I don’t know Derek Jarman as well as I wish. But I’m presuming to offer some thoughts in answer to a question posed on Soundstreams’ blog a few days ago.
I recall Jarman’s contribution to the anthology Aria (1987).
The premise of Don Boyd’s film was to approach several directors to create something resembling music videos, but using opera rather than popular music. Many of the little films feature Leontyne Price. We hear her Liebestod, her “La vergine degli angeli”, her “Depuis le jour”, versions as good as any ever recorded.
The segments are short, with Jarman’s being one of the shortest. Yet it’s arguably a self-portrait, even if it’s a bit perplexing at first glance, not easy to decode.
I recall that when film critic Jay Scott interviewed Stewart Hamilton, trying to get some insights into Aria, especially Jarman’s segment, Hamilton dismissed it as nonsensical: which is what you do when you don’t understand. I regret deeply that I never talked to Scott about it. I see that Scott probably died of AIDS related causes, which is particularly heart-breaking under the circumstances. I wonder if Scott had an inkling what Jarman was doing..?
Let me tell you about it, or at least how I decode it.
First, let’s talk about the music Jarman chose to set. “Depuis le jour” is an ecstatic aria about new love sung by an impetuous young woman, Louise. She is telling us of a first kiss, the first days of a new love. It is very much in the present, about something new and immediate, sensual and physical.
Now, let’s add some additional layers.
Derek Jarman, not unlike Jay Scott would get the plague. Scott died in 1993, while Jarman died in 1994, both of AIDS related diseases.
Jarman chose this short aria, celebrating new love and youth, at a time when I feel certain he was wondering about his future. Perhaps he did not have a diagnosis yet, and was merely watching the plague unfolding around him. Or maybe he knew that he was going to die.
But I know how Jarman listened to “Depuis le jour”, when I watch what he put on film, that so perplexed Stewart Hamilton, that moves me.
We see an old woman (played by Amy Johnson), who resembles a diva onstage enjoying the accolades. We don’t see her perform, we see her bowing repeatedly.
What is this old woman doing in an aria about young love?
Jarman of course knew he wasn’t likely to get to be an old man bowing. Never mind the gender of the woman singing about new love. Jarman surely is talking about himself in this aria. This was an impossible dream, to be old with the death sentence hanging over him.
Let me mention too that Jarman had made a lot of super8 film.
In “Depuis le jour” we switch between the old lady bowing onstage, and we seem to see memories captured on handheld super8. Jarman’s regular collaborator Tilda Swinton is captured in elusive glimpses as though they were memories from youth.
I’ve seen it so many times and it still takes my breath away. As we go back and forth I wonder, are they the same person, or the same soul? perhaps the bowing old woman is not so much a long-lived woman as the soul of the young one, looking back.
It’s poetry so I don’t know that there is any clear answer, and we don’t need one.
This is some stunning footage. The difference in the types of film suggest two different realities. It’s been imitated many times.
I cry every time I see this even when I don’t also think of Jay Scott.
The super8 seems to be a recollection of a life, as seen from the old lady’s perspective, recalling the first days of youthful romance & love. It’s a poignant fantasy for someone who knew that old age wasn’t possible for him.
Whether or not Jarman was being autobiographical or merely poetic, doesn’t matter. I think it’s the most beautiful five minutes of cinema I’ve ever seen.
The music is amazing. But it should be better. Am I asking too much?
Earlier this week I watched Respect, the new biography of Aretha Franklin. I paid for 48 hours worth of viewing time, but only felt like watching it the one time.
Jennifer Hudson sounds a lot like Aretha Franklin. My wife enthusiastically reported that Aretha herself insisted on having Hudson create her in the film. It’s a good impersonation. At times Hudson does a bit of a wail in her singing that reminds me of Aretha. But to me when Hudson is singing, it’s a broadway voice. Sure, Hudson has amazing vocal production, don’t get me wrong. She has a laser focus when she starts a note, sometimes soft, sometimes loud and sometimes then opening it up to something even bigger with vibrato that stays on pitch. It’s not quite as wild as Aretha, whose voice threatens to go out of control because it’s not the same sort of voice. Maybe I oversimplify, but I come back to Hudson’s origins on American Idol, where singers with this much accuracy are treated as suspect, a broadway-bound artist rather than the rock musician. Hudson is fabulous in Dreamgirls for instance, where her voice matches the idiom. And Hudson is a good actor, a terrific artist. But when the resemblance is too close it reminds me of a sketch from Saturday Night Live, like one of those imitations by Jimmy Fallon that has you saying “wow, sounds just like him / her”.
Maybe I’d feel different if I’d seen it in a theatre? At home where I’ve also binge-watched the Fosse-Verdon series, a good impersonation is simply not enough. I want insight into characters and their creations, I want something dense with meanings & if possible something profound.
I’m thinking too of Rocketman, Elton John’s biopic. You’ll recall that Elton had to approve of the story that he produced & therefore authorized as his official story. When there are places in the story where we wonder about accuracy we have in the back of our minds that yes, this is really auto-biography. Ditto with Aretha’s Respect. There are two children in her life that she had at a remarkably young age. She was 12 for the first, 14 for the second. But we hear nothing about how it happened. The children just appear and then are given into the care of her grand-mother, the details (possibly a horror story) seemingly redacted out of the story.
Aretha loses her beloved mom at an early age. Aretha is taken out on the road with her father, a fascinating minister involved in the civil rights movement sensitively portrayed by Forest Whitaker. Aretha was inevitably exploited by her father for her vocal talents to help promote his ministry. How his daughter was violated or seduced isn’t explained. Depending on your perspective, this is problematic, horrific, the big shadow lurking over her? I wish I knew what happened even if it’s totally mysterious in the film. There are gaps in the storyline. I get it, Aretha had a difficult childhood. Her pain is real. So just as with Rocketman we’re in the realm of the authorized biopic, strongly controlled by the artist. As in Rocketman Aretha also permits aspects of her story into the film that are decidedly unflattering, dark, troubling. Even so, I suspect her control stifles the picture.
I wonder if I would have felt differently seeing it on a big screen..?
Some of the best moments are scenes in recording studios, watching the process of music being made, musicians inventing licks and adding layers to songs. It’s stunning to watch. Hudson is persuasive sitting at the piano as a creative force while the musicians react to her. I love this part of the authorized story, ready to accept Aretha as much more than just that voice.
The film is especially good at the beginning, perhaps too good. We start with glimpses of the childhood Aretha performing for her family & her father’s congregation. It’s so believable, so organic, that it sets the bar perhaps too high for what’s to come. Hudson never fully persuades me, the way Skye Dakota Turner grabs me as the ten-year old Aretha.
As much as I admire Hudson, there is never the same kind of magic with the adult Aretha as we had at the first part of the film, especially when we watch Turner with her mother incarnated in Audra McDonald.
This is the best part of the film.
I hate to sound churlish in saying that the film needs something more. I don’t know what that would be. Perhaps it’s more truth about Aretha’s children, perhaps it’s more than the one biographical plot line. I recall having low expectations of Rocketman, but being stunned by its brilliantly surreal combination of songs and story-telling. There’s nothing in Respect quite so illuminating.
But the musical performances are fabulous. If for no other reason than to listen to the voices, you’ll enjoy Respect.
Maybe it goes without saying, but I was intrigued that the familiar short-form used by family addressing Aretha was ”Re”. If you’ve been called “Re” all your life, singing “R-e-s-p-e-c-t” complete with backup singers going “re, re, re, re,” like her own cheering section, takes on a whole additional meaning. That’s an exciting discovery.
I took lunch to my mom today, as usual. I’m part of an unofficial committee with my siblings, sharing the various chores such as lunches, laundry, and more.
She asks how we’re doing, if Erika is working hard, how is the dog.
I don’t go into a lot of detail. I said Sam was okay, even though, truth to tell, I’m worried.
Sam has been scratching incessantly at her lump. It’s bigger all the time. We worry about her.
But she does seem to be in good spirits. A dog doesn’t know that it’s supposed to run slowly because of a humidex of 39. A dog doesn’t know she’s supposed to run slowly because of her lump or her advanced age. She may be over 14 but she often acts like a puppy. Strange dogs or delivery persons elicit an explosion of barking. Otherwise she’ll just lie there.
Today after lunch my mom & I were chatting about someone named Pongor Barna. My mom told me that he was a school-mate of my father when they were both studying to be engineers in Hungary. Yes that’s a long time ago. Where my mom had her hundredth birthday as of July, my father (who passed away in 1960) and his school colleague would have been older still.
My dad was born in 1917.
My mom was remembering when Pongor Barna came to visit the family (which didn’t include me, as I wasn’t born yet). I understand that we lived on Humewood Avenue. It’s the “we” that I speak of as a member of the family collective. But at this time I was still floating around in the cloud of unborn kids waiting to arrive.
When I looked it up on Google, I was surprised to discover that my family was living in the vicinity of my current church, namely Hillcrest. It’s one of those coincidences that makes me feel as though I’m in the right place. They say there are no real coincidences.
My mom then shifted gears to read some recent rhymes.
This one was delivered ruefully. I think she meant it as a true confession.
I always eat my lunch too late Maybe that’s why I’m gaining weight
She then told me that “This one is called <Hummingbird>”
You’re as big as my coffee spoon You return every spring in early June The buds will suddenly burst into bloom You will be visiting each of them soon Hummingbird hummingbird hum me a tune It won’t be as loud as a morning loon.
And then she asked me if I knew what a loon sounds like. I said of course, we used to hear them up at the cottage.
But I realized, hm, perhaps not the cottages I went to with my mom as a child. She and her second husband (my step-father) had a cottage for awhile up at Deanlea Beach, on Georgian Bay. Perhaps the youthful rascals dashing down to the water aka me and my siblings, wouldn’t be expected to notice the subtle beauty of loons in the rush to the beach.
We were a bit loony ourselves.
She read another poem, in a tone of discomfort.
I did not sleep all night I got up by the morning light They tell me “try it at daylight Because there is no wrong or right” Now this I cannot fight Never slept at daylight Never tried it: but I might.
She paused for dramatic effect. Sometimes she tells me of her difficulties sleeping. I guess this poem is about that debriefing process. We’re always asking “how did you sleep”?
She went on to the next one, delivered with more of a twinkle in her eye, to suggest something ironic, more playful.
I came here with my singing band They bring their trusted reverend Who promised them The Promised Land Where they hope their tour may end.
But Trusted Reverend this is not the promised land… Nothing here but shifting sand. Seems our journey still won’t end, Looking for the promised land.
Doug MacNaughton is known as much for his acting as for his singing, at home in opera, operetta, music theatre and concert work.
As powerful as he sounds in ONE DAY MORE Doug also has the ability to use his voice with delicacy. And he plays the guitar.
I wish there were more artists like him. I had long felt a connection to Doug, a versatile artist who doesn’t fit the normal template.
I knew Doug had been nursing an older dog named Benji. Our family dog Sam is over 14 years old and unwell. She almost died a few months ago. We hope to make her last months as enjoyable as possible.
But in the end Doug and I did not talk about dogs.
Doug was willing to talk to me on a Wednesday, even though his beloved Benji passed away on the Monday. And so we didn’t talk about Benji.
I had hoped the chat might help distract him.
I promised Doug I would re-assemble our lengthy conversation in search of logical connections.
Doug MacNaughton I’ve just got to warn you, that “logical connections” are not part of my being.
BARCZABLOG: (LOL) Are you more like your mom or your dad? Talk about your relationship with your parents and their influence on you.
Doug MacNaughton: I’ve been thinking about this one for ages because there are aspects of both of them that I’ve picked up, for better or worse. So one of the ways I’m more like my mum than my dad, is that my dad was pretty much tone deaf.
So all that was by way of saying, because of growing up on a farm my Dad and my Uncle Peter, they were discouraged from taking up any musical training… Which is particularly funny, because my two aunts Muriel and Lexie both were quite accomplished pianists. And both of them were known to play the organ in church
BARCZABLOG: so speaking of which…. Could you talk about how you found your way, your pedagogical path, perhaps through church singing to: opera? How did you learn music, when did you start? Through church or through school..?
Doug MacNaughton: a bit of both. My first instrument was the recorder in grade 4, which was not uncommon in those days. But I really loved it. And then it was two years later, that I overheard my mom on the phone talking about selling my brother’s trumpet. And I said “don’t do that,… I’ll play it!”
BARCZBLOG: so you have an older brother..(?)
Doug MacNaughton: I had an older brother, yes. He had played the trumpet for a time in high school. He wasn’t playing it, my sister wasn’t playing her clarinet much… So I ended up joining the school band. Now in Brandon—which is where I grew up—they had one big band for the entire city, as opposed to bands in the individual schools.
And I don’t remember when exactly I started church choir. But it was somewhere around Grade 4 or Grade 5.
BARCZABLOG: what church were we talking about? United or Presbyterian?
Doug MacNaughton: Presbyterian… And my parents were both elders in the Presbyterian Church, and took it very very seriously.
BARCZABLOG: so are you still a Presbyterian?
Doug MacNaughton: No, if I’m anything in Christian denominations, my adherence is to the United Church, which is not to say I have any animosity to the Presbyterian Church. It’s just religiously and spiritually I’ve gone from Presbyterian, to a brief Evangelical phase, to an atheism (that varied from mild to quite militant), to coming back around to being a religious person again.
I’m like that with many other institutions. I’m very suspicious of universities…even though a lot of the things I love learning about are taught very well at universities.
BARCZABLOG: I’d love to hear about that.
Doug MacNaughton: We have this tradition particularly your voice lessons or your instrumental lessons, are taught, just with you and the teacher in the same closed room. And that works well as long as long as everything is honest and above board and open, between the teacher and the students. But that very system is just so open to abuse. And that power structure –“I have the knowledge, you don’t have the knowledge” –coupled with, we have this half-hour to an hour session in a closed room once a week. “And let me demonstrate how that’s supposed to work. Can I put my hands on your abdomen? On your rib-cage.”
And so I am fortunate, I’ve never had an uncomfortable session. In the 1980s I worked with someone at Banff who has since been arrested and jailed for his misconduct. I don’t know that any of that was going on at Banff at that time. We’re talking about ’82 – 83. All of this finally came to a crisis point sometime in the last two or three years.
BARCZABLOG so do you see a way? Do you have an ideal framework for music education and pedagogy?
Doug MacNaughton: If there’s a third person in the room, that solves a tremendous amount.
BARCZABLOG: so if the next child is waiting and observing that makes it safe. Wow that’s very clever.
Doug MacNaughton: I’m also a big advocate of recording everything. Teacher X has at least one camera that just gets clicked “on” as soon as the student walks in the room. It’s time-stamped, and everything happens in front of that camera.
BARCZABLOG: Wow. You’re absolutely right.
Doug MacNaughton: now it’s not a universal cure, because I have spoken to say, people who were the pianist for voice teacher “X” and they would talk about how voice teacher X would do these things that were so inappropriate.
BARCZABLOG Oh! So they were enabling it by looking the other way, you mean?
Doug MacNaughton: So that has me immediately thinking: if voice teacher X was doing something inappropriate did you feel you could go somewhere and blow the whistle on this teacher?
BARCZABLOG: there’s a quid pro quo they’re getting paid, so I guess they keep quiet.
Doug MacNaughton: Yeah. I don’t know how much truth there really is behind the anecdote, but my father- in-law was a prof at University of Guelph from ’68 until he took early retirement in the 1990s. And he told this story of one particular student of his who came in wearing a very skimpy outfit. And closed his office door behind her. And he said “no no please leave that open”. And she said “no I want to leave it closed”. He went over and opened it. And she proceeded to give him this whole story of how “I’ll do anything to get a good mark in this course”. He reached down into his desk drawer, he pulled out the reading list, and slapped it on the table. “Start with that. If you have any questions after that, feel free to email me….” And he basically behaved as if he was too dumb to take the hint of her advances. And he did give her the potential of earning a good grade.
BARCZABLOG At times like that, the camera will protect both people. It always does I suppose.
Doug MacNaughton: I’ve thought about this particularly in light of the U of T situation. You almost need for the teacher and student to start out their relationship with some sort of formal declaration, of rights, expectations, responsibilities.
BARCZABLOG yes there are some funny rules at university. Let me shift gears a bit. You’re a man of many talents. Give me a quick version if you were to describe your career and your talent. Who are you, right now?
Doug MacNaughton: So the thing is, the primary thing I do for a living is opera. And on top of opera, as a classical singer –as some people like to call it—that invariably gets you into certain oratorio situations. I’ve done a bit of musical theatre, a few very specific shows, like Les Miserables, like Man of la Mancha, where an operatically trained singer –there are a set of roles—where that singer can fit in quite nicely.
And so I’ve done a certain amount of that. I haven’t done much spoken word theatre but the little I’ve done, I’ve absolutely loved.
BARCZABLOG you seem to be a very good actor. I was very impressed with your work that I saw in Marriage of Figaro, 2016.
Doug MacNaughton: You learn so much from working with actors though their approach can be completely different. One of my dearest friends and mentors is the late Graeme Campbell. Graeme had this reputation. He was an actor’s actor. The work he had done at Stratford: he made everyone onstage look good. And that was the whole thing about him. It’s not an individual sport. It’s a team sport. If you have one great actor and several average actors and one poor actor, the impression of the show is no good. The great actor then has the responsibility of finding a way to lead the less good actors into performing the best they possibly can.
I had an interesting moment during Man of La Mancha at Stirling Festival Theatre. It’s in the nature of that role, Cervantes / Don Quixote: he’s the serious one, and he doesn’t get many laughs. It’s the Sancho Panza who’s getting the laughs, chewing the scenery, and eating up the stage. And there’s a moment where I found myself considering “I gotta have a talk with Jonny (the guy who’s playing Sancho),because he’s stealing all these scenes on me”.
I had to pull myself back and think: no, stealing scenes is his function in this show. That’s what he’s there to do. If you ask him to pull back, you’re asking him to give less than his best. And that’s just not gonna work. What you have to do, oh Doug, is figure out how to steal the scene right back. Use him as a challenge, to get the very best out of yourself. And by the end of it that worked out quite well. It was a revelation.
Doug MacNaughton: Yeah. But that’s me as a “singer-slash-actor”. Then you can throw on, me the instrumentalist, because I’m part of a quartet called Chroì (pronounded “Cri”), and that’s the Irish word for “heart”.
And so there are four of us in this ensemble. Chris Dawes, Jenna Gallagher, Doug MacNaughton and Gord Simmons.
All four of us sing, and we’re all coming at it from a background of being church musicians, which is interesting. So what we do is a pan-celtic band. Four singers, one of whom also plays piano and organ, another of whom is a fiddler, another of whom plays the bodhrán and then there’s me who plays guitars, penny-whistles, Irish flute, Appalachian dulcimer and I guess whatever other instrument we need.
And so we’re pan-celtic in the sense that we’re playing the stuff you’d expect if you’re from Ireland or Scotland or Wales. And there’s the Isle of Man, there’s Cornwall, there’s Bretagne, Galicia in Spain near the Basque region in the North-east corner of Spain. And then there’s what happens in the diaspora, when this music goes to Newfoundland or the Maritimes, or Quebec. Or the Appalachian region of the United States. Or Australia and New Zealand.
And then there’s the question of what happens to this music in the late 20th and early 21st century. Do we remain staunch traditionalists? Like groups such as the Chieftains… They are very concerned with playing the pure version of the music. Whereas other groups will introduce other instruments, introduce more active rhythmic beats. They may explore odd meters. There’s a great trio based in Toronto called Nua. And their bodhrán player is stunning, Jacob McCauley. But yeah they do Celtic music in odd meters like 7/8 or 5/8. It’s fantastic.
BARCZABLOG: so you’ve told me the name of your band. Do you have any recordings?
Doug MacNaughton: no it’s strictly live the whole time.
Hollywood would have you believe that bands are constantly breaking up because of creative differences and incompatible personalities. My personal finding is that bands tend to break up because the members are too busy to get together and rehearse. They’re all good musicians but they can’t make their schedules work to get together. The four of us: it’s all we can do to get together for a rehearsal before we do a gig. Getting together to do enough rehearsals for a recording? Seems to be beyond us.
Well there’s me who’s on his way to New York one of these days. The bodhrán player Gord is now in Vancouver. We haven’t really talked about what we’re going to do since the pandemic. I don’t think any of us are quite ready to give up on it. So we’ll just have to see what happens.
BARCZABLOG you think once you’re in New York, that you’ll look for a new band to associate yourself with?
Doug MacNaughton: (laughter): The Celtic music scene in New York City is pretty active. As long as I’m not losing any money in the process, I’d be happy to come back up and do a few gigs.
BARCZABLOG: you wear multiple hats. You talked about a musical about Raoul Wallenberg.
Doug MacNaughton: That was 1992 and it was at Leah Posluns Theatre, at the JCC on Bathurst. The ones who wrote it are from Philadelphia.
It was a fascinating subject. It was called “Another Kind of Hero”. They wanted to underscore the whole time, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Wallenberg never fired a gun. He never hit anybody. But so many people from Budapest, they got their lives saved because he would issue a Swedish passport to anybody who could show up in his office and get it stamped. Once they were considered Swedish, Sweden being neutral, they couldn’t be deported to the camps. He did face down a Hungarian general toward the very end of the war. He had everybody corralled into one of the ghettos. He was going to open machine gun fire on everybody in that ghetto before the Russians came in. And Raoul Wallenberg came in and stood in front of those guns and said “you cannot do this. If you do this I will make it my life’s goal to have you hanged as a war criminal”. And so he stalled them long enough for the Russians to actually get in town.
Then that’s the craziest part. He actually walked up to the Russians and said “hello my name is Raoul Wallenberg, let me help you with the restoration of the city”. Because he was American as well as Swedish the Russians just said “no you’re a spy, you’re being arrested”. And it’s a testament to Soviet inefficiency. That’s the last we ever saw of him, when he walked up to the Russians. And no one’s quite sure what happened, other than various spottings in various gulags. And since then there has been evidence that he may well have been spying on behalf of the Americans, during his time in Budapest. That being said, you would have thought he was important enough that the Russians couldn’t just take him, and then completely lose track of him. Yet they did.
He has the tremendous honour of the Knesset in Israel, they’ve named him a righteous among the gentiles. There are trees planted in his memory in virtually every Holocaust remembrance park, because it’s a hugely important story to tell, even in the midst of these atrocities, there was someone fighting back.
BARCZABLOG: Talk to me about opera now. I want to ask you…
Doug MacNaughton: it’s a silly way to make a living.
BARCZABLOG: You could say it’s a silly way to make a living….
Doug MacNaughton: with me it’s a weird situation. I’m going to take you back to my high-school. By then I was playing tuba in the brass band, playing guitar in the stage band, I was working on guitar on the side as much as I could, and I wanted to be the next fire-breathing jazz-rock fusion guitar player. I wanted to be John McLaughlin, I wanted to be Steve Howe from Yes or Steve Hackett from Genesis. But when it came time to go to university and I wanted to go to university too, because all my guitar heroes had serious theory and history and musicianship chops, in addition to how good they were at playing. But I barely made it out of high school, because anything that was not written by JRR Tolkien had no interest for me whatsoever. Maybe throw in Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov. All of the stuff I had to read for high school English? I wasn’t into it. So: I got out of there with something like a 52 in English. And so I did get my high school diploma. But it meant that, my local university, Brandon, has a certain obligation to take a certain number of shall we say marginal cases, from the local city. And so I could get in that way. But I couldn’t get in as a guitarist, because I didn’t play classical guitar, and they didn’t have anyone who taught anything other than classical guitar. They also didn’t really have how shall I say, the mindset, the attitude, being 1980, to think there was any form of guitar worth studying at the university level other than classical. So the thing I fell back on was that I’d sung in church choir and high school choir. And I could read music quite well. So I auditioned as a “necktie tenor”, because that’s what I’ve been doing in choirs the whole time. “He’s got kind of a high voice so let’s make him second tenor”. As a soloist, though, no. I was a baritone or a bass. And the fact that my voice lessons were at 8:30 in the morning,… even worse.
BARCZABLOG when did you take your first voice lesson?
Doug MacNaughton: My first voice lesson would have been sometime in January of 1980.
BARCZABLOG: in other words, you were largely self-taught to this point.
Doug MacNaughton: Yes. Certainly as a singer. I had taken some lessons as a guitarist, some lessons on other instruments. But no, I’d never studied voice at all.
BARCZABLOG Would you say that your unorthodox path to opera may have helped you in some ways?
Doug MacNaughton: in some ways certainly. There’s just an inherent eclecticism, to what it takes to be a good operatic performer. You have to have this voice, you have to be able to work in other languages, you have to act at least to the extent that you are convincing in this moment in the show. There may be a dance element to it. There can be other physical aspects to it. For a number of roles it sure doesn’t hurt to have some idea of which end of the sword to hang onto.
BARCZABLOG remind me, were you in the COC Ensemble studio? And when was that
Doug MacNaughton: ‘88 through ‘90
BARCZABLOG: So you came out of university in 84…?
Doug MacNaughton: no, I went to Banff in the summer of ’82. And I loved it. That was my first experience of being onstage in opera. And I get back to Brandon University that fall and I’m looking at, oh I don’t even know what to call it, I’m in two and a half to third year.
And I get a call from Edmonton Opera. They thought we had Paul Massel booked to sing the role of Captain Corcoran in a school tour of HMS Pinafore, and he was not interested in it at all, apparently had made it quite clear. So at the last minute somebody remembered me from Banff, told Irving Guttman and George Cotton about it, and they brought me out to audition. So I took the train out, took the train back, and the Monday I got the phone-call. “You’re in… get in here, your first rehearsal will be tomorrow, and your first performance will be Friday”.
BARCZABLOG Wow just like that.
Doug MacNaughton: And that’s exactly how it worked out. And the following Monday we started the school tour.
BARCZABLOG How big was the tour? How many weeks, how many shows?
Doug MacNaughton: So I think we started in the last week of September and we ran clean through to the end of June. So the other thing was it was similar to the COC ensemble, except if you weren’t doing a small role onstage you were the leader of that part of the chorus.
BARCZABLOG That was something you were probably really good at anyway?
Doug MacNaughton: well I hadn’t done much chorus before. Choir yes, but chorus is a slightly different animal. You have to act and it’s no longer entirely about the blend. You sometimes have to make some pretty big sound. So let me see if I’ve got this one right.. That year was… We did HMS Pinafore and Hansel and Gretel and La Boheme on the tour. I was understudying the father in Hansel and Gretel.
That was Richard Margison’s first witch in Hansel and Gretel. He was my room-mate. I might as well say it before he gets a chance to…We got this two bedroom place at 117th Street. There were the three of us. Richard, and Lettie Snethen who has since left the business and me. And so they got the two bedrooms, we shared the kitchen and the living room. There was a storage closet in that apartment that was about six feet by two feet / three feet wide. So I threw a mat into the bottom and slept in a sleeping bag, and paid them $100 to sleep in a closet. Which of course led to Richard’s saying on an almost daily basis:
“Dougie came out of the closet this morning”.
That first tour was almost nine and a half months. And when we weren’t on the tour we were on the mainstage. That year we did Traviata, Tales of Hoffmann but I wasn’t involved, Puritani, and Girl of the Golden West.
Girl of the Golden West was my mainstage debut with Edmonton Opera, singing the role of Happy.
BARCZABLOG you’d probably look really apt in that opera. Were you as hirsute in those days as you are now?
Doug MacNaughton: In high-school I had shoulder length hair. And I would always have these terrible wispy goaties & moustaches that in retrospect looked more like a cat had shit on my lip than anything else….But yes, eventually the beard & the moustache came in. It’s one of those strange things. When I’m between shows I like to let it go, and let everything grow in. From that people assume that I’m really attached to my facial hair and long hair.
It’s a show. Just like with this Barber of Seville even though it’s just a concert performance. you can’t have a guy with a beard long enough to lose a badger in. The shaving scene now makes no sense. He’s still got that honking beard. I took the beard off for that. But I did leave the hair. They said “it almost looks like a powdered wig”.
Doug MacNaughton: sure. The thing I loved about that Quebec performance, we were still under the COVID protocol. We got away with singing unmasked but we had to remain six feet away. That immediately means that in the shaving scene you have to have this strange mime situation. Because you can’t have his hand close enough to you that it’s plausible that he’s shaving you with a razor.
BARCZBLOG: Yes that was very strange….Thank you for explaining.
Doug MacNaughton: the set consisted of that checkerboard pattern on the floor. That was it. Everything else was mime. Opera singers do not necessarily study mime. When you’re six feet away from someone (the COVID protocol), the most disciplined form of mime I can do? I’m miming that I’m holding this pencil. I hold it out, and you reach out at the same time. We’re still six feet apart. The moment you take the pencil and I let go of the pencil have to coincide. Otherwise the imaginary pencil has dropped to the floor. Learning the precision of that timing is really challenging.
The fun thing for me about that production: I showed up with a whole bunch of ideas. And Iran them past our director. This is my favorite way of working. I have made a whole bunch of choices, and I present you with those choices. At the end of that rehearsal you say “I like this, I like this, I’d like to suggest a change with this other thing…” That’s how we meet up. At times I’m deliberately doing things that are a bit much, but that’s partly because I want to find out where your limits are, in terms of taste. So for example, this is a thing I will do every time with Bartolo unless someone tells me otherwise. I think it’s hysterical that he’s a medical doctor, in the 18th century, and he’s germa-phobic. So every time someone touched me I mimed pulling a little bottle of hand sanitizer out of my pocket and washing my hands. And then when the Count says “I’m also a doctor” and explains “I’m the veterinarian for the regiment”. And so I play it, that I just got embraced by some guy who touches horses all the time!?”
And so to me that’s the whole game, right? You can’t depend on the director to give you everything, because there’s not enough time for that.
BARCZABLOG: you’re supposed to show up with something, that’s why they hired you, you have creativity.
Doug MacNaughton: In every role. It’s better to make a bad choice and play it and find out the hard way. But if you don’t commit to a choice you’ll never know whether it’s good or bad. And those choices define your portrayal. My Bartolo is different from Peter Strummer’s or Allan Monk’s because we’ve all come from different backgrounds. As long as our choices are strong… Okay that’s what makes Doug’s Bartolo his.
BARCZABLOG so how do you feel about the future of opera, given how much of it has been virtual?
Doug MacNaughton: That concerns me a lot. I’m not sure that everybody gets why the live is so much better. I’m sorry if that sounds like an elitist way of putting it. I don’t mean it to come across as elitist.
BARCZABLOG I don’t think it sounds elitist. But let’s unpack it a bit. What is missing when it’s the computer screen or your phone, that I get if it’s live?
Doug MacNaughton: The thing is, you don’t have the same impression of the person 100 yards away is singing and you are hearing it where you are sitting. It gets put onto a soundtrack but all that impressive work under a really good conductor and with a really good composer. They can give the impression that the voice is a lot louder than it really is by framing it.
This is by the way why Wozzeck is one of my favorite operas of all time. That’s a huge orchestra, at least 110 pieces if you do the full version. But he only uses that full orchestra for the interludes between the scenes, and for that magnificent symphony after the drowning scene. Under the singers you rarely have more than five or six instruments playing at a time. I say rarely because the fugue in Act II scene ii : that’s loud.
BARCZABLOG Have you actually sung performances of this opera?
Doug MacNaughton: Yes. I alternated the role of Wozzeck and the 2nd Apprentice (but we called him “the Colonel”). It was in Banff in ’95, that was John Rea’s reduced orchestration. I did Mischa Aster’s production of Wozzeck/Woyzeck at the Bathurst St Theatre. This was for his fledgling company Theatre of Ideas. That was September of 2001, for four or five performances. I remember I was looking for a review of it, the day after we opened, and I was frustrated that the internet was so messed up. And finally someone said “you should really check the news today”.
That was September 11th 2001.
BARCZABLOG oh wow. Was there a review?
Doug MacNaughton: there was a review in the Globe (and you can read it here: ) I was singing the Captain and the Doctor. So you’ve got one of the most extreme character tenor parts, and one of the most extreme character bass parts. And I had to do them both. And I had to spend a lot of time talking to myself, because we did the fugue in Act II scene ii and well, I’m two of the three characters involved.
BARCZABLOG: were you playing it for comic effect, or…(?)
Doug MacNaughton: he wanted it to be as serious as the play merits. He wanted to combine elements from the play and elements from the opera. And doing that he made the very strong but very difficult choice, that Wozzeck would be as inarticulate as possible. So Wozzeck was almost a mute, frustrated in his inability to communicate. But he never communicated from than a few words in a row.
BARCZABLOG: so if I understand correctly, this production used some of the Berg opera? Or all of it?
Doug MacNaughton: we used all of the Berg opera in that reduced orchestration. For example the big aria “Wie arme leut”. You heard the orchestral accompaniment, but you didn’t hear the melody. You heard this actor hitting himself, (Doug makes noises of the inarticulate Wozzeck). It was quite moving. It wasn’t the opera really but Mischa had read George Steiner’s The Death of Tragedy, and like Steiner was absolutely convinced that Berg had made a huge mistake in making Wozzeck articulate. And so he reversed that “mistake”.
And then I also did Wozzeck for COC in 2006. I was both the understudy for Wozzeck and for the Doctor. I don’t know what we would have done if I would have had to go on for both those roles… (!) We would have figured something out.
Me and digital technology: it will never be peace between us. I think back to the merry days when I started out in electronic music. It was with a TEAC four track and a Revox two track. And an ARP 2600. And that was the equipment that I had. “Edit” meant demagnetizing a razor blade and physically cutting the tape and then splicing it together. And I loved it. I adapted quite nicely to that. But this modern era of using wavepad or Acid or Logic to edit your stuff, and I’m just …. Oh no. Ten minutes into it, and I’m ready to kill somebody. “Nooooo…!!! I just erased you!!!”
BARCZABLOG Oh dear. So, do you have any stories you want to tell? You’ve worked with some great people. Do you have any Richard Bradshaw stories?
Doug MacNaughton: I’m actually astonished that he died. He was so much larger than life. Among my favorite Richard Bradshaw stories, he was notorious while he was fund-raising for the Four Seasons Centre. He would go for these long multiple bottle of wine lunches with various patrons, to try to talk them into donating to the ballet- opera house. But it was beyond that. For instance there was the time he was out to lunch at Biagio with someone. And he talked someone into giving a $300,000.00 donation. And they shook hands on it. And then he says “I hope you’ll excuse me for a moment but I must make this call”. And he took out this early cell-phone (he didn’t like cellphones much), and he called somebody else. And he says “hello!? Yes, it’s Richard! I’m just out here for lunch with _” (whoever it was) ”and I have to say he’s making you look TERRIBLE! You look like such a cheapskate right now. He’s giving me $300,000.00! You’ve only given … oh what is it? not even six figures! You’re going to have to step up.” And he would get away with that. He could take you out for dinner and the wine would flow and the anecdotes would too. And he made all of those patrons feel like their contribution was massive. For many of them it was. It was a combination of things. He needed to raise the money? Okay. He’s out there raising the money. He made everybody feel their contribution was so important. And he got the buzz about the opera house. All of these wealthy patrons trading Richard Bradshaw stories, what happened when he took THEM to dinner.
BARCZABLOG : What’s your favorite opera?
Doug MacNaughton: Wozzeck is gonna be in there, that’s a definite.
There’s a thing about how it’s done nowadays. Just about everyone eliminates the act breaks, and you’ve got a 90 minute show. That’s short movie-length. But I like the palate-cleanser of the total silence. And Berg did this, where the music that ends the First Act, begins Act Two.And I don’t think you’ll ever hear the second act as a symphony if it’s not a unit unto itself. If it’s sandwiched directly between the first and last acts you lose that.I think in terms of where you’re at, when the act ends, it’s good to have the breaks between acts. But that’s not the modern aesthetic…And without act breaks, it turns into something you want to get over with. I don’t like feeling that way, even when it’s a long honking show.
BARCZABLOG What do you think of directors theatre / Regietheater? In a nutshell..?
Doug MacNaughton: When it works it’s brilliant. It’s just the length of the work is such that it doesn’t always work all the way through. And when it doesn’t work all the way through? it doesn’t work. This is not exclusively an operatic question, right? You get this in Shakespeare too.
I’m coming from a Looney Tunes sensibility on a lot of these things. There’s something wonderful about Looney Tunes. No one’s caring about the anachronisms. No one’s caring about the reversed logic, like “where did he get the anvil?” It doesn’t matter where he got the anvil. The anvil just appears. You just kind of roll with that. If we’re gonna go with this Regietheater stuff I wanna see more of that kind of sensibility, that clown sensibility. He just happens to have a bucket of water right there…And when he throws it it’s glitter, we’re straight into Ringling Brothers. Cirque du Soleil.
One of my favorite versions of the William Tell overture is the one by Spike Jones.
Carl Stalling was the music director and had a fantastic imagination. Carl would be at story-board meetings, and would be, you know looking like he’s not paying any attention but every now and then they’d say something about the story and he’d giggle and he’d write a note.
And they got in the habit of saying “okay Carl, what was that?”
“Oh you just said ‘picnic’ so I just thought I’d work in eight bars of ‘Sunday a sandwich and you’ at that point”.
“Okay that’s perfect, have you got the rights?
“It won’t be a problem.”
The number of places where there’s the music from Tannhaüser at one point in one of them.
There’s the great moment in What’s Opera, Doc”. [And Doug then does a spot-on Elmer Fudd singing…] “Oh Bwunnhilde, you’re so wove-wy”.
BARCZABLOG I asked you what is your favorite opera, but who is your favorite singer? It doesn’t have to be an opera singer, but if it is, that would be cool….
Doug MacNaughton: Well my favorite classical singer is Thomas Quasthoff. A huge part of that is his eclecticism and diversity.
BARCZABLOG so is there a particular performance that you listen to?
Doug MacNaughton: I look him up on YouTube all the time. And it doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s him singing Dichterliebe or Winterreise or whether it’s him singing some of the Bach arias, or whether it’s him doing jazz. Absolute 100% there. There was a beautiful thing out, it was like a trailer, for a concert that he did with Bobby McFerrin. And that was the thing. There have been other singers who have said “I wanna sing some jazz”. And it’s not always successful. He said “I’m going to call up Bobby McFerrin and work with him for awhile. And,“okay you do that”. The two of them got along like a house on fire.
It’s an unfortunate thing for singers. As we’re coming up through the ranks our biggest influences are universities and the church. So when you sign up as a first-year voice major at whatever university, and the first thing you think of for a dayjob is “oh, I should get a church gig, as a soloist / sub / section leader. ” Well that’s okay, so you do that. But the thing about churches and universities, both, is they take themselves painfully seriously. And their structures are quite rigid and bureaucratic, it’s rigidified. You end up with these people who are used to performing, in situations where they’re scared shitless of doing anything wrong, because if they do they’re going to fuck up the ritual, or they’re going to fuck up the grandeur of this educational institution. Do you honestly think that the church has never had somebody who walks to the front with The Bible, who trips and drops it. Well of course that happens. It’s natural. I’ve seen so many university level performances, where something goes wrong onstage –and it’s going to—but they get this deer in the headlights look and they don’t do what they just naturally do in real life.
Like an incident I had just two months ago. I’m on a Zoom call with a friend, and I’m telling them about this painting, that a friend of mine in Québec gave me. And I turn the computer to show the painting. And the power supply of the computer catches the bottom of my wineglass. And so the wineglass tips a little bit toward the computer. So I make a grab for it. I don’t manage to catch it, but at least I don’t let it spill on the computer or the painting. But what then happens is the entire contents of this wineglass spray the wall and the bookshelf with red wine, which then dribbles all over the six guitar cases that are sitting there on the floor and into the carpet, the rug that’s there. I basically have to hang up the call, and for the next hour and a half I’m finding wine everywhere.
BARCZABLOG was it good wine?
Doug MacNaughton: yes…. That’s what happens in real life, and that’s how you deal with it. But if you’re in an opera performance and you spill the glass of wine and try to ignore it because you were too scared to deal with it…(?). The audience notices. The scene becomes about this glass of wine, all over the floor and why isn’t he dealing with it (?) rather than whatever you thought was more important than the glass of wine.
This is an old Allan Monk wine story, oh it will be from ’87 or ’88. We’re doing Rigoletto and Allan Monk is Rigoletto. And we’re just coming up to “Cortigiani”. And everybody’s got a honking big sword on their hip and everybody’s got a crappy hard glass goblet from Honest Ed’s in their other hand. And someone takes an unexpected step back and someone takes an unexpected step forward and a wine meets the pommel of one of those swords. Crashhhhh! Broken glass everywhere. And we’re coming up to “Cortigiani.”
And Allan Monk looks at the wineglass all over the floor and you see the wheels turning, and he realizes, that wineglass is exactly where Gilda was going to come out in her almost see-through nighty and get thrown onto the floor: into a pile of broken glass.
So on his feet, he changes the staging. He pulls everyone further downstage, further right, he whispers to a couple of guys “you stand over there, the stage-hands can sweep that and won’t be seen”. In the middle of “Cortigiani” he’s doing everything he can to steal the focus, which, you know, it should be on him anyway. A couple of guys come out, they sweep up the whole thing. They take the stick roller to it so there are no minute particles of glass. And: Gilda comes out, gets thrown down there. Not a problem at all.
That’s thinking on your feet. Because of what he had coming up, he would have every excuse to say “no I can’t deal with that: because I gotta sing cortigiani in 30 seconds”. But that was never how Allan Monk ever thought. He was a huge influence to me: how to integrate your acting to your singing.
Well here’s another Allan Monk one, where Tales of Hoffmann, somebody came out, and this is the first act. He’s got this thing that looks like a braid of garlic except they’re all eyes. But one of the eyes fell off. And so there’s this eye rolling around the stage. And once again. Allan Monk sees the eye. Realizes how easy it would be for someone to slip on that, so he gauges to himself “where are we in relation to the wings?” And he walks to just stage right of it, and he kicks it. Boom, he kicks it straight into the wings, right between the curtains. I wanted the stagehand to come out and you know, raise his hands to signal “touchdown”.
Nobody in the audience would have noticed that. But my goodness, somebody would have noticed if Olympia had taken a tumble because she stepped on an eye. You’re always thinking about what you gotta do, your relationship to your fellow characters, about the reality of the set. But at the same time, you’re thinking “is there anything wrong onstage”, and “can I be the one to fix it.” And maybe you can’t, maybe it’s somebody else. And this is the thing, that’s really scary to see in these university age people, they drop a sword and it rolls a bit. If you dropped a sword in real life, you’d pick the damn thing up. Or you’d step on it so somebody else can’t pick it up. Or whatever.
We took this in clown. I studied clown with John Turner. Not the Prime Minister, the clown.
He talked about things going wrong onstage as being gifts of the gods. If there’s a sound that no one was expecting. You’re just about to say this line, and: a car goes “whoosh”. And everybody in the theatre hears it. Well you can’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Because it’s part of your shared reality. So in the course of the clown show, you react to that sound, in whatever in-character way you can come up with. And you go on with what you’re doing. If you try to ignore it like it never happened: that never works because everybody knows it happened.
Thinking too of Bill Hutt at Stratford. The year I worked at Stratford I was just one of the gentlemen from Japan in The Mikado. That was the year Albert Millaire directed Imaginary Invalid. And William Hutt was Argan, and oh my God between the two of them, it was magnificent. Bill Hutt just went to town on it, and Albert Millaire was clearly working with a kindred spirit.
BARCZABLOG: a question I love to ask a seasoned performer like yourself: if you could advise a young performer, is there anything you would tell them? Besides “become a doctor”..?
Doug MacNaughton: (in horror movie voice) “oh-h-h-h-h turn back!!…. oh-h-h-h-h turn back!!”
No it’s amazing between the present day and when I started out. So my first professional gig: it got me my Equity card. It was a nine and a half month tour.
And: nobody does that anymore. Even a big company like the Canadian Opera Company? The Ensemble might do a tour for four to five weeks. Maximum. And it’s a number of things, right? The interest isn’t necessarily there. The sponsorship money isn’t there. And so, this is another side thing. I’ve been a member of the Elmer Iseler Singers for, oh we’re coming on two years now. And I started in September of 2018. And those tours and that gig that used to be, that was pretty much a living. And it’s just not the case anymore.
BARCZABLOG it’s become more expensive to live in Toronto. The last year and a half have been insane of course.
Doug MacNaughton: I’m not even counting the last year though. I don’t think we’ve done a tour with the Iselers that lasted more than ten days. I remember in the old days. Do you remember Opera Piccola? And it was mostly an excuse for Leopold Simoneau and PIerrette Alarie to have something to do in the summer, on Vancouver Island. They’d get everybody together, you’d rehearse for four weeks, and the tour would then start in Victoria, and you’d go all the way to the east coast. And you had nine months of living out of a suitcase.
BARCZABLOG But I guess you didn’t go on those
Doug MacNaughton: No…
BARCZABLOG The COC at one time had their tour, going around in Canada, but haven’t done that since the 1970s. I guess when they stopped, Edmonton Opera stepped in, as opera in Canada became regional, and indeed the country became more regional. At one time it was just Toronto & Montreal, but then we had more and more artistic centres across the country.
Doug MacNaughton: One of the challenges is that, in the Western cities, the art-form itself can be a bit of a sell. But it’s interesting if you look at all the opera companies in Canada and you say “who’s got the most world premieres”.
BARCZABLOG I would guess Victoria.
Doug MacNaughton: It would be Calgary. Calgary under Bob McPhee did something like eight or ten. I’d have to go through the archives and count them all up.
Victoria with Tim Vernon is up there, but the world premieres have been in the last few years. I love Tim Vernon’s whole working method.
BARCZABLOG Yes I assumed it would be Tim Vernon (Victoria), I never guessed it could be Calgary. Thanks, always grateful to be educated.
Doug MacNaughton: They did the first Philomena. They did the first of every other opera by John Estacio. I do believe there was a strange one where Bramwell Tovey’s opera premiered in Calgary not Vancouver. And the same time, somebody else’s opera was premiering in Vancouver. Bob (McPhee) had a real commitment.
BARCZABLOG Things were so active out west because we seemed to be stuck in Toronto. There’s a lot of talent in this country and it has to go somewhere.
Doug MacNaughton: And I’m surprised there isn’t more in Montreal but L’Opera de Montreal is a way more conservative company. Bernard Uzan was very very strict. They were just doing the traditional shows, in traditional stagings. And doing them for a minimum expense. The company did fairly well out of it.
BARCZABLOG It can work for awhile, but does it build your audience?
Doug MacNaughton: And as Tim Vernon said to Bernard Uzan, “Bernard, there is an artisticdeficit. You can have a fiscal deficit. But you run an artistic deficit if you play too safe.” And that’s the thing I love about Tim’s programming ideas.
BARCZABLOG I wondered if there is anything of yours that I can share in the interview.
Doug MacNaughton: There’s my own album Guitarias. So the first eight songs on Guitarias are all pieces that I commissioned. And the second half of it is a piece by John Rutter. It’s his only composition for solo voice. And he wrote it for solo voice and guitar. And he never wrote it with the intention that it would be played and sung by the same person.
That’s been my mission, with that whole Guitarias project, to expand what voice and guitar means in classical terms.
BARCZABLOG Could you see yourself doing this as a one-man show on a stage?
Doug MacNaughton: Oh I’d love to. And now what I’d do in putting it together that would be different, is that I’d take the kind of format from the “live from the backseat” concerts, which is to intersperse… You sing and play a song and then you either tell an anecdote or you read a poem, and then you do a different song.
Because of the nature of voice with guitar it’s kind of interesting to alternate between classical pieces for voice and guitar, and contemporary pieces for voice and guitar.
My overhead is fairly low. My guitarist is an asshole. (laughter)
And I love that whole aspect of things, where you’re not really stuck in one form or one thing that you do. One of the pieces I wrote last summer, and it’s an extended pop song called “Father Knows Best”. In the opening I had the twelve string guitar tuned in such a way that I could play a two-chord progression just using my right-hand fingers. So it was just a question off which strings I selected out of the twelve to play at any point. And I then played an alto recorder with my left hand at the same time.
BARCZABLOG that sounds really difficult.
Doug MacNaughton: And these days most people would say “why didn’t you just put the guitar on a looper, and then play the recorder with both hands?”
BARCZABLOG But that’s the thing about live performance.
Doug MacNaughton: well there are those who play their loopers well enough to be able to do it in live performance.
But from there the song morphed into something about what it was like to be a kid in the backseat of the car with my dad, driving at night, and I’m falling asleep. And just the idea that I’ve never felt so secure as I felt in those moments.
It gets heavily into my relationship with my dad, how he was such a traditional fellow. And it kind of takes it through my experience as a teenager driving, being a grownup driving with my own son in the backseat, and how it’s a completely different experience. I might have felt secure. He didn’t..I sure don’t feel secure with my kids in the back. I’m twice as hyped up about morons trying to run me off the road.
BARCZABLOG So is there anything else I should know about you?
Doug MacNaughton: I’m mostly harmless.
BARCZABLOG you’re having fun, I can see that. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I think that’s maybe the key
Doug MacNaughton: And if I remember, if I’m not mistaken the night we did that Winterreise at the Lula Lounge I ended up talking to you for like ten or fifteen minutes, before the actual show began. (my review… )
BARCZABLOG speaking of nights that were magic, but broke the rules
Doug MacNaughton: but it broke the rules in a really caring committed way.
BARCZABLOG there was a structure to it. Like any good poem, it wasn’t chaotic. It still had lots of order.
Doug MacNaughton: it was funny because I remember, while it was September, it was one of those days when the payphones were melting in the streets. And you stepped into the lounge and it was air conditioned. And the air conditioning and the ambient temperature were locked in a permanent struggle.
BARCZABLOG that was a once in a lifetime moment. I hope those guys are gonna do more stuff.
Doug MacNaughton: I hope so too, but Aaron is moving on to civilian life, it would seem. He will do the odd gig. But I’ve seen so many young performers get discouraged. This is something I would say to any young singer. It’s very tempting to go from your high school to you undergrad, from your undergrad to your Masters and from your Masters to a PhD: all in one nice smooth flow. And if what you want to do is to become some sort of academic teacher slash prof then that’s not a bad path. But you know, when you’ve finished a Masters of Music but you’ve never been onstage in a professional show in your life it’s just not right. It’s not going to be a good way of working.
BARCZABLOG I think that’s very polite what you’re saying. You’re pointing to one of the real weaknesses of music education right now. I could talk your ear off about this…
Doug MacNaughton: there’s something wonderful about someone not quite knowing what they’re doing, and doing it anyway. Fortunately all the people who might spy on me or do surveillance… they just got tired of doing it.
BARCZABLOG good idea! And now you’re free to live your life as you see fit.
Doug MacNaughton: oh yeah. I’m the sum total of my various mentors and influences.
BARCZABLOG: Is there a mentor or influence that you’d care to name, who is the most important? Or mention a few.
Doug MacNaughton: I’m going to have to. Someone who was a huge influence on me was my good friend Graeme Campbell. He was such a great influence during the days of Les Mis. I formed a number of really close friendships in the course of that show. My friend David Nairn, the Artistic Director of Theatre Orangeville, he and I first met during that show. My friend Jimmy Selman, who’s now out of the business. But I was his understudy when we met in 1990. And they were huge influences, not only in terms of your performing life onstage, your acting chops, but also in terms of your personal life, stuff you do onstage is huge it’s big it’s massive it’s grand, but your real life is just real life. It’s ordinary. Your dog doesn’t care. Your dog is “oh you’re home. It’s time for a walk”.
BARCZABLOG So you were in the production of Les Mis that was in Toronto at the Royal Alex conducted by Derek Bate around 1990? Or somewhere else?
Doug MacNaughton: I started in 1990. Derek Bate was our main conductor. Just after we closed in Toronto, I did the first national tour, that was Calgary, Vancouver, Anchorage Alaska.
BARCZABLOG And what role or roles were you playing?
Doug MacNaughton: For that first part I was Combeferre, who’s best known as the student with the glasses. We did the remount in Toronto in 1991 and again I was Combeferre (we opened in May or June) up until October, and then I went up to be Enjolras, which is a role I had understudied. And this is a pat myself on the back moment. I was the first Canadian Enjolras to survive a contract change.
BARCZABLOG excuse me? (from my voice it was clear to Doug that I didn’t understand the significance… And no I didn’t)
Doug MacNaughton: Just about everybody else, they did that contract and then it was always like “thank you, see you!” And I was the first one to get re-engaged.
BARCZABLOG is it because the role is hard, or people are worn out by it?
Doug MacNaughton: It’s just that the role is hard. This is a very typical music-theatre thing. Your job security depends entirely on your ability to hit a G-sharp at the end of the ABC Café scene. So when Gavroche comes in and says “General Lamarque is dead”. And everybody is really bummed. Enjolras picks it up and says “aha. (Doug singing softly) Lamarque is dead. Larmarque his death is the sign we await” And you plow through this page of high E’s. And at the end of it you have to go up to a G-sharp.. So if you’ve given too much, you’re up a gum-tree, you won’t make the G-sharp.
BARCZABLOG you’re a curious animal. You call yourself a baritone, but you’re cleverly able to sing tenor stuff. Or I guess you’d still call a G-sharp baritone.
Doug MacNaughton: Well Figaro in Barber of Seville has got to have an A. No two ways around it. Pelléas has got to have an A.
And if you’re into that bari-tenor operetta repertoire, that Bill Silva loves so much? All of those leads: Eisenstein, Danilo, all those cats in those operettas that I barely know, they’ve all got to have Gs and As. And you’ve got to be able to hit them often. So in terms of that, Fledermaus ought to be one of my favorite operas, because I’ve done all the roles that it’s possible for me to do.
I’ve done Doctor Blind I’ve done Eisenstein, I’ve done Falke, I’ve done Frank and I’ve done Frosch.
BARCZABLOG the grand slam?!!
Doug MacNaughton: Yes.
BARCZABLOG And while there were things Doug couldn’t permit me to announce at the time of our conversation, I can at least mention as of Monday August 16th, his inclusion in the COC’s fall season. Doug will be Maestro Spinelloccio in the virtual Gianni Schicchi coming in October.
Nope in a few weeks it will be opera season, and not just in Toronto. Thank goodness we don’t have to hear Elmer Fudd try to say “opera season”.
That’s right, they really will be shooting the opera..!
Not with guns.
But with video cameras. That’s how it will be possible to watch the COC from coast to coast, indeed anywhere in the world.
And yet, maybe it’s more accurate to call it election season. The Liberals are running for re-election. The news broadcasts are full of talking heads, politicians announcing new programs.
And that means there are also going to be the inevitable attack ads.
No wonder that I feel that the Canadian Opera Company’s fall opera season is caught in the crossfire.
Not literally I hope.
Perryn Leech is the new General Director of the COC, taking over in the midst of a pandemic that has devastated the lives of artists and performing arts companies all over the world.
If you read the press release from the COC announcing their fall seasons, you can’t help but notice how the role of General Director is political at this delicate time. On the one hand there’s the audience, especially the donors and subscribers. On the other, you have to literally reconcile this on a balance sheet. There are artists who have lost most or all of their fees since March 2020. The COC Orchestra, the backstage staff, the singers: all wonder about the future, how they can pay their bills. When the offerings are offered entirely free of charge you wonder: how much money will it cost?
As an opera fan, as a COC subscriber, I am enormously grateful for the choices made by the COC and by their new General Director.
CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY CONNECTS ARTISTS AND AUDIENCES THROUGH FREE, DIGITAL PROGRAMMING
Purpose-produced fall lineup features monthly offerings recorded at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, including new production of Gianni Schicchi Toronto – The Canadian Opera Company is reuniting artists and audiences with an exciting, performancepacked fall for 2021/2022: A Season Like No Other. Regular monthly offerings combine opera classics, renowned and emerging voices, as well as new commissions and innovative community collaborations that will be available for six months from the date of each premiere. In a company first, programming can be accessed from coast to coast to coast – and beyond –through the launch of a major digital streaming initiative and new, free digital membership.
“Getting singers, instrumentalists, craftspeople, technicians, and creative teams back into the opera house and creating new work is a major milestone,” says COC General Director Perryn Leech. “This is an important first step in paving the way toward the next stage in the recovery and return of live opera: welcoming our audiences back into the opera house as soon as it is safe to do so.”
“Being able to perform again from our stage is a wonderful moment of celebration and we’re thrilled to be able to share that with as many people as possible through digital streaming and our exciting new membership program,” continues Leech. “We want to make it easier than ever to sample what we do for the first time or go back and rediscover something new in a favourite piece of music.”
INTRODUCING THE COC DIGITAL MEMBERSHIP The COC’s new digital membership is an all-access pass to the company’s fall programming with year-round membership perks that include: New digital programming released every month at coc.ca/watch Insights and backstage stories from this season’s artists and creators Priority ticket access to COC’s in-person performances and events, when these resume Current COC supporters and subscribers will automatically have the membership applied to their accounts, in addition to their existing benefits. New members can sign up now at coc.ca/stream.
2021 FALL PROGRAMMING The curtain rises on the magnificent Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on September 25, 2021 with In Concert: Russell Braun and Tamara Wilson with the COC Orchestra. The evening features one of Canada’s best-loved opera stars, baritone Russell Braun alongside internationally acclaimed American soprano Tamara Wilson. The two are reunited with COC Music Director Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra in a lovingly curated program of iconic arias and orchestral pieces from Verdi, Bizet, Wagner, and Puccini, among others. The concert will also feature Wilson’s first public performance of the “Liebestod,” the climactic finale of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
On October 30, 2021, the COC presents Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, in a new production directed by Amy Lane with music led by Italian conductor Jader Bignamini with the COC Orchestra. In this lighthearted and brilliantly paced comedy, a Florentine family mourns the death of patriarch Buoso Donati – but the tears are all for show until they learn they’ve been cut from the will. British baritone Roland Wood takes on the role of schemer Gianni Schicchi, and rising South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park makes her COC debut as Lauretta, performing one of Puccini’s most recognizable, show-stopping arias, “O mio babbino caro.” The strong Canadian cast includes: mezzo-soprano Megan Latham, bass-baritone Thomas Goerz, tenor Andrew Haji, and tenor David Curry, among many others.
On November 13, 2021, the COC presents contemporary Afro-Cuban roots and jazz group, OKAN in selections from their latest JUNO Award-winning album, Espiral. Taking their name from the word for “heart” in the AfroCuban religion of Santeria, this women-led ensemble performs songs about immigration, courage, and love. Espiral delves deeper into the group’s rich Cuban roots while also drawing upon the multicultural mosaic of Toronto, which principal members Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne now call home. The concert is a celebration of the larger scope of vibrant and diverse programming typically showcased in the COC’s beloved Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Presented by TD Bank Group.
As the year draws to a close, the COC partners with Against the Grain Theatre for Mozart’s Requiem on November 27, 2021. Following the profound impact of COVID-19, this multidisciplinary presentation of Mozart’s astonishingly moving work offers a powerful moment of healing and renewal. Incorporating interviews with frontline workers and community members directly affected by the pandemic, this interpretation connects individual stories of loss and resilience to the sonic world of Mozart’s heartbreakingly beautiful piece. The concert features Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, as well as current and graduate artists from the COC’s Ensemble Studio, showcasing the next generation of local opera talent. COC Music Director Johannes Debus leads the COC Orchestra, and Price Family Chorus Master Sandra Horst leads the COC Chorus in this stirring ensemble performance.
Finally, the COC marks the change in seasons with In Winter on December 18, 2021. The concert features the world premiere of a new commission by Métis and French-Canadian composer Ian Cusson and the company’s full artistic ensemble will be on display for this winter celebration. In Winter merges instantly recognizable pieces, such as Vivaldi’s exhilarating “Winter” section from his famous Four Seasons with classic songbook selections like “Deck the Halls.” Cusson’s “In Winter” is a meditative piece for chorus and orchestra that sets text by Métis writer Katherena Vermette to original music, and featured performers include: Métis soprano Melody Courage in a COC debut, the COC Orchestra under COC Music Director Johannes Debus, the COC Chorus led by Price Family Chorus Master Sandra Horst, as well as artists of the COC Ensemble Studio.
Throughout the fall, the COC presents the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre: City Sessions, Presented by TD Bank Group. These short, digital performances continue the spirit of the company’s popular and long-standing concert series; recordings will take place in the Isadore and Rosalie Sharp City Room at the Four Seasons Centre, the iconic, glass-enclosed space connecting the building to its surroundings and community. City Sessions support Toronto’s cultural ecosystem with much-needed performance opportunities and provide a globally inspired, locally focused array of artists with a platform to share music and stories that resonate with them. All performances will be available on the COC’s social channels, beginning in October.
For further cast and creative team information, please visit coc.ca/2122.
All repertoire, dates, productions, and casting are subject to change without notice.
ABOUT THE CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY Based in Toronto, the Canadian Opera Company is the largest producer of opera in Canada and one of the largest in North America. General Director Perryn Leech joined the company in 2021, forming a leadership team with Music Director Johannes Debus and Deputy General Director Christie Darville. The COC enjoys a loyal audience, including a dedicated base of subscribers, and has an international reputation for artistic excellence and creative innovation. Its diverse repertoire includes new commissions and productions, local and international collaborations with leading opera companies and festivals, and attracts the world’s foremost Canadian and international artists.
The COC Academy is an incubator for the future of the art form, nurturing Canada’s new wave of opera creators with customized training and support. The COC performs in its own opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, hailed internationally as one of the finest in the world. For more information, visit coc.ca
“Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment
Toronto Summer Music’s 2021 Festival season concludes this weekend.
In a year when theatre, opera & classical music have mostly been clinging to a precarious life through online presentations, this year’s festival was certainly a bit different, mixing vimeo links with the pleasant surprise of the first in-person concerts most of us have seen in over a year, offered at Grace Church on-the-Hill. The venue observes the now familiar public health procedures one experiences when we go to a doctor or dentist, such as a contact questionnaire (name, email address, queries about any symptoms we might have, and who we might have recently encountered), taking our temperatures, and with the enforcement of a reduced seating capacity, socially distanced and masked. These simple protocols have the by-product of reminding us how lucky we are to live in a country where the social contract is strong, where few have tantrums about the small sacrifices we’re asked to make in the interest of hygiene. In the absence of a church service or the ministers, these small rituals remind us to be grateful for what we have.
Last time as mentioned I was very fortunate to sit close to Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu making music. Today I had a different perspective, further back and to the side: but still wonderfully intimate. This time the audience (some in front, some behind me) and their response were a big part of what I saw and heard. Last time I was so intent upon the performance I more or less ignored the audience except when I heard them clap. I remember a semiotician (semiotics being the study of signs and symbols) arguing that the concert is really begun with the arrival of an audience, and that the performance is in some sense a response to our action. If you recall that old saying –“if a branch falls in the forest and no one hears it, is there a sound?”—one might be tempted to modify it slightly to ask: “if music is played without an audience, is there a concert?” I think one can argue that the answer is no, particularly when we remember the part played by supporters & donors in making concert series happen. Showing up to listen is not as passive as one might think, especially when it’s the first time in awhile that we’ve had the experience. I took in the breathing, the physical sounds, the silence in the moments between movements and the suspenseful seconds before applause. It’s especially interesting watching the faces of Crow and Chiu right after a performance, enjoying this cycle of communication between us and them.
The program was as follows: Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.4 in A minor, Op.23 Gavin Fraser – like years, like seconds [World Première, TSM Commission] Ludwig van Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No.10 in G Major, Op.96
It may be a cliché to say this, but Jonathan Crow wears a lot of hats. He’s the Toronto Symphony’s concertmaster and the artistic director of Toronto Summer Music festival, stepping forward to comment on the music we’re hearing at each concert, while thanking donors and talking about the mission of the festival. Even as a violinist Crow has multiple roles, when I recall that in addition to opportunities like today’s to hear him play chamber music, sometimes he leads his section of the TSO, sometimes playing a solo emerging from the orchestral texture, as for instance in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and occasionally the concerto soloist. There are different sorts of violin sound, different approaches to ensemble playing and blending that call for varied approaches. The multiple demands of Crow’s different personas will push him to grow as an artist. Just as I had a different view watching Crow and Chiu obliquely from my pew further back today, similarly we see the music and the musicians differently in chamber music than in the higher-profile Symphony appearances. And they likely see themselves and hear themselves in new ways.
It’s counter-intuitive that Sonata # 4, the earlier of today’s two sonatas, is the edgier work, every movement including some unorthodox choices. In Wednesday’s concert, for instance, we went from the restrained grace of one of the charming earlier sonatas, to the troubled passion of the Kreutzer, from something small and restrained to something big and flamboyantly angular. This time, we’re seeing Beethoven’s growth in transcending the dramatic style of the first sonatas. But that still makes for charming music-making whether in the bold first movement presto, the charming scherzo second movement or the agitated rondo finale. While there is beauty throughout, Beethoven won’t let his players relax and enjoy the moment, pushing them to work, changing from major to minor, never quite giving his themes release.
Between the two Beethoven sonatas we heard a piece from Gavin Fraser that received its world premiere at the 10 a.m. presentation of this concert, repeated at noon (the concert I attended). When Crow told us the title of the TSM commission, “like years like seconds”, he made mention of time. I can’t tell whether the piece really dealt with the concept of time, or that I simply became aware of it due to the title plus Crow’s announcement. Even so, it’s a feat to be able to do something conceptual in a work of short duration. Chiu began with some lovely but dissonant noodling at the piano while Crow gave us a variety of capricious and playful sounds from his fiddle, leading to bigger sounds in the middle of the piece. Gradually the work came to resemble something more conventional, where the piano made chords against plaintive violin. They seemed to diverge, Chiu softly playing the notes at the bottom of the piano while Crow gave us gentle soft harmonics at the top end of his instrument.
For that last sonata that concludes the cycle and our concert, composed roughly the same time as the 7th and 8th Symphonies, Beethoven’s maturity is showing. It’s a sonata quite far removed from the time and tormented mindset we see in all the others. The two instruments are in concert without showing off, without seeming to be one-upping each other as in sonata #4 and so many moments in the first 9 sonatas. This time the piano plays in self-assured chords or tinkles along softly under the violin, not unlike what we hear in the 4th Piano Concerto. For the moment the composer sounds like a far happier man, or at least less likely to get into an argument. The tranquility Crow and Chiu displayed, reflects the calm eloquence of that last sonata. They have been busy with the ten sonatas and new compositions over the past week.
The performance is almost incidental to the miracle of live music.
Please let me never become blasé, never lose my sense of wonder and gratitude, inured to magic. This is a privilege. I was stunned that not only the Toronto Summer Music Festival personnel but also both of the artists (Philip Chiu and Jonathan Crow) thanked me for being there. I hope I remember this when we’re back to “normal”, and larger crowds push us all further apart.
My wife doubted whether this was safe, to be going to an indoor concert. But we adhered to the safety guidelines, rattling around inside a big church like the beans in maracas.
I had the best seat imaginable, directly in front of them as you can see from the picture I snapped before shutting off my phone.
There were perhaps 20 of us in Grace Church on-the-Hill.
Did I mention that I feel like a lucky guy?
The fact we were attending a concert at 10:00 a.m. adds to the magic. My first concert in over a year felt like rebirth in the stillness of the church. Oh yes, it’s also my first time in a church since early 2020. I pulled out the hymnal to have a look, awed by the stained glass and the beautiful space.
We listened to Jonathan Crow and Philip Chiu play two sonatas by Ludwig van Beethoven plus a piece, excuse the pun, from Jessie Montgomery.
Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 2 in A Major, Op. 12 Montgomery – Peace Beethoven – Sonata for Piano and Violin, No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47 “Kreutzer”
We began with a sonata as fresh as our new beginning. When I look at Beethoven’s list of works, the Op 12 sonatas (his first three) date from late in the 18th century just after the three Op 10 piano sonatas and just before the Pathetique piano sonata. The opus numbers are a bit tricky, given that opus #15 is assigned to the first piano concerto, which dates from earlier in the decade. Haydn, who supposedly taught Beethoven in the 1790s, is still very much an influence in the comical flourishes, the witty dialogue between violin and piano, and a light texture. Yet as Crow remarked it’s very true that even if both sonatas are in A major, they’re very different.
Montgomery’s Peace is an aptly titled work that served us as a bit of an interlude, a rest for the ear between the two big Sonatas.
I wanted it to be more than just a mouthful of baguette to cleanse the palate, a deliberate contrast to the intensity of the works on either side, yet even that was welcome. We listen to calmly melodic left-hand figures from the pianist, setting up clusters that follow, against gentle melodic playing from the violin. It’s a tonal work to contrast the two brilliant A-major sonatas in its mellow laid-back sound. It’s never strident nor angry, never very loud, but instead true to its name, a sotto voce meditation.
We’re well prepared by Peace for Sonata #9 and its ostentatious melodrama, seeming to tell a story through music. The outer movements are larger than life in their construction, the first movement sometimes seeming to shift emotional gears as abruptly as a slap in the face, gut-wrenchingly anguished. The middle movement consists of a series of variations, an oasis of tranquility before the third movement’s wild ride to the finish.
I couldn’t help thinking, how does one choose to reconcile different works of a composer, how to play the early works of a composer still finding his authentic voice, if one was also undertaking one of his most accomplished works? We’re looking back from 250 years later, hearing Beethoven not just as the heir to Mozart or Haydn, but as the eventual creator of huge symphonies, and his influence on those who follow. Excuse me if I’m prematurely suggesting a bigger discussion from a single concert, but Crow and Chiu present this concert as part of the complete Beethoven cycle. Tafelmusik took years to complete their survey of the Beethoven Symphonies. We had the magical experience of hearing Stewart Goodyear play all 32 piano sonatas in a single day. Does one play the early works with the same assumptions as the late ones, or does one differentiate between the stylistic norms of the times? Can one look at a work from the 1790s vs one after 1800 when Beethoven leaped ahead in his development? I wonder if this is confused or confounded by hindsight, that shows us who Beethoven would become.
I’m perhaps overthinking all of this, coming to the concert after a huge break spent deep inside my navel.
But I’m sensitive to the choices Crow and Chiu made, that likely must be consistent with what they’re doing in this series, choices they have to make for the whole set of sonatas. So indeed, they do not come at the young Beethoven as though they were players of his time, but instead seem to play with the same interpretive assumptions on this piece as they will later in the concert with a more mature composition. It’s all from the same big book of sonatas, one might argue, as seen from a distance. Conversely, I wonder if we can imagine the cognitive dissonance implicit in playing the youthful Beethoven the way one plays in the 1790s, and then playing the middle period or later Beethoven in another way. Crow and Chiu are not time-travelers even if musical scores do sometimes allow us to imaginatively time-travel. And so they opted to be consistent across Beethoven. I say this, as I observed their choice to play the light-hearted earlier work with a romantic approach: which maybe tells you next to nothing. I’m calling attention to a couple of things. They were ready to enlarge the dynamic range, to be very soft at times, to show due respect for Beethoven and what he would become. And occasionally they toyed with the tempi. Maybe I’m erroneous to think that Mozart & Haydn are more rigorous in their symmetry, that one aims to play the exposition exactly as fast as the recapitulation, and that a classical reading of Beethoven or Schubert aims to honour the structure where possible, rather than inserting anything expressive, rubati, expressive moments that resist the classical rigor. But I say “romantic” to suggest that Crow & Chiu attack Beethoven never underestimating the young composer and always ready for something deep. For the Op 47 Kreutzer Sonata, we’re rewarded not just with the accurate playing but an approach to the sonata matching its melodrama. The duo seemed to make tempo changes as though motivated by raw emotion, sometimes whispering, sometimes issuing enormous surges in the dynamics. The early morning performance seemed that much more spontaneous, more organic, as though the pair were of one mind. The ff from the piano in the opening movement were not spoiled by being telegraphed in any way from the two calmly deadpan players, utterly surprising the way they erupted. It’s as much the drama that Beethoven composed as the theatre that Crow and Chiu portrayed for us.
I had a socially distanced schmooze afterwards, more than a bit star-struck. Luckily I had my mask on, which served to conceal one’s facial expressions. More and more, I understand the attraction of masquerade parties.
If you have a chance to catch any of the concerts this week you won’t see better music-making (as if there were any alternatives as of July 2021), especially when you factor in the additional intimacy of the space with small audiences. The Festival concludes on Sunday August 1st.
For further information and tickets go to their website.
2020 was to have been the Beethoven year, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1770. But of course the plans for operas, plays or concerts collided with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Thank goodness Toronto Summer Music Festival are now offering a mix of live & virtual programming, permitting them to belatedly celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven in 2021, as we all enjoy the first live concerts many of us have seen in well over a year (observing the current COVID protocols: masked, distanced, venue capacity carefully monitored).
One of the concerts this week features the so-called Kreutzer Sonata for violin, a piece with an intriguing history plus an afterlife as an influence upon other artists.
First there is the story of the dedication, originally to George Bridgetower, but later withdrawn after a disagreement between the composer and the dedicatee.
Or was it a fight? Beethoven was known to have strong opinions and a certain volatility to his expression, perhaps due to his impaired hearing. But how can one be subtle if they cannot shade the voice between a whisper and a shout? between pp, and ff?
Rodolphe Kreutzer? He was just another violinist, the replacement for Bridgetower. It’s a great irony that the violinist whose name did get immortalized supposedly never much liked Beethoven’s composition. It’s not as though Beethoven had any sort of relationship with Kreutzer.
So much for the piece in its own time.
But there has been much more since Beethoven’s time, a novella, a string quartet and the realm of film adaptations & explorations.
Leon Tolstoy wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella that uses the Beethoven piece to focus a marital triangle of suspected infidelity, coming to a head when the husband sees his wife and the supposed lover performing the Beethoven piece. Does she deserve to die? surely not.
Leos Janacek wrote a string quartet with a subtitle “Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer sonata”. What’s the connection? Where the husband in Tolstoy’s novella angrily kills his wife, Janacek is more of a feminist in his outlook, seeking something more sympathetic. Of course it’s a piece of music not a lecture or even a novel, so it is completely ambiguous. Perhaps there are inter-textual references, quotes from Beethoven? but as far as I know Janacek meant the title to refer to Tolstoy’s novella not Beethoven.
Does the sonata itself tell a story? After all this is music that inspires the husband to imagine infidelity, seeing the passionate connection between violinist & pianist, that inspired Tolstoy to use the sonata as a site for something more than music.
The music inspired others to project their own fantasy story upon it. Among those we can include Bernard Rose who had undertaken the story in 1994 with his film Immortal Beloved, a film that he wrote & directed purporting to be a biography of Beethoven, but largely fictionalized. A scene in Rose’s film uses the sonata to reinforce the thesis of the film, concerning the identity of the “immortal beloved”, Beethoven’s true love. It’s a fascinating, wonderful idea, that has alas been debunked for me by a Beethoven scholar. That shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the film.
Because videos sometimes are withdrawn, and become unavailable, I’ve made a transcription of Rose’s wonderful dialogue, in the scene in the film where we’re first told of the mystery of the sonata.
Schindler: It was that damned sonata, the “Kreutzer”. At the time I entertained ambitions of a musical career.
I’d gone to Vienna to study and was fortunate enough to be taken by Schuppanzigh as a pupil.
He and George Bridgetower, the famous virtuoso from Africa were about to premiere this new Beethoven sonata at Count Razumovsky’s that evening, and I was allowed to attend the rehearsal.
[Let me jump in to point out that this account clashes with what we know for certain, that it was in fact Beethoven who played the sonata through with Bridgetower, not Schupppanzigh. But don’t let that stop you ]
Schindler: It was there that the seed of a mystery was planted that haunts me to this day.
[Beethoven walks in and taps Schindler on the shoulder]
Beethoven: Do you like it?
Beethoven: I cannot hear them. But I know they are making a hash of it.
[What we’re hearing in the film is a perfect performance so maybe Beethoven is simply being harsh? even so Bridgetower was a last minute substitute in the performance, arriving at the last minute, so he was more or less sight-reading the sonata. I’ve read that Beethoven was supposedly wildly enthusiastic about the quality of his friend Bridgetower’s playing. Yes Bridgetower was for a time Beethoven’s friend.]
Beethoven: what do you think? Music is a dreadful thing. What is it? I don’t understand it. What does it do?
Schindler (writing on a tablet for Beethoven to read, and then speaking aloud) It exalts the soul.
Beethoven: Utter nonsense. If you hear a marching band is your soul exalted? No you march. If you hear a waltz, you dance. If you hear a mass you take communion. It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer. The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism. So now… what was in my mind when I wrote this? Hm…? A man is trying to reach his lover. His carriage has broken down in the rain. The wheels stuck in the mud. She will only wait so long. This… is the sound of his agitation. “This is how it is” the music is saying. “Not how you are used to being. Not how you are used to thinking. But like this.”
Schindler (now thinking to himself) Who was the woman? He never told me. I knew better than to ask. He made me see the world in an entirely new light.“
The mystery, of course, is the mystery of the Immortal Beloved, whose identity has not been confirmed with certainty. The film presents a theory that I’m told is impossible even if it makes for a terrific film.
Rose came back to the Beethoven composition, in a film adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata in 2009. Confused? The title keeps coming up, but means something different every time.
I’m looking forward to hearing Jonathan Crow play the sonata this week at a Toronto Summer Music concert with pianist Philip Chiu.
Performers have struggled with the loss of income, companies evaluating their business models as they contemplate the future. It remains to be seen just what impacts will be felt upon opera, the art form known to be the most expensive of all. COVID19 has been a catalyst for change in every arena, so why not in the realm of opera too. Although some might claim that the changes were inevitable, I believe the drama of the past 18 months will change the way we experience theatre.
Unable to offer performances inside its building, the Metropolitan Opera offered free streaming, that comes to an end this week after more than a year of free operas, as seen in their announcement: “After 70 weeks, 112 different operas, and more than 21.2 million views from 152 countries, our series of free Nightly Opera Streams reaches its grand finale. Enjoy one last week of exceptional performances, specially chosen by viewers.”
They picked the following operas: Monday, July 19 Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro Tuesday, July 20 Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci Wednesday, July 21 Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs de Perles Thursday, July 22 Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann Friday, July 23 Donizetti’s La Fille du Régiment Saturday, July 24 Verdi’s Il Trovatore Sunday, July 25 Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera
San Francisco Opera offer free streaming each weekend. Theirs is a bit different from the Met, in that you have to register as a member to get access. After Berlioz’s Les Troyens this past weekend (July 17–18), upcoming operas are Strauss’ Elektra July 24–25 and Verdi’s Luisa Miller July 31–August 1. I don’t know if it ends there or if there are more for August…
Which brings us to the Canadian Opera Company. If you’ve been watching the monthly Check-in with Perryn, a regular series with the COC’s new general director Perryn Leech, you will have heard him say that while there are question-marks about how the COC will return, their fall season will be virtual. While we don’t know precisely who (the singers) or what,(the operas) the COC now have new toys to play with, thanks to government grants to fund the “Digital Infrastructure Enhancements Project at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.”
So move over Met. Get ready San Francisco Opera. Your neighbours to the north are getting into the act. Although it’s not yet clear exactly what we will be seeing & hearing, Episode 5 of Check-in with Perryn promised a big announcement on August 16th to give us a better idea what to expect.
Episode 5 also included a lovely picture of George, Perryn’s dog.