Best of 2022

I enjoy recalling the best moments of the past 12 months.

There’s a fork in the road, however. One pathway leads towards that which is truly “new”, while the other relies on what we’ve seen before. Need I mention, the unknown work lies on a risky path that is less likely to generate big box office returns, even if we’re not also reeling from the aftermath of a pandemic whose impact is still present in the bottom line for arts companies and especially their artists. If there were ever a year when one could justify “selling out” (whatever that means to you), it would be over the past two years, particularly since CERB ended. As someone who had a dayjob for decades, I’m the last person who would judge, but I must salute those who choose to believe in the appetite of the audiences for something fresh and daring, who have chosen the road less traveled. There are many good performances that I’m skipping over in this summary, as my focus is mostly on the decision-making of the folks in charge.

The company and artistic director responsible for the two boldest shows of the year: Tapestry Opera led by Michael Hidetoshi Mori.

Michael Hidetoshi Mori (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Their two big successes in 2022 strike me as the greatest achievements that this company has ever had. By what criteria? not money or box office, but rather the proper melding of text to music and spectacle, two daring examples of what opera can be at a time when many artists and companies were scurrying for cover. I’m speaking of RUR A Torrent of Light and Gould’s Wall, two pieces that had been in development for a long time. RUR, composed by Nicole Lizée, libretto by Nicholas Billon, was for me the most exciting new work, the best opera I’ve seen anywhere in a long time.

Krisztina Szabó in R.U.R. A Torrent of Light. (Photo: Elana Emer)

While RUR was more visually flamboyant in its creative choices (between its use of new technology to enhance the visual impact in the OCADU space and its remarkable physical movement vocabulary) than Gould’s Wall, the single most memorable thing about the latter is Lauren Pearl’s eye-catching aerial work: speaking of risk.

There were so many performers one could cite in either piece, but I’ll simply mention conductor Gregory Oh for RUR, somehow co-ordinating performers at two ends of the performance space.

If it were merely a question of how many new shows, my assessment above would be unfair, given that my favorite theatre programming in Toronto right now is found at Crow’s Theatre, and thank you Chris Abraham.

Crow’s Theatre Artistic Director Chris Abraham

Three of their 2022 shows would be in my top ten: if I had such a thing. Full disclosure, I don’t believe in competitions, finding awards very problematic, let alone top ten lists. That being said, I can’t deny that I was blown away by Uncle Vanya (in a new translation), Bengal Tiger, Red Velvet , and to continue the winning streak, Gay for Pay. Last year (the little bit of a year that we were vouchsafed in 2021) MixTape and Cliff Cardinal’s radical re-frame of As You Like It were two of my favorites. Obviously Mr. Abraham and the Crow’s team are doing something right. We had planned to go see his Cyrano in Niagara on the Lake (with tickets to the closing show) but COVID prevented us; thankfully Shaw were good enough to refund us the tickets. In the not too distant future Abraham will also be directing Much Ado about Nothing in Stratford.

The other favorite show I must mention is Talk is Free Theatre’s Sweeney Todd, brilliantly conceived in an unexpected space as a thrilling immersive experience. I keep an eye on what TIFT are producing (usually up in Barrie), a wonderful team led by their Producer and CEO Arkady Spivak, and Michael Torontow who is Artistic Director.

Arkady is the one on the right, in a pre-pandemic photo in Barrie.

Sometimes what’s new means it’s old but new to us. That’s the way ARC ensemble has been changing the musical landscape, with a series of recordings and performances from their “Music in Exile” series, curated by their artistic director Simon Wynberg. ARC Ensemble are Artists of The Royal Conservatory, their research activities enhancing their teaching & performing here in Toronto at the RCM, unearthing the music of composers we should have known about, but who have been buried or obscured by the political landscape of the 20th century. Every new discovery they share is like a new world opening up.

Similarly, we get a new angle on the old through the activities of Gustavo Gimeno, the Toronto Symphony’s conductor and Artistic Director. Yes he’s an exciting conductor as we’ve seen from his work with the TSO.

Gustavo Gimeno, Toronto Symphony’s conductor and Artistic Director

But the programming choices they’re making this season are also boldly original, as for instance in a concert we heard in October.

We heard several outstanding performances. My favorite was Yuja Wang playing Magnus Lindberg’s piano concerto #3, although Yuja would find a way to turn anything she plays into a virtuoso vehicle. When I recall the cancellation of her April 2020 TSO concert as one of the first big disappointments in the pandemic, her return is an omen of restoration.

Yuja Wang playing with the Toronto Symphony (photo: Gerard Richardson)

There was lots to enjoy during 2022. I’m a huge fan of Eric Woolfe whose deadpan style with magic and puppets alternates between terror and hilarity with Eldritch Theatre (both TWO WEIRD TALES in spring and Requiem for a Gumshoe in autumn). Gay for Pay was insanely funny but also a lesson about sexual & gender politics, following up on a year that included Sky Gilbert’s hair-raising Titus. And Tanya’s Secret, a queer-trans Onegin, has me reconsidering opera, as the ideal medium to explore the performative aspects of gender, sexuality, identity and life itself.

It might seem simplistic for me to speak of a changing of the guard, except there seems to be so much going on in cities other than Toronto. The pandemic underlined this, brutally winnowing the city of companies and artists, while discouraging attendance. Elisa Citterio is gone from Tafelmusik, and the creative life of Jeanne Lamon and her contribution was celebrated in a beautiful concert. Joel Ivany may still be with Against the Grain but he has apparently moved his life to Alberta where his life-partner and fellow AtG creative force Miriam Khalil is now teaching at a university. We were again offered Messiah/Complex online, and they’re bringing in a British co-pro of Bluebeard’s Castle in a new English translation, yet even so it still feels as though AtG are looking westwards. Messiah/Complex was one of the most truly Canadian projects ever made, embracing multiple languages, cultures, and yes, all parts of our country. It’s long overdue that our so-called national companies break out of Toronto and/or Montreal.

Kyle McDonald

But there are new artists and companies. The first that comes to mind is Kyle McDonald and Mightier Productions, a company that makes content, including opera and film.

McDonald sings, writes libretti, directs and above all, is the entrepreneurial energy promoting his various projects. This past year we saw two original works. First came The Lion Heart, a serious new rescue-opera with music from Corey Arnold, another over-achiever who also sang. Where Kyle is a bass (also busy in the voice-over field) Corey is a tenor. In May we saw Conan and the Stone of Kelior, a campy pasticcio opera that was unlike anything I’ve seen.

I’ll be watching to see what Kyle and Corey are up to in 2023 and beyond.

Toronto is an expensive place, increasingly gentrified, so we shouldn’t be surprised if theatre companies and theatre artists are forced to look elsewhere, unable to afford this place. It’s a funny time. Some people say the pandemic is over, and they look at me as though I’m crazy when I continue to wear a mask. I’m grateful for the companies such as Tarragon or Red Sandcastle theatre that insist on masks for everyone. Crow’s Theatre offers their performances Tuesday & Sunday to a mask-only audience: when I am happy to attend.

The Paris Opera (led by Alexander Neef) production of Enescu’s Oedipe (directed by Wajdi Mouawad) reminds me of the Canadian Opera Company’s recent production of Abduction from the Seraglio.

Playwright & director Wajdi Mouawad

Alexander Neef has now gone from the COC to be General Director of the Paris Opera, once again calling upon Wajdi Mouawad (who directed that COC production , now director of Théâtre national de la Colline since 2016) for Oedipe. If you want to see that Oedipe, you can find it here.

Meanwhile, in Toronto the Canadian Opera Company are still in business while taking the path of financial prudence, led by their new General Director Perryn Leech.

COC General Director Perryn Leech

Of the six operas this season, five are revivals, while the sixth is a new production of Verdi’s Macbeth. In the next few weeks we’ll be seeing revivals of Egoyan’s Salome and Guth’s Nozze di Figaro. It’s almost as though we’re paying off the expenses for those previous goodtime adventures, now that we have a new more sensible (rather than extravagant) general director, watching familiar productions that are like old pictures in our COC family album. It doesn’t seem fair to the one who inherits the job of cleaning up the previous guy’s debt, to right the ship. While this is not the daring bold path taken by Tapestry or Crow’s let alone the Paris Opera, in all fairness they are doing a good job keeping the COC afloat. The COC Orchestra and chorus continue to be the backbone of every show, holding things together. Soon we’ll hear the announcement of what they will do next season.

As you may already have noticed, I missed a lot of live performances, extra careful about infection as I continued to take meals to my mother 2-3 times per week. She’s still going strong at 101. While cataracts make it very hard for her to see, forcing her to write in block capitals using a sharpie, and while her hearing isn’t great either, she’s completely lucid. The following rhyme was written at around 2 am in December on a cold night.

She wrote :
THE BRANCHES AND THE WIND ARE FENCING
ICE AND SNOWFALL ARE ROMANCING
TWO COLDEST MONTHS ARE ADVANCING
FIGURE SKATERS KEEP ON DANCING
IT WILL DO NO HARM
IF YOU STAY INSIDE WARM

In the interest of staying safe, I’ve chosen venues carefully, and as a result spent much of the past year reading books or watching shows & films online.

And while Sam our old rescue passed away back in April, in January 2023 we welcome a new rescue into our lives, Barkley.

Barkley, a nine-month old rescue

Happy New Year..!

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