Tallis Scholars & friends: Magnificat

Tonight felt like a kind of affirmation of permanence in the face of change and disorder in the world.

The Tallis Scholars, conducted by Peter Phillips, joined forces with two University of Toronto ensembles –Schola Cantorum and Theatre of Early Music—conducted by Daniel Taylor. While the repertoire ranged from the renaissance to our own century, we were listening to unaccompanied choral music, using religious texts: Magnificat, Pater noster, Ave Maria and Nunc Dimittis, all in multiple settings.

As a student of the phenomenon of musical signification especially as it applies to religious texts it was a special experience to be able to compare different approaches to the same words, across different periods, the different strategies and styles applied to the same spiritual concept and similar words.

St Paul’s Basilica at Queen & Power was packed with eager listeners, attracted no doubt by Tallis Scholars’ wonderful discography, but also perhaps aware of the new kids in town, Taylor’s two ensembles that shared the program and are now also recording for SONY.


The crowded interior of St Paul’s Basilica in Toronto tonight

The acoustic plus the visuals are a dream come true for musicians presenting this kind of program. Where a theatre with spoken word must be dry (less than a second reverb) and an opera house aims to have less than 2 seconds of reverberation time (say 1.5), concert halls may be around 2 seconds or more. But this was quite a bit more, perhaps in the vicinity of 4 seconds of reverberation: ideal for a different sort of music that was composed with a reverberant church in mind.

For a few of the pieces we saw the combined forces, as in Praetorius’ Magnificat V to begin or Holst’s Ninc Dimittis to close the program. For most of the evening, though, we were listening to the Tallis Scholars, as many as ten singers, but sometimes fewer.

The thing to remember after listening to this precise sample is how different that sounded in the Basilica space where everything was super live and reverberant.  I daresay this is how this music was conceived.  While we’re in the midst of Lent, the music was nonetheless full of celebration, even jubilant at times.

Notice too that the singing is very direct and without excess vibrato (as you’d find in styles from later periods). The notes—especially the ones sung way up high—are totally exposed, and requiring nothing less than perfection of intonation.

I shall investigate further: through the magic of recordings.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Leave a comment

Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche

I finished my previous book last night (They Can’t Kill Us All). I began the review of that fascinating book—filled with the keen-eyed observations of Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery—by a kind of apologetic preamble about my life in fantasyland, my blessed existence as a reviewer of opera & concerts.

Where that book was like a digression even as it seemed to bring me closer to the real world, the next book brings me back to something normal, namely the operas of Richard Wagner.  Yes you may think i live a topsy-turvy life, where exploring opera is the norm.


I have barely begun Karol Berger’s Beyond Reason: Wagner contra Nietzsche, a colossal 412 page book from University of California Press, that includes appendices & notes swelling it well beyond 500 pages.  Every time I visit the Edward Johnson Library I poke my nose into the shelf with the new arrivals. I grabbed this when I saw it: the first book I’ve seen with “2017” on the spine and a year that is also seen in the copyright indication at the front of the book.  I am probably the first one to take it out.

Berger’s introduction proclaims his objectives.

I started out convinced that Nietzsche’s objections to Wagner were by and large well taken, and that the study of their encounter would likely illuminate Wagner’s dramas but not Nietzsche’s books.  Today I still admire Nietzsche’s critical acumen, but I see as well not only that Wagner’s works can defend themselves surprisingly effectively against some of the philosopher’s central strictures, but also that these works implicitly offer an unexpectedly perceptive critique of a number of Nietzsche’s most cherished doctrines.  That is why I felt the need to amplify Nietzsche contra Wagner with Wagner contra Nietzsche. 

I haven’t read enough of the book to be able to review it, only to express my interest in it. To read this book at all is an act of faith, an expression of interest, given how many have undertaken the project of explaining / exploring Wagner, and making sense of his works in the broader context.

I’ll be reading this for awhile, yet even here reality & politics won’t let me escape fully from the broader contexts of our world.   I am for example, drawn deeper by these passages:

   But I expect that the book will also find readers who are already familiar with these works and whose main interest is to understand the philosophical-ideological significance of the Wagner phenomenon.  These readers will want to concentrate on the final sections of chapters 2 through 4 and the epilogue, reading the prologue for the background it provided. If they resemble the author at all, they are likely to be conflicted about Wagner’s achievement, loving and admiring it and at the same time being disturbed and even revolted by it.  I do not intend to help them resolve such conflicts; rather I aim  to shift the component within this unstable mixture and hope that, like myself they will close this book equally, but differently, conflicted.
(Berger xv)


Karol Berger teaches music history at Stanford

Berger goes on to lament the usual focus of Wagner studies.

The history over the Wagnerian roots of Nazi ideology has been succinctly characterized by Hans Rudolf Vaget: “In their examination of the Hitler-Wagner nexus, Mann, Adorno, Viereck, and others highlighted a whole range of ideological affinities, among them nationalism, megalomania, the substitution of myth and fairy tale for history, the totalitarian mind-set, demagoguery, self-praise, love of pomp, the rejection of liberalism, the espousal of revolutionary dynamism for its own sake, and the obsession with racial purity.  Today, however, it seems fair to say, that the topic of anti-Semitism virtually monopolizes the debate about the historical legacy of Richard Wagner.”  In a sense I would like to return to this earlier, and richer, stage in the debate.”
(Berger xvi)

I share that hope, and look to Berger to illuminate the subject in my upcoming reading.  I’ll get back to you when I’m done to let you know what I found.

Posted in Books & Literature, Opera, Politics | Leave a comment

They Can’t Kill Us All

I may seem to lead a divided life, vanishing into realms of violins and sopranos, opera and oratorio, without much apparent connection to the struggles of people in the 21st century: with the possible exception of the singers trying to make a living.

But this year seems very different. It may have begun with the surprise outcome of the American Presidential Election in November. And now as performing arts companies are at least nodding towards our Sesquicentennial, history rears its head in the most curious places:

  • Earlier this week the Toronto Symphony presented Accused a song cycle showing individuals confronted by oppressive regimes across different centuries, languages & cultures. Their New Creations Festival a few weeks ago was especially edgy this year.
  • Kent Monkman’s pictures at the University of Toronto hold up a mirror to a cultural genocide
  • Each of Tafelmusik and Toronto Consort offered a musical reflection on our relationships of centuries ago with the Indigenous peoples of this continent
  • The Canadian Opera Company are now rehearsing Louis Riel, in a production with a revisionist approach to this opera about Canada and its colonialist past
  • The Straub-Huillet retrospective at TIFF (still with a little over a week to go) has been offering several films challenging the usual understanding of history and power

They Can’t Kill Us All is the title of Wesley Lowery’s book.  I heard about it via Matt Galloway and Metro Morning on CBC.  I remember thinking somehow that I wanted more, that there was something elusive, unsaid, that needed to be articulated.cantkillusall

And now I’ve read the whole book and even after finishing I still feel the same thing.  Wesley Lowery does some great things in this book.  He’s a young journalist, going around the USA assembling stories of the resistance to racism, protests inspired by horrific shootings.  We know the saying “Black Lives Matter” that has spawned a movement in social media and elsewhere .  The book is a very useful primer because it helps give you a clear picture of who’s who, of what happened where and when, going beyond the superficiality of TV and twitter.

And yet he stops short of what I hunger for.

(How do I put this?)

Lowery is not James Baldwin or MLK. He stops short of making the big sweeping statements.  He’s a journalist and very factual, very careful in his statements, and certainly not a poet or a preacher.

And he’s a black man treading carefully at a very dangerous time. The quintessential narrative would be, the black man in the presence of police, being super careful not to give offense: and getting shot anyway.  The book has to reference this template both in the incidents reported and in Lowery’s own polite language.  He stops short of calling the USA a racist or fascist country.  The book is factual.

As a white Canadian perhaps I can say what’s missing.

The title hints at what’s underlying this book and under the surface of black life in America, the implications underlying the phrase “black lives matter”.  If you need to say it, then clearly it’s in question. The horror underlying the assertion that “they can’t kill us all”, is that no one is safe, that the unthinkable needs to be put into words:  as though everyone really could be killed, that some of the racist element in the USA might even want that.  After reading Monkman’s text in his exhibit –where he chillingly quoted someone speaking of “the final solution” to the aboriginal problem—I think reconciliation must be far more radical, far more profound in its goals, whether we speak of indigenous truth and reconciliation, or the equivalent conversation concerning black lives in USA.

There is one very powerful moment that might sum up this attitude, the clear statement Lowery would make, concerning the current limits of action.  Brittany Packnett, who Lowery describes as a “thirty-one -year- old  Ferguson protester”, told him a story.

    One evening when she was eight years old, her father and younger brother came bursting through the front door, her brother in tears. They had been out for a drive and had gotten pulled over. As the officer had approached the vehicle, he has asked Mr Packnett to step out of the car, and then had thrown him onto the hood and put him in handcuffs. The officer didn’t believe that this black man could possibly own the Mercedes he was driving.
    The entire family was outraged, and Packnett’s brother was traumatized.  Her father, who was among the most politically connected black men in St Louis, called the police chief and demanded that the officer apologize personally, in front of his son.   
    As she grew older, Packnett became an outspoken minority in her predominantly white private schools, sprinkling her class assignments with asides about equity and racial justice and helping to organize a regular seminar on diversity and inclusion. That drew backlash in the hallways of her majority-white high school.  She recalls that one particular student, a young white man from a prominent local family who was a year ahead of her, began following Packnett around in the hallways, mocking her.  “Is my whiteness oppressing you today?” he would ask as she moved from class to class. She  would ignore him.  Then, one day, she didn’t.  She turned around, just outside the women’s locker room, and told him to stop speaking to her that way.  In return he spit in her face.
    Packnett said her track coach, one of her mentors in high school, insisted she tell the principal, who forced the boy to apologize.  Immediately, the memory of her late father’s interaction with the officer who pulled him over flashed back into her mind. That officer like this boy, had been made to apologize.  But had either actually been held accountable? Or did the system send the message that abuse of a black body can be negated and papered over by an “I’m sorry” no matter how reluctantly uttered.  
    “It’s this idea that all a person had to do was say ‘I’m sorry,’ and then they never had to be held accountable for their actions.” Packnett said.  “Thinking about those two incidents is, for me, a constant reminder that this system was never built for us in the first place.”
(Lowery 228-9)

When you plunge into a dark lake you need to know how to find your way to the surface and to the shore. I came up for air regularly as I read the book,

  • grateful to be Canadian
  • grateful to be white, even if that carries some responsibility: to be helpful and active rather than to passively hide away in my safe hidey-hole
  • and wondering what it would be like to be raising sons, particularly if I were black

Watching the news in 2017 it seems to be a troubled time in the USA.  During the election campaign, Donald Trump claimed that it’s worse than ‘ever, ever, ever’ for black people.  With his victory over Hillary Clinton, the phrase has a curious resonance now.

Barack Obama turns up in this book, and he’s a fascinating reference point, the obverse side of that reflective template that recurs throughout the book that I mentioned above, black man encountering police.  Obama as President is the dream, while the police shootings are the nightmare, each a benchmark of the same sad fact: that the civil rights struggle is far from over.  The election of a black president was supposed to signify something, but if anything it signaled a renewed push back from the extreme other side, the alt-right, the KKK, those who resented Trump’s presidency.  Sadly, little has really changed, especially in the deep south.

They Can’t Kill Us All is not a book to show you the path forward, so much as a forensic examination of the labyrinth in which we’re currently stuck.  Nobody seems to know the path forward, although to his credit, Lowery speaks to the new generation of young activists who will be part of any coming transformation.  This is a compassionate and methodical journey to several front-line encounters, uncensored and direct.

If you’re needing motivation, if you want to read and get angry, this book can work for you.  I wanted something a little more strident, but found it very polite, not unlike the young black man who has to walk carefully, for fear that he might trigger something by seeming too strident or dangerous.  I was kind of heart-broken by this book.  If you think Afro-Americans have made progress and that the civil rights movement is over, you should read this book.  I need something more to feel better about my place in this society.  I recall feeling un-moored and dizzy coming out of Monkman’s show, and this is somewhat parallel.  I hope the black experience in Canada is better than this –oh my God I hope so—particularly with police.  I can’t help feeling humbled, that as a white person I have privileges and a safer status.

And we’re still a long way away from true reconciliation.

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Lintu Finesses TSO

I don’t know if Hannu Lintu is a candidate to succeed Peter Oundjian or not, but I wish he were.  The Finnish conductor enticed some of the finest playing I’ve heard all season out of the Toronto Symphony in a program from three different centuries.  We heard a modern oxymoron sandwiched between two antiques, and all three were fabulous examples of committed playing by the TSO.

We’re accustomed to a degree of ostentation in singing, an approach that may offer a display of both the sound of the voice and the person of the vocalist.  And yet that’s not the only option.  I’m thinking of Pellèas et Mèlisande, an opera that is other-worldly in its subject and almost devoid of the usual material that we expect in opera.  No arias. No displays of virtuosity.  As an opera it’s an oxymoron, a contradiction between the expectations of the form and the actual work.  There are other such works I could point to, for instance, Melati Suryodarmo who danced on butter—or should I say slipped around on top of butter, deconstructing the whole idea of virtuosity and perfection.

Anu Komsi_2 (@Jag Gundu)

Soprano Anu Komsi with the TSO and conductor Hannu Lintu (photo: Jag Gundu)

Did composer Magnus Lindberg actually want us to hear every note and nuance of soprano Anu Komsi’s performance in his Accused: Three Interrogations for Soprano and Orchestra?  If this work were Harold in Italy or perhaps one of Beethoven’s concerti, no matter how epic the struggle between soloist and orchestra, we’d expect to be able to hear the soloist and clearly discern their performance, in keeping with the ideas of heroism in the music of the romantic period.

But not this time, and I have to think that was intentional.

And so maybe you can tell that I am conflicted.  This work is as contemporary as the blur surrounding the question of fake news.  Three different scenarios are presented, one French (from their revolution), one German (from the 1970s) and one in English (from this century).  That the answers to the interrogation were often inaudible probably shouldn’t be blamed on the acoustics in Roy Thomson Hall, as it appeared to be a deliberate choice of composer + interpreters as this work received its Canadian premiere in this week’s concerts.  Part of me wishes I could have heard some of those ultra-soft replies from Komsi (download the text as part of the concert’s program here), yet they are singularly apt, like the dance in butter or the absence of virtuosic display in Pelléas.  In a work that seems to flout its own divergence from the norm, that makes new rules, I’m inclined to applaud, intrigued by this daring and original approach.  We need to hear this with 21st century ears, attuned to the buzz of fake news and bogus media.

Komsi was precise, accurate as a coloratura at times, yet delicate and dignified even when overwhelmed by the huge orchestral forces Lintu whipped up around her and  –it might seem – against her.  In some ways Lindberg’s score answers a question I posed a few days ago, concerning the next generation of  12-tone, as we heard music with none of the nasty dissonances you find in Schönberg,  a wonderfully tuneful and assonant sound even as it offers a great deal of ambiguity.  I think the orchestra had a great time with this piece, as they responded with some lovely delicate sounds, as well as some wonderfully boisterous playing.

After the interval we went in a different direction, in a stunning reading of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony.  The level of commitment I thought I saw and heard from the players tonight led to a memorable performance.  The first and third movements were on the brisk side, while the other three were conventional, or even slower than what’s written.

A flamboyant gesture from guest conductor Hannu Lintu (photo: Jag Gundu)


Lintu has a very clear baton technique, opting sometimes to move once per bar or even (rarely) standing and watching the orchestra play rather than religiously beating every note.  When he wanted something extra his gestures were frenetic, including one lovely moment reminding me of a batter losing his bat, when the baton went flying: suggesting a wonderfully loose technique.  The music is the real test, and it sounded glorious.  At times I was reminded of the Cleveland Orchestra and their colourful brass and winds, both in the first movement (where the horn part was highlighted more than any time I’ve ever heard), and the last.  Phrases in the finale were particularly elegant, allowed to make their full eloquent statement, hymn-like, solemn, glorious.

I was totally a mess at the end of a concert that had already taken us into the hellish criminality of regimes tormenting whistle-blowers in Lindberg’s score, to a glowing re-affirmation of the natural world in the hymn that closes the Beethoven. I’ve never heard those final coda passages played so firmly, so clearly.

Yes the world will still be here in spite of our current craziness.

We opened with Sibelius’ suite of incidental music from The Tempest, (perhaps to match the storm in the penultimate movement of the Beethoven?).  This was a more restrained sort of music-making, but a wonderful way to start the evening.

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COC’s 2017 Revival of Louis Riel: “from a more inclusive perspective”


A Uniquely Canadian Contribution to Opera Revisited for the 21st Century

rielToronto – Louis Riel, composed by Harry Somers with libretto by Mavor Moore, is a uniquely Canadian contribution to the opera world. First performed in 1967 and last performed by the COC in 1975, Louis Riel returns to the stage in 2017 in a new co-production between the COC and National Arts Centre (NAC) that works to revise the opera’s colonial biases and bring forward its inherent strengths and power. Louis Riel runs for seven performances by the COC on April 20, 23, 26, 29, May 2, 5, 13, 2017 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts before making its way to Ottawa to be presented by the NAC on June 15 and 17, 2017.

Somers’ Louis Riel is the epic presentation of an intensely contentious moment in Canada’s political history dramatizing the story of the Métis leader, Louis Riel, and Canada’s westward expansion, while also being a landmark work in the canon of Canadian opera. At its 1967 world premiere, the Globe and Mail announced that with Louis Riel “[Canadian opera took] its first gigantic step forward,” Time magazine declared it an “undeniably masterful score,” and Opernwelt deemed the libretto “a masterpiece of dramatic concentration.” Its subsequent revival in 1975 at Washington’s Kennedy Center was met with the pronouncement of being “one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century” (Washington Post).

“Even 50 years after its creation, Louis Riel still hits us with its bold and commanding vision. Somers and Moore created a unique, powerful and daring statement that makes the piece rank amongst the most important and interesting works of music theatre of the last century,” says COC Music Director Johannes Debus, who conducts the COC Orchestra when Louis Riel is presented in Toronto.

In reviving the opera for 2017, the COC/NAC co-production confronts the traditions and demands of an art form that make Louis Riel a dynamic and compelling opera and its collision with the voice, culture and representation of indigeneity. This production uses historical research and multiple community perspectives to expose the lines between truth and mythology and co-existing perspectives of settler and indigenous stances as Riel’s story is told and retold.

“The challenges are many and well worth the undertaking. We’re looking at this opera from a more inclusive perspective,” says Louis Riel director Peter Hinton. “We’re not changing the intentions of the piece, but revisions are being made that honour the virtuosic complexity of the music, while allowing for the introduction of voices that have not been heard before.”

“We have an opportunity here to give the performance history of Louis Riel a new point of reference,” adds Debus. “We want to make sure that this striking piece of music theatre is done right to see its importance and continued relevance.”

Louis Riel distinguishes itself from other operas with its musical diversity. In addition to incorporating original folk music and traditional melody lines, Somers wrote in an abstract atonal orchestral style which heightens the dramatic intensity and sets the orchestra entirely apart from the singing. Electronic music also comes into play, creating at times an auditory surrealism that mirrors the distortion and confusion of events unfolding in the narrative.

Louis Riel demands singers to demonstrate a range of vocal techniques and dramatic intonation, sometimes in harmony with the orchestra and sometimes in conflict, and other times delivering gripping musical lines with the voice completely laid bare to scrutiny and unsupported by the orchestra. An orchestra of 67 musicians, including strings, woodwinds, brass, piano, and large percussion ensemble requiring six players, accompanies the cast and chorus.

Unique to the score of Louis Riel is the “Kuyas” aria which opens Act III and is sung in Cree by the artist in the role of Marguerite Riel, Louis Riel’s wife. The music for the “Kuyas” aria was based on a Nisg̱a’a mourning song called “Song of Skateen” that was recorded by Marius Barbeau and and transcribed by Sir Ernest MacMillan on the Nass River in 1927. The words for “Kuyas” were selected by Somers from Cree Grammar by Rev. H. E. Hivers and the English-Cree Primer and Vocabulary by Rev. F. G. Stevens, as well as from a story told by Coming Day to Leonard Bloomfield on the Sweetgrass Reserve in Saskatchewan. The composer was further assisted in ascertaining pronunciation and feeling for the language by Mrs. Lou Waller of Cree descent from Alberta, to whom Somers dedicated the “Kuyas” aria. With respect to both the Nisg̱a’a and Métis peoples and in recognition of how the songs of one nation are not the same as another’s, the COC and NAC’s co-production of Louis Riel acknowledges the current holder of the hereditary rights to this song: Sim’oogit Sgat’iin, hereditary chief Isaac Gonu, Gisḵ’ansnaat (Grizzly Bear Clan), Gitlax̱t’aamiks, B.C.

For the 2017 production, Louis Riel will continue to be sung in English, French and Cree, however, it will now feature a new translation of the Cree and include spoken dialogue in Michif, the official language of the Métis that would have been spoken in the 19th century, in select scenes between Métis characters. The new Cree translation is by Manitoba-born actor and writer Billy Merasty, who is of Cree descent, and the Métis dialogue is translated by Norman Fleury, a Métis elder, Michif language expert and translator, professor, and historian. The 2017 production of Louis Rielwill also feature English, French, Cree and Michif SURTITLESTM.

The role of the chorus in Louis Riel has also been redesigned. The original opera called for a single large chorus to act and sing a variety of groups and assemblies in the narrative. For the 2017 revival, there will be two choruses performing in contrast to the historical figures represented by the principal cast, representing the modern dynamic of debate and protest that continue of this history, both in the houses of parliament and on the land.

The COC Chorus takes on the role of the Parliamentary Chorus and represents a group of settler and immigrant men and women. The Parliamentary Chorus sings and is seen but does not participate in the physical action of the narrative, only commenting and debating on what should take place. They serve as a modern-day Greek Chorus while also representing the functions of Members of Parliament who legislate and validate the struggles of all Canadians in Ottawa. Additional members of the COC Chorus will be members of the Métis Nation.

A group of Indigenous men and women will be cast as the physical chorus known as the Land Assembly. On stage throughout the opera, the Land Assembly is a silent chorus in protest, and stands for the people for whom the opera has not provided a voice. The Land Assembly shift and transform in response to the actions on stage and are a constant, physical representation of the Indigenous men and women who are directly affected by the outcomes, victories and losses of Riel. The players in the Land Assembly will be announced at a later date as part of the COC’s complete casting release for Louis Riel.

New characters have been introduced to bring Indigenous voices into the opera as well as present a more informed history of the Métis and Indigenous peoples in Riel’s history. The previously unattributed opening vocal line is now delivered by a character known as The Folksinger, to be sung by a contemporary Métis singer. The role of The Activist, to be played by a Métis actor, will deliver the Land Acknowledgement as the opera unfolds, setting the tone for interpreting the action playing out on stage. The artists in these roles will be announced at a later date as part of the COC’s complete casting release for Louis Riel.

The 2017 production of Louis Riel is made possible through the financial support of individuals, corporations and charitable foundations and trusts. The COC gratefully acknowledges its underwriters: The Catherine and Maxwell Meighen Foundation, Philip Deck and Kimberley Bozak, Asper Foundation, and The Max Clarkson Family Foundation in honour of Harry Somers; with additional support from Mark and Gail Appel, Margaret Harriett Cameron, Catherine Fauquier, Sally Holton, Michiel Horn and Cornelia Schuh, Michael and Linda Hutcheon, The Michael and Sonja Koerner Charitable Foundation, Peter Levitt and Mai Why, John D. McKellar, Trina McQueen, Roger D. Moore, Sue Mortimer, Dr. Shirley C. Neuman, Tim and Frances Price, Dr. Joseph So, Philip Somerville, Françoise Sutton, Dr. John Stanley and Dr. Helmut Reichenbächer, The Stratton Trust, and John Wright and Chung-Wai Chow. Louis Riel has also been made possible by generous donors to the National Arts Centre Foundation, who believe in investing in Canadian creators, including Kimberley Bozak and Philip Deck, Earlaine Collins and TD Bank Group.

Louis Riel was the first opera written by a Canadian to be presented by the COC, and the COC is the only professional opera company to date to have ever performed it. Somers and Moore were commissioned in 1966 by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation to write an opera to commemorate the centennial of Canada, and it was subsequently performed by the COC in 1967 and 1975.

The NAC presents Louis Riel on June 15 and 17, 2017 as part of its Canada Scene festival in Ottawa. For more information on the NAC’s performances of this production of Louis Riel, please visit http://www.nac-cna.ca.

Single tickets for Louis Riel range from $35 – $235 and box seats, when available, are $350. Tickets are now on sale, available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231, or in person at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts Box Office (145 Queen St. W.). For more information on specially priced tickets available to young people under the age of 15, standing room, Opera Under 30 presented by TD Bank Group, student groups and rush seating, visit coc.ca.

About the Canadian Opera Company
Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the largest in North America. The COC enjoys a loyal audience support-base and one of the highest attendance and subscription rates in North America. Under its leadership team of General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus, the COC is increasingly capturing the opera world’s attention. The COC maintains its international reputation for artistic excellence and creative innovation by creating new productions within its diverse repertoire, collaborating with leading opera companies and festivals, and attracting the world’s foremost Canadian and international artists. The COC performs in its own opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, hailed internationally as one of the finest in the world. Designed by Diamond Schmitt Architects, the Four Seasons Centre opened in 2006. For more information on the Canadian Opera Company, please visit coc.ca.


“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.

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Schönberg and Sicilia: two more from Straub /Huillet

Tonight’s installment of TIFF’s retrospective “Not Reconciled: the films of  Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet must have seemed like a remarkable opportunity to James Quandt and the team assembling the schedule.  Each film is almost exactly an hour long, a pair of films that appeared consecutively, and perhaps the two most dissimilar in the entire retrospective. Of course they paired them up.

  1. From Today Until Tomorrow (from Von heute auf morgen) (1996), a one-act comic opera by Arnold Schönberg came first.
  2. Sicilia (1998) followed, described in the TIFF program guide as:
    “a four-part “road movie” that follows Silvestro, an immigrant who is returning home to the island after 15 years in America” based on an anti-fascist novel from 1939 that was banned at the time.

I shall address them as two separate films, but first want to address what TIFF gave us.  Each film can be seen as a critique of the whole question of genre especially as understood in the world of popular cinema, straddling categories.  Because they’re only about an hour long they preclude themselves from a commercial release, even before we consider how commercial a twelve-tone opera might be, comic or otherwise.  Sicilia too would be puzzling to the average viewer who might not know what they’re seeing, in its tonal ambiguities: which I’d consider good.

In other words forget the usual objectives of a commercial cinema, to create a product and to make money.

But genre is sometimes nothing more than a handle, a lifeline for someone trying to climb out of the dark place that is the average theatre.  Genre can be both pigeon-hole and pigeon, both the classification into categories, but also a series of attributes and descriptors.  In these two instances I think one is better off staying away from such questions, as they only lead one astray.  We’re better off in the here and now of the film in front of us, trying to discern what’s being exhibited, rather than trying to develop a set of expectations based on the genre we think we’re seeing, that might lead us to expect certain sorts of outcomes.

So watching this opera unfold, I am convinced that it needs to be staged more often for performers to have a better idea of how to make it work: meaning, how to make it successful as a comedy.  If you consider that singers come up through school singing arias from Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, or Handel, and then when trying to do an opera, have a sense of the style and may even have experience of the music in their voice.  And then there’s Schönberg.  I saw online that Von heute auf morgen has only been staged a couple of times EVER.  As with Moses and Aaron, screened by TIFF last Sunday, this adaptation in no way resembles realistic drama, as the singers tend to stand and deliver, rarely even making eye contact with one another.  This might be a Brechtian device (as in: whenever Leslie sees something puzzling that makes no sense, he tries to justify it via theory), given its similarity to how the singers were posed and prevented from interacting like real people in Moses and Aaron (although if you can tell me how real people interact when they’re singing at the top of their lungs, please give me a call).

I want to mention a brief Facebook conversation I had with Topher Mokrzewski, who played & music directed the twelve-tone excerpts sung by Adanya Dunn before the two Schönberg films last Sunday.

I said:
i wonder, do we need a second generation of 12 tone, to tteach us how to do COMEDY and IRONY?…..it’s great for tragedy and pain, but also, should be able to portray love and sexuality…i’m still waiting   😉

Topher said:
I just wish someone would write anything funny!

After tonight’s film, I see two issues.  Part of the problem is just practicing and performing this repertoire more often, because this rep is hard to do.  Dunn and Mokrzewski were wonderful together last week.  But what about this comic opera?  Can it be made funnier somehow, perhaps by a gentler handling of the singing & playing?  I couldn’t help thinking that heavy metal tends to do everything with the volume set to 11 (as they said in This is Spinal Tap).  Not all Schönberg is quite that extreme, but I wonder: are performers having too much fun wailing and blasting their way through, when they need to show some delicacy and lightness of touch: as Topher showed us last week..?  Or maybe the composers need to hold back, by all means employ the twelve-tone palette but use more restraint, subtlety. Stop using dissonance the way a heavy metal band uses their guitars.

Sicilia leads me to a book I will have to obtain, namely the novel that the film is based on.  I read in TIFF’s programming guide, that the film comes from Elio Vittorini’s 1939 novel Conversations in Sicily, banned by the Fascist government.

Angela Nugara in Sicilia

Angela Nugara in Sicilia

Where the opera shows Straub & Huillet being so faithful to the composer that they seem to kill the humour in the opera, a curious sort of battle between man and woman, Vittorini gives them what they always seem to want, namely a site to celebrate humanity and class struggle, seen from an oblique angle. This is not a book about revolution, sharing much of the dark tone of futility I spoke of in last night’s film Too Early / Too Late.  Life can be celebrated even when one is poor.  We get this from several angles, the different vantage points of the people encountered in the journey, a series of dialogues.  As in History Lesson the film goes back and forth between different sorts of dialogue and other calmer sorts of cinema, tranquil imagery setting up some intense bursts of language, sometimes resembling opera without any scoring.  This is an amazing little film, a piece of art that makes me want to go back, to see it once more.  Alas I wonder if I can get my hands on it.  There are a few little snippets on youtube, and no sign of it in any library I know of.   But I’ll have to explore further.  My only option may be to find the book and pray that the growing reputation of Huillet & Straub leads some distributor to make the film available some day.

Here’s a beautiful segment, to close the film.  The man with what resembles a bicycle is a sharpener, and although the subtitles aren’t English, it’s stunningly musical in its composition & execution. I don’t really miss the translation, as it brings my focus to the composition, to the rhythm & the performance.  The sense of futility I spoke of comes up in a conversation where they speak of sharpening cannon, rather than scissors or knives, and payments to cover bread, wine & taxes.  They close with a fascinating exchange of abstractions: reasons for joy, reasons to love life.  In any language they are unmistakable.

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Too Early/Too Late: you say you want a revolution?

Too Early/Too Late (1980), the latest installment in “Not Reconciled“, TIFF’s Straub-Huillet retrospective, is aptly titled for at least a couple of reasons.  As a study of revolutions co-opted or hijacked by others, the title is about timing.  But the title –which appears in four languages as you see in the image (German, English, French & Italian) –reflects the film’s cross-cultural ambitions.


Political as the film is, we are less in a realm of ideologies and advocacy, and more in one of tranquil meditation.  They might have titled it The Tao of The People, or perhaps Glorious Peasantry, even if those titles sound all wrong (and have nothing to do with their very dry & contained sense of style).  The emphasis on beauty and stillness reminds me a bit of Reggio’s Koyaanisqaatsi (1982) a hypnotic film from roughly the same period. I can’t help thinking that Too Early/Too Late influenced Reggio, who made this, the first of a trilogy of films (perhaps best remembered for their time-lapse effects + music by Philip Glass)  just after Huillet & Straub made their film.

There’s an unspoken subtext, that probably didn’t need to be mentioned in the 60s or 70s, namely the thinking of Marx & Engels.  Revolution, they said, was supposed to begin with the proletariat, with the peasants, the workers.  These are the classes needing a change, wanting to overthrow their bosses.

Or so goes the theory.    This is what I feel underlies this very tranquil film, the whole question of the workers / peasants rising up.  On the surface we’re watching people, while we hear political commentaries, first two short pieces from Friedrich Engels followed by another longer text from Mahmoud Hussein concerning Egypt.  We begin with a dizzying shot, a highly impressive chunk of film literally showing revolution, as we orbit in a traffic circle around the Bastille in Paris.  And in this study of futility, no wonder we begin with an image where we don’t get anywhere but go in circles. Yet we do zero in on the land and the people.  When the focus shifts to Egypt we are given an even more intimate glimpse of folk along the road or on the river, complete with their families, animals, fields, and all the sounds one hears.

Imagine that you were to venture out into the country, and then settle down to observe for ten minutes, twenty minutes, even an hour.  You’d be calm and peaceful, while becoming immersed in all the sounds of wind and water and trees and birds, plus the various machines and even music (if you’re near a mosque with a singer whose voice carries across the landscape) that surrounds you.  Framed with the two texts, one might wonder how anything could ever change, could ever achieve the hoped for revolution.

And of course we come to the last portion of the film, and it abruptly shifts into newsreel footage, black and white reminders of the way it really played out in Egypt: not a proletarian revolution at all.  We see charismatic Gamal Abdel Nasser, briefly glimpse Anwar Sadat.  I can’t help thinking that for Huillet & Straub, they must have felt disappointment if not outright despair: but of course, they assembled these images.  While revolution is the promised utopian goal in Marxist thinking, there is a decidedly dark sense of futility to the last part of this film, very much like the negativity captured in the title.  In whatever utterance in whatever country it appears to always be the same, that revolutions get hijacked by military or oligarchs of one shape or another.

That sad reality is balanced by the true focus of the film, which isn’t change but the enduring fact of the people. It is the material reality of the peasant / worker class, a beauty that endures regardless of who might rule these people.

In the wake of the GOP – Trump victories in the USA, as the rich appear to be on the verge of securing an even tighter hold on their wealth, this film has an especially poignant edge to it.

Not Reconciled“, the TIFF retrospective of films by  Jean Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet runs from March 3 to April 2.


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