Pushing our buttons 2: pornographic musings on Actéon and Venus

Ten days ago I posted something about erotic opera, especially as it pertains to Actéon, an opera that is to be presented again by Opera Atelier beginning Thursday October 25th at the Elgin Theatre.

Near the end of that post from Oct 12th I said:

I feel a special connection to Actéon. I used some of Charpentier’s 17th century opera in my operatic adaptation of Venus in Furs written & presented in 1999. It seemed too good to be true to be able to adapt something erotic into another erotic opera, to present a specimen of voyeurism, when the main character is a bit of a voyeur himself.
Prepare to have your buttons pushed.


Artist of Atelier Ballet Edward Tracz poses as the stag in Actéon (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

My adaptation of Venus earned me a keynote address at a conference at Western University. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it! But were they inviting me to talk about my libretto? Or the score? Or operatic dramaturgy?

No, no and no.

I was instead invited to talk about erotica and pornography. I think it’s still a very fertile subject for investigation, whether we focus on opera or on any other artistic realm.  It’s lurking in Hadrian for example, although it is a very thoughtful and measured erotica from Wainwright.

But sometimes one doesn’t want to be acknowledged as an expert.  I was pretty cagey, and maybe a bit too coy in how I approached the project.  I am not a pornographer, and Venus in Furs is not designed merely to titillate: well that’s not all it’s doing. It’s a work of art, an adaptation of a novel, admittedly a novel that gave the name to one of the two best-known sexual perversions. There’s that Marquis de Sade fellow and his sadism, and then there’s Leopold Sacher-Masoch, and masochism.

The words are regularly employed in the metaphorical sense. We hear of people who are sadists because they inflict pain upon someone. And we also hear of people who must be masochists because of the pain they endure.

But they also have literal use to describe obsessive behaviour, and of course in the realm of BDSM.  (and need I remind you what those initials actually signify?)

Why would one set such a text as an opera?

Frankly I’m astounded that it hasn’t been done more frequently. I looked at Strauss’s Salome and thought that the use of a forbidden text helped propel the composer to a kind of notoriety, the complex psychology of the story infusing the music with something feral and insane.  Or more properly, I suppose we’d call it expressionistic. I mostly prefer his tone-poems to his operas in point of fact, heretical though that may be to proclaim. But I’m simply explaining a rationale, a modus operandi. The Sacher-Masoch novel is very simple. And I was intrigued by it because for once it’s a story where the passionate subject is male rather than female.  I had zeroed in on two stories for awhile, and one had Venus in the title while the other was Aphrodite, namely Pierre Louys’s novel, which I had adapted in the 1990s (but that’s a whole other story…).  I had thought they would make an interesting pair both for their titles (imagining them sharing an evening, as “Venus & Aphrodite”), but also as a pair of stories where there is a male-female power struggle between the protagonists.

My keynote referenced Salome and also DH Lawrence’s The Virgin & the Gypsy. The novella furnished a handy metaphor that I used in my talk, to discuss the process of attribution whereby a society decides something is forbidden or permitted. Lawrence brings us a repressed family in a town with a river and a dam. When the dam breaks there is a kind of return to nature, as true feeling briefly triumphs over the artificiality of society. I believe that meanings such as “good” or “humorous” or “beautiful” are naturally in the eye of the beholder, who makes an attribution, a kind of interpretation of data. Some of these are conditioned by societal norms, whereby we decide what is forbidden or acceptable to see and hear.

When I encountered the 17th century opera Actéon by Charpentier in an earlier version from Opera Atelier, it was an adaptation of Ovid, a cautionary tale. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered about its reception, especially in the century of its premiere. I pictured an audience giggling with delight at what happens to poor Actéon:

  • Peering out of the bushes at the goddess Diana
  • Transformed into a stag when she objects
  • Pursued and killed by his own hounds

The man becomes an animal. We see something similar in The Odyssey when the sailors encounter Circe, who turns them into swine. Odysseus resists her magic with the help of the gods and some herbs, but he would surely be as susceptible as any of his men that became pigs. Did Charpentier expect that the audience watching Actéon –the voyeur, the man who becomes an animal and dies pursued by his own hounds—would giggle nervously, perhaps getting excited at this sexual opera?  I have to think so.  The action is very blatant.

I had at least a couple of reasons to use this opera in my adaptation. For one thing, I was busy almost exactly twenty years ago at what was then known as the Drama Centre at the University of Toronto:

  • In the fall of 1998 I entered the PhD program, while holding down a full time job. The Director of the Centre ruled that I met residency requirements by using an “inclusive” rather than “exclusive” definition. So long as I made it to conferences etc? I was satisfying their requirements, and never mind that I was also working at a full-time job at the university.
  • In the summer I made an adaptation & translation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera based on Pushkin’s play Mozart & Salieri, expanded somewhat with additional music by Mozart, including Alex Dobson & Wayne Line each getting a performance as Salieri, and Jay Lambie in both performances as Mozart.
  • Immediately after (September-October) I wrote and performed original music for Orpheus by Cocteau, directed by Aleksandar Lukac, a show that was done with a different cast the following summer in the Fringe Festival.


    Aleksandar Sasha Lukac, director of A Flea in Her Ear in 2017

  • In the spring of 1999, when I heard that the Festival of Original Theatre (aka “FOOT”) was to have the theme “Obsessions & Possessions”, I hastily proposed Venus in Furs even though the piece was not even begun, let alone written. I sketched out a libretto sometime around Easter, finishing the composition of the last of the music partway through the rehearsal period. Can you say “in a hurry”? and so the opportunity to incorporate an existing chunk of music was irresistible, inevitable: because of the time factor. Later in the opera, the chorus’s “allons allons marchons courons” became a leit-motiv for Severin’s adventures. The cast included Michael Sawarna and Sarah Gartshore and was directed by Sasha Lukac.


    “Allons allons…”! And we did.

  • I would go on to write another opera the following year (but that’s a whole other story…).

I cannot deny that when I was doing my MA and later my PhD, I was less interested in academic objectives than the practical program, which gave me a theatre to play in. During my MA I did a few shows a year. In the PhD for awhile I became very serious about the thesis, especially when my supervisor asked me to stop composing, and at least a couple of professors mocked me for having way too much fun, while suggesting that I needed to stop & get serious. I wish I had been more lucid and shown more backbone in response: because I’d always known at the beginning that I was more interested in using the theatre as a laboratory to explore operatic dramaturgy (my thesis topic after all) than in becoming a genuine professor.  I was very conflicted.

The blog itself has been a funny way of reconciling these things. I started it back when I was thinking I would finish the thesis. In 2011 and 2012 I still thought I might finish. And more recently I was approached by a very kind soul to apply for a job: for which I didn’t nearly have the qualifications. The essence of the blog is to help me find my true voice. In the process I have been reconciling my conflicted feelings, a way to be academic and studious while making my own rules.

It’s amazing to watch the video of something written & performed decades ago, the recording like time-travel.  I am working on a revision, planning to revive Venus in Furs in the next year, with Sasha Lukac again directing.  I’ll let you know when it happens.

In the meantime?  Opera Atelier present their double-bill of Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion, opening October 25th at the Elgin Theatre.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Essays, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception, university life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Thomas Søndergård leads the TSO

Tonight was the second of two consecutive concerts of the Toronto Symphony conducted by Danish maestro Thomas Søndergård, a spectacular program devoured by an eager audience showing off the strengths of the orchestra:

  • Thomas Adès: Dances from Powder Her face
  • Benjamin Britten Violin Concerto Op 15
  • Francis Poulenc Les animaux modèles
  • Claude Debussy: La mer

The oldest piece dates from 1903 (Debussy), with pieces from the 1930s (Britten), 1940s (Poulenc) and from a dozen years ago (Adès). As I looked around at a relatively young audience, eagerly attentive to a program that might have been considered challenging at one time, I couldn’t help thinking that the TSO and their audience have come a long way.

RESIZED Thomas Søndergård (@Jag Gundu)

Thomas Søndergård leads the Toronto Symphony (photo: Jag Gundu)

Violinist Baiba Skride exhibited her stunning lyrical tone in the Britten, a work that can be very unforgiving with its totally exposed high notes. Skride demonstrated flawless intonation, yet much more than mere technical prowess. In the last movement Passacaglia, as the fireworks subside she brought forth genuine soulfulness, reaching for profundity.

But every part of the concert presented opportunities for each section to shine, and they didn’t disappoint.

To open we heard Adès’s wonderful Dances from Powder Her Face. These pieces digest and respond to popular culture in a series of gestures verging on ejaculations, twisting recognizable tropes that we might call cliché into vivid contortions, parodic commentary. In places the colours are explosive.  In the middle it subsides into a dizzy waltz that sounds a bit like drunken Mahler, and at the end things run out of steam, a tragic denouement.

After the interval we heard the Poulenc, a ballet of great wit that in some ways is a perfect accompaniment to the Adès. Again we were listening to music as commentary and gloss upon popular music, very self-aware & sophisticated, especially the way Søndergård treated the sections of the TSO. The Maestro had wonderful rapport with the players, injecting a kind of quiet seriousness to balance the quirkiness of this trifle, everything perfectly in control.

And then we come to the piece that likely drew most people to the concert, namely La mer. Every section gets their moment to shine. Søndergård resisted the urge some have to impose an interpretation, to bring out voices and make some sort of statement. Instead everything was there unhindered by the conductor, everyone there in the dense texture: the two harps, the virtuoso percussion playing, Jonathan Crow’s lovely solo work, the stunning section play from the cellos, and many spectacular solos from wind players.

The TSO sounds very good right now, playing fluff-free but with great commitment, their hearts on their sleeves.  Next week it’s time for more romantic music with a concert featuring Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky.

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Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian

Tonight I saw the world premiere of Hadrian, an opera commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company with libretto by Daniel MacIvor, music composed by Rufus Wainwright, directed by Peter Hinton and conducted by Johannes Debus.

There are some wonderful performances, great moments to report.

First and foremost, the love story between two men presented on the opera stage brought an eruption of applause early in Act III. As Cori Ellison said in her interview, while we were presented with a homosexual encounter, everything was tasteful, discreet.

I was intrigued that Ambur Braid effortlessly stole the show, in a character who is far more sympathetic than one might expect. The jealous wife of a gay man, she has the two most dynamic moments musically, a pair of arias that, for whatever reason, are the moments of greatest inspiration & commitment from Rufus Wainwright. In this respect perhaps Wainwright is being truly Canadian, in being so self-effacing.


(left) Karita Mattila (Plotina) and composer Rufus Wainwright (Gaetz photography)

How Canadian that the singing for the two characters who we might think of as homosexual –Antinous & Hadrian—is nowhere near so exciting, but nice & lovable all the same. Much of Hadrian’s part lies below middle C, quiet meditative music rather than wild passionate singing. Perhaps I am guilty of projecting, in citing the similarity between Wainwright (or how he has styled himself) and his lead; and I’m sure I’m not the only person noticing how much RW looks like Thomas Hampson, the baritone playing Hadrian. Isaiah Bell as Antinous had more challenging singing than Hampson, but even so, their passions were soft-pedaled, very tasteful and reflective for the most part.


Thomas Hampson (left) who creates the role of Hadrian with Director Peter Hinton (Gaetz photography)

I can’t help thinking that at least some of this might be politics, a desire to avoid being too lurid or sexual. As a result the love is more philosophical than carnal, more poetic than urgently physical. And that’s fine. Hampson is solid as a rock in his portrayal, and for the most part the one we’re watching throughout.

There are some beautiful moments employing dance. In each of Acts I and II there was a beautiful segment choreographed for an all-male troupe of dancers: with inspired scoring from Wainwright. In several places RW rose to the challenge of writing something that sounded operatic.


Isaiah Bell (centre) Thomas Hampson (foreground) and dancers (photo: Gaetz Photography) from the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian

In other places, I found myself retreating to a question of definitions. What do we mean by opera, what makes something operatic, I asked myself. If it’s sung by great opera singers, does that make it opera? Ben Heppner sang some marvellous passages in the Second Act, the voice as keen & edgy as ever. But much of the time I felt we were really watching a play set to music and sung in an operatic style, the libretto often dominating the composer, the rhythms of dialogue at times imposing themselves upon the arioso, such as it was, often declaimed or spoken and for the first two acts rarely handed over for purely musical exploitation. The last half was far better in my view, and far more operatic. Or perhaps it was a matter of getting accustomed to the style and knowing how to listen? I’ll be back to hear it again and likely will enjoy it more next time.

More troubling for me is the basic plotline. It’s somewhat operatic, that we have the story of an aged Hadrian who is obsessing over Antinous –which might be totally accurate—and then entering into a kind of bargain with ghostly figures of Plotina & Trajan, which is a device we might think of as operatic. Roger Honeywell & especially Karita Mattila gave larger than life performances.   David Leigh is a strong presence as Turbo, pushing him to fight.

But in the process I feel that the real Hadrian is sold out. I am no historian, I only know a tiny bit, and found this little bit for example: to confirm what I thought I remembered. Cori Ellison spoke of the dual plot of Verdi’s Don Carlo as a model for this opera, in its use of a historical plot plus a love-story. But with all due respect, if Verdi had been gay & writing the story of Hadrian–and if we can imagine a composer writing a homosexual love story in 1855—he wouldn’t have copped out and employed a pair of ghostly dei ex machina to get Hadrian to fight against the Jews & the Nazarenes (given that the real Hadrian needed no persuasion to take on the Jews, indeed to be their nemesis). No, Verdi would have given us a conflicted and troubled character who has good & bad qualities, not unlike what we see in Don Carlo or perhaps more like Amonasro, the warrior father in Aida. Hadrian is no saint: but I’m sure I’m sounding like a stickler, given that most people –me included—know so little about the historical Hadrian.

I think this opera will be better in its next utterance. In places Wainwright has written beautiful music, but in other places it’s long and would be improved with cutting. While I enjoyed the finale to the 2nd Act that brought us to intermission, I felt that the end of the opera went on too long, destroying the momentum and dramatic tension that had been built up, largely because Wainwright & MacIvor seemed to want to end on a sentimental note as far as monotheism. At the end I was reminded a bit of  Philip Glass’s opera Akhnaten, in the intimation of prayers & the new religions of the Holy Land, although I thought Wainwright’s setting lacks the subtlety of Glass’s opera. In fairness, lots of people seemed to really like the way it ended.

I also wonder about the ghosts. Musically there needs to be more to make me believe, make me feel there’s something unearthly going on. But the ghosts appeared and it didn’t seem like a big deal in the musical setting Wainwright gave the moment; and then not long after, we jumped back in time and the Computer Generated Images were overpowering at this moment. As far as credibility, the CGI upstages the composer, whose music must be the real special effect, able to make us believe in magic & the afterlife.  I wanted to believe…

I think the COC deserve full credit for commissioning Wainwright & for putting so much time & effort into developing the opera. But as with so many performance pieces, there is still room for revision, and so we likely will see future incarnations of Hadrian. Director Hinton and conductor Debus have done marvelous work assembling this production into something wonderfully taut, with many highlights & beautiful moments. The COC orchestra & chorus did great work.

Hadrian continues until October 27th at the Four Seasons Centre.

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Questions for Colin Ainsworth: Actéon and Pygmalion

Tenor Colin Ainsworth is one of the most versatile performers I know. While he regularly stars in period performance he has done lots of new works, including Victor Davies’ The Transit of Venus and Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna.  He has had a whole other career singing modern song repertoire, especially by Canadian composers. I have never heard this man sing out of tune, and considering how many roles he’s undertaken that’s quite a lot. He has a sympathetic youthful presence which is especially important when you take the stage among the physically beautiful bodies of Opera Atelier, for whom I supposed he’s done over a decade of leading roles.  And then Colin told me it’s the twentieth anniversary since he first appeared with Opera Atelier (wow!), a remarkable feat considering that he sounds and looks as youthful as ever; but when I think of how many operas he’s done that I’ve admired, it’s not  surprising at all.  If you were to read his detailed bio, you would see a list of roles: but a list doesn’t nearly tell the story.  I think the voice is bigger, subtler, his acting range growing.


Tenor Colin Ainsworth (Photo: Kevin Clark)

And now as Colin undertakes two mythological title roles for Opera Atelier I wanted to ask him a few questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

To be honest, I’m not really sure. There are circumstances where I will react a certain way and it will make me think of either one of my parents. I definitely get my industrious nature from my Mom and my quiet, reserved side from my Dad but I certainly didn’t get any musical influence from them since they are deaf. A lot of my musical influences have come from outside of my family – teachers, colleagues, and just soaking up as much music as I could.

What is the best or worst thing about being a singer?

Being a singer certainly has its advantages and disadvantages but I get to do what I love so I’m truly grateful and the worst parts don’t seem so bad, relatively speaking. The thing that I enjoy the most is the travel and living in other cities. It affords you the opportunity to experience other cultures and see parts of the world that you might not otherwise. The work environment is constantly changing and for the most part, no two jobs are ever the same i.e. new colleagues, new venues, and new operas. Also, it is an opportunity to craft something that is uniquely yours. No one performs a role the same way you perform it.

The flip side of that coin is being away from home for extended periods of time, having to live out of a suitcase, lugging your life – or whatever you can fit in your bags – all over the place, dealing with delayed or cancelled flights and being in a foreign or unknown location. It can also be a precarious business in which you may not be sure when your next contract will be.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I don’t really watch a lot of TV but when I do I tend to watch shows like “How it’s Made” or a sports event. Considering how much flying I do, I have an odd fascination with the TV show ‘Mayday’ in which airline disasters are investigated. I guess I like knowing they have solved the issues that could have caused my plane to go down. For comic relief or after a long day of rehearsing, I watch The Office (the American version), especially while on the road.

Musically, I really like listening to a lot of different kinds of music not just classical. I have quite eclectic tastes from Justin Timberlake, Michael Kiwanuka, Eminem, Ella Fitzgerald, to a lot of Indie bands and artists.

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

There are so many! I wish I could play the guitar, play piano better than I do or wish I could cook better than I do. I do like cooking but I need a recipe to make something good. I just can’t look into the fridge, see what ingredients we have and toss something together. I’m learning slowly though…

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

I love to go for a run, ride on my bike or putter around the house. I love a good house project and tend to be always thinking of the next thing to do. But, hanging out with my son tops them all.


Colin Ainsworth (Photo: Kevin Clark)


More questions about playing two title roles: Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion

Please talk about the experience of preparing & singing historically informed performance (HIP) repertoire. Do you sing differently with a company known for doing HIP, and is it harder or easier than other types of singing?

I approach any repertoire with the same vocal technique but stylistically of course, there are huge differences. You can’t sing Wagner the way you would sing Charpentier. This repertoire that I’m doing for Atelier, especially the French baroque music, has its own unique challenges. Written for a high tenor the French called the ‘haute-contre’, the vocal line is written much higher for longer periods of time than other repertoire which can be taxing. The goal for me is to make it sound like it’s easy when it is most certainly not!

You’re playing mythological figures in Actéon or Pygmalion yet their passions are very erotic & real. You’ve performed in many different styles & from different eras, what are the advantages & disadvantages of this stylized approach to eros?

For me, the stylized approach doesn’t make it any less realistic than a realist style. For that era, it would have been an accepted and normal way for the singers to affect an emotional response from the audience. It is just one type of ‘language’ that I use to tell the story. The gesture feels like an outward expression of what is going on, on the inside – a superficial way to show the audience the inner workings of the character. The underlying emotional journey of the character stays exactly the same regardless of whether I am using the gesture to demonstrate those emotions or not.

You’re singing the titles roles from a pair of operas different periods (1683 for Actéon, 1748 for Pygmalion), from two different composers (Charpentier and Rameau). Is there much of a difference in what the respective composers expect of you and your voice?

On first look, it may seem that theses composers are the same. One may lump them both into the ‘baroque’ category and assume that the approach to both is similar. But, as you delve into them, they each have their own unique signatures. Charpentier, musical gestures are broad and sweeping whereas with Rameau defines every dramatic moment and his writing feels very compact. One sentence can be chock-full of musical gestures and the next could turn on a dime and you are expressing something completely different.

What were your most memorable experiences with Opera Atelier, and their creative team?

This is my 20th year since first singing with Opera Atelier so I have so many great memories! But, what stands out for me was the tour to Versailles to perform Armide after the attack in Paris. It has to be the most emotional trip I’ve ever been on. To be performing that particular piece at that time in that place and, in a way, stand in support of the French people was life transforming. The appreciation that we received back from the people there was overwhelming!

But really, it’s the people that have worked with Opera Atelier that have made the experiences great as there are a number of people who frequently return to work here be it dancers, singers, creative team or staff. That continuity gives you the opportunity to get to know people and build long-lasting relationships and friendships.

You’re known for singing operas from centuries ago with Opera Atelier, yet also have made a spectacular career singing new vocal music. Please talk for a moment about the advantages of singing so many different styles of music.
I love the opportunity to sing so many different styles of music, especially new music, where you are able to interact with a composer and have feedback from the source. Like I mentioned before, for me the vocal technique is the same regardless of the music that I’m singing. But, because the haute-contre repertoire is so challenging and high, it’s good to take breaks from it and rest the voice.

Frankly, it just makes life interesting to be able to explore not only the baroque repertoire but also modern repertoire and everything in between. I’ve always been careful with my voice to choose repertoire that’s appropriate and as the voice grows, I’ll look to see what it can handle. There’s just so much great music out there that I’m interested in doing, so I never want to limit myself unless it is something that isn’t vocally appropriate.

Please talk about the experience of rehearsing movement onstage with Opera Atelier, (where you’ve done so many roles already): a company known for their signature movement style.

The first week of rehearsals is like Atelier Boot Camp! Your body and certain muscles are not used to being bent, held, and moved like that so one ends up feeling stiff and sore. It’s definitely very physical and demanding! But, it is a style I’ve done for a few years now so I’m quite used to it. I really enjoy the process of working the gesture and the technique into one seamless performance.

What is your favourite role that you’ve sung?

Tom Rakewell in A Rake’s Progress! It is one of my favourite operas.


As Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress Pacific Opera Victoria January 2010

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


Diana Soviero

I’ve been working with Diana Soviero in New York City and she has made such a difference in my life as a singer. She has changed the way I think about singing and technique and made such huge impact on my voice. She worked with all the great tenors and has such a vast knowledge of how each of them approached the singing voice. I’m so grateful!


I thought I’d finish with a trip down memory lane, with some older images, hopefully self-explanatory.


Colin Ainsworth (Jason) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Medea), photo by Bruce Zinger from April 2017.


Colin Ainsworth (Renaud) and Peggy Kriha Dye (Armide), photo: Bruce Zinger from October 2015.


The caption on Opera Atelier’s page says “Colin Ainsworth as Tamino in The Magic Flute (2006). Photo by Bruce Zinger.”

And a little glimpse of a very intelligent singer taking great care of his instrument, posted to youtube in 2013.

Colin Ainsworth stars in Opera Atelier’s productions of Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion, opening October 25th at the Elgin Theatre.

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Pushing our buttons: Hadrian, Actéon, Pygmalion and erotic opera

Before there was pornography, there was always opera. Slavoj Zizek spoke of opera as redundant once we had psychiatrists, which is how he explains the decline in opera in the 20th century.

But maybe there are other reasons opera wasn’t so popular. Before we had film, opera was the palace of forbidden delights, a place for sublimated desires.

Love is often a feature in operas. Sometimes it’s a pure kind of love, as we might think of Tamino’s ideal love for Pamina in The Magic Flute. Sometimes it’s more transgressive, especially when we think of 20th century operas such as Salome or Lulu, where things are more erotic & even obsessive.  I think it’s fair to assume that when an opera could be seen as exciting, that at least some in the audience would find the excitement.

Notice too that while we’re speaking of opera, I’m really talking about the visual element.

I want to focus on the four operas being presented this fall by the big companies in Toronto. No matter how tasteful the production –and I believe all four of these are very restrained in their style–the subtext never goes away.   I couldn’t help noticing that we seem to be more erotic than usual.

  • Tchaikovky’s Eugene Onegin from the Canadian Opera Company features lots of thwarted relationships (Tatyana & Onegin, Olga & Lensky) plus one that seems successful at least superficially (Gremin & Tatyana).
  • Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian is a new opera set to have its world premiere this coming weekend with the COC. The production bears a disclaimer that I quoted in my recent interview with Cori Ellison, namely
    “Content advisory: Hadrian contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature. The opera is recommended for audiences 18 or older.” 


    Isaiah Bell (centre) Thomas Hampson (foreground) and dancers (photo: Gaetz Photography) from the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian

  • Opera Atelier offers a double bill of mythological operas. Charpentier’s Actéon is a cautionary tale about a man who is punished for getting too close to a naked goddess, turned into a wild animal that is hunted by his own hounds. Erotic desire is front & centre in this story.


    Artist of Atelier Ballet Edward Tracz poses as the stag in Actéon (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

  • Rameau’s Pygmalion, is a happier bit of mythology concerning the artist who falls in love with his own creation, and is blessed when the statue is brought to life by Cupid.


    Meghan Lindsay poses as the statue in Pygmalion (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

All four operas concern the consequences of sexual desire.

  • Young Tatyana is thwarted by Onegin, who in turn is rejected by Tatyana when he meets her again years later. Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel when he becomes jealous of his neighbour’s flirtation with his beloved Olga. The closest thing to happiness is the contentment expressed by Gremin, even though he’s older. If we go by the music in the last two scenes, Gremin’s slow aria suggests that he’s no longer sexual, while the fervent music of Onegin is all about his desire for Tatyana, an infatuation that leads nowhere.
  • Hadrian too is an opera about frustrated desire, as old Hadrian sadly recalls Antinous, a lover who died years ago, while his wife Sabina in turn notices the shift in her husband’s gaze; I say this, never having seen the opera, that premieres Saturday night. I can’t wait to see it.
  • Actéon is punished for his voyeurism, transformed into a beast for looking upon a naked goddess: an apt description of what happens to some people when they are stimulated.
  • Pygmalion faces something similar, although there’s no naked goddess involved; he is frustrated by the fact that the object of his desire is a statue rather than a living woman. When he prays to the Goddess of Love she is merciful rather than harsh, bringing his creation to life.

And of course there are many ways to present any opera. Think for example of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice¸ which has seen at least three stagings in Toronto over the past decade:

  • Robert Carsen’s minimalist production with the COC in 2011
  • Opera Atelier’s historically informed 2015 production
  • Against the Grain Theatre’s Orphee+ earlier in 2018 featuring burlesque & aerials

    Marcy Richardson is Amour in Against the Grain’s Orphee+ (Darryl Block photography)

    There’s certainly a great deal of beauty on stage in these productions, each one pushing very different buttons in the viewer: or voyeur.

I feel a special connection to Actéon. I used some of Charpentier’s 17th century opera in my operatic adaptation of Venus in Furs written & presented in 1999. It seemed too good to be true to be able to adapt something erotic into another erotic opera, to present a specimen of voyeurism, when the main character is a bit of a voyeur himself.

Don’t we all run the risk of becoming animals when we’re too excited? And now in 2018, prepare to have your buttons pushed.  The COC’s Eugene Onegin continues its run until November 3rd, while Hadrian opens October 13th: both at the Four Seasons Centre.  Opera Atelier’s double-bill of Actéon and Pygmalion opens October 25th at the Elgin Theatre.

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Hadrian’s Dramaturg: Questions for Cori Ellison

Cori Ellison is the Dramaturg for the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Hadrian¸composed by Rufus Wainwright and with libretto by Daniel MacIvor.

Cori Ellison, a leading creative figure in the opera world, was recently appointed staff Dramaturg at Santa Fe Opera, and has previously served in that role at Glyndebourne Festival Opera and New York City Opera. Active in developing contemporary opera, she teaches dramaturgy for American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and was the first dramaturg invited to participate in the Yale Institute for Music Theatre. At New York City Opera she was a curator of the annual VOX American Opera Showcase and co-founded and led City Opera’s ‘Words First’ program for the development of opera librettists. She is a sought-after developmental dramaturg to numerous composers, librettists, and commissioners, including Glyndebourne, Canadian Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Arizona Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Fort Worth Opera, and Beth Morrison Projects. She has served as production dramaturg for projects including L’incoronazione di Poppea at Cincinnati Opera; Orphic Moments at the Salzburg Landestheater, National Sawdust, and Master Voices; and Aci, Galatea, e Polifemo at National Sawdust, as well as Washington National Opera’s Ring cycle, Opera Boston’s The Nose, and Offenbach!!! at Bard Summerscape. She is a member of the Vocal Arts Faculty at the Juilliard School and the Ravinia Steans Music Institute and has taught and lectured for schools, performance venues, and media outlets worldwide. She creates supertitles for opera companies across the English-speaking world, and helped launch Met Titles, the Met’s simultaneous translation system. Her English singing translations include Hansel and Gretel (NYCO), La vestale (English National Opera) and Shostakovich’s Cherry Tree Towers (Bard Summerscape). She has often written for the New York Times and has contributed to books including The New Grove Dictionary of Opera and The Compleat Mozart.

I welcomed the opportunity to ask Cori a few questions about her role as the Dramaturg in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Hadrian that opens October 13th at the Four Seasons Centre.

barczablog: Thank you for letting me ask you some questions. So to begin: how would you understand the role of dramaturg (or “dramaturge” as some might say it)? Perhaps it’s an immense question.


Cori Ellison

Cori Ellison: Actually I’m asked that question all of the time. So what I would ask you is, are you specifically talking about a dramaturg in the context of a new opera being developed, or a company dramaturg, or a general production dramaturg?

barczablog: I guess the question is, what is the role you’re playing with the COC in the production of Hadrian?

Cori Ellison: I’ve been engaged to help develop this new opera, work that I frequently do with many opera companies and many opera projects. I work with composers and librettists in developing their new operas and that can start anywhere from the place where the composer and librettist have already been engaged. That’s how I came into the project here with the Canadian Opera Company. And from there, normally the process is that the composer and the librettist come up with the basic story that they want to tell. You may be part of the process of helping them identify the story they want to tell. In the case of Hadrian they were already set on the story of Hadrian. I came in while the libretto was being written.

And what I do is to make sure the libretto is clear and it tells the story in a clear manner, and it provides ample opportunity for lyrical expansion. That is what makes opera opera, when the music can take wing and express emotion, in those moments that are non-narrative. And then when the libretto is more or less set, then the composer will go away and begin to write music. And then we went through a process of a workshop, at Cincinnati Opera’s Opera Fusion program in collaboration with the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati. And when you see a new opera in a piano-vocal workshop a lot of things become evident. You help the composer and the librettist make revisions, tighten the piece up, make it clearer. Sometimes you might help in a research capacity, especially in this case where you’re dealing with a story that takes place in ancient Rome. There was a lot of research to be done. That’s a service that a dramaturg can provide.


(left to right) Dramaturg Cori Ellison, composer Rufus Wainwright, librettist Daniel MacIvor, director Peter Hinton, COC General Director Alexander Neef_at Opera Fusion New Works panel on Hadrian in March 2018 (photo: Phil Groshong)

Also, and this was very important in this particular case, a dramaturg can be instrumental in getting the composer and the librettist on the same page. Composers and librettists, indeed all artists are big personalities, and what makes them great is that they have very particular individual visions. And opera is the most collaborative of art forms. Composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor are very different people. They have very different ways of feeling and seeing the story. They even gravitated towards different source material. Rufus’ main inspiration was the Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar, which is a work of historical fiction, a rich emotional tapestry. And Daniel, on the other hand, his main source of inspiration was Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome, a history book by Anthony Everitt. And that alone tells you a lot about these two guys and their personalities. So a dramaturg may be someone who will help artists of disparate type see eye to eye, and make sure we’re all writing the same opera, if you will.

barczablog: do you sometimes feel like someone holding up a mirror to them, to show them what they’ve done?

Cori Ellison: Yes, that’s definitely part of it. And sometimes you’re like the marriage counsellor.  Also, when the opera was fundamentally finished, then my attention shifted towards being of service to the creative team, the director and the designers, and helping them to understand the piece and the story they wanted to tell, and how they were telling the story, helping them shape the production. And then at that point I began to be of service to the COC administration, also, in introducing them to the piece, which of course is a new piece.

And of course now I’ve been in rehearsals, from the very beginning, and in that case helping the singers find their footing, assisting the director and his team in that respect, and also, helping to shape the piece. It’s still in formation, up until opening night. Trimming and tightening and so on. And so from conception until the birth, a dramaturg can be involved in many different ways.


Thomas Hampson (left) who creates the role of Hadrian with Director Peter Hinton (Gaetz photography)

barczablog: So, different question here. What are the numbers that you think of as your favourites moments?

Cori Ellison: Oh my God that’s so hard to say because I’m so close to it. Well, I very much like Sabina’s Act II aria.

barczablog: So there are arias? This is an opera with arias?

Cori Ellison: Oh, of course! Rufus is a huge opera fan and his favourite is 19th-century romantic opera. Hadrian is like a Romantic grand opera, but written in the 21st century. It employs all of the formal tools of a traditional standard-repertory opera, but infused with Rufus’s very contemporary harmonies, rhythms, and melodies.

barczablog: So what opera would you say it’s closest to, at least superficially? Is it like Samson & Delilah but with a homoerotic love story instead?

Cori Ellison: Well, you could say that, although Rufus’ chief inspirations, both musically and dramaturgically, have been Verdi, Berlioz, and Wagner. Those are the operas that he knows really well and loves.

barczablog: Does it remind you of Aida perhaps?

Cori Ellison: In the sense that it reminds me of late-middle Verdi, because there’s an intimate love story at its heart which is set against a larger political landscape, which is what you get in Don Carlo or Aida. It’s very much a Verdian model.

barczablog: May I ask you a question about the erotic content? There’s a kind of disclaimer on the website cautioning people:

“Content advisory: Hadrian contains nudity and scenes of a sexual nature. The opera is recommended for audiences 18 or older.” 

Can you compare it to what’s gone before? Salome was banned initially. Is it in any way risqué, or even forbidden in what it shows?

Cori Ellison:: It is the most romantic and tasteful opera and production, I think, that could possibly have been done. And you treat a gay love story the same way as you treat a heterosexual love story in, say, a Verdi opera. I think it’s the kind of idealized love you find at the heart of Les Troyens with Dido and Aeneas. There is one love scene between Hadrian and Antinous at the beginning of the Third Act, which is a very beautiful idealized scene, both musically and in the way it’s staged. Tender and romantic. I don’t expect people to get bent out of shape about it, because it’s beautiful and it’s tasteful. If you come to the opera knowing what the story is, it’s not going to be shocking to you.

barczablog: I hope the COC has been very canny in programming this, because I think there’s an audience for this. It’s overdue in some ways.

Cori Ellison: You mean there’s an audience for new opera? I don’t think it’s ghettoized, or for a particular constituency. Hadrian is an opera for opera lovers.

barczablog: I just hope that in this day and age, it doesn’t matter that the love story is between two men.

Cori Ellison: Well, it shouldn’t because as I said before, if people buy tickets, they know they’re coming to see a love story between two men. If they decided to come see it, I don’t know why they would get upset by it.

barczablog: So… different kind of question. Did you find that the writing gives opportunities for virtuoso singing? For singers to show off?

Cori Ellison: Absolutely. It does. That’s something Rufus enjoys very much in opera.

barczablog: Something to be excited about! That’s wonderful.

So would you say Rufus Wainwright’s music resembles any composer you’d care to name?

Cori Ellison: Resembles? He has certain reference points. People may hear echoes of Wagner, of Berlioz, of Verdi, of various 19th-century Romantic opera composers: although the music is 100% Rufus’s. The harmonies are the type of harmonies you’ll find in his popular music. The melodies are completely his own. It’s tonal, it’s beautiful, it’s full of character and full of colour. There are influences, yes, but the music is entirely his own.

barczablog: Does he make any inter-textual references: you know, like where he might quote another composer? I guess it’s not a common thing to do.

Cori Ellison: I would say no to that.

barczablog: Could I ask you for a quick synopsis of the plot?

Cori Ellison: Sure. It begins as Hadrian is ill and in the process of dying. He is still mourning the death of his lover Antinous, which happened seven years before the beginning of the opera, and he’s having trouble letting go of that grief. One of the reasons he’s having trouble is that the death of Antinous was surrounded in mystery. He drowned in the Nile. But nobody knows whether he sacrificed himself, committed suicide, whether he was murdered, whether it was an accident. Nobody knows this. And it’s something that absolutely torments Hadrian.

So Hadrian is visited by the ghosts of the previous Emperor, Trajan, his step-father, and Empress, Plotina. They try to make a bargain with him. They will reveal to him how Antinous died if he will fulfil a task for them, which is to ensure their immortality as gods by ensuring the preservation of the Empire: because the custom is when Roman Emperors die, they became revered as gods and this is something that Plotina is very interested in. She really really doesn’t want to be forgotten. So they make this bargain that the cause of Antinous’ death will be revealed to Hadrian, if he will preserve the Roman Empire by putting down a rebellion of the Jews and the Nazarenes. This is the age of early Christianity, and the new sects are rising and threatening the Roman Empire. And Plotina and Trajan call upon Hadrian to quell this rebellion of the Jews and the Nazarenes. Then we’re shown in flashback the meeting of Antinous and Hadrian and their falling in love and some of their life together. And we’re shown the manner of Antinous’ death and we see Hadrian learn it. And so Hadrian gains a lot of insight as a result, but I’m not going to give you a spoiler and tell how it ends!


(left) Karita Mattila (Plotina) and composer Rufus Wainwright (Gaetz photography)

barczablog: Sure! So there are these two large-scale plot elements. There’s his discovery about the past, and the bargain with the ghosts that he will do, as part of the politics of the time.

Cori Ellison: Right. It’s that Verdian framework, of the love story set against the larger political story.

barczablog: Interesting… So may I ask… You wear a number of hats. I wonder if you were to advise the readers of my blog. For a young composer or young librettist, is there anything you’d advise them to do, if they want to advance the art form of opera? What would you tell them to do?

Cori Ellison:… Well… I teach composers and librettists at American Lyric Theatre in New York, which is a fellowship training program for emerging composers and librettists. And what I teach them, and what I advise all emerging composers and librettists, is to look to the heritage of opera. There’s no better teacher than Mozart or Verdi. You need to know the heritage of opera, you need to know how an opera walks and talks. It’s not that you have to write conservative old-fashioned operas. It’s like if you’re going to be a doctor you need to study skeletons, you know what I mean? You need to study the human body and how it works.

Some upcoming composers and librettists think they’re going to reinvent the wheel. You can’t write an opera without understanding what an opera is. True, the definition of what an opera is has expanded, absolutely exponentially. But you still have to understand it, what a creature it is.

barczablog: So what is your favourite opera, if there is one?

Cori Ellison: Oh my gosh, that’s so difficult. Mozart is my number one guy. Verdi would be close second. But Mozart is my favourite. And it’s so hard to choose a favourite Mozart opera because they’re all such masterpieces. But if I have a gun to my head I would have to say Cosi fan tutte.

barczablog: Ha… not surprised. But we sometimes admire works that are imperfect. Is there an imperfect work that you admire?

Cori Ellison… Oh yes, absolutely. The number one thing I have to say about that is Verdi’s Don Carlo. It may sound like sacrilege to suggest it’s imperfect, but the very fact that it exists in so many editions, so when you go to put on a production of Don Carlo you have to make loads and loads of choices.

barczablog: Do you prefer five acts or four, and in French? Are you a five-act purist in French?

Cori Ellison: Well the five- act version in French is absolutely revelatory because that’s the original. But I love the five-act Italian version as well. It’s the most beautiful opera, though it can be a little ungainly. And then of course Verdi’s next opera is Aida, which is a well-oiled machine. Verdi solved all of the problems of Don Carlo in Aida. But to me it’s not nearly as moving. I have a great, great love for Don Carlo.

barczablog: So one last question. Is there a teacher or an influence that you would care to name that you want to thank or to admire?

Cori: Oh my gosh. That’s really difficult. There are a handful. I would mention Gerard Mortier, who was a relatively recent mentor. His way of looking at opera was a huge influence on me. He also gave me such a vote of confidence that it allowed me to grow even more.

There are other influences. An early voice teacher, Herbert Beattie, who showed me the difference between being a singer and being an artist.

But there are more. Frederick Noonan, who ran Great Performers at Lincoln Center and the Mostly Mozart Festival for many years, and who helped me immeasurably early in my career. And teacher and conductor named Cynthia Auerbach who worked at New York City Opera, and Beverly Sills and Julius Rudel, my New York City Opera godparents, if you will. So I keep very busy trying to pay it forward.

barczablog: Thank you so much for doing this!


The new opera Hadrian composed by Rufus Wainwright, with libretto by Daniel MacIvor, premieres October 13th at the Four Seasons Centre in a Canadian Opera Company Production. For further information and tickets  click here.

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Han-Na Chang, Javier Perianes: photos from Nick Wons

I have these three great pictures from Nick Wons to add to yesterday’s review of the Toronto Symphony conducted by Han-Na Chang, I figured I’d simply post them this way, which gives them–and him– a bit more oomph, some extra profile via Social Media.  One can be so absorbed in the music that one misses the visual beauty in the performances.

These photos are art.

Han-Ha Chang conducts Mahler_3 (@Nick Wons)

Han-Na Chang conducts Mahler’s 5th (photo: Nick Wons)

Both photos suggest joy verging on ecstasy in Chang’s conducting.  But a still photo can’t show her remarkably active style, part dancer, part inspirational leader.

Javier Perianes bowing (@Nick Wons)

Pianist Javier Perianes bowing (photo: Nick Wons)

Again, this is a great close-up look at our piano soloist, who played with a posture that might remind you of Glenn Gould, his energy directed into the piano: so that once he started playing, his face and body turned away from us a bit like Van Morrison.

But the music came out!

I think the humility you see in his face as he bows is totally genuine.

Han-Ha Chang conducts Mahler (@Nick Wons)

Han-Ha Chang directing the TSO last night (photo: Nick Wons)

The concert repeats Thursday night at Roy Thomson Hall. I’d go again if I could.

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