The Palace Papers: forbidden pleasures with Tina Brown

I find myself conflicted.

I am not a royalist but I do admire Elizabeth.

Tina Brown’s book The Palace Papers is brilliantly timed.

Don Lemon mentioned her book during CNN’s coverage of Elizabeth’s passing and Charles ascension to the throne. While it wouldn’t appear opportunistic on the surface, come to think of it a book that appeared in 2022 when the Queen was in her mid-90s had a good chance of being a valuable resource when she died.

This is the Tina Brown of Vanity Fair, who led the magazine through some of its greatest years, covering famous people. I devoured every issue.

We might want to contrast the high-quality prose & glossy photography in its pages with the ugly culture of paparazzi and the tacky publications pushing them to get invasive pictures, pursuing Lady Diana on motorbikes. They’re widely blamed for killing the mother of the Princes Harry & William. I believe it’s really the same impulse. Brown writes better, her photographers at Vanity Fair took classier shots.

But the hunger is ultimately the same, meaning our hunger: for news, details, dirt. Whether I eat a Big Mac or caviar, it’s still food.

No I’m not making some sort of smart-ass intellectualization. When I started reading Brown’s book, I was momentarily troubled, having enjoyed the rituals of mourning on TV this week.

Part of me noticed her excellent writing, her impeccable way with attributions of sources. Brown is the best in the business.

But in the first few pages I was wondering if I could handle the book, because part of me shivers with revulsion at the tone. When we write about the British Royal Family, we’re entering a domain that is the most fundamental exploration of class one can imagine.

Today we watched people lining up, to walk past the coffin of Elizabeth II. I don’t think this is something crude to be mocked. It’s a beautiful thing even if it’s not what I would do as a Canadian living far away. Perhaps I’d feel differently had I grown up in the UK instead of Canada. What I feel only matters as far as you may suspect my motives. I liked Queen Elizabeth, troubled by what I saw portrayed in the film The Queen (2006) even if it’s likely accurate (and confirmed by Brown btw). I pitied her for what she endured even if I can also be upset with the royals for what they did to poor Diana.

The thing is, I always felt troubled by people who might mock you for using the wrong fork, for looking down their nose if your tie wasn’t tied correctly or if your shoes weren’t sufficiently shiny.

I find there’s something of this in Brown’s prose, as she seems ready to mock those with upward aspirations, indeed to mock everyone at some point or other if they take a wrong step. Perhaps she’s right, but right now I’m just not in the mood. I find the camera eye too invasive, and this prose pushes my buttons, still feeling guilty for Diana even now.

If you’re looking for the true dirt on the Royals you might love this book. If you’re a royalist perhaps you will be upset by what she’s saying even if it’s the truth. I repeat, I’m conflicted. Maybe it’s just my timing, that I’m fascinated by the stiff proper deportment of funerals and regal procedure. Watching the processions & listening to the music I was thinking of Berlioz, who had such an ear for the big public spectacle: which we never see anymore. If nothing else the broadcasts remind me of the past use of big massed bands for their emotional impact. I guess I’m a sucker for that.

I will probably finish the book, but for now have found it rubs me the wrong way and have stopped reading.

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Moving memoir from Molly

I’m re-reading Hello Molly, the memoir of Molly Shannon.

It’s likely a bestseller mainly because of the fame of its author, a star on Saturday Night Live from 1995-2001.

But I didn’t expect to be so moved, reading the book cover to cover, unable to put it down. It’s not just well-written but a gripping story with overtones of redemption.

I didn’t expect to be picking it up to re-read, hooked again by its opening pages.

I saw Molly on TV last night during the Emmys.

Molly Shannon and Vanessa Bayer

The caption machine left out the B word (you can lip-read it if you’re good) that she used to describe herself. It’s admittedly a mild word compared to the many f-bombs flying last night, telling us what she’s like to work with. She said it with pride although I’m sure it was meant for laughs. She’s one of those actors whose presence is so intense as to sometimes scare you. I can’t always tell when she’s joking. The boundaries get blurry with someone who has so much conviction.

The back cover of the book features Molly’s best known recurring character on Saturday Night Live, Mary Katherine Gallagher, speaking of intensity.

I come back to something I observed with Brian Cox’s memoir (who was also on the Emmys last night). The most entertaining books aren’t necessarily written by the most entertaining performers, something I said because I didn’t love Cox’s work but did enjoy his book.

Similarly while I didn’t love Molly’s work (back then at least) I truly love this book. Wow it’s like I’m making a confession but yes the book surprised me totally.

And the person I discovered inside the pages? Admirable to say the least.

Her story is so honest at times I wonder whether the police will go knock on her door. Of course the crimes she confesses to are from her youth when she was on the brink of ending up in juvenile detention. The chapter titled “Swimming to Juvie“ is not even the darkest part of the book by any means: but it’s troubling until we recall (as with any biographical film): oh yes, we know all about her happy ending, she couldn’t (shudder) end up in detention or jail (shudder) or (gasp) dead because we see her become a regular on SNL.

But I truly shuddered & shivered when I came to the end of that chapter. Whew. Did she clean it up for us? It’s such a relief.

“Swimming” was her euphemism for shoplifting, the chapter showing her close brush with the law, the genuine consequences for a wild period in her youth.

But it makes sense when you read the powerful opening chapter. I feel a powerful connection because I’m hearing from someone who lost her mother and sister on page two of her life story. Molly the ever resilient daughter is not at all judgmental about her father who was likely a bit impaired when he crashed. Their closeness seems co-dependent, an observation I don’t offer as criticism but rather in hoping to understand. I’m perhaps a mirror image, as someone who lost his own dad early, as I marvel at the brave fearless creature Molly’s dad raised.

Out of the wreck Shannon emerges as a special talent. Our categories and genres break down, sometimes failing in the presence of someone truly original, a sensation I felt a few days ago watching Tom Rooney in Uncle Vanya. So too with Molly Shannon, as for instance when she throws herself around onstage.

We’re told that SNL had to hire someone to help protect Molly from herself, because she threw herself so completely and so literally into her work, far beyond mere method acting. Via YouTube (aka giving these routines another look), I find she was perhaps ahead of her time.

There are life lessons in this book.

For a parent I think you’ll see how & when to be strict and how to be more permissive. I’m reminded of my recent brush with bad parenting in Sarah Polley’s book, when –if I may be permitted to offer my own take—parents must decide whether it’s more important to protect your child or to suck up to someone you admire. While Molly tippy-toed on the edge of disaster, encouraged and even goaded by her dad, she became one of the most fearless performers through his influence.

Molly tells us how she approached meeting Lorne Michaels, great advice for any audition or interview.

I noticed that Molly & fellow SNL alum Vanessa Bayer (seen in the B-word picture above) have done a show together, I Love That for You. I’ll have to check it out.

It seems that SNL was reinventing itself at the time Molly arrived on the show, as several cast members left and new ones arrived. Ditto this year it seems. Seven cast members are leaving (Kate McKinnon, Pete Davidson, Aidy Bryant, Kyle Mooney, Alex Moffat, Melissa Villaseñor & Aristotle Athari). I’m a huge fan of the show, wondering if they will finally cancel it.

Lorne looked very old last night, winning his Emmy. It’s been gasp 47 seasons. I wonder how much longer he can last, whether he’ll make it to 50 seasons.

In the meantime I’ll keep re-reading Molly’s book. You might enjoy it too.

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$50,000 Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes 2022-23

*******

Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Uncle Vanya

The new version of Uncle Vanya, by Liisa Repo-Martell, directed by Crow’s Artistic Director, Chris Abraham works very well. I loved it.

Chekhov can be a challenge, possibly because he’s often put on such a high pedestal, his name spoken in hushed tones. He defies definition, straddling genre boundaries in ways to confound & confuse, comedy embedded in situations fraught with tragic possibilities. I think it’s a mistake to hold him in so much awe as to lose your way or lose your nerve.

But Repo-Martell and Abraham are fearless, casting the show in a way that feels totally natural for the Toronto of 2022, less like the 1899 classic from Russian literature and more like a modern romantic comedy with an atmospheric set design to suggest the period. Yes there’s a samovar (reminding me of the agonies decades ago, trying to find one for a student production). Yes we hear the horses that pull a carriage. It’s wonderfully suggestive, presented with the intimate Guloien Theatre audience (perhaps 120? not sure) completely surrounding the action.

(l t r) Anand Rajaram as Telegin, Eric Peterson as Alexandre, Bahia Watson as Sonya, Tom Rooney as
Vanya, dtaborah johnson as Maria, Shannon Taylor as Yelena, Caroline Fe as Marina (photo: Dahlia Katz)

One natural entry point with this play is in its echoes of the pandemic, as we watch the irritation grow in a crowded house. Deja vu! We see the comedy, we’re ready to laugh, as we watch everyone coping in different ways using various coping strategies. Some of them are cheerful, some are grouchy & grumpy. I think there’s probably somebody you’ll look at onstage, seeing yourself.

Repo-Martell & Abraham encourage a feminist reading of Chekhov’s text: or at least they refused to allow the sexist / misogynistic language of several characters to disbalance the show’s interpretation. Maybe my age is showing but I recall productions where the contrasting pair of Yelena (beautiful & living a life of bored luxury) and Sonya (plain & hard-working) underline some sort of imagined political or moral symbolism by the playwright. Yes we do hear judgments hurled at Yelena by other characters. But perhaps the text has been waiting for interpreters who would see past the surface, showing the challenges faced by each of these young women. The magical scene between Yelena (Shannon Taylor) and Sonya (Bahia Watson) is one of the highlights of the show.

And of course there’s the testosterone in the script, so many men both young & old responding often in the most predictable ways to the women around them. Tom Rooney as Vanya is turned loose, muttering softly for much of the show but gradually building momentum as his anger grows making for some fiercely dark moments This powerfully intimate space often left me unsure where to look on a stage populated with terrific performances: but Rooney was truly remarkable, as I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Ali Kazmi gives us a fully fleshed out incarnation of Astrov, who is at the heart of the play as both the tempter (of both young women) and the tempted (between his romantic aspirations and his inability to resist vodka), the idealistic young doctor who dreams of the future.

(l to r) Ali Kazmi as Astrov and Bahia Watson as Sonya (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Kazmi and Rooney are great fun together, especially when they begin to sing & dance, aided and abetted by the work of Anand Rajaram (as Telegin) on guitar.

(l to r) Tom Rooney as Vanya, Anand Rajaram as Telegin, and Ali Kazmi as Astrov (photo: Dahlia Katz)

The best comedies must sometimes be serious and Uncle Vanya is no exception. Chekhov poses the difficult genre questions (tragedy or comedy?) alongside the difficult life questions (what is happiness and how do I find it?). After getting tangled up in the smallest trivia of life, we stumble upon depths & horrors. Money questions, romantic questions, and the very purpose of a life all jostle for their place before us.

And Abraham gives them breathing room, inserting some wonderful pauses to allow us to hear the lines, both funny and profound. He and his cast have the sensitive ear of a musical ensemble, listening to one another. It’s lyrical and beautiful.

I heartily recommend that you get to Crow’s production of Uncle Vanya, running until October 2 at the Guloien Theatre. Click for more info.

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Philip Glass: The Complete Piano Etudes

Do you compartmentalize?

I ask because it’s common, a given in a modern life. Whether we’re speaking of the things we do for work-life balance, as part of an artistic discipline or simply to get through a busy day, it’s not a radical idea.

I bring it up because a photo I shared in the last thing I wrote inadvertently demonstrates my inevitable tendency to pigeonhole, subdividing parts of myself. And it’s especially relevant to the book in question.

I thought it felt funny when I took the picture with my phone. Glass’s book immediately went onto the piano. This “book” is of course a musical score, read in different ways than the other two.

I’ll gallop through Mary Trump’s book cover to cover once I start. I need to read the rest of the Sarah Polley book, her essay really a secondary source for researching & writing about film & directors.

So yes there are three books in the picture, but it might be more accurate if I showed two books plus the piano. Conceptually it’s almost as though Glass’s Etudes (2014) represent exercise equipment like barbells or an elliptical trainer, the place to work out and better myself.

Or face my limitations. I bought the Glass book, nervous about what I might find. Oh sure, I had trepidations when I opened the book, but it might more properly be understood as a mirror.

Mirror mirror on the floor….

Mirror? When you go to a gym after a long interval (and this is huge for me, having quit my Hart House membership in February 2020, nervous about what I had read concerning the “new” coronavirus): you are looking at yourself, measuring yourself. How you feel, how much you can lift, how quickly you move, how high your heart rate gets (and how quickly you recover), how flexible you are stretching, all signifying aspects of fitness in various ways, snapshots of life in motion.

Exercise serves as a mirror in that elaborate sense, and it’s also true for the music we play on our instrument. Whenever we sing, especially anything taking us to the limits of our voice, we are confronted by the body’s feedback. As a church soloist I used to notice some fatigue near the beginning of the busy seasons for singing, near Christmas and again near Easter, but the busy schedule would get us all into better shape, just like workouts in a gym help us to improve our athletic performance. Indeed one can forget that making music is an athletic activity, sometimes tiring us, sometimes bringing on repetitive strain injuries, and to be understood across the great arc of our maturation and (sigh) aging.

I might be reading a bit more into this than usual, recalling Philip Glass’s statements about being a Buddhist. I don’t know what he believes in 2022 but I recall long ago that he said so. His Etudes may be studies in the usual sense, to help build one’s skills, but for a Buddhist the idea of self-improvement and discipline has an additional meditative dimension.

Let me interrupt this serious discourse to offer up the classic Philip Glass joke, relevant because so many people love him even though a lot of people seem to hate him.

Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass.
Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass.
Knock knock, who’s there? Philip Glass

(repeat?)

If you’re laughing I forgive you. I’m not one of those people who laughs at this joke, indeed, I’d say it’s funniest for those who don’t “get” Glass, people who disparage his style.

You might think it’s odd that I speak of music the same way as I speak of a joke. But it’s similar I believe.

I recall having an enormous long argument concerning Satyagraha with a critic who was concerned (I was going to say ”upset” but no, I think he was pleased to have an obvious target for his critique): concerned that the music of that opera didn’t do what he thought the music should do. In other words, he was employing standards to judge Glass that were irrelevant and inapplicable.

I’m reminded of this famous image concerning intelligence testing.

If we must judge fit the test to the subject being tested. Don’t be surprised that birds fly, fish swim or Glass is repetitive.

But I must admit that I am now grateful decades later for this early (1981) demonstration of something I’ve seen many times since, especially with respect to opera productions.

Whew, let me come back to Glass. I think those who experience Glass as repetitive might not be troubled by the Etudes, given that Hanon or Czerny can seem boring too. I submit that if you’re bored maybe you’re doing them wrong. Maybe I’m sounding like a pedant nerd, to think they’re enjoyable.

But I used to love jogging (which I don’t do anymore, to protect my knees), and still enjoy long walks. I don’t use the word “boring” except when speaking of the way other people perceive the world.

Most of the music lies under the hand, but then again that’s to be expected with music designed to help exercise your hand. I played through the book, glad that they weren’t difficult to sight-read.

But it’s a deceptive simplicity. To play Glass properly one must be mindful of tempo, a steady beat inside you whether you’re counting or not. To play the notes smoothly and evenly is the goal, even if there’s lots of repetition.

So far I’ve played through the book a couple of times. It’s not really the way they’re likely meant to be consumed: closer to the way I’ll read Mary Trump’s book or an opera score, than a book of studies, to improve discipline. Ha, my lack of discipline is showing. It’s one of the drawbacks of being a good sight-reader. I don’t really practice well. To be honest, I don’t practice at all. I simply play. It goes with my compartmentalization I suppose. But I do have fun.

And I’ve also started listening to a recording of the Etudes by Leslie Dala, although I’ve only listened to a couple so far(there are 20). I found one of his interpretations on YouTube to share.

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Sarah Polley & Terry Gilliam, The Torturer’s Apprentice

Violence is everywhere these days. Excuse me for stating the obvious. I’ve recently seen an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus that plays with our imaginations, encouraging us to feel for the people getting hurt in the play. Sometimes it’s much more scary to do it offstage, to encourage our fear and our creepy thoughts rather than being gory and graphic…

So I have a question.

Did you ever buy a book, and immediately turn to the one passage you wanted to read?

One went to the piano, one went to Erika (Mary Trump) but first Sarah Polley.

That’s what I did when I got Sarah Polley’s essay collection Run Towards the Danger.

I wanted to read the section I first heard about in social media, concerning her work on The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam’s 1988 film.

What I am about to say may sound a bit like Friedrich Nietzsche talking about Richard Wagner, which is a really corny nerdy pretentious way of saying that something that seemed to have me under a magic spell no longer has that power, because the magic has worn off, and now I am turning on the one I love, perhaps upset that the magic is no longer working. I mention Nietzsche because when he turned on Wagner he denied the love that used to be there; and supposedly on his death-bed he repented his angry denunciation, and admitted his love, renewing his old vows.

So let me be clear, let me be honest. I don’t think any film has ever touched me so deeply as Gilliam’s Baron. The year I re-married I felt reborn. I saw the film multiple times on the big screen in 1989. And I saw it on video many more times in the 1990s, sometimes in the company of a daughter roughly as young as Sally, the character Polley played in the film. It’s a visionary film about fantasy and the power of story-telling. While my love for the film has now faded somewhat, its lustre tarnished by my recent discoveries, I won’t lie. I’m still mesmerized by a combination of the glamour of the Monty Python aura surrounding Gilliam and his friends, and the mad admiration I still have for his work. I think too that Michael Kamen needs to get some of the credit for how I experience Gilliam’s Baron Munchausen given that Kamen’s perfect orchestral score is one of the most impressive I’ve ever encountered, the music plus the poetry of the story twisting me around its finger.

But: as a parent it was hair-raising to read Polley’s account of her experiences making the film. I feel sick, disgusted. While there were moments when we saw young Sally seemingly in danger, I never suspected that the film gave her PTSD, that she repeatedly experienced danger at least subjectively. That is the least of it, that the young impressionable girl was terrified. But sometimes the danger was real. For years something as innocent as the slamming of a car door could trigger Polley’s flashbacks. If you read her book you will probably change your views of Gilliam.

His blithe rock-star swagger, arrogantly laughing off the wreck & ruin he caused over and over: makes me crazy. It’s so normal that we worship our idols.

My reaction, (or perhaps what I should more accurately call my over-reaction) is absurd on the surface. But I find myself scrutinizing the work of Terry Gilliam, disturbed by what I think I see.

In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen Sally is not the only one having a rough time. There is actually an opera within the film called “The Torturer’s Apprentice”, ostensibly composed by the Sultan. It struck me today that this title could aptly go on Gilliam’s resume or bio, as he has seemingly been studying modes of torture, both in the content of his cinema and in the manner he treats his colleagues while putting his ideas onto film. Yes it’s consistent with the history of film & theatre, in a long tradition going back to Titus & King Lear. It’s profoundly troubling.

The opera within the film is being played by a fictitious keyboard invented in the film, whereby instead of the hammers striking strings, they hit slaves whose moans and cries make music. This link includes some of the screenplay.

See why I mention Nietzsche? I must seem like I’ve gone nuclear on poor Gilliam, but I can’t help thinking that –like so many artists—he’s repeatedly giving us a self-portrait. The sign outside his studio might well read “Torturers R Us”.

But this is not the only time Gilliam shows us torture.

Brazil (1985) is another film from Gilliam featuring torture. Depending on which version you see, (spoiler alert) the protagonist may or may not end up tortured to death; or perhaps he’s rescued from his torture at the end. But it’s very dark stuff.

Katherine Helmond’s portrayal of Sam Lowry’s mother Ida also features torture, although it’s the self-inflicted horror of plastic surgery. It seems very witty to put these two together in a film.

What’s recently freaked me out was her report that I saw purely by coincidence, suggesting that the suffering we see on screen that we normally presume to be fake, was actually a whole lot more painful than we ever knew.

The way I saw it reported, Helmond endured
“ten hours a day with a mask glued to her face. Her scenes had to be postponed due to the blisters this caused.” (from IMDB).

Sorry but that reminds me of what Sarah Polley endured.

Polley reports the most curious thing in her book, that several people she met got into film because of Baron Munchausen, and their admiration of Gilliam’s work. I’m certain that the film is ideal to me because of the way it melted together as the most ideal Gesamtkuntwerk, Wagner’s total art. I don’t bring Wagner up to praise him even if this is the consummation of his greatest dream, that text and music and all component parts cohere together into a perfect whole. I think I’m a sucker for this sort of film, particularly the ones where the director exerts perfect control over all the parts.

Is it any wonder that actors report suffering at the hands of tyrannical directors? I’m thinking of John Candy (over-worked on a set), or Heath Ledger (a sensitive soul playing too many nasty parts), Judy Garland (drugged as a child, her whole life stolen from her). Yes they’re paid well but: what’s the cost? I find myself revolted by my admiration for their films, when I see the toll on the performers.

My favorite films all seem to exemplify this ideal, even as I blush at the recognition, that I expect directors to treat their actors like puppets or objects. I hope the world is improving, but I’m not sure. Unions protect workers, so hopefully children too are safer now.

This book will help.

My favorite director used to be Kubrick, who was famously perfectionist in requiring many takes of his actors. His great achievement in consecutive films, was to dethrone composers. In 2001: a Space Odyssey instead of using his composer he uses his temp tracks (Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss Ligeti and Khachaturian). In a clockwork Orange he again uses old composers but via Wendy Carlos’s synthesizer, playing Beethoven, Purcell or Rossini. But none of this was hurting anyone.

In 2022 I’m still totally enamored of films similar to and likely influenced by Gilliam’s hyper controlled art-direction, such as Scorsese’s Hugo or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. I admire the control I see from directors such as Julie Taymor or Robert Lepage, even as –in context with Polley’s book—I’m recalling their history. Taymor ran into controversy with her ambitions for Spider-Man on Broadway, demanding too many risks of life & limb of her cast. Lepage similarly crashed into resistant cast in his Ring cycle, singers unwilling to ride his huge machine, leading to its re-invention as a backdrop rather than its original purpose as a symbol & installation representing & enacting the ever changing world. Bravo to the ones like Debbie Voigt who pushed back.

After seeing Sky’s show, I’m also wondering about catharsis, how we are hooked by violent shows in a different way. When I’m scared shitless I care differently.

And yet I’m feeling gratitude for being stimulated, by Polley, by Sky Gilbert, and yes: by Terry Gilliam.

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Preview of immersive Titus

I’ve just seen a preview of Who’s Afraid of Titus, Sky Gilbert’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s early play Titus Andronicus. They used the Red Sandcastle Theatre, a space associated with horror through proprietor Eric Woolfe and his Eldritch Theatre cohort.

No offense Eric, but this is scarier than anything seen from Eldritch Theatre certainly since Madhouse Variations: but crazier.

I didn’t realize it was to be immersive. The theatre is tiny, which left us no place to hide, nowhere to flee.

I was intrigued by Sky’s expertise in Shakespeare; he’s a professor after all. Our recent interview probed that nerdy locus, and yes it may be Elizabethan in its tropes or its poetry: but it was as modern as CNN headlines of thugs hurting smaller people. It was like watching the January 6 insurrection up close, and I was not entirely sure I was safe. Oh sure, they wouldn’t want to hurt me, or so says the logical part of my brain.

My viscera felt differently.

While Julie Taymor’s Titus polishes the nastiness of the story, Sky lets it be dirty.

How many ways can you think something can be dirty? I think we covered them all tonight.

I was reminded of Sweeney Todd, not just because TIFT’s production was nominated this week for so many Doras, We were again contemplating the gap between “yum” and “yuck” and in something I think we can genuinely call “immersive”.

Forgive me, is that word being used too much nowadays? I wonder, is the immersive King Tut going to put us into a sarcophagus and bury us alive like Rhadames & Aida? Nobody is advertising this as “immersive” but that’s what I felt.

I like it btw.

I was reminded of King Lear, a play revised sometimes to mitigate its horrors, as indeed Sky might have chosen to do. Did he? Sorry I won’t be a spoiler. But for me the other connection to Lear is how this story has lots of the same sort of disgusting brutality, except Titus doesn’t just get abused. He fights back.

Director & adapter Sky Gilbert

I cried a few times genuinely astonished that my face was wet. But mostly I was really scared. The energy of the performances in the modest arena felt like a balloon inflated to bursting. It’s powerful. The cast bring Stratford level passion to this miniscule theatre.

I chose to sit in the first row because I love intensity. Don’t sit there if you’re easily scared.

But it’s a thrill ride.

*******

Titus features a stellar cast including Brian Smegal (Stratford Festival) as Titus, Ellen-Ray Hennessy (Canada’s Queen of Voice and Animation) as Tamora, Sandy Crawley (movies galore; Green Party candidate) as Marcus, Veronika Hurnik (paula and karl, DNA Theatre/Six Stages) as the Narrator, and Michelle Mohammed (Handmaid’s Tale) as Lavinia…
(correction from Sky: Michelle Mohammed is not playing Lavinia it is Augusta Monet — an understandable mistake. Michelle had to leave the cast because of COVID and there was no program for the preview so understandable you might make that mistake).
The production also features Ray Jacildo, George Alevizos, Max Ackerman and John Humeniuk.

WHO’S AFRAID OF TITUS?
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Adapted & Directed by Sky Gilbert

August 31 to September 3rd, 2022
at the uncanny Red Sandcastle Theatre
922 Queen St East, Toronto
$15 Arts Worker/$25 Advance/$35 Door
6:30PM Doors/7:00 Evening Showtime
2:30PM Doors/3:00 Saturday Matinee
approximately 1 hour, no intermission

Click for tickets & information

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Celebrating Glenn Gould on the 90th Anniversary of His Birth

Celebrating the Enduring Legacy of Iconic Canadian
Pianist Glenn Gould on the 90th Anniversary of His Birth
GlennGould@90 features free events from September 17 to 27

Toronto, ON (August 29, 2022) – Glenn Gould, the iconic Canadian classical pianist, writer, composer, conductor and broadcaster, would have celebrated his 90th birthday on Sunday, September 25th, 2022. To commemorate this milestone anniversary, The Glenn Gould Foundation has programmed GlennGould@90, a series of free events starting September 17th honouring Canada’s futuristic musical maverick.

Despite his untimely death 40 years ago, Gould’s legacy as one of the most famous and celebrated pianists of the 20th century – a phenomenal, enigmatic and eccentric musical genius – continues to grow and attract legions of fans around the world. Glenn Gould’s career-launching 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations is the best-selling solo classical instrumental album of all time and has never been out of release since it first dropped. Gould became “the first Canadian in Space” when his recording of the first Prelude from Book I of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier was included on the “Golden Record” launched in 1977 aboard the Voyager 1 Space probe, now in interstellar space and currently 14.612 billion miles from Earth . . . and climbing!

Foreseeing the transformative impact of technology on the arts, communications and human society, Gould quit the concert stage at the height of his career in 1964, and devoted the rest of his life to the use of technology to perfect his art, and refine and express his visionary ideas. He was a prophet of the information age.

GlennGould@90

Glenn Gould Street Tribute!
Saturday, September 17

Glenn Gould’s music will permeate the streets of Toronto as the Glenn Gould School’s 2021-22 Quartet-in-Residence, The Dior String Quartet, performs 5 pop-up concerts in various downtown locations and enchants the public with Gould’s favourite works. The Dior String Quartet includes Noa Sarid (violin), Tobias Elser (violin), Caleb Georges (viola), and Joanne Yesol Choi (cello).

Day of Gould Celebrations
Saturday, September 24 from 11:00 AM to 9:30 PM
Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West
FREE ADMISSION

This day of celebrations includes film screenings, panel discussions, Artificial Intelligence technology demonstrations and concerts. Visit www.glenngould.ca for full program details.

11:00 AM Film Screening Glenn Gould: The Russian Journey and Panel Discussion
This documentary by director Yosif Feyginberg about 24-year-old Glenn Gould’s galvanizing 1957 concerts in Moscow and Leningrad at the height of the Cold War features Glenn Gould, Mstislav Rostropovich, and Vladimir Ashkenazy. Following the film, a panel discussion on the geopolitical importance of cultural diplomacy and soft power during times of global conflict like these. Panelists include Janice Stein of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and internationally celebrated architect Jack Diamond.

1:30 PM Concert World Premiere of The Lord of Toronto, His Pavin
The concert features the world premiere of The Lord of Toronto, His Pavin, a specially commissioned work for cello and piano dedicated to Glenn Gould by Canadian composer and cellist Daniel Hass, and Bach’s Sonata in G-minor for Cello and Keyboard, BWV 1029. Performing with Daniel Hass is pianist Kevinn Ahfat.

2:45 PM Artificial Intelligence Demonstration Canadian Premiere of Dear Glenn
Developed by Yamaha Japan in consultation with The Glenn Gould Foundation, Dear Glenn, a deep-learning technology has analyzed the elements of Gould’s performing style and can produce a performance of virtually any repertoire – delivered in the style of Glenn Gould (including music never performed by Gould in his lifetime). Prepare for a close encounter with the spirit of Gould!

3:15 PM Panel Discussion: The Implications of Artificial Intelligence for the Future of Music and Human Creativity
Are creative artists an endangered species? Panelists include Edward Jones-Imhotep, Director of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, and Akira Maezawa PhD (Informatics), Yamaha researcher in music information retrieval and statistical audio signal processing.

3:45 PM Presentation: Glenn Gould’s Technology Legacy…Classical Music Meets TikTok
In tribute to Glenn Gould’s everlasting fascination with technology, cellist and popular TikTok artist Andrew Ascenzo leads a demonstration to show how classical music can thrive in the TikTok universe.

4:30 PM Film Screening The Goldberg Variations
This 1981 film by Bruno Monsaingeon documents Gould’s historic second traversal of this monument of musical literature. Our screening is introduced by Tim Page, Pulitzer-Prize winning critic for The New York Times and Washington Post, a fast friend of Glenn Gould’s and editor of The Glenn Gould Reader.

7:30 PM Concert: Leila Josefowicz
Canadian-American violinist Leila Josefowicz is a passionate advocate of contemporary music for the violin. Winner of a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship and the 2018 Avery Fisher Prize, she regularly performs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, NAC Orchestra, Oslo Philharmonic, Dresdner Philharmonie and Budapest Festival Orchestra. The concert program includes Matthias Pintscher’s La Linea Evocativa: A Drawing for Violin Solo and Bach’s Partita for Violin Solo No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

Announcement of the 14th Glenn Gould Prize Laureate
Sunday, September 25 at Noon ET
Leslie and Anna Dan Galleria, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor Street West

On the 90th anniversary of Glenn Gould’s birth, an international jury panel chaired by legendary producer Bob Ezrin will announce the winner of the fourteenth Glenn Gould Prize at a news conference in Toronto. The $100,000 prize celebrates artistic excellence, innovation, and humanitarianism. The free event is open to the public and will be livestreamed at www.glenngould.ca.

Alma Deutscher and The Glenn Gould Festival Orchestra
Sunday, September 25 at 2 PM
Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor Street West

Enjoy a 21st century example of Gouldian youthful musical genius, as seventeen-year-old composer, violinist, pianist and conductor Alma Deutscher conducts The Glenn Gould Festival Orchestra in a concert of her own music. Soloists include Alma Deutscher (violin, piano) Vania Chan (soprano) and Noah Kostas (bari-tenor). Alma Deutscher began playing the piano when she was two, the violin at three and started composing at four. At the age of ten, she wrote a full-length opera, Cinderella, which has been produced on three continents to sold-out houses. Tickets to the Alma Deutscher concert are free and can be reserved in advance, as of September 6th, through the RCM Box Office at www.rcmusic.com or by phone at 416-408-0208.

GlennGould@90 at TIFF Cinematheque
Tuesday, September 27
TIFF Bell Lightbox, 350 King Street West

Presented in partnership with the Toronto International Film Festival, this special tribute features five screenings and a live conversation with director François Girard. Glenn Gould NFB Film Shorts screenings at 12:00 PM are free and include: Glenn Gould – On the Record (1959), a 30-minute documentary following Gould in New York City directed by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor; Glenn Gould – Off the Record (1959), a short documentary at Gould’s lakeside cottage, directed by Wolf Koenig and Roman Kroitor; and Spheres (1969), an animated short by Norman McLaren and René Jodoin set to the music of Bach performed by Glenn Gould. The 3:00 PM screening of Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), a compelling anti-war saga directed by George Roy Hill, marked Gould’s first foray into film scoring. The 6:00 PM free screening of Thirty Two Short Films about Glenn Gould (1993) is one of the most successful Canadian films of all time, directed by Francois Girard and starring Colm Feore as Gould. The event begins with a live piano performance and includes a post-screening Q&A with Francois Girard. Tickets to all screenings can be reserved in advance at https://am.ticketmaster.com/tiff/buy#/

The Glenn Gould Foundation gratefully acknowledges the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage, Power Corporation of Canada, BMO Financial, an Anonymous Donor, many individual donors, and media sponsor, The Globe and Mail. The Glenn Gould Foundation also acknowledges TIFF, the Royal Conservatory of Music, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning, and Victoria University.

About The Glenn Gould Foundation
The Glenn Gould Foundation celebrates the life, career, and enduring influence of Canadian pianist, writer and broadcaster Glenn Gould. Every two years, the Foundation convenes an international jury to award the Glenn Gould Prize to a living individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts. Past laureates of the international prize include documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (2020), Jessye Norman (2018), Leonard Cohen (2011), El Sistema founder Dr. José Antonio Abreu (2008), Yo-Yo Ma (1999), and Oscar Peterson (1993). For more information visit www.glenngould.ca.

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Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Tanya’s Secret

Tanya’s Secret, a queer-trans Onegin, is a new adaptation of Eugene Onegin by Opéra Queens, that opened tonight at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.

Let’s begin by remembering Tchaikovsky’s original: a piece full of beautiful melodies, a few wonderful arias, several glorious dances, that plays like a cautionary tale about relationships.

Tatyana (should we call her Tanya?) boldly comes on to Onegin, who doesn’t reciprocate and breaks her heart in the process.

Bored world-weary Onegin dances a bit too much with vivacious Olga, at least in the jealous eyes of Lensky her main squeeze: leading Lensky to challenge Onegin to a duel.

Onegin kills Lensky.

And then years later Onegin meets Tatyana, now married to Gremin. This time Onegin throws himself at Tatyana. While she does admit to feelings for Onegin, she loves her partner, breaking Onegin’s heart.

Yes the story comes from Pushkin, whose sexual orientation isn’t known (NB Google is inconclusive on the topic). But given that Tchaikovsky is usually understood as a gay composer, the opera is ideal for the kind of exploration undertaken by Mike Fan | 范祖铭 (they) aka Tanya Smania (she), Opéra Queens’ artistic director. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I saw and heard in this new version.

What’s different from the usual Onegin?

For starters Mike aka Tanya undertakes the role of Tatyana, dressed physically as a girl / woman, but underplayed. It’s not “drag” as you might know from watching Too Wong Foo or Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This isn’t like Dame Edna, not over the top, not played for laughs. To do so would dishonour Tchaikovky and the credibility of the project. As made clear in the interview they did earlier this week, it’s almost a sacred project.

We’re given some time to get accustomed to the illusion: and it does work. While Mike aka Tanya don’t always manage the music Tchaikovsky composed for his young diva, the dramatic side is remarkable. This is the most vulnerable Tatyana I’ve ever seen, exposed because after all the illusion is not perfect, even as we watch Mike aka Tanya in p.j.’s, pouring their heart out in a love letter to Onegin. We’re in a very theatrical space where we compensate for what’s not quite there. While I’m not sure, I believe Mike aka Tanya is singing the role as a tenor, hitting some very high notes, and from my ignorant point of view at least, enunciating their Russian quite well.

Yes it’s in Russian except when it’s in French plus some added Ukrainian poetry / songs. I’m not sure about the language, but I would assume it’s authentic. The inserted Ukrainian content sung powerfully by Douglas Graham was an interesting bonus, a lovely gesture in response to current politics.

I will speak of the remainder of the cast, mindful that I might get their pronouns wrong. Mike aka Tanya is not the only one playing a part cross-gender from the usual.

Mike aka Tanya and Georgios Iatrou (Photo: Elana Emer, Lighting: Mikael Kangas)

Georgios Iatrou is Onegin, singing the role in the usual baritone register. Iatrou is a vocal standout, the music pouring out effortlessly, including lots of high notes. He is compelling, making me believe everything that he is doing, whether as the Byronesque object of Tatyana’s affections, the shit-disturber hitting on Olga, then duelling with & killing his friend Lensky, and finally when he is smitten with Tatyana in the last scenes. As you can tell I was very impressed.

Tonight’s Lensky was Christina Yun, putting a new spin on the role by singing it as a soprano. Watching the portrayal I felt the artificiality of this staging foregrounds the curious dynamics of the relationships we’re watching. We’re told Lensky is a poet, a romantic. And in such a modern emotional landscape Lensky seems to be an anachronism, a foolish relic over-reacting to what happens at the party. Of course that’s how the part is written, but he seems especially out-dated while Onegin was ahead of his time.

Another ingredient that’s a bit different is Olga, tonight portrayed by Corinne DeJong. Onegin responds to her at the party. DeJong made her vivacious and confident, which made Lensky’s reaction seem especially unfortunate.

There were several other performers making excellent contributions. Catherine Carew was Gremin, singing a part usually given to a bass, and sounding heroic going (I think) well below middle C. Prince Gremin seemed to be male but sung by contralto Carew. And on the other side, Carew was Madame Larina, the doting mom to Tatyana and Olga.

Filipyevna the nurse was portrayed tonight by Dr J Marchand Knight, always interesting to watch whether singing or not. I think they made everyone sharing the stage a little better, a little more confident and ready to enjoy themselves. Rain Senavinin made more out of Monieur Triquet than usual, interpolating some extra notes, and confidently winning our hearts in the Drag Ball that opens the last act. Every performance was improved by being put at ease, having huge fun especially in the shenanigans of the Drag Ball. It was the most entertaining version of that scene I’ve ever seen. I think Tchaikovsky would approve (privately!) even if he was usually constrained in his public statements.

I recommend this to anyone able to come to the theatre Sunday afternoon, where the roles cited as “tonight” will be undertaken by someone different. No it’s not exactly what Tchaikovky wrote. But it’s vivid, wonderful theatre. I recommend it. (click here for ticket info)

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Interviewing Mike Fan | 范祖铭 (they) aka Tanya Smania (she): probing Tatyana’s Secret

I’m intrigued by the upcoming production of Tanya’s Secret produced by Opera Queens, an adaptation of Eugene Onegin, a work that seems to invite questions.

Mike Fan | 范祖铭 (they) aka Tanya Smania (she) is the artistic director and driving force behind this upcoming exploration of Tchaikovsky’s best-known opera. (click here for ticket info)

Currently I’m thinking a lot about gender in the arts. For instance Shakespeare in Love (seen a few nights ago) seems suddenly an apt prep for Sky Gilbert’s Titus set to premiere next week. Lurking in the Hollywood film is something transgressive. Doing the play as we now do it with a woman playing Juliet violates the rules for Shakespeare’s time. Juliet was written to be performed by a man. Having women do it –as they did in the film and as we now do it—breaks the rules, even if for 2022 it’s still wild to imagine a male Juliet.

Could be we have it upside down.

Full disclosure. I enjoy singing repertoire usually reserved for women. It began petulantly when I noticed how women routinely sing song cycles written for men such as Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, while the reverse never seems to happen. Is it possibly because these songs often sound better with a female voice soaring above the staff? Don’t answer that! Back in 1999 I did a concert at the University of Toronto with counter-tenor Mathieu Marcil commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Richard Strauss. Mathieu sang four of Strauss’s earliest compositions, songs that seemed apt for his counter-tenor voice given that Strauss composed them all before puberty. To close I sang the Four Last Songs (normally sung by women). Our bookends were in effect Strauss’s first and last songs. I also played the piano…

Men have boldly presumed to compose music purporting to speak with a woman’s voice, at least in the centuries when women couldn’t get their music performed. I’m sure it’s not wrong to stand in for the voice of a male composer, even as we wonder which gender is being signified. No I’m not trying to confuse you, just pointing to the ambiguities that are already there, to confound and torment us with mixed gender signals, coding that often seems meant to lead us astray rather than to properly guide us. At the end of the day we see opera as a playful form, with more life & vitality than we expected, lots yet to be explored.

I’m grateful to be interviewing Mike Fan | 范祖铭 (they) aka Tanya Smania (she), the busy artistic director of Opera Queens (website), seeking insights into so many fascinating questions about their upcoming adaptations of opera, captured in their spare moments in the hours before their show goes on later this week.

barczablog: Are you more like your father or your mother?

Mike aka Tanya: Interesting question! Growing up my dad was not home much busy finishing his Doctorate while I was in embryo and then the post-doc trek that brought us from Alberta to Indiana, Texas and then Ontario where we landed when my father got his position at the University of Guelph. I hope he doesn’t mind me saying, I spent a lot more time with my mother growing up and think I subconsciously resented him for a while. It wasn’t till later when I myself became rather busy and started being less available to my loved ones that I realized it is just the necessity of growing any career in an ambitious way. I definitely inherited that from my father, the ambition. My mother too. Also from my father — the keen research mind and visionary spirit. So I see a lot of myself in mother who has been a huge presence in my life – in terms of responsibility.

Mike aka Tanya clutching the letter (Photo by Elana Emer, Lighting by Mikael Kangas)

barczablog: What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

Mike aka Tanya: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” as they say indeed! I have walked through many dark times in my life so in general I’d say fortunately for me generally things have turned out for the better. Or, rather my perspective on life changed as I began to discover my true self and embrace it rather than run from it. I’m very much “swimming downstream rather than upstream” if that makes sense. But I do lead a quite crazy life.

Generally especially in these pandemic years I’ve had the great privilege of performing most of the time in opera, art song, film, and theatre – role after role (or sometimes 4 at a time in my recent “Qui as tué Leclair” project with Infusion Baroque) as well as teaching, hosting, and advocacy but with Opéra Queens I also produce as Artistic and Executive Director – meaning I do most things from casting to bookkeeping and grant-writing, booking venues to washing microwaves. It’s only our 2nd year and we’ve managed to receive nearly $200,000 in grants and brought many on seasonally on our productions, but ultimately we’re not yet at the point where we have operating grants so it’s a lot on my plate.

I’m the ambitious type if you haven’t yet discovered so rather than sing a small role and do it all I undertake something like, you know – Tatyana, which is a lot of singing and not just in the Letter Scene in a complex Slavic language as well as do it all. This rehearsal run we’re having I think probably takes the cake in terms of being the best and worst of times. This role is something I feel that I could sing every night of my life and that was truly destined for me – yet a lot of days I’m sleeping 3 hours a day, rehearsing for up to 6 as a singer and spending another 6-8 doing admin and overseeing rehearsals. Somehow though – because it feels exactly where I’m meant to be it feels right, it feels aligned – it feels fated (a theme in Onegin as well, fittingly) and somehow feels much easier and fun overall than other chapters of my life – as a budding concert pianist or a premed student for example. I think my life now really embodies the “if you love what you do you never work a day in your life.”

Not to say it isn’t without challenges or difficulties (especially under COVID-19 no less – I think our cast now is at least 50% different than when we embarked on “Tanya’s Secret” 2 years ago) but I feel that when I am living and working with the grain things fall into place much more effortlessly despite the energy and work involved. So, I have a great appreciation that there is no light without shadow nor tree without soil. After trying on many wrong hats, as overwhelming, demanding, and frustrating as this life I lead now is, it’s ultimately just right for me – good, bad, and ugly. I accept it all because I understand what it is to “have it all” on paper and still be unhappy.

barczablog: Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Mike aka Tanya: I think our connotation of my company “Opéra Queens” takes on more of the regal, queer, elegant sense of the word but indeed it stems from the bygone era of “gays at the opera”. Even within young classical singers today of my generation I feel that many aren’t interested in going to the opera, listening to recordings, etc. Which is fine – but I’ve always been an old soul. Onegin was actually my first opera at 13 and I felt this innate connection and kinship. I’m weird like that. So I’m very much opera opera opera 24/7 – give me the latest opera recording, ticket, book, magazine, gossip, it’s truly an obsession for me. I’m much more prone to sing all of Violetta by heart than Lizzo – I give the impression that I’m young and hip sometimes but truly I’m an intelligent and an excellent actor. Most are quite surprised that I don’t know most pop music at all – I’m a true classical nut!

That said I’m quite a voracious sapiophile – I found that I’m quite drawn to world and folk music, particularly bossa nova and Latin music. I also of course am partial to traditional Chinese music – pipa, erhu, and guzheng for example are some of the most ethereal sounds on earth in my opinion. Jazz is lovely and I musical theatre has its moments. But I’m truly an Opéra Queen through and through – I find I’m very drawn to sopranos those active particularly in the 50s-80s – Callas, Tebaldi, Vishnevskaya, Kyra Vayne. The inner diva in me come to life I suppose.

That said I’m rather eclectic – makes sense for someone who speaks 7 languages, lived in 5 cities before 1st grade, and who has degrees in Opera and Voice, Piano, and Speech Arts and Drama Performance as well Biomedical Science…I love a good documentary, sitcom, depressing indie flick, rom-com, historical drama – and I do enjoy trashy reality TV and YouTubers. I think rather than a release it’s the inner life coach in me – I find human behaviour fascinating. Either when we are on best behaviour or our worst. Perhaps in the end always leading back to my life onstage…?!

barczablog: What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Mike aka Tanya: I’m tremendously gifted I must say, thanks to the Divine Creator, my parents, and my mentors. I proudly say this because most my life I thought it was quite the opposite and was derided by classmates, bullies, and even teachers and “mentors”. I’m a freak in a way but it took me a while to realize that it was a positive thing – if I channel for good, of course.

However, as with my voice we must know our strengths and our weaknesses. I am stubborn, a workaholic, exceedingly ambitious, extremely sensitive, a terror when provoked, and love eating too much and moving far too little. I have a lot of energy but it also means I often can’t sleep and need to work myself to exhaustion before I can have a few nights good sleep and resume the cycle. So I guess there’s much to address with this fixer-upper – but isn’t that all of us? Self-knowledge and awareness I think is more important than pining after any mythical perfection. I’m perfectly imperfectly as we all are and isn’t that swell? That said, being anywhere anytime whether teleportation or the ability to fly would be fantastic. I love learning about and seeing the world and other cultures and especially in the pandemic – flying has certainly been easier. Also, have you met the TTC?

barczablog: When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

Mike aka Tanya: Hahahahahaha…see above! Honestly though, I’m at a point where I really see the need to say no and to carve out time for me. I have a lovely, supportive family who I don’t see nearly enough and it’s lovely to sit down for dinner and tell each other about our various exploits. Mine are more exotic and far-reaching perhaps but ultimately due to everything we’ve been through together we have an intimacy I don’t think I have with most. I also have some dear friends connected at the soul with whom we always spend hours together in a blink of an eye. Always something to talk about and the time apart means we have many things to celebrate and commiserate.

I also have the loveliest partner and kitty who remind me that I do have a reason to make space beyond performing, producing, making income, etc. He is delightfully chill and creative but not an artist per se – we love simple things like watching TV, grocery shopping (we both loooove food), and exploring Toronto. The first 3 years of our relationship we were mostly in different cities so it’s just nice to be together mostly day in, day out. I make a lot of noise so when I’m out of town he’s not unhappy either! Of course, I love to go to the opera, the ballet, concerts – whether hearing a busker or a concerto with orchestra – as I said before I’m a culture nut. Oh, and I love museums! I think I would be content living in one. I read all the captions which is an absolute horror for anyone I go with but I’m very studious and detail-oriented.

I am fortunate to live by the water which has always been a dream – I love to walk along the boardwalk and see the ships, the gulls, the islands – it’s very inspiring and I haven’t gotten to do it as much in the summer, at least in the daytime. I think I worked so hard over the years to cover up my unhappiness and my insecurities but I think I’ve arrived at a point where I’m fortunate enough to love what I do and to love the life and people I have beyond what I do. An embarrassment of riches!

barczablog: Please think about what Opéra Queens, the Toronto indie opera company, aims to achieve. If you’d like to give us a manifesto or a lecture on your goals & ideals that would be welcome. And tell us (if possible) what’s next after this show.

Mike aka Tanya: First, I must say, I began Opéra Queens in my Masters in Opera & Voice Performance at McGill’s Schulich School of Music in Montréal so we began there and still maintain an active presence there! So I’d say that’s one big aim – to connect these two relatively close metropolises of Toronto and Montréal which are relatively close but often disconnected culturally. “Tanya’s Secret” is our real first mainstage show in Toronto but also our largest so far (and perhaps ever) so it’s exciting getting to bring our magic here.

I like to say Opéra Queens presents opera “in full colour” in every sense of the word. That means with majority queer-trans and IBPOC / BIPOC cast and crew where possible as well as the music we perform and commission. However, beyond those viewpoints I also am interested in creating paid opportunities for other marginalized groups – countertenors, big voices, plus-sized and differently-abled bodies – how can we provide them all an opportunity to have their glory in the rainbow? As someone Chinese-Canadian, 2nd generation immigrant, queer, and non-binary – I’m pleased and utterly surprised at the mostly positive reception and enthusiasm we’ve received so far. I was bullied in my early life for the things that made me “weird and different” and as America Ferrera says in her TED Talk – “my identity is my superpower – not an obstacle”.

I’m pleased to say that we do have Canada Council for the Arts funding for a production “Night of 1000 Cleopatras” slated for Summer 2022 in Montréal. There is time to find a way to bring it to Toronto too but we’ll see what’s possible. We’re presenting both known and rare Cleopatra scenes, arias, and art songs from Händel to Leroux, Massenet to Barber as well as a new commission “Cleopatra Built” on E. E. Cummings by Dr. J. Marchand Knight. We premièred scenes from the opera this past May at the Watershed Festival at Queens University – appropriately named, I must say!

Last summer we also filmed two digital productions “Drama Queens” and “Latin Night”. It’s truly been a year of hard work of post-production but we should be ready to release this Fall at last! We presented scenes from both shows in Montréal and hope to bring them to Toronto too but in the meantime the world will get an opportunity to experience works by Viardot, Malibran, von Martines, Serpa, Cilèa, Saint-Saëns, Bizet, and more! Maintaining our virtual audiences is so key because we have so many that joined us for Zoom shows, podcasts, and pre-recorded performances in the pandemic and especially for queer-trans folx – the anonymity, privacy, and accessibility the online world affords is wonderful! Hoping to help tear down that stigma of “online content” – live performance is great but it’s all about options!

barczablog: Does this kind of art (eg the Onegin adaptation) give us an opportunity to discuss gender without framing it as a lecture or essay? Is exploring this subject via theatre a way to avoid pretentiousness and even to be playful and unpretentious: a change from what opera sometimes is (for non-opera types)

Mike aka Tanya: That’s the intention! A lot of it we want to speak for itself. The soul is the soul. When I sing Tatyana as a tenor in drag, she is still a young girl looking for love, bookish, and intelligent, passionate, yet dignified – all things I like to think I am as well. Christina Yun who sings Lensky is a soprano – yet why is a soprano not also passionate, foolhardy, and goes to her death bravely? Opera has a long tradition of gender-bending and drag – but why has it only been relegated to middle-aged mezzos singing teenage boys? I mean, the straight male patriarchy is definitely a reason. But we at Opéra Queens seek to expand the possibilities of classical music – which seems avant garde but it’s really bringing us to where all the other art forms have gone – including ballet. Billy Porter as the Fairy Godmother? Kinky Boots? Hello opera, it’s time!

And I love this question – some of my mentors especially thought or continue to think that something like Opéra Queens is meant to mostly be a parody or light-hearted endeavour. Yes, we do have our moments – you’ll see in “Latin Night” what edible objects I use in Carmen’s Habañera besides oranges – but ultimately we seek to expand who’s onstage, what’s onstage, and how it’s presented without compromising the substance and artistic quality. In the same way that a mezzo singing Cherubino doesn’t affect the Countess’s sorrow or a soprano singing Oscar doesn’t impede the plight of Amelia and Gustavo’s illicit romance – queer-trans and BIPOC art can and should be taken seriously too.

Drag and gender-bending have often been taken in a comedic way, particularly when male-presenting artists inhabit the feminine – but there are valid stories to be told that aren’t. And stereotypes need to be questioned and shattered. I shouldn’t only be singing Pings, Pangs, and Pongs as an Asian or relegated only to the “gay stuff” as a queer performer. I like all of us am a multiplicity of things, complex and shallow, happy and wounded, intelligent yet clumsy. Straight white performers have had the luxury of playing all the roles available in the West, even ones that don’t necessarily “belong” to them. We ask: and us? And when we do, do we need to be a joke? Or can you listen to our stories our way and see that we are also humans with the same beating heart, the same smiles as well as tears?

barczablog: Do you see yourself getting new audiences, those who don’t know opera in the usual ways, or would you rather play to audiences who know opera in the usual ways: but who will be surprised by your approach?

Mike aka Tanya: I hope so! So far it’s been incredibly rewarding and worth the long hours when we find there are those totally new to opera and classical music in our audiences! After a Schulich 5à7 show we did at Tanna Hall in Montréal a jazz major came up to me and said, “I’ve always felt alienated and uncomfortable to go to classical concerts, but seeing your face on the poster – someone that looked like me and on stage persuaded me – and I loved it!

Tanya’s secret ensemble (Photo by Elana Emer, Lighting by Mikael Kangas)

We’ve had people literally shaking with excitement after our shows because they had never seen themselves reflected in such a personal way or were just excited to see repertoire old and new performed in a groundbreaking way. In fact, one of those is Alexander Cappellazzo, one of our Lenskys whom I met in Montréal after our Kin Experience concert and whose enthusiasm was a surprise and delight to me!

As well, we opened our first auditions this year and received numerous applications from across the world – many of whom unfortunately we don’t have the budget for yet but give me lots of inspiration for future grants and projects! So much of the time we’ve heard, “We’re so glad this exists…We don’t have this where I live…I’m closeted and live in a traditional, religious, conservative town where I could never do this.” I had no idea the scale and impact that I would have created with Opéra Queens. I began it as something that I saw needed to create space for my identity and vision but it’s incredibly rewarding to see it go beyond myself. Isn’t that the greatest bliss – to know that our work reaches beyond one moment, one concert, one person – and into the lives, minds, and souls of others, to brighten their lives and help them feel seen, heard, and valued? As a mentor once told me prior to this whole Opéra Queens adventure – “I think you’ve found the M-word – your Ministry”. I may not be preaching, but I’ve find a Greater Purpose beyond myself – a privilege and honour I don’t take lightly.

barczablog: Opera is this costumed over the top medium, where the characters don’t resemble normal people. Can you talk about camp and drag at the opera, and why gay & transpersons might feel naturally drawn to the medium?

Mike aka Tanya: Exactly – isn’t this just a pairing that’s so natural?? And yet so underdone? So often I’ve felt and I know many of us QT persons feel so marginalized and under-represented at the opera as a concert-goer, performer, or crew member because we’re often subjected to the rules and limits of a traditional canon that force us to conform. Very colonial, yes? I’ve been told to “sit straighter” (as in more like a straight man, not more upright), “take out the camp”, etc. Which all makes sense if we’re aiming for a certain characterization and concept but…when do we get our turn? Even with newly commissioned operas – how often do we see two men kissing onstage in opera? Non-binary representation? Trans people who aren’t being abused? Even in mainstream media? Opera as you say is truly excess and isn’t queer-trans expression so often about being loud and proud, bold and beautiful? It’s a luxury we get to do this Canada and to be more of who we are here – and why our mission to raise funds for Kyiv Pride through our production embodies our wish that the world and in the sphere of “Tanya’s Secret” in particular in Eastern Europe that everyone will one day have the basic human right of existing as they are without persecution.

barczablog: Tell us more about your production.

Mike aka Tanya: I sing Tatyana as my drag diva persona Tanya Smania (named for Tatyana – so this is a real dream role for me). Among the highlights are baritone Georgios Iatrou who’s flown from Greece to sing his first Onegin and whose drag persona Nina Naï is fabulous in her own right! Lenskys Christina and Alexander have been mentioned – mezzo Catharin Carew is both my mother and lover Larina and Gremin – not our original intention but a rather Game of Thrones development given the pandemic. Olga is shared by Corinne DeJong and LA-based baritone Louise Floyd. Nurse is sung by treble Zwischenfach Dr. J. Marchand Knight (first mezzo role after a life mostly as a coloratura soprano) and Corinne on her other night. Thai countertenor Rain Saran Senavinin joins us as Triquet and we have lots of lovely singers in our Ensemble and who’ve been joining us internationally via Zoom as covers!

We have two Maestras leading the charge from the piano – Cecilia Nguyen Tran and Tina Faye. We have Egyptian-Canadian stage director Bridget Ramzy – who by the way I’m excited to have direct our Cleopatra show next year! I’m sure she will have fascinating insights. We have it fully staged and costumed in the gorgeous Betty Oliphant Theatre via the National Ballet School – with some twists of course. There is no chorus but we’ve turned many of them into ensembles. Ukrainian songs by Lysenko will be sprinkled in the first half – a contemporary of Tchaikovsky’s and reflecting Tchaikovsky’s Ukrainian roots and ties. Our aim in this time of conflict to ask what are borders? And could we love and unite rather than hate and divide more often? What would the world look like then? Rather than bringing on someone for costumes, not only for budget but to unleash our queer creativity – we’ve managed to snag some pretty fascinating lewks, especially in Act 3 which we’re setting as a drag ball!

barczablog: Do you have strong ideas about the work, meaning Pushkin’s poem and Tchaikovsky’s adaptation?

Mike aka Tanya: I really don’t think so – as “cutting edge” as our “Tanya’s Secret” adaptation is I think we’re really going back to what Tchaikovsky as a gay man likely would have wanted – to express his desires openly. The relationship with Onegin and Lensky is highly homoerotic and the acting out Onegin does throughout the show indicates to me a high degree of repression and closeting.

Also, titling our adaptation “Tanya’s Secret” is not simply a vanity placeholder (though it is nice to be the leading lady diva at last) – Tchaikovsky originally did want to name the opera Tatyana! But – it would still have been too innovative for the time, given that it was based on such an iconic novel as well. But the bias is clear – the fact that Tatyana gets all the memorable leit-motifs, that 12-14 minute Letter Scene, the massive 1.5 hour first act tipped in her viewpoint – it’s clear that Tchaikovsky put his passion and desires that he couldn’t expressed openly through her. A form of compositional drag. Also, it’s a way to uplift the Divine Feminine – in an art form when women are often abused, misunderstood, and ignored. In Act I in particularly we really wanted to highlight the sisterhood and togetherness of the four leading ladies and their relationships – which Bridget and I have not always felt depicted with great detail or sensitivity. Perhaps because diversity needs to happen with stage directing and behind-the-scenes work as well as onstage!

barczablog: It’s an opera with party scenes and large dance set-pieces that may be difficult or impossible to include, an opera full of social behaviour, posturing, actions and responses (sometimes suave, sometimes crude & rude).

Mike aka Tanya: This can be true and something I immediately thought of – though one day Met Opera, ROH, COC, etc. – if you offer us an orchestra and your stage and production team, we are happy to go all the way! I said I was ambitious. At the same time with much of indie opera – I think our mission is to tell the stories that need to be told – focussing on the message rather than simply the production value. Sure, it’s lovely to have a glamorous, splashy Zeffirelli production – but does it offer commentary on our life today? How we’ve evolved as a culture and civilization? There are so many possibilities that we’ve yet to see.

We’re lucky to have a swift yet talented Ensemble and off-night soloists that help fill our stage. At the same time, the individual storylines are so much more highlighted – especially telling multiple queer-trans storylines that can get lost in big crowds. And we afford our artists the ability to tell their stories in a more individual and personal way, self-agency and creative license is I think an integral part of queerness – or really being an artist in general, because we leave the door open for those who are simply great allies, questioning, etc.

In the end whether it’s 5 or 50 people, humanity is humanity in its beauty and terror. In particular, we weren’t so keen to depict the “traditional Orthodox Russian” staging you see especially given the times – but rather the rural/suburban/metropolitan queer identity and who it may change. Act I is a traditional, conservative, rural small town evolving into a try-hard awkward Sweet Sixteen party gone wrong in Act 2 to a swanky and perhaps superficial Drag Ball in Act 3. The dance pieces you’ll hear aren’t staged with a corps de ballet but we do interesting things with them that definitely tell our story

barczablog : Talk about Peter Tchaikovsky’s sexuality and how that changes your reading of the opera.

Mike aka Tanya: As I’ve said, this close relationship between the leading men Onegin and Lensky is so tantalizing. In our production, Tatyana as a young trans girl means that her feelings of being isolated and misunderstood ring more truly. I’ve always felt this sense of nostalgia and bitter-sweetness in this music so close to my heart as a melancholy young queer person and I think it makes so much sense in this queer-trans context. In terms of how everyone is costumed too – it gives them a chance to butch or femme themselves up. We’re liberated from aspiring to the heteronormative settings of most operas and that it’s sanctioned in a way by Tchaikovsky’s identity. That didn’t stop us from tackling Carmen, Agrippina, Samson et Dalila, etc. but it does add a sense of kinship and knowing with Tchaikovsky being gay – we hope he’s looking at us with his blessing knowing that what we couldn’t express openly in his life finally gets the chance to come to life.

Moment to watch for – I’m fascinated by the Russian word “drug”. Tchaikovsky uses it quite a bit and in his romances and Onegin and I don’t think it’s an accident. It’s a word transcending genders meaning alternatively: friend, beloved, spouse…in particular in the duel scene we have Onegin and Lensky essentially singing this love duet calling each other “drugs”…for us it just seems so obvious but those perpetuating the norms sure like ignoring them as hard as they can, don’t they?

barczablog: Which character in Onegin do you identify with? And what’s your favourite scene?

Mike aka Tanya: Well, personally I think it’s obvious! Tatyana! Since the beginning I identified with her in Act I – shy, dreaming, idealistic, awkward bookworm – but with deep passions and convictions. I like to think I’ve evolved in Act 3 Tatyana – I’ve found my Gremin and I put my duty and responsibility and the long-term over the short-term and the superficial. It’s the story of a person coming into their own and surprising those around them with the power within. I know not everyone gets her including our cast – someone called Tatyana “a wet blanket”, but that’s what’s wonderful about this opera. You have the dreamers and the skeptics, the lovers and the murderers, the redeemed and the unredeemable. I like to think Onegin is an “encyclopedia of love” – from familial to romantic, platonic, etc. and in our version we have all the combinations not usually seen in a hetero context!

barczablog: Do you have any future possibilities for adaptations in mind, possibly with cross-gender exploration..?

Mike aka Tanya: Well, in our Cleopatra show I’ll be tackling Barber’s rendition which is rather juicy. I’ve premièred Charmian in Marchand Knight’s “Cleopatra Built” which I supposed I’ll continue into our full presentation next summer (I had to replace one of of my own singers…as the quick study I am). Down the line I’m also interested in producing a “Sodom and Gomorrah” show, to tackle Salome and Samson. I’ve also been working on a collaboration with Haute Opera on a queerified Bluebeard. One day I also want to commission an opera called “Memoirs of a Gaysian” – somewhat autobiographical, about my life as a a closeted premed student turned fab opera-singing drag diva. Lots to unpack there. I definitely need to write a book or two which may be a tie-in…honestly there are enough ideas between us for several centuries I think. One step at a time!

barczablog: Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

Mike aka Tanya: Marianne Bendig Grandoni definitely comes to mind – my voice teacher in my 2nd undergrad at Laurier and someone I still try to see regularly. It was a real full circle moment bringing her to sing Gremin and giving her this opportunity to sing a drag role which is rare for her these days. Unfortunately Marianne is no longer able to join us for our shows but what happens in the rehearsal room is also important and it’s been wonderful having her there!

She represents the kind of intergenerational atmosphere I like to create in the rehearsal room – we have singers just out of undergrad to those well-seasoned looking for more openness than is usual in the “biz”. Mentors like Marianne keep that eternal youthful spirit of lifelong learning, enthusiasm, and openness devoid of ego or pretension given her calibre. We all have something to learn from each other at any stage!

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Tanya’s Secret produced by Opera Queens, is their adaptation of Eugene Onegin, Fri Aug 26 at 7 PM, or Sun, Aug 28 at 3 PM. (click here for ticket info)

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