Attila Keszei in 2018

I’ve written about Attila Keszei a few times including an interview back in 2015.

I met him at the University of Toronto, a kindred spirit because

  • We’re both Hungarian
  • We both worked for Facilities & Services at the University of Toronto (he’s retired, I am still there).
  • In addition to our daytime jobs, we both engaged in extensive artistic activities

Attila’s creations take at least a few different pathways.

  • Religion and Biblical images
  • Sustainability and images of our dynamic Earth
  • Erotic and sensuous art
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“Homage to Georgia O’Keeffe Flower #3” (Raku fired ceramic – 2015 )

Currently his work can be found in three places in Toronto:

  1. Two paintings at the Hungarian Consulate
  2. Three paintings at the Hungarian Catholic church (432 Sheppard Ave. East.)
  3. And although he just finished a show at Art Square Gallery (opposite AGO on Dundas St W), he now has a dozen pieces at the University of Toronto’s Faculty Club. And every Wednesday afternoon for the rest of November, 4 -7 pm, he’ll be there in person

Here are a few examples of his work.

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“Morning Mist, Steaming Coffee and M1911”, oil on canvas by Attila Keszei, 2018

Sometimes he paints, sometimes he does raku ceramic, and he’s still exploring new options of other media.

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“The Wicked Elders and Susanna”: raku-fired ceramic, Attila Keszei, 2011

In case it’s not obvious I’m an admirer.

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“Jonah in the Whale” (from a series of 4), Raku-fired ceramic, Attila Keszei, 2018.

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Questions for Rose Plotek: Like Mother, Like Daughter

Questions about process and form can be among the most profound even if they seem to be never-ending.  I’m happily immersed in such considerations this week, having seen Humans by Circa (what is their idiom after all?) and Ken Gass’s intriguing adaptation of Helen’s Necklace.

Now I will inflict the questions on someone else, namely Rose Plotek, in my hope to learn something. Let me begin by sharing Rose’s bio from National Theatre School.

Rose Plotek (Directing 2007) is a director and theatre maker. The inquiry of Rose’s work investigates form and aesthetic, with experiment being a driving force of both development and presentation. Her work is often developed through inter-disciplinary collaboration and workshop, most frequently with Philip McKee (Directing 2009). Recent credits: Like Mother, Like Daughter, created with Ravi Jain (Why Not Theatre, Toronto) and Complicite (London, UK); Bloody Family (Theatre Centre); LEAR (World Stage/Magnetic North); Performance About A Woman (Summerworks Performance Festival). She was Intern Director at the Shaw Festival (Neil Munro Intern Director Project, 2013).

Rose’s co-creation Like Mother, Like Daughter is back, and was the occasion for this interview.

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Rose Plotek, director & maker of theatre

Are you more like your father or your mother?

My mother. My mother is a force of nature. She is a community organizer, activist, educator, writer, filmmaker and farmer. She cares deeply for the land and for her community. I try in all I do to carry the work she does forward.

I am emotional, at times volatile, but deeply caring, all of which I share with my mother.

I’m grateful if I’m even just a little bit like her.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

I travel a lot for work, which is the best, except it means I’m away from my kid, which is the worst.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I listen to CBC radio all the time. I work from home when I’m not in rehearsal and I often have it on in the background. This is something I have inherited from my parents, they both do this as well.

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

I wish I could speak more languages. I am fluent in French, but I would love to also speak Italian, Spanish, German and Arabic.

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

Hang out with my kid. Cook. Read. Spend time at my mother’s farm. Go to the movies.

*****

More questions about Like Mother, Like Daughter

Speaking of questions, Like Mother, Like Daughter consists of a framework of questions being posed on a stage to the real-life women, taking the questions. What are some of the best questions you’ve heard?

What things should mothers teach their children and what things are better for children to discover for themselves?

What makes a house a home?

Do you think you would survive alone in the wilderness?

What’s one question you would ask a psychic about your future?

Do you rehearse or somehow get them ready for real questions before a real audience? What is the nature of your preparation, and are some people too shy or nervous to do this, and back out?

We do a series of workshops with the participants in the weeks leading up to the performances. The primary focus of those workshops is for the group to spend time together, and get to know each other a little bit. Essentially, we spend that time in conversation. We also lead the mothers and daughters through a series of writing exercises that help generate the questions that are then used in the performances themselves. They generate the questions, which are then curated by me for the performances.

We’ve never had people back out of the process. We’ve certainly had participants who are shyer than others. We try to create an environment that is warm and convivial, that makes people feel comfortable and allows them to be themselves. If they are shy or feel discomfort in front of a group of people, then they’re welcome to be just that in front of an audience. Because participants are coming to this with their mother or daughter, I think that there’s a familiar element, there’s a little bit of your life and your self there that’s always present. That creates an environment where I believe people feel quite comfortable. We do have a microphone for people who are little more soft-spoken, so they don’t have to try and amplify their voices or be performative in any way. We allow them to be themselves.

There’s a great quote from The Guardian that I saw in the press release: “It works on the premise that other people’s lives are completely fascinating.” Do people need any help to be “completely fascinating”, or is that Guardian quote completely accurate?

I think it’s completely accurate. I think everyone has a story to tell that has value, and everyone’s experience matters. The way that we understand each other as human beings is by coming together and having a conversation. What we’re trying to do in creating the circumstances of the piece is to allow people to come together and share their stories and experiences; something that can feel perhaps small or insignificant can be very telling and can connect people on a pretty profound level.

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Talk about the communal meal that’s such a big part of this, how & why that’s included in the piece.

The meal was an element that was part of it right from the initial impulse of the piece. I think its value is that that regardless of your background or the culture that you come from, people get together over food. They come together around the dinner table – it’s the thing that brings us together. Breaking bread together crosses all borders, so for us it was an integral part of a way to open up the possibility for a group of strangers to come together and have a conversation.

For me, the performance event witnessed by the audience in the first half of the evening is a warm up to the meal in the second half. The meal is shared between the mothers and daughters and the audience. For me, that meal is really the main event of Like Mother, Like Daughter. What we’re doing in the first half of the evening is getting the conversation started. That conversation then continues with the audience over some extremely delicious food made by Newcomer Kitchen. It really is a special experience and something that I think is unique. A lot of people who go to the theatre are used to sitting in the dark amongst a group of strangers and sharing a kind of communal experience in that way. But sitting down at a dinner table with strangers is not something that we get the opportunity to do very often, if ever.

This work seems very intimate. What’s the range, from the biggest and smallest audiences you’ve had for this work, and what do you think is the ideal size of audience?

The audience capacity is 70. It’s been between 50 and 70 each time we’ve done the show. The piece hinges on the fact that it is quite intimate and that you’re sitting down at a table with the mothers and daughters, so if you had an audience that was too large it would be very difficult to have any kind of further conversation at the dinner table.

60 to 70 people is really the perfect size for the piece – it is very intimate the way the audience surrounds a big dinner table. In the first part of the evening the audience gets a bird’s eye view of a dinner table where the mothers and daughters have a conversation, and then the audience moves to a series of tables that mimics that shape in the other half of the space. The piece hinges on the fact that it is an intimate experience, but it also has to have a large enough audience to fuel a good conversation.

Do you have any influences / teachers you would want to mention, especially as they are relevant to what we see in Like Mother, Like Daughter.

There are people whose work has influenced the shape of this piece. Lois Weaver’s Long Table is one of those. Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola! is another one. The show that Ravi Jain (Why Not Theatre) created with his mother, Brimful of Asha, is obviously a piece that influenced the beginnings of this one. Also the previous work of Complicité, which is the company in the UK that co-created Like Mother, Like Daughter. The stream of their company called “Creative Learning” had made other works that incorporated non-performers and audiences coming together over food. There’s one piece that they made called Tea, and there are some structural elements that are shared between the two pieces. I’d say that those four things had some influence on the shape that the piece eventually took.

*******

Like Mother, Like Daughter returns for Eight Shows Nov 15 – 24, 2018
918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media & Education, Toronto
PAY WHAT YOU CAN AFFORD: $50 | $35 | $20
Tickets available through kofflerarts.org | theatrewhynot.org
Original Concept and Direction by Ravi Jain, Rose Plotek, and Poppy Keeling
Co-Created by Why Not Theatre and Complicité Creative Learning
Directed by Rose Plotek
Associate Directed by Lisa Karen Cox
Directing Assistance by Darwin Lyons
Produced by Why Not Theatre and Koffler Centre of the Arts
Producing for Why Not Theatre by Kevin Matthew Wong
Producing for Koffler Centre by Jessica Dargo Caplan

PERFORMANCE SCHEDULE
Thursday, November 15, 8 PM – OPENING NIGHT
Friday, November 16, 8 PM
Saturday, November 17, 11 AM – BRUNCH PERFORMANCE
Sunday, November 18, 6 PM
Thursday November 22, 8 PM
Friday November 23, 8 PM
Saturday, November 24, 11 AM – BRUNCH PERFORMANCE
Saturday, November 24, 8 PM

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Helen’s Necklace via Canadian Rep Theatre

I knew what I was going to see when I got to the upstairs space on Berkeley St. Oh sure, it was Canadian Rep Theatre’s staging of Carole Fréchette’s play Helen’s Necklace in John Murrell’s translation, directed by Ken Gass.

But I mean, I knew. The second paragraph director’s note Ken has put into the program makes it clear what we’re about to experience:

“This often-produced play is normally done with one female performer playing the role of Helen and one male actor playing Nabil, the taxi driver, and the four other inhabitants of the foreign (to her) city. Here, each of three performers share the role of Helen, while also collectively presenting the remaining characters. In the Canadian context, the role of Helen could obviously belong to actresses of any racial or ethnic identity, and by bringing together a diverse ensemble of performers, we came closer, hopefully, to recognizing the universality of Helen’s journey.”   (Ken Gass)

This technique of dividing a dramatic personage among multiple persons is not a common one, but also, not so rare that it’s never been seen. We saw it in I’m Not There¸ the 2007 film about Bob Dylan. We saw it also in Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus¸ likely due to the untimely passing of Heath Ledger in 2009, as other actors undertook parts of his role that were unfinished. I’ve experimented with it a bit myself.

Ken Gass’s approach to Fréchette’s text via Murrell’s translation offers another wrinkle. Excuse me if I wax mechanical for a moment. Any playtext can be understood as a bit of a puzzle, decoded or solved in the various choices made by the cast, director and designers; one can imagine several axes along which creators make choices, such as “loudness-softness” or “explicit – poetic”, or “internal- external”. Getting poetic or symbolic problematizes the signification, normally making it a bit harder to figure out who is who.  We’re distanced and possibly alienated by such a process. But in a story that is, if you’ll excuse me for saying so, blunt & obvious, sometimes that’s a welcome thing, to lessen the pure onslaught of reality. I am recalling for example the film and also the production of Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad that I saw last year: each struggling with the question of how to represent or signify unwatchable horrors that are in the texts.

My background in music & opera may be showing, if I choose to see this adaptation (and I hope Ken will be okay with me calling it that) as something like chamber opera. We’re listening to the beauty of the voices, the stunning ensemble work of three extraordinary actors. Where the original might seem to punch you in the guts, the presentation of the same story becomes gentler in this adaptation, as though handed to a Greek chorus to sing as though from afar: even as they sometimes give it to us directly in our faces. The performances sweep you away even if the questions being asked have obvious answers.

But these are not questions one asks expecting any sort of answer.

From the first we’re watching emotions & impressions seeming to reverberate through the three actors –Akosua Amo-Adem, Zorana Sadiq and Helen Taylor—as though they were all the same person. Throughout there is a reflexive hand to the throat, feeling for a missing necklace.

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Left to right: Akosua Amo-Adem; Zorana Sadiq; Helen Taylor (Photo: Michael Cooper)

As the story proceeds we discover what might be missing for each. It’s a bit like an elegy or a requiem in its universality, a search for what’s missing, mourning for what may never be restored.  While it may go without saying that this is a tour de force, an impressive piece of theatre, it is above all a beautiful experience that swallows you up.

This exquisite 70 minute production will continue this weekend (meaning November 11th at 2:30 PM) at Canadian Stage’s Berkeley St upstairs space, before continuing on to Burlington Performing Arts Centre November 16 – 18.

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Left to right: Akosua Amo-Adem; Helen Taylor; Zorana Sadiq (photo: Michael Cooper)

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Circa Humans

Tonight I saw Humans by the Circa Ensemble a visiting troupe from Australia. I read the following brief preamble from Yaron Lifschitz, the Artistic Director of Circa.  While it was poignant before the show, it was positively illuminating to re-read it afterwards, and to reproduce it now.

“We humans are a fairly weak, unimpressive species. Anything we can achieve physically can be easily surpassed by a well-trained monkey. An injured pigeon can fly higher and longer than the best acrobat in the world. A snake can bend infinitely more than the most flexible of contortionists. But it is precisely because we are human that our physical achievements acquire dignity, meaning and poetry. It is in connection to our vulnerability that our strength find its true articulation. In our limitations are out possibilities.

In humans I have asked our ensemble of artists “what does it mean to be human”? How do you express the very essence of this experience with your body, with the group and with the audience? Where are your limits, what extraordinary things can you achieve and how can you find grace in your inevitable defeat?

The creation is the result of this investigation—a report on what it means to be human.”  (Yaron Lifschitz)

YARON

Yaron Lifschitz, artistic director of Circa

I was impressed by what I saw of Circa in their last appearance in Toronto 18 months ago. I’m hungry for a synthesis of media, a new language that’s a blend of procedures from disciplines we might identify with labels such as “circus” and “dance” or “theatre”.   Humans, the piece we saw tonight, takes us further in offering a fulfillment of that heady whiff of something new & original that I caught last year.

It was a delight to be surrounded by people much younger than myself at the Sony Centre tonight.

I’d like to take a stab at expanding on Yaron’s “report on what it means to be human,” at least from what I could see.

Displays of virtuosity have often been geared towards showing us superman or superwoman, the gap between what they can do and what we can do. Whether we mean singing or dancing or circus performance, humanity can get lost when one is too busy showing off.

And that is the key difference with Yaron’s report.

We watch remarkable specimens move and tumble, displaying their skills but often falling, often showing vulnerabilities as well as strengths. We see frailty and pain alongside the more typical displays of procedures with bodies & floors & aerial apparatus. We see reminders of the arbitrariness of our society and what it deems competence or incompetence, through a series of social actions among the bodies onstage, imitating one another absurdly. At times the pace is frenetic, while in other places we are given something softer & more reflective, the music taking us inward, or at times to something blatantly comical. There is some pathos in watching a body that is as passive as a puppet, controlled and moved by the actions of another person. It’s a largely abstract exploration, as the performers make few sounds, tell us little except what we assume from watching them move and their expressions as they interact. Sometimes they’re alone, sometimes in pairs, sometimes a big crowd sculpted into fascinating aggregations of limbs and bodies.

Tonight thrilled as an inter-disciplinary work that isn’t quite dance or circus or theatre: or any single discipline, something really new and a fertile ground for exploration and development.  I’m certain there’s much more to be seen & heard from Yaron & Circa in the years to come. While there were moments when we were clearly watching something recognizably circus, procedures we’d seen before, yet there were many more moments where the movement vocabulary had combined elements or even given us new & unrecognizable ones, taking us into unfamiliar territory.  The disorientation was electrifying. Time flew by, the 75 minutes of the show feeling like perhaps 15 or 20 jam-packed minutes.

I am reminded of a paper I gave years ago concerning improvisation, that used aerial work as a departure point. I heard a story of firemen coming into a space where aerials were being done, and their perception of the risks.  It was hugely ironic that these professionals who themselves take risks that we might find daunting, perceived a risk in others. But perceived risk is not the same as a real risk, whether one is watching someone doing a floor exercise, listening to a jazz solo, or an aria with a cadenza.  I’ll set aside the work of a fireman, which is genuinely risky. A performer may seek to create drama from the illusion of risk, when they’re actually confident of their ability to sing coloratura, hit a high note on the instrument, or execute a flip with their body. It was especially shocking to watch skillful falls executed. It sometimes looked painful.

I’m grateful for the serendipity of seeing this the very day after the Tafelmusik concert, when I speculated about applause. Tonight I watched an enthusiastic group bursting into cheers –clapping and sometimes hooting & hollering—in the midst of routines as well as respectfully applauding at the end of segments. Applause seems to be socialized, although I’m not sure exactly how it works. Tonight I was in the land of the ‘woot’ rather than the ‘bravo’. A woot doesn’t seem designed to be especially loud so much as to signal a kind of peer thing, something that sounds like “I appreciate you and want you to know you’re cool”, and not to be confused with a wilder howl or cry as one makes in pure appreciation, cries that wouldn’t be out of place at a hockey game. The applause could erupt at any time, reminding me of the newness we were discovering in the concert last night. When something is really new the applause is different than when we’re giving applause that is in some sense contracted or promised due to an existing relationship (for instance when we come to the end of a jazz solo or when we see an aerialist descend at the end of a routine: and we’re expected to offer applause).

I’ll be watching for future creations from Circa, to see where they take their new procedures & vocabulary.  And I’ll be reflecting on what I saw tonight, the most stimulating show I’ve seen in awhile.

Here’s a tiny sample.

Posted in Personal ruminations, Psychology and perception, Reviews, Theatre & musicals | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Steffani: more devotion than drama

I am grateful for the gift of a new voice, a new composer introduced to me by Tafelmusik, Ivars Taurins, and Krisztina Szabo. It’s truly a magical thing.

I was pondering the experience of classical music, how so much of what we’re doing is really listening to familiar melodies, whether they’re Beethoven or Puccini or Handel. We live in a kind of golden age, when music is so ubiquitous, so available through various media, that you can find just about anything: and usually for free. So much of what we’re doing when we attend a classical concert is a bit like listening to oldies, melodies we know backwards, rather than anything strange or unfamiliar.

It’s a remarkable thing to encounter something new.

That’s the miracle of this week’s programme at Tafelmusik, titled “Steffani: Drama & Devotion”. There’s so much to this composer,  Agostino Steffani, (1654-1728) that they gave two radically different halves that correspond to the parts of the title. In the first half we heard two Christian texts in Steffani’s settings, namely Beatus vir from relatively early in his career followed by his Stabat Mater, a mature masterpiece. That was the “devotion” part, for which soloist Krisztina Szabo wore a beautiful but relatively sombre gown. Tafelmusik Orchestra & chorus were superb throughout.

In the second half, containing a series of operatic pieces, Szabo was in a stunning fuchsia gown, certainly portending drama.

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Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

While she will sing the Messiah later this year for Tafelmusik, Szabo is someone who is known for taking on the new and the adventurous. She sang alongside Barbara Hannigan in the world premiere production of Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin (I think it was earlier this year). We have seen her in such edgy pieces as Pyramus & ThisbeErwartung and Harawi here in Toronto. In a real sense, the Steffani too is new, repertoire that’s not known to the audience or artists. And she brought a wonderful sense of adventure to the performances.

And yet I am frustrated. I need to explain and offer context.

The first half took two pieces, and saw us applaud at the end of each. In the second half, we went from aria to interlude to chorus: and in the process, stifled the drama. Each of those numbers was part of a story: but was presented without preamble and severed from any connection to anything else. I was leaning forward in my seat prepared to holler for the first aria I had heard, even though it was offered without much in the way of context. But there was a polite silence instead. Perhaps it will be different tomorrow.

Forgive me if I offer as my context, the concert I saw this afternoon: where Atis Bankas introduced each piece. We not only had loads of applause, we had clapping between the movements of a sonata. No that’s not considered good form, but it’s a sign of enthusiasm in an audience who weren’t asking anyone’s leave to show their love and affection for the artists & their work.

I  was disappointed to see these opera excerpts presented as though they were parts of a single unit, with no applause nor any encouragement of applause after each one. Call me weird if you will, but I love to applaud. I think it’s one of the components of number-opera, and also a lot of fun. In presenting these arias this way among other operatic excerpts tightly organized without any encouragement of applause: it was as though Szabo were a butterfly, so tightly crowded that she couldn’t spread her wings. Now of course she’d never agree with this assessment because she’s a trouper, indeed a total warrior in showing up, memorizing these new pieces and tossing them off perfectly.

Please note that normally at an opera aria recital we get no explanations. I can surrender to a performance without knowing what’s going on. But please don’t whisk the diva off the stage so quickly. Let us scream our approval first?

Some of these orchestral pieces were amazing, a marvelous smorgasbord of delights. I suppose from a musicological perspective it was wonderful, getting all those performances without any of that irritating applause: except that music is only one part of opera, not its sum total.  Opera is theatre, and when you only have music, you’ve removed part of its essence, a necessary part of opera. Doing it this way felt a bit repressed, bottled up, and unnatural. It was pretty, yes. But it was not operatic.

I yelled my head off at the end of course. They deserved it, because they were all wonderful.  The concert will be repeated Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 at Jeanne Lamon Hall.

Posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

Remembering Kristallnacht

Today’s concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre as part of the Canadian Opera Company’s noon-hour series was a special program titled “Remembering Kristallnacht”,  presented in partnership with the German Consulate of Toronto and the Neuberger’s 2018 Holocaust Education Week.

It’s the season for remembrances. November 11th happens to be the centennial of the Armistice ending the First World War. And it’s Holocaust Education Week. Today is also the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a collective explosion of violence often understood as the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany.

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Violinist Atis Bankas

I remember meeting Atis Bankas in the early 1980s (no way he’d remember me), a new arrival proudly introduced to me at the Lithuanian House by my father-in-law Walter Dresher as a brilliant young violinist.

Today I had a reminder of that brilliance in his collaboration with pianist Constanze Beckmann.

Bankas introduced six segments to us, explaining connections:

  • Connections to Lithuania
  • Connections to the Holocaust
  • Connections making the program especially personal
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Pianist Constanze Beckmann

Some of those links were relatively obvious ones, such as Ravel’s “Kaddish” to open. But one of the keys to the event were these explanations from Bankas, who brings not just his virtuosity but the history, the sense of the ways in which all these composers were inter-connected. In his gentle explanations we were party to a kind of act of remembrance as moving as anything we’d see or hear on November 11th. Culture is so much more than just the famous texts or the performances, but the web of relationships alluded to in Bankas’ explanations, and the fond hopes of these artists seeking to escape a murderous time.

Edwin Geist had tried to escape Germany, and his choice to go to Lithuania seemed like a good choice: but no, it was not far enough, as it turned out.

Polish born Szymon Laks lived for a time in Auschwitz but was somehow able to survive, passing away in the 1980s at a ripe age.

Leo Smit finished his sonata for flute & piano in February 1943, but by April had been deported & murdered. Bankas arranged this intriguing work for violin instead.

Yes we heard stories, but also marvelous music-making. In the latter part of the concert, particularly Joseph Yulyevich Achron’s “Hebrew Melody”, Bankas unleashed the most impressive display of lightning fast passage- work, but always soulful and idiomatic, and sometimes super-soft even while going so quickly. Beckmann was every bit his equal, supportive and strong but always balanced with the violin. The regular eye contact between the players was a big part of the event, and a pleasure to watch.

It was great to see a big enthusiastic crowd at the event including our host COC artistic director Alexander Neef.

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Atis Bankas and Constanze Beckmann performing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, (photo: Karen E. Reeves)

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Closing matinée for Onegin

This afternoon’s late matinée at 4:30 pm was the final performance for Eugene Onegin in the Canadian Opera Company’s fall season. Weekend audiences can be a bit of a challenge especially in the afternoon. Oh sure, we’re all relaxed in our seats, meditative, lost in thought.

And so quiet.

Yawn.

That can make it a daunting task to excite such a crowd, leaning back half-asleep in their seats. No wonder they gave us (the Saturday at 4:30 pm subscribers) the closing performance and not opening night, when the COC would want a wildly excited group.

While the soloists were certainly competent, the stars of the show for me were the chorus.

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(l-r, foreground) Oleg Tsibulko as Prince Gremin and Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin with the COC chorus ( photo: Michael Cooper)

It’s fitting that I saw COC chorus-master Sandra Horst during intermission, and went up to her to tell her what a wonderful job her charges were doing.  And then I asked her if –now that the run is over– I could get those beautiful, energetic leaf-sweepers to come over to my house: because my yard is full of leaves. Sigh that would be lovely indeed whether or not they were singing.

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In this scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” the women of the Lyric Opera chorus play Russian peasants sweeping away the autumn leaves. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

I realized today that Robert Carsen’s production (whether we’re speaking of its Toronto incarnation in 2018, its earlier visits to Chicago Lyric Opera, as in the above photo or the Met) all employ the chorus cleverly to help tell the story. They are the rustics in the opening act, laying the groundwork for the story, but also the most energetic people on the stage for the first hour.

When it’s time for Onegin to make Lensky jealous, it’s against a backdrop of the cotillion. We don’t ever see it danced. Instead we are tantalized by the chorus, going pair by pair, enthused and excited by the romance that is this dance, one that poor Lensky won’t get to do, as Onegin grabbed Olga first. With every passing pair of choristers, we see the growing resentment of a jealous lover.

Let’s be honest here. If it weren’t for Carsen, this might look really stupid. Lensky more or less blows a gasket, becoming jealous and fighting a duel with Onegin over very little in the score, next to nothing. Ah but Carsen makes a whole lot more out of it, by using the chorus in this way.  He not only makes the opera more intelligible, he makes it better.  The COC chorus are wonderful singers but at moments like this contribute wonderful theatre.

This was my second look at the production, a week after seeing the closing performance of Hadrian, and it struck me how many parallels there are between the two operas.

Both Hadrian and Eugene Onegin are baritones in the title roles.

A soprano gets the meatiest singing in both operas, rejected by the baritone (Sabina in
Hadrian, Tatyana in Onegin).

A tenor dies a kind of sacrificial death, that leaves the baritone mourning for the rest of the opera.

Both operas bring us to a scene at the end where we’re remembering & agonizing over a romantic encounter from years before.

Need I mention the most obvious parallel? both composers were male homosexuals.

Rufus Wainwright lives in a time when this is not a big deal, at least on this side of the Atlantic. When I googled I saw something suggesting that in Russia this is still problematic for Tchaikovsky. But never mind that. The point is, Rufus Wainwright & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were both in some sense gay.

A big difference is that RW’s sexuality is not something hidden or repressed, whereas PT was living the normal life of the time, seeking to be assimilated into normal polite society and unable to freely declare his feelings. This means he concealed his sexuality, as many still do to this day in many parts of the world. Russia too? (sigh)

It makes me wonder about the composer’s reading of Pushkin’s poem that inspired the opera. There are critics who say he didn’t get Pushkin’s poem, whereas I think he simply put a different spin on the characters, because of his sexuality.

The difference in the opera is how much more sympathetic we find Tatyana & Lensky: not so different from the way Sabina & Antinous are more likeable and more musical to sing than the music for Onegin or Hadrian. Is it a mere coincidence?

Part of it is simply the fact that baritones fight the orchestra (thinking of where their notes sit on the musical staff, sometimes competing with heavier orchestration and less prominent) more than tenors and sopranos. So they often end up in roles with villainous undertones –Alberich, Amonasro, Macbeth, Iago—or at the very least, complexity for the audience—thinking of Germont pere, Rigoletto, Falstaff, Wotan and Amfortas for example. When a baritone gets to be a hero it’s uncommon. For example we do have Rossini’s Figaro, who must be differentiated from the romantic hero, Almaviva. So in other words, whatever Tchaikovsky or Wainwright chose to do, by letting their main hero be a baritone, they signaled to the audience that at the very least they were conflicted about Hadrian and Onegin.

In a recent conversation with my friend Celine Papazewska, we picked up on a theme begun in social media, perhaps by Christine Goerke. They spoke of cross-gender casting in Wagner. I may have sounded like a party pooper when I asked her “what would it sound like” and she replied “fantastic!” But while I love her enthusiasm, the fact is, it takes someone years if not decades to figure out how to sing a role like Isolde or Tristan or Tannhaüser or Turandot. Flipping the gender might make it easier, if you approach it the way Aretha Franklin approached “nessun dorma”: as an occasion for a jazzy improvisation. But if sung with attention to the notes as written, it’s no simple matter. Some rep is easier than others.

I say this having played around this week with Onegin, an opera that makes fewer challenges on its singers than a lot I could name. I sang all the big solos (“kuda kuda” is one of the easiest tenor arias, not going as high as many of the others), only stumbling over the low note that conclude Gremin’s aria. And it’s not interpolated, the composer actually wrote that low G-flat. If one wanted to give Tatyana’s music to a guy or to flip Lensky over to a soprano, it could work just fine. Celine thought Gremin could be a contralto for example.  But really, there are so many possibilities, especially when many operas are very fluid in the way they approach gender signification.

Mozart screams out for this kind of treatment. The best example I can think of is the one we saw here in Toronto, when Teiya Kasahara gave us a gay woman as Cherubino instead of the usual ambiguous male of indeterminate age. And ever notice that Mozart’s women’s parts are more macho than what the men sing? Listen to Donna Anna’s “orsai chi l’onore”, the most stirring aria I can name, and imagine a guy singing it. No Mozart wasn’t signalling that Donna Anna should be a man.  He gave this music to this brave woman who has been sexually assaulted, and wants to make us admire her rather than see her as a victim. And I think he succceeds. Or listen to the first arrival by Donna Elvira when she sings “ah chi mi dice mai”, and in the heroic key of E-flat no less.

Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” in contrast is soft & sweet. How would it read, I wonder if a man said “beat me beat me” to his lover (whether male or female), the way Zerlina says to Masetto? Imagine this sung by a guy.  I think it’s an intriguing idea, whose time has come.

I’m going to keep playing around with the scores. I’m hoping someone will try this for real –meaning the experiments with gender switching –in a theatre.

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