Tafelmusik: The Hunt

Jeanne Lamon was back tonight to lead Tafelmusik in Jeanne Lamon Hall at St-Paul’s Centre. There’s a quiet recognition of the journey made together. While Lamon is now called “Music Director Emerita,” recognizing a new role as a kind of senior advisor, there is still the deep relationship that one senses when she leads this orchestra.

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Jeanne Lamon, Tafelmusik’s Music Director Emerita (photo: Sian Richards)

Tonight was a curious mix in a program titled “The Hunt”. Horns were prominent in the works by Mozart, Kraus & Haydn.

Scott Wevers played Mozart’s 4th horn concerto on a modern replica of an old-style horn, valve-less that didn’t stop him from showing astonishing control, either in scales or arpeggiated passages. We heard a couple of marvelous cadenzas including one that elicited a few giggles as Wevers took us down down down to the lowest part of his instrument’s range. I’ve been listening to these concerti for years, but this is the first time I’ve been lucky enough to hear a performance like this, without benefit of a modern instrument. While a Tuckwell or a Brain or a Damm offer a heroic sound, and yes they do sound brave & bold on their recordings, I recognize this as real courage, to be facing the tests of a concerto without valves. There are of course trade-offs, so one can’t be as loud or as perfect: but come to think of it, that’s true for everything we hear from Tafelmusik. Instead we’re getting something that would be recognizable for someone from Mozart’s time. And the vulnerability of the performance creates genuine drama.

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Jeanne Lamon with Tafemusik (photo: Sian Richards)

This is also my first time hearing Mozart’s Symphony #25 without benefit of modern instruments, such as we heard in the score of Amadeus. The first minutes of the film –when they’re carrying the bleeding Salieri through the streets of Vienna to a doctor—feature those contradictory opening passages whether the passionate G-minor tutti that begins or the answering solo from the plaintive oboe. For both the concerto & the symphony Lamon spurred the horses –that is the orchestra—to a brisk gallop, apt for a chase.

And ditto for the closing movement of the Haydn symphony, that inspired the epithet, “The Hunt” (or La Chasse). I think almost everyone in the space was sitting there waiting for this familiar piece, so well known but so different when done by this kind of ensemble, whether in the galloping opening figure or the woodwind passages answering.
And so while Tafelmusik are known for baroque –they’re called “Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra” after all—this is really what I dream of, that they venture into more recent times, laying claim to repertoire from the time after the baroque. And I see in the brochure for next season that this concert is just a tiny taste of what’s to come. Next season includes a wind concert program including Beethoven, Mozart, Rossini & a world premiere from Cecilia Livingston, another featuring Mendelssohn & Tchaikovsky with a world premiere by Andrew Balfour, plus a new original program from Allison Mackay mixing music from different cultures. Oh yes, there’s also lots of baroque too (Messiah & the St John Passion of Bach), in the exciting season to come.  Oh my…!

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Questions for Molly Reisman

The official bio says that
Molly Reisman is a Canadian writer, producer and performer who is endlessly curious about how humans connect, empathize and interact with the world around them, that Molly is a graduate of NYU Tisch’s MFA Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program, and she completed her undergraduate studies at Toronto’s Ryerson University where she majored in acting with a minor in business entrepreneurship.

I encountered Molly in a show at Ryerson, where teacher Cynthia Ashperger gave her the tough assignment of playing a quirky older lady. It’s funny because I think Cynthia & I both sensed that Molly is an old soul, mature & professional beyond her chronological age.

Her bio continues, telling us that her writing credits include: “3 Dresses” (LaMaMa 2019) “Electric Circus” (Pepperdine University 2019), “Heartbeat” (NYU Tisch 2019), “Keaton and The Whale” (NYU Tisch 2018), “Cow is Me” (LaMaMa Puppet Festival 2018), “TEDQUEST” (LaMaMa Puppet Festival 2017, NYC Summerfest), “WE WROTE THIS” (Ryerson New Voices Festival & Winner Best of Atlantic Fringe Festival, 2014), “The Other Side of The Curtain” (Canterbury Children’s Theater Festival, 2009).

I heard she won The Weinberger Award, which led me to ask her some questions.

1. Are you more like your father or your mother?

I am for sure more like my dad.

My mom is very cool-headed and logical, and in my spiraling moments of anxiety, I do try to channel her as best I can, but my default setting is dad.

My dad has always played guitar as a hobby and growing up around live music has always been important to me. Both my mom and dad decided to put my sister and me in piano lessons, and my dad would sometimes play guitar when we would practice piano. I always found it very interesting how much depth is added to even the most basic songs when just an additional instrument / sound is added.

My mom is musical too, she used to play piano (and I think has been picking it up again lately!) and used to try to help us with our piano lesson’s homework at home. She, however, is a terrifying teacher and I would usually end in tears under the piano. I’m also a notorious baby and drama queen, and I would always end up doing the damn homework, come hell or high water.

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Molly Reisman

2. What is the best or worst thing about What You do?

To me, the best thing about writing musicals as part of a team is collaboration. It is so helpful to not be writing into a void, and to have a partner who is willing to go down as many wrong-idea- rabbit holes as you are. Working with a collaborator has also meant that I am constantly surprised by what we create. Usually, when I write a lyric, I have a sound or melody or even a basic motif in mind, and 9.5 times out of 10, my collaborator will come up with something a million times more interesting than anything I could ever come up with. It is so rewarding to create something with another person this way.

Collaborating also means you usually can’t get away with bullshit. I’ve been blessed to work with composers who are far more interested in creating a compelling story with dynamic characters than sparing my feelings, and I feel the same. When working alone, it is very easy to get precious with your work and to be hesitant to cut or edit because you like the way a song sounds, or you think you wrote a clever lyric. With a collaborator, you are able to keep each other in line and sort of pull the thread of: “is this necessary?” or “this is kinda boring and makes me not want to hear from this character.”  It can be hard, but ultimately, it will create a stronger piece.

At NYU I have learned 2 mantras that have saved me from (or revived me from) numerous meltdowns:
1. There is no such thing as a musical theater emergency
2. There’s always more where that came from.

The WORST thing about what I do is probably the terrifying instability of living as an artist. It’s obvious, I know, but as I said, I’m an anxious person down to my core, and being in an industry (with a degree as marketable as an MFA in Graduate Musical Theater Writing) that is so elusive and based so much on luck and network, it makes me wish I had the passion and interest I have in writing musicals in something like accounting or tort law.

3. Who Do You Like to Listen to Or Watch?

Right now, I’m obsessed with the soundtrack to Be More Chill. Joe Iconis is an alum of my grad program (NYU Tisch Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program) and I’ve always been a big fan of his work. The show is so funny and weird and refreshing and it’s just a lot of fun to listen to.

Since moving to New York, I’ve also been obsessed with anything and everything Dave Malloy. Ghost Quartet and Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 are some of my favourite shows (to watch and listen to) at the moment; I think it’s because Dave Malloy finds a great deal of vulnerability in characters or situations that at first blush can seem didactic or heady. He has a new show, Octet, that is opening off-Broadway soon, I can’t wait to see it. He’s also working on a Moby Dick musical, and since I am also working on a musical about a Whale, it is nice to keep tabs on him.

I’ve also been working as assistant to lyricist Mindi Dickstein and librettist Kirsten Guenther for the Paper Mill Playhouse Production of Benny and Joon (A new musical based on the early 90’s movie with Johnny Depp), which recently transferred from the Old Globe in San Diego.

Getting to listen to a large-scale piece throughout a rehearsal process has been unbelievable. Mindi Dickstein is faculty in my program (which is how I got the job), and Kirsten graduated from my program a few years ago, and it has been phenomenally inspiring to watch 2 female words-people from my program not only be exceptionally talented and endlessly focused on excellence, but also to see them run the space in the rehearsal room, and to a certain extent, their industry. It’s good to have role models.

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

Oh, so many.

I wish I could:

  • Tap dance (well)
  • Play guitar
  • Have my shit together enough to actually do meal prep every week
  • Fall asleep at a reasonable hour
  • Have the ability to live and work in America for the foreseeable future (fingers crossed on a pending O-1 visa application)
  • Do yoga for like, more than 2 weeks
  • I wish I could read music at more than an incredibly basic level. It’s something I’m working on, but being at school with capital C Composers who have been studying ear training and composition for years and years is really great inspiration to crack those very boring music theory books once again.

5. When You’re Just Relaxing and Not Working, What is Your Favourite Thing To Do?

• I love dogs. I love looking at pictures of dogs, watching videos of dogs, dogsitting dogs, dreaming about fostering / adopting a dog… Last year I went to the Westminster dog show and watched Flynn, the Bishon Frise, get crowned Best in Show, it was a big moment in my life. I am currently working on a dog-centric musical which I am VERY excited about.

• It’s not as easy as it was when I lived in Toronto, but I love biking. I live in Brooklyn, close to some very nice waterfront bike paths, so my boyfriend and I sometimes rent bikes and make an afternoon of it. We can bike from our apartment to Coney Island- we haven’t done that yet, but that’s for sure something we want to do before this end of this summer.

• Seeing whatever Musicals I can. It used to be a lot easier when I was in school and did not have 3 jobs and 4 musicals on the go, but whenever I can get rush tickets, watching a show is still the most magical experience to me. I’m pretty sure I have become notorious in my circle of friends because, even though I have spent a good amount of time studying musicals, and even though certain aspects of being part of an audience of musical theater has been stripped of it’s magic because we’ve spent so long exhaustively studying all of the mechanics, I still weep openly during most musicals I attend.

Okay here’s my cheesy musical theater rant: I really do believe there is no more special experience than musical theater. A lot of people shit on musicals as pedestrian and basic, but, as NYU faculty member Michael John LaChiusa likes to say, when an audience buys a ticket to a musical, they are entering a contract to leave reality, suspend their disbelief and open themselves up to a very different kind of universe. That level of vulnerability from an audience and that kind of openness to go on a journey (whatever it may be), to a world that is so full of live music, and live actors, and to do so with a bunch of strangers, is something so special to me. I love musicals, and I love writing them. Okay rant over.

6. What is The Weinberger Award, and how did you, the graduate from Ryerson U, happen to win it?

This is the very first year of the Eric. H. Weinberger Award. It was given to me from Amas musical theater, which is all about supporting new musicals and diverse stories. At Ryerson University, there is a class for all students in acting and dance called Creative Performance, and as a final year project, students are invited to write and produce their own pieces. I think I owe a lot to Sheldon Rosen, the teacher of that class, as well as Mani Eustis, a very talented classmate and fellow Canadian writer, who suggested we write a musical together. Mani and I ended up writing a three-person show called “We Wrote This”. It was 1 hour long, we both wrote words, we both wrote music and we both acted and played instruments during the show. I think this opportunity from Ryerson with literally no rules and no structure let me jump into the deep end and let my voice be as weird and goofy and gross as it wanted to be (and it was very goofy and gross.).

KEATON AND THE WHALE POSTER

I think coming into writing in such an open way let me approach all future musical theater writing in a very fearless way. I remember at one point in Creative Performance, Sheldon told us that he once wrote a stage direction where the roof was taken off of a building (or something to that effect) by the hand of Someone, and that it was something of a joy for a director to have to face the challenge of the fantastical. This is something I thought about a lot when working on my thesis project- a 90 minute musical called Keaton and The Whale (Book and Lyrics by Molly Reisman, Book and Music by Emily Chiu) , which would eventually win myself and my collaborator / co-bookwriter Emily Chiu the brand new Eric H. Weinberger award.

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Molly Reisman and Emily Chiu

One of my very best friends (and roommate for my first year living in NYC) is Stephanie Sardelis. She was finishing up her Masters in Marine Biology at Columbia when I moved to New York to attend NYU. At some point in the middle of my first year, Steph decided to create a TedEd entitled “Why Do Whales Sing?”. I remember watching it and thinking about how interesting Whale song is, how diverse the sound system is, and how little humans know about it, and how advanced Whales are (and how old and ancient and mythical they are / appear) and I think I posted it on Facebook and my brother commented with a link to a Wikipedia article on the 52 Hz Whale– The only whale of his kind, he sings at a frequency of 52 hertz, which is about 3 times higher than any other whale can hear. Scientists call him the loneliest whale in the world.

I don’t know about you, but when I read that, my heart hurt. Immediately I knew this was something I wanted to write about.

I asked Steph about this whale and she showed me some more research on the 52 hz whale, how he has been tracked by scientists, and how, although he was very mysterious, rarely seen and even more rarely recorded, he seemed to be, by all accounts, a happy and healthy whale. We both sat on our couch and talked about how quickly humans project onto animals.

It was at this point that I knew I wanted to write about this for my thesis musical. But how the hell would I find someone willing to write a musical where one of the lead characters is a Whale?

In my first year at NYU, I was lucky enough to work with some of the second years, singing for various labs / phases of their thesis musicals. One project, by Emily Chiu and Ellen Johnston, was called Apollo, which was about a fortune telling octopus, among other things. I had been a huge fan of this piece and its writing team, and I took a shot in the dark and asked Emily Chiu if she would come back to NYU as an alumni collaborator to work on another ocean themed musical, this time about the loneliest whale in the world. Lucky me, she said yes and we began working on Keaton and The Whale.

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Emily and I talked about The Whale, about loneliness, and about isolation. The character Keaton is based on one of my favourite musicians, Keaton Henson. I love him so much, he is so full of FEELINGS. Emily and I were often asked questions like “But How does the audience know there is a whale on the stage” or “Can you do this on stage? This feels more like a movie to me”. These were brutal to take, but we were in it together, and we could both see the piece so clearly as a trunk show, with an ocean ensemble that also functioned as the band for the piece.

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Emily Chiu & the work in progress

When it came time for our thesis presentation, which is a 29 hour staged reading with equity actors, a Music Director and a Director, we were BLESSED with an unbelievably talented cast as well as the most imaginative and wonderful director we could hope for, a fellow Canadian, Leora Morris.

Leora is an amazingly imaginative director, while also keeping her dramaturgical ear to the ground. She asked us lots of helpful questions, but also saw the piece as we saw it, and had no problem creating a world where a blue sweater indicated that someone was embodying The Whale.

So the reading happened on May 1 2018, for an audience of our peers (and family and friends) and Emily and I were both happy with how it went. Leora mentioned to us that she thought it would be interesting to see how young audiences would receive the show. NYU graciously gave us the opportunity to do a second reading this past February, this time, aimed at young audiences. The edits we made helped us focus our story and figure out whom we were talking to and why.

Sometime in the midst of these edits, Emily sent me the link for the Eric H. Weinberger award for Emerging librettists and suggested I apply on behalf of the both of us. I looked up Amas musical theater and saw it was interested in engaging with young audiences as well as diverse stories, so I thought what the hell. I sent in our most recent libretto and some demo tracks, and it was judged by a double blind panel, and a few months later it was announced that Emily and I had won the award, as well as a production of Keaton and The Whale with Amas musical theater sometime in the 2019-2020 season.

I think that coming into musical theater with the idea that anything is possible on stage as long as it has emotional resonance with the audience is something I learned at Ryerson from Sheldon, and from working with Mani, and carried with me to NYU, and was strengthened by working with the genius that is Emily Chiu on this musical that was inspired by my best buddy Steph and my brother’s Facebook comment.

7. I hear you’re in Malibu, for a commission through Pepperdine. Tell me about it.

I am writing these responses on the plane coming back to New York from Malibu! It was my first time ever being in Malibu, and I can’t believe how gorgeous it was. It’s all beaches all the time. This commission from Pepperdine was a great honour and an unbelievable opportunity, but also, the very best mini-vacation ever.

The commission came about because my collaborator, Clayton Daniel Briggs, graduated from the composition program at Pepperdine University, and the head of the composition department, Dr. N. Lincoln Hanks, wanted him to present something he was working on. Clayton came to me with this news and we were both so excited. I had approached Clayton with the idea for Electric Circus about 2 years before this, while we were thinking about possible concepts for thesis musicals.

I stumbled upon an article about “The Real Life Dr. Frankenstein”, who inspired Mary Shelley to write her epic novel. His name was Dr. Giovanni Aldini, and he was the nephew of Luigi Galvani, a physicist and the father of Galvanism. Aldini worked for his uncle in his lab and seemingly idolized the man until Galvani’s theories of “Animal Electricity” were disproven by Alessandro Volta, and Galvani was shunned by the scientific community. Aldini took it upon himself to restore his uncle’s name by following up on his uncle’s research, specifically in sending electrical currents through frogs (which the late 1700’s onlookers thought of as re-animation), and eventually, working on a human subject, George Foster, a recently executed criminal, who was the subject of a live demonstration conducted by Aldini, which was an extremely well-attended event by the general public.

I thought there were a few interesting things about Dr. Aldini:

  • After contacting scientific historians across the world, and thorough online research, very little is known about Giovanni Aldini following his experiment on George Foster.
  • He was part of a scientific movement to take science to the public- to salons and to the streets, to more common folk, more than just the scientific community. This was at a time in history (the late 1700’s) where Science was still in a weird place of facts-based researched with a sprinkling of occult interference.
  • This got me interested in the idea of science for consumption and for entertainment as opposed to science in the pursuit of answering questions and solving problems.

Electric Circus is essentially the story of Giovanni Aldini, his desire for power, to right his family’s name, and the lengths he would go to get it.

Electric_Circus_Poster

So we wrote a draft of the show to fit the needs of Pepperdine (45 minutes, accommodating to a cast of x people, can be performed in a small space). We Skyped in for auditions and got to put in our two-cents as far as casting, and months later we flew down to Malibu to watch the final week of a 4 month rehearsal process.

While attending rehearsals, Clayton and I got the opportunity to teach some classes on collaboration, working with lyricists and what it’s like to be in the musical theater industry.

It was wonderful working with composers from all different backgrounds and watching our show come to life. The performance was a lot of fun and we both learned a great deal from the reading, and even on this flight home I have pages of notes for our next rewrite. Hi-Ho the glamorous life.

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Clayton Daniel Briggs & Molly Reisman hit the road in service of their art (although I hear it was a lot of fun) 

8. You had a “Kids puppet musical produced at La MaMa experimental theater club a few weeks ago, What was your objective when you were beginning to write?(was it a plot outline or something else that led you into it?)

I have had two short musical theater puppet works that were featured as part of the 2017 and 2018 LaMaMa Puppet Slam (“TedQuest” with Composer Andrew Lynch and “Cow is Me” with composer Clayton Daniel Briggs, respectively). I have always loved working with puppets, and recently, I have been very interested in writing for young audiences. Jane Catherine Shaw, the curator of the La MaMa Puppet Slam as well as an artist in residence at La MaMa, approached Clayton Daniel Briggs and me with an idea to do an interactive puppet musical for kids.

Again, Clayton and I were curious about writing for young people, and getting a show produced at an institution like La MaMa is an honour and a great opportunity. Clayton and I wanted to make the show as accessible as possible, to audiences of all ages (but probably between the ages of 3-5).

9. You’re writing the book to a musical. Supposedly, music says what words cannot say. In your way of working, does the writer decide where the songs should go, or the composer? Or maybe is it more fluid than that and you both have a say?

Writing book for a musical is a thankless task. Usually, the only time anyone talks about the book to a show is to say that it sucks. That is to say, when a bookwriter is doing their job, they should be invisible. To me, the big thing when writing the book to a show is figuring out the structure and the natural arcs of the characters. In terms of where a moment is musicalized, yes, it is usually the most heightened moments of a character deciding to change, or to take action to pursue a goal. That being said, in my experience, it changes for every collaboration. Sometimes the book writer is in complete control of where songs should go, other times it is a group decision. I like working with the composer to figure out what moments are sung. It’s also interesting when the story tells you where the songs should go. You can look at a moment and say, Okay, this is this character’s big number where they finally take that step or do whatever, and you’ll find you’ll write it and edit it and edit it a million different ways and it still doesn’t feel right. Usually that means that you’re not writing the right moment, and to re-assess where the character is in the moment and what is really happening in the story.

10. What else have you written? (Novels, poems, songs, plays without music?)

I wrote a pretty bad angsty novel in middle school. I used to write poems and I have written a few short plays. I mostly write songs and musicals at the moment.

11. Would it be fair to say you’re living your dream? (are you doing what you hoped to do, the writing, going to NY and California, context with what you expected when you were young)

I am absolutely living my dream. I am so very lucky to be doing what I’m doing. It’s a hard way to live and I’m always exhausted, but when I’m reaching breaking point and looking at my 100 page to do list, I remind myself that I’m doing the thing I love to do most in the world, and I can write whatever I want. Musicals have always been my deepest yearning in life- to watch them, to act in them, to write them, so to be here in the sky, enroute from a performance in Malibu to an upcoming performance of another 29-hour equity reading in New York at the end of April, I am overwhelmed, terrified, and so grateful and happy.

I think the weird 9 year old me who used to sit in the car reading the lyrics of “If I Can’t Love Her” out of the Beauty and The Beast Original Broadway Cast Recording CD jacket over and over again in her spare time would be happy about where I’ve ended up.

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

Truly, every faculty member at NYU Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program is an inspiration. Sarah Schlesinger, the chair of the department, cares so much about all of her students and has created the best faculty ever to support them, and offers her students opportunities to grow and learn around every corner.

Donna DiNovelli was my thesis advisor for Keaton and The Whale. She’s a brilliant librettist, film writer and film director and she constantly challenged the way I look at theatrical structure and form, and when I grow up, I hope to be brilliant like her.

Rachel Sheinkin, bookwriter extraordinaire (Tony award winner for 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee among other things) taught our book-writing class and, among the many gems of wisdom she has bestowed upon me, reminded me that book-writing should be engaging for the audience, but also fun to write.

 WE’RE ALLOWED TO HAVE FUN! 

Finally, Mindi Dickstein (lyricist for Benny & Joon and Little Women) is my mentor, even if she doesn’t know it yet. Her writing is beautiful and so smart and so funny, and she is an unbelievable force to be reckoned with.

Basically, I’m so grateful to all of the strong bad-ass women who surround me.

13. Plugs for upcoming:

Keaton and The Whale will be produced with Amas Musical Theater sometime in the 2019-2020 season

Electric Circus is planning on having a staged reading in NYC Halloween 2019, probably at the Pit Loft.

Heartbeat, my second thesis show (book and lyrics by Molly Reisman, book and music by Nathan Fosbinder) will be receiving a staged reading at NYU GMTWP blackbox April 30th 2019.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Interviews, Music and musicology, Popular music & culture, Theatre & musicals, University life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Questions for Dean Burry: Shanawdithit

I hope you’ll forgive me if I pause to take a breath before I attempt to tell you who Dean Burry is, a man who wears so many hats one doesn’t always know how to address him.

Professor? Composer? Librettist? Maestro?

Across all those different disciplines (and even others I didn’t mention) Dean is always busy. He is arguably the most successful Canadian opera composer given that The Brothers Grimm is the most performed opera ever composed by a Canadian, over 600 performances & counting.

With someone so multi-faceted, you might enjoy reading his biographies, such as

  • here (Queen’s University)
  • or here (Tapestry Opera )
  • or here (Dean’s website)

Students wanting to build a career, impresarios or creators seeking the secret of success should look no further than Dean. In a nutshell: this is how it’s done.

Dean reminds me of an axiom in management. If you want something done quickly and have the choice between asking someone who’s sitting there available to work, and someone who’s busy the answer is counter-intuitive. Because if you want it done quickly you ask the busy person: as they know how to get things done quickly. Dean is a perfect illustration. Although I asked him more questions than usual yet his was one of the fastest responses I’ve ever had.

Dean’s so busy that there are several projects I could (should?) have asked about, except I *blush* didn’t know about all the others. I approached him on this occasion, fascinated by one project in particular, namely Shanawdithit, a co-production of Tapestry Opera & Opera on the Avalon, under development for months with librettist Yvette Nolan, workshopped last fall: and to be world-premiered May 16 here in Toronto, before being taken to Newfoundland in June.  I had so many questions.

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Composer Dean Burry

1. Are you more like your father or your mother?

That’s usually not a clear cut question given the way genetics work. I certainly look a lot like my father…the spitting image in some photos. But I’d say temperament-wise I’m more like my mother. I’m honestly not a huge believer in astrology but we are both Pisces and from what I understand, our sentimentality, sensitivity and creativity (she enjoys writing poetry) all come from being a couple of fish.

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

I’m going to cheat and comment on TWO of the best things about what I do (and I do a lot of different things so let’s focus on writing opera). I want to do two because when you asked this question I immediately thought of two things that are polar opposites.

In no particular order…I LOVE the community of people that it takes to make an operatic production. I love hanging with stage managers, and set designers and singers and instrumentalists, conductors, directors, PR, marketing, education. You get the idea. It is a tremendous amount of collaboration and all of that interaction is nourishing.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is AMAZING to create an imaginary world that you get to live in for a period of time. So many of my projects involve stories and world-building. You really get to know these characters and these places in a very deep way. I get to the same moment in Shanawdithit – first while working on the vocal score and later while orchestrating – and I find myself crying. Honestly it’s a little escapist. I suppose one serves the extrovert in me, the other the introvert.

The WORST thing about what I do? It is damn hard to make a living as a composer. Hard to even find a way to claw through enough to make your art, let alone thrive. There have been lean years where I questioned if I had gone into the right field and those moments can be very low. I know many composers go through this but you are forced into putting on a brave face and pretending like everything is fine. It can be a real struggle. Composers and writers can have a massive impact on our world…it would just be nice if we could, as a society, find a way to acknowledge that.

3. Who do you like to listen to or watch?

This is one of those questions where I think “should I make something up to sound more sophisticated”? Honestly, I’m a big nerd. Bring on the Star Wars, Superheroes, Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. My wife Julia and I enjoy cooking shows as well. When it comes to concerts I’d say I’m pretty eclectic. Last night I saw a wonderful production called Seven Deadly Sins given here in Kingston (my new home) by Soundstreams. Very contemporary yet totally relatable. Julia is the principal second violinist with the fantastic Kingston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Evan Mitchell, and this is the first time I have ever had a symphony subscription. It’s been years since I sat down for dedicated concerts including Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart alongside more contemporary work…so happy to be experiencing this repertoire again. As a composer in the new music scene I tend to always find myself, logically, at new music concerts. And going to the symphony every two weeks is all the more special because my daughters Blythe and Maeve are sitting with me. The older patrons sitting around us always say “Oh they are so good in the concert” and I give a smug little smile and say “thank you, they have seen a few concerts”. I held Blythe as a one-month old for the world-premiere of my opera Isis and the Seven Scorpions. They haven’t really had a choice.

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Dean Burry

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

You know, I wish I could play the violin. I can play a lot of instruments and I find one of the great joys of life is to pick up (or make) some (preferably weird) instrument and try to figure out how to make music with it. I don’t know if it’s my stubby fingers or what, but I just can’t get my paws around that thing. Julia, the girls and her family all play string instruments, so I guess I’ll just leave that to them.

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

I love nature and that only intensifies as I get older. As I mentioned we just moved to the country (a little town just outside Kingston called Elginburg) and I can’t tell you how much I love seeing the wide array of birds at the feeder in the morning. The wild turkeys that our dogs Felix and Annie love to bark at and the rabbits hopping around everywhere are wonderful. We even have a “House Toad” that shows up every night in the dog yard. So just being close to nature is a big thing for me.

In the last five years I’ve also found a new passion with a Renaissance ensemble I play with called The Gemsmen. We play recorder-like instruments made out of horn called gemshorns. They were made by a good friend, Hall Train (who also created the projections for my symphonic work Carnival of the Dinosaurs) and when I put two-and-two together and realized some of my best friends, Trevor Rines and Ken Hall were flute players, a quartet was born. We play a lot of period consort repertoire including a set of music from the court of King Henry VIII that we are currently working on, but it’s also a great chance to arrange a wide variety of music including pop music like the Beatles and sci-fi movie themes (we joke that we are the “Big Bang Theory” of the 16th century.)

I’ve also played in a Celtic band called Merasheen with a group of fellow Newfoundlanders for almost twenty years, so I guess the real answer is that when I’m not making music…I make music.

*******

More questions about Shanawdithit, being presented at Imperial Oil Theatre in Toronto from May 16-25, and then going to Newfoundland in June.

1. With a dozen operas listed on your website you’re an extraordinarily prolific artist including The Brothers Grimm, arguably the most performed opera ever composed by a Canadian, at over 600 performances & counting. As I write this question I’m anticipating seeing La boheme tomorrow. Can we talk about that dirty word “popularity”, dirty because critics & scholars haven’t fully reconciled the great music of a Berg or a Ligeti with the harsh reality of box office. Tuneful composers such as Puccini or Richard Strauss were the most successful opera composers of the first part of the 20th century. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you feel about popularity? What’s your secret?

I couldn’t be happier that my music is getting heard. The whole reason I do this is to connect with people…to communicate. Over a hundred-and-fifty thousand kids have seen The Brothers Grimm, usually as their first opera, and if I accomplish nothing else, that at least feels like I have had some impact. The other children’s opera I wrote for the COC, The Scorpions’ Sting (originally known as Isis and the Seven Scorpions) is also travelling pretty well at over 300 performances. I keep encouraging composers to consider writing children’s opera – and the 45-minute small cast with piano model is still really in demand. A main stage opera may get 5 or 6 performances, but companies that tour this type of opera tend to do between 20 and 40 (like the recent run of Scorpions’ with Lyric Opera of Chicago). It’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t want their art to be wanted, appreciated…and popular (the definition of that word could be debated). I think what you are getting at is the idea of “accessibility” in modern music. I think there is room for so many different styles of music in the world. And I love so much new and experimental music. But honestly, it really bugs me when people talk about accessibility in contemporary music as a bad thing. “Relevance” is another one some people seem to have a problem with. My question is what’s the alternative, “Inaccessible, irrelevant music”? I think it is vital to realize that you can be accessible without pandering and you can be relevant without being trendy.

My secret? Striving for clarity I suppose (my credo). And yes, trying to consider the effect a piece will have on an audience.

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Dean Burry

2. Let’s talk about being prolific again. Wagner & Verdi each wrote a few turkeys before they really hit their stride. Could you talk about the first pieces you wrote, what you learned that served you later and the process of getting comfortable as (dare I say it) an opera composer?

I really became serious about composing when I was 12. A piano teacher named Don Boland (in my hometown of Gander NL) saw that I was getting tired just playing the standard repertoire and that my dictation book was starting to fill up with little things I would write to keep interested. He fostered that as he was a songwriter and we worked on chords, bass-lines and “comping”. Billy Joel became a big influence at that time and I started writing pop music. That very process of music creation led me back to the world of classical music as I started to see the magic behind what Beethoven and Bach were doing. My first opera was a piece called Unto the Earth: Vignettes of a War. It was about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in WWI and premiered during the third year of my Bachelor of Music degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. I had just come off premieres (an oratorio and a musical) in the previous two years that really taught me the skills of not only composing but producing. I remember enlisting a friend to go around to the businesses in Sackville and sell advertising in a program so we could buy costumes from the second-hand store Frenchy’s (Maritimers will know what I’m talking about). My time at Mount A taught me what I needed to know about making opera happen. At times you need to be the composer, at times you need to be the janitor who sweeps up after rehearsal so you don’t get yelled at by administration. As far as what I learned…that comes back to the idea of collaboration. Yes it is “Wagner’s” Tannhauser or “Verdi’s” Rigoletto but the number of people required to make something like that happen is staggering. It is such a team effort.

Hot tip – give everyone love but save a little extra for your stage managers and percussionists.

3. One of the most exciting things about Shanawdithit is how the story has been with you for so many years in different ways. Could you explain your history with the project?

People often ask me how I became interested in opera coming from Newfoundland. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of The Rock. NL is music…drama and stories. I’ve written a number of operas based on NL history but one story, rooted in central NL where I grew up, kept calling to me. The story of Shanawdithit – the so-called “Last of the Beothuk”. So about 20 years ago as I had always done, I dug into my research and started writing an opera about this indigenous woman. That’s what traditional European opera composers and librettists do after all, take stories and cast them in a new light. An opera called Shanawdithit was actually my Master’s thesis at the University of Toronto – a school that I have been very connected to having just finished my doctorate there in June. Back in 1996 Michael Albano, Head of the Opera Division offered his students to stage a concert version of the opera. I imagined that piece being the seed of a full grand opera.

But not all stories are free for the taking. I think that is a concept that is slowly dawning on many Canadians and something that I myself came to acknowledge over the ensuing decades while this opera refused to take flight, yet refused to stop calling to me. I was attempting to follow in the same colonial mentality of artists before me. And while my aspirations were in the right place, they were still from a perspective that stories belonged to everyone.

4. Please talk about your changing understanding of the story especially in your work with librettist Yvette Nolan.

Over the years, I began to realize that if this opera was going to happen, it needed to be driven by indigenous voices, with a core indigenous leader to shape and determine the story.

I immediately thought of Yvette Nolan, someone whose work I had long admired and approaching Michael and Tapestry (who then contacted Opera on the Avalon in St. John’s – a logical co-commissioner), a company who has worked with advancing equity in opera for many years. The process has been completely unlike anything I’ve done before. I have never written an opera inspired and enlightened by so many collaborators. The composer is usually the leading force in an opera, but in this case I feel like I have been guided by so much sharing and community it is unlike any other project with which I have been involved.

Yvette

Yvette Nolan

The tragedy of Shanawdithit’s story is the fact that the Beothuk as a cultural nation cease to exist. Normally in creating an opera like this, you would talk to elders of the nation, but in this case it isn’t possible. However, during the last six months of her life, the time period of our opera, Shanawdithit created a number of sketches to describe historical events and cultural elements of Beothuk life. These sketches are HER voice and an incredible insight into a vanished society. Yvette had the brilliant idea to ask various Canadian Indigenous artists to interpret these sketches and this collaboration has become a core of the opera and a vast inspiration for the score.

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Aria Evans

Visual artists Jordan Bennett, Meagan Musseau, Lori Blondeau, Jerry Evans, choreographer Michelle Olson, dancer Aria Evans and our Shanawdithit herself, Marion Newman have all been so open to this project. And I’m so grateful for what they have shared.

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Soprano Marion Newman

6. A big part of this project concerns the contact between cultures. I couldn’t help noticing that your understanding of the story has deepened over the years, in some ways like the learning of a settler culture in the conversation that might lead to reconciliation. Do you see yourself, in your conversation with librettist Yvette Nolan & the process of creating this opera to tell this story, as enacting a kind of cultural reconciliation?

I sincerely hope so. There are times when you want to tell a story. There are times when you want to entertain. But there are times when you know that the project that you are working on has the potential for a greater meaning….a greater impact. If nothing else, as a result of this project, many more people will know the story of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk, and because of an opera (considered by many to be the most colonial of art forms!) no less! Here we can again insert that word “relevant”. I haven’t met one person who has an easy time saying the name of this opera (there are variations, but the safe one is shaw-na-DITH-it) I grew up with this story all around me, yet told in such a sad and misinformed way. We did a workshop in Toronto in October and all I could think was “we have an amazing collection of professional artists from across the country in downtown Toronto discussing the life of this incredible yet ignored indigenous woman.” I think I counted it as a win right there and then. If reconciliation is truly going to happen, it is going to require a thoughtful coming together to reveal the right way to move forward…together.

7. In the opera Louis Riel a key feature of the story-telling is the ugly racism we sometimes see presented, for instance when the crowd cries out for Riel’s blood. How do you reconcile history with the sensitivities of audiences?

I really stand by the idea that “Art is a reflection of life”. If it isn’t then it loses all its power and magic. Again, if you are considering your audience, you realize that not “anything goes”. You want people to stay engaged to the end. There are aspects of this story which are brutal and trying to sanitize that story would be perpetuating exactly the same travesty which has happened in colonial re-tellings of indigenous history. But in opera we have many resources ( he smiles and winks). Music has an incredible ability to make you FEEL. Hopefully, with the score of Shanawdithit I have been able to portray both the horror and yes, beauty and life of her story. You have to be able to show everything because that’s life…but in opera “showing everything” can be accomplished in a number of ways.

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Aubrey Dan

8. I read in one of your bios that you have written musicals, including at least one when you were still in school. As a composer of both opera & musicals, how do you understand the difference between the two? And while this interview concerns Shanawdithit, knowing you’re at the Dan School (meaning in the vicinity of Aubrey Dan, producer & impresario): are you feeling any desire to write another musical?

Oh absolutely. Back when I was in university and starting a career I imagined I was going to be a Musical Theatre composer – this was the age of Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera. When I graduated from high school, I was just as likely to go to theatre school as music school. Musical theatre and later opera was the way for me to live in both worlds. I feel like I’m living in a dream right now as I have been appointed the Artistic Director of the Music Theatre Creation Program at the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University. It’s a program which really embraces the entire spectrum of music theatre including opera, broadway musicals, cabaret and everything in between. We’ve got too many labels and divisions in our community and I love what they have started here. When I was younger, I really approached musicals and operas differently. My hockey musical with Charlie Rhindress, Home and Away really riffs on the jock rock of bands like Queen and Meatloaf, while my one-woman musical Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story really digs into the music of Tin Pan Alley. But the older I get, the more I realize that stories told through music, drama, design and dance are all part of that spectrum I spoke of. As I write this, I think the bottom line is that I love so many different styles of music and if I have the opportunity to explore them all, I’m happy. I would say that in recent years, I’ve been more active in the opera world. But there’s no question I will be back to the musical world – it’s just a question of when.

9. You’ve served an apprenticeship or two along the way. Your time in the Education and Outreach Department of the Canadian Opera Company and as Artistic Director of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company remind us that you’re not just a composer but also an accomplished practitioner. Do you think composers should be practitioners, and could you give an example or two of what you’ve learned as a practitioner?

To each their own, I suppose. There are brilliant composers out there who are destined to just be composers. Thankfully there are all sort of people in the arts community to cover the other jobs- there are people who love doing public relations, there are people who love designing costumes, there are people who love finding donors and people who love BEING donors (like the incomparable Roger Moore who we just lost – incredible supporters who always say “well I’m no singer or composer” but are so vital to the process, not just financially but for their thoughtful and committed support. I’m sad that I won’t be able to share a conversation with Roger in the lobby after a performance of Shanawdithit). But there is no denying that composers need to find creative ways to get their music out there. Unfortunately, a lot of the new music scene is still curated by a select group of people and if those few people don’t “get” your music, you have a choice to make – accept their judgment and find a new career/passion or fight to MAKE an audience for your music. There are so many examples of this even in Toronto, from older established groups like Arraymusic and Continuum to new organizations like the Toy Piano Composers, Caution Tape Sound Collective, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Fawn Opera and so many others – all started by hungry artists determined to make a place for their art.

10. What advice might you have for a young composer, considering writing their first opera or musical…?

That’s a big question, but I will go back to something that I mentioned early. Opera is theatre. Opera is collaboration. The more a composer understands about every element involved in creating an opera the stronger and more integrated the score will be. Opera is not just a concert and is so much more than the stereotypes we are shown in pop-culture. It isn’t a genre to be approached lightly but it can be a wild ride.

11. First: 
what’s your favorite opera (meaning the one that makes you smile & feel good inside) what’s your ideal opera (the one you admire for its structure / dramaturgy etc)?
So:
having said that when you compose which, if either, do you think you aim for?

Ha. When you usually ask that question people coyly say “well I couldn’t possibly pick just one” (there’s something to be said for that – there are so many wonderful and varied examples). But I think I can pinpoint two, and I think both satisfy your two questions above. The first is a warhorse of the traditional canon – La boheme. I know many consider it overdone but it so accurately reflects the experience of those starving young artists ( maybe I can relate). It’s playful, deep and devastating and Puccini achieves that most elusive of aspirations – perfect pacing. The second opera I’d mention here is Britten’s Peter Grimes. I have always identified with Britten…I’m sure our mutual connection to the ocean has something to do with it, but I also really admire his efforts to write fresh new music while still providing that all important clarity. I find his music strikingly original and evocative yet amazingly accessible (oops, there’s that word) all at the same time. Perfectly paced, evocative, accessible, fresh, clear…yes I aim for these at all times.

*******

The new opera Shanawdithit with music by Dean Burry and words by Yvette Nolan premieres May 16th at The Imperial Oil Theatre.   Tickets | Performances:

  • Thursday, May 16, 8:00 pm
  • Saturday, May 18 4:00 pm
  • Tuesday, May 21, 8:00 pm
  • Wednesday, May 22, 8:00 pm
  • Thursday, May 23, 8:00 pm
  • Saturday, May 25, 8:00 pm

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Posted in Interviews, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Theatre & musicals, University life | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tick talk

From time to time I venture away from the path of opera, symphony & theatre.

Tuesday night as Erika & I were getting ready for bed, having brushed & flossed and made ourselves ready for slumber, any thoughts of sleep were disrupted decisively by an intruder.

“What is THAT?” Erika was looking at my leg.

What did she mean? I followed her gaze. “Oh… I guess I must have scratched myself”. Yes I had a mark on my calf. I was still intent on sleep so I was brushing off the query, wanting to sleep.

“Let me see that,” she said.  I was expecting to sleep.  It went back and forth a few times. I’ll abbreviate the conversation,…

But she insisted, so I put my leg up on the bathroom counter. A mole? A bump? I was half-asleep, but aware that yes, this is where partners can be so helpful, an extra pair of eyes to spot things that might be growing on parts we can’t see, to prevent cancer, right?

Erika and I were not on the same page. I was out of it, meanwhile she? She looked closely, wanted to disinfect the wound. And as she approached with the alcohol soaked cotton pad, she thought she saw something move.

It all happened so fast. And so this changes from a sleepy bedtime story into a bit of an adventure.

Erika used her cotton pad to pull something out of my leg. She grabbed it. It wouldn’t come out. Erika advised me that she thought there was something in my leg, grabbed at it… Her body language was amazing, while I burst out laughing. As she explained: this strong little thing was pulling against her, and strong.

Me? I always laugh when I’m in pain (…ouch!). Luckily Erika was careful not to let this little beast break apart, so it came out all in one piece. And for the moment still alive.

My leg was still up on the counter where Erika swabbed hydrogen peroxide onto the open wound. I was thinking about Alien, or more accurately the reprise in Spaceballs¸ where John Hurt is hurt indeed, especially when he said “oh no not again”.

I resisted the impulse to sing “hello my baby…”  But yes I did say “CHECK PLEASE!”

I took a picture of the little bugger –whatever it was—before putting it first into a plastic bag between the cotton pads and then into a glass jar.

tick

Erika was shaken but did manage to get to sleep within half an hour, whereas I would be up for ages, googling about ticks. Did I catch something or would I catch something? Lyme disease? Of course the internet stories don’t tell you the whole story.

All kidding aside,

  • Erika is my hero…. I didn’t even realize I had a problem (I was ready to sleep, remember?)
  • Apparently no one expects this, which is how infections can happen. Sometimes the tick is as small as a poppy seed! When in doubt check it out.

I figured out after the fact what had happened. I had been carrying yard waste from the back with the intention of bundling the bigger pieces for collection. While carrying an armful, surely something slipped into the gap between my rubber boot and my jeans; I know this because the wound is exactly where my boots reach, an uncanny coincidence.  While I had the long pants, long-sleeve shirt, and even the gloves (although I wasn’t wearing them), if you don’t tuck your pants carefully into your boots, you’re practically issuing an invitation to the little fellers.

yard_waste

Yes it’s yard waste.  It’s also potentially the opportunity for a tick to get to know you better.

After reading up on ticks and calling Telehealth Ontario (a very helpful nurse), I booked the next morning off work to go see my doctor. Whether or not the tick was dangerous, I wanted her to look at my wound and if necessary give me antibiotics. After looking at the photo (which did not resemble the ticks known to carry the bacteria) and the wound (where there was no sign of any rash or the tell-tale signs of infection) we concluded that it was still a good idea to take a precautionary dose of antibiotic.

I was reassured that the med we gave the dog really make her safe, because if any tick tries to bite her: it dies almost instantly.  If you’re wondering why we don’t have comparable meds at our size and longevity we’d be poisoned; dogs are smaller & live shorter lives.

I took the little specimen in to the public health office. A few days later and I feel great.

Please be careful. If you have any suspicious bumps or wounds, don’t be a stoic, there’s no shame in being certain.

It’s tick season! There are maps showing what parts of the province have the dangerous ticks.  Please be careful.

Posted in Animals, domestic & wild, Food & Nutrition | Tagged | Leave a comment

Resurrection Symphony: that’s how to do it

Tonight was the second of three performances of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony by the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall. It’s known as the Resurrection symphony. I’d recommend it to three different groups of people:

  • If you’re religious and conscious of the time of year (Passover / Easter)
  • If you’re seeking an alternative spirituality
  • If you simply want to enjoy a big powerful piece of music executed by a lot of people working together

The last time I reviewed a TSO performance of Mahler’s 2nd I was struggling to be positive, frustrated by the interpretation. While the notes on that occasion may have been played more precisely than this time, what does it matter when the interpretation leaves you cold? I know I can’t be the only one who feels this way, given the rhapsodic response this time, both on social media and especially in the hall.

As with my last TSO concert, there’s been a late replacement at the podium as Matthew Halls was brought in because of an indisposition. And once again the orchestra put in an extra effort.

Matthew Halls_Mahler Resurrection Symphony (@Jag Gundu)

Conductor Matthew Halls (photo: Jag Gundu)

I have a special relationship with this piece. (maybe everyone does?) I feel it was the piece that led me back to spirituality & religion, in a family who had been regular church-goers in my early childhood but who stopped for various reasons.

No wonder.  This work turns the season upside down. While it’s Maundy Thursday as I write this, on the eve of Good Friday, (the day celebrating Christ’s Crucifixion), in the lead-up to Easter (a festival of Jesus’s resurrection), this symphony is the opposite, and no I don’t mean because Mahler was Jewish. No.  Instead of celebrating one person’s rising from the dead, this text proclaims that we shall all rise again.

There is no hell in this theology. We are all forgiven, accepted, included.

But it’s not at all naïve. The text of the song “Urlicht” is an especially poignant reminder of the real world. While the singer tells of an angel who refuses entry, it’s chilling in its reminder of separations in places such as Auschwitz or border crossings. I played this song in church once, watching a singer who was partially disabled, unable to walk easily, to get close to the piano. As the traffic for the offertory collection rolled along with the singer doing her best, a flood of recognition filled my eyes, that we might all be rejected: just as Mahler himself had been in his time. The inclusiveness of the final resurrection chorale might seem sacred or spiritual, but it resonates powerfully in 2019.

While I may not have agreed with every interpretive choice made by Halls, who cares? He was wonderfully decisive, 100 times better than what we had last time. It was an interpretation, an approach that gave the performance a real edge, true passion.

To open Halls took a pace reminiscent of Klemperer, giving the opening a genuine gravitas. Every note seemed thought out and intentional at this pace, even if the movement unfolded a bit slowly. When I was in my teens this is how I understood the piece, at this stately tempo, fitting for a sacred rite. In due course Halls picked up the pace. Sometimes he accelerated, but slowed down for the restatement of the main theme, or for the dreamy second subject. But one saw such a commitment from this orchestra, a readiness to answer cues. While there may have been a fluffed note or two, it doesn’t matter. This was high drama, the way Mahler would have liked it.

I do wish the TSO would follow Mahler’s suggestion, to put a pause between the first movement and the rest of the symphony. It was on my mind as I listened to a few people applauding after the first movement tonight. If there’s an intermission: let them clap. And there was a great deal of restlessness, coughing, rustling of papers, before the second movement began. I think Mahler meant the fifth movement to be like a continuation of the first, with the three middle movements like interludes or intermezzi. If we are to think of that last movement in some sense being at the end of time, an apocalypse when the dead rise, it makes sense to have something in there, including an interval. I think we should be hearing those themes from a distance, recalling them as though time has passed.

Oh well, maybe next time.

One of the highlights of the concert was both musical and acoustical. Our two vocal soloists were situated in the middle of the choir loft upstage of the orchestra. When Marie-Nicole Lemieux stood up to sing “Urlicht” the voice came floating from the back. Yes she does have an amazing voice that you may recall from the Canadian Opera Company’s Falstaff from four and half years ago (apt as we anticipate Gerald Finley’s return for Otello). But the acoustic worked much better than I expected, her tone glorious, joined in the last movement by the soaring soprano voice of Joélle Harvey.

Marie-Nicole Lemieux & Joelle Harvey surrounded by Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, (photo: Jag Gundu)

I hope we will encounter Halls again, as he clearly knows what he’s doing, and the TSO responds to him, including string portamento like you might have heard a hundred years ago, the trumpets positively schmaltzy. The entry of the chorus (Amadeus Choir & Iseler Singers, sounding oh so beautiful) in the last movement was accomplished without requiring them to make the noise of standing (even at the very moment they were singing about rising). Perhaps I’m asking too much, dreaming of a performance without the comings & goings of players for the offstage moments; if the chorus standing up is disruptive, why not brass players commuting on and off the stage? Yes I know it would be expensive, perhaps impossible. But I’m just putting it out there, like my request that they honour Mahler’s request for a break after the first movement. I don’t think it even matters if the offstage trumpets or horns are out of synch or less perfect than the ones onstage. It’s theatre, and a magnificent idea. While Mozart & Verdi & Berlioz –to name three—each had a go at giving us their version of the trumpets of judgment (with the words “tuba mirum” in their respective requiem masses), I think Mahler’s is the most convincing, most heart-stoppingly beautiful. When the trumpets are a bit out of synch –as I suspect they would have been back in Mahler’s time, long before cc-TV—the effect is that much more poignant, like a lost corps of ghostly troops marching into the afterworld. Perfection is less important than meaningful playing, music that connects because it’s shaped into something.

Halls gets Mahler.

There is one more of these wonderful concerts to come, on Saturday April 20th . Go if you can.

Posted in Music and musicology, Reviews, Spirituality & Religion | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two schools

My review of the Canadian Opera Company La Boheme that I saw last night alluded to two different approaches. I hope you’ll bear with me. I know many people who would roll their eyes. Why bother at all with Boheme, this warhorse?

Perhaps that’s the problem, like the people who have given up on voting, having decided they can’t trust the process or the promises of the candidates.

We can understand two extremes, with all sorts of combinations between the two poles.  Ideally a production would unify styles, rather than offering two or more approaches on display in the same production.  For better or worse, I meant these two extremes:
1: “old fashioned” was what I called it in the headline. It wasn’t a euphemism, it was literally true. Many in the audience gobble this up, and some prefer their opera this way. This is how things used to be done: singers standing and gesturing and mugging, while placing almost their entire focus on singing, a histrionic style rather than one that’s recognizably modern.
2: “naturalistic” might be an absurd word to use, when we’re still talking about operatic performance. But one can sing in a way that the feelings being expressed emerge as though the performer just thought of them (operatic method acting??). Singers who are looking out into the audience, staring at the conductor or parking themselves in one place to sing are less believable than those who engage with the diegetic reality of the story and with one another, reacting and seeming fully alive.

There are moments in Boheme that are more conducive to one style than the other. I think the two arias side by side in Act I don’t have to be done the same way. Where “che gelida manina” does have some business (he touches her hand after all), it’s really about a text that builds to a big high note, followed by a gradual diminuendo to the last notes on a question to Mimi. Just as we might say boys will be boys, so too tenors will be tenors.  I won’t go so far as to say “egomaniacal narcissists will be egomaniacal narcissists” even if I do watch way too much CNN and read the tweets of a certain politician.  If the tenor isn’t totally self-centred, it’s already a win. And so long as the high notes are there, all is forgiven.

Her answering aria is conversational, some of its most beautiful effects are actually in the orchestra –where I hear clearly Puccini telling us that her life is a passive fatal reaction to circumstance, that she has a dark cloud hanging over her–and not in the vocal line, unlike the tenor’s aria. The role of Mimi is different, because it’s really all about what she shows us in her reactions, which tells us how she will live her life.

Maybe I need to admit that this opera is full of moments that I have seen done both ways, both the older style or someone aiming to find something authentic.

When Musetta & Marcello end their exchange in Act III with insults (it’s a bit like a duet but functions as part of a quartet, given that Rodolfo & Mimi are also onstage) , this can seem very real. I was surprised at how natural this exchange seemed last night, as Musetta walked off with another man, while Marcello’s replies had less than the usual anger: because he seemed deflated & jealous. Just when you think you know how a scene should sound, someone surprises you.

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(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

The ending of the opera is a musical- drama event that can be very powerful. The way it’s written it should work like clockwork, yet frustrates me over and over. We watch a sequence of events, as

  • Mimi dies
  • Schaunard is the first to notice and tells Marcello
  • The music gives us a little bit of melody then silence.
  • Gradually each of the singers onstage notices & privately responds, until Colline (who has just returned with money) innocently says “how’s it going?” (literally “come va”).

There is silence. What the opera does in this silence can be quite magical, even if done in the old-fashioned way.

  1. Rodolfo speaks into the silence wondering at the others, and the reality begins to dawn on him (and the question for the performance is: how quickly? how much? how soon?).
  2. Marcello is the first to address the reality, saying “Coraggio” (courage) to Rodolfo
  3. And Rodolfo finally understands, going to the bed crying “Mimi!, Mimi! Mimi!

The old fashioned way to do this usually gives us a Rodolfo who is sobbing very early, and alas that’s what we got last night. What I understand in this composition is that Puccini meant for the orchestra’s loud chords to signify recognition, the blast meaning a gut-level knowledge.  The ending is much more powerful if Rodolfo somehow resists the impulse to be a ham, resists the impulse to steal this moment from the audience by over-acting.

I’ve seen it done another way that would seem more naturalistic, in the sense of letting the emotions emerge in tune with the music and building in a way that seems more like what Puccini had in mind. At ‘1’ we don’t need to have a shouting voice. Rodolfo should begin this relatively neutral, if not hopeful At the very least he is questioning, confused, rather than too loud too soon. If he’s too loud he upstages Marcello’s line. I recall Against the Grain doing it with this emotional logic, Ryan Harper as Rodolfo & Justin Welsh as Marcello, directed by Joel Ivany back in 2011. If Rodolfo isn’t too loud, then Marcello’s line has the simple dignity that opens the flood gates to what follows. Rodolfo should not really know too much too soon. I can handle histrionics, stand-and-deliver singing, two-dimensional characterization, sentimentality: so long as there is a clear emotional logic. Otherwise you’re wasting Puccini’s melodrama.

I’ll see it again. Perhaps the production will be more fluid when they’re done a few more performances.

Posted in Opera, Personal ruminations & essays | 2 Comments

Old-fashioned Boheme

Tonight was the opening performance of the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of John Caird’s production of La Boheme directed by Katherine M. Carter. As with their earlier return to Atom Egoyan’s Cosi fan tutte a few months ago, the concept wasn’t as tyrannical the second time around, allowing the opera to get back to what it used to be, to work more like usual.

In other words we were watching star performances vying for our attention, Puccini’s wonderful melodies & a sentimental story that can make you cry.

Much of the action is sophomoric, scenes that could be subtitled “boys will be boys:” that is until romance rears its head with the arrival of Mimi. The opera is so well-written that it can’t miss, each performer getting their moments to shine, with a few variations.

I’ve seen a lot of Bohemes in my life, sometimes more realistic in the characterizations, sometimes more operatic, relying on the music to make the biggest statements. This cast is an interesting combination of both approaches.

In the last act everyone is mostly leaning towards that operatic approach –as you might gather from my headline—in readings that are less realistic than operatic, the voices all quite good. Carter reconciles the performances with the concept, so that the images around the stage don’t jar the way they did when Caird first showed us his reading of Boheme.

Atalla Ayan is the impetuous poet Rodolfo, Lucas Meachem is Marcello the painter. Ayan had a lovely Italianate sound & all the high notes you could ask for. Meachem gives us a commanding Marcello, owning the stage every time he wanted our attention with a powerful presence and a bigger voice than one often gets: although I’ve heard it said that Marcello is almost written like a helden baritone. We had the luxury of lots of sound in our Marcello, allowing for a fascinating contrast between the two men, one commanding the other more of a real poet.

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Angel Blue and Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

While I used to focus on the music I spoke of as sophomoric –when I was more of a kid myself—with maturity I’ve gradually changed my understanding of the opera, so that Mimi has come to be my favourite character every time she’s on stage. Angel Blue was remarkably original for two acts, accomplishing that miracle in a well-known story like this one, where you dare to dream of a different outcome (which is ridiculous of course). Hers was a youthful & innocent Mimi, giggling and cheerful in ways I haven’t seen in a long while, when so many play her as doomed and tragic. Even in Act III, when the eventual outcome becomes unavoidable, she made a great deal of her encounter with Rodolfo.

Andriana Chuchman’s Musetta was the perfect match for Meachem’s Marcello, every bit as charismatic as he had been and beautifully sung.

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(l-r) Lucas Meachem, Angel Blue (background), Atalla Ayan (photo: Michael Cooper)

You might say that Brandon Cedel as Colline & Phillip Addis as Schaunard were a bit out of step with the others, because their acting was so naturalistic & believable. If this was a problem for me, it was only in the last moment of the opera, when Addis’s response to Mimi’s death totally slayed me, and then the more melodramatic work by everyone else onstage, while normal for this opera, left me cold. But I had tears during Blue’s Act I aria and again in the wonderful duet between her and Ayan in Act III. So it works in some places better than others.  It’s a Boheme with a little something for everyone, gorgeous to look at and beautifully sung.

One other major player had a big impact on the performance, namely conductor Paolo Carignani. I recall once long ago hearing (third hand, quoted from Ernesto Barbini) the assessment that Boheme is the hardest of all operas to conduct, because tempi have to be so variable, sensitive to solos, ensembles, duets, with rubato and nuance and flow. At times Carignani seemed intent on imposing his ego on the performance, leaving soloists scrambling to catch up a few times, and totally hanging the children’s chorus out to dry as though he were a sadistic school-master. So in other words maybe Barbini was right about how difficult this opera is to conduct. The big climaxes were all there, the solos sounded great. In a few a piacere moments he gave a bit more introspective space for the soloists, although this was inconsistent, as in other places the pace was unforgiving. Carignani kept me conscious of the process, keeping me at arm’s length from the story and often unable to really surrender myself to the story: although maybe that’s just me.

I was thinking of Paris, the site of this story and of course the site of the big story in the news this week. Recalling that Victor Hugo said

The greatest products of architecture are less the works of individuals than of society, rather the offspring of a nation’s effort, than the inspired flash of a man of genius.

So much of Toronto, so much of Canada is new. Our lovely new Four Seasons Centre is our temple to the arts, where the COC presents its operas to us, one of our greatest treasures. I’m so happy to be there, happy we have this wonderful place to gather and celebrate all that is beautiful.

We are so lucky.

Posted in Art, Architecture & Design, Music and musicology, Opera, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments