I swallowed a moon made of iron: Oxymoronic, Prophetic

Njo Kong Kie has created a one man show from Xu Lizhi’s texts, that he sings and enacts mostly from the piano, I swallowed a moon made of iron, presented at the Berkeley Street Theatre by Canadian Stage. That title comes from one of Xu’s poems.  At times we get syncopated rock songs sung in Chinese, sometimes we get something more like classical lieder, a cross between Debussy & Schumann, the words taking us inside the sensuous experience of a worker in a place we can barely imagine.

No it’s not Marxist or revolutionary, these are the visceral life of a sensitive & compassionate young man rendered in verse.

Here’s the beginning of Njo’s program note:

In 2010 fourteen workers committed suicide at the Shenzhen complex of Foxconn, a major contract manufacturer of electronics for many of our digital devices. In 2014, 24 year old Xu Lizhi, working at the same plant, did the same. Xu was also a poet, known as one of the most promising young poets in China’s worker-poet literary movement, comprised of young labourers writing about the working class. His death sparked headlines in China and across the globe.

I remember in my childhood studying Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, pushing the envelope of tragedy with a hero who was not heroic. Where do we go from there(?), our teacher asked. Reality TV is one logical consequence, a discourse for an era when poetry & heroism seem impossible, a time epitomized by Donald Trump. As we’ve watched the rise of information technology & the transformation of labour, I’ve long hoped to see an opera someday created from R.U.R., Karel Capek’s play from the early 20th century (“RUR” =Rossum’s Universal Robots), which long seemed to be an ideal vehicle for an opera. I wondered about possible directions for the evolution of tragedy & drama, at least as seen on the operatic stage.  Ah but I see that I’m way off in my grandiose predictions as I missed the logical trajectory. I could mention a story we saw from Bicycle Opera Project in 2017, namely Sweat, that showed us the exploitation of labour in the third world. It leads to what I saw tonight.

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Njo Kong Kie in I swallowed a moon made of iron (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Of course it was the ultimate irony that my experience of this opera (a staged song-cycle? Perhaps genre doesn’t matter) was disrupted by a mobile phone going off beside me. For a few moments I wondered if the sound was part of the score. There we were, contemplating the life and death of someone crushed under the massive wheels of an impersonal industry, a world apathetic & distant, epitomized in that phone going off in the midst of the performance.

Does anyone care?

Pardon my tirade, it was breath-takingly perfect. The work that might sensitize the Canadian audience and would make us care, this portrayal of a brutally insensitive industrial world was captured for me perfectly in that moment.  If she had stood up in the middle of the show and walked out while she discussed where to meet for beer..? Only making it more obvious.

Njo’s music is sometimes heart-breakingly beautiful even as the text renders something unbearable. I think that’s as it must be. If instead the show went in the direction of something Wagnerian –where the music and the text and the scene all match in some sort of “total art”—you’d get something unbearable sounding & horrific looking to match the intimations of horror in the poetry. The startling contradictions of beauty bearing messages of heart-break & pain are unexpected, brilliant. That’s why it’s poetry. And that’s what I was getting at in using the word “oxymoronic”, where we have something contradictory. We are taken very sensitively into the world of Xu’s poetry by a choice in the mise en scene to illuminate the words for us, projecting chunks of text in English while at least some of those words are sung in Chinese.

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Njo Kong Kie singing through Xu Lizhi’s text (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Njo Kong Kie’s I swallowed a moon made of iron continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre until May 26th.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera, Popular music & culture, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

TSO + Davis = Mahler magic

I marked this one down on my calendar a long time ago, even though tonight on May 16th is a key date for other reasons…

  • It’s COC’s Operanation
  • It’s the world premiere of Shanawdithit, the co-pro from Tapestry / Opera on the Avalon
  • and by the way today was also the fabulous interview on Q of Dean Burry & Yvette Nolan about their new opera (have a listen

I opted for the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall because they were playing one of my favourite pieces conducted by Sir Andrew Davis (knowing I could see Shanawdithit next week), and they made me glad I chose them, one of the best concerts I’ve seen all year.

I understand that Sir Andrew is not just Interim Artistic Director of the TSO but is like a curator in assembling programs such as tonight’s, a fascinating combination:

  • César Franck’s Variations Symphoniques for piano & orchestra,
  • Mahler’s 7th Symphony, which is my favourite Mahler Symphony
  • and “My Most Beautiful, Wonderful, Terrific, Amazing, Fantastic, Magnificent Homeland”: a very romantic & optimistic sounding Sesquie by Chan Ka Nin that almost sounded contemporary with the other two even with its bold quotation from “Oh Canada”.

But as Davis & the Toronto Symphony await the new conductor Gustavo Gimeno who will take over from Davis in the fall of 2020, they’re not just marking time. Oh no. This is an orchestra playing with passion & commitment, as Davis prepares them for the new regime. I’m eager to hear Gimeno who will be conducting in June, but for now this is an ensemble building for the future.


Sir Andrew Davis (Photo: Jaime Hogge)

Perhaps I should explain why I was fascinated by Davis putting the Franck with Mahler. While the Franck is shorter & requiring fewer players than the Mahler, they sound good together. Although the Mahler begins in B minor its opening motto begins with an F-sharp, the same key as the Franck; if one recalls old-fashioned key relationships found in classical symphonies, this one works nicely.

I was reminded of the conductor of the la boheme seen at the COC lately. Should a conductor be noticed? Should the music flow without interruption? should we be aware of the soloists? I only bring this up because I was yanked out of the dramatic illusion at the opera a few times by a conductor imposing his ego on the natural flow of the piece, which is not how I like it. Sometimes singers or soloists ostentatiously seem to call attention to themselves by altering a tempo, by disrupting the natural flow, and if they sing well we’ll forgive them. I heard an ideal reading of the Franck tonight from Davis and pianist Louis Lortie, seemingly effortless in the give & take. Franck segments the piece in places with changes from one sort of playing to another, from one kind of texture to another sound altogether. I’ve heard it many times, and often the pianist calls attention to themself in their solo work, interrupting the flow in their struggles to cope with the score. But Lortie and Davis were so seamless I was reminded of the self-effacing approach of a film-score. They say if you’re doing it right, you don’t notice the music. On this occasion Davis & Lortie made it seem easy, even though this is a deceptively tough score. Lortie’s flow never stopped the continuity of the piece nor slowed the luscious flow of notes from orchestra & piano, as though the soloist were just another player in the orchestra, not demanding anyone shine a spotlight on him. When I say “ideal” I mean that this is the best version I’ve ever heard in decades of marveling at this beautiful piece, no ego to mar the performance. I feel lucky to have been seated in a place where I could see the wonderful eye contact & communication between Davis & Lortie.

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Louis Lortie at the piano, Andrew Davis at the podium and the Toronto Symphony (photo: Jag Gundu)

You’d think they’ve done this before, wouldn’t you…

And then on to the Mahler. I’m reminded of a TSO concert at Ontario Place back in 1980, where they also played the 7th Symphony. (can’t recall the conductor …. Hm could it also have been Davis?!). I remember that I ran into Carl Morey & Neil Crory, who both were dubious about this symphony; perhaps it was the scholarly consensus at the time? but they claimed the piece didn’t work.

Or was it that as of 1980, interpreters hadn’t yet figured it out? I had a recording I loved. I remember disagreeing with them at the time, loving this symphony in the slow version I had, conducted by Otto Klemperer. I’m much happier with quicker versions such as the Leonard Bernstein NY Philharmonic recording, that goes more like a bat out of hell.

Whatever pace you take –fast or slow – Mahler is a bit like Shakespeare, thinking of Hamlet or King Lear. Unless you have a good interpreter who can make a strong statement of the work, I’d almost say: why bother? There are many possible interpretations, so long as you HAVE an interpretation, a leader who can make a statement.

Davis? Ah, now we’re talking. The TSO have done Mahler over the past few years, and there’s a world of difference when someone comes who really has some ideas about how to do the work. What a joy watching this performance, hearing the orchestra respond to an experienced leader with a real vision of the work.

While Davis is not as quick as Bernstein he’s at the quicker end of the spectrum: which I think is preferable. The marching rhythms in the 1st movement cohere better if you push the orchestra, especially if you really seem to know what you’re asking for. When we had something schmaltzy or more introspective, Davis pulled back on the throttle, allowing a kind of meandering for those softer spots. And that made the climactic passages that much more dramatic, the last of the 1st movement being especially relentless.

I’ve seen Davis do this before, in the February Wagner concert where he demanded clean attacks, shorter notes with spaces between them to help articulation. Not only did this give us clarity but likely helped save the players’ chops, and spared our ears as well. The key passages were wonderfully big but that’s preferable than being loud all the way through.

This orchestra really seems to love playing for Davis, given their commitment tonight. And yet it wasn’t all big and bold. There was a great deal of internal detail, many beautiful solos throughout the orchestra in every movement. And the last movement was allowed to meander a bit without being rushed the way some conductors do it, so that when we finally came to the big statements at the end, there was some genuine excitement.

I’m sorry I can’t tell you to see it again, this was the second of two. But Davis & Lortie are back next week in another TSO program that includes Rossini’s William Tell overture, Saint-Saëns’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Respighi’s Pines of Rome.

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Boheme to close the deal

It’s that time of year when one considers renewing the opera subscription. Oh don’t get me wrong, I was going to renew it anyway.

But the comment from the Mrs today was electric. She’s so glad to know that we’re renewing our subscription to the Canadian Opera Company. Because she liked the show and so did I.  It’s great to feel connected.

Everything seems to have come together since opening night. All four of the principals (Blue, Chuchman, Meachem & Ayan) were good tonight, the smaller parts superb, and the chorus were strong in Acts II & III.


(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

It was interesting to be sitting there recalling Moonstruck in Act III, and feeling connected to someone I’ve been with since that was a new movie playing in the theatres.  Yes that was decades ago.

But we’re confirmed Puccini lovers, looking forward to seeing Turandot next season.
I cried in places I haven’t cried before. The crying is very cathartic, not always a heart-break thing.

Do you like to cry sometimes? It’s really a terrific release. And there are places we laugh too. Boheme is a mix of comedy & sadness at the end. I’m not going to call it tragedy.

The COC’s La Boheme continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 22nd.

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Robert Lepage’s 887 this time

Have you seen Robert Lepage’s 887?

This show’s been all over the world. I missed the first Toronto incarnation in 2015 but saw it & raved about  it last time, brought to Toronto via Canadian Stage (one of the co-producers) in April 2017.

Two years later it’s back, and shouldn’t be missed.  I should be saying “he’s back”, “he shouldn’t be missed” because it’s over two hours of a one-man show, a total tour de force.  If you are an actor see it to be reminded of what an actor can do, see it and be prepared to be daunted, impressed but intimidated.

That’s the joke, I suppose, and it’s grown in the telling.

Lepage begins with the challenges of memorizing a poem. Ha-ha, he can’t manage, he can’t remember: all the while, speaking and delivering and acting this profound exploration that goes on for two hours plus. And so as we may wonder, will he ever learn that poem? he segues to bigger questions of memory & history implicit in the poem he is to learn, namely Michèlle Lalonde’s Speak White.

Is it the same as last time? Not possible. Lepage has changed and so have I. So have we all.  The country is changing, morphing everything in the process. The experience seeing it the first time of course was special. But it’s a live performance, totally different this time out.

I remember Lepage seeming calmly magisterial last time, solid and confident throughout. Perhaps I’m projecting, but I think he’s been through a great deal this year. Instead I saw a very relaxed off the cuff kind of performance this time out: that is until we get to the end. I hope it’s not a spoiler to say that eventually Lepage does deliver the poem.

But where he made it a kind of logical conclusion previously, a calm resolution to the performance, this time—at least tonight—was unexpectedly passionate. The energy Lepage brought to the two-plus hours of this piece are already impressive. But in the last part of the show he kicks it up another notch. There’s an element that might be fury or anger or terror, a desperation. He is raging against the dying of the light, where the light might be the dying aspirations of the Parti Québecois and its nationalist dream, a generation of revolutionaries, greying, losing their mojo or simply irrelevant, forgotten by an apathetic generation. Where that dream seemed to be quietly fading in 2017, held up by Lepage like an old slide for us to see illuminated, tonight it was more like a distant memory, like an unconscious patient on a table needing to be resuscitated: by Lepage’s wild energy.  I wonder what Lalonde would think of Lepage’s urgent pained delivery tonight? But he built inexorably to that climax, mindful rather than uncontrolled.

It’s an astonishing display of virtuosity that I did not expect, even having seen the show before.

Where the poem was a perfect little bit of lace or nice icing on a cake at the end of his meditation last time out, THIS TIME? he has reckless moments, jazzy and energized, knocking it out of the park, to finish the show at peak energy. I wonder if he can replicate this, yet of course I have no doubts at all.  This was planned as masterfully as anything Wagner would have composed (remembering that above all Wagner was a master-manipulator).

I can’t get over Lepage’s theatrical vocabulary on this occasion. I don’t think there are any aerials, nobody hanging from a wire as we saw in his Ring cycle operas, in Damnation de Faust or the Tempest.


A scene from Robert Lepage’s production of The Tempest at Festival Opéra de Québec, 2012 © Nicola Vachon 2012

But I think he’s come at the story-telling in a different way to do many of the same things as before.

We’ve seen the shadow – puppets before, as in the Nightingale & other stories, that we saw from the Canadian Opera Company. We’ve seen models and puppets standing in for humans in the Ring operas.


The descent to Nibelheim from Das Rheingold (Ring cycle at the Metropolitan Opera), one of several moments when you couldn’t tell whether it was a person or a puppet-double.

Yet it was very different on this occasion.

I was reminded of a few obsessive model-building movie-makers:

• Terry Gilliam
• Tim Burton
• Wes Anderson

It’s miraculous to see the same kind of micro- and macro-worlds in live theatre that Burton or Anderson have built & filmed. Lepage brings high-res cameras in close for amazing close-ups, that are bizarrely real at the same time that they scream out to us that they’re artificial and can’t possibly be real.


The big projected images are shot from a camera in the model car believe it or not (photo: Elabbe).

What’s this about? A need for control? A way to enact a kind of vulnerability? Lepage is revisiting some remarkable moments in our history, such as Charles de Gaulle’s visit to Québec, or the FLQ kidnappings & murder of Pierre Laporte.

I’ve been trying to understand a mystery lately, re-watching Lepage’s 4 Ring operas on video. There are moments that I keep watching over and over, mesmerized. I have this word I want to use that seems apt, that the images work so well as to make the meaning immanent, manifest and completely transparent. I think it’s easy to underestimate Lepage, because he’s making something so simple & concrete as to show us a physical model of an apartment building, of a parade with a crowd. But it’s not that the models are somehow going to explain, so much as they make it possible for Lepage to enact the key moments, to show us the experience from the past even though it seems to be happening again, in miniature. It’s totally surreal, totally crazy on the literal level. But at another level we’re seeing Lepage live this, that his movable apartment building is like a model of himself, a deconstruction of his childhood and his culture. He is in a real sense drilling down into himself and lo & behold, there’s always something there.

It’s breath-taking in its simplicity, astonishingly powerful. We get to have it both ways, to be on the inside experiencing it while also being alien and on the outside, critiquing.

I have been obsessively watching the Ring videos over the past few days, to see Lepage’s work again. I think people over-think this, mistaking it for something else as they demand it do what other productions & what other designs have done. That’s a fallacy I think. When Lepage is standing beside that apartment house or the parade it’s a mistake to see that as a set. They’re actually both less & more. In a sense they are like characters or installations, models of the self, or models of the culture. Lepage doesn’t quite become part of the set, but his phenomenal feat of over two-hours of intense delivery makes him both the subject & the object, the matter at hand and the means to explore that matter.


Robert Lepage and Ex Machina: 887 (Photo: Érick Labbé)

Nevermind that big machine in the Met Ring cycle. Lepage himself is a superb machine.

If you are old enough to remember the 70s let alone the 60s and 50s, you must see this show, a meditation on Canadian history & identity, as well as a profound investigation of memory & cognition.  887 continues at the Bluma Appel Theatre until May 12th.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Psychology and perception, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Questions for John Abberger: 4th annual Bach Festival

John Abberger, one of North America’s leading performers on historical oboes, is a familiar face locally as the principal oboist with Tafelmusik (bio), often playing key solos in concerts as he did just last week. John is also Artistic Director of the Toronto Bach Festival.

I wanted to find out more about John and to ask him a few questions about the fourth annual Bach Festival coming up May 24th -26th 2019.


John Abberger

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

To be honest, I feel that I am an interesting combination of my parents, without any one of them predominating. My father was a thoughtful and somewhat shy person. I think in my youth I took after him more, but as I grew in my career as a musician it was necessary to find a way to overcome that diffidence, and the example of my mother provided a powerful resource upon which I could draw.

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

Pretty much all of the things I do have good and bad aspects. For example, I love playing the oboe, but making reeds, not so much. But you can’t play the oboe (on a high level, anyway), without making reeds. It’s part of playing the instrument. At this point the Bach festival is being run by myself and a couple of other people who work on a very part-time basis, or who are board members volunteering their time. There are many tasks to be done, and most of them I find interesting, but there are times when I feel overwhelmed with the volume of work to be done.

(Not sure I’ve answered your question).

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

I don’t listen to music a lot at home. When I do, I like to listen to music I am unlikely to perform myself , such as the keyboard works of Bach, and I also occasionally listen to some of the later repertory that I don’t get to play anymore, such as Strauss and Mahler and Shostakovitch. I‘m a horrible classical music nerd, though. I like good jazz, but I don’t listen to it at home.

I love going to live theatre which I do as much as I can fit into my schedule, and I have lately been sampling some of the amazing wealth of high-quality television that is available now.

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

I definitely wish I could play the keyboard with some minimal level of competence. I actually started my musical life taking piano lessons when I was 7, but it never seemed to captivate me the way orchestral instruments did later, and I abandoned it after a few years.

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

Cooking, reading, going to the theatre, watching some of the above-mentioned television dramas with my wife.

More questions about preparing the 4th Annual Bach Festival May 24-26.

1) You wear several hats, playing oboe for Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra, in the productions for Opera Atelier and annually organizing this Festival. Of the many things you do, from practicing your oboe, performing on the oboe here and abroad with other groups such as the American Bach Soloists & curating a festival: what’s the hardest job for you, and what’s the most fun thing you do?

I feel very fortunate in that I mostly do things that I really enjoy. I love playing the oboe, with Tafelmusik particularly, but also with other groups. Making reeds can feel like a chore, but that’s part of playing the oboe. I love the work of creating each festival, and the work of the musical preparation that goes into the artistic direction. There are some purely administrative tasks that I could do without, but that’s a bit like making reeds for the oboe, it’s part of the job. What’s challenging for me is when all these worlds collide, and I don’t have time to enjoy the tasks that I love because there are deadlines to meet. But that’s life, isn’t it?

2) Your Bach Festival is growing, now with the addition of concerts at the Black Swan Tavern on Danforth. Can you describe what we’d hear in the Tavern?

We are very excited to be adding this new festival event this year. We want to do something more outside-the-box, we want to present some interesting Bach-inspired repertory, and we want to create a different kind of experience for our audience, and perhaps attract some new listeners outside of our typical audience.


Elinor Frey (photo: Elizabeth Delage)

The concert will feature Bach’s Sixth Suite for solo cello, which was written for a 5-string cello (rather than the usual 4), and this will be paired with two works that Elinor Frey has commissioned to be written specifically for this 5-string instrument. This will be our first venture outside of the typical concert format, and we are eager to see how it is accepted by our audiences and by the community. Bach performed a lot of his music in a coffee house in Leipzig, so it’s actually a good example of historically informed performance in action. I hope people will feel free to keep drinking, and if they want to talk quietly and get up whenever they like, I think that will be great. The hallowed silence and reverential devotion for the musical art is a Victorian construct. I don’t think that aesthetic applies generally to the way music was performed in the 18th century.

3) You describe The Mission of the Bach Festival as follows:
Seventy per cent of Bach’s music is unknown to the average music lover, yet his music stands out as one of the most profound expressions of the human spirit in western art music. The mission of the Toronto Bach Festival is to introduce audiences to lesser-known works of Johann Sebastian Bach, while presenting perennial favourites, all in historically informed performances.
Could you give examples from your program?

Our opening concert this year is a great example. It combines one of the most iconic of Bach’s works, the Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, with two cantatas. When it comes to the cantatas, the 70% figure goes down to about 97%! Of the more than 200 cantatas that Bach wrote, only about 5 are well-known. BWV 152, which opens the programme, is even more of a rarity, and is seldom performed because of its unusual instrumentation, which includes viola d’amore and viola da gamba.

The Lutheran Masses are another good example. The music is all recycled from cantata movements, so they are very similar to the Mass in b minor in that sense, but these works are not performed very often as they are overshadowed by that great work. And we are including on that programme an independent setting of the Sanctus, one of a small handful of individual sacred vocal works that seldom find their way onto regular programmes of Bach, perhaps because they are not part of a larger work.

4) Please tell us about the program in the Bach Festival this year.


Harpsichordist Luc Beauséjour

Friday, May 24, 8 pm
Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord soloist
Julia Wedman, violin soloist
Directed by John Abberger


Violinist Julia Wedman

Tritt auf die Glaubensbahn, BWV 152
Brandenburg Concerto No. 5, BWV 1050
Concerto in A minor for Violin and Strings, BWV 1041
Du wahrer Gott und Davids Sohn, BWV 23


Alto Daniel Taylor

Hélène Brunet, soprano
Daniel Taylor, alto
Nicholas Weltmeyer, tenor
Joel Allison, bass


Bass Joel Allison (Photo: Ian McIntosh Photography)

Alison Melville, recorder
John Abberger, oboe
Marco Cera, oboe
Thomas Georgi, viola d’amore

Julia Wedman, violin
Valerie Gordon, violin
Patrick Jordan, viola
Felix Deak, violoncello and viola da gamba
Alison Mackay, bass
Joelle Morton, violone
Christopher Bagan, harpsichord

Saturday, May 25, 3:30 pm
Bach and the French Style
Ellen Exner, lecturer
New England Conservatory of Music

Saturday, May 25, 5 pm
Bach and the French Style
English Suite No. 3 in G minor, BWV 808
French Suite no 5 in G major, BWV 816

Luc Beauséjour, harpsichord soloist

Saturday, May 25, 9 pm
Elinor Frey, violoncello
Featuring the Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012
with new works by Isaiah Ceccarelli and Scott Edward Godin.


John Abberger (photo: Sian Richards)

Sunday, May 26, 3 pm
Directed by John Abberger

Mass in G major, BWV 236
Sanctus in D major, BWV 238
Mass in F major, BWV 233

Hélène Brunet, soprano
Emma Hannan, soprano
Daniel Taylor, alto
Simon Honeyman, alto
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Nicholas Weltmeyer, tenor
Joel Allison, bass
Matthew Li, bass

Scott Wevers, horn
Christine Passmore, horn
Marco Cera, oboe
Gillian Howard, oboe
Dominic Teresi, bassoon

Julia Wedman, violin
Valerie Gordon, violin
Cristina Zacharias, violin
Gretchen Paxson, violin
Patrick Jordan, viola
Felix Deak, violoncello
Alison Mackay, bass
Christopher Bagan, harpsichord

5) You’re so busy! Do you find you have enough time to practice your instrument and to learn new works? Are you one of those artists like Horowitz who doesn’t practice very much? Or do you play regularly.

I don’t think there are any performing musicians (including Horowitz) who don’t practice regularly. It’s part of the job. I enjoy learning new works. That’s when I really recharge as an artist. I have been studying Bach’s works for my entire career, and although I have to look at them a little differently when I am preparing to direct a performance, it’s all a part of a process that I find intensely fascinating.

6) Has the festival with its focus on lesser-known works changed your thinking about what you play?


I definitely think performing more of Bach’s works provides a larger context for us to evaluate his achievement as a composer. Hearing and experiencing more of his music deepens our understanding of all of his works, both the familiar and the less familiar. I also think hearing more north German sacred music from the generations before Bach can really enrich how we hear his music. This is why I included the Passion setting by Heinrich Schütz in last year’s festival, and I hope to perform more north German sacred music at the festival in the future.

I’m not really one of the diggers, though. There are amazing scholars who devote their careers to that kind of thing, and it’s a time-consuming business, to be sure, to say nothing of the expertise necessary to do that kind of research properly. What I do is sift through the results of their work. But with Bach it’s all been examined in immense detail over the last century or so.

7) In the spirit of your festival, Are there any lesser known composers or works that you wish Tafelmusik might undertake?

Just as I feel about the Bach’s lesser known works enriching our understanding of his more familiar works, I think the same applies to larger repertories. Like any musical organization, Tafelmuisk has to balance the interests and wishes of the artistic director with the need to sell tickets to the concerts. That having been said, I think it‘s really great when we can explore lesser known composers. Even when the music isn’t “first-rate” as defined by the standards of Bach and Handel, it can really be interesting to hear, and it definitely deepens our understanding of what makes Bach and Handel so great. I’d apply this not only to early 18th century “baroque” music, but also to early classical and later 18th century music. Mozart and Haydn are great composers, but what makes them so great? Hearing more of their contemporaries can really help us to understand what makes them great, and the audience will attain this understanding on an intuitive level, without a lot of musical analysis terminology (very useful to musicians, but a real turn-off to the average listener).

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

I guess I’d say the historically informed performance movement itself has been a profound influence on the direction my career has taken. From its roots in Europe in the 1970s, it was just beginning to make its way to North America in the early 1980s. When I finished my Masters degree at the Julliard School in 1981 I was looking for an artistic direction, and my love of Bach and baroque music in general naturally led me to explore this field, which was just beginning to bloom in New York and Boston and Toronto. I immediately felt a deep attraction to the idea of applying historical research to bring music from this period alive for audiences today. I’ve never looked back. Bach’s music (and that of his contemporaries) makes so much more sense performed this way, and I believe it gives performers a better way to communicate its profound beauty to our listeners. For me it continues to be a wonderful adventure today, all these years later.


John Abberger and the 4th Annual Bach Festival are coming to Toronto May 24-26. Just click for further information about the Toronto Bach Festival

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COC Otello

On paper the Canadian Opera Company’s new offering, an English National Opera production of Verdi’s Otello directed by David Alden and starring Russell Thomas, Gerald Finley & Tamara Wilson is as good as it gets. It’s an incredible luxury to be able to see a black man with a dramatic tenor voice sing this role, usually sung by Caucasians in blackface. And even better when that man is a good singing actor as Thomas has shown himself to be in recent outings here in Toronto for the COC.

I think it will get better, as indeed it improved after the intermission. In the first two acts the brilliant components didn’t quite gel. I wasn’t sure whether Thomas was over-parted or that the COC orchestra led by the ebullient Johannes Debus was perhaps a bit too enthusiastic, too overpowering in volume. I’m thinking the latter, given that the chorus were also sounding a bit overwhelmed in the first act, singing accurately but not as loudly as I would have expected in the heart-stopping storm scene with which the opera opens. But come to think of it, I was reminded of Measha Bruggergosman’s struggles in Idomeneo, wondering if the tentative sound from the chorus was perhaps due to the huge amount of choreography expected of them, challenging movement in places where their singing is also super challenging. They sounded accurate but they couldn’t cut loose. By the time we got to the third act the balance sounded a bit better, a scene where thankfully the direction let them simply stand and sing. Surprise surprise, the voices sounded much bigger.

There are two other important singers to mention.

This is the first time I watched an Otello with so much focus on the Desdemona, namely Tamara Wilson, because hers is a genuine old-fashioned Verdi soprano in the best sense. It was lovely to see a Desdemona looking so happy right into the last act, disturbed and shaken by her husband’s behaviour yet still showing love & kindness to him hopeful and not defeated. This approach to the arc of her character makes every moment watchable. Every little detail was right, from the smiles she had for Cassio—that infuriate her husband—to the conflicted emotions in the last act when she really took the stage, perhaps the finest portrayal seen on a COC stage this season.


Tamara Wilson and Russell Thomas in the COC’s Otello (photo: Michael Cooper)

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you may have seen me rave about Gerald Finley before, as a singer & actor whom I admire very much. I’m very sympathetic tonight, watching him trying to cope with an odd production that pushes him very much against type vocally & dramatically. When I say that I mean that he’s a good person, being asked to play something not just evil but demonic, and I don’t think there’s any way for good singing or acting to fix that. While I usually avoid spoilers there’s a rather big difference in the way this ends. Iago normally runs away at the end when confronted. In Alden’s production it’s as though Otello & Desdemona die, the others who were observing slink away like zombies, leaving Iago onstage. The winner? In so many ways this seems to push Finley out of his normal comfort zone, because this is played in such an extreme fashion, with vocalism to match.

And that’s problematic for the dynamics of the story. I’ve talked about this before, I think. If Otello is not to look like a complete pathetic dupe, Iago must be believable, must really be “onesto Iago” that we can believe in as a trustworthy person. But this interpretation pushes a very melodramatic reading. I refer you to Tito Gobbi’s delivery of the phrase at the end of the dream aria, when he says he sees the handkerchief in the hand of Cassio, saying “Cassio” in a hushed voice followed by the tenor’s angry explosion. Finley shouts it. There’s a great deal of the portrayal that is done in this unsubtle fashion, what I’d call un-Finley like. But it’s what the production asks him to do, trapping both him and Thomas, with Thomas in a worse position. At the beginning Thomas comes in to sing “Esultate” (exhorting the people to celebrate his victory), then petulantly throws the Venetian flag at the crowd as though he’s angry at them. WTF? I suppose the director wants to signal that Otello is already crazy, so tightly wound that he’s ready to crack up. The love-duet is fabulous—Tamara & Russell sounding exquisite. But then the direction starts to get creepier and creepier. Iago lurks at the end of that duet, and will dominate the beginning of Act IV, which is normally a blessed respite from all the villainy, when we get the two vulnerable women alone in Desdemona’s bedroom, the most beautiful moments of the opera even if you don’t also have Tamara Wilson to sing it. No, Alden wants to invade that too. And of course when we get to the end, the moment of ultimate nobility, “niun mi tema” sung so beautifully by Thomas, the surrounding courtiers slink away, while Iago stares at us in triumph. I’m not sure what Alden thought he was doing, but I’ll tell you what he did for me; he murdered the tragic element in this tragedy. The music is beautiful, the moment should be noble and stirring. The one who should have slunk off, who should finally be brought to justice in the final moments of the opera seems to be gloating. The modernization in the set & costumes (bringing it into the 19th century) didn’t trouble me at all; but changing the ending?

Different story (literally).

Andrew Haji is a likeable Cassio, a perfect foil to Otello in his affability & lyrical directness. Önay Köse was a solid Lodovico. Owen McCausland was a foppish Roderigo, Carolyn Sproule a nerdy Emilia, but very strong in the last scene.

David Alden’s Otello continues at the Four Seasons Centre until May 21st.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Reviews, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Workshop of Shakespeare’s Criminal

Tonight I witnessed the first of 3 workshop performances at the Factory Theatre of Shakespeare’s Criminal from Orpheus Productions, a new chamber opera with music by Dustin Peters and libretto by Sky Gilbert, starring Marion Newman, Dion Mazerolle and Nathaniel Bacon, to be presented again April 27 & 28.

resized Sky Gilbert headshot

Sky Gilbert

As I was waiting for the show to begin I was struck by how similar two words sound,

either of the two sexes (male and female), especially when considered with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. The term is also used more broadly to denote a range of identities that do not correspond to established ideas of male and female” (via google)
a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” (via google)

And isn’t it true that sometimes people are much too busy classifying, as though by assigning a category it somehow makes us safer.

It was a workshop. By that I mean that it’s perhaps unreasonable to even have something resembling a review, given that the performers were probing and exploring, helping the composer & librettist develop their ideas. While the audience lapped it up, sitting spellbound throughout, it’s unreasonable to demand that a workshop please the audience. And so please understand that I am hesitant to be judgmental of artists in their exploration.  This can be as intimate & vulnerable as psycho-therapy.

We were watching a partially-staged performance at the Factory Theatre, a string quartet conducted by composer Dustin Peters (namely Sarah Fraser-Raff, first violin, Bijan Sepanji, second violin, Brenna McClane, viola and Sybil Shanahan ‘cello).

resized Marion Newman headshot

Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman

As mezzo-soprano Marion Newman delivered something resembling a prologue to frame the story, I was swept up into Shakespeare’s Criminal within seconds.

I felt we were in the realm of those who say ‘woot’, (who must not to be confused with the knights who say “Ni!”) whereas I am one who says “bravo” whether I’m seeing an opera or a play. And so while this was a concert presentation, there was a great deal of investment in a dramatic illusion, in performances that felt genuine & real.  The wooters are people who would see this as theatre, whereas the bravoers (like me) would see this largely as music.

Newman’s character is the Female Academic, who in delivering the prologue seems to stand outside the action as though she were a deus ex machina with god-like powers: as we would see as the story unfolded (especially near the end). I can’t help wanting to see her as a version of Sky, who could exercise certain types of power in the academic world (because he is a professor) or in the dramatic world (because he is also a prolific playwright). Forgive me if that sounds reductive.

Dustin Peters headshot

Composer Dustin Peters

Peters’ score is very attractive, the music very singable. In the hour or so that we were in the theatre, not only was the music very enjoyable to hear (tonal, sometimes synchopated), but very fast-moving as far as exposition and use of text. I’m reminded of something Anthony Tommasini said in his recent book The Indispensable Composers, when he suggested that John Adams tends to make things seem too long. Some composers seem to take the smallest amounts of text and use a great deal of music, repeating and even milking the text for all it’s worth. In contrast, Peters & Gilbert are very generous, moving things along very quickly as far as exposition is concerned. Granted, this was workshop and so I suppose the creators were testing and will continue to test this material in front of audiences. But in contrast to Adams there’s already enough here for much more opera than what we saw. Most of the hardest parts –good melodies and beautiful moments –are already there. I think they will want to expand the ending somewhat, but then again that’s likely something that could develop in different directions, again depending on such considerations as genre (oh dear, that word again). Peters chose to write in an accessible tuneful style, at times stunningly beautiful.

Peters’ score was presented with a string quartet, which may or may not be how it will be done in future. But it’s a remarkable strategy that allows the singers to be heard, especially when we recall that male voices are usually the ones that have more trouble carrying over an orchestra. Newman’s voice had no trouble of course, including some bold coloratura passages, some intriguing choices from Peters to take us away from anything we might call realistic (if singing can ever be understood as real) into something stylized and artificial.

Shakespeare's Criminal - Nathaniel Bacon

Shakespeare’s Criminal – Nathaniel Bacon

One of the reasons I called attention to the “land of the woot”, was because of a choice of emphasis I thought I saw in the presentation, that likely parallels the expectations of most in the audience. I discussed this briefly after the show with Sky, expressing my surprise that there wasn’t more applause. He thought that the one time applause erupted was for the content rather than the performance: at the end of a number I will call “the best of us” (and forgive me if I am paraphrasing badly). It’s a beautiful song sung by Nathaniel Bacon presented while we watch a series of photos projected, of gay men who were claimed in the great plague, which serves as at least some of the subtext for this story about an HIV positive man. I didn’t want to disagree, only that I aggressively started that applause through my tears, very moved by this moment in a theatre full of people who likely aren’t accustomed to stopping a show to show your appreciation.  I kept waiting in similar places (after wonderful solos or ensembles deserving applause), and this time held back to see whether there’d be any applause, but no there wasn’t any, and not because of any deficiency in the performances; it’s just a cultural thing, I believe.  There’s a different experience if you sit still for every song, as opposed to shouting your approval, breaking it up into a series of numbers: especially if you get a reaction from the performer, breaking the 4th wall. I suggested to Sky that maybe he should plant someone, like a claque (NB while I jokingly claimed I had done this, it wasn’t as a paid supporter but simply as a sibling… of course I clapped for my brother. He was and is amazing to hear). But by setting this up artificially you can change the show. I am not sure if Sky was just being polite to my suggestion, but I think any show becomes very different when interrupted by applause. There were a few places where the text was hard to understand, where subtitles might be a useful choice –even though it’s in English –because of the ambiguity of some of the phrases, in poetic diction.

The three performers each had wonderful moments, and worked well together. Newman has one especially intriguing moment when we’re advised that the 4th wall will be transgressed, and she then proceeds to sing (rough paraphrase) something along the lines of “what the shit is happening” over and over and over. Oh sure it’s funny, but it also works to deconstruct the illusion, as we get past the politically correct language of romance, to something much more genuine, in speaking to the matter of physical desire, of taking off clothes and getting down to business…

resized Dion Mazerolle headshot

Baritone Dion Mazerolle

The two men are cast in a way that likely corresponds to the way the score has been composed.

  • Baritone Dion Mazerolle is Shakespeare, who is mature & somewhat repressed in his sexuality, singing about “the closet” at one point
  • Nathaniel Bacon is the Young Man, young, attractive and much more direct

The creative team opted to distinguish between the two by having the genuine operatic voice assigned to the closeted male, while a lighter voice more attuned to broadway or pop music sings the young man, who is in touch with his sexuality. I am trying to sort this out in my head wondering if they expect us in the audience to associate “broadway” with gayness. Maybe it’s generational (one is much older) or simply a contrast of vocal styles, a music for the young man that is aligned with a younger generation. Each had their moments. I’m very fond of Dion’s voice, a wonderfully expressive baritone, but Bacon’s sound was an excellent approach to his part, which is written quite a bit higher I think…(?)

There’s a great deal of beauty in this workshop, that I’d recommend to you without reservation this weekend at Factory Theatre. It’s not a finished opera, please note, but represents some very bold steps in that direction. I’m reminded of a topic that came up in my recent interview with Dean Burry, namely popularity (and maybe I’m reminded also because Marion Newman will play the title role in that show). Opera –meaning composers and critics alike—has been very conflicted about beauty over the past century. The most successful composers of the last hundred years –Puccini, Richard Strauss, Philip Glass—embraced a tonal world of melody that has been largely ignored by the so-called serious composers, while composers in more popular media –thinking of film-music, of musicals, as well as popular music media—never stopped aiming for beauty. It seems like a no brainer. So the conservatory might turn up their nose at you while you make millions for your composition? I think that’s a small price to pay.

I was very moved. I think you would be too. And now I am eager to see what Peters & Gilbert do in the further growth & development of this story that I hope to see again.

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