Workshop Ecology

I’ve been tossing and turning, struggling with several questions in my head. I regularly wake up in the night to fine-tune something that I’ve blogged, fixing a wrong spelling, adding wrinkles & nuances.

It’s been a turbulent two weeks, as I’ve been thinking about workshops.

  • Hadrian, a new opera by Rufus Wainwright & Daniel MacIvor, had its opening night at the Canadian Opera Company Saturday October 13th . This afternoon it gets its closing performance, a two week run for this new work. Previously it had been workshopped, and indeed may see future revision. I wrote something about it that night.
  • Sunday October 14th was the workshop for a new opera being developed by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts, namely Shanawdithit by Dean Burry & Yvette Nolan, directed by Nolan & Michael Mori.
  • I wrote a whole lot about Opera Atelier’s new double bill (that I will see tomorrow)
  • I watched A Nightmare Before Christmas last week, in anticipation of Soup Can Theatre’s karaoke fund-raiser.
  • I am going to see Hadrian again today in its closing performance.

I have been privileged to get a glimpse behind the scenes, and it’s not always conducive to peaceful sleep. A workshop can be a loving thing, like the upbringing of a child, the thoughtful care of a nursery. Relationships can be respectful, as gentle as the voices not wishing to wake a sleeping baby. And at times it reminds me of something rougher, when the text seems to get dissected and re-assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster: hopefully brought to life rather than gasping and expiring on the gurney.

The kindness I saw in the Tapestry workshop on Sunday afternoon suggested that I need to be kind to Rufus and Daniel and Cori and all the rest trying to bring Hadrian to life.
No question about it, small is beautiful. Not better necessarily. But when you play the piano alone you are less likely to be struggling to control team-members, plot elements, musical ideas, all with disparate objectives.

Opera can be like juggling. The more balls? harder to keep them in the air. More elements? complexity, more elements to balance, that might interfere with one another.

It might be a good time to remember what opera has been, meaning what it was for literally centuries. When that other RW came along in the 19th century, proposing Gesamtkunstwerk, it was a new idea that all the parts should really be unified. The legendary stories we have of performers upstaging one another are the tiniest hint of life before theatre began to work towards a single unified concept. At one time it was normal to have stage machinery and voices and orchestral instruments all working away at their own objectives & goals. Opera is the biggest and most complex medium so no wonder it led the way into the 20th century, recognizing this challenge.

Smaller pieces can cohere more readily, so it was no surprise that the beautiful but smaller enterprise at Tapestry was showing signs of magic & beauty. Where Hadrian was a big production in the big opera house with big orchestral sounds, full chorus, soloists and enough CGI for a Star Wars movie, Shanawdithit was as intimate as therapy. The Sunday workshop reminded me not just that Hadrian too had a workshop, but was a demonstration of how this should work.

Such courtesy,…

Such kindness,

Such love.

At one point we watched Clarence Frazer as the historian William Cormack, interviewing Shanawdithit as played by Marion Newman, the last of the Beothuk people, who died in the middle of the 19th century. While the real Cormack may have been a typical colonist (after all he wrote his name on top of her drawings Shanawdithit created) , what we saw enacted was as delicate and perfect as the chance to start again, an encounter between peoples that was dignified and beautiful.

I wondered: is it better that Frazer plays Cormack so sweet and kind, rather than like the barbarian he may have been? Don’t get me wrong, what I saw in the workshop was ideal & beautiful, but I wonder if that’s real or not. And I think that every workshop should be this respectful, this kind. We have such choices in our interpretations, to be more real or perhaps more ideal, to show something that is true to a belief and a possibility: which is another kind of truth.

I couldn’t help thinking that Newman, who cried at one point in the talkback session, must be like a person perpetually in therapy. She has to re-live so much Indigenous agony & injustice. There she was in Lauzon’s I call myself Princess,  and the story always turns out the same. This time there was a beautiful variant, something nicer and kinder, between her and Frazer.

I rebelled against what I saw Saturday, the version of Hadrian that Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor gave us: and of course, that’s ridiculous. It was opera not history. Even so, I was frustrated, watching something so uneven, that worked in some scenes while other scenes seemed miscalculated. But this kind of judgment –on my part I mean—is something I normally dislike when I see it in others.

And then, a strange & unexpected flash of recognition. Worn out by the never-ending horror that is the news, and in anticipation of that aforementioned karaoke I watched Tim Burton’s film for the first time in a long while. Where CNN has been horror, there was no Nightmare in listening to Danny Elfman’s music.

Do you know the film? Here’s the premise. Each holiday season has its own domain, that can be reached in a magical forest, by going inside of a particular tree. Christmas is inside one such tree, Halloween inside another. It’s a metaphor of course.  Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who rules the realm of Halloween, has become bored with the same thing year after year. In a sad funk, he accidentally stumbles into Christmas’s realm, and is rejuvenated by what he thinks he sees.

And so he sets out to give Sandy Claws a holiday: that name being one of several misunderstandings he makes in the process of wrecking Christmas. Yes there are gifts inside boxes, but they are mostly horrifying, not delightful. He comes at Yuletide without any idea of what it’s really about except at the most superficial level. In the end Santa Claus comes through and fixes everything.

I couldn’t help thinking that the well-intentioned Jack Skellington, putting on a beard and red hat, riding in a sled pulled by skeletal reindeer, terrifying children everywhere: reminded me very much of Rufus Wainwright. Oh yes RW wanted to make an opera and his heart is in the right place. The COC are ready to team up with him because he has a kind of brand-recognition that should help fill seats. But while some numbers and scenes work well, some are woefully troubling. I was thinking that a gay-themed opera should be a great thing for the COC. Indeed maybe Hadrian isn’t gay enough. It feels as though Peter Hinton tried to remove the campy overdone gay aspect that people mock in opera, to legitimize the project.

But when the music of Hadrian reminds you of Andrea Bocelli or Sarah Brightman? I am reminded of one of my favourite descriptions of Donald Trump:

Trump is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person, a poor person’s idea of a rich person, and a coward’s idea of a brave person

And Bocelli or Brightman represent an ignoramus’s idea of opera.

Wainwright and Jack Skellington are spiritual cousins. In fairness, though, Wagner & Verdi thrashed around for awhile before really hitting their stride, writing several operas that emulated earlier models, before finding their own voice, their own authentic style. This is only Wainwright’s second opera. I love that he wants to write more of them and if he really sticks to it he will get better. The best parts of Hadrian are far away from the main action, such as that drinking scene or the music for the abandoned wife. If only…(!). And Wainwright will have broken through when the music he composes for the central scene of the opera is the best music he’s written.

At the time I first heard of the commission for Hadrian I recall a bit of dissent from the realm of composers, perhaps a bit upset at Wainwright’s credentials, that he was somehow inappropriate to be writing an opera. This was troubling, given that if anything he is more not less qualified: because this isn’t his first. What really bugs me is this assumption that a composer who has written a symphony or a song cycle or a concerto can then write an opera, as though hey, you’re a painter and it’s just another canvas. The arrogance of that assumption –that a composer can turn to opera as though it’s just another kind of music—reminds me of something that may or may not have really happened. Let’s pretend that it’s a real story.

Surgeon: “when I retire I will write a novel.”
Novelist: “when I retire I will take up brain surgery”.

Because of course, it’s not just another score. Opera is a hybrid of words & music, usually presented in the theatre (but not exclusively), so much more than just music.

And then there’s the question of Canadian culture. I don’t think it matters whether Hadrian concerns a Canadian subject.

The most Canadian theme going is the one I saw in Shanawbithit, namely the exploration of indigenous cultures & peoples, in their encounters with colonists & settlers. That is the quintessential Canadian subject. Opera is a European art form that seems a bit odd in a Canadian venue, until we look at something like Burry’s work, which is all about the encounter between Europeans & Indigenous people. For a moment opera makes sense as an artform, a place to listen to one another.

A workshop process is both teleological & ontological (like so many things in life), aiming for a goal / product AND yet also, being about the journey rather than the destination, a process too. Hadrian’s opening night is just one part of the journey & not necessarily the destination. Shanawdithit’s afternoon workshop was a small part of a journey that culminates in a full production at Tapestry in 2019, enacting a respectful series of relationships that suggest the ideal of reconciliation.

Money is obviously a big part of this. In Rufus Wainwright, the COC have a name, a marketable commodity in RW. Tapestry also have a name in Burry, not so much something marketable (although there’s some of that) but someone reliable, someone who will certainly give them their opera.

This weekend: one more performance of Hadrian, Opera Atelier’s Acteon and Pygmalion (running until November 3rd) And in May, Tapestry, Opera on the Avalon and Native Earth Performing Arts will present Shanawdithit.

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This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Theatre & musicals and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Workshop Ecology

  1. Pingback: Pollyanna and the lessons of 2018 | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Questions for Dean Burry: Shanawdithit | barczablog

  3. Pingback: Shanawdithit in Toronto | barczablog

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