Aaron Durand + Michael Nyby = Tongue in Cheek Productions.
No that’s not a formula but come to think of it there is a curious creative chemistry, a tendency to energize. I find it exciting to talk to them, and frankly have been totally fascinated by their initial projects.
First came Winterreise, a song cycle they handed to 24 singers. My my but there was a lot of testosterone, to say nothing of the talent in Lula Lounge that night back in September.
But first? I need to ask them some questions.
BB: Are you more like your father or your mother?
AD: I think I’m a hearty blend of both, because Mom and Dad shared a lot of qualities. Both of them are the kind of people who “just get it done”. If work needs doing, do it now and don’t wait for perfect timing. This has tempered my tendency to be constantly living inside my head, and given me something to cultivate. Yay, adulting.
My dad has an innate sense of comedic timing, a love of zany things (we all watched Animaniacs together), and no sense of shame. Great things for a performer to grow up with! My mom always pushes us to work hard and aim high (arguably more important!). Most special to me is the idea of unconditionally supporting the people you love. I was–am–incredibly lucky to have a family that supports what I do without reservation or pause. They do so simply because that’s what you do. I try hardest of all to emulate that.
MN: I don’t think I’m more like either one of them. I suppose I try to emulate both of their best traits, with varying degrees of success. My path has been extremely different from either of theirs, but they have never questioned a single decision I have ever made in my adult life. But if pressed, I suppose I’d have to say my Dad. We share the same hairline and propensity to make silly faces at cameras.
BB: What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
AD: Best: the people in this industry are beautiful. Inside and out. They crack open their ribs daily in order to feed their own heart to this art, so they become these incredibly complex people with incredible stories and personalities.
MN: I completely agree with Aaron on this one. I’ve made a lot of good friends over the last decade or so as I’ve been working as a singer, and Tongue In Cheek Productions has given me the opportunity to interact with those friends in a new light. We’re quite early in our tenure, and aren’t really sure what Tongue In Cheek will eventually grow into, but so far we’ve made both our productions collaborative efforts between our performing artists the two of us wearing the production hats. We’ve incorporated the artistic input from a number of our artists, and I’d like to think that everyone involved in our productions can have some feeling of ownership in the company. That spirit of artistic community is definitely the best part for me.
AD: Worst: there’s, like, no money. All these amazing artists who could be doing all these amazing things and enriching the life of the whole country, and they’re having to work multiple jobs just for the chance of being considered for something. Ugh. I understand that times are tough everywhere, but if we as a culture don’t fund our artists effectively, it’s like removing herbs and spices from all your recipes. Imagine a world without rosemary, cayenne, or even salt. That’s a world without good art.
MN: There’s a lot of worst parts about being a singer, the psychological stress, the financial issues, the difficulty of maintaining a healthy family life. It’s hard to choose one. On the production end of things, I’m not sure I’m yet experienced enough to know what the worst part is. We’re both juggling a lot of balls at the moment, and I’m still at a point where everything is still fresh and interesting.
BB: Who do you like to listen to or watch?
MN: Like most singers, I usually only listen to the music I am working on for my next performance. But when given a chance to indulge, I will generally opt for Bruce Springsteen.
AD: Oh oh another thing inherited from my Dad: eclecticism. Dad taught me to enjoy all sorts of music, and we grew up with everything from Steely Dan to Khachaturian. Currently, I’m really enjoying the Swedish folk rock band Garmarna as well as an incredible reimagining of Fauré songs by Olivier Mellano, Baum, and a plethora of lovely performers.
On the screen, I’m currently on my third rewatch of Bojack Horseman. For a show full of talking animals I’ve never seen something so accurately human. It serves as a perfect example to me of how an art form can push it’s own boundaries and become something so much more. It also reminds me that we need humour if we want any serious themes in our own artistic work to hit home.
MN: I am also a big fan of BoJack. I think anyone who works in an artistic field can relate to that show. It’s a bit of an oxymoron. It’s almost poetic in its absurdity yet feels more real than anything else being produced right now. Also, I can watch the original Star Wars trilogy on repeat for the rest of my life and probably never get bored of it.
BB: What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
AD: We talking realistic or superpower? I’ll answer both 🙂
Superpower: the power to write a perfect grant proposal every time. Or telekinesis.
Realistic: an intimate knowledge of woodworking, from carving to joinery. I got a set of carving knives for Christmas last year but haven’t found the time to really practice!
BB: Was it Isaac Asimov who said that for a primitive society technology is indistinguishable from magic. For me, looking at virtuosity or skills that I will never have? It could be magic. What Stewart Goodyear’s hands can do may as well be a superpower.
MN: I would cut off my left arm to be able to competently play the piano. Although that bargain would likely limit my prospects as a pianist.
BB: (shiver) So when you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
AD: If I were to pick just one, I deeply enjoy going out for ramen with a friend or two. Something about the warmth of the food and the buzz of the restaurant coupled with reconnecting with important people in your life. It’s just so…wholesome!
MN: I have a deep and abiding love for off-road cycling. Whether it’s downhill, cross-country, gravel, cyclocross, or bikepacking, as long as I have two wheels off-pavement I’m a happy man.
More questions for Aaron & Michael, the producers of Verbotenlieder, coming up at Lula Lounge December 19th.
BB: Verbotenlieder is the second production from Tongue in Cheek Productions. You began with your Winterreise, 24 songs sung by 24 baritones back on Sept 5th. What was your motivation on that occasion?
AD: Truth be told, our motivation was mostly focused around, “We have a lot of awesome friends and there’s not nearly enough performance opportunity for all of us” mixed in with, “This industry needs more crazy shit”. We were lamenting these issues over beers one night (at Betty’s I think), and then we asked ourselves, “why not”?
MN: In order to get our newly-founded company off the ground, we knew we had to debut with something that would raise some eyebrows and generate buzz about who we are and what we do. We wanted to involve as many performers as possible, and put on a show that would really get people talking.
Back in undergrad, I performed one third of Winterreise in a joint recital with two other baritones in my voice studio. So what if we got twenty-four baritones together for a Winterreise? How often do you ever get twenty-four low voices in the same room? Now that would be some crazy shit.
BB: So who and/or what is Tongue In Cheek Productions?
MN: We were out for a drink one night–I think Aaron is right, it was Betty’s– and we just started coming up with dumb ideas for themed concerts that we found funny in our inebriated state. I honestly don’t recall most of the ideas we came up with (we were drunk) but we had a few good laughs. Some time later after we had both sobered up I texted Aaron to say “Hey, how about we actually do some of those concerts?”
AD: We had the idea for Winterreise first, and decided that if it were successful, it’d be proof that Toronto needed more of that.
MN: Winterreise may have been the only idea we came up with on that fateful night of drinking that still sounded good the next day.
AD: Another thing important to us both is humour. As Twain said, it’s the test of a good religion whether or not you can joke about it. Since classical music is often portrayed (and presented) with religious levels of stodginess, we felt it right to poke a bit of fun. Because if you can’t sometimes have fun with what you’re doing, why are you doing it at all?
MN: Absolutely. That’s something that’s always bothered me about the classical music industry. None of us in the business take ourselves seriously. We sing for a living. It’s ridiculous. So why is it that the industry feels it must take itself so deadly serious? Where’s the fun in that?
As far as the company goes, Tongue In Cheek Productions has so far been a two-man operation, but we’ve relied on our artists to help a lot with publicity. The arrangement worked great with Winterreise, and the interest and engagement for Verbotenlieder has been even better. Our poster for this show was designed by Madison Angus, a fine singer who will be performing a new soprano version of “Hai già vinta la causa” for us on December 19.
BB: Verbotenlieder on Dec 19th is women singing things they usually are not supposed to sing. Is this a soprano’s idea for a follow-up to your Winterreise, or did one of you conceive of this?
AD: As I recall, the idea came from a desire to “swing the pendulum”. We did 24 men singing, and that was grand, but there are also many incredible female performers in our city! It made perfect, obvious sense to have an all-women show.
MN: We had to somehow recapture the magic that led to the formation of the company and Winterreise, so once again we sat down and assiduously downed a few beers. We came up with a lot of bad ideas until eventually my wife showed up, had a drink herself, and eloquently described an idea that would develop into Verbotenlieder.
BB: Please tell me what’s on the program.
AD: We’ve programmed around a main theme of songs women aren’t “supposed” to sing and songs that some of the artists have been literally told not to sing.
There’s quite a few pieces, and I don’t want to spill the entire bag of cats, but here’s a few tidbits!
First up is the oh-so-classic Au fond du temple saint, performed by Jennifer Taverner and Beste Kalender.
What better way to open an all-women show than with one of the most bro duets of all time?
Soprano Allison Walmsley offered Strauss’ Als mir dein lied erklang, and we took her up on it because of the story behind it. There’s plenty of women who have performed this piece, but she was told in university not to sing it, because it “sounded better in a man’s voice”. Oy.
Mezzo Gena van Oosten will be performing Vaughan Williams’ Whither Must I Wander. Here we have someone taking a song about a lifestyle (the vagabond) quite traditionally male. This gives me a whole new perspective on the cycle itself, and is reminiscent (to me, at least) of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
Soprano Natalya Gennadi’s performance of Kuda, kuda, is exciting to me because, in a sense, she now has the opportunity to showcase the skills that led her to coaching this aria as well as receive recognition for them in a different light, a different frame. I love that. To me, a woman singing a man’s aria is more than sideshow frolics, and even more than pop-culture feminism’s “anything you can do I can do better” message. I’d like our whole show to say, “We are here, and we are equal. We are as complex, as nuanced, as important, as compelling, and as skilled. We love this as much as you, we have seen and heard you. See and hear us. Come celebrate!”
Our finale is the Lehar’s Weibermarsch from The Merry Widow. It seemed…right…to take this septet, full of whinging about the mysteries and annoyances of women, and flip it upside down. I’ve rewritten the opening and the chorus, and we’ve asked the performers to write their own couplets expressing their own issues with this business. That’s TiC in a nutshell, a collaborative effort to change the game.
BB: Talk about the process for developing Verbotenlieder, and how you got to where you are now.
AD: Programming the rep for Verbotenlieder has been a fascinating journey. Rep choices have largely been offered by our artists, and this is exactly what we wanted. On the 19th and forever after, this is also their music.
MN: To be fair, there were a couple of chestnuts we had already decided to program, and we knew we needed to include a few ensembles in order to keep things interested. For instance, I really wanted the Pearl Fishers duet on the program, but I didn’t mention that to Jen Taverner when I asked her if she wanted to do a duet. Her response was “The Pearl Fishers duet is on my bucket list.” So that worked out fortuitously for us. For the most part though, we explained the concept to each of the singers and asked them for suggestions. We did encourage our singers to dig into the realms of art song and musical theatre, otherwise we’d be presenting a whole program of women singing Puccini tenor arias.
AD: As for getting a lineup of singers, the classical music industry in Canada is like one giant family, so there was little difficulty drawing upon our contact lists and messaging people whom we thought would be interested. We also had a number of artists contact us after Winterreise–some mere days after–expressing interest in future shows.
BB: Does Tongue in Cheek expect to be doing another program like this one?
MN: It’s hard to say. We are trying not to repeat ourselves, so each time we come up with an idea we have to think of it within the context of what we’ve already presented. We hope to involve a good number of singers in each concert, but thematically we are hoping to stay as varied as possible.
AD: There are a great many ideas in the pipeline, and some of them aren’t even shows! Some of them are absolutely ridiculous (e.g. a battle royale show where two or more pianists and two or more singers sing at once to create live, unscripted mashups). Mike and I have made a point to maintain a commitment to art song, so producing an entire opera is plausible but unlikely. Then again, if it fits our raison d’être, who knows? The world is our oyster, and TiC is the…shucker thingy.
Although…Confession: I’ve always wanted to produce Company by Sondheim, and perhaps rework/restage it to represent the Toronto arts scene. If anyone wants to fund that Kickstarter text me 😉
MN: Personally, I have no desire to produce full operas. There are plenty of independent opera companies bucking trends and presenting operas in innovative ways. I don’t think we’d be doing anyone any favours by crowding that field.
BB: Is opera dead or dying? Excuse me, I think that question is often subtext for anything new in this town, attempts to revive a corpse. (no you didn’t say that… I did)
But one of the subtexts that I can’t help noticing in both of your first two projects concerns the amount of work that’s available to singers, which is to say: not enough for all the talented voices & instrumentalists we’ve developed in this country. Forget my morbid preamble. Please talk about the talent that you’re drawing upon, and the work that’s available.
AD: I’m reminded of Will McAvoy’s speech at the beginning of Sorkin’s incredible show, The Newsroom.
Oh my. Opinions incoming. Let me say that everything following this sentence comes from a very deep love of opera.
Opera is not the greatest art form in the world, and whenever we place it on that pedestal we risk losing it. Whenever we treat it like a church or a museum, we rob it of power so that we can reanimate some bygone era. Whenever we run around proclaiming it to be something “above” musical theatre or pop music or Gilbert and Sullivan, we alienate people who might otherwise be really into what opera can say. Worst of all, when we can’t have fun with it, we lose morale and our original fascination with it, and that is reflected in performances that lack real passion.
I can’t pretend to know how to solve declining audiences, declining budgets, lack of available jobs for singers, and all the other concerns that I have about this industry. But I know it has to change, it can change, and I can change. If the ecosystem is evolving, so too must the organism, for there’s no tangible separation of the two.
Like, remember when you were a kid, and there was magic in the wisp of condensation in your breath during the winter? You were a dragon that rose with the first frost, and the way the vapour curled in the air was nothing short of miraculous. It is that simplicity of love, that direct pointing at the endlessly fun, joyful nature of existence that we must uncover and run with. It’s so incredibly hard to find in grand opera, underneath the endless layers of overpriced champagne, donor solicitations, ostentatious corporate sponsorship, and all the other shiny things we think are necessary. Yes, we will always have tuxedo fancy pants opera, and a lot of it will be absolutely delightful, and for contrast’s sake we’ll need it. But I think that, akin to finding God in a manger, we’ll find opera’s true salvation in bars, parks, and greasy-spoon diners.
MN: There sure is a lot of navel-gazing on that question in our business, and I don’t think I can really add anything to Aaron’s eloquent diatribe. I will say that I firmly believe opera is alive and well. It’s just evolving. Major houses with traditional venues are struggling, but dozens of new companies have sprung up all over the country and are doing very well, just on a smaller scale. Maybe today’s audiences don’t need the pomp and circumstance of opera on a grand scale. Maybe a low-budget Aida in the park is just the ticket. A few years ago, I saw Opera 5’s open-bar production of Die Fledermaus, sponsored by Steam Whistle. Personally I can’t stand Fledermaus but that show was a hit and I thought the production was brilliant. That’s the kind of ingenuity we have to strive for in tomorrow’s opera world. I hope Tongue In Cheek Productions can bring that joie-de-vivre to the concert stage.
BB: So what is your favourite opera?
AD: There’s a constant battle between the operas in my brain for title of favourite. The one that wins most often is Nozze. I feel in that music the very magic referenced in the last question. Pure humanity made music.
MN : Falstaff, of course. Need you ask?
BB: A pair of comedies! How refreshing (said the guy who loves Pelléas et Parsifal).
So, would there be a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
AD: There have been so many over the years, and this might sound extra cheesy to you, but Peter Barcza’s influence echoes in my head again and again, and I’m incredibly thankful for that. Of all the things he taught me, the most helpful has been caution and wisdom in picking rep, and to not be ashamed of backing away from something if you know it to be unsafe vocally.
BB: Aw cheesy is good. Unless you’re vegan. But no wonder we seem to be on the same wavelength. He was certainly the best voice teacher I ever worked with, a curious mix of mentor & older brother.
AD: For general life stuff, I’ve been heavily influenced as of late by the work of Alan Watts. His book, The Wisdom of Insecurity, did more for my mental health in this business than any masterclass.
MN: I am also a product of Peter Barcza and he was an invaluable influence on me, as well. My stylistic values as a singer and aesthetic musical preferences are a direct result of his studio. He’s a great teacher and I do make an effort to get a lesson or two with him anytime I’m back in Vancouver. I also have to give a lot of credit to my teacher from Ithaca College, Randie Blooding. I could have never become a working artist if it weren’t for him, and I love him like family.
BB: Thank you!
And so Verbotenlieder happens December 19th, 8 pm at the Lula Lounge. For tickets click here.