Kyle McDonald and Mightier Productions premiere a new opera on May 5th, titled Conan and the Stone of Kelior.
I asked Kyle a few questions.
BB: When I look at your website, I see a commercial venture:
(hopefully you recognize these words)
MIGHTIER PRODUCTIONS IS A PRODUCTION COMPANY WHOSE MANDATE IS TO PRODUCE ENTERTAINING AND INTERESTING FILM, TELEVISION, THEATRE, AND LITERATURE BY MERGING
TRADITION WITH INNOVATION
FOR AN AUDIENCE WHO CRAVES TO BE SWEPT UP AND TRANSPORTED AWAY.
FOLLOW AND SUBSCRIBE!
In other words, your website for Mightier Productions isn’t following the usual template for an opera company. Opera is usually understood by its expense, the most costly art form to produce. Could you talk about how you see yourselves?
Kyle: That is a good observation, and the simple answer is: I’m not an opera company! I’m an individual creative who uses this production company to build brand familiarity for the various projects I want to undertake. In the past I’ve done spoken theatre, film and tv, and I’m even going to be putting out a fully scored and foleyed audiobook of a new novel length epic poem in the latter part of 2022. The majority of the work I’m doing is my own, but I’m open – once I’ve grown a little more ¬– to producing projects that aren’t my own.
The desire is to reach a point where, when a presenter (season planner at a venue), producer, or impresario (operatic producer), hears that something is backed by Mightier, then the doors swing open. This isn’t just for me, because it also means I can make paying work for artists, and give audiences something to look forward to and talk about.
BB: You’ve made films. Your IMDB entry includes 28 credits as an actor and 5 as producer. You act, you sing. Why Opera?
Kyle: Opera…captured me. I grew up listening to grunge, hard rock, and heavy metal. I played in band at school (2nd and 3rd trumpet, whose dynamics ranged between super loud, and ultra loud), and one year the band played Verdi’s Requiem, and I had never heard anything like it.
From there, I followed the rabbit hole – Beethoven, to Mozart, to Wagner…and then there was no coming back. I always tell “laypeople” that opera is the most (heavy) metal thing out there.
I didn’t ever think I’d be able to sing it. I think I still don’t believe I’ll ever sing it, despite how often I’m doing it these days. It’s a bizarre thing – I hear myself in recordings, and I don’t believe it’s me.
I was very fortunate in my late 20’s: by the design of a theatre practitioner named Tedde Moore, I was put into the hands of the late, great Donna Sherman who set me up for lessons with Helga Tucker. I then spent a few years learning this exceptionally difficult craft. I walked away from it for another few years as acting on camera and in voice-over beckoned, and it wasn’t until my friend Vincent Thomas put me in a show with Ottawa’s Pellegrini opera, that I started performing.
My first full opera was La Boheme. I did not do a great job. But I got stronger, and better as time went on (as one does). As I was performing these pieces in Italian, German, and French, I wondered…why not English?
It turns out Guillermo Silva-Marin of SOLT, TOT, and OIC had asked this question (and answered it) long ago, and he put me in a German opera called Martha, but did it in English. My family came to see it and loved it. I’d been doing Shakespeare for years, and had never seen that kind of reaction. This roared to me: do it in the language people speak. So, I’ve been doing that ever since.
BB: When I look at the ads for Conan, I wonder: is this the usual audience or a different one? OR is the usual audience waiting for this, the audience for rom-coms, sci-fi , fantasy and video games who are now waiting for opera that addresses their taste preferences?
Kyle: This is part of the experiment. I wager that if you were to look at the demographic data on who does what, the pop-culture consumer circle would barely, if at all, overlap with the opera goer circle.
However, I consume high concept pop culture (I love video games, which now also boast some of the best compositional work around), and I was utterly changed by opera. I’m not a flowery or sentimental person, and my tastes are pretty heavily masculinized, so, if I can get hooked, I think almost anyone can. And I’m especially interested in getting boys and men interested in “fine art.” Beautiful things really do make life, and ourselves, much better.
I don’t think music is the issue with opera – it’s something my colleague Corey Arnold and I have said many times, and will continue to say – the trouble is the trappings. Unfamiliar languages; stiff acting; excessive runtimes; archaic practices. Generally, rigidity is death.
So far, our theory has been born out by experience – those who see our work (or any operatic work) wherein the rigidity is removed and the story telling is prioritized respond quite positively.
On top of that, there isn’t a person I’ve spoken to about Conan and the Stone of Kelior who hasn’t said “an opera with Conan the Barbarian running around? I’d see that.”
Now it’s time to put it to the test.
BB: Is Mightier Productions seeking new works / new composers/ commissions? Please paint a picture for me of what creations you will put before the public 5 or 10 years from now.
Kyle: At present, I am but one humble artist, but, if things go well I could see Mightier being involved in developing new writers and composers for the stage, in producing TV and Film, and in possibly even in literary publishing.
I also imagine that my tastes and interests will keep evolving. I’m working on building a catalogue of operas right now because that’s where my interests are. But, I do predict that that interest will wane, and I’ll move on to something else, ideally being subsidized by the proceeds from my catalogue.
I can even envision the company spearheading online campaigns to educate the public on the fundamentals of the Canadian Parliamentary system or the foundations of personality science and reasoning.
BB: Let’s talk about the way you create your pasticcios. Composer and/ arranger to do a project?
Kyle: My first was about James Bond, which I put together in 2015. I spent much of that year and the next just listening to as many operatic works as I could.
My process is this:
Allow the idea of what subject matter I want to pursue to come to me. Thankfully, my idea “faucet” is almost always on and I don’t get blockages. Ideas intrude at will into my thoughts, so I just follow them.
Once the subject matter is selected, I then devise the plot. What happens? What are the challenges? What’s the most important scene? I usually work backwards from the most important scene – making sure everything before serves that scene.
If the piece is an existing property – the way it is with Bond and Conan – I think of what the existing media have had to say about it and use that as a launch point. In both cases, though, I have made some adjustments: I’ve made them both less serious. Especially Bond. My heart lies in drama, however, I’ve seen so much doom, gloom, and gritty realism of late, I just think people who dare to leave the house and spend money should leave feeling moved and invigorated, but not depleted.
When it comes to the pasticci, for scenes and pieces that are less familiar (I can’t build an entire show out of arias and duets), I put on an opera while I write, work on design, or game, etc and, if I stop what I’m doing to listen, I put that piece on the list.
Of course, there are the numbers that everybody knows, and those are at the top of the list – I’ll go out of my way to make scenes appropriate for them.
While this is going on, I’ll write the outline of the plot, and a rough outline of the book, and then put words and music together. I actually do this using screengrabs and typing it all out in Microsoft paint! I use the piano score, but I also collate the orchestration and then send both to my engraver, who puts it all into Finale. From there, I can do whatever arranging or re-arranging I want. That’s one of my favourite parts, since everything becomes negotiable.
BB: What recognizable numbers might we encounter in Conan?
Kyle: Right off the top, we have the Black Swan theme from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – to which I’ve added a vocal line.
We have the Confutatis from Mozart’s Requiem
I’ve adapted Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C# Minor into the aria of the show, called “I, Conan!”
I’ve included the Anvil Chorus and Azucena’s aria (Stride la vampa) from Verdi’s Il Trovatore
Cortigiani, vil razza dannata from Verdi’s Rigoletto in the mouth of a boy king pant role who’s just been spanked, as well as selections from ACT IV in Sparafucile’s house.
The Habanera and the Sequidilla from Bizet’s Carmen:
As much of Puccini’s Turandot as humanly possible, including Nessun Dorma sung to a magic stone.
The People that Walked in Darkness from Handel’s Messiah makes an appearance in the cruel and plotting mouth of a wizard
Fafner’s music from Wagner’s Seigfried also makes an appearance in a place called The Halls of
The Pearl Fisher’s duet by Bizet
There are also selections from Mussorgsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and more!
BB: Do you expect to build a following, subscribers? Have you already got a subscription audience?
Kyle: It’s my hope to build a following. My subscription audience is very modest, but the plan is to extend. This is the first personal project where I’ll have just enough of a budget to reach people beyond my immediate and secondary circles. That’s the hard thing: how do you get people who don’t know you to take a chance on you? Ultimately, I’m hoping that I can stir up enough attention to get the big boys to come out and play. I’m happy to partner and learn.
BB: Are you in some sense “alternative “: which begs the question , alternative to what? are you more mainstream, commercial than those writing operas nowadays? Puccini and Verdi are mainstream, commercial. Do you aim to create that kind of sound, a variety of operatic art that is melodic and singable?
Kyle: In the pop-world, I’m high concept with alternative leanings, though, only marginally alternative. In the fine art world, yes, I think I’d be considered alternative, even though I’m trying to marry popular culture and fine art.
As for those writing operas today, I’m hesitant to speak extensively on it because I haven’t heard everything, and I’m not interested in criticizing anyone’s output, but from what I have heard, yes, you could say I’m much more mainstream/commercial, although those are naughty words in fine arts circles (which gives you an inkling of why audiences are shrinking…)
I prefer to say I’m more humane. It seems strange to say, but in the last ten years I’ve become quite convinced by the data that human nature isn’t nearly as malleable as we’d all like to think, so, I’m no longer wasting my energy on trying to re-invent the wheel.
If I can get something as memorable, human, and delightful as what Puccini and Verdi did, I’ll consider that mission accomplished indeed!
BB: Do your operas require less rehearsal (offering the extra advantage of economy)?
Kyle: Noooot just yet. They’re all new! However, I think that the time that it takes to learn a role is much shorter than traditional roles. I’ve even noticed this in my own practice – when the role is in English or French (the languages I can speak), my learning time is cut almost in half. I believe this isn’t merely because of familiarity, but also because one can imbue the text with intention at the same time: memory is powered by meaning. If you need to memorize something, find a way to make it emotional, and it will go much, much faster.
BB: Are your pasticcio operas possibly easier for singers, who work with known arias?
Kyle: I wonder about this – I wager in some ways they are, because they already know it – but in other ways not, because they have to undo the learned behaviour that has attached itself to the previous version.
I’ll add this though: just about every note and key in my pasticci are negotiable. I want the roles tailored to the singers, not the singers to the roles.
BB: Can you dodge the pitfalls (composers showing off, dissonant & overly complex) with pasticcio?
Kyle: I think I can. While a composer has only his or her own mind to draw from for an opera, I have hundreds of operas, with dozens of scenes. I can also make any alterations I want – from orchestration, to vocal lines. I’ve done a considerable amount of this to sections of Conan already.
BB: What about (history) pieces like The Beggar’s Opera & ballad opera : could that work?
I’m sure they could – I could easily pull from those and slot some it into a pasticcio. Outside of long passages of Baroque music, the music is seldom the problem for contemporary audiences.
BB: In the exchange a few weeks ago concerning Richard was the conversation helpful?
I think so. We were very targeted with The Lion Heart. We weren’t trying to invite the larger public, because we needed to know if it was ready for that. Plus, the larger public won’t respond to an in-concert performance the way they would to a fully staged. Fully staged is now on the table, so we’re grateful for that!
That being said, we’ll always accept a helping hand. We’re just two fellas trying to make it happen!
BB: Verdi and Wagner each wrote a few operas before they really hit their stride, before they became truly proficient. As far as learning how to make opera, how many operas does it take to learn the medium? How many operas have you created so far (whether as a collaborator as with Richard, or in the pasticcio genre)…?
Kyle: I would love to be grouped into the same category as these giants – though, truly, it’s Corey Arnold who should be in that list. I couldn’t be more impressed or happier with what he did with The Lion Heart. It’s exactly the opera it should be, and, I’m confident, once more people hear it, they’ll agree. I think he hit a home run on the first at bat.
We’ve composed a pocket opera since then, and, once again, he’s note and phrase perfect. Our next endeavour is a lascivious tale of horror and cruelty, and I’m just as confident he’s going to absolutely crush it.
I think it’s just a matter of getting the big boys to put us up so regular people can get word. It’s all in the marketing, alas.
As for the pasticci, I have the tremendous advantage of having music that’s been tested and enjoyed for centuries, so that’s no worry. And, for the writing, I’m merging playwriting with screenwriting, and I’m reasonably confident in my structural sensibilities, so these are pretty much good to go by the time they’re done.
The learning I want to do now is going deeper into personality profiles and subject matters that aren’t as familiar to me.
BB: Talk about your singers and your team for Conan.
Kyle: In my supporting leads I have two of the best up and coming singers in the city, possibly the country: Lynn Isnar and Corey Arnold. They’re just pure magic – and their English diction is exemplary!
I’ve also managed to snare a real veteran – bass, Robert De Vrij! I still can’t believe he said yes, but he’s a huge fan of Conan, and he loves the project.
I also have a gaggle of very promising young singers and performers, and I’m very much looking forward to watching them command the space.
Additionally, the set is a combination of set pieces and projected backgrounds illustrated by the immensely talented Mark Rehkopf – such that every scene is literally a work of art.
Kristi Ann Holt – who worked on the new Fraggle Rock – has also put together our shadow serpent.
Designer veteran Jim Smagata is coming aboard to do our lighting design.
And Geoffrey Davis, who seems to have worked on every wardrobe department in the province, is handling the costumes and has been losing sleep from all his exciting ideas.
Maestra Diana DiMauro, stage manager Sarah Brawn, and my apprentice director, Jordan M. Burns, have been marvelous in supporting me through everything as well, and this is their first time working on such a production in their respective capacities.
BB: What is your operatic ideal, and are you expecting to reach that ideal some day..?
Kyle: It’s curious, but there’s at least one more pasticcio I want to make, and it’s a story I’ve probably wanted to tell for the longest time, going all the way back to my teenage years. I don’t want to say anything about it yet…but if it goes the way I envision it…I’ll probably retire from making pasticci after that.
There’s also a legend cycle that I want to write with Corey Arnold, of which I will also say very little…a lifetime of work there.
BB: What can opera learn from film?
Kyle: Charisma, Speed, Fun, Marketing.
Charisma: allowing singers more freedom to be themselves, rather than the expected constraints attached to their fach (voice type). The score is the score, and there’s only so much room for deviation, but it seems to me that so much time is spent in the shadows of other performers that we’re missing new lights. Risks must be taken, people must be free.
Every operatic great has been criticized by some coach (or several) somewhere, but what they’re criticized for is often what makes them a titan.
Also, more shaping the part to the singer will go a long way.
Speed: Cut, cut, cut. And cut those repeats.
Fun: Doing 1 and 2 will usually take care of this, but it’s imperative to remember: opera is not an educational outing, it’s visceral experience. If you demand that your audience reason their way through a show, you’re in the wrong business. I also recommend injecting humour wherever you can.
Marketing: pictures of singers (who aren’t international stars) will pique the interest of hard core aficionados, and possibly a portion of arts-interested females, but, if you want to get new and diverse audiences to come, you have to use your promotional materials to tell a story.
A) Tosca: see Puccini’s classic starring so and so, with so and so conducting, and with the so and so orchestra!
Pictures of Tosca, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi in concert attire = great for industry and aficionados.
B) Tosca! the tawdry tale of a beautiful singer who’s coveted by Scarpia, the boot, the most powerful man in the country who dares to overturn church and state to have her! If she refuses his advances, her lover, the brilliant painter, Cavaradossi, will suffer the price! Murder, passion, blasphemy, and betrayal stud this luxuriant opera filled with some of the world’s most powerful music!
A flowing red dress, a bloody knife clattering on the table, a revolution, and a portrait on fire = regular person
We need more B)
I also recommend trailers – though I understand how hard this is with union red tape and limited rehearsal times. Yet, the COC can afford this. And even when trailers are used, the world of theatre and live performance generally holds everything too close to the chest – show your best scenes! Don’t give away the ending (unless you can without it being obvious), but, don’t hold back. Have you ever said this about a movie trailer? “Now I know the whole movie!” But I bet that movie made hundreds of millions of dollars.
Of course, there are pitfalls to movies and television now – poor writing, rushed plots, a fear of lingering on a single shot lest fragile attention spans are extended beyond their meagre means. The truth is, when something is captivating, you can linger on it as long as you want. Make it captivating. Making it captivating means being judicious with sentimental or indulgent moments. I find every moment in opera is treated as though it’s sacred – honestly, most of it throw away material to get us to those scenes where we do want to linger.
BB: Do you have any teachers or mentors who shaped your values?
Kyle: Yes, now that I look back I can see hands at work that were invisible to me then. To be honest, I was probably a difficult prospect for mentorship, so I’m sure I scared a few away. However, Ron Cameron was one of my earliest in theatre school, and then I mentored directly under legendary Canadian producer Dale Barnes, and I’m in the market for some new ones to help me clamber up to the next level.
In a sense, my mentors didn’t shape my values – they (rightly) ascertained that I’m too stubborn for that kind of direct influence – but they did prevail on me through the effects they wrought: I was able to see in real time that their input courted success. Corey Arnold and I were working on getting ourselves under Joel Ivany’s wing, but his recent move has made that difficult.
I have many informal mentors – Daniel Kahneman, Nassim Taleb, and Sean Carroll don’t know it, but I’m dying to take them to lunch.
And David Mirvish or Perryn Leech: I’m available to soak up some wisdom!
In the meantime, I’ve been trying to do some mentoring of my own: I’m certainly not at the top, but it’s not too early for me to give back where I can.
Mightier Productions present Kyle McDonald’s Conan and the Stone of Kelior at Alumnae Theatre May 5-15.