Sixth Annual Elizabeth Krehm Memorial Concert November 10th

Elizabeth Memorial concert announcement 2018-final

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Centre Stage 2018: a Night of Voices

There are several ways to watch the annual Centre Stage competition, when young singers vie for a series of awards while seeking places in the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio.

You can watch & listen to the competitors, eight young singers from across Canada.

You can watch & listen to the audience, sometimes including friends & supporters. What kind of applause are they offering? Who excited them the most? If you’re paying attention you can usually tell who will be the audience’s favorite, winning the Audience Choice award.

You can watch the judges. It’s easier if you’re fortunate to be invited to the opening segment, when one has a clear view. You might notice how unexpectedly vulnerable Alexander Neef is, moving his arms to conduct. He reminded me of myself when I was a child conducting Beethoven on the record player.

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Alexander Neef (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

You see a softer conducting motion from Liz Upchurch but not for every singer. She sometimes leans forward, sometimes back, listening. Wendy Nielsen is back in her chair, attentive. But of course they’re all listening, sometimes making notes, sometimes peering at one another.

There are several different dramas being enacted, in a competition that can be understood in more than one way:

  • Who is the best singer?
  • Who is the best singing-actor? (who may or may not be the best singer)
  • Who is singing the hardest repertoire?
  • Who sounds best? (and is that accomplished by choosing something easy or difficult?)
  • Will my choice match that of the panel of judges?
  • Is my choice the same as that of the audience?
  • And of course, there’s the pleasure of listening to all those arias, all those talented young singers putting it all on the line.

To begin, Alexander Neef said hello, then handed things to the witty Ben Heppner for most of the evening.  We had a recent winner in Emily D’Angelo as the guest, performing while the votes were tallied & the judges discussed their choices backstage.   Then Neef came back near the end to announce winners.

Every singer had something to offer, something of value to contribute to the evening, although in a competition there can only be a few winners. I’m grateful that in addition to the 1st, 2nd and 3rd place prizes, plus the audience choice prize, CBC added a prize of a recorded concert to be broadcast on the network, which is surely a wonderful showcase for any singer lucky enough to get such an opportunity.  That prize turned into two prizes, meaning that there were six awards up for grabs.

One wonders, when the COC make their selections: are they primarily seeking the best singer, the best actor, or perhaps seeking the person who best fills their expectations for future casting needs? Because when the dust settles and we get into future seasons, the Ensemble Studio members play key roles.  For example, in a little video with which we began the evening, we met soprano Anna-Sophie Neher: who made a big impression on me in Hadrian. It’s possible that the winners are at least partly meant to fill spots in the company, irrespective of who might be the “best” in the competition.

For the COC’s competition first prize went to tenor Matthew Cairns, second to bass-baritone Vartan Gabrielian, and third to mezzo-soprano Jamie Groote.

The two CBC prizes went to soprano Andrea Lett and tenor Matthew Cairns.

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Centre Stage Host Ben Heppner, Audience Choice Award and CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize winner Andrea Lett, and First Prize and CBC Music Young Artist Development Prize winner Matthew Cairns, Centre Stage 2018. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

The audience favorite –that we voted on from devices attached to our seats—was Andrea Lett.

The COC Orchestra led by Johannes Debus sounded quite wonderful in their support of nine soloists (counting the guest) in a pair of arias, also including a performance of Bernstein’s Candide Overture to start us off.

The COC’s fall season concludes Saturday with Eugene Onegin, starring Gordon Bintner: a recent Ensemble Studio graduate and winner of the competition in November 2012.

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Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin and Joyce El-Khoury as Tatyana in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Eugene Onegin, 2018, (photo: Michael Cooper)

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Maria by Callas at TIFF

Tonight I saw Tom Volf’s 2017 documentary Maria by Callas at TIFF. With the exception of a brief interview with her singing teacher Elvira de Hidalgo, the film is entirely an account of Maria Callas in her own words, that might change your understanding of the great diva.

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While I thought I knew her, from having read a couple of biographies and having listened to so many performances, there is much here that’s new to me. It’s stunning to encounter that singing voice so directly and so clearly, the larger than life personality, the beautiful expressions & of course the acting: especially on a big screen. Nobody uses modern terms like “PTSD” but after watching the film I think she was more upset by the big cancellation in Rome that damaged her reputation than has been previously admitted.  I don’t pretend that I understand what’s real and what’s artifice in the ongoing struggle between the real person and the diva persona: but I did see a great deal of vulnerability, more than I had ever suspected. Her choice to absent herself from the stage for a period of years makes a curious kind of sense, even if it may have been a huge error. And when one can watch the arc of her life in under two hours, it’s eloquent testimony.

There are a few performances of complete arias, several sung excerpts, but mostly we’re dealing with the story of a life.  We encounter her in a series of interviews, including one with David Frost that had been presumed lost until recently.  What’s missing happily is the editorializing, interpretation or commentary: except from Maria herself, which is precisely what the film’s title promises. This is her story in her own words, which doesn’t mean it’s in any way obvious.  There are enigmas, puzzling moments, and perhaps some lying going on. She is in front of the cameras over and over, being confronted, being pursued by cameras, being recorded at every moment of her life, except of course when she escaped with Aristotle Onassis. The film is refreshingly dry considering the melodrama being enacted, the images speaking for themselves, for instance when we segue quickly from the breakup with Onassis in 1968 to Medea¸ Pasolini’s 1969 film starring Maria as the avatar of jealous femininity.  While we see a friendly camaraderie  between the star and the director it’s clear to me for the first time what the public perception must have been.

In places the music serves as wonderful underscoring. When we see tabloids declaring that Onassis is sneaking out behind Jackie’s back, that he’s returned to Maria? Volf underscores with the Humming Chorus, a poignant melody of false hope. For most of the last half hour, the music takes us on her downward spiral.

I think I need to buy this when it becomes available on video. It’s such a pleasure just watching her and listening to her.  It’s especially enjoyable to hear her without anyone else proposing to tell us the meaning of her life. Her own words, often poignant and heart-breaking, are more than enough.

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Against the Grain Theatre (soprano Natalya Gennadi Matyusheva with pianist David Eliakis) began our evening with a live performance of “Casta diva” from Norma followed by “Ah fors’e lui” & “Sempre libera” from La traviata: music often associated with Maria Callas. If you consider that we were about to watch images of dead people in a dry space designed to suck up any extra reverberation, they were most certainly going against the grain in giving us a reminder of what live people making live music can be.

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A Recipe for Resilience: Yiddish Glory

Do you have any DVDs or books or CDs that you use to cheer yourself up or chase away the blues? I’ve had several I relied upon over the years. And I’ve discovered a special new one.

I’m very lucky, getting invitations & exhortations constantly, especially when I stumble upon something by pure dumb luck. Two months ago I had the good fortune to go to a concert that moved me much more than expected.  More than expected? I was very hesitant.

The concert “Yiddish Glory” was a series of musical hors d’oeuvres enclosed in scholarly pastry. It was disorienting, as though I’d stumbled into a historical colloquium and a concert broke out in the middle. That’s the funny thing. The reason I was hesitant about this concert was very simple. With a series of songs in Yiddish, would I understand the words let alone the context?

Ah but they understood this all too well, that anyone might be hesitant and couldn’t be expected to understand the context and the humour of such songs without supplying a framework. As I explained in my review of the evening, it was a crash course, like a TED talk about the resistance songs of WW II but better. I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t listen to the negative murmurs inside my head and checked out the concert anyway.

yiddish_glory_CD_coverAnd then I repeated the doubts afterwards when I obtained the CD of the concert. Where we’d been immersed for the concert in the culture complete with short lecture-explanations and titles translating the songs, I wondered how that would work playing the CD in my car.  To look at a translation while driving? impossible.

Yet I’ve been playing the songs in my car, and it’s a very different experience than live. As I listen to them over and over, they’ve acquired symbolic meaning. The disc is now my talisman of resilience, a reminder of people struggling against all odds in the face of tyranny and war. A story of a fierce struggle is sometimes the best reminder that one must resist, and that there is always hope.

This weekend, I pulled the CD out again after a week of madness & horror in America. After listening to the songs several times over the past few weeks I’m starting to know the texts, same as with operas I’ve heard over and over. Some Yiddish words sound a lot like German of course.

Sophie Milman does some of the songs. Now I understand the regret that was expressed, when she had to miss the August concert due to illness. What a voice!

Perhaps this is how Wonder Woman sounds (the role was played by an Israeli woman in the film after all) when she’s unwinding in a bar after a hard day fighting the fascists. It’s a powerful instrument, a rich but sensitive sound, and one of the reasons to listen to the CD over and over.

And I do.

I am very grateful to the collaborative wisdom of violinist & arranger Psoy Korolenko and Professor Anna Shternshis, who, through their mixture of vision & sheer nerve bring a fading language and a moment in history vividly back to life in these reconstructed songs.

We go back and forth between satirical edgy songs, more romantic tunes and a few wonderful instrumentals. When I put it on in the car it plays over and over, a brief escape from the modern world.

Here is where you can get the recording for yourself.

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Opera Atelier: Actéon and Pygmalion

I saw two baroque operas on the same bill, plus something brand new added. Opera Atelier are presenting Charpentier’s Actéon and Rameau’s Pygmalion at the Elgin Theatre in a program exploring Ovidian tales of transformation, tenor Colin Ainsworth starring in both.

Actéon is the darker piece before intermission, a cautionary tale with erotic overtones: the hunter who catches a glimpse of the Goddess Diana.  When he is caught in the act, he is turned into a stag who is devoured by his own hounds. While it sounds deadly serious, there are moments when one glimpses a hint of mischief from the voyeuristic hunter peeking out of the bushes at the beautiful nymphs & the goddess.

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The Actéon Company (photo: Bruce Zinger)

After intermission the something new was Inception, featuring an original solo violin score composed by Edwin Huizinga, danced by Tyler Gledhill. Inception functions as a kind of prologue to Pygmalion, introducing us to the god Eros.

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Tyler Gledhill (dancing) with Edwin Huizinga (violin) in Inception (photo: Bruce Zinger)

Pygmalion is in a different style from Actéon, but again starring Colin Ainsworth, who seems to sing more notes than everyone else put together(!), a remarkable amount of flawless coloratura. Where he roamed into haute-contre territory for the role of Actéon the Rameau score seems to require more voice, a great deal of impressive singing.

The dramatic highlight occurs when Meghan Lindsay as the statue comes to life. No CGI required, just good acting. Her first halting steps are charmingly awkward, as she gradually comes to life.

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Tyler Gledhill (winged), Meghan Lindsay and Colin Ainsworth in Pygmalion (photo: Bruce Zinger)

The magic of dance rules the entire program. When Actéon changes, dance is the indispensable effect to persuade us of the metamorphosis while supplying a wonderful release of tension in the physical movement & the music. For the second part of the program, Opera Atelier are really in the promised land, giving us more dancing than anything else, a light-hearted celebration of love.  The creative team of choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg & director Marshall Pynkoski blend thoughtful movement throughout the program.

The Opera Atelier double bill including Huizinga’s original music continues until November 3rd at the Elgin Theatre

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A closer look at Hadrian

Today was the closing performance of Hadrian, the new opera by Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor, presented by the Canadian Opera Company at the Four Seasons Centre.
After tonight’s display of healthy nearly-naked male bodies in a homosexual love story, tomorrow I’m off to see Opera Atelier’s display of nearly-naked bodies of both genders in their pair of love stories.

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Isaiah Bell (centre) Thomas Hampson (foreground) and dancers (photo: Gaetz Photography) from the Canadian Opera Company production of Hadrian

Tonight was my second trip through Wainwright’s score, a closer look because I was sitting in the second row. This vantage point is a mixed blessing. One can’t easily see the surtitles (not necessary in Hadrian which is mostly in English), at times the orchestra can be so over-powering as to drown out soloists, and if you want to be taken in by the illusion, you can often see how the magic is accomplished from these seats.

But at this distance one is more susceptible to a good performance, unable to resist the magic. I was again captivated by Ambur Braid’s acting, subtle nuances I couldn’t see from afar. Thomas Hampson was even more persuasive. Karita Mattila enacted a version of a singer’s nightmare; imagine you’re in a foreign country, your words sung in the language of the audience complete with surtitles of what you’re supposed to be singing (oh terror!).

I was very impressed with a lot of the singing, even if I’m not 100% confident that I’m identifying the parts correctly. Anna-Sophie Neher as Lavia (if I’ve identified the right role & person) was wonderful in her singing, and often the most interesting person to watch onstage, in a somewhat thankless role, always making something happen. Ditto for Ben Heppner as Dinarchus, who is such an honest singer, never taking a short-cut but giving his all. David Leigh as the aptly named Turbo was even better up close, the voice strong, the intonation perfect, and his macho presence always a force to be reckoned with.  Alas with a new opera, one may not be as clear as to what is being accomplished by the singers who I want to appreciate for their strong work throughout, even if I’m not mentioning them all by name.

I can’t tell if Isaiah Bell was over-parted in the role of Antinous or it was simply the location of my seat, within a few feet of the conductor. Was the role cast based on visuals and the chemistry between the principals? Bell looks the part, but perhaps Wainwright didn’t expect that he’d written for a heavier voice, perhaps requiring a heavier body as well to cope with the heavy orchestration.

Speaking of Antinous, it’s something I noticed on opening night and ignored, but mention now on closing night. There were at least three people in the cast who pronounced “Antinous” as a four-syllable name, while the chorus and most everyone else made it a three-syllable name. There is presumably a right way to pronounce it, and whatever that is should be decided upon by someone in the production, and then it must be adhered to as a guiding principle by all.

Up close I liked most of the opera much better. But the last five minutes still had me squirming, astonished that they would let it reach the stage. I am frankly astonished that so much of the opera is good, and then it ends on such a weak over-blown sequence. I wondered if it was maybe politics, especially on a day like today, when the frequent references to “The Jews” gave me the shivers, in consideration of the unfolding news story from Pittsburgh. Was the ending left in this bizarre shape due to politics, some kind of pressure or interference? I can’t help thinking maybe that’s what happened, although it’s funny that the whole gay eroticism of the piece –which is so much stronger up close—still hit me as wonderful, beautiful, perhaps the best thing about the production. Choreographer Denise Clarke created something quite wonderful for her dancers.  I’m very happy to live in a city so relaxed about eroticism in opera that this is almost an after-thought.

After a second hearing, part of me wonders if the key was simply knowing how to listen. I think it’s mostly operatic especially now that the cast seems so much more confident in the material, so much more familiar with the music & the text. No question, they were better today than they were two weeks ago. The highlights this time were very much the same as last time, namely

  • Two arias from Braid as Sabina
  • The two dance numbers in each of Act I and II
  • The sextet drinking scene in Act III

I am curious to see what they make of this opera. I hope the weakness at the end is truly the result of politics and not the actual intention of Wainwright and/or MacIvor. (I could be wrong of course!)

At the same time, I am very conflicted about the music. While sometimes RW showed a melodic gift, we often encountered scenes where one or more personages onstage sang the same note over and over, so much so that the repeated note could almost be a leit-motiv. But what might it signify? For someone reputed to have a melodic gift it was odd that so often the melody was in the orchestra while the singer was pinned to the same note over and over.

I will be interested to see what he writes for his next opera. In the meantime, Opera Atelier continue Actéon and Pygmalion until next weekend, and the COC continues Eugene Onegin, also running until next weekend.

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Workshop Ecology

I’ve been tossing and turning, struggling with several questions in my head. I regularly wake up in the night to fine-tune something that I’ve blogged, fixing a wrong spelling, adding wrinkles & nuances.

It’s been a turbulent two weeks, as I’ve been thinking about workshops.

  • Hadrian, a new opera by Rufus Wainwright & Daniel MacIvor, had its opening night at the Canadian Opera Company Saturday October 13th . This afternoon it gets its closing performance, a two week run for this new work. Previously it had been workshopped, and indeed may see future revision. I wrote something about it that night.
  • Sunday October 14th was the workshop for a new opera being developed by Tapestry Opera and Opera on the Avalon in partnership with Native Earth Performing Arts, namely Shanawdithit by Dean Burry & Yvette Nolan, directed by Nolan & Michael Mori.
  • I wrote a whole lot about Opera Atelier’s new double bill (that I will see tomorrow)
  • I watched A Nightmare Before Christmas last week, in anticipation of Soup Can Theatre’s karaoke fund-raiser.
  • I am going to see Hadrian again today in its closing performance.

I have been privileged to get a glimpse behind the scenes, and it’s not always conducive to peaceful sleep. A workshop can be a loving thing, like the upbringing of a child, the thoughtful care of a nursery. Relationships can be respectful, as gentle as the voices not wishing to wake a sleeping baby. And at times it reminds me of something rougher, when the text seems to get dissected and re-assembled like a Frankenstein’s monster: hopefully brought to life rather than gasping and expiring on the gurney.

The kindness I saw in the Tapestry workshop on Sunday afternoon suggested that I need to be kind to Rufus and Daniel and Cori and all the rest trying to bring Hadrian to life.
No question about it, small is beautiful. Not better necessarily. But when you play the piano alone you are less likely to be struggling to control team-members, plot elements, musical ideas, all with disparate objectives.

Opera can be like juggling. The more balls? harder to keep them in the air. More elements? complexity, more elements to balance, that might interfere with one another.

It might be a good time to remember what opera has been, meaning what it was for literally centuries. When that other RW came along in the 19th century, proposing Gesamtkunstwerk, it was a new idea that all the parts should really be unified. The legendary stories we have of performers upstaging one another are the tiniest hint of life before theatre began to work towards a single unified concept. At one time it was normal to have stage machinery and voices and orchestral instruments all working away at their own objectives & goals. Opera is the biggest and most complex medium so no wonder it led the way into the 20th century, recognizing this challenge.

Smaller pieces can cohere more readily, so it was no surprise that the beautiful but smaller enterprise at Tapestry was showing signs of magic & beauty. Where Hadrian was a big production in the big opera house with big orchestral sounds, full chorus, soloists and enough CGI for a Star Wars movie, Shanawdithit was as intimate as therapy. The Sunday workshop reminded me not just that Hadrian too had a workshop, but was a demonstration of how this should work.

Such courtesy,…

Such kindness,

Such love.

At one point we watched Clarence Frazer as the historian William Cormack, interviewing Shanawdithit as played by Marion Newman, the last of the Beothuk people, who died in the middle of the 19th century. While the real Cormack may have been a typical colonist (after all he wrote his name on top of her drawings Shanawdithit created) , what we saw enacted was as delicate and perfect as the chance to start again, an encounter between peoples that was dignified and beautiful.

I wondered: is it better that Frazer plays Cormack so sweet and kind, rather than like the barbarian he may have been? Don’t get me wrong, what I saw in the workshop was ideal & beautiful, but I wonder if that’s real or not. And I think that every workshop should be this respectful, this kind. We have such choices in our interpretations, to be more real or perhaps more ideal, to show something that is true to a belief and a possibility: which is another kind of truth.

I couldn’t help thinking that Newman, who cried at one point in the talkback session, must be like a person perpetually in therapy. She has to re-live so much Indigenous agony & injustice. There she was in Lauzon’s I call myself Princess,  and the story always turns out the same. This time there was a beautiful variant, something nicer and kinder, between her and Frazer.

I rebelled against what I saw Saturday, the version of Hadrian that Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor gave us: and of course, that’s ridiculous. It was opera not history. Even so, I was frustrated, watching something so uneven, that worked in some scenes while other scenes seemed miscalculated. But this kind of judgment –on my part I mean—is something I normally dislike when I see it in others.

And then, a strange & unexpected flash of recognition. Worn out by the never-ending horror that is the news, and in anticipation of that aforementioned karaoke I watched Tim Burton’s film for the first time in a long while. Where CNN has been horror, there was no Nightmare in listening to Danny Elfman’s music.

Do you know the film? Here’s the premise. Each holiday season has its own domain, that can be reached in a magical forest, by going inside of a particular tree. Christmas is inside one such tree, Halloween inside another. It’s a metaphor of course.  Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King who rules the realm of Halloween, has become bored with the same thing year after year. In a sad funk, he accidentally stumbles into Christmas’s realm, and is rejuvenated by what he thinks he sees.

And so he sets out to give Sandy Claws a holiday: that name being one of several misunderstandings he makes in the process of wrecking Christmas. Yes there are gifts inside boxes, but they are mostly horrifying, not delightful. He comes at Yuletide without any idea of what it’s really about except at the most superficial level. In the end Santa Claus comes through and fixes everything.

I couldn’t help thinking that the well-intentioned Jack Skellington, putting on a beard and red hat, riding in a sled pulled by skeletal reindeer, terrifying children everywhere: reminded me very much of Rufus Wainwright. Oh yes RW wanted to make an opera and his heart is in the right place. The COC are ready to team up with him because he has a kind of brand-recognition that should help fill seats. But while some numbers and scenes work well, some are woefully troubling. I was thinking that a gay-themed opera should be a great thing for the COC. Indeed maybe Hadrian isn’t gay enough. It feels as though Peter Hinton tried to remove the campy overdone gay aspect that people mock in opera, to legitimize the project.

But when the music of Hadrian reminds you of Andrea Bocelli or Sarah Brightman? I am reminded of one of my favourite descriptions of Donald Trump:

Trump is a dumb person’s idea of a smart person, a poor person’s idea of a rich person, and a coward’s idea of a brave person

And Bocelli or Brightman represent an ignoramus’s idea of opera.

Wainwright and Jack Skellington are spiritual cousins. In fairness, though, Wagner & Verdi thrashed around for awhile before really hitting their stride, writing several operas that emulated earlier models, before finding their own voice, their own authentic style. This is only Wainwright’s second opera. I love that he wants to write more of them and if he really sticks to it he will get better. The best parts of Hadrian are far away from the main action, such as that drinking scene or the music for the abandoned wife. If only…(!). And Wainwright will have broken through when the music he composes for the central scene of the opera is the best music he’s written.

At the time I first heard of the commission for Hadrian I recall a bit of dissent from the realm of composers, perhaps a bit upset at Wainwright’s credentials, that he was somehow inappropriate to be writing an opera. This was troubling, given that if anything he is more not less qualified: because this isn’t his first. What really bugs me is this assumption that a composer who has written a symphony or a song cycle or a concerto can then write an opera, as though hey, you’re a painter and it’s just another canvas. The arrogance of that assumption –that a composer can turn to opera as though it’s just another kind of music—reminds me of something that may or may not have really happened. Let’s pretend that it’s a real story.

Surgeon: “when I retire I will write a novel.”
Novelist: “when I retire I will take up brain surgery”.

Because of course, it’s not just another score. Opera is a hybrid of words & music, usually presented in the theatre (but not exclusively), so much more than just music.

And then there’s the question of Canadian culture. I don’t think it matters whether Hadrian concerns a Canadian subject.

The most Canadian theme going is the one I saw in Shanawbithit, namely the exploration of indigenous cultures & peoples, in their encounters with colonists & settlers. That is the quintessential Canadian subject. Opera is a European art form that seems a bit odd in a Canadian venue, until we look at something like Burry’s work, which is all about the encounter between Europeans & Indigenous people. For a moment opera makes sense as an artform, a place to listen to one another.

A workshop process is both teleological & ontological (like so many things in life), aiming for a goal / product AND yet also, being about the journey rather than the destination, a process too. Hadrian’s opening night is just one part of the journey & not necessarily the destination. Shanawdithit’s afternoon workshop was a small part of a journey that culminates in a full production at Tapestry in 2019, enacting a respectful series of relationships that suggest the ideal of reconciliation.

Money is obviously a big part of this. In Rufus Wainwright, the COC have a name, a marketable commodity in RW. Tapestry also have a name in Burry, not so much something marketable (although there’s some of that) but someone reliable, someone who will certainly give them their opera.

This weekend: one more performance of Hadrian, Opera Atelier’s Acteon and Pygmalion (running until November 3rd) And in May, Tapestry, Opera on the Avalon and Native Earth Performing Arts will present Shanawdithit.

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