#AtGdeathdesire: more desire than death

If yesterday’s Dora announcement is anything to go by the youthful Against the Grain crew are a force to be reckoned with, as they’re up for several awards. Tonight AtG opened their latest, Death & Desire.

Reading the lists of nominees I can’t help thinking about the whole question of genre & novelty. AtG have a unique approach. Their works tend to be daring adaptations showing works in a different light. Death & Desire for example gives us two works in a startlingly new way. But let’s set that all aside, and talk about what D & D really does. I am less interested in musicological considerations than theatrical ones, the drama we encountered.

When a man and a woman meet & begin courtship, I have to wonder. Do they ever speak the same language? Do they seem to come from the same century, the same planet? Oh sure, when you watch conventional plays everyone speaks the same language. But at a deeper level, what is really happening might be better captured in the bizarre display we saw tonight. While we may sometimes believe we are understood, that our loved ones hear us and fully comprehend what we want, what we feel, what we need, what we desire, this may be an illusion. Watching the back and forth, each one had their WTF moments staring at the other, each had their raptures and their horrors.

AtG presented two song cycles. They may have initially planned them as separate performances on either side of an intermission, but someone got the idea to intermingle songs. I saw the expression “mash-up” used in the press, and also saw the process compared to shuffling cards together. What I saw has a frightening integrity, as each singer sticks almost completely to their expressive world. Stephen Hegedus sings Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, while Krisztina Szabó sings Messiaen’s Harawi. He sings German. She sings French plus Quechua (another language) that’s occasionally scattered through Messiaen’s cycle. And (spoiler alert) she also sings a tiny bit of German too.  They go back and forth with the integrity of dramatic portrayals, which is to say that they both have a broad range of emotions, but each within their respective universe, never fully understanding the other.  He seems to be in a conservative romance, while She is in a much wilder place. Where he is articulating the nuances of love almost from first principles, as though the emotion were brand new and had just been invented (we’re in the 1820s after all), she is singing the rational and irrational, her music and emotions showing the sophistication of a different century.

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

The combined discourse of the two cycles intermingled in performance has precedents to the dramaturgy of other operatic approaches. The back and forth suggests aria- recitative at times, as one is static and lyrical while the other is urgent & active. At other times I was mindful of the interludes in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande or Berg’s Wozzeck, offering non-verbal reflections upon the sung action. But I use those two examples (aria-recit, and Debussy  & Berg) as analogies only. Unlike either of the illustrations, in this conversation, each takes the stage as though they were the star, and yet in the contrast, each functions as a break or reflective pause, removing us from the discourse of the other, although it’s never clear which one is the main course and which one is the side dish.

As in the recent sampler concert at the RBA, I want to call this new even if it is merely a new way of approaching music we have heard before. But we may underestimate the importance of performance convention in how we hear and see musical texts. Context changes the way we understand a piece. The inventive way that these songs are framed defamiliarizes them, and refreshes them. We are alienated in a sense by the curious juxtaposition, yet the songs are sung with great intensity as though there were a real connection, a real interaction between the two singers.

But then again in a romance people behave as though there were a possibility of a connection, that their hearts won’t be broken.  This fractured conversation might be the most realistic snapshot of love i have ever seen.

Topher Mokrzewski played far upstage on the piano, the two singers framed inside one side of the space inside the Neubacher Schor Gallery as though inside a kind of proscenium arch: although some of the audience were inside that arch, and the performers did step outside the “arch”.

I’m still trying to understand what I saw and heard but I do know that the piano was brilliantly played, the songs exquisitely sung. Joel Ivany & Mokrzewski –following their usual format—made something quite innovative out of pre-existing texts.  There is a great deal to unpack in Death & Desire, so much so that I would wish that they would make a DVD or a television program so that I could watch it again. There’s a lot to decode, and yes, a great deal to enjoy and see again. When the next awards are announced (a year from now) I would assume that this one too will be recognized, but for now you have a chance to see the remaining three performances, June 3, 4 and 5.

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