Marshall Pynkoski is one of Toronto’s greatest artists, even if he has been completely misunderstood. Since its inception in 1985, Opera Atelier has been a kind of lightning rod in Toronto for the conversation about historically informed performance. With co-artistic director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and in collaboration with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra & Choir, their growing body of work has articulated a recognizable style.
The conversation hasn’t always been friendly nor appreciative. I recall critics who were very negative about OA’s productions. The question of authenticity was sometimes such a focus for the conversation that Pynkoski’s skills as a director were lost in the shuffle. I regret that we’ve so often been worrying about history that we miss the excellence in the here and now, so busy with history that the direction, the drama, the originality are somehow forgotten. Pynkoski is a very good director, yet because of this focus on history –which was central to the company’s history–his talents are overshadowed. And because of their unique movement vocabulary, which is unlike any other opera company in this country, they’re sometimes misread, appreciated less for what they achieve than for their divergence from what people usually understand as “opera”.
I expressed faith in Marshall’s brilliance after seeing their most recent Don Giovanni, a production that seems breath-takingly original even as it honours history. Last season we were tantalized, first by the first historically informed Der Freischutz in North America, and then with Pynkoski’s announcement that this was merely the beginning, as new horizons were being opened by the company:
This evening we are taking what is perhaps an even more thrilling leap into uncharted territory. Our production of the first Romantic opera—Weber’s Der Freischütz –boldly redefines the very parameters of what constitutes period performance. We are not merely drawing a line in the sand; we are stepping past the line in saying all periods are fair game to be reinterpreted in historically informed productions. Our hearts are still firmly grounded in Baroque repertoire, and this will be reflected in our programming in the years to come, but we also look forward to the potential of re-examining masterpieces by composers such as Debussy, Bizet and even Wagner.
The company he’s built is an important creative voice in this country, and now internationally as well. I’m proud of everything they do, and delighted that their latest production opens soon, namely Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio on October 26th. In anticipation I ask Pynkoski ten questions: five about himself, and five more about the opera opening October 26th.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
It is difficult to say which of my parents I take after – if either! I seem to be something of a throwback and from my earliest years had interests and obsessions which left my family utterly flabbergasted, sometimes concerned, and frequently annoyed. There are no artists in my family, nor are there any people I know of with a particular interest in the arts in general or the performing arts in particular.
I was, by the way, raised in an intensely religious, fundamentalist atmosphere, which is not without a theatrical side. I have no doubt this played a major – albeit somewhat subversive! – role in my development.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a director, particularly in the realm of historically-informed period performance?
I feel like the luckiest person in the world. Because I am co-artistic director of a company which was founded by my partner Jeannette and me, I have the luxury of only producing work which I adore. We have made a conscious decision to produce only twice a year, which means we are never choosing a show to fill out a season or to act as a cash cow. Our obsession with Mozart is real, as is our fascination with French Baroque opera and ballet. Because we gravitate toward many of the same artists from season to season, we enjoy the added bonus of having made close and lasting friendships within the arts community.
It’s also particularly delightful to have such close interaction with artists from a variety of disciplines such as my very dear friend Gerard Gauci who has been Opera Atelier’s set designer since the company’s inception. And of course my partner in work and in life Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I listen to classical music exclusively, simply because it is what gives me the greatest pleasure. That being said, classical music is a rather generic term. Renaissance, Baroque, Romantic, and early 20th century music all play an important part in my non-professional life. Jeannette and I are both particularly interested in the aesthetic links between French composers such as Debussy and Ravel, and their predecessors, the great giants of 17th and 18th century French music, including Charpentier, Lully and Rameau. Jeannette and I do not own a television and both of us are – thank God! – too busy to indulge in cell phones or personal computers.
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I were multilingual. I also wish I were twenty pounds heavier and bristling with muscle!
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I am a voracious reader, but also draw enormous inspiration from watching DVDs of great ballet performances particularly the repertoire created by George Balanchine when danced by New York City Ballet – to my mind, the greatest ballet company in the world.
When travelling for business or pleasure, we spend our time in museums and art galleries – another serious obsession.
Five more concerning the production of Abduction from the Seraglio that opens the Opera Atelier season.
1-What are the challenges you face with Opera Atelier, a company with a history of period performance?
Our biggest challenge is one of audience perception of what a period production is. We are eager for people to understand that Opera Atelier is not a museum and our productions are not artefacts. A period production is simply an opportunity for us to challenge ourselves in a new way as artists in the 21st century. We explore the aesthetics of other eras and cultures in order to help us look to the future. Our recent production of Lucio Silla for the Salzburg Festival was greeted as one of the most radical productions to take place in Salzburg for decades.
A period production is the new avant-garde of the 21st century.
2-What do you love about Opera Atelier?
I love the fact that our productions are built from the ground up and that every aspect of production is considered of equal importance. Like a great Broadway musical, an Opera Atelier production must be firing on all levels as a superb singing event, an orchestral event, a costume, set and machinery event, and a great literary event. This is the style of theatre that we are committed to and even when producing outrageous comedies like Abduction from the Seraglio we take our work and our commitment very seriously.
3-Do you have a favourite moment in Abduction from the Seraglio?
I adore the quartet for Belmonte, Konstanze, Pedrillo and Blonde, which begins with the men trying to ascertain if the women have slept with their captors, continues with the women’s outrage at the impertinence of the question and the final reconciliation between the four of them. I just don’t think opera or theatre gets better than this!
I also adore the entrance for Pasha Selim – a wonderful excuse to show off the Artists of Atelier Ballet dancing to Mozart’s “Turkish-inspired” music.
I think it’s important to remember that Abduction from the Seraglio has a classical commedia dell’arte plot. I do not take the grief and despair of Konstanze seriously, any more than I do that of the Countess in Figaro. These women are meant to be young, and they are indulging and enjoying the intensity of their emotions as only the young can. I find their “serious moments” by turns amusing, poignant and hilarious.
4-How do you feel about the relevance of period performance as a modern-day citizen?
Happily, we are generously supported at all levels of government, and it seems to have kicked in for our corporate supporters and individuals that period production does not preclude innovation, or social and political relevance. Fashions change, but people and their personal dilemmas remain remarkably consistent from one period to another. Period productions place history in a human context and enable us to focus on the story at hand rather than gratuitous special effects and theatrical distractions.
5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I would not be doing what I am doing or enjoying the wonderful life I have without the input of my ballet teachers John Marshall, David Moroni from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Flora Lojekova, and Glady Forrester, as well as George Balanchine – the greatest choreographer of the 20th century, arguably the greatest choreographer in history. His company New York City ballet acts as a constant inspiration for Jeannette and me.
Opera Atelier open their 2013-2014 season with Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio on October 26th at the Elgin Theatre, running until November 2nd.