The Coronation of King George II

This was the most fun I’ve had at a concert since the epic minimalist concert (oxymoron?) in August 1st 2013. Then as now I believe we were seeing Toronto Summer Music Artistic Director Douglas McNabney pushing the envelope of what’s possible in a concert. On that occasion it was a curious mix of elements, teasing us with possibilities.

But this time I believe we were engaging in genuine research, Daniel Taylor’s Theatre of Early Music (TEM) challenging us to see and hear in a new way. I put this performance alongside my experiences with PLS, the U of Toronto’s lab for exploring early drama, and so many historically informed musical performances encompassing Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik and the Toronto Consort (the Play of Daniel being only a recent example of such investigation).

Forgive me the preamble, but I think it’s vital to explain why this is important and not just a concert or a musical performance.

Lamb nov 2015

Nov 2015: Daniel Taylor conducting the TEM choir with Schola Cantorum at Trinity Chapel

Exquisite as the performances were, the framework changes everything.  Those of us who still go to church have a bit of a grasp, through the influential sonorities of Handel or Bach. When you watch the opening ceremonies of an Olympics, the national anthem (hopefully done without tampering) at a baseball game, you’re in a similar relationship between the music, the words and the assembled people. It’s important to recognize that when you’re singing the anthem before a hockey game or singing a hymn in church, you’re not the audience nor the performer, but something very different, and it is meant to stir you up. At such times –thinking of the notion of transubstantiation that may or may not describe what happens for you during communion, depending on your beliefs—there is a kind of ritual, giving immanent meaning to the music as everyone is united in their celebration.

But we don’t do this very much anymore, and so we lose the sense of much of the music from the past, when music was not ubiquitous on our electronic devices or coming out of the speakers to encourage us to shop at Christmas Time. Music was more rare and magical for people. The most extreme case of this that I am aware of –at least in the story I learned long ago, that is probably now understood to be bogus—was that Handel’s coronation anthem “Zadok the Priest” was only to be played at royal coronations, and therefore so rare as to not be heard by some in their entire lifetime. We now have sound systems, recordings, and so one can hear “Zadok the Priest”, but in theory it was impossibly rare.

I don’t know if you can tell, but I loved this concert that ventured into different territory beyond performance. We were re-enacting a public ritual from long ago, and I say “we” because the audience weren’t merely passive viewers. Whether it was McNabney or conductor Daniel Taylor who conceived & curated this event, they changed the usual ground-rules for a concert.

The evening was organized into a service: re-enacting a coronation, with a few modern pieces added. Bill Coleman silently portrayed King George II, while Alan Gallichan played the archbishop. During Zadok the Priest, in the long gradual build-up of tension, we saw the Bishop put a crown upon the King’s head, and then the two advanced towards us (the congregation?), leading to the shattering climax as the chorus came in.  The orchestra was a nice size to work with that fabulous chorus, comprised of a string quartet, two oboes, two trumpets, drums and organ.

thumbThis wasn’t any old chorus, as Taylor looked out upon a small ensemble of some of the best singers in the city, namely Theatre of Early Music (TEM). The magnificent chorus included Ellen McAteer (fresh from Friday night’s Rape of Lucretia) Asitha Tennekoon (heard in Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner), Alex Dobson, and Toronto Masque Theatre’s Larry Beckwith (whose facial expressions throughout were one of the great joys of the evening). Hearing this in Walter Hall was a bit surprising, given that choral music with organ usually hides in the vague acoustics of churches, rather than such a precise space. Matthew Larkin’s organ playing was therefore required to have a precision, indeed, a perfection under which organists don’t normally labour. I was feeling a bit old hearing that the organ in this space is being refurbished, as I recall reviewing Charles Peaker playing it in its first year(perhaps 1976?) as an undergrad writing for the Varsity.

I was struck by the sentiments stirred up at this concert. We heard wonderful music including “Worthy Is the Lamb”, but also participated in singing Parry’s “Jerusalem”, admittedly an anachronism that served to personalize the event. I wonder, would the crowd in the 18th Century have cried out “God Save the King” along with the chorus in “Zadok the Priest”? Listening to this performance, I have to wonder.  It’s perhaps the most functional earworm I can think of, if as a result, one can’t resist the temptation to walk along saying “God Save the King”! (as I did for the next hour) But notice that it’s not wrong to be sentimental, not in this case. This isn’t a piece of art, it’s a practical composition for an event, intended to stir up our feelings. When they sing “Alleluia” (the one in this piece, not the only Alleluia of the night) it’s a genuine prayer, not just a bit of singing.

And of course those feelings are supposed to be there. No tears? Check for a pulse.
Listen to this performance (not nearly as period-accurate as what we heard) and now imagine a crown placed on the head of a king.

We have it all wrong, listening to this as a “concert piece”. That’s what it becomes I suppose, in the same way that a ballet score played at a symphony hall is changed. But originally? It’s a coronation anthem meant for an event like what we saw re-enacted tonight.


Posted in Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion, university life | 1 Comment

Jamie Barton in Recital

Toronto Summer Music continued their tradition of featuring a female vocalist.  In 2014 it was Sondra Radvanovsky, while in 2015 it was Karita Mattila.  Each of those two concerts represented a coup, and was a highlight of that year, nevermind of the summer.

Young Jamie Barton brought her considerable resume and vocal gifts to the 2016 Festival.  Having sung just a couple of days ago at Glimmerglass, perhaps she needed the first half of the concert to loosen up, kicking off her shoes when she came to the last items on the program.


Recitals are sometimes the place where the real person collides with who they are being pressured to be, either by the artform, the industry or their upbringing, and I think we saw that again tonight.  There were two very different sorts of repertoire that could be understood as a microcosm of Barton’s life.  She told us she’s from Georgia, that she used to sing in church.  I can’t help noticing that some of the rep seems completely natural for her, a perfect fit:

  • the Joaquin Turina songs to begin the evening
  • the Dvorak gypsy melodies sung after intermission
  • her encores

For those, she was completely in her body, happily letting her voice rip without restraint.

And then there was a more aspirational kind of music, perhaps representing what her teachers have told her to do rather than who she really is, the result of a girl from the south going to a conservatory where they told her to sing more quietly, rather than honouring the big honest voice she has.  (and I suspect that, to quote one of my favourite lines from Moonstruck, that she’d be quick to tell me to kiss her aspirations)

  • Chausson songs
  • Schubert songs
  • Three spirituals: but in artsy arrangements that seemed designed to turn the melodies into something very rarefied, like art-song. I couldn’t help thinking that when Leontyne Price –who surely had a similar background—did her recitals, she sang her spirituals to proudly show her roots, telling us who she was and where she came from.  I wish Barton would considering doing the same with pride.

Barton is young.  At some point she will have the life experience to make something wonderful of the Schubert songs, but right now, it seems very abstract.  With the exception of “Gretchen am Spinnrade”, which she sang with a great deal more voice in a very operatic reading, the artistry seemed like a poor fit.  It wasn’t bad but just didn’t have the same spark as the more direct singing i alluded to. But maybe that’s because she was singing on the weekend, and needed to warm up. The second half of the concert was a wonderful contrast.

In addition to the Dvorak songs – presented with a great deal more commitment and physicality (where she’s been standing relatively still through the first half), let alone pure power & volume—we had two wonderful encores (and hopefully I have identified them correctly):

  •  Var det en dröm”  by Sibelius, an art song that Barton sang with a great deal of commitment
  • Acerba voluttà from Adriana Lecouvreur, a fabulous aria rising to a high note that I think is a B-flat at the end.

Bradley Moore accompanied from the piano, a crisp supportive musician that followed well.

Barton has a great future ahead of her, particularly if we get to hear the big powerful notes she sometimes offers.  I wonder if she might someday sing Sieglinde or Ortrud.  Her range is remarkable, considering that we also heard some fabulous low notes too.

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Finding Dory and the symbolists

These days I am feeling a bit overwhelmed by emotions. I’ve had a death in the family (not a tragedy, when someone lives to a ripe old age, but still, it has stirred up a lot of feelings for me & everyone else in my family), and was already struggling with my responses to the American election.

How handy to have films that promise escape. I’ve been a fan of animation for a long time, possibly as an offshoot of my love of opera. I link animation to the media that are essentially symbolic or dare I even say symbolist:

  • Opera (thinking especially of Wagner & Debussy)
  • Ballet and dance
  • Puppet theatre
  • Music theatre
  • Music

Documentary films, realism or naturalism onstage and in film, reality TV, or the news usually engage an entirely different part of the brain than those less explicit sorts of signification.

Finding Dory was today’s little film,  preceded by Piper an even smaller film that was in its way perhaps even more ambitious. For the first half minute I thought I was watching a real film and not animation. Finding Dory spares us that ambiguity, by letting the denizens of this world talk and squawk with cute personalities voiced by genuine stars, mostly a kind of who’s who of the comedy world (Bill Hader, Kate McKinnon, Ellen Degeneres, Albert Brooks and Eugene Levy are almost like comic royalty).

All those wacky voices put us at our ease, as if to say “be not afraid”, while we cope with a very challenging story.  It can’t be real.

But wow.


Poet TS Eliot

I watched this the night after an overpowering production of The Rape of Lucretia here in Toronto. I don’t think I’m offering any spoilers at this point (as I repeat what I heard over and over) by saying that the story concerns a character – the fish Dory played by Ellen Degeneres—with serious short-term memory issues. When I recall the way such things have turned up in mainstream film, which is to say, clumsily if at all, I then look at this as a strategy for story-telling. Nevermind your resistance to animation – if you’re one of the people who still thinks puppet theatre is for kids, that animation is “cartoons”. We’re in the same territory as Parsifal or The Waste Land even if many people who adore Wagner & Eliot  might be expected to look down their noses at such popular populist media.

But if you’re one of those people hahaha you’re not even reading this, right? As usual for the realm of social media, I am preaching to the choir. If you didn’t know Frank Zappa you likely wouldn’t have read what I wrote. I sometimes want to be an evangelist, spreading the gospel of what I love. I love Zappa, I love opera, I love puppet theatre, and yes I love animation. I think they’re fundamentally similar.

At a time when I have –temporarily—sworn off political posts on Facebook and am striving to be positive & sunny, Finding Dory was a no-brainer, the natural choice. I expected to cry, and was actually surprised that it elicited fewer tears than Inside Out.( a film that blew me away).  There were still a couple of warm fuzzy moments, but also lots of tough moments.

I can’t help thinking that this is a movie with real nerve. I compare it to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta I saw that made me cry years ago, Iolanthe. When you take topsy-turvy to its absolute extreme, when your happy ending is so impossible as to be an absolute oxymoron, is it truly a happy ending? Such dark thoughts may never furrow your brow, but hey I have deep furrows in my forehead this week. Dory’s plight is impossible. The story is brave & uplifting in her response to the impossible situation she faces. I hope I’m not being too dark saying this. Perhaps you’ll feel much more positive seeing it than I.  Hm, I am again reminded of how sadly Lucretia comes onstage to join her housemaids, unable to share in their joy because she’s weighed down with her impossible grief and self-judgment.  I repeat the question I asked myself when watching Iolanthe at Stratford so long ago, starring Maureen Forrester… Is an impossibly happy story really a happy story? If the solution to the contradictions of the plot is impossible, what are we really left with?
This improbable tale (Dory) takes us to some very dark places: and illuminates them. I will want to see it again perhaps in a few weeks to see if my current perspective is unreliable, and if I see it differently next time.

I did not expect this film to remind me of Maureen Forrester, nor of Avo Kittask (along for the ride).


Posted in Books & Literature, Cinema, Opera, Personal ruminations, Reviews | Leave a comment

Lucretia: a messed up kind of story for a messed up time

Sometimes one escapes from the real world in the theatre, diverted from life. And sometimes theatre is such a perfect mirror that it reminds us of the craziness we’re seeing everywhere else.

That latter choice –finding the craziness of the world in the theatre—is what I experienced tonight at the Winter Garden Theatre watching Benjamin Britten’s Rape of Lucretia.
I think I understand this opera better from seeing what Against the Grain (in collaboration with Banff Festival & the Canadian Opera Company, presenting it this time under the auspices of Toronto Summer Music Festival, whew how’s that for a preamble) came up with. Or to put it another way, how should one feel after the events of this opera, wherein we see a pushy nobleman of Ancient Rome seizing what’s not his, jealous of a near-perfect relationship, leading the wronged wife to kill herself.


Jasper Leever and Emma Char (Photo by Jorge Chaves)

While I have never felt closure or completeness at the end of this opera before, always attributing that messed up feeling to the composer’s shortcomings, I now see that hey: we should be messed up. This is a very messed up world we’re seeing –not unlike our own—and at the end we can’t feel closure, not even the closure one has when we see Rodolfo sobbing over Mimi or Jose confessing he’s killed his Carmen. This isn’t a neat tidy bundle.

Owen McCausland as the male chorus bore a large part of the burden of that mess. Every other production I’ve seen tries to make sense of that ending, with its platitudes and professions of faith, pointing us to a brighter day tomorrow. McCausland seems to be breaking down, shattered by what he’s seen and felt, and sounding less like the brave pillar than a confused and lost soul, and in so doing, making those lines sound real for once. In the process I think we see a transformation into what the chorus (male and female) can and should be, namely the conscience of the work.

I now really get that scene with the flowers, where Lucretia’s maids are ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the beauty of the morning, the most over-the-top rendition of this I’ve ever seen, and it came beautifully into focus watching Lucretia stagger onto the stage.

Let me ask you, have you ever had one of those days when it’s stunningly beautiful outside, but you feel depressed or lost or sad, and can see that none of that positive stuff can reach you, as though you’re somehow freezing in the hot sun? That’s what we saw tonight, as Emma Char blankly enters, in the face of the ridiculously joyful antics of her maids, played by Beste Kalender and Ellen McAteer. Here and elsewhere we’re less in the presence of operatic virtuosity for its own sake, and instead deep inside the drama. The moments a bit later, between Kalender and Char, are astonishingly touching. For certain kinds of drama music-theatre or opera have far greater power, as we saw in that scene.

Jasper Leever as Collatinus, the husband of Lucretia, had been a gently macho presence, to counter-balance Iain MacNeil’s tyrannical Tarquinius. While I was less convinced in the first act scene between the men, I was drawn in gradually. The scenes that one might expect to be the most difficult –thinking really of the last scenes of the opera, when we see the rape, Lucretia’s death and the aftermath—were the best. [morning after addition: I realize now –and after facebook chatting last night with AtG’s Joel Ivany– that I have been remiss in failing to properly celebrate both Leever and Peter Rolfe Dauz as Junius.  In the aftermath Junius is the one who will avenge Tarquinius’ crime, but not out of passion but political opportunism, cleverly packaged in the clothing of self-righteousness.  And Leever as Collatinus is totally destroyed, the other victim with Char as Lucretia. The stage picture at the end is messy, and no one is more messed up than Collatinus, rightfully, contemplating Lucretia’s body.  I knew this intuitively last night when i chose to lead with that stunning photo of Leever’s great wounded face, alongside Char’s body.  The arc of that ensemble, the two men from their first scene to the last, is one of the great joys of the production.]

I think I read somewhere that this is a semi-staged production, but I’m not so sure that’s accurate. Yes we had a visible ensemble sharing the stage with the singers and little or no set, but we’re in a meta-theatrical world, watching characters sing while male and/or female chorus walk in between them and comment or react. They’re singing with this ensemble, so how real could it ever really be? I would say that the attempts to enact “realism” (whatever that is understood to be) sometimes founder on their own contradictions, as various elements call attention to the illusion.

The star of the show for me was Topher Mokrzewski, the music director, who sometimes planted his baton between his lips while playing subtle accompaniment while standing at the piano, then stepping back to lead the ensemble, who sounded amazing. Britten was the beneficiary of this fabulous, gentle account of a score that was always shimmering with transparency, dramatically taut. Words were never obscured even though at times I wondered if we would have been better off with surtitles; but the important lines came through clearly.  I think Topher is ready to conduct at the Canadian Opera Company or  at the Toronto Symphony.  Young dynamic talent?  Nezet-Seguin is taken (busy busy now in Philadelphia and at the Met), but there’s also Topher.  We need him in Toronto, when he’s not conducting or playing out west.


This image of Emma Char alongside the orchestra is a small sample of the meta-theatricality of this production. (Photo by Jorge Chaves)

As one who’s been watching too much CNN, caught up in too many political comments on social media, I found the same crazy world here, the politics that reflect unresolved passions and unhappiness writ large.

I have to ask parenthetically, is the director Paul Curran who directed this show a few days ago in Banff? Or Anna Theodosakis, who has the credit in the program? On the website of MetroYouth Opera –where Theodosakis directed this opera a couple of months ago in a very different interpretation—they say this:

This summer Theodosakis will be the assistant director for Paul Curran’s production of The Rape of Lucretia at The Banff Centre

And Emma Char in her recent interview identified him as “Paul Curran, our director at the Banff Centre”.

So the same cast presents the opera a few days later, and it’s no longer Paul Curran’s? I’m confused.

But my confusion isn’t the sense of “messed up” I was speaking of.  I am really speaking of the complexities of the production, its willingness to stir us in several directions: no matter who directed it.

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

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

I can’t help thinking that composers are sometimes badly appraised in their own century.  I watched a documentary tonight that inspired me yet pained me, because it’s a nagging reminder of the undeserved obscurity enjoyed by Frank Zappa, and of his untimely death.

whatsnew_left01When I first encountered Zappa I loved his music right away, blown away by the best rock music I had ever heard (and it’s still the most interesting almost half a century later).  But he is much more.  I’m reminded somewhat of Leonard Bernstein, a composer who enjoyed success in both the serious and popular worlds, and like Zappa a composer strongly influenced by Igor Stravinsky.  But Bernstein never had to overcome the negative assumptions of those dismissing a long-haired guitarist, which might explain the comparatively higher reputation he enjoys compared to Zappa.  If you can see past the stereotype, you might consider something that I believe: that Zappa is a great composer.

Watching Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words at TIFF gives a fair glimpse of the musician over the course of his life.   Yet there are not very many performances of his music, because we are mostly listening to him speak.  We encounter the political wit of Zappa – the funniest satirist after Tom Lehrer—yet he’s much more.  We hear him speak of his process, of his influences, of his beliefs and philosophy.

I am reminded of the way foreigners sometimes have greater objectivity, in their ability to recognize talent, whether it’s the way the French put Hitchcock on a pedestal, or saw genius in Jerry Lewis.  In Europe Zappa is appreciated much more thoroughly.  Zappa is seen being adored by the French (yes they did it again), and the Swedes and the Czechs.  We see Zappa meeting Vaclav Havel.

In the classical realm there are moments suggesting recognition, such as a glimpse of him with Pierre Boulez, a rehearsal with Kent Nagano.  In fact when I watch this following clip – from the Tonight Show with Steve Allen—I am reminded of many new music concerts, except what’s missing is the tone of ridicule. Zappa was always a man with a sense of humour.

We see several incarnations of the composer / performer, sometimes singing, sometimes strumming, sometimes pontificating.  For such a brilliant man he’s rarely given the kind of respect he deserves, as there’s often a note of disbelief, as though longer hair somehow sucks out your brains.  He is a very humble man, happy in his own skin and never terribly concerned with his reputation.  Crazy as our world sometimes is (and this has been a weird couple of weeks), the film is a reminder that we may be making progress, compared to what we see in this film (although the Europeans  clearly get him).

Alas we see the arc of his life-story, a tragically brief arc at that.  He died just before his fifty-third birthday.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words continues at TIFF Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday of this week, with four showings on each of Wednesday & Thursday.

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Questions for Emma Char

Born in Kitchener – Waterloo, Ontario and raised in the Philadelphia area, Emma Char (who holds dual U.S. and Canadian Citizenship and currently resides in Toronto) recently crossed the border back to Canada to make debuts with Opéra de Montréal, I Musici de Montréal, Les Violons du Roy and Ensemble Caprice. The current adventure is in a co-production of the Banff Centre, Canadian Opera Company, Against the Grain Theatre and Toronto Summer Music, taking on the title role of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, which opened July 14th in Banff. July 22nd it’s Toronto’s turn to see this production at the Elgin-Winter Garden Theatre.

I had to find out more about this intriguing young artist and her portrayal of Lucretia.

Emma Char in A Little Night Music, Eastman Opera Theatre, (photo: Gelfand-Piper Photography)

Emma Char in A Little Night Music, Eastman Opera Theatre, (photo: Gelfand-Piper Photography)

ONE: Are you more like your father or your mother?

I think I am a blend of both my father and mother in terms of how I look and my inherited character traits. My father is Chinese- American and my Mom is Canadian of British Heritage. I would say I’m calm, analytical and logical like my father, but also possess a non-linear way of thinking and a latent fiery side, which I believe are traits inherited from my mother. My father is a computer-scientist with a passion for musical theatre and my mom is a painter and homemaker; their influence pervades my life in many ways most of which I am probably not completely conscious.

TWO: What is the best thing about what you do?

I’d say the best thing about what I do is the possibility for continuous growth. In this field of work I’m learning about myself all the time through taking risks in rehearsal and making discoveries about what is possible to create with my voice in the practice room. I am usually a quiet person in normal life, so performing through singing is a way I feel I can express myself and connect to people in a much larger way than I would ever be able to do otherwise.

THREE: Who do you like to listen to or watch?

In general, I love watching and listening to people with rock- solid technique that allows them tremendous expressive capabilities through sound but who also use their bodies in an expressive physical way to further convey emotion and drama. Joyce Di donato and Isabel Leonard are two of my favourite mezzos to watch.

I love watching TV shows; Arrested Development, Parks and Recreation, The Office and also getting lost in amazing dramas; House of Cards, The Good Wife, Broadchurch, The Killing etc. Netflix is a major source of joy and comfort, but at times a tremendous addicting temptation.

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

I wish I were an incredible dancer. I love dancing but I’m afraid that will never be a highlight of my skill set.

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

Sharing a meal with family and friends is my favourite thing to do. I also love going outside for any reason; biking around Toronto is amazing, as I find it both stimulating and relaxing.

Emma Char in Amahl and the Night Visitors (Photo: Yves Renaud)

Emma Char in Amahl and the Night Visitors (Photo: Yves Renaud)


More questions for Emma Char as she undertakes the title role in The Rape of Lucretia at Toronto Summer Music Festival July 22nd.

ONE: Lucretia lives through hell in this opera, and has to express that through her voice yet while still sounding heavenly. Please talk about the special challenges of such a role vocally.

Preparing the music very, very well, so what is on the page is more or less automatic and second nature technically in terms of vocal production hopefully allows me to not worry about my voice while performing. Diving into the experience of Lucretia, her intentions, her depth of feeling, has been a huge exercise in getting comfortable being uncomfortable with vulnerability. At times during the rehearsal process, emotion took over and I could barely speak or phonate at all, let alone sing. Getting comfortable feeling such heightened emotions and learning where my edge is; the point where I am completely engaged dramatically with my entire body but where I can still keep my throat calm and breath flexible in order to be able to sing well is a continuous process, the ease of which changes from day to day.

TWO:Rape of Lucretia is a small-scale work both musically and dramatically, to be performed in a relatively small theatre on July 22nd, as the heroine’s heart is laid bare with an almost indecent intimacy for the audience. Please talk about what that feels like, particularly in an intimate venue.

For the rehearsals of our production in Banff, we rehearsed in a relatively small space, where the production team would be watching a few feet away from the front of the stage. These rehearsals definitely felt intimate and at first a bit uncomfortable but I got used to the space and missed it when we moved into the theatre. The best thing about a small space is that I feel I have no choice but to get lost in the character and completely commit to the moment to moment, as there is no shield of distance between stage and audience.

THREE: One of the special challenges in some roles is the desire as a feeling person to react, to feel. A performer who is reacting emotionally –perhaps crying or laughing—has lost some if not all of their control, and is no longer performing, having become another of the spectators. How do you stay clear in a role like this one, where your feelings may overwhelm your thought process?

What is most difficult is learning exactly how far I can let emotions inform me before they take over when I’m onstage. It is usually a lot further than I think. What is also interesting to me is that the audience doesn’t feel what I feel. Sometimes I can be feeling a lot of really negative things about a performance and everyone thinks it was incredibly moving. Other times I feel great about what I have just done and those observing have less intense reactions to the experience. The best advice I have gotten about acting had to do with keeping my intentions on stage active. Sometimes, sinking into too far into “feeling it” does little to move the audience because all that people experience is that you’re standing there flailing your arms around.

FOUR: I can’t help wondering if Rape of Lucretia is a coded work of art, where the composer’s ideas are hidden yet lurking under the surface. But unlike so many of Britten’s operas –thinking of Peter or Grimes or Billy Budd or Death in Venice—there’s no troubled male protagonist at the centre of the story, as though tempting us to seek the correspondence between his life and the story of that opera. Where, if anywhere, would you find him in this story (for instance in the exchanges between the male and female chorus, or in the anguish of Lucretia)? Or am I being too reductive?

Paul Curran, our director at the Banff Centre, brought up the idea that this piece was written at the end of the World War II as a political statement to Churchill and a commentary about war and the harm it does not only to soldiers but to bystanders. At the end of the opera the Female and Male Chorus bring up questions about what the point is of all of this that has happened. What has humanity learned from the horrors of the past, do we ever learn? Why does history continue to repeat itself?

Director Paul Curran

Director Paul Curran (click photo for more info)

FIVE: Opera has always relied upon women to be the voices for suffering from its inception and Britten’s powerful opera isn’t much different, leaning most heavily upon the women, while leaving the men comparatively inarticulate. Please weigh this opera, whether you see it more as a modern piece of theatre, or as a classic opera requiring its diva to suffer and die. Is it modern or timeless in its handling of an ancient crime?

I think this piece is not necessarily just representative of women’s suffering but with the collective suffering of humanity. The characters at the end of the opera dealing with the aftermath of Lucretia’s death are the ones who are perhaps left with the greatest pain.

I believe this piece couldn’t be more modern and its subject matter couldn’t be more relevant. What I hope to do with this role is to make Lucretia a real person with desires and not a one-dimensional character. The subject matter presented in this opera is unpleasant, but so necessary to bring to light. What can we learn from this story, and why do tragedies like these continue to occur across the world in real life?

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

The Against the Grain Theatre team has been a great source of influence and inspiration to me personally and professionally. The work they have done the past few years has gotten me enthused about the possibilities of opera yet to come and my involvement with this project has been nothing short of life – transforming. My highest admiration and gratitude goes to those brave souls who took risks starting this company.


Produced at the Banff Centre in collaboration with Against the Grain Theatre, Canadian Opera Company, and the Toronto Summer Music Festival, Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia comes to the Elgin/Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge Street, Toronto at 7:30 Friday July 22nd. For further information click image below.


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London Calling: Toronto Summer Music Begins

Tonight’s concert kicked off Douglas McNabney’s final season as artistic director of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. “London Calling: Music in Great Britain” is the theme of the festival. Mother Nature even got into the act, offering us a proper English downpour as we emerged afterwards.

Douglas McNabney photo (Bo Huang)

Douglas McNabney (photo: Bo Huang)

Over the next three weeks we can encounter not just composers of Britain but composers from abroad who came there, such as Handel, Haydn or Mendelssohn, as well as composers known to have had momentous concerts in England, such as a historic 19th century concert of Beethoven string quartets that McNabney described, a concert that’s to be re-enacted. In addition to the concerts, one can hear lectures, workshops and more over the next three weeks.

Tonight was titled “English Music for Strings”, exploring “the Finest and Most Influential Pieces in English Repertoire,” a wonderfully conceived program:

  • Holst’s “St Paul’s Suite”
  • Britten’s “Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings”
  • Tippett’s “Concerto for Double String Orchestra”
  • Elgar’s “Introduction and Allegro”

We were presented with some of the glories of English composition over the past century, a series of pieces displaying the kind of resemblances one sees in a family album.

Conductor Joseph Swensen drew a sweet sound from the TSM Festival Strings, displaying an ear for melody & sensitivity to the many solo moments in the evening, while pulling them together into a cohesive ensemble.


Neil Deland

Neil Deland, the Toronto Symphony’s principal horn player and tenor Nicholas Phan gave a splendid account of the Britten Serenade. Accustomed as I am to light voices singing this piece such as Peter Pears or Robert Tear, I didn’t think I could be surprised by a voice going in an even gentler direction: but I was wrong. Phan made sounds that were always supported and strong even though at times he took the piece further in the direction of the upper register and even sounds that resemble falsetto. And yet he also gave us explosive power in other places, making for a sensitive and poignant account of the poetry in this work. I believe Phan showed new possibilities in the piece with his imaginative approach.

Deland played with admirable restraint, impossibly soft in the haunting Elegy, playfully agile in the Hymn that’s as quick as a scherzo, yet always showing off a marvellously well-shaped and controlled sound.  As the first and last sound we hear in this piece (the prologue and the offstage epilogue), Deland’s magical playing was for me the highlight of the evening.

After intermission Swensen and the orchestra seemed determined to show us that they could be just as virtuosic without soloists in the Tippett. The Adagio was especially beautiful, although all three movements showed genuine inspiration.

For more information about the Toronto Summer Music Festival, which continues until August 7th go to their website (click here).

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