Forensic Composition, or when the script is like a CSI

That headline is dead serious and no joke.  I was brought in twice way back in the 1970s as a composer by directors looking with puzzlement at play scripts.  It would happen again later.  These formative projects changed the way I saw composition & adaptation, but my purpose here is to reflect on some of the first things I ever did, when I was young.

It needs to be said that every text composed for performance – whether musical, verbal or something else—is in some sense an enigma.  A singer or dancer or actor read a score or script as a set of instructions, that may or may not be explicit.  This may be due to the huge lapse in time. When David Fallis, the music director of Opera Atelier, looks at the score of one of the 17th century operas by Lully or Charpentier, there may be huge furrows in his forehead as he thinks about how he might approach one of these rarities: works that are so rarely undertaken as to represent an unknown idiom.  Shakespeare’s plays have relatively few instructions, leaving the producer to ponder how they want to approach the staging, the design, the music or dance.  This is usually a matter easily answered through a little creativity.

But sometimes the text may stop you cold in your tracks.

At the beginning of Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, Dotty goes a bit crazy because the moon, once a source of romance and beauty, is now merely a destination for astronauts.  She sings a series of fragmentary bits from songs about the moon.  It’s a funny thing Stoppard wrote, but also a bit of a nightmare for the music director, seeking to show us Dotty rambling through a series of moon songs. Given the words, one has to work backwards to a musical score and an eventual performance.

How can one shine on a blue moon that’s a harvest moon that must be moonglow?

(if you take my meaning…)

I was asked to help the singer create a tape of her voice, that would be used, while she  lip-synched to herself, once we figured out just how to sing this rambling soliloquy. That was a relatively easy task, one that was only a minute or so of solo madness early in a show.

The other one, though was much more problematic.  I’m writing about this one as we approach the 40th anniversary.  In 1977 Michael Sidnell directed a production of a play by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood, namely The Dog Beneath the Skin at the University of Toronto.


Paul Baker, Leslie Barcza, David Boyd, Gordon Woodbury, Chris Schiller and Rod Taylor. The cool kids in the band let me in.

It’s a very political text full of songs.  Sidnell turned to musical artists with whom he’d collaborated before, namely Gordon Woodbury and Rod Taylor, to compose the song settings required by this play that was first produced in 1936 by the Group Theatre.  I believe Sidnell, Woodbury & Taylor were happily exploring the possibilities in the text, employing a small onstage band for their songs.

But there was a bit of a fly in the ointment, and that was one small scene in the play, a scene that led Sidnell to contact me.  I don’t know why he decided to keep it rather than do the logical thing and simply cut it from the text.  Was it kept because it was crucial or because Sidnell –a Professor of Modern Drama busily staging a modern classic—wanted to avoid cuts? There we were on page 107 where it says “The music of the ensuing duet should be in the style of Wagnerian opera.”  Sidnell very generously worked me into other parts of the show, let me work with his band: but I was really there as a token Wagnerian, to make that scene work.

Working backwards from lines and actions that reminded me strongly of parts of Tristan und Isolde and Götterdämmerung I cobbled together a continuous through-composed scene in the manner of a late Wagner music-drama, sometimes seguing from one excerpt into the next, but without stopping.  In places it was meant to get laughs but the key lines were done with all seriousness and pathos.  The point of my re-purposed Wagner was to reproduce the scene as Auden & Isherwood had wanted, to achieve something elusive, verging on impossible, given that they’d left no instructions.  At first I thought I was to be singer in the duet while someone in the band played it, but in the end, we traded places, so that I played  and someone from the band sang.  That was a practical choice given that much of the piano part –lifted from Wagner scores–was quite difficult to play, while the vocal part for the dying Siegfried that I quoted is not terribly difficult singing.  When it finally clicked as written we enjoyed a sudden spontaneous round of applause from the cast.  It was a thrill repeated every night in performance.

That was forty years ago, but the memory is still vivid.

Posted in Opera, Popular music & culture, Theatre & musicals, university life | Leave a comment

James Ehnes: a one-man show

This was the one I’ve been looking forward to for months, as James Ehnes played a full program of unaccompanied violin music in Koerner Hall.   I swear Ehnes played more notes than what he’d be required to play in three concerts with orchestra.  He was completely exposed, nowhere to hide.  Koerner’s acoustic gave us such intimacy that it was as though we could hear Ehnes’ thoughts.

The program consisted of four items:

  • The Partita in B minor of JS Bach
  • The “Ballade” from Sonata #3 of Eugène Ysaÿe
  • Sonatina “In homage to JS Bach” by Barrie Cabena in its world premiere
  • The Partita in D minor of JS Bach

Without question this was the best concert I heard so far in 2017.


Violinist James Ehnes (photo: Ben Ealovega)

I am reminded of something from long ago in my undergraduate days, studying philosophy.  I dimly recall a kind of hierarchy of the disciplines, with the understanding that mathematics is more pure than physics, which is more pure than chemistry and softer sciences are understood to be lower in the pecking order.  I can’t recall whether metaphysics –meaning religion—trumped science in the end, only that there’s something similar at work in the arts.  Walter Pater said “all the arts aspire to the condition of music.”  And what do the different types of music aspire to? I have to think that when we transcribe Bach for orchestra –as Stokowski did in the 20th century—that it waters down (some might say “bastardizes”) its purity.  I find the original piano version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” by Mussorgsky purer than the bombastic orchestrated version by Ravel.  The purest and more rarefied music? The solo violin music by JS Bach.  While I’ve played piano transcriptions of the Chaconne in D minor that concludes that Partita, both the massive one by Busoni and the subtler one-handed one by Brahms, each aspires after the rare air of the original.  And while I’ve heard this wonderful music in recordings, I realize now that it’s a totally different experience live, watching the violinist martial his/her resources, shaping phrases and building drama.  This is a most memorable performance, that bodes well for the festival.  The day after tomorrow –Wednesday night July 19th –Ehnes will be back, teamed with Jonathan Crow at the Church of the Redeemer in an all- Bach program.

For the B minor it’s eight movements, some delicate and lyrical, some brilliantly fast.  One wouldn’t believe how much variety there is in this music, but for the subtleties Ehnes brings, sometimes so soulful and distant, then urgent and passionate.

And then we came to Ysaÿe, and it was clear we’re not in Leipzig anymore, Toto.  Here Ehnes used a different body language, leaning from one foot to the other, playing a piece that was almost like an eight minute cadenza, big bold melodic lines, powerful double stops, delicate little figures, then heavy accents leading to an explosive ending.

Cabena’s new work might be understood as neo-classical if this were the early 20th century, or perhaps we can call it “post-modern” in this century, for its use of recognizable phrases that remind one of Bach.  It would have been better had they found space in the program to explain & discuss a bit, as a new work really benefits from explanation more than the pieces we’ve heard before, both to explain the inter-textual references, but also to give us some context within the composer’s other works.

And then we came to the item I was really waiting for, namely the D-minor Bach. In March I posted an earlier Ehnes performance of the Chaconne that I found on youtube, that pales beside what I heard tonight. In person I watched the drama unfold, an entire audience spellbound, mesmerized.  Wow.

It’s better in person of course.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews | 2 Comments

Arthur Wenk and Story Cartel

Have you ever heard of The Story Cartel? It’s a new way of promoting books.

Here’s how they explain it:

The books you see on Story Cartel are all free in exchange for your honest review. Discover your next favorite book and support the community of authors.

wenk_bookThe download period is limited, so you only have access for a limited time.  It’s new to me, but they’re coming up to their fifth anniversary. As they say

Since October 2012, 50750 people have downloaded 103817 books, helping 2078 authors get reviews.

The concept was brought to my attention by Arthur Wenk, an impressive organist I first met when I was a tenor soloist, and his page-turner at his church in the 1990s, and later stumbling upon him via the shelves of the Edward Johnson Building’s music library.  Wenk happens to be one of the important authorities on Claude Debussy, known for such books as Claude Debussy and the Poets, an inter-disciplinary study decades ahead of its time.

His latest book, A Brief History of Classical Music:  A Tale of Time, Tonality and Timbre, is available free of charge via download at Story Cartel until the end of July.

Posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Press Releases and Announcements | Leave a comment

St Lawrence Quartet gives Toronto Summer Music Sesqui spin

Tonight’s concert by the St Lawrence Quartet launching the 2017 Toronto Summer Music Festival, the first under their new Artistic Director Jonathan Crow, has me wishing I could spend the next few weeks doing nothing but going to TSM concerts.  There was a sense of occasion, a genuine electricity in the air.  Crow explained that the theme for TSM 2017 is taken from the Sesquicentennial of Canada, as in a focus on Canadian composers and performers.  When I saw tonight’s program –placing an R Murray Schafer string quartet between quartets by Haydn and Beethoven—I wondered how he would compare.


Violinist Jonathan Crow, Artistic Director of Toronto Summer Music Festival & Toronto Symphony Concertmaster

While I’m as nationalistic as the next guy I figured

  • at worst we would hear a new sound beside the two familiar composers
  • at worst the Canadian work would be more than just a token few minutes to begin the concert

I did not expect that Schafer would more than hold his own, that he’d seem to be a peer of the two icons with whom he shared the stage.  Some of that needs to be properly attributed to Crow & the St Lawrence Quartet whose intelligent programming brought out the complementary aspects of the three works.  And nothing was held back in the performance of the Schafer.


Composer R Murray Schafer

From a lush romantic interpretation of the Haydn Op 20 #2 in C Major, a textbook demonstration of how quartets usually work, we went to the Schafer, a three movement composition that deconstructs the quartet experience in three vivid movements.

The first movement began with Christopher Costanza, cello, alone on the stage.  He was playing notes on two strings that sometimes were close to the same pitch, sometimes slightly different, calling our ears’ attention to the phenomena of tuning, harmonics, and the actual creation of the sound from first principles.  In time we hear a second musical sound from backstage and we see Lesley Robertson, viola, gradually coming to her place onstage.  In due course we also have each of the violins arriving, namely Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby.

SLSQ Photo: Marco Borggreve

Violinist Geoff Nuttall

Schafer is known for operas & spectacles that have something of the “happening” about them, so I wasn’t surprised when I started seeing his string quartet in dramatic terms, indeed, wanting to understand the piece for its dramaturgy.  Where the first movement gradually assembled the players into a team, we were watching a piece that was busily problematizing the usual principles & relationships of the quartet.  Were we watching four players working together from the same score, or were we at times watching four independent agents improvising?   And part of this framework was the audience’s apprehension of the event.  At times we could barely hear what was happening backstage or in the auditorium as the players gradually approached and assembled into an ensemble.  Some of the movements by the players were more flamboyant than usual, indeed at one point I thought Geoff Nuttall, who seemed to be channeling Lyle Lovett via the violin, reminded me of that “Walk like an Egyptian” song from the 80s, in his movement vocabulary.   Were we watching music played by virtuosi, or a performance where the musicians enacted roles? I think this is the sort of question Schafer suggested to us.

In the second movement Schafer held up a distorted mirror to what we had been seeing and doing in the Haydn (or any concert situation).  Where the first movement was slow as the ensemble gradually coalesced onstage, the second movement was a visceral appeal to my most immature impulses.  I think if the audience had been comprised of children, we would have been clapping and stomping along with this vibrant pulsing composition, indeed I wanted to jump to my feet and dance.  Of course that’s not done at Koerner Hall when a string quartet is playing, so I pretended to be an adult.  I wasn’t the only one, as i heard lots of giggles.  This middle movement included some fast passages, but often augmented by vocal work from the quartet. Yes I was stifling my jubilation, although in places the audience laughed loudly.  At times I thought the quartet resembled the Swingles Singers, after they’d been afflicted with Tourettes; and not to mock anyone with that condition, but the players seemed to be seized by primal impulses, the music seeming to emerge from the id of this quartet, pure raw irrational noises.  The playing –controlled as it was—seemed galvanic, as though someone were shooting electricity into them.  I was reminded of “talking like a pirate day” on Facebook, with some of the “arrr” sounds coming out of the players.  And then in the last movement, for the most part Schafer confounded expectation by having large swaths of unison among the four players.  How elegant they sounded, even if these weren’t the melodies of a Haydn or a Beethoven.  And then Nuttall rose to his feet, began to play a busy but beautiful solo passage, while the other three: cohered into a tonic chords.  Nuttall took his solo into the wings, fainter and fainter, against that solid assonant affirmation to conclude.

I was not the only one  impressed, as the huge reception turned to the Master in the hall, namely Schafer himself. I’m thrilled that he got to hear the work played with such lucidity and commitment, and especially that it –and he– were so warmly received by this enthusiastic audience.

We closed with Beethoven’s Op 131 in a reading that was probably the most conservative interpretation of the three works presented.  I’m not complaining, not by a long shot. Where the players showed flamboyance and daring in the Haydn—thinking especially of Nuttall & Costanza for their bold cantabile playing—they approached the Beethoven with a steady consistency, wonderfully tight with one another.   It was bliss watching their inter-actions, the eye contact and body language, accentuating the stunning sounds.  This is all one could ask for in chamber music.

Does Crow’s arrival signal something different from TSM?  I don’t know, although a new artistic direction and the energies of youth are usually welcome.  I’m looking forward to seeing more of TSM, indeed I wish I had the time to dive in every night.


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Questions for Michael Rose: premiering A Northern Lights Dream with SOLT

Michael Rose is a familiar figure in the Toronto opera scene, a pianist, music-director & coach.

On July 28th Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) will be giving the world premiere of his first completed opera,  A Northern Lights Dream presented on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus.  Michael studied with Manus Sasonkin (1930-1992) and Malcolm Forsyth (1936-2011).  While he has been writing and composing since childhood, his own musical creations always took a back seat to making a living as a performer & teacher.  It’s only recently that Michael has begun to take it seriously as part of his professional life.  After several readings of large-scale dramatic works and some songs that have been performed Northern Lights is both his first commission and first dramatic piece to make it to the stage: a musical composition for which he also wrote his own original libretto, with a small nod to Shakespeare.

On the occasion of the premiere of A Northern Lights Dream with SOLT, (who also present The Marriage of Figaro with Michael music-directing & at the piano) I asked Michael some questions about his creative life.


Michael Rose

1) Are you more like your father or your mother?

I suspect we all experience that profoundly startling moment in life when we suddenly find ourselves standing in an odd attitude or moving with a peculiar mannerism or saying something in a foreign but all-too-familiar voice. It’s that dreaded moment when your fantasy of uniqueness and independence is exploded, and you realize that, for that one split second, you have become your mother! Or your father. Or both. In my case, it’s both plus my maternal grandparents.

My musicality comes from both my parents. Musicians crop up on my mother’s side of the family through as many generations as we can trace. And my father, who was an orphan, taught himself to play the clarinet and trumpet. He played in bands in the Air Force and even in a community orchestra, when I was little. It was he who asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. This was when I was six. We were living in the country near Brighton, Ontario. I don’t remember it, but the story is that my parents were in the kitchen when they heard a terrible racket in the back yard. They looked through the window and saw that I had taken a transistor radio outside and had surrounded myself with all the metal garbage cans and lids we had. I was bashing them with sticks to the music on the radio, a wannabe Ringo Starr.

I like to flatter myself with the claim that I resemble my grandfather. It’s not as true a claim as I would like. He was a gentle, patient soul, with an almost childlike conviction that the world is just what it should be and that everything is for the best. He loved my grandmother (and she him) perpetually. It was an ideal relationship. She was the business woman, driven, constantly exploring. He was happy to be helpful to her and to people at large. He was the kind of man who loved nothing more than pottering about among his rose bushes, pruning a bit here and there.

I share some of my grandparents’ traits. Like Grandad, I tend to wear rose-coloured glasses. But unlike his, mine have a sharp edge. Like Nana, I need to be on the move. I get anxious being too long in one place. But unlike my grandparents, I’ve never found a relationship like the one they had. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for being single!

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

There are many ‘best’ things in what I do. As a pianist, I cherish those moments when there’s electricity in the air and musical spontaneity is high; when the communication between players and between players and audience is somehow superhuman. I had one of those moments recently in a concert I played with the Forte Gay Men’s Chorus. There was a palpable energy from the audience. And from the first note to the last, there was magic. That is the kind of performance that keeps us addicted to all the hard work that goes into it!

As a coach, the best thing is to hear a young singer conquer a difficult challenge. Those moments are very exciting – for me as well as for the singer. SOLT gives me a chance to work with many gifted new singers. As pianist and music director, my aim is to inspire them to look at the score with fresh eyes and ears. The goal is to feed their imaginations. If they find themselves at the end of the summer singing and acting in a way they could never before have conceived, then I’ve done my job.

As composer and playwright, this season I have the added pleasure and responsibility of providing them with material to challenge and inspire them.

3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I don’t listen to a lot of music any more. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a recording. I enjoy live concerts; but after a day of music making, I much prefer to go see a play. Or read a book. I watch TV (I love Game of Thrones, Sense8, House of Cards, Davinci’s Demons, and many more!) and movies (mostly on my little laptop). But I prefer the intimacy, magic, and intellectual courage of live theater.

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

I would love to be a mathematician. What’s happening now in science, particularly in astronomy, is amazing. I would love to be able to understand the mathematics of Newton and Einstein and then explore the many brilliant things that have been discovered since. But I’m just a musician. I can count, but I can’t add!

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

I love to sit in the sun at a coffee shop and read or write. Or just watch the world around me unfold. I also love to travel. But my favorite thing to do when I travel is to sit at a new coffee shop and watch the world around me unfold.


More questions about working with SOLT,
especially premiering Northern Lights Dream


Suzy Smith is music-director of Michael Rose’s new opera plus John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus.

1) I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this both as a composer AND as a vocal coach, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?

This question is not as simple as it might seem. I think most people would say that originality is desirable. There’s nothing more tedious, for instance, than going to a new music theater piece and hearing music you’ve heard many times before with new lyrics stuck onto it. I feel cheated when that happens (and it happens a lot!) But there are natural limits to originality. Absolute originality would be incomprehensible to anyone but the composer. And what’s the good of that? Every artist learns from his or her predecessors. Brahms from Beethoven. Beethoven from Haydn. Everyone from Bach. We’re the product of innumerable influences. And that’s a healthy, human thing. If a composer can filter those influences into something that is uniquely her own, then she has accomplished something of significance for her audience.

I try not to be aware of any particular style or composer when I’m writing music. Fortunately, I’m aided by the simple fact that I write music for the stage. I’m not trying to write the great Canadian symphony! So I can be inspired by the characters and situations. That’s what dictates the style. I’m a music dramatist. I work to find the right sound for the character.

The same concepts apply to originality in a performer. A composer’s or writer’s work is filtered through the personality and technique of the performer. It’s a dance where both partners can easily tread upon one another’s feet!

The performer has the added influence of other performers and traditions. It’s hard sometimes to learn from outside sources without imitating them. Part of a coach’s job is finding the individual spark in a performer and encouraging that. Sometimes it’s necessary to smash icons. Often a young singer will adopt a musical mannerism that seems insincere or illogical. When questioned, the response is usually something like, “That’s how so and so does it.” My response is always, “If so and so’s name is not Beethoven, or Schubert or Debussy, then I don’t want to hear it.” But, naturally enough, young performers idolize their heroes. They want to be just like them. They must travel a long road before they gain the courage to make their own mistakes!

2) What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in your new opera?  

In the case of A Northern Lights Dream, the characters gave me a chance to write a broad spectrum of style. I had completed about half of the music before I realized where my instincts were taking me. The story has humans, gods, and fairies. The more other-worldly or magical the character, the more complex the counterpoint and harmony; and the more operatic the sound. At the other end of the scale, for the earthy, folksier characters, the style moves closer to musical theater. Robin, who lives quite comfortably in both the magical and human realms, sings in an accessible style, but with great virtuosity.

3) please tell me a bit about the story of Northern Lights Dream.

The story is set in the town of Shakespeare, Ontario, in the present day. It opens with a 400 year old Robin Goodfellow (Shakespeare’s Puck) relating his frustrated attempts to win the heart of Aurora Borealis. He decides to change his trickster ways with mortals in order to gain the goddess’s favour.

In town, meanwhile, there is a fashion designer named Helen, whose shop is at risk of bankruptcy because of an unpaid bill for a wedding dress and bridesmaids gowns – unpaid because the bride and groom have had a row and called off the wedding. Helen, although wary of Robin’s powers, is eventually convinced by her friend and employee, Taylor, to seek the fairy’s assistance in getting the wedding back on track. This leads to a day of revelations for Helen and the other mortals as their hidden, inner lives are gradually made visible, both to themselves and to one another.

4) please reflect for a moment on the pedagogical value for a singer doing a new work, as opposed to a standard work such as Carmen


SOLT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin

If you were to attend staging rehearsals at SOLT, you might hear Guillermo Silva-Marin, the director, say to the students, “Stop listening to the recordings!” I agree, wholeheartedly. You cannot say this too often or with too much conviction to a student. It’s advice I was given when I was young and advice that I promptly ignored. But it is good advice, nevertheless. Students must forge their own relationship with the score. To the best of their ability, they must channel the composer’s concept and not simply imitate the recreations recorded by other artists. To paraphrase Vladimir Horowitz, Why should they copy someone else’s mistakes, when they can make their own?

A new work has many pedagogical advantages. There are no recordings. The students have no choice. They must rely on their ability to interpret the score. Plus, the composer is present. They can test their interpretations against the source and see where they were right and where they went horribly off track! And the reverse is true. The composer can find those places in the score that need more precision in order to get the desired result.

5) If a young student wants to have a career, what qualities –between a big voice or a good range or musicianship or good acting– would you tell them to work on?

Musicianship and a musical, artistic imagination are essential. You can have the greatest voice in the world and excellent technique. But if you have no concept of how the music goes and nothing personal to express, then it is mere sound, signifying nothing. I always recommend that singers get back to the basics of music making. Forget that you’re a singer. Hum the tunes in the same way that anyone would hum a favorite melody while walking down the street. It’s the beauty of the tune that people want to hear, not just the beauty of the voice (although that’s important, too!)The next thing is to work on interpersonal relationships. If people enjoy being around you, they’ll be more likely to want to work with you. It comes down to some very simple things sometimes. Good hygiene. Wear deodorant, but not perfume. All musicians and artists (not just singers!) breathe. We need clean air! Be on time. If you habitually keep people waiting, you’re wasting precious time. You won’t be asked back. Be friendly but focussed.  It may seem silly to mention such things. But there are many great performers out there. Your odds of being hired are that much better if people love spending time with you.Don’t ignore the other arts. Go to the theater, the art gallery. Read literature and poetry. Art is not created in a vacuum!

6) Please put Dream in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century.  How radical or conservative is this opera? 

In terms of contemporary trends in new opera, Northern Lights fits with a stream of thought that predicts a merging of opera with musical theater. I don’t know how accurate that prediction is. But the trend is certainly there, starting with such luminaries as Menotti and Sondheim. I tend to think of my own work as theater with music.
Another recent development, spurred on no doubt by economic realities, is the resurgence of chamber opera. Indie companies like Against the Grain, are doing wonderful work in reinventing the standard repertoire for contemporary audiences, in English translation. I love the intimacy and immediacy of this kind of work. Toronto Operetta Theatre is another company that explores smaller scale work in English translation. There are advantages to this. The audience understands what’s being said. And, in a smaller theater, they get to be closer to the action. Hearing a singer from ten feet away is a totally different experience than hearing that singer from two hundred feet away!

7) What direction do you see yourself going after this?

I’ve started work on a new full-length show to be premiered in Toronto in the 2019-20 season. It hasn’t yet been announced publicly, so I won’t say which company it’s for. But I can say that I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity! Once SOLT is done and I’ve had a chance to see Northern Lights on its feet, I’ll sit down with Guillermo Silva-Marin and discuss possible revisions. As well as being the director of the show, Guillermo was my dramaturg during the writing process. His insights will be invaluable. The audience response will also be immensely informative.

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

I’ve been fortunate in my colleagues and my teachers. But the biggest influence has been my friends. It’s friends who really help us become who we are.

Or who we might be.


Michael Rose continues to wear several hats this summer:

  • His new opera A Northern Lights Dream receives its world premiere on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus on July 28th with Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) at the Robert Gill Theatre.
  • Michael will be music-director & pianist for The Marriage of Figaro
  • SOLT’s 2017 schedule is as follows: (see website for details and purchase information)

Carmen – Jul 29 & Aug 6 at 2 pm; Aug 1 & 3 at 8 pm.
The Marriage Of Figaro – Jul 29, Aug 2 & 4 at 8 pm; Aug 2 at 2 pm
Night Blooming Cereus & A Northern Lights Dream – Jul 28 & Aug 5 at 8 pm; Jul 30 & Aug 5 at 2 pm.


The happy SOLT cast surrounding Michael, and including…. hockey sticks?  Ah but it is the Sesquicentennial after all.  (Front: Elizabeth Ferguson, Liv Morton, Adriene Donkin, Leyanna Slous;  rear: Kimberley-Rose Kim Pefhany, Avery Laura Lafrentz, Grace Quinsey, Shaelyn Archibald, Michael Rose, Alida Doornberg, Logan Hickey)




Posted in Opera, Questions, Questions | 1 Comment

Irresistible Flea

I am usually drawn to Fringe shows either by the material or by the personnel in the show, so I couldn’t miss Pulse Theatre’s production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear. It’s directed by Aleksandar Sasha Lukac, a director who always makes me laugh, especially when he’s directing one of my favourite playwrights.


Aleksandar Sasha Lukac, director of A Flea in Her Ear

Toronto could stand to show us more Feydeau, a playwright who is a special challenge with his fast paced story-telling, his clockwork plot construction and requirement of endless energy. There are no small parts in this play, as everyone has their moments pushing the plot along, especially in a production adding wacky dance numbers during scene changes. There are very few moments in this show that aren’t suggestively sexy in their physicality.

Oh to be young again.


Mladen Obradović, Kimberley Wells, A’mar Wharton-Matthew, Tomas Ketchum, Kyla Dewey, Adrian Milan, Suzanne Miller, Xavier de Guzman, Madelaine Burgess, Laurie Hurst, Aaron Schaefer, Anne-Marie Krytiuk (photo: Derrick Chow)

A story centred on questions of marital fidelity is only helped by showing the sexual tensions & subtexts with nothing held back. I understand that this particular farce has a long history in Serbia, a theatre community who influenced Lukac’s unique physical style. While he’s been in Toronto for decades now, both as an important teacher and practitioner, he maintains ties with the old country, regularly taking shows across the ocean.


Mladen Obradović as Poche (photo: Derrick Chow)

Spoiler alert.  Theatre Pulse’s Artistic Director Mladen Obradovic has a key role: or perhaps I should say roles. The hair-style tricks may not fool you at all, especially if you read in the program that Obradovic is playing two roles. He does an amazing job as two people. This is a special kind of theatrical magic, where those onstage are fooled in a plot involving mistaken identity –due to the two identical people, played by one person–while those of us in the audience may choose to be fooled as well to maximize the fun.

Some performances are more cartoonish, some more like real people. I can’t decide which I prefer, only that Lukac’s approach requires them all, as they all earn laughs at different times for different sorts of actions.

Madeleine Rose, Xavier de Guzman, and  A’mar Wharton-Matthew, as Antoinette, Étienne and Camille start us off in a realm of what I’d like to call physical eloquence, beautiful bodies in motion, sometimes moving in the most unexpected ways. For Lukac whose comedy is informed by the wisdom of the Commedia dell’Arte, every moment and every line become opportunities for discovery in the script.  While she’s a burlesque artist, which may be getting a bit like the flavor du jour for theatre directors, this is so much more than just a glimpse of skin.  All three create intriguing parts out of small roles, setting up everything that follows in the play.  As the commedia often showed us (even though Feydeau is a million miles away from CdA), servants may be the most authentic people on the stage.

Adrian Milan and Suzanne Miller are Don Carlos & his wife Lucienne, a powerful couple who aren’t just visually striking. Milan knocks the play out of the park with his volcanic temper tantrums, a cartoonish thug whose sense of menace is all too real: even though I couldn’t stop laughing.  There are no weak spots in the cast, no small parts in this ensemble, who keep it moving at breakneck speed from start to finish.  It’s a good thing the space is air conditioned.

Pulse Theatre’s A Flea in Her Ear continues at the Factory Theatre on Bathurst until July 16.


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Going down to the sea with La Nef and Seán Dagher

SEA_SONGSAs soon as I heard of Sea Songs & Shanties, a new recording by La Nef and Seán Dagher from ATMA, I eagerly obtained it because I had a good idea what I’d find:

  • Musicianship
  • Authenticity
  • Passion

And I haven’t been disappointed with the recording that currently holds sway in my car.  There are several songs that are new to me that keep running through my head. What greater compliment can a composer have than this?  And when we’re speaking of music that’s the product of an oral tradition one must assume that a catchy melody has been sung for a long time by many people. A tune that is meant to get stuck in your head is easier to learn, easier to remember, easier to sing.

That’s what you encounter here, an anthology of songs that invoke a vanished world, a lost culture.  It’s all very well to read about the hazards of a voyage, the different sorts of ship, the dreaded press gang.  Although one can read about things and know them as facts and details from a book, it’s something else again to get inside the heads of people living in that culture who have a visceral understanding. That is what these songs represent when done correctly.  They’re little time capsules bringing us life & death, the blood & the guts from another era with entirely different assumptions.

From the first cut you’re immersed in a whole new world or more precisely, an old world.  The language is dense with words no longer in use as if we were suddenly hearing Shakespeare, although it’s not that old nor that poetic. Sometimes the language is tough to decode, a bit of a challenge.  The music is never modern sounding, but always direct as folk music must be, speaking plainly.

I think of La Nef as a folk ensemble although they are known for playing early music.  I first encountered them a few years ago collaborating with Michael Slattery on Dowland in Dublin, and more recently in performances in Toronto.  While we might understand Dowland as early music this was brand new for its experimental reframing of the music in arrangements probing the composer’s possible Celtic roots. Sylvain Bergeron, one of the founding members, played with the Canadian Opera Company orchestra for their production of Handel’s Ariodante this past season.

These Sea Songs offer you a chance to go on a genuine voyage of discovery, to be taken somewhere new.  The music sung in a tavern, or the working songs of the sailors on a ship are no less important cultural artifacts just because they don’t bear the name of a famous composer, and are important influences on what we’ve heard since.  Recently I sat listening to Ethel Smyth’s The Boatswain‘s Mate, written a little over 100 years ago but at times echoing this much older oral folk music of the sea.

There is at least one song that might be known for its place in higher culture via the plundering hand of John Gay, who wrote The Beggar’s Opera employing popular songs such as “Greensleeves” and “Lillibullero”.  The first duet between Polly and MacHeath is set to the song “Over the Hills and far away,” a song that has had several versions over the years, including the one from La Nef on this album.  In the space between the two versions is a huge amount of subtext and coded meanings.  The allusions are as complex and subtly flavored as a single malt but without the dangers of impairing your driving.

And every one of these sea songs distills the complex allusions and meanings into a few minutes that are like a snapshot.  We hear of sailors working proudly, or wanting desperately to get home, of the infectious optimism of men as they get closer to land, of their romances and lost loves.

Yes there’s a lot of testosterone on this album. It’s men singing about men among men.  That alone makes it resemble a historical artifact.  Some songs have accompaniment, some are a capella, as well they might be when we’re hearing a song sung by sailors on a boat.  For all that there’s a remarkable variety to the recording.  Seán Dagher who is the Musical Director of La Nef and plays several instruments, sings four solos, Nils Brown sings three solos, Michael Schrey and Clayton Kennedy two each, Nelson Carter, who plays several instruments also sings a solo, while David Gossage & Andrew Horton play more instruments & sing backup vocals.

This is a recording of great imagination, perhaps answering the question “what would it be like to somehow hear sea songs not as concert pieces but in their native element: as if on board a ship?” No we don’t hear winds or waves or sea-birds, so perhaps I exaggerate. And it’s a layered question, as I have no idea which part comes first. Before you can curate the appropriate collection of songs—as Dagher and his team surely had to select songs to play from the much larger tally of possible repertoire—you have to immerse yourself in the music and the culture.  You’d have to make choices, to figure out how you wish to perform this music, and not because they’re virtuoso pieces requiring special skills so much as the necessity for authenticity.  For other branches of historically informed performance—whether we speak of Bach cantatas, baroque opera or oratorio (and there’s more one could mention)—that has been a decades-long process. For practitioners, we can speak of a shifting understanding of the craft of playing & interpreting and of the compositions themselves.  While they didn’t make as pretentious a declaration as what I’m making here, I believe that there are indeed more such branches, including the musics that fall through the cracks, as popular or oral traditions.  For example ballads that might have been sung in taverns represent a whole other genre (or series of genres really) for composition & performance, implying a whole series of assumptions.  There is one such song on this album, that might have had life as a bit of a ghost story in song form.  With these songs we’re dealing with a special series of challenges closer to the fringe of society.  Where opera and concert music were the focus of intense scrutiny by critics, listeners and performers (usually including literally centuries of shared pedagogical assumptions about how such songs should be done), popular and folk music complicate those main parameters, especially when the connection to an oral tradition of the past is lost.

While you’ll never find the words to these songs on your karaoke machine, nor are people likely to know the tunes, I wish I could hear them sung in a tavern or on a ship, as they offer one of the most vivid glimpses of a real historical past that one could hope for.

Posted in Popular music & culture | 3 Comments