The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) cost $90 million to make but earned only $58 million. Even with the few bucks on PPV I spent tonight this is a film that seems to bely its own messages.    It’s an affirmative movie for a dark time, something Frank Capra might have appreciated even if it‘s missing his kind of happy ending.  “Dream big” it seems to say, or “don’t worry about the bottom line.”  But it’s a nasty world we live in.  In the 1930s FDR was President and everything was possible.  Now in Obama’s Presidency? nothing is possible except negative commentary (and forgive me if i’m guilty of same…i miss Capra, miss believing in the impossible).

No, this is not the story as we know it from James Thurber, as elegant & understated a piece of brilliance as you could ever encounter.  Believe it or not it’s available online, having first appeared in the New Yorker.

It’s been adapted several times for stage, once before onscreen with Danny Kaye, and now as a vehicle for Ben Stiller.  I never liked the Danny Kaye version.  I think I like Ben Stiller’s too much.  It breaks my heart that this film is so true to its own world.  This Walter Mitty’s daydreams are juxtaposed against an unforgiving backdrop of Life Magazine at the very end of its existence.   Losing your job doesn’t have to define you, the film says.  Money isn’t everything.  Materialism is wrong.

I love what this film is saying even if its lack of success suggests that most people are too busy struggling to find a job to believe in its messaging.  I think we’re in a time that needs  Capra’s schmaltzy comedy more than Stiller’s subtle zen.

What’s particularly different about this film is that Mitty defies his own name to become someone different.  That doesn’t mean he becomes rich or successful, just that he ceases to be a dreamer, and stops struggling.  It’s deep.

There are two remarkable performances alongside Stiller.  Kristen Wiig shows me that she can act, giving us a very laid-back presence that’s devoid of the usual frenetic weirdness with which she’s usually associated in her other roles.  Sean Penn gives us a persona that might be a parody of Sean Penn, but even so is very enjoyable.

I am not surprised that the film seemed to confirm everything the bad guys in the film were saying.  The values associated with print magazines & those of us who still remember how to read are quietly affirmed even though it’s a completely equivocal ending.

I wish I could forecast that ten years from Stiller’s Mitty becomes a film with a cult following, even a money-maker.  This is a beautiful poignant film to watch, but one that is bittersweet.   I love this adaptation even though I wonder: will Stiller get another opportunity to direct?  Or will the bottom line dictate that it’s not permitted..?

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Looking at Lully

There are two departure points for this little excursion.
1) Opera Atelier’s Toronto revival of Persee opening next week
2) Joseph Kerman’s departure from the realm of the living, earlier this year.

In Opera as Drama Kerman looks at a great many works while presenting his thesis that “the composer is the dramatist”.  It’s a seminal idea, whether or not it‘s always true.

I want to zero in on a small part of the book, a chapter called “The Dark Ages”.  Kerman’s viewpoint –that the baroque is a little known period of “unparalleled dramatic fatuity”–is dated.  I don’t deny that I bristle at the way he characterizes the artists of this period.  One of the big challenges in our encounter with a score (whether we‘re reading through it or hearing a performance)  from the baroque is all too familiar from encounters with new music (and one of which i must be mindful of, encountering new operas last week from Fawn Opera, or as i listen to a new CD by Jocelyn Morlock).  We won’t know the music, nor will the performers, which changes everything.  A score is like a puzzle that must be solved –and can be solved sometimes in several ways–before the performance happens.  We may mistake the effects we hear –the misadventures or failed experiments of performers–for the work of the composer, their challenges perhaps still too daunting.  We may not appreciate how familiar & mainstream works come to be known inside out by performers as they grow up, as part of their pedagogy and therefore as touchstones of eloquence & virtuosity.  Before singers learn how to float the high note at the end of an aria there may be years of struggle that are like a kind of debate, as different approaches are tried out.

Music director David Fallis (click picture to see the cast & artist biographies)

Now imagine that we as modern performers, scholars and listeners come upon a body of work from a composer without having heard others sing this repertoire.  We can only work from what we’ve done before as singers, gradually figuring out new approaches.  Lully is such a composer, one among many whose popularity –more precisely, their lack of popularity–has made him obscure where he was once the most popular in his city.  How to decode his scores with perfect fidelity to the style of the time–that is, how to read the music and understand the various implied and unwritten requirements in the score that are part of the consensus of musicians & singers from that time– is surely impossible.  All we can do is hope that scholarship informs the efforts of the musicians, who read contemporary accounts, who stare at the scores & listen to what other musicians are doing.  Each performance is like an experiment, a speculative assembly of notes & words & especially assumptions.  Even when we’re dealing with music from long ago, there can be a consensus, admittedly among that very small group of performers exploring the repertoire, such as William Christie, David Fallis and others.

That’s all a preamble to looking at what Kerman said, or rather, looking at how Kerman looked at Lully.  Here’s the third paragraph of “The Dark Ages” chapter in its entirety.

    The period between Monteverdi and Gluck can also be called the dark ages of opera.  In spite of all its extent and fame, and in spite of much musicological research, baroque opera is little known today.  It is seldom produced; when it is the nearly always bizarre productions seem designed to distract the audience from one basic fact: that modern directors find it all of unparalleled dramatic fatuity.  The tacit judgment is equally harsh on French court opera, whose lasting model was formed in the 1670’s by Lully, and on the huge tradition of Venice and Naples, which settled in the middle quarters of the next century around the librettos of Metastasio.  French opera was a stilted entertainment combining baroque excesses with the driest neoclassicism.  Italian opera was a shameless virtuoso display, emasculating classic history into a faint and tedious concert in costume. What remains in the musical imagination from French opera is no more than its grave ballet suite; what remains from the Italian are the witty attacks of The Spectator, The Beggar’s Opera and Il treatro alla moda.  And some lyric “gems” to be sure, picked out for students in Gloires d’Italie or Masters of the Bel Canto, and even sung sometimes, in oddly anachronistic versions. (Kerman p40)

Click for more about Linda Hutcheon’s book A Theory of Adaptation

I need hardly mention that the most exciting opera in Toronto right now is another baroque masterpiece, namely Hercules.  The director–Peter Sellars– has indeed given the work a production one might call bizarre, in dressing the cast in the clothes of our own century, making Hercules himself a victim of post-trauma stress disorder.  The design brilliantly incorporates the ancient idea of ritual sacrifice by putting Hercules into a sort of fire-pit. He is indeed burned up by the poisoned cloak, as in the original story, yet informed by modern ideas making this very relevant & very powerful.  Handel is one of the dramatists, but shares surely with the modern team who add a gloss upon the surface of the original.  It seems a perfect demonstration of an effect Linda Hutcheon speaks of in her book about adaptation, where you can see meaning as though through several layers.

Opera Atelier do not super-impose very much over Lully’s scores, although director Marshall Pynkoski does interpret opera boldly.  He explains that historically informed performance still entails interpretation, and not attempting to simply reproduce what was done long ago.  The result is sufficiently reliable that OA revive this opera regularly since their first production sometime around the year 2000.  I recall how excited I was then, and how I’ve had to see at least one performance of each subsequent revival.

It’s no more a “stilted entertainment” than any other opera.  I know if I were to play Handel for some people of my acquaintance they’d laugh at this judgment.  I find Lully very tuneful, the orchestral colours –as embodied in the sounds of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra–seductive, so much so that I always regret when the opera ends.  The voices are not pushed the way they are even in Handel, let alone in Verdi or Puccini, which enables a level of expression one doesn’t expect in opera.  The only analogies  I can easily invoke for comparison are the arias Mozart wrote for Schikaneder in The Magic Flute: easy tunes that allow any singer to suddenly act (so long as they don’t become a ham).  Rossini does similar things in some of his comic ensembles, enabling singers to do schtick while they sing.  How can one act if one is struggling to sing?  Lully got this long ago.

In fairness I suppose Kerman is attempting to paraphrase the attitudes of his time, how others had judged Lully and so many other composers.    I just don’t like how much fun he has heaping abuse on these neglected gems.  And once you’ve seen these works performed you realize why they were popular in their time.  In the meantime, Opera Atelier regularly brings such works back for our amusement.  Persee opens April 26th at the Elgin theatre.  Or you can also see their production on DVD.

Don’t miss your chance to encounter Lully.

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Fawn Opera: l’Homme et le Ciel

I witnessed a clinic on how to create buzz. Let’s review.

Social media spread the word about L’Homme et le Ciel, an opera in progress from Fawn Opera.  This past week, the performers did a workshop, and then opened it up to the public for a single performance.  As a result it was standing room only.  Overheard furtively in the lobby: “are there going to be any more performances”?

The creators spoke briefly, explaining that this is a fragment of a larger work, to be completed and hopefully taken to our hearts.  They admitted it was a bit of a tease, partly for the purpose of fund-raising and to build interest for next time.

They succeeded I believe.  Amanda Smith, Fawn Opera’s Artistic Director, who directed and designed the performance, would seem to be the chief architect & instigator, and has reason to be excited by what we saw and felt tonight.    Having recently seen lots of new opera this year, I have to say Fawn stands up very well in comparison.  This is the most operatic new work I have seen in a long time.  Don’t make me name names, as I’d rather not laud Fawn by denigrating anyone else.  Instead let me unpack that thought.

By setting the work in French we were pushed into a more symbolic place than if we were in English.  I’m not saying I don’t like opera in English –although it’s the exceptional production in English that works for me whereas I always love opera in a foreign language with surtitles– but by creating this distance, we have less of a hurdle to accept music and singing.

By getting a story pertaining to spirituality and times verging on biblical we’re again in a place apt for opera.  No they don’t proselytize or push God into your face. Quite the opposite.  In fact l’Homme et le Ciel challenges or at least problematizes faith and religion.  To put this in reverse, the text wouldn’t work nearly so well were it spoken, especially in English.  By putting it into French, and especially by setting it to music, this text can become something much greater.

Composer Adam Scime explained how he came to collaborate with librettist Ian Koiter, on a story originating in the first centuries AD.

Composer Adam Scime

It’s a wonderful time to invoke; I am reminded of Giasone, the opera I saw last weekend.  Just as Cavalli, composing in the first century of opera avoids being trapped by the conventions bordering on dogma that we see in later composers, so too with a story that addresses spiritual thoughts from before religion was etched into stone.  The critique that’s front and centre in this text feels perfectly natural and not fraught the way it becomes in later periods (thinking for example of Brecht’s Life of Galileo).  Koiter’s version of this old story feels very fluid and unencumbered by the weight of doctrine.

A man’s passion is central to the story, so we’re in a natural place for singers to be delivering emotional lines accompanied by colorful orchestration.  I believe that expressions of passion have been the thing opera has done best –usually in the mouth of women rather than men–where you have a perfect vehicle for song and music.

There were three scenes, each substantially different musically from the other.  The first scene was very busy musically, at times overflowing with colour & dense with information.  The style felt somewhat modernist in its brazen dissonances (not sure if it was 12 tone or not), sometimes more expressionist in the powerful commitment to emotion and bursts of colour from the small ensemble playing beside the stage.  The dramaturgy reminds me of Salome (or Acteon) in the audience’s complicit voeurism, watching the protagonist Hermas watching and being moved by a beautiful woman, the small orchestra at times overpowering us with the intensity of the moment.

The second scene sounded much quieter, more reflective, more subjective, and that makes sense considering that the protagonist Hermas is asleep,  having a vision that’s enacted before us.  I had the impression (unsure because we didn’t have surtitles at this point) that Hermas seemed unwilling to accept the standard –religious– judgment for his very human responses.  And of course we the viewers are again complicit, drawn in and taken along on his journey. Smith’s design employed huge vinyl sheets resembling  shower curtains: making it all very intimate.

The third scene, I confess, mystified me, but let me add that this didn’t stop me one iota.  The surtitles stopped functioning partway through, yet this isn’t a bad thing.  I recall that the opening of Svadba had a similar problem, a performance also received rapturously.  I daresay that maybe some of us are tired of knowing what everything means, and enjoy being in a mysterious and problematic place: which is precisely where we were.  The synopsis tells me that Hermas sees another figure during his sleep who speaks to him about  temptations & family.  I only got that Hermas was again struggling with the discrepancy between what he saw and felt, between spirit & body.  At times in this scene –where the words (not fully heard, without surtitles) were the barest guideline– I was still carried away by the combination of the mysterious images before me, the singers and Scime’s composition.

At times the music included electronic elements, possibly via digital delay or some sort of processing of the performance, or maybe music originating from other performers.  There were people sitting behind us –in addition to the six-member ensemble of acoustic instrumentalists–who may have been playing other instruments.  I couldn’t tell, only that there were sounds coming from speakers, and I don’t claim to know how they were created.   I like electro-acoustic hybrids and combinations, and only wish I knew a bit better how these sounds originated.

I liked the sound of the vocalists even if I am hesitant about saying too much, when I was out to sea for much of the performance due to the absence of titling.  That only means I don’t know precisely what they were singing at a given moment, but still was moved by them.  Hermas was very effectively sung and enacted by Giovanni Maria Spanu. Rhoda, the woman bathing in the river who inspires Hermas’ responses, was sung by Larissa Koniuk.  Adanya Dunn was the Messenger, also a strong presence.

Fawn Opera return May 3rd with Synesthesia III, at which time several short films will be presented with new scores performed live for the occasion.  L’Homme et le Ciel will be presented in a more finished form at the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener in June.

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Kidd Pivot-The Tempest Replica@CanStage

“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

Canadian Stage presents
the Toronto premiere of The Tempest Replica created by award-winning Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite

A Kidd Pivot production
on stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre May 7 to 11, 2014
Toronto, ON – Award-winning choreographer Crystal Pite (Dark Matters, The You Show) returns to Toronto with her newest work, The Tempest Replica. Presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre for five performances only from May 7 to 11, Pite’s critically acclaimed company Kidd Pivot transforms one of Shakespeare’s final plays, The Tempest, into an innovative dance creation.“In 2012, audiences were thrilled by Crystal Pite’s breathtaking dance work Dark Matters,” said Matthew Jocelyn, Artistic and General Director, Canadian Stage.The Tempest Replica is yet another demonstration of her skill as a storyteller of rare distinction. Gorgeous choreography, stunning visuals, projection and an original score come together to create inventively theatrical dance and we are delighted to have one of the country’s most gifted choreographers back at Canadian Stage.”

Using the mastery and articulation of dance, The Tempest Replica is a game of revenge and forgiveness, where reality dances with imagination. Pite explores motifs from Shakespeare’s The Tempest through two parallel worlds. Chalk-white replicas deliver the essential plot points of the story, while the emotion and tension of the narrative is fleshed out by real characters through fierce physical language.

“My hope for the viewer is that, armed with the plot points of a narrative, he or she is more deeply invested in the performance,” said Pite. “The choreography becomes more than just a dance between two people – rather, it is imbued with a story we have all shared.”

Lighting designer Robert Sondergaard cloaks Jay Gower Taylor’s set in white light, while seven dancers move through shadows. Music composed by Pite’s long-time collaborator Owen Belton and a film montage by Jamie Nesbitt round out a production that integrates stunning visuals, projection and an original score.

The Tempest Replica will be on stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre in the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts (27 Front St. E.). Performances run Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., and a matinee on Sunday, May 11 at 2 p.m. A pre-show talk will be held on Friday, May 9 with Crystal Pite to discuss The Tempest Replica‘s themes and development process. A post-show talkback will be held on Saturday, May 10 where dancers from the performance will take questions from the audience. The performance is approximately 80 minutes with no intermission. Tickets from $24 to $99 are available online, by phone at 416.368.3110 or in person at the box office. For details visit

Facebook: Canadian Stage
Twitter: @CanadianStage; #csTempest

For more information or interview requests, please contact:
Rebecca Shoalts, rock-it promotions, 416.656.0707 x104,
Ashley Ballantyne, rock-it promotions, 416.656.0707 x111,

HIGH RESOLUTION PHOTOGRAPHY: Available in the Image Gallery

Photo of The Tempest Replica by Jorg Baumann

About The Tempest Replica
May 7 to 11; Opening and media night: May 7, 2014
A Kidd Pivot production present by Canadian Stage

Production Sponsor: Scotiabank

Bryan Arias
Eric Beauchesne
Peter Chu
Sandra Marín Garcia
Yannick Matthon
David Raymond
Cindy Salgado

Apprentice                                        Ralph Escamillan

Creative Team
Composer                                        Owen Belton
Sound Designers                             Alessandro Juliani, Meg Roe
Voice                                                Peter Chu, Meg Roe
Lighting Designer                             Robert Sondergaard
Set Designer                                    Jay Gower Taylor
Projection Designer                         Jamie Nesbitt
Costume Designer                           Nancy Bryant
Costume Builder                              Linda Chow
Prop Builders                                   Hagen Bonifer, Arnold Frühwald

Technical Director                           Jeremy Collie-Holmes
Audio Visual Technician                  Eric Chad
Stage Manager                               Heidi Quicke

World Premiere – October 20, 2011: Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, Frankfurt, Germany
The Tempest Replica is a co-production of Künstlerhaus Mousonturm (Frankfurt), Gemeinnütziger Kulturfonds Frankfurt Rhein Main, Monaco Dance Forum (Monaco), Sadler’s Wells (London), National Arts Centre (Ottawa), DanceHouse (Vancouver), L’Agora de la danse (Montreal), and SFU Woodward’s (Vancouver).

About Crystal Pite:

Crystal Pite has collaborated with celebrated dance artists, theatre companies and filmmakers in Canada, Europe, and the United States. Since 2002, she has created and performed under the banner of her own company. Her work and her company have been recognized with numerous awards and commissions. Kidd Pivot tours extensively around the world with productions that include The Tempest Replica (2011), The You Show (2010), Dark Matters (2009), Lost Action (2006), and Double Story (2004), created with Richard Siegal. Kidd Pivot is the recipient of the 2006 Rio Tinto Alcan Performing Arts Award, and was resident company at Künstlerhaus Mousonturm, with the support of Kulturfonds Frankfurt Rhein Main, in Frankfurt, Germany from 2010 to 2012.

About Kidd Pivot:

Integrating movement, original music, text, and rich visual design, Kidd Pivot’s performance work is assembled with recklessness and rigour, balancing sharp exactitude with irreverence and risk. Under the direction of internationally renowned Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite, the company’s distinct choreographic language – a breadth of movement fusing classical elements and the complexity and freedom of structured improvisation – is marked by a strong theatrical sensibility and a keen sense of wit and invention.

Shows and Tickets:

Single tickets are available starting at $24, with C-Stage Under 30 tickets available for $15 (taxes and fees included). Discount tickets are available thanks to Sun Life Financial, Discount Ticket Programs Sponsor.Tickets may be purchased online at, by phone at 416.368.3110 or in person at Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre (27 Front St. E.) or Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley St.).

About Canadian Stage:

Founded in 1987, Canadian Stage is one of the country’s leading not-for-profit contemporary theatre companies, with the 2013.2014 season marking the organization’s 26th season. Led by Artistic & General Director Matthew Jocelyn and Managing Director Su Hutchinson, Canadian Stage produces and showcases innovative theatre from Canada and around the world, allowing its audience to encounter daring work guided by a strong directorial vision and a 21st-century aesthetic. The company prides itself on presenting multidisciplinary pieces and work in translation that pushes the boundaries of form and style. Canadian Stage reinforces the presence of Canadian art and artists within an international context through work that mirrors the cultural diversity of Toronto. The company stages an annual season of work at three major venues (the Bluma Appel Theatre, the Berkeley Street Theatre and the High Park Amphitheatre) and runs a series of artist development and education initiatives, as well as youth and community outreach programs. For more information, visit
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AJ Gray this is your life

Harvest Kitchen, Harbord St near Spadina Ave

I came to the restaurant for AJ Gray’s art displayed on the second floor. I’d known this place in its earlier incarnations, and now it has become “Harvest Kitchen”, on Harbord Street in that competitive stretch west of Spadina Ave where there are already several good restaurants (click here to read more)

I’m grateful that Gray has brought me here. For me this is a first experience of its kind. I’ve seen shows encompassing an artist’s lifetime of work. The big Picasso show at AGO two years ago gave us an opportunity to see the art across decades. Of course that’s to be expected with a Picasso. One doesn’t usually encounter work across decades from someone you know,  an artist you know personally whom you’ve seen develop over a long period of time. The headline is maybe a bit hyperbolic, but nonetheless it’s very cool to see art you’ve admired in a kind of context, and to realize you’ve known the artist and seen their work in different centuries.

After Bacon & Moore at the AGO last week, any art I look at in a gallery will seem sedate and that’s certainly true of Gray’s work. No screaming. No war. No death. And that’s great, as I prefer something happy with my food; don’t you?

I’m not going to aim for profoundities. It’s nice simply to share some of Gray’s charm.

"Das Lied von der Erde", AJ Gray

“Das Lied von der Erde”, AJ Gray

One of the older pictures in the show is “Das Lied von der Erde”, or “The Song of the Earth”, title of a symphonic song cycle from Gustav Mahler.  I remember upon first encountering this painting, thinking that the title was impossibly ambitious. The title refers to a rich cycle of songs, six big songs about the meaning of life.  Could one do justice in a painting to a title like that?

But I’m older now, not so judgmental, and i’ve decided that given the choice between safe art that takes no risks and art that ventures boldly where others fear to go, i’ll take the latter every time. I like the work and its ambitions.  And am happy with the way I feel looking at it.

I’m quoting my favourite song of the cycle – “von der Schönheit” or “on Beauty”—because the word appears very delicately lettered into part of the painting.  I think Alison would approve of this selection.

Another Red Barn by AJ Gray

“Another Red Barn” by AJ Gray

“Another Red Barn” paints a scene from out west in the province of Manitoba. I love the way it suggests a relationship with the sky and the elements.  The land seems to be larger than life, the house so small and insignificent. I’ve never been there.  One  of the cool things about AJ and her work is how Canadian it feels, how it evokes places in this country.  She and her partner used to drive, rather than fly, so i suppose it’s no wonder that we have such a clear sense of the places where she lived.

The West Door by AJ Gray

“The West Door” by AJ Gray

“The West Door” is a warm reminder of one of my favourite places in Toronto, namely Union Station.

I see “The Way Out” and “The Way Away from ‘Away’” as related images. AJ and her partner lived in Nova Scotia for awhile, but did manage to make the trek to Toronto. These are more than landscapes, suggesting moods, places over the hill. As light and inspiring as one is, the other is darker, more equivocal.

I giggle looking at “Greater Philosopher’s Kite,” if I do really get it. If you have ever been a kite flyer you know the feeling of losing a kite in a tree. Is this kite really so beautiful, or is it only because it’s lost in a tree? It looks that much more amazing in person.  I see on the website that the title comes from Philosopher’s Walk, a charming bit of landscape running through the University of Toronto.

Greater Philospher's Kite by AJ Gray

“Greater Philospher’s Kite” by AJ Gray

AJ Gray’s show –25 works on paper, plus twelve paintings—runs until April 28th at Harvest Kitchen. I understand that people are encouraged to see the work in the restaurant, but let me add that it’s quite an awesome place to eat with reasonable prices. I ate a subtly spiced peanut soup with African heritage, preceding my kale salad, containing walnuts & blue cheese (gorgonzola?), before I had an Americano to finish.

For more information feel free to go to (where there’s lots more) or send questions via email to

The Way Away from by AJ Gray

“The Way Away from ‘Away’” by AJ Gray

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Giasone: Back to the Future

What a weekend.  While I only managed to get to three things in three days (Tap:Ex Friday, Hercules Saturday, and Giasone today) I feel I’ve been to a symposium studying the possibilities for opera.  It’s a happy accident that the sequence bore me back in time, from Friday’s modern-day explorations, Saturday’s Regie-mented approach to the baroque, and today’s 17th Century adventure with Cavalli.

As per Opera as Drama, which is on my mind since Joseph Kerman’s passing three weeks ago, it’s worth remembering  the author’s admonition that each composer’s approach is a solution to a particular set of challenges and/or problems that need to be seen in context of the time.  Have we made any progress since Cavalli?  I’m not sure, after looking back at what I saw and heard this weekend, which is another way of saying that the first century of opera may have been its best.

Wagner’s axiom comes to mind. Music may have been enlisted as a means to an end, namely  drama, but in time music had become its end while drama, once understood as the end of opera had become merely a means to an end.  Listening to Cavalli, so much earlier in the history of opera, I can’t help thinking that we’ve found a “wayback machine”, enabling us to experience a time before we went off track, before we lost our way in formal silliness.  Cavalli’s music is as flexible as Monteverdi, which is to say that the relationship between words & music had not yet ossified into the more rigid formal relationships one sees a century later in Handel, conventions that—however beautiful they may be—slow everything down.  Cavalli feels edgy after Handel.  That’s one reason for the headline, the sense that in going back to Cavalli one can possibly discover pathways more fertile than what came later.

Forms and conventions can be helpful pathways, but also traps.   We gain from having expectations as an audience, helping us know what to expect.  But when those pathways get in the way maybe we should re-think those choices: as modern composers appear to do.  My promiscuity is showing, i suppose.  I truly love the one I’m with, and that can be a 21st century composer Friday, a baroque composer Saturday re-thought by a modern American director with funky hair & beads, a 17th century composer on Sunday, or the encore broadcast of Prince Igor from the Met next weekend.

The Toronto Consort: (top row) David Fallis, Alison Melville, Michelle DeBoer, John Pepper, Paul Jenkins, (bottom row) Katherine Hill, Terry McKenna, Laura Pudwell, Ben Grossman. Photo Credit: Paul Orenstein

Today, however, I’m in love with Cavalli & the approach of Toronto Consort, a multi-talented bunch who are thoroughly inter-connected with other companies in Toronto, particularly via Artistic Director David Fallis who’s also resident music director for Opera Atelier, and one of the best choral conductors in Canada.  Size is a recurring theme for me, as companies that have become too big to be sustainable fail to survive, alongside those that strategically avoid getting too big.  Where we expect recent arrivals such as Against the Grain or Opera Five to live the small-is-beautiful philosophy, it’s especially heart-warming in a company that’s been around since 1972.  Toronto Consort are not an opera company, I should mention, but their example is important.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell

Mezzo-soprano Laura Pudwell

We watched a concert performance with lights up, following in a libretto including side by side English & Italian.  This feels apt considering what I’ve read about performance norms in the 18th century; I wish the COC or Opera Atelier would try this sometime.  Cavalli intersperses serious and comic as quickly as Shakespeare, with a flexibility one doesn’t see in opera from later centuries.  While I didn’t test Cicognini’s libretto with a stopwatch, the words seem to move much quicker per page than most operas, particularly Handel, who can sit on a pair of lines for five minutes.  In places the texture is like a very dry recitative, responsive to whatever hijinks the comedians might wish to put over; in this case the chief comedian was Bud Roach as Demo, a stuttering hunchback servant, although both Laura Pudwell as Giasone and Michele DeBoer as Medea had the audience laughing aloud.  With the exception of Roach whose broad delivery suited a character showing the influences of the Commedia dell’Arte , everyone seemed to underplay in a largely deadpan delivery.

The whole time we’re going back and forth between bawdy comedy & something of nobility, the music was gorgeous throughout, whether groups of plucked, bowed or wind instruments.  The opera is not segmented in the baroque sense, with few full stops to elicit applause.  And so it moves steadily, the music rhythmic, tuneful & always supportive without ever stopping us dead, the way operatic music is wont to do.   What a pleasure getting lost in the richness of Pudwell’s tone.

Now if only someone –Opera Atelier?–would stage this opera for us…(?)

Michael Slattery

Tenor Michael Slattery (photo: Ned Schenck)


Toronto Consort have announced their 2014-2015 season, including an appearance next March by Michael Slattery & La Nef exploring the hypothesis that Dowland might have been Irish.

There’s no way I’ll miss that.

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Sellars’s Hercules

If I had a dime for every time I’ve seen an opera modernized via the use of modern military garb I could buy an opera subscription.  But someone was bound to make it work, right?

I saw the Canadian Opera Company’s co-production of Handel’s Hercules today.  In the early going, wondering whether it could possibly live up to the hype, wondering whether director Peter Sellars’s interpretation could possibly hold together, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the musical side was impeccable.  Conductor Harry Bicket gets the COC orchestra to sound like a period ensemble, the strings repressing their usual vibrato, the soloists singing and enunciating as well as any cast heard at the COC in a long time.

And then a key image.  Hercules has returned from war bringing Iole, the captive princess.  The story is ambiguous, allowing for a number of different approaches and interpretations.  In other encounters with the story I’ve sympathized with Dejanira’s jealousy, largely because Hercules is a swaggering passive aggressive hero who expects the world to revolve around him. While Dejanira doesn’t mean to be the agent of her husband’s death, it has always struck me as karma considering his arrogance, bringing a beautiful girl home.  Usually that is.  This time is different.


(l-r) David Daniels as Lichas (in background), Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and Kaleb Alexander as Soldier in the Canadian Opera Company production of Hercules, 2014. Conductor Harry Bicket, director Peter Sellars, set designer George Tsypin, costume designer Dunya Ramicova and lighting designer James F. Ingalls. Photo: Michael Cooper

Sure, the image is wonderfully modern.  But what’s remarkable about it is what it accomplishes in the plot.  Whatever politician or film I might cite to segue from, it’s by now trite to speak of  the modern era as anti-heroic, a time when tragedy and heroism are no longer possible.  But wait.  Because of this image, we can confidently believe Hercules.  A captive princess –meaning someone looking like a princess– bemoaning her captivity doesn’t usually have any credibility once Dejanira starts to express her fears.   But no princess gets treated this way (as in the picture).  For once Iole looks & sounds like a genuine captive.

Maybe I’m naive, but to me, this changes everything.  The story is entirely different as a result.

It means suddenly that Hercules’ promises of fidelity  to Dejanira (the ones any Hercules makes) aren’t mere promises.  They’re true.  Suddenly honour is possible, because someone kept his promises, even in this nasty post- classical post- heroic post trauma stress disordered age.

We’re watching this happen in George Tsypin’s setting that’s a lot like Handel’s oratorio, a hybrid of old and new.  Broken columns allude to the classical, surrounding wreckage at centre upstage that resembles nothing so much as the coals on a barbecue.  No one walks into this no man’s land except for the one painful aria near the end, Hercules writhing and moaning as he burns up with the poison that’s to kill him.

I’ve written so much about Regietheater (aka “director’s theatre”) and the perpetual battle between directors and singers –for instance in the lengthy preamble to my review of Tapestry’s current show—that one might assume that I dislike directors who depart from the original.  Certainly I can’t help noticing that it’s a funny time for adaptations of all kinds (not just the operatic sort), possibly due to the sophistication of the modern audience.  Directors can assume a great deal with confidence, pushing audiences out of their comfort zones, especially because there’s excitement in the discrepancies, elaborations on old warhorses.

Let’s put it this way.  I’m an opera score, and I am lying anaesthetized on the operating table awaiting surgery.  Dmitri Tcherniakov, Calixto Bieito and Peter Sellars circle, scalpels ready.  While I like all three as an audience member, I’d feel safest –lying on my back that is– with Sellars, after seeing what he did with Tristan und Isolde and Nixon in China.  Handel is well served if not redeemed at his hands, a life saved, if you will.

I really do feel there’s a kind of battle going on between singers & directors, between the musical & dramatic.  That dialectic is fundamental to opera I suppose.  There is one thing Sellars did that frustrated me, even if I giggled by the time the opera ended.  Sellars felt Wagnerian the way he seemed to thwart the usual segmentation of Hercules. How?   I understand numbers to be opportunities for the soloists, moments for them to shine, impress, knock my socks off.  And when they succeed I want to applaud, and if they’re really good I want to scream bravo in approval.  I say this, slightly hoarse from shouting so much today at the end.  But many times arias would end with a provocative bit of stage business that Sellars created to make it almost impossible to properly applaud.  Singers would leave the stage during the postlude (not at all what’s understood by an “exit aria”), the chorus would come out and obscure the singer.  And so the applause was often curtailed, repressed, bottled up to explode at the end: which was fine actually.  Sellars is a clever manipulator –not  unlike Wagner—but on the whole it was a wonderful experience.

Okay, so let me go back to that other way of reading opera with which I began.  Yes indeed, the singing was wonderful.

Eric Owens doesn’t have as many solos as one might wish for in a title character, but then again the opera is entirely about him.  Failure at this point is the ultimate deal-breaker, but not only do we have a powerful presence, but a truly heroic aura.  Owens’ task is to make us believe something mythic vocally & morally: and he succeeds even while making us believe a contemporary version of a classical hero.  As Dejanira Alice Coote is every bit his equal, larger than life in her passions, particularly in her middle and lower voice.  It’s a long role, an opportunity for an extraordinary singer & personality. Coote takes the stage in every sense.    Lucy Crowe immediately makes an impression as Iole, unexpectedly heart-breaking.  Yes she seemed to have a remote control device to turn on my tear-ducts, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one.  This may be the strongest COC cast I’ve ever heard, down to David Daniels’ clear ringing sound, and Richard Croft’s plaintive tone.

Yes Handel looks & sounds gorgeous especially via Bicket’s passionate leadership.  I know I’m seeing it at least once more, but I ask myself: will that be enough?  There are six remaining performance of Hercules, until April 30th.

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