The great Canadian opera

It’s such a funky headline, almost an oxymoron.  The book of Canadian operas is a slim volume indeed, but the list of great Canadian operas?  Hm, are there any? Even one?

I have two names bouncing in my head right now.  Not “Rufus” or “Wainwright” but “Louis Riel” & “Hadrian” (or if you prefer Louis Riel and Hadrian).

Louis Riel is there because it’s the best Canadian opera I’ve seen so far.  I’ve been watching and re-watching a DVD the past few weeks, since it was loaned to me by a friend.   At some point I’ll review the DVD.  But I couldn’t help remembering that in that centennial opera season of 1967 (66-67 or 67-68? although I believe it was indeed winter of early ’67) when I saw The Luck of Ginger Coffey, the Canadian Opera Company had hedged their bets.  Their Centennial year celebration had a contingency plan, because there were two operas rather than one created for the occasion.

Rufus Wainwright captivated the Gala crowd at the Four Seasons Centre (photo by Michael Cooper)

Rufus Wainwright captivated the Gala crowd at the Four Seasons Centre (photo by Michael Cooper)

Hadrian is the name bouncing all over social media because of the COC announcement of plans to premiere a new opera by Rufus Wainwright & Daniel MacIvor, on opening night of the 2018-19 season, almost five years from now.

There’s been some shock expressed.  I suppose if opera is understood to be the province of classical composers, it’s simply mind-boggling to imagine someone like Rufus Wainwright composing an opera. But this will be his second.  I understand that some people were decidedly underwhelmed by his first.  No he’s not Wagner or Verdi, but they wrote several operas before they found their stride.

Now of course part of the problem with such a conversation is that to discuss the subject, one needs to have seen enough to make an educated commentary.  While I have not seen nor heard Wainwright’s first opera, I have seen Riel, an opera that is extremely conventional for its decade. If this were a discussion of painting –as I continue to ponder the Great Upheaval show at the AGO—one would notice that anyone with a grasp of , say the previous 50 years in the medium, might be resisting anything new & interesting.  Conversations such as this one are inherently political, because the terms of the discourse keep changing.  To anyone who is engaged in pedagogy or scholarship, the language required simply to understand how it was done before serves as a kind of gate-keeper, pushing those away who refuse to speak the right way.  Wainwright is by definition an interloper because he doesn’t speak the right lingo.  This doesn’t disqualify him.  I am simply explaining why he is automatically challenged.

A few days ago  I posted a link to one of my reviews –the one on Lepage’s Needles & Opium—to the CUNY listserv, eliciting a response from someone who refused to entertain a comparison between the director’s work in this recent instance with his Ring cycle, because they’re apples and oranges.   When people want to define a medium so precisely, we’re in trouble.  We’re in trouble because the art form has narrow boundaries that can’t be transgressed.  If opera worked that way the USA would be using it to stop illegal immigrants.

Anything really new can’t be judged by the old paradigm, indeed, it may make little or no sense by the old system.  I’m not saying Wainwright will give us something as revolutionary as that other composer with the initials RW; but judging RW (pick your composer) by the previous paradigm is neither fair nor particularly sensible, unless of course your goal is political.  I recall a review I read back in 1981–a great long one—trashing Philip Glass’s Satyagraha.   The music was being excoriated for failing to do what music used to do.  It’s true, nothing happens in the old sense during this long opera; but why sit watching it expecting symphonic development?   Or to look at an abstract painting, wondering if the painter paints this way because s/he can’t paint the other way, as though representational painting were the only way.  Isn’t it funny?

Alexander Neef (photo © 2012)

In the meantime, smaller companies are creating all sorts of things, some of which are called opera.  I don’t care what you call Needles & Opium, or the upcoming Singing the Earth (which I’ll review this week), or any number of other works.   It doesn’t matter how firmly one regulates the relationships between words, music, mise-en-scène, or other elements.   Theatre is alive with experimentation, some of which may turn up in an opera house.  I’m very eager to see Savitri & Sam turn up in an opera house, although this work of Ken Gass & John Mills-Cockell likely will first see the light of day in an intermediate venue (aka a place not owned or controlled by a big opera house). There’s so much money at stake in the running of a huge company such as the COC (or the Metropolitan Opera in NYC) that they’re the last place to expect a commission of a new work.  Alexander Neef is to be congratulated for making the attempt.

We have awhile to wait. Maybe there will be no premiere in 2018.  But I will keep an open mind, hoping to have a good experience at the opera.

This entry was posted in Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The great Canadian opera

  1. Kathy says:

    Leslie, I have an mp3 recording of an opera called Transit of Venus, performed 2/1/08 in an opera company in western Canada. Have you heard of it? I remember liking it well enough to listen to it a second time. It was an interesting story, based on the astronomical event by the same name. So, another Canadian opera to add to your list, even though I don’t know if was ever done by another company. And of course The Golden Ass, which I didn’t like well enough to listen again. But as they say, you have to kiss a lot of frogs….. I didn’t see Wainwright’s first opera, but friends of mine, who really like him, did, and didn’t think much of it. But Hadrian sounds like an interesting idea.

    • barczablog says:

      I wish I’d seen Transit of Venus. I saw The Golden Ass too (not particularly impressed btw). As I said above, one can’t profess expertise if one hasn’t seen the operas in question.

  2. David Johnson says:

    Wait a minute…….has no one listened to Andre Gagnon’s “Nelligan”? As modern operas go this I believe stands the test of a compelling story told through a score which has memorable, soaring music, great arias and a very well written libretto sung in both languages. It’s somewhat a chamber piece but deserves wider recognition. Do give it a try.

  3. Kathy says:

    I can send you the mp3 of Transit of Venus if you want, and I seem to also have a draft libretto – they must have posted it on their website at the time.. Let me know. Happy to share 🙂 Now that I’m thinking about it, I want to hear it again anyway.

  4. There’s Svadba:Wedding as well. Not a conventional opera to be sure but it’s been seen in maybe 11 cities around the world.

    • barczablog says:

      I love Svadba, but wouldn’t call it an opera. I believe it’s a song cycle that’s been staged creatively. The right sort of staging can make anything into an opera (as Against the Grain have shown us several times).

      But it doesn’t matter to me whether the thing being staged (eg Lepage’s nightingale pieces) is opera or not, although it clearly matters to some.

  5. John Estacio has written three beautiful operas: Frobisher is my favourite but Lillian Alling and Filumena are also very good. Beatrice Chancy by James Rolfe is also a work that needs mention.

    While John Terauds went through the COC’s troubled history of commissions in his blog, they’re worth mentioning in any article about this Hadrian commission. One can only hope (for the company’s sake) that this project goes through more smoothly than Rufus’ last operatic commission in the commissioning company’s follow-through, and in the orchestration of Rufus’ score.

    • barczablog says:

      There are really two separate questions (which i have put into one post), namely
      1) commissioning a new opera for a premiere (the new commission and the COC’s history)
      2) new/recent operas that the COC could bring in

      I suppose i’ve been part of this, posting a couple of times about my own wishlist for the coming season, dreaming of all sorts of things. As for the COC’s last attempted commissioning. if you were a composer would you want the details spilled all over the media-scape? I believe the COC have been very discreet, and as a result have taken some lumps. Commissioning is a risky process, and there are no guarantees, except perhaps that people will second-guess.

      Time will tell.

  6. Pingback: Singing the Earth: The Old & The New | barczablog

  7. John Mills-Cockell says:

    Hi Leslie,

    I saw this a few days ago. You are so kind. Kind to Savitri & Sam, for sure and I wish to thank you for your support. But also to COC. What are they doing?

    Meanwhile Ken & I, buoyed by what we feel was a very successful workshop, are looking toward what Ken is calling the Phase 2 Workshop, ideally in late spring. We also have studio time at Grant Ave studio to continue the recording project. As you are well aware, even with the best intentions of many supporters and talented artists, these activities take resources. We should know better over the next few months how its all are coming together.

    I always enjoy reading your articles, rays of sunshine, especially as I live so far from Toronto, in the rain forests of Vancouver Island. Well actually, its been very dry this year . . .

    Once again, many thanks, all the best,


    ps: I too am an avid admirer of Satya Graha – its a beautiful work ;>],

    • barczablog says:

      Your words are very kind, but i simply report what i’ve heard / seen. I look forward to encountering S & S in a theatre someday, recognizing that it likely won’t be the COC, at least not the first time. But maybe later…!

      It’s a great time to be in the audience for opera in Canada.

  8. Larry Desrochers says:

    Transit of Venus was composed by Victor Davies from a libretto by Maureen Hunter based on her play of the same name. It was commissioned by Manitoba Opera and it premiered in November of 2007.

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