Steffani: more devotion than drama

I am grateful for the gift of a new voice, a new composer introduced to me by Tafelmusik, Ivars Taurins, and Krisztina Szabo. It’s truly a magical thing.

I was pondering the experience of classical music, how so much of what we’re doing is really listening to familiar melodies, whether they’re Beethoven or Puccini or Handel. We live in a kind of golden age, when music is so ubiquitous, so available through various media, that you can find just about anything: and usually for free. So much of what we’re doing when we attend a classical concert is a bit like listening to oldies, melodies we know backwards, rather than anything strange or unfamiliar.

It’s a remarkable thing to encounter something new.

That’s the miracle of this week’s programme at Tafelmusik, titled “Steffani: Drama & Devotion”. There’s so much to this composer,  Agostino Steffani, (1654-1728) that they gave two radically different halves that correspond to the parts of the title. In the first half we heard two Christian texts in Steffani’s settings, namely Beatus vir from relatively early in his career followed by his Stabat Mater, a mature masterpiece. That was the “devotion” part, for which soloist Krisztina Szabo wore a beautiful but relatively sombre gown. Tafelmusik Orchestra & chorus were superb throughout.

In the second half, containing a series of operatic pieces, Szabo was in a stunning fuchsia gown, certainly portending drama.

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Mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo (photo: Bo Huang)

While she will sing the Messiah later this year for Tafelmusik, Szabo is someone who is known for taking on the new and the adventurous. She sang alongside Barbara Hannigan in the world premiere production of Lessons in Love and Violence by George Benjamin (I think it was earlier this year). We have seen her in such edgy pieces as Pyramus & ThisbeErwartung and Harawi here in Toronto. In a real sense, the Steffani too is new, repertoire that’s not known to the audience or artists. And she brought a wonderful sense of adventure to the performances.

And yet I am frustrated. I need to explain and offer context.

The first half took two pieces, and saw us applaud at the end of each. In the second half, we went from aria to interlude to chorus: and in the process, stifled the drama. Each of those numbers was part of a story: but was presented without preamble and severed from any connection to anything else. I was leaning forward in my seat prepared to holler for the first aria I had heard, even though it was offered without much in the way of context. But there was a polite silence instead. Perhaps it will be different tomorrow.

Forgive me if I offer as my context, the concert I saw this afternoon: where Atis Bankas introduced each piece. We not only had loads of applause, we had clapping between the movements of a sonata. No that’s not considered good form, but it’s a sign of enthusiasm in an audience who weren’t asking anyone’s leave to show their love and affection for the artists & their work.

I  was disappointed to see these opera excerpts presented as though they were parts of a single unit, with no applause nor any encouragement of applause after each one. Call me weird if you will, but I love to applaud. I think it’s one of the components of number-opera, and also a lot of fun. In presenting these arias this way among other operatic excerpts tightly organized without any encouragement of applause: it was as though Szabo were a butterfly, so tightly crowded that she couldn’t spread her wings. Now of course she’d never agree with this assessment because she’s a trouper, indeed a total warrior in showing up, memorizing these new pieces and tossing them off perfectly.

Please note that normally at an opera aria recital we get no explanations. I can surrender to a performance without knowing what’s going on. But please don’t whisk the diva off the stage so quickly. Let us scream our approval first?

Some of these orchestral pieces were amazing, a marvelous smorgasbord of delights. I suppose from a musicological perspective it was wonderful, getting all those performances without any of that irritating applause: except that music is only one part of opera, not its sum total.  Opera is theatre, and when you only have music, you’ve removed part of its essence, a necessary part of opera. Doing it this way felt a bit repressed, bottled up, and unnatural. It was pretty, yes. But it was not operatic.

I yelled my head off at the end of course. They deserved it, because they were all wonderful.  The concert will be repeated Friday & Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday afternoon at 3:30 at Jeanne Lamon Hall.

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Remembering Kristallnacht

Today’s concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre as part of the Canadian Opera Company’s noon-hour series was a special program titled “Remembering Kristallnacht”,  presented in partnership with the German Consulate of Toronto and the Neuberger’s 2018 Holocaust Education Week.

It’s the season for remembrances. November 11th happens to be the centennial of the Armistice ending the First World War. And it’s Holocaust Education Week. Today is also the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a collective explosion of violence often understood as the beginning of the Holocaust in Germany.

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Violinist Atis Bankas

I remember meeting Atis Bankas in the early 1980s (no way he’d remember me), a new arrival proudly introduced to me at the Lithuanian House by my father-in-law Walter Dresher as a brilliant young violinist.

Today I had a reminder of that brilliance in his collaboration with pianist Constanze Beckmann.

Bankas introduced six segments to us, explaining connections:

  • Connections to Lithuania
  • Connections to the Holocaust
  • Connections making the program especially personal
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Pianist Constanze Beckmann

Some of those links were relatively obvious ones, such as Ravel’s “Kaddish” to open. But one of the keys to the event were these explanations from Bankas, who brings not just his virtuosity but the history, the sense of the ways in which all these composers were inter-connected. In his gentle explanations we were party to a kind of act of remembrance as moving as anything we’d see or hear on November 11th. Culture is so much more than just the famous texts or the performances, but the web of relationships alluded to in Bankas’ explanations, and the fond hopes of these artists seeking to escape a murderous time.

Edwin Geist had tried to escape Germany, and his choice to go to Lithuania seemed like a good choice: but no, it was not far enough, as it turned out.

Polish born Szymon Laks lived for a time in Auschwitz but was somehow able to survive, passing away in the 1980s at a ripe age.

Leo Smit finished his sonata for flute & piano in February 1943, but by April had been deported & murdered. Bankas arranged this intriguing work for violin instead.

Yes we heard stories, but also marvelous music-making. In the latter part of the concert, particularly Joseph Yulyevich Achron’s “Hebrew Melody”, Bankas unleashed the most impressive display of lightning fast passage- work, but always soulful and idiomatic, and sometimes super-soft even while going so quickly. Beckmann was every bit his equal, supportive and strong but always balanced with the violin. The regular eye contact between the players was a big part of the event, and a pleasure to watch.

It was great to see a big enthusiastic crowd at the event including our host COC artistic director Alexander Neef.

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Atis Bankas and Constanze Beckmann performing in the Canadian Opera Company’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, (photo: Karen E. Reeves)

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Closing matinée for Onegin

This afternoon’s late matinée at 4:30 pm was the final performance for Eugene Onegin in the Canadian Opera Company’s fall season. Weekend audiences can be a bit of a challenge especially in the afternoon. Oh sure, we’re all relaxed in our seats, meditative, lost in thought.

And so quiet.

Yawn.

That can make it a daunting task to excite such a crowd, leaning back half-asleep in their seats. No wonder they gave us (the Saturday at 4:30 pm subscribers) the closing performance and not opening night, when the COC would want a wildly excited group.

While the soloists were certainly competent, the stars of the show for me were the chorus.

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(l-r, foreground) Oleg Tsibulko as Prince Gremin and Gordon Bintner as Eugene Onegin with the COC chorus ( photo: Michael Cooper)

It’s fitting that I saw COC chorus-master Sandra Horst during intermission, and went up to her to tell her what a wonderful job her charges were doing.  And then I asked her if –now that the run is over– I could get those beautiful, energetic leaf-sweepers to come over to my house: because my yard is full of leaves. Sigh that would be lovely indeed whether or not they were singing.

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In this scene from Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” the women of the Lyric Opera chorus play Russian peasants sweeping away the autumn leaves. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

I realized today that Robert Carsen’s production (whether we’re speaking of its Toronto incarnation in 2018, its earlier visits to Chicago Lyric Opera, as in the above photo or the Met) all employ the chorus cleverly to help tell the story. They are the rustics in the opening act, laying the groundwork for the story, but also the most energetic people on the stage for the first hour.

When it’s time for Onegin to make Lensky jealous, it’s against a backdrop of the cotillion. We don’t ever see it danced. Instead we are tantalized by the chorus, going pair by pair, enthused and excited by the romance that is this dance, one that poor Lensky won’t get to do, as Onegin grabbed Olga first. With every passing pair of choristers, we see the growing resentment of a jealous lover.

Let’s be honest here. If it weren’t for Carsen, this might look really stupid. Lensky more or less blows a gasket, becoming jealous and fighting a duel with Onegin over very little in the score, next to nothing. Ah but Carsen makes a whole lot more out of it, by using the chorus in this way.  He not only makes the opera more intelligible, he makes it better.  The COC chorus are wonderful singers but at moments like this contribute wonderful theatre.

This was my second look at the production, a week after seeing the closing performance of Hadrian, and it struck me how many parallels there are between the two operas.

Both Hadrian and Eugene Onegin are baritones in the title roles.

A soprano gets the meatiest singing in both operas, rejected by the baritone (Sabina in
Hadrian, Tatyana in Onegin).

A tenor dies a kind of sacrificial death, that leaves the baritone mourning for the rest of the opera.

Both operas bring us to a scene at the end where we’re remembering & agonizing over a romantic encounter from years before.

Need I mention the most obvious parallel? both composers were male homosexuals.

Rufus Wainwright lives in a time when this is not a big deal, at least on this side of the Atlantic. When I googled I saw something suggesting that in Russia this is still problematic for Tchaikovsky. But never mind that. The point is, Rufus Wainwright & Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky were both in some sense gay.

A big difference is that RW’s sexuality is not something hidden or repressed, whereas PT was living the normal life of the time, seeking to be assimilated into normal polite society and unable to freely declare his feelings. This means he concealed his sexuality, as many still do to this day in many parts of the world. Russia too? (sigh)

It makes me wonder about the composer’s reading of Pushkin’s poem that inspired the opera. There are critics who say he didn’t get Pushkin’s poem, whereas I think he simply put a different spin on the characters, because of his sexuality.

The difference in the opera is how much more sympathetic we find Tatyana & Lensky: not so different from the way Sabina & Antinous are more likeable and more musical to sing than the music for Onegin or Hadrian. Is it a mere coincidence?

Part of it is simply the fact that baritones fight the orchestra (thinking of where their notes sit on the musical staff, sometimes competing with heavier orchestration and less prominent) more than tenors and sopranos. So they often end up in roles with villainous undertones –Alberich, Amonasro, Macbeth, Iago—or at the very least, complexity for the audience—thinking of Germont pere, Rigoletto, Falstaff, Wotan and Amfortas for example. When a baritone gets to be a hero it’s uncommon. For example we do have Rossini’s Figaro, who must be differentiated from the romantic hero, Almaviva. So in other words, whatever Tchaikovsky or Wainwright chose to do, by letting their main hero be a baritone, they signaled to the audience that at the very least they were conflicted about Hadrian and Onegin.

In a recent conversation with my friend Celine Papazewska, we picked up on a theme begun in social media, perhaps by Christine Goerke. They spoke of cross-gender casting in Wagner. I may have sounded like a party pooper when I asked her “what would it sound like” and she replied “fantastic!” But while I love her enthusiasm, the fact is, it takes someone years if not decades to figure out how to sing a role like Isolde or Tristan or Tannhaüser or Turandot. Flipping the gender might make it easier, if you approach it the way Aretha Franklin approached “nessun dorma”: as an occasion for a jazzy improvisation. But if sung with attention to the notes as written, it’s no simple matter. Some rep is easier than others.

I say this having played around this week with Onegin, an opera that makes fewer challenges on its singers than a lot I could name. I sang all the big solos (“kuda kuda” is one of the easiest tenor arias, not going as high as many of the others), only stumbling over the low note that conclude Gremin’s aria. And it’s not interpolated, the composer actually wrote that low G-flat. If one wanted to give Tatyana’s music to a guy or to flip Lensky over to a soprano, it could work just fine. Celine thought Gremin could be a contralto for example.  But really, there are so many possibilities, especially when many operas are very fluid in the way they approach gender signification.

Mozart screams out for this kind of treatment. The best example I can think of is the one we saw here in Toronto, when Teiya Kasahara gave us a gay woman as Cherubino instead of the usual ambiguous male of indeterminate age. And ever notice that Mozart’s women’s parts are more macho than what the men sing? Listen to Donna Anna’s “orsai chi l’onore”, the most stirring aria I can name, and imagine a guy singing it. No Mozart wasn’t signalling that Donna Anna should be a man.  He gave this music to this brave woman who has been sexually assaulted, and wants to make us admire her rather than see her as a victim. And I think he succceeds. Or listen to the first arrival by Donna Elvira when she sings “ah chi mi dice mai”, and in the heroic key of E-flat no less.

Don Ottavio’s “Dalla sua pace” in contrast is soft & sweet. How would it read, I wonder if a man said “beat me beat me” to his lover (whether male or female), the way Zerlina says to Masetto? Imagine this sung by a guy.  I think it’s an intriguing idea, whose time has come.

I’m going to keep playing around with the scores. I’m hoping someone will try this for real –meaning the experiments with gender switching –in a theatre.

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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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