Tapestry Opera have premiered Brian Current’s new site-specific work Gould’s Wall, an event that adds another layer to the association between the Royal Conservatory of Music and one of their most distinguished alumni Glenn Gould.
I like it more than I expected. We knew the visual component –especially Lauren Pearl climbing the wall of the RCM on a wire—would be electrifying.
For years now we’ve been watching various sorts of aerial performance, usually decorative eye candy rather than an expressive choice essential to the material being presented. What a wonderful novelty to watch this kind of movement when it’s inseparable from the story.
Some of the scenes work better than others. Liza Balkan’s libretto assembles the abstract materials for Brian Current’s score. Less story than meditation, the mature Glenn Gould onstage portrayed by Roger Honeywell is the avatar of quirky creativity resisting structure. It’s the cranky middle-aged genius rather than the young prodigy, although perhaps this is to be understood as Glenn’s immortal essence. Louise might be any of us striving to be better. Her climb is a suitable metaphor for the process of learning, complete with the fear of falling, the genuine sense of risk.
Speaking of which it’s fascinating to observe the audience reactions to Lauren’s apparent danger, as she seems to be on the verge of falling. The extreme narrowness of the audience and stage heighten the drama.
The show is a spectacle not unlike a circus –given that we do see aerial performances in a circus—even as Louise and Glenn revolt against that aspect of live performance.
It’s been a crazy year for Tapestry, two big shows delayed due to COVID, both hugely successful. Both RUR (opened in May) and now Gould’s Wall were years in the making. Artistic Director Michael Mori is on a winning streak, the most important creator of new opera in town. After Michael brought Nicky Lizée and Nicolas Billon together for RUR, carefully nurturing their collaboration over several years, now he’s done it again with Gould’s Wall, this time employing composer Brian Current and librettist Liza Balkan, with stage direction by Philip Akin.
We were given copies of the libretto, likely because the text is difficult to discern without projected titles; I wonder whether the option of printing the libretto was perhaps cheaper than figuring out how to project titles on the many surfaces of the venue. At times I wanted to look up at the performers, especially Lauren moving about on the wire.
Current’s score is mostly tonal and quite stunning. The last pages were especially compelling, the opera captured by its own big ideas. On the last pages of the score we’re hearing about the “futility of living by the advice of others”, about the “past and future on the vertical and horizontal plane”, or that “it’s all about the climb.” Current’s music matched the poetry of those last images from Balkan.
The score for an ensemble of 18 (seven winds, five string players and five pianos plus a percussionist) is often played on one or more piano, but punctuated by several larger eruptions from the ensemble at the base of the wall. The acoustic of the space must have been daunting (I understood fewer than half the words during the obligatory opening speeches), especially for the conductor. Tonight’s show was led tightly by Jennifer Tung.
Balkan’s libretto features some clever solutions to the challenges she faced, dramatizing abstractions and ideas. There are places in her libretto where she makes a kind of music out of short phrases, many only one word long.
I’m always wondering with new operas whether anyone might want to stage them again. Gould’s Wall may be site specific, but I think it would be worth doing somewhere else, if the right space were found. Glenn Gould is a well-known figure, purveyor of original ideas known far beyond this city. While I’ve joked that Toronto is Gould’s Burg that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones who would enjoy this opera.
The audience erupted with satisfaction, the piece not overly long, totally engaging and irresistible.
While I believe the run is sold out I’m hopeful that the run might be extended. Further info click here.