CCOC’s 50th Anniversary Season Announcement

Ben Heppner and other opera stars join the Canadian Children’s Opera Company for thrilling 50th Anniversary Season

TORONTO – The Canadian Children’s Opera Company presents the thrilling lineup of its 2016/2017 50th Anniversary Season.  Founded by Ruby Mercer and Lloyd Bradshaw in 1968 to provide the children’s chorus for the Canadian Opera Company, the CCOC has gone on to become an internationally-recognized organization in the field of children’s opera.

50th Anniversary Celebration Concert

On October 26, 2017, the CCOC will kick of its momentous 50th anniversary celebrations with a celebratory concert at Canada’s foremost opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.  The company has shared the stage with countless opera stars over the years and we are happy to invite some of the best Canada has to offer to share the occasion.  Internationally renowned tenor and radio personality Ben Heppner will host, with performances by Richard Margison, Krisztina Szabó, Simone Osborne and Andrew Haji.  CCOC Music Director Teri Dunn will conduct the choruses of the CCOC while former music and artistic directors John Tuttle and Ann Cooper Gay will lead a chorus of the company’s many alumni.  The event, one of the largest in the CCOC’s history, is generously supported by our partners at BMO Financial Group, Donnelley Financial Solutions, and the Canadian Opera Company.

The Monkiest King

The main opera production for the season is the world premiere of The Monkiest King, a new CCOC commission by award-winning composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan.  The duo won the 2013 Dora Award for Outstanding New Opera for their Toronto Masque Theatre commission of The Lessons of Da Ji.

The story is adapted from the Song Dynasty mythological figure of Sun Wukong – the Monkey King.  The character, which grew to include Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu influences, spread outside of China throughout East and Southeast Asia.  He has appeared in many forms and adaptations, prominently including the Classic 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, and remains prevalent in the modern day with appearances in Hong Kong action movies and video games.  A proud trickster character reminiscent of Raven or Loki, Sun Wukong rebels against heaven, but ultimately learns humility.

While we in Canada are most familiar with the European tradition of opera, storytelling through the combination of art forms transcends cultural boundaries.  The CCOC, with this commission, has proclaimed their dedication to exploring the cultural diversity of Toronto and Canada while celebrating the stories of our whole community.   The premiere production will feature a number of Chinese-Canadian artists in addition to the composer and librettist, including orchestral musicians  and choreographer Emily Cheung, Artistic Director of the Little Pear Garden Dance Company.

I am absolutely thrilled to write a new opera “The Monkiest King” for the incredible Canadian Children’s Opera Company.  This is also my second collaboration with award-winning librettist Marjorie Chan in our exploration of new story from an old Chinese tale. The legendary Chinese character “The Monkey King” is probably the most famous modern day Chinese “Marvel” hero – it is a dream project for me to bring this mischievous good-natured character to life in a contemporary children’s opera setting.  The “Monkiest King” will certainly inspire and educate children performers the magic of music/drama in a different cultural premise, the production is a promise of both fun and challenges to all!

-Alice Ho, composer

The Monkiest King

by Marjorie Chan and Alice Ping Yee Ho
May 25-27, 2018
Lyric Theatre
Toronto Centre for the Arts

Featuring members of the CCOC.
With a mixed chamber orchestra of Chinese and Western instruments.

A Cup of Kindness – Choral Concert

In late November, the CCOC presents its annual winter choral concert, presenting all six divisions of the company performing operatic and choral music.

Myths & Monsters – Junior Divisions

In the spring, The Junior Divisions (children aged 3-10) will be presenting Myths and Monsters, a collection of music and theatre examining the fantastic and frightening in the world of myth and legend.  This will include a production of Dean Burry’s opera for young performers, Theseus and the Minotaur.

Chip and His Dog – Youth Chorus

Since 1968, the CCOC has commissioned no less than 12 major operatic works and the Youth Chorus of the CCOC (for older choristers and changed male voices) will present one of the first, Chip and His Dog, by the prominent international composer Gian Carlo Menotti.  In the late seventies, the company’s founder, Ruby Mercer,  commissioned her friend to compose the work. It was premiered at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1979 and has gone on to countless international productions in numerous languages.  The CCOC is excited to be bringing this opera home again.

The Canadian Children’s Opera Company’s 2016/2017 Season continues

Saturday, April 29
Tanenbaum Opera Centre

Spring in Song
Sunday, May 28
Grace Church on-the-Hill

International Tour of the critically-acclaimed CCOC production
July 2-12, 2017
Prague, Krakow, and Budapest.

About the Canadian Children’s Opera Company

Currently in its 49th season, the CCOC consists of six choruses for ages 3 to 19 and is the only permanent children’s opera company in Canada. Led by Artistic Director Dean Burry, Managing Director Ken Hall, and Music Director Teri Dunn, the company engages young people in the vibrant world of opera by offering intensive musical and dramatic training and numerous professional performing experiences. In addition to their own concerts and opera productions, members regularly perform with the Canadian Opera Company and other major professional organizations, record, and tour nationally and internationally.

“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.
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Dr Ryhana Dawood’s Martial Smarts: FIGHT LIKE A GIRL

The words on the poster caught my eye. “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL”, all in capitals.

When I inquired further I discovered Martial Smarts and then its founder Dr Ryhana Dawood: a strong advocate for women’s health and female empowerment through self-defense. As a resident physician and double black belt, she has worked with hundreds of women across the GTA and overseas leading self-defense workshops for many underprivileged groups, schools and universities.

Ryhana founded Martial Smarts, a non-profit organization based out of Toronto that aims to teach proactive and reactive self-defense and situational awareness based on the principles of Karate and Taekwondo.

I wanted to share this remarkable story of empowerment by asking Ryhana a few questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I am like both. My parents are both strong-willed people, both in their own unique way. I think I get my work ethic from my father. He is the most hard-working person I know. When he is assigned a task he dedicates all his time and energy to complete that, going above and beyond expectations. Watching him do this throughout my life has definitely helped me realize that our accomplishments and successes are a direct result of the amount of hard work we put in. That is what separates us from the pack. Keep working even if it’s only you, even if the going is slow and your goals seem unreachable.

I am also like my mother. She raised us to be independent, self-sufficient and people of integrity. She also emphasized that whatever a boy could do, a girl could do, and whatever a girl could do, a boy could do too. As such, my brothers, my sister and I were all taught the same things, put in the same lessons and expected to live an active lifestyle while also learning how to take care of things at home. My mother is free-spirited, curious, dependable and unique. I believe growing up with such a wonderful person has helped me become similar to her.

Lastly, both my parents are deeply spiritual people. They brought us up to be God-conscious, socially responsible, respectful, generous and loving people. These are the principles that Islam also teaches and qualities that I have attempted to and continue to further develop. Out of all the things that they have taught me, the most beautiful gift they have given me is most definitely the gift of Islam.


What is the best thing about what you do?

The best thing about what I do is bringing women from all different ethnicities, religions and socioeconomic backgrounds together – empowering women to, in turn, empower others. I’ve always been told that if you want to see real change in the world, teach a woman a skill because she will use that skill to help all those around her. I’ve tried to use this principle with Martial Smarts. It’s really beautiful to see the effect of my workshops. Almost immediately you see women begin to feel more comfortable, confident and strong. They realize their own potential, build their self-esteem, quite often regain some of the confidence they have lost and learn how to lead a more active lifestyle. Our workshops focus on improving overall health, as well as learning basic self defense. Women come in believing they are learning how to protect their bodies but they leave with something even better – the confidence to take on the world.

I love that Martial Smarts allows me to combine my knowledge of medicine and martial arts with my love for community work, activism, mentoring, uniting others and travelling. It is the perfect vehicle to achieving my dreams and I can’t wait to see where we end up.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Toronto Raptors, Toronto Blue Jays, represented family time growing up. Played basketball competitively so have always been drawn to it. Enjoy supporting the home team and have been following them since I was about 8 or 9 years old. I don’t have a lot of time to watch movies or musicals and I’m not a radio person, but if I had to choose my favourite movie it would definitely be Disney’s Mulan – for obvious reasons I really identify with her. We have a lot of family discussions which are lively and varied in topics. I enjoy these. I like to read various blogs and books (memoirs, historical novels, learn about different cultures).

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

I wish that I was more organized and that I would stop procrastinating. These are two areas that need significant improvement and I feel would make my life less hectic. Who knows though maybe I work better under pressure.

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

When I’m just relaxing there are a bunch of things I like to do. Catching a basketball game, playing basketball/soccer/volleyball, working out, going for a bike ride or hike (if it’s warm out), catching up with my friends and their beautiful babies/families, hanging out with my siblings, reading a good book. I don’t think I can pick just one.

More questions about Martial Smarts.

Please talk about the team you have

Most of my team consists of my students. My goal when teaching my weekly classes with UMMA Martial Arts is to train my students to be leaders and better than me. I give them opportunities in class to lead the warm-up exercises and after a while you really get to see them come out of their shell. Through this process, I have 3 students ranging from 15-23 who help me run my workshops. These ladies aren’t always my strongest students in terms of a technique but they are motivated, excited to share what they know, disciplined, responsible and committed. These are the qualities I am trying to foster. All of them started off timid and nervous but really grown into excellent students, fighters and teachers. The students really do respond to them and I’m happy to have them on my team. Out of the 3 students the 23 year old is a beginner but was motivated to join my regular classes predominantly to help with Martial Smarts. She attends the majority of the workshops with me, even joining me in Chennai, India in Jan 2017 where we taught self defense and workshops on healthy relationships to over 1000 women and children. She has been a great addition to the team!


I’ve had other black belts reach out recently asking to volunteer with us so this is exciting stuff. I also have male black belt friends who help me out when there are requests for workshops for boys/men.

Have you ever been in a fight? Talk about what that was like, and how this influenced you.

I started training in karate when I was around 9 years old and have been training in taekwondo for the last 10 years. It started as a mandatory lesson for my brothers and I, my mom joined us too. It then turned into a fun weekly activity where I got to learn new moves, compete and develop important character traits. As I’ve grown, I realize I was probably drawn towards the martial arts because of its close similarity to the principles of Islam. Both encourage me to be responsible, disciplined, respectful of myself, my surroundings and the people around me. I believe it was my love for Islam that fueled my love for the Martial arts.

I’ve never been in a physical fight outside of the ring. The beauty of the martial arts is that it teaches us how to control our anger and try to defuse situations rather than engaging in a physical altercation. We know what we are capable of doing and so we are ultimately responsible for restraining ourselves, being disciplined and controlling our power.

I did have various experiences that influenced me though. Once on the street I had a young man yell racial slurs at me telling me to go back to my country. He stepped towards me with his hand raised and only backed off because his girlfriend pulled him back. During a basketball game I had a guy on the sideline call me a terrorist. While at work I had someone yell terrorist as I walked by. While training at a martial arts gym I was sexually harassed. I’ve had students who have come to me with physical injuries inflicted by family members for simple things such as breaking a glass. I feel all these experiences and many more have directed me to the path I am currently on.

After completing my MSc in Global Health I realized the importance of improving accessibility to services and I definitely feel this made me think more critically about my own training and ways I could bring this beautiful art to those who need it the most but unfortunately can’t afford it, predominantly lower income/immigrant families. I used to train at a low cost after school program for most of my early years of training because we couldn’t afford to attend the main gym. Only once I had a job could I afford to pay for training. At one time I was paying over $1000 to train for a year. A lot of money for a 16 year old. After going through this, I realized I can play a small part in making this training more affordable and accessible to those who need it the most. Most of our workshops are done for free, no cost to the student. For those that can afford to pay we charge a nominal fee so that we are able to provide free workshops for those who can’t afford it. So far this model has worked well.


As a man and before that as a boy I heard phrases such as “you fight like a girl” or “you throw a ball like a girl” directed to other people. It can be incredibly coercive, the language of bullies to pressure and harass people. Even though I wasn’t the victim directly, I was harmed indirectly by being part of a coercive macho culture. I have to wonder: did you ever hear this phrase used in anger directed at anyone?

Yes, growing up all the time on the playground. Mainly with the intention of bullying the other kid. Hearing the phrase always motivated me to try harder to show them that girls actually play/throw well. I’m too competitive for it not to, and I always remember my mom telling me whatever a boy can do a girl can as well. Hearing boys say this to other boys pushed me to excel and eventually for them to try to subtype me as not the average girl. Some even called me “bro”. Just goes to show you how deep this stereotype runs.

What does that phrase FIGHT LIKE A GIRL mean to you?

The name “Fight like a girl” was actually chosen by one of the lead organizers of the event from Hart House. I hadn’t previously thought about my workshops as teaching women to “fight like a girl” but when I agreed to the name I looked at it more as defying the stereotypes entrenched within that phrase that bothered and motivated me all those years ago on the playground. By fighting like a girl, you’re actually fighting for so much more than your own physical safety. You’re fighting against the expectations placed upon us, the doubts people have when they think about us, we’re fighting for a stronger community of women, we’re fighting to empower a whole new generation of young women to dream big and overcome those obstacles that they experience solely because of their gender. We’re also fighting against cultural stereotypes and defying the odds. No one expects their martial arts instructor to look like someone like me – a woman in hijab.


This poster was for a workshop at Hart House, at the University of Toronto, which is how i first discovered Martial Smarts

But I think that’s one of the greatest parts of our workshops – showing other women it really doesn’t matter what expectations are placed upon us based on our appearance. There are so many stereotypes about Muslim women that are running rampant given the current political climate. I try as hard as I can to disprove those stereotypes and encourage my students to do the same. Islam empowered us more than 1400 years ago, many of the greatest Muslims and scholars have been women. They are successful in business endeavours and strong, powerful leaders in their communities. I aim to help women from all communities realize this potential and breakaway from limitations that others have set upon us. We will continue to fight against that. We will continue to fight to empower others.

Ultimately, every single girl/woman who has taken my workshop is part of my team. Each plays a vital role in spreading the message of self-empowerment and a safer world for women. Women who come to our workshops experience sisterhood – we break down artificial boundaries that have been set for us and aim to bring women together regardless of race, religion, educational background, socioeconomic status or ability. The women learn from each other in a safe environment, regain their confidence, boost their self esteem, learn about the extent of their power. They leave our workshops having learned that their voice is their strongest weapon. It is the most powerful tool and can and should be used in any situation where they feel uncomfortable. They also leave with a mandatory task – that of teaching everything they’ve learned to at least two other women that they know. Their mother, sister, grandmother, friend. This is how we spread our message, this is how we improve sustainability in the communities we work in.

Can we discuss FIGHT LIKE A MAN for a minute: and what’s wrong with the phrase?

I think this phrase is mainly used to instigate fights, make a boy angry or feel inadequate. It is never used with good intentions. It is used to ignite a flame in little boys/teens that in the end is counterproductive and quite often destructive. By using this phrase, and hearing this phrase from a young age, little boys are taught the wrong way of dealing with conflict. They aren’t taught the appropriate way of reacting to a negative situation, how to use their words or why fighting is a bad idea. A more appropriate phrase would be “fighting doesn’t solve anything, it’s better not to fight at all”. It is always better to solve a disagreement using your words and to make it clear that you don’t want to fight. If however you are attacked, I believe it is appropriate to fight back with the goal of getting away, not winning a fight.

Is there anything you’re dreaming of doing with Martial Smarts in the future?

We’ve already done a short documentary that was produced in early 2016. It has been showing around the world. Played first at the Global Impact Film Festival in Washington DC. Has since played in various cities in the US, in Toronto, the UK, Ukraine and China. It’s called “The Good Fight” by Chrisann Hessing, a local Toronto filmmaker. It was quite an empowering experience all around given that Chrisann is quite young and this was her first project directed, produced, filmed and edited all on her own. I’m really glad I was able to help her achieve this goal.

We’ve also run workshops I’m Bangalore, Chennai, Sri Lanka, Dar es Salaam and Maryland. There have been numerous requests from other cities and hopefully we will make our way around and train/involve people locally to continue this work.
My goal for Martial Smarts is global. I have connected with a couple of women doing similar work around the world and I think that is the most exciting part. Ultimately, if we can change the life of even just one woman, all the effort we have put in has been worth it.

Please talk about your martial arts training and the connection to Martial Smarts

My training has predominantly been in karate and taekwondo (black belt in both). I have done some training in BJJ, must Thai and boxing. I believe these martial arts all teach effective methods of defending yourself and I teach a bit of everything in my workshops. There are women who train in all of these arts and are very successful in their art. I don’t believe that martial arts are inherently sexist at all but rather the philosophy is for anyone willing to push themselves to listen to the body and learn how to use their bodies effectively. This is irrespective of gender or ability. You learn how to use what you have and this embodies the beauty of the martial arts. I am definitely more of a traditional girl and I try to bring my love for this art to other women.

Is there a teacher or influence you’d like to acknowledge?

There are a few teachers who I have admired for their perseverance, kindness, dedication and commitment.

Sensei Jared- my first martial arts teacher, taught me karate for several years. Encouraged me and pushed me to get better. Made accommodations for my family with no questions asked that allowed us to keep training. Was studying medicine too and showed me that it is possible to combine both. Ultimately showed me the importance of kindness and how to be a good teacher.

Sensei Debbie Markle – my first female karate instructor at Northern Karate Schools. A great inspiration for me as she continues to train hard. Showed me that it is possible to achieve a high rank in the martial arts as a woman.

Master Abdullah Sabree – my first taekwondo instructor. Started the first Muslim Martial Arts Club in Toronto to help youth in the Jane and Finch area stay out of trouble. Opened up his club to people from all religions and ethnicities. Offers his classes at a nominal rate in various mosques around the GTA with the goal of supporting the community. Taught me the importance of showing up every class no matter what the weather is like or whether you have no students show up. Once people see your dedication and skill they will show up in droves. He was right.


Martial Smarts Workshops occur regularly. There are some in May that are already full and therefore not open to the public. The best way to find out is through social media via their facebook and instagram pages which are regularly updated.

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Opera Atelier: badass Jason vs hot mess Medea

When an opera company remounts a work they’ve done before, one wants to see improvement. Lately every time Opera Atelier revives a piece it comes back better than before.

Tonight was the opening of Charpentier’s Médée, promoted as “Medea and Jason”. It’s been spruced up because it’s to be our collective calling card in Versailles in a few weeks, when Opera Atelier represent Canada as part of the Sesquicentennial Celebration.  While the look is still true to the 17th century –using masses of fabric and Gerard Gauci’s signature set-designs—they’ve spent some money to up the ante. When Médée unleashes the forces of hell we see some scary tableaux. I hope artistic director Marshall Pynkoski remembers this for the next time he mounts Der Freischütz, as this is what the Wolfs Glen Scene could have been like, where less is more. Mystery & obscurity beat clarity when you’re trying to scare people.  It’s ironic that more money gave us something much subtler: and better.

It started with the haircut. Colin Ainsworth, the sweet faced tenor of the eternally youthful demeanor channeled something seriously badass tonight, beginning with the hair and the beard. We were seeing more physical contact than ever before, as people were grabbing each other, smacking the walls and the floor, looking very much like an anger management workshop: and not a successful one. I have to think that Pynkoski has been re-thinking his company’s signature movement vocabulary, as we saw the usual poses and balletics, but with the passion turned up a notch or two.


Colin Ainsworth (Jason) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Medea), photo by Bruce Zinger.

For decades this was a company strait-jacketed by their own mandate to make historically informed performance. I see Pynkoski–finally– trusting his instincts to make good drama.  Yes by all means read the history books, but don’t be afraid to take ownership of your own creativity. Over the past few years I’ve seen more and more bold moves from this company. I feel that between the last version of this opera that I saw –which was entertaining but very conservative—and what I saw tonight, there’s been a lot of growing up, both by Pynkoski and his company.

Tonight’s version of Charpentier’s opera has a more extreme arc. Surely everyone in the theatre knows exactly where it’s going, exactly what’s coming. The discrepant awareness thing –where we all can see the train-wreck take shape, where we watch characters say really stupid things that make you want them to get a come-uppance—makes this deliciously enjoyable even if it’s possibly a sick kind of pleasure. In the 17th century I am sure the audience members would have been watching and pointing and giggling,  discussing this amongst themselves, not silent the way we are in 2017, but I couldn’t resist the impulse to whisper to my companion. Often the set-up is deliberately ironic, so much so that we’re laughing out loud in the first act. But it gets nastier and darker, not unlike one of those horror movies, where you giggle in places but then it clicks into something altogether more serious.

I’m not sure what it says about me that I am in love with the nasty witch who was so horrible to everyone. Peggy Kriha Dye as Medée has messed up her life for love of Jason. She is just aching to be loved, right? Dye sings with such a sweet achingly plaintive tone for most of the way, how could you not want to love her back? Yes yes she is homicidal, regularly pulling out a knife and doing nasty things when she doesn’t get her way. No, Disney is never going to make an animated film to tell her story. I am astounded at what a good job Dye did, making me care about her. The past few years she keeps offering three-dimensional portrayals of roles that call for larger than life artists. Her approach is unorthodox, balancing baroque ostentation with a kind of vulnerable authenticity. I especially like her recent make-over (not sure when that was), the haircut adding to her edge. But her chemistry with Ainsworth is quite wonderful to watch, as she goes from a sweet wounded girl-child to (spoiler alert…) a demonic sorceress laying waste to the city.


Peggy Kriha Dye (centre) and Stephen Hegedus (front), with Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

While some things are different, some remain unchanged. David Fallis is as always a tower of strength, Tafelmusik orchestra & chorus sounding magnificent in this score. I’ve said before that Lully and Charpentier are really Pynkoski’s promised land, the composers who wrote works requiring ballet throughout. The divertissements are brilliant releases of tension in this magnificent score. Charpentier moves the action along as ably as Verdi or Wagner, occasionally allowing the orchestra, or the chorus, or the ballet, to briskly blow us away with a sudden fast explosion. There are no weak spots in the cast, and some standouts. Alongside the two stars, Mireille Asselin was brilliant in taking us from the height of Créuse’s passion to the deepest agonies of her suffering and death. Stephen Hegedus as her father Créon showed us some of that extra physicality I spoke of, a towering presence both vocally and physically.

Medée continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 29th.

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Georgia O’Keeffe at the AGO

After walking through the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the AGO today, I can’t help thinking about the way people are stereotyped, misunderstood, misread.

Louis Riel was very much on my mind after two intense nights, one in the company of Peter Hinton in conversation, the following night in the presence of his Canadian Opera Company production. I am a bit obsessed with ways of hearing and paraphrasing right now. Yes that’s partly the way interpretation must happen, in the reading and signification of the artists picking up an opera for production. But it’s also key to the reception process, to the way we sit and may or may not really hear or see what they’re doing, possibly receptive, possibly deaf to what it really means or what they meant to say. I was struck for example by how differently Jani Lauzon’s opening song about Riel felt, a song about Riel sitting in his stolen chair with his stolen knives. In the original it felt very cold to me, right on the edge between painting a picture of his oppression and still calling him out as a villainous criminal. When Lauzon sings? It’s loving and kind and compassionate, a totally new way to start the opera and a huge breath of fresh air, not just because she’s a woman or an Aboriginal Artist, but because she encourages us to re-hear.  A fresh start is a wonderful objective, and a good thing for any artist, any curator, and any visitor to a gallery.

That’s all preamble to my thoughts encountering Georgia O’Keeffe today at the AGO. When you go into a gallery you see it all the time, the breathless respect some people have, or the lack others have, the assumptions flying around and smacking you in the face like the saliva coming out of a lisping lecturer. Respect can be a good thing, but not if they leave you stuck in a set of hypotheses, turning the fluid life of the artist into something more rigid, even monolithic. We’ve all heard them, the way people will speak of an artist or a composer or an actor, not really looking in the here and now of what they see before them because they’re so busy forcing their perceptions into a template, trying to reconcile what they see with what they’ve been told.

I do not believe O’Keeffe has been well-served by the conversation surrounding her work. I am thinking especially of the tendency by some to eroticize her images, perhaps a projection begun by the viewers of her youthful naked photos, who had been titillated and perhaps even scandalized. For the generation accustomed to women as models and subjects of paintings rather than as the creators and interpreters, it’s likely nothing more profound than sexism, and please excuse me if that’s simplistic. But I am so in awe of this woman and her work, sad that sexist reception of her nude pictures or of her person in a gallery could poison the way her work was understood. But I’ve become much more cynical in the past year, for example as I watch the current POTUS spend more tax $ in 100 days on family vacations, than the previous President spent in years of family travel. And because the previous one was black, there’s no objectivity about it, and a double standard. Just as there appear to be multiple separate conversations, where the GOP are in their silo, the Democrats in theirs, and never the twain shall meet, perhaps too with the reception of some artists. This AGO show is a chance to see O’Keeffe afresh, unhindered by the poison you may have absorbed previously. I am embarrassed at how much it messed me up, just as I am disgusted at how badly I mis-read Riel before the refreshing revisionist interpretation I saw last night.

No I’m not saying that the AGO show is radical or political. Hm, maybe it is. But I breezed in, exhausted from lack of sleep the past few days, and hungry for the art. So I can’t pretend to be able to paraphrase the show’s purview, other than to say that it’s every bit as profound as the long life lived by that artist, a complete meal, an opportunity to meet the artist from first principles without interference.

And so I begin by recommending this show, a colossal collection of wonderful works, complemented throughout by photographs taken by O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz. There are a few observations I’d make that might be useful or not. But in the end you’ll decide for yourself, only please do go see the show, which is on until July 30th.

My mind is still full of a performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony that I encountered from the Toronto Symphony last week, brought back to me as I came home from the AGO by the serendipity of the radio playing that soulful third movement. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe Brahms and O’Keeffe have a few things in common.

While Brahms is a much beloved composer, he is understood as being a bit out of synch with the most original and provocative composers of his time, a throwback in some ways to stylistic objectives from a half-century before. So long as composition is a kind of pissing contest, where new is good and something beautiful is suspect, Brahms won’t be respected, at least not as much as I think he should be respected. But if you step outside that paradigm to look at the composition on its own terms, on the skill with which the materials are handled, one stops worrying so much about being new.  That old-style fetish for newness never worked for me.

O’Keeffe was miraculously long-lived, straddling different eras. That can mean that by the time you’re old, you seem like a relic, at least compared to the artists like Jackson Pollock or Vincent Van Gogh who died young and never had to confront their legacy or to see the next brash new thing to come along.

I am reminded too of Lawren Harris, with whom she was a near-contemporary. Both artists gave us abstracted urban images as well as stylized landscapes. His best were mountains, while hers are desert shapes, including mountains. Both Harris and O’Keeffe give you a landscape un-spoiled by any sign of a human imprint.  Their mountains are metaphysical, or at least they invite the metaphysical reading some would make, because they’re so intensely abstract.


I pulled out “The Idea of North” just now. Speaking of “north” her mountains and landscapes can give you an idea of south.

They seem to be cousins in the way they let shape and colour work for them irrespective of too much differentiated reality. Instead we’re in a place reminding me at times of stain-glass, recalling the epithet “cloisonism” that was used to describe Gaugin & Denis (although the analogy probably doesn’t fully apply). Gaugin & Denis are sometimes cartoon-y, with outlines and colours filled in after, not unlike a cartoon from an old-fashioned newspaper: which makes for a sort of abstraction, a kind of symbolism if you will.

Another word that I use for Harris comes to mind for O’Keeffe, namely “reified”. Her intense abstraction of things brings us to another place as though in contemplation of the object. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the paintings of flowers took notice of how photography –possibly her close exposure to Steiglitz’s work, possibly her own –showed her new ways of showing objects in close-up. When you look at some of her flowers or skeletal structures, and see the ways she moves them within the frame, moving focus and perspective, I find it astonishing when you consider that this is all before digital imaging: although perhaps she did play around with enlargers, which are analog devices giving you some of the same effects. But she managed to give us views of things that are literally impossible in life, but are hyper-real in her work, after being conceived somewhere, presumably in her head.

There is something profoundly sane about her work. She gives us de facto images, not sentimental, not dynamic, but brilliantly static and in the moment. Of course when we’re staring at a picture of a pile of bones, we shouldn’t expect them to move. But her images are still and calm and feeling so centred, as to imply something spiritual at work. Her bone compositions have been read as religious even though, as far as I know, she denies such interpretation of her work. It might be the flip-side of the eroticising, when someone reads something religious, but in each case her classically organized compositions (see why I think of Brahms?) invite or at least leave room for projection by the viewer.

I will stop at this point, other than to say, again, that this show invites you to re-acquaint yourself with an artist you may think you know, to make a fresh start, to get back to first principles. Please give the AGO a visit.

You have nothing to lose but your assumptions.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Personal ruminations | Leave a comment

Hinton’s Riel: protocols for reconciliation

When I look back at my childhood, the way the word “Indian” was used and abused, I can barely recognize where we were and where we’ve come. The past two years have been especially transformative, with the Truth & Reconciliation Commission’s report, with so many promises made by those in power and so many intriguing works of art, thinking of Kent Monkman’s paintings, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Going Home Star, and ambitious programming of concerts here in Toronto.

While I often doubt leaders –for instance I’m trying to sort through the personas of Justin Trudeau— a walking endorsement for the virtues of drama education if ever there was one—my hat is off to Alexander Neef, the General Director of the Canadian Opera Company. Pressured by artists, critics & donors to make the COC relevant especially in this our Sesquicentennial year, he put not just the COC’s money but his reputation on the line the past couple of years. Tonight was a genuine occasion, the premiere of Peter Hinton’s daring re-imagining of Somers & Moore’s 1967 opera Louis Riel, complete with additional performances for much of the hour before the show in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre. I think if the show had even been mediocre or bad, Neef kept his end of the bargain, giving us our Canadian opera.


COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef. (Photo:

But it’s a marvelous creation. I am reminded of Richard Bradshaw’s stated aim, not to make the best opera, but to create the best theatre in Toronto, and that’s indeed what we were seeing. I couldn’t help feeling –in a theatre shared between those who would bravo and those who would whoop, between those coming from the opera side, those in the theatre side, plus those drawn by the Indigenous artists and their culture—that we were experiencing a genuine conversation, a meeting of worlds, of people with different assumptions, goals and objectives.

Above the stage it was enacted for us, in surtitles in three languages (although there were more than three, when you add Michif and Cree and the Latin words of liturgy to the French & English), the singers sometimes shifting from one language to another. The boundaries between cultures were fluid, as they were between disciplines –as we watched Indigenous dance, watched a silent chorus bearing witness to the action, alongside the usual participants of the opera.

I understand that Peter Hinton was brought to this project because of his history working with Indigenous artists, for instance a King Lear that starred Billy Merasty, who appeared in a small role tonight, but whose presence was huge every time he came onstage. What was unsaid or unsung was as important as what was heard and enacted. Hinton explained his objective with the chorus, which included a silent group, as though bearing witness. I had thought it would merely be to frame the action but it was so much more than that, as the legitimacy of what we saw and heard was altered, the centre of gravity for the show shifted.

Some parts of the show work better than others, but it may be that nerves were a factor on opening night. I found the opening song of the original score, a somewhat bluesy song now sung by the luminous Jani Lauzon, redeemed a passage that disturbed me when I first heard it. We hear of Riel sitting in his stolen chair using his stolen silver, and this time I felt a connection and compassion that was always missing for me in the older version.

I have some quibbles, that again might be a case of opening night nerves. I wondered that conductor Johannes Debus—who led a fast, taut reading of this difficult modernist score—sometimes let his brass overpower a cast leaning heavily on lower voices. Yes they played with passion & commitment, those trombones and horns snarling like the wronged id of a whole nation, filling the space with their dark, nasty sounds; but unfortunately they share the same register as the three biggest roles:

  • Russell Braun as Louis Riel
  • James Westman as John A Macdonald
  • Alain Coulombe as Bishop Taché

I’m concerned that these gentlemen will be exhausted before the end of the run if they keep facing such big sounds. Braun’s Sprechstimme (if that’s what it’s supposed to be) danced on the edge of speech, sometimes howling and raging rather than singing. He made the visionary scenes very sympathetic, perhaps because he underplayed them, compared to what I recall from Bernard Turgeon, the originator of the role who gave us more of an image of a visionary on the edge of madness. I worry that he won’t survive the run, but of course I think he poured extra into opening night. Westman’s cartoonish reading, so deftly comical exploited the text and Moore’s many opportunities for comedy in this role, especially a scene where he’s clearly drunk. His voice sailed over the orchestra, which seems much more sympathetic, precisely because it’s rarely as angry or strident with Macdonald, as it is with poor passionate Louis Riel.  Coulombe at times is like the conscience of the opera, perhaps a bit like Arkel (Pelléas et Mélisande) or Sarastro (Magic Flute) with his deep & soulful philosophy, to counter the cynical opportunism of Macdonald or the urgent activism of Riel.

There was a great deal of good work all around. Simone Osborne was especially effective in the most discussed scene of the opera – the one that provoked a mini-conference earlier this week on the protocols for using aboriginal songs in original Canadian compositions—earning the one spontaneous eruption of applause of the night. Otherwise the audience was quiet until the end of each act, erupting at the end in support especially for Hinton and his team.

I can’t mention everyone, but did love the work of Andrew Haji, he of that lovely voice, stepping into someone else’s role because of an indisposition (sorry they made an announcement, so I’m not sure which roles were his and which ones were last-minute). Michael Colvin was quite a piece of work in the most troubling role, namely Thomas Scott, the shit-disturber with the foul racist mouth who promises not to make trouble, and then when after repeatedly breaking his promise is executed. Colvin sounds wonderful, but was physically inside the role. You couldn’t take your eyes off of him, especially in his brutal death scene.


(centre) Justin Many Fingers (Mii-Sum-Ma-Nis-Kim) as The Buffalo Dancer in a scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

Justin Many Fingers gave us a glorious buffalo dance, which I heard him explaining on the radio –oh the serendipity of hearing him speak on CBC’s “Q” as I drove home tonight! –as a kind of balancing of another neglected part of the story, namely the slaughter of the buffalo. There are so many more –in a huge cast—but I’ll be back to see it again and will write some more about Riel.

It’s a complex stage picture at times, and perhaps I wished for something cleaner and simpler, but then again Hinton’s concepts are not simple. We are watching multiple groups interacting, and when you watch and listen it coheres. The opera that includes so many dated and troubling moments –now that I recall it—has been re-framed by Hinton and his team. While it’s far from perfect, I wonder if it can be part of that conversation in search of truth and reconciliation. It’s not a closed finished masterpiece, but ragged and rough in places, just like reality. Its ending is wonderfully open and ambiguous, much like that conversation.

I suspect that the COC planners expected Tosca to be the cash-cow with Riel as the exotic project for purists & history buffs. But don’t be surprised if it’s Riel that sells out every show. I saw a crowded theatre full of excited patrons, young and old from diverse backgrounds. I’d suggest you get tickets right away.

Posted in Opera, Politics, Reviews | 3 Comments

Questions for Peter Hinton concerning his Revisionist Riel

Director, dramaturg and playwright Peter Hinton has worked across Canada with many theatre companies. He has been the Associate Artistic Director at Theatre Passe Muraille and the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto, Artistic Director of the Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver, the Dramaturg in Residence at Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal, and Artistic Associate of the Stratford Festival . From 2005 to 2012 he Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre English theatre, where he created a resident English theatre company, with actors from across the country, and programmed the NAC’s first season of Canadian plays.

His own plays for the stage include Façade, Urban Voodoo (written with Jim Millan) and a trilogy of three full length plays entitled The Swanne — George III: The Death of Cupid(2002), Princess Charlotte: The Acts of Venus (2003), and Queen Victoria: The Seduction of Nemesis (2004). Eleven years in the making, all three plays premiered under his direction at the Stratford Festival. In 2006, he co-created with Domini Blythe , and directed the solo work, Fanny Kemble, about the life of the famous British actress and abolitionist.

Peter Hinton has also written the librettos for two operas with composer Peter Hannan: The Diana Cantata, and 12O Songs for the Marquis de Sade, (awarded the Alcan Performing Arts Award in 2002).

Since 1985 he has directed over 75 productions of new plays, classical texts and operas, including premieres of works by Allen Cole (Hush, The Crimson Veil), Blake Brooker (Serpent Kills), John Mighton (Possible Worlds), Michael McKenzie (Geometry in Venice) and Marie Clements (Burning Vision). His production of Gloria Montero ’s Frida K.premiered at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre in 1995 and subsequently played to sold-out houses in Canada, Mexico City and Madrid. His productions have twice been invited to the prestigious Festival de Théâtre des Amériques (now Festival TransAmériques ) in Montreal: Greg MacArthur’s Girls! Girls! Girls! in 2001, and Marie Clements ’ Burning Vision in 2003. In 2007, he partnered with Britian’s Royal Shakespeare Company in the world premiere of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. In 2009, he directed Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child in a National Arts Centre and Segal Centre for Performing Artsco-production. He made his directing debut at the Shaw Festival in 2011 with When the Rain Stops Falling, and returned in 2013 to direct Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan.

He was the recipient of the Jessie Richardson Award for directing in 1995 for his production of Gordon Armstrong’s Scary Stories. In 2009, Peter Hinton was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.

I was delighted to have the chance to talk to Hinton, in hopes that by finding out more about him, we might illuminate his ambitiously revisionist production of Louis Riel for the Canadian Opera Company, opening Thursday April 20th.


Peter Hinton

Okay, let’s talk about you, Peter Hinton, and find out about Louis Riel that way. So this first question is one of influence. Are you more like your father or your mother?

Oh God…

Well, I would have to confess, I am a hybrid of the two. My parents were academics, and valued academic achievement very highly, which of course I rejected (nervous laugh).

How did they feel about you going into the theatre?

My parents were oddly Victorian people. They felt the theatre was something you attended, but not something you did, and so we had many struggles about that. Sort of under the purview of “we just worry about you and want you to have something to fall back on…” which of course I interpreted as “you don’t approve”.

It was a fraught time. My parents passed away when I was in my 20s. And so I regret that among many things, that there was this point in my life when I needed their validation, their approval. And looking back now I wonder why did I need that so badly?

But they were definitely a strong influence, in terms of discipline, work habits.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do (you do so many things)?

The best and the worst thing, is that we’re constantly engaged in problem solving. So many problems. How will we do it with the artists we have? how will we do it with the budget that we have? It’s hardly the bane of my existence, because every day I’m asked to solve problems. But that’s also the centre of your creativity, that a good project has a problem, you expose the problem, share the problem to the audience. It’s a balancing act all the time. There’s a lot of joyous creativity in the problem solving.

Okay, so forgetting all about Riel or opera, what do you like to listen to or watch?

Ahhhh that’s such a good question. I was just noticing the other day that my reading is behind the times, I do so much reading for the projects that I do, but that’s the thing I love about the theatre, that it introduces you to subjects that you wouldn’t normally encounter. Earlier this year I directed a play about quantum mechanics, which I’d always shied away from, and gone “okay I’m not a physics guy, I’ll never be able to understand that”. But actually in preparation for that there was some very interesting writing. And so I try to make up for this. I’ve been reading Zadie Smith’s Swing Time and loving it. I adore Zadie Smith.

I have pretty eclectic taste in music. I love a lot of classical music as well as contemporary music. And certainly having a much younger partner influences my exposure to music. Howard Davis is my partner. I find it a challenge, being in your 50s you’re stuck. I noticed with my parents they were contemporary up to a certain point and then they got fixed in a certain time. And it was very amazing to observe that in myself. The biggest cultural influences in my life stop at the year 2000. I don’t want to be an old—school dated thing, I want to live in the modern world, to be literate in what people are reading and listening to.

Can I segue from that to ask a Riel question? Compared to Mozart or Handel it seems so new and yet an opera written in the 1960s: that feels old in the drama world. Do you feel Riel is new or old?

I think Riel is very much of its time. It carries with it signatures of work that was created in the 1960s. On the one hand it’s really provocative. You can see all that it’s reacting against. It reacts against melody, against linear narrative, against assonance in any way. It’s very radical in its conception. It demands a lot of its listeners. (nervous giggle) You cannot put Riel on as background music. Forget it.

Did you try?

I always like to listen to what I’m working on, in my studio. But it was so impossible with Riel because it’s just so dominant! You must listen to it, you can’t do anything else. And so it has that 60s quality to it, which is both dated, and also really vibrant. I have a similar response when looking at wild abstract expression in paint. Look at a Jack Bush painting, that’s 1962. But there’s something so alive in it as well. And so I have that kind of relationship to it. I don’t know how this piece will stand the test of time, 50 years from now, because there are all kinds of entry points into Louis Riel, that the piece doesn’t speak to, that demand pause, demand reconsideration. It’s a wild thing to tell the story of one of the most famous Métis people, but Somers chose a very European based sound. It sounds like very modernist music that’s mid-20th century. And yet he was someone who was very interested in expanding possibilities, adventurous, very exploratory in range.

And it’s my first official real opera that I’ve directed. And so I don’t have a lot of the reference points that a lot of my collaborators do, who are familiar with 19th century opera for example. And so to me it’s very much of its time but it’s modern too.

We’ve talked a lot in rehearsal that there are really three time-lines that are always in play.

  • One is the nineteenth century time-line in which the narrative is enacted
  • And then there’s our own time-line, how is this opera received in 2017, how do we as modern people interpret it
  • And then there’s this time of the 60s in it, which is interesting too.

And so there are three definitive time periods that speak to each other, and are in dialogue with each other over the course of the opera.

Did you see Robert Lepage’s 887 (on last week)?

No, I’ve just been working on Riel.

I ask because it oriented me to the 1960s and the concerns in Quebec (from Lepage’s youth), about separation and the poem Speak White, as they apply to the composition of Louis Riel in the mid-1960s.

Yes it’s very curious that the opera was conceived very much as an allegory for the two solitudes. It’s impossible to interpret that story today from that perspective. It’s a historical reference point, but the Indigenous aspects of the opera are far more alive and relevant to us today.

It seems the COC really knew what they were doing when they hired you. To be blunt: WHY YOU?


COC Music Director Johannes Debus and COC General Director Alexander Neef. (Photo:

Well I think Alexander [Neef] invited me to the project because of his knowledge of the work I’d done at the National Arts Centre with Indigenous artists, and also working with a large institution. It’s a very difficult kind of mix, bringing Indigenous artists into a place that has no experience of that at all. And so I had to negotiate my own position with that very clearly and very carefully, so I could ensure an environment where many voices could be brought to the room, and heard. And there was a willingness on the part of the COC to be influenced and changed by that: which I think there has been.

Alexander approached me because there are few people who could take on that challenge in that way. And I had to think about it a lot, because the Indigenous involvement is really important to me. And I had to figure out how I could direct this story and find the right collaborators to participate with.

There’s risk for you, in your authenticity (being true to yourself) and your relationship to the Indigenous Community. Was that part of your process? Did you experience stress and risk, negotiating your place in this?

Every day! Every single day. That is ongoing.

That’s how art should work. I get the impression (between you and me) that such questions and risks don’t happen often enough.

It’s easy to make assumptions. Every day on this project has been a new negotiation of how the work is interpreted, how to keep it open, and porous in some ways so that there are going to be different responses to it, but also provide guidelines that the artists can feel secure in. And it’s not creating a new piece but dealing with an existent score, an existent text, and how to interpret that becomes really interesting.

And it’s not public domain [like most operas] and so you could also experience push-back from the owners of the score as well. Or maybe we don’t want to talk about that..?

The COC have been very good with Moore’s estate and Somers’ estate, so there was a lot of dialogue about some of the changes we wanted to make and what we would honour in it. I think it’s such an interesting piece, because there are many beautiful, strong strong things in it, and here are also colonial biases within it. And so I was trying to conceive of a production that would shed light on its strengths as well as shedding light on its biases without undermining the piece.

One of the great themes of the opera is this idea of trial. Louis Riel’s trial is a very substantial part of the third act. And yet in the opera there are many things put on trial. Confederation is put on trial. The ideas that forged Canada are put on trial as much as the character of Riel is put on trial. And so in some ways in this production I think of the opera being on trial. And the verdict doesn’t mean it’s a good opera or bad opera, but are its ideas true? Do they uphold to us today? It’s a trial about what needs to be said. And what our future needs to be. This whole Canada 150 is a very interesting phenomenon, because most people that I speak with have a skepticism about Canada 150. What is being quote unquote celebrated, vs commemorated? It’s a hard concept for a lot of people to grasp. And yet it exists, we still do it. And there was an opportunity as an artist to respond to that. I have to say, when I first learned about it, I thought it might be very pro-Canada, “from sea to shining sea” (ironic giggle). Dang! I was really taken with its indictment of our history.

How do you feel about [and I sang it…] “We’ll hang him up the river with a ya ya ya”, which is totally ugly..!? If you’re an English Canadian you’re squirming in your seat.

Racism is front and centre. It’s very critical in that regard.

You know there’s something that has come up a lot. There’s this thing we heard in high school, that Canadian history is BORING? And I wondered is that the Canadian self-deprecation? But in working on Riel I was reminded, there’s like a conscious will to divert us from the atrocity of our history. There’s a huge legacy of injustice. And when they say “it’s boring don’t look at that” is a huge problem we have, and contributes to a kind of cultural amnesia about our history and what we need to reckon with, what we need to be voicing, speaking about… So it’s very challenging on every level.

There’s this quote I have in the previous COC program where you reference John Ralston Saul, and his notion of Canada as a Métis Nation. Could you explain how that’s relevant to Riel?

Well John Ralston Saul’s book A Fair Country opens with that statement. It’s a very historical book about Canada, and speaks about how Canadians sometimes use the colonial bias as the sole means of definition for who we are. And what’s neglected in that perception or analysis is the significant and vital contribution of aboriginal cultures and indigenous cultures to our understanding of ourselves. It’s denying a fact of presence.

And that’s not to undermine or deny any of the history or current action, the cultural holocaust and the legacy of the residential schools and the true abuse. But it’s important that we acknowledge the real commitment and contribution Indigenous societies have made to us and how important and vital they are to our future. I found this book very interesting and very hopeful in a realistic way rather than an ideological way.

Have you met him?

Yes. I met him at the NAC and at the season launch last year. I think he and Adrienne will be there tomorrow [opening night].

I wanted to ask about influences.

It was really important to me that on this production, wherever we could sort of bridge, the people who are cultural advisors would be participants of the show. It’s always odd to me when there’s one group creating and another group advising. And I’ve been so fortunate in my creative practice to be able to work with so many Earth-shattering wonderful Aboriginal performers. So when I knew about Riel having Jani Lauzon involved was a really important collaboration.


Jani Lauzon as The Folksinger and Russell Braun as Louis Riel in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

Jani and I have worked many times together at the National Arts Centre, Billy Merasty as well. I did a very large project of King Lear with forty indigenous actors in it at the NAC. Billy was part of that as well as a Marie Clements play about Norval Morrisseau that Billy played Norval in. And so it was really important for me to have those guys involved in this show. Because I could collaborate with them, I could get their responses, build something with them based on previous work. And Cole Alvis is a remarkable theatre creator.


Cole Alvis as The Activist in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

And Justin Many Fingers who’s a Blackfoot dancer from Calgary who I know from my connections there, I’ve always wanted to work with him. So I was trying to continue to build relationships, that’s the important thing. You do one project with someone, and if you connect, if there’s a creativity that comes from that collaboration it’s very important to continue it, to keep the dialogue going. That’s what I hope for the COC that the artists currently involved will continue. So for example Joanna Burt: INCREDIBLE. She’s in there playing Sara. It’s so exciting to see her in the ensemble. And working with Santee Smith, choreographer. Just trying to break down these walls, with big Euro-based institutions.

Now some of this with opera is based on the discipline, no? singing. Can we expect to see Indigenous Opera singers? Or does opera have to change, or at least perform a different idiom?

Well a bit of both. That’s the thing, the first response I hear from people is just “oh no” that they can’t be opera singers, which is not true. And so part of this production is to change that. Part of this production is to draw attention to future change to that. You know there is a very good generation of classically trained singers. But we also have to look at traditions of training. And how training is acknowledged in different communities, different cultures. And there are different traditions of singing.

Yes opera (and its pedagogy) has this traditional association with power and the endorsement of power, from Louis XIV through Hitler & Stalin, and beyond. So it’s not a medium for empowerment necessarily.

Yes I think that’s a positive breakthrough to this production, that it’s really opened ways of working and challenged assumptions about how things are done. You know, from having a smudging at the Four Seasons Centre, and seeing singers sit with leaders of our Indigenous Community. It is very encouraging to me. But it’s also right, it’s the times we live in.

This opera is not perfect, it is a telling, it’s a target for many points of view, many criticisms, all the reasons people go to a live performance. This can engender a lot of dialogue. It’s where we’re at right now.

Could you talk about how your use of that split chorus –some singing, some silent—might impact the way we watch the opera?

So I wanted to redraw the lens by which we view this opera, and to remind an audience that this is a history that could have many different viewpoints. That you cannot convey a truth by one perspective, especially when there are such inequities of power. And so the chorus is very important to Louis Riel. They’re really the people on which the soloist characters speak on behalf of, stand for, represent, mis-represent.


Members of the Land Assembly in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

And so I wanted to counter a silent figure with a singing figure as often as possible, to show a tension between those who have a voice and those who don’t.

Where is singing powerful and where is it just noise?

Where is silence oppression?

Or where is silence protest?

rielI hope the audience sees that. The audience is a part of it too. The audience is watching. The audience is a presence. I don’t go for this thing that the audience is always anonymous in the dark, that we’re all the same: especially in a place like the Four Seasons Centre, where there are rings and tiers. The strata, a sense of hierarchy. I just wanted to reflect that in the show.

There are enormous contrasts in the show between action and reflection. Waiting. Like every time Riel enters, and the people are doing something he tells them to stop. Every time he comes on the stage he says “stop doing this”. And then he has very private reflective tortured arias. They’re not unlike Hamlet. “One must act, but what must I do? Who am I acting on behalf of? Am I called by God, am I called by the people? ” And then he’s interrupted by this enormous onslaught of action. I tried to reflect that on a lot of different levels.

One thing I really love about it is that, for the first time at the Four Seasons there are Indigenous performers onstage playing Indigenous characters. So when the curtain comes up it’s a very long sequence, at the top where it’s about the Indigenous performers looking at the audience as the audience is looking at them. It’s a real moment of dramatizing contact, who’s seeing who, who’s discovering what. That kind of tension runs through the opera and is reflected in the staging.

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

When I was emerging as a director, thirty years ago, I was very fortunate to have a kind of mentorship with Larry Lillo. Larry was the artistic director of the Vancouver Playhouse. He gave me a lot of opportunities when I was young. He was very tough on me. Very rigorous. And very loving. And I am always very grateful to Larry for those opportunities.

And you’re going off to another show in two days?

Yes I go back to the Shaw Festival, where my home is. I’m doing a wonderful play called An Octoroon, that I start on Tuesday. And I’m going into my seventh season at the Shaw. But this year has been uncharacteristically busy. Busier than I like. I’m not as young as I used to be.

Do you manage to get to the gym?   (laughter)    Did you get any sleep this week?

This week? Forget it. Three years ago I was in my best physical condition, because I was performing and vain enough (laughter) It’s a great motivator. It’s harder with direction because you send a long time sitting and watching other people. It’s so mentally active and yet so physically sedentary. It’s a balancing act.


I wanted to insert a picture of the pugs who boisterously made their presence felt at one point in the interview.


But before Hinton’s production of An Octaroon at the Shaw Festival first there’s the Canadian Opera Company’s ambitious production of Harry Somers and Mavor Moore’s  Louis Riel, opening Thursday April 20th and running until May 13th.

Posted in Opera, Politics, Questions, Questions | 2 Comments

Boss Baby boffo box-office bodyslams both Beauty and Beast

We’re in a golden age: for parenting and grand-parenting that is. If you’re taking a child to see a film, they’re now so sophisticated that not only will the child like the film but so will you.

No one will be bored, so it has been decreed.

No wonder that these animated creations make so many millions of dollars, as two films for the young make the film-makers go goo-goo ga-ga all the way to the bank.  And after that sentence (OR after seeing the headline, which is based on one of those cheesy box office reports, more or less as I stated it), I suppose there’s no point denying that I have a weakness for alliteration.

When I first heard that a film was being made with the title The Boss Baby and using Alec Baldwin’s voice, I wondered if this might be an offshoot of his Saturday Night Live portrayals of Donald Trump.

Of course that’s a crazy idea. Animated films take years to conceive & organize, requiring hundreds of animators to assemble the eventual result. Brilliant as this film is –and funny—it couldn’t be as recent as Baldwin’s creation of Trump for SNL. There’s even an unforgettable moment when the baby is playing golf, and informs us that the key to management is to delegate, as he watches someone else do all the work. That sure reminded me of the POTUS.

But let’s forget all that. Truth be told, Trump is like the dark shadowy figure in every Rorschach inkblot, the thing we fear that serves to explain almost everything. If he didn’t exist we’d have to invent him, but lucky for us, he burst on the scene like that drunk relative at your last wedding who refused to shut up and had to be dragged away by security.

No, this film is a surprise even though I should have seen it coming. I’m reminded of two amazing animated films, each with an unpretentious title packing an unexpected emotional wallop to your solar plexus. I’m thinking of Inside Out and Kubo and the Two Strings , both hugely successful films enjoyed by children that could be admired in an entirely different way by adults.

I won’t go deep in the analysis, other than to say: it’s deeper than it looks. It’s not at all what it seems. And that’s to be understood as a compliment, to suggest that this is a very good film.  Yes it has all sorts of political overtones.  But a child can enjoy it without knowing any of that.

I’m looking forward to seeing Beauty & the Beast one of these days.

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