The Next Wave @ RBA

A concert is not a litmus test but even so today’s free noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is an unmistakable sign of health in the community of women creating opera in this country, and apt in the home of the Canadian Opera Company. We saw prize winners of the Inaugural Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes: “a new $25,000 award in Canada supporting the creation of operas by emerging female and female-identifying composers and librettists.”


And how wonderful that today we heard some of the great things that they’re creating, a preview of the Next Wave Workshop that’s to be presented Saturday night March 23rd by Musique 3 Femmes with the support of Tapestry Opera at Ernest Balmer Studio. The basic template is the same for today as for March 23rd: five teams of librettist, composer & director working on an operatic idea, sung by one or more of Suzanne Rigden, soprano, Kristin Hoff, mezzo-soprano, Lindsay Connolly, mezzo-soprano, and played by Jennifer Szeto at the piano. Where today’s examples were sung from music stands, Saturday night we’ll get staged excerpts. In addition to the music we also heard different perspectives of composer, librettist and director weighing in on an aspect of their project. Today’s sampler left me wanting to hear & see more.

Here’s how they describe the prize-winning projects, including their projected future productions.

Composer: Laurence Jobidon (QC)
Librettist: Pascale St-Onge (QC)
Director: Aria Umezawa

Amidst the harsh and cold weather of northern Quebec, Léa tries to reach a safe-house in order to protect herself and her unborn child. She meets Madeleine, a tormented woman who promises to lead her to the end of a road where no one else goes. L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi is a chamber opera that pays tribute to feminine solidarity and resilience, as well as to the strength of the Quebecois territory. The work is led in Toronto by director and former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow Aria Umezawa and will see its full premiere in Montreal in March 2020.

Composer: Kendra Harder (SK)
Librettist: Michelle Telford (SK)
Director: Jessica Derventzis

“Nothing on Earth has prepared me for life like the Internet…” Book of Faces is a comic opera exploring the world of social media and two millennials for whom the struggle is just too real. The second collaboration between Saskatoon composer Kendra Harder and librettist Michelle Telford, Book of Faces sees a world premiere at Next Wave Workshop led by director and Artistic Director of Opera 5 Jessica Derventzis, and later performances as part of Highlands Opera Studio’s 2019 summer season.

Composer: Cecilia Livingston (TO)
Librettist: Monica Pearce (PEI)
Director: Alaina Viau

Singing Only Softly is a song-cycle opera by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston, featuring an original libretto by Monica Pearce inspired by redacted texts from Anne Frank’s famous diary. The work explores Anne’s complex adolescence, her growing maturity, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Edith. Singing Only Softly is led here by Loose Tea Music Theatre founder and Artistic Director, stage director Alaina Viau, and features guest artist soprano Gillian Grossman. Singing Only Softly sees a full production by Loose Tea Music Theatre in May 2019.

Composer: Margareta Jeric (QC)
Librettist: Naima Kristel Phillips (QC)
Director: Amanda Smith

A woman returns to a place where she fell in love. She finds a piano on a heap of rubble. An exploration of the anatomy of a piano, this work examines the interplay of loss and connection in a world where everything can change in an instant. Based on the play Ghost Town Suites by Naima Kristel Phillips, Suites d’une ville morte is the first collaboration by Phillips with Croatian-Canadian composer Margareta Jeric. The work is in development for Toronto’s FAWN Chamber Creative, and is led here by FAWN founder and stage director Amanda Smith.

Composer: Maria Atallah (ON)
Librettist: Alice Abracen (QC)
Director: Anna Theodosakis

“You didn’t even know her name. You don’t even know my name.” With an original libretto by Alice Abracen on a short story by composer Maria Atallah, The Chair explores grief, loss, and friendship through the eyes of a teenager. Melanie loses her best friend in a tragic accident and returns to school to face throng of well-wishers and a mysterious new classmate. For the Next Wave Workshop, the piece is led by COC Ensemble dramatic coach and founder of Toronto’s Muse 9 Productions, stage director Anna Theodosakis.

The sequence for today’s presentation was different.

We began with a little bit of (1) Singing Only Softly, from the team of Livingston, Pearce & Viau, based on redacted texts that didn’t appear in Anne Frank’s diary. It’s described as a “song cycle opera”, a concept I can’t pretend to unpack on the basis of what we heard so far. It’s an interesting challenge to adapt something that is so well-known (the character at least) yet brand new (the text). Livingston’s vocal writing & Pearce’s libretto also with Viau’s direction successfully conveyed the right impression of a girl. I’m not sure if I’d call it an illusion or simply that they did not transgress the bounds of what I expected from such a well-known character.

Jeric, Phillips & Smith took us 180 degrees in the other direction musically even if we were in some respects in similar territory, with another story involving war, (2) Suites d’une ville morte. But where Livingston’s music was gently tonal, Jeric gave us a wildly playful adventure. We’re to imagine that a woman returns to a war-torn city finding a piano on top of a heap of rubble (broken? Perhaps the last vestige and the last remnant of life & culture?). While this might be wonderful staged, what we saw in the concert performance was an invitation to our poetic imaginations. Szeto was playing on and in a prepared piano, at times strumming and making this instrument –that we could imagine as a virtual character in this opera– sing, while the singers tapped their chests and produced all manner of sounds, before they did finally begin to sing too. I found it wonderfully problematic that one could ask who is the instrument and who is the singer. The concept is pregnant with possibilities.

(3) The Chair from Attalah, Abracen & Theodosakis showed us something different again, and had me admiring the jaw-dropping contrasts, in the way they curated this concert. We went from…
1-something straight-forward in its innocent portrayal of childhood to…
2-something wilder & more dissonant, and now …
3-in this the third item the first glimpse of irony & layers between the surface and the interior, all in a brief presentation. So much of our lives is a performance, and here it was wonderful to see the distance between what was being said and what was being felt, shown with such clarity and edge by this team.

For the next one, from Jobidon, St-Onge & Umezawa, we went in a new direction that was in some respects very conventionally operatic –a woman’s suffering—but shown in a whole new way. (4) L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi shows us emotion and pain, in a very beautiful and tuneful package, the piano writing also very powerful. While I understand that the story concerns “solidarity & resilience” (as stated above), I don’t think we were hearing that in the passage heard today. This was for me the most conventionally operatic sounding of the first four excerpts, and given the politics of the occasion I hope that’s okay to say..(?).

The team from furthest away were present to talk a bit about their work. Harder & Telford are from Saskatchewan, and worked with Derventis on a comic opera about social media. Facebook begat (5) Book of Faces. As composer Kendra Harder explained she envisaged oratorio when she composed; the result is somewhat parodic, reminding me of the irony we get in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera or perhaps what we hear in Gilbert & Sullivan, in the collision between the stiffness of a style and the wackiness of Telford’s text. All that was missing was the voice-over “and now for something completely different”. Our finale –an aria titled “Take it to Tumblr”—was the most recognizably operatic display of the day, pushing soprano Suzanne Rigden to the top of her range & her most agile coloratura. It was deliciously silly.

If you want to hear more of any & all of these, you need to get a ticket to Saturday’s “Musique 3 Femmes: The Next Wave”.

Here’s the link for more info & tickets.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Berlioz 150   

I started writing this one and shoved it aside because I’m swamped with several things at the same time.  That’s life in Toronto if you’re keeping up with the music or opera or theatre scene, let alone trying to see them all, as I sometimes attempt to do.

But writing in response to a performance is the easiest, passive rather than active. That’s the main reason I aim to write the night of the show, so that there’s no backlog of responses.  Notice that I call it a “response”: as though it’s visceral & muscular, merely the twitching digits when electrodes are attached, fingers dancing on the keys, and not the conscious choice to write something.  The brain doesn’t come into it.  But –if you can excuse and even follow the plethora of parenthetical thoughts like side trips wandering away from the main track, the train of thought—when one is busy there must be more of a choice, what shows to see, what to miss.

I am coming back to something I started writing last weekend.  It seems apt to come back to this today given that there was a surprising dusting of snow last night, interrupting the steady advance of spring.  Hector Berlioz died on March 8th 1869, or in other words 150 years ago.  There are lots of composer anniversaries, often the occasion for festivals or scholarly study.  While this one might also trigger some activity—concerts conferences & book—its chief importance for me is simply that Berlioz is my favourite composer on most days.  From time to time I will doubt it, and then revisit some of his music.  While there are certainly many other composers who move me, particularly Debussy & Wagner, Puccini & Verdi, Mozart, Bach & Handel, and yes at times Tchaikovsky (Nutcracker! The solo piano music, and much more) or Saint-Saëns (that 2nd piano concerto) or even Percy Grainger..(?), it’s Berlioz who ultimately holds sway over my heart.

To commemorate the moment I looked at my bookshelf and when I saw the piano-vocal score of Damnation of Faust alongside his Requiem and the Berg sonata for piano
(the books are in alphabetical order after all… Carmen is on the other side), I impulsively pulled it out and started playing from the beginning.  It felt right before I even remembered what the words are saying.

There’s a solo line on the piano, corresponding to a violin line, a melody that will wind its way through the orchestra, getting picked up by the tenor.  It’s Faust alone with the orchestra (isn’t that a crazy thought? but if you’re a composer imagining, that’s how you’d picture it).  And Faust is observing & thinking. That’s what the romantic hero in the sublime landscape will do, even if he sounds unhappy.  While the tune is in major for the violins, Berlioz does that thing he sometimes does and fools us by changing the context even while using the very same motif, and so when Faust starts singing in the 9th bar (plus pickup) he seems to be singing a lament in F-sharp minor although of course it’s a D major key signature (F-sharp minor being the relative to A, which is the dominant to D).  It’s so deliciously apt that he’s singing “Le vieil hiver a fait place au printemps”, or in other words, winter has given way to spring.

Friday March 8th (Berlioz’s day of passing), I wrote this: “Have you been outside today? I was breaking up ice, melting under the sun.”  The sadness of that minor phrase matches the shift of mood, the seasonal affect disorder of February giving way to the sunny disposition we might feel, as the melancholy of winter is overwhelmed with the sensuousness of a warm sun and the smells of the ground as it comes back to life.  You get up out of your winter cocoon and start moving outside, returning to life.  Berlioz has all of that in the first pages of the score, an old man in the winter of his life wanting to be alive again, as the world renews itself & he watches & comments.  The little tired line grows and swells like the feelings in your chest, breathing in the warm air.

I listened.  I let myself be moved, thinking not so much of my pleasure & my decades-long affection for this music, but instead for a moment thinking of Berlioz.  He wrote this, and I wonder what he was thinking.  It doesn’t quite fit the generic pigeon-holes does it..!? In other words there’s much here that’s new, that still beckons to intrepid designers & directors.

I shared this to Facebook back on the 8th.  Listen from the beginning, as you’ll hear exactly that same passage to start that I described, the sadness of winter give way to the joy of spring: and an observer who can’t quite manage to join in. I identify very strongly with this alienated observer.

I had thought I wanted to talk about some of my favourite pieces or aspects of the composer, the way I did with previous anniversaries of note (thinking of Debussy & Wagner), when I posted several times within a few days.  Somehow this is different, not an intellectual exercise but something personal.   Today, I have some fires to put out –figuratively speaking I assure you—so let me just say that I’ll stop here.  I just wanted to post the thing I started last Friday, even if it feels like the beginning of something.

Or is it the fact that Spring hasn’t quite conquered Winter?

But lately I’ve been writing big long pieces, seeking to prolong my stay in the blogosphere, perhaps a bit like old Faust, hiding inside his head, avoiding real life.  If I ever figure out a way to permanently stay there in the bloggy world, would that mean I stop writing?

Which reminds me of a joke.

  • Pilot announces “we’ve lost power in engine #1. That will delay us for 90 minutes but we’re still safe with the other 2 engines.
  • Pilot announces “we’ve lost power in engine #2. That delays us 3 hours: but we’re still safe with that last engine.
  • Passenger pipes up “gee if we lose that other engine we’ll be up here all night”.


Posted in Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , | Leave a comment

ELLES—Marina Thibeault

The new ATMA Classics CD ELLES seems apt for a month when there seems to be a great deal of music, opera & theatre created by women, celebrating female creativity, and perhaps extra noticeable with last week’s International Women’s Day on March 8th. There was Stacey Dunlop’s Lonely Child Project, Sook-Yin Lee’s Unsafe at the Berkeley Street Theatre, School Girls at Buddies, Revisor choreographed by Crystal Pite.  And upcoming we get Next Wave Workshop from Musique 3 Femmes (and Tapestry), and the Toronto City Opera’s La traviata. And those are just the recent/current ones I’m aware of.

So I’ve been listening incessantly to ELLES.


It’s what I do when I get a new CD. First time through it’s a voyage through terra incognita and the sense of wonder at the newness I’m encountering. Gradually it resolves into a series of expectations. It’s rare that I want to listen again after the 2nd time through, but this one is different on a number of fronts.

Sometimes recordings are organized in such a way that the journey from beginning to end makes you want to do it again. I think that’s at least part of it.

The title is a signal of course, although I’m not sure who is to be understood in this plural pronoun. It could be the performers, violist Marina Thibeault & pianist Marie-Ève Scarfone, two women with roots in Québec. It could be the repertoire on the CD: all from female composers.

Or perhaps all of the above?

If I asked you to name some female composers you’d probably include at least a couple of these names in your list, as they’re among the best known. An additional filter is the instruments of course, as it’s all either music for viola & piano or for solo viola.

  • Clara Schumann: Three romances Op 22
  • Nadia Boulanger: Three pieces for cello & piano, arranged for viola & piano
  • Fanny Hensel (aka Fanny Mendelssohn): Dämmrung senkte sich von oben
  • Rebecca Clarke: Sonata for viola & piano
  • Lillian Fuchs: Sonata Pastorale (unaccompanied viola)
  • Anna Pidgorna: The Child Bringer of Light for viola solo

If this were programmed by a man I suspect it would be organized chronologically, whereas this is more purely musical, or dare I say it, poetic, pursuing an emotional logic.
Before I address that, I want to talk about my first experience of the CD, plunging in without really looking too closely at the liner notes. Sometimes when I go to a concert I’ve read up in advance to be fully prepared; sometimes I make no preparation and immerse myself in the pure sonic experience. With a recording I seek the luxury of both, getting to blindly listen and then after looking at the titles & notes, listening again. My first experience of Thibeault’s viola was very disorienting. It’s possible this is simply my ignorance, the disorientation of someone who knows nothing or very little.

But the first time through I was overwhelmed by the tone of this viola, at times thinking I was listening to a cello. Now indeed at least two of these pieces were originally cello pieces transcribed for viola. But that doesn’t explain a rich sound that I’ve never heard coming from a viola.  Before you enter into any consideration of interpretation you’re already in rarefied air, a sound unlike anything I’ve heard before

So I must mention that there’s a Sinfonia Toronto concert coming up Friday April 5th that I will miss because I am already over-committed (I said yes to something each of Thursday, Friday & Saturday!). Thibeault will play the Canadian Premiere of a viola concerto by Peteris Vasks. The beautiful tone I heard on this CD should sound especially rich in the intimate confines of the Glenn Gould Studio.  Oh well. If you should go please let me know what you thought.

[Back to the CD]

We begin in a curiously familiar place with the Schumann. Clara Schumann’s Op 22 romances sound a lot like Robert Schumann’s music.

Amazing! These are magnificent pieces working in many of the same ways you might recognize from Robert Schumann’s compositions. The influence they must have had upon one another is palpable, and perhaps the very quintessence of “the romantic”.

There are some interesting points of divergence that might be due to the female performers, or maybe come from the score itself. I think if it were Robert Schumann’s music played by men, that the piano part would be heavier & less subtle. But recalling the original way that Barbara Hannigan approached Berg in a TSO concert a few weeks ago, maybe this is the gender talking: and in a good way.

Boulanger is not someone I know, and after hearing her three pieces I’m planning to explore further. The last movement is especially thrilling with a bravura piano part that brings out the best in Scarfone.

Hensel gives us the itinerary for a tiny two minute trip back into the dreamiest depths of the romantic movement, a stunning melodic arc that I didn’t want to end. But it did. (another reason to let the CD play over…)

Rebecca Clarke? I didn’t know her work but I will have to explore further after hearing this glorious sonata. Impetuoso for the first movement brings us decisively into the 20th century. But we’re still tonal, modal & passionate. This is a true duet, Scarfone taking the stage at times, at other times more in support of Thibeault’s soaring line.

The second movement Vivace has all the playfulness of a scherzo. I’m more reminded of the middle movement of Saint-Saëns 2nd piano concerto, that goes back and forth between gossamer lightness and a slower melody (the closest analogy I could think of…not quite the same though). What’s really amazing about this is how I’m reminded of a question I posed a couple of weeks ago, namely how does a composer get people to play their works? The short answer is to write something fun, something you hear and say “wow I want to play that!” That’s what I felt when I heard the Saint-Saëns 2nd concerto middle movement, a stunning ear-worm if ever there was one. This movement too has staying power, amazing textures & sounds.  And Clarke’s last page does sound a lot like Saint-Saëns’ conclusion.

And then her third movement is a soulful Adagio beginning with a piano statement, answered by something mysterious and poignant in the viola, questioning and questing for something, growing and accelerating. From a deceptively simple beginning this piece really shows the gender thing most eloquently in a testosterone free zone, ending without bombast or falseness.

And from there, we’re in alto solo territory for the next four cuts: the three movement Sonata Pastorale of Lillian Fuchs, and the fascinating closing piece from Ana Pidgorna.

There’s a great deal of variety in the three-movement Sonata Pastorale. At times it’s very thoughtful & sombre, but the last movement breaks free for an energetic Allegro. This kind of writing totally suits the viola, a melancholy probing under the surface that you wouldn’t expect from a violin.  Thibeault is fully in control of this piece, taking us for a wild ride to finish.

And to close the CD, the Pidgorna, which is unlike anything that came before, barely recognizable as the same instrument. Everything that’s been established to this point –the solidity of tone & tonality—is now up for grabs in this electrifying finale. I’m glad I listened to it the first time without recourse to the notes, as its playfulness is unmistakable. The rhetorical segmentation reminds me of a one-woman show, an attempt to do a soliloquy without words. It helps that Thibeault is so decisive, sometimes attacking powerfully, sometimes more gently.

Here’s a live performance of The Child, Bringer of Light.

… making me want to go back to the beginning of the CD, to hear the Schumann again.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


There are nights when the theatre reminds you how lucky you are. You may think that I say this too often, but I don’t believe we say it often enough, especially the entitled white upper class twits I think of as my peers.

Tonight I saw the opening of Unsafe. It’s a funny hybrid of a show, with a writing credit for Sook-Yin Lee, who is one of the two people onstage for almost two hours without intermission.


Sook-Yin Lee in Unsafe at Canadian Stage (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Zack Russell is credited as “Consultant” although to hear them tell it in the performance, he was writing a play.

Unsafe is several things. It’s like a debate between two people arguing about what they’re doing, while they’re doing it. S-YL may have credentials as an artist in film & music, but presents herself as a truth-telling documentarist, an interviewer seeking truth. She debates with ZR –who is portrayed by Christo Graham—who we’re told is a musician & playwright fulfilling a commission for Matthew Jocelyn, the former Artistic Director of Canadian Stage.

So did you get that? The man is trying to make this a play while the woman is seeking to make this more of a documentary – interview, and the whole time they’re debating how to do it? they are really doing it.  So we’re often discussing & analyzing the process as much as we’re having a discussion: which I found mind-boggling, hair-raising and yes, really cool.  How you frame a question is vital when you’re studying something like this, so that meta-position is brilliantly apt. And in passing Canadian Stage expose themselves to a scathing critique as a very white organization; and they faced the questions bravely.

Unsafe is a show that plays very differently depending on which stratum you occupy economically, culturally.  How safe or unsafe should one feel, I wonder?

The subject is censorship. Jocelyn’s original focus in his commission was upon artist Eli Langer, whose 1993 show at Mercer Union became the centre of a huge controversy.

Excuse this big huge digression, but I want to give you some context. Here’s what Mercer Union’s website says :

And I wonder, as I put this link in: will I be allowed to do this or will someone contact me and tell me to take it down?

On December 16, 1993, five paintings and thirty-five drawings were removed from an exhibition of works by Eli Langer at Mercer Union by the Morality Bureau of the Metropolitan Toronto Police.
Mercer Union understands the origin of the work by Eli Langer to be imaginative, and to be in no way a measure of the acceptability of any implied activity in these works of art. We consider this work to be a serious exploration of the human psyche. Many contemporary artists have investigated sensitive issues, and we see Langer contributing to such discussions. In exhibiting these works Mercer Union neither intended to act unlawfully nor was aware that the exhibition was in breach of any law. Mercer Union’s Board of Directors would like to reiterate their support of the artistic merit of the work of Eli Langer. At this point, no charges have been laid.
The three paintings and fifteen drawings that remain in Eli Langer’s exhibition will be on view until December 22. Mercer Union is open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
[…and there’s lots more on that webpage]

Kate Taylor’s response in her Globe & Mail review appears to have been a catalyst for the firestorm that erupted.  And Mercer Union have that review prominently on the same webpage I just sent you to.  Tonight we heard from Kate Taylor in this show, one of several case studies explored over the course of the evening.


The original poster for the show (above) gets reproduced, Christo Graham becoming headless for Sook-Yin Lee to interview for us onstage (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Yuula Benivolski’s photo that has been used to publicize the show was reproduced for us parodically by Christo Graham wearing a mannequin on his upper body, a hilarious effect initially that grew creepier the longer we watched, a kind of enactment of the loss of control implicit in censorship.

I’m simultaneously frustrated and grateful. I wish it had been longer in places, unpacking more of what was hinted at; and yet it was quite long & exhausting, not just for the performers but for us too. It was like the third act of a Shaw play going on for more than an hour. In fairness there was tons of fun interspersed. We had some music, including Jeremy Dutcher & a smattering of Claude Vivier believe it or not. We had some moments when we flirted with the whole question of pornography in the most playful way.

I found myself thinking about the whole question of safety. There were moments when some in the audience seemed to feel unsafe, or so I heard in the talk-back afterwards. In the end it’s a play that seems to be entirely off-the-cuff, a live interview: or a very good simulation thereof.  There is so much more to this than what I can capture here, writing my quick response before bedtime.

It’s an impressive piece of work. I suspect dramaturg Birgit Schreyer-Duarte played a big part in organizing this meta-conversation, although I should also credit director Sarah Garton Stanley.  When something feels this spontaneous & real? that’s no accident. They made it look easy.

I feel very fortunate to have seen this, lucky to be here. Anyone who makes art or performs should see this, anyone who cares about freedom of expression should come listen to the debating, a piece asking questions about the new frontier, and the ways in which power interferes with expression.

Unsafe continues until March 31st at Berkeley St Theatre.

Posted in Politics, Reviews, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Episode V: beyond popularity

Films with live accompaniment are becoming a regular experience. I don’t mean that the novelty is wearing off, at least I hope not.

But what began as an experiment has become a new revenue-stream for the Toronto Symphony, somewhere between serious programming and pops programming. Next week the TSO will be showing Episode V of the Star Wars saga aka The Empire Strikes Back (1980): four nights worth of John Williams, March 20th – 23rd inclusive.


There is a bit of a fly in the ointment, and I hope you’ll forgive me for pointing it out. The films are selected based on that most natural criterion, namely popularity. It means that many of the great classics of the screen that I fondly hoped to see simply don’t make the cut.

And so, while Apocalypse Now (1979) or Ben-Hur (1959) or The Mission (1986) or The Adventures of Robin Hood (thinking  of the 1938 Korngold version, although I’d be thrilled with the 1991 Michael Kamen score) might be personal favourites for their remarkable scores, they’re not sufficiently popular to fill Roy Thomson Hall for multiple showings.


I haven’t totally given up on my wish-list that I’ve shared with the TSO. I saw that the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) a few years ago including the live participation of Danny Elfman, Catherine O’Hara and Paul Reubens (alias Pee-wee Herman): all vocalists heard in the original film. They filled the Hollywood Bowl.  Wouldn’t it be amazing to see such a thing here?

But let me get back to what I spoke of in the headline. So of course the TSO must choose popular films, but every now and then a cash-cow is also a brilliant work of art.

It happens! The Nutcracker (meaning the ballet) and La traviata (meaning the opera) are guaranteed money-makers, the perennial Christmastime programming by ballet companies all over the world and Verdi’s popular opera. But they’re also amazing works of art.

And ditto Episode V.

To misquote our pal Shakespeare, I come not to praise Lucas but to bury him. I mostly dislike the Star Wars saga

  • As a fan of science fiction novels
  • As a fan of science fiction films

The genre of science fiction film leapt ahead as though there were no gravity, flying upwards on the promise of films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) cited yesterday A Clockwork Orange (1971), Logan’s Run (1976), and later, Blade Runner (1983).  This was the genre that could address great & profound questions.

And then along came Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Not my hope however.

If this was science fiction it certainly was not the challenging sci-fi cited in the examples mentioned above. It was melodrama. It was a conscious throw-back to old-style serials, which might be fun after a fashion but surely shouldn’t be mistaken for science fiction. Sure I saw & heard the excitement others experienced (and would hear it over and over for various TV series), excitement I did not share.  But yes I went to see Episode IV.

The next film was the big anomaly, unique in the series.

Episode V had a new director, namely Irvin Kershner. Episode IV was written and directed by George Lucas. While Lucas wrote the story for Episode V, there are two experienced screenwriters in the picture, namely Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, the latter the writer & director of films such as The Big Chill. So if the relationships in Episode V suddenly seem more real & authentic, if the characters suddenly seem to have rich inner lives? It might be Kasdan’s doing, although Kershner too is a big difference in the film.

I don’t pretend to know how the magic happened, only that Kershner + the writing team of Brackett & Kasdan make Episode V totally unlike any other in the series.

When I saw it, I was struck by the parallels to Wagner’s opera Siegfried.

• Act 1: in Mime’s cave, where the sword is forged
• Act II is in the forest where Siegfried meets the dragon;
• Act III sees the hero ascend a mountain, breaking Wotan’s spear, penetrating the magic fire and awakening Brunnhilde.
The Empire Strikes Back:
• we begin with a battle on the frozen planet, while the imperial forces close in, the rebels running through caves before several ships escape (including Han in the Millennium Falcon & Luke in his own fighter accompanied by R2D2)
• as in Act II of Siegfried Luke is in a forest exploring his past, as he meets Yoda and wrestles with his demons. Han & Leia hide in an asteroid field, narrowly escaping a gigantic beast not unlike Fafner.
• For the last “act” they are united in the brilliant sunshine of Lando’s city, where Luke confronts his father –just as Siegfried confronted Wotan—in a battle. Luke does not, however break his father’s spear but instead is himself injured, rescued at the end, while Han is given to a bounty hunter.

As in Wagner’s Ring operas, there’s a web of themes, leit-motifs, that help tell the story. The orchestra is like a Greek chorus, adding layers to what we see onscreen and hear in the screenplay.

This example (with music and no visuals) shows just how powerful Williams’ score is.

The seriousness of this film is what really captures my attention. Williams rises to a higher level in this film possibly because the story demands more of him than any other in the series (although we have yet to see the finale). We’re not merely hearing musical enhancement for events and battles, but something more, the music elevating the action to something comparable to Wagner’s mythic music-dramas.  As in so many of Wagner’s operas, the action concerns the drama of our interior life.

That’s why I am so eager to see Episode V on the big screen with live orchestral accompaniment. I’ve seen this film easily 20 or 30 times, if not more. I know every line, every note of the score. And I’m sure I am not alone. This film works at a higher level, not merely melodramatic but operatic.

If there are any tickets left you should try to go see one of the showings next week, played live by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evolving past jealousy in opera

I was thinking about jealousy today.  It’s funny how sometimes a word can come up over and over again.

I confessed to some envy in my last review, admiring the way Stephen Walsh wrote about Debussy.  I don’t know if I’d call it “jealousy”. But I think of envy and jealousy as variations on the same impulse. Feed and fertilize envy and you get jealousy, or so I believe.

Please note, I put a lid on such things.  Perhaps I am in denial? But I believe we all have those impulses.  What is a social contract if not a promise not to surrender to our animal instincts?  The traffic light is red, and while I may want to get home NOW..? Yes I wait patiently: because it’s the law, and because I obey the traffic light without giving it a second thought.

I love this sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  We’re watching a hominid species taking an evolutionary step that presumably leads to man.  Watch him take up the femur and notice that it can be wielded as a club.  And within the sequence we see that happen.

Earlier in the “Dawn of Man” sequence, we watch as one family group of hominids chase another away from their watering hole.  Would we call this jealousy or just the survival instinct?  And with the new skills associated with the femur (perhaps under the influence of the black monolith ex machina: Kubrick & Arthur C Clarke offering a particular rationale for our evolutionary leap), the waterhole is taken back, the future secure.

The point is, at one time jealousy had an evolutionary function. Without it we might not be here.

And what about humankind in 2019?  Do we still need jealousy?  Is it perhaps a bit like our tailbones, a vestige whose purpose has been exhausted?

Or to put it another way, what if the femurs we’re wielding might bring about our extinction?  Whether they’re nuclear or biological or other subtler kinds of warfare, these weapons might not be conducive to our ongoing survival on this planet.  I’m not about to suggest that the world has become peaceful, just because most of the killing happens on other continents (the daily death-toll from gun violence in the USA notwithstanding).

But I wonder if we will learn to outgrow our violent nature before we kill one another.

Did you notice the headline?  You may be wondering when I’ll connect this discussion to opera, indeed, whether there is any connection.  But there is.

Today a friend asked “What do you find helpful when jealousy comes up about what other artists have achieved?” It’s funny because I was already conscious of it in yesterday’s review (a writer I envied).  I thought of three things to tell my friend.

  1. Years ago I had to invent a mantra that I didn’t even believe. “There’s enough for everybody.” Believe it and behave as though it’s true even if it’s a lie.  Whether you’re auditioning or applying for a grant or simply going to see others perform, you must believe this.  In fact recalling the conversation about opera singers in this country: there really isn’t enough work.   But we must behave as if there’s really enough for everyone.  It’s as though we’re all in this together, not fighting one another for the last drop of water or last spot in a show.Do I sound like a radical yet?
  2. This one is easier. You should bask in their success. When you see someone succeed, don’t be jealous. You must cheer, applaud, and celebrate their success.  Why? Because if they can do it so can you.  At least that’s the implication.  Again, it’s a kind of roleplay to suggest that we’re all in this together.  Sure, my voice is old and shot, and yours is young and hot, but when I applaud I celebrate your success because it’s everyone’s success.
  3. And FINALLY this one is the actual logical reason to purge jealousy. OMFG I wish I had recognized this one sooner, when I was younger.  I hope I don’t sound like a cynic.  But here’s the thing. Theatre, opera, film, they are all collaborative. You can’t do it without other people, ultimately without real friendship. And that means positive karma is essential.People don’t want to be around jealousy. If you’re jealous? you’re in the wrong business..!

I wonder, is the artistic community actually a more evolved version of society, or at least striving to get there?

Now of course if this conversation includes persons from the opposite side of the political spectrum from myself, they would say that’s an arrogant & self-congratulatory thing to say. Maybe.  I don’t mind criticism, am not afraid of ridicule.

I only know what I feel.  As an older artist looking at the community of young artists –actors, singers, musicians, writers–I know what I see.  They look out for one another, they model caring and empathy as part of their creative practice, and it’s not an act. And perhaps in the process we stop smacking one another with a femur and move on to the next evolutionary level, a real community.

Why not.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Psychology and perception | 1 Comment

Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Stephen Walsh’s recent book Debussy: A Painter in Sound from Faber & Faber, is a welcome addition to the literature concerning a man whose star continues to rise, a composer respected & loved more in the 21st century than ever before.

And yet has anyone yet really captured this artist in a single book? I say that as a former grad student who read everything about Debussy in English plus a whole lot more in French. While his compositional output is comparatively small, especially for someone held up as such an important influence, there’s a great deal about him to know.

There are his compositions (for piano, for voice, for orchestra, an opera, plus a few remarkable fragments), his critical writings (perhaps not the equal of Berlioz but still a substantial body of work), his correspondence, and a fascinating life story.

Musicologists rarely manage to get all of that into one book, indeed they usually must place their emphasis on one aspect. Arthur Wenk’s Debussy & the Poets is a wonderful multi-disciplinary study of the songs and their texts. Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion is a study of the scores testing a hypothesis concerning the composer’s use of mathematical principles in his music, literally exploring the aspects of music that his title would suggest. James Briscoe’s Debussy in Performance brings scores to life in order to explore them in the most practical sense. Robin Holloway studied one of his key influences in Debussy and Wagner. Robert Orledge wrote of Debussy and the Theatre.

And –more pertinent to what Walsh did—there are also several biographies.

debussy a painter in sound

Walsh sets off in a very original direction, proposing to write a biography framed within the language of visual art. I am now looking for the second time at his introduction, which reads very differently after one has finished reading the book.

In the introduction to his book on French music, Martin Cooper had provided a lucid explanation of the differences between the French and, for example the German views of art. After quoting a remark of the critic W. J. Turner that ‘it is the sublimity of the soul that makes the music of Beethoven and Bach so immeasurably greater than that of Wagner and Debussy’, he pointed out that ‘to seek in French music primarily for a revelation of the composer’s soul or for marks of the sublime was to look for something which the French consider a by-product… The French composer is consciously concerned with the two data which no one can question—his intelligence and his senses.’ And Cooper added, ‘The regarding of a piece of music as an artefact—a thing of planned shape, dimensions, colour and consistency—rather than as an expression of an emotion whose end is in itself, brings the French composer nearer than any other to the plastic artist.’
This strikes me as a perfect description of the attitude of Debussy to his work, and indeed of the work itself.  (Walsh)

That’s really a preamble to the key relationship that’s to be articulated.

In rejecting Wagner, Debussy was thinking a kind of music that prioritised what he saw as the virtues of French art, ‘its clarity of expression, its precision and compactness of form, the particular and specific qualities of French genius’…he not only discarded the heavy northern gloom of The Ring and Tristan, he threw out most of the grammatical infrastructure that had supported Wagner’s immense narrative frameworks. Suddenly there is a concentration, a focus on particular ideas and images that is, as Cooper implies, somewhat painterly. This is not a question off taking sides in the whole tormented issue of whether Debussy can or cannot be called an Impressionist. It has more to do with the way in which any painter handles the motif within the limits of the picture frame. In much of his music, Debussy seems to work like this with motifs and frames, rather than with the evolving, novelistic discourse, not only of Wagnerian opera, but of the whole symphonic tradition of nineteenth—century music.

He manages to stay true to this way of thinking and more. When, near the end of the introduction, Walsh describes his goal for the book, it reads like a critique of the other books that have gone before. And why not, he’s a music critic, and he likely had to read those books that he’s critiquing, when he says this:

What follows is a biography of sorts but it is a biography with the difference that is sets out to treat Debussy’s music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life, rather than, as one finds in many Lives of Composers, a slightly annoying series of incidents that hold up the story without adding much of narrative interest.

That is exactly how the book reads, an example of how a biography should be done.

And I celebrate what Walsh achieved. As far as telling the story of a life, it’s a wonderfully readable version that manages to locate the major compositions within believable contexts, so that they become the inevitable outcome of the incidents of the composer’s life.

While it’s not perfect I often found myself wishing as I was reading that I had written it.  I admire the book. The prose is skillful, fluid, accessible. It’s a good first book to read about Debussy, indeed if you’re only ever going to read one book about the composer this would be the one.

There are a few places where I pushed back against Walsh, unsatisfied with what he was saying.  I’m one of those petty people who thinks the whole impressionist – symbolist question matters. I’m not happy with the evidence I see for Walsh knowing what a symbolist is. It’s not enough to drop some names, you need to have an understanding of the process, how a symbolist writes or paints or composes and what they seek to signify. But perhaps that’s an indication of how insignificant that topic has been in the past that a book can be satisfactory without adequately addressing Debussy the symbolist, which to me should be one of the central concerns of the study. It’s still a revelation to dare to be multi-disciplinary in this way about a composer, although the invocation of multiple disciplines usually signals a crossover by someone from their area of competence into an area of lesser competence, sometimes with mixed results. Maybe in a generation or two we’ll get the multi-disciplinary study that gets it completely right.

I was very impressed with the way Walsh spoke of different songs, analyses that brought in poetry & Wagner deftly and with total agility, and without bogging down. Most of the book hangs together really nicely between the story of a life and the compositions that fill that life. I have to reconcile the book’s goal and my love of certain compositions that I wanted explored and unpacked in greater detail. But that’s not a flaw, especially when it’s precisely what the author set out to do. I’m like a passenger on the tour-bus, upset that we’re sticking to the schedule and not stopping longer at my favourite locale.

I wonder too if Walsh read Howat’s theories proposing that Debussy used specific proportions such as the Golden Mean in the construction of his scores; Debussy in Proportion is conspicuously absent from the bibliography, especially considering that Walsh would consider Debussy through visual art. Did the “painter in sound” (as Walsh calls him) use the golden mean to assemble notes on the page? I doubt I’m the only one asking the question, but perhaps there’s just not enough evidence for Walsh to explore the subject; or maybe it didn’t interest him.  Oh well.

This time as a library book I read it cover to cover. I’lI buy it because I need to explore it further. I recommend it to anyone curious about Claude Debussy.

And it’s a fun read.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology | Tagged , | 1 Comment