Against the Grain Orphée+


That plus sign might signify an opera updated, enlarged, perhaps even reformed(?). The “+” means some remarkable additions and changes from Gluck’s original, Orphée et Eurydice (or the Italian version aka Orfeo ed Euridice). Gluck created more than one version, but the + is a 21st century incarnation whose pluses include adventurous mise en scene, electronic guitar, and a virtual chorus, who aptly mirror the isolation of so many in the modern world addicted to our phones. There are some marvelous ideas vying for our lonely broken hearts. It’s a colossal team effort, involving singers, dancers, musicians, designers, directed by Joel Ivany,  choreographed by Austin McCorrmick, a co-production between Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre, Columbus’s Opera Columbus, The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and New York’s Company XIV. This is the biggest collaborative effort we’ve seen yet from AtG and expensive considering how beautiful it is in so many ways, appealing to all of our senses.

For anyone who knows Gluck’s opera this is familiar turf. The story gets told with some intriguing wrinkles and embellishments. Love (aka “Amour”) is the most flamboyant character in the story and in the production, sung, acted and… okay I have to stop and pose a question.

What is the verb for what an aerialist does? I googled and found a wonderful plethora of words and images describing the moves, a reflection of a burgeoning culture that’s far from the operatic world. Because aerials have rarely been integrated into another medium such as opera, the vocabulary is unfamiliar outside that realm. There are moves and positions that have names within the community, the same way that figure skating or dance has given names to the positions or the leaps. Just as we learned what a death spiral or an arabesque looks like, so too eventually for a single knee hang, shoulder balance or so many more. But when I start dropping the names I’ve become the sort of snob I hate (I loathe jargon on principle): so I’ll stop.

Of course part of the problem may be that it’s hard to talk when your mouth is hanging open, silenced but for a few gasps. I guess I need to get out more.


Marcy Richardson is Amour (Darryl Block photography)

Marcy Richardson is the best reason to go see Orphée+, as though the plus-sign were the twinkle in her eye. Marcy is an aerialist, dressed as Love with wings and sequins and looking like a slim petite version of Mae West (please note, I speak as a huge fan of Mae West, the under-rated and empowered sex goddess from another century). Did I mention that Marcy also sings? And that she does it while suspended upside down ten feet above the stage? So in other words we’re talking about a remarkable feat verging on a circus stunt, something that might even be called dangerous or death-defying.

All in a day’s work if you’re an immortal goddess.

You will never see or hear anything like this in your lifetime, at least not until singers routinely incorporate aerials into their training. But I wouldn’t hold your breath for that possibility. It’s not impossible I suppose. I remember being taken aback by Barbara Hannigan doing the role of Lulu on her toes, so perhaps there will be another rare multi-talented performer like Marcy Richardson.

We’re in a very interesting time for displays of beauty. One of the things I love about burlesque, invoked in the costuming and in the movement style of Company XIV, is the aura of empowerment that totally deconstructs the old-fashioned objectification of women we used to see in the 1950s and before, when a performance like the one I saw tonight could elicit wolf-whistles: but in places far removed from the operatic stage. This is a relatively new notion of beauty, an inclusive image that isn’t sizist or sexist, although it remains to be seen whether age or disability can also be transcended as well. As the bodies on this stage from Company XIV conform to the thin athletic ideal, I can’t say Orphee+ is a fully inclusive display of that sort even when the 21st century burlesque aesthetic suggests something more broadly accepting; and we did venture into ambiguous territory when dancers paired off & moved in ways to signify intimacy, at least avoiding the hetero-normative displays one sometimes sees in ballet & theatre.

What Marcy and her Company XIV entourage pulled off is stunning and apt for this opera, where she is the redeeming goddess who rescues the other two protagonists. They say love conquers all, and on this occasion it was so.

I’ll continue to harp on a theme I keep bringing up, that opera is theatre above all. We are immersed in a powerful spectacle, not just in the form of Marcy’s magnificent movement, but in the stage picture incorporating wonderful CGI on a stunning set, all designed by S. Katy Tucker. Long before we see Mireille Asselin perform Eurydice, we’re seeing her face projected in different ways, haunting poor Orphée, played by Siman Chung. All three are wonderfully musical, emerging out of the soundscape conducted by Topher Mokrzewski, an orchestral texture including keys and guitar. John Gzowski’s contribution is lurking throughout, a sound design that gives the piece an edge. When I say it sounds like hell I mean it in a good way, in an opera showing us the afterlife. The addition of electronics plus a virtual chorus may represent departures from Gluck’s original, but the goal is theatre & magic.

It’s the morning after (I set aside my review late last night) and I woke up thinking about Opera Atelier, suddenly appreciative of what they achieve and thinking of how hard it is integrating dance into the story-telling, making the dance inevitable and cathartic. They do it by relentlessly forcing everyone—dancers, singers and maybe even the stage-hands—to conform to the same consistent movement vocabulary. In places the Orphée+ dance –beautiful and skilful as it was–seemed extraneous rather than organically linked to the story-telling. Perhaps I’m caught up in the visual aesthetic & its fashionable appearance, but these dances felt more like accessories, scarves and fascinators, adornments rather than an organic living part of the whole. When I went to bed I was trying to find the right way to express what I felt was missing. But I think the key is that Gluck is known as a reformer, his Orphée sometimes austere and dry (thinking for instance of the minimalist version we saw from Robert Carsen at the COC), a reform of the excesses that preceded him in removing divertissements and extraneous decoration. The + in Orphée+ seems to be the attempt to put a lot of the stuff back in that Gluck sought to remove, a counter-revolution against the reformer. I wouldn’t object if I felt it hung together better, but my sense of the + as excess came to me after the interval. Where the first half cohered beautifully (and isn’t it always the way with daring adaptations?), the longer we went on, the more I felt that the different parts –and collaborating companies—almost seemed to be in competition rather than accord.

So in other words I think Orphée+ is AtG’s bridge too far, biting off more than they can chew, in the collaboration between one company too many, a brave attempt that still hasn’t quite gelled. So many of their productions are near-perfect especially in their ability to pull it all together around a few key ideas. On this occasion, while there is so much that’s brilliant, yet the performance felt very uneven to me, spectacularly breath-taking when Amour is onstage but far less exciting when she’s not there. We had tantalizing guitar work, some loud electronics in the scenes with the furies, and tantalizing dancers. Go big or go home I wanted to say, because I felt the negotiation underway between the existing text and the desire to make it bolder and newer. Hell could be so much more seductive, so much louder and nastier. I felt that what we got was so respectful of Gluck, in the way that a project requiring so many players –onstage and in the pit—with so many pages of musical score, must negotiate between daring adventure and more cautious steps in the service of organization & intelligibility. I wanted more adventure, more daring wild spirit. We came to pages of recitative that honour Gluck, but plunked on a guitar (or was it a keyboard? I couldn’t see for sure) rather than the usual way: a collision between the desire to innovate vs the published score by Gluck. I wondered about their creative process, commissioning John Gzowski as a sound designer, whose work was very self-effacing, peering through the pages of the score from time to time, when I wished he had been turned loose to do more re-imagining. It felt too respectful to me. And at the very end the lovely tableau was so tantalizing as we all silently stared, gradually realizing that alas the show had ended and had segued into the curtain call.


Against the Grain music director Topher Mokrzewski

Yes it’s very cool that they used burlesque in an opera. In fairness it’s from a time when opera was normally in parts & chunks, when eye candy was the reason you went to the opera in the first place. Gluck’s reform aimed to strip away the excess complexity to get back to the essence. I wasn’t sure who was winning in this battle for opera’s soul even as the collaboration seemed intent on turning back the clock on Gluck’s reforms. The musical side was impeccable, Siman Chung with a big beautiful tone, very accurately wielded. Mireille Asselin brought her usual beautiful musicianship, a sensitive and passionate delivery of every moment, and as mentioned Marcy Richardson was spectacular in every way. The virtual chorus plus the few actual chorus singers were beautifully integrated into the live performance, another impeccable outing for Topher Mokzewski.

And just as Gluck came back to his opera, aiming to improve it each time, I’m sure AtG aren’t finished with this either, especially given that they brought back Boheme and Messiah. But you still have a chance to see this version: Saturday night at 8 pm at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront.

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Candide with the Toronto Symphony: using our imaginations

Tonight was the first of two concert performances of Candide presented by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall in the worldwide celebration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial year.

Earlier this week Joseph So was rapturous in his description of a concert performance of a Wagner opera in Cleveland with their orchestra.  One of the ironies of high definition broadcasts, particularly with bizarre director’s approaches to the staging, is to make some of us rebel at the notion of realism, pushing us back to the music, and indeed embracing concert performances as an ideal.  It’s especially valid for those works requiring the imagination, that are near impossible to stage in a realistic fashion.

If one were to ask for a list of such works, Wagner’s operas might be the first one would think of: yet Candide is every bit as impossible.  People die and come back to life. The action takes us back and forth across the Atlantic, and the whole time we’re really in the presence of a story that is told to us as if for instruction rather than for the purpose of creating a dramatic illusion.

One might argue that too much illusion is counter-productive.When I think of the music-theatre nerds I know:

  • I remember Leigha Lee Browne, the founder of the theatre program at Scarborough College, who gave her name to the theatre they built at UTSC, telling me that this was the finest musical ever written
  • And yes I could name three others who told me that Candide is their favorite musical

Of course they were speaking from their acquaintance via recordings, aka virtual theatre.  When you listen to it you can create the illusion in your head, and won’t trouble yourself about the inanity of the plot.     And so this is a nerd’s dream.

They’re playing with us in this presentation from the TSO, as we watch members of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir put on a bit of costume, which is to say, they’re still in a concert tux with a funny hat.  So this is hugely theatrical, demanding that we use our imaginations, like good nerds.  It doesn’t matter if Cunegonde is older than Candide, not when we’re in this virtual theatre of music, words & our flights of fancy.

Judith Forst, Bramwell Tovey dancing (@Jag Gundu)

Judith Forst & Bramwell Tovey dancing (baton betwixt his lips) as Tracy Dahl, Mendelssohn Choir &  TSO look on (photo Jag Gundu)

This felt like a very authentic performance to me, Bramwell Tovey kicking the TSO, chorus & soloists along at a wonderful pace.  Tovey even got into the act, singing & dancing himself, but he was having a great time.

I call it authentic because of a video I saw of Tovey, speaking of his history with Bernstein.  You watch, and judge for yourself.  All I know is that this Candide made a ton of sense, the best Candide I’ve ever seen.

There are other reasons why it was remarkable.  Tracy Dahl showed us a very different way of doing “Glitter and be gay”. Oh sure, she sang it perfectly. But in the middle she acted, she played the role of Cunegonde, giggling and crying like a true comedienne. This wasn’t just an aria but a whole scene, a complex portrayal, hysterically funny in places, poignant in others.  It brings me back to a current obsession of mine, that we need to pry the fingers of the musicologists off the throat of opera,  a form that they are strangling by missing the point.  Because of course opera isn’t just music, but theatre. And ditto for operetta and musicals.  We wouldn’t mistake a musical for a pure piece of music would we? Even in concert performance we understand that we’re dealing with a hybrid, part music / part theatre, and greater than the sum of its parts.  Dahl makes theatre out of her big aria, and indeed is making theatre –and wonderful comedy—every moment she’s onstage.  Oh sure, the voice is fabulous: but it’s not a virtuoso display, never about the music at the expense of the character or the situation. She was always alive as a character, in the moment and fascinating to watch.

resized_Tracy Dahl, Nicholas Phan, Bramwell Tovey, Richard Suart (@Jag Gundu)

Tracy Dahl and Nicholas Phan sing, Bramwell Tovey conducts as Richard Suart and Judith Forst et al watch the romance unfold (photo: Jag Gundu)

Judith Forst is also a theatrical animal, although in the Old Lady role, she’s given tons of great material, in numbers that people sometimes remember best of all in Candide.  I love this rich elegant voice, especially singing these wonderful melodies.

Nicholas Phan has a classic music-theatre sound, even though his bio suggests he’s at home with oratorio & classical singing.  The high notes floated, sometimes in a delightful falsetto: and they were pure magic.  While it’s a team-effort, I can’t help noticing that he is the most likeable Candide, managing to be totally sympathetic in a work that at times is all big ideas & philosophy.

And speaking of philosophy, one of the keys to Candide is the role of the narrator & Pangloss, presented tonight by Richard Suart.  If the virtual presentation floated along on any wings, they were largely his, the man spinning the tale.

If there’s any possible way you can get to see the second presentation on Saturday –admittedly on what feels like one of the busiest weekends of the year—I strongly recommend that you get yourself down to Roy Thomson Hall.  You’ll see and hear what I’m talking about.


L-R in the foreground, Judith Forst, Tracy Dahl, Nicholas Phan, Bramwell Tovey (extending his hand), and in the white tux, Richard Suart.

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Ulysses comes home

Opera Atelier’s Revival of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses (1640) starts slowly but builds to a strong finish.  By intermission I had enjoyed a few moments (Kresimir Spicer in the title role and Mireille Lebel as Penelope, and Meghan Lindsay in a pair of goddess incarnations) as well as the usual sterling work of the orchestra led by David Fallis, but otherwise wondered if things might improve in the second half.  I think director Marshall Pynkoski devoted most of his attention & energy to the complexities in the latter scenes, where most of the dramatic interest is found.

And wow did the story ever come to life.

There are at least three plot-lines, in this opera based on Homer’s epic.  After a Prologue showing us the vulnerability of man in the hands of the gods, we watch things developing at home around Penelope including among the servants in the palace, around Telemaco, and around Ulysses.  Gradually the action coalesces as Telemaco reunites with his father –in the most affecting moments before the intermission—and we see the pathway Ulysses will take homewards, as Minerva assists him and his son in handling the suitors who are pressuring Penelope to re-marry.

For the most part we’re listening to gentle vocalism, singers able to sail comfortably over the orchestra because of its delicate sound.  Spicer reminded me a bit of Charles Daniels in the Bach Mass in B Minor, for his lovely unforced vocalism, agility without any forcing, perfect intonation and a wonderful sensitivity to the moment.  Like Daniels with the Bach,  we were witnessing a performer who might know his music better than anyone in the world, having done this role many times over the past 20 years on both sides of the Atlantic.  Whenever he was on stage there was something lovely to listen to and usually something interesting to watch.  His first scene with Minerva was especially interesting as he and Meghan Lindsay, who had teamed up a few years ago in Der Freischütz in a very different fach were once again making big powerful sounds for a few moments. Lindsay made a totally different kind of impression as Cupid, although both of her goddesses were larger than life.


Krešimir Špicer as Ulysses and Mireille Lebel as Penelope (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

There was something I saw on social media in the past week or so from Mireille Lebel, an artist whose singing I already admire very much. She said something about intensity, that she would be singing the role of Penelope differently because of something she experienced in the past year.  I read this and I set the thought aside, until I came to the last scene of the opera tonight. The way Lebel approaches this last scene is quite unique and validates Monteverdi’s opera for me. I’ve long thought of this last scene as an odd superfluity, when the scene where Ulysses shoots the suitors should take us quickly to the end, rather than leaving us still facing a whole other drama.  I don’t know what her subtext is, but the scene makes tremendous sense, right up to the moment when Lebel is persuaded, and you feel the Earth move, as everyone feels the adjustment and change in her attitude, as she finally believes that Ulysses has come home.  I realized that for the entire scene I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, the flashing eyes and the unbearable agony.  It’s one of the finest performances I’ve seen in a very long time, and as I said, for me helps to make sense out of Monteverdi’s score for the first time.

I’d like to also mention the powerful presence of Douglas Williams, who was a totally different artist tonight as one of the suitors chasing –and harassing—Penelope, from the man we saw as Figaro a few months ago.  Instead of affability & charm we saw swagger and intimidation, a rugged machismo unlike anything I’ve ever seen from Opera Atelier.  And I realize now how much restraint he used singing the Mozart, after hearing the sound he produced tonight.

There were other great performances.  Laura Pudwell again made me giggle, while sounding fabulous as usual, in the relatively thankless part of Ericlea the nurse,  that she elevated into something magnificent.  And I realized how much I’ve missed Carla Huhtanen, who was the most musical performer of the night in the fascinating little role of Melanto.  Huhtanen has a gift for comedy that had us all laughing, yet it was her musicianship, making beautiful music that impressed me the most.    Christopher Enns was a believable son to Ulysses, and the Opera Atelier ballet were as beautiful as ever.

Opera Atelier’s stunning Return of Ulysses continues at the Elgin Theatre until April 28th.

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Eagerly anticipating Against the Grain’s Orphée⁺ next week

I’m writing about Against the Grain Theatre right now as I think about their imminent co-production of Gluck’s opera, that they are calling Orphée⁺ (the original press release said “an international co-production between AtG, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and Opera Columbus“, although AtG now also mention “NYC’s Company XIVon their website).


The production’s arrival in Toronto is imminent, a show that premiered last night south of the border with Opera Columbus, who are already known hereabouts as the employer of Opera Atelier regular & star Peggy Kriha Dye, the General and Artistic Director of Opera Columbus.


Against the Grain music director Topher Mokrzewski

Let me make an analogy.  Let’s say Against the Grain are the Beatles and it’s still the 1960s.  All four were still alive back then in the 1960s when they could do no wrong and if you were like me, you hung on their every word, guitar strum and batted eyelash.  The thought they might ever break up(??!) was as unthinkable as growing old and dying to those of us who were young at the time (who knew!?).

I’m a fan who wondered at times if AtG could break up, as we watched Topher take a job for awhile in Calgary, as we watched Joel take all sorts of directing jobs all over the world.  Would they continue creating edgy projects here in Toronto? Or had they outgrown AtG? I am sure I’m not the only one who figured that after their Da Ponte trilogy of transladaptions, each more impressive than the last, after presenting and reviving Boheme and Messiah, that maybe they would lose interest, perhaps not be bothered.  Would they be distracted by better offers elsewhere?  Was AtG merely their youthful proving ground where they found their first fame, before going on to bigger and better things?

The Canadian myth for success especially in theatre, opera and music has essentially been the story of artists who get their legitimacy by being discovered abroad:

  • Robert Carsen
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Donald Sutherland
  • …and I’m sure you could list another 100 very quickly

Against the Grain Artistic Director Joel Ivany

Or is that template now out of date?  Topher split his energies east and west for a time.  Joel & his wife Miriam have a child and probably have more than enough miles just going out to Banff where they workshop their shows before bringing them to Toronto, without adding a host of foreign destinations.   I hope I’m right in sensing that Against the Grain have renewed their covenant with themselves & the company in this new project pulling them together (admittedly in a co-production with others outside Toronto), everyone seeming committed and making an important contribution.  But a co-production is a great way to be able to do something exciting in Toronto.

I’m going by the promotional materials I’ve received plus the press I’ve read concerning Orphée⁺, in considering three elements, namely burlesque, aerials and the musical side.

Burlesque has been re-invented in the last decade, a site for women to reclaim their bodies in all shapes and sizes.  It is no longer the voyeuristic spectacle of objectification & pornography from the last century, indeed the aim to titillate has been replaced by a kind of fun celebration, as burlesque has come to signify inclusiveness & empowerment.

We’ve seen burlesque begin to enter the visual lexicon, part of the movement vocabulary for theatre practitioners.

The challenge for any show is to make the new and glamorous element an organic part of the whole.

Aerials are now solidly established as part of the visual theatre vocabulary, an addition to the toolkit that a director can’t ignore.

  • We know aerials have roots in the realm we sometimes call “circus”, from companies such as Cirque du Soleil
  • Theatre artists have been importing aerials for a long time, for instance Robert Lepage, who brought aerials into Erwartung (1993), Damnation de Faust (2008), his Ring cycle (2010 – 12) and Needles & Opium (2013)
  • An essay I wrote about it a couple of years ago .
  • Inspiring imports such as The Return ,Triptyque
  • Inspired local creations such as Balancing on the Edge  and Bruce Barton’s experimental YouTopia
  • …and we can’t forget inspiring productions at the Canadian Opera Company (in addition to (Erwartung) such as Love from Afar, and Semele

So it would seem like a natural to remake Amour, aka The Goddess of Love as an aerial goddess of glamour as in the pictures I’ve seen (such as the one at the top of this blog).

As for the music I’m on shakier ground in my projection/ speculation. The Berlioz take on Gluck was used recently by Opera Atelier in their production. But perhaps more importantly there’s also the use of electronics & sound design. Is this too part of a new vocabulary?  One can look at electronic incursions into classical performance, for example:

  • Haus Musik (where Tafelmusik regularly marry their authentic sound with new electronic improvisation + staging to match)
  • The annual Electric Messiah

Electronic and Electro-acoustic music have been there for awhile, and regularly  incorporated into operas, either in the score or in adaptations of older rep.  I could list lots of productions, but I have no idea what AtG’s adaptation will be like, so they’re not terribly relevant, except as a reminder that electronic music and electronic/digital processing of sound & music are normal ingredients in theatre.  We will see & hear soon enough. I sense that AtG want to ensure that their adaptation is an update both in the visual and sonic realms, but I’m just guessing. This weekend they’re in Columbus.

On the AtG website it says
“Against the Grain Theatre, The Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Opera Columbus, and NYC’s Company XIV collaborate to present the Gluck/Berlioz masterpiece, the opera Orphée et Eurydice. We all know the original Greek myth: the musician Orpheus is grieving the death of his lover Eurydice—and gets one chance to retrieve her from the Underworld. In 2018, we think this would become an electronic, baroque-burlesque descent into hell. While staying true to the original score — which features the world’s most exquisite melodies of love, loss, and desperation — and honouring the traditions of Baroque opera, this new production pushes the boundaries of operatic presentation through an orchestra that mixes acoustic and electric instruments, features captivating choreography from burlesque dancers, aerial artistry, and a global virtual chorus.

I’m looking forward to seeing Orphée⁺ next weekend, one of the three Toronto performances.  When I went online to buy a second pair of tickets to go with my comps (because four of us will be going; I said I was a fan, remember?) there were still some available.

Find out more & book tickets by going to AtG’s website.

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I love dogs & The Post

Living through the daily assault upon one’s sensibility leads one to take protective measures.  Whatever does get you through the night?

I vacillate between truth and escapism. Truth consists of various sorts of political content, whether on a news network or in some sort of film or documentary.  Escapism will sometimes take me to music, opera, or movies although the best escape sometimes is simply to stare at a cute kitten or puppy.    Social media reflects our taste, where one can see kitties & puppies or political memes, vying for one or the other side of our brain.


The film world has noticed too.  Recently I saw Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.  See what I did in the headline above? That’s just me, catching on to what Mr Anderson already did.  When you say “Isle of Dogs” aloud can you avoid the homonym?  “Isle of Dogs” is an unlikely phrase, and sounds a whole lot like “I love dogs” even before you factor in a story awkwardly on the boundaries of English due to translations from another language.    Not only does Isle of Dogs explore –indeed celebrate—the love of dogs, but it ventures more than a little into the political side of the brain as well.  After seeing it, I pulled out The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, a pair of films I have owned for years, and the next day brought home The Grand Budapest Hotel from the library for another viewing.

Fanciful & poetic as Anderson’s films are, they also include a great deal of political content.  In The Grand Budapest Hotel we see some violent confrontations that look a lot like moments in the Second World War.  Ditto for Isle of Dogs: and I’ll say no more for fear of giving it away.

Tonight, it was Mr Spielberg’s turn, working in the company of Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and one of his oldest collaborators, John Williams.  The score is understated but at the climactic moments I was moved to tears, largely due to JW’s contribution.  The Post is in some ways more of a nostalgia trip than Grand Budapest Hotel. Where Anderson’s film takes us to a place in the past that never really existed, Spielberg reminds us of a recent version of the USA, one that seems lost in the current climate.

I’m reminded of Philip K Dick’s novel The Man in the High Castle, a book that posits an alternative world where the Axis powers won, where America ends up occupied rather than victorious. How crazy is it, then, that today’s world feels like Dick’s nightmare world: where the wrong guys have somehow overturned everything achieved in the last half century, breathing new life into fascism and the KKK and the worst xenophobia.  Spielberg’s film would remind America of what she once was, for fear that she forgets, that she loses herself altogether.

Today I saw a Huffington Post article citing James Comey’s memos:

  • headline: “Trump Floated Idea Of Jailing Journalists To Make Them ‘Talk'”
  • quote: ‘They spend a couple days in jail, make a new friend, and they are ready to talk,’
    full article |memos

Does that make you want to close this page, and instead find a picture of a dog? (sorry if the picture above misled you) or something political?

Isle of Dogs is not a children’s film.  It’s rated PG-13 because of violence and thematic elements, an allegory about our own time, which is precisely why Anderson chose to set it in a remote place in a stylized fashion.  If you too live in a house where the TV is tuned to CNN 80% of the time you’ll be open to the plot elements in a movie to remind you of current times.  No, there’s nobody with a bad comb-over or a real estate empire.  Maybe I’m making too much of the story.  It does include (SPOILER ALERT)

  • Fake news
  • A leader who follows a strategy of demonizing a powerless group
  • A leader who follows a plan to exterminate that group in a kind of final solution that almost comes to pass

I’m reminded of a few artists, when I try to characterize Anderson.

  • Gustav Mahler, for that ambivalence that mixes high and low, comic & tragic often in the same instant.
  • Terry Gilliam for the ambitious & layered stories, the use of models & elaborate art direction
  • The live-action animation we’ve seen from Tim Burton, although I don’t think Burton ever achieved anything as deep as Isle of Dogs

Tomorrow I’ll be escaping into a baroque opera with a classical story-line.  I comfort myself that on the weekend the only firing the POTUS will do, will be balls fired out of bunkers on the golf-course.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Cinema, video & DVDs, Politics, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Questions for Tracy Dahl

In the recent Canadian Opera Company Cosi fan tutte from just over 4 years ago, Tracy Dahl’s sparkling portrayal of Despina was the breath of fresh air that we desperately needed in Atom Egoyan’s dark intense interpretation.

Here’s what I wrote in my review:

I hadn’t laughed once before Tracy Dahl arrived as Despina, but whenever she appeared, the mood lightened.  Not only did she manage the usual comic bits, but she brought extra, especially in her scenes with the two young women.  (full review)

Every time she came on stage she made us smile.   I expect she’ll have the same impact when she returns for the COC revival of the production next season.

And so it was as Zerbinetta in Lotfi Mansouri’s 1988 COC production of Ariadne auf Naxos alongside Judith Forst as the Composer.


Left to right: Guillermo Silva-Marin, Theodore Baerg, Tracy Dahl, Christopher Cameron & Dennis Giesbrecht in the Canadian Opera Company’s 1988 Ariadne auf Naxos (photo: Robert C Ragsdale, FRPS)

Next week Forst and Dahl reunite for Bernstein’s Candide with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall.  But I’m remembering Dahl in 1988.  Here’s what George Heymont wrote.

The major hit of the evening was soprano Tracy Dahl’s first Zerbinetta — a phenomenal artistic triumph for this tiny young singer who, last season, stole the San Francisco Opera’s production of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann right out from under Placido Domingo’s feet. Dahl’s Zerbinetta was a naughty baby doll whose spicy cascades of coloratura never got in the way of a brilliant theatrical characterization; one of those landmark performances that will not only be treasured for years to come but could easily make a major talent like Kathleen Battle look like a tired old has-been.
(full post here)

I can direct you to a biography either for Tracy Dahl the singer (with Dispeker Artists) or the teacher (at the Desautels Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba), but neither captures the magic that you encounter in person.  I am not going to lie to you. Our interview is no substitute for the live experience of Tracy Dahl.  I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing her next week with the TSO, and next season with the COC.

In the meantime I had the privilege to ask her some questions.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

That is probably a question for my siblings to answer for me.  My sister Jane is definitely like my father.  I cannot boast as many likenesses as she can.  My husband says I remind him of my father. My father and mother were both amazing human beings and to be like either of them would be, to say the very least, an honour.  My father wanted to be very fair. He gave money to each political party so everyone would have an opportunity equally to let us know what they could do for the community. He always wanted to give to each child “equally” and if ever there was an imbalance he would try and explain why. He was a peace-maker.  I wish I had more of that quality.  He was an excellent listener and I think I can do that well when I am one on one.  My father loved a good joke: Ice cubes down the back, hiding desserts when you stepped away from the dinner table — so much of it revolved around the dining room table.  And of course who made that possible, but my mom.  She would be the last one at the table and often so am I at our house.  I taught our budgie how to talk while I sat and waiting for our youngest to finish his meal. My father was a good conversationalist and enjoyed being with people and I am a people person, too.  If I am tired often I seek a good conversation with someone to get re-energized, rather than taking a nap.  I guess that’s the extrovert in me.  My father and mother were both very supportive of my singing before it was ever a career choice.  I know they worried a great deal about financial security and stability heading into it all, but they were always there.  My dad would sit down and send me a note after a performance or competition and tell me what he really loved about it.  He was a multi-tasker.  I am definitely that, and probably, like him, get over-stressed about the number of hats I am wearing at any given time. My dad acknowledged how much others did around him, and he valued everyone’s contributions, whether it was at work or church or the curling club.  I think both my Mum and Dad gave me the sense of every person is to be valued.

Tracy Dahl 02 - credit Dispeker Artists

Soprano Tracy Dahl (Dispeker Artists)

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

The worst thing about my work is leaving my family.  It has never gotten easier.  In fact I think it got harder as our children got older, because although we have so many more ways to connect to one another technologically, it came at an age when my children were beginning to establish their own lives. Depending on where the job is when you are doing opera, it can be a very lonely time. In cities where all the artists are staying in the same place, they often are closer than when we are working in the big opera houses where everyone heads their own way at the end of the day.Trying to remain in good health is another un-fun part of my job.  We all try, but a singer’s job — and pay cheque! — is in jeopardy if they become ill. It can be tiresome trying to avoid getting sick – though worse still is having to cancel an engagement when you are sick.My other professional ‘hat’, teaching voice, is most difficult when the “marriage” of teacher and student doesn’t mesh.  It can happen for many reasons.  I think I feel like I let my student singers down when I can’t help problem-solve, but at the same time I know it is a two-way street and they have to commit as well to the creative process and the work of internalizing their craft.  It is hard work. The student has to do the work.  When they don’t invest in the work it is frustrating. I love the work. I fell in love with the journey — the techniques, the learning — when I began studying with Mary Morrison (a national treasure, and not just by my reckoning!). I love the creative process almost as much as I love being in front of people and performing.

Flipsides;  I have been to some amazing places — in Europe, in Australia, and around this continent—  with my family that I, or they, would never have seen together or maybe even traveled to, had it not been for the chance to perform.I have made friends in this business that I will have for life.  There is a connection in the process of theatre that makes fast friends. We may not see each other often, but I have found that it is like no time has passed when we get together.There isn’t really a flip side to good health – one just needs it.  I have been through a serious health crisis — I am a Stage 3 breast cancer survivor — and know that a cold is just not a big deal, even if it means a missed fee.  It will pass. But I think having cancer and surviving that year was enough to give me some valuable perspective on health.With regard to my teaching career, I would say that I love having to “improvise”. I like looking for new ways to describe a technical journey. I use a lot of metaphors and my students and I often laugh in our lessons – at the metaphor or at ourselves.  When the student is willing to explore their creative ideas, the possibilities are endless.  I love that, every hour, I can learn something new about how to sing or express a phrase, because every hour a new person comes in the door. The art of music brings to mind a line in Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne that I love: “eine Heilige Kunst” — the ‘holy art’.  It is uplifting.  This came to mind last month, when I was on the stage in the middle of a symphony orchestra playing Mahler …can it get any more transformative?  I am very blessed to do what I do.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?  

I listen to folk music.  My chosen go-to discs often have a Celtic feel to them.  I love acoustic guitar.  My son Jaden has learned this year to play guitar and it is so relaxing.  If I am not listening to our shared ITunes account, which has mostly my teenage children’s music on it – then I might have on violin music.  I leave the radio on one of the two classical stations we have in Winnipeg, and I have recently taken to listening to good talk radio (long live the CBC!) or podcasts (This American Life, Because News)  that are recommended to me.  As for TV, our family watches a lot of comedy at our home on Netflix. I don’t watch network TV often, except when I am on the road and I have too much time on my hands.  I think people would be surprised to know I watch curling and figure skating whenever it is on. I have always loved figure skating.  The best figure skaters – Kurt Browning is the best, in my opinion! – move on ice the way I envision my sound would be, if it were movement.  With figure skating, I can see what my sound feels like.  And an opera singer who loves curling? Don’t ask!  Maybe it has to be because I am like my father!  I like the thoughtfulness and strategy of the game.  I can’t really explain it, but I know it was a comfort to me during my chemotherapy. I was always at my worst after treatments on the weekend – it was during the winter — so there was lots of curling to be seen during that time, and now I am hooked.

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

I wish I could ice-skate.  I was once in a production of The Tales of Hoffmann where I had to perform my aria as Olympia on roller-skates!  But I have had two nasty falls on ice-skates in recent years that have got me spooked, even though I adore the beauty of figure skating, and would love to be able to do a spread eagle. It is such an open and generous action. It looks like it opens the soul.

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

I love walking our dog; I don’t consider that work.  I enjoy working in our yard — also not work.  I don’t feel the same way about cleaning the house — that is still work!  BUT I love decorating the house for Valentine’s Day and Easter and, obviously for Christmas.I love being outside with my family, cycling, hiking, swimming or canoeing.I love being in the car with my family on a road trip.  We get some really good talks in the car.  I hear their music and listen to them sing.  It’s great.


More questions about Candide and Despina in Cosi fan tutte

Please talk about Cunegonde, your role in Candide 

Cunegonde is a role I have sung since I began my career.  Now to be truthful I wasn’t in a staged version of it until, well, recently – avoiding putting an age to it 🙂
It is often done as a semi-staged concert since the sets and costumes for such a crazy opera are hugely expensive.  I have done concert versions all over the world and Cunegonde’s big aria (“Glitter and be Gay”) is almost a party piece.  In fact it was an unexpected ‘command performance’ at my 50th birthday party where without any prep at all I had to sight-read new lyrics and sing the aria in front of our family and friends — the opening line re-written to say “FIFTY is okay… so my sisters say …” , etc.  There were some classic lines in that version, thanks to my nephew Graham and his clever lyrics. In fact it is the best I probably ever sang the aria, as it was so spontaneous.

When I learned the aria in Banff in the Musical Theatre Program, I had just discovered from voice instructor Dodi Protero that I had those notes above the staff.  I learned it singing with her.  She sang all of it with me. All I had to do was listen and follow her and because both our voices were meant to do that coloratura, it seemed easy. I think that was a real blessing. I didn’t have to imagine what it ought to sound like or listen to 20 Youtube videos – the sound was present and in front of me.  I just had to feel the sound she was making and “imitate it”.   I have since learned that Cunegonde’s role is difficult. I didn’t learn it the way I would necessarily teach it. BUT I practise it now the way I teach it; in slower sections of detail work in arpeggios and scales, legato and staccato.  Honestly it was such a good thing that I didn’t understand how hard it was when I learned it!

If your voice is meant to sing it, then there are parts that are a breeze but I will say the first time I sang the famous syncopated section with an orchestra I had no clue where I was.  I don’t know that there is any way to prepare for that moment when you move from piano to orchestra except to give you a heads up – it is a different ball game with the orchestra a beat ahead of your part. If anyone wonders why women who sing Cunegonde dance a bit during that aria – that may be the reason; dancing to the beat of our own drum. In some ways, because I sang it in my early musical theatre days, it was never associated with operatic aspirations.  It was fun.  It is fun. Well, it ought to be fun! The extreme highs and lows of the piece are meant to be melodramatic. She is a character of extremes.  In her first duet with Candide, we learn how she aspires to an entirely different world than the one of Candide’s dreams. So the piece is really about living her dream … only as all the characters find out, the dreams come at a cost. The version we are doing in TO is all the more challenging, because it really includes all the musical theatre elements that are required of Cunegonde, as well. You can’t sing the role like Lucia di Lammermoor –  it wouldn’t sound right. So, not unlike Despina, in Cosi fan tutte, you look for other colours or, when in musical theatre, do like the musical theatre singers do, and put character in your voice.

As I have aged with the piece I have learned more about how to sing it, pace it and play with it. One needs to be in fine health to sing it and have all your tools at your command – and always be mindful of what you are doing to keep it lined up.I hope people will find it funny.  It is pretty hard not to tap your toe once the coloratura section starts and that toe-tapping temptation includes me and the orchestra! They get two goes at it, since it is in the overture as well.

Bernstein is a curious composer, who wrote classical music and musicals and jazzy pieces.  Please reflect for a moment on the challenges a singer faces reconciling those aspects in Candide, a piece that sits right on the boundary.    

He is an American composer.  He wants everything from us as performers.  I think he respected the classical traditions.  I think we should sing it with the same respect and accuracy that we do in classical music and in the intricacies of 21st century music for rhythm and pitch.  I feel the same way about Sondheim.  Yes, he bridges the world of musical theatre and classical, but it seems clear to me in this piece where the line is drawn and most of it needs to be classically delivered.  It is fun to throw in a line or two of character-voice and to sing it back in my old musical theatre version of me.  It needs it.  It can’t be sung as Lucia – it is Cunegonde.  If you get a chance watch the video of him working on the recording of West Side story – he wanted it as he wrote it.  One should not try to be more clever and  more of a genius than Bernstein; simply respect him and the libretto, and it will be clear.

Fortunately, because I began in musical theatre and my voice is not a full lyric soprano, I can still pull off the crossover parts of this work.  The parts of the role that demand bel canto singing are never abandoned.  Singing in one’s own language changes things somewhat, but my aim is still to communicate and that is the same whether it is Strauss or Bernstein.

You sang Despina in Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte when the COC last presented it, and will be one of the anchors in its revival next season.  The opera is sub-titled “The school for lovers”, an aspect Egoyan exploits in his concept.  If it were “The school for singers” you might be the principal, and so I wonder: what lessons would you teach us?

Funny question!  I think I would rather not be the principal. 🙂  I would like to be with the teachers in the rooms doing the creative work, not the discipline, paper trails or policy work.  That being said, I think I get your question.  I don’t know that I can answer that in a complete way because there would always be a subsequent question or explanation wanted.   Here is some of the advice I have given over the years: When you do an audition or a recital set out a list of goals (none of which can be memory with text or pitches) that you will evaluate yourself at the end of the day.  I suggest five goals.  The results of auditions are out of our hands but how we feel at the end of that audition is in our control.  If the only goal is to get the job you will end up disappointed too often.  Take ownership and make your own goals. In my set of five goals I want three I will do and rarely miss – and two that are a challenge to myself to improve in places where I do not always succeed.  We all want to strive for perfection but getting there is an impossible task so don’t ask for a perfect audition.  I will steal something I read on line recently; the job is auditioning.  The perk is the job. Be yourself, not some version of an admired artist or described professional.  Sincerity will win out.

Please, oh please, don’t let the business or school rob you of your love of music.  That being said if you want a career in this profession you will need to love the journey as much as the performing. One spends so much time preparing alone before we ever get to the first rehearsal when we start to collaborate and then again before we finally get to perform in front of an audience. Be prepared. You never know when that opportunity to step up and show what you can do will happen.

Don’t take everything that comes your way – or take a dream role simply because it is offered.  Sometimes the timing is wrong. I have, at times, advised singers to say NO. You will have mentors who can advise you. Trust their knowledge of the business and your instrument to know if it is a good opportunity at the right time or not. If you take on something before you are ready and it goes poorly it will be harder to put it behind you both in your confidence and in the eyes of the professionals who heard it.  Career building is an art form.

I think you have a gift for comedy.  Is all acting & theatre the same regardless of genre, or is there something you do differently in comedy? 

Thank you for that compliment.  It is very hard to address our strengths as artists but I do trust this element of my performing. All acting needs to be sincere and come from within the story and character, and that includes comedy.  I am not sure how to describe this in a way that will not leave your readers asking more questions.  Comedy is about listening, about beats and about clean ideas.  It usually is crisp in execution.  Watch Carol Burnett if you want to know where I think most of my ideas were formed!  We watched that as a family every week when I was growing up.  I still to this day will say – “Thank you, Carol Burnett!” You need to be willing to take risks in rehearsals to find those moments.  When I was working with Sir Thomas Allen, we had a blast.  It was always consistent and true to the character but there were nuances that would change. Opera can’t be improvisation because there are too many elements that rely on being consistent.  HOWEVER the process of staging is a place to play and that is where the comedian in me gets to explore and improvise.


Tracy Dahl and Sir Thomas Allen in the COC’s Così fan tutte, 2014 (photo: Michael Cooper)

If you could reprise any of your favourite roles, here or anywhere else, what would you sing?

I have been blessed to sing a variety of roles in my life as a performer.  I never tire of singing Adele in Die Fledermaus.  She was the perfect bridge from musical theatre to opera.  She is trying to pass herself off as a lady of society – and in some ways that is how I felt coming into opera.  Truly, she is the best example of your question above and, because there is so much dialogue, often there was room or even need to improvise while troubleshooting props and such.I really loved singing Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but I only sang it once.  The same is true of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier. I would love to sing that again. Baby Doe … I learned and performed in ten days for Calgary stepping in.  I would love to sing that role again. Marie in La Fille du Régiment, is probably the role I feel really let me live out all my strengths as a singer.  It is a very physical role, one of the ones I would often get asked to do a cartwheel in. (Those years of gymnastics were good for something!)  It has dialogue – which I love doing; ties me back to my straight theatre days.  It is comical and heart-breaking. My favourite moment in that opera is saying good-bye to the soldiers and Sulpice at the end of Act 1. I always felt really connected to the male chorus in that opera.I would be happy to sing Lucia (di Lammermoor) or Gilda (in Rigoletto) again … I love to sing. I know it is a blessing to still be singing and being given opportunities to share the gifts God gave me. I have no expectations moving forward, but to be prepared and ready if and when I am asked to step on stage.

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

There are four teachers I would like to thank.  Marie Enns, my elementary music teacher who saw something special in me and first put me on the stage as “Piggy number 1” in the Three Little Pigs in grade 3, and then on a dinner theatre stage in Winnipeg.  I learned a lot about performing from her and responsibility and being accountable as a performer.  She still is making music in seniors residences and care homes in Winnipeg.  Her love of music has never diminished.

My second vote of thanks: Herbert Belyea and his wife Audrey who were my private music teachers when I started in Winnipeg, voice and piano.  I made some wonderful friends in that home.  I learned in a safe and supportive environment about singing – I still remember the day Mr. Belyea said, “Did you hear that? That was your vibrato”.

Dodi Protero was the first teacher to identify that I was a coloratura soprano and taught me Glitter and Be Gay by singing it with me.  My teachers in Banff were are all special people but Dodi was the one that could look me in the eye – she was also petite – and sang with me.  I don’t think I would have discovered that voice without her.

Mary Morrison

Mary Morrison

The biggest influence in my musical life has been Mary Morrison.  I met her at Banff as well, and it was the beginning, as Bogart said, of a beautiful life-long friendship and mentorship.  I have no stronger musical champion than Mary.  I have learned SO much about singing from Mary.  I was a very natural singer when I met Mary but she very gently began a process of teaching me. I remember going to Mary and asking where my larynx was, because everyone was saying it had to be low.  LOL.  She showed me and told me to forget about it, mine was “just fine”, she said. It was with Mary that I got a thirst for understanding how my voice worked.  I wanted to do scales.  Honestly I think we spent more than half our lessons then just singing exercises. Her passion for a scale and a vowel never tires. All of it is based in wanting to serve the texts and the music of the poet or librettist and composers. I can hear her voice in my head now as I write, laughing at how many different ways I could sing an “Ah” vowel!  I call her often and ask her advice now on singers I am working with and on ways to troubleshoot their issues or simply to bend her ear and have a teacher moment of “Can you believe!”.  Every conversation includes a pep talk encouraging me in my own singing.  She is truly an inspiration.  I am so grateful for the way she somehow made the journey in technique so much fun and so informative. I am grateful to her for her never letting go of the desire for my sound to be better.  I never left discouraged.  I always left wondering how I could make those sounds again, which I could because Mary made that part of the process.  She empowered her students.  Mary always made time for me in her busy schedule. I was a fly-in student – of which she had many.  I didn’t do the university route.  So I was coming in for lessons when I could.  She opened her home to me and to many other singers as they would fly through and run in for the 10,000 mile check-up.


Next season Tracy Dahl reprises her portrayal of Despina in Atom Egoyan’s production of Cosi fan tutte with the Canadian Opera Company. But first there’s her portrayal of Cunegonde in Candide with the Toronto Symphony conducted by Bramwell Tovey, Thursday April 26 and Saturday April 28 at Roy Thomson Hall.

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Hockey Noir: A bilingual Chamber Opera in 3 Periods

May 10–11, 2018, 8 pm

Jane Mallet Theatre

St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts

27 Front Street EastTorontoONCA,M5E 1B4


Continuum is thrilled to present our first full-scale multimedia opera in this special collaboration. Set in the 1950s, the classic hockey rivalry between Toronto and Montreal takes centre stage with a side of organized crime. Love, lust, scandal, blood, betrayal – in sudden death, who wins and who loses is determined not by fate but by the final shot.

Co-produced with Ensemble contemporain de Montreal (ECM+) and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival.


Hockey Noir        André Ristic (CA)

Artistic Director and conductor: Vêronique Lacroix (CA)
Composer: André Ristic (CA)
Librettist: Cecil Castellucci (US/CA)
Illustrator: Kymberlyn Porter (CA)
Stage Director: Marie-Josêe Chartier (CA)


ECM+ with special guests Pascale Beaudin (soprano), Marie-Annick Béliveau (mezzo), Michiel Schrey (tenor) and Pierre-Etienne Bergeron (baritone)


$40 adults / $30 seniors & arts workers / $20 students
Buy tickets now or at the door


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

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