Canadian Premieres of Jake Heggie Holocaust Operas

New Company Stages Canadian Premieres of Jake Heggie Holocaust Operas in Partnership with North America’s Largest Conservative Jewish Congregation
Another Sunrise​ and ​Farewell, Auschwitz​ to be staged by
the Electric Bond Opera Ensemble at Beth Tzedec

TORONTO – The Electric Bond Opera Ensemble​, an exciting, new Toronto-based company presents Jake Heggie​’s Another Sunrise​ & ​Farewell, Auschwitz​, two one-act operas of survival.

The works will be staged by Aaron Willis ​(Soulpepper, Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon & Co-Artistic Director of Convergence Theatre), in new productions designed by Jennifer
Goodman​, at Beth Tzedec Congregation ​in Toronto. Michael Shannon​ (Tapestry Opera,
Canadian Opera Company), will lead an ensemble of five acclaimed, Toronto-based
instrumentalists from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, including Mark Skazinetsky, Eric Braley, Igor Gefter​ and Michael Chiarello​. The cast will feature rising and established Toronto-based singers, soprano Sara Schabas​, ​mezzo-soprano Georgia Burashko​ and baritone Sean Watson.

With a libretto by Gene Scheer​ (Moby Dick, Three Decembers, Grammy-nominee), the two one-act operas centre around Krystyna Zywulska​, the Polish dissident, writer and
Auschwitz-survivor. Born Jewish with the name Sonia Landau​, she took on the name and
identity Krystyna Zywulska in 1943 under interrogation by the Gestapo, reclaiming her Jewish heritage much later in life. The works explore her memories of survival in the camps, brought to life through musical allusions and vibrant settings of the poetry she wrote in Auschwitz that kept her alive.

“Memory is a very tricky thing,” composer Jake Heggie said in an interview with the Jewish News (Northern California). “Trying to define dramatic, emotional moments in our life with words is very difficult, which is why songs and opera are the best way to explore, because they give it emotional context.”

Jake Heggie’s music has been acclaimed for both its complexity and its accessibility, touching audiences both familiar and unfamiliar with the genre. Music director Michael Shannon ​notes, “This achingly beautiful score transports us into the mind of someone haunted by memories so traumatic, they defy description. The music features Heggie’s trademark lyricism along with integrating many different styles, including nods to Chopin, which invite us all to remember along with her.”

The operas will be performed in Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Herman Hall,​ transformed into a playing space that will take us back into Krystyna’s memories of her life in the camp, brought to life by designer Jennifer Goodman.

“The presentation is in line with Beth Tzedec’s commitment to creating innovative ways of engaging with important topics that are relevant to the community,” Yacov Fruchter​, Beth Tzedec’s director of community building and spiritual engagement, describes. “I am excited to be working with an incredible team of young talent who are experimenting so bravely and beautifully with how to present the complexity of the Holocaust through their art form.”

The Canadian premiere performances will take place on February 10, 2018 at 8pm and February 11, 2018 at 2pm, at Beth Tzedec Congregation (1700 Bathurst St., Toronto).
For more information or for tickets, please visit: www.anothersunrise.ca or call 416-781-3511.

ABOUT Electric Bond Opera Ensemble
Toronto’s Electric Bond Opera Ensemble ​aims to present classical and operatic works that tell untold stories, reminding audiences and performers of the “electric bond of being” (Thomas Huxley) by which we are united. The group is founded by Toronto-based soprano Sara Schabas, who recently organized three fundraising recitals to bring Syrian refugees to Canada, and has performed and worked with musical charities Songs by Heart (Chicago), Sharing Notes (Chicago), and at Baycrest Hospital in Toronto. Another Sunrise / Farewell, Auschwitz comprises the group’s first fully staged production.

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“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment.

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Film music as lens: another way to study cinema

It’s the same for Episode VIII as in IV, V, VI, as it was in I, II, III and more recently in VII. No this isn’t a spoiler. No I won’t give anything away.

I just saw the most recent Star Wars film. They may have lost Carrie Fisher aka Princess Leia, they may have killed off assorted characters, but the franchise is alive and well so long as they have their MVC: Most Valuable Composer.

John Williams continues to deepen the complex text he began with Star Wars aka Episode IV: A New Hope that first appeared in 1977. With each new episode, it may be true that there were lots of characters and incidents, but there weren’t that many new themes. Instead, we heard themes we’d heard before but in subtler versions, transformed. So where Darth Vader’s theme was originally the big loud imperial march, it continues to rear its head subtly, like a bad dream. There are themes for The Force, for Princess Leia, and more recently, a theme for the Rebellion against The Empire.

I’m not a big fan of the series. Other than Episode V, I didn’t like any of the other films: until now that is. The newest episode is the first one that has the same depths as The Empire Strikes Back. I won’t say anything more about it, other than to observe that the best moments in both films are helped by Williams.

That’s pretty amazing when you consider that he’s been writing these scores for literally 40 years. Eight films, and that’s just the Star Wars series. He’s been in on other franchises such as the Indiana Joneses, the Homes Alone, the Parks Jurassic, Oliver Stone’s president movies (JFK and Nixon), the first of the Harry Potter films, and lots more individual films.

Before any of those, came something much smaller and might be William’s trademark.

Two notes.

They might be the simplest tune ever written. Can we even call it a tune? “Melody” is usually understood as something pretty, beautiful rather than something scary.
But most people can hum the tune, even though the film is over 40 years old. Even without the visuals, the music is a powerful evocation of the film.

John Williams wrote the music for Jaws (1975). Nowadays when the music is played—as it was at a Toronto Symphony concert full of Williams’s film scores —the audiences burst into nervous laughter. But back then it wasn’t quite so funny. I remember people being afraid underwater: even in swimming pools! I know what you’re thinking, sharks aren’t usually found in chlorinated water.

It was a kind of mass hysteria.

In March, the Toronto Symphony will present Jaws with live orchestral accompaniment: three times. It’s a thrilling experience, seeing a film with an orchestra playing the soundtrack live in a big hall such as Roy Thomson Hall. What I find especially wonderful is that the TSO are calling it “Jaws In Concert”. In fact that’s arguably what all sound cinema is, right? A big loud orchestral soundtrack that accompanies a film illustrates and amplifies the emotional arc of the story. If you can’t already tell from the images or dialogue when to be afraid, when to be sad, or when to be elated, the orchestra tells you. It’s what Wagner used to do in his operas, and is the essence of the average film-score.

Done live in a concert hall, it’s that much more powerful.

And it has become a regular thing. Each year the TSO does more and more of these presentations, and the audiences are growing steadily. People seem to have noticed that one of the most exciting thing about film is the music.

Music and Film is the title of a course I teach at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies, beginning Wednesday January 17th. It’s normal to study a medium through its artists, right? We study painting by looking at painters, acting by paying close attention to actors, ballet through its dancers.

What about cinema? It’s been usual to focus on directors or star actors, even though there are many different artists in different disciplines who are responsible for a feature film.  It’s just a figure of speech when I speak of “film music as a lens”. The picture that’s brought into focus is cinema and its history, illuminated for us by attention to the music, in much the same way we’d do it with actors or directors. In fact we’re just doing the usual sort of thing, but it’s still a relatively new area of study. The best theoretical books are still relatively recent, and there’s still lots to learn and to discuss.

And as a new subject it can surprise people with its insights.

And whether or not you notice the film’s score, the industry took notice a very long time ago. It’s usually far more lucrative to score a feature film you’d see in a theatre than a symphony that you’d encounter in the concert hall: although the concert hall is now becoming a place to find film music too.

Sometimes the song or symphonic poem was already created and well-known before the film was created.

Sometimes it’s a new composition just for the story being told.  Jaws in Concert will be presented March 21, 22 and 23 by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.

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Ave atque vale 2017

Ave atque vale 2017.   And thank goodness the year is ending.

While it may have included some celebratory moments –the Sesquicentennial of Canadian Confederation and my father’s 100th birthday—I felt a grim shadow hanging over everything.

Can there be any doubt that Donald Trump is Man of the Year?  Nevermind a “person of the year”, his gender is front and centre. If they gave a “pussy-grabber of the year” award he’d win, hands down (excuse the pun).  While Harvey Weinstein et al have been outed and confronted, one can’t help noticing that the role-model-in-chief is still at it, still baiting and trolling and commanding the largest arsenal in the world.

So as Beethoven might have said: oh friends, not in that tone…

Let’s be celebratory. Eat drink and be merry, because soon the holidays are over and maybe just maybe that scary shadow will start a war to ensure that he can’t be removed from office. Ha, I first typed it as “removed from orifice” which might be just as accurate.

My purpose in this annual space is multiple:

  • I need to observe passages, to welcome those arriving and to thank those who are leaving. While they may not be completely gone yet, I can’t help noticing that multiple artists are coming to the close of their tenure, and at times seem to be making programming choices that are somewhat valedictory in nature: which is one motivation for the headline “ave atque vale” (or “hail & farewell”).
  • And I want to properly honour those who moved me the most this year.  If anyone seems to be missing, I plead “busy” as I have lots on my plate and so had to miss more than a few things.

Hail and farewell to these three stars:

1) Matthew Jocelyn of Canadian Stage.

I think it’s fair to say that no one in Toronto has had more of a hand in so many of my most exciting / inspiring evenings than he.  The programming at Canadian Stage has been wonderfully eclectic, international, and daring.  This past year I can point to

  • Lepage’s 887,
  • The Return, from Australian troupe Circa led by Yaron Lifschitz,
    and
  • Triptyque from Québec’s 7 doigts de la main just to name three oddball multi-disciplinary works.

In his last few months we can look forward to:

  • Declarations (theatre & movement) from Jordan Tannahill in January
  • He who falls (celui qui tombe) on the boundary between physical theatre & circus, from Yoann Bourgeois March 1-4
  • Voices3: in this body, music & dance, Fides Krucker (and others), March 14-18,
    then
  • Voices3: Tanya Tagaq + Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory March 22-24
  • The Overcoat: a musical tailoring Morris Panych & James Rolfe, March 27 – April 14 (opera? We shall see)
  • The return of Crystal Pite’s Betroffenheit April 19-22
    This is not a complete list.

2) Peter Oundjian of the Toronto  Symphony has a few months left at the helm.

It’s been announced that Sir Andrew Davis will act as Interim Artistic Director for two seasons following the conclusion of Peter Oundjian’s 14-year tenure as Music Director at the end of the 2017/18. There’s the matter of the exciting programming so far this season and still to come, plus the concerts led by Oundjian himself.  Concerts of note so far this season? I missed a ton this fall, only catching the Tribute to Maureen Forrester. Notable concerts to come include the concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide I’ve mentioned coming April 26 & 28,  And Oundjian himself? He’s back in January to conduct Mozart, and will be at the heart of the New Creations Festival March 3–10, 2018, a series of favourites from past festivals.  Other highlights I’m eager to hear include a visit from Leon Fleischer in May and a month-long celebration, concerts in June to conclude his tenure including a Mahler’s 9th June 20-23 and Beethoven’s 9th  June 28–30, 2018.

3) David Fallis  of Toronto Consort steps down as Artistic Director after the 2017-18 season, although I believe he’ll continue with Opera Atelier.

I want to mention two wonderful concerts: Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters and Cavalli’s Elena.  Considering the comparative size, budgets and international scope of Canadian Stage or the TSO, on the one hand, and the Toronto Consort on the other, it’s remarkable that Fallis’ work can be spoken of in the same breath.  I only wish I had more time to see more.  Still to come this season?  Illuminations March 2 & 3, 2018; Quicksilver presents Fantasticus April 13 & 14, 2018, and Monteverdi’s Orfeo in May 25-26-27.

4) And then there’s the arrival of Elisa Citterio at Tafelmusik this season, the beginning of a new era for that ensemble.

I’m looking forward to hearing so many concerts with her and Tafelmusik, especially an upcoming concert where she’ll be playing Beethoven’s violin concerto.  I wish we could have more romantic music played by this wonderful ensemble.

Great performances of the year? In addition to the ones I singled out already, there are a few more.

  • The Canadian Opera Company’s most impressive moment was again early in the calendar year, another Wagner opera.  Götterdämmerung featured some amazing work from Christine Goerke, Ain Anger, Robert Pomakov, and the trio of Danika Loren, Lauren Eberwein and Lindsay Ammann as the Rhine-Maidens. Most impressive of all was Johannes Debus in the pit leading the COC orchestra, in some of their finest playing to date.
  • Strongest impression without singing? Billy Merasty onstage in Louis Riel, an opera that I think could be re-named “Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel”¸ in recognition of the director’s work redeeming a troubling opera.  When I remember the way the opera opened in the original –a single voice telling us of Riel sitting in his stolen chair using his stolen knives—it seemed to underline the criminality with which Riel’s name was besmirched, right down to his execution.  Hinton re-balanced the work, giving that same song to Jani Lauzon, revising the harshness of that song, in a soft aura of compassion and love.  I wonder if it can be presented again without his gloss: without the additional layers that mitigate the offenses and mis-steps of the original score & libretto?  While I give full marks to Alexander Neef for bringing in Hinton & turning him loose to re-invent Riel, I want to especially remember Merasty, Lauzon and Hinton.
  • The Sesquicentennial year began for me with a series of powerful challenges to the legitimacy of our celebration, namely
    1-Kent Monkman’s mind-boggling powerful show at UC,
    2-Toronto Consort’s Kanatha/Canada: First Encounters and
    3-Tafelmusik’s Visions & Voyages: Canada 1663 – 1763.
    I was lucky to be able to see the latter two in the same day, a day that shook me.  Frankly I wish there had been more this year to challenge my preconceptions.

Individual highlights?

  • I’ll never forget Ambur Braid in the opening performance of Magic Flute tripping over her own dress, and being such a canny theatre animal, creating something so new & daring that I think I was the only one –other than those in the show—who knew it wasn’t intentional.  She seemed to be crawling on her knees to attack Tamino.  Hair-raising. Brilliant. Sexy.  She was the best thing in that show.
  • Zubin Mehta leading the Israel Philharmonic? Heaven.  Their Heldenleben was an extraordinary tour de force, faster than anyone ever does it, and every internal voice clearly articulated.
  • James Ehnes’s solo concert in the summer was unforgettable, impeccable.
  • The Toy Piano composers CD launch concert was magic. The first piece by Elisha Denburg incorporated a Fisher-Price toy that made the two year old in the front row squeal with rapture.  I’ll never forget that moment.
  • The Bach St Mark Passion? There are reconstituted versions, and we got to hear one this year with a wonderful cast.
  • Bicycle Opera’s Sweat, a work of great integrity, both in its music, its drama and above all its politics for August.
  • Bravest work of the year? Perhaps the heroic job undertaken by Natalya Gennadi as Oksana G in Tapestry’s premiere production of the new opera in May.  This would be tough enough with lots of preparation time, rather than as it was: undertaken with relatively short notice.
  • Opera Atelier’s Medée in April gave us a far edgier take on the work than previously. I love that they always dig deeper every time they revive an opera.
  • Opera 5 gave us an interesting two works by Dame Ethel Smythe, a program entitled Suffragette in June.
  • I need to thank Against the Grain for putting me in touch with TIFF, whose festival of films by Straub & Huillet in the late winter represented several of the highlights of the year, including their own live performances alongside some films.

Finally, as far as the future, I want to pick up a conversational thread that I pretended to ignore on Facebook recently. Topher Mokrzewski posted the following on Facebook Dec 21st.

The reason pop music resonates with people is because it resonates with their personhood and experience.If classical music is to succeed at all in the 21st century, it’ll be because we’ve a) made the case that people can identify with the works of these composers of the past and b) that we identify, as performers, as strongly as possible with the sentiments in these works as we might if it WAS pop music. That applies doubly to new works. Every performance is NEW. If classical works aren’t felt at that deepest level of universal personhood- notwithstanding the great musical arguments for why they are important- classical music will not fundamentally be important enough to talk about. Music is, at its heart, the communication of the universal humanity which we all share and must be engaged at that crucial level, where all the senses we have at our disposal allow us to love it at our most common level.The two threads can be connected.

Two relatively famous artists posted disagreements, I won’t take this up with them.

I’m inclined not just to agree with Topher, but to want to see where this might lead, creatively and otherwise.  Just this week my wife & I saw Bernstein’s Candide, the second time I’ve seen it in December (earlier by TIFT in Barrie).  I will now admit something that I studiously omitted from either review. While I admire much in both of these productions, I am very conflicted about this work.  As the output from a committee it doesn’t argue for the value of collaboration. I suppose it’s better than the Yellow River Concerto, and yes I want to see what the TSO does with it in April. What impresses me with Bernstein is how much of his music is singable and/or hummable.  Since posting it to Facebook a few weeks ago I can’t stop running that overture through my head complete with the composer’s quirky dance-moves.

I submit that many of the greatest works up to the year 1900 were full of hummable music. Remember that moment in Amadeus when the confessor thinks that Salieri wrote Eine Kleine Nachtmusik?

My point in quoting this, is to suggest that something as popular as this, or Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is a wholly different sort of thing from what we’ve seen so often in the 20th century, where art –meaning music, theatre, painting and all of the arts—seemed to lose interest in popular taste. It’s a sad commentary that some operas written in the 20th century are spoken of as “box office poison”.  Meanwhile, composers such as Puccini or Rachmaninoff or Richard Strauss who were not only hummable but managed to be commercially successful did so sometimes at the expense of critical approval, as though their success proved that they had sold out.  Joseph Kerman for instance opened a can of critical whoop-ass on Puccini over Tosca, a critique I find profoundly stupid.  (and I’m happy to step outside with anyone who wants to go toe-to-toe on this one).  So the challenge I offer to Topher or anyone else willing to take it up, is this. Given the occasional attempts to reconcile popular and classical –for instance Tapestry’s Tap Ex Metallurgy in 2015, or the three years of Electric Messiah from Soundstreams, who’s next?  To be honest, I hope to undertake something of my own this year, but won’t talk about it until I’m certain that it’s going to happen.

Finally? In the interest of salvaging something light & comic from something heavy and ridiculously long, I’d like to repeat my favourite headline of the year from April.

Boss Baby boffo box-office bodyslams both Beauty and Beast“.

Welcome 2018. Please be kind.

Posted in Personal ruminations | 3 Comments

Candide at Toronto Operetta Theatre

Tonight was the first of six performances of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, running on consecutive weekends (evenings of Dec 28 & 30 Jan 5 & 6, matinees of Dec 31 & Jan 7), presented at the Bluma Appel Theatre by Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT).

2018 is the Bernstein Centennial, so get ready for lots of his music.   For example, in addition to this production the Toronto Symphony will be offering a concert performance of Candide in April.

It’s a problematic work, much loved in several versions. In aiming for satire & deep thoughts there are times when the work appeals more to the mind than to the heart, particularly at the end when I think for all Bernstein’s ambitions he could have done better.

There are at least two ways to come at Candide.  If you cast actors who sing you may get conviction & intelligibility, but at the expense of the music.  If you cast singers who act, you may get beautiful melodies, but at the expense of good theatre.  And there’s also the question of tone (edgy satire or farcical comedy?), one that can go in either direction.  With too much drama –actors rather than comedians—they may win the battle for verisimilitude while losing the war for our hearts by being too real.

TOT come deliberately from the musical side, using performers whose voices are bigger than average, even if that means they then resemble old-fashioned operetta or musical-theatre.  They wouldn’t look out of place in a Hollywood musical of the 1950s.

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“I am easily assimilated”: Elizabeth Beeler with company and Tonatiuh Abrego–right– as Candide (photo: Gary Beechey)

Speaking of irony, that means that they’re not hitting you over the head with the politics or the edginess of the story, and so they produce a gentler, sweeter comedy than what I experienced in the lean adaptation I saw a few weeks ago in Barrie, one that leaned much more towards deep thoughts and philosophy.

Sometimes less is more.

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Tonatiuh Abrego

Director Guillermo Silva-Marin filled the TOT stage with beautiful young bodies. Handsome Toniatuh Abrego has a lovely light tenor and a very gentle delivery, highly sympathetic in the title role.  Vania Lisbeth Chan was an attractive Cunegonde, Kimberley-Rose Pefhany a comical Paquette, Nicholas Borg a strong and professional presence as Voltaire/Pangloss.

Elizabeth Beeler stole the show as the Old Lady, always interesting and hard to ignore: although maybe the part is written that way.

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Conductor Derek Bate

There were times that the stage was full of personnel, all ably prepared for singing, dancing, and telling the story.

It’s from the musical side though that the TOT Candide really works best, prepared & conducted by Derek Bate.  From the moment the overture began we were listening to a precise & accurate performance of great integrity, full of energy & at times seeming to raise the roof.  The chorus of voices was always full & committed, the effect bold & straight to the heart.

The TOT Candide continues until January 7th.

TOT-Candide-hero

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Questions for Derek Bate

Derek Bate has impacted different aspects of the musical life of Toronto, known both for music-theatre & opera. A one time Chorus Master of the Canadian Opera Company, Derek was in the pit for the original Toronto Production of Les Miserables, for Harold Prince’s production Showboat in New York and over 1000 tour performances of Phantom of the Opera. In addition to his regular appearances with Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT) he is the resident conductor of the Canadian Opera Company (COC).

Derek will be leading the TOT production of Candide beginning December 28th at St Lawrence Centre.  I had to find out more by asking him some questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

I think I have elements of both my father and mother in me. My father was a physics teacher and later a high school principal. His musical ability was limited to a party trick, together with his identical twin brother, of playing “Oh Susanna” for piano 4 hands. While what I do is not exactly teaching, there can be an element of that, especially when working with younger artists, and I hope I have inherited the ability to create an environment in which performers are able to achieve their best.

My mother was more of a music lover who owned a small collection of 78 rpm records of Beethoven symphonies and the like, which I listened to as a child.  One thing I have to admit inheriting from her is a strong stubborn streak. When it became obvious that music was my calling, they steered me towards a career teaching music in schools, and my degree from U of T is in Music Education. But even during those university years, other career opportunities came calling!

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Conductor Derek Bate

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

The best thing for me has always been conducting the performances, the thrill of bringing to life these amazing pieces of music in real time before a live audience. Each one is a unique moment that will never be exactly repeated.

But it is also very rewarding to sit in the Four Seasons Centre and hear a great performance that I have contributed to as assistant conductor. There is no worst thing about what I do, I’m very fortunate to be able to work at something I love. The only thing that can be frustrating is that financial constraints sometimes put such limits on rehearsal time. We would all love more time to refine and work on detail

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

When I’m not working, I tend to avoid listening to music. I am more likely to watch Leafs or Blue Jays games, or a few television series that my wife and I enjoy – currently Outlander, Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace. We get out to a fair bit of theatre and opera performances and the occasional movie.

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A relaxed moment for Derek Bate with wife Elizabeth Beeler.

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

I wish my languages were better. I have studied French, German and Italian, but can’t claim to speak any of them with fluency, having never lived and been immersed in any of them for an extended period. Although a recent stint conducting with Opéra de Québec did allow the opportunity to improve my comfort with French.

I am able, with the help of a dictionary, to understand the opera libretti I am working on, which is absolutely essential. I would like to learn Russian – I found it challenging to conduct Eugene Onegin in Russian without really understanding the language. Perhaps when I retire (ha ha), there will be time!

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

My favourite thing is to work hard all year and then spend as much of the summer as possible at the cottage, even if I sometimes have a score or two with me to prepare for the next season. I was fortunate to inherit a small (less than half-acre) island in Georgian Bay that was purchased 100 years ago by my great-great aunt. It’s a very simple place, off grid, run by solar power and propane. And with modern smartphone capabilities, I can still be in touch and take care of business, while enjoying the calm and natural beauty of the area.

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More questions about leading the Toronto Operetta Theatre production of Candide.

Please talk about the version of Candide that TOT will be performing.

Has there ever been a piece that has been revised so often? We are using the 1999 Royal National Theatre version. Musically, this is quite close to the 1989 recording conducted by Bernstein himself, which he considered his final version, but it is scored for a small Broadway style orchestra. I think the reason for all the revisions lies in the problem of structuring a story in which so much happens and which moves through eight different locations in Europe and South America. I expect our performance will run about two and a half hours including intermission, so it all moves very fast. Fortunately we have Mr. Voltaire himself as a narrator to guide us through the travels.

Leonard Bernstein was able to write popular melodies for Broadway & Hollywood, yet was also a serious classical composer for the concert hall.  How do you reconcile those contrary impulses in Candide, and does that have any impact on your preparation of the singers & the orchestra? 

Bernstein himself considered Candide an operetta, and certainly it is more in that style than his other great Broadway success, West Side Story. But it is definitely operetta tinged with a New York sensibility in the rhythm and the jazz-inflected harmonies. I see these as complementary impulses rather than contrary ones, and my approach, as with any operetta or musical, is to tease out the right tone for each number based on the text and the music.

bernstein_1-1483549591-lboximg Credit Courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

Photo courtesy of The Leonard Bernstein Office, Inc.

In the last 75 years, when opera seemed to be dead or dying, the operetta –aka the “musical”—has continued to be a viable form both artistically and commercially even though it doesn’t enjoy the same kind of respect as opera.  You’ve worked on productions of historically important musicals such as Show Boat, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera.  What are your favourite musicals, and are there any you’d like to do? 

I found those musicals very satisfying to do, especially Les Misérables, with its great story and the emotional and dramatic punch it packed every performance. I would love to do Sweeney Todd (almost everybody I know says the same thing), or really any other Stephen Sondheim piece. The intelligence and wit of both lyrics and music is unmatched. By the way, Sondheim contributed some lyrics to Candide too. I also love The Light in the Piazza by Adam Guettel, another strong dramatic piece with a beautiful score.

Who’s in the production of Candide?

We have an amazing cast of Canadian performers.

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Tonatiuh Abrego

Tonatiuh Abrego is Candide, whose beautiful “Meditations” illustrate his journey from young innocence through the adventures and misadventures of life.

His love interest, Cunegonde, is played by Vania Chan, who gets to sing the most famous song from the show, “Glitter and be gay”, a virtuoso coloratura showpiece.

Nicholas Borg appears as Voltaire, who acts as narrator, and also transforms into Doctor Pangloss, teacher and mentor to Candide and Cunegonde.

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Elizabeth Beeler

A mysterious character known only as the Old Woman is played by Elizabeth Beeler. She suffers a unique affliction, which I would not want to divulge, as it would require a “spoiler alert” for those not familiar with the story.

What advice would you offer to a young musician dreaming of being a conductor?

I would say try everything. Sing in a choir. Learn an instrument and play in an orchestra. Study and listen to a wide variety of repertoire and attend concerts and operas. Take any opportunity to conduct small ensembles. In the later stages of your education, classes, workshops or apprenticeships in conducting can be valuable, but the truth is, you only learn to be a conductor by doing it. I was fortunate to be given occasional opportunities to conduct the school band, the church choir, performances of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, all while I was in my teens. I also learned and continue to learn from all the other conductors I have worked with. If opera is your particular interest, work as much as possible with singers, as an accompanist, or with choirs. Most of the best opera conductors start as coach/accompanists, and many have been chorus masters as well.

What’s your favourite piece that you’ve ever done?

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Conductor Derek Bate

It’s impossible to choose, there are so many. I always say my favourite piece is the one I am working on now. You have to treat it as such in order to do justice to the material, even if in fact it may not be the greatest piece. Of operas I have not had the opportunity to work on, I would put Werther at the top of the wish list. The music and poetry are passionate, yet intimate and conversational.

What was / is the hardest piece to conduct, and why.

Different repertoire brings different challenges. The difficulty in Handel or Mozart is interpretational, since the composer leaves largely a blank page in terms of articulation and phrasing and sometimes dynamics, in contrast to Britten (or Bernstein), where it seems every note has some inflection written on it. In Wagner it’s a question of structure over long sentences and long through-composed scenes, and finding the shape and flow for that. In Puccini, by contrast, it is the detailed and constant fluctuation in tempo. Stravinsky brings technical challenges with shifting and uneven metres. There’s a scene in Renard that is the most technically challenging I have ever conducted.

Surprisingly, one of the most difficult styles to conduct is the Viennese operetta. One senior conductor told me “If you can conduct The Merry Widow, you can conduct anything”. This is because of the subtleties of the rubato, especially in the waltzes, and controlling that rubato within a beat that is often a slow one beat to the bar. Also because, structurally, the extended musical numbers are not always well put together, and knitting them into a coherent whole is challenging: unlike, say, the finales in a Mozart opera, where the structure is crystal clear.

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

I have been fortunate to have crossed paths with so many fine musicians early in my musical life. The first important influence was as a boy soprano in the church choir under John Sidgwick, founder of the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. Then, Lloyd Bradshaw taught me choral conducting at U of T. He was also Chorus Master of the COC at the time, a position I took myself about eight years later. Kenneth Montgomery was the principal conductor of a COC production of Carmen, in which I made my debut conducting two of the performances. I also worked on several other productions with him, and he was a mentor, and an example of the highest integrity in musicianship and leadership, without ever being a tyrant in the old school way.

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The Toronto Operetta Theatre present Bernstein’s Candide beginning December 28th at the St Lawrence Centre December 28, 30, 31, 2017 & January 5, 6, 7, 2018. For ticket information click here.

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Singalong Messiah

I took advantage of the free fares on the TTC (celebrating the extension on Line 1) to ride downtown to Massey Hall for my first Tafelmusik Singalong Messiah in 20 years or more.

And it’s the last one for awhile as Massey Hall will be renovated, forcing Herr Handel (aka “HH”) and his minions to relocate to “Roy Rogers Hall.” Ah yes, he meant Roy Thomson Hall.

Every time HH spoke he had us in the palm of his hands, and that usually meant we were laughing at every little joke he made: and there were lots.  It’s tempting to let his words fill this review: which would make it more entertaining, but cheating on my part.

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Serenaded by an Italian bagpipe that he might have emulated in his pastoral sinfonia, Herr Handel grabs a drink, while lamenting that “good help is so hard to find”.

If you know this music well enough to sing it, chances are that you not only like Handel’s music, but know all about this annual event. If you are resisting the temptation, you’re missing out on an enormous treat.  I say that as someone who had the singalong in the back of my mind for years, meaning to go someday, and finally going this year.

I wish I’d gone sooner..!

As a singer who stopped singing in his church choir last year, there’s no question. Like a thirsty traveler at an oasis swallowing his first drink in ages, as soon as we started, I said to myself “I needed that.”

This is a somewhat reduced Messiah.  Some of the most difficult numbers are missing (a merciful choice!):

  • “And He Shall Purify” (a piece that I recall as a sight-reading test that Ivars Taurins gave to those auditioning for the Tafelmusik chorus back in the 1990s)
  • “Lift Up Your Heads” (my favourite chorus of all)
  • The middle section of the Alto solo “He Was Despised” ( with the text “He gave his back to the smiters”)

While it’s in two parts rather than three, most of it is still there, especially the parts most people love best (“For Unto Us a Child is Born”, “All We Like Sheep”, or “Hallelujah” which we sang again at the end as our encore. Hm I guess we must have been good.).

We are inevitably a bit slower than the performances in Koerner Hall: because the entire auditorium of 2700 or so are doing their best following the conductor as he leads us, gets us to stand or sit, inspiring our laughter or applause.  We are watching four soloists and a virtuoso choir perform Messiah yet the chemistry is different because we’re participating. Before they begin the Sinfonia, HH warms us up with the first bars of “And the Glory of the Lord”: and then stops us when he’s satisfied.  He’s a funny combination of a larger than life portrayal and a conductor, because of course we’re watching conductor Ivars Taurins, bringing Handel to life in a portrayal that improves every year.  I hope I’ve done my part to help deepen his incarnation of the great composer, in asking a few questions a few days ago.  He seems to live it, whether in his focus during the numbers or when he stops and talks to us.  While I can share the witty lines, they don’t nearly give you the actual impression of someone bringing this music and its composer vividly to life.  This video gives you some idea, although this year’s incarnation of HH is looking much more authentic than this, walking with a cane and acting out more and more.

While we singalong it is still a performance.  HH leads the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir, the soloists: plus the many of us who are singing along. Some of us were seated with others of the same vocal type.

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For those who wanted to be among the same vocal type, they helped us find our sections.

Some of us were in general seating.  I think it’s easier when you sing the tenor line among tenors.  I was in a section with a few basses and sopranos partly because I wasn’t sure if I was going to dare to sing as a tenor or sing bass. And yes as the only tenor in my section it meant, gulp, that at times I was venturing to sing my line without anyone nearby to confirm that I was doing it right.

I survived.

Soloists? Rufus Müller employed his lovely and congenial tenor voice, stepping forward to sing “Comfort Ye; Ev’ry Valley” the recitative & aria that began the work before we sang “And the Glory of the Lord” in earnest.  Daniel Cabena showed us his agile countertenor and a gorgeous colour in ”Behold, a virgin shall conceive followed by “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion” aided by the chorus as HH raises us abruptly.  Those moments were among the most exciting, even though nothing more profound than standing up was required.  Then it was Brett Polegato’s turn in the mysterious recitative “For behold, darkness shall cover the earth” followed by “The people that walked in darkness”.  While he’s soft and gentle this time, much later he will earn the biggest applause for a heroic “The Trumpet Shall Sound” (as well as Kris Kwapis, the flawless trumpet player). But first we need our little bit of Christmas Eve, via the angelic soprano of Joanne Lunn.  I’m not kidding about the angelic part, whether in her pristine coloratura, her fabulous diction, her perfect intonation, or her adorable presentation. I dissolved into tears watching her, admittedly a bit overcome by what we’d just sung in reply.  While the 2500 or so voices may be a scattershot approach in some of the more fast-paced passages, it’s a huge blast of adrenaline singing these passages.

I suppose the Singalong has changed over the years.  Excuse me if I speak of what I remember with some caution, as that previous one I attended was long ago, and I didn’t expect that I’d be trying to recollect it in 2017.  I think at one point there were choruses in the singalong that we watched, as I swear we watched Tafelmusik sing “And He Shall Purify”, that deadly red-hot chorus.  Or maybe I am remembering wrong, conflating the memories I have when 100% of the performance is from the stage and we in the audience are silent except for our applause.

But HH and his Singalong gets better every year.  And next year I look forward to hearing him at Roy Rogers Hall…

(you know what I mean).

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Makeover or decay, vocally and otherwise

I’m preparing to sing something and I am afraid it — that I– will sound terrible.

Ah this blog, it’s a big public diary, my therapy. These gut level perceptions in the moment without too much reflection, are assembled after the fact, so that I can make it look as though there’s a brain in there somewhere, to simulate a rational person.  That’s why I usually post reviews of plays and operas and concerts the night of, rather than the morning after.

Of course I don’t have time to do it any other way.

It’s almost completely devoid of strategic discourse even though there’s lots of planning at the meta level, when I stare at the calendar, often ruefully wondering where the year has flown, why I didn’t get to a particular show.  When I interview Herr Handel or Juan Chioran, it’s planned around something later on the calendar, both to help them promote their event (for example the Singalong Messiah Dec 17th, or Podium Concert Productions’ Nine In Concert, in January 2018), AND for me to wrap my head around it in anticipation of seeing it.  I hope it has value if my effort to unpack / digest / understand / explore helps others to make similar discoveries.

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Messiah is tomorrow, and it’s a singalong, gulp.

That little preamble about how the blog is organized is a commentary on how my life is organized.  Or maybe “disorganized”? It’s a kind of dialogue or debate between reflection and impulse, between entropy and order. Sometimes Philip Glass seems to be winning—in endless repetitions especially in the car going to and from work—while at other times it’s a jazzy improvisation, or so I tell myself.  Barcza is barczablog and vice versa. When change happens in my life or on the blog, some of it is planned (as in a makeover or a renovation), and some is organic (as in aging, decay, or growth & evolution).  Necessities precede plans, the way a digger wasp’s home-building in the planks of our deck led to the destruction of that deck and the inevitable rebuild, one of several home renos we’re enduring.

Every year I think about whose Messiah I will see/hear.  There have been years of (what mad heresy is this!) multiple Messiahs, but most years I pick just one, between the various competing options available in the GTA.

  • Tafelmusik or TSO?
  • Electric or AtG?

The fact that I interviewed Herr Handel was a clue as to whose Messiah I’m seeing this time.  But I think I need to address the deeper concerns.  Yes I’m going to the Singalong Messiah Sunday December 17th meaning that I will be singing along.

Or I will try to do so.

The last time I went, I sang the tenor line among other tenors, confident in my knowledge of their part, and arrogantly pumping out a big loud sound as though I were stuck in the 1950s in Thomas Beecham’s chorus, wanting to shove Vickers aside (no he wasn’t there… I’m just extending the wacky metaphor) to sing the solos too (did I say “arrogant”? I’m not sure if the word is really adequate to the hubris of the moment).  And choral singing allows for the kind of anonymous crooning and bleating that wouldn’t or shouldn’t work for a soloist.

But fast forward to 2017. While I have sung a wee bit in church (whenever I sub for David Warrack at the organ), it’s been a long time sing I sang this music.  And let’s be honest. In total it’s a big sing for someone who stopped being a soloist last year, who only sings intermittently, from the organ to lead the congregation (as a sub) or recreationally at home.  When I was a regular soloist I’d always notice that I was out of shape vocally when choir resumed in the fall after the summer holiday, but would gradually became accustomed to singing, getting into shape, building stamina for the extra singing around Christmas and again at Easter.  While I may have explained my decision to give up my regular gig singing in Hillcrest Church’s chancel choir as part of some sort of plan or strategy, in truth it was more like that infestation in the planks.  Something was (or is?) rotten in the state of my voicebox.   However much I implied a strategic motivation, my main concern was that my top notes are not what they used to be, that I am out of practice: perhaps permanently..?

So Sunday will be a bit of an adventure. Today as I sang through “Lift Up Your Heads” and “Worthy Is the Lamb / Amen”, the wasps infesting the chords tell me that I need to accept the realities of age or my lack of practice and sing the bass part rather than the tenor part.  While I did manage to sing a couple of them, when I went on to add “And the Glory of the Lord”, and “Hallelujah” –which doesn’t have any hiding places for the tenors—I sadly had to face the fact.  The scary thing is, that those tenor parts were learned over the years singing with other choirs. I was at St Leonard’s in North Toronto in the 1990s with Arthur Wenk, when he painstakingly taught us a series of choruses and then gave a concert presenting a few solos.  I was lucky to sing “Comfort Ye“ and “Ev’ry Valley” in a concert including a teenaged Robert Pomakov singing “The Trumpet Shall Sound”.  And Sarah Gartshore sang a marvelous “I Know that my Redeemer Liveth”.  But that was in the 1990s.  To sing the bass parts, I will be singing parts that are new to me, that basses usually learn to sing for years, rather than sight-reading.  That’s why I’ll sing in the mixed voice section, so that from time to time I can take a walk on the wild side, and at least try to sing the tenor parts of my youth. I am perhaps also admitting the inadmissible.  People practice and learn over time usually but I am spoiled by being a good sight-reader.

Tomorrow is as much as anything, me getting off my butt and putting my money where my mouth is, rather than just passively drinking in the work of everyone else.  I miss performing. While I know I’ll make mistakes, hopefully Herr Handel won’t hear mine over the thousands of other voices.

It’s a fun thing, this Singalong business.  I want to be perfect, I am sure everyone does.  But first and foremost, it’s a chance to commune with the music and those great artists on the stage, and vanish into that big beautiful sound.

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