Pollyanna and the lessons of 2018

In past years my annual review was out in December, but this time it’s later than usual: because I’ve had a real holiday this year, more sleep and more silence than usual, dodging the viruses & germs pursuing other members of my clan.

Does it matter? The question has been a recurrent one this year. We’re living in a world that bounces back and forth between films, operas, plays, performances & art containing edgy political commentary and silly escapes from reality. Forgive me if my usual mantra (“I’m a lucky guy”, meant to focus me on gratitude) has been displaced by a phrase I heard from Jessica Chastain on Saturday Night Live early in 2018. (using this url because youtube or NBC have not yet chosen to make the video available to Canadian viewers)


And so it’s been back and forth, between the attempts to be meaningful and the moments of pure silliness. 2018 was book-ended by the two best things I saw all year. At the beginning of the year it was the mad shenanigans in the Talk is Free / Crow’s Theatre co-production of The Wedding Party

Kristen Thomson, Tom Rooney, Jason Cadieux - Photo by Guntar Kravis _preview

Playwright Kristen Thomson, Tom Rooney, Jason Cadieux (Photo: Guntar Kravis)

The year ended with the thumpity thump thump of Eldritch Theatre’s Space Opera Zero.


Princess Jenora, Hjalmar Pomeranki + Emily Trueheart (Mairi Babb, Eric Woolfe + Lisa Norton), photo: Adrianna Prosser

Thank you to both for so much blissful escapism.

And a bit less silly, but more in the spirit of Chastain’s mantra, there’s The Overcoat, A Musical Tailoring, the remarkable co-production between Vancouver Opera & Tapestry as part of Canadian Stage’s 30th Anniversary Season, James Rolfe & Morris Panych adapting Gogol’s story “The Overcoat”.

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring_Photo Credit Dahlia Katz_preview

Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring (Photo: Dahlia Katz); his performance was a highlight of 2018.

I am reminded of another mantra I used to live by, namely “less is more” (pun intended of course). Where others seem to be exploding out of the box of opera in their attempts to be meaningful (thinking especially of Rufus Wainwright’s attempts to show that yes he can write an operatic score, even if the libretto is a travesty), Rolfe and Panych let some of the air out of that fraught balloon: and as a result it mysteriously floats up into the sky. Nonsense sometimes makes sense.

Perhaps it’s the fact that so far I have not learned the lessons of the contestants on that show on the SNL video (above). Has the bar been raised? Good performances (singing –acting- playing an instrument) aren’t enough. I feel hungry for something more, because I’m desperate to see evidence that yes things still do matter.

The films that moved me the most this year all had a political edge. There must surely be films like Isle of Dogs, The Post, The Death of Stalin and BlackkKlansman every year, right? Was it only my appetite that changed this year? Or perhaps the changing times are changing the artists.

Wajdi Mouawad_ photo jean-louis_fernandez

Wajdi Mouawad (photo: Jean-Louis Fernandez)

And it’s the same for live theatre. Nothing got under my skin and into my head like the powerful works of Wajdi Mouawad last winter, from his Abduction from the Seraglio at the Canadian Opera Company, his film Incendies (several years old, but found in the library) and his play Scorched, presented in March at the University of Toronto.

The conversation and quest for reconciliation with indigenous peoples seems to be ongoing when I look back at shows such as Victor Davies’ Ecstasy of Rita Joe presented by Opera in Concert / Voicebox, Jeremy Dutcher’s concert at RBA (launching his brilliant CD Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa ); I Call Myself Princess, Jani Lauzon’s new play with opera (a collaboration between A Paper Canoe Projects, Cahoots Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts) and the workshop of Shanawdithit, a new opera being developed by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts, music by Dean Burry & libretto Yvette Nolan.


Brilliant native artist Kent Monkman put in an appearance in the summer, another wonderful show full of irony, wit and pain.

There were other moments with a political edge, such as Yom Shoah, a concert of remembrance for the Holocaust from Sara Schabas featuring Jake Heggie’s Another Sunrise; Safe Haven an intriguing multi-media performance exploring the ideas of exile & welcome from Tafelmusik curated with love & intelligence by Alison Mackay; a semi-staged performance of Stephanie Martin’s new opera Llandovery Castle, the concert presentation of Yiddish Glory , and the CD that I reviewed a few weeks later, BOUND v 2 from Against the Grain Theatre alongside their new recording of Ayre (capturing a wonderful performance from late 2016), Atis Bankas giving us a remembrance of Kristallnacht in concert; and finally Helen’s Necklace in a new translation, presented by Canadian Rep Theatre.

Forgive me, I mean no disparagement in foregrounding my hunger for something political, and thereby excluding some excellent work.

I’ll have more to say in a moment about the many other outstanding performances of 2018, but first wanted to call attention to those who were missing. First after an intense summertime farewell to Peter Oundjian, I was surprised at how keenly I felt his absence this autumn from the Toronto Symphony. And second, Jennifer Nichols had some misfortune last spring  and perhaps as a result, hasn’t been quite the ubiquitous presence onstage that she had been in previous years.

Other highlights of the year?
H̶a̶m̶l̶e̶t̶ from Tarragon: a successful telling of the story
Anna Bolena from the COC, the best singing of the year, and thank you Sondra.
Orphée+, another celebrated production from AtG.
• Of the three wildly divergent productions of Candide I saw in the first half of 2018 aka Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, the Toronto Symphony’s semi-staged production was the most effective & the strongest argument in defense of the score.
The Return of Ulysses from Opera Atelier, thinking especially of Mireille Lebel as Penelope, the MVP performance of the year raising that production to another level.
Mass in B Minor from Tafelmusik especially Charles Daniels
Hockey Noir was a great idea at least.
Orfeo from Toronto Consort, especially Charles Daniels again

Charles-Daniels-Credit-Annelies-van-der-Vegt (002)

Tenor Charles Daniels (photo: Annelies van der Vegt)

• Another new company has taken its place in Toronto, namely Tongue in Cheek productions. They gave us two fascinating events, namely Winterreise, with 24 singers instead of one, and Verbotenlieder from a female group of performers.
Actéon & Pygmalion from Opera Atelier were wonderful in so many ways. It’s a curious irony that after so many years when OA have been (rightly or wrongly) associated with a homoerotic aesthetic, that these 2 erotically charged operas should arrive at exactly the moment when the COC were presenting a pair of operas by gay composers.

I’d like to think that we’re sufficiently mature now that sexual orientation isn’t such a big deal. But oh wait…. next paragraph.

It’s 2019. Will this be a year vacillating between silly and serious, meaningless or meaningful? Forgive me if I oversimplify, I miss a lot. We’ve had the Ontario election and the rapid-fire actions of the new government, and guess what!? there’s another election coming in the fall that might be every bit as overwhelming, as frustration with a liberal government leads to a mindless stampede off a cliff.  Are we better off without Kathleen Wynne? And why was she and her party annihilated. I fear it was at least partially motivated by an over-reaction to her sexual orientation, as I thought she was doing a good job.


I miss you Kathleen Wynne

You won’t persuade me that things are better now under the Conservatives.  Arts funding & support for the CBC are not part of the conservative agenda, and so I’m very nervous about what’s ahead if Scheer takes power federally.

Have I scared you yet?

And when I can’t take it anymore, I hide out in beautiful performances such as Tafelmusik’s Beethoven concert in the spring or various takes on Messiah, each wonderful in their own way.

At least they haven’t taken away our hiding places.

Not yet.

This entry was posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Cinema, video & DVDs, Dance, theatre & musicals, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Politics, Reviews, University life. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Pollyanna and the lessons of 2018

  1. Thank you for sharing such a Medley of wonderful plays, opera’s and artists .. May 2019 be another wonderful Year of beautiful music, and wonderful acts..
    Happy New Earth Year 🙂

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