Before the Canadian Opera Company begin their virtual season this fall, it’s worth looking at what the other big companies have been doing.
The COC are promoting “A Season Like No Other” in this unique time when everyone is living through their own annus horribilis, the worst year in memory, struggling to cope with a complete loss of ticket revenue, and the devastation of their relationship with their community.
And we’re not even talking about the impact on the artists and their income (or lack thereof).
Earlier this year I wrote about some of the free online offerings from the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Opera as responses to the pandemic. As I now consider the other big North American opera company, Lyric Opera of Chicago, I’m using their example to demonstrate patterns, in hope that they may help us understand what might be coming in Toronto and elsewhere. It’s exciting that we now also have the technology here in Toronto to offer content online to make the name of the Canadian Opera Company relevant in a new way.
While LOC have begun their fall season of live performances, with Macbeth and The Elixir of Love, of course it’s a different country, where there’s an entirely different social contract. While there may be an appetite for theatre in Toronto it’s not permitted indoors: at least not on this scale. It’s worth noting, however, that in Chicago the productions are either brand new or new to Chicago. For the COC in Toronto where we’re not seeing anything live until February and we have a new General Director launching a new era, the COC have chosen to cautiously offer us three mainstream operas in productions that we’ve seen before. Is the difference a matter of cultural differences (the brash Americans, the cautious Canadians) or the leadership? I can only speculate although I’ve heard tell of financial challenges faced by the COC.
Enough about divergences, let me return to the question of similarities, in a search for a pattern or template.
LOC have been offering a virtual – online option, with some similarities to the Met & San Francisco, but some differences. At the risk of being reductive, I think I see three usual options in the streamed content, namely 1-concerts, 2-opera in conventional presentations, and what we might call 3-operatic adventures. If I am over-simplifying I’m sure you’ll tell me.
Option 1: Concerts
LOC recorded a concert led by their longtime Music Director Sir Andrew Davis. (Yes he’s the same one who was once the Toronto Symphony’s Music Director) that has been available on YouTube since the spring.
The Met has done something similar.
By coincidence, the Canadian Opera Company begin their online offerings this weekend with a concert, Russell Braun and Tamara Wilson with the COC orchestra, led by music director Johannes Debus.
I feel I must mention one concern that comes up for me whenever I watch concerts online, best summed up by a cliché I regularly invoke. You’ve probably heard the old philosophical question asking “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, is there a sound?” But I wonder, if music is played but there is no audience: is there actually a concert? This is especially relevant to opera and the relationship to audiences. Is “vissi d’arte” really “vissi d’arte” without applause at the conclusion? I’m not sure about that one. Of course when we watch opera on film it’s similarly distanced from an audience.
Option 2: traditional presentations of opera
LOC offer a performance of Pagliacci in modern dress captured in their own theatre. The chorus are socially distanced, seated in the audience, but that works perfectly for Pagliacci given that the chorus function as an audience for the performers in their opera-within-the-opera that closes the work. While it’s not as long as most full-length operas, (usually paired with another opera to fill out the bill), it’s enough for a virtual offering. Like the Soundstreams concert I watched yesterday 75 minutes is enough in the virtual world.
No it’s not so traditional as to use the costuming & sets of the score as written: but nowadays fidelity to the text is the exception rather than the norm. Having Canio or Tonio in modern clothes is actually normal for opera in the 21st century.
Similarly, the COC will offer Gianni Schicchi in October as their first opera offered online. As with Pagliacci, it’s a shorter work: but online that’s okay.
Option 3: more radical approaches to opera
LOC had Yuval Sharon do a radical re-invention of Götterdämmerung, titled Twilight: Gods, originally staged inside a parking garage as a kind of drive-in opera. This too is short compared to the original (although when I recall some complaining at the length of the full opera, I remember: you can’t please everyone). Where the ending as written has Brunnhilde ride her horse onto a funeral pyre (impossible to stage), in this version, instead of riding on a mustang (or a horse) our heroine drives off in a Ford Mustang convertible. Some of the segments worked better for me than others. The Hagen-Alberich scene was electrifying. There was original content added, that might irritate a purist. Where the men sang with pristine clarity I was sad that most of the female voices in this show failed to enunciate their words clearly. It’s not something that has to be so, given how clearly I heard every word sung mostly by women in yesterday’s Soundstreams presentation. It can be done, so long as the singer makes the effort to treat every word with care. On balance, I welcome this kind of broad exploration of repertoire, a way of opening up new channels and pathways, finding a new audience. It makes opera feel more inclusive so long as it is done with sincerity and a thorough-going integrity of purpose.
The COC offering for November seems to be from the same rough template, as they turn to Against the Grain Theatre for Mozart’s Requiem. The AtG version is described this way in the press release:
This multi-disciplinary presentation in collaboration with Against the Grain Theatre invites us to reckon with the impact of COVID-19—and heal together through the power of Mozart’s astonishingly moving Requiem.
Incorporating interviews with front-line medical workers and community members directly affected by the pandemic, this interpretation conceived by Joel Ivany and Johannes Debus connects individual stories of loss and resilience to the sonic world of Mozart’s heartbreakingly beautiful piece. The result charts a passage out of the darkest days of an unprecedented global event towards a new hope for a brighter tomorrow.
There are other presentations this fall as well, including:
Espiral from OKAN beginning November 13, which appears to be a concert from a group described as a fusion of “jazz, folk, and global rhythms with Afro-Cuban roots”.
In Winter, a concert including Ian Cusson’s newly commissioned work “In Winter” featuring the COC orchestra, chorus and soloists.
You can find out more from the COC website.