24 ways of looking at Winterreise      

Tonight’s event at Lula Lounge from Tongue in Cheek Productions was not your typical song cycle.

Yes we did get the 24 songs in Schubert’s romantic Winterreise, or “winter journey”.  But instead of a single singer going along that cold lonely pathway of angst & self-exploration, we heard 24 different men.

The press release prepared us this way:

“Founded by Toronto-based baritones Aaron Durand and Michael Nyby, Tongue In Cheek Productions aims to add a twist to the traditional idiom of classical performance by bringing an element of humour, irreverence, and whimsy to the concert stage. For Winterreise, instead of one singer presenting the entire cycle in a solemn recital hall, twenty-four singers will perform one song each in the festive atmosphere of Lula Lounge. “We wanted to do something memorable for our launch,” explained Nyby. “What better way than to get as many artists involved as possible.”

I had so many responses to the concert, I was tempted to come up with 24 different observations, which is one of the meanings of the headline (as I remembered one of my favourite send-ups of deconstructive exercises). More literally, though, we had 24 different singers, each singing one of the songs in the cycle.


It may be early in the fall season but I was surprised at the turnout.  Joseph So of Opera Canada and Greg Finney of Schmopera, Guillermo Silva-Marin, Henry Ingram, and lots of singers, Wendy Nielsen of the Canadian Opera Company & University of Toronto, Julie Nesrallah of the CBC.  Yet I wonder:  hmm were any Toronto baritones in attendance (perhaps we’d count Greg) who weren’t actually singing?  If you’re a Toronto baritone and weren’t in this show, you would feel as left out as if you were a three-year old colt on the sidelines, watching rather than running in the Kentucky Derby.  You may think it’s a silly analogy, but we were in the presence of a great deal of testosterone, manly energy.

Any opera or song cycle combines a story / text and the performers who would bring it to life.  When it’s a single singer undertaking the 24 songs, we experience something like a marathon, an endurance test of singing.  Changing that to 24 singers each singing one? The feat becomes more akin to a relay race, each of the runners taking the baton and going full out for their little portion of the race, with nothing held back.

But of course that would only apply if this were a series of songs sung full out. In fact many of Schubert’s songs call for subtleties, nuanced expression.

Just as there are 50 ways to leave your lover, there are at least 24 ways to sing about it (note, in Schubert’s cycle the leaving has already been done by the beloved).

I recall a conversation on the opera listserv back in the 1990s, when I suggested that in a real sense the role of Violetta changes, becoming so different, one act to the next, that it calls for a different sort of singer in each act, and might be better in some ways if we had –for example—Callas for Act III, Cotrubas for Act II, or Sutherland for Act I.  Feel free to quibble with the choices, naturally, to each their own.  My point was that in any big work, there are not only multiple solutions to the problems posed by a text, but different ideals we might point to. For the pure bel canto, we’d favour one singer, whereas in the scenes calling for drama, a different singer, etc.

And I’m sure you’ve heard that while one woman is expected to sing Brunnhilde in her three operas of the Ring, one man sing Wotan in his three operas, or one man for the two Siegfrieds: they’re quite different, one from the other, and might benefit from different casting, recognizing –for example – the killer tessitura of the Siegfried Brunnhilde, so different from her other appearances.

And in this case? 24 songs, perhaps benefiting from the multiple voices & styles.  Nyby & Durand turn up, likely singing their favourite song.  Many other songs were well served by the variety, the change of tone, let alone the change of body language, intensity, style. Some were perfectly in tune, perfectly attuned to Schubert & to the pianism of Trevor Chartrand.  

I remember discussing as aspect of taste with my brother, baritone Peter Barcza, just a few days ago. He was talking about preferences, how some people might say Leonard Warren is the greatest baritone ever, while others –him for instance—would say it’s Robert Merrill.  There are differences of opinion as to what the ideal baritone sounds like, whether it should be dark or light, big & loud or smooth & lyrical.  I remember too he was chuckling as to what to do if as a teacher, you encounter someone with a different notion of what is ideal.  Arguably that’s a really important conversation. But here we were, listening to so many different ideas of what a baritone can and should sound like.  It was a bit like being in a fabric store looking at swatches, timbres laid next to one another arbitrarily different because a new singer must sing. And how perfect, in a way, that this deconstructs the cycle, injecting another sort of variety. And I couldn’t help wondering: whose Winterreise were we hearing? 24 different songs, but filtered by Chartrand, whose sure hand guided us wonderfully, without a slip or mistake as far as I could tell.

I felt we were in a kind of laboratory, studying this cycle, studying all cycles.

I sat at the same table with Joseph So, exchanging quips sometimes between songs.  I couldn’t help feeling that in some respects our conversation was a lot like the one underlying the presentation itself. There we were in Lula Lounge, a venue that might seem singularly inappropriate for classical music, at least if one is accustomed to silence & respect every moment, not clinking glasses and the bustling of waiters bringing patrons their food & drink.  If this radical rethink of the work was aiming for a conversation with convention, then it was a success, judging by what we discussed.

For example, at the end of the first song: the audience burst into applause.  Naturally, this is not what we usually get in a concert: where applause is held to the end. And the cycle was divided in two, allowing for an intermission in the middle.  When I started clapping Joseph glared at me disapproving, saying something like “there shouldn’t be applause between the songs”.  I grinned, surrounded by other shit-disturbers.  I think we all knew it’s not how Schubert is usually done: which made it that much more enjoyable, being naughty.

But it became more intense, when some performances drew bravi from the crowd.

I wonder, what was it like at a Schubertiad?  Audiences were much noisier in bygone centuries, but for most of the past centuries theatres were lit rather than darkened as now (and only since Wagner’s time).  In Schubert’s day encores were called for and given.  We live in a very different sort of time, audiences conditioned to behave themselves, stifling spontaneity.  I can’t help thinking that in some ways this venue with the exuberance, the noise & distractions might in some respects capture some aspects of authentic concert life, as it might have been lived in the first decades of the 19th century.

There were some other variations, too.  Doug McNaughton gave us a song on guitar, without piano, without shoes, and yet: captivating.  The next song to open the second half was somewhat ironic, Keith Lam giving us the emotional contours of “Die Post”, the piano imitating not just the posthorn but also the singer’s heart-beat rhythm.  24 singers meant some emphasizing voice, some emphasizing expression & body-language, to dramatize as much as making music.  The balance was different in every song, and none is wrong of course. They’re all different. The variety was captured brilliantly by the changing personnel.  Some stood. Some glared. Some under-played.

In case you can’t tell, I loved it.  Tongue in Cheek Productions promise something on the other side of the gender divide next time, although they didn’t tell us much more.  If you’d like to read about them & their Winterreise, including the names and bios of the singers who participated, check this out.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Popular music & culture, Reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to 24 ways of looking at Winterreise      

  1. C. Luce says:

    McNaughton was channeling Don Francks

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