Metamorphoses 2023

Last night I watched a brand new opera featuring a sensual feast of colours hitting the eye and ear. Today I was at Crow’s Theatre, enjoying Metamorphoses 2023 from Theatre Smith-Gilmour, in Ovid’s stories of transformations of gods & humans, animals & plants as adapted by Michele Smith & Dean Gilmour in collaboration with their performers.

Although superficially the two are different both rely upon imagination, both thoroughly theatrical creations in their requirements of their artists even if the materials & methods are very different.

Dean Gilmour (photo: Lyon Smith)

We watch a company of five represent over twenty named characters plus several other background figures such as sailors or hunters, as well as making some of the background sounds in Johnny Hockin’s sound design. At one point, when a ship sinks, we even see something like Of the Sea as the occupants drown, and we meet a drowned sailor. The mise-en-scène, however, is not through vivid costuming and colours, but via the energetic work of the five onstage, signifying changes for us through their bodies and voices. It’s the most magical kind of theatre, putting the onus on the audience’s imagination. I sat in the front row to experience this as powerfully as possible, the performers sometimes right at my feet as they added sound effects using materials stored under the stage.

It’s mind-boggling even as it’s intimate. They do not insult our intelligence by filling it all in for us.

The ongoing theme of the Metamorphoses is change, whether through the intervention of a god, the violent actions of a human, or the natural world unfolding. There are some funny moments but more often than not we’re seeing humanity pushed to extremes with violent consequences.

Pardon me as the nerd in me digresses for a moment. Google can’t give me a clear answer to my question, as to whether Ovid’s contemporary audience encountered his poetry in public readings or not. I do see that perhaps 10% of the population were literate. Does that mean that only these would encounter Ovid? Or did some hear The Metamorphoses read in a public setting? I ponder this because Smith and Gilmour have chosen to adapt Ovid with Gilmour as a story-teller via his role as Tiresias. I wish I knew whether this were actually in a sense true to Ovid: as I sense it must be. Although it doesn’t matter except for my nerdy digression. I was swept up by the story-telling right away.

The nerd in me also wishes he were better able to identify and understand the influences working upon the creative team, Rob Feetham, Daniel R. Henkel, Neena Jayarajan and Sukruti Tirupattur who join Gilmour onstage, directed by Smith. Neena and Sukruti sometimes employ movement vocabularies that strongly suggest Indian influences, which is hardly surprising when I see in their bios that Neena has been a Company dancer for Menaka Thakkar Dance Company for 20 Years, while Sukruti has Bharatanatyam dance choreography projects upcoming. The resulting style is a fabulously eclectic mix that makes Ovid seem more universal than ever. I see on their website that they describe it this way:
At the centre of their adaptation, is a dialogue between European Mime and Bharatanatyam Dance Style (which uses codified South Asian Mime).

Neena Jayarajan and Sukruti Tirupattur (photo: Johnny Hockin)

Metamorphoses 2023 is the best kind of magic, leaving you sometimes wondering what’s coming next, wondering how they did what they did. I was quiet at the end, struck with wonderment. It’s a beautiful series of portrayals, stretching each performer and the viewer’s imagination to the limit.

Metamorphoses 2023 continues at Crow’s Theatre until April 9th. For further information and/or tickets click here.

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Glorious Of the Sea

Of the Sea opened tonight to tumultuous applause from the Bluma Appel Theatre crowd, a co-production of Obsidian Theatre & Tapestry Opera.

Kanika Ambrose (photo:Dahlia Katz)

Kanika Ambrose (libretto) and Ian Cusson (music) have collaborated to bring a beautiful myth to life. I heard how they worked together at the Tapestry Liblab in 2018, gradually inventing a story that hit me as a perfect parable for our time. We’re watching people who have fallen or been thrown from slave ships, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and being brought back into a kind of life. It’s easiest to imagine such a scenario in an opera, and I am grateful to hear this sung by a cast of black performers. I had no trouble believing the illusion especially with the magical visuals from Rachel Forbes (set & costume designer) and Laura Warren (projection designer).

Dzifa (Suzanne Taffot) and Serwa (Chantale Nurse) seek to lead Maduka (Jorell Williams)

It’s almost Easter, and here we are with another opportunity to ponder the immortality of the soul and the meaning of life, admittedly via a different set of cultural assumptions,. Dzifa (Suzanne Taffot) is the Queen who revives those who have fallen or been thrown into the ocean. We meet Maduka (Jorell Williams) who is unwilling to accept his fate, seeking to rescue his baby girl. Izunna (Justin Welsh) shows Maduka a group of others led by Serwa (Chantale Nurse) who seek to avenge themselves, even if their efforts prove to be futile.

The final scene hundreds of years later reminds me of a cross between the end of Wozzeck (in the foregrounding of the next generation) and Akhnaten (recalling the brutal reality confronting souls finding themselves displaced in time): except it’s gentler than either of those two.

Composer Ian Cusson

Cusson’s score sweeps you up, at times making patterns that might remind you of the oceanic music of Debussy, but including vocalism that is always easy to hear and understand. Cusson’s music is truly beautiful, the singers given occasion to seduce us into their world.

On occasion Cusson asked his singers –especially the two Queens, namely Nurse and Taffot—to venture to the top of their range. Williams gives us a great deal of dramatic singing, passionately committed throughout, and wonderfully transformed in his last moments. Welsh (whom I haven’t heard in awhile, but who will be back with the COC next year) sounded especially strong, his tone ringing out beautifully. It was good to hear sweet-voiced tenor Paul Williamson as Yaakar. Ruthie Nkut makes a stunning grown-up Binyelum.

Two key members of Tapestry’s team for Gould’s Wall were back, namely stage director Philip Akin and music director/ conductor Jennifer Tung, leading members of the COC orchestra; 19 players are listed in the program.

Tapestry offered us other impressive world premieres in the past year, recalling RUR and Gould’s Wall last summer. I found that Of the Sea moves me more than either of the other two, a surprisingly uplifting experience considering the dark history of the middle passage. In its way this tale is just another way of looking at fundamental questions of morality such as those faced by MLK or Malcolm X, pondering how one chooses to respond to oppression.

No one in North America is making so much good new opera as Tapestry. There are four more performances for Of the Sea at the Bluma Appel Theatre until April 1st. For further information and tickets click here.

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Gimeno conducts Beethoven 5

Wednesday night was the latest example of the remarkable chemistry we see, hear and feel between the Toronto Symphony and their new music director Gustavo Gimeno, continuing the magic of their 100th anniversary season.

Toronto Symphony music director Gustavo Gimeno

Last night’s program included Madrigal: Celebration Prelude by Harman and the A minor Cello Concerto by Schumann before intermission, followed by the Ligeti Cello Concerto, Jeder Baum spricht by Habibi and the Symphony #5 by Beethoven. .

As we’ve already seen from the TSO and Gimeno, a series of contrasting works in a program function like appetizers preparing our taste-buds.

You may think you know a piece. Yes I’ve heard this symphony #5 all my life, quoted in movies and even pop songs: yet Gimeno makes Beethoven feel original and brand new. The motto opening to the piece usually gets a big dramatic pause, but this version has almost no hesitation whatsoever, neither after the first four notes nor after the next four. It’s a breathless approach that was as much about watching the players responding as it was to the bold tempi and sharply etched dynamics. Everyone was on a bit of a roller-coaster ride.

Gimeno’s control isn’t just about speed, though. There’s a wonderful passage in the third movement. You’ll recall the movement is in c-minor (like the first movement), but includes a fabulous contrasting section in C-major that’s begun by the basses playing a fast melody that is the beginning of some contrapuntal hijinks with the rest of the orchestra. At one point things seem to stall, as the basses play a short phrase, and repeat it, before plunging back into their tune once more. Gimeno adds a teaser to this, having driven his orchestra so quickly, he leaves that phrase hanging for a breath or two. It’s a simple gesture but truly magical: and the orchestra are all in, fully committed to his vision.

And shortly thereafter we’re hearing the suspenseful transition to the last movement, as exciting a reading as any I have ever encountered, primed for this moment by a concert getting our ears attuned to sounds across the full range from barely audible to fortissimo.

Madrigals in its world premiere was a whimsical post-modern composition sounding like a hallucination you have after seeing too much Shakespeare, that irresitible lilt of Elizabethan dance-rhythms but sampled in chunks across different orchestral groups, sometimes delicately sweet in woodwinds, sometimes overpowering us in the lower brass like dancing hippopotami, but dressed in period costume of course. I was reminded of Hindemith, a modernist with an irresistible sense of humour. It was a remarkable three minutes.

Then we’re in a different realm altogether, via Robert Schumann. Cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras gave us a reading of the a minor concerto that seemed to be a method acting interpretation. We began as though the soloist were far away, almost lost to us, in his soft attacks and understated playing. There’s depression and madness underlying some of Schumann, and it seemed to show up here. I was wondering how this was going to work, to be honest, a bit perplexed, until I realized how genuinely he was exploring the piece in his reading. The word “organic” might fit, as Queyras held himself back as though stifling his impulse to be too big & loud at the start, introspective as I’ve never heard. And gradually our soloist found his solo voice, meaning bigger and more articulate, demanding our attention.

But Gimeno’s approach with the TSO was gentle and soft, so we could always apprehend these gradual tentative steps toward something more decisive. And then finally when the soloist showed us a bigger sound. Gimeno finally asked the orchestra to speak more powerfully in response, yet a soft dialogue for the most part. Indeed the thing about Gimeno that often impresses me the most is how often he gets this orchestra to play softly, to hold back. It makes the conclusions more dramatic, it makes the inner voices more readily available to discern. And my gosh but they respond to him.

This is the second time this season that we’re hearing Ligeti. I wonder if that’s ever happened before.

The Ligeti concerto is in many ways the opposite of the Schumann, demanding a different sort of virtuosity. We begin with the softest possible solo from the cello. Can one hear a soft solo cello, when people are talking and moving about? there was a person in front of me late coming back from intermission who plunked down and talked to his seat-mate, as the rest of us tried to hear Queyras. No matter, it’s still a fascinating exercise, and perfect preparation for the Beethoven, as we try to hear music on the edge of audibility, suddenly hearing more coughs than usual. Why is it that people think it’s okay to cough at such a time? The cough obscures the soft music, the same as if they were to stand in front of a painting in the AGO. I heard two loud moments when seats declared that the occupants had departed in mid-performance, making a sort of statement I suppose, even if I’d paraphrase the statement as an admission of their rudeness. But I suppose they wanted to hear their Beethoven. After Queyras made some very fast playing of great ferocity and heat, he would bring us eventually back to a quiet conclusion, the ending hard to discern. Our ears were being prepared, calibrating the space and the music.

Jeder Baum spricht is a short work that I understood as a preparation for the Beethoven, that the program note identified as a dialogue with the 5th & 6th symphonies of Beethoven, reflecting upon the climate catastrophe. While I applaud the ambitions of the work, I didn’t get it, except as a nice warm-up for the Beethoven that came immediately after. Perhaps I should hear it again.

Speaking of which, the concert repeats Thursday & Saturday at Roy Thomson Hall, and Sunday afternoon at George Weston Recital Hall. If you can make it I recommend it.

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L’Amant anonyme

Voicebox Opera in Concert presented the last performance of their season series dedicated to Mozart and the operas of his time, L’Amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges aka Joseph Boulogne, sometimes called “The Black Mozart”. His life story would make a great opera: but that’s a tale for another time.

Chevalier de Saint-Georges

The story of this opera reminds me of old films such as Shop Around the Corner or You’ve Got Mail, both romances involving concealed identities. This time we’re watching Valcour anonymously send gifts and notes to Léontine, a wealthy widow whom Valcour loves in secret. Valcour is aided by Léontine’s tutor Ophemon as well as Colin and Jeannette, two friends of hers.

The music is stronger than I expected for an opera that premiered in 1780, and perhaps deserves to be produced more often.

I want to call attention to the amount of work going into the production. For starters, it wasn’t precisely opera in concert, not when everyone memorized their parts and moved about the stage in character. We might usually expect singers at music stands, but this went far beyond that.

Consider too that usually singers prepare for roles they will sing again elsewhere, which this cast won’t likely do ever again, not when the opera is so infrequently performed. When you watch a production of boheme or Nozze di Figaro, you’re usually seeing singers performing music they learned long before, perhaps as students while they were first studying voice. Not so with a newly discovered work, however.

I suspect the weaknesses in the execution arise from a story that is somewhat dated, and ambiguous without an available performing history to observe. But when something has never been done before and includes a perplexing plot point, one has to boldly take the plunge even if it doesn’t seem to make sense in 2023. And that too is why it’s vitally important to see such works presented for us, to at least get some sense of why these works are rarely done. But maybe if we saw the piece more often we’d understand the story better, and solve any problem posed by the score.

One of the other big challenges with unfamiliar repertoire is making sense of the music. Every score is a kind of a puzzle to be solved rightly or wrongly. When a piece hasn’t been produced it is especially mysterious, posing questions to the producer as to what sort of voices should be cast. If the parts are too tough, no singer will want to undertake them, and that opera may languish in obscurity no matter how beautiful its music.

Alexander Cappellazzo as Valcour the anonymous lover (aka the title role) sang brilliantly in a role that lies very high at times. There’s a passage in the first scene that contains an obscene number of high notes, that he executed bravely and accurately, managing to keep things light and comical rather than scary, as they would have been for those of us who can’t sing that high. He kept smiling!

I was impressed with the way Holly Chaplin sang Léontine, the object of Valcour’s affections & mystery gifts. It’s quite different from The Queen of the Night, which I heard her sing in Richmond Hill recently. Léontine also has coloratura and a few high notes, but also dramatic legato passages. It’s a daunting role that sometimes lies low, but Holly was up to it.

Dion Mazerolle was a spectacular Ophémon, particularly in the music with Léontine that opens the second act. Where Valcour is asked to be insincere and to counterfeit words, Ophémon sings with great conviction on his behalf.

…And then I was frankly astonished when, shortly later, we came to the resolution of the plot, hearing Valcour and Léontine sing such a weak scene together. While it works, it wasn’t persuasive as a big change of heart. I was disappointed at how this was composed, considering how excellent the music had been earlier. Thank goodness there was a happy chorus to follow. We all smiled in the end.

I must also acknowledge the work of Robert Cooper preparing the chorus and especially David Fallis leading a small orchestra that seemed to play in a style apt for the period (not excessive in their vibrato and very quick tempi), keeping all these singers together. It’s like magic considering that the soloists were mostly working behind David’s back without scores, although David seemed to have eyes in the back of his head. The singers sounded pretty close to flawless in their execution.

We won’t likely hear this opera again, but I do hope Voicebox – Opera in Concert find proper funding, in order to keep the historical investigations coming. They’re not just valuable, but enormously enjoyable.

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Rhino is an adaptation of Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist play Rhinoceros, by Aleksandar (Sasha) Lukac and Emilie Varga. Last night I watched its premiere at Theatre Glendon with students in Lukac’s drama class.

Sasha Lukac

It’s much shorter than the original. As I was commenting (oh dear or perhaps pontificating) afterwards, the world is almost unrecognizable 64 years after Ionesco’s play first poked its pointy snout into the world’s consciousness. Absurdism was a thing for awhile, and it took Ionesco much longer to make his point than is necessary now in a world of memes and fake news.

We get that point pretty quickly now, and curiously it’s as pointy and relevant as ever.

We open on a stage that jolted me for a moment, reminding me of the stage picture that confronted the Bayreuth Festival audience for their centennial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle directed by Patrice Chereau in 1976. No I wasn’t there but I’ve seen that video many times. At the end of Twilight of the Gods, as the world ends, that audience see all the people onstage looking right back into the auditorium, reflecting ourselves back to us.

Similarly as this Rhino begins we’re looking into a theatre with a series of seats populated with people looking back into our own space, exactly like the audience.

They are us, which is perhaps the point.

It doesn’t stop there. We discover they’re in that seated auditorium to watch a new film by Sasha Lukac.

The absurd self-reflective action is especially strong when I look over to see Sasha sitting beside me in the front row. As the action unfolds one of the characters is accused of being Sasha, although it’s delightfully sycophantic, so it’s done in the fake language of flattery. Throughout we’re tasked with decoding the layers. Is it real or fake, authentic or artificial? It’s a lot like life in 2023, when the world has become so bizarre we don’t know what to believe anymore.

And from time to time the “reality” of the rhinoceros transformation of the storyline bursts into the space, both as projections onto the scrim separating us from our mirror images (and yes there is even a doppelganger for me, the loudmouthed reviewer pontificating endlessly) and eventually….

But I don’t want to spoil it.

Sasha explained to me that Emilie Varga –who co-wrote the adaptation – is responsible for the self-reflexive parts about “Sasha Lukac, the brilliant film director”, a worthwhile addition.

Rony Ojha is editor of the video content jarring us from time to time, created by a team of contributors. For these moments we’ve truly left Ionesco and the 1950s behind and are firmly in the 2020s.

From time to time I laughed very loudly, although sometimes it’s a bit pained, especially in the recognition of the familiarity of what we’re seeing, so close to home.

Student theatre can be a revelation, unhindered by the pressure to be commercial or popular, as the participants passionately pour all their energy into the performance. I’d rather not name names except to say that they’re very good, an absurd slice of theatre life.

There are two more performances Friday & Saturday March 10 & 11. The shows start at 7 p.m. Click link to get tickets. Suggested donation $10.00.

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I love the smell of gasoline: questions for Claren Grosz

The description of Claren Grosz’s new show caught my eye.

I love the smell of gasoline dives into Western alienation, the Canadian oil and gas machine and what it all means in the face of an environmental apocalypse.

Her title suggests the visceral relationship to the topic of an Albertan. If you’ve been reading Twitter or just following the news, it’s concerning, indeed a bit terrifying. Does Alberta want to separate? or do they just hate Ontario? Yes I’m intrigued. It’s an existential question for a Canadian.

But what kind of a sadist interviews the playwright just before her show opens? Me I suppose (here goes).

Claren Grosz (photo: Fran Chudnoff)

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I think at first glance, I’m more like my mother. We have the same smile and the same laugh. We’re both easy to make laugh. We’re both “bossy” and have strong feelings about how a dishwasher should be loaded. My mother nursed my love of art and fashion and reading fiction and picnics. I’d like to think I’m charming, fiery and fearless like her.

My father nursed my love of music with good lyrics, good design, hot dogs, and a general romanticism about day-to-day life. I would like to believe I inherited his ability to apply humour to anything, and his willingness to be the butt of a joke. I learned from him how to easily admit when I’m wrong, when I don’t know, when my mind has been changed.

From both of them I learned to work hard and offer hugs to the people who hurt me.

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

The best thing about what I do— both as a theatre artist and a math tutor— is that it’s challenging and involves building real relationships with people. I feel so lucky that in my work I get to genuinely connect with people while solving problems creatively.

The worst thing about theatre work is that so much of it is waiting for someone to give you permission to make your art. Something I don’t contend with in my visual arts practice where if I want to make something… I just do! But theatre involves so many people, and space, and resources. You need to be chosen— by granting bodies, by collaborators, by companies. One of the reasons I switched from being an actor to a director/producer upon graduating theatre school is because I could minimize the amount of waiting-for-permission, but there’s still a decent amount of it.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

King Princess. MUNA. The sound track/effects of Stardew Valley. Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. The podcasts How to Save a Planet; The Big Story; and The Gray Area. Dogs in the Trinity Bellwoods off-leash bowl. The Calgary Flames, but only if my Dad takes me.

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

I’d really like to be able to salsa and two-step better. I know the basics. I wish I was fluent in French. I’m still working on that. And I wish I played an instrument. Not badly enough to learn, though.

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

The good answer: draw, go for walks, spend time in the sun with friends. The bad answer: binge entire seasons of tv shows in one sitting.

What was your first experience of theatre?

My earliest memory is playing the “stage manager” in a Christmas play about a Christmas play in grade five. I got to wear a sparkly holiday outfit and march around the stage with a clipboard and headset. This must have been quite formative because I still like to march around in sparkly outfits and lead rooms.

Do you believe in art as a vehicle for social change?

I think artists can definitely help incite social action. I do, however, have a bone to pick with a lot of activist art: it can be grim and oversimplified.

Keshia Palm and Claren Grosz working on Shadow Girls (Photo: Colin Murray)

To incite action, art must take aim for our hearts. A lot of art utilizes rage, shock and despair in hopes that the audience then metabolizes this emotion into action. But despair and rage are notoriously difficult to metabolize! And I think, specifically around climate change, people are already aware ’n’ in despair. Art has this opportunity to also help us emotionally regulate. I leave some activist art and I feel helpless! I feel misunderstood! I feel guilty! Or I’m directing the feelings away from myself and feeling angry with those other complacent, evil humans! So one of the goals with my own play was to provide a space for us all to wade into how hard and complicated it is, to face both our fault and our helplessness together, and still come out the other end ready for action. I hope.

As a former westerner who got out do you think you have the pulse of Alberta as it is now and over the past decade of turmoil & struggle?

I barely feel like I have a sense of the Toronto pulse, let alone the Alberta pulse. Even when I was living in Alberta, I only had a sense of my own city, Calgary, and only a sense of my own socio-economic bubble. I’ve done my best to write this play in a way that honours the province without being an expert on it. I don’t assume I know what’s going on there and I think that actually allows me to be more sensitive and in tune. I’m going to be bold and say this approach works for people too. When I assume I do not and cannot fully understand my loved ones and the people around me, it allows me to be more curious and compassionate, especially when I disagree with them. When people make choices that initially make me recoil (for example, the Wexit movement), my first impulse is to think wait, there must be a piece to this puzzle I’m missing. In some ways I think this really serves me, and in others I think it makes me a little naive.

Pierre Trudeau and the federal government that set the rules for energy, have often been perceived as unfriendly, exploitive, of Alberta. How did you understand this relationship (to central Canada and the PM) when you were a child growing up out west?

As far as I absorbed as a child and teen (again, keeping in mind that I perhaps did not have my finger on the pulse), Albertans hated the Liberals and yes, I think this stems from Pierre Trudeau. Out West there is a strong distrust of the federal government, the same I see reflected in my own peers, but whereas in my circles the consensus seems to be ok, more, better funded government with more accountability, the general Albertan consensus seems to be ok, less government because there is no way to achieve accountability. There’s also a perception in Alberta that Ontario is biting the hand that feeds it— that is, accepting cashflow from Alberta through equalization payments while shaming it for the industry that provides that cashflow. There’s also small things that I imagine every province that isn’t Ontario feels. “Canadian” media is often actually Ontarian media. It’s run by Ontarians and focuses on Ontario. My Dad used to joke that the TV people would sooner play a rerun of the Maple Leafs game instead of show the live Flames game. Even when national media covers issues outside of Ontario, it’s from an outsider lens. I remember watching CBC’s national election coverage and it so obviously was taking place in Ottawa because they talked about other provinces in a tone of oh hmm… what’s going on over there.

When did you come to Ontario, and what ties (if any) do you currently maintain with Alberta?

I moved here in 2011 for university when I was 17. My parents and sister still live in Calgary, and I visit home twice a year. I think when I talk about Alberta, I mostly picture my immediate family. To me, they are home, wherever they are. And they are in Alberta!

Were you surprised to discover we –the denizens of Ontario—weren’t the way popular mythology portrays us back out west..? OR Were we precisely as you expected?

I’m thinking of the Rick Mercer Report: Special Report on Toronto Snow, in which he makes a heavy Toronto snowfall out to be a national crisis.

This bit of satire does feel apt. My parents and I have a running joke that Toronto is the self-appointed centre of the universe. There’s some laughable truth to it, and I say this with great affection as someone who now identifies as a Torontonian and also fits the stereotype— a little self-righteous and a little out of touch with the rest of the country. But hey, you kind of get to be that way when you make up a third of the nation’s population, as Southern Ontario does!

You describe your show I Love the Smell of Gasoline this way:

Overhead projection meets performative research essay meets personal narrative as Claren attempts to reconcile her Alberta oil-industry roots with the current environmental emergency. The project was born of a frustration with divisive Canadian politics, rampant hypocrisy, and a lack of team spirit when facing impending doom. It unpacks some of the forces that drive global warming and Western alienation in a personal account of what it is to live in a modern, capitalist environment, be a self-serving organism, and also care about the earth and fellow creature kind. What does it really mean to sacrifice and to survive? How can we harness our agency and responsibility in a global crisis?

Should we expect you to challenge us in the theatre?

Yes, I think so. I hope it pokes holes in people’s worldviews, opens them to the idea that maybe there’s a lot more going on than they can possibly understand.

Claren Grosz (photo: Raf Antonio)

That’s how I felt building the play, anyways. The more I researched, the less I knew. The show might challenge some people to grieve. I hope it challenges people to switch from an us vs. them mentality to an us vs. the problem mentality. I hope it challenges us to ditch the guilt and lean into problem solving. Perhaps that’s too grandiose for a little 75 minute solo show. Definitely the audience will join me on my own journey as I roll out research, arguments and statistics, as I tell quippy first date stories, as I recall important familial memories, as I explore poetic and existential questions I have about our place in the universe.

How did you handle the pandemic, both professionally & personally?

Claren Grosz (photo: Keshia Palm)

Kurt Vonnegut has said that “we are here on Earth to fart around,” and I really embraced this in the pandemic. I committed to filling my days with the most mundane things. Walks. Taking note of how the sun reached different parts of my room as the months went on. Quite literally sitting with my chin on the porch railing and watching the garden grow. I’d sit there for an hour, gazing at the plants, thinking about possibilities and watching bees. Once a man walked by twice within 30 minutes and on his return trip he commented “has anything grown since you’ve been watching?” and we shared a neighbourly laugh.

Puttering is a privilege. I was blessed with financial stability, an amazing roommate, and deep friendships that still felt fulfilling through three hour phone calls. I didn’t have any projects that were slashed because of the pandemic. Part of my personal sense of activism is to prioritize joy and also to prioritize puttering. For everyone!

Do you have any influences you’d like to acknowledge?

An artist and poet and tremendous friend who regularly inspires me is Jessica Hiemstra (who also made us some beautiful plastic bag installations to compliment Echo Zhou’s set for I love the smell of gasoline). I like the way her work makes room for multiplicity and complication. I like the way she looks at the world. She wrote to me in an email that with this play I “hold our hope and despair in one hand,” and perhaps I actually learned to do this from— or at least alongside— her.

You can discover more about Claren’s collective — Pencil Kit Productions—and their commitment to exciting theatre through their website.

Their next show is I love the smell of gasoline at Aki Studio Theatre 585 Dundas Street East running from Thursday March 9th to Sunday March 19th. For tickets click here.

Co-directors William Dao and Claren Grosz (photo: Raf Antonio)
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Opera York’s Magic Flute

It was worth the drive to Richmond Hill yesterday to see Opera York’s production of The Magic Flute, their first in-person return to the stage since the pandemic. While Friday night’s snow-storm likely reduced attendance, Sunday’s matinee was sold out.

Opera York deliver popular favorites without turning the directors and designers loose to revise the original. If you’re one of those who has been turned off by such updates (you know who you are, some of you discuss this with me regularly): this was the Flute for you.

Stage Director Penny Cookson did not impose upon Schikaneder’s libretto, but instead gave us the work as written, complete with costumes from Amanda Eason and sets from Frank Pasian that match our expectations of this tale of princes & princesses in a faraway land.

Yes there’s magic in these musical instruments, especially in the work of Conductor- Music Director Geoffrey Butler. Mozart would have been pleased with the tempi especially in the finales, and the perfect support given to the singers.

While Opera York is a small organization relying largely on volunteers, without the resources & support given to the big arts companies, they showcased some terrific soloists who raised the standard higher than ever.

Holly Chaplin’s Queen of the Night was sung as well as I’ve ever heard the role sung, and with the aid of Richmond Hill Centre’s superb acoustics, her pinging coloratura was especially dazzling.

I came to the show knowing I’ve get to enjoy Holly Chaplin and tenor Ryan Downey as Tamino, that if all else failed, I’d have the chance to hear their lovely voices. Ryan is one of those rare singers whose pitch is impeccable, with a sweet tone and a personality to match.

No it’s not a competition, but I take exception when the Canadian Opera Company bring in singers from abroad when there are so many excellent Canadians available and needing employment. I found Holly and Ryan better than the people singing their roles with the COC downtown in their 2022 revival of Magic Flute in Toronto, even if we don’t also mention that with the intimate acoustic in RH you could hear these stunning voices (and everyone else) with ease.

Thank goodness for companies such as Opera York or OperOttawa (to mention just two), that are not just offering enjoyable performances but also employing our artists, and staying true to their mission statement:
Opera York’s mission is to provide passionate, professional opera for everyone, and to entertain, enrich, educate, and inspire through full productions, education and community programming. It is to offer professional career opportunities for emerging and established Canadian artists, and to support volunteerism and involvement in the arts within our diverse community.

There were several other good performances to mention.

Stephanie Kim was a wonderfully sympathetic Pamina, Dylan Wright a truly ceremonial figure as Sarastro as though he had stepped out of a Biblical epic, John Holland a loveable everyman as Papageno. Alvaro Vazquez was a weirdly wacky bad guy as Monastotos, Douglas Tranquada a properly fervent Speaker, Grace Quinsey as Papagena stealing the show whenever she peeked out of her disguise, or finally showed up in person. Liv Morton, Veronika Annissimova, and Adriana Albu helped get the show off to a good start as the three ladies, between their singing and silliness. The three spirits in this version were Lori Mak, Ella Farlinger and Katelyn Bird, ably handling some of the prettiest music in the entire opera. Corey Arnold and Austin Larusson as priests were sometimes comical and as the two Armed Men offering us luxury vocals, particularly when Corey & Ryan soar effortlessly in the trial scene.

Foreground Stephanie Kim and Ryan Downey, with Austin Larusson and Corey Arnold in the moments before the trial.

To stay in touch with Opera York’s upcoming work or to read about their past productions follow them on their website.

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Aleksandar Lukac discusses his adaptation of Ionesco’s Rhinoceros

Rhino is Aleksandar (Sasha) Lukac’s adaptation of Rhinoceros, opening March 9th at Glendon College.

Sasha directed over sixty professional theatre productions in his native Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Bosnia), which garnered seven Grand Prix awards for Best Director as well as eight Grand Prix awards for Best Production. His notable Canadian work includes:
• Christmas at the Ivanovs (Vvedenski), nominated for a Dora in the independent theatre category;
• Unicorn Horns (M.Major), which represented Canada at the Festival of Ideas in Hong Kong;
• Moliere, (Bulgakov), performed at the Bulgakov Festival in Kiev;
• Ivan Vs Ivan (Gogol/Lukac), which toured London, England, Moscow and Belgrade, Serbia; and
• Family Stories and Bea, produced in collaboration with Toronto based Actors Rep Company (ARC).

Sasha has been teaching at York University and Glendon College since 1992. At Glendon, he had directed 23 student shows, including three that fully explored interactive digital theatre (Marat/Sade Occupy, WWI Revisions of the Aftermath, and Life is a Dream). These productions encouraged the students to explore the implications of live interactivity between performers and audiences across the world. Rhino is his second production of a Ionesco play at Glendon College – he has previously staged a “mash-up” of Bald Soprano, The Lesson and Artaud’s Jet of Blood.

Aleksandar Sasha Lukac

I wanted to find out more about Rhino.

There’s a quote from Soren Kierkegaard.
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public, but they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it, and the applause was even greater. I think that’s exactly how the world will come to an end: to general applause from people who think it’s all a joke.”
Are you or your actors anything like that clown, and do you expect us to listen to warnings, or to applaud your wit?

I think we are way beyond that – I have completely lost faith that theatre or, for that matter, any art, has the power to affect the audience’s comprehension or contemplation of the world in which we live. It took awhile, but capitalism has succeeded in making art and, theater particularly, a toothless commodity.

How does “Absurdism” work in 2023? Is it possible anymore after Trump & Putin? Is anything absurd anymore? Was absurdism funny: or is it comic or tragic or satire?

That “Absurdism” took over our lives long before the culprits you mention. Don’t you think that it is absurd that humans did not learn a single thing in the aftermath of WWI and WWII? That we keep repeating the same mistakes in cycles to the point that it has convinced me that we are predestined to self-destruct? What I find bitterly funny is the endless capacity of humans to distract themselves from this reality.

You have a history of making political theatre, at least partly because the politics of your origins in Serbia shaped your sensibility and your creative voice. But you’ve been in Canada for a long time. How have you changed with the passage of time?

The previous answer showed how pessimistic my worldview has become. When I came to Canada it was a promised land of sorts. Recent discoveries of past crimes against the indigenous population as well as a general rapid move to the Right has me extremely disappointed and worried. Of course, the old me would take both these realisations as a challenge to create more compelling stage work. The “new” me asks who would I address this work to? No one cares – and I mean politically, not aesthetically. So, when I work, I put on my Fool’s hat and have a blast. It most of the time connects with the actors and my collaborators – which is an immense pleasure. The audiences can be more challenging, and I, of course, blame them entirely if they do not connect. Thankfully my most recent production in Serbia has been sold out for the past year so, as I said, it can work.

The need and the hunger for satire ebbs and flows, according to the state of a society. Please talk about why we need satire and why our current time might be a good time for satire, either in Europe, Canada or anywhere else.

I never had any confidence that satire has any impact on the outcomes in society. It always served as a pressure valve to relieve societal tensions – yet it somehow always relied on some weird notion that those tensions are temporary and that a healthy society awaits if we can only hold on long enough. Well, guess what? Satire is too thin of a sugar-coat to swallow this mess of a world. We need a bigger boat!

Talk about your adaptation of Rhino.

Of course I read the original and even watched the Zero Mostel film version. Our Glendon version is less of an adaptation as it is a new play heavily inspired by the original.

When we were discussing the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Marriage of Figaro the other day you said “it was very Commedia”. And you mention that you did a commedia warmup with your class. Please help me orient your work around styles & idioms. Commedia was once a part of your individual voice back around 2000 for Christmas at the Ivanov’s. You’ve done other shows such as the Flea in her ear at the Fringe in 2017 that was more of a pure French farce, than commedia. Where does commedia fit into your vocabulary, either as a teacher or as a practitioner? What are you teaching, please explain the style(s) you explore.

There are some Commedia based warmups and exercises that help unleash the actors’ energy and “size”. Rhino has definitely incorporated those in the creative process. However, in terms of comedy, this play functions best when the actors are dead serious in performing idiotic character tasks.

For Life is a Dream you played some elaborate games with technology, incorporating them into the playtext and the mise-en-scène. Will you do something similar for Rhino?

Indeed, those were very interesting experiments. In the case of Rhino we are not going interactive with the audience.

Tik Tok videos serve the purpose of creating the external backdrop to the action that is confined to a special event cinema during the rhinoceros’ attack.

Talk about theatre in the age of social media . What’s the relationship between stage and mass media nowadays?

You know that I have been experimenting with interactivity in the live performances – through YouTube and other platforms. It yielded some amazing results.

Unfortunately, as the whole world had to perform on Zoom in the last three years, I feel that there is a certain Zoom fatigue which affects other similar experiments. We have all longed for the live theatre feeling so we will give that a chance for a bit, I think.

Please put this adaptation in context with Glendon and your teaching. What does one learn doing this sort of show? And how does it differ from a more classical approach?

Well – I wrote the play in four days and then had a student, Emilie Varga, read it over, edit, add some even more absurd elements including adding me as a character in the play. And we all keep adding Gen Z language to keep it light – so the process essentially reflects my general teaching philosophy – include the students in the process and respect their discoveries/contributions as if they are your own. The most rewarding moment for me is when I see that students take pride in their work. I owe that to my teachers who made me discover myself in theater.

Where and when is show to be presented?

Glendon College/Glendon Theatre, March 9,10 and 11. The shows start at 7:00pm

Is there anyone you’d like to thank, acknowledge for their input / influence / assistance?

Other than the whole Glendon Theatre community for inviting me back to do a show, I have to thank my kids for making it easier to make fun of myself.

Aleksandar Sasha Lukac


Rhino runs Thursday March 9 to Saturday March 11th, performances at 7:00 pm.
Click link to get tickets.
Suggested donation $10.00.

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Excited by Canadian Opera Company 2023-24 season announcement

When I saw the email on Thursday from the Canadian Opera Company announcing their 2023-2024 season it moved me to say this on Facebook:

That’s more like it! COC’s 2023-24 season: Fidelio, La Boheme, Cunning Little Vixen, Don Pasquale, Don Giovanni (Gordon Bintner!) & Medea plus the world premiere of Aportia Chryptych.

I have to wonder when will it be reasonable to say that this is Perryn Leech’s COC?

COC General Director Perryn Leech

I say that looking at the season we’re enjoying now, revivals of Flying Dutchman & Carmen in the fall, revivals of Salome & Marriage of Figaro just finished this month, a new Macbeth and a revival of Tosca still to come in April-May, in other words five revivals plus one new show. In a real sense it’s still 5/6ths Alexander Neef, with just the one new production. Indeed maybe Neef had some involvement in the new production as well, given the long lead time required to plan operatic productions.

For 2023-24, though, we get the opposite namely five new productions (new to us in Toronto at least), plus one revival. That’s why I said “That’s more like it!” Speaking as a subscriber I’m thrilled. I felt we should give the new guy time to show us what he can do, and so far so good.

I listed Fidelio, La Boheme, Cunning Little Vixen, Don Pasquale, Don Giovanni & Medea, as well as the world premiere of Aportia Chryptych.

It’s kind of funny to speak about the boheme revival, when so many I know groan at any boheme, an opera they may say is programmed too often. Not me. I don’t agree speaking as someone who regularly pulls out my boheme score to play through. It never gets old for me, a perfect piece of music that I’ve loved since I was a little kid. I suppose I become a kid again listening to parts of this opera.

You’ll hear people call it the ideal first opera, as a few people reminded me recently when I suggested that Salome could be a good first opera for some people. Of course I was thinking of the sort who love heavy metal and claim to hate opera. Let’s see if they still hate opera after seeing Ambur Braid in Atom Egoyan’s production. But I digress.

Let me direct you to the COC website, where in addition to the usual video, for once they’re also offering us pictures to give us some idea of what to expect visually. This is a huge improvement over past practice. For each opera, click on “Learn more” then click on “photos”. This is a small sampler of what you can see there, some very cool designs coming to the COC next season.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Medea in Medea, The Metropolitan Opera, 2022 (photo: Marty Sohl)
A scene from The Cunning Little Vixen, English National Opera, 2022 (photo: Clive Barda)
Russell Thomas as Florestan in Fidelio, San Francisco Opera, 2021. (Photo: Cory Weaver)
Luca Micheletti as Don Giovanni in Don Giovanni, The Royal Opera, 2022 (photo: Marc Brenner)
Scottish Opera’s production of Don Pasquale, 2014 (photo: KK Dundas)

I love the eye candy, don’t you?

I’m sold!

In addition to what’s included in my subscription the COC will also present a world premiere opera, namely Aportia Chryptych. You can meet the creators near the end of the video describing the season, featuring General Director Perryn Leech. I’m very impressed.

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Colin Eatock’s Birthday concert

No there was no cake or champagne but I’m watching my weight and can’t drive home to Scarborough if I’ve been drinking.

Yet it was truly like a party, a celebration of our host Colin Eatock on the occasion of his 65th birthday, an occasion full of joy. And our ears were blessed by the generosity of what we were offered.

Colin Eatock

Colin was not only premiering “Two pieces for Tenor Recorder and Harpsichord (2021), but handing over the programming for the remainder of the concert to his soloists, Alison Melville recorder and Christopher Bagan harpsichord, which I can elaborate upon after addressing the main event, namely Colin’s new works, a pair of contrasting pieces.

In the first one, the recorder began with something rhapsodic, a lovely meditative melody that instigated everything to follow. The harpsichord functioned as a kind of accompaniment sketching in the harmonic landscape surrounding the plaintive wind-melody, as though explaining what was implicit in what Melville had played, a bit like a shrink or a priest explaining the mysteries of the recorder’s sounds. The recorder started with something that may have been notated as a mordent (the note going up and down, back to where it started) or written out (I am only guessing). Ornaments, meaning mordents, trills and more were a big part of the baroque, and may have been something Colin wanted to emulate in the piece, perhaps to invoke something of the period, even if the harmonies from the harpsichord (the timbre of the harpsichord offering another automatic pathway of association to the baroque) put me more in mind of someone like Debussy, Ravel or Poulenc.

The second piece is a contrasting composition, beginning with the harpsichord as provocateur, regular minor thirds in a pattern establishing a rhythm and urgency, while the recorder this time was responding or even debating rather than provoking. Where the first was subtly thoughtful, the second was more from the realm of a movie score, something dramatic and troubled. Where the first was to my mind sunny the second was stormy and with anguish underneath. They’re a nicely matched set, like yin and yang.

Of course music is a bit like a Rorschach test, so what I’ve written here may sound more like my pathology than a proper assessment of what Colin created. Yet it was absorbing to hear these two works from unexpected instruments, and employed cogently and economically without a surplus note.

Between Alison Melville, recorder and Christopher Bagan, harpsichord, we heard music from three different centuries. It all felt very new whether it was the 1700s, 1900s or from our own time, complete with some fascinating introductions explaining something about the way the instruments were being employed by the music, a wonderfully diverse assortment of sound from two instruments that you wouldn’t think of as the vehicles for anything modernist or edgy.

Framing Colin’s pieces, Bagan and Melville had their solo moments.

To start Bagan gave us Louis Andriessen’s Overture to Orpheus, speaking first of the idea of “following”, one hand quickly echoing the other on different manuals to create some remarkable acoustic effects. Euridice may have walked behind Orpheus in like manner, or so it seemed in this meditative work from the 1960s. I never knew a harpsichord could sound so modern.

Following Colin’s pieces, Melville offered Telemann’s Fantasia No. 9 seguing directly into Staeps’ “Allegro deciso”, suggesting that perhaps Telemann’s ideas weren’t so old considering how fresh he sounded, particularly alongside Staeps.

The remainder of the program featured two impressive works. Hans Poser’s Seven Bagatelles showed signs of Hindemith’s influence, works I wish I could hear again to enjoy their wacky humour and stunning brevity. JS Bach’s trio sonata #1 BWV 525, transcribed for recorder & harpsichord contained perhaps as many notes as everything else in the concert combined, a stunning display from Melville and Bagan to close the concert.

I was also thrilled to be able to get my hands on a copy of Colin’s Glenn Gould book, which I’d looked for in vain online. Thank you Colin and Happy Birthday!

I should have got the author to sign his book….
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