Gimeno + Hannigan = Ear-candy

It was a splendid formula. Far be it from me to propose something as reductive as math in the headline, only that the concert is titled “Gimeno + Hannigan”, which is certainly a quick overview. Between them Gustavo Gimeno and Barbara Hannigan gave the audience a lot to cheer for.

At this point in time when we’re rediscovering live music everything is new. We’re still in the early days of Gimeno’s tenure as the new Music Director of the Toronto Symphony. How magical to hear two world premieres. How marvelous when the oldest music on the program was from the 20th Century:

Julia Mermelstein: in moments, into bloom: Celebration Prelude (world premiere #1)
Igor Stravinsky: Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3
Zosha Di Castri / test by Tash Aw: In the Half-light (world premiere #2)
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (original 1910 complete ballet)

While the hall appeared to be less than half full, they more than made up for it in response to the performances, including the nerd behind me explaining every piece to his companion. While it’s frustrating when talk interrupts music, I had to like their enthusiasm for the TSO, for Stravinsky and for Hannigan.

The three composers gave us three contrasting styles of music.

The song cycle sung by Hannigan was a bit frustrating for me, although you might well say it’s my own fault. I read the poetry over twice, possibly three times, then sat listening to the cycle. The first sung words I was able to discern came in a pianissimo passage halfway through the first song, when Hannigan sings “you give me food. I offer a dress”. At this moment the orchestra allowed her to sing unencumbered. Should her words be intelligible? I’m not sure. I encounter rock music without being able to understand lyrics, forced to look them up online. When I listened to Mahler’s Song of the Earth for the first few times I always followed along with the text. So perhaps I was being unreasonable in wanting to hear it without the printed text in front of me. Even so, I think it’s long overdue for Roy Thomson Hall to project text onto readable surfaces, such as the concrete above the orchestra (as I remarked in a review I wrote when Hannigan sang here in 2019) I must emphasize that it’s a stunning piece of music whether one hears every word clearly or not. I knew from reading the text what the cycle was about (“subjects of displacement, belonging and home“), but still, only picked up roughly ¼ of the words. And maybe the orchestra was playing too loudly; or am I invoking a quaint idea, that the soloist should be heard clearly? I would rather watch the performers, rather than having to bury my head in a program, especially when I don’t know beforehand whether the house-lights will be on or not; I think they were on….but by then it was too late, as I was using the virtual program I’d received on my iPhone, which they tell us to shut off at the start of the concert. A few times Hannigan is soaring to the top of her range, sometimes making sounds that are powerful, sometimes vulnerable to the point of seeming broken, sometimes softly lyrical. She’s a brilliant performer, a fabulous actor, so no wonder I chose to watch her. It’s 20 minutes of magic, both from the soloist and the orchestra that sometimes growls brass clusters, slides around between pitches on glissandi, always keeping our interest. For me the affect spoke more to alienation and dislocation than a joyful adventure. I wish I could hear it again.

Mermelstein’s brief fanfare in celebration of the Toronto Symphony’s centennial was a lovely three minutes of shifting colours, as though suggesting the growth of Canadian music created for the TSO. I think the metaphor worked, as the music did seem completely organic, even alive in what we heard.

The other composer we encountered was once a touchstone for “new music” even if the two pieces on tonight’s program were the most conventional of his works. One might even be understood as a popular classic, at least as far as the audience’s recognition of some of its themes. I speak of the Firebird, presented in a slightly different version than usual, but still offering the audience huge thrills. The ovation was genuine.

Gimeno has shown me a tendency to take the TSO on thrill-rides, tonight being no exception. Soloists in every section had great opportunities to show us their stuff, but often in the context of faster than usual tempi. It’s wonderful to see the rapport between them, the trust they place in his hands and the response they make to his baton.

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

You can catch this concert on the night of Saturday May 21st when the TSO repeat this program at Roy Thomson Hall.

Igor Stravinsky conducting his own music
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Kyle’s Campy Conan

Erika and I went to see Conan and the Stone of Kelior tonight. It’s the last night of the run of the pasticcio opera from Kyle McDonald at Alumnae Theatre. There’s a final matinee Sunday that I would have attended except we’re having a couple of friends over, so this was the best choice.

Kyle McDonald

I knew Conan was going to be a difficult and complex show, so I wanted to wait until the end of the run, to give the company and the singers a chance to figure it all out.

It’s the most fun I’ve had at an opera in a long time. Why?

I say “campy” employing Susan Sontag’s use of the word. Kyle’s take on Conan –the hero you may know from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s films or from the Weird Tales created in the 1930s by Robert E Howard—may involve fun but it’s not disrespectful. They’re making fun with Conan, not making fun of Conan, a key distinction that Sontag explains. It’s excessive, over the top, not to be mistaken for realistic. While we see a huge body count, it’s never scary because it’s unbelievable, verging on silly in its artificiality.

Kyle not only adapted Conan for the stage, he used many of the most popular operatic melodies to tell the story. We heard the Soldier’s Chorus from Faust for a bunch of soldiers. We heard the duet from Pearlfishers at a moment when two people (who had been fishing) were singing the tune about friendship unto death, as we watched Conan and another swordsman fighting unto the death. We heard the anvil chorus, while soldiers beat swords against their shields. We heard the Papageno-Papagena duet, but reframed not to sing of marriage and little children but fighting and killing, sung just as sweetly as Mozart could ask: and the death was that we died laughing. We got the scene when Rigoletto is acting nonchalant while casing the joint looking for his daughter, only this time it’s someone whose bum hurts from being spanked by Conan. When the courtiers do their fake “ha-ha-ha” I couldn’t resist hahaha-ing along (although Erika gave me a look). Seriously, where else can you do something like that? We also heard re-purposed parts of the Messiah, the Mozart Requiem, Pictures at an Exhibition, a Rachmaninoff Prelude all used to vivid effect.

At times it seemed like a cast of hundreds, possibly because people kept getting killed. I noticed that Brittany Stewart for example played three different roles, each one getting brutally killed. Singing aside, she died really well. My gosh there was a lot of stage-fighting, sometimes in slow motion, sometimes really quick. I don’t think Brittany was the only one to have every one of their multiple characters die. The body-count was marvelous, not at all bloody, and because it was camp, not troubling in the slightest.

While I don’t pretend that I followed all the twists and turns of the story –including an additional twist brought on by a cast-member missing the show due to an illness—the great thing is, I don’t care. I felt a bit like one of the people I might have dragged with me to one of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas, trying to sort through the characters and motivations: but seduced by the music. I was too busy having fun to really worry about the details of the plot.

Kyle was totally deadpan, never tipping us off that it was in any way comical. Everyone was in deadly earnest. For example, in the first part we were told that we could take pictures or short videos, to share to social media, with the winner to receive a poster from the show autographed by the cast. Cute!

I nerded out a bit talking to Erika in the car about Richard Wagner’s critique in Opera and Drama (and she indulged me or at least pretended to do so…), when he said that while the original intention in the early days in Florence had been to employ music in making a dramatic form, they got it all backwards, instead using drama to make a musical form. Wagner may have redressed the balance somewhat, but he was still making music mostly. The point in mentioning this, is that Kyle’s direct approach totally swept us away, helping us forget reality for a couple of hours of romance and heroic story-telling.

I felt we were having fun watching a spectacle including belly dancing, puppets, sexy moments, scary moments, suspense and intrigue, all while having fun with familiar music. Erika commented that this was the most unpretentious thing she’s ever seen that’s associated with opera. But you get the idea. Kyle took the best elements of the Conan stories –the romance, the violence, the sexy clothes, the movement—and packaged then into something operatic. It’s not like anything you’d see from any other opera company in Toronto.

We also heard some good singing. Corey Arnold sang a version of “nessun dorma” that impressed me very much, even if I had the temerity to laugh at the end: when Corey collapsed in a heap due to some magical shenanigans.

A little later Corey pulled off something amazing. In the film Men in Black, do you recall the way Vince D’onofrio becomes the creepy bug, walking around as though he’s an alien with a dead human body loosely hanging on his bug body, as his dressing gown? Corey pulled off something like that, when –after dropping dead—a magician has a spirit walk into his body, bringing him back to a staggering semi-life. It was creepy and brilliant.

Kyle did so much yet I may not be giving full credit. Not only did he write the words, adapting all these bits of opera into a coherent whole, not only did he get his company Mightier Productions to produce this, the latest of his projects, but Kyle was also rolling around the stage as Conan, fighting, wrestling, killing, romancing, and also singing.

And directing..(!).

Although Robert de Vrij wasn’t present (due to the aforementioned illness) his performance was at least partially captured somehow. A miracle of technology? I suppose that’s the other thing to remark upon, that Diana DiMauro conducted the singers and a virtual orchestra, presumably synthed or sequenced, synchronizing the pseudo-orchestral sounds with the singers onstage. The only credit I saw in the program that might explain this is also attached to Kyle, where it says “Written, Arranged and Directed by.” I’ll ask him next time I see him.

I recall seeing a furor online a few years back when there was talk of plans to do a Wagner opera (perhaps a whole Ring cycle? I can’t recall) with synth instead of orchestra. Of course this is contentious depending on whose side you’re on. If you’re a musician, especially if you’re in the union, you take offense at the idea of being replaced. But opera is hugely expensive, and this is a way to save money and that means getting shows produced. People may not realize that the “orchestra” they hear in shows such as Les Miserables on Broadway or in Toronto was filled out by synthesizer keyboards. This is not so much the way of the future as long-established reality that’s decades old. But it’s still relatively new in the operatic world.

If you liked Kyle’s creation there’s a cast album. I was thinking of it but we left too quickly. We might still get it and if I do I may write about it some more.

And there’s one Conan performance left Sunday at 4:00 pm at Alumnae Theatre (click here for info).

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Magic Flute revival

This is the third time in roughly a decade for the Canadian Opera Company to offer the Diane Paulus Magic Flute, with its meta-theatrical approach employing flamboyant visuals, from set and costume designer Myung Hee Cho. I hope I can be excused for using a photo with the 2017 cast. But I was trying to give an impression of the staging which isn’t tied to the casting.

Lauren Segal, Emily D’Angelo, Aviva Fortunata & Andrew Haji in COC’s 2017 revival of The Magic Flute
(photo Michael Cooper)

As with their Traviata I think we forgive the company for opting to minimize risks in such a difficult time, planning in the shadow of the pandemic.

As with their Traviata the orchestra and chorus were the stars, the best thing in the show, particularly given the eye-candy. Conductor Patrick Lange led a wonderfully energetic account. I was especially taken by the flute solo in the last act initiation ritual, a wonderfully creative elaboration of what Mozart wrote and a bold departure from what we usually hear; was that Douglas Stewart, Principal flute? Bravo!

There were a few soloists who were especially impressive. I’m delighted to hear the voice of Gordon Bintner as Papageno, looking forward to hearing him again (when I use my subscription ticket later in the run). The voice is the most mellifluous sound we hear in any opera this spring from the COC. Every note is beautiful, the choices in his phrasing sometimes remarkable. He stands out in the cast particularly because his singing seems effortless, joyful, fun.

Gordon Bintner (photo: Brent Calis)

Midori Marsh was a good match for Bintner as Papagena, with a voice every bit as precise and tuneful in her small role, having impressed in her work in the virtual Mozart Requiem a few months ago.

Full disclosure: The Magic Flute was the first opera I really came to know from the inside out. My step-father bought the score when I was eight. My brother sang a Papageno at the COC in the 1970s. And I’ve been listening to or playing through this music all my life. Speaking as someone who has always thought of Magic Flute as one of my favorite operas, I’m happy with the COC’s production, which won’t disappoint.

David Leigh gave us a wonderfully full-bodied Sarastro. Caroline Wettergreen as the Queen of the Night managed to be impressive in this tiny role, always the one people remember.

It was great to see Russell Braun as the Speaker, a role to which he brought his usual gravitas. Michael Colvin reprised his brilliantly wacky take on Monostatos. Anna-Sophie Neher was a compelling Pamina, dramatically and vocally.

As Traviata is sold out perhaps Flute will also sell out? tonight was pretty full, the audience wonderfully enthusiastic, loving the novelty of a live performance. There are four shows left.

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Karen Bojti reflects on A Northern Lights Dream

Greetings Barczablog reader, Leslie Barcza was unable to attend the world premiere of Michael Rose’s, A Northern Lights Dream so I asked him for special permission to be a contributor in his absence.

Karen Bojti
Cast member, A Northern Lights Dream

I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
― William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Curating Can Con at the Toronto Operetta Theatre

Toronto Operetta Theatre is best known for what you might guess. Have a lovely dinner and then come to the theatre enjoy an evening of great music, beautiful singing and stir in a merry dance or two with a bit of jiggle on the side. Artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin (Bill) has brought Toronto a bevy of some of Canada’s best performers, musicians and conductors for our pleasure.

Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of SOLT, TOT and Voicebox-OIC

With years of directing Operetta under his belt he knows a thing or two about the nuts and bolts of operetta and musical theatre. Bill has also curated two Canadian works that are (for now) lesser known, but every bit as enjoyable. I have been lucky enough to briefly rub shoulders with the creators of 2008’s Earnest, The Importance of being. This month, I had the great pleasure of performing in Michael Rose’s, A Northern Lights Dream (ANLD). Both of these works were curated, slowly with few resources and no incentives other than the desire to create great theatre.

Michael Rose

ANLD was developed in stages. Michael Rose wrote it as a one act musical play for students at the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre. Rumour has it that Bill made a suggestion in passing as they were planning the 2017 season and Michael handed in an ensemble piece full of wit, unrequited love and GORGEOUS singing opportunities. I was lucky to sit in the audience that year to hear Michael’s beautiful songs. “Is there Room in your Closet?” will knock your socks off. It is written with such compassion for a women who will never receive the kind of love she hopes for from her husband. I recall him explaining to me that he wanted to write a musical theatre show for actors who could really sing. As a performer with two left feet who loves musical theatre, I wanted in from the start.

There’s nothing like having first contact with the composer. Our now expanded two act production was delayed twice and another production was canceled 3 times due to COVID. We squeaked through. I therefore had access to the score for a couple of years. I also had the privilege of being able to bend Mr. Rose’s ear from time to time as he developed my character of Mrs. Duke. “She’s not like other contralto roles.” Michael would explain. “She desperately wants to find friendship”. The first (one act) iteration of ANLD gave Mrs. Duke a wonderful comic song which is full of humour and fabulous ensemble singing that any fun-loving ham, like me, would kill to perform. The second act gives us another side of Mrs. D as she attempts to come to terms with the consequences of her actions.

“In the scale of things, love’s a little thing. But your love is all the world to me.” is the lyric sung elegantly by Lauren Pearl in the finale of ANLD this past May of 2022. She would not know it, but we fellow cast members waited nightly in the wings to hear those words, those notes and that soul stirring light touch of Lauren’s exquisite singing. For a guy who insists that he does not like people much, composer Michael Rose has created a bevy of great tunes and characters who personify the all too human need to be seen, understood and loved. Each in their own way they are flawed, loveable and held captive by unrequited love-in-idleness.

Set in Shakespeare, Ontario, Michael Rose pays homage to A Midsummernight’s Dream replacing Athenians with home grown salt of the earth local folk. The top of Arden Hill doubles as the fabled woodland and the realm of the fairies who await the arrival of their goddess, the Aurora Borealis. Her servant, Robin (Puck) is dispensed with the task of playing cupid with the humans. Try as he might, Robin’s matchmaking skills don’t quite hit the mark.

Mrs. Duke (me) is an aggravating contralto that jams a wedge into the story by refusing to pay for a load of tacky bridesmaids dresses (ordered by her) because her stepdaughter has called off her wedding. Mrs. Duke stiffs the local dress shop, sending its designer Helen (Christina Haldane) and dress maker Taylor (TOT fave Greg Finney) to the brink of ruin.

Tenor and Donut Donkey seller Nick (Ian Backstrom) pines unseen for his unrequited love. Having made a deal with Robin (Lauren Pearl) to cast a love spell on her university crush, soprano Christina can’t quite figure out why her husband does not return her affections. Rounding out the cast are the three fairies (Lilian Brooks, Daniela Agostino & Amy Moodie) who have presided unseen over humans for hundreds of years. They announce the coming of Aurora through song, sample bad coffee and enjoy Robin’s anguish over his unconsummated desire for Aurora.

Lauren Pearl (as Robin) and Christina Raphaëlle Haldane (as Helen) Photographer: Katherine Barcsay

Our audiences for the three performances were small but mighty. My cast members and I took this in stride. We were surprised and grateful to make it to the finish line. After 4 weeks of rehearsals, singing with masks and dipping ourselves in hand sanitizer, none of us felt confident that we’d make it to the stage. Nevertheless we persevered. One of our cast members did in fact contract COVID and missed almost half of the rehearsal period. She zoomed in from her sick bed and we carried on. While restaurants and other venues in Toronto seem to be “back in business” the theatre crowd may be more circumspect about re-entering public events. Many of TOT’s biggest supporters are seniors and quite wisely may be waiting a bit longer to come to the theatre.

Singers will be clamoring to sing these roles once the word gets out. While audiences were small, their appreciation was palpable. Small crowds can be shy to laugh or react (especially Canadian audiences) but not this crew. What a pleasure it was to ride the waves of recognition and connections from the crowd. We all worked hard to make those connections but the hard work started years before any of us hit the rehearsal hall.

I have never had the experience of sitting in a room to watch a conductor and a composer work through a score. There were cuts made for time saving reasons as TOT could not risk paying overtime fees at the St. Laurence centre. Our conductor, accompanist and coach Kate Carver led the rehearsal with a deep commitment to Michael Rose’s score. Every tempo was honoured and Kate cross referenced her piano score with the instrumental score very carefully to be sure that everything was inline. Admiringly she’d say, “This is such an incredible score, who’d think to use a recorder here? Michael, that’s who.”

Kate has a gentle touch which was needed. When you are working on a new score, you can’t cheat and listen to other singers. You have to make it your own which can be daunting but it’s also an opportunity. It’s not easy to put a bunch of singers at ease. On the rare occasion where she might have a disagreement with the composer (in front of the cast) she’d beam and casually call over her shoulder, “Mommy and daddy are fighting.” We all had too much on our plates to let egos get in the way.

As we walked off the stage from our final performance, it dawned on me that I had been a quiet witness seeing some of the origins of this piece that began to germinate 15 years ago. Michael Rose despite what he said about not liking people is a generous and mild mannered person long accustomed to working with singers. With all of his skills and talent, first and foremost, he’s a fan.

His arrival during the rehearsal period may have caused worries for those who do not know him. If that was the case those worries evaporated immediately when we saw his face. He has a way about him that makes you feel he assumes competence from singers. I met Michael Rose somewhere around 2005.

New to Toronto at that time, Michael had been hired as the musical director for Summer Opera Lyrics Theatre’s (SOLT) production of Falstaff. I freely admit to being a fish out of water in the singing world but for a lark, I thought that I would try my hand at opera.

Our ANLD director Bill Silva is a clever gentleman. He runs three separate companies through the same facility. Each company is designed to support singers at various stages of their development. I doubt if there are any impresarios like Bill. A retired singer, Bill was handpicked by the late Stewart Hamilton to take over Opera in Concert (OIC) which preforms rare gems that do not as a rule make it to the big stages. SOLT, OIC and TOT have cultivated and given a base to many of Ontario’s best singers. Our province is full of excellent singers who emerge from music programs with few options as to the next step for career development. Some lucky/gifted people may find themselves selected for apprentice programs with North American opera companies. Some go straight into teaching or other careers.

I call myself a fish out of water because I arrived at SOLT as a theatre program grad and comedic actor who studied clown and improvisation. I had no real understanding of the discipline and the amount of training it took to become a “legit” singer. By this I mean what some call a classically trained singer. I started singing lessons in my mid-thirties and found myself with a summer off sitting in a room with a bevy of some very high-strung singers. Like race horses, they were ready to sprint out of the gate or place a well-aimed kick to the side of your head. They felt the pressure and now with a little distance from those days, I understand why. I was nervous, visibly older, plus sized and thinking that I had made a huge mistake in coming. I sat in a chair beside a young soprano who with a sidelong glance got up and moved as far away from me as she could. I looked to my left and there was this handsome man with deep blue eyes you could swim in smiling at me. We chatted and I soon discovered that he would be my music director and friend of many years.

Greg Finney

One of my co-stars in Falstaff ended up becoming my dance partner in ANLD. Greg Finney recently admitted to me that this was his first opera too. I never would have guessed. Some of us develop more slowly than others. Not Greg. He quickly grew through the ranks of Bill Silva’s repertory system to become a huge fan favourite at TOT.

Bill runs a tight ship and he is the captain. He needs to be as he has a lot of singers to look after. He is also responsible for paying the light bill and getting audiences to come to performances. He is serious and dedicated to running each operation smoothly. If you hope to sing on the larger stages, you will have to show him you will pursue excellence and simultaneously treat your colleagues with respect.

Coming from a theatre background I related best to Bill’s study of Stanislavsky. I would watch singers adjust to a new set of demands past making the most beautiful ahhhh sound on a B flat. He talked about the given circumstances for our characters and asked singers to analyze the text. This is why, I think that he would have us sing in English rather than the language for which an opera was written in originally.

One day, the world will wonder what Michael Rose is like. I can tell you that he is as enigmatic as any great artist. Michael is not a joiner, he has a mind of his own, he is curious, well read, understands the languages of opera, and plays piano like nobody’s business. While in Toronto Michael was a high in demand pianist almost instantly. He’s a foodie. One day, I walked into my coaching session with a Starbucks cup in my hand, he grabbed it and tossed it into the trash. “I’ll buy you a proper cup of coffee. Let’s go.” Off we sauntered down the Danforth for a much improved cup of Jo. I couldn’t admit to him that I didn’t taste the difference but I am sure that he was right. As my singing coach, he taught me refinement and to really hone in on what I was doing. His lessons were invaluable to me.
Bill Silva knows a good thing when he sees it. I popped in and out of the scene while Michael and Bill continued to collaborate building a short hand with one another.

When you have creative people but no money or time? I do not know how any of the companies run through the Jackman Centre survived a two year hiatus. Many companies have had to fold. We perhaps kept going to honour the donors and show results.

Victor Davies in 2007 (photo: Lori Davies)

I mentioned Ernest, the Importance of Being, another show built in collaboration with TOT. Once again I circle back to the Summer Student program where Bill offered roles in this show to young up and coming singers. I was cast as the indomitable Lady Bracknell.

Karen Bojti as Lady Bracknell

Bill provided us with the opportunity to meet with the Composer Victor Davies and librettist Eugene Benson. Once again, I was shy. I should have asked more questions. They talked about the challenges of getting produced in Canada, meetings they had with big companies and the drive to create. They talked about their ongoing debates with Bill Silva acting once again as the unofficial dramaturge. With so many obstacles and no way to make a living this way I wondered what kept them going.

Victor Davies came to every performance and wept through each one. He has a big heart and he’s quite a lot of fun. On closing night he and his wife walked me to my car and gave me some words of encouragement that I’ll never forget. Eugene bought me lunch one day during rehearsal and talked to me about living as an artist in Canada. Likewise, Michael Rose would become misty-eyed during rehearsals. I am not sure if he could believe that finally his work had hit the stage after years of fine-tuning and quiet collaboration with Bill Silva.

Karen Bojti

What I wonder about most is what will encourage these creative people to keep going. Other countries seem to have money to invest in their artists. It’s an old problem. We love to import the good stuff and we forget the richness we have here. Both of these shows can stand proudly up against any of the old chestnuts. Ernest, the Importance of Being could slide easily into the Shaw Festival’s season. Shavians would go nuts for it. Likewise we could all see A Northern Lights Dream at Stratford. Imagine seeing that at the newly rebuilt Tom Patterson theatre. It checks all the boxes and if we do say ourselves, it was a great show. The world does not know it yet, but we have just been a part of a major Canadian musical theatre piece that mixes elements of Operetta, bel canto singing and musical theatre. Our dream lasted over three performances.

In the scale of things, love’s a little thing. But your love is all the world to me.”
Michael Rose, A Northern Lights Dream

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Good news COC Traviata

When Perryn Leech the Canadian Opera Company general director came out before the performance of La Traviata last night, it was the first time I’d seen him in person, after several messages in the virtual world.

He spoke briefly to loud applause. While it might be too early to pronounce it as a love affair, the omens are good.

COC General Director Perryn Leech

The revival of this familiar opera was very well-received.

The remainder of the run is reportedly sold-out.

Whatever we may have lost in productions cancelled and lives disrupted, Leech gets full marks for preserving the company’s infrastructure in this difficult time. Hindsight suggests Leech’s season was wisely chosen. The COC orchestra and their chorus under the firm leadership of COC music director Johannes Debus were brilliant reminders of what we’ve missed. The flamboyant visuals from Director Arin Arbus, Set Designer Riccardo Hernandez, and particularly from Costume & Puppetry Designer Cait O’Connor satisfied our ravenous appetite.

It’s ironic that we sat masked for this opera about a woman dying of a respiratory infection, as we’ve learned a lot about hygiene since the original Dumas story appeared in the 1840s. We saw a couple of people refusing to comply, including one who resisted the polite usher’s admonition to cover his huge nose with a curtly threatening “back off”. I’m resisting the urge to publish any photos I took of his nose hanging out. But I must thank the Four Seasons Centre staff for bravely seeking to enforce rules for a population who don’t always remember their manners. For the most part we were compliant, a happy resumption of theatre life complete with bravos and standing ovations.

Full marks to the audience for recognizing the real star of the show, giving their biggest ovation in an unexpected direction. While this is a love-story between Violetta (Amina Edris) and Alfredo (Matthew Polenzani) on another level the story is really about convention. Giorgio Germont (Simone Piazzola) is Alfredo’s conservative father, resisting the relationship between courtesan Violetta and his son. I believe that when this opera is done faithfully to the dramaturgy at the time of its premiere, it becomes more of a melodrama, in the classic sense of the word, remembering that in a melodrama the characters don’t have any agency, dominated by forces beyond their control. Such is the world for both Alfredo and Violetta, in spite of their attempts to find happiness. Giorgio isn’t more powerful, he’s just a mouthpiece for convention. And until the last scene, he’s blind to the true impact of what he’s demanding of Violetta, as much a passive victim in his way as any of the others.

Amina Edris as Violetta and Simone Piazzola as Germont (Photo: Michael Cooper)

If permitted (as we saw last night) the opera devolves into a conflict between Violetta and Giorgio, with Alfredo almost as a passive observer. For example we forgive his rudeness at the party because he was an ignorant puppet unaware of the nature of Violetta’s promise to Alfredo’s father. I think this dynamic is true to the essence of the work, especially with Piazzola’s approach. The virtuosity of singers and actors signaling to us that we are in an artificial performance may tend to obstruct the illusion of theatre. Piazzola seemed so real as a father precisely because he was stiff in his style, signifying something remarkably authentic in the theatrical illusion (and was applauded for it) even if his singing may have been less than perfect.

Soprano Edris gave a strong vocal and dramatic reading, especially in the traumatic scenes of Act II. Veteran Polenzani’s performance was a bit like a singing lesson, sometimes showing off the wonders of a true bel canto voice, sometimes delicately saving himself and always seeming to have lots of voice left.

If you can’t get a ticket to the sold-out run of La Traviata there’s always The Magic Flute.

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Virtual Bach

While I hoped to go to Tafelmusik’s presentation of the Bach B-minor Mass Thursday night in Massey Hall it was not to be. I was still testing positive for COVID.

Instead Friday night I chose to watch a live concert on my computer. The online version will be available until next Friday if you have the same idea as me (for further info).

It was a bit surreal. The guest conductor Masaaki Suzuki, the four soloists (Joanne Lunn soprano; Tim Mead countertenor; Thomas Hobbs, tenor; Jonathon Adams, baritone), the orchestra, and the Tafelmusik chamber choir came out on the Massey Hall stage: or so I assumed watching the view on my laptop. We never got a view into the hall, which would confirm the location: although I’m pretty sure they’re telling the truth.

There was no applause from the audience although the performers applauded one another afterwards. While this was arguably a perfect performance, it was still not quite right, because I was not in the audience (ha, there was no one there…). I was unable to watch from inside the hall. It took me a few minutes to get accustomed to this medium, that is so perfect as to seem unreal.

The camera work is amazing, giving you intimate glimpses of soloists, choristers and players.

Masaaki Suzuki (photo: Marco Borggreve)

The acoustic in this virtual version is pristine, which for me means it’s not quite right. I want to hear the sounds of coughs and chairs adjusting, the evidence of people performing and listening, the interchange between performers and the community of listeners. In this medium the listener (me) is effectively silent.

A lot of that is missing, making this near to perfect. I’m sure that’s how many people will prefer it.

Soprano Joanne Lunn

And there’s no danger of catching or sharing a virus in this artificial venue.

While I have now (as of Friday) tested negative on the antigen test, I still feel safer for having stayed at home.

And I can revisit Suzuki’s interpretation again until next Friday.

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TIFT: How about a shave? 

TIFT to open tonsorial parlour in June.

After a three-week pop-up appearance in London, UK, in 2018, TIFT is bringing their steady hands and sharp razors to cheeks and necks in need in Toronto in June.

Located discreetly within the Neighbourhood Food Hub at 1470 Gerrard Street East, clients are sure to receive the closest shave they have ever known, given with more dexterity than any street mountebank.

Services are $70+HST and also include a stylish trimming of the hair, a soothing skin massage, a pomaded head, and a slice of meat pie (while supplies last), all while being serenaded by some of the country’s top theatre talent.

TIFT’s Toronto Tonsorial Pop-Up Parlour will be open to 44 patrons per day and for limited hours between June 6 and July 3, 2022.

For more details and bookings, please go to and click on Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment
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News, positive and negative

It’s been a hard week so far.

I’m heart-broken with the news in my inbox, that Elisa Citterio is leaving Tafelmusik. I can’t help but wonder about the subtexts for this change. Perhaps it’s just the pandemic and its deadly weight.

Citterio seemed to be boldly taking Tafelmusik in a new direction, of which I heartily approved.

In September 2019 we heard a program including Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

In October I reviewed the new Vivaldi con Amore CD, a recording that was my constant companion in the first year of the pandemic, including the half-year I was still working at the U of T: playing Vivaldi to cheer me up. It is still one of my 3 favorite CDs that I own.

In 2018 we heard a programme featuring Citterio’s astonishing brilliant reading of Beethoven’s violin concerto and the Pastorale symphony. I went to hear them twice. Amazing.

Let me repeat, that I have no idea what’s behind Citterio’s departure. It could be something personal, such as a health—related choice. Or the cumulative darkness of the pandemic.

I hope she’s okay. I adored her work, but perhaps more importantly I adored the way the orchestra played for her, with her.

Tafelmusik Meets Tchaikovsky (photo: Seanna Kennedy)

I wish her well for the future.

And there’s the small matter of my health. First it was Erika then it was my turn to test positive for COVID. We had tickets to see the Cyrano production at Shaw Festival, on the day of our anniversary. It’s not all bad of course. Shaw staff were delightful on the phone, giving us our money back.

I guess we weren’t the first people to call up reporting that we were too sick to come. Instead we’ll cocoon at home.

And the Canadian Opera Company has announced its new season. We’re going back to seven operas, after a few years of six. Although wait, we only programed three, and actually managed just two this year, with none the year before. So, there is no “normal” anymore.

Pomegranate, a co-production with Vancouver Opera, by composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale, is a new work coming in June 2023, described as follows on the COC website:

A fateful trip to Pompeii’s ruins ignites the fantasies of smitten teenagers Suzie and Cass. The pair is transported from 1977 to 79 AD, where sexual freedom can be found in the looming shadow of Mount Vesuvius—but not for long. The timeline shifts to 1981 and the Fly by Night, a Toronto lesbian bar, in the aftermath of the infamous Bathhouse Raids.

As the couple struggles to repair their love in the face of homophobia and an impossible ultimatum, fragments of memory endure, revealing a transcendent love for the ages.

There is also a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth directed by David McVicar featuring Quinn Kelsey in his role debut, opposite Sondra Radvanovsky, conducted by Speranza Scapucci.

The other five productions have been seen before. Next year it’s Egoyan’s Salome, Guth’s Marriage of Figaro, Christopher Alden’s Flying Dutchman, Bizet’s Carmen directed by Joel Ivany, and Puccini’s Tosca directed by Paul Curran. While the three I named by their director rather than the composer are not my favorites, they’re all great works, worth watching.

I recall seeing some negative words last year when they announced the three operas for this season, and I opined that perhaps we should try to imagine programming during the COVID pandemic. Butterfly never got out of her cocoon, squelched by Omicron. Traviata and Flute are taking the stage this month. Whatever my misgivings over Egoyan, Guth and Alden, I welcome live performance.

But speaking of negative: first I need to see an antigen test come up “negative” to allow me to resume theatre & concert going.

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Kyle McDonald talks about Conan and Mightier Productions

Kyle McDonald and Mightier Productions premiere a new opera on May 5th, titled Conan and the Stone of Kelior.

I asked Kyle a few questions.

Kyle McDonald, creator of Conan and the Stone of Kelior

BB: When I look at your website, I see a commercial venture:
(hopefully you recognize these words)


In other words, your website for Mightier Productions isn’t following the usual template for an opera company. Opera is usually understood by its expense, the most costly art form to produce. Could you talk about how you see yourselves?

Kyle: That is a good observation, and the simple answer is: I’m not an opera company! I’m an individual creative who uses this production company to build brand familiarity for the various projects I want to undertake. In the past I’ve done spoken theatre, film and tv, and I’m even going to be putting out a fully scored and foleyed audiobook of a new novel length epic poem in the latter part of 2022. The majority of the work I’m doing is my own, but I’m open – once I’ve grown a little more ¬– to producing projects that aren’t my own.

The desire is to reach a point where, when a presenter (season planner at a venue), producer, or impresario (operatic producer), hears that something is backed by Mightier, then the doors swing open. This isn’t just for me, because it also means I can make paying work for artists, and give audiences something to look forward to and talk about.

BB: You’ve made films. Your IMDB entry includes 28 credits as an actor and 5 as producer. You act, you sing. Why Opera?

Kyle: Opera…captured me. I grew up listening to grunge, hard rock, and heavy metal. I played in band at school (2nd and 3rd trumpet, whose dynamics ranged between super loud, and ultra loud), and one year the band played Verdi’s Requiem, and I had never heard anything like it.

Verdi’s heavy metal

From there, I followed the rabbit hole – Beethoven, to Mozart, to Wagner…and then there was no coming back. I always tell “laypeople” that opera is the most (heavy) metal thing out there.

I didn’t ever think I’d be able to sing it. I think I still don’t believe I’ll ever sing it, despite how often I’m doing it these days. It’s a bizarre thing – I hear myself in recordings, and I don’t believe it’s me.

I was very fortunate in my late 20’s: by the design of a theatre practitioner named Tedde Moore, I was put into the hands of the late, great Donna Sherman who set me up for lessons with Helga Tucker. I then spent a few years learning this exceptionally difficult craft. I walked away from it for another few years as acting on camera and in voice-over beckoned, and it wasn’t until my friend Vincent Thomas put me in a show with Ottawa’s Pellegrini opera, that I started performing.

My first full opera was La Boheme. I did not do a great job. But I got stronger, and better as time went on (as one does). As I was performing these pieces in Italian, German, and French, I wondered…why not English?

Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of SOLT

It turns out Guillermo Silva-Marin of SOLT, TOT, and OIC had asked this question (and answered it) long ago, and he put me in a German opera called Martha, but did it in English. My family came to see it and loved it. I’d been doing Shakespeare for years, and had never seen that kind of reaction. This roared to me: do it in the language people speak. So, I’ve been doing that ever since.

BB: When I look at the ads for Conan, I wonder: is this the usual audience or a different one? OR is the usual audience waiting for this, the audience for rom-coms, sci-fi , fantasy and video games who are now waiting for opera that addresses their taste preferences?

Kyle: This is part of the experiment. I wager that if you were to look at the demographic data on who does what, the pop-culture consumer circle would barely, if at all, overlap with the opera goer circle.

However, I consume high concept pop culture (I love video games, which now also boast some of the best compositional work around), and I was utterly changed by opera. I’m not a flowery or sentimental person, and my tastes are pretty heavily masculinized, so, if I can get hooked, I think almost anyone can. And I’m especially interested in getting boys and men interested in “fine art.” Beautiful things really do make life, and ourselves, much better.

I don’t think music is the issue with opera – it’s something my colleague Corey Arnold and I have said many times, and will continue to say – the trouble is the trappings. Unfamiliar languages; stiff acting; excessive runtimes; archaic practices. Generally, rigidity is death.

So far, our theory has been born out by experience – those who see our work (or any operatic work) wherein the rigidity is removed and the story telling is prioritized respond quite positively.

On top of that, there isn’t a person I’ve spoken to about Conan and the Stone of Kelior who hasn’t said “an opera with Conan the Barbarian running around? I’d see that.”

Now it’s time to put it to the test.

BB: Is Mightier Productions seeking new works / new composers/ commissions? Please paint a picture for me of what creations you will put before the public 5 or 10 years from now.

Kyle: At present, I am but one humble artist, but, if things go well I could see Mightier being involved in developing new writers and composers for the stage, in producing TV and Film, and in possibly even in literary publishing.

I also imagine that my tastes and interests will keep evolving. I’m working on building a catalogue of operas right now because that’s where my interests are. But, I do predict that that interest will wane, and I’ll move on to something else, ideally being subsidized by the proceeds from my catalogue.

I can even envision the company spearheading online campaigns to educate the public on the fundamentals of the Canadian Parliamentary system or the foundations of personality science and reasoning.

BB: Let’s talk about the way you create your pasticcios. Composer and/ arranger to do a project?

Kyle: My first was about James Bond, which I put together in 2015. I spent much of that year and the next just listening to as many operatic works as I could.

My process is this:

Allow the idea of what subject matter I want to pursue to come to me. Thankfully, my idea “faucet” is almost always on and I don’t get blockages. Ideas intrude at will into my thoughts, so I just follow them.

Once the subject matter is selected, I then devise the plot. What happens? What are the challenges? What’s the most important scene? I usually work backwards from the most important scene – making sure everything before serves that scene.

If the piece is an existing property – the way it is with Bond and Conan – I think of what the existing media have had to say about it and use that as a launch point. In both cases, though, I have made some adjustments: I’ve made them both less serious. Especially Bond. My heart lies in drama, however, I’ve seen so much doom, gloom, and gritty realism of late, I just think people who dare to leave the house and spend money should leave feeling moved and invigorated, but not depleted.

When it comes to the pasticci, for scenes and pieces that are less familiar (I can’t build an entire show out of arias and duets), I put on an opera while I write, work on design, or game, etc and, if I stop what I’m doing to listen, I put that piece on the list.

Of course, there are the numbers that everybody knows, and those are at the top of the list – I’ll go out of my way to make scenes appropriate for them.

While this is going on, I’ll write the outline of the plot, and a rough outline of the book, and then put words and music together. I actually do this using screengrabs and typing it all out in Microsoft paint! I use the piano score, but I also collate the orchestration and then send both to my engraver, who puts it all into Finale. From there, I can do whatever arranging or re-arranging I want. That’s one of my favourite parts, since everything becomes negotiable.

BB: What recognizable numbers might we encounter in Conan?

Kyle: Right off the top, we have the Black Swan theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – to which I’ve added a vocal line.

We have the Confutatis from Mozart’s Requiem

I’ve adapted Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor into the aria of the show, called “I, Conan!”

I’ve included the Anvil Chorus and Azucena’s aria (Stride la vampa) from Verdi’s Il Trovatore

Cortigiani, vil razza dannata from Verdi’s Rigoletto in the mouth of a boy king pant role who’s just been spanked, as well as selections from ACT IV in Sparafucile’s house.

The Habanera and the Sequidilla from Bizet’s Carmen:

As much of Puccini’s Turandot as humanly possible, including Nessun Dorma sung to a magic stone.

The People that Walked in Darkness from Handel’s Messiah makes an appearance in the cruel and plotting mouth of a wizard

Fafner’s music from Wagner’s Seigfried also makes an appearance in a place called The Halls of

The Pearl Fisher’s duet by Bizet

There are also selections from Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and more!

BB: Do you expect to build a following, subscribers? Have you already got a subscription audience?

Kyle: It’s my hope to build a following. My subscription audience is very modest, but the plan is to extend. This is the first personal project where I’ll have just enough of a budget to reach people beyond my immediate and secondary circles. That’s the hard thing: how do you get people who don’t know you to take a chance on you? Ultimately, I’m hoping that I can stir up enough attention to get the big boys to come out and play. I’m happy to partner and learn.

BB: Are you in some sense “alternative “: which begs the question , alternative to what? are you more mainstream, commercial than those writing operas nowadays? Puccini and Verdi are mainstream, commercial. Do you aim to create that kind of sound, a variety of operatic art that is melodic and singable?

Kyle: In the pop-world, I’m high concept with alternative leanings, though, only marginally alternative. In the fine art world, yes, I think I’d be considered alternative, even though I’m trying to marry popular culture and fine art.

As for those writing operas today, I’m hesitant to speak extensively on it because I haven’t heard everything, and I’m not interested in criticizing anyone’s output, but from what I have heard, yes, you could say I’m much more mainstream/commercial, although those are naughty words in fine arts circles (which gives you an inkling of why audiences are shrinking…)

I prefer to say I’m more humane. It seems strange to say, but in the last ten years I’ve become quite convinced by the data that human nature isn’t nearly as malleable as we’d all like to think, so, I’m no longer wasting my energy on trying to re-invent the wheel.

If I can get something as memorable, human, and delightful as what Puccini and Verdi did, I’ll consider that mission accomplished indeed!

BB: Do your operas require less rehearsal (offering the extra advantage of economy)?

Kyle: Noooot just yet. They’re all new! However, I think that the time that it takes to learn a role is much shorter than traditional roles. I’ve even noticed this in my own practice – when the role is in English or French (the languages I can speak), my learning time is cut almost in half. I believe this isn’t merely because of familiarity, but also because one can imbue the text with intention at the same time: memory is powered by meaning. If you need to memorize something, find a way to make it emotional, and it will go much, much faster.

BB: Are your pasticcio operas possibly easier for singers, who work with known arias?

Kyle: I wonder about this – I wager in some ways they are, because they already know it – but in other ways not, because they have to undo the learned behaviour that has attached itself to the previous version.

I’ll add this though: just about every note and key in my pasticci are negotiable. I want the roles tailored to the singers, not the singers to the roles.

BB: Can you dodge the pitfalls (composers showing off, dissonant & overly complex) with pasticcio?

Kyle: I think I can. While a composer has only his or her own mind to draw from for an opera, I have hundreds of operas, with dozens of scenes. I can also make any alterations I want – from orchestration, to vocal lines. I’ve done a considerable amount of this to sections of Conan already.

BB: What about (history) pieces like The Beggar’s Opera & ballad opera : could that work?

I’m sure they could – I could easily pull from those and slot some it into a pasticcio. Outside of long passages of Baroque music, the music is seldom the problem for contemporary audiences.

BB: In the exchange a few weeks ago concerning Richard was the conversation helpful?

I think so. We were very targeted with The Lion Heart. We weren’t trying to invite the larger public, because we needed to know if it was ready for that. Plus, the larger public won’t respond to an in-concert performance the way they would to a fully staged. Fully staged is now on the table, so we’re grateful for that!

That being said, we’ll always accept a helping hand. We’re just two fellas trying to make it happen!

BB: Verdi and Wagner each wrote a few operas before they really hit their stride, before they became truly proficient. As far as learning how to make opera, how many operas does it take to learn the medium? How many operas have you created so far (whether as a collaborator as with Richard, or in the pasticcio genre)…?

Kyle: I would love to be grouped into the same category as these giants – though, truly, it’s Corey Arnold who should be in that list. I couldn’t be more impressed or happier with what he did with The Lion Heart. It’s exactly the opera it should be, and, I’m confident, once more people hear it, they’ll agree. I think he hit a home run on the first at bat.

We’ve composed a pocket opera since then, and, once again, he’s note and phrase perfect. Our next endeavour is a lascivious tale of horror and cruelty, and I’m just as confident he’s going to absolutely crush it.

I think it’s just a matter of getting the big boys to put us up so regular people can get word. It’s all in the marketing, alas.

As for the pasticci, I have the tremendous advantage of having music that’s been tested and enjoyed for centuries, so that’s no worry. And, for the writing, I’m merging playwriting with screenwriting, and I’m reasonably confident in my structural sensibilities, so these are pretty much good to go by the time they’re done.

The learning I want to do now is going deeper into personality profiles and subject matters that aren’t as familiar to me.

BB: Talk about your singers and your team for Conan.

Kyle: In my supporting leads I have two of the best up and coming singers in the city, possibly the country: Lynn Isnar and Corey Arnold. They’re just pure magic – and their English diction is exemplary!

Bass Robert De Vrij

I’ve also managed to snare a real veteran – bass, Robert De Vrij! I still can’t believe he said yes, but he’s a huge fan of Conan, and he loves the project.

I also have a gaggle of very promising young singers and performers, and I’m very much looking forward to watching them command the space.

Additionally, the set is a combination of set pieces and projected backgrounds illustrated by the immensely talented Mark Rehkopf – such that every scene is literally a work of art.

Kristi Ann Holt – who worked on the new Fraggle Rock – has also put together our shadow serpent.

Designer veteran Jim Smagata is coming aboard to do our lighting design.

And Geoffrey Davis, who seems to have worked on every wardrobe department in the province, is handling the costumes and has been losing sleep from all his exciting ideas.

Maestra Diana DiMauro, stage manager Sarah Brawn, and my apprentice director, Jordan M. Burns, have been marvelous in supporting me through everything as well, and this is their first time working on such a production in their respective capacities.

BB: What is your operatic ideal, and are you expecting to reach that ideal some day..?

Kyle: It’s curious, but there’s at least one more pasticcio I want to make, and it’s a story I’ve probably wanted to tell for the longest time, going all the way back to my teenage years. I don’t want to say anything about it yet…but if it goes the way I envision it…I’ll probably retire from making pasticci after that.

There’s also a legend cycle that I want to write with Corey Arnold, of which I will also say very little…a lifetime of work there.

BB: What can opera learn from film?

Kyle: Charisma, Speed, Fun, Marketing.

Charisma: allowing singers more freedom to be themselves, rather than the expected constraints attached to their fach (voice type). The score is the score, and there’s only so much room for deviation, but it seems to me that so much time is spent in the shadows of other performers that we’re missing new lights. Risks must be taken, people must be free.

Every operatic great has been criticized by some coach (or several) somewhere, but what they’re criticized for is often what makes them a titan.

Also, more shaping the part to the singer will go a long way.

Speed: Cut, cut, cut. And cut those repeats.

Fun: Doing 1 and 2 will usually take care of this, but it’s imperative to remember: opera is not an educational outing, it’s visceral experience. If you demand that your audience reason their way through a show, you’re in the wrong business. I also recommend injecting humour wherever you can.

Marketing: pictures of singers (who aren’t international stars) will pique the interest of hard core aficionados, and possibly a portion of arts-interested females, but, if you want to get new and diverse audiences to come, you have to use your promotional materials to tell a story.

A) Tosca: see Puccini’s classic starring so and so, with so and so conducting, and with the so and so orchestra!
Pictures of Tosca, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi in concert attire = great for industry and aficionados.


B) Tosca! the tawdry tale of a beautiful singer who’s coveted by Scarpia, the boot, the most powerful man in the country who dares to overturn church and state to have her! If she refuses his advances, her lover, the brilliant painter, Cavaradossi, will suffer the price! Murder, passion, blasphemy, and betrayal stud this luxuriant opera filled with some of the world’s most powerful music!
A flowing red dress, a bloody knife clattering on the table, a revolution, and a portrait on fire = regular person

We need more B)

I also recommend trailers – though I understand how hard this is with union red tape and limited rehearsal times. Yet, the COC can afford this. And even when trailers are used, the world of theatre and live performance generally holds everything too close to the chest – show your best scenes! Don’t give away the ending (unless you can without it being obvious), but, don’t hold back. Have you ever said this about a movie trailer? “Now I know the whole movie!” But I bet that movie made hundreds of millions of dollars.

Of course, there are pitfalls to movies and television now – poor writing, rushed plots, a fear of lingering on a single shot lest fragile attention spans are extended beyond their meagre means. The truth is, when something is captivating, you can linger on it as long as you want. Make it captivating. Making it captivating means being judicious with sentimental or indulgent moments. I find every moment in opera is treated as though it’s sacred – honestly, most of it throw away material to get us to those scenes where we do want to linger.

BB: Do you have any teachers or mentors who shaped your values?

Kyle: Yes, now that I look back I can see hands at work that were invisible to me then. To be honest, I was probably a difficult prospect for mentorship, so I’m sure I scared a few away. However, Ron Cameron was one of my earliest in theatre school, and then I mentored directly under legendary Canadian producer Dale Barnes, and I’m in the market for some new ones to help me clamber up to the next level.

In a sense, my mentors didn’t shape my values – they (rightly) ascertained that I’m too stubborn for that kind of direct influence – but they did prevail on me through the effects they wrought: I was able to see in real time that their input courted success. Corey Arnold and I were working on getting ourselves under Joel Ivany’s wing, but his recent move has made that difficult.

I have many informal mentors – Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Taleb, and Sean Carroll don’t know it, but I’m dying to take them to lunch.

And David Mirvish or Perryn Leech: I’m available to soak up some wisdom!

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to do some mentoring of my own: I’m certainly not at the top, but it’s not too early for me to give back where I can.


Mightier Productions present Kyle McDonald’s Conan and the Stone of Kelior at Alumnae Theatre May 5-15.

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Italian Mime Preview

I was at the preview of Italian Mime Suicide from Bad New Days, co-directed by Kari Pederson and Adam Paolozza. It’s short but intense, part lecture, part performance, sometimes serious sometimes funny.

No question about it, I’m out of practice, not accustomed to live theatre.

There were at least two scary moments that jarred me to the core, and had me wondering how they could pull it off safely. Remember that moment in My Favorite Year when the lighting fixture falls and almost hits the actor? There’s something like that: except this is live theatre, not a movie.

There are moments of genuine magic.

I’m intrigued by magic for several reasons. I watched a documentary about film-maker and magician Georges Meliès yesterday. In conversation with my brother on the weekend I quoted the composer of Postcard from Morocco Domenick Argento, who called live singing a magic trick; need I add that it isn’t magic when it’s not live.

I wondered even though I was in the front row, how did Adam disappear like that? How did they make that music?

I was especially fascinated by the musical performance we encountered as part of the show.

Arif Mirabdolbaghi is listed as the composer, a name you may recall from The Double.

We watched SlowPitchSound aka Cheldon Paterson, first in a brief introduction to the theatre piece, exploring the melancholy sounds of the pre-show tracks as if from first principles.

I realized I’d seen him before, at the Electric Messiah in 2015. Then as now I was aware of his work as part of a collective, wishing I could zero in on his contribution, one of the best things about the evening.

SlowPitchSound aka Cheldon Paterson (photo: Kyle Laurin)

As the show began Cheldon looked up, interrupting his music to say “how y’all doin’?” As I was the closest person to him in the front row, I put a bit of a damper on things, smiling at him –under my mask—while making the hand-gesture to say “comme ci -comme ça” or perhaps “mezza mezza”. What can I say? I was sitting there captivated by the melancholy of the music, not ready for the usual laughter I wish I could offer, possibly because we’re still getting over Sam’s passing (her ashes came home yesterday in a beautiful box).

Cheldon looked at our collective Toronto response, and challenged us, saying something along the lines of “I can’t hear you”, a taunt that drew lots of whoops and screams from the crowd behind me.

I was in the front row hoping to be cheered up but just as ready for melancholia. There we were in the CAMH neighbourhood (has the building been renovated? It looks bigger & newer), while the rest of Queen W seemed kind of subdued: like the rest of us.

Forgive me for suggesting that we Toronto audiences are out of practice.

Maybe it’s just me.

As we went on, there were lots of laughs, hilarity from everyone behind me. And I did laugh a few times.

I even did some schtick with Adam near the beginning when he did a kind of monkey see monkey do thing, tilting my head slightly and having him mimic / mock me… It got a bit of a laugh, and was fun.

Mimesis is the core of this show, as he reminded us a few times. While being a mime might be career suicide –a line of his that made ME guffaw even if no one else in this mime-friendly crowd offered a laugh– mimesis is fundamental to the arts.

Adam believes it and so do I.

How fundamental? As we were leaving, there was another magical moment. A lovely happy gaggle of young audience members (okay okay, everyone in the audience was younger than me…) were giggling, expressing their delight….

I followed thinking it might be members of the cast coming out of the dressing room.

Nope. It was a raccoon glimpsed through a window. Everyone was thrilled to see a raccoon.

I was just following, walking along behind the crowd, intrigued, imitating their energy in observing.

Imitating? You might call it “mimesis”, and you’d be right.

The cast — Ericka Leobrera, Rob Feetham, Nicholas Eddie and Adam Paolozza—are sometimes athletic, sometimes vocal, sometimes sculptural, always beautiful to behold.

While it’s not for me to say, I feel that there’s much more to be mined in this collection of talented people. We’re peering through the eyes of colleagues, sympathetic to the depressed mime among them. What would that be like, I wonder.

They remind me of something we’ve seen in old movies. Was it Wenders’ Wings of Desire or a Fellini film? It’s wonderfully vague yet still close to home, even universal. There’s a circus-like vibe, a familiar world-weary energy that we know.

It’s real and not a copy of anything, very authentic and worth exploring further. How does each one feel about this mime and about mime generally: which we do touch upon..? My melancholy sometimes matches the cast, sometimes only Adam’s sad figure.

For me the musical contribution from Arif and Cheldon is a huge part of the show, brilliant responses in sound as though scoring a (mostly) silent film. Need I add, these creations add a layer of majesty to the magic. The piece is not long but it’s very intense, the music sometimes haunting, sometimes understated.

Italian Mime Suicide opens this weekend, running from April 23 to May 1. Shows are Tuesday – Sat 8pm, Sat-Sun at 3 pm at The Theatre Centre (Franco Boni Theatre) 1115 Queen St W. Tickets are all ”Pay What You Can Afford”

poster image by Omar David Rivero
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