I apologized to Michael Mori –Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director & the director of Tap:Ex Revolutions, the program that opened tonight at the Ernest Balmer Studio—after the show for what I knew was going to say. Not critical words, but rather, a lot of words provoked by what I’d seen.
I believe this is what Mori wants: to provoke a response and to inspire questions.
It’s a mythical weekend, a perfect triptych of opera in Toronto.
- Tonight? Tap:Ex, an exploratory series of provocations
- Tomorrow? the Canadian Opera Company open Peter Sellars’s Hercules
- Sunday: Toronto Consort present Giasone. Should I call it “Cavalli’s Giasone” (after the composer) or perhaps “David Fallis’s Giasone” (in recognition of the conductor & artistic director…?)
Tonight was the pure forward step, tomorrow is the hybrid of old (Handel) and new (Sellars: director’s theatre), and Sunday is both the oldest text –from the first century of opera—and in the most historically informed musical presentation. Can I help it if my mind is grappling with the fundamental questions? Is it the words or the music? Is it the singer or the song?
And yes, there’s also the small matter of Opera as Drama. Joseph Kerman is very much in my thoughts because he passed away less than three weeks ago on March 17th. I took the book out of the library again to think about Kerman and his seminal contribution.
SO: is the composer the dramatist, as Kerman says? If you read what’s been published already about Sellars’s Hercules, clearly he is not, at least not this time. This is not Handel’s Hercules, it’s Sellars’s.
Haha i want to say “it’s a Sellars’ market”, forgive me!
But these thoughts arise after seeing Tap:Ex. I am also reminded of something I’ve observed in my studies of opera. In different centuries opera belongs to different functions. While Kerman might be right (that “the composer is the dramatist”) if we were standing in an opera house in 1900 listening to Puccini—and I say that knowing that Kerman seemed to loathe that composer and his turn-of-the-century masterwork Tosca –it wasn’t true a hundred years before that.
In 1800 opera belonged to the virtuoso. A hundred years before that? Perhaps the librettist.
And now? Ah, that brings us back to our modern dramatists: Sellars & Mori. The director is the dramatist nowadays. [See why I apologized to Michael Mori?]
One last bit of context, namely that we watch in the shadow of the corpses of New York City Opera, Opera Hamilton & San Diego Opera, the stench of those huge dead institutions making some of us a little nervous. For all the brilliant local success stories – the COC, Opera Atelier, Tafelmusik & Toronto Consort, as well as the Stratford & Shaw Festivals—no one can dare be complacent. I worry about the Toronto Symphony, and yes, even the Metropolitan Opera may be vulnerable.
What to do? Mori has some excellent ideas.
Partnerships? That seems to be a new thing. Canadian Stage have been a pioneer locally, bringing in works from other companies, offering dance & musicals to stimulate their subscribers. Opera companies have been doing this for a long time, in co-productions that make the medium a little more affordable.
Tap:Ex included work by Volcano Theatre, a group I first encountered via CanStage in 2011. It’s a great idea on several levels, in the sharing of expenses, the shared exhibition opportunity, Tapestry’s audience seeing Volcano Theatre, and vice versa, the performers and creators from each company stretching themselves in the encounter with the other. Everyone wins.
Mori spoke briefly during intermission, acknowledging Volcano, while also reminding us of Tapestry’s focus. Whereas the bigger (read ‘wealthier”) companies can explore mise en scène via expensive sets & costumes, Tapestry’s exploration is through the very heart & soul of opera: via the singers. Mori put his money where his mouth was in what we saw and heard, a series of pieces putting the four singers—Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Ludwig, Andrew Love and Adrian Kramer—through their paces.
The program is varied, both musically and dramatically. I liked almost everything on my “plate”, but I am omnivorous. Because we were in the round, part of the fun was watching the audience react, sometimes provoked by singers up close (including one right beside me), by sounds emitted by human throats defying the usual expectation of what we’d call “operatic”, by moments genuinely virtuosic in their complexity, or tranquil moments of beauty.
Gregory Oh was pianist & Music Director, always softly in support and very unobtrusive. To return to my Kerman thoughts for a moment, music was in a largely supportive place tonight, not the over-bearing tyrant we sometimes encounter with (say) Wagner. I can’t forget the role music plays in cinema, where we’ve become accustomed to a more invisible musical helpmate rather than the dominant and ostentatious compositional voice heard in the 1800s. In this sense especially it was Mori’s show rather than that of the composers, or perhaps the composers cleverly understood how best to serve the dramatic situations. But that’s another way of saying that above all this was a beautiful encounter with four singers, four gifted performers who were usually able to avoid mere concerns of form & technique to speak and sing directly to us. Working with choreographer Marie-Josée Chartier, the singers were a fluid presence, transcending the usual (traditional?) concerns directors sometimes have with singers and their vocal production; there was never a sense that the business of making a sound overcame the drama of the moment. That’s a success for all concerned.