequently, certainty can be elusive: but not this time.

Oundjian can be pleased at the crowd—enthiuastic recipients of the TSO’s offerings—who assembled to hear contemporary music on a February night. New Creations is prospering, with more to come next week (click logo for more info).

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Leave a comment

Soundstreams’ Whisper Opera and the meaning of meaning

It’s a cute phrase I heard in a Tom Robbins novel, as someone speaks in passing of “the meaning of meaning”. I love it because it simultaneously references our understanding (and what it means to mean) and yet sounds like nonsense (repeat any word enough times and it becomes pure sound, while becoming less meaningful).

David Lang, composer & librettist of The Whisper Opera (photo: Peter Serling)

David Lang, composer & librettist of The Whisper Opera (photo: Peter Serling)

David Lang’s The Whisper Opera, presented by Soundstreams at the Theatre Centre struck me as a new flavour of minimalism. I invoke that word not because we were hearing anything I’ve previously understood as minimalism such as pattern music. Lang is both the composer & librettist. His text takes fragmentary passages, suggestive phrases sometimes barely heard, and tosses them around, sometimes repeating them obsessively, sometimes going from one thing to another.

If we accept the axiom that meaning is created in the mind of the observer –beauty in the eye of the beholder, right?—then it’s a fascinating game to offer enticing little bits for the observer to assemble. The observer can’t help making sense from the incomplete fragments, particularly because they’re presented meaningfully, presented with conviction. We attribute sense and even weight to these phrases, having no full context except the immanent moment of performance.

Lang’s subtext almost sounds like a manifesto. He stipulates that the performance must never be recorded or videotaped, a small rebellion against our usual practices. It’s therefore designed to be intimate, so that only a very few people can hear it at a time. That’s one reason it’s the whisper opera.  We’re therefore in a rare social situation. As you look at the stage, you see a few heads popping up through the risers in which our seats are embedded, foregrounding our selves in the most curious way. I was reminded of a horrific yet comical image from David Hockney’s marvellous designs for The Rake’s Progress, where the heads poke up through the floor, in this scene from Bedlam.

David Hockney’s design for the scene in bedlam from Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress

Our heads —in the audience—become a creepy / comical part of the backdrop of the performance. The design is by Jim Findlay, a wonderful representation of the world Lang is presenting to us in The Whisper Opera.  See what i mean? the heads are part of the show.

©ARMEN Elliott1030 - The Whisper Opera NYC 2013

©ARMEN Elliott1030 – The Whisper Opera NYC 2013

Lang wonders about authentic connections between people, problematizing it for us in this presentation where the real heads of this tiny audience are juxtaposed against the dada realm of text swirling quietly around our ears. We are in the bedlam of the virtual world, making sense out of nonsense.

click for more information about Soundstreams’ presentation of The Whisper Opera

The music is quite lovely at times, never boring, often arresting. Yet it’s a very visual kind of concert, the performers above us on their risers, while our heads poke this way and that trying to see everything. It’s a bit of an installation really, because one can’t see everyone easily, and some of us –like this writer—are partially disabled and therefore unable to turn their heads very far. It’s a mixed blessing, as it brought my focus on everything in front of me, especially my fellow audience members, when the performers had wandered to another part of the performance space. The work is presented by soprano Tony Arnold and The International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE).

The Whisper Opera, a splendid metaphor for our world, continues at The Theatre Centre until March 1st.

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10 Questions for Leslie Dala

Conductor Leslie Dala aka Les Dala is especially well-known out west, having conducted at the Vancouver Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria and Vancouver Bach Choir, at Banff Centre and UBC Opera Ensemble.  In October 2014 he conducted Vancouver Opera’s world premiere production of Stickboy by Neil Weisensel and Shane Koyczan, and just this month he stepped in to lead a production of The Magic Flute at Edmonton Opera.

An avid performer of contemporary music, Dala has recorded three dramatic works by Canadian composer Harry Somers, including Death of Enkidu starring tenor David Pomeroy for Centrediscs, and worked with all of the leading contemporary music ensembles in Vancouver, including the Hard Rubber Orchestra, Standing Wave and the Turning Point Ensemble. While Music Director of the Prince George Symphony he led several premieres of newly-commissioned works. Dala comes to Toronto next year to lead the Canadian premiere of Philippe Boesmans’ 2012 opera Julie in a co-production by Soundstreams & Canadian Stage.  But he’s already here at the University of Toronto’s Opera Department, leading Dominick Argento’s 1971 opera Postcard from Morocco in a production running March 12-15th at the Edward Johnson Building.

On the occasion of his return to U of T, I ask Dala ten questions: five about himself and five more about conducting Postcard from Morocco.

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

I think I am a real cross between the two. Physically I resemble my father in a way that is almost scary and I think I share a lot of his personality traits. When it comes to the whole artistic side of things, that is really from my mom. She was a very talented and ambitious young musician growing up in Budapest in the 1940’s who studied piano, organ, violin and singing and dreamed of having a career in music. Then came the revolution in 1956 and life changed quite drastically…

She passed on her love of music to myself and my three siblings (my brother, Peter is also a conductor) and she sang in the church choir for years. Sadly she now has dementia and is in a care facility but she still responds to classical music.

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

Conductor Leslie Dala

It is both an exhilarating and humbling feeling to stand in front of a group of instrumentalists and/or singers and to be able to initiate and shape the music that they play/sing. At the best of times, it is like being part of something bigger than life especially if the repertoire is something like Beethoven #9 or Shostakovich #5.

Regardless of the size of ensemble, I am true believer that all music making should be like chamber music and it requires everyone involved to be fully committed and to feel that their individual voices are essential to the whole experience. At the worst of times, it can feel like you are a lone voice in the wilderness trying to create order out of chaos.

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

My tastes in music are quite wide ranging. I love listening to everything from John Adams to Frank Zappa! I go through phases where I tend to listen to one composer for a while, usually to balance out whatever rep I am working on. The past month has been really interesting as I have been working on the Magic Flute, Shostakovich #5, Elijah and Postcard from Morocco with rehearsals and performances overlapping so at times like that Bach instrumental music and David Bowie provide nice relief!

As far as watching, I rarely sit in front of the TV but I do like to watch sporting events whether it be a hockey game, football, baseball or tennis just for the something different. I think YouTube is one of the greatest things ever and I enjoy watching performances of classical music. It is such an incredible resource and learning experience!

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

I wish I was more of an athlete. I have tremendous respect for people who push themselves to the brink of their physical abilities.

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

I love to go for walks, especially by the seawall in Vancouver where I live or read or just sit and enjoy a nice cold beer or a glass of wine.

*******

Five more about conducting Postcard from Morocco in March for University of Toronto’s Opera Department.

1-You lead professional opera productions and student ones (for instance at UBC). Please talk about the difference(s) between leading a professional production of an opera and one at a university opera department.

On the one hand, the process is the same and ideally the expectations are the same: namely, to collaborate with everyone to put together the best possible show we are capable of. The primary difference between the professional world and the student world is not the level of talent but the level of experience. We live in a time where there are so many excellent young singers receiving very fine training who are determined to succeed in this very challenging profession. This is my second opera at U of T and I find the singers to be at a very high level and they are extremely well prepared and very willing to work hard. When people have the right attitude and are willing to work hard, there is nothing they cannot accomplish!

2-Please introduce Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco to a first-time listener of this 20th century work.

This is a piece I only knew by title before I started learning it. I have been marvelling at what a finely constructed score this is and so colourful. Some of it may strike the listener as being strange or modern but most of it is, I think very approachable. Argento writes extremely well for the voice and for the small instrumental ensemble and there are many hauntingly beautiful musical moments. The story on the other hand is quite bizarre and I am still not really sure what is going on! The story is set in 1914 in a train station in Zurich with the seven characters all sharing or guarding the contents of their suitcases. Some of the episodes are quite surreal!

Michael Cavanagh

I am so grateful that we have the amazing Michael Cavanagh directing this show. He is so wonderful at deconstructing what is going on and giving the singers very clear directions on how to tell the story. I would suspect that there will be many people who will come to the show and leave scratching their heads wondering what they just saw and heard but I think it will stay with them in a good way.

3- what’s your favourite moment in the opera?

It is difficult to pick just one, but I am awfully fond of the aria that the soprano sings in the latter part of the show with the text : “I keep my beloved in a box…this box…my lover is in here at this moment..” the music is very slow and still and it makes me think of the music of Olivier Messiaen, one of my favourite composers. There is also an amazing instrumental interlude called “Souvenirs de Bayreuth” which is basically a foxtrot based on themes from Wagner’s works. Some of the themes are obvious and some are hidden but Argento skilfully weaves them together in a most virtuosic manner. I am still not sure what will be going on dramatically at this point as it has not been staged yet but I am sure it will be something quite delicious.

4-How does it feel as an alumnus to come back to conduct an opera at the MacMillan Theatre?

It is very enjoyable to work in a place that I have so many fond memories of as a student. When I was at UofT, I was a piano performance major studying with William Aide and although I had a lot of singer friends, I literally had no involvement with the opera program. I was the accompanist for the Chamber Choir led by Doreen Rao for three years which I really enjoyed doing as my early education was at St. Michael’s Choir School so singing has always been very close to my heart. I still feel very much a student so it is just nice to know that I can hopefully offer something to people who are just starting out and try to encourage and guide them as best as I can over a short period of time.

5-Is there a teacher or influence who you recall that’s especially important to your development, that you’d care to mention?

Lorand Fenyves

I have been so fortunate to study with many amazing musicians like William Aide, Marek Jablonski, Lee Kum Sing and Lorand Fenyves for chamber music. When I was a teenager I studied the violin with a remarkable Hungarian lady named Elizabeth Tomosvary. She emigrated to Canada in her sixties and taught virtually up until her death at the age of 99! She had a tremendous passion for music and she was always curious to learn more and had incredible patience teaching young beginners. She was a subscriber to the TSO and she would go to so many concerts and she would always share what she had learned from the experience, whether it was the fingering or bowing someone had used or whether it was the stage presence of a particular performer. I thought to myself then that I would like to be like her and love my craft and always want to learn more.

*******

Postcard from Morocco
MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building
80 Queen’s Park
March 12 to 14, 2015, 7.30pm
March 15, 2015, 2.30pm

For more information on our season, please email info@uoftopera.ca or
call the Faculty of Music at 416.978.3740.

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Barbara Hannigan “dissolved in swirling sound… a spark of the holy fire”

The title of the movement is “Entrückung”, the text by Stefan George, the score to the String Quartet by Arnold Schoenberg, the concert part of the New Creations Festival curated by George Benjamin, a late-afternoon incarnation of the Canadian Opera Company’s free noon-hour concert series. Benjamin was not just programming but maybe also illuminating Barbara Hannigan, the soloist in the last two movements of that quartet and his star in Written on Skin.

Maybe “collaborator” is a more politically correct word than “star”, but I can’t avoid that four letter word.  Hannigan is very humble, speaking of herself as a singer and a conductor.  A word that’s conspicuous for its omission is “actor” (or actress if you want to use an older less PC construction), considering Hannigan’s gifts, as in her Lulu that’s still available online.

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

Barbara Hannigan (photo: Elmer de Haas)

At one point the rapture (or “Entrückung”) of the song is expressed in terms that seem to epitomize Hannigan and her artistry.

Ich löse mich in tönen, kreisend, webend,
Ungründigen danks und unbenamten lobes
Dem grossen atem wunschlos mich ergebend.

[or in other words]

I am dissolved in swirling sound, weaving
fathomless thanks with unnamed praise
yielding wishless to the mighty breath.

It echoes Schopenhauer’s view of the divinity of art, and Wagner’s Liebestod and the world-breath with which one finds ultimate unity.  Watching Hannigan emerge from the midst of the Toronto Symphony’s Chamber Soloists (Jonathan Crow, Peter Seminovs, Teng Li and Joseph Johnson), beginning to sing only in the third movement, it’s as though she verbalizes and articulates what’s latent in the music.  The movement’s conclusion is a hymn to art.

In einem meer kristalinen glanzes schwimme –
ich bin ein funke nur vom keilgen feuer
Ich bin ein dröhnen nur der heiligen stimme.

[or in other words]

In a sea of crystal splendour—
I am only a spark of the holy fire,
I am only a roar of the holy voice.

We were genuinely in a realm of chamber music rather than the operatic spaces where I’ve usually encountered Hannigan’s work.  With a few exceptions, she sang more like a lieder singer than an opera singer, rarely pushing beyond a gentle mezzo-piano that sailed comfortably through the string sounds arrayed around her.  There were a few wonderfully climactic phrases, presented with such authenticity that one felt the entire work pointed organically to that climax.  And although Crow has a sound apt for a concertmaster with a strong & supple line when he wants to assert himself, he too mostly opted for subtlety and self-effacement. It’s a quartet that begins conventionally enough, the vocalism saved for the last two movements.

Chausson’s Chanson Perpétuelle followed, the TSO quartet and Hannigan augmented by the addition of Liz Upchurch at the piano.  This piece from the 1890s is the oldest composition I’ve ever heard from Hannigan: an artist with whom I associate edgy performance & challenging composition.  This too was an occasion for understatement, Chausson being a composer who gives the singer the eloquence of a poet rather than the extroverted mannerisms of a virtuoso.

In case you’re wondering, yes Hannigan can play it that way too.   But she chose to honour the text and the occasion.

New Creations Festival has just begun. For further information visit the TSO’s website.

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