Tonight a rapturous audience welcomed the world premiere of Jacqueline, a new opera from Tapestry Opera at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.

It’s a deceptively simple piece exploring the relationship of cellist Jacqueline du Pré and her instrument.

She was a prodigious talent who had to abandon her performing career at the age of 27 when she developed Multiple Sclerosis, and died at the age of 42. What if that story were told by a singer & a cellist, where the cello were represented as if it were an actual character, given that the instrument was one of the great passions of her life?

We hear of her mother, her sister Hillary, her husband Daniel (Barenboim).

I start with this lovely little film clip of Jacqueline & Daniel at the end. But you should listen to the whole thing from the beginning.

We will hear about an incurable illness.

For close to two hours we were immersed in a poetic world. But I don’t think anyone in the theatre had any trouble making the imaginative leap. The stage is bare, Camellia Koo’s set design wonderfully suggestive as things develop , again through a very simple use of the materials.

I’m tempted to talk about a collaboration between a man and a woman. But whether it’s composer Luna Pearl Woolf working with librettist Royce Vavrek to create the opera, OR soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Jacqueline working with cellist Matt Haimovitz to make music & enact the opera, we’re talking about productive relationships. I think of Director & Dramaturge Michael Hidetoshi Mori as a midwife, bringing both the text & performance to life. The work & the performances are fully formed & mature, well-conceived and in no way seeming incomplete. The tension in each pair whether it was between the words & music, or between the singer & the instrument, was palpable, the root of this very deceptively simple piece.

I’m not sure who had the tougher night, between Breckenridge singing, dancing & crawling about the stage, or Haimovitz playing literally for hours, mostly while seated but also acting as well. Both of them are in virtuoso territory, whether we’re speaking of her high notes & vulnerable portrayal, or his beautiful sound. There are humorous touches, there is a touch of bawdiness and a great deal of romance. If you like cello music you will love this opera, because Haimovitz is making some wonderful music on his instrument, sometimes seeming to go off into long cadenza-like soliloquys, sometimes playing melodic & dissonant phrases, occasionally becoming disjointed as though mirroring the horrific experiences of his owner, cellist Jacqueline. Yet he is mostly in support of the illusion, in support of the story-telling, the expected arc of plot for someone known to have become sick & died young. At times it felt like film music as if Jacqueline were speaking rather than singing, as her vocal line was wonderfully sensitive to the rhythms of speech, and the cello becoming self-effacing.

While there is one big recognizable quote from the Elgar cello concerto –the piece most associated with du Pré –for the most-part we’re listening to fragments, rarely seeming to be in extended musical passages, as the structure seems to come from the text & the words, with the music largely subservient.

I think Jacqueline will be a big success from what I saw & heard tonight in a sold out theatre. It runs only until the 23rd. See it if you can!

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Moonrise Kingdom on Valentine’s Day

I saw the trailer for Wes Anderson’s next film. Google says it opens in the summer.

Argh, I wish I could see it now, but, hmm, …a seed was planted.

And there we were, staying in on a chilly Friday night. What if we watch a movie at home?

I looked at what was available via PPV, doing a search for the director Wes Anderson.

A list came up including films I had seen before.

Fantastic Mr Fox…Saw it, liked the idea more than the film itself, just like a lot of modern art, where one admires the concept. But I’ve never yet managed to get through the whole film so far.
Isle of Dogs… Ah I loved it to pieces, thinking of it as a thinly veiled allegory of the current American drift to authoritarianism. Bought it, have seen it at least 5 times and will watch it again. And I did buy the book: meaning the Matt Zoller Seitz book that tries to match the film’s creators in its attention to detail.
Moonrise Kingdom…? never seen that one.
Rushmore… My first Wes Anderson. I bought it of course, have found that it grows on me with every successive viewing.
Grand Budapest Hotel… my favorite? I’ve seen it perhaps 7 times, two in the theatre. I haven’t bought it yet perhaps because I find it so powerful, so operatic. But I did buy the book (another Matt Zoller Seitz book)
The Life Aquatic…. Perhaps need to come back to this one. I didn’t fully “get it”.
The Royal Tenenbaums… Another one I don’t fully “get”. I bought it have seen parts of it many times, have sat through it perhaps once. I admire it even if I’m not sure if I even like it.

So…. What about Moonrise Kingdom?

The PPV info tells me…

“MK tells the story of two twelve year olds who fall in love make a secret pact and run away together into the wilderness. As various authorities try to hunt them down…

One has to click to the next page to see more. But I’d seen enough. I was sold. What could be more appropriate for Valentine’s Day?

How romantic.

And so it unfolds as one of those Wes Anderson films where you see how much fun they’re having filming and playing. Watching one grows envious not just of the magical world they’re creating, but one wishes to be in the film too, part of that fun group of artists. You can see it in the cadre Anderson has assembled, co-conspirators in his plot to have fun & perhaps to recapture the magic of youth, the same coolest people on the planet, the lucky ones who — I suspect– want to come back again and again. Do they pay HIM to be in these films?

Tilda Swinton

Ed Norton

Saoairse Ronan

Adrian Brody

Bill Murray

Harvey Keitel

Anderson seems to be a guy who has a lot of fun, in his stories, in his film-making.

Film-maker Wes Anderson

The children in this film –in all of his films come to think of it– are brilliant while the adults are all somewhat incompetent, hung up on showing us that they know what they’re doing.

The young ones are the hope for our future.

What a perfect metaphor for our world. The romance we see is the civil conduct of 12 year olds.

Do you ever wish you could freeze time and just stay where you are in your development? (of course that’s not so uncommon if you’re in your 60s). Just as I find I wish I could stay inside his films, wishing they wouldn’t end, wish I could prolong the magic.

The wilderness we see is a kind of cartoon landscape, partly as a by-product of Anderson’s compulsive to the point of OCD control of every frame, partly because the story unfolds as a kind of narrated fable, partly because the action is larger than life as people survive the impossible.

Yes (as you can see in the trailer) someone is struck by lightning… and shakes it off. Don’t try this at home, kids. But I won’t break it down further, as I seek to always be spoiler- free, in case you haven’t seen it yet.

There’s some amazing music in the score, not just the ever dependable Alexandre Deplat, but some wonderful subtext in the diagetic music choices. Imagine a film that has a climactic storm & a flood taking place while someone is staging Britten’s Noye’s Fludde..(!?)

Holy cow..!

We’ll watch it again, as there’s lots more to pick up in the parenthetical remarks & in the incidental moments. There are no small parts in Anderson’s movies.

It might be my new favorite, although come July there’s a new one coming out.

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Not #MeToo

I’m upset.

It’s not that I’m having a bad day. I just keep hearing news that’s upsetting.

Two very different women I knew, each an avatar of female strength, have passed away. I met each of them, knew them very superficially.

Christie Blatchford has died.

I only met her a couple of times, but she was one of this city’s key voices. While our politics were totally dissimilar –she wrote for the ultra-conservative Sun after all—she had this uncanny ability to make you think about positions you would never normally think about. For my money that’s the most impressive kind of writer, someone who can make me rethink my own beliefs, shake my own convictions, which she did from time to time.

I don’t claim that my sadness about her matches that of the people I’ve been reading today, who admired her tenacity & fearless outlook, especially her dear friends. I admired her, a woman who opened new directions & opportunities for women, doing things we’d never seen a woman writer do. I remember the way she handled herself at a party, totally in the moment, vulnerable.

Anne Kingston has died.

I heard this on As It Happens tonight while driving home. This one hurts a lot more, as our paths crossed a fair bit at one time when we were both at university. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think I made much of an impression, indeed I’m sure that if she would remember me perhaps it’s for that wedding where I played so terribly at the reception, (a great learning experience).

I bought a copy of The Meaning of Wife, a wonderful book she wrote. I guess I grabbed it mostly because “I knew her when”,

…not expecting to discover the writer.
…not expecting to be blown away by the writing.

Each piece of hers I read in Macleans was vying to be the best thing I’d read on the subject, the best thing in that issue, an edgy thinker with wit & style. She was the most impressive writer of my generation, speaking as someone who has several books on my shelves by people I know. It’s cool to look at the books and think of the writers.

Not cool to realize that this young woman is gone, gone much too soon.

Christie B and Anne K were very different in style, in the sorts of things they wrote, polar opposites in their politics. That these two book-ends to women writing in Toronto and Canada should both pass away this week?



I am inserting myself into this conversation as I usually do. I tweeted a question at Alexander Neef, perhaps not a polite question but something that’s bothering me all the same.

The question had come up elsewhere. Opera Canada asked the COC about it and received an answer (which I quote from Twitter), condensing a thread into one paragraph:


We also apologize for not giving readers the full coverage they deserve in the matter of
@CanadianOpera ‘s hiring of Stephen Lord. We will do better. We have added an update to our coverage of the COC’s hiring of Stephen Lord in our online article about their 20-21 season…
We reached out to @CanadianOpera to inquire about their hiring of Lord while still under the cloud of allegations of sexual harassment. Their response: “Upon learning of the allegations against Mr. Lord in June of 2019, the company immediately carried out a detailed review of his engagements with the COC, dating back to 1986; no complaints or records of misconduct were found in our files. The COC also reached out to external organizations, partner unions, and individuals who worked closely with Mr. Lord in order to learn if complaints of any kind named or anonymous, had been formally lodged or otherwise brought forward; our inquiries and follow-up yielded no results.

Having completed a fair and due process, one that included much careful and thorough review of the information available to us, Mr. Lord will conduct La Traviata in spring of 2021.”

Really Opera Canada?

Really COC?

Okay, here’s where my headline came from. In 1973 when I was still a teenager, I had one of the greatest theatre experiences of my life, watching Jon Vickers & Louis Quilico in Verdi’s Otello, conducted by James Levine (who was just beginning his great career). When we went backstage afterwards? I had heard some jokes about James Levine & young boys, and indeed when the Maestro shook my hand and smiled at me I wondered.

No I didn’t have to endure any sort of harassment.

Not #MeToo, in other words. I’m lucky for several reasons.

But please note, people were talking about Levine in 1973. Groundless rumours? Finally they bore fruit when Levine left the Met in 2018 though even now he denies the allegations. Perhaps they are lies? But those “lies” were being told 45 years earlier, when I was just a teen.

While I am sympathetic to Stephen Lord, whose career has been disrupted by the allegations (you can read the report from Opera News) yet I wonder about how the singers & musicians contracted for la traviata must feel.

Fake news? Or perhaps it’s simply that even after decades one can never really confirm such a thing. If you consider that any singers or musicians who step forward with an accusation will more or less end their own career?

No wonder Levine kept his post for decades.

Is it all lies?

Sorry but I tend to think that where there’s smoke there’s fire. It’s very risky for a woman to step forward accusing a powerful authority figure.

Sorry but I can’t help feeling downcast, the way all the bad news today seems to fit together.

A sorry day.

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I was just getting accustomed to 2020. But uh-oh now I’ve got a new number to mess up right in the hashtag #2021COC.

Luckily we can hide in 2020 for at least a few months.

The Canadian Opera Company announced their next season tonight in a ceremonial event complete with a smudging ceremony and performances from soloists & the COC orchestra. It’s partly a sales-pitch for anyone hesitant, including a special opportunity to get a free subscription if you make your renewal by midnight.

And then there’s the drama of Alexander Neef’s last year as General Director before he goes to the Paris Opera. We won’t see him too many more times, will we…?

So what’s in the new season?

We begin with the one we already knew about namely François Girard’s production of Wagner’s Parsifal, already seen at the Metropolitan Opera & Opéra National de Lyon.

A scene from the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013 (photo: Ken Howard)

Tonight the sample from Act I that we heard, while well-played made it crystal clear: you really do need those 110 players in the orchestra, as the version from tonight sounded thin & makeshift. I know that it will sound splendid when properly prepared.

The other fall 2020 opera is Klaus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro that was seen back in February 2016. We’ll see Russell Braun reprise his role as the Count, opposite Emily D’Angelo as Cherubino.

Winter offers a pair of operas named for the tragic heroine. We’ll see Joel Ivany’s production of Bizet’s Carmen reprised, and a new to the COC production of Janacek’s Katya Kabanova directed by David Alden.

Spring offers the opportunity to hear Sondra Radvanovsky’s Violetta opposite Joseph Calleja’s Alfredo in Arin Arbus’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata seen here in 2015. The other spring opera is the minimalist Robert Carsen production of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice seen here in the spring of 2011.

I’ll bite, certainly happy to renew my subscription, as I’m hopeful that this will be a season of good box office returns for the COC.

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#COCgingerbread: Joel Ivany softens a Grimm tale of cruelty

It’s called “Hansel and Gretel”, not “kill the witch”. And in the original the witch isn’t even the nastiest character.

You may already know that the new Canadian Opera Company production of Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel modernizes the setting to a city like Toronto. But director Joel Ivany does a whole lot more than that.


I tried to avoid spoilers in my review of the opening. I’ll do my best not to give too much away, but the main thing I want to observe concerns Gertrude, the mother of the two children.

In the Grimm version? Let’s look at a sample in translation.

Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy’s name was Hansel and the girl’s name was Gretel. He had but little to eat, and once, when a great famine came to the land, he could no longer provide even their daily bread.

One evening as he was lying in bed worrying about his problems, he sighed and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How can we feed our children when we have nothing for ourselves?”

“Man, do you know what?” answered the woman. “Early tomorrow morning we will take the two children out into the thickest part of the woods, make a fire for them, and give each of them a little piece of bread, then leave them by themselves and go off to our work. They will not find their way back home, and we will be rid of them.”

“No, woman,” said the man. “I will not do that. How could I bring myself to abandon my own children alone in the woods? Wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”

“Oh, you fool,” she said, “then all four of us will starve. All you can do is to plane the boards for our coffins.” And she gave him no peace until he agreed.

Read the rest here .

The opera is a somewhat gentler version, as we see Gertrude erupt in anger when she comes into the kitchen while Hansel & Gretel are playing. In the ensuing confrontation, the milk jug falls & breaks. When Hansel laughs, she loses her temper, sending the two children off into the forest to find strawberries, threatening to whip them if they don’t bring back a full basket.

You might well say that we have no right to judge Gertrude for her reactions, not when they’re so poor as to be facing death from starvation.

I have been thinking about gender politics in how the parents in this opera are portrayed, especially as I look at the alterations Ivany made in his modernization.

As a parent I’ve often been troubled by the unfairness of it all, even though I have a huge advantage as a male.

  • Mothers?
    They are the ones placing the hard limits on their children. As a result they face the most push-back, the most bad press.
  • Fathers?
    Because fathers are rarely the ones asked first, they can come into the picture to fix things, show up as givers of unconditional love, the purveyors of fun. Ah the joys of fatherhood. We’re the good cop to mom’s bad cop, which surely isn’t fair, especially not to mom.

You see it in the way the brothers Grimm and later librettist Adelheid Wette tell the story.  We might say that the mother is a bitch, bad tempered: but that’s part of the unfairness of it all. The father gets to be the kind loving understanding one, coming home later with his cheerful song and avoiding the conflict.

I’ve been intrigued by the fact that Joel Ivany is a dad, awaiting his second child with his wife soprano Miriam Khalil. Watching Russell Braun as Peter (the father) and Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude (the mother), I wondered about Ivany’ thought process as he played with the original. There’s not much Szabó can do with the character in that first scene, as it more or less requires Gertrude to send her children out into the forest, possibly to their deaths.

(SPOILER ALERT…if you don’t want to know what Ivany does to change up the story stop reading now!)

Still there?

Of course the big thing Ivany is doing here is all about make-believe, turning the story into an exercise in pure imagination, and thereby taking the sting out of the children’s ordeal.

  • The kids don’t go into a forest to hunt for strawberries, they go to different floors of their apartment building
  • The witch isn’t a real witch
  • The children aren’t actually lost, as the parents set it all up

Instead of the usual adventures in the forest we’re watching a sandman & a dew fairy played by someone who lives in that same apartment building, putting on a costume.

Instead of a witch seeking to cook & eat Hansel, we watch a neighbour who has been colluding with the parents, who are playing along.  You don’t have to believe in the witch, not when children might believe.


(l-r) Russell Braun as Peter, Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Michael Colvin as The Witch (photo: Michael Cooper)

There’s lots more I could give away but I’ll stop there. The main thing is that Peter & Gertrude didn’t send the children off to die in the forest. Even so there’s only so much you can do with the text, although in places they did alter the surtitles (such that the words we see projected are not actually a translation of what’s being sung).

If it were up to me I’d take that much further. For instance when Gertrude supposedly sends the children into the forest to get strawberries the surtitle could just as easily say “go upstairs and beg for food from your generous neighbours” since the action now calls for them to stay inside the apartment, an imaginary forest perhaps but not a real one.

But ahh it isn’t up to me, is it…

There’s lots to admire in this production, many moments of great beauty, some tremendous laughs. At the beginning of each scene we’re watching projections on the scrim that suggest children’s drawings, including a marvelous stylized Earth that we zoom in on during the overture. Seeing it today for the second time I still got all teary-eyed at S Katy Tucker’s images & exquisite taste.

It was lovely seeing Russell Braun for the second time today onstage, after running into him this morning at the celebration of Errol Gay’s life at St Clement’s Anglican Church. Russell sounds so comfortable & happy in this role.

Sitting in the second row we noticed a couple of things.

The sections of seats at either side are being left empty because of compromised sight-lines.

It was wonderful watching Simone Osborne and Emily Fons up close, a very believable pair of children whether pouting, dancing or eating. Anna-Sophie Neher’s fairy & sandman were even more adorable in a closeup view. Everyone was more relaxed and self-assured today.  I’m sure it will continue to get better.

Hansel & Gretel continues until February 21st.

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Vittorio Ghielmi dreaming Jupiter

“Dreaming Jupiter” is the name of the concert program this week from Tafelmusik at Jeanne Lamon Hall, that might epitomize everything about their approach to making music.

Where the Toronto Symphony are lately the place you go hear the pieces you know and love played by a modern orchestra, Tafelmusik are the opposite. TSO build their audience via a mainstream approach, Tafelmusik appeal to the hardcore afficionado,  offering music we’ve probably never heard on instruments we don’t know too well, played by a virtuoso instrumentalist.

We listen with an attentiveness bordering on religious fervor, and we’re rewarded with unique performances of rare beauty.

Tafelmusik assembled two contrasting types of music working in a kind of dialogue, back and forth between Vittorio Ghielmi’s solos for viola da gamba and flamboyant orchestral pieces, an evening of contrasts and drama. The title alludes to the composition with which we closed, namely an original adaptation by Ghielmi of Forqueray’s Jupiter.

Before we got there we listened to Ghielmi demonstrate the range of possibilities in the instrument, sometimes plaintive soft lyricism, sometimes quick ornamented passages.

I’m challenged to rethink or reframe my understanding of the baroque, having heard a whole new kind of playing tonight. Ghielmi takes the stage with his solos as though performing a soliloquy or an opera aria, but gradually working through its nuances without seeming to show off. There’s a kind of understated eloquence at work that reminds me of Stanislavsky or The Method, as though he were coming at baroque expressiveness not from an extroverted mandate of display for display’s sake, but, dare I say it, from the inside. There’s a genuine impulse that’s properly discursive like a conversation or dramatic dialogue, whether in his louder or soft moments. As a result I see so many more possibilities, not just in what he was playing but in other baroque composers as well.

The solo jewels from Ghielmi’s hands were set against a backdrop of orchestral outpouring from the operatic realm, as though his solos were shining jewels, to contrast orchestral numbers like masses of dark velvet.

I’ve heard some of these pieces before but never quite this way as Ghielmi exhorted Tafelmusik to bring extraordinary fire to these pieces, towering moments of larger than life drama.

I’m hoping Marshall Pynkoski comes to hear this program as we are again teased (or tormented?) with the stunning beauty of seven examples of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s orchestral brilliance. I’m hopeful that Opera Atelier will undertake one of these marvelous operas.


Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gamba virtuoso

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On Monday February 10th the Canadian Opera Company will tell us what they’re producing next season aka  their “Season Reveal” aka #2021COC.  It’s a celebratory moment, and can feel a bit like Christmas morning as we unpack the goodies, for those of us who love the opera, those of us who go regularly, those of us dying to see certain shows, especially the ones that have been promised through the subtext in co-productions produced elsewhere.  I saw the video of Girard’s Parsifal and liked it so much I bought the DVD. And there’s the recent Wozzeck high-def broadcast. 

On Monday will we get great stuff in our stocking? Or socks & underwear?  I’m remembering Charlie Brown who (trick or treating) said “I got a rock”.

It’s all to be revealed very soon. “TBA.”

It’s an extra-special reveal, given that this is the last time it will be a COC season under General Director Alexander Neef.  We’vealready been teased just a few weeks ago with the prospect of the Parsifal production, perhaps as his grand farewell gesture.

It can be a bit of a sport, a bit of fun to predict what’s to come.  John Gilks regularly offers his take, always amusing.

His season prediction:

New productionsParsifal, The Old Fools (just maybe Only the Sound Remains), La forza del destino
RevivalsMadama Butterfly, Lucia di Lammermoor, Idomeneo (or maybe Orfeo)

I don’t mind getting socks or underwear at Christmas if we can’t afford extravagance.

In other words, while I love a good show my first concern is the health of the company and the stewardship of opera in Canada.

For comparison, let me dip into the October 2019 press release announcing Karen Kain’s departure from the National Ballet of Canada, I will quote her words as she takes a well-deserved bow, with a focus on two things.

Item #1
We have fostered Canadian talent through CreativAction, the appointment of Choreographic Associates and Innovation, our all-Canadian programmes.

Item #2
“When I step down in January 2021, I know I leave a financially stable company with the very best dancers in the world, one of the most diverse and coveted repertoires and an international reputation for the highest level of excellence.

We are coming up to a comparable moment in the life of the Canadian Opera Company as Alexander Neef bids the COC goodbye.  Will he issue a comparable statement to what Karen Kain issues, before rushing into the arms of his colleagues at the Paris Opera?


Alexander Neef (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

Last year I posted a nationalistic diatribe in response to the COC’s season announcement for 2019-20, that I put alongside KK’s item #1 above, as a kind of question.  The COC just opened Hansel & Gretel last night with a Canadian cast: and it was wonderful.

As for item #2, I only wonder what shape the COC will be in after Neef’s departure.  What incentive does he have to leave the company in great financial shape?

It’s impossible to answer those questions right now.  Pardon me for asking them, but I think they’re just as important to ask as “when do we get to see Parsifal“, especially if Parsifal is too expensive.

We shall see.

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