Today is a day of contrasts. The morning paper brought more revelations about Toronto’s Mayor, while this afternoon’s social media story was the passing of Nelson Mandela. While Mandela seems to embody the possibilities for heroic activism nothing suggests that his time has passed –not even his death at a ripe age—like the spectacle of Toronto politics. I wonder what kind of stories we will tell, and w(h)ither media in the aftermath?
I posed a much humbler and more provincial question earlier this week, in the wake of the Canadian Opera Company’s announcement –and the ensuing hue and cry from some in our community—of a new commission from Rufus Wainwright, to premiere in the fall of 2018. What is the great Canadian opera, I asked? There might be several candidates.
Yet tonight after seeing Singing the Earth /Nuyam†-i† Kulhulmx [using a character approximating the one in the programme, and sorry if it looks weird], a work by Anna Höstman and Dylan Robinson, from Continuum Contemporary Music, and sung by mezzo-soprano Marion Newman I realize how pointless the question is. The great Canadian opera may as well be the great Canadian typewriter or the great Canadian raptor. Because of course opera never feels more like a dinosaur than when one sees a bold work unafraid to go way beyond its usual limits. I felt something like that seeing Lepage’s Needles & Opium, but this is not a case of bold mise-en-scène, but original dramaturgy, a fascinating assembly of materials. The word “drama” is really too weak to capture what we experienced.
If I am driven to define the work it’s only in hope of describing or understanding, both what I experienced and the possibilities it opens, far beyond typewriters or raptors. When you’ve seen something so new that it’s unknown–such as a unicorn—you have to resort to the known: horse + horn.
The Old in Singing the Earth? its preoccupation with cultures and story-telling. While I invoke opera because there is singing in the work, StE is an installation, a curated museum display combining historical impressions and a purely artistic discourse of visuals, texts & music. Höstman & Robinson combine texts and images, singing & instrumental music, to delve into various aspects of Bella Coola British Columbia. I’ve wondered before whether there’s a possibility of bringing the sensibility of documentary film to the stage (I proposed something a couple of years ago to a director who more or less thought I was nuts, but then again I had no clue, no idea how to execute the concept, although after tonight I begin to know how). I’ve seen films that tread the middle-ground between documentary and fiction. The Nasty Girl comes to mind, for example, but this is unlike anything I’ve seen before. There is a wonderful self-assurance to the work in its happy eclecticism, comfortably undefined. My whole obsession with putting a genre label on this piece is arguably a violation of its spirit –please forgive me–which is not terribly concerned with being easily intelligible. I love the fact that this work defies categorization, even as it presents a series of simple & elegant images.
I can’t help thinking that the events of the day –the fervent hope for transcendence in our history, and the possibility of activism—led me and indeed the entire audience to pay heed to this work. I can’t recall the last time I was among such an attentive bunch, sitting so still without coughs or fidgeting, as though we need this today, now. The urgent concern in this work is perhaps small compared to Mandela’s mission, yet there is nonetheless an activist heart beating inside this work. I was of course hugely influenced by the film shown beforehand –Banshi Hanuse’s Cry Rock—concerned with the vanishing indigenous oral culture of Bella Coola, as apt as though it were the program for a symphonic poem.
Partway through I found myself in the middle of extraordinary moments, hauntingly beautiful and completely new. I was thinking of the old, of history and who we are in Canada and in the world. While we’re talking about the great Canadian opera, this work is the most lucid piece of anthropology I’ve ever encountered in a live presentation, a moment inside our multi-cultural web. We were never fully in one culture, but rather inside a kind of simultaneity of several voices and discourses bouncing back and forth. If art is ever tasked with answering the question “who are we” –possibly an unfair question, but still, the kind of justification that one wants to pull out, when thanking, say, the Canada Council for their support—this is money well spent by our national funding body, the kind of thing you simply can’t do for commercial purposes.
As expected conductor Gregory Oh brought a wonderfully calm hand to the tiller, keeping everything steady. Newman’s voice was wonderfully authentic to my ear, in using an approach that was very clearly enunciated without hewing too closely to a “classical” sound. Sometimes she was wonderfully blatant, other times whisper-soft. At the very last notes of the work I couldn’t help hearing an echo that may have been deliberate, of Mahler’s “Song of the Earth” which come to think of it is like the mirror image of what this piece is named.
On a night when I prefer to let Mandela rather than the Mayor set the tone, StE is a work of hope, a direction for the future, and a beautiful pathway to our past.