Corey Arnold & Kyle McDonald talk about The Lion Heart: their new opera

In 2016 I reviewed James Bond: A Convenient Lie , by Kyle McDonald.

It’s subtitled “Opera in Pasticcio“, a form where Kyle combined existing music from opera with his comical lyrics to tell his spy story. For example he takes the tune of “Non più andrai” from Nozze di Figaro, with the lines “The name is Bond, James Bond, don’t be nervous” rhymed with “I’m in her Majesty’s Secret Service”.

Today I heard about something in a different style, namely The Lion Heart. This original opera gets two semi—staged performances this weekend: 7:30 pm Saturday March 19 and 5:00 pm Sunday March 20.

Kyle wrote the words. Instead of the pasticcio approach, he is teaming up with composer Corey Arnold.

You can find out more, including booking tickets for in person or virtual at their website.

I wanted to find out more.

Barczablog: Corey, is this your first opera?

COREY I’ve composed a couple of art songs recently, arrangements for jazz combos and jazz orchestra on and off throughout my 20s, and a couple of musicals in my early 20s This is my first opera.

Barczablog Gentlemen, how long have you been talking about a collaboration, and how long did this work take to bring to fruition…?

KYLE:: We met while singing in Ottawa around 2016/2017 (Corey’s dating on this is more reliable).

COREY Kyle and I met in Ottawa in 2016 during a production of Rigoletto with Pellegrini Opera. A year later, we did Tosca with the same company where I was singing Spoletta and understudying Mario. The first weekend we lost the rehearsal pianist due to a personal issue so I stepped in to play for a day. It was my first time playing piano for an opera and I was quite nervous, but I had been accompanying myself while learning the role. Then they asked me to finish the production as the pianist but I wanted to show the conductor I could sing Mario… so one rehearsal, I sang Mario for Act I from the piano while the tenor went through the staging.

The next day Kyle and I were chatting backstage. He said something like “You’re a bit of a music freak eh? Want to write music for an opera?” The imposter syndrome I had as the rehearsal pianist was nothing compared to that which I experienced at the thought of writing an opera, so it took some persistent prodding from him, but by 2019 I was really getting into it. It was complete a month before the pandemic started and it took many grant applications before we had the budget for the orchestra, never mind the many delays due to the pandemic.

KYLE: I approached Corey with a libretto I had written many years before. I had written it somewhere in the period of 2005-2008. So, let’s say this work has taken since 2005 and to bear fruit! So…17 years? Our collaboration has worked out so well on The Lion Heart that we’ve gone ahead and started another original opera, which will ideally be finished in 2023. We have to be tight lipped about it for now, but let’s just say it will both horrify and arouse…

Barczablog: You’re working in the world of opera, meaning singers with particular skillsets. Maybe you don’t expect subtle method acting, but that’s not usually relevant in opera. Please identify your favorite operas, (when you look at what operas work best in your experience) , and then speak to what you’re aiming for in this piece.

COREY For me, I think historically in terms of the number of times that a movement has emerged in opera for more realism. Verismatic opera comes to mind but there were earlier movements as well. We need another similar movement today, which looks at the pacing of drama in the most popular forms of film and television media, at the intensity of the drama in those moments, and at the musical language that we are using to communicate all of this. My favourite opera for dramatic pacing as well as really accessible musical moments mixed with more tonally chaotic moments, is Gianni Schicchi. I don’t think another opera exists that has the same quality of musical timing, beautiful melodies, and action packed orchestral textures. Unfortunately the brilliance of the timing of the libretto is almost entirely lost in translation to English, or to audience members having to read subtitles…

KYLE Interestingly, when you get singers singing in their mother tongue, the acting tends to take care of itself…

My favourite operas… Turandot by Puccini (though there isn’t really an amazing role for me to sing in here, but overall, it’s just spectacular), Mefistofele by Boito, and The Barber of Seville, by Rossini -> which is probably the best first opera for someone to see IMO.

There are so many good operas it’s hard to choose, but these are the ones that have captured me. Mefistofele is largely because I want to sing Mefistofele, so I cop to bias there (though, one of the themes from this opera was used as inspiration for Richard’s recounting of the Crusades in The Lion Heart).

In The Lion Heart I wanted to convey both glorious hope, and intimate nuance, and I think Corey has done a magnificent job of both. Opera must be grand, otherwise, it would be something else – why have an orchestra? But feeling must never be general and must rarely be loud – specificity is what triggers mirroring responses in other human beings – thus, there must be intimacy.

So much of everything being made now is dystopian and hopeless. I’m tired of this. The Lion Heart is meant to awake the lion of hope in everyone – no matter how dormant. Whether it’s fighting a lion or offering an encouraging word, acts of bravery both large and small are in all of us.

And of course, I want music that delights and burrows. I think we’ve achieved that, and, it’s my hope that, sometime around the beginning of April, you find yourself humming one of our themes in the shower, and you curse our names because you can’t get it out of your head.

Barczablog: My wife loves to point out the rip-offs in pop culture, for instance the way the Batman theme (Elfman / Burton in 1989) is so similar to the way Richard Strauss begins the first of the 4 last songs, “Fruhling”. But Elfman was being pragmatic. For centuries church organists, kapellmeisters and music-directors have been lifting the music from other sources. JS Bach did it. So did lots of other composers. Could you talk for a second about how you see opera being saved / revived with your approach.

COREY: I don’t know what the future holds for me. But at 19 I wrote in my journal that I wanted to write an opera. And the reason I wrote it is because some operas give me delight and full-bodied satisfaction like nothing else in life, and I wanted to share that feeling with people. At 28, as my career as a singer started to get really frustrating, I sat there asking myself, how can this operatic industry be shrinking endlessly, with most of our professionals desperate for the tiniest career, while:

  • Orchestral film scores from Zimmer, Williams, Glass, etc… are so popular and omnipresent in the biggest budget films globally,
  • Modern Musical theatre has a following significantly larger than ours… and we can massively outdo musicals in melodrama with our voices, orchestras, and production size,
  • and every time I used to sing opera in this tiny restaurant in Ottawa where I worked washing dishes, the phones came out, the energy would shift higher, moods would shift more friendly… operatic voices are a wonder

Within this context… how are we not able to create truly meaningful and influential new works? We need to let our drama evolve with the times, integrate all of our experimental music effectively and EXPRESSIVELY with contemporary musical idioms so that our new works are not just lost on 99.99% of the population, and then trust our artists (singers, orchestral players, etc…) to use their instincts to interpret the music through the lens of their contemporary lives.

It’s amazing to see singers sing a new, “friendly music” opera in English, because you see more of the operatic artist shine through than you’ve ever seen before! And in the end, if our artists and audience are so burdened with performance practice, avant-garde musical language, singing in foreign languages, or “musical language barriers” from older genres, they can’t bring themselves fully to the table, and EVERY SINGLE other entertainment medium that is succeeding today knows that if we don’t have performers that are free to expose themselves to an audience, it just rings inauthentic and audiences disengage.

Our goal is that through these works, we can remove the burdens we’ve placed on the artists and the audience by creating something that just connects. We’re only interested in changing you… so that you walk out feeling exhilarated, wonderful, and alive.

KYLE: As for ripping off existing opera, personally, I’ve begun to make a career of it in my pasticcios. Who wouldn’t want to hear their favourite song again for the first time?

However, Corey and I are in the business of trying to make new favourite songs.

With regards to orchestral nods, Corey is in a much better position to comment on that, but I’ll say The Lion Heart has at least 4 incredible “hit” themes – which is pretty impressive considering most pop albums only have 1 or 2.

Saving opera: there is much to say, and I don’t want to black hole your time, so I’ll just offer some quick sketches:

Whenever the topic of opera or orchestral music comes up with someone involved in the industry, I ask people to tell me about the first time they realized they were in love with it. The majority of the stories are similar in the respect that the person was changed. My “awakening” was very much the same – it changed me.

I didn’t start out training to be a singer or a musician – I’ve been hands on, learning as I go, not institutionally educated – so my journey has been guided solely by the love of it, and not by academic standards: this, I believe, is the position of the regular person.

To the “layperson,” much of opera can seem like speaking coding to a person who just wants to play the video game. We’ve had a nasty habit in the last 50 or so years of increasingly pushing the “coding” in fine arts, deconstructing beauty until it becomes mere atoms. Highly specialized people with certain personalities enjoy this, but the majority of the rest of the species do not.

To save opera, we have to make it for humans again, which means i) making it a gateway to feeling and not to thinking (i.e., in a language we speak, with humane runtimes, and bending the score to accommodate acting, and not the other way around), ii) ignoring Twitter entirely, and iii) letting go of the past.

And just to put a regional spin on this – companies in France and Germany have expressed interest in The Lion Heart, but they want it in French and German. Why don’t we do the same here?

Barczablog: We must talk again. But first I am looking forward to seeing The Lion Heart.

KYLE: Oh, and my next opera in pasticcio will be premiering in May,

…But first, The Lion Heart this weekend at the College St United Church 452 College St. W. in Toronto. For further information or tickets go to their website.

Here is a bit of a teaser from YouTube.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Interviews, Opera, Press Releases and Announcements and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Corey Arnold & Kyle McDonald talk about The Lion Heart: their new opera

  1. Pingback: The Lion Heart | operaramblings

  2. Pingback: Composers dissing composers | barczablog

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