Sirett, Koniuk & Oriana: romance on the road

This weekend I went out of town to see a concert while processing this weekend’s great tempo rubato. Daylight Savings Time appropriates an hour from our lives that will only be given back half a year from now. I figured it might be fun to wake up in a new place, not terribly worried whether it’s 7 or 8 or 9: so long as I didn’t miss breakfast. More on that in a moment.

Speaking of travel, artists sometimes have to leave home. The greatest satisfaction isn’t necessarily in the big city, but may be found guest-starring in a small town.

Oriana Singers, conducted by their Artistic Director Markus Howard and accompanied by accompanist Robert Grandy presented a concert in Cobourg last night including Fauré’s Requiem featuring baritone Geoffrey Sirett and soprano Larissa Koniuk. You may remember them from Bicycle Opera Project programs over the past few years.


The 2014 Bicycle Opera Project team, including Artistic Director Larissa Koniuk in the blue, centre, and Geoff Sirett, at the extreme right,

They pull their opera productions around the province behind their bikes, including last summer in Sweat when he was music director, while she was a featured performer, and Artistic Director. Geoff’s face is all over town in the promotional images for The Overcoat: a Musical Tailoring, coming later this month.

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring_Photo Credit Dahlia Katz_preview

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

In the Fauré, played with organ plus Tak Kwan’s eloquent violin solo in the Sanctus, Sirett had the bigger role. In the Hostias his rich baritone warmly filled the sanctuary space, while in the Libera Me, his solo seemed as insistent and powerful as the entire 60+ voices of the choir (admittedly carefully restrained in this section by Howard). Koniuk’s Pie Jesu displayed the beauty of her vocal colour to great advantage.

There were other choral pieces on the program. We began with Fauré’s Cantique de Jean Racine, a flowing & lyrical warm-up for the Requiem that followed. Later in the program we heard Acclamation / Hallelujah by Robert Ray, Winter’s Agnus Dei, and Ola Gjeilo’s Evening Prayer, aided by David Tanner’s mellifluous saxophone.


The second half included a series of operatic excerpts. Koniuk began with “Je veux vivre” from Roméo et Juliette, easily popping her high notes, all smiles throughout. Sirett followed with a contrasting aria from Die tote Stadt, his sound floating in the space. We would also hear Musetta’s Waltz from Koniuk and a charming “La ci darem la mano” with a delightful bit of flirting between the couple. Thankfully Donna Elvira had the night off, allowing nature to take its course for once; but then again Zerlina is married to Don Giovanni.

In the meantime it was a great pleasure watching the chemistry between them and their guests, the drama written on the faces of choristers watching Sirett or Koniuk, let alone the intensity of their performances in the choral works. I was thrilled by the Fauré, one of my favourite works.

Oriana Singers will have their 50th anniversary next season. Their next concert this season is Shakespeare: Words & Music coming Saturday May 26th.

Let me add that we had a great time, staying at the Woodlawn Inn, a bed and breakfast a few blocks away from the church where we enjoyed the concert: close enough to walk on a brisk March evening.  I’m adding a couple of photos to show the room, which I understand is one of the smaller ones, actually.  Yes we had an upstairs including a couch & a second TV, a working fire-place (gas I suppose: which was really awesome when i woke up to it in the night) and for those who care for such things, a jacuzzi.



It wasn’t a long drive away from Toronto, but with the help of a bit of Ardbeg, Oriana Fauré, Sirett, Koniuk, Howard and Cobourg herself, I lost all sense of time.

You can’t steal something when it’s given away freely.


And in the bar(!)

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, Reviews | Leave a comment


That sound is of course something you hear when you’re not doing it.

If you’re asleep you can’t hear snores.  Your snore might wake you up.

If you’re living with someone who does snore, and you are hearing this sound? You are likely awake.

We come to my least favourite feeling. I love the extra light from having the clocks set ahead. But it’s the worst cast of rubato, of stolen time.

Because we have to pay right away. My body usually likes the one in the autumn, when I get that stolen hour back. I aim to do something that keeps me awake like watching a late movie or going out, so that I’m craving an hour of sleep. If I am being gifted with an extra hour of sleep I try to be in need of this gift, so it feels like a blessing.

But in the spring? This weekend (gulp)?  doing the late night concert thing is riskier, when I’m going to lose an hour of sleep.

So this year I’m trying a bit of an experiment. It’s Friday night of time-change weekend. I’m usually a creature of habit, rising at the same time each day, whether or not I got enough sleep. My gut feeling is that this sounds really dumb, that I should sometimes sleep in. But my body goes with this cycle, including being bleary-eyed the morning after a late night.  I actually tried it (sleeping in) on the Thursday after I was out late the previous night this week. My brain was still hyper-active, pumped with the conversation I had started in my head concerning the show I saw. So while I published around 12:15, emailed it to the publicist and then unwound enough to sleep in the next half-hour, I was awake in fewer than six hours.

Oh well.


Why is the phone lying down? because i wanted to give it a rest. How else would it lie? But I can’t tell if it’s really sleeping though.

By a funny coincidence I heard one of those little Zoomer segments on Classical 96.3 just today about sleep. No maybe the coincidence is to be expected because–you guessed it– that’s what got me to write about this subject. In the report they spoke of an experiment helping people sleep. One of the best things to help one sleep–and it’s something we all know—is that we’re more likely to sleep well if we stop using our precious devices, especially in the hours just before we sleep.

So if you’re awake at an odd time, the worst thing you could be doing is reading Facebook or Twitter. I find T is worse than F, because so many tweets are provocations, attempts to either make you laugh or cry or make you furious enough to reply. My current mythology however twisted and self-delusory, is that I’m more able to be passive with Facebook, to let the images flow past me with the gentle feed, often telling me about shows and dogs and beautiful images.  I can click the like button, just saying a glib yes yes yes to the feed.  It feeds and I am fed.

But Twitter excites me, wakes me up, gets me upset.  And in case you can’t tell I am conflicted about Twitter. Conflicted could be my middle name, as that’s where I come from.  As a child I was loved dearly amid tears, losing a brother and a father before I was 5 years old. So while I felt hugs and kisses, it was normal to hear sad voices.  I am in the process of re-orienting myself with Twitter, to find harmony without the conflict, to be completely positive. I think I may have to stop tweeting after noon, the same way i avoid caffeine for fear of being too awake at bedtime.

But really they’re both a dumb idea. When I wake up in the night as I sometimes do –particularly if I had too much coffee- I try to stay away from social media.

My usual policy is to write my reviews the “night of” rather than the next day, because sometimes I am stacked up with several in a row. I really like to get a first impression down, and move on the next day to something else. The great thing is that I can sleep after that. In the morning I habitually re-read, because of course in the late night hours ooops one sometimes stumbles, making a spelling mistake that must be fixed the next morning. But I’ve really learned to let go, so that I am asleep within a minute or two of my head hitting the pillow. Funny I’m embracing coffee because I want to be wide awake driving home to Scarborough. And of course, that means I may be awake after driving home and writing.

When I do sometimes wake in the night, there’s a regular ritual I go to. It’s something I encountered in a few places, such as the book Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Saying “gratefuls” as a kind of prayer really helps me relax into sleep. Think back on today. To whom or for what are you grateful?

And so I am often thinking of my mother, grateful that she’s alive. And I circle through events,  the things I lived through. A customer may have done something that was challenging or stressful. I prefer to thank them in the darkness, for what I learned, at least for the sense of relief when I seemed to dodge a bullet. There are usually things my colleagues have done for which I can be grateful. My organist or my choir? collaborators? Family? The PR lady who helped me who told me about a show? the interview subject? The long-dead composer for whom I thank the gods that they lived and created. The instruments for which they composed. Their works. The venues that make them sound good. The loving audience who surround the artists with loving support.

We’re lucky here. I find that my regular mantra is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I say “I’m a lucky guy” and it’s usually something that easily proves itself to be true when I think about it.

I learned gratitude most eloquently from a man whose name I forget. That must sound ungrateful. But a very long time ago, in the 1980s, I had my first taste of restructuring. The department for whom this man worked had just made some changes and he was out, offered a package if he would retire, as his job didn’t exist anymore.

He took the package.

I was sad because this man, one of my favourite people, would vanish from my life.

He said softly “God is great”. I think he meant it the way you hear Muslims pray, as he was (I think) Pakistani, and a Muslim. He explained it to me.

He would see more of his grand-children.

He would see more of his beloved wife, who he had been missing all this time while he worked.

I think he said a few other things about projects he would work on? Or maybe happiness for the package he received. I can’t recall.

The point that struck me though was that he was clearly choosing. This mood wasn’t an accident, wasn’t something that came to him like a merit badge or manna from heaven. He chose to see the positive side, by emphasizing his gratitude.  At a moment that looked like a kick in the teeth, he embraced the kick without flinching, such an image of nobility that I will never forget his face.

(his name? ha, that’s another story)

We choose our reality. We make our lives, whether we realize we’re choosing or not. I remember this from my undergraduate reading of Paradise Lost. I was struck by the epic choice Adam makes. (hmm it’s been decades since I read this, so I have a very vague recollection) Adam is tempted. But although he must leave Eden, he will be back. The epic journey of redemption that is presented by the poem is one we all face, the question of how we confront the consequences of our actions & choices. Indeed, those consequences confront us all the time. How do we handle it?

At the end of each day, rather than dwelling on what I should have done, I try to focus on who helped me, what was beautiful and true, and being grateful for those moments. It’s how I aim my reviews, too. I’m not here like Consumer Reports, to assess the flaws in the design of a car you might be considering for purchase. If anything, I’m more like the rocks in a bird’s stomach, helping you to digest something that might otherwise stick in your throat or make you feel queasy.

I sleep better when I’m in harmony with what I saw and heard, helping to unpack details and subtleties.  I am in awe of the artists who put themselves on the line. IF something didn’t work –and it happens all the time—I simply omit mention, or try to concentrate on what worked. If the voice wasn’t great but the portrayal was good? the voice won’t be mentioned, but the acting will.  I’ll always stick to the thing I can say that’s supportive.

So the funny thing? Sure, sometimes I can’t sleep.

I used to agonize about it. Oh dear oh my oh no! I can’t sleep. It’s necessary for my health. I must sleep but can’t.

But I let go. Sometimes I don’t sleep enough. Big deal. I catch up within a few days. I love the excitement of a late-night, gathering my responses to a show and aiming to capture what was wonderful in their work.  That’s what I live for, not the sleep.

I think people worry way too much about sleep. I know someone who is in their 90s who regularly has trouble sleeping. Yes perhaps sleep is healthy, to be desired.

But there is no point losing sleep about it.

Posted in Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion, university life | Leave a comment

Scorched by Mouawad


Playwright & director Wajdi Mouawad

Tonight I completed my Wajdi Mouawad trilogy.  Last month I saw his production of Abduction from the Seraglio at the Canadian Opera Company twice, last week I saw Denis Villeneuve’s film Incendies, adapted from the play that I saw tonight. The show brings us full circle in an English translation by Linda Gaboriau presented by the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto.  For those wondering about the fellow behind the opera or the film, this is a great opportunity.

For those who haven’t seen the film or the play, I’ll tread carefully to avoid spoilers, as the story is a mystery worthy of Sophocles complete with a modern version of Tiresias, the infallible seer, handing out messages from beyond the grave, portentous communication.  While the tale is a dark one full of death & murder, its redemptive promise, such as it is, must be through the women who are the most inspiring figures, as in Mouawad’s take on the Mozart Singspiel.


Director Djanet Sears

Director Djanet Sears had an ideal vehicle for a student group, challenged & pushed beyond what they likely would encounter in any professional show. That’s one of the great things about universities, where one can undertake difficult works.  The commitment we felt from every member in this ensemble was total and absolute.

The dark story is mitigated somewhat by the ongoing singing presented live by the cast.  While some of this is in the play, Sears explained to me a bit after the show, that it had to be found & assembled.  As one of the transcendent women is known as “the one who sings” the music is in some sense unavoidable in this story.   We listen to songs in another language, sometimes creating haunting moments of great beauty. Does it matter that we don’t understand the words? Surely not.  We’re taken to a reflective place between the episodes, sometimes suggesting a transcendental community, multiple voices connected all around us, even as the story at times presents the agnostic position, the impossibility of love in a crazy time in a crazy place.  We’re lucky here in Canada to have the luxury to reflect on such things, not under any sort of bombardment or attack.

At times Mouawad gets into speechifying, letting a character go off on a poetic tear, telling an epic story, while everyone listens.  And while some of those stories are well-nigh unbearable, I’m reminded of an old saying about classic theatre, that deaths were described rather than shown, so that most of the deaths are in the prose rather than in the flesh: and thank goodness for that mercy, especially when one considers Villeneuve’s alternative: to show the violence in clinical detail.  But it does make some of the speeches stunningly difficult, Olympian paragraphs and mountainous terrain to traverse for a young actor.

Scorched will be running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until March 17th .     Scorched-9.7

Posted in Politics, Reviews, Theatre & musicals, university life | Leave a comment

Questions for Victor Davies: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

Victor Davies is a Canadian composer whose work I have previously encountered in Toronto productions. His adaptation of Wilde’s comedy (in partnership with librettist Eugene Benson), called Earnest, The Importance of Being came to Toronto Operetta Theatre in 2015 (originally premiered in 2008). Another team effort with Benson gave us A Tale of Two Cities in 2016 at Summer Opera Lyric Theatre. I don’t pretend to know all his compositional activities (for instance he wrote Transit of Venus, an opera I never saw).  But I do know that he has a very accessible and crowd-pleasing style, as you can tell from the over 200,000 hits for the youtube video of this movement from his organ concerto. Hot Pipes indeed!

And now Davies is preparing to premiere his adaptation of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe¸ an opera for which he did both the music and the libretto. Like me you may recall reading George Ryga’s play in high-school English class, one of my first encounters with the complexities of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Premiered in 1967 –the same year as Louis Riel—the world has changed since then. Its language still uses epithets we rarely hear anymore except perhaps in movies, as Davies explains in the introduction to the score:

ABOUT THE WORD “INDIAN” George Ryga has called Indigenous/Aboriginal/First Nations people this in the dialogue of his play which we continue in the opera. Note that the opera is set, as was the play in 1967, a different era from our own. As “Indian Friendship Centre” was widely used in this period we continue this here although of course many “Centre” names have changed to “Aboriginal Friendship Centre” etc.

I sent Davies a series of questions to find out more about him, and about the upcoming production of the opera, premiering here in Toronto March 24th & 25th.

Are you more like your father or your mother?


Composer Victor Davies in 1995 (photo: Francois Martin)

A mixture! My father was a classical music lover, and my mother was the one who brought the piano into the house (for my brother who wanted to play the guitar!) But the piano stayed and my sister and I started lessons. Actually I started on violin which I hated! I loved the big machine! Easier to play and lots more noise! I never knew til my mother was in her 90s that she actually played the piano as a girl. She was creative and artistic particularly with needlework. As my father was away during WWII my brother was my surrogate father and there was always lots of pop/big band music on the record player and the radio. He introduced me to Rhapsody in Blue which hit me like a lightning bolt! Besides my mother and father I had an uncle and aunt who played and sang. Going to their house with the baby grand (covered by a brocade cloth with tassels!) records of rag time music, et al it was like visiting Paris or New York in the 20s to me!

So music was a constant growing up and I was wedged between rag time (see above) church music (also the aunts and uncles sang in the choir) Beethoven at home, and pop music from my brother and sister. A rich diet! Then of course the legion band came once a year to play at the Anglican church right behind our house. Follow that parade! Real drums! You could FEEL that bass drum! I guess too my career as a performer (yes singing and dancing, high school, G &S, Broadway at university) was growing along with all the rest my life. (My father said rather derisively that I didn’t play football, I performed it!) When composition (I had a dance band by this time) emerged in university it came all together rather organically, but I was headed for a career in medicine. So it was a cross roads. My father who had a wonderful Welsh voice, grew up with some hard drinking mates and music was wine of the poor (he become a lawyer) so music was off the list. I was also very adept at dissecting things in zoology so I thought my path was surgery.

But one fateful year at the University of Manitoba, so many shows to be in, so many dance band gigs, and all that improvising songs at parties, months rolled by with no classes being attended. And came the glorious day with my visit with the Dean and my being thrown out of university, and my bondage of legitimacy was over, and I was free to fly on the wings of music! (As thin and cheap as they were at that point!)

Let my Victor go!

Yes Broadway beckoned! Yikes but I didn’t know much! So off to Montreal, Boston (Berklee School of Music) and New York to explore. Scary places. But finally Indiana U (a place entirely unknown to me said join us) And I began the climb up the musical mountain with the promises of grand vistas ahead. (But for years though I wasn’t sure if I should have been an actor or a composer. I guess this is why such an affinity to musical theatre)

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The best is when you hear your music come to life in the hands and voices of wonderful singers and musicians. Nothing quite like it.


Victor Davies in 2007 (photo by encourager Lori Davies)

Being a free lance composer the worst (or the least creative thing) is the huge amount of administration and marketing which you have to do to keep performances and commissions coming. Very fortunately my wife Lori (an ex cardiac intensive care nurse, and Executive Director) is quite brilliant at these things and she loves music and theatre and the people around it. (Someone once remarked the intensive care part was perfect for a harried composer!) I should also mention that Lori plays many roles in my/our lives and has been a constant companion on all these musical journeys since university days. She reminded me that she introduced me to opera (it was Porgy and Bess!) and was the greatest encourager when I started composing: “You wrote that!” she said. Instant bonding! She was hooked and so was I! I remind her of this when the music is coming slowly that she was the cause of this life path and so she has to be patient!

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I’ve been engaged with just about every kind of music in my career, from country, jazz, rock, classical, world music (listening, performing, arranging and composing). However when you are busy composing all the time the last thing you want to do is to listen to music! So we have a huge collection of LP’s/CDs (neatly stored in Ikea shelves in the living room!) but they never get played. However I/we try to go to lots of live music. Now mostly opera! Also there is tons of music on Youtube old and new! So I listen there too. But you can’t beat live. Watching: news (CCN, CBC), and PBS costume drama!

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

The ability to quickly write down the music I hear in my head. Never had the proper musical training growing up although I did hear lots of original music starting around 8 years old. However no immediate person knew what to do about it. I can imagine tremendous things but they fly away greeted by trying to make them real on paper. So it is a lot of work to get things written down (now always via computer, no paper anymore!) (I tell myself I’m more like Beethoven than Mozart. It helps!)

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

Travel, TV (now media I guess, the internet) talking to family and friends on the phone!

Oh a voice from the other room…what?….yes walking and this means exploring places by foot here and abroad.


More questions about The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?


At the Transit of Venus premiere in 2007 (photo: Tony Nardella)

I actually started composing when my piano teacher of the moment (I was about 14) introduced me to Gershwin and Bach! Wow!! The major work which emerged from this however was ”The Battle”. Ghostly sounds of the battle field at dawn (sounds of birds!), the marches of opposing armies arriving, the battle (don’t remember how that went!) and the eerie calm of the battle field as the victor marches away. It was mostly for memory I don’t know if any of it got written down. Had never heard of Charles Ives then……. But I started composing in earnest later because of my love of musical theatre, Broadway, and pop music. There is a directness of utterance and connectedness to the audience that is inherent in this music. This is true for Mozart too. It goes straight to the heart.

I went through a phase of contemporary music, Webern (had the collected works!) Elliot Carter et al. (both great composers actually) I took a conducting course from Boulez. This course drove me completely back to my roots. I had been doing a CBC TV show which had opera, country, jazz and folk music, world music (Ravi Shankar was on one show!) which I left to go to the Boulez course. From this I realized that reaching the heart not the mind was where I wanted to be. Melody, rhythm was where the magic lay and discovering how to make it your own was the challenge I should grasp not reaching for new intellectual esoteric solutions. What is the identifiable/quantifiable magic from an intellectual/theoretical point of view in The Marriage of Figaro? All we know is this music continues to enchant us with no analysis necessary. So my challenge as I see it is to somehow find the musical magic in simplicity and directness.

What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in your new opera?

Like Mr Gilbert, I always say to the style question: “let the punishment fit the crime!”

So the opera is wide ranging musically. There is humour, a murder, two rapes, a fight at a dance, romance, a Father who tells wonderful stories, and some beautiful heart warming moments, and at the end a funeral. All these moments have to be clothed with music in the appropriate emotional and dramatic language. This ranges from the country music (ca. ’67) at the dance, to the murder, to the stories the Father tells. So there is an abundance of various kinds of melody (many of which I hope will be embedded in your brain so they can’t be removed!) to very dissonant music for the murder, fight et al. This is not 12 tone or serial but just very dense and nasty harmonic stuff which speaks of the threat, action, and emotional level of the events. The vocal writing is all about the characters, their emotions and the story they are living on the stage. There is no display of vocal fireworks for its own sake. Also as it is in English, I am a stickler with myself that every word be set so if properly executed, it can be clearly understood without surtitles. So the music is deceptively simple to hear but still challenging for the singers. And melody, melody, melody……the vocal line….

Pondering this question more, I’m sometimes asked by people about various kinds of chords, techniques etc When I compose I work something like a sculptor or a painter in the sense I have certain musical shapes or structures that I can hear, feel or sense, and I dip into the tonal, rhythmic musical universe inside myself to try to find the building materials which match what I am feeling. Kind of spreading tonal paint on the musical canvas…

Please tell me a bit about the story of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

I’ve included a Synopsis.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is the story of two young First Nations people in love who venture to the city in search of new lives off the reserve. Ill equipped, they struggle to make their way, torn between the heritage of the world they grew up with on the reserve of close family and community ties and a dependence on nature to survive, and the future they hope for themselves in the new alien impersonal urban world. Forces attempting to draw them back to the reserve in the form of Rita Joe’s father, the reserve priest, and reserve opinion about the implicit evil of the city, along with their rootedness in family, conflict with their desire to embrace a new future in the complex, exciting and foreign world of the city. They are unprepared as the city is full of pitfalls: the structure of the white legal system, paternalistic social institutions (the Indian Friendship Centre) and finally the violent and predatory world of the street which ultimately destroys them.

There is a story in the play, but it is told through an expressionistic lens in Act 1 and a more conventional form of play in Act 2. I decided that my job as the librettist was to uncover a clear story path for the audience to follow, making it happen in chronological time, not the time shifting which happens in the play.

The chronological approach means that the listener can more easily pick up the developing emotional baggage of the characters and go on the story journey and landscape of the character. There are a number of musical ideas that accompany the characters in their journey. It is not leit-motif, but as Puccini does, the recurrence of a theme in a new context has real emotional power reminding us what the character has invested through this theme. However now that the score is done and I am looking at it, I see all kinds of recurring motives that I was not aware were emerging at the time, even though there were many that I was consciously using.

It took many drafts (20?) to unravel the brilliant tapestry George Ryga wove in and around the story in his play, to what I arrived at. However the story of the play is the story of the opera. (I had a friend who I gave the libretto to, and she said “it’s exactly like the play!”) A word too about Ryga’s language. It is a combination of brilliant play-writing and poetry. Every word counts, and the relationships between each word in each line counts, and the exact rhythm of each sentence has its own coherence. So you have to approach each line in terms of changing it (cutting, moving, making shorter, inserting) with great care to ensure the inherent power in the play and its language is not diminished. His biography speaks of his talent as a poet but also his high powered TV script writer career which he gave up to write plays, poetry and novels.

Please put Ecstasy of Rita Joe in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century. How radical or conservative is this opera?

Hm….. In terms of contemporary operatic musical language it is conservative I guess. It’s not serial, minimalist, or any of the isms. Is La Boheme conservative or radical? I guess Rita Joe is radical in the sense it is meant to be immediately impactful and entirely popular and direct. It is full of melodies as I say above but also very eclectic. “To let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the….” I can’t actually name something that it is like. Maybe Dead Man Walking, West Side Story, Peter Grimes?? (these are all from the 20th century!?) ( A 21st century opera that I have liked was Written On Skin (which I learned means parchment) because of the simplicity and directness of the vocal lines, placed in front of a vast rich harmonic tapestry of a huge and largely subdued orchestra.)

Please speak about the issue with portraying Indigenous characters, both as far as the appropriation of their cultural images and their music.

There is no Indigenous music, language, or traditional Indigenous story in the opera, thus there is no appropriation of this kind.

Dakota Sioux Artist Maxine Noel has graciously and enthusiastically allowed her beautiful painting “Not Forgotten” which speaks of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, to be used as the graphic identity of the production. When Lori and I saw this image we knew immediately it would be an appropriate and powerful one for the opera.


Not Forgotten, by Maxine Noel

The opera first developed by way of Manitoba Opera (Larry Desrochers) who I took the play to and he didn’t think there was an opera there. I said ”let’s go and talk to Rebecca Chartrand” (the Indigenous, singer and educator we worked with on the Opening Ceremonies of the Pan Am Games). Her response was “You HAVE to do it!” She said it spoke directly to the question of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Thus the journey started. Guillermo Silva Marin was intrigued when we brought the project to him which resulted in a workshop reading of the libretto by OIC (with singers reading, dramaturged by our talented theatre director daughter Heather) three years ago and Guillermo has been eagerly encouraging and pushing its progress forward since.

In Winnipeg and in Toronto both Larry and Guillermo have worked to engage the Indigenous community to bring them into the circle. Winnipeg is easier as it is a more homogenous Indigenous population. In Toronto there is massive diversity with people from every First Nation in Canada making it harder to speak to a coherent community.
However, because we were reaching out to the community to engage them in some way in the productions and process, we have had very positive responses.

In the first draft of the libretto I said something like “at this time there are not any Indigenous opera singers etc etc and in the future etc etc.” But now that we have arrived at this moment we have five wonderful Indigenous soloists!

Back to appropriation for a moment. Every Indigenous person we spoke to was happy to hear what we were planning and that we had reached out to include them if possible in the process.

Ryga was very critical of Canadian society and many of the issues in the play are still with us, so the dramatic content is unfortunately not out of date after 50 years. In any event, the kernel story of two young people in love leaving the reserve/country and encountering the big city and things ending badly is a universal and timeless one. Mix in the pull to come back to the reserve/farm/old home town and the generational conflicts inherent there with “a fish out of water” story and it is a story applicable to every time and place.

The play is well known in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community and was a theatrical landmark, dealing as it did in 1967 with issues between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society. The play has been done all over Canada and beyond with Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors playing all or none of the roles and has been accepted by all communities. Thus the opera is not breaking new ground other than the fact it is being transformed into a musical theatre work. (And also that we actually have Indigenous opera singers!)

What direction do you see yourself going after this?

A rest! Time to regroup and clean up the various works which are in need of tidying up, and piled all around me as I type in my office. Although I do have an idea for a comic opera (!)…..Hm…. And I do have requests for some new works I had to put off in this intensive year of writing Rita Joe. But first The Beach!!!

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

That could be a long list! (Influences?) OK I have two scores I go back to regularly –
Peter Grimes and Porgy and Bess. But there’s also The Band’s brown album (Up On Cripple Creek) Oh Messiah, Hm Paul Simon…. The Duke….Beethoven’s 3rd symphony….

Two mentors I will always be indebted to were Bob McMullin the wonderful conductor and arranger for the U of Manitoba shows who encouraged me to follow a musical path, and my composition teacher Thomas Beversdorf at Indiana University who was a calm and steady captain on the turbulent composition ship at that time.

But of course I owe the largest debit to my muse, patron, partner, and the person who said “You wrote that!”, like I must be Beethoven, Bach and Bernstein all rolled into one, at that critical moment in my life, which pushed me onwards with musical creation, my wife Lori. That’s the person who was so happy that the score of Rita Joe got emailed to Guillermo Silva Marin at Opera In Concert just a few hours ago, and who can’t wait to hear what it will sound like!!

That’s it!

Oh, PS. A few years ago I got a call from the President of the University of Manitoba asking if I would accept an honorary Doctorate. I said did she know anything about my history with the university. She laughed and said “that she was sure I would have some interesting stories to tell the students in my acceptance speech” ……..!!!

[Here’s the first part of that address.]

When President Szathmary asked me if I would accept this degree, I asked her if she was aware that I had been thrown out of the U of M.

YES, today is actually my second graduation from the U of M.

My first being when Dean Broderson asked me to leave. I was in pre-med, but I was spending all my time composing and performing music.  And on that day when I admitted to the dean that I hadn’t been to class for three months, he freed me to become a composer.

On that, my first graduation day, Dean Broderson sent me forth, with the following invocation –

Actually what he really said was “DAVIES, YOU’RE OUT!”
But I knew what he really meant.

[…cut to the end of the speech]

NOW GRADUANDS (or anyone else who’d like to) repeat after me –
“Follow your own dream, listen to your own melody, speak with your own voice”…..
Just like the Dean told me to do, on my FIRST graduation day!

Graduands Good Luck!! Thank You!


The original caption for this photo: “Who really writes the music? Victor with Mr Red Ears”


Victor Davies new opera The Ecstasy of Rita Joe based on George Ryga’s play of the same name, is to receive its world premiere through Voicebox – Opera In Concert the night of Saturday March 24th and the afternoon of Sunday March 25th. For further information click here.

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Lang Lang: apprentices among the sorcerers

The great piano virtuoso Lang Lang came to Roy Thomson Hall tonight to play with the Toronto Symphony. Because he’s suffering from tendinitis the program was changed to include his young protégé. Lang Lang & Maxim Lando played a series of pieces together, sometimes one on each “hand” of a two-handed piece, sometimes bringing more.  It was a night to celebrate many kinds of mentorship.

Maxim with his teachers Lang Lang, Tema Blackstone, and Hung-Kuan Chen

Maxim with his teachers Lang Lang, Tema Blackstone, and Hung-Kuan Chen

Peter Oundjian, whom I’ve watched gently guiding the young talent of the TSO, and artists such as Jan Lisiecki, stood onstage reminiscing with Lang Lang, who first appeared alongside Oundjian twenty years ago at the age of fifteen years old. Now they both stood with Lando, who is himself fifteen, as we come to the twilight of Oundjian’s time with the TSO.

Lang Lang, Peter Oundjian laughing (@Jag Gundu) (1)

The prodigy-apprentice is now also a mentor. Lang Lang & Peter Oundjian enjoy a laugh with the TSO (photo: Jag Gundu)

And to begin the concert we watched the combined forces of the TSO and Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra (comprised of members between the ages of 12 and 25), over 130 players to undertake Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice all under Oundjian’s baton.
In a hall jammed full of loving support it was a celebration of education & mentorship, a night to be remembered & cherished.

In the middle of the program was a bold performance of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé suite No 2 from the TSO, the orchestra now more normal sized. Oundjian seemed to have a great time, as the orchestra responded to his leadership.

After the interval we shifted gears for something quite different. After a bit of talk, Lang Lang & Lando sat at the keyboard for a pair of pieces without any orchestral support.

First came a very delicate reading of Saint-Saëns’ “Aquarium” from the Carnival of the Animals, Lando seated towards the bass end, Lang Lang taking the treble. His right hand seemed to be fine, while he sometimes gestured with his left, partly to conduct his partner, partly because he’s a flamboyant creature.

Next came a wonderfully jagged performance of “America”, meaning the song from West Side Story, likely in homage to Leonard Bernstein’s hundredth birthday. In this energetic piece I wasn’t thinking about anything resembling an injury, although I couldn’t see how much Lang Lang was able to play. At times they would suddenly become super soft in their volume, always wonderfully well co-ordinated.

For a piece I’ve heard as many times as Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, this was an eye-opener. In the recent interview with Lando I linked to his highly original reading of the piece. But this version was a quantum leap beyond that.

Peter Oundjian, Lang Lang, Maxim Lando_1 (@Jag Gundu)

L-R, Peter Oundjian, Lang Lang & Maxim Lando (photo: Jag Gundu)

In places Lang Lang improvised, ornamenting extra notes that were entirely welcome in this funny hybrid piece that is a bit of jazz fused with something symphonic. While it’s unlike any version I’ve ever heard, I think Gershwin would love what they did,  at times crossing over one another, a technical tour de force. Sometimes we heard playing of restraint & wonderful elegance, sometimes big full sounds and everything in between.

And for their encore we got a flashy Sugar Plum Fairy, Tchaikowsky for one piano (mostly) two handed but occasionally embellished beyond that.Screen-Shot-2015-12-31-at-3.28.10-AM


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Incendies, Scorched & the Seraglio

scorched_coverI’ve just seen Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar nominated film adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s play Incendies.

I’m looking forward to seeing a translation of the play presented here in Toronto next week, titled Scorched.

I couldn’t miss the parallels to what we saw in the Canadian Opera Company production of Abduction from the Seraglio.

We’re again in the presence of violations and victims across generations, cultures at war, but with a quantum leap in the amount of violence. Our experience of Mozart here in Toronto that seemed to outrage the purists is like Monty Python or Mr Rogers Neighbourhood compared to what we see in the film, a retelling of the Oedipus myth in search of a happy ending to the tragedy.

This is the same Villeneuve who gave the world Blade Runner 2049, except that believe it or not, the sci-fi film is tame and gentle in comparison. If you’re easily upset by violence please don’t see this film. There are moments of unforgettable horror.

Onstage I suspect it will be easier to stomach than in a film. Yana Meerzon, in a paper discussing film & play observes that the play is perhaps more in the poetic direction while the film is more in the historical / factual direction.  I have to wonder, given that there are certain mechanical differences in what film or theatre can do. There is still a great deal in the film that is ambiguous, poetic, mysterious, even with the graphic horror of some of the scenes of death and destruction.  But of course I have no right to disagree, when I have not yet seen or read the play, right?


Playwright & director Wajdi Mouawad

I am very curious about Mouawad’s experience of women, given that in the Mozart he makes the presentation of both women stronger and more heroic than I’ve ever seen in any other production.  I won’t post that bad-ass photo of Jane Archibald again –having posted it three times already–but if you saw the production you know what I mean. He has a rare approach to women. And in Incendies too, the women are heroic, both the mother –who is legendary—and her daughter, who has more backbone than her brother.

I’m looking forward to seeing the show at the University of Toronto, beginning March 7th.

Posted in Opera, Politics, Theatre & musicals, university life | 1 Comment

Churchill – Darkest Hour

2017 may be remembered as a year that two movies gave us detailed portraits of Winston Churchill.

Darkest Hour is the one you’re probably aware of, starring Gary Oldman in an Oscar-nominated performance.  But I stumbled on another one with Brian Cox, titled Churchill.  Each has a very tight timeline concerning one small part of the biography of the great man.  While what I’m about to say is historical fact, please don’t read this if you’re afraid of encountering a spoiler.  For starters, Germany lost the war, but at the time it was far from certain.

Darkest Hour takes us from the time in 1939 when Neville Chamberlain is replaced as the leader of the Conservatives (making Churchill Prime Minister without the necessity of an election, but also without the blessing of a popular mandate), showing the doubts of all around him.

Churchill happens much later in the war, on the eve of the 1944 invasion of Europe and again concerning the conflicts between Churchill and all those around him.

Darkest Hour is a very inspiring tale showing a man full of doubt finding his authentic voice. Churchill, in contrast, shows a man who is again full of doubt, his own finest hours now behind him.  Where Darkest Hour is triumphant and uplifting, Churchill is a much darker exploration of the human soul.

I saw Darkest Hour on a big screen, so it’s perhaps not a fair comparison, but Churchill did not seem so impressive.  How could it? The budget for Darkest Hour is reported as $30 million while that for Churchill is but $10 million, and alas the latter film has only taken in roughly half of that total so far.  Chances are Darkest Hour will help swell that total (that is, people watching Churchill either by accident or design) by creating additional interest in the subject.  So far Darkest Hour has earned over $54 million, and that’s sure to swell in the aftermath of the Academy Awards, where the film has six nominations.

The portrayals are quite different, as indeed is the writing and cinematography.  And perhaps I can’t make any unbiased comparison between the actors, not when one of them is my favourite actor working today.

I know Cox for a role & portrayal I really disliked, namely Agamemnon in Troy.   As I scan his listing on IMDB, I see lots of films I saw, but can’t recall his performances: because they didn’t really make an impression. Nor did this one as Churchill.

And then there’s Oldman, who I treasure for

  • His portrayal of Beethoven in Immortal Beloved, a film I watch over and over
  • His portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK¸ another film I watch over and over
  • His portrayal of Dracula
  • His portrayals of Commissioner Gordon in two of the Batman movies
  • His nasty creation as Zorg in The Fifth Element

Each of those five (a deaf composer, a killer, a vampire with a heavy Hungarian accent, a boring cop with heart, and a psychopathic criminal) are completely unique and unlike the others. Indeed, what makes Churchill a worthy addition to this list is how fluid his portrayal, one that rarely calls attention to the artist. This isn’t a virtuoso turn, one of those films where you know every moment that you’re watching the great Olivier as Hamlet (splendid but ostentatious), or F Murray Abraham as Salieri (did the Oscar go to the wrong actor?).  I was distracted a few times by this nagging need to see, hmm, is that really Oldman? And usually I would get lost in the story-telling and not bother with the game of spot-the-star.

Meanwhile, there’s also the question of his consort.   I think Miranda Richardson as Clementine Churchill is far more believable to my eye and ear than the still stunningly beautiful Kristin Scott Thomas.  Thomas was very very nice to her Winston Churchill, while Richardson was very difficult, and actually stole the picture out from under Cox. Her drama –trying to figure out how to talk to a larger than life personality—was in itself larger than life.  But she wasn’t a diva.  I found I was watching her rather than him whenever they were on the screen together.

Both films feature a stenographer who endures a trial by blustery fire, eventually finding her place at the great one’s side, and including a story about a loved one in the war.  Oldman’s is Lily James, while Cox’s is Ella Purnell.  I suppose each of them is somewhat electrifying in contrast, a stunning young woman onscreen beside a bunch of tired old farts. I’d like to think there’s some truth behind their stories but who knows?

Both films feature a handsome fellow as the king, -James Purefoy in the 1944 story alongside Cox, Ben Mendelsohn as the 1939 king—although only Mendelsohn bothers to give him the stutter (and it’s wonderfully well done) that we know from The King’s Speech.

Alongside Oldman & Cox there are some good portrayals. Samuel West deserves to be better known (you may remember him from Howard’s End or Notting Hill), often sharing the frame with Oldman as his supporter Anthony Eden, while the two chief antagonists (Ronald Pickup as Neville Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane as the Viscount Halifax) glare and scheme quietly, Pickup helping things by portraying Chamberlain’s growing illness quite beautifully.  As he drifts towards death he stops resisting Churchill.

In the end I think Darkest Hour will be remembered as Oldman’s star vehicle rather than for its historical accuracy.  And while Churchill has lots of good moments, I think it’s already well on the way to being forgotten, which is unfortunate. If Churchill can emerge from the shadow of the comparison, it might actually get noticed.

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