American Idol and popularity

Do you ever watch American Idol? I’d say it’s the best reality tv that you can find, unless you prefer one of the other performance shows where people sing or dance.

There are really two parts to it. At the beginning of each season we watch a series of auditions to determine who will be on the show. Whether you’re a fan of country or opera, jazz, broadway, hip-hop or rock, the dynamics of auditions are wonderful television, the astonishing drama of judges assessing performances.

While I’m speaking of this, let me just mention how much I hate competitions & judgment as it is sometimes done. Simon Cowell, the former judge on American Idol, sometimes had the most detestable way of dismissing performers, rude beyond belief. Of course people love this drama, a modern kind of gladiator combat, except instead of lions chewing on Christians, we have a judge like Simon biting pieces out of vulnerable performers, and it seems that people still love to watch such blood-sports. Not me. I hate that, and wanted to mention it. I also dislike (rather than hate) competitions, because I don’t believe they really honour art & artistry, they turn virtuosity into something like circus performance, a fact that Wagner & Debussy both picked up on & mocked in their writings. Thank goodness that the more recent incarnations of American Idol with a new cadre of judges has outgrown the slimy snake-skin of Simon & now are supportive & loving as they mentor the performers, teaching them & pushing them to grow as artists.

This I can endorse. Heck, it’s great television & often leads to warm fuzzies.

These performances are a wonderful laboratory. Popularity has been one of my hobby-horses on the blog & in courses that I taught. I haven’t talked about it in awhile, but tonight after watching American Idol, I thought I’d bring it up. There is much we need to think about, to digest and/or dissect, whether we’re watching Eric McCormack and Chilina Kennedy as Gatsby & Daisy as I did last night, or Angel Blue & Eric Owens in the Met’s award winning production of Porgy and Bess.

I’m not sure we really know what the word even means.

The current panel of judges consists of Katy Perry, Lionel Ritchie and Luke Bryan, although for tonight Simon’s old nemesis Paula Abdul subbed for Luke, who apparently has tested positive for COVID19. Each has a way of celebrating excellence, offering advice, and, while the rest of us in the TV audience look on, teaching.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that these three are conservatory teachers. But they do get the candidates to improve, they do offer good advice. I can’t recall which young singer it was who seemed to want to set fire to the stage every second of her singing, but was admonished to save something, to start softly & build. That advice seems to have been taken up by at least three different singers who didn’t previously think to perform that way.

Some of the lessons come from the students. Tonight I saw one singer address another, reminding us that whichever one of them was selected, winning was less important than their relationship. They were friends and I felt the generosity of the sentiment. Indeed I wish there were enough jobs for all the students studying voice, although I think we know that nope not even close. Right now the arts are rebuilding in the wake of the pandemic’s disruptive effect on performance & the music industry.

We watch people sing who are told to be in the moment. I know that nerves are helpful, that being too relaxed can lead to mistakes while a bit of nervousness helps us focus. This is not the same as opera or broadway but the drama is ultimately the same. And from the screams of the audience you can’t tell what they’re listening to. Okay, not opera because no one says “bravo” although lately opera is getting more woots and fewer bravi’s.

There’s a lot more to the question of popularity, I’ve not even scraped the surface here. Why are Puccini & Richard Strauss somehow suspect because of their success at the box office? Are Pinter and Beckett better than Stoppard, because they don’t attract as many people? Does Oscar ever get it right? But it’s fun to toss some of this out there, a divisive topic. If someone gets rich they’re sometimes accused of selling out. Starving may suggest your artistic motives are pure, but excuse me, nobody wants to starve. It’s not a crime to get rich. Mozart & Shakespeare & Handel are popular, but lucky for them they’re dead so nobody holds their popularity against them.

I enjoyed watching Katy Perry pull herself together at the inauguration concert. While singing her big hit for the Bidens & the rest of America her voice seemed to tighten, perhaps as the emotion of the moment blind-sided her.

But as the show reminds us, she’s a professional & she showed that she has technique. I was right there with her, terrified as she squared off with that passage leading to the high notes: and pulled it, redhot right out of the sky like part of the fireworks display.

That moment (you want Gesamtkunstwerk? Biggest fireworks display ever to go with the song), alongside the election was one of the highlights of 2020.

And I’m grateful.

Posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Politics, Popular music & culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quilico and Pavarotti in Rigoletto

The Metropolitan Opera’s free feed gave us a lovely trip down memory lane last week, with a 1981 Rigoletto starring Louis Quilico, Luciano Pavarotti and Christiane Eda-Pierre.

Baritone Louis Quilico

I can’t be the only one who watched, remembering the times Quilico sang the role in Toronto, before he had opportunities to sing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. The close-ups in the Met broadcast show us a larger than life interpretation that might seem to lack subtlety: except that this is what Quilico was aiming for in his interpretation. I saw his Iago in New York, heard his Golaud in a radio broadcast. I was proud as a Canadian, but as an opera lover, I admired his magnificent voice.

It’s worth thinking about the word “melodrama” and what it implies. I believe Giuseppi Verdi’s great middle period operas are truly melodramatic, and are best approached by interpreters who understand the implications. In melodrama the protagonists are powerless against forces humanity cannot withstand, such as nature or God or war. We surrender to our fate if we believe that we have no agency or control.

La traviata is not an opera about a woman who has power in her life; Violetta faces an illness and the horror implicit in her promise to separate from the man she loves. Il trovatore is a series of old stories told by the fire, recalling a mother accidentally killing her own child, brothers who never know who they really are, while the chorus sings miserere. And Rigoletto is the tale of a father’s curse and an all-powerful Duke. Directors may seek to populate the stage with modern naturalist actors, but that tendency resists the natural construction of these works.

The portrayal Quilico used to make on the O’Keefe Centre stage in Toronto tended to be more over the top than the restraint he displayed in the 1981 Met production, directed by John Dexter. In the scene where the courtiers trick him into helping abduct his own daughter, the moments of panic & horror that end the scene used to include improvised shouts of “Gilda…! Gilda!” While none of this is explicitly notated in the score, it’s compelling theatre and quite possibly as authentic as any interpolated high notes that we’ve come to expect. And it was very powerful to watch.

Quilico gave us a remarkable range of colours in the broadcast, a lovely reminder of one of the greatest baritone voices in history. We first meet him as the grotesque jester of the first scene, roughly teasing the courtiers and mocking the grief of Monterone, a father outraged by his daughter’s seduction. We may think of the curse he lays on Rigoletto’s head as a wooden device of melodrama: yet it perfectly sets up the characters’ surrender to the inevitability of their fate.

We are not in a realm of subtlety. The next scene opens with the first of a series of introspective questions Rigoletto asks himself, pondering the curse. He meets Sparafucile, an assassin who offers his services to Rigoletto, who –after refusing the killer’s offer—notices the similarities between the rapier thrusts of the killer & his own dangerous words, that have caused the curse. But Quilico’s voice is powerful & edgy in his self-criticism.

The next scene shows us a third colour of Quilico’s portrayal that we may not have expected, as he meets his daughter Gilda. There is a softer sound in this duet, that is especially sweet in the recollection of Gilda’s mother, the one person who really loved him, and now is dead & gone. The bel canto we hear in this scene is the softest gentlest part of Rigoletto, that Quilico now brings forth.

The portrayal uses these three colours, namely a deliberately ugly sound when playing up the grotesque hunchback, an angrier brilliant sound, as when dreaming of his possible vengeance, and the tender bel canto when thinking of the past with his daughter.

And then there’s Pavarotti, who as far as I can tell was never sharp or flat, his sound produced so beautifully as to be the ideal of perfection, the way any tenor dreams of singing the role. The odd thing about this performance is the one note that Pavarotti fluffed in the “addio addio” duet with Gilda. If the reports I’ve heard can be trusted, the reason this Rigoletto was not made available sooner was because Pavarotti was so upset about this high note, a D-flat that he missed totally. We see him go upstage of the soprano immediately afterwards, as though he was humiliated and wanted to hide his face. If the story I heard is correct his humiliation led him or his management to suppress this broadcast even though it was the only Met broadcast showing us Quilico’s interpretation. Please note, I really like Pavarotti & his singing, but this story only underlines what we’re missing here in Canada, namely our own video recordings & broadcasts.

Yes we were lucky to hear Quilico in his prime here in Toronto, to hear brighter colours up top, whereas the older Quilico had darkened the sound, changing the resonance from what it had once been. Live performance, sigh, it’s only a memory right now in this viral hiatus. While one can see a recorded performance from the Met every night, while we recently saw the Zambello Ring Cycle from the San Francisco Opera, all we have are memories of productions in this country. Alexander Neef’s time with the Canadian Opera Company included some remarkable productions, that may linger in the mind but are otherwise gone.

I’m hopeful that the recent announcement of technological upgrades for the Four Seasons Centre will enable the COC to capture & share the magic. Wouldn’t it be great if the CBC got into the act, making the Canadian Opera Company truly Canadian?

Four Seasons Centre
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Ouzounian’s Gatsby

Tonight I watched a 60 minute adaptation of The Great Gatsby from Talk is Free Theatre, the closing night of “Dinner a la Art”, presented virtually as a reading adapted & directed by Richard Ouzounian.

Talk is Free Theatre’s Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak

Ouzounian explained that TIFT Artistic Producer Arkady Spivak invited him to curate the series, which presented him with opportunities.

This little festival enticed the community with online performances to benefit restaurant and retail businesses of Simcoe County. The price of admission to any of the exclusive Dinner à la Art readings was a $30 minimum purchase from one of the local participating restaurants or retailers.

I hope we’ll see more such partnerships, businesses & artists working together.

In the introduction to the show, Ouzounian told us how the novel had become public domain, making it available for adaptations like this one. I was frankly astonished how well the story worked, although it helps that this is so familiar.

I’ve seen the two most recent film versions (of the four I’m aware of), each seeking to outdo the other for excessive glitter & glamour, a million miles away from the literary realm. But in the novel we’re watching Gatsby and his world through the eyes of Nick Carraway. As a story told by an observer, the minimalism of Zoom (or its equivalent) works unexpectedly well, especially when the cast is as strong as this one.

Eric McCormack brought a soft spoken vulnerability to the title role, a figure who might be a cipher recalling how different Robert Redford’s reading is from that of Leonardo DiCaprio (admittedly filtered by two very different takes on the novel).

Ouzounian uses McCormack’s face at times for a few poetic takes that are more romantic than cinematic. We’re invited to look across the water with Gatsby / McCormack.

Chilina Kennedy is a mercurial Daisy displaying a wide emotional range, a genuine star to match McCormack. Mike Nadajewski carries the load as Nick, skipping back and forth across the theoretical divide between narration and drama, effortlessly carrying the story, while reflecting upon the romance.

We live in interesting times, encouraging creative responses from our artists.

Director & adaptor Richard Ouzounian

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Baudelaire Bicentennial

I must be brief.

How does one speak of the bicentennial of a poet such as Charles Baudelaire, born two hundred years ago on April 9th in 1821? how to find the right words,…?

Some know him for his poetry, some for his criticism. His influence was subtle but enormous, immeasurable, far beyond his milieu.

He was an outspoken sensualist in works articulating a philosophy celebrating beauty for its own sake, earning him the label “decadent”. For a poet I know both in French & translation, it’s astonishing how many ways his poems get translated, how many brilliant things one can find in a single poem. The pleasures he described were Epicurean, worldly, educated, but original and new in their articulation. I’ll take Baudelaire over Henry Miller or Anais Nin: although I suppose neither of the latter is really possible without Baudelaire, as in some ways it’s as though he invented erotic literature. Or that’s how it feels. My God as I read and re-read, he seems so fresh & new especially when one sees the variety of translations, each seeking to meet the poet on the same level: which is impossible.

See for yourself https://fleursdumal.org/

Charles Baudelaire

Not for the first time, I’m seeing huge echoes in our own time of the pandemic. Baudelaire was a man sketching brilliance from a dark place, sunny images seen from the shadows, recollections of vivid life that seem especially poignant now, so perfect for 2021. He was an idealist portraying the unreachable and the unfathomable.

I can imagine him smiling at our current lockdown and the impacts upon our lives.

A few months ago I wrote about Alexander Ross’s Wagner book, pondering the meaning of “modern” and “modernism”. I’ve seen Richard Wagner spoken of as a 20th century composer, the century having begun with Tristan und Isolde, an opera composed in the late 1850s. By the same token Baudelaire is one of the first and most important Wagnerians, which might be the least reason to identify him as modern if not modernist, alongside his poetry.

Ha, what’s a poet after all if we don’t sometimes stretch the meaning of words to the breaking point…? How modern then?

I am intrigued at how sometimes the ideas surrounding a work (whether it’s painting or performance) may be as important or more important than the work itself. I recall receiving Fleurs du maI as a gift from a friend, her excitement about a book I had not yet encountered. And I remember reading Baudelaire’s commentary about the Lohengrin Prelude. Curiously he was writing about something he had not actually heard himself. Nobody had yet heard the work in Paris. No, he may as well have been writing about the descent of Holy Grail itself: which come to think of it, he was trying to do (given the imagery in the opera). Baudelaire got excited while describing music Franz Liszt had heard & described and his enthusiasm was contagious. In time the symbolists in Paris would put Baudelaire, Wagner & Poe on their pedestal as their pantheon of influences, ideals barely understood even though they were from far off cultures (a German & an American?), languages they didn’t understand and whose foreignness added glamour and prestige.

The Baudelaire poem that I think of as most influential at least in the half century following its appearance is Correspondances. It captures in a few lines the concerns of many he would influence.

Correspondances

La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles ;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.

Comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent
Dans une ténébreuse et profonde unité,
Vaste comme la nuit et comme la clarté,
Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons se répondent.

II est des parfums frais comme des chairs d’enfants,
Doux comme les hautbois, verts comme les prairies,
Et d’autres, corrompus, riches et triomphants,

Ayant l’expansion des choses infinies,
Comme l’ambre, le musc, le benjoin et l’encens,
Qui chantent les transports de l’esprit et des sens.

*******

Richard Wagner

There are many translations, but even in French you can’t miss suggestive lines, such as
“La Nature est un temple” or
“forêts de symboles”. This is multi-sensory, when we see
” Les parfums, les couleurs et les sons.”

We’re shown an approach that would happily cross disciplinary boundaries, all senses stimulated, and anticipating the bold ambitions of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, a total artwork. It might have been composed as the manifesto of a new type of art, the symbolist creation.

Maybe he never knew of Schopenhauer, but that first line suggests the philosopher’s idea that the arts could be understood as a channel for the divine, as though the poets were priests or priestesses.

Many other artists picked up on his ideas about reality. Claude Debussy set some of Baudelaire’s poems as songs or used them to inspire his piano music. “Harmonies du soir” from Fleurs du maI ends with the line that is Debussy’s title for his 4th prelude of Book 1, namely “Les sons et les parfums tournent dans l’air du soir.” The suggestive imagery of the poem becomes the departure point in the composition of the prelude.

Debussy instructions in the score for the pianist are poetic. He says “comme une lointaine sonnerie de cors” (or “like a distant ringing of horns”) and when the phrase is echoed moments later it says “Encore plus lointaine et plus retenu” (or “even more distant & more restrained”).

Can a piano make sounds suggesting horns? Debussy would expect it, the piano score another species of poem, the pianist another sort of poet.

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Mr Smith wasn’t Born Yesterday

TV programming sometimes brings us serendipitous discoveries. TCM’s Good Friday offering was Mr Smith Goes to Washington. This morning we watched Born Yesterday.

I never noticed how many similarities there are between the two films.

An innocent recently come to Washington DC, witnesses corruption in a person that they trusted, then (learning how their country works from a new friend), they take a stand against that corruption, and eventually find romance.

That describes both films.

Maybe I’m extra sensitive to the parallels given the news on TV, Derek Chauvin and the attack in DC that left a police officer dead. The darkness matches the Lenten season. Perhaps it’s the time of year that has me seeing these films in a different light? In both there’s a genuine reverence but not for religion, so much as a faith in the American experiment. There’s a sense that the buildings of the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial are holy ground, that documents such as the Gettysburg Address or the declaration of independence are as sacred as Biblical scrolls. I find it magical, especially when seen through innocent eyes.

And in both films the press plays a key role. For Mr Smith there are different versions being published in print media, of the struggle that he’s facing. One comes from the huge invincible political machine he seeks to oppose/ The other is put out by the naive amateurs in boys’ clubs that he associates with. The scariest part of this film comes when we see the brutality with which that opposition (especially the children) is silenced.

In Born Yesterday Paul Verrall (William Holden) is a writer, hired to teach Billie Dawn (Judy Holiday). “Ver” is truth, so surely she can trust someone named “Verrall”.

Both stories remind us of the role of a free press. Both stories take us to (spoiler alert) happy endings that seem fragile, vulnerable in a world full of liars & con artists.

In the USA Fox News has changed the landscape, altering the conversation so extremely that one might well ask whether there is a conversation at all. Left & right are estranged. Conspiracy theories receive more support from people than ever before, after a presidency that cast huge doubts upon the press, popularizing the concept of “fake news” and “alternative facts”. Many believe the election was stolen. This belief was behind the January 6th rally in DC, including the assault on the Capitol.

The world is changing of course…

Speaking of “making America great again”, sometimes I wish it were possible to stop the onrush of change. I like The Simpsons, but sometimes their stories & images freak me out. The images in this episode first shown in 1999 eerily anticipate some of what we saw January 6th.

For Holy Week, on Good Friday, sometimes I can imagine that time really is standing still at least for the celebrations. But lately I’m not so sure. This was the first time I had seen either film since the January insurrection. They are if anything even more poignant than ever. I wonder if any of the insurgents has seen either film before, films that would suggest that one must treat the Capitol as holy ground, and not a place to be vandalized.

Although I’m grateful that I don’t live in the USA, I worry that our Conservative Party in Canada (who may be about to take power) plan to privatize the CBC, as you can see in this piece from a conservative source. Here’s a tweet from Erin O’Toole. He made the tweet in February 2020, becoming leader in the summer of 2020.

The party are soft-pedaling it now given that they hope to win the next election.

Where would we be in this country if we were similarly at the mercy of for-profit organizations such as Fox? I shudder to think….

I support Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Who are they & what do they stand for? Their website says this as their purpose:

Canada enjoys a distinct cultural and democratic identity that brings us together and sets us apart. Generation after generation, vigilant citizens have fought against powerful interests to carve out space for Canada in the broadcasting system, to protect our culture and identity.

FRIENDS works to advance Canada’s rich culture and the healthy democracy it sustains. A strong CBC, fearless journalism, and our shared story make us who we are. We conduct leading-edge policy and opinion research on issues affecting Canadian media and related issues. This research demonstrates that millions of citizens care deeply about the future of Canadian media, journalism, and programming. This is why we work tirelessly on behalf of all Canadians to make sure that public policy reflects the will of citizens.

There’s lots more to the conversation. You can contact Friends of Canadian Broadcasting here or by email to friends@friends.ca.

The world is changing.

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Young Cassidy, Old Stoppard

Celebrating World Theatre Day in a pandemic that prevents one from going into a theatre might seem to be an oxymoron. Or it might be the best time to really understand what one has lost. Absence and abstinence make the heart grow fonder.

Speaking of contradictions, I’m pondering theatre from at least two directions, as the title might suggest, and they bear on one another. As I mentioned recently I’m reading Hermione Lee’s biography of 83 year-old Tom Stoppard, whose voice & whose talent I associate with the joys of youth. His spirit of fun is unquenchable, a natural successor to The Goon Show and contemporary with Monty Python. Yes I associate him with a brand of British wit.

And I watched Young Cassidy, a 1965 film based on the early part of playwright Sean O’Casey’s autobiography. “John Cassidy” was what the playwright called himself.

Professor Emeritus Michael Sidnell

A third direction might be to recall the professor at the University of Toronto who introduced me to both playwrights, namely Michael Sidnell. You may recognize the name from his multiple volume Sources of Dramatic Theory, the text used by many Canadian professors, especially if they studied with him. As an undergrad I recall a certain reverence with which Sidnell spoke of Synge & O’Casey, and Yeats.

And I remember when Sidnell read parts of Stoppard in class (especially the short versions of Hamlet) that were huge fun. Now of course this third direction is a nostalgic recollection that goes back to a previous century. While it hasn’t been that long since I was in a theatre seeing a show (although it’s now more than a year), it’s the same direction if you’re looking back: whether it’s just over your shoulder by a matter of months, or years. Or decades.

I understand that Young Cassidy was a commercial disappointment, at least according to the commentary on TCM, and it’s no wonder. We’re in that curious transition period between Ben Hur and The Last Temptation of Christ, when studios were losing or loosing their grip, when the whole idea of film and what’s to be filmed were changing.

Lee’s bio of Stoppard offers a critique of Young Cassidy, that can be seen via a pair of quotes, the key words boldfaced.

Quote #1 “Scribbling a few notes to himself on a cold November morning’s rehearsal of Dogg’s Our Pet, with Geoffrey Reeves directing, he noted that his “suspicion of participation theatre” was being remarked on, and observed wryly to himself:
“My idea of theatre: audience sits, listens and goes home.”

Quote #2 “In those interviews he was constantly asked about how serious a writer he was, whether his plays had a message, whether he was conservative, and wrote against the prevailing trend of political theatre, and what his views were on the issues of the day. His response, which knowingly risked sounding dandyish or frivolous, was always to resist being fitted into a slot or a single fixed point of view—except in his firm belief in theatre as entertainment.

Stoppard is a towering figure of the 20th century theatre, and big enough to cast a shadow that looms over the first part of the 21st as well. We’d never think of Beckett that way, probably not Pinter either. Maybe Stoppard’s such a huge success—artistically & commercially—because he was so clear-minded and purposeful about what he was doing. After an apprenticeship as a theatre critic Stoppard wrote plays that never threaten to contradict the aphorisms we might draw from those two quotes:

…that the audience sits, listens & goes home,

…that theatre is entertainment.

Never mind academic studies of plays & drama, is this perhaps how the studios understand film? I wonder.

I wish MGM had been that lucid in preparing the trailer for Young Cassidy. They sound somewhat conflicted, unable to reconcile the pure artist & the carnal man. Perhaps their anxieties about the project are showing? It didn’t make as much money as the studio might have expected, for the investment in talent. Rod Taylor gave a spectacular performance, and yet because the film did poorly at the box office, this notion that he couldn’t deliver was probably held against him with the inevitable unfortunate impacts on his career.

Although clearly the film’s failure is not Taylor’s fault. There are several possible suspects, such as the direction done by two people. And then there’s the promotion & marketing. The trailer suggests that the studio didn’t really know how to sell the film.

But if you’re curious don’t let the trailer dissuade you.

Nora, the lover & admirer of Cassidy portrayed by Maggie Smith, is so in awe of the great man that she fears she will hold him back. I fear this could describe the way they promoted the project, a bit paralyzed in the presence of the subject.

The film may be flawed but it’s far better, far deeper, far more fun, than you’d ever know from the trailer. I wonder what O’Casey or Yeats might have thought of the film.

Perhaps I should ask Professor Sidnell?

William Butler Yeats (as played by Michael Redgrave), admonishing the Abbey Theatre audience.
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St Patrick’s week at Kingston Social

It can be a kind of March madness. With the arrival of St Patrick’s Day we celebrate a change of season through indulgence. It’s supposed to be fun.

I remember the St Patrick’s Day in my late teens when I went to the Brunswick House tavern before a piano lesson. While I did not consume enough green beer that I started to resemble the Hulk, it was still memorable. I remember the discussion with my piano teacher (who saw red rather than green), and who listened to me play even though I was obviously intoxicated. I played accurately because I had memorized the pieces. We were both surprised, actually… much better than I had any right to be considering what I had been doing. But it was a good exercise, confirming what Frank Zappa might tell you if he were still here: that whether you’re stoned or drunk in rehearsal, you must sober up when you perform.

This weekend I picked up from The Kingston Social, whose St Patrick’s Day menu extended until Saturday.

Sam greeted me at the door when I brought dinner home, obviously intrigued by what her nose was telling her. We’re still being careful what we feed her as she’s not fully recovered from her December illness, so we couldn’t give her any…

I had a Guinness braised lamb stew (diced lamb, turnips, carrots, new potato, shallots & even as Irish as the Guinness in the gravy) served with soda bread. Erika had the smoked blueberry back ribs dinner, and then she shared with one another.

We enjoyed the accompaniment of the Konzelmann Shiraz that I find so congenial to just about anything.

The portions were generous, perhaps in keeping with the spirit of over-indulgence that I associate with St Patrick’s Day. We were both so stuffed at this point that we had to adjourn for a bit,… I took the dog outside for a walk.

No I didn’t forget to feed the dog.

Before partaking of the dessert that we had from Kingston Social I made coffee. The cupcakes were also St Patrick’s- themed, a bit of an allegory of the treasures one might find at the end of the rainbow.

The moral of the “story”? Eat it!

Notice the gold on top of the chocolate, and the actual rainbow.

No leprechauns in sight

We split one Saturday night, with another for Sunday morning.

I hope the lamb stew will be back and won’t just be once a year. It’s one of the most delicious creations I’ve discovered in a long time.

Here’s the Kingston Social menu for future weeks.

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Meditation with dog

My title might be an unconscious imitation of Tom Robbins’ Still-life with Woodpecker.

Might?

I suddenly felt the need to make a parenthetic google search. Tom Robbins. Is he still alive?

And I see that he was born in 1932, author of lots of books, several that I’ve read. Holy cow he’s going to be 90, and seems to be alive & well.

Yes he’s an influence on me, someone I realize I’ve long been imitating for better or worse. Robbins is one of my touchstones of writing & coolness.

I am thinking about this as I read Hermione Lee’s new biography of Tom Stoppard.

He’s another writer named Tom, another hero of mine come to think of it. Stoppard & Robbins both manage to be funny, to be cool, to be profound, sometimes in the same sentence.

I was already doing lots of retrospective thinking, pondering who I am and where I came from in this curious time-out that has been upon us since 2020 and continued into 2021.

Stoppard was born in 1937, five years after Robbins. Both men are engraved in my head as the witty writers of my youth: even though they are no longer youthful.

Sigh.

Whether you work at home or continue to work in the front-lines, everything looks a bit different. Rush hours tend to be quieter. Pedestrians in Toronto often behave in new ways, usually honoring physical distancing but eyes twinkling behind their masks.

It can be an opportunity if you notice.

Every day I walk Sam. I worry about her mortality looking for evidence that she’s healthy while disquieted by symptoms like lumps (the big one in her side is growing).

The lump is bigger today than when this picture was taken. But it doesn’t seem to bother her.

And yet she seems okay. She outruns me, which come to think of it isn’t such a great achievement. But she runs..!

When we’re outside we watch the sky. Okay, she looks up and I think she sees the moon sometimes, where I’m probably being a little more finicky in my observations. She’s very calm, grounded in the here and now, at least until she begins barking at possible intruders or meals.

When someone walks by I can’t be certain whether she thinks of people as threats or appetizers.

Are we humans overthinking? If it smells good taste it. If it tries to hurt you, bite it.

Of course humans have invented lawsuits & liability so maybe we had better not be quite so quick to bare our teeth at others.

The sky is a safer place to look. Will it rain? Will it be cold? I can’t deny that I have all sorts of help, from the weather network, from my iPhone’s weather app. In February & March these are important questions to ponder before venturing outside, given that the temperature variation can be rather large. Last Thursday we hit +19 while just last night the wind chill was -17.

Not so long ago

No wonder the plants seem confused.

I hope those cute little flowers will be okay.

The path that the sun seems to follow changes every day.

I say “seems” because of course it’s not the sun moving, it’s the planet. We’re circling the sun once every year, and rotating on our axis once every day. Every day there’s a time when the sun seems to come over the horizon aka “sunrise” and later a time when it seems to go under the horizon aka “sunset”. Because of that orbital traveling each day the sun’s arc (the path from sunrises to sunset) in the sky is a wee bit different.

Being outside with the dog I see the changing seasons in the sun’s daily arc. If you find a reference point, you can see the differences in where the sun is rising and setting. It varies ever so slightly each day just as the length of day varies a tiny bit each day. On the shortest day of the year I made a note of where the sun set. Currently it’s a bit further north, moving yet further north every day. That makes sense right? In the depths of winter, the sun is further to the south of us, its rays indirect and not terribly warming, giving Argentina & Australia their longest days, while leaving those who are further north, like the Scandinavians, let alone the Arctic, in darkness. And on the summer solstice (that longest day), the sun will be more overhead, its rays more direct: and for that reason, much warmer.

With the help of my iPhone weather app I see the times for each sunrise and sunset.

Sounds like a song doesn’t it?

Today March 15th for example, it tells me that the sun will rise at 7:26 and set at 7:23. It’s almost exactly 12 hours. That makes sense. The equinox will be upon us soon. Equinox comes from Latin, when the night is equal to the day. The magic day is probably sometime next weekend (around the 21st), and after that date the days will be exceeding the night, gradually getting longer and longer until the peak is reached sometime around June 21st. And then it all turns around the other way, with the days getting shorter, the nights getting longer, and equal on or about September 21st.

In December the sunset was much earlier and further to the left (south) using this building as my reference.
And by June sunset will be way further north.

The last of the snow has melted this week, although it was still very chilly this morning with that -17 windchill.

Sam likes it all the same.

I hear people complain about the weather. Never mind that it’s beyond your control (although if you’re living in Toronto and want the weather to be warm why stay if you could move south?). I have the dog as a reminder. She appears to be happy when she’s warm. I meant to get a photo of her this morning after being outside in the cold , when she basked in the sunshine on the living room floor like a big pussy cat.

And she rolls around in the snow when she gets the chance.

As I have mentioned before, she’s a good teacher.

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SFO Rheingold

As I ponder the future of streaming performances & concerts, I’m checking out Wagner’s Ring Cycle as produced by the San Francisco Opera in 2018 in their co-production with the Washington Opera. If you go to https://sfopera.com/opera-is-on/ you choose between “stream for free” and “subscriber/donor”, the latter presumably offering greater options.

I wonder if we’ll see something like this one of these days from the National Ballet of Canada or The Canadian Opera Company? As a free visitor I’m enjoying the offer of one Ring opera each weekend beginning with Das Rheingold.

Whether you think of Rheingold as the first night of a tetralogy or the prologue to a trilogy I’ve had great fun watching Francesca Zambello’s creation, a director I only know through her production of Les Troyens that I saw at the Met a few years ago. Both operas are epic works requiring vision, indeed they’re among my favorites. Could Zambello repeat her Troyens magic on the Wagner opera? I think so.

On the SFO site, she offers the following commentary on her production, that’s often called “the American Ring” for its approach to the materials.

The Ring is always contemporary. We are presenting a world in some ways familiar to our audience but also one that will feel very mythic as we look to our country’s rich imagery. The great themes of the Ring—nature, power and corruption—resound through America’s past and haunt our present.” –Francesca Zambello, Director

I don’t think there is an opera that offers more opportunity for directors or designers to show us their creative brilliance. Presented as written –that is without any embellishments—the work requires us to see giants, dwarves, gods, a giant serpent, a toad, nymphs swimming in a river, a mountain-top, subterranean caves, a rainbow bridge to a distant castle, and scene changes traversing the transformation from one setting to another. Zambello’s American orientation means that for example the building of the castle offers us a modern construction crane, while the gods (awaiting their new home) look eagerly at the blueprints. But the production hasn’t strayed far from the text, at least not in the first of the operas.

I like some of the performances, but must say that the best thing about this streamed opera is Zambello’s inspired direction. Yes there are wonderful things in the design, but I’m indifferent if the eye-candy isn’t purposeful. It must be redeemed by a soul, by something in the text to make it truly good. It’s early to be concluding anything, but so far I’m totally enamored of this production.

A few moments stood out for me.

The usual dynamic in the story involves a misguided bargain to pay the giants for building Valhalla by giving them the goddess Freia. The gods must get her back, and so conspire to steal the ring Alberich has made out of the Rhinegold, a prize that the giants will accept as ransom in lieu of Freia.

Got that?

In Freia’s part –as written– she complains when she is threatened and then given (temporarily) to the giants in scene two, and she’s expected to show relief when she is released in the last scene, as part of the bargain for the ring. Of course some modern directors have played with that a bit.

Patrice Chereau (1976) for instance follows the usual template until the moment when Freia is released: and she dashes away from the giants AND away from the gods, perplexed by what she’s been put through.

Robert Lepage in his recent production has Freia revolted at first but starting to warm up to Fasolt by the end.

Zambello takes this much further. Where Freia is afraid of Fasolt at first –a creature who resembles a giant Edward Scissorhands—by the end she seems smitten with him, and genuinely upset when he dies.

Initially Fasolt’s rough handling of Freia terrifies & alienates her…..

Fasolt is played by Andrea Silvestrelli, Freia is Julie Adams.

…but Freia seems to be smitten by the end.
(from left) Fafner (Raymond Aceto), Fasolt (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Freia (Julie Adams)

The opening scene likely would please the composer if he were alive, compared to so many productions that mess with the content. We see almost exactly what we should be seeing.

The Daughters of the Rhine, namely Woglinde(Stacey Tapan), Wellgunde (Lauren McNeese) & Flosshilde (Renée Tatum) mock Alberich (Falk Struckmann)

Yes Zambello’s Alberich does enter looking a bit like a prospector looking for gold in California, but once we get past the funny hat, he’s more or less like any other Alberich: except that Falk Struckmann gives an exceptional portrayal. Struckmann has a vulnerable charm as he makes his futile play for the Rhine-maidens, who dance around him mocking & teasing. Zambello’s interpretation is very relatable, her characters all wonderfully fleshed out. When Alberich’s frustration boils over his anger is stunningly three-dimensional & entirely sympathetic. In the subterranean scene –where we meet him after he has renounced love & forged the Rhine gold into a ring—he is brutally scary, bullying the Nibelungen dwarves, some played by children whom he lifts up in his arms.

Alberich (Falk Struckmann) terrorizing the Nibelungen

I have never seen the dynamics of the scene when Wotan & Loge come to visit his underground home so perfectly enacted. As Loge & Wotan flatter him, Alberich grabs Wotan’s hat, provoking the angry eruption that’s in the score, while Loge struggles to keep a lid on that anger.

Alberich (Falk Struckmann) with Wotan’s hat in his hand

Stefan Margita is a superb Loge, admittedly in the most fun role in the opera, the provocative trickster- liar. Greer Grimsley brings a lot of authority to the role of Wotan although I found he yelled through much of the role, missing many of his notes. Jamie Barton was his wife Fricka, constantly contradicting her husband, and deliciously contrary to Grimsley in her perfect singing.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) and Fricka (Jamie Barton)

I also love what Zambello makes of Erda the Earth goddess, gloriously sung by Ronnita Miller.

Erda reaches towards Wotan, advising him to let go of the ring upon his finger.

In a few short minutes Zambello has Wotan worshipfully kneeling to Erda, whom he will impregnate before the next opera.

Wotan (Greer Grimsley) kneels to Erda (Ronnita Miller)

Sir Donald Runnicles leads the SFO orchestra & the cast in this production. I was very fond of the CGI, projections making scene change magic, including S Katy Tucker whose name may be familiar for her work with Against the Grain & on the COC’s Hansel and Gretel just over a year ago. In addition to Zambello & Tucker I must also mention others on this wonderful team, namely set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Mark McCullough and the original projections designer Jan Hartley. It all hangs together beautifully, a superb experience.

Next week it’s Die Walküre.

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Techno-salvation, or a real Canadian Opera Company / National Ballet of Canada

The pandemic has offered a measure of clarity to the world of performing arts. Artists have been knocked for a loop by the lost pay due to gigs that couldn’t happen. Businesses are badly messed up by lost revenues, wondering whether they’ll recover when the threat from the virus abates and we begin to emerge from hiding places, resuming our normal lives, if at all possible.

And in the meantime we’re all relying on our computers & phones. Instead of going in to the office many work from home, relying on Zoom or other virtual tools. To keep from going crazy we’re consuming arts & entertainment through our devices rather than live.

This week I’m nostalgic as I recall the first week of March in 2020, one year ago.

On March 1st I saw the National Ballet, including Angels Atlas, in my final visit to Four Seasons Centre before the cancellations began.

Artists of the National Ballet in Angels’ Atlas. (Photo: Karolina Kuras)

On Thursday March 5th I saw my last concert in Koerner Hall, the only Beethoven 250 event I would see.

And on the Saturday night March 7th I saw my last theatre performance of the year, Toronto Operetta Theatre’s HMS Pinafore.

Since then, everything has been online. Alexander Neef has just left the Canadian Opera Company, after years of excellent productions. I remember the sadness as they closed, knowing that we couldn’t see them again. Today I watched the first installment of a Ring Cycle from the San Francisco Opera, available for free until tomorrow from their website. Next weekend they’ll offer the next opera via the same URL, and so on.

Erda (Ronnita Miller) cautions Wotan (Greer Grimsley)

Other nights we’ve been able to watch a free recorded performance from the Metropolitan Opera’s accumulated wealth of shows, previously offered in their High Definition series or even earlier as “Live from the Met”.

And of course there’s the content that you pay for.

I’m jealous.

If we had the kind of technology of either the Met or SFO, our pandemic experience could have been lightened by locally produced work rather than foreign imports. I can’t be the only one thinking “gee I wish we had something like that here in Canada”. Sure I like the free shows, but wouldn’t it be great if the tickets were supporting a Canadian company. Imagine if they had the additional revenue stream from the virtual performances to complement live.

And let me add, I know Toronto isn’t really the centre of the world much as it may seem as though Torontonians think so. It’s a bit embarrassing when you notice that we have the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada, perhaps as vestiges of a time when we thought that no other city could support such an endeavour, notwithstanding the many cities across Canada that actually do have lots of opera, symphony, ballet etc. Thank goodness there are occasional tours, although they don’t go to the whole country anymore (if they ever did).

But wow, what if those operas or ballets were captured for virtual viewing..? Then their national names would be fulfilled, because the citizens from Cornerbrook to Cranbrook could see their so-called “national” companies in action without coming to Toronto.

So the recent announcement of federal money to provide “digital infrastructure” at the Four Seasons Centre sounds very welcome indeed, as though the folks on Parliament Hill are trying to be helpful.

For tonight, I was enjoying that SFO production of Das Rheingold, not the COC or National Ballet. I will be catching up on other virtual performances by Canadians when I get the chance.

Tapestry Opera begin offering Our Song D’Hiver, starring Mireille Asselin and pianist Frédéric Lacroix.

Toronto Operetta Theatre will again feature Gilbert & Sullivan, although in a virtual version, as they present The Gondoliers beginning March 19th; further info via this link

And of course there’s lots more available online.

In the meantime, stay safe and soon we’ll have vaccinations & sometime thereafter live performances.

Posted in Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | Leave a comment