Musique 3 Femmes – Next Wave Workshop

The Wednesday March 20th noon-hour sample of Next Wave was a small sample of the riches we encountered in tonight’s Workshop, presented with the support of Tapestry Opera & hosted at their Ernest Balmer Studio. And there was a social component that I skipped to get home to write this; but when you have to drive home to Scarborough one can’t surrender to the temptation of a free bar.

Five teams of librettist / composer / director with a pianist or two + singers gave us three samples before intermission and two after, prize winners of the Inaugural Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes ( “a new $25,000 award in Canada supporting the creation of operas by emerging female and female-identifying composers and librettists”). All five were absorbing pieces of music theatre. If every text is a kind of puzzle that can be solved in a multitude of ways, I was aware that we were watching, not only the new works, but the fruits of the creative labour of singers & directors, working with a pianist seeking to wrap their heads & their creative chops around the new shows, making choices, experimenting, trial & error. Our responses are valuable feedback.

We were listening to the pianism of Jennifer Szeto, joined by Natasha Fransblow for one of the excerpts.  The musical direction was transparent and supportive, never noticeable except as an addition to the evening.  I’m not properly reviewing the performances, hoping they’ll forgive me in my choice to focus on the new creations.

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Standing front row: Naima Phillips, Margareta Jeric, Cecilia Livingston, Alaina Viau, Monica Pearce, Jennifer Szeto, Lindsay Connolly, Kristin Hoff; back row: Pascale St-Onge, Alice Abracen, Laurence Jobidon, Michelle Telford, Kendra Harder, Amanda Smith, Aria Umezawa,, Suzanne Rigden

The first excerpt was from The Chair (composer Maria Atallah, librettist Alice Abracen, director Anna Theodosakis). We’re watching a young person who has endured the loss of a friend, and now must endure the additionally harrowing experience of the various expressions of sympathy. It’s a wonderfully layered text as we go from the banal expressions constrained by the political correctness of the situation (numb thank yous) to more ironic ejaculations of the underlying truths.

I’m reminded of some of the falsehoods surrounding disability & age. That we all seek to signify normalcy & competence even when we may be losing our sight or our hearing or our ability to walk without limping. How much truth is permitted or sanctioned? Music theatre is helpful, as the departure from normalcy makes more sense when you’re singing, whereas the same lines delivered straight without music might seem crazed or surreal. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we enter into an alternate world via music where we don’t have the same trouble suspending disbelief, as we read various layers of the young woman’s feelings & responses.

The second excerpt was from Singing Only Softly (composer Cecilia Livingston, librettist Monica Pearce, director Alaina Viau). Based on redacted texts from The Diary of Anne Frank, the excerpts had me asking some pointed questions about music theatre, in response to Livingston’s form that she calls “song-cycle opera,” at least for today. Tomorrow I may again crave Parsifal & Pelléas but in 2019 I have to question the efficacy of operas requiring big orchestras, and all the challenges that entails for dramaturgy & knowing what the piece is really doing. The expressive possibilities of this scale of work, with a couple of singers & a piano are enormous, the clarity one gets in a voice singing (excuse me for suddenly remembering their title) “only softly” make me recall the usual success rate of larger scale works. How often do they work? Rarely it seems. It’s just so much harder, the expressive power of singer + text becomes like a shotgun, spraying effects & impressions but imprecise. Viau / Pearce / Livingston gave their creation the precision focus of a laser.  Yes I know that the title likely begins in the furtive nature of the story (a family who must hide for fear of discovery): but there’s no loss of power due to the size.

I was reminded of Reviving Ophelia, a book I read long ago that I sometimes cite as a grandpa, recalling the issues as parent of girls, concerning the hazards in adolescence to the authentic self of the girl. I was thrilled to hear this (meaning the conflict, not the book) mentioned by the creators (in their intro before the excerpt), as one of the sites of the drama, a kind of drama of the unfolding development of a young girl. I was also delighted to see the use of a personage signified with multiple performers, something that I hope we see more often.

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Composer Cecilia Livingston

The third excerpt was from Book of Faces (composer Kendra Harder, librettist Michelle Telford and director Jessica Derventzis). The wonderfully flamboyant little example on Wednesday brought the house down, as I mentioned in that write-up. Tonight’s larger example showed us a much more complex piece, a comedy with darker nuances. While we still have the comedy of Facebook & Tumblr, we also get the subtext, the desperate struggle of a generation seeking to make a living that makes social media so addictive.

I can certainly identify. Confession. When I post a lot of blogs –as I have this month—it’s usually a sign that I am avoiding something in my life.

In passing –as we come to intermission—I have to wonder, did anyone miss men at all on this evening? Oh sure, there are a few of us in the audience (eating it up btw), but there’s no shortage of talent onstage, a very satisfying image of reality.

After intermission, two more extraordinary pieces.

First we came to the fourth item on the program namely Suite d’une Ville Morte (composer Margarete Jeric, librettist Naima Kristel Phillips, director Amanda Smith). Where the small sample of this Wednesday was particularly electrifying, I was surprised at how much further it went in the staged version tonight, an overpowering piece that bowled me over completely. I feel moved to remind the creators that while they may want to “finish” this piece, it’s totally legitimate to offer up a fragment. There’s certainly a tradition of this in the late 19th century for instance, thinking of Mallarmé’s unfinished dramas, Debussy’s unfinished operatic fragments, and poems one could name. The torso of something else can be almost more powerful than the finished piece, its incompleteness an invitation to the imagination to run wild. We had text & music with hints of possible mise-en-scène, but did not require closure or even precision.

Imagine a piano as the remnant of a dead city. Please note, too, that phrase “dead city” is itself a symbolist trope, if we recall the opera Die tote Stadt (edit the morning after: I should mention the source novel Bruges-la-Morte by George Rodenbach is symbolist, not the opera). Is the piano broken? We hear in the text of a burning piano. The thing is, pianos are always breaking (alas as we know too well), somewhat mortal themselves as extensions of a person. A pianist with a piano is a bit like a cyborg, in the sense that the hammers & strings extend a person’s expressiveness, a synthesis of human & machine (not to be confused with the Terminator of course). Yet we are all a bit broken, using eyeglasses, bicycles, smartphones, and various other tools to compensate for what we can’t do, especially as we age. When we do it to ourselves through war it’s that much more painful in its poignancy but still, an extension of the usual self-destruction. In this piece it’s especially clear, as we see a pulse emerge from the foot-pedalling of a piano, the thump thump rhythm that resembles our own internal pumps, emulated by the singers. There’s a kind of chicken & egg thing going on here, where we can’t quite tell which came first, the song or the singer, the human or the machine, the pulse or the instrument on which to pound that pulse. And the distinction is problematized, as we wonder which is the machine, which is the living thing.

I’m reminded to of the sci-fi trope of wrecked civilizations, as in Ballard’s Crash, or the Mad Max series, destruction that might be war or just the devolution of our species, losing its way. The words are on the boundary between mind and mindless, repeated utterances that resemble something animal or intuitive, meaning collapsing in the face of the unbearable.

I was reminded of Pan’s Labyrinth, a film you may admire, but one that I had trouble with because it was in places so very powerful. Would a person who has lived through the siege of their city be able to stand this? What sensitizes urbane effete listeners like you and me, might be too traumatic for someone who has lived this in real life. I don’t mean that to be a critique necessarily, so much as a reminder of how lucky we are to be able to ask these questions in a city that has not been bombarded or destroyed.

The fifth and last piece tonight was the consummation of the questions I had after Wednesday’s concert, when I wondered about the idea of solidarity & resilience in a story of women fleeing abuse en route to a remote shelter in Québec in L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi (composer Laurence Jobidon, librettist Pascale St-Onge, director Aria Umezawa). There was a very Canadian moment when they look fearfully at the sky, wondering if the weather will prevent them from traveling. But again as with the previous one, by singing we transcend this world,  straddling the boundary between reality & something mythic, larger than life, and not necessarily rooted in quotidian matters. By singing it we’re taken into an affirmation of something larger and life-affirming. Jobidon’s vocal writing is very good –how else do I say it? –in giving us two women singing together a great deal of the time. I can’t recall hearing anything like this from a recent composer, that works so well as an enactment of this idea –solidarity?– yet is simply good vocal writing, beautiful to hear, and genuinely operatic.

Afterwards, I wondered, why is it that the question is asked of music, as to why something is adapted or set as opera.  Did anyone ever challenge Van Gogh or Picasso over their subjects? Perhaps it’s a male question, to ask if something can work without the music, and therefore doesn’t need that operatic treatment. But it’s so good that I don’t detect any anxiety in these pieces, no existential challenge that would undermine the serene confidence of these creators. They don’t just have a right to be there.

They’re very good indeed.

And look around. Each of these operas will be presented in a more complete form somewhere in the months ahead.  Perhaps you’ll be able to see & hear them.

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