Simon Callow Being Wagner

being_wagnerI’ve just devoured a new book, Simon Callow’s Being Wagner.   The University of Toronto’s excellent music library just acquired it, a new book with a 2017 copyright.

The cover shows the sub-title “Triumph of the Will” which is likely apt, although to be honest I was much more taken by the first part of the title. When I title this “Simon Callow Being Wagner” it describes the event: perfectly. The book is the aftermath of a 2013 project undertaken on the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, with the Royal Opera House in London. Kasper Holten, ROH’s artistic director in 2012, approached Callow to create a show to commemorate Wagner.

And so what I read, what you could read, is in effect, Simon Callow being Wagner, Simon Callow as Wagner.

In the Foreward we discover that Wagner is not like Mozart, that other fellow that he portrayed.  Where Peter Shaffer’s play made a great deal of the (supposed) contradiction between Mozart the man & his art, but Wagner, Callow points out, is not like that, oh no. The man and the art are one.

And of course Shaffer is a natural segue. In that 1984 film Amadeus (from Shaffer’s play) Callow is Schickaneder, but you may know that not so long before that he had originated the title role at the National Theatre in 1979, an actor with a strong voice & presence.

And so it was perhaps a natural to think of Callow (or type-cast him?) as a composer.  But here in this video that’s him all in green playing Papageno (the role created for librettist Schikaneder).

You may know Callow from 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, perhaps the film that has brought him the greatest fame.

What I didn’t expect was to discover a kindred spirit, a self-confessed Wagnerian who devoured and digested the literature, identifying so perfectly with the accounts of the composer’s  life as to then erupt with something verging on autobiography.  The 2013 show was called Inside Wagner’s Head. I wish I’d seen it.   After reading the new book I’m certain anyone with an interest in the composer would find it absorbing, although I can only speculate after the fact and from afar.  The new book is likely almost a therapeutic exercise after having brought the personality of Wagner to life onstage, but might represent the chance to perfect and revise what had been staged.

I don’t think I spoil anything if I quote a few passages, for the sheer fun of it.

These huge shifts in his inner life did not help him to write Tannhäuser as he now called it; it was not coming easily. And they sat uncomfortably with his new respectability.  Minna was thrilled to be the wife of the Royal Conductor, and busily set about furnishing their splendid new apartments appropriately: everything Wagner noted scornfully, was good and substantial, as was only right, he noted with dread, for a man of thirty who was settling down at least for the rest of his life.
You can feel the rising panic, the claustrophobia as he describes his newfound stability.


“I am of the opinion that [Rienzi] is the finest thing achieved in grand opera in the last twelve years,’ wrote the young critic Eduard Hanslick…” These opinions were useful to Wagner, but he did not share them. He found the success of Rienzi pretty funny, in fact.  To him it was passé, dead, history.  He had moved on.

While Being Wagner is written in the third person, it sweeps along with unmistakable confidence and identification  until a moment that I should have anticipated.  Callow’s romance with Wagner has one colossal fly in the ointment. The soup curdles suddenly with the pamphlet Judaism in Music. This doesn’t make the book any less authoritative, but increasingly we encounter the composer’s actions and choices framed with Callow’s reactions. To his credit he is able to explain the motivation, even if we discover some distance between the author and his subject. And this is the first time I really think I understand Wagner’s anti-semitism.  I’m not saying I excuse it, but for once it fits into the portrait, rather than standing out as an inexplicable anomaly.  Where the first 50-100 pages contain so much wit that I found myself laughing out loud on almost every page, the subject matter darkens as we approach the mature operas & the period of Wagner’s fame.

I read Being Wagner almost like the aftermath of the stage portrayal, perhaps the morning after a very vivid dream or nightmare, as Callow, exploring who Wagner was, revisited who Callow himself had become during his Wagnerian stage excursion.  The intensity of the experience verges on possession, the all-encompassing passion of the composer’s life.  It’s a very poignant language that Callow finds, sometimes funny but always penetrating to the core of Wagner’s sensibility.

But I’m not sure if it reads as well for the neophyte as for a committed Wagnerian like myself.  The nerds who think they know the composer inside out –and I think we all do this, don’t we?—will inevitably have moments when their jaw drops with recognition, pages that explain the composer’s psychology, and yes his operas, better than anything we’ve seen before, and I say this as someone who has read more books about Wagner than any other composer. And the witty passages are much funnier if you know the trajectory of this life. Make no mistake, if you are a Wagner fanatic you must read this book, you must! Ha, I think I’m sounding a bit Wagnerian in saying that, but it’s simply testimony to what I experienced reading.  The first part of the book is especially illuminating.  I think Callow really gets Wagner, as in thoroughly understanding his motivation and personality.  The book flows effortlessly, partly because this is a life full of incident & drama, but mainly because the prose is as simple & direct as a cinematic treatment.  Reading this I regret not having been able to see the live presentation, at least to allow me to see Callow inhabiting the composer.

For Wagnerians especially, I recommend Callow’s book, the most enjoyable and straight-forward account of Wagner’s life & work that I have yet encountered.

Posted in Books & Literature, Opera, Reviews | Leave a comment

Adizokan images

I’m adding a bit to what I posted last night.

Adizokan_TSO (@Jag Gundu)

 with Nelson Tagoona in the red shirt and a tiny bit of conductor Gary Kulesha. 

I can’t deny that my understanding of Adizokan is only partial.  I wanted to mention the dancers, namely Eddie Elliott, Lonii Garnons-Williams, Julie Pham, and Jera Wolfe, plus Michel Muniidobenese  Bruyere, who was both a dancer as well as a musician last night.

As with the Seven Deadly Sins a few months ago, the front of the stage became the space for dance, with the orchestra working upstage.

Adizokan_TSO 2 (@Jag Gundu)

@JagGunduPhoto again. The acrobatic moments were so lightning fast they couldn’t be captured. Here’s a moment of lyrical tranquility.

I hear from the TSO that this performance may eventually be available on their youtube channel.

Nelson Tagoona, Gary Kulesha (@Jag Gundu)

Nelson Tagoona, Gary Kulesha @JagGunduPhoto

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adizokanTonight I was present for the premiere of Adizokan, a collaboration between Red Sky Performance and the Toronto Symphony as part of Canada 150. It was much easier surrendering to the sounds and sights of this multi-media multi-disciplinary work than trying to talk about it.  That may sound like a cop-out. I don’t say that in any way as a criticism, for there are many experiences in our lives that may be complex, that make total sense, even though they resist an explanation in words.  So many of the best things I’ve seen in this our Sesquicentennial year have been works that challenge and even problematize our assumptions about Canada, particularly from the Indigenous perspective on settler culture.

And I’m not sure that it matters how it was conceived, and which came first between the music and words and dance.  What’s more important is how well everything was balanced, how nicely it cohered, at times blending into something total unique.  I felt a curious conversational space open up, where we could experience something about the Indigenous view of the country in the blend of native and European cultural procedures.

I often was torn, not always knowing where to look or where to focus my attention with so much going on.

The concert began with another Sesqui, a mysterious pulsing work by Carmen Braden, the perfect overture to the evening.  Then came “My Roots”, a pair of stunning performances, songs that began traditionally, at least in their use of a drum pulse, although Fara Palmer’s take on Indigeneity was on the boundary between native and something resembling the blues, a wonderfully powerful invocation to set us up for what came next.

From there we were into Adizokan, and the dramaturgy became much more complex & variegated, Eliot Britton’s composition for about an hour or more; time flew by, but I only know the duration from the time on my phone. This ambitious work seemed to be a concerto for throat boxer & orchestra. .

Throat boxer? That’s the term Nelson Tagoona has coined for his original use of throat singing, a kind of indigenous hip-hop, merging throat singing and beat boxing into something new.

I’ve heard several of these attempts by the TSO to integrate something like hip hop into their original performance, and have to say this one felt more authentic and genuine than any of the others, possibly because the mash-up wasn’t violent or abrupt but really much simpler and humbler than that.  I don’t know whether more credit should go to Britton or Tagoona in finding this common ground.  And conductor Gary Kulesha kept everyone together.

My bias might be showing in wishing to simply hear Britton and Tagoona without the dance & video embellishments.  I don’t mean to disrespect the many layers of Adizokan, including indigenous vocals coming through the PA overlaid with what Tagoona was creating, both with his brilliant vocals as well as through something that I’d guess to be digital vocording: because it sounded as though Tagoona’s voice was being overlaid in real time with additional harmonies. I am not nearly up on the state of the vocorder art, only that this was very ambient, at times very beautiful.  When I say I want to hear the music without any visuals, I am thinking back to the excellent score created by Christos Hatzis for Going Home Star collaborating with Tanya Tagaq, wanting to hear this again and have a chance to digest it on its musical merits alone.

I think Britton & Tagoona created something very original.  I’m reminded of two very different touchstones:

  • Colin McPhee wrote several orchestral works based on the Balinese music of the gamelan, one of the earliest examples of what we might call minimalism; Britton at times gives us a minimalism with Indigenous overtones, and a very original use of the orchestra
  • George Gershwin took the language of jazz and wrote piano concertos without dishonouring either tradition. I think Tagoona & Britton too found a middle ground between their own Indigenous idioms and the world of the symphony & the concerto.  There were several moments, some gently meditative, some powerfully climactic, where we had the orchestra working with authentic sounding native voices, married beautifully in that middle ground.

Sandra Laronde, founder of Red Sky Performance

Sandra Laronde of Red Sky Performance took the role of “curator”, and I think that title tells us more than a little about what Adizokan is.  There are disparate elements, more of a quilt or a suite of different parts rather than a single unified work.  The music with the dance and the video was very powerful, very moving, even if I don’t pretend to understand what it all signified (and again, that’s why I want to hear it again).  There were titles to different sections but with the lights out I wasn’t able to follow along, nor to know which part was which, except to feel naturally when we were coming to the end, a segment titled “Epic Future Skies”, including images of stars on the video-screens.

All I know is that it worked for me.  I found it very moving, very beautiful.

I hope we get to hear this collaboration between Britton & Tagoona again. Perhaps next time the TSO can make a recording.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews, Theatre & musicals | 2 Comments

Gala Concert — Transatlantic Opera


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Playing it Forward: Artists Giving Back

A collection of artists has come together to present Playing it Forward: Artists
Giving Back (PiF), a music and theatre showcase highlighting exceptional Toronto artists in support of worthwhile causes in their communities. Each of the six presentations will have a connection to a specific charity, not-for-profit or service group, and a fixed portion of the proceeds from each ticket sold will go directly to their organization. The one-off shows run October 11 – 15, 2017, in the intimate Back Space at Theatre Passe Muraille.

Tickets ($10/$20) are available at or by calling (416) 504-7529.

Playing it Forward: Artists Giving Back is the brainchild of Briane Nasimok, assembling a like-minded production team of fellow artists and patrons to realize the project, including Lesley Ballantyne (Herculean Effort), Laurie Murphy (MARRAM) and Tom Carson (Smile Theatre).

Briane is especially pleased with the community support for his PiF vision. “I am very lucky to have worked with many brilliant artists who have immediately embraced the idea,” he says, “It gives us a chance to spotlight some meaningful organizations.”

The Playing it Forward schedule begins on Wednesday, October 11, 7:30 p.m., with
Confessions of an Operatic Mute, a comedy benefiting The Forest Hill Lions Club Holiday Food Fund. Briane Nasimok will be remounting his 2015 hit Fringe show which CBC chose as one the ten shows “not to miss.” Briane boasts the show has “18% new material.”

On Thursday, October 12, 7:30 p.m., Smile Theatre presents its current production, “Sunshine Sketches,” an original musical, based on Stephen Leacock’s writing, from the professional company that tours entertainment to homes for the elderly, with proceeds benefiting Smile.

The Friday October 13, 7:30 p.m., show is “The Gershwin Project.” Musical Theatre Maven Charlotte Moore and her two favourite musicians, Doug Balfour on keys and Bob Hewus on bass, explore the legacy in music and words of both Gershwin Brothers. The show is benefiting Sketch Working Arts.

A matinee on Saturday, October 14, at 1:30 p.m., is “But, That’s Another Story,” Toronto’s
leading storytellers sharing classic tales and personal anecdotes for a family audience. Tickets are $10 per person, with funds raised benefiting Story Telling Toronto.

The evening show on Saturday, October 14, at 7:30 p.m. Joanne O’Sullivan’s Fringe hit “She Grew Funny,” about how her life changed when her daughter turned six, the same age that Joanne was when her mother died. The show is benefitting the Canadian Stomach Cancer Foundation.

Playing it Forward closes with a matinee on Sunday, October 15, 1:30 p.m., an ENCORE
presentation of Briane Nasimok’s “Confessions of an Operatic Mute,” benefiting Gilda’s Club of Greater Toronto.

For more information about Playing it Forward: Artists Giving Back, please contact Briane Nasimok at


Briane Nasimok, aka the Operatic Mute

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Dumb luck at the EJB

I found something marvelous and don’t deserve any credit for the discovery. That’s why I say “dumb luck.”

We’ve just had the verismo class in the opera course I teach at School of Continuing Studies here at University of Toronto. I looked in the collection of the Music Library in the Edward Johnson Building, one of my favourite places in this city, or anywhere else come to think of it.

I stumbled upon a couple of wonderful things.

The DVD that I used most is one I’ve seen before, a live performance from the Metropolitan Opera in 1978 of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in productions by Franco Zeffirelli. A young Placido Domingo sings a sympathetic account of both of the tenor leads.

This isn’t the recording that spawned the headline although I’m grateful to again be in the presence of two voices I miss:

  • Tatiana Troyanos is over-the-top as Santuzza, holding nothing back in her emotional blackmail, her heart on her sleeve, the voice as extraordinary as ever.
  • And Teresa Stratas was a feisty Nedda, so beautiful and defiant in that final scene.

No, I’m thinking of something rarer.

The library also has a 1955 VHS of Pagliacci, slightly abridged, with a remarkable cast.  Because it’s VHS it’s less usable in a class room, where you have to rewind, but I did take the time to play one part. Canio is played by a 29 year old Jon Vickers, still at the very beginning of his career and still a student when he went into the studio. The voice would get much thicker as the years went by.  His “vesti la giubba” was completely original even at this early date.

There’s another surprise on the tape, and in an unexpected role. One might expect to find Louis Quilico in this opera, but on this occasion he sang Silvio, Nedda’s lover, rather than Tonio, the role he would assume later in his career when his voice had thickened. Quilico is a handsome figure at this point, almost exactly the same age as Vickers. I shook hands with them in the 1970s backstage after an Otello at the Met conducted by James Levine.

But at this point the voices and their bodies were decades lighter, the delivery more fluid and uninhibited. As the voices became bigger and more powerful they lost flexibility. It’s a fascinating trade-off that’s unmistakable in two well-known voices, the two finest male singers I ever heard.  While Vickers’ talent is known, I believe Quilico is under-rated as he only really conquered the world stage in the latter part of his career, when some of the bloom was off the voice.

The cast includes Eva Likova as Nedda, who used her ballet training in the final scene as Columbina, and Robert Savoie as Tonio. Otto-Werner Mueller conducts the Orchestra of Radio-Canada, Montreal.

I need to look further to get my own copy of this performance from the CBC, hopefully on a DVD. So far it hasn’t turned up in any of my searches: but I will make some enquiries. For any fan of Vickers and especially for fans of Quilico, this recording is pure gold.

Have a look at this excerpt, up to the most chilling delivery of the final line that I have ever heard.

It’s worth recalling, too what amazing things the CBC used to do.

Posted in Personal ruminations | 1 Comment

TSO, Reineke and Williams

Roy Thomson Hall was jammed tonight, fans of every age including parents & their children. The programme presented by the Toronto Symphony was a small sampling of the film music of John Williams.

There’s no mistaking the interest. In 2016 the TSO presented a similar program that was wonderfully well-received conducted by the same natural showman and evangelist, namely Steve Reineke.


Conductor Steven Reineke (photo: Michael Tammaro)

From what I hear, the 2017 concerts are selling very well. Tonight looked to be sold out, with few empty seats, so if you’re hoping to catch one of the remaining concerts don’t wait until the last minute before getting a ticket.

Film music is a big thing. I’m obsessed, personally, and not just because I teach a course on the subject. This is another side of popular music that can get lost in the shuffle if you only think of rock or hip-hop. John Williams reputedly charges a million dollars per film, and I saw elsewhere that others such as Danny Elfman charge comparable amounts. So when someone asks you who is the most successful Canadian composer, you might consider answering “Mychael Danna”: whose new orchestral suite based on his score to Life of Pi debuted last week with the TSO.

Tonight it was music from such films as Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.,  and Jurassic Park. Whether you’re a fan of Harry Potter, Star Wars or one of the Spielberg – Williams collaborations such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, there was something for every nerd in attendance.

We began with Toboggan, Darren Fung’s Sesquie (and in case you haven’t heard, the TSO and other Canadian orchestras commissioned several of these two minute fanfares as a celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary, our sesquicentennial, which begat the “Sesquie”).  Reineke gave a wonderfully theatrical intro to the piece, which has a very cinematic feel, matching the rest of the program. Fung takes us on a musical ride, an impression of the adventure of going down a hill as a child, complete with the sense of triumph and the comical recognition that nobody was really paying any attention (with the wacky last note).

It was the perfect beginning to a concert where we were entertained in the same spirit, as though we were all children. Reineke gave us all an overdone backward glance during the Jaws music, as everyone started giggling uncontrollably. No the movie isn’t funny, but this is different, right? Listening to the shark music without any visible shark is hysterically funny: which is why Reineke got that out of the way to begin.

But it’s a valuable exercise. People watch films without recognizing the powerful components at work. You discover just how good Williams’ scores are when you hear these suites in a concert hall, with no visual accompaniment. All we have is our imaginations, which have no trouble filling in the rest, in the presence of this larger than life music.

I wonder if the TSO will change their programming philosophy. Last week, after all, they programmed Danna’s orchestral suite. That’s a different sort of music from the fun kid-friendly stuff Reineke gave us tonight. If orchestras can present opera excerpts such as “The Ride of the Valkyries” in a symphonic concert, there’s no reason they can’t do likewise with some film music compositions.

I’d love to see them probe connections, for instance giving us some of the Star Wars music alongside Mars Bringer of War from Holst’s The Planets Suite, which exerted such an influence on Williams. I thought tonight that the Jaws theme sounds like a cruder version of what Herrmann wrote for Psycho’s shower scene: possibly because the killer is so much bigger and nastier, but I wish I could hear them side by side in the same concert, for comparison. That sort of thing would be lots of fun.

Reineke could probe some of the connections between Williams’ scores. Harry Potter sounds a bit like the pirate theme in Hook for example. Superman and Star Wars have some resemblances. And—while I’m dreaming in colour—wouldn’t it be wonderful if the TSO could do some of the things I do in the film music class, when I play a powerful scene first WITHOUT the music (that shower scene for example), and then play the music without the visuals, and finally bring them all together.  But it would be so much better on the TSO’s big screen with the orchestra.

The program (minus the Sesquie) repeats twice On October 4th and again October 5th.

Posted in Cinema, Film Music Course, Music and musicology | Leave a comment