Debussy: A Painter in Sound

Stephen Walsh’s recent book Debussy: A Painter in Sound from Faber & Faber, is a welcome addition to the literature concerning a man whose star continues to rise, a composer respected & loved more in the 21st century than ever before.

And yet has anyone yet really captured this artist in a single book? I say that as a former grad student who read everything about Debussy in English plus a whole lot more in French. While his compositional output is comparatively small, especially for someone held up as such an important influence, there’s a great deal about him to know.

There are his compositions (for piano, for voice, for orchestra, an opera, plus a few remarkable fragments), his critical writings (perhaps not the equal of Berlioz but still a substantial body of work), his correspondence, and a fascinating life story.

Musicologists rarely manage to get all of that into one book, indeed they usually must place their emphasis on one aspect. Arthur Wenk’s Debussy & the Poets is a wonderful multi-disciplinary study of the songs and their texts. Roy Howat’s Debussy in Proportion is a study of the scores testing a hypothesis concerning the composer’s use of mathematical principles in his music, literally exploring the aspects of music that his title would suggest. James Briscoe’s Debussy in Performance brings scores to life in order to explore them in the most practical sense. Robin Holloway studied one of his key influences in Debussy and Wagner. Robert Orledge wrote of Debussy and the Theatre.

And –more pertinent to what Walsh did—there are also several biographies.

debussy a painter in sound

Walsh sets off in a very original direction, proposing to write a biography framed within the language of visual art. I am now looking for the second time at his introduction, which reads very differently after one has finished reading the book.

In the introduction to his book on French music, Martin Cooper had provided a lucid explanation of the differences between the French and, for example the German views of art. After quoting a remark of the critic W. J. Turner that ‘it is the sublimity of the soul that makes the music of Beethoven and Bach so immeasurably greater than that of Wagner and Debussy’, he pointed out that ‘to seek in French music primarily for a revelation of the composer’s soul or for marks of the sublime was to look for something which the French consider a by-product… The French composer is consciously concerned with the two data which no one can question—his intelligence and his senses.’ And Cooper added, ‘The regarding of a piece of music as an artefact—a thing of planned shape, dimensions, colour and consistency—rather than as an expression of an emotion whose end is in itself, brings the French composer nearer than any other to the plastic artist.’
This strikes me as a perfect description of the attitude of Debussy to his work, and indeed of the work itself.  (Walsh)

That’s really a preamble to the key relationship that’s to be articulated.

In rejecting Wagner, Debussy was thinking a kind of music that prioritised what he saw as the virtues of French art, ‘its clarity of expression, its precision and compactness of form, the particular and specific qualities of French genius’…he not only discarded the heavy northern gloom of The Ring and Tristan, he threw out most of the grammatical infrastructure that had supported Wagner’s immense narrative frameworks. Suddenly there is a concentration, a focus on particular ideas and images that is, as Cooper implies, somewhat painterly. This is not a question off taking sides in the whole tormented issue of whether Debussy can or cannot be called an Impressionist. It has more to do with the way in which any painter handles the motif within the limits of the picture frame. In much of his music, Debussy seems to work like this with motifs and frames, rather than with the evolving, novelistic discourse, not only of Wagnerian opera, but of the whole symphonic tradition of nineteenth—century music.

He manages to stay true to this way of thinking and more. When, near the end of the introduction, Walsh describes his goal for the book, it reads like a critique of the other books that have gone before. And why not, he’s a music critic, and he likely had to read those books that he’s critiquing, when he says this:

What follows is a biography of sorts but it is a biography with the difference that is sets out to treat Debussy’s music as the crucial expression of his intellectual life, rather than, as one finds in many Lives of Composers, a slightly annoying series of incidents that hold up the story without adding much of narrative interest.

That is exactly how the book reads, an example of how a biography should be done.

And I celebrate what Walsh achieved. As far as telling the story of a life, it’s a wonderfully readable version that manages to locate the major compositions within believable contexts, so that they become the inevitable outcome of the incidents of the composer’s life.

While it’s not perfect I often found myself wishing as I was reading that I had written it.  I admire the book. The prose is skillful, fluid, accessible. It’s a good first book to read about Debussy, indeed if you’re only ever going to read one book about the composer this would be the one.

There are a few places where I pushed back against Walsh, unsatisfied with what he was saying.  I’m one of those petty people who thinks the whole impressionist – symbolist question matters. I’m not happy with the evidence I see for Walsh knowing what a symbolist is. It’s not enough to drop some names, you need to have an understanding of the process, how a symbolist writes or paints or composes and what they seek to signify. But perhaps that’s an indication of how insignificant that topic has been in the past that a book can be satisfactory without adequately addressing Debussy the symbolist, which to me should be one of the central concerns of the study. It’s still a revelation to dare to be multi-disciplinary in this way about a composer, although the invocation of multiple disciplines usually signals a crossover by someone from their area of competence into an area of lesser competence, sometimes with mixed results. Maybe in a generation or two we’ll get the multi-disciplinary study that gets it completely right.

I was very impressed with the way Walsh spoke of different songs, analyses that brought in poetry & Wagner deftly and with total agility, and without bogging down. Most of the book hangs together really nicely between the story of a life and the compositions that fill that life. I have to reconcile the book’s goal and my love of certain compositions that I wanted explored and unpacked in greater detail. But that’s not a flaw, especially when it’s precisely what the author set out to do. I’m like a passenger on the tour-bus, upset that we’re sticking to the schedule and not stopping longer at my favourite locale.

I wonder too if Walsh read Howat’s theories proposing that Debussy used specific proportions such as the Golden Mean in the construction of his scores; Debussy in Proportion is conspicuously absent from the bibliography, especially considering that Walsh would consider Debussy through visual art. Did the “painter in sound” (as Walsh calls him) use the golden mean to assemble notes on the page? I doubt I’m the only one asking the question, but perhaps there’s just not enough evidence for Walsh to explore the subject; or maybe it didn’t interest him.  Oh well.

This time as a library book I read it cover to cover. I’lI buy it because I need to explore it further. I recommend it to anyone curious about Claude Debussy.

And it’s a fun read.

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School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play

I’ve just seen Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls, presented by Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. The co-production is a natural considering how perfectly the play fulfills the mandates of both companies, a piece by a black playwright (Obsidian), on a stage populated by women (Nightwood).

Inspired by the true story of Erica Nego, a Minneapolis-born biracial woman of Ghanaian heritage, the universality of the story is in the character relationships, particularly the echoes of that 2004 Lindsay Lohan—Rachel McAdams film that led the playwright to subtitle the work as “The African Mean Girls Play”.

Some aspects of school and adolescence are the same wherever you might go.

We watch five Ghanaian girls excited by an upcoming beauty contest. As in the film, there’s a reigning princess who has no hesitation in bullying her classmates, even getting them to lie & cheat on her behalf, at least until bi-racial Ericka arrives from America.


School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play: Tatyana Mitchell, Natasha Mumba, Rachel Mutombo, Emerjade Simms, & Bria McLaughlin (Photo: Cesar Ghisilieri)

The unity of this ensemble directed by Nina Lee Aquino was a joy to behold, the players as tight & attentive to one another as a string quartet. This was a team effort to achieve the right look and feel and sound to every aspect including hair, costumes, body language, dialects, music and even fights. At times they’re a dance-troupe at other times a real classroom.

Natasha Mumba had genuine star quality as Paulina, the alpha princess of this group. The arc of the story has a few surprises, as we discover reasons we might have sympathy for powerful Paulina, that maybe this whole business of beauty contests is much more than meets the eye.

Nana (Tatyana Mitchell) and Ama (Rachel Mutombo) each have their fights with the queen Bee, although those are essentially sub-plots, to the main conflict with Ericka (Melissa Eve Langdon), whose arrival threatens Paulina’s dominance of the class.

Mercy (Bria McLaughlin) and Gifty (Emerjade Simms) are paired off for some of the funniest moments of the play, a bit like a Greek chorus.   They energized the show and lightened the tone.

Akosua Amo-Adem (school headmistress) and Allison Edwards-Crewe (Eloise, Miss Ghana 1966) represent the adults of that world, to whom the students usually speak very politely, normally seeking to impress rather than upset them.

The cast behaved as though this were a great privilege, lavishing us with great commitment throughout, the ensemble tight & energetic . While it’s a small group of actors in this tiny microcosm that is a million miles away from my own world, the 90 minutes of this play flew by in no time at all. I was totally consumed with the cares & conflicts of these six young women wanting to be in a beauty contest.

School Girls continues at Buddies until March 24th.

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The hybrid creation Revisor from Jonathon Young and Crystal Pite is so much more than I can put into words, a piece of theatre that explores the process of signification while showing us the ways that it breaks down. It’s a Kidd Pivot production presented by Canadian Stage at the Bluma Appel Theatre based on Gogol’s The Government Inspector.  Tonight was the Toronto premiere.  Gogol’s play doesn’t fall easily into a genre, bearing witness to human events that can be played as comedy even as they show us the darkest aspects of human nature.

But don’t get me wrong. For all the seriousness, all the intense people in the audience, there was a great deal of laughter in the theatre.


Doug Letheren (Photo: Michael Slobodian)

Gogol’s story is about an imposter confused with someone of far greater importance, and the upheaval caused by this case of mistaken identity. At its root this is a story about metaphors & symbols, how we let images & shapes & sounds stand in for something else, often without any real authenticity or connection between the thing and its image.
Someone on this creative team had a stroke of inspiration as to how to tell such a story.

Why not lip-synch, someone thought.  Why not create a disconnect at the root of the show..?  Let the falsehood in the story be right in the structure of the show.

Do you remember Milli Vanilli? I ask because that might be before your time if you’re a younger reader. It was 30 years ago. Imagine a musical act winning a Grammy, and the scandal when the truth came out, that the two people we thought we knew to be the stars were not actually the ones singing, but just the faces on the albums, who had been lip-synching along on TV to performances by an entirely different band in a studio.

Or there’s the big secret in Singin’ in the Rain (that of course the audience is in on throughout): that Lina Lamont isn’t the one heard speaking or singing in The Dancing Cavalier, but rather Cathy Seldon (the real singer, who’s played by Debbie Reynolds).

But Revisor is very different from Milli Vanilli or Singin’ in the Rain.   Yes we hear voices speaking who seem to be the characters onstage. While the voices (other than the narrator) are associated for us with a person dressed as one of the characters from the play, that body does much more than simply mouth words. Instead they are moving.. oh my are they ever. They’re dancing, gyrating, enacting, as though the words were electricity going into them, or a musical score animating their movements (you can get a tiny inkling from the photo above: but now animate that image of Doug Letheren in your mind, turning it into something super-fast & super-skilled).  They do much more than just mouth words.  It’s a good thing there’s someone else doing the voice onto a separate track, when the bodies are working so hard in response.

Pite & Young must have noticed how this separation of the dancer & the voice is an opportunity, not so different really from what Milli Vanilli or Lina Lamont noticed. If you have someone else sing or speak for you, it frees you to do a better job. And so instead of merely speaking, some of these moments become tremendous explosions of physicality. Dance! Athleticism! Gyrations! If you think about a triple threat – the person who can act & sing & dance—this is a wonderful solution, if you get a superb dancer, while using voice-over instead of making the dancer sing & act.

Sometimes we are seeing the same scene we already saw done earlier, but with a narration instead, and a different look to the characters, literally divested and broken down, analyzed in the bare bones narration of people identified merely as “1” or “2”.
As with previous Kidd Pivot presentations that we’ve seen here in Toronto (such as Tempest Replica or Betroffenheit or Dark Matters ) there are at least two discourses in combination:

  • An opportunity to tell a story
  • The dance that arises from or as a reflection upon that story

The fact we’re in a story about an imposter, told by a series of imposters –people moving while someone else voices them—problematizes the entire tale. Just what is real, after all, when we’re seeing symbols, figures standing in for others..? It’s a very slippery slope, before things cease to mean very much at all, a blurry realm of bodies and voices, reaching out to one another as a cover story for their existential insecurity.

There’s so much there, so much to see & unpack. If it isn’t obvious to you, this is something I wish I could see again, because there’s just so much there.  No, I don’t think this is as earth-shaking as Betroffenheit¸ a work informed by the profound pain & despair that Young experienced due to personal loss. But there might be more virtuosity, more technical brilliance in the movement & interpretive responses to the text: Doug Letheren, Jermaine Spivey (especially strong for a couple of minutes near the end of the piece), Matthew Peacock, Rena Marumi, Ella Rothschild, David Raymond, Cindy Salgado (almost always a source of light & fun whenever she appeared), David Raymond and particularly the enigmatic Tiffany Tregarthen as the Revisor. While they did not speak everyone was profoundly eloquent in their moves in response to the words coming through the P.A. At times words are repeated over and over, becoming like verbal minimalist compositions, ceasing to mean anything but calmly underscoring the movements. There are many moments where some of us were laughing, yet others were still, spellbound.

I’m reminded of the Hamlet adaptation I saw so recently that employed American Sign Language, verging away from Shakespeare into physical analogues to words, while reminding us of how difficult it is to be understood, how easy to be confused or mystified.

At a time when there’s a lot of good theatre on in this city, it’s easy to miss something good. Don’t miss Revisor. It’s one of the best shows I’ve seen this year.

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Questions for Cecilia Livingston: Balancing the Score

A little over five years ago, I interviewed composer Cecilia Livingston in anticipation of her new opera commission The Masque of the Red Death, an occasion for some marvelous comments about composing & opera (see what I mean? ).

I’m not surprised to hear that she’s to be honoured by the Glyndebourne Festival, the sole non-British candidate. […but Cecilia set me straight, as she holds dual citizenship… okay!]

“Balancing the Score: Supporting Female Composers” is a new development program exclusively for female composers, as their press release tells us:

The program’s four inaugural composers, who take up their positions in January 2019, are Anna Appleby (England), Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade (Scotland), Cecilia Livingston (Canada), and Ailie Robertson (Scotland). Participants will spend two years immersed in life at Glyndebourne, attending rehearsals and meeting professional opera makers and performers. Glyndebourne is also collaborating with its resident orchestras, London Philharmonic Orchestra and Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, as well as Philharmonia Orchestra, London Sinfonietta and Southbank Centre, to provide opportunities for Balancing the Score participants.

It’s a happy coincidence that Friday March 8th is International Women’s Day, and Saturday March 23rd is “The Next Wave Workshop” from Musique 3 Femmes, showcasing the work of women in the opera world –directors, librettists and composers—including Cecilia Livingston.


You can read more about the March 23rd event here, but first? the opportunity to ask Cecilia about her experience so far.

BB: Cecilia, congratulations!  How did you find out? What were you doing when you got the news?

It was such a Hollywood moment: I was in London, standing in the great courtyard of Somerset House – which is just south of the Strand, overlooking the Thames – on a deliciously warm, sunny day, waiting for a friend and fighting a bad Wi-Fi signal to check in for a flight on my phone. I was so amazed at the news that I let out this strange loud yelp, loud enough to draw the attention of the security guards! Security down there is pretty tight (this is London) so I had to explain to them that, actually, I just had some wonderful news.


Composer Cecilia Livingston

BB: And so how did the program begin?

It started with an official ‘induction day’, bringing us together at Glyndebourne: an in-depth tour, planning sessions for some of the projects we’ll be working on, and lots and lots of meetings. And important orientation things, like getting swipe cards and finding the company canteen (the food is excellent – amazing meatballs!). We got to sit in on that evening’s rehearsals in the auditorium to get a sense of the space and its acoustics.

(These were rehearsals for Howard Moody’s ‘Agreed’, Glyndebourne’s most recent commission and one of their legendary mainstage community operas.)

BB: Have you met the other three participants yet?

Yes! I had met two of the three other composers at our interview days in the fall, so under, er, slightly awkward circumstances. Happily, this is a lovely group: we’ve been messaging and Skyping since we found out we were selected, so meeting in person again on the start day of the scheme was like meeting old friends. There’s a really nice feeling of mutual support and collaboration already, rather than competitiveness. I think that’s special, and means we can do great work together through the program.

BB: Opera isn’t your only compositional activity.  If you can wrap your head around this question, roughly what percent are you an opera composer, and what percent, other sorts of music? (for instance Wagner & Verdi were almost totally opera composers, even though RW did write other things before, and a few later such as the Siegfried Idyll that’s based on operatic themes; and Verdi, similarly was mostly an opera composer; Beethoven & Debussy wrote one opera each, but mostly other music; Stravinsky, Ravel, Poulenc, wrote a few, but lots of other music too. AND feel free to observe that an opera composer in 2019 is not like one from 1919 or 1819…. Let alone 1619)

That is a really good question, one I think about a lot actually. I’ve felt for a while that pretty much everything I do is headed in the direction of opera, even when it’s not opera per se. I was chatting about this with Elizabeth McDonald a couple of weeks ago: she’s been singing my ‘Penelope’ on tour for the last year or so, with her trio Women on the Verge, and they were here in London in February. And she said something like “well, ‘Penelope’s’ not really art song at all, is it? It’s really a scene.” And I think she’s right about that. Even when I’m writing pieces without voice, I’m still thinking primarily about how structure and pacing, and motivic play and harmonic tension and rhythmic drive all create affect, atmosphere, drama, narrative – just as I would for an interlude or a transition section in opera. And I’ve felt that way for a long time, which has made moving into the opera world feel very natural. Plus I’ve done a lot of writing for voice, and I think that shows. Opera seems to be in my DNA, at some fundamental level.

BB: Is there anything you’d observe that’s different about opera composers, to distinguish them from composers who write other sorts of music? Or is there perhaps a difference in the sort of operas written by someone who doesn’t compose much of anything else?

Well I think there are some differences in skill set, or different skills that are required: understanding how to write for an operatically trained voice, and how to orchestrate to support it and enhance it. How to set text. How to serve story. I’ve been lucky to hear quite a lot of contemporary opera in the last few years (particularly the last couple of months here in the UK) and experience and thoughtfulness in those areas really show. I’ve heard a lot of opera where the composer was, I think, hired because they write great chamber or orchestral music, and the resulting operas often have incredible instrumental music and very inventive timbral languages, but then there’s a voice sort of stuck on top (or in the middle), and it quickly deflates the operatic qualities of the work: character, story, the magic of the singing voice. Opera demands so much, a whole package of skills. It’s a bit daunting.

But maybe the fundamental difference is attitude, or maybe I mean purpose – the reason the composer wants to be composing in the first place, which I think in opera has to be to tell stories. And then everything serves that.

BB: is composition understood to be part of the Balancing the Score experience?

Yes! That’s one of the most exciting parts of the program. And what is great is that, like the whole residency, this is really flexible so that I can choose projects that will help me grow and let me work with the amazing people at Glyndebourne that I can learn the most from.

BB: At this point in time, do you have any projects underway that you can talk about, operatic or otherwise?

I’ve got two on the go right now.

The first is ‘Singing Only Softly’, which is a chamber song-opera I’m creating with Loose Tea Music Theatre and Musique 3 Femmes. The libretto is by Monica Pearce and is inspired by the redacted sections of Anne Frank’s diary. Loose Tea’s Alaina Viau came to me with the idea for a dramatic song cycle around this subject, something that questioned the lines between art song and opera, and encouraged audiences to imagine the more complex Anne that her myth, or legend, tends to flatten. The project won the Prix 3 Femmes, and then a commissioning grant from the Ontario Arts Council, and next we’ll workshop the complete score in Toronto in March. There will be performances of excerpts at the Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on March 19 and at Tapestry on March 23, and then the piece will premiere in early May in Toronto. We did a brief performance of scenes-in-progress at the ‘Opera’s Changing Worlds’ conference in Montreal in September and the piece has grown and deepened so much since then: I can’t wait to hear the whole thing.

‘Terror & Erebus’ is my longer-term opera project, for Opera 5 and TorQ Percussion Quartet, which takes as a starting point the last days of the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic. This is a big one for me: first, the full-evening length, but also the challenge of creating opera with percussion as orchestra. I have been a TorQ fan since we were in school together: they have a very special understanding of the theatre of performance, and that’s something I want to highlight – they are a part of the opera, not off in the corner or stuck in a pit. And it’s the first opera project in which I’ve really been able to play with narrative: the libretto is by Duncan McFarlane, and he’s got three story timelines overlapping, which blur the chronology and help the opera move past what audiences might expect (some sort of ‘Pirates of the Northwest Passage? ‘Billy Budd On Ice’? Yikes!) into something that’s more like a dream or a ritual, that’s much more about the experience of Franklin and his crew and their suffering. It’s interesting to me that in the middle of this hugely absorbing, hugely challenging project, I’ve had so many amazing opportunities. Sometimes life gives with both hands. And we’ve been so lucky in the support around ‘Terror’: particularly the Canadian Music Centre’s Toronto Emerging Composer Award, which was such a vote of confidence in me at a moment when, to be frank, I needed that support and encouragement very much.

But clearly a comic opera is what I need to do next to balance this all out!

BB: You pointedly thanked Christos Hatzis in your interview saying
“ I’ve a huge respect for my teacher, Christos Hatzis. His enthusiasm and energy are astonishing – he lives a true musical life.Can you describe what you would be doing if you were living a true musical life?


Composer & composition professor Christos Hatzis

As I’ve graduated and moved into my professional life, I see ever more clearly now how important my teachers at U of T were to who I’ve become. That’s particularly true of Christos: his enthusiasm, his curiosity, his sincerity, his complete commitment to his work – those inspire me every day. And the way he thinks about musical structure… I hear him in my head a lot! Once when I was in my Master’s someone came up to me after hearing a piece of mine in a concert and said “are you Christos’s student?” And when I said yes I was, this person replied “Aha! I thought so. Every note in its right place.” Which is also almost a Radiohead quote, so I was doubly delighted.

I think being a composer requires this absolute commitment, because it is such a brutal artistic path. For me, that commitment and the focus it demands is helped by finding a state where everything one is doing feeds into the work. It’s really, really difficult to find ways to nurture that kind of focus, but also, you know, eat and pay rent. In many ways it’s actually easier when you are in school, which can offer a sort of artificial bubble of time and concentration – or it should. It’s terrifically hard to protect that in professional life, and I think we’re only just starting, as a society, to recognize how exponentially more difficult this is for female composers, for example, and for composers who face significant financial or other personal challenges. Too often those things are hidden, and for solid reasons, but it creates terrible loneliness and terrible struggle. The romance of the starving artist in the garret is such nonsense – it’s only ‘part of being an artist’ because of the way certain artists are treated. What a handy narrative to justify not supporting artists while continuing to benefit from the ways they make our society livable. It’s like the myth of genius: a great way to ignore the dedication of craft and labour that goes into the ‘great works’, trivializing the very creations in question. Sorry, I’m being sarcastic because these things make me genuinely cross.

By some amazing coincidences of good luck, and feeling emboldened by the support of people around me, I’ve found myself in a place where I’m able to really focus on music – both the music itself and the professional life that makes creating it possible. So I’m lucky to say I think I might have found my way to my own musical life.

BB: When you wrote about Masque of the Red Death you wrote the following, which sounds astonishingly prescient as a description of a certain politician:

The Prospero of the story is a sort of hubristic peacock, strutting around his quarantine. The immediate question for us was why someone would behave this way. If a ruler has the presence of mind to institute a quarantine – and this was a brand-new civil technology in the 14th century – and in particular, a very modern inverse quarantine that attempts to preserve the leadership while leaving the population to fend for themselves, would he really be this callow? The only plausible answer, I think, is that Prospero is attempting to distract his courtiers from the realities of the plague. His bizarre performance in Poe’s story is exactly that: a performance, designed to keep everyone’s mind on the party and off what is happening outside the walls.

….[so to now ask the question:]
Do you have any thoughts about the operatic potential of any politicians or public figures, any stories that perhaps need to be told?

Ah, the question of the CNN opera! Politicians and public figures are human beings, and opera is – essentially – one of the ways we tell stories about the human experience. The concern for me, as a composer, is what weight the audience’s pre-knowledge hangs on the work, and how that is or is not useful to the experience I would hope my opera might facilitate. Let me put it another way: ‘Nixon in China’ is, quite possibly, my favourite opera ever. It encapsulates what a wonderful form opera is for satire and the satirical, and for good old comedy too: but more broadly, that opera excels at undermining the two-dimensional. ‘Nixon’ does all these things – plays with recent history using the satirical and the elegiac, the elusive and allusive – in very broad, and very subtle, very sophisticated ways that go far beyond Nixon as a historical figure. The character becomes a means to the opera’s ends. But that opera is a freak to me: how often do creators of such skill come together?

BB: If you could have written any pop song, which one would it have been?

Radiohead’s ‘Decks Dark’. Let’s not look at the play count in iTunes…

BB: I just watched Wes Anderson’s  Isle of Dogs again last night, one of my favorite films of the year, alongside Ralph Wrecks the Internet.  The boundaries between art for adults & children is getting blurry these days.  I want to ask first, are you more of a cat person or a dog person? And more seriously, given the phenomenal number of animals we see these days in media (social especially), do you see any animals or stories for children in your operatic future?

I just love animals, period. Dogs are good for composers because they make us get up and, you know, move. I think cats like composers because we sit very still for long periods of time.

I know one cat who, I’m convinced, thinks I AM a cat for this reason.

I think both children and animals are rich sources of stories for opera, despite the old saying that neither should be on stage or you risk mayhem. Opera for children is actually a subject on which I have very strong feelings. My condescension-radar kicks into high gear. I have very little patience with opera that is purely didactic (be it for whatever audience), and I loathe opera that patronizes kids.

‘Peter Grimes’ is, at one level, an opera ‘about’ bullying. And yet it is so, so much richer than that. Why should opera for children be any less complex or nuanced in its storytelling?

So I’ve got pretty exacting standards there: opera for children and with children should have the same artistic integrity as any other opera.

And I think this might indeed be in my future: one of the wonderful components of my residency at Glyndebourne is getting to work with their education department. They have a remarkable record of commissioning very strong work for young people: Howard Moody’s ‘Agreed’, which I just heard earlier in March, is exactly the best kind. Well crafted, inventive, lots of children involved in the production, and while there is a message or point within the story, the opera is so much more than that.

It’s funny you mention film: I’m really interested in composing for film. I just keep getting asked to do concert music and opera. But it seems like a very similar set of attitudes to the ways music tells story, illuminates character, creates atmosphere. Plus, the same need for collaboration and team work.

BB: What’s your favourite opera (meaning fun / enjoyment) and what’s your operatic ideal (meaning, the one you most admire)?  When you’re composing might either of these in some respect embody your objective(s)?

For fun and enjoyment? The first scenes of ‘Nixon’, every time. Mozart. I have a huge soft spot for ‘Madama Butterfly’, though I’d hesitate to call it ‘fun’! Operas I admire… ‘Nixon’, all of Britten but particularly ‘Death in Venice’, ‘Written on Skin’ for sure, ‘Invisible Cities’. Those would be my top four. ‘Nixon’ for its incredible shadings of emotion, its moral imagination. ‘Death in Venice’ for the sheer beauty of the music, the impeccable text-setting. ‘Written on Skin’ for the best vocal writing, the best orchestration around the voice, and such clear-eyed understanding of dramatic economy. ‘Invisible Cities’ for its inventiveness, its intimacy, its imagination.

BB: Operas have often centred on a female’s suffering and dying.  Please speak for a minute about opera in context with the feminist project of Balancing the Score.   How you feel about opera’s past and its future?

Opera has a very challenging canon, for sure. I’ve eye-rolled my way through many a death aria (love those high notes with one’s dying breath!) just as I’ve eye-rolled my way through yet another rom-com heroine waking up in full hair and makeup. Because opera gets under my skin so much, I’ve had some truly uncomfortable experiences. (The ‘whip her to death’ scene in ‘Nixon’ – I can hardly bear to listen to it, though I know why it’s there.) There are more sophisticated, historicised answers to why these tropes have arisen and are perpetuated but as a creator, I must move forward. Not despite these issues, but in recognition of them. In defiance of them.

What I love about Balancing the Score is that it identified a problem, and proposed a practical, flexible opportunity as a solution, and distributes that solution beyond one individual: it’s a shrewd approach to talent investment. There are so many schemes where one early-career composer gets one shot: that’s a set up for failure and disappointment all-round. Glyndebourne’s is a much longer-term support system, one that is keenly aware of the importance of access to opera’s networks and what a huge challenge that can be for female creators.

BB: Opera is many things, but it’s an industry, artists & artisans & pedagogues, musicians & writers and composers, and many others besides.  Talk for a moment about the women in the business and why it’s important to get more women involved.

Kaija Saariaho put it pretty succinctly: half of humanity has something to say.

BB: Is opera dead, or dying? Can it be saved?

Oh, opera’s been dying since it got started. Mark Adamo addressed this nicely:

“I was lecturing at a music school in February, and during a Q&A with the opera students, one asked me, ‘Is opera thriving? Collapsing? Mutating?’ To which I answered, ‘Yes’.”

He’s right. Though I do see a fundamental problem when it comes to renewing the genre, to creating new work. The ways that the industry supports creator-development is totally incoherent, and examples of thoughtful talent investment like Glyndebourne’s residency are so rare.

If we support people and help them learn how to create compelling opera that audiences want to hear, then they’ll ask for it, and houses can stop insisting that to sell seats they can only program ‘La bohème’. But these are very long projects. And I think it’s important to recognize that there are people who want their art to be entertainment, who do not want to be moved, or shaken, or challenged in any way, ever. They are the most truculent audience members. But that can’t be all that there is, because that is only one audience group, and it means that one group never gets a chance to change. I love ‘Bohème’ – I just get nervous when we start restricting the range of experiences art can offer us, and blame the new work for why we are restrictive.

A lot of contemporary opera is terrible – sure. I just get cross when people complain about both ends at once, saying that opera is a bunch of old chestnuts with too many dead women, but also that new opera sucks. As I get older I’m getting bolder about asking them what, exactly, they are doing to support new creators as we learn our craft. Because it takes a lot of learning, and learning costs time and concentration, both of which cost money. So the funding for new creators, and our trial-and-error, has to be there. Lab-style, festival-style, small-theatre opera where we can learn our craft: then follow through and build those mainstage opportunities for us when you’ve seen the work is promising.

BB: In your interview you spoke admiringly of singers.  Some composers write difficult & virtuosic music, while others are more (musically) plain-spoken and direct in their style.  If you’ll forgive me for sounding simplistic, I wonder if you know your preference between these two poles?

Myself, I lean towards what I think you mean by ‘plain-spoken’ and ‘direct’. But there’s a time and a place for both polarities you’ve identified. As a listener, I’m annoyed when I can’t hear what is being sung and I can’t discern why that is the case – like, there’s no aesthetic or dramatic justification for that choice. And I’m concerned when I suspect that the composer is imposing unhealthy or unsustainable vocal practice on singers, particularly when those are early-career singers who may not feel they can speak out.

Singers are the best guide here: they know what they do best and what they want to experiment with. I remember a masterclass (actually, one for instrumentalists) and a young composer said “but I want it to sound laboured” and the clinician-composer just looked at the guy and said “they can act that. All you are doing here is asking them to hurt themselves.” I want singers to want to sing my music. If they don’t, they won’t, and it will sit in a drawer, and for me that defeats the whole purpose.

BB: The writer Slavoj Zizek in Opera’s Second Death spoke of the function of opera before the time of Freud, as psychotherapy (and opera’s death he would ascribe at least partly to therapists, now supplanting opera by performing the same function).  Would you rather write something that gets into someone’s head obsessively making them a bit crazy (I’m sure you can think of examples of composers who did that) or instead do you want to create something that is the cure?

I want to do both, because I think ‘both’ is what art can do. I think good opera creates these moments that haunt the imagination, that play out on the mind’s stage over and over again – an afterimage burned into the retina, etched on the eardrum. And I think those are the moments that also point to opera’s cathartic opportunities – and I use that word ‘cathartic’ deliberately. Which are deeply bound up in opera as a live performance medium… clearly, we are going to need do another interview!

BB: While you’re in Britain, Balancing the Score, do you miss anyone? Do you want to say hi to anyone here?

I miss everyone! It takes a village, this composing life. So let me say a huge thank you to all the people who have helped – you know who you are and I hope I have made clear how much I treasure your support and faith in me. You give me the courage to dream big!


And speaking of “it takes a village” I refer you to  The Next Wave Workshop from Musique 3 Femmes.  For further information please look at their press release. to know more about the upcoming presentation on March 23rd at Ernest Balmer Studio.

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Questions for Mladen Obradovic: The Woods are Dark and Deep

A few years ago I saw a Feydeau farce starring Mladen Obradovic. He was a startlingly good actor, playing two distinctly different roles, a bit of a tour de force really, and totally unforgettable.


Mladen Obradović as Poche in “A Flea in Her Ear” (photo: Derrick Chow)

So this week I see that he’s written a very serious play about a serious topic.

Did you know that…

 “…during World War I, immigrants who were living in Canada, but who came from countries that Canada was at war with, ended up interned. This included Germans, Italians, Ukrainians, Croats, Serbs, Austrians, Hungarians, Turks…. More than 8500 people were kept in 24 internment camps and receiving stations.”

Did you know this? This is the first I heard of it.

Mladen’s play is called The Woods are Dark and Deep concerning immigrants who were locked up. The historical angle grabbed my attention. Did you see Hungarians were on that list?  I think of myself as a Hungarian-Canadian (my family only came to Canada in the 1950s.).  And I am very curious about the play.

So of course I had to ask Mladen some questions.

BB: Are you more like your father or your mother?

I love this question, because I didn’t have an answer ready right away. It made me think. I guess I have some sides to me that make me more like my mother and some that are totally like my father. I think my mother influenced me more- supported my individuality, my artistic side, my empathy. I don’t know what kind of a person I would be if it wasn’t for her influence, but I do know that she made me want to be a better one. And I picked up my father’s OCD, his ambition and straightforwardness. I am also a lot like my maternal grandmother. I picked up my diligence and practicality from her.

MladenObradovic-LVIMAGERY-4 - Copy

Mladen Obradovic

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

Acting is truly a very cruel profession- very few people get to have a career, even rarer is for them to have it on their own terms, without making horrible sacrifices in their private life. The most obvious example is the fact that many actors can’t sustain a long-term relationship, or chose not to have children, mostly because of the uncertainty of our job. That constant state of alert, looming above, has to be one of the worst things about this profession. There are absolutely no guarantees. One can star in a theatre show or a film, get an award for it and then not getting any work for the next two years. I saw so many phenomenal actors quit this job and go into a totally different line of work because they needed some certainty in their lives. That brutal selection is always heartbreaking to watch.

On the other hand, one of the best things about this job is constant movement, meeting different people all the time, working on different projects all the time. This job can never be boring. Cruel yes, but boring no. One of the best days of my career happened in Belgrade when I performed a children’s fairytale show in the morning, then went to a rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Macbeth that we worked on, then shot an episode of a TV show for which I portrayed a poet and recited his love poems, and then did a late evening recording of a radio show where I played in some very raunchy scenes. It was amazing. I did four totally different things in one day, and they were all rewarding in their own way. That is what I always strived towards- new experiences, fresh challenges.

So far- I was lucky enough to get it.

BB: Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I watch a lot of movies and TV shows. I do like all genres, so some of my favorite movies include very different ones: The Matrix, L.A. Confidential, Cabaret, The Color Purple, Dogville… Some of my favorite TV shows include: Sense8, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, Shameless, Dexter, The Wire… and comedies: Alo, Alo; Only Fools and Horses, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Friends.

I mostly listen to older rock and pop music, some of my favorites are The Cranberries, David Bowie, George Michael, Sting, Annie Lennox, Queen. I watch tennis, I despise reality TV, although I do love dancing shows- So You Think You Can Dance and World of Dance.

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

I wish I was a bit taller. I am only 5’ 7”, and it is so hard to be an average height actor in a world where size does matter.


Mladen Obradovic

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

I watch a lot of films, do a lot of gardening, take my kids to a pool or a playground, going out- anywhere really- either for walks in nature, or clubbing, dancing, watching shows. I don’t rest a lot.

BB: Did you experience a shock of recognition discovering the history of internments during the First World War?

Yes. Once I started my exploration of the topic, it made some sense, but my first reaction was of utter shock and disgust. The truth is that there were about 8500 people in those camps. So many different nationalities too- anyone who came from countries that were in war with Canada.

However, the problem was that half of those people were running away from those same countries. Austro-Hungarian Empire, for example, occupied Ukraine, Croatia, and so many other countries and territories. Serbia and my home country of Montenegro were under Turkish occupation. Immigrants from those countries came to Canada to escape the oppression, but were labeled as possible traitors and put away. There were so many reasons why this happened. Some of these people were not safe because their neighbours actually thought that they were dangerous. It was the biggest war ever by then, so everyone was very concerned and some of them responded from their fear. In order to prevent conflicts, the government pulled some of those immigrants into camps. Some were being framed by their coworkers or neighbours, some were just too poor and happy to go to a camp because it provided them with shelter and food, and they were paid too- as much as Canadian soldiers were. There were all sorts of stories, but the important part was that it was involuntary imprisonment of immigrants. I am an immigrant, it resonated very deeply.

Could it happen today? What needs to happen for someone to tell me that I don’t have the same rights and freedoms as people who were actually born in Canada? The history of the human race is the history of oppression. Coming from a war-torn country I am very sensitive about these issues. But I did mention that after I started my exploration, things started to sound much more logical. I do envision someone whose child was fighting somewhere in Europe, and I do understand how it must have been really difficult for them to have a German family, for example, living next door to them. Let’s not forget that this was an era where all the news came from newspapers, or similar paper based propaganda. People were less educated, more scared, and, I presume- easier to rally. I can see how it escalated to innocent people being imprisoned for years. The important part is not to forget those lessons from our history and work on never repeating them. Can we see the parallel between illegal immigrants being imprisoned by the thousands in USA at this point? Children dying in their custody? Our story happened a hundred years ago but it is easy to assume that nothing changed.

BB: I understand that the “Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund” approached you to do this work. The announcement says they “commissioned and produced this show.” That sounds like an adventure. Please tell that meta-story, of how you were approached and persuaded to do this play.

It was first mentioned by a friend of mine who worked for Toronto Public Library, where she heard about WWI Internment Recognition Fund and their work. Their mission is to support art projects that will help keep the memory of these events alive. She dug a little deeper and when she found out that there were Serbians there, she suggested we do something to honor their memory.

I was intrigued by the topic right away and I knew that I wanted to write a play about it. The only problem was that I never finished a full-length play for grown ups before. I wrote a few children’s plays, but nothing like this. So I approached the organization, asked them if they would be interested to help me with the project, and they offered all the resources they had. They only requested for the play to be historically correct. After I did my research and wrote the first draft, their entire board of directors went through it and sent me their notes- the objections about the truthfulness of places, dates, timelines… I was, obviously, thankful for this. Although I wrote a story with fictional characters, the frame of the story is absolutely authentic.

BB: Who do you imagine is the audience for your play?

It is a coincidence that the main characters of this play are Serbians and Ukrainians. I just knew more about them so I chose them as my leads. But there were so many nationalities interned in those camps. Any immigrant can recognize themselves in the destiny of these people. And any Canadian should see this play- we should all be reminded about how easy it is to hurt someone who had a less fortunate start to their life in Canada.

BB: Does The Woods are Dark and Deep correspond to any conventional genre of theatre?

“The Woods…” is a drama. It has its own romantic subplot, it has a lot of traditional singing in it, but it’s not a romantic drama, it’s not a musical, it’s a drama. I am not sure it follows any templates. It is based in realism, it has its heroes and villains, but I don’t think it resembles any well-known story. There is something very familiar, but also something quite individual about this script.

BB: How difficult was it for you to write The Woods are Dark and Deep?

This is definitely the biggest play I ever wrote, and the process was quite difficult. The research and the writing of the first draft took a year to finish. I did give that first draft to several of my close friends to see it and give me some notes, and we also changed some of the things during rehearsals, the director of the play, Sandra Cardinal, helped me a lot with those edits.

BB: Talk about the team working with you on The Woods are Dark and Deep

The Director of the play is Sandra Cardinal. I first worked with her last summer on a little Fringe show called Kitchen Sink Drama. That is where I saw how detailed she is as a director, how keen on bringing the emotions of the scene out, and I was excited to work with her again.

Sophie_McIntosh_as_Claire in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Sophie McIntosh is Claire in The Woods are Dark and Deep

My partner in producing is Ivana Obradovic, and this is the third show we’re doing together. Amanda Caliolo is my Stage Manager and this is the third show I am working on with her. Third show with Meredith Wolting- our Set and Costume Designer, second one with Alexandra Caprara, our Lighting Designer, and with most of the actors I worked with before- third collaboration with Francesco de Francesco and Biljana Karadzic, second one with Ratko Todorovic and Jake Zabusky, and the children in the play- Mila Jokic and Simeon Kljakic have been recruited from Pulse Theatre’s Drama Studio.

Jake Zabuskyas Dragutin in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Jake Zabusky is Dragutin in The Woods are Dark and Deep

I am a very loyal friend and a very loyal collaborator. When I find people I am comfortable working with, I tend to stick with them every chance I get.

Biljana Karadžić as Anya in The Woods are Dark and Deep

Biljana Karadžić is Anya in The Woods are Dark and Deep

BB: This is not like A Flea in Her Ear. If we imagine a continuum between The Woods are Dark and Deep and the Feydeau farce, where is Mladen on that scale?

I am so happy you still remember “A Flea in Her Ear”, our delightful Fringe show from two years ago.

“The Woods…” is very different though. “A Flea” was an outburst of energy, celebration of love and life. “The Woods…” is like an open wound, tender and sensitive, dark and deep. Maybe because it stems from real life events, maybe it was me changing, or just totally committing to a very different experience, but these two shows couldn’t be any more different.


Rehearsal: Ratko Todorovic, Mladen Obradovic, Dewey Stewart, Jake Zabusky

And I love them both, because they challenged me in very different ways. I am very impulsive. I tend to make my mind up about things instantly, I like change, I love challenges. So I don’t know what the future brings, but it might be something completely different. Or maybe I finally make up my mind and stick with one genre? That would also be a change! I just know that I do hope to survive in this industry. Being an immigrant actor, an audible minority in this city is not exactly a guarantee for success.


Rehearsal: Jake Zabusky, Mladen Obradovic, Dewey Stewart, Francesco de Francesco

So far I was lucky enough to find enough engagements, and I hope it doesn’t stop here.

BB: are there any teachers and/or influences you would care to mention?

I am what I am because so many generous and knowledgeable people stopped and shared their trade with me. My professors from Serbia: Ciga Jerinic, Boris Pingovic, Zoja Begolli, Marina Markovic, Dragana and Tomo Brkovic and the late, great Kaca Brkovic… my professors from York: David Smukler, Eric Armstrong, Michael Greyeyes… Jadranka Mamic, Zaklina Ostir and Aleksandra Bosnic from Montenegro, Julie and Craig Hartley from Centauri Summer Arts Camp, Christina Akrong and Alex Breede from TheatrePeace Inc, Barbara Rosenberg and Janice Gruchy from PACE Academy… Just some of the people who changed my life forever.

But most of all my family, especially my children. They changed my life and keep on changing it by changing me, every day.


Mladen Obradovic’s new play The Woods are Dark and Deep premieres on March 21 at the Factory Theatre. For tickets click here.


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Musique 3 Femmes: The Next Wave Workshop

Musique 3 Femmes with Tapestry Opera Announces

The Next Wave Workshop

Presentation of operas by winners of inaugural $25,000
Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes, new prize supporting creation of operas by
emerging female and female-identifying composers and librettists in Canada

March 23, 2019 at Ernest Balmer Studio

In collaboration with stage directors Jessica Derventzis,
Amanda Smith, Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Alaina Viau

(TORONTO) Musique 3 Femmes presents Canada’s first opera workshop to feature exclusively all-female creative teams in the development of five new operas by women in collaboration with directors Anna Theodosakis, Aria Umezawa, Jessica Derventzis, Alaina Viau, and Amanda Smith. The workshop sees a preview performance on March 19 at Canadian Opera Company’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre as part of the Noon Hour Concert Series, and culminates in a staged evening performance in the Ernest Balmer Studio on March 23 at 7:30pm. The performance features Musique 3 Femmes artists soprano Suzanne Rigden, mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff, pianist Jennifer Szeto, and the participation of mentors JUNO-Award nominee composer James Rolfe and two-time Governor General award-winning playwright and librettist Colleen Murphy.


The project aims to put emerging female creative voices working in Canadian opera front and centre. “It was a thrill for us as an ensemble to uncover so much talent with this year’s prize,” states Musique 3 Femmes’s Jennifer Szeto. “We’re also excited that all teams have seen their works programmed by companies for further development and performances. It’s a testament to their promise as emerging creators in this field, and we’re pleased to create a new spotlight for their work.”

Works presented:


Singing Only Softly (Composer: Cecilia Livingston, Librettist: Monica Pearce, Director: Alaina Viau)

A song-cycle opera by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston featuring an original libretto by Monica Pearce inspired by redacted texts from Anne Frank’s famous diary. The work explores Anne’s complex adolescence, her growing maturity, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Edith. Singing Only Softly is led at the Next Wave Workshop by Loose Tea Music Theatre Artistic Director, stage director Alaina Viau.

L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi (Composer: Laurence Jobidon, Librettist: Pascale St-Onge, Director: Aria Umezawa)

Amidst the harsh and cold weather of northern Quebec, Léa tries to reach a safe-house in order to protect herself and her unborn child. She meets Madeleine, a tormented woman who promises to lead her to the end of a road where no one else goes. L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi pays tribute to feminine solidarity and resilience, as well as to the strength of the Quebecois territory. The work is led by director and former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow Aria Umezawa and will see its premiere at Opéra de Montréal in March 2020.

Book of Faces (Composer: Kendra Harder, Librettist: Michelle Telford, Director: Jessica Derventzis)

“Nothing on Earth has prepared me for life like the Internet…” Book of Faces is a comic opera exploring the world of social media and two millennials for whom the struggle is just too real. The second collaboration between Saskatoon composer Kendra Harder and librettist Michelle Telford, Book of Faces sees a world premiere at Next Wave Workshop led by director and Artistic Director of Opera 5 Jessica Derventzis, and later performances as part of Highlands Opera Studio’s 2019 season.

Suites d’une ville morte (Composer: Margareta Jeric, Librettist: Naima Kristel Phillips, Director: Amanda Smith)

A woman returns to a place where she fell in love. She finds a piano on a heap of rubble. An exploration of the anatomy of a piano, this work examines the interplay of loss and connection in a world where everything can change in an instant. Based on the play Ghost Town Suites by Naima Kristel Phillips, Suites d’une ville morte is the first collaboration by Phillips with Croatian-Canadian composer Margareta Jeric. The work is in development for Toronto’s FAWN Chamber Creative, and is led here by FAWN founder and stage director Amanda Smith.

The Chair (Composer: Maria Atallah, Librettist: Alice Abracen, Director: Anna Theodosakis)

“You didn’t even know her name. You don’t even know my name.” With an original libretto by Abracen on a short story by Atallah, The Chair explores grief, loss, and friendship through the eyes of a teenager. Melanie loses her best friend in a tragic accident and returns to school to face throng of well-wishers and a mysterious new classmate. For the Next Wave Workshop, the piece is led by COC Ensemble dramatic coach and founder of Toronto’s Muse 9 Productions, stage director Anna Theodosakis.


Musique 3 Femmes is a Montreal-based ensemble which supports future female leaders in opera. In 2018, they launched the Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes, a biennial $25,000 award which supports the creation and development of operas written by emerging female and female-identifying composers and librettists in Canada. The 2018 prize enabled the creation of five new French and English language operas by teams from all across Canada, which received a first workshop and performance in collaboration with Opera McGill in September 2018, including a featured performance at “Opera’s Changing Worlds”, a national summit co-hosted by, Opéra de Montréal, and Opera McGill. This season, Musique 3 Femmes is an Ensemble-In-Residence at Mount Allison University and Queen’s University’s DAN School of Music. Musique 3 Femmes comprises mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff, coloratura soprano Suzanne Rigden, and pianist Jennifer Szeto. M3F gratefully acknowledges Canada Council for the Arts and the SOCAN Foundation for their support.


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Unsafe at Berkeley Street Theatre

A world premiere event by a Canadian cultural icon.



Written + Created by SOOK-YIN LEE
Directed by Sarah Garton Stanley
Performed by Sook-Yin Lee + Christo Graham

“Making theatre is unsafe. Theatre makers are at risk the moment they embark on a creative endeavor. In making Unsafe, I’ve learned that fear rises from deep inside your body. It’s at the root of every secret desire, every shame, every guilt, all you hate and what you think you will be killed for. It’s what drives your need to control, and it’s the foundation of censorship.” — Sook-Yin Lee

Multimedia artist and broadcaster Sook-Yin Lee’s Unsafe is a meta-theatrical documentary performance that investigates the censorship of art in Canada. What makes some art acceptable and some art not?

Adding to this documentary/meta-theatrical production are projected interviews with artists who have been silenced, limited, and censored: 2018 Polaris Music Award winning classical trained opera tenor Jeremy Dutcher; Governor General Award-winning poet, playwright and professor George Elliott Clarke; stand-up comedian Chris Robinson; Anglican priest and social justice activist Maggie Helwig; Globe and Mail columnist Kate Taylor; Canadian-Arab artist Laila Binbrek and others.


We asked Lee to answer some questions about the piece, which was developed here in residence at Canadian Stage.

The title of your project is Unsafe. How would you describe the core subject matter of your piece and how it relates to “being unsafe”?

Unsafe is a documentary performance that combines my broadcasting and journalism skills with live storytelling in a theatre. It explores censorship and creativity in historical contexts and where it exists today in silencing, exclusion, and social media call-out culture in Canada. It delves into the tension between our desire for freedom and need to control. Unsafe is dangerous because it reveals the personal cost and consequences of opening up a difficult conversation. Is it possible to even begin without, in some way, censoring someone else? And will it help or further damage spaces for equity and understanding? Unsafe is an unfolding experiment. I pose many thorny questions and we’ll see what the responses are!

What, in your own opinion, makes this such a relevant and urgent topic today?

Movements throughout history have been about the struggle for greater liberty for everybody, and yet we’re constantly confronted by pressures to suppress, withhold, restrict and sanitize expression. Today, social media backlash and call-outs are common, which makes us even more inclined to hide how we really feel in order to be loved, appear more interesting, and less annoying.

The piece is concerned with public discourse and large communication platforms, but it’s also deeply personal. Working on Unsafe, have you discovered anything new in terms of what makes you feel unsafe?

In creating Unsafe, I encountered many obstacles due to sensitivity around the censorship conversation. It was frustrating and often scary when the project teetered on the verge of collapse. In those tense moments, I could have thrown in the towel, or succumbed to pressure, but I decided to commit to a new strategy for me, which was to accept each obstacle as graciously as I could and work with it. Even when I was confronted by obstacles I thought were impossible to overcome, I pushed myself to remain present and figure out a way to problem-solve. Interestingly, I think the obstacles and their work-around helped improve Unsafe!

You are mostly known as a radio/TV personality, activist-artist, filmmaker and journalist, but this is the first time you are appearing in your own “play” in the theatre. Can you speak a little bit about what made you choose this genre – a theatrical performance crossing over into a documentary/meta-theatrical form?

I have appeared in my own theatrical productions before but they were narrative dance works, which are poetic and expressionistic compared to the reality-based direction of Unsafe. Unsafe deals primarily in non-fiction and is grounded in the broadcast interview form, which I consider to be one of my artistic practices. Originally, I was hired by playwright and filmmaker Zack Russell via Canadian Stage and former Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn, to develop a work on art and censorship. Delving into the process, it became clear to me that the most direct, revealing, surprising, educational, entertaining, and dangerous response to this difficult proposal was to embrace an experimental documentary-performance approach.

Unsafe runs March 12-31 at Berkeley Street Theatre.


Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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