13 ways of looking at Pyramus and Thisbe

  1. If a scientist could slice up love and loss into small specimens and put them onto slides and put them under a microscope it would resemble what we saw at the Four Seasons Centre tonight and in earlier performances from the Canadian Opera Company, of this piece called Pyramus and Thisbe, including two short works by Monteverdi and one by Barbara Monk Feldman.
  2. Christopher Small in his home near Barcelona in 2002. Credit Michele Curel (click for NYTimes obit)

    Opera is often meant to show off the skills of the performers: but not always. Christopher Small, decrying the reification of music, said “performance does not exist in order to present musical works, but rather, musical works exist in order to give performers something to perform”.   In the heyday of the virtuoso the singer could dispose of the new aria offered by the composer, and instead pull their favourite piece out of their suitcase instead.   Yet the periods before and after that had no use for the virtuoso.  BEFORE in Monteverdi’s time –when we begin the COC presentation of Pyramus and Thisbe—the composers still adhered to the dream of the Florentine Camerata, to revive the tragic practices of Ancient Greece, dreaming up a second practice that was more intelligible than the churchy counterpoint that came before. AFTER in Debussy’s time—before Barbara Monk Feldman’s opera but in a century bursting free from the tyranny of the virtuoso—singers again served the text as virtuously as they had in Monteverdi’s time. Yes we’re in a reified place, not unlike that mental space where one would propose to submit 13 ways of looking at something.

  3. The libretto in Monteverdi’s time was the focus, the music being a means to a dramatic end. To that end it must be understood.  Are we past that now? Surtitles aren’t really the point, if one is alluding, speaking indirectly in one’s selection of text.  The words in Pyramus and Thisbe­ are from a variety of sources according to the program.  There are words in English and German, quotes from Jaspers & Rilke alongside Faulkner and others.  Am I a conservative bourgeois in wishing to see the libretto, to read it and to be able to go back to the sources?  I know that if I were in a gallery peering at paintings –which seems relevant in a work with such an echo of visual art—I might have all too little to go on, in making a smidgen of meaning.   I do recall that back in 1981 I was privileged to be invited to the North American premiere of Satyagraha at Artpark, Lewiston NY, after having written an interview of Philip Glass.  I was given a score of the opera to peruse.  I can’t help thinking that when we’re exploring something new, we’re more inclined to be sympathetic to what we can understand.  Sympathetic understanding is more remote when the learning curve is too steep.  I recall the radical move of the COC to invite some of us backstage to see their production of Semele up close (even if one of us went & got all star-struck talking to Jane & Allyson, blush….), whereby it became more comprehensible.  That worked for me at least.
  4. The use of these disparate sources, without attribution and without making the text available? At least frustrating. At worst, pretentious name-dropping.
  5. Death lurks throughout this work, but then again that’s what we see with Pyramus and Thisbe, that’s how it is for Tancredi & Clorinda. If we were to reduce our lives to a single plot arc, it might be birth –intimacy—death, where the intimacy is signified by touching. Director Christopher Alden clearly gets this, and clearly signifies this.
  6. I’ve now seen this opera twice, and don’t really think I want to call it an opera. One can make theatre out of musical sources that aren’t opera, for example Against the Grain Theatre company regularly do so using song cycles and oratorios their Messiah is coming up soon.  If I call Pyramus and Thisbe an opera, can I call Die Schöne Mullerin or Harawi operas?  Do we call Messiah or Mozart’s Requiem  operas, when they’re given an operatic treatment?  Ballet companies take a symphony and make it into a dance work but that doesn’t actually change the symphony into something else, tempting as it is to now see it as a text for another medium.

    Director Matthew Jocelyn and Composer Phillipe Boesmans (photo: ©Isabelle Françaix)

    Director Matthew Jocelyn and Composer Phillipe Boesmans (photo: ©Isabelle Françaix). Boesmans’ JULIE has its North American premiere later this month.

  7. I’m thinking a lot about composition. I’ll be seeing Phillipe Boesmans’ Julie very soon in a co-production from Canadian Stage & Soundstreams.  Adam Scime’s L’homme et le Ciel will be presented in early December by Fawn Opera.
    Sirett & soprano Larissa Koniuk, L'Homme et l'Ange qui a venu du Ciel

    Geoffrey Sirett & soprano Larissa Koniuk, L’Homme et l’Ange qui a venu du Ciel

    I was thrilled to participate in the recent premiere of David Warrack’s Abraham at Metropolitan United Church (an oratorio).  There are lots more that I haven’t mentioned.  At the same time, I’ve tried it myself.  I wrote a piece presented at the University of Toronto back in 2000 called Silence is Golden that was a kind of celebration of some of the stories my mother told me.  I did an adaptation of Venus in Furs in 1999 that is still really the trunk of a longer version of the work, if I ever get back to it, to finish it.  So much time has gone by…(!)  So, while I am in awe –that so much time has passed, that people manage to do so much and be so productive– I am not going to be critical that a work that is not an opera was presented on the COC’s stage.

  8. Louis Riel was premiered almost half a century ago, as was The Luck of Ginger Coffey. We are told we’ll be seeing Riel again on the COC stage, and that leads me to wonder about casting.  Who will play Riel? A baritone who can act, I should think.  Is it right for Russell Braun, or is he more apt for John A Macdonald, (another baritone role)?  While my friends are more likely to bet on who might win the Superbowl or the Stanley Cup, I think it’s fun turning the casting into a matter for a wager.  I am betting that they get Riel on stage and that it’s a huge success.  Will they get Kristina Szabo to portray Riel’s wife, the part played by Roxolana Roslak including the text in Cree (or is it Ojibwa?)? She is the designated power-lifter for the COC & AtG (i will never get her ““Doundou Tchil” out of my head, the most ferociously sexy thing i have ever seen in an “opera”…notice i put the word in QUOTES!).
  9. Love can be terribly arbitrary. One minute you’re sailing away with Theseus, the next minute you’ve been abandoned on an island, lamenting your fate. Art too is arbitrary. One century, people like Franco Corelli or Jon Vickers sing “Lasciatemi morire”, the next, we get all fundamentalist and insist it only be sung by a woman.
  10. The act of touching magically bridges the gap between discreet objects & beings. We seem to be all alone, isolated, alone.  Sometimes we make contact, and in that moment there is another possibility.  The poetry of loneliness is in the dream of contact.
  11. Surtitles are so helpful, whether we’re hearing a foreign language or our own. And when no one onstage is moving, there’s always the title to read.  I wish David Warrack’s piece Abraham had been presented with surtitles, a work that was wonderfully well-received (and i don’t think i am biased…. i heard the loud applause).
  12. The deeper we got into the piece, the more people and the less actual life. We are examining specimens, discreet snapshots or toe-clippings of romance. We begin with passion, Ariadne alone.  We have more passion with Tancredi & Clorinda.  But once we’re talking about Pyramus & Thisbe, that’s just it, we are in meta-territory.  We observe, we contemplate, and the singing is removed from the realm of real romance.  Yes they die.  But for the entire piece we are examining death as though we were that detective onstage.  It is forensic opera.
  13. Performances happen in this reified realm. Krisztina Szabo, Philip Addis, Owen McCausland each move and sing.  The deeper we get into the realm of pure thingified thought, the more I stared at Johannes Debus, his gestures conducting the orchestra, the last vestige of genuine life on the stage.  He was worth the cheers.
This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations. Bookmark the permalink.

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