Framing the Pollyanna proposition

January is named for that two-headed god who is able to look ahead and back. As I ponder the wreckage of 2019 I wonder if Janus was too busy looking down at his phone and not watching where he was going, a year of surprises, crashes & misadventures. So while I never pretend I’m able to see everything, this year has been especially erratic, between our basement flood and the new rescue animal. I’m even later than last year in my review of the previous year.

While I missed a few performances I feel extraordinarily lucky. Things could have been so much worse.

As I reflect on what it all means I keep coming back to Pollyanna, that avatar of positive thinking. There’s a quote in the book that should be a mantra for critics.

“When you look for the bad,
expecting it,
you will get it”.

And so I prefer not to seek the bad. Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt. It’s a pain management strategy, a way to handle reality especially when you live in interesting times. Speaking of rivers, we coped with the flood, thanks to a combination of a good pump (I rushed off to rent it, keeping the water from getting more than a few inches deep), luck and insurance coverage.

And while we spent lots of money on canine ailments she’s still here, often under the piano.


Pollyanna doesn’t avoid reality. She reframes it, which means selectively looking and sifting and, dare I say it, even curating. So I don’t deny so much as pull back and look at frameworks & contexts. Whether we’re speaking of morals or aesthetics the framework is key. Yes it’s a bit of a tap-dance but the tune is a happy one.

And so I frame the year around key issues that have greater prominence at a time like this one. I saw a gallery who described their mission beautifully in language that could stand for everything I’m demanding going forward.

“The presentation of complicated and interesting ideas,
subversive actions, and socio-political consciousness.”

That doesn’t sound like anything Pollyanna would say, but maybe she’s just too polite to say that out loud. She has her dreams, her ideal world, but in the meantime must be content with the world she is in. Ambition is a good thing, right?

We have a right to demand more.

  • Inclusiveness: gender, race, age, and awareness of such things as the quest for reconciliation with Indigenous populations, varieties of ableness, LGBTQ, and historical interfaces that have been fraught in the past
  • Stewardship: of the environment, of an art itself in thoughtful programming,
  • Canadian talent: their desire to make enough $ to live in our increasingly gentrified city

Who am I to speak of such things? I’m figuring it out as I go. I’m learning.

In the meantime I rely on a few go-to people. They may not always knock the ball out of the park but knowing that their hearts are in the right place means I will always find time for what they’re doing. And more often than not, they are brilliant.

  • Joel Ivany: Against the Grain continue to entertain & enlighten. Figaro’s Wedding in December and Vivier’s Kopernikus in April were two of the highlights of the year, and I’m not even including the revivals of la boheme that toured the country: likely as good as they were when I saw them before (I missed the more recent ones). Whether he’s transladapting a well-known work such as Figaro or boheme or showing us something new like the Vivier, he first makes sure it works as a good piece of theatre. I’m eager to see what Ivany will make of Hansel & Gretel with the Canadian Opera Company next month, an opera whose exploration of poverty seems especially timely right now.
  • Crystal Pite whose Revisor in collaboration with Jonathan Young was the single most exciting & thought-provoking show I saw all year.
  • Adam Paolozza: Bad New Days gave us two intriguing shows in 2019, namely Paolozzapedia and more recently Melancholiac: The Music of Scott Walker.
  • Sondra Radvanovsky: there is no more reliable artist in this country right now than this one. Whatever she touches turns to gold. Part of that may be the awareness of Alexander Neef of the COC, wanting to always employ her Midas touch intelligently. The production of Rusalka assembled around her was like a fabulous ring to showcase the diamond. We are so lucky that she has chosen to live here.
  • Tamara Wilson has been consecutively in a pair of shows that are the opposite of what we saw from Sondra, productions I found frustrating as she shone in spite of their darkness.  Que bella voce!
  • Jonathan Crow continues to sparkle at the Toronto Symphony while venturing across town for the Toronto Summer Music Festival, not just as curator but as a performer seeming at times to carry the whole show on his back. And he’s just getting started.
  • David Fallis who is so busy, between bringing the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir to a higher level, whose gentle touch gives Opera Atelier so much integrity, while finding time for Choir 21, the Toronto Consort and guest appearances, makes everything he touches sound better.
  • Andrew Davis is holding the fort conducting the Toronto Symphony while we wait for Gustavo Gimeno to take over in the fall of 2020. The first few glimpses of Gimeno give every indication that he’s worth the wait.
  • Johannes Debus continues to be reliable no matter what he conducts, often the best thing (meaning his leadership of the COC Orchestra) in that production.  And Parsifal is coming soon!

I want to be especially sensitive to the women stepping forward in leadership roles. It’s a great time for the women in opera & music.  And yes, it’s about bloody time. Please note, some of these people are mentioned even though I didn’t actually see what they did last time around because I’ve seen them in past years. There’s Aria Umezawa, back after time spent abroad, as part of Amplified Opera teamed up with Teiya Kasahara. There’s Alaina Viau both of Loose Tea Music Theatre and also Toronto City Opera. The excitement of Musique 3 Femmes bringing so much new creation to life–here and elsewhere– bodes well for the future.

Tafelmusik are led by Elisa Citterio who include creative programming by Alison MacKay. Ah yes Tafelmusik are wonderfully inclusive, even letting a dead composer conduct (thinking of Herr Handel of course).  Now that’s inclusive..!

I will list a few of my favorite moments of 2019, recognizing that my two favorite moments were at home:
• When the flood-waters stopped
• When the dog settled in beside the piano for the first time (later settling underneath, where we have created a den for her)


Maybe I should provoke more dialogue. The most exciting thing I did all year was shoot my mouth off about Canadians on the stage of the COC in a bit of a rant. I received a number of replies and also some wonderful private messages. Let’s just say “don’t believe everything you hear” and I won’t go any further than that.

But in the spirit of that rant, let me in the quietest and most abstract terms lay out a few key principles along the lines of what that aforementioned gallery said. Remember? They spoke of
“the presentation of complicated and interesting ideas, subversive actions, and socio-political consciousness.”

If you prefer simple ideas you’re probably not reading my blog, a place full of contradictions, run-on sentences and wistful observations. But if you’re here, let me remind you when this matters most:

  • When you decide what to see..(?)
  • When you decide whom to support(?)
  • When you vote (?)

Then you might well ask yourself: what do I want? What matters to me?

Do I care whether my artists of choice make a land acknowledgement, and if it seems sincere?  Some do, some don’t. Does it matter to you?

Do I demand inclusiveness, or will the status quo of white men be enough?

Do I care that the city’s gentrification has made it so expensive to live here that artists are being squeezed out?

Does it matter whether I’m watching Canadian artists performing Canadian work?

You vote with your money. When you decide to go see a show you can pick the one packed with stars from abroad, or you can see something that might help feed someone born in this country.

And so: here is how I recall a few of the notable moments of 2019.  I always prefer ambitious art. While I raved about all sorts of things, I only list the ones here that were really good. I offer this subjective list in order of the intensity of my response.


Doug Letheren in Revisor (Photo: Michael Slobodian)

  • Revisor – Jonathan Young & Crystal Pite, the single most exciting night of theatre all year
  • Prince Hamlet ran a close second. It would be #1 except this is a revival from an earlier year.


    Dawn Jani Birley a signing Horatio (photo: Bronwen Sharp)

  • Rusalka from the COC is the best opera they’ve done in years.


    Sondra Radvanovsky (centre) as Rusalka (photo: Chris Hutcheson)

  • Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic (did you see it?) directed by Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory
  • The St Matthew Passion, led by Masaaki Suzuki
  • Isaiah Bell—Book of my Shames. Okay it’s more cabaret than opera, but these were the biggest laughs of the year, an impressive solo performance
  • 887: while Robert Lepage may be out of fashion –indeed opera lovers worldwide trash his Ring –this was breath-taking, and the single most impressive solo performance of the year.
  • Birds of a Kind–  Wajdi Mouawad’s newest in Stratford
  • …and there are many more I could mention.

In conclusion I must express my gratitude for diversion, artists working long hours in their lives to distract us from life, to help us forget the craziness swirling around us. Whatever else I do, I must thank everyone who contributed in any way to all the performances, all the creativity poured forth for the lucky listeners, all the teachers & mentors, and all those giving their money to build and support that work.  We are fortunate.

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

1 Response to Framing the Pollyanna proposition

  1. Pingback: Parenthood, poverty, Hansel & Gretel: a conversation with Joel Ivany | barczablog

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