Questions for Sky Gilbert: Shakespeare’s Criminal

I’m a great admirer of Sky Gilbert, the playwright, performer, professor, and activist: and I didn’t nearly cover it all. You can read his Guelph university bio here …where they list him as an expert in Canadian theatre, Creative writing, Drag queens and kings, Gay, lesbian, and transgender politics, Noel Coward, Poetry, Queer theatre, Queer theory.

I discovered that Orpheus Productions will present three performances, in a workshop presentation, of Shakespeare’s Criminal: a new chamber opera with music by Dustin Peters and libretto by Sky Gilbert, starring Marion Newman, Dion Mazerolle and Nathaniel Bacon, April 26-28, 2019 at Factory Theatre.

I was thrilled to ask Sky some questions, especially about Shakespeare’s Criminal.

1. Are you more like your father or your mother?

My mother. I wrote a book called The Mommiad, about my mother and her influence on me. She was an amazing person; she ran for political office in Buffalo in the 60s, started her own business and raised two children. But more than that she nourished my creativity — I remember that as a teen I was torn between music and theatre as professions and she had an upright piano installed in our tiny flat in East York just so I could practice. It’s a long story, but let’s just say that her beauty and her wit were what inspired me; her dark sense of humour about the world is probably also mine today.

2. What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Being alone. Both best and worst. I am oddly misanthropic — I don’t really like people sometimes, but I love being around them, and especially love being anonymous in crowds. I value being alone and need it to write — but that’s also lonely sometimes.

resized Sky Gilbert headshot

Sky Gilbert

3.Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I’m a narrative junkie, love stories. I see at least three movies at theatres a week, and a few on Netflix. I’ve just discovered Dorothy B. Hughes and Arnold Bennett, two great novelists. I’m particularly fond of late nineteenth and early twentieth century British novels and novels written by women (a real fan of Barbara Pym, my play A Few Brittle Leaves was inspired by her work — as well as of Barbara Comyn).

I love art films, but usually quirky ones with a sense of humour or a dark sort of compassion. I think remaining in the past — old novels and films with narratives — means I don’t feel threatened by modern art and can create my own reality/fantasies of what novels and poems and movies might be. The opposite is true when it comes to theatre. I recently saw Milos Rau’s Five Easy Pieces in New York City, a play that features children acting out scenes from the history of a child serial killer — it inspired me to develop a play called Kink Observed. In theatre I am all about challenge, viewing it and creating it.

4. What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I would say that my imagination fits in the category of something that I love about myself but is dangerous. I have trouble sometimes separating reality and fantasy (I know critics of my non-fiction essays will say — he certainly does!). This means that I can write a novel — I can’t stop imagining. In real life it can be frightening.

5. When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

Play Emily’s Delicious computer games and watch CNN Trump news. I admit it.

More questions about Shakepeare’s Criminal, workshop performances at Factory Studio April 26, 2019 @ 8pm and April 28 @ 2 pm. And on April 27th the workshop also includes a fund-raiser (more info below…)

1. With over 30 plays, 5 novels, 9 films listed on your Wikipedia page you’re an extraordinarily prolific artist. But I didn’t see any opera librettos listed. Will Shakepeare’s Criminal be your first attempt at an opera libretto?

I have been trying to put together an opera for years. I wrote a couple of finished librettos in the past and started working with composers who dropped out somewhere in the process. I understand why now; working with Dustin I have learned that the composer/librettist process is collaborative.

Dustin Peters headshot

Composer Dustin Peters

I have written this opera ‘song by song’ with Dustin, and his input has been invaluable; I have learned from it. I’ve been particularly passionate about opera since about 1998 and I’ve always been obsessed with music in general and classical music. I have written many musicals and starting in 1998 when I left Buddies my ‘hobby’ became listening to opera. I went from Donizetti to Massenet to Rossini and Bellini to Verdi and finally to R. Strauss — my interest is in Bel Canto and Romantic. Though how I am listening to Gretry and Wolf-Ferrari — so my tastes are becoming more rarified. I think for me it’s a combination of the two things I have been most passionate about — music and theatre, and also, as I’ve explained above, opera is pretty queer.

2. The press release for Shakespeare’s Criminal includes the following exciting idea:
The structure of Shakespeare’s Criminal is inspired by musicologist Ellen T. Harris’s notion that male composers were able to ground the emotional core of their operas through the wild, uncontrolled female voice (something which eventually led to the tragic romantic heroines of Verdi and Puccini).  Should we expect to see that kind of dynamic between male and female enacted in your opera?

The short answer is yes and no. The opera is about males and females interacting, but even though I am a male writing a female role, I’ve done my best to show a new twist and I’ve tried not to ‘objectify’ the female. True my female lead is something of a sorceress, but she is a desiring woman (as opposed to being a sex object) and also an intellectual and I think, wholly sympathetic.

The only thing that will be challenging for some audience members who are misogynist (and many people are, I think) is that they will have prejudices against a woman who is intellectual, sexual and has magic powers. The play is almost like peering into the brain of one of the ‘witches’ on the heath in Macbeth.

3. What’s the difference as you understand it, between a play text and an opera libretto?

Huge. My favourite thing is dialogue; love writing it, thinking it, imagining it. There is no dialogue in a good opera, in my view. There is only singing, showing off, spinning into emotion — I.e. Massenet’s WERTHER —.
Anyway, I have to think poetically rather than in dialogue, and this is something I have learned working with Dustin. I have written some songs as poems, and others I have written as prose. — but tried to make them as little like dialogue as possible. A couple of comic songs involved ‘dialogue’ but that is me indulging myself.

4. One of the promotional texts for Shakespeare’s Criminal says the following
Shakespeare’s Criminal celebrates the eternal bond between gay men and the women who love them. As long as gay men have been looking for sex and romance, their best female friends have been supporting them. What’s that about? What is the special relationship between gay men and their BFFs?”
Please talk about that “eternal bond”. Do you feel that it goes far beyond any particular decade or century?

In Ellen Harris’s book the phrase is  ‘rake, whore, catamite’ and it is intended to refer to a straight young man, a sexual woman and a man who desires other men. She suggests that the triumvirate — this friendly gang of three is transhistorical, going back to the 17th century. In other words there is something archetypical, in western culture at least, about a ‘catamite’ inserting himself into a relationship with a man and a woman — as friend. I have switched that slightly in my opera, and there is a song entitled ‘rake, whore, voyeur, in which Shakespeare is the rake, the young man the whore, and the woman the voyeur. So I am fashioning a new variation on an old trope. But I would say that straight women and gay men have a special bond, which I suspect is transhistorical — even though ‘gay’ is a relatively new phenomenon — there have always been men and women who desire men, and that bond they share both oppresses them in a sexist, homophobic society, and liberates them to share their loves, fantasies and desires, in a creative friendship.

5. I always felt there was a natural affinity between gay men & opera divas, because they appreciated larger than life emotions & gestures. I associate the use of the word “diva” in popular culture with the operatic world, a conservative community that welcomed gay people both in the audience & onstage long before mainstream acceptance. When we speak of the phenomenon of the drag queen I feel a natural affinity with the larger than life features of the opera diva. Does anything in Shakespeare’s Criminal draw upon the drag world?

As Susan Sontag says in ‘On Camp’ Bellini has for a long time been accepted by gay men as a camp figure. It’s important to remember that this does not mean that Norma is a laughing-stock, in fact the most misunderstood aspect of camp is that it is as serious as it is funny. Drag queens adore the women they portray, because they have a little bit of women in them, and there is a lot of ‘their mothers’ in them, that they can’t rid themselves of, no matter how hard they try. At any rate, Wayne Koestenbaum has written extensively about the relationship between camp and opera in a book called The Queen’s Throat. Belllini was being quite serious when he wrote Norma. But the fact that she is a tragic sorceress in a kind of prehistoric culture is a little funny — partially only because we have the distance of years to look at that, and also aesthetic distance because we don’t write bel canto anymore in the same reverent way. Camp gives us the opportunity to enjoy melodrama again, as we can be both serious and funny about it at the same time. Dustin has provided Marion Newman with a ‘curse song’ that I think is camp. On the one hand it is all about a woman’s fury at a closeted gay man (ie a ‘straight’ man), on the other hand it is all about two gay men revelling in that fury. And frankly, I think that’s okay.

6. You have been around long enough to remember when homosexuality was illegal & covert, when it was a threat to at least some in the establishment, when many chose to be in the closet for fear of violence, reprisals or worse. Your gay theatre was an activist theatre, perhaps captured in that name “Buddies in Bad Times”, an organization you founded. The word “gay” is safer, less threatening and perhaps a reflection of our times. I read a wonderful comment on your blog, observing the
“mega-musicals that celebrate tolerance. Funny, but I personally have never been very fond of being tolerated.”
Writing an opera in 2019, does your work still seek out edginess, activism & revolution rather than to aim for being tolerated?

I have to take issue with the first part of your paragraph. All of this is not over, we are still suspected of converting people, people are still in the closet, there is still fear of violence, and not only in Brunei. The problem is that young gay men are in a trap; many have turned to drugs as a way out. They have been told the lie (and I am not accusing you of this, it’s out there) that there is no more homophobia. And yet they are still terrified to tell their parents, and eventually some of their acquaintances out in the world, that they are gay. How does one live with that terrifically discomfiting irregularity between truth and the general discourse —with having to pretend that everything is alright with gay men in our culture, but knowing it’s really not? At any rate, I do the antique thing of writing about gay men because gay men still exist and are still oppressed. Period. Up until recently, HIV positive gay men (and others who were HIV positive too) were jailed simply for being a possibly ever present ‘danger’ to society.

The criminal in my opera is an HIV positive young man who loves to spread the liquids around. We are not ‘over’ AIDS. Does any group ever get over a holocaust? I don’t think so. We will never forget that we were blamed and shamed for this tragic illness, and many died overwhelmed with that shame and blame. THAT will never go away.

7. Two of the works in the current Canadian Opera Company season (Hadrian & Eugene Onegin in the fall) came from homosexual composers, but that’s hardly surprising considering how many great gay composers there have been (in the last century: Britten, Barber, Bernstein, Cage, Copland, Adès, Hoiby, Poulenc, Menotti, and before, Schubert, Tchaikovsky perhaps Handel & Lully, and many more I didn’t mention). Will the music of Shakespeare’s Criminal sound anything like the music of a gay composer (listed or otherwise)?

The first one that comes to mind is Samuel Barber. I am fond of his opera Vanessa believe it or not, and the denseness of the quintette in that is not unlike his famous adagio. Here is an intensity of sound and a beauty, of course in the trio for our opera that reminds me of Barber. I think Dustin’s music lives in that area between Barber, and R Strauss and Wolf-Ferrari — he might not agree but that’s my take.

resized Dion Mazerolle headshot

Baritone Dion Mazerolle

8. Please talk about the team presenting the workshop of Shakepeare’s Criminal.

It would be better to ask Dustin this. I am not incredibly familiar with Dion Mazerolle’s work — though I’ve heard him sing and he sings and performs beautifully. I’m eager to start working for him.

The part of ‘The Academic’ was written, to some degree for Marion, that is Dustin and I both had her in mind when we were writing the opera. Of course that means that we have all her technical facility to work with, and the chance to show off her beautiful voice had to be utilized to the fullest.

She also radiates integrity and strength, both qualities which are needed for the role.

resized Marion Newman headshot

Soprano Marion Newman

We decided to cast a musical comedy singer, Nathaniel Bacon — in the role of the Young Man, and I had worked with Nathaniel before. He was in a play I directed My Dinner With Casey Donovan, and a play of mine that was produced at 4th Line Theatre called St. Francis of Millbrook. I only became aware that Nathaniel was a singer when I heard him sing Hedwig so beautifully at LOT (Lower Ossington Theatre). We think the young handsome gay musical comedy singer will be a nice contrast to the more classically trained opera artists and will say something about one of the themes of the play ‘earthy vs arty’.

Shakespeare's Criminal - Nathaniel Bacon

Nathaniel Bacon

9. What’s your favorite opera (the one you like most) & your ideal opera (the one whose structure / dramaturgy you would put on a pedestal as the best)? In writing Shakespeare’s Criminal would we see anything that resembles or imitates features of either your favorite or ideal opera?

Probably R. Strauss’s Arabella. I think what I love most about that opera is the wistfulness with which he flirts with waltz music. Recently I’ve been trying to appreciate German operetta without much success, and then I realized that it was R. Strauss that led me to this stuff, because the beautiful waltzes that he gives us glimpses of in Arabella and Rosenkavalier that so charmed me. Then I realized that Strauss’s music is nostalgic, and of course camp in this way, it is about wanting to hear beautiful melodies but only getting a taste of them. But Strauss’s flirting with these melodies from operetta is actually more beautiful and compelling and profound than these waltzes in the old operettas themselves. A reviewer of Massenet’s Griselidis once said of one of the melodies in that work that it was not the melody itself that was so beautiful but what how we missed it when it was gone. The last lyric in our opera is ‘gone’ and there is some of this wistful nostalgia, I think , in our opera for the beauty of melody, without always being melodic.

10. Is there a teacher or influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

I want to mention Robert Spergel in this context. When I played in a quartet workshop at the Royal Conservatory back in — oh this would be probably 1970? — our teacher was Robert Spergel. I was playing the cello, badly, in the quartet, and he was always very annoyed with me. He of course had been a child prodigy (his sister was Mildred Kenton) and he had written a quartet and two symphonies — he played the Kol Nidri on the cello with Ernest MacMillan and the Toronto Symphony when he was 10. Anyway when I worked with Robert Spergel I was scared of him, and I thought he was kind of mean, but now I realize — no, he just loved music more than anything else more than people, and more than anything he wanted to see music done RIGHT. I have to respect this in a teacher, however tyrannical! And now that I have seen photos of a young Robert Spergel, it’s especially charming to see that he was at one time a very beautiful, petulant looking young man! Always a surprise, to learn this about the old!


All Tickets for regular performances $35:
Friday April 26th, 8:00pm
Sunday April 28th, 2:00pm

On April 26, 1977 Studio 54 opened in New York City.
On April 27 2019, Orpheus Productions will have a wild fundraising party to celebrate the venerable sex-positive, party-positive New York City hangout from the disco era and honour our new Chamber Opera ‘Shakespeare’s Criminal’.

All April 27th Tickets $80
Includes the workshop presentation, pre-show talk with the creators, post-show cocktail party with disco deserts, and scandalous performances for your voyeuristic pleasure by Hélène Ducharme and Shane MacKinnon! Dress in your favourite 70s outfit and dance the night away Studio 54 Style!

Buy tickets NOW and take yourself back to Studio 54
Saturday April 27th, 8:00pm

This is a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association production under the Artists’ Collective Policy.

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

2 Responses to Questions for Sky Gilbert: Shakespeare’s Criminal

  1. Pingback: Truth in the Park | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Sky Gilbert talks about Pat and Skee, his new memory play about his parents | barczablog

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