Singulières in Toronto

Singulières is a piece of theatre about single women in Québec, although the most remarkable things about the show are not what I expected.

Five women fill the stage of Crow’s Guloien Theatre with vibrant life, sometimes throbbing with joy, sometimes distressed and inconsolable. Some of what we see and hear is like documentary film, as though we’re watching Québec reality TV, courtesy of Théâtre Français de Toronto. They’re mostly speaking French but we have subtitles and lots of video.

There’s also a trigger warning, that the play tackles themes of emotional and sexual abuse.

The synopsis we were given in the program describes it this way:

Directed by one of Quebec’s fastest rising directors/auteurs, Alexandre Fecteau, Singulières is an unexpected, hilarious, and moving encounter with five “single ladies” from Quebec. This brilliantly imagined live-documentary, explodes with theatrical vitality, and follows the women in their 30s and 40s over two years, each of them living the single life with joy and purpose, all the while defying society’s expectations and redefining their own concepts of happiness, identity, and love.

As an Anglophone male decoding a mostly Francophone show with subtitles perhaps I’m the wrong person to lead you out of the labyrinth of imagery in Singulières, especially considering that I’m happy when I’m lost, not seeking to escape this kind of delicacy.

It’s an enjoyable evening of theatre, reminding me of some films I’ve seen about single life. Whether we’re speaking of Bridesmaids (2011) or How To Be Single (2016) to name two influential examples, the bar for what’s understood to be crude and disgusting keeps moving lower and lower with each decade, such that our ideas of what we understand as a comedy of manners keep getting revised with each change to what we understand by “normal” behavior. I mention those two because the women in Singulières are so much kinder and more sympathetic than much of what we see from Hollywood. While there is some horror reported from women on a couple of occasions, they have our sympathy, the pathos with which they’re shown at least makes them objects of a respectful gaze, avoiding the denigration or ridicule we sometimes see in films exploiting women.

The performances of the five women (Frédérique Bradet, Savina Figueras, Danielle Le Saux-Farmer, Nadia Girard Eddahia and Sophie Thibeault), taking us through so many brief snapshots of life, are energizing and inspiring.

For me the most exciting aspect of the presentation was the brilliant use of video. I was discussing Robert Lepage’s use of high resolution video in his 887 with Eric Woolfe, who used video in his own adaptation of Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness this past Tuesday. But in a few short years technology and mise en scene seem to have gone way beyond that in 2022, tonight’s show employing at least four cameras combining images onto three screens, sometimes including brilliant special effects.

Discussing possibilities of marriage with married friends while you’re apparently reduced to an ornament on top of a wedding cake?

The impossible illusion is on the screen above (Photo: Vincent Champoux)

Revisiting memories of your youth in close-ups?

A face seen inside the fishbowl?

Friends shown having drinks on an outdoor balcony?

We see it filmed onstage, see the illusory reality on the screen above (photo: Vincent Champoux)

We had both the theatricality of seeing how this was all assembled onstage combined with those remarkable illusions on one or more of the screens: a heady combination that’s unforgettable.

The team of David B. Ricard (Video Projections) and Billy Bergeron (Technical Director and Production Manager) brought this remarkable combination to us, taking advantage of the wonderfully pliable set designs of Ariane Sauvé.

Between Playwright Maxime Beauregard-Martin and Director Alexandre Fecteau, Singulières offers an interesting study in the culture of young women. Is Ontario’s culture different? I don’t know for sure. At times I felt I was observing a milieu that’s not like what we have here, partly because of language but partly because these women were all so nice, so likeable.

I wanted to join their party.

The play is mostly fun, and it’s never dull, presented at Crow’s Theatre until June 10th . You can find further information here.

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A Tafelmusik Tribute to Jeanne Lamon

Tonight I watched a Tafelmusik concert recorded in April, celebrating the life of Jeanne Lamon.

I knew the curated experience from Alison Mackay and Christina Mahler would be meaningful, and they exceeded expectation.

Curators Alison Mackay and Christina Mahler, accepting applause afterwards

R.H. Thomson narrated a kind of documentary of the life and times of Jeanne Lamon’s spirit: as embodied in Tafelmusik and their baroque music. Lamon’s life story is almost indistinguishable from the life story of the orchestra, given her role in its founding and ongoing life, their decades long relationship.

Narrator R.H. Thomson

But we were watching a kind of memorial service, testimonials and eulogies offered on the instruments of their orchestra and the voices of their choir.

Jeanne Lamon (photo: Sian Richards)

Their was a great deal of joyful energy but at times we saw sorrowful faces reflecting the passing of their leader, mentor and friend. We heard reflections on the extraordinary manner in which she led and shared leadership of the orchestra, with Ivars Taurins, with Bruno Weil, with Opera Atelier.

Ivars Taurins, conducting the Tafelmusik chamber choir

There were choral pieces led by Ivars Taurins, including some lovely solos from baritone Brett Polegato, although most of the music was orchestral music of the baroque, led by Julia Wedman’s enthusiastic presence on violin.

Julia Wedman, leading the orchestra

I’ve often resisted the virtual concert, seeking something authentic, however this concert satisfies completely: because of the emotions in play. It’s not just another concert. Film-maker Barbara Willis Sweete has accomplished something miraculous, the variety of camera angles feeling organic and unforced, the sound wonderfully alive.

I’m looking forward to watching it again. For further information.

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Lindsay Anne Black: canary in the mine

Whether your Kafkaesque fate is to wake up to the discovery you’ve turned into an insect, or merely that you have to hide inside your house because of coronaviruses and lockdowns, I think we’re ready for Eldritch Theatre’s current theatrical double bill adapting two of the 20th century’s most acclaimed novellas of the uncanny. Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness are their Two Weird Tales, created and performed by Eldritch Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Woolfe.

Eric Woolfe in Metamorphosis (photo: Adrianna Prosser)

Lindsay Anne Black the designer was also a source of inspiration. Indeed she did the work from her home in Stratford, where she’s largely housebound due to a diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS), interrupting her hugely successful career. This project was conceived as a way to bring her talents if not her actual presence back to the stage, allowing her to collaborate remotely while in isolation.

Zoom was often her pathway to work, and it was the method used for our interview. I had to find out more about MCS and about her virtual design work for Eldritch Theatre.


Barczablog Are you in Stratford?

Lindsay Anne: I am. It made sense to move back here when I had left my career in theatre already. And my ten year relationship broke up and I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to live in Toronto, by myself, to any degree of safety. I had been living in Parkdale for ten years.

But I had lived here in Stratford when I worked for the Festival in the early aughts, had loved living here. It made so much sense because I grew up in abject countryside. It melds the convenience of the things you can do in the city (I could walk to get groceries) but then I could also see more than three stars at night, and we had a pond in the backyard. It was the right balance when I lived here before and it absolutely made sense to come back. When it didn’t really matter where I lived anymore, it was a place I loved where I still had some friends. That’s the drawback of Stratford if you’re in the arts, sometime your friends are only here for fleeting moments.

Barczablog: I love Eric’s work, and I was so excited and interested to read about your part in these shows.

So the first thing I always ask is
“Would you say you’re more like you father or your mother?“

Lindsay Anne: I am absolutely more like my mother in terms of my day to day affect, my sense of humour, my interest in the arts and my work in the arts. Anyone who knows me would say that of me, but my father was the one who taught me carpentry, perhaps a bit too young with things like a lathe, it was something I learned and absolutely shaped the kind of work I wanted to go on to do as I was starting to work in the arts myself and figure all of that out. He also taught me some basic electronics.

He has a company that makes radio remote controls for heavy machinery and mining equipment and locomotives.

Barczablog: Sounds like something Eric could use! I’m picturing remote control creatures crawling the walls.

Lindsay Anne: That’ll be next.

Barczablog: Robots?

Lindsay Anne: Except I can’t solder anymore.

Barczablog: Forgive me for not knowing your resume and all that you’ve done. So have you done hands on construction of props and sets in Stratford…?

Lindsay Anne: I was primarily a scenic artist and a props builder for the first little while but I was designing at the same time, doing children’s shows, the way you do when you’re starting out as a designer. And I had picked up calls as theatre electrician for many years. And had done carpentry mostly as being a props builder, but also did a few gigs as an assistant carpenter for full shows. I worked primarily in Ontario, a few things in BC but all over Southern Ontario, and in the later years, largely in Toronto.

Barczablog: So I wonder if you could talk about Multiple Chemical Sensitivities: what it is, how it impacts you, your life and what you do.

Lindsay Anne: Sure… ES/MCS….The “ES” is “Environmental Sensitivities”, that’s the umbrella, and “MCS” or “Multiple Chemical Sensitivities”, is the condition that I have.

Aphasia is one of my symptoms. I have to find the right words.

Electromagnetic Sensitivities, (EMS) is also under the umbrella of ES. I only have minor issues with that.

I probably had a predisposition. That seems likely. It is heritable to some degree, we know that for sure.

I probably inherited “genetic damage”, for want of a better word, from my mother. My family is all visual artists back four generations on that side. So starting with my great-grandfather constant exposure to oil paints and solvents, and then the next generation did the same and my mother was a visual artist for most of the 80s. Watercolors: but they were also renovating the house, because they bought an old farmhouse and restored it back to what it might have looked like when it was new.

Barczablog: I was going to ask you if living in Stratford is cleaner than living in Toronto, and that you’d left Toronto because the air is polluted or something like that.

Lindsay Anne: No it’s more of a lateral move.

Barczablog: I suppose farmland can be bad. You’ve got all that pollen

Lindsay Anne: Well pollen isn’t an issue.

The difference between an allergy and this kind of sensitivity is an allergy is your body, your immune system mis-identifying something as a threat and over-reacting to it, to kill it and try to get rid of it. This (MCS for instance) is my body accurately identifying a toxin. It’s at a much lower level. Most people can tolerate those toxins at those low levels, and I cannot. And it’s just a layering on of poisons, which then affect systems.

It can be cognitive if it’s something like a petro-chemical, that’s one of the worst exposures I can have. It will affect my heart rate, my circulation, my cognitive abilities: aphasia, balance, I just lose all of my faculties, which is not great.

[This isn’t the first time in our conversation I’ve seen Lindsay Anne describe something painful or even horrific in its implications yet giggling as she says this…]

Barczablog: Does it come on suddenly with an attack? Do you feel it coming?

Lindsay Anne: It depends on the trigger and how acute an exposure it was. So for example, a couple of days ago a neighbour (I think) was filling his gas-powered lawn mower. I don’t know for sure that’s what happened, because I didn’t see anything. But I was suddenly choking on what was probably gasoline that had drifted over onto my property.

And it affected my equilibrium. I couldn’t see clearly. I couldn’t manage my hands to type to my friend who watches out for me when these things happen. I had to have a shower right away to get the scent out of my hair because if it lingers I’m just putting it in the house.

Because I lose balance that’s kind of dangerous. I have a system in place so I don’t break my neck.

[again the laughter]

But then there are others things that can happen: because that’s a small part of the answer. The other things that can happen are asthma, which is one of the few things they can diagnose separately, and I have rescue inhalers for that. I actually rely on coffee much more.

I can also get headaches, rashes, my heart rate regularly goes over 80, sometimes over 180, again depending on the trigger. And so the other triggers might be something like hand sanitizer, Lysol, paint, adhesives, out-gassing plastic, out-gassing MDF like laminate wood. Things like that. Anything that is emitting a VOC, a volatile organic compound or a petrochemical, which includes a lot of plastics. It can transfer to food through packaging. That’s my food insecurity issue right now. Not so much food, but what food absorbs. I don’t have any allergies but there’s very little I can eat right now.

Barczablog: And there are things in food you might not even know about until they make you unwell. I was reading today that they’re even using certain microplastics as fertilizer, which blew my mind, the thought one could be poisoned without knowing about it. All of us! (here’s the link )

Lindsay Anne: We are all having this same issue, to some degree. It’s just that I’m symptomatic.

Barczablog: You’re the canary in the mine, as it were.

Lindsay Anne: In the support groups for MCS, we will sometimes refer to ourselves as “canaries”.

Barczablog: How long were you suffering some kind of symptom(s) before you figured out what this is? You’re an expert now, and I’m impressed with how articulate you are. You must have been going through times when you wondered “what’s wrong with me?”

Lindsay Anne: Absolutely.

Barczablog: How long did that go on?

Lindsay Anne: Well I remember having symptoms as young as eight. Having grown up in the countryside…

[pauses, turns to look at what I’m looking at]

Barczablog: I was smiling at the cat.

Lindsay Anne: That’s Zigfried Dander Stardust

We lived adjacent to corn-fields. We were there in the 70s, they were still spraying. Now it’s impregnated in the seeds I believe. But I would have been playing in those fields. And my father had the shop on the property for the first little while, and I spent time at his shop after it moved, so there was always heavy machinery, and oil around him. There was renovating the house, the things you’re exposed to, while you live in the place of a renovation.

Plus it was the 70s and 80s, and there was Aqua Net…

[I had to look this up, it’s hair spray].

It’s a wonder anyone’s okay. The first symptom I remember was being unable to climb the stairs because of heart palpitations, and having to lie down halfway up the steps. I went through testing all the way through high school with no definitive answers because there was nothing mechanically wrong with my heart.

But the heart palpitations were frequent.

Then I went away to university, to Queen’s for theatre, and transferred to the university health services. My doctors there never asked any questions like “to what have you been exposed”: which would have solved everything. But instead they said “we don’t really know what it is but we’re going to refer you to psychiatry.”

And so I went through the psychiatry department, where they said “But maybe it’s panic disorder“.

Barczablog: Your body was signaling you, how did you handle it?

Lindsay Anne: The psychiatry department gave me drugs: for something they already knew I didn’t have. Because you’re so desperate for answers. I accepted it at that point and said “I guess I have panic disorder” said very calmly while she had heart palpitations. So I tried to take the things I had prescribed. But I ended up being harmed by the drugs, because I can’t metabolize them. Genetically I can’t metabolize most pharmaceuticals.

Barczablog So they were also a kind of poison.

Lindsay Anne The cure was also harming me. So for years I just didn’t have a doctor. And I just accepted: sometimes I have heart palpitations, sometimes I have asthma and rashes, sometimes I get very confused and sometimes I can’t remember anything. And to be honest, in that period I didn’t know how ill I was, because I never felt good, and there was nothing to compare it to. It was just this long accumulation of harm.

At some point I remember coming home with a burning rash, some paint spatter had landed on my arm, and I said to my partner at the time “I think I might be becoming allergic to paint”. And you know the panic? you suppress that because it was my primary job. Kept painting. Kept designing. Did all the going into poisonous places all the time, like Canadian Tire. I don’t know how anyone survives working in that place. But then in 2010 that was when the symptoms were so bad I couldn’t deny it anymore. I was having kidney pain. Whenever I opened certain types… It was Benjamin Moore Stays Clear Semigloss. And every time I would open it, specifically that can, I would be in crippling pain.

And that was 2010, and that was when I retired from painting and props. I kept designing with assistants and associates. And everyone was really great about trying to keep that going for me and make it accessible. But the process just doesn’t make it possible no matter what you do if you’re keeping the same process.

But in that time I did get a diagnosis. I went to the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital. It’s the only program we have like that in this part of Canada. It was a 16 month waiting list. And I was allowed only three visits: because the demand is so high. There are close to a million people in Canada diagnosed with MCS. And that doesn’t include people like me who didn’t realize how sick they were because they didn’t realize, they just felt that way.

So the diagnosis happened around 2011-2012. And I had to retire from designing by 2014, because even with everyone doing their best, I was still being harmed on a regular basis, just accidentally, inevitably. It was too much.

Barczablog: So let me ask, right now, you’ve done this show with Eldritch Theatre. I’ve seen the pictures, it looks like a great show. What would you like to be doing? Do you see yourself doing more like this?

Lindsay Anne: Not necessarily. It was a bit frustrating, and the only reason it was possible at all was because we adapted the process.

Eric Woolfe (photo: Adrianna Prosser)

We began work on this before the pandemic, working over Skype and FaceTime well before remote work became ubiquitous. When I had quit designing, it was partly because I was never able to see each colour or texture in person, or feel the hand of a fabric, and I had frequently been disappointed in the finished product. That had also felt like I was letting down my collaborators. Here, we decided that if Eric was the primary writer and I was contributing, and I was the primary designer but he was contributing—he was obviously doing the building of the puppets—if we built the show up together over the full process, it meant that I could still trust Eric was making the choices I would make once they got in the room without me. Working in tandem was the key. This wouldn’t be replicable in a standard process or timeline.

The other thing we did in terms of process that made this possible was normally you would build the puppet, and you would then build the costume to put on the puppet. That’s the logical thing to do. The way that we did things so that I could actually put my hands on something, was I built the costumes for the puppets, and sent them to Eric and he just retrofitted them with puppet.

[huge laugh]

Because obviously if he had sent me a fresh foam glue latex adhesive painty thing I wouldn’t be able to tolerate that, or even have it in my house. But this way it meant that I could contribute to the actual building of these puppets.

It is frustrating because it is backwards, and it is difficult, to be honest, building a period costume to that scale was beyond my existing skillset. Because as a costume builder, I’m more of a draper. I put things on a model, pin things until it looks right and then I stitch it down. I don’t really know how to draft patterns, and it’s that much harder when they’re only this big [hands 6 inches apart].

So that’s one of the reasons it wouldn’t necessarily work with a more standard kind of theatre piece or performing arts piece, there’s just so much I can’t do, and if I can’t be present for shopping or for fittings, it gets back into that trap of not being able to do any quality control or even accurately know what it is I’m seeing or contributing to.

I have already been engaged to … see writing is different than the designing. You don’t have to be present in the same way. Because you’re using actual language, as opposed to non—verbal language. I’m working on a piece for Prairie Theatre Exchange that is not about my experience but from my perspective. That was the pitch. It’s very much about some of the issues that I encounter in day to day life. But it’s also about the fact that (per the UN) we have to rewild an area the size of China, in order to not have the planet die in a horrible heat-death. How local bylaws push back against the rewilding of certain parts of land and consider native plants to be “weeds”.in some circumstances and how a citizen can make small steps to… you know, corridors for our native birds to help sustain not just their lives but ours. All of that is from my perspective.

Barczablog: Let me ask how your project with Eric was born. You said it started before the pandemic. What seems so interesting to me… When I see a project that begins with that famous first sentence, of The Metamorphosis that seems perfectly matched to what many of us were living with.

As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.

The alienation, the mysterious transformation, life turning into something unrecognizable and strange, a metamorphosis. You’ve been talking to Eric about this since before the pandemic. And then along comes this reason why everyone suddenly should be working this way (on zoom) from a distance, with masks on, concerned about things coming at us that will make us sick. It’s such a perfect parallel.

Eric Woolfe and his world (photo: Adrianna Prosser)

Lindsay Anne: Yes. We were chatting over Messenger and over a period of more than an hour, I think we had been improvising the story of a play and making each other laugh.

He disappeared for awhile, and so I thought he’d gone to have dinner or something, or become bored of me. I didn’t know. And he came back, and said “sorry I was looking up the grant deadline dates”. And it was too soon to write the thing we had been improvising but he had already had the adaptation in mind to do some day. He had done a version of it when he was very young, and he wanted to do a professional version of it now.

So Eric pitched it to me because he saw the crossover, the Venn Diagram of That Story, and My Life. And so we did start to flesh out how we could specifically help young people. We were planning to target at the time, high school students, how to build empathy for people who live with chronic illness and disability.

Because there’s so much we have in common. You know, your body changing, and your not understanding why and it impacts everything you do, impacts how people react to you, perhaps there are things that you used to do that you loved to do, and you’re feeling the loss because you shouldn’t really do those things that kids do anymore. There are so many ways we thought we were going to be presenting this almost educational piece to the general public, but also go into schools. And the conversation at first was very much about building empathy. And I don’t think it’s changed much now that it’s become this other thing informed by a global pandemic and the isolation everyone has felt in general and the fear and loss that everyone has had, loss of agency. All of those things are now a bit more universal but we all still need to work on the empathy. So the goal, in a way, has not changed: despite everything that has happened in the last few years.

Barczablog: Can you talk about the project? I’m dying to see i. I don’t know the Lovecraft story. There are two stories (“two weird tales”).

Lindsay Anne: The first half is Metamorphosis and that’s the one on which I worked, and the second half of the night is Mountains of Madness and that’s the Lovecraft. Melanie McNeill designed that one. And I was laughing when we did our tech run, it was the first time I’d see a run of our show and then their show, and realized that what we’re really presenting is the story of a man who lives with chronic illness, comes to terms with it, befriends the physical manifestation of his chronic illness and then goes off on an adventure through the mountains where he ultimately goes completely insane. I love this story. They go together in the most interesting way. They aren’t intended to be understood as the same story, two different plays that we’ve presented at the same time.

Lindsay Anne Black in Stratford, watching her opening night in Toronto

Barczablog: Could you talk about your influences, teachers?

Lindsay Anne: Yes.

Professor Natalie Rewa

Natalie Rewa was my professor in “Women in Theatre” which I believe I did for two years. She was influential for some of the conversations we had out of the class, even more so than in class, just for shaping how I engaged with all sorts of work I did later, not necessarily design.

Natalie said something that stayed with me and has served me in a lot of different capacities, that “meaning is found where repetition fails”. In the same way that Philip Glass gives you a pattern but changes it slightly or brings it back in an inverted way, that’s how you know where you are: to whatever degree, and to whatever degree that matters.

Natalie put to us that meaning is found where repetition fails. If you are a stage manager or house technician as I was for a time and you’re watching the same show, what is supposed to be the same show night after night: but it isn’t the same show. If you are a person who doesn’t like that kind of repetition the way to avoid the boredom is to look for the things that are different and ask why: and that’s always interesting. And if you are a designer working with pattern line colour texture sometimes the choice that best supports what you are presenting is to create a pattern and then break it. Or use a pattern that tricks your mind into thinking something is larger or smaller than it actually is. That’s the all-encompassing thing that she gave to us.

Craig Walker was a fantastic professor but I also designed for him. Some of the first designs I did were for Theatre Kingston, and plays he directed.

Fred Euringer was one of my playwrighting professors: and he was a huge influence.

Out of school the person who influenced my work the most was Karen P Hay , she had been the head scenic artist here [unconsciously pointing out the window because she’s in Stratford, and I’m not] at the Festival. And she quickly became one of my best friends as well I was hired by the Festival, but she really (indirectly) taught me how to run a department, how to manage a department. The way that shop ran was the ideal. It was the best place I’d ever worked. The Stratford Festival paint-shop was the best place I ever worked. But it was not because of the Festival at large, because if there was something going on in the greater company, stressful upsetting things perhaps, that didn’t enter the room. But: it also wasn’t a secret. There was the respect. If you asked she would explain what was happening. You could have a conversation about it. You were shielded if you needed to be shielded. And you were let in if you wanted to be let in. And that allowed everyone to engage with the work, with the company at the place where they were most comfortable. There was also a lot of frivolity and joking in the room, and the rule was you can be as silly as you want but: your brush has to be moving.

Barczablog: The work has to get done.

Lindsay Anne: The work has to get done. And so the way the tone was set I realized early on, was really important: and I tried to take that forward, wherever I was the head scenic artist. I don’t know that I was always successful. But those were some of the most important lessons.

Barczablog Did you migrate from one area to another, so did you start in props or design and then move…You kind of did everything eventually. But what did you do first?

Lindsay Anne: Well I was a dancer first.

[pause after picking my jaw up off the floor]

Barczablog: Wow, I wouldn’t have guessed that.

Lindsay Anne: No you wouldn’t. My mom was a visual artist, my whole family on that side, visual artists. Photographer, sculptor. I think I wanted to do something in the arts that wasn’t exactly what my family already did: so I wouldn’t be told how to do it, which in retrospect, wasn’t a great choice. That was how I felt at the time.

But I did start in dance, and was doing some paid gigs, was approaching semi-professional: but then had a car accident where I couldn’t walk for four months, and left for school to do theatre, so that was sort of the end of that. I couldn’t continue to dance at the level, the frequency of classes that I would need, to work, in order to stay at the level at which I had been, let alone improve. That was just dropped. That was the first career where I had to just forget about it and go on to do something else.

But then theatre seemed to be the thing I really wanted to do. But I went in thinking I was a dancer – director and it turned out I didn’t want to do either of those things anymore, so I sort of got streamed for design. And I had been making masks since Grade 10. My high school actually sent me to some Theatre Ontario events with Theatre Beyond Words, when I was in drama classes. I had been building masks and working with them. So that was how I got into puppets. And I did a lot of puppets in university. But then I also ended up painting shows, just because in a liberal arts theatre program you have to do some of everything. And then I was hired from school by Thousand Islands Playhouse as head scenic artist there.

Barczablog: So you were working in that area around Kingston / Thousand Islands?

Lindsay Anne: Just after school I was there, but after I moved to Toronto shortly afterwards. I’ve moved a lot but ultimately not very far away. So I guess paint was the first thing that I did professionally at a higher level but I was also doing electrics calls, carpentry calls and whatever else.

[again the laugh]

Barczablog: I was thinking: if you hadn’t had the car accident you might have still been dancing. I wonder if you would have had the same exposure to paints and so forth, if you kept dancing.

Lindsay Anne: There are a lot of what-ifs.

Barczablog: I’m looking at you now wondering: are you able to go for long walks or jog or exercise? [shake of the head] Does that even interest you?

Lindsay Anne: Hiking interests me, but I can’t walk around town. I’m now completely housebound, at this point. It’s not safe anymore to just walk up and down the street, for fun. And it’s not fun. Because I’ll always get nailed by barbecues and laundry perfume, bonfires and people washing their car and whatever else toxicity is going on in the neighbourhood.

Barczablog: There’s a rising awareness of this. We’re not allowed to wear cologne or scents in the theatre anymore. Everybody is becoming a little more sensitive. And I wasn’t joking, this canary in a mine metaphor is very powerful for me.

Lindsay Anne: I think we’re all suffering from the exposure in some way but I’m one of the people who is symptomatic and most other people are not. So I think the damage is probably being done, it’s just that the bodies aren’t reacting in the same way because perhaps the predisposition wasn’t there, and there wasn’t the same level of chronic and acute exposure that I have had. Certainly if anyone in the medical field had asked me “to what are you being exposed” I would have changed courses, I would be doing music, or something else that would do less harm.

It’s a big question because the research isn’t really being done. There isn’t any money in researching MCS because if we’re not able to metabolize pharmaceuticals then there’s nothing to sell to us. So there’s actually more money in the grand scheme in discrediting the existing research. Because that allows people to continue to manufacture and sell the goods that are doing the harm, to I think, everybody.

Barczablog Do you ever go out or do your friends come in?

Lindsay Anne People come here now. I used to have some safe spaces. But all of that is now different because in order to be open at all, they’ve mandated certain other types of cleaning products. Without any safe spaces out in the world I can’t even try a new place because I’ll be trapped. It’s too dangerous.

Barczablog: Do you do a lot of home delivery (to your place)?

Lindsay Anne: Exactly. My friend Mike McClennan, who is the composer for Eric’s show, does a lot of my grocery shopping. We used to go grocery shopping together and he’s the friend who best knows my parameters, in terms of what I do and don’t buy, should and shouldn’t buy and he knows what questions to ask if he’s making a substitution.

Barczablog: I saw you with your keyboard, you did music for a show.

Lindsay Anne: Yes. So my dayjob right now –because it’s something I can do from home—is mostly social media. I have mostly dog-trainers as clients actually. Which is hilarious because I’m obviously a cat person.

The other thing that I do is to assist Donna-Michelle St Bernard, who’s a wonderful playwright. She has been very supportive of my transition into doing music as a sideline. I’d like to be making music that would then be licensed to people who are making mini-documentaries, or even youtube videos, in the way DW uses music in their documentaries. DW is like the German TVO. Creating that kind of music where it can he put in a place and licensed and just be a side thing. Donna has been completely supportive and that includes that she gave me some of her poems to underscore. “Here’s a project, let’s do this thing together.”

Barczablog: There are so many things you’ve done. Dancer, musician, painter, designer…. Puppet maker, prop-maker. And you probably have a few more up you sleeve.

Lindsay Anne: They all inform each other. It’s all part of the same body of work.

Barczablog: You didn’t mention sleep issues. I’m wondering because that’s often relevant for artists.

Lindsay Anne: Yes, that’s when asthma issues tend to build up from the day. I have a rescue inhaler beside my bed. But I sleep now far more than I ever did before. During my theatre career, I was working extremely long hours, going from one theatre 8-5 to another from 9-11 and possibly doing an overnight… it’s the way of scenic art. It’s the way of trying to eke out a living in indie theatre. The joke used to be: “Due to scheduling issues, I will be taking my day off overnight.” I would not be as sick as I am now if I had ever slept, and let my body repair itself as best it could. Now, I’m almost narcoleptic at times. It’s one of the only tools I have.

It’s learned, and almost addicting in a way. But it’s incredibly damaging in the long term. I learned it in high school. I would leave early for the long commute with my step-father, who taught music at the middle school, do a full day of school, walk to the dance studio and teach until 11pm, and then drive home for an hour and begin my homework.

Barczablog That’s probably hard on the body, and the brain.

Lindsay Anne: Absolutely

Barczablog: The moment of your diagnosis: did you feel a sudden blast of validation? Suddenly it all made sense, for the first time. I am guessing your life changed.

Lindsay Anne: Yes and no, because it was also rather a slow burn in the sense that I had to find a lot of the information myself. It took a full year of research before I was able to get the referral from my GP to go to the Environmental Health Clinic at Women’s College Hospital. Then there was a 16-month wait to be seen by the specialist. So all-in, I spent almost three years researching, and by the time I got the official diagnosis it was more of a bureaucratic exercise. That’s an exaggeration to some degree, because obviously they also helped me by doing the expensive bloodwork a GP is not authorised to do, but to some degree it did feel like I was helping them with their research more than they were changing my life.

What I wrote on the giant application to the EHC—while I was still working, and having horrible daily reactions to triggers—was very different from what I reported to them in person in my first appointment. So much time had passed that I had already begun to isolate and remove all the known triggers from my day-to-day life. Interestingly, I actually felt worse for a while. That’s because the baseline shifted. Once I was removing the toxins from my daily life, I was having moments of feeling much better. Unfortunately, by comparison, that can make the reactions feel worse than before.

Barczablog: Total elapsed time since first symptoms? Was it over 10 years? perhaps 20 years? or more? oh wait you said you were 9 and now you’re over 40, so wow…

Lindsay Anne: Yes, I’ve likely had this my whole life.

Barczablog: I have one other question, which is more of an observation. My wife always asks me why i laugh at some things that are painful. Throughout our conversation, you were laughing and guffawing while reporting pains and horrors. Fascinating. You’re so stoic coping with challenges. Are you even aware of your laughter? I feel a kinship & connection even if I think you are so much bolder in what you have faced.

Lindsay Anne: In first-year university I earned the nickname “The Plant” because I am an active listener. Ha ha ha. Yes, I am aware of it, and further to one of your first questions, it is one of the ways in which I am most like my mother.

Barczablog: You mean, they’d put you in the audience for comedies? To laugh at shows that needed support? You were “the plant” like a claque.

Lindsay Anne I also try to find the humour in everything. It’s the only way forward. I was cracking jokes to the nurses while they stitched up a puncture wound in my leg; I don’t know any other way to negotiate the challenges of life. It’s a defence mechanism at times, of course. But it is also just part of my personal lexicon, I suppose. It can’t be helped.

Lindsay Anne Black’s design work is onstage with Eldritch Theatre at Red Sandcastle Theatre this week until June 5th. For tickets or further information click here

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Weirdness Told

The sign on the door of Red Sandcastle Theatre facing out onto Queen St portends mystery.

Or in other words, I don’t know what it means

Metamorphosis and At the Mountains of Madness. Kafka and Lovecraft.

A huge rabbit safely eluded my car as I drove past Crow’s Theatre, not far from Red Sandcastle. A Hummer brazenly forced its way into my lane almost causing an accident. The hottest May 31st ever was making everyone a bit crazy.

Thank goodness the theatre was so cool inside, for us to hear two weird tales from Eldritch Theatre, to listen to tale-teller Eric Woolfe.

Eric Woolfe in the world of Metamorphosis (photo: Adrianna Prosser)

I’ve been talking to designer Lindsay Anne Black, who collaborated with Eric on Metamorphosis. This version of the story seems very apt for 2022. I understand they were thinking of it before the pandemic, but it got that much deeper when the whole world seemed to understand Gregor Samsa.

Gregor was alienated because he woke up from a disturbed sleep to discover he had turned into a cockroach.

The rest of us were alienated because we woke up to a world beset by coronaviruses and the various strategies to avoid getting sick. Gregor hiding alone in his room was a lot like the rest of us.

As if that weren’t enough, on top of that, Lindsay Anne’s life experience parallels Kafka’s story, as she was isolated by her diagnosis of Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS), leaving her as housebound as Gregor.

So I had to see it.

I worry sometimes that I laugh too much at the theatre, unable to control my impulse to giggle. It’s funny that I seem to have that in common with Lindsay Anne, who seems to be afflicted with the same unquenchable desire to laugh. I had a great time, watching Eric’s deadpan presentation.

I don’t know how he keeps from laughing.

The second part of the program after intermission is in some ways a natural continuation. Where Gregor is a big bug confined to his bedroom, the Lovecraft tale is a lecture that presumes we are all professors listening in to a harrowing story of exploration, grotesque creatures and mystery. The Lovecraft tale is designed by Melanie McNeill.

Eric expands the reach of his lecture via the use of video. His tiny creations come leaping out of the screen, especially when they get closer to the camera.

Notice how the small newspaper to the left becomes huge on the screen. Ditto for the puppets.

In both parts of the evening Eric brings creatures to life while telling their stories, a huge solo performance including several feats of magic. I’m reminded of Georges Meliès, the cinematic pioneer of roughly 100 years ago, a brilliant story-teller who was also a famous magician. Eric works magic tricks into his tales as though he were a latter-day Meliès.

There’s a wonderful musical score for the Kafka from Michael McClennan, at times suggestive of the music of central Europe in Kafka’s time (as though he were channeling the neurotic dissonances of a Franz Schreker). The music in the second tale (by another composer, uncredited in the program) is more subdued but subtly underscores our descent into craziness. Director Mairi Babb is master of the revels, getting the most out of our solitary actor. They truly do make magic

Two Weird Tales continues until Sunday June 5th at the creepily uncanny Red Sandcastle Theatre 922 Queen St E, Toronto.

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RUR A Torrent of Ideas

Tapestry Opera and OCAD University have a new site-specific opera on display. I chose the verb carefully given that many think of the medium as something one hears, when its tradition has often been one of spectacle, design, the Deus ex Machina, huge expensive productions..

In many ways RUR A Torrent of Light can be understood as a traditional opera, for its determination to show you something unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard before. It succeeds admirably.

Background Alex Hetherington Krisztina Szabó and Sofi Gudiño Foreground Scott Belluz (photo: Elana Emer)

The text I read on Tapestry’s website is useful.

Inspired by Karel Čapek’s 1920’s science-fiction play Rossum’s Universal Robots (which introduced the word “robot” to the English language), composer Nicole Lizée’s and writer Nicolas Billon’s R.U.R. A Torrent of Light grapples with one of our generation’s most fascinating questions.

Čapek is a departure point, the “inspiration” rather than the text that has been adapted. But Capek isn’t Shakespeare, where people will notice whether or not the libretto observes the same plot. It doesn’t matter too because the word “robot” has so thoroughly been absorbed into our culture, whether in industry, warfare or science fiction, that people would likely be upset if the robots didn’t look like the robots we’ve come to know and love.

And while a science-fiction opera might sound like an oxymoron, a total contradiction given the usual perception of opera via winged helmets (a cliché that’s relevant to a tiny portion of opera), or possibly the dying divas of traviata or boheme (much closer to the mark), Tapestry have pulled it off.

Let me interrupt this review to mention how star-struck I was in the presence of the composer Nicole Lizée, or “Nicky” to those who get to know her. She’s not just a great Canadian composer, she’s one of the really great composers in the world, period. Adams, Reich, Glass, Part, Lizée. She is their peer, composing with her unique voice.

My chief fear tonight was that something would go wrong, but clearly director Michael Mori did it right. In the winter they were workshopping the piece, with its libretto by Nicholas Billon.

While we had surtitles, which I always find helpful no matter how well a cast enunciates, this was a very intelligible piece. The music was simple and elegant, staying out of the way of the vocal lines. Lizée has a distinctive sound that sometimes resembles pattern music but includes echoes of popular music twisted and distorted as though someone plays with the record: an old analog idea arguably out of step with the high-tech world in this story. But who cares, it’s a beautiful effect and I don’t care what it signifies, I like it.

Tonight we saw some things that are truly new, in the use of the voice, and other things adapted from elsewhere, such as the movement vocabulary of robots as we’ve already seen in cinema, especially Scott Belluz as Alex, a robot who is shown in the first part as he is beginning to learn, and then is stripped of most of his intelligence, a bit like the HAL 2000 in the film 2001: A space odyssey. It’s quite wonderfully pathetic.

The dance-movement element underscores much of the action, enhancing and expanding the scope of the work. Lately we’re not accustomed to opera companies in Toronto doing what they often did in the 19th century, broadening the discourse with movement and relying on dance to tell part of the story. One doesn’t know where to look, as there’s so much to take in and notice.

OCADU make a wonderful case for themselves in this space, even if its acoustic is a bit harsh & blatant. I spoke to two people who were overwhelmed by the sound (note: for those of you who like powerful experiences, this is a good thing!). I talked about how I used to stuff paper in my ears at rock concerts. This isn’t quite that loud although there are a couple of moments pushing me to the limit.

Billon and Lizée employ a great deal of repetition. It’s less like Philip Glass and more like Sam Shepherd, Laurie Anderson or perhaps liturgy. Repetition solemnizes a great deal of the action even as we stare at pure actions without human intelligence. There’s a great poignancy in that, and stunning beauty at times. Near the end of the first act we’re watching something resembling a ritual as Alex is accompanied by a cortege of robots, breath-taking in their simplicity.

I can’t do the complex visuals justice except to observe how rich the stage picture was. There were times I was reminded of 1950s science fiction, with lights flashing in obvious fakery that one excuses when one’s having a good time. But sometimes it’s cutting edge, CGI that swallows you up.

Alex Hetherington, Krisztina Szabó, and Sofi Gudiño in R.U.R. A Torrent of Light. (Photo: Elana Emer)

There are many beautiful moments, lots of great performances. Kristztina Szabo’s Helena is very powerful, especially in the second act, her voice amplified in the relatively tiny space. Lizée gives her some remarkable lines, a very original approach to vocalism. Keith Klassen, subbing for an ailing Peter Barrett in the role of Dom, sounded good, so believable he rarely seemed to be a substitute. Danielle Buonaiuto as the machine Helena was wonderful vocally, offering some of the same physical quirks we saw from Belluz.

Conductor Gregory Oh leading a chamber orchestra delivered a totally coherent performance of the complex score that included personnel widely separated on either side of the stage, chorus members singing and sometimes playing hand-held instruments. I’ve heard that Lizée’s scores can be very challenging, as she will write out effects that one can sometimes make with a joystick on a keyboard: but she makes the ensemble play the effect. I wonder if that was the case tonight? It’s beautiful music that rarely distracts from the story, although we’re not really in a realistic / naturalistic realm but instead something more towards the symbolist if not expressionist. Perhaps we need a new descriptor for this style.

The coda, which is like an epilogue is especially beautiful, as the dance – movement element finally takes over, as though the id, or the machine-equivalent were answering the ego.

I’ll see it again if I can swing a ticket.

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

More info about RUR can be found here.

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Toronto Choral Society – Mozart Requiem

I had my first experience with Toronto Choral Society last night at Eastminster United Church on Danforth.

Holly Chaplin’s page on Facebook (where my review of the weekend opera was shared) told me that she and Joshua Clemenger (also in Mother of Us All) would be singing. I was at least as fascinated by the audience and the experience, as I was by the performance of Mozart’s Requiem.

Toronto Choral Society remind me a bit of Toronto City Opera, another organization that combines volunteers with professionals. I think it was their first time back in a live venue (rather than virtual) since the pandemic, so there was a great deal of excitement.

Conductor Geoffrey Butler

Last night we watched Geoffrey Butler conducting accompanist William O’Meara, and soloists Holly Chaplin (soprano), Jennifer Elisabetta Centrone (alto), Joshua Clemenger (tenor) and Dylan Wright (bass): and the choir, with over 90 names listed in the program.

While the soloists bring a professional polish to the program, the choir are not far off, pushed by Butler’s energetic tempi (which I really liked), and O’Meara’s pristine playing.

It’s not what I’m used to.

A woman sitting in front of me video-taped the soloists during their quartets, something we’re usually not permitted to do. I watched her holding up her phone, only slightly distracted from the wonders of the performance. It’s not the first time I’ve wished classical music producers would permit social media, although I understand there are copyright concerns, and maybe singers dislike the sudden presence of a camera, especially if it flashes. But it felt so natural and spontaneous. I think this is truer to the spirit of Mozart’s time than the usual strictness we impose upon modern audiences.

A gent sitting near me had a score. I heard someone ask him about following. Indeed I heard him gently singing along a few times. And why not? I know some people would balk at the idea but it seems so honest. I heard him mention something in conversation –forgive me if I sound like an eaves-dropper – but as I was sitting there eaves-dropping on Mozart and 100 performers I couldn’t help hearing him say something about his voice changing. The lady he spoke to giggled (perhaps thinking of what boys endure in puberty), but it’s no laughing matter. I don’t have the high notes I used to have. A singing voice is just another of our athletic capabilities. We don’t usually run as fast or as far at 75 as we could run at 25, and similar changes come into play for vocal cords and our lung capacities as we age.

There was a chorus member who entered early with a cane indicating possible blindness. When she sang it was without any musical score, apparently from memory, which in some ways was the coolest thing I saw all night. This seems to be a choir that believes in inclusiveness.

I have heard that singing or dancing help longevity. If you google you can find several mentions of the idea, such as this one. I love to sing, sometimes with my 100-year old mom. She is still all there mentally, never more so than when she’s singing an old Hungarian song for me, as I marvel at her memory.

I must include the webpage where you can join the choir, something I was contemplating as I listened last night. There’s a small fee but much of what they do is supported by volunteers.

Photo: Heather Pollock
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Kafka’s Metamorphosis
& Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness

Two Weird Tales is a theatrical double bill adapting two of the 20th century’s most acclaimed novellas of the uncanny: Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and HP Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. Both plays are created and performed by Eldritch Theatre’s artistic director, Eric Woolfe, using a unique blend of puppetry, parlour magic, and storytelling. The novellas were chosen as they exist at the crossroads where high art intersects low trash, expressionism meets pulp excess and allegory smacks head long into nightmarish horror, and yet arrive at this meeting place from opposite directions. Directed by Mairi Babb (Space Opera Zero) and be performed in Eldritch’s newly refurbished home at Red Sandcastle Theatre, in the heart of the Independent Theatre District in Leslieville.

The Metamorphosis is Franz Kafka’s famous tale about a travelling salesman who wakes up one morning to discover he’s transformed into a gigantic insect, and his resulting isolation and decline in the months to follow. This stage version has been created with celebrated designer, Lindsay Anne Black, who retired from theatre in 2014 as a result of her diagnoses of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity causing her to become largely housebound. This project was conceived as way to bring her talents back to the stage, by allowing her to collaborate remotely while in isolation.

HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, chronicles a doomed Antarctic expedition’s discovery of an ancient, alien civilization rife with cosmic horrors, and is considered by many to be that controversial author’s greatest work. The adaptation was created in collaboration with Eldritch Theatre’s resident designer, Melanie McNeill, during the first Covid19 lockdown.

May 25th to June 5th, 2022
at the creepily uncanny Red Sandcastle Theatre
922 Queen St E, Toronto

$15 Arts Worker/$25 Advance/$35 Door/PWYC Sundays
Reserve your seat at:

Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Mind-boggling Mother of Us All

It was excellent, this Canadian premiere of The Mother of Us All, Virgil Thomson’s setting of Gertrude Stein’s poetic libretto. The opera tells us about Susan B Anthony starring Meghan Lindsay in the title role, presented under the auspices of Voicebox—Opera in Concert. The best was saved for last, to conclude their cycle of three operas about three extraordinary women. I may be accused of arrogance to say that, having missed one of the three, but the one I missed is Vanessa, a well-known work.

[I have now heard of a student production at Wilfrid Laurier U in the 1980s, which makes this the Canadian professional premiere. I’m inserting this three days after the fact.]

I went to the performance out of curiosity, not expecting to be blown away by the most fulfilling and entertaining piece I’ve seen in a long time.

Left to right, the opera’s subject, composer and librettist

I must properly credit Kate Carver, Music Director and Robert Cooper, Chorus Director, who between them pulled together a performance of crispness and clarity, giving us a delicious experience of this unfamiliar score. One couldn’t ask for a better introduction. I was pleased to join with the enthusiastic audience welcoming a brilliant performance of this challenging work.

Let me add that I remember Opera in Concert as it began under Stuart Hamilton, a bunch of singers holding scores with minimal staging. Fast forward to today when we watched the entire cast singing from memory in Guillermo Silva-Marin’s poetic staging. Today they gave us theatre with very little missing, leading me to wonder whether it’s almost time to stop calling them “Opera in Concert”.

I had a bit of insight into why this opera hasn’t yet become part of the standard repertoire, when I overheard a composer dissing the score. I think it’s perhaps because Virgil Thomson resisted the temptation to do what successful composers usually do. Thomson chose not to foreground his music, not to show off his compositional virtuosity. How amazing that Thomson did not merely seek to impress us, and instead did the unexpected by purposefully staying out of the way, permitting the piece to work as a piece of theatre. That’s the way opera is supposed to work right? But tell that to the composer who didn’t like it. Thomson’s music never obstructs the complex libretto: which is far easier said than done. Yes the music is deceptively simple, employing a style reminiscent of America in the old days, between its invocation of hymns, spirituals, marches, or old melodies, totally diatonic. But wow there is so much going on in the text that we’d never penetrate its complexities if the musical score worked in the usual ways, meaning a composer being a typical composer. I will resist the impulse to illustrate in detail partly because I don’t have a score handy and partly because I can’t let my long-winded nerdy side triumph over my desire to make this a readable review.

But let me simply offer a bravo to Virgil for his good job even if it’s largely unappreciated. This is a work that deserves to be heard more often, a piece of theatre and never mind if the conservatory doesn’t appreciate it. Perhaps audiences have caught up to what Stein was attempting.

You may recall that I ranted a bit concerning the song cycle sung by Barbara Hannigan at the Toronto Symphony a few days go because I only caught ¼ of her English words, and I was upset that Roy Thomson Hall don’t yet project titles to help us follow along. Operas, like song cycles, are a multi-media art-form, a hybrid combining music and words. The TSO shouldn’t expect us to bury our heads in the program when we need to also watch the deportment of the performer. Thankfully Voicebox gave us a brilliant sets of titles, some of the best I’ve ever seen. If a cast were to do a straight read-through of Stein’s words, you’d hear something of dizzying playfulness, the libretto often featuring strange contradictions or a mass of repeated phrases that are almost impossible to follow. Our titles today helped us sift through the repetitions while also giving the text a bit more logic than what you hear in the libretto as written.

I think the key to this opera is the way Stein problematizes discourse. How better to show us a suffragette revolutionary in an anti-feminist time, than to undercut her words, with the words of the seemingly crazy people surrounding her. She is presented as a person who seems to know who she is and what she wants, while surrounded by people who are conflicted and confused. Almost everyone else sounds mixed up, tangled in a web of words and contradictions.

Meghan Lindsay

Meghan Lindsay was remarkable as Susan B Anthony, committing a huge role to memory even though she gave only the single performance. I dearly hope she gets to sing it again, not just because of the work she put in but also because of the excellence of her portrayal. For the most part she is strong as steel but at times she wavers, shows vulnerability, the ambivalence brought on by facing and opposing the normal social consensus of her entire society. Lindsay’s voice continues to fascinate me, as I’ve said several times. She can sing just about anything.

Susan B Anthony is surrounded by a huge cast of characters, both fictional and historical. Daniel Webster opposes Anthony, heroically sung by baritone Dion Mazerolle, who gets one of the best solo moments of the opera, making the most of it vocally and dramatically. Evan Korbut brought his lovely sound to the role of Virgil Thomson; yes you read that right, the composer self-reflexively inserts himself (a bit the way Alfred Hitchcock might) into his own creation. Across the stage, his librettist Gertrude Stein also puts in a mannish appearance, played intensely by Daniela Agostino (a very different sort of trouser role against her usual type).

Holly Chaplin played the Angel who haunts Daniel and the rest of us for that matter, solid vocally and quite magical floating about the stage. Joshua Clemenger was a lovely presence both for his comical delivery and his voice –sometimes very operatic, sometimes lighter—playing the part of Jo the Loiterer. I wish I had understood (perhaps from costuming?) that he is a soldier and veteran, perhaps insistent on his passive role as a loiterer because of something like shell-shock or PTSD. Clemenger was the most sympathetic male on the stage, both as an ally of the suffragettes and as a lovable prototype for the modern man.

Madeline Cooper, playing Susan B Anthony’s friend and confidante Anne was very sympathetic, in some respects the key to the whole work. While almost everyone else (other than Susan B and her close friend) seems mad in some respect, either for their inability to say things plainly or in Jo’s quirky ideas, Anne is that one who simply listens, the one to whom Susan comes when she’s upset, her biggest supporter. It’s more than just the quiet excellence of the portrayal elevating the performance, as she’s a bit like Susan’s shrink, the one sane person listening and validating her, reminding me of Horatio (Hamlet) or Benvolio (Romeo & Juliet). Cooper underplayed in the midst of all the cartoonish craziness, becoming in some respects the kind beating heart underlying or mirroring Susan’s strident activism.

Let me conclude by underlining the importance of this production as far as the mandate and purpose of Voicebox-Opera in Concert. Today we saw the Canadian premiere of a work long overdue for presentation. Their stage is a laboratory, helping us explore and understand the possibilities of opera.

And when I look at the online program notes that I have been using (having misplaced my printed program), I didn’t see much mention of Guillermo Silva-Marin who directed this insightful production (although I’m sure he’s credited in the printed program I lost). Both as their curator & programmer (who selected the operas for the season) as the man who choreographed the movements of the huge cast onstage, and directed the interactions of the singers, I must say I’m grateful.

Guillermo Silva-Marin, General Director of Voicebox – Opera in Concert
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Closing show preview of what’s to come  

My mantra is “I’m a lucky guy”.  It’s admittedly designed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, useful because you notice the good things happening to you if you begin with the belief in their likelihood, the presupposition of good fortune and gratitude.

So there we were at the last performance of the Canadian Opera Company spring season this afternoon, including an unexpected cast change for this afternoon’s Magic Flute, that in a way resembled a bit of a preview of another show altogether.


Soprano Caroline Wettergreen who had played the Queen of the Night when I saw the show back on May 11th was not able to sing her arias or the final ensemble in today’s performance.  Perhaps she had COVID?  They didn’t say.

Perhaps bad luck for Wettergreen could be good luck for the rest of us: as she walked through the role, miming the part in costume, while Teiya Kasahara 笠原貞野 sang the role for us. 

And wow did they ever sing the role.  The Queen of the Night is like a cameo, the small part that everyone remembers best because her music is so phenomenal, unique and challenging.

Flashback to October 2019 when Amplified Opera debuted, including an earlier incarnation of a work created by Teiya, namely The Queen in Me.  When I wrote about it on that occasion, I observed that…
the Queen is that badass character in The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night, soldiering against one of the most misogynistic storylines going. Sometimes the Queen sings what’s written and sometimes she bursts out of the strait-jacket of the character, both in the mechanical sense of her costume and the subtler implications of the role written for her. She is a perfect mechanism for the exploration of the mad world of opera, the many females co-opted into rituals celebrating female subjugation: except the Queen won’t do it anymore.  She seems to be on a quest, exploring different roles as ways to articulate the feminist position, sometimes working within a role, sometimes fighting or subverting it. I can recall previous satirical pieces in different decades that were knowing nods to the audience, while more or less keeping the artform & its creators (this time Mozart & Schikaneder) on their pedestals. This time it’s more in keeping with the mission of Amplified Opera, as a site for activism and shit-disturbing, largely in fun yet with an underlying seriousness to its mission. They appear to be fearless.

For 2022, with Amplified Opera now in residency with the COC as “Disruptor-in-Residence”, we anticipate the next version of The Queen in Me, coming June 2nd , 3rd and 4th  to the Canadian Opera Company Theatre, co-produced by Amplified Opera, Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Gargantua, co-directed by Andrea Donaldson and Aria Umezawa. 

I find that epithet “disruptor-in-residence” so intriguing. I think it’s meant to suggest that these disruptors will up-end our assumptions, change how we see and feel, to enable us to experience the old works in new ways.

Teiya’s Queen in Me goes far beyond what Mozart wrote, a critique framed around this edgy and disruptive figure.

Of course the Queen of the Night was already a disruptor even before Teiya’s exploration of subtexts enlarged into a whole new piece of drama, a prototype and a role model.

But let me just say that today it was thrilling to hear that voice again, singing the two arias plus the ensemble at the end of the opera.

If you want to read more and/or to obtain tickets click here

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Gimeno + Hannigan = Ear-candy

It was a splendid formula. Far be it from me to propose something as reductive as math in the headline, only that the concert is titled “Gimeno + Hannigan”, which is certainly a quick overview. Between them Gustavo Gimeno and Barbara Hannigan gave the audience a lot to cheer for.

At this point in time when we’re rediscovering live music everything is new. We’re still in the early days of Gimeno’s tenure as the new Music Director of the Toronto Symphony. How magical to hear two world premieres. How marvelous when the oldest music on the program was from the 20th Century:

Julia Mermelstein: in moments, into bloom: Celebration Prelude (world premiere #1)
Igor Stravinsky: Scherzo fantastique, Op. 3
Zosha Di Castri / test by Tash Aw: In the Half-light (world premiere #2)
Igor Stravinsky: The Firebird (original 1910 complete ballet)

While the hall appeared to be less than half full, they more than made up for it in response to the performances, including the nerd behind me explaining every piece to his companion. While it’s frustrating when talk interrupts music, I had to like their enthusiasm for the TSO, for Stravinsky and for Hannigan.

The three composers gave us three contrasting styles of music.

The song cycle sung by Hannigan was a bit frustrating for me, although you might well say it’s my own fault. I read the poetry over twice, possibly three times, then sat listening to the cycle. The first sung words I was able to discern came in a pianissimo passage halfway through the first song, when Hannigan sings “you give me food. I offer a dress”. At this moment the orchestra allowed her to sing unencumbered. Should her words be intelligible? I’m not sure. I encounter rock music without being able to understand lyrics, forced to look them up online. When I listened to Mahler’s Song of the Earth for the first few times I always followed along with the text. So perhaps I was being unreasonable in wanting to hear it without the printed text in front of me. Even so, I think it’s long overdue for Roy Thomson Hall to project text onto readable surfaces, such as the concrete above the orchestra (as I remarked in a review I wrote when Hannigan sang here in 2019) I must emphasize that it’s a stunning piece of music whether one hears every word clearly or not. I knew from reading the text what the cycle was about (“subjects of displacement, belonging and home“), but still, only picked up roughly ¼ of the words. And maybe the orchestra was playing too loudly; or am I invoking a quaint idea, that the soloist should be heard clearly? I would rather watch the performers, rather than having to bury my head in a program, especially when I don’t know beforehand whether the house-lights will be on or not; I think they were on….but by then it was too late, as I was using the virtual program I’d received on my iPhone, which they tell us to shut off at the start of the concert. A few times Hannigan is soaring to the top of her range, sometimes making sounds that are powerful, sometimes vulnerable to the point of seeming broken, sometimes softly lyrical. She’s a brilliant performer, a fabulous actor, so no wonder I chose to watch her. It’s 20 minutes of magic, both from the soloist and the orchestra that sometimes growls brass clusters, slides around between pitches on glissandi, always keeping our interest. For me the affect spoke more to alienation and dislocation than a joyful adventure. I wish I could hear it again.

Mermelstein’s brief fanfare in celebration of the Toronto Symphony’s centennial was a lovely three minutes of shifting colours, as though suggesting the growth of Canadian music created for the TSO. I think the metaphor worked, as the music did seem completely organic, even alive in what we heard.

The other composer we encountered was once a touchstone for “new music” even if the two pieces on tonight’s program were the most conventional of his works. One might even be understood as a popular classic, at least as far as the audience’s recognition of some of its themes. I speak of the Firebird, presented in a slightly different version than usual, but still offering the audience huge thrills. The ovation was genuine.

Gimeno has shown me a tendency to take the TSO on thrill-rides, tonight being no exception. Soloists in every section had great opportunities to show us their stuff, but often in the context of faster than usual tempi. It’s wonderful to see the rapport between them, the trust they place in his hands and the response they make to his baton.

TSO Music Director Gustavo Gimeno

You can catch this concert on the night of Saturday May 21st when the TSO repeat this program at Roy Thomson Hall.

Igor Stravinsky conducting his own music
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