Peter Togni, a well-known name from his time on the CBC, also known as Peter-Anthony Togni, is a busy Canadian composer of spiritually rooted and contemplative music. You can read a detailed biography here. Originally from Pembroke, Ontario, he currently resides in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he composes and teaches at Acadia and Dalhousie Universities.
Isis and Osiris, a new Canadian opera, concludes Opera in Concert’s 2016 season with performances April 1st and 3rd. In anticipation of that exciting premiere I asked Peter questions to get a better sense of who he is and what he has created.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I am more like my mother then my father, fathers actually, my natural father was killed in a car crash when I was five. My mother re-married and my step father taught me many good things, mostly about telling the truth about myself in all situations. I am indeed very much like my mother. My mum is an introverted extrovert. She has a quiet inner strength but also has a flare for the dramatic, she did a lot of theatre in high school and in fact had a chance to go to Hollywood for a screen test but her mother didn’t like that very much, so she never made the trip.
She can be very self critical as can I. For many years I struggled with what is sometimes referred to as ANTS, automatic negative thoughts. Turning to the negative first before anything else particularly when it comes to my art. If someone paid me a complement I would think to myself,” Ah, fooled them again” It is a terrible place to live and I have since been able to let go of that, well most of that. It is a re-programming of sorts. What makes my life difficult and what is good for me as a composer, is that, like my mother I feel things very deeply. It is often very painful but then the music takes over.
2) What is the best thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do now is to share the music I write, my craft, my love, my pain, my joy with other people. I write only what I hear and only what I want to listen to. I think I am honest about that now. I have been composing actively since I was fifteen. When I am true to myself, when I care for the gift I have been given and someone tells me they are deeply touched, that keeps me doing it, even on the days when I would rather binge watch some Netflix!
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I listen to very little music these days. I am now writing 7 days a week and that’s a slow week….ha, ha………… My mind needs some space. The only time a really actively listen is when I am in the car and it is a very limited menu, the Stones, Dylan, Zeppelin, Patsy Cline and Cold Play I sometimes enjoy the stations that play the oldies!. I don’t usually go to concerts unless it’s someone I know personally, I always enjoy hearing Canadian sax player Mike Murley ,drummer Gerry Granelli and bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly all of them happen to be dear friends. I don’t watch T.V. but I do enjoy the Midsommer Murders on Netflix and have been known to binge!! As for movies I have a small list that I watch over and over again. A Man for all Seasons, The Big Lebowski, Office Space, Diva, Gorki Park Dr Zhivago, Big Night and Bullitt, mostly for the car chase, to see the fantastic 1968 Ford Mustang 390 GT 2+2 and the other car was also pretty hot, the Dodge Charger 440 Magnum! I love reliving the experience of these films and they generally fit my various moods.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I knew a thing or two about car engines as I would enjoy working on old cars. My favourite is the Ford Mustang mentioned above. My dream is to drive to New Mexico in one of those with my son Benedict, we have talked about it for years!
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
My most favourite thing to do is to chop wood and sit by the fire, not just sit there, but to poke at it and just let my mind wonder. I really enjoy watching murder mysteries with my wife Patricia, we also love the real estate program Grand Designs. Of course I love spending time with my two grandsons when I see them,. they live in the U.S.A.
More questions about creating Isis and Osiris
1- Please talk about your understanding of opera as a form, both with respect to how it works best and how you emulate that in your own work.
I have never been drawn to a particular form of music I just react to something I love at a certain moment in time. I have never given opera much thought really. There are certain operas that I love and admire. I love the sheer beauty of them and also how they are put together, the craft. I love how so many of the arts come together in the opera world, drama, dance, stage design, lighting and of course the written word. It speaks of humanity and our fragile nature like no other form. Singing is the most pure form of music, when the body is music! This is my very first opera. I am certainly influenced by the operas of Handel, Puccini, Tchaikovsky and Britten. I draw from these composers in different ways but I do not seek to emulate, certainly not in Isis and Osiris. I am bringing the wonderful libretto by Sharon Singer to life with many different sound worlds. Arabic drumming, medieval sounding chords and even some of the harmonies of Cold Play, there is something in their chord progressions that I find captivating and warm.
2- what operas / composers do you admire, or think are good in the theatre?
I am always deeply moved by Puccini’s La Boheme tragically beautiful and Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin I am also a great fan of Carmen, it just seems perfect, those amazing melodies just fell from heaven! I greatly admire Monteverdi, he would have been a maverick in any century. On the gloomiest of day’s his Beatus Vir always makes me smile, it is the perfect blend of craft and joy!! Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is life changing, he really wrote what he heard and took what had come before, the great masters, Mozart and Bach and gave them back to us in a fresh and new way as Bernstein used to say.
To me, the most original composer, who wasn’t trying to be, was the Finnish, Jean Sibelius. His fifth Symphony is full of the energy of the universe and has chords that are truly cosmic!
3-Please describe the pathway that led to your collaboration with Sharon Singer on Isis and Osiris
I got to know Sharon Singer through a mutual friend of ours, Andrea Ludwig. Andrea is a wonderful singer and soloist whom I have worked with and written for. One day Sharon and Andrea were talking, I think it was at the grocery store and Sharon said she was looking for a composer for her opera Isis and Osiris. She had worked with another Canadian composer but he backed out and it deeply saddened her. She worked on it for many years. Sharon wanted to find a composer who would be comfortable with writing music about an exotic and ancient time. Andrea then suggested me, as much of my choral music is based on plain chant or draws from the medieval period in some way.
Sharon and I were friends from the first phone call. It just felt right. The opera was her baby but I soon became a co-parent! As the libretto was completed when I began, it was very much the way I usually work, with a finished text. However as I was writing I would play her some of the music and then there was a give and take and she changed some of her text and we were almost building together in some cases. We were also working directly with the stage director for the opera Guillermo Silva, the director of Voicebox Opera in Concert, he was wonderful to work with, with great insights which were very helpful to me as this is my first walk in the opera world. I learned a great deal about the importance of drama, something I never really thought about before and I perhaps should have, as everything is drama in some way, even in liturgical music which I am also involved with.
4- Please tell us about your new opera, as a way of telling a story and with reference to other operas we might know.
I was drawn to work on the opera not because it is set in ancient Egypt, but firstly because the beauty of Sharon Singer’s work, her way of telling the story is full of vivid pictures and gets inside the human nature of these Egyptian Gods. It is the story of the desire for power over love. Seth wants that and nothing else and is such a dark figure he makes Darth Vader look like Santa Claus, well almost. Seth is dark, black, evil, but not completely, he has truly loved. Love triumphs in the end, however, Seth is not destroyed, he is still around at the end of the opera. It is a good reminder, beware of tranquility! Every day we have a choice to make, not so much about good and evil but more about balance!. The opera is really through composed, there are arias and duos throughout the work, but they are not really stand alone pieces they are always connected the larger framework, like a movie really. There is a very wide range of musical moods and sounds, from very pure music that speaks of ancient mystery to really thorny sounding music, sometimes terrifying! The same as one would find in the film score today, the mood and sound of the music is tied to the scene at the moment. I feel this opera has everything that is me right now, ranging from the liturgical chant like music to extreme edge with blood on the floor! The opera really does dance a fair bit. I am not trying to recreate ancient Egypt sonically, we don’t know what the music sounded like, we do know some of the instruments were played, including trumpets and oboe like instruments. I imagine it would have been quite bright sounding and somewhat angular and a bit strange?
Isis has the real strength in this opera and is a very modern woman, displays true love and great sacrifice! Her undying love for Osiris keeps the opera flowing and gives it energy!
5-From the examples I have heard, your operatic voice is very original, and not like any current composer I can think of. How would you describe your musical style?
My musical sound comes out of the music of the medieval period, it is often mystical sounding, a little bit in the world of John Tavener and Arvo Part. I am also influenced by some of the romantic Russians and the lyrical line of Puccini. I spend a lot of time thinking about the harmonies I use. I almost define myself by the sound of my chords. I am not scared of dissonance, but I always come back to a tonal center, since that is what I want hear. Even when I am writing instrumental music I always sing the lines, I get inside the sound. There was a time when I felt I had to use a certain amount of dissonance and strangeness to be accepted by the composer community, but gladly those days are over, at least for me. I write what I want to hear and that is true. I am very clear about my filters, I know where the sound is coming from and am open about it. I am always in search of beauty, even in the darkest moments or the most thorny subjects can be shown beautifully and artfully in music, just think of JS Bach’s St Mathew Passion, or the Passio of Arvo Part, that aches and yet is hopeful at the same time.
6-please talk about the spiritual element in opera, both the works you’ve experienced that might have influenced you, and their relevance to Isis and Osiris.
Most of the music I write is sacred, much of it choral, it reflects my life as a Catholic. I am also the artist in residence at St Benedict’s Parish In Halifax. This is very important to me as I play the organ and direct the choir at the 11: 15 Mass. In the old days it was called the High Mass. We sing a good deal of chant and choral music. I also compose for the choir. It is my spiritual centre and bedrock for all of the other things I do. The sacramental nature of it is reflected in much of what I do. I come in contact in the most direct way with some of the most beautiful music of all time, like the Masses of Palestrina, William Byrd, this deeply influences my own music and sound.
Some people were quite surprised when they found out I was writing music about these ancient Gods, how could I do that? To me the story actually foreshadows the death and resurrection of Christ. Osiris died a cruel death and suffered mutilation and then was reborn, the resurrection of a transformed body.
7- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I had the good fortune to study organ and improvisation with the great French master Jean Langlais in Paris. He showed me how to develop an idea in my improvisation lessons and gave me the confidence to think of myself as a composer. He also had great stories, and had been a student of Paul Dukas, the composer of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, who was apparently a very tough teacher!
Voicebox- Opera in Concert present Isis and Osiris– a new opera by Peter Togni and Sharon Singer– April 1st & 3rd.