The Silent Chorus Trope: Peter Hinton and Amélie Niermeyer

I’m trying to wrap my head around something. It first caught my eye in Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel in the 2017 Canadian Opera Company production. Hinton added a chorus of silent witnesses to the action, lending weight to the proceedings, while effectively revising the troubled piece. While Harry Somers’ opera reflects its time, a dialogue between the two contending cultures as he saw it, Hinton adds the vital perspective of the Indigenous populations. Riel was Métis, judged & executed in courts of the colonist populations. Whatever you may think of the verdict, the silent witnesses broaden the scope of the work immeasurably, arguably an act of redemption for a work that otherwise is problematic in its narrow focus.

Members of the Land Assembly in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel, 2017 (photo: Michael Cooper)

This past week I experienced something similar with the Staatsoper Hamburg production of Lucia di Lammermoor, directed by Amélie Niermeyer. Where Riel is a text concerning nations & cultures in conflict, Lucia addresses romance and marriage. The addition from Niermeyer is a ballet chorus of protesters, witnesses to rape culture & the ongoing expectations of subservience imposed upon their gender. Lucia usually goes mad, killing her new husband on their wedding night, singing a sad Mad Scene celebrating a kind of picturesque heart-break. Niermeyer and her rebel-Lucia cracks that open.

From program notes: “Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video” (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

When I started to write this I could only think of the two examples, wondering to myself: “do two examples constitute a trope?” But then I remembered a few other instances.

At the end of his Bayreuth Festival production of Götterdämmerung Patrice Chereau has the crowd of bystanders turn to face the audience.

And at the beginning of François Girard’s Parsifal there is pantomime by the silent chorus during the prelude, as the brotherhood of Grail Knights assembles into a circle. The hero is present, observing silently. It’s not as absurd as it sounds considering how gendered the work is, with the sung chorus in the outer acts male, the “chorus” of flower-maidens in the middle act female.

While this video is the whole two hour act I’d direct you to the first fifteen minutes especially .

I am sure there are other examples in opera and also spoken theatre, but these are the ones that come to mind.

What’s especially remarkable about the examples from Hinton & Niermeyer is the political effect, an oppressed group who are usually a forgotten piece of subtext. Yes the Indigenous people were already here long before the story of John A Macdonald and Louis Riel. Yes the women regularly endure such treatment, before and since the time of the original Lucia, modernized in Niermeyer’s treatment.

The silent chorus bears witness, changing the optics and the political balance of the story.

I had an idea. In the world premiere production of Hadrian directed by Peter Hinton for the Canadian Opera Company, I liked the staging, didn’t mind the music, but felt the chorus of Hebrew voices at the end of the opera didn’t work. I’m not sure what was intended, but in some ways it’s the precise opposite to what Hinton achieved with Riel. While his silent chorus lends credibility to what is otherwise the spectacle of a grave miscarriage of justice in Riel’s execution, the chorus in Hadrian show up only at the end. What if the next revision shows us some chorus –perhaps silently—in earlier scenes? Wainwright & librettist Daniel MacIvor might consider giving us glimpses of the subject who turn up so powerfully at the end of that opera. At the very least their earlier appearance would better connect them to Hadrian’s life & story. If they had a few lines to sing, or were mysteriously seen (more apparitions alongside the other ghosts in this opera) it could help prepare the ending. Just my 2 cents worth.

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Hamburg Lucia: go big or go home

OperaVision are making Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor available to you for three months. Here’s how they describe it.

Lucia loves Edgardo, the last heir of her family’s enemy clan. They are in danger, but Lucia refuses to betray her love. A ring falls to the floor, the nightmare begins – the nocturnal sky fills with lightning and thunder, madness and blood reign, there is a corpse, then another and yet another.

Staatsoper Hamburg’s Lucia di Lammermoor turns the city into a stage. Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video. They rush to the aid of the main character Lucia, who – like the director – asserts herself as a woman in a man’s world.
Streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:

CAST Lord Enrico Ashton: Christoph Pohl
Lucia: Venera Gimadieva
Sir Edgardo di Ravenswood: Francesco Demuro
Lord Arturo Bucklaw: Beomjin Kim
Raimondo Bidebent: Alexander Roslavets
Alisa: Katja Pieweck
Normanno: Daniel Kluge
Chorus: Chorus of Staatsoper Hamburg
Orchestra: Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg
Music: Gaetano Donizetti
Conductor: Giampaolo Bisanti
Director: Amélie Niermeyer
Set Designer: Christian Schmidt
Costume Designer: Kirsten Dephoff
Lighting Designer: Bernd Purkrabek
Choreographer: Dustin Klein
Chorus Master: Christian Günther
Dramaturg: Rainer Karlitschek
Video Director: Jan Speckenbach
Photo (thumbnail) by Brinkhoff/Moegenburg

Lucia makes for an interesting study of the whole adaptation question. The work is well-nigh indestructible given that the virtuoso set pieces it’s best known for, the sextet and the Mad Scene, can work either as static display pieces (where the singer shows off), or as moments where the characters seem to be breaking down, emotionally distraught and therefore entitled to an out of tune squawk here or there.

For the Hamburg production directed by Amélie Niermeyer we’re in the realm of Regietheater, “Director’s theatre”, which means that the original work is modified in places, drifting away from the original while aiming at something socially contemporary, relevant. In the surtitles I saw phrases inserted that Donizetti never set to music. That will concern the purists, rather than those seeking to reform opera, a medium closely associated with the authoritarian regimes and the rich. The biggest intervention made by the director (mentioned in the summary above) is the filmed dancers overlaid via video, an electrifying & ironic effect simultaneous to the live singing & movements by chorus & personages.

The opera as written in Italian tells a romantic Scottish tale via the bel canto style, which already requires a sizeable suspension of disbelief. At the height of the drama everything freezes for the most famous music of the opera, as six people ruminate upon the situation, frozen by the stylistic convention as they elaborate upon their feelings in that moment. “Chi mi frena in tal momento” does not disguise the absurdity of the convention, putting it front & centre. The fact that our Edgardo must now hold a pistol is particularly absurd, but perhaps no crazier than what opera fans routinely are expected to swallow & believe at such moments.

This is one of the most rewarding Lucias I’ve seen. In a tasteful conservative staging as written: I’d be sitting back waiting for the moments of display, hoping that they’re sung well, with some drama beyond “do they hit the high note”, while trying to stay awake. The Directors Theatre approach may be more exciting, but always leaves me a bit frustrated given that some character or other is left out of the mix for one reason or another, sacrificed on the altar of artistic expediency. For example in the David Alden Lucia seen in Toronto in the past decade the concept mostly worked with the two principals while leaving Lucia’s brother Enrico struggling to make sense of a half-baked concept. With Niermeyer’s feminist reading she almost manages to bring the entire thing into the 21st century. But her concept is problematic as far as Edgardo, Lucia’s lover, and its understanding of romance. While I can totally buy into this idea of Lucia as a modern incarnation of an eternal sacrificial ritual, her lover isn’t just another rapist, indeed in some ways he could be seen as a victim of this culture, his final scene the feminine mirror image to the aggressiveness Lucia shows in her Mad Scene. The pleasures are more mental than visceral, a production appealing to me as scholar while deconstructing or negating the romantic side.

This production is often illuminating. The set exposes multiple spaces where, for example, we see Lucia actually killing Arturo, “offstage” from the others who are singing at that moment.

Set by Christin Schmidt, costumes by Kirsten Dephoff (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

There are moments of pure magic, admittedly observed after my first viewing, when I’m not sure I fully understood the subtexts & the implications. There are young children who appear who might signify Lucia & her brother Enrico, while also suggesting Lucia & her lover Edgardo. The ambiguity of the image is surprisingly attractive. It works, at times very beautiful.

As far as the theatrical side of the equation goes, Venera Gimadieva as Lucia opposite Francesco Demuro as Edgardo make a believable pair of lovers. If you’re one of those more conservative viewers who dislike Regietheater while wishing to close your eyes and listen to the singing, the leads are visually attractive, but in the words of American Idol’s old judge Randy Jackson, they’re both “pitchy”, which is my euphemism to avoid harsh language. Gimadieva is often quite lovely sounding, Demuro has some stirring high notes, but the secondary roles sound better. I was shocked that Beomjin Kim as Arturo (the man who marries Lucia, aka lamb led to the slaughter) was substantially better sounding than Edgardo even though it’s a small role, impeccably sung. Christoph Pohl as Enrico showed off a wonderful baritone, even as he gave us an original take on Lucia’s brother. Alexander Roslavets’s Raimondo had the most beautiful singing of the night. Another way to understand (or rationalize) is simply that the lovers are the heart of the drama, in rebellion against the staid society portrayed so stolidly by the others. Conductor Giampaolo Bisanti gets a fluid & transparent sound from the Philharmonisches Staatsorchester Hamburg & the chorus.

“Inspired by worldwide women’s protests, director Amelie Niermeyer has filmed dancers in the city and invites them into the theatre via video” (photo: Brinkhoff/Moegenburg)

I wonder, though. Could this same concept –where we see the ghostly images of the dancers from the street protest—not have been enormously powerful using costuming & sets placing the action exactly where the score had asked? I think the modern texts inserted by the director would have been that much more jarring coming from a conventionally-attired Lucia. We didn’t need the pistol. But nevermind my misgivings, the production works if you meet it on its own terms, without taking meek halfway measures. Boldness is key.

Niermeyer brings Lucia much closer to the ideal than any I’ve yet seen. This is an ambitious reading daring to re-frame Lucia as an important archetype with whom we must reckon. enlarging the scope of the opera.

See for yourself. We were told it is
“streamed on OperaVision on 11 June 2021 at 19:00 CET and available for 3 months:”

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Untangled by Lisa Damour

One of the pleasures or perils of reading multiple books at the same time is how suddenly one captures your attention, shutting everything & everyone out in the process. It can be fun to disappear down a rabbit hole with your newest favorite author.

Such are the powers of the author of the book I just finished namely Lisa Damour, an expert in her field.

Lisa Damour PhD. is director of the Laurel School Center for Research on Girls. I’m embarrassed to admit that this even sounded a bit odd to me, that there might be a need for a centre researching girls. Dinosaur alert (moi that is)….

Yet of course that’s so (the need for such a centre I mean), and the appetite for Damour’s best-sellers is de facto evidence.

Please check out this video, it’s very good.

I have so much to learn.

I’ve followed her on Twitter (and this is her Twitter photo).

She also has podcasts. This week’s topic is “What Should My Kids Do This Summer?”

Excuse me..! I almost vanished into another rabbit hole, namely Damour’s online content.

Let me get back to the book I just finished. It’s Untangled: guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood. Although my children are grownups (and I’m old enough to be a grand-father) that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for me or other old dudes to learn.

Quite the contrary, I think it’s valuable to look at the predicament of the 21st century parent, both for insights of the grandfatherly sort, and even for some retrospective insight about parenting. I found myself feeling so grateful that my kids didn’t have to deal with social media in their century. It’s getting harder for parents. I started out reading with the ambition to better connect with a grandchild. But it was closer to home than just a parenting book, much more universal, as I suddenly had insights about being a dad, flashbacks to my own time as a teen, as well as my time as a manager & employee, as a music-director & performer….Damour sheds light on human relationships.

I find myself intrigued by the differences between girls & boys, and Damour is an expert. We hear of the strategies girls use, often quite different from the ones boys use. The divergences might be the key to understanding the trajectory of our society: its weaknesses, its future. Any person fascinated by human behaviour can learn from Damour’s book.

The seven transitions in the title correspond to seven pathways for discussion, each with a chapter.
One: Parting with Childhood
Two: Joining a New Tribe
Three: Harnessing Emotions
Four: Contending with Adult Authority
Five: Planning for the Future
Six: Entering the Romantic World
Seven: Caring for Herself

After laying out the basics, each chapter ends with a “When to Worry” segment for that topic. While some might read parenting books to guide their way, navigating the treacherous waters their children may be in, yet when we read psychology books we come to understand ourselves, to make sense out of our life (for better or worse), how we got into our present predicament & the lives being lived around us.

Untangled may be a book about teenage girls but it has a great deal to say to anyone in a family. I’m finding it opens vistas upon the future and the past, ways of understanding dynamics that never occurred to me before. It isn’t just for parents of teenagers, and it’s absorbing reading even if you don’t have a teenaged child.

Damour has an effortless prose style.

I’ve obtained Damour’s next book, Under Pressure. It seems that girls growing up in the 21st century are experiencing a kind of epidemic of stress, anxiety & depression. Wow.

I must keep reading.

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Opera Atelier’s Resurrection

When you study theatre history one of the first things you may encounter is the quem quaeritis trope.

It’s so short that I can quote it in its entirety, a tiny four line drama re-enacted at Easter in churches.

Angels: whom seek ye? (or in Latin, “quem quaeritis?”)
Women: (Mary Magdalene and other women, possibly including the Virgin Mary) Jesus of Nazareth
Angels: He is not here, He is risen. Go spread the good news that He is risen.
Women: Hallelujah!

The roots of the trope are as old as Christianity. Indeed you could make the argument that this exchange is fundamental to the religion, the root of Christianity itself.

Soprano Meghan Lindsay, Tyler Gledhill (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

Dramatizing such a story used to be a matter of great delicacy, as for instance when Handel’s undertaking with librettist Carlo Sigismondo Capese collided with papal restrictions during Lent, 1708, when the composer was still in his 20s and Messiah was still more than a quarter century in the future, the output of a mature composer, not a youngster in his 20s. I have to pause and talk about that. We think of Mozart or Schubert or Korngold or Mendelssohn when invoking the genius of youth. Let’s add Handel to the list, who was all of 23 years old when he composed Resurrection, a remarkably mature work belying his age.

And now Opera Atelier have made a film of Resurrection that’s especially apt for this moment as our society begins to re-open, to attempt to come back after a pandemic. Handel’s Resurrection is also Opera Atelier’s, and yes it’s our own resurrection as well. The film is in place of a live production scheduled for April 2020 but postponed.

Although La resurrezione (The resurrection) was composed as an oratorio rather than an opera, the difference between operas (meant for the theatre) and oratorios (meant for concert presentation) has become a matter of semantics in the 21st century, when oratorios are staged as though they were operas, and operas are often given in concert. The genre question is complicated even further when we watch it as film, imagining it with an audience in a theatre.

The resulting work is a curious mixture of traditional and COVID-protocol, as we watch historically informed dances performed in surgical masks. While one might suggest it’s post-modern in its fusion of a genuine baroque sensibility with so much that is new, actually we forget the modern stuff pretty quickly. It’s theatre and that means a willing suspension of disbelief, except that in the operatic realm surely you don’t have problems with suspending disbelief or we wouldn’t be here in the first place. Angels singing coloratura? Mary Magdalene, Lucifer and John singing arias? Triumphant Handelian choruses of celebration?

But of course.

The set from the reliably inspired mind of Gerard Gauci mixes representational elements that would not be out of place in a medieval play, such as one might have seen in Toronto from PLS, the early theatre specialists.

Set designer/Art Director Gerard Gauci

We’re mostly seeing a spectacle performed on set installations inside a beautiful ballroom with a chandelier, to gently suggest places such as the sepulchre of Jesus, a shining platform apt for the Archangel or another darker one for Lucifer: just as you might get in a medieval mystery play. While there’s a big empty space in the middle for singers and especially for dancers, those platform installations impact the dramaturgy of the film, as both director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg sometimes subdivide the stage, seeming to create localized events. The sepulchre is first shown occupied, later with flowers, but it is a subset of the larger stage as though it were an actual locale, and not just a place to play the scene.

The result, hurdling all obstacles with the usual Opera Atelier athleticism & creative flair, is stunningly beautiful. The work is about 90 minutes long. There are two actions. In one an archangel leads an army (dancers carrying swords) to the gates of Hades against Lucifer, who initially proclaims victory but is eventually humbled. On earth meanwhile, we see Mary Magdalene and Cleophas mourning Jesus, John the Evangelist who encourages them to visit the tomb, where they eventually encounter the angel, and hear its exhortation to spread the good news.

Soprano Carla Huhtanen is strong as the archangel, sometimes celebratory, sometimes ironic when mocking her adversary.

Carla Huhtanen as the Archangel

Douglas Williams’ Lucifer might remind you of the romantic misconception about Satan as hero of Paradise Lost, unrepentantly the star in his own mind and in his rhetoric, a persuasive villain musically & dramatically.

Douglas Williams as Lucifer

On earth we’re consoled by the voices of soprano Meghan Lindsay as Mary Magdalene and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Cleophas, a series of flawless arias from each. Tenor Colin Ainsworth as St John is positively stirring, a voice I’ve missed.

As Resurrection is an unknown work there can be no orthodoxy. While the use of ballet, (even if the movement is true to the period), is surely anachronistic, let’s be crystal clear. Opera Atelier are as much a ballet company as an opera company, and dance is their strength. The dance elements employed in Resurrection illuminate the action, providing a release of tension. The dancers look like angels.

We’re hearing the best sounding Tafelmusik performance I can recall, led by David Fallis. His musical direction, including a scholarly study of the score, is the best reason to see & hear Resurrection, even if he is invisible. The music was pre-recorded, the singers & dancers lip-synching (and toe-synching?) along. Elisa Citterio is the Music Director for Tafelmusik, who seem to be attaining greater heights every time. Whether I should be thanking her for making the ensemble in which she plays so wonderful or David for his leadership is perhaps a moot point. I only wish we could see them somehow, as this is the one troubling omission, a film from a period ensemble with no sign of the period musicians or their leaders. But I’m being a stickler I suppose.

The opera can be seen for $25 via Opera Atelier’s website.

Here’s a documentary about the making of The Resurrection.

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Le Barbier de Séville à l’Opéra de Québec

I watched the premiere of an online concert version of Barber of Seville, available until June 12th.

It’s semi-staged, meaning that you watch the cast perform the opera in formal attire, Figaro miming shaving Bartolo, the lights flashing for the storm music in the last act. But even so it feels like a huge step forward considering that one of the last live operas I saw before the pandemic was the COC Barber way back on January 20th 2020.

Oh my what a breath of fresh air, to be able to see this light-hearted opera again.

Hugo Laporte gives us a Figaro with a lovely full tone, and the ability to do the comedy even in his tux. Sarah Bissonnette as Rosina is a genuine mezzo with a wonderful colour, bold from top to bottom of her range, totally believable. Doug MacNaughton’s Bartolo handles all the quick patter, with a beautiful sound throughout. Alain Coulombe’s Basilio may not be the wackiest you’ve ever seen, but it’s well sung.

And then there’s the Count. I’ve missed the voice of tenor Andrew Haji.

Tenor Andrew Haji (photo: Veronika Roux)

Haji gave us genuine bel canto, smooth as silk from top to bottom complete with multiple high Cs. The voice is glorious.

The adaptation uses a narrator, leaving out much of the recitative. Although it may have been intended to save time, the resulting opera (at two hours and 15 minutes) is close in length to the COC Barber, once you remove the intermission. I would rather have the recit, especially in the scenes involving Bartolo and Figaro.

Even so wow, it’s a blast hearing this opera again, especially with Haji. While I found the overture a bit slow, the musical direction from Jean-Michel Malouf was excellent, especially in the ensembles, where we heard everyone. Rossini was well-served.

The link will be there until June 12th.

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Dogies and tummies

I’m no cowboy. This probably won’t be news to you, but I wanted to state it up front.

The first word in the headline may resemble a typo, if you assume I meant “doggies”. No I meant it the way I spelled it, “dogies”. If you’re like me, you’ll know it through an old-time cowboy song containing the phrase “get along little dogie”.

I dimly recall Roy Rogers singing the song on TV long ago. Through the miracle of Youtube it’s here for you to see, quite a stunning song actually.

I see that the melody probably came from Ireland originally.

There’s sadness in the song (speaking of misfortune), so it’s no surprise that the google definition for “dogie” is motherless or neglected calf. If you’re a cowboy and see a calf that’s alone without a mom? I guess that’s a dogie. In Roy Rogers’ song it’s a matter of sentiment, that the poor little orphan separated from its mother must forever wander, a tiny exile seeking a new home with the herd.

It seems apt after writing yesterday about the TV show Mom and my own mother.

Before I ever looked up the meaning of the word, though, there was the song sung by Yosemite Sam, a parody of the old tune. Instead of the compassionate voice of Roy Rogers, you get the rough & tumble belligerent. I have to be careful when I speak of the cartoon Sam that I be crystal clear that I’m not speaking of my dog Sam (short for Samantha: but nobody ever calls her the long version of her name).

The cartoon song made me laugh when I was younger, although now that I know what “dogie” means I won’t laugh again.

The words go like this:

“I can’t git a long little dogie
I can’t even get one that’s small
I can’t git a long little dogie
I can’t even get one at all.

“Great horny toads”..! And in case you’re wondering, the word “Yosemite” has four syllables, not the three you might have heard from a certain politician.

When I looked up the origins of ”dogie” I saw several possible definitions. The one that caught my eye is the first mentioned in the following excerpt from Cowboy Chronicles (I highlight some of the text)

“In Western Words Ramon F. Adams gives one possible etymology for dogie, whose origin is unknown. During the 1880s, when a series of harsh winters left large numbers of orphaned calves, the little calves, weaned too early, were unable to digest coarse range grass, and their swollen bellies “very much resembled a batch of sourdough carried in a sack.” Such a calf was referred to as dough-guts. The term, altered to dogie according to Adams, “has been used ever since throughout cattleland to refer to a pot-gutted orphan calf.” Another possibility is that dogie is an alteration of Spanish dogal, “lariat.” Still another is that it is simply a variant pronunciation of doggie.”

Dough-guts!? So sad to imagine a bloated calf, weaned too early, orphaned, forced away from his / her mother cow.

Wow no wonder they sing such sad songs.

I was watching my own Sam eating grass this week. She does that as a remedy, living with tummy troubles (especially her liver) that almost killed her. Of course she’s a carnivore and she’s 14 years old, so the grass might help her feel better.

I quietly said to her “get along little doggie.”

Sam crops the longest blades of grass

I’m glad she’s still alive.

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Melisande and Sam

The picture is a bit of whimsy, Sam seeming to float with the flower.

If you don’t have your glasses on (hello! That was how I took the photo), the alignment of dog + flower is much easier to do, because everything is a bit blurry, vague. I suppose, too, I’m thinking of intoxication after writing about the TV show Mom, which features alcoholics & their attempts to recover. Intoxication can be a nice thing, if it helps one to perceive beauty.

I was not intoxicated, please note. I was just a bit high on the flowers and my beautiful dog.

It struck me, after I shared the picture. I was thinking of coining an aphorism, something like “ambiguity is the root of poetry.” Or perhaps “precision is not problematic and too bad”.

When something is in the language of safety, unambiguous, it is designed to defeat allusiveness. We don’t want someone to hint that they want help. You don’t call 911, and then ask the operator to guess what you want. Signification that is denotative, aiming to be clear & precise is the opposite of something connotative, suggestive.

I was thinking of how Maurice Denis, the artist who did the cover art for the program at the premiere of Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande May 17, 1893 (the single performance attended by Claude Debussy), used his girlfriend in all his art: that is until she became his wife. I think it was later that same year that they were married.

Maurice Denis’s cover of program of Pelléas et Mélisande, May 17 1893

The face is vague, indistinct. It is, dare I say it, ambiguous for its cartoony lack of precision.

With the absence of precision we move in the direction of something symbolic, universal. Perhaps we might say “symbolist”. All women become like the angelic figures in Denis’ paintings. It’s a lovely thought.

“L’Echelle Dans Le Feuillage” by Maurice Denis,

I don’t mistake my photo of Sam for art, but it was a fun picture all the same. Ambiguity made it possible to see the dog as though she were on top of the flower, as though the flower were a big spheroid, rather than a small flower seeming large because i was shooting from up close.

I wondered how my photo of Sam might be received. So far the “reviews” (comments on social media) have been very kind & friendly.

I’m glad I didn’t have my glasses on.

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What Mom taught me

I’m very lucky that my mother is still alive, an amazing example. My dad passed away when I was very young, so my family is matriarchal, lucky for us. I only have 3 or 4 solid memories of my father. I was five when he died. Meanwhile, my mom is still intellectually sharp, a source of wisdom and a whole lot of fun.

Case in point, today’s lesson. My mom developed a mild infection in her eye last weekend. By mid-week her self-care had brought it under control, and today it’s almost completely gone.

She giggled as she recited a little verse for me.

The pimple popped,
I have no pain
From now on?
I can’t complain.

She’s been doing lots of versifying, and sharing her words of wisdom. I could do worse than to be explaining why there’s no reason to be upset, in rhyme.

But that’s not what the headline meant. Forgive me.

My favorite television show just had its last episode after an eight season run, namely Mom. With a family like mine it was inevitable i’d love it to pieces.

In case you didn’t know it’s a show about a mother & daughter. They are both recovering alcoholics & addicts, struggling with recovery, blame & judgment and their survival. It’s the darkest comedy I’ve ever seen yet it’s very funny too.

Please note, I’m not in recovery but I was a serious drinker in my 20s, coping with undiagnosed arthritis for over a decade, using beer & cannabis for pain relief, as I clung to my sanity (wondering if the pain was all in my head, as at least a couple of doctors implied….they couldn’t figure out what was wrong). I survived until the diagnosis gave me back my dignity.

Can you think of better theme music for such a show than Glinka’s frenetic overture to Ruslan & Ludmilla?

Fun but crazy. Crazy but fun.

Was Glinka a drinker? (yes my mother’s rhymes are better).

But I was serious about the show. It is teaching me a few things.

1-When you watch episode after episode featuring alcoholics trying to recover from their addictions (and there are several others they explore, besides drink) you learn not to judge. That’s the lesson. Don’t judge. No matter how they look, how wealthy, how young or old, you don’t know what people have suffered, are enduring. Don’t judge.

2- There are lots of possible addictions. I know people who drink, smoke, gamble, take drugs of various kinds. They spend as though credit cards were a drug ( maybe they are?). And there are other addictions too. It’s complicated.

Jodi (Emily Osment) with Bonnie ( Allison Janney)

3- Truth is best whenever possible although sometimes a lie is merciful & kind. But it may be hard to understand the truth, hard to discern the truth.

4- Boundaries are a good thing. It’s not something you may be aware of if you had a good upbringing. If your childhood included the death of a parent or a divorce, boundaries or the lack thereof may be vitally important to you. We see it again and again as a plot point on the show.

5- Age is just a number. You can be young all your life (as my mom repeatedly shows me) or you can be old if you choose that path: although I don’t recommend it.

6- Writing is the root of good comedy. Mom has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen. I’m currently binge-watching season six of eight. Yes it’s ironic that I seem to be addicted to a show about addiction. Sue me.

7-Acting helps too. The cast are superb, beginning with Allison Janney. She won a best supporting actress Oscar for I Tonya a few years ago, another nasty mom portrayal.

They have had amazing guests as well, such as Kevin Pollak, Octavia Spencer, Beverley D’angelo, Rosie O’Donnell, Harry Hamlin, Kristin Chenoweth, Ellen Burstyn, and many more.

Let me offer a sample of the show if you’ve never seen it. It’s funny, I wonder how I missed seeing this until this year. I found it just as they did the series finale earlier this month. Oh well… c’est la vie.

Allison Janney as Bonnie is nothing like her oscar-winning portryal of Tonya Harding’s mom.

Here’s a glimpse.

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American Idolatry

The finale of 2021’s American Idol competition this past weekend is a curious reflection of popular culture, a snapshot of our world.

There were three finalists:

Grace Kinstler sang covers, sometimes emulating stars such as Whitney Houston with her powerful sound.

Willie Spence also sang covers with his beautiful voice soaring effortlessly.

Chayce Beckham sang a few covers, but also some original songs he composed himself.

Not only that. Chayce had the foresight to use his temporary fame as a finalist, to launch his single titled 23 that soared to the top of the country charts.

No wonder he won.

I’m just making a few simple observations.

Notice that the demographics of the three finalists–
(a woman, a man of colour, and a white country singer)
–match those for the three judges this year
(Katy Perry, Lionel Richie & Luke Bryan).

Notice that the two most successful contestants ever to appear on the program were not winners, but attained success without much help from the show.

Taylor Swift is the most successful woman in the music business right now, having reinvented the template. No I never remember her melodies. Does it matter? She’s doing very well.

Jennifer Hudson might have the most impressive voice ever heard on the show, but that doesn’t matter. She found fame in Hollywood, singing more Broadway belt than pop music.

But both Swift & Hudson used the showcase of the program to launch careers.

I wonder, does it matter how the show came out, that Chayce won using his original song? I think it’s arguably a step forward, recognizing that while Grace & Willie sang beautiful versions of the songs of other people, Chayce is the first winner who is a complete original.

Next year expect to see more people trying to do what Chayce did.

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ZUMI Legends

I’ve been listening to the ten Dvorak Legends played by ZUMI Piano Duo.

“ZUMI” comes from the two players. Zuzana & Mikolaj, or ZU + MI = ZUMI.

Zuzana Simurdova and Mikolaj Warszynski

Pianist Mikolaj Warszynski caught my attention with a pair of recordings, both reviewed in 2019.

I’ve now heard his duo partner Zuzana Simurdova on the video.

Do they pronounce that “Zoomey”? or “Tsu Me”? or even “Zsu-me”? (zs as in zsa-zsa). Given that he’s Polish & she’s Czech, both now living in Alberta (in Western Canada) I wonder whose phonetics to employ.

The Legends (“Legendy”) also have me thinking about names. The ten pieces of Op 59 by Antonin Dvorak from 1881, are about 45 minutes long when played as complete suite. Like his better known Op 46 Slavonic Dances of 1878, they were first composed for piano duo and later orchestrated. The versions you hear on radio are normally the orchestrated ones even if a purist (me) might prefer the original piano duo versions. The world has changed so much, the idea of the piano duo genre is antique, a vestige of the old world. One of my favorite scenes of the film Impromptu shows Chopin & Liszt playing a little bit of a Beethoven symphony reduced to piano duo (and maybe we’re to think it was Liszt who did the transcription). Before YouTube, CDs, LPs, gramophones, one might encounter unfamiliar music through reductions for piano either as player or listener. Making music in a space without an audience but captured for video seems particularly authentic for this magnificently anachronistic music-making.

I wonder what Dvorak understood by his title. I’d love to hear those who know Dvorak & his life tell me more about this. We have Hungarian Rhapsodies, Slavonic Dances, Ballades from Chopin, all of which lead me on to wonder about subtexts, stories, situations. Music may be abstract but that won’t stop us from associating, filling in blanks. The Legends suggest something poetic but with hints of national myth, subtler & less extroverted than the Slavonic Dances.

ZUMI give us authenticity, brilliant when necessary but not showing off. It’s interior music, thoughtful. We’re in a space apt for reflection. Yet some of the tunes grab you. The G-minor Legend #3 has some of the clever repetition & echoes that make it a bit of an ear-worm. The C-major #4 molto maestoso might remind you of Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance #1 aka “Land of Hope & Glory”, and please note the march was written about 20 years after Dvorak’s tune.

The link will be there until at least June 8th. I’ll be interested to see what ZUMI undertake next.

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