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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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(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.

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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?

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

dogs

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

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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.

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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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Questions for Howard J. Davis: C’est Moi

Howard J. Davis is a Toronto based filmmaker, the director of C’est Moi, a short film shot on location, about Marie-Josèphe Angelique, a young slave who was tried, tortured and killed for allegedly burning down the city of Montreal.

ANGELIQUE

Howard is a British born Canadian mixed race actor, singer, dancer and emerging filmmaker who studied at Ryerson School of Performance (formerly Ryerson Theatre School) here in Toronto and has performed in England, Canada and the United States. Already in his career Howard has worked at the The Shaw Festival, on a remake of Romero’s film Something in his eye and in the upcoming feature Downsizing starring Matt Damon and directed by Alexander Payne.

Howard is a creative chameleon taking on many roles: not just director, but cinematographer, producer and editor. For C’est Moi Howard also created the musical score. His previous short “Shakespeare Shorts” was an official of the Stratford-Upon-Avon short film festival in 2014 curated by Sir Kenneth Branagh as well as his film “move4equal”, which was in response to Emma Watson’s heforshe campaign for male
advocacy in support of feminism and Madonna’s #Artforfreedom for women’s rights. He hopes to continue building a practice in telling stories of his heritage, marginalized cultures not at the forefront of history and modern original works with an emphasis on bringing classical, theatrical and historical context to a contemporary cinema. The past can always inform the future.

C’est Moi premiered in Hollywood, has traveled the United States and soon will have its first Toronto screening, at the Censured in Canada Festival May 28th.

In anticipation of the Toronto screening of C’est Moi I asked Howard some questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

My mother is extremely emotional, compassionate person and possesses a heart of gold. I feel that her and I share the same emotional capacity and both wear our hearts and desires on our sleeves. There is never a time when my mother is not willing to give anyone a big hug, kiss or cuddle [yes I still cuddle with my mum when I get the chance]. She has a very cognitive yet visceral perception of the world around her and I think she is still discovering a lot about who she is. At 60 years of age she is just as vivacious and willing to jump into the unknown [my mother recently began the process of looking into her adoption and I am very proud of her for doing so]. My mother is very opinionated like myself. When she decided to be with my father she broke several social norms to be in a interracial relationship and I have to say that her emblem would be to “do unto others as you would be treated” and she stands up for what she believes in without being righteous.

My father is exceptionally hard-working. When I ever complain it is not uncommon for him to say “Stumpy [my nickname] I’ve been working since I was 13 years old. Every time he tells this story the age gets younger and younger for added emphasis. At 66 years of age my father has also known extreme hardship. Growing up as a man of colour in the Southwest of England in the 60’s-70’s had its struggles however my dad dealt with adversity and prejudice in a very simple manner, he fought back. I am proud to say that I do share this quality with him. Whereas I like to think I use my words to deal with standing my ground, my dad used his fist and there are no end of colourful and funny stories of scraps that he and his friends got into growing up together. My dad is a fighter physically and mentally. He is headstrong, willful and talks a lot [like me]. He is a survivor of cancer 10+ years and going strong. He is also very protective, always has the best intentions and I know he will always have my back.

RESIZED Howard

Film-maker Howard J Davis

I think I possess equal qualities of both my parents. I am very proud of my heritage and have used what I’ve learnt of their history and discover new things everyday in my art that informs who I am now, where I’ve come from and how I would like to forge ahead as an artist. I am also in the works of writing about my parents history.

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

The best thing about what I do is I have many skills that lend themselves to fuelling my artistic endeavours. I began formatively am a performer and grew up doing musical theatre, then trained in classical repertoire and now have begun working in film and television in front and behind the camera. The skills I have include directing, editing, producing, photography, videography, modelling, drawing and music.

The downside of this is explaining what I do to strangers. I don’t just do one thing and find it difficult to encapsulate into one definable term the plethora of things I do. You would be surprised how often people expect me to categorize and define myself as an artist. I don’t like to define myself as one thing. I feel that my career is varied, fluid and will continue to shift and morph as I grow into the artist I know I will be and in whatever medium that will end up being is exciting but also extremely terrifying.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I have an eclectic taste but would say I am a sucker for what is trending. I do enjoy watching Netflix, the newest series or film, the Top 40’s etc. I also have a great love for classical films, theatre, poetry and music. I think history is very informative and trends come and go within artistic practices and I believe that art from the past can inform how we share narratives to our audiences today.

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

I wish I had the ability to speak more languages. If people were able to understand one another more I think that we would be able to solve problems across the globe.
I also wish I had the ability to say no. Saying yes is not necessarily a bad thing but I feel you can get taken advantage of especially as an emerging artist. It takes a lot of gumption and sense of self to say no to things and I think when I begin to care less about other’s think of me I will be able to be self-assured enough to say no.

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

I love to cook. It is a fabulous creative outlet and the reward is you get to eat it. I also love thinking, sleeping, Have a new found respect for Crossfit, spending time with my partner and walking my dogs.

Please talk about how you discovered the story that you tell in C’est Moi

More and more lately I’ve had a genuine curiosity into the question of “what is it that makes up the backbone of Canada as we know it today?” Almost everyday I wonder where I stand within this dialogue as a person of mixed diversity, who has emigrated to Canada with a heritage that is heavily contradictory being of European and African-Caribbean descent. 8 years ago, I was fortunate during my University degree, to take numerous courses on the subject of Caribbean and pre-colonial African History studies.
My teacher Terry Roswell, was paramount in sparking my interest on subjects of the African Diaspora which led me to some literature on the subject of Canada’s involvement in the story of Slavery. From there I was led to a book by Afua Cooper entitled the Hanging of Angelique. At the same time I was beginning to create text and movement based work in theatre school that was the leg work for what would eventually become C’est Moi. In no way am I suggesting that I discovered this story however I am proud that I am a contributing voice in the dialogue of this contentious history.

Knowledge is a bridge to self discovery.

If this were 1967 we might see a documentary showing us the events and the trial: exactly what happened to Marie-Josèphe Angélique. But it’s 2017, and so C’est Moi comes at the story of Marie-Josèphe Angélique in a very indirect way. Please reflect on how you came to this unorthodox approach.

In no way did I want the approach to the film to be like the Heritage Moment films that have been produced about significant figures in Canadian History. I love those pieces however that is not my approach to telling stories.

The first thing I wrote was the score, which I had initially intended to use in a musical adaptation before the work became its final realization as a short film with music. Rather than being sung, the lyrics I had written are spoken in the film and are the foundations for which the piece was formulated. My initial goals were that the music accompanied Angélique’s inner peace and thoughts and is almost akin to a lullaby that is juxtaposed with the imagery. The words “c’est moi” were repeated during Angélique’s torture which was the name of the song and seemed an appropriate title for the film. I’ve always had a strong impulse when it comes to creating film and like to approach my work using influences of historical context while wanting to bring to life stories using contemporary cinema. Influences for the use of the camera came from classical techniques seen by Ingmar Bergman.  A big influence for me was the black and white film The Passion of Jeanne D’Arc by Carl Theodor Dreyer which chronicles Joan of Arc’s story.

On the occasion of the Sesquicentennial of Confederation, Canadians are thinking about history, who we are and how we got here. Please talk for a moment about what C’est Moi can contribute to the conversation.

I think the Sesquicentennial of Confederation is a time to commemorate Canada but also to acknowledge. New settlements recently discovered off of Vancouver are said to predate the Pyramids of Egypt by 10,000 years and continue to prove that indigenous people have been in Canada longer than 150 years. Canadians are only just beginning to start a dialogue about their involvement in our controversial history in artistic mediums such as the NAC’s upcoming production of Corey Payette’s Children of God about the residential schools, Redpatch a historical drama that focuses on a young Métis solider in WW1 to Marie Clement’s upcoming show Missing about the missing indigenous women on the Highway of Tears. However that is just a handful of examples of stories of minorities that are finally being shared. Not enough stories of diversity are shared or known and I am glad to contribute another in the story of Black history in Canada. I hope C’est Moi continues in the telling of stories that help acknowledge parts of history that have not had light shed on. In the film, the Plaque de la Déclaration de Montréal Contre la Discrimination Raciale is shown to have been demolished in 2016 by the city of Montreal for “restorational” purposes due in part with Montreal’s 375th Birthday. This recent incident is juxtaposed with Angelique’s history and is the antithesis to the film. In an exploration of the past what is inevitably erased in the restoration of history? We cannot move forward to being better people if we do not address these issues.

Talk for a moment about Jenny Brizard and how she fits into the portrayal of Angélique.

Jenny is the beautiful actress who I was lucky enough to be put into contact with before shooting. Jenny has now had the opportunity to play Angelique in two different mediums. Recently, in the stage adaptation of the same history entitled Angelique by Montreal playwright Lorena Gale performed in February 2017.

resized C'est Moi Screenshot 3

Thanks to the generosity of Artistic Director of Geordie Productions Mike Payette who directed that show, Jenny came to me October of last year with some understanding of the history however was still receptive to learning more from me. I wanted Angelique to be relevant to today and present amidst a modern day Montreal. When I went to Montreal for the first time I felt Angelique’s presence there and was saddened when I asked people about her and no one knew who she was or the history of their city.

Jenny was very collaborative. She took direction well and listened to what I had to say. In my research I was struck by two opposing ideas that Angelique had either committed deliberate arson or was covering for someone else and was in fact innocent. Jenny and I played with the imagery of Angelique like Joan of Arc who was unwavering from her truth and was burnt at the stake for not folding under pressure. I wanted to portray a woman who was reticent and resolute in her confession. An emotional and strong woman who knew God knew the truth and that she was dying for something bigger than herself. Both theories of Angelique’s crime are valid points of view but my approach lent towards not taking either side. Was she a scapegoat for blame or an emblem of resilience against slavery? Many people attribute ambiguity to being vague but I think ambiguity is mysterious and interesting. I hope the film leaves the audience wondering “did she do it or not?” I know what I believe but as a director it is more rewarding to leave your audiences not knowing what to believe and to make their own choice.

Please describe how your background prepared you for this film.

For me art is an exploration of the self. To quote one of my favourite filmmakers Ava DuVernay director of the documentary “13th” “If you approach your work from a point of view of curiosity and authentic interest you will be successful”. My film began through a genuine interest in the study of my heritage and through questions about Canadian identity. I would go further to what Ava said and add that if you approach subjects conscientiously and with research this is paramount in being not only successful but prepared for your work. Given the historical context of this film I knew it was important to view all opinions before making a statement and having my own view on the history. Having worked on this project alone (aside from the generous collaboration of Jenny Brizard, Paul Moody and Ethan Rising), it has required I utilize all my skills I have however I do look forward to creating work with a team as I continue to grow as an artist.

Are there any shows or films you’ve done that now seem to have laid the groundwork for C’est Moi?

I’ve had desires before this to address gender relationships. I believe strongly that females are not the only people to be advocates of feminism. It is an emblem that men can and should wear and I think my previous work before C’est Moi support this. One short film I created MOVE4EQUAL addresses an issue on the gender wage gap and was in response to Emma Watson’s HEFORSHE campaign, for the advancement of women and to engage men and boys as agents of change. I do believe C’est Moi has established the groundwork for work that tells stories not at the forefront of history about marginalized groups who are victims of oppression. I feel very fortunate to live in Canada and I believe it is healthy to address my own privilege so that I can fight for what I believe in and expose subjects that interest me.

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

There are a number of people that I admire. I would say every teacher I’ve had from primary school in the UK to theatre school have contributed to my development as a human and artist. I have a varied and eclectic number of artistic influences such as filmmakers Lars Von Trier, Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Jackson, writers Charles Dickens, George Elliot Clarke, El Jones, Lawrence Hill and theatre makers Robert Lepage, Julie Taymor and Sam Mendes. Peter Hinton is also a huge inspiration to me and I could not have completed the film C’est Moi without his guidance and generosity. Thank you Peter for your love and support. Also my family (Mum, Dad, Helen and Katie) and friends.

If you’d like to donate to the film and help it be seen at more festivals and to learn more go to www.cestmoifilm.com and follow us on all social media @cestmoifilm

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Howard J Davis’s film C’est Moi comes to the Censured in Canada Festival May 28th, CineCycle, 129 Spadina Avenue.

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JS Bach’s St Mark Passion according to Heighes

In addition to the two well-known passions by JS Bach (the ones based on the gospels according to St Matthew and St John) there’s also the Passion according to St Mark that we know to have been performed at least twice in Bach’s lifetime. Although the complete musical score has been lost, the availability of the libretto makes it possible to reconstruct the work, BWV 247.

Today I experienced an overwhelming performance at lovely St Barnabas Church, of the St Mark Passion in the reconstruction by Simon Heighes (1995), a preview of what will be presented by the Second Annual Bach Festival on May 28th. And it was overwhelming because I was seated in the front row, a few feet from the tiny orchestra and the soloists, surrounded in the luxurious sounds of some of the best singers & players in this country.

John Abberger

Oboist John Abberger, Artistic Director of the Toronto Bach Festival

If you have any curiosity about this work, if you have the desire to hear good singing & playing, you must take advantage of the opportunity in May. The intimacy of the music requires a space like this one, where you can hear every note clearly, where you can make eye contact with performers wearing their hearts on their sleeves. There are three concerts in the series featuring the vocal talents of Brett Polegato, Asitha Tennekoon, Daniel Taylor (indisposed today unfortunately), Ellen McAteer, Agnes Zsigovics, Jan van der Hooft, Ryan Cairan, Jessica Wright and Larry Beckwith; and  an orchestra comprised of Julia Wedman, Patricia Ahern, Emily Eng, Matt Antal, Felix Deak, Matthew Girolami, Joëlle Morton, Marilyn Fung, Christopher Bagan, Marco Cera, Alison Melville, Anthea Conway-White and directed by oboist John Abberger. I mention them all because everyone had moments of great beauty. In a work played by such a small ensemble, there were exposed passages giving everyone their moment to shine.

Some of the music is familiar, although I don’t know whether it’s Bach’s choice in the original or Heighes’ in his reconstruction, to re-purpose music that we’ve heard before elsewhere. I recognized a couple, for instance, the tune we sing as the Passion Chorale but to different words. We also encounter JS Bach’s setting of Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”, based not on Mark but Psalm 46, so I’m not sure how that manages to get into the piece: even if it’s guaranteed to turn on the waterworks when I hear it sung so perfectly.

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Tenor Asitha Tennekoon

The two singers with the largest workload soldiered along without much glory until near the end. Both Asitha Tennekoon as the Evangelist and Brett Polegato as Jesus have large amounts to sing, but mostly in soft recitatives. But in the second part, each gets an aria and it’s worth the wait. The sopranos McAteer and Szigovics soar gloriously throughout the afternoon both from the chorus, and then emerging for their own solo fireworks.

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the St Mark Passion when it comes again May 28th.

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