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Alexander Neef: “I Believe In The Resilience Of The Art Form”

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

Update 22 June 2020: The Canadian Opera Company has cancelled its 2020 autumn season. The conversation with COC General Director Alexander Neef, below, took place in May 2020, prior to the official announcement.

Cancellation, closure, calibration: these are the elements at work within an arts industry trying desperately to stay afloat in the middle of a pandemic. What to cancel? What to postpone? What to calibrate – or recalibrate – as the situation warrants? Which companies will be around in year, and which will close? Some organizations are busily preparing for presentations of old favorites within the context of a new normal dictated by the coronavirus, acting, consciously or not, as beacons of an industry facing an immense and undeniable transformation.

The annual Salzburg Festival, for instance, will be going forwards in a modified form as of August 1st. On the slate is Elektra (with Aušrine Stundyte in the lead and Franz Welser-Möst on the podium, in a production by Krzysztof Warlikowski) and a revival of Così fan tutte, as well as four theatre works (including the world premiere of Zdeněk Adamec by Peter Handke) and numerous concerts, including a Beethoven cycle by pianist Igor Levit. In Germany, Deutsche Oper Berlin (DOB) has also made adjustments. The company recently announced a 90-minute chamber presentation of Das Rheingold in its very own car park, running for five performances starting this Friday (12 June), and featuring twenty-two musicians and twelve singers. The production, by Jonathan Dove (who also did orchestration) and director Graham Vick for the Birmingham Opera Company, is not the first presentation by DOB in such an environment; in 2014 the company presented Iannis Xenakis’ Oresteia in the very same parking deck. Wagner’s first opera in his epic Ring Cycle had been originally planned as a fully staged work from director Stefan Herheim, a premiere which has since been postponed. The upcoming version, adhering to the guidelines set out by the Senate of Berlin, has a €5 entry fee and a pay-what-you-can structure, with audience member contact information being recorded and a 1.5 metre distance enforced; moreover, masks will be required when entering and exiting, toilets will be accessible, and (rather crucially) small bottles of “beverages” will be made available to visitors.

Such an ambitious undertaking underlines the very thin lines that currently exist between possibilities and probabilities. Those who can are doing their best, in the most creative and safe methods presently allowable; others are bending and flexing in ways heretofore unimaginable six months ago. The Metropolitan Opera cancelled its autumn season and will be reopening (ostensibly) on December 31st, although it continues to offer a revolving slate of productions online. Looking over their latest release, it’s hard to not think of the artists who were set to make their debuts at the house this autumn, either in a role or with the company itself: soprano Christine Goerke was set to sing her first fully-staged Isolde in a revival of Marius Treliński’s production of Tristan und Isolde; 74-year-old conductor Michail Jurowski was to have made his Met Opera debut leading Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel. On the other side of the ocean, the Royal Opera House, itself in dire straits, is getting set to launch a new series, Live From Covent Garden, on Saturday (June 13), which will complement its extant online offerings of opera and ballet. Curated by Sir Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, Oliver Mears, Director of Opera, and Kevin O’Hare, Director of The Royal Ballet, the event (set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on June 15th) will feature performances by baritone Gerald Finley, tenor Toby Spence, soprano Louise Alder, and the premiere of a new ballet choreographed by Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor. The following two presentations of the program, on the 20th and 27th of June respectively, will be available on a pay-per-view basis. Like every company, a prominent “Donate Now” button is displayed on the ROH homepage, one whose request will no doubt grow in urgency  as the autumn season inches ever closer.

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Rosario La Spina as Radames (background) and Sondra Radvanovsky (foreground) as Aida in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Aida, 2010. Photo: Michael Cooper

For Canadian Opera Company (COC) audiences, the fall season is just as fraught with uncertainty. In late March the company made the difficult if necessary decision to cancel the remainder of its 2019-2020 season, which was to include revivals of The Flying Dutchman and a wildly divisive staging of Aida by Tim Albery. Bereft of the gilded visuals so frequently attached to presentations of the famed Verdi work, the production had been anticipated for the reactions it might have provoked a full decade after its premiere. Would Toronto audiences have grown to accept Albery’s arresting vision? Would it have been so upsetting in 2020? Will it even be staged again, now that COVID seems, for some, to have put a damper on even perceivably risque productions and programming? The opportunity to discover the elasticity of the COC audience was, alas, lost this spring but another chance, possibly, awaits in the fall. The company is set to present Wagner’s Parsifal – the first presentation of the opera in the COC’s history. A co-production with Opéra de Lyon, The Metropolitan Opera, and the COC, the highly abstract (and at times, very bloody) François Girard-helmed work was presented in February 2013 at The Met, to widespread acclaim. Owing to the monumental nature of the production, the company launched a fundraising campaign with various levels of support named after elements of the opera. Tenors Christopher Ventris and Viktor Antipenko share the title role in the COC production, with Johan Reuter as Amfortas, Tanja Ariane Baumgartner as Kundry, and Robert Pomakov as Klingsor; COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts. Opening night is scheduled for September 25th.

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A scene from The Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

According to Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef, those plans are still intact. Neef, who is also Artistic Director of the Santa Fe Festival, had been set to leave the COC at the end of the 2020-2021 season and become General Director of the Opéra national de Paris. The company is facing €40 million in losses this year alone, from both the pandemic as well as numerous strikes which occurred before the lockdown. The Opéra’s current Director, Stéphane Lissner, announced in an interview with Le Monde on June 11th, 2020 that he’s ending his mandate at the end of 2020, emphasizing the extreme nature of the situation brought on by the coronavirus pandemic: “nous ne sommes pas dans une situation de passation normale.” (“we are not in a normal handover situation.”) Neef confirmed in a COC release the following day that he “certainly did not anticipate Lissner’s early departure and that also confirmed not leaving Canada just yet. Neef says he “has not yet had any formal discussions – either with the Paris Opera or members of our Board of Directors – about accelerating the start of my engagement in Paris. Moreover, the ongoing global health crisis makes it difficult to envision how any significant changes to the intended timeline could be accommodated.”

Back in May, Lissner spoke to the unfeasible economics around presenting opera at the Garnier and Bastille theatres within prescribed social distancing mandates. France, like most other locales, requires audience members to be two meters (6.5 feet) apart. “Le protocole [proposé pour reprendre les spectacles] est impraticable : impraticable pour le public, pour les artistes et pour les salariés. Suppression des entractes, c’est impossible, faire entrer 2700 personnes en respectant les distances, c’est impossible, la distance dans l’orchestre, dans les chœurs, c’est impossible,” he noted in early May (“The protocol [proposed to take over the shows] is impractical: impractical for the public, for the artists and for the employees. Eliminating intermissions is impossible, bringing in 2700 people while respecting distances is impossible, the distance in the orchestra, in the choirs, is impossible.”). Will there even be a 2020-2021 season for Opéra national de Paris? The report in Le Monde indicates, if not an outright cancellation, then a greatly altered one, with an emphasis on revivals, including La traviata (led by James Gaffigan, in a production by Simone Stone), the ballet La Bayadère, and the ever-popular Carmen, with Domingo Hindoyan on the podium, in an acclaimed staging by Calixto Bieito. The Bastille is not set to reopen until November 24th, and the Garnier in late December. A planned new Ring Cycle staging is off the books. “Fin 2020, il est probable que l’Opéra de Paris n’aura plus de fonds de roulement” (By the end of 2020, it is likely that the Paris Opera will no longer have working capital”), Lissner told Le Monde. “C’est pourquoi, à partir de janvier 2021, j’ai choisi de m’effacer afin qu’il n’y ait plus qu’un seul patron à bord.” (“That’s why, from January 2021, I chose to step aside so that there would only be one boss on board.”)

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The interior of the Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

That “seul patron” is shouldering a lot of responsibility right now. Notwithstanding this unfolding and weighty situation, plus the cancellation of the COC’s spring season and the uncertainty of its 2020-2021 season, Neef was also very recently heavily involved in negotiations to obtain recorded COC performances for online broadcast during the quarantine – hardly a simple task, as music writer Lydia Perovic ably outlined in her smart investigation into the paucity of online Canadian opera content for Opera Canada magazine in 2018. Yet in our conversation last month, before the Paris news, Neef was his characteristically cool, unflappable self. The COC head honcho and I have spoken many times over the years, most recently last summer following the announcement of his Paris appointment. The German-born Neef has always been direct if highly diplomatic, eloquent but possessing an undeniable edge of steel. With an encyclopaedic knowledge of history (not surprising, given he graduated from Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen with a Master of Arts in Latin Philology and Modern History) and a solid if wholly unsurprising knack for thoughtful casting (honed during his time as casting director at the Paris Opera from 2004 to 2008), Neef is as much passionate as level-headed; that passion shows itself in strong, well-observed opinions and observations, and then translates itself into elegantly understated wisdom. Having started at the Salzburg Festival with famed opera administrator Gerard Mortier, Neef went on to work at the Ruhrtriennale, New York City Opera, and later, Opéra nationale de Paris, before arriving in Toronto in 2008. In the decade-plus of his directorship with the COC, Neef has brought a number of celebrated international opera figures to the Four Seasons Centre stage: singers (Ferruccio Furlanetto, Anita Rachvellishvilli, Patricia Racette, Stefan Vinke, Luca Pisaroni, conductors (Carlo Rizzi, Speranza Scapucci, Paolo Carignani, Harry Bicket, Patrick Lange), directors (Peter Sellars, Dmitri Tcherniakov, Claus Guth, Robert Wilson, Spanish theatre collective Els Comediants). He has consistently championed the work of tenor Russell Thomas, who has appeared on multiple occasions on the stage of the Four Seasons Centre (The Tales of Hoffman in 2012, Carmen in 2016 Norma in 2016, Otello in 2019, and was to have performed in Aida this spring), along with that of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky (two operas in Donizetti’s Tudor trilogy as well as Norma), bass baritone Gerald Finley (Falstaff, 2014, Otello, 2019) and soprano Christine Goerke, whose Brunnhilde in the company’s year-by-year presentations unfolding Wagner’s Ring Cycle won her acclaim and, like Radvanovsky, Finley, and Thomas, bolstered a fierce following.

In mid-May, Neef took part in an online chat hosted by the Toronto-based International Resource Centre for the Performing Arts (IRCPA) in which he was asked about how he perceived the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the opera community, singers in particular; I was keen to hear more from Neef and was grateful when, not a week later, he and I had a lengthy discussion – about pandemic, Parsifal, Paris, and, to start, the question of risk and its place in the industry moving forwards.

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Photo © Gaetz Photography

In light of the damage the pandemic is doing in the arts world, some believe that opera programming and presentation will become more conservative, that any perceived risk in either is off the table for the foreseeable future. What’s your take – can opera afford to break eggs in a pandemic/post-pandemic environment?

To stick with your analogy: I think there is no art if you don’t break the eggs. And I think since we don’t have any live art in our lives right now, breaking eggs becomes even more important in the future. I got this really interesting manifesto in my mailbox this morning – and it’s easier to say this when you run a little company rather than when you have X number of employees you want to keep feeding – but, it says, “time to commission new works from young composers; time to ally with other theatre, cinema, dance, performing arts centres; time to follow the example of cinema, the storytelling medium that came after opera and was predicted by great opera composers” and so on. When you’re a small, flexible structure, then yes, those boats are easy to turn around; you can be much more reactive. The bigger your apparatus becomes, the harder it is to change because there are a lot of people who need to make that change with you, but in general, I’ve never believed and still don’t believe it, that going back to more traditional approaches, to what we consider “safe” repertoire, will do anything for the future sector – the only thing it will do is make people get more tired of you. Or, to say it another way, how many times will you need to see the same production of La bohème, even though it might be with different people? At some point you may say, “I’ve seen this five times over the last ten years; give me one reason why I should go again?” I think what we’ve been trying to do is to space things out enough, or to hold off with programming, so there’s still for us a reason to do (a certain opera), other than the reason that it’s popular repertoire…

Or it’s nostalgia… 

… or it’s nostalgia, yes. Also, our audience is not eternal. Like everybody who deals with an audience, we are always interested in refreshing – we want a relationship with our public where we don’t always confirm what they think opera is.

That’s a big hurdle, especially for companies who play into clichés. How do you counter it?

It is a hurdle, but I continue to believe, and this crisis hasn’t changed my opinion so far, that what’s really important is people know what kind of company they’re coming to; you need to have a spine. And again, I always say, and have said: indifference is our biggest enemy. If people think, “Oh, this is the same old thing” or they leave a show and can’t remember, ten minutes later, what it was all about…  well, obviously we want people to like what we do, but I prefer they hate (a production) with a passion than be indifferent to it. Unfortunately we didn’t get to do that revival of Aida that people were itching to see, for very different reasons!

I distinctly recall someone saying to me at the opening in 2010 that “it’s actually just fine if you close your eyes.”

Think what you want about that production but ten years later people still talk about it. That’s what I mean when I say indifference is our biggest enemy. Obviously there was a lot of rejection at the time but also a lot of people came to it and said, “Wow, I had no clue opera could be so current, and about me, and not just stuffy and purely representational.” 

There were also younger people I know who went and later said, “That was my first opera experience and I wanted grandeur and camels!”

… and other people walked away from it thinking, “Where has this art form been all my life?!” So it’s hard to say what’s interesting to one and not to the other. People think about young audiences that, very often, those are the ones who want the avant-garde, but I think it’s not necessarily true; sometimes they’re way more conservative than someone who’s been subscribing for twenty-five years. It’s a complicated thing! But just because you are older does not mean your taste in art is more conservative – that’s not how it works.

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Jonas Kaufmann as Parsifal in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Parsifal, 2013. Photo: Ken Howard

There’s been so much effort on the part of classical organizations to try and get this mythical young audience, but I feel as if the pandemic has forced them to realize the importance of a far wider cultivation.

In the end you can’t afford to ignore any part of your audience. Right now there’s an issue with at-risk populations; a young audience is not seen as so much at-risk (for COVID), but I think that shouldn’t mean we totally abandon our older audiences. The whole discussion for me is kind of moot anyway, because you cannot separate the discussion of keeping an audience safe from keeping the performers and staff safe, and while that might not be exactly the precisely same measures, if you can’t combine both, then it’s going to be very hard to have a show. Right now the pit is a very dangerous work environment. We’re in a lucky position in Canada and the COC – we won’t be going back into rehearsals before two-and-a-half months from now, so we will have better information in two weeks, four weeks, six weeks, that will allow us to make better decisions. The big hiatus we have now, I’m rather grateful for that.

Some in the Toronto opera world are wondering what will happen to Parsifal – it’s been a long road to having it staged at the Four Seasons Centre.

What I say is: I simply don’t want to make that decision right now. And I don’t feel I have to. Right now we’re living in an equation with too many variables and those variables make it hard to solve that equation. There’s already some measures falling in place in terms of public health advisories, and some of the variables are starting to be eliminated. Today I read something stating that essentially the virus is mostly circulating in the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) and the rest of Ontario is under control – which is not great news for the GTA, but it’s true in all urban centres – Montréal, Paris, all those places – it’s true that it hangs on (in those locales) for longer because there’s more movement of people, but it also means it can get contained. We need to have a better idea of the public health measures.

Obviously we won’t be able to perform Parsifal if we have to have limited numbers in the audience, it’s an economic nightmare and it wouldn’t be worth it. We couldn’t even accommodate all of our subscribers (in that scenario), but we have to be prepared, and we are taking the time to be prepared, and when we have to make a  decision, we will gather all the elements to make the best decision for our staff and performers, and the house, and everyone.

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The interior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

It’s a strange new equation to accept, that we are now in a world where there’s a question mark over both Parsifal and Paris’s opera season.

It is a strange new equation, and with strange new variables – and I think one needs to take this a week at a time. There are supposed to be additional announcements of openings in Europe…  

… under strict conditions. Returning to the theatre-going experience people are familiar with will take much longer. 

Yes, and it’s a two-way street, or more than a two-way street. A part of it is medical progress as well – I think even more effective and widely-available testing will do a lot to reassure the public about the situation. That is big! Everybody knows the vaccine will take a little while but also we’re working on all kinds of things in terms of an effective antiviral, because the truth is, if we didn’t have a flu vaccine we would be having a terrible situation every winter. But because we have a flu vaccine there’s no discussions of masks or additional hygiene measures during flu season… so we need to find a way through additional safety measures, through progress in medicine, all of that, to kind of normalize this situation in a way that is…  I mean, there’s always a risk: you leave your house and you can catch something on the subway, right? That happens to a lot of people. I am not a scientist and indeed COVID is very contagious – if you get sick you can get very sick, but we need to take time to really learn more about it and then calibrate all the available information and input it back into a form where people can gain a certain amount of comfort in leaving their homes, in order to assess different levels of risk.

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View from the orchestra pit of R. Fraser Elliott Hall at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Lucia Graca

How do you see the current recalibrating in the opera world influencing not only companies but artists?

Again, for everything that’s on the performer’s side, regular testing is going to be the key so that you can be certain the people working together in confined spaces, people touching each other in rehearsals and so on, they can have a reasonable level of confidence that everybody is up to date on their health. Now it’s the case that you wake up in the morning and you feel a little bit off and take your temperature; three months ago you would have thought, “Oh I’ll see how I feel in the afternoon” but today you get the thermometer out and look at the reading and say, “It’s not normal.”  People will be more sensitive to their own symptoms and more responsible, I think. I was reading something interesting, about how work culture will change, especially in North America, where coming to work sick was like a badge of honor, not letting the company down, now it’s, “You’re not feeling well, we don’t want to see you” and that’s not necessarily a bad thing! That’s the performer’s side. 

On the audience side, if people feel safe again if wearing a gloves and a mask when they go somewhere and feel okay to sit next to someone they don’t know, if we can reach that level of confidence, I think nobody will care about people wearing a mask in the foreseeable future in a theatre, even if it’s not a requirement. It will be part of the new normal, and frankly, it’s normal already in certain parts of the world. It’s funny that in Canada, which was so haunted by SARS, mask-wearing didn’t become a norm, so maybe now it will. If that’s the worst thing that can happen to us, that people put on a mask before walking into the Four Seasons Centre, we can do that. There’s so much cultural change about masks that’s already happened – people felt, “Oh you can’t speak with a mask” – well, people do it all the time.  I was at the supermarket the other day and ran into someone I know, and we didn’t take our masks off, we just spoke with our masks on at a safe distance. Places are going to normalize these kinds of protocols, and it’ll make it all less scary, I believe. And of course, if you are part of a risk group, you would think twice about where you go and what you do; we might be able to accommodate you somewhere in the theatre. We’re more than happy to do that with patrons; it’s our business to accommodate their needs. Frankly, every theatre would be willing to do that to get their patrons back. But then again it’s not something we haven’t done already in making all reasonable accommodations for people with needs.

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Tenor Russell Thomas in rehearsal for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Otello, 2019. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

And casting?

That’s actually one of the bigger problems we’re discussing. Zoom doesn’t give you a lot of information about the size of the voice but it does give you information about the personality you’re dealing with, about pitch, about rhythm. We were talking about this in relation to the ensemble, for example; they were Zoom coaching before they went off contract for the summer. Everybody hated the idea initially, and then came away saying it was better than not doing anything at all, so that is obviously also a part of that new normal, as you say. There’s also the situation of stage auditions and having a pianist and nobody in the hall except for two or three casting people; that seems less complicated than a full stage performance in this environment, if you can get them safely in through the stage door and onstage. All these things are being worked out. 

I’m curious if you think digital platforms like Instagram will become a big factor in casting the post-coronavirus opera world. 

It probably will… but…  I look at it more as an added tool to what we’re already doing than anything else. We have more and more tools at our disposable, yes, but there’s a lot of the old stuff that still works and we can’t abandon it, that’s been true for our marketing and communications as much as for casting – we still send postcards to people (for marketing) because there’s people who really like postcards, maybe not as many as twenty years ago, but it’s still a valuable part of our audience, so why would we abandon that practise?

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Alexander Neef at the COC’s 2020-2021 Season Reveal event, 2020. Photo © Gaetz Photography

So the same holds true for singers then? I see a lot of imitation online. 

As I said in the IRCPA talk, people who do casting are really not very interested in generic products… 

… you mean in terms of singers pushing an homogenous image?

Yes – going back to your breaking-the-eggs metaphor at the beginning of our conversation, if you don’t have that appetite for risk-taking there’s not going to be a lot of art in what you do.

Strange to think that being yourself is perceived as a risk.

We all know it’s the hardest to be yourself – but as an artist you have the opportunity to not be yourself, and to figure that out, and to live it out, in a way a lot of people cannot, but I think it’s very important to have that self-assessment skill and to figure out, clearly, “What can I do better than other people?” If you have better high Fs than anybody, then all I want to know is, can you sing Queen Of The Night? That’s the thing, and there’s nothing bad about it, and you must acknowledge that as you get older, your high Fs won’t be as great, and you’d better figure out what you can do then.

Or have figured it out already… 

Yes. It comes back to having a lot of courage. Sometimes I feel the courage, especially for a young artist, will always come before the self-assurance, but it’s kind of a bit of – I really like this egg thing you started with! – it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: if you don’t put in the courage it might just never happen, but you will not know if there’s a reward before you’ve done it, and I think doing it for the first time, and seeing if it works, will give you more courage for the second time, and so on.

The benefit of digital is it’s creating a vital form of community a lot of people miss right now – are the recent COC opera broadcasts a sign of things to come?

Right now it’s a concession to the times we’re in; we wouldn’t want to necessarily put archival recordings out as a standard, but what’s important for me is – and some don’t see it this way but that’s fine – that it’s about creating a presence for all those artists who can’t work right now. Putting this kind of work out – work that was done in a good environment, where (artists) are performing good roles with a good company, with a high level of quality – reminds the world that is what artists do. And having such material released also reminds the world that this is just a video, and if you want the real thing, you will have to come back to the theatre and get a real-life experience.

So you see video as a complement, not a replacement?

Absolutely.

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The exterior of Palais Garnier. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

I asked you this in our conversation last year, but of course so much has changed, and I want to ask again: what are you taking with you now from Toronto to Paris? 

I’m not leaving just yet! 

Something you’d noted before is your desire at Opéra national de Paris to highlight various historical aspects within a contemporary context.

That hasn’t changed, of course – putting historical opera within the larger context of what happens today, for 21st century artists and for a 21st century audience – that won’t change, but we’ll have to see as we emerge from this crisis, what has actually changed, and when we can go back. That (plan for return) will determine a lot. The longer this goes, the more we will have to think about smaller things we can do for limited groups of people. The goal is to go back to fully staged opera as quickly as possible, but if we can’t do that, we better get inventive. Ultimately I believe in the resilience of the art form. 

Dramaturg Julie McIsaac: “It’s The Role Of The Artist To Prompt Conversation”

Julie McIsaac dramaturg writer theatre artist Canadian musician COC residency

Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Dramaturgy is an art which holds alluring fascination for me as a writer. It’s a pursuit that knits together the solo worlds of research and academe with the collaborative energy of cultural disciplines on which opera is based (theatre, dance, art, music) in a way which, if done well, is barely noticeable, but wholly vital. It is interesting to consider dramaturgical contributions at opera houses in Europe, particularly in German-speaking ones where the role is most active, and to consider what a dramaturg’s influence may have been (or is, or could be) on the final product in places like Berlin, Munich, Zürich, and beyond. How do the role’s various elements (historian, researcher, objective observer) intermesh with others (designers, directors, conductors, performers, creative and administrative personnel) to produce an ever- evolving (sometimes satisfying, sometimes not) end result? How is it central to an audience’s appreciation (or lack thereof)? How does that work influence perceptions? Why should it matter? How is the “soft power” of dramaturgy important?

These questions were swirling around my mind when the announcement came in late 2019 of Canadian theatre artist Julie McIsaac’s appointment as the inaugural Director/Dramaturg-in-Residence with the Canadian Opera Company (COC). McIsaac’s year-long residency is the latest addition to the COC Academy, the company’s professional development program for young opera artists, creators, and administrators, and seems like the right thing, at the right time, for a company that wants to expands both its audiences and creative possibilities for its productions. General Director Alexander Neef (Director Designate of Opéra National de Paris), has, since his coming to the COC in 2008, taken an iron-hand-in-velvet-glove approach to expanding both the capabilities and the ambitious of Canada’s biggest opera company, bringing in many so-called “Regie” directors (Claus Guth and Dmitri Tcherniakov among them) as well as high-calibre names including Thomas Hampson and Ferruccio Furlanetto. The fact that the company now has an in-house dramaturg bodes well for the future. One can only hope the position extends beyond a year to become a regular part of the COC, its influence and significance becoming sewn into the fabric of various production cycles.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

McIsaac has an incredible  and varied resume in theatre, with experiences in stage direction, writing (plays and libretti), and music. She studied theatre (University of York), Music (Carleton University), and Theatre Performance and Playwriting (Canadian College of Performing Arts), and, along with collaborating with directors Atom Egoyan and Peter Hinton, was Artist-in-Residence at Pacific Opera Victoria from 2016 to 2018. In September 2019, McIsaac helmed the world premiere of Beauty’s Beast (with music by composer and soprano Allison Cociani and libretto by Anna Shill) for East Van Opera. McIsaac also helped to create an original series of opera presentations for young audiences which featured excerpts from Mozart’s The Magic Flute,  Puccini’s La Bohème, and Janacek’s Jenůfa. As part of her COC residency, McIsaac will be collaborating with the company’s Composer-in-Residence, Ian Cusson, on a new work for young audiences, which will be presented as part of the company’s 2020-2021 season (officially announced on 10 February).

I was curious to learn how McIsaac perceives her overall role as dramaturg and what she sees as its inherent possibilities for creating opera as an integrated art. I was also keen to get her thoughts on working as Assistant Director on the upcoming COC production Hansel & Gretel, which opens February 6th; she’s working with COC Music Director Johannes Debus as well as stage director Joel Ivany, a Canadian theatre artist celebrated for his unique, space-specific work with Against the Grain Theatre Company (including a 2016 staging of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte as a reality-TV dating game, presented in a real TV studio). In the official release for Hansel, the COC hints that Ivany’s vision for Humperdinck’s 1893 opera will focus on “income inequality and environmental sustainability.” In addition to mainstage presentations, the company is set to present a number of condensed English-language performances for young audiences. McIsaac and I chatted in December 2019 amidst the bustle of the holiday period, just as she was exploring the granular details of Hansel & Gretel.

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Simone Osborne as Gretel and Anna-Sophie Neher as the Dew Fairy in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Your creative range seems well-suited to your new role as COC dramaturg – is that accurate?

I’m really fortunate, but also it’s a testament to my upbringing and my interests, also the breadth and diversity of work happening in Canada right now.

Why do you think the role of dramaturg isn’t the norm in Canada? You discussed it in detail on the COC website.

With Germany in particular, the operatic tradition there, and the national connection to it in terms of its connection to that art, is long-standing. There are centuries and centuries of work created by artists living and working (in Germany) directed toward audiences living and working there. So it does make sense to me that over time those artists and those audiences are interested in digging into the origins of those pieces, but also reinterpreting them and taking the time, when a new production is done, to meet the production within its original context but to also have these convos and explorations that open up how they might resonate in the here and now. Perhaps it’s because they already have such a firm foundation in the straightforward representation of those words they feel it’s a natural progression for them, as an artistic and national community, to then go beyond that and delve further, to push further, in terms of the interpretation of those works. 

Whereas in Canada I feel like we really have felt the pressure to live up to a standard of excellence that our European and perhaps American counterparts have reached. And perhaps because our focus has been so much on reaching that standard or being able to compete and to perform at that level, that’s been the main focus – you could say, that’s where a lot of the energy has gone, getting to a place where we can do what they do as well as they do it. So now, what I’m really interested in, and what I’d like to see more of, is that as Canadian opera artists, we step out on our own – and in that space, I feel the dramaturg can help us do that, to dig into our processes and shed light on the questions we’re asking – or failing to ask, or could be asking. 

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L-R: Simone Osborne as Gretel, Emily Fons as Hansel and Michael Colvin as The Witch in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

In relation to those questions, I’m wondering where your role is in relation to staging and music. How does the triumvirate of dramaturg, director, and conductor function within your own context?

Maybe this comes out of my own experiences, but I’m a firm believer that there are no two projects which are the same. If we were to use the idea of a trinity or trifecta, as a team leading a process, depending on the work, the company, the audience for whom this work is being produced, I feel like there will be different needs and that can take so many different forms. For example, it might be there’s a director who wants to push an interpretation of a work but before doing that they want to make sure they have a firm understanding of what’s in the score, of what is there around original circumstances, I feel like we’re always doing our best approximation of what we can understand in terms of original circumstances, but I do believe there will be something a little out of our reach; as much as we dig into what’s there, we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of someone who lived 250 years ago! There’s an ephemeral bit of something with we will never quite capture, and I’m okay with that.

But, circling back to your question, if that stage director is wanting to push a certain aspect in a work, I think it’s important we have a firm understanding, much as we can, of the original intent and what’s embedded in both the score and the libretto, so that interpretation can happen in relation to that, even if it’s in contradiction to it. At least there’s a conscious contradiction happening, so those choices aren’t being made in a vacuum. Even if they’re going against something that was part of the original intent of the piece, there’s a mindfulness around it. 

“Mindfulness” seems to be one of the dramaturg’s biggest jobs – is that fair to say?

Yes, it’s making sure we’re aware of the repercussions of the choices. For the conductor and director, there is so much going on they have to manage and make happen, and I think it can be useful to have another person in the room who has the time and space, who can go back to those nitty-gritty details, or to just send some questions into the conversation as a prompt, like, “Hey do we realize by virtue of doing this, we’re going against that?” or “Do we realize that by making this choice we could risk alienating a particular group of our audience who may have a lived experience of x-y-z?” I said in the press release it is central to my ethos that it’s not about censoring or diluting what we do – we do want to put things out there that are bold and daring and risky. We know we can never please everyone; it’s not the role of the artist to please everybody, it’s the role of the artist to prompt conversation, and to move us forwards ideologically, but at the same time, we want to be conscious of doing that, as opposed to doing it by accident.

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Krisztina Szabó as Gertrude and Russell Braun as Peter with (background L-R) Simone Osborne as Gretel and Emily Fons as Hansel in the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Michael Cooper

Audiences don’t always realize the mountain of things that have gone into what they’re sitting there watching as entertainment, which relates  to what you wrote about the work of a dramaturg involving clear communication, compassion, discernment, and humor; I’d like to add curiosity to that list. 

I think you’re right, yes! Curiosity is such a great word! As much as we want to be curious about the work and what’s possible in the interpretation of the work, I think it’s great if all the artists working on the project also have a curiosity in terms of their own processes. One may have worked the same way on every single project, and there’s a reason one might have success doing that, but doesn’t mean there isn’t something else you can undercover in your process and shed light on who one is as an artist and what one can bring forward. I think you’re right about curiosity being valuable. It’s my hope, whether the audience is consciously aware of it or not, that there’s something that emanates from our interpretation of the work that open up a curiosity in them.

SIS NE’ BI-YÏZ: Mother Bear Speaks in October 2019 was very special; I’m curious if experiences from doing that, or other things, translates into Hansel & Gretel now, or if you start on a blank slate.

There’s a blank slate in the sense that no two projects are alike, so trying to bring my attention to what are the particular needs of this project, given the artists involved and the audience it’s intended for. At the same time, I can’t help but bring previous learnings and teachings from other projects into things. For example, with Mother Bear Speaks, (creator/performer) Taninli Wright asked me to direct the piece. Sometimes when we think of director-performer relationships it’s a hierarchy, and the director is higher than performer, but I think there’s reason to challenge that model. I think there’s also ways in which that model works, but in this case Taninli being a performer, it was important her voice and vision be centralised. I was always wanting to ask her questions or get feedback in the sense of, “In that moment we just saw that you just performed, here’s what I feel audience received – is that your intention? Is that what you want your audience takes away from that moment?”

In that case it was important for us to work collaboratively, because when I do feedback, I’m conscious that I’m one person feeding back and I can’t contain a multitude of experiences – I can only see things through my eyes and hear things with my ears, and there are subconscious biases in that – in each of us. By virtue of having a collaborative model, the designs were also welcome to feedback, and the stage manager and our producer were also feeding back. I was hoping to host a conversation in which a multitude of voices could feed back to the performer to let her know what we feel was kind of being perceived and emanating out from the stage so she could ask herself: “Does that align with my intentions?” 

That’s one particular example where collaboration was important and everyone in the room having a voice was very important. That (collaboration) is something I feel passionately about, but I acknowledge it becomes complicated when you have many more people involved, like in a mainstage opera! You also have an orchestra, and all these people working backstage. If we honestly wanted to create a forum wherein every single artist has an opportunity to have a voice, that is a massive undertaking and we would have to build a specific kind of process for that to happen. I do acknowledge that some of these collaborative ideals might seem a bit pie-in-the-sky, but again, I think this is about us asking: “What’s the desired outcome?” It’s about asking a community company or a large producing company and its leadership, “When a work is performed on your stage, what’s the desired outcome?” and then crafting a process to get us close to that desired outcome, whatever it may be.

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Director Joel Ivany (left), conductor Johannes Debus (centre) and Assistant Director Julie McIsaac (third from left) in rehearsal for the 2020 Canadian Opera Company production of Hansel & Gretel. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

You’re working with Joel Ivany on Hansel & Gretel, who also has experience working collaboratively and in small, unique spaces. 

It is! We both came up through this indie-theatre, indie-opera ethos, and we’re both used to working outside the mainstream, so it’s like we’re the scrappy kids from down the block coming into the big opera house! In relation to this production in particular, there’s a number of things we thought about: there’s a push for contemporary Torontonians to have an experience in the opera house that resonates with their lived experience, and there’s a push for the English-language performances for young audiences. We’ve got a partnership with four other local choirs, so kids from those choirs come on stage for the finale; having that community-engaged practise, and having this desire to reach into communities that might not otherwise feel like they have a place at the Four Seasons Centre, who might not feel included, or that (opera is) for them… in that way I think Joel and I are very much at home in the sense of being so aligned with values we hold dear. And it’s really exciting to see those initiatives at work and on the mainstage. I can’t stress enough the fact that sort of activity is happening on the mainstage of the Four Seasons Centre is so exciting.

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Preliminary set and projection design illustrations for the Canadian Opera Company’s 2020 production of Hansel & Gretel by designer S. Katy Tucker. Photo: Canadian Opera Company

Hansel & Gretel has a lot of dark undertones relating to themes of poverty and greed but as is the case with The Nutcracker, they’re often smoothed over.

It’s true, it’s like Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and (that dark nature) is in the libretto; there’s an edge to it in German that I think can get watered down in translation, and depending on the choices made in terms of production and staging and all of that, it’s interesting to consider. This being a new production, there’s a certain amount of prep work that’s been done, especially with (production dramaturg) Katherine Syer and the designers and the team at Banff who’ve been helping to create video and projection content (by S. Katy Tucker). But, despite all the work done ahead of time, there’s still exploration to come that we don’t quite know yet – that will really inform how those moments read that could have more edge, or darkness, or whatever. It’s remains to be seen how all those moments will come out! 

Sondra Radvanovsky in Toronto: Embracing Evolution

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Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky’s recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto this past weekend was a firm integration of her past, present, and future. The concert, presented to a sold-out audience, also served as a good catalyst for personal reflection, since it marked my first classical event since returning to Canada after living in Europe for close to four months. Contemplations on the role of evolution — artistic, personal, creative, emotional (or textured, painterly integration of them all) — progressed amidst a program which, despite its “bel canto to verismo” title, offered its own form of evolution as well, offering tasty morsels of Baroque works by Cacchini, Scarlatti, Fluck, and Durante, as well as later (much later) Italian composers Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. The recital was a keen lesson on the importance of authenticity, grace, and generosity, qualities the American-born, Canada-dwelling soprano has in abundance. It also underlined the magic of transformative embrace, to beautiful effect. 

Radvanovsky’s plummy soprano tone and supple vocalism, combined with an instinctual stage presence, have garnered her a host of fans, particularly following her triumphant series of performances as the female lead in bel canto “Tudor trilogy” by Donizetti (in both Toronto and New York) over the past few years. Many personal stories were shared throughout the evening, ones connecting circumstances with inspiration and opportunity with growth. Much like driving by an old house after moving (and yes I inadvertently did this myself recently), there was a nostalgic flavour to the proceedings, though it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Her coquettish rendition of Rossini’s boat-romance song cycle “La regata veneziana” (which she recalled performing as a young singer) was sharply contrasted by a theatrically gripping “Una macchia e qui tuttora!” from Verdi’s Macbeth. Radvanovsky subsequently revealed she will be making her role debut as the ambitious wife of Shakespeare’s doomed sovereign, though gave no indication of when. Will it be Toronto first and then New York, as was the case with her Donizetti Tudor roles? Only time will tell.  

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Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

After years of seeing Radvanovsky perform live, what I think makes her so powerful as an artist is her ability to meld blazing vocalism with charismatic theatricality; she physically acted out various scenes (from Roberto Devereux and Macbeth, for instance), reflecting the drama already so very present and palpable in her voice. Such a seamless fusion has won her many fans, both in her chosen country (she is American by birth but resides just outsides Toronto) and abroad.  The recital was marketed (and largely perceived by her many fans) as a homecoming, something she fully embraced, giving the enthusiastic Toronto audience a total of four encores at the concert’s close, which included recital chestnuts “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta” from Puccini’s La Rondine, “Ebben? Ne andrò lontana” from Catalani’s La Wally, “Pace, pace, mio Dio” from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (thrilling), as well as a very charming “Over the Rainbow”, complete with melodic piano flourishes from accompanist Anthony Manoli. What Radvanovsky gave, however (in bucket-fulls), was far more subtle than that which can be easily or quickly comprehended. The rapturous cheers may have come fast and furious, but I had to sit, at the close of each piece, quietly and carefully absorbing the innate artistry of what had just unfolded; it was like watching a plant grow from a spindly, fine, eyelash-like sprout, into a lush tree full of emerald-green, merrily waving leaves, all in the space of a few hours, or even bars. Radvanovsky took listeners on the journey of her ever-expanding evolution — artistic, creative, dare I say personal — and it was wondrous to behold. 

Over the past fourteen months or so, a creative reawakening of sorts has occurred within me, and I’ve returned to the work of artists I’d once loved, and found connections to new ones who break down doors mental, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional; in the process my priorities and pursuits have evolved into something which is a far more accurate reflection of who and what I am as writer and music lover, outside of my mother’s considerable (traditional opera-loving) shadow. It has been a kind of homecoming in both personal and professional senses. Some homecomings, I realize more than ever, are more meaningful than others, and have absolutely nothing to do with geography.  Just prior to returning, I had been told that I’d become “a lot more adventurous” in my musical tastes. This observation, made by a colleague, was flattering if heartening. Evolution is an interesting thing; sometimes it can be less about dramatic change than reclamation, exploration, and integration — reclaiming those more tender, curious parts of ourselves we have left behind, neglected, hidden away from view, exploring which parts fit now and which parts don’t, and integrating those parts with a worldly (we hope) adult self in a way that allows for the meeting of responsibilities while still leaving room for beauty, wonder, and surprise.

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Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov, Show One Productions

Those qualities — beauty, wonder, surprise — were the ones I took away with me from Radvanovsky’s recital. Her fearless rendition of “Sola, perduta, abbandonata” from Manon Lescaut, was luscious, passionate, her tone entirely unforced; she sang with a sensual zeal I have not, for all the times I’ve seen her perform live, quite heard before, and it was, in a word, breathtaking. The recital pointed at exciting new directions, a potential being realized, a new self flowering naturally from the old — not a forced transition this, but a progression, an extension, a risk into the unknown that feels utterly, bracingly right. Is one to deny evolution in favor of the familiar? Very often one does, yet another path beckons, and when taken, can yield the most beautiful of results. Radvanovsky is taking that path, as her recital in Toronto on Saturday proved, and doing it in own inimitable way. Brava.

Johannes Debus: “Going to concerts stops time”

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Photo: Bo Huang

The interesting thing about arriving in Berlin in the middle of summer is the big adjustment it’s forced in terms of activities and communicating; everyone’s been away (or is away still) on holidays. The quiet of summer has meant I’ve had lots of time to think, plan, and go through what a friend once termed an “input” phase; if anything has reminded me, in whispers and shouts, there may be a book (or memoir) in me yet… this has been it. My “output” phase is, however, rapidly approaching, what with the imminent start of concert and opera season. It’s still festival time in Canada still, of course, and a new one which caught my attention lately joins my favorite things: wine, food, song, with a bit of European flair.

Johannes Debus, Music Director of the Canadian Opera Company, is, like the company’s General Director Alexander Neef, a German native. He graduated from the Hamburg Conservatoire and went on to become Kapellmeister at Frankfurt Opera, where he led both old and modern works, a talent he continues to cultivate. Since then, Debus has led the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood and been guest conductor with the Biennale di Venezia, Bregenz, Schwetzingen, and Spoleto Festivals, to name just a few. Last December he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting Salome, and earlier this year led  the Austrian premiere of Goldschmidt’s Beatrice Cenci at the Bregenz Festival. He has collaborated with a number of acclaimed ensembles (some of whom I’ll be seeing shortly at this year’s Berlin MusikFest), including Ensemble Intercontemporain, Musikfabrik, Ensemble Modern, and Klangforum Wien.

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Johannes Debus with Graham Abbey, Artistic Director of Festival Players of Prince Edward County. The pair are collaborating on a Water Week event. (Photo: Elissa Lee)

Lately he’s put on something of an organizer cap, as one of the driving forces behind Water Week (running August 25th to 31s) in Prince Edward County, a picturesque part of southern Ontario a few hours east of Toronto, along the shores of Lake Ontario. Inspired by Stockholm’s World Water Week Symposium, Water Week unites environmental and cultural aspects in a beautiful (and wine-rich) part of Canada. The array of concerts and events on offer have been programmed by Debus and his wife, violinist Elissa Lee. Highlights include a performance by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, Lee’s Ensemble Made In Canada, a performance by soprano (and COC Ensemble graduate) Danika Lorèn, and a special event which will feature the talents of Canadian theatre artist Graham Abbey, bass Alain Coulombe (whose performance as the Commandatore in the 2016 Salzburg Festival production of Don Giovanni I found so affecting), and Debus himself. There will also be regular screenings from productions at this year’s Bregenz Festival. 

Because of the nature of this festival — it’s new, it’s varied, it’s in an area many Torontonians are relocating to — I wanted to get Debus’ thoughts around the whys and wherefores of his programming choices, and also get his thoughts on the role of social issues within the arts. The maestro faces a busy upcoming season, with a double-whammy of conducting duties with the Canadian Opera Company, for the (world premiere) of Rufus Wainwright’s Hadrian, and the behemoth that is Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin.

How did you decide on the programming? 

The choices sort of naturally came to us, we tried to bring in as much variety as possible so we can try to gain an understanding of what people are interested in. We also wanted to be sure to included musicians from Quebec and Ottawa, to try and bring these musical communities closer together.

What role do you see classical music playing in relation to social issues? I wrote about this in relation to the Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester Berlin’s upcoming season (which has an environmental theme) and am curious about your thoughts.

I think music has the power to unite people and can break all boundaries that sometimes exists in society.  Environmental issues should be on everyone’s minds, and any means we have to bring more awareness, and eventually change in habits, overconsumption and unnecessary waste production, the better. Everyone points the fingers to others for change, and I believe it starts with the individual. 

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Photo: Gaetz Photography

Why do you think a place like Prince Edward County is uniquely suited to this kind of festival?

I think the natural situation of Wellington was the biggest draw for us, Lake Ontario is right on the edge of town, and the raw beauty of it is mesmerizing. Also, the fact that Wellington is situated so close to Toronto, Ottawa, and Montreal is unique. We would like to contribute directly to the well-being of the community, and bring high-standard arts to locals living in Prince Edward County, but we do also hope to attract people from the three big cities.

What do you see as the challenges of having a festival (especially one with classical elements) in a rural location?

As an artist myself, the desire to share art with people and audiences is very strong and natural. People talk about (opera) being a dying art form; I am not sure it is. But if it is, then all the more reason why we try to sustain it and keep producing it. Going to concerts stops time, and the event gives people a refuge from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. 

You work and live between North America and Europe; how much of what you do and see in one places influences what you do and see in the other? 

Having one foot in each continent is very satisfying, because you have the best of both worlds! I would say I am a hybrid between these two worlds and cultures, and therefore I try to bring the positive aspects from both continents to the other side. 

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Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef and Canadian Opera Company Music Director Johannes Debus. (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

You are about to embark on a very ambitious and busy COC season; how do you see your work with the festival influencing your work at the COC, and vice-versa? 

Everything an artist does affects their output in their work and can affect their inspiration.  Anything that becomes simply a task, or a job to be accomplished, should be left alone. This project is a passion project, so for the moment, it is very inspiring, and it will fuel all other projects I have going on.

My Favorite Things From 2017

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At the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Before my most recent trip to Berlin for my birthday in earlier this month, I quickly jotted down a few music events that stood out to me without thinking too hard about the whys or wherefores. There have been so many special moments, and it’s hard to squish them into a list, let alone words and descriptions, and sometimes too much analysis not only muddles decent reflection but kills the joy of remembrance.

Many year-end “favorites” lists that show up this time of year tend to be steeped in memories and sentiment, and music is the best and most direct avenue to both. As music writer Tim Sommer points out in his own year-end feature, “no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music. Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking.”

So much of my life is made up of lists — for packing, for groceries, for trips, and for stories to chase and features to finish. If I could write a list of feelings throughout the year the way I quickly wrote out my list of music experiences, how would it read? Disappointment might feature largely, but so would wonder. With a second near-solo Xmas Day under my belt, a lot of time has been spent in remembrance, on events recent and not, and on people new and old, near and far, present and not. In returning to my music list, muddling through the sometimes sticky waters of sentiment and memory, and ruminating on the ease of my choices, I’ve come to realize that wonder is the ribbon tying everything together. It’s a quality I fully realize can’t be forced, but can, perhaps, arise out of the right set of conditions. It logically follows then, that next year I hope to be writing this list from Europe. (You read that correctly.) Until then, please enjoy, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

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The cast of “La damnation de Faust” take bows at the Opera Royal de Wallonie (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

1. La damnation de Faust, Opéra Royal de Wallonie; Liège, January.

Though I have loved the work of Berlioz for years, never have I heard it so vividly and lovingly brought to life as here, in the beautiful, ornate opera house of lovely Liège. American tenor Paul Groves, currently onstage at the Met in The Merry Widow (my interview with him here), turned his Faust strongly away from tormented-hero cliches and into something recognizably (and touchingly) human; his chemistry with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Mephistopheles was warm, watchable, and quietly splendid. (More here.) Together with Director Ruggero Raimondi’s thoughtful production and strong orchestral vision from Music Director Patrick Davin, this was one of the best ways to start the musical new year.

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Lilian Farahani, Donato Di Stefano, and Anicio Zorzi Giustianini in “Il matrimonio segreto”. (Photo: Opera National de Lorraine)

2. Il matrimonio segreto, Opéra national de Lorraine; Nancy, February.

Conductor Sascha Goetzel led a vivacious reading of Cimarosa’s frothy and very Mozartean score (on the day of its 225th birthday, when I attended) in this fun production of the 1792 opera by Cordula Däuper in Nancy’s sumptuous opera house. Standouts included tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the lovestruck Paulino, baritone Riccarado Novaro as seeming-fop Conte Robinson, and jovial baritone Donato Di Stefano as the bumbling Signor Geronimo. They, along with the entire cast, skillfully used Sophie du Vinage’s zany costumes and Ralph Zeger’s comical dollhouse sets to wondrous effect, embodying the very best sitcom stars with boundless energy and zesty, charismatic stage presences to match. This was “Three’s Company” 18th century style, complete with beautiful music and cartoon costumes — and it was fantastic.

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Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Andreas Schager as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Gotterdammerung.” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

3. Götterdämmerung, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, February.

Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Brünnhilde in this modern production, is one of the very great singers of our era, and you should run, not walk, if she’s performing in your town. This lady (my interview with her is here) understands, at a deep level, what makes Wagner  (and music) exciting, affecting, and fiercely human. If ever you’ve said ‘I don’t like Wagner” or “I don’t understand opera” or “Opera is boring,”  she is the person who will guide you to a place that may change your mind. This was her third turn in Toronto singing as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each performance, including the one last winter, her Brünnhilde grew ever more alive and vivid. Goerke is truly a gifted vocalist and a great performer, and in this final instalment of the immense Ring Cycle, she infused every scene she was in with an earthy, robust presence. In a word: magic.

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The set of Willy Decker’s “La traviata” at the Met in New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

4. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, March.

I have seen this opera many, many times in my opera-going life, but never have I seen one with more unusual characterizations. It forced a rethink of every single trope I had taken for granted. Alfredo, the male lead, was not a lovelorn romantic figure, but an obsessive weirdo bordering on abusive. Tenor Michael Fabiano captured every nuance of the character with magnetic clarity, and he was matched here, beautifully, by baritone Thomas Hampson, whose Giorgio was desperate, mean, and possibly more abusive than his son. It was a remarkably theatrical approach, and it was gripping to watch the two interact with Sonya Yoncheva’s sad, exhausted Violetta, a woman so desperately at the end of her rope she overlooks the character flaws of the men who constantly surround her. I had my reservations of Willy Decker’s production overall (more here) but I loved the central performances, and still think of them with awe.

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Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye in “Medea” at Opera Atelier. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

5. Medea, Opera Atelier; Toronto, April.

As with La traviata, the strength of the performances in Medea are seared into my memory. (My review here.) Tenor Colin Ainsworth embodied the wayward husband character with bravado, his Jason conniving, sexy, sensuous, and highly manipulative, always managing to say the right thing while shamelessly doing wrong, less a libidinous cartoon than a recognizably entitled man brought low by the slow-boiling rage of Peggy Kriha Dye’s titular sorceress. Their scenes together sizzled with an intense love-hate chemistry that so clearly reminded one of the all-too-human basis of mythology; these characters of yore may have odd names and be entangled in crazy-seeming stories, but Atelier’s production of the Charpentier work, for all its beautiful design elements, offered an important reminder that the human heart is a very messy and frequently painful place.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky as part of Trio Magnifico. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

6. Trio Magnifico, Toronto; April.

The concert marked both the Canadian debut of soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as well as the final Canadian appearance of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. (My tribute to Dima here; my interview with Netrebko and Eyvazov here.) With the Canadian Opera Company orchestra led by Jager Bigiamini, the famed trio performed a Russian-heavy program that also featured several standard opera favorites, including Hvorostovsky’s anguished, heart-rending performance in a scene from Rigoletto. People can (and have) roll(ed) eyes that it was a concert about frippery and hype, that it lacked substance and/or deep artistry; everyone is entitled to such opinions. But for me, it was a concert where music became very real, where hearts were shamelessly worn on sleeves (and fancy dresses), and where the electric thrill of world-renowned voices was finally felt in a city that had waited too long for such a large-scale opera event. Bravo (and more of this, please).

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At the Konzerthaus Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

7. Herbert Blomstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kit Armstrong, soloist; Konzerthaus Berlin, May.

Armstrong gave a beautiful, loving reading of Beethoven’s famous Third Piano Concerto, in a program that also featured Bruckner’s Fourth symphony. This concert was part of a series of programs dedicated to (and saluting the work of) pianist Alfred Brendel, and there was, I think, no better way to pay homage. The American artist didn’t pound the crap out of the keys or show off his Mad Finger Skillz the way some young soloists are prone to doing; rather, in perfect harmony with Blomstedt’s delicate direction of a creamy (if highly textured) Vienna Phil, Armstrong coaxed the gentle splendour out of  the fiendishly deceptive work with kindness, gentleness, and a profound sense of poetry. The focus was always very squarely on the music, as the audience at Konzerthaus so expertly proved with their careful, intense listening and, at the concert’s end, continuous applause and (rare for Berlin) standing ovation.

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The cast of “Die Krönung der Poppea” take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.)

8. Die Krönung der Poppea / Ball im Savoy Komische Oper Berlin, May.

If you’ve spent any time around me this year, chances are very good you’ve heard me rapturously talk about this, and probably more than once. To be plain: this updated version of The Coronation of Poppea was one of the best experiences in my entire opera-going life. Monteverdi’s score was infused with creative, modern, character-focused touches, thanks to Elena Kats Chernin’s ingenious instrumentations, and Katrin Lea Tag’s sexy, sparse design, together with Barry Kosky’s seriously smart direction, confidently underlined every bit of timeliness inherent to the work. This was sex, blood, murder, madness, power, set to repeat, and to a bang-up smashing soundtrack. The Komische Oper’s easy pairing of what could be called “high classical” works (like those by Monteverdi) with fun, frothy pieces like Weimar Republic operettas (i.e. a sassy, very funny production of Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy, featuring the great Dagmar Manzel) highlighted the eclectic, culturally diverse performing arts scene in the Berlin opera world. This is a company (my write-up on them here) that understands the role both opera and operetta play in a healthy music ecosystem, and they do both with incredible style and smarts.

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The cast of “Der Rosenkavalier” take bows at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

9. Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, May.

Not only did this mark a goodbye (of sorts, maybe) for soprano Renée Fleming, it was also one of the most satisfying productions that has graced the Met stage in a very long while. Robert Carsen balanced every element with grace and panache, placing the story (about genteel Viennese in a battle of hearts and minds, of sorts) in a pre-WW1 setting, giving both the narrative and infusing its cast of characters with poignancy. The chemistry between Fleming and Elīna Garanča, in the pants role of Octavian, was gripping, magical, and very palpable. (More of my thoughts here.) We don’t have to guess at Octavian’s fate here; it isn’t, as so many productions might have you believe, happily-ever-after. Never has stripping the saccharine veneer off Viennese finery been more satisfying, or dare I say, beautiful.

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Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2017. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

10. Tosca, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, May.

Mesmerizing stage presence, an imposing physique, a luscious tenor sound – this production could have well been called “Mario” for the heat Marcelo Puente brought to it. (My interview with him here.) The Argentinian tenor exuded star power in waves, even as he maintained perfect vocal control and demonstrated a deep respect for Puccini’s buttery score, his rendering of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” a clear cry out of spiritual and emotional darkness, dramatically rich as it was vocally fulsome. The chemistry Puente shared with leading lady Adrianne Pieczonka was notable for its casual ease; this was a Tosca and Mario who were clearly friends as well as lovers, something refreshing in an opera usually overstuffed with giant romantic gestures that don’t always feel sincere. This did.

Hibla Vladiir concert

Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions)

11. Hibla Gerzmava in concert, Roy Thomson Hall; Toronto, June.

Despite some apparent throat issues, Gerzmava gave a beautiful concert with the Moscow Virtuosi, providing a splendid introduction for Canadians unfamiliar with the soprano’s incredible range and repertoire. (My review here.) What struck me watching Gerzmava live was how easily she moved between modes: diva, philosopher, dreamer. Some opera performers have one mode, which they only slightly alter between pieces and roles, and that’s fine too — every artist is a little bit different, an they do what works best for them, in the moment and for the long term — but Gerzmava melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.

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RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

12. Berliner Festspiele; September.

Autumn saw a quick if very busy trip to the German capital to cover concerts and performances at the annual arts event for Opera Canada magazine (published in their next edition in early 2018). A standout from the Fest includes the RIAS Kammerchor, led by Justin Doyle. Together with period instrument ensemble Capella de la Torre, the choir marked the 500th birthday of opera forefather Claudio Monteverdi by performing a series of day-spanning concerts at both the historic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the modern Boulez Hall; the contrast was stark and beautiful, and very haunting. (My review here.) Also memorable was the Korean Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, who offered a program chalk-full of works by Isang Yun, a Korea-born German composer whose 100th birthday year was being marked with events throughout the Festspiele. The Konzerthaus audience at the Sunday morning concert responded with incredible passion and offered beautifully careful listening as conductor Shiyeon Sung led her very elastic orchestra on a very gripping sonic journey.

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Roberto de Candia as Falstaff in Parma. (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

13. Falstaff, Teatro Regio di Parma; October.

Go outside the Teatro Regio and into the streets of Parma, and I guarantee you would have found any of the characters featured in Jacopo Spirei’s smart production of Verdi’s classic, based on the (in)famous Shakespeare character. (My interview with Spirei here.) This was a presentation that got every element right, from design to blocking to performances, while leaving great respect for the challenging if fiercely sparky score. Roberto de Candia was brilliant as the titular Falstaff — not a fun-loving-fat-man cliche, but a vulgarian bordering on loathsome, who was only redeemed by the strength and grace of the women around him. This wasn’t merry old England but dirty old Blighty and it was brilliant — and a troupe of English travellers I met at intermission heartily agreed, adding it was the best thing they’d seen at the Festival Verdi this year. (I agree.) I really hope this production travels to North America at some point; it has so much to say, and says it in such a smart, and frequently funny way.

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Dominik Köninger with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

14. Dominik Köninger in recital with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie Berlin; Berlin, October.

In seeing Die Krönung der Poppea, I wrote that the German baritone delivered a “snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance” as Nero, an observation perhaps made more poignant for it being one of the few darker roles he has done. Köninger is, as he told me over the course of a subsequent interview (link), usually cast in what could be considered good-guy roles like Papageno, Orpheus, Figaro, and lately, Pelléas. Perhaps he should consider adding more villains — or at least more darkly tormented figures. Köninger’s propensity and talent for deep, dark, yearning repertoire was shown to full effect in a concert given just before Halloween at the Philharmonie’s Chamber Concert Hall with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Titled “Totentanz” (or “Death Dance”), the program was a smart, carefully curated mix of Grieg, Purcell, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Schubert, and Mahler; it also featured gripping instrumental selections and abridged scores from various films (including Psycho), rearranged for strings. This was a concert that transcended the corny, faux-scary Halloween tropes and went straight to the heart – of darkness, isolation, longing, claustrophobia, sadness, desolation — and showcased Koninger’s coppery-toned baritone. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and selections from Schubert’s Winterreise were true highlights, performed with exquisite soulfulness. Forget the good guys!

Nabucco Deutsche Oper

“Nabucco” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

15. Nabucco, Deutsche Opera; Berlin, November.

People who know opera have lots of opinions about this work (it’s too long; it’s never done right; it’s too narratively meandering) but everyone, opera fan or not, knows the famous Hebrew Chorus (“Va pensiero”). Unquestionably, that’s just what some of the Deutsche Oper crowd was there to hear this past November, holding collective breath until it unfurled, note by majestic note, under the careful baton of conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Still, there was an overall curiosity and appreciation of the intriguing staging and strong singing. The audience was confronted with an uncomfortably familiar world where deep polarization was sewn by the brutality of fervent nationalism and intolerant religiosity. This spicy timeliness was underlined by Anna Smirnova’s magnetic performance as Abigaille, Nabucco’s doomed daughter. Director Keith Warner denied audiences the sentimental mood (and ending) which is sometimes presented in productions, instead presenting a world where tenderness is rare, and highly dangerous. The “walls” of Tilo Steffens’s immense set shut before the doomed Abigaille at the close; there was no forgiveness for her trespasses. It was a devastating, disturbing, and frankly, fantastic conclusion to a challenging production of a work too often soaked in sentimentality and star power.

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Katrin Wundsam and Elsa Dreisig as Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. (Photograph: Monika Rittershaus)

16. Hänsel & Gretel, Staatsoper Unter Den Linden; Berlin, December.

Director Achim Freyer is known for his vivid designs, painterly approach, and almost cartoon-like visual sense, and I was very curious as to what he’d do with the beloved (and widely produced holiday standard) Hänsel und Gretel. No sooner did the music begin and I found myself utterly besotted by the whimsical effect in the famous Humperdinck work. The lost pair were rendered as living dolls, complete with giant eyes (which performers cleverly moved with well-placed levers) and charming, child-like gestures. The Gingerbread Witch didn’t have an actual face, but rather, an enormous, beckoning finger as a sort of stand-in “nose” (complete with a long, red fingernail) , a coffee pot “head,” and various bits and bites of food and goodies making up the rest (think Pizza The Hut, but with less gross factor and far more style). Together with Freyer’s captivatingly creative design, wonderful performances (including tenor Jürgen Sacher as the very campy witch), and strong orchestral coloring (thanks to conductor Sebastian Weigle), the essential tension of the original Grimm fairy tale (abundance vs. poverty) was underlined in large, small, and entirely unmissable ways. It was also special to have this opera be my first experience in the gorgeously renovated Berlin State Opera theatre  — talk about a delicious birthday treat!

Berlin Thielemann

Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

17. Christian Thielemann with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philharmonie Berlin, December.

I’m being perfectly honest when I write that conductor Christian Thielemann scares me — perhaps it’s the intensity, or that he reminds me of a few too many scowling band leaders from my high school days. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to smile or be cuddly to lead an astounding Berlin Phil through a non-stop, barn-burner performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Thielemann missed no chances to do the boom-bang version of Beethoven, but he also took time — lots of it — exploring, dare I say, the work’s many luxurious, foreplay-like moments (which sounds bizarre, since it is formally a religious piece, but!). The careful leanings into phrasing, the pregnant pauses, the fine drawing-out of vocal lines tenderly at one moment and whittling away strings and percussions into nothingness at others… some performances leave you (me) breathless, and this was one. When he held the rich, pregnant silence at the end, for several moments, no one in the Philharmonie breathed, or dared to; Thielemann has that effect. It was a very special and memorable way to experience the music of Beethoven at the Philharmonie for the first time — and again, was a special gift for my birthday week in Berlin.

18. Märchen im Grand Hotel (Fairy Tales from the Grand Hotel), Komische Oper Berlin, December.

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Talya Liebermann and Tom Erik Lie in “Märchen im Grand Hotel” at Komische Oper Berlin, 2017. (Photo: Robert-Recker.de)

Despite my lacking linguistic facility in German (which I intend to rectify in 2018), the production, with fantastically energetic conducting by Music Director Adam Benzwi, was totally understandable with its themes of sacrifice, acceptance, and change being the only constants in life. The assorted cast of animated characters were brought to vivid life by a dedicated ensemble dressed to the nines, with voices to match; soprano Talya Lieberman and baritone Tom Erik Lie were special standouts for capturing such lovely delicacy in their numbers. Another Grand Hotel-themed musical (the Tony Award-winning 1989 version) is being presented this coming season at the Shaw Festival (in southern Ontario), and I’m planning on a longer feature about this work’s various iterations in 2018, the staying power of Baum’s novel, and what it means for us in the here and now. Please stay tuned? More music adventures are afoot, though hopefully “close to home” will have a different meaning at this time next year.

Tomasz Konieczny: Acting Before Singing Was Hard!

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Hearing Tomasz Konieczny speak, you can’t help but think “well of course he’s a singer.” But he didn’t start out as one.

In a recent chat I had with the Polish bass baritone, who’s currently in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening production of Strauss’ romantic comedy Arabella (running October 5th to 28th), Konieczny admitted that being an actor first was a hindrance, not a help. As you’ll hear, re-learning everything anew was not an easy task. While there is a greater focus on acting in opera these days (especially since the advent of the Met’s Live In HD series, where gesture is writ large on cinema screens around the world), sometimes knowing the acting part first makes things harder, not easier.

I first heard Konieczny as Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a compelling 2014 Salzburg Festival production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. (I liked the production on DVD so much I had to go see it live for myself at its revival in Salzburg in 2016, though Canadian bass Alain Coulombe sang the role). What strikes me about Konieczny is how he modulates authority; his Commendatore, for instance, was commanding (as the name may imply), but it was also restrained, which is something not always conveyed when performing the role of a ghostly, avenging father. His performance oozed a quiet kind of power that was hypnotizing, creepy, and very memorable. Konieczny performed the role again this past spring, in a production by the famed director Robert Carsen, at Teatro alla Scala Milan, opposite Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello and Thomas Hampson’s Don.

Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli, Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka, John Fanning as Count Waldner and Gundula Hintz as Adelaide in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Along with discussing the challenges that come with moving between various roles (Konieczny has a long and impressive resume that includes a lot of Wagner roles), he and I also discuss voice types, a debated area in the singer world; while some are comfortable with the ‘bass baritone’ label, some are very much not. Konieczny provide a helpful template for how to think about these voice types. We also talk about the romantic Mandryka, in Arabella, a role he’s well familiar with (having performed it a numerous occasions with the Vienna State Opera), and the influence (or not) of aristocracy and money on his character in Strauss’ 1933 comic opera.

Christine Goerke: “She’s Every Woman”

Stefan Vinke as Siegfried and Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016. Photo: Michael Cooper

Singer, mother, actor, opinionator — these are some of the titles that come to mind when I think of Christine Goerke.

The American soprano, currently in Toronto through February 25th performing the role of Brunnhilde in Wagner’s epic work Götterdämmerung (the last of the group of works known as the Ring Cycle), is as feisty a presence to chat to as she is on the stage. Having first seen her in as the Dyer’s Wife in Richard Strauss’s monumental Die Frau ohne Schatten at the Met in 2013, I’ve since throughly enjoyed the work she’s brought to the Canadian Opera Company. Each time she’s performed the Wagnerian heroine (in Die Walküre in 2015 and Siegfried in 2016), she’s brought a sparky resilience that is thoroughly modern and, particularly for Wagner newbies, highly watchable. Christine is just plain exciting to watch as a performer, which makes her an especially great figure for opera newbies; highly expressive in her physicality, she also has a powerful, dramatic soprano and crystal-clear diction. One might attend Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle thinking only of its seemingly-interminable length, its dense score, its weighty mythology… but then Christine appears, and so enters a very contemporary sensibility, one that is involved, feisty, and warmly human. Christine is one of those singers who defies the old image of the fusty / diva / out-of-touch opera singer; she’s not only down to earth, but funny, thoughtful, blunt, and a very intriguing tweeter.

Just before I left for Europe, I had the chance to chat with Christine about Brunnhilde, and singing, and tweeting — and what it means to be an opera singer in the twenty-first century. As with the prior audio interview I recently posted about (with COC General Director Alexander Neef), please pardon the intermittent beeping; recording particulars still hadn’t been quite worked out (but will be going forward). One thing: please don’t feel you need to know anything about Wagner’s world, or indeed even opera, to enjoy this chat. If all you really know about opera is an image of a woman in a horned hat shrieking… well that’s Brunnhilde; Christine will blow that image delightfully apart for you. Oh, and if you like Star Wars, she’s pretty sure you’ll like Wagner, too.

(Photo: Pierre Gautreau)

Something New, Something Old

The Nightingale and Other Short Fables (COC, 2009) / Photo: Michael Cooper

Right now it’s the season of opera companies revealing their upcoming rosters of productions and casts for the following season. Each year these announcements are met with breathless excitement from opera buffs like me; very often we plan our lives around this stuff, though just as often announcements are also met with eyebrow raises, snickers, and/or sighs.

No such reactions, at least from my end, when it came to the Canadian Opera Company’s 2017-2018 season; it’s intriguing and genuinely balanced, and not exactly as safe as it may look from the outset. A revival of a hugely divisive, Christopher Alden-directed Rigoletto (a production that bravely tackles the work’s blatant misogyny) and the Canadian premiere of Richard Strauss’ Arabella (as the season opener, no less) are just two of the notable productions on tap. There’s also another revival, of the hugely successful The Nightingale And Other Short Fables, which, if you don’t live in Toronto, is very worth making a trip for. It’s a very special production involving a flooded orchestra pit, creative puppetry, and some very searing visuals. I can’t think of a better introduction to opera than this.

Just before I left for Europe (where I’m posting from — more on this jaunt in a future post), I had a chance to chat with COC General Director Alexander Neef. It was recorded via telephone, owing to a nasty cold I was (/am) enduring. (I’m still working out the particulars of my fancy new recorder, so please pardon the beeping; it’s not a heart monitor, honest.) Neef is always a good conversationalist, even if he and I don’t always see eye-to-eye in the opera sphere. For instance, I think L’elisir d’amore is far more interesting with older singers; to my ears, Donizetti’s gorgeous score only fully reveals its warm humanity with the timbre of mature voices — though I should add, I am allowing myself to remain totally open whatever surprises may be in the Ensemble Studio-populated production the COC has planned in the fall. Having soprano Jane Archibald as Artist-in-Residence is an equally intriguing prospect; along with performing in The Abduction from the Seraglio, she’ll be making two role debuts — in Arabella and The Nightingale. Archibald was so very affecting this past fall in the COC’s affecting production of Ariodante, and again, if you’re not an opera fan, hers is the voice that may make you a believer. Along with stellar technique, the soprano has a warm, human presence onstage, and she’s a great actor too.

So, without further ado, please enjoy. More audio interviews — and updates from Europe — to come. Stay tuned.

(Photo: Bo Huang)

Casta Diva

Tomorrow will mark three weeks since my mother passed away.

It feels odd to write that sentence, and odd to sit and look at it. Those are words I never thought I’d write at this stage of my life, in a blog no less, for everyone to see. There’s something so awfully personal about losing her, and I’ve encountered so many emotions and memories the last while — things I want to keep private, things I want to keep in a sacred space, things said and done and understood that need to exist only in the intimate space that existed between her and me. That may change in time, but for now, there are some doors that are remaining firmly shut.

Still, it’s hard for me to quantify the effect my mother has had (and continues to have) on my life. So much of what I love — music, theatre, opera, art — stems from her exposing me, at a very early age, to culture. It’s become the stuff of folklore to those who knew us well to hear I was in piano lessons at four, an opera gown at five, attending symphonies at six. Much as she complained about and worried over the inconsistencies of my chosen livelihood, she also knew I wasn’t really qualified to do anything else, that writing about (and for) the arts was, and remains, as natural to as breathing, as urgent as scratching a bite, as inevitable as sighing.

And I’ve been sighing a lot lately — over the times we shared, of course, but also over all the things she isn’t here to experience. Bellini’s great bel canto work Norma was on CBC’s Saturday Afternoon At The Opera program today, and I shed a few tears, and heaved a few sighs, thinking back both to my swooning exclamations to her after seeing Sandra Radvanovsky sing the role live in New York in 2013, and feeling horribly sad at the fact she wasn’t here to listen to the broadcast and rejoice in it as I was. Her absence feels like a horrible robbery to me, still — a robbery not solely to me, but to everyone whose life she touched (and there were many), and to the many worlds she moved between: cultural, financial, social, familial. Much as we are robbed by her absence, we were graced by her presence, and no one benefited more from that grace than I did. If I had a sense of gratitude before her passing, that sense has deepened, widened, broadened, become almost all-encompassing, to the point that a piece of music, an aria, even the most brief and beautifully-played phrase, will still me, awe me, set me to tears and sighs and silence. Productivity lately, as you might guess, has been something of a miracle — and yet I carry on being busy, because I know it’s precisely what she would want.

Still, there are many moments throughout the day that call for pause. The tickets for this season’s Canadian Opera Company productions sit in their envelope on the refrigerator in the kitchen, where I do most of my work; I stare at them and wonder what will happen the next few months. I couldn’t (wouldn’t) have ever dreamed I’d be without her a few months ago. Now, I find myself looking up from my work and over at the fridge — and I’m hungry, but not for what’s on the other side of the door. It’s going to be painful to enter the doors of the Four Seasons Centre without her, even with all the kind expressions of support I’ve received from fellow opera-going friends. How do you negotiate a world you’ve only ever known with someone else? “Make it your own” is a tidy little saying, but it feels far too trite, and somehow, too limiting.

So much of my cultural life is bound up in sharing what I love with others, in bringing them into the arts world to experience and exchange ideas, insights, inspirations. That’s a big reason I’m an arts journalist: I like to share what I love and think is relevant, important, moving, enraging, beautiful. I think my mother saw and appreciated that toward the end of her life. As I said in my eulogy at her funeral service, I am who and what I am because of her; my world has been shaped accordingly.

Now I face a world shaped by her absence. I will, of course, see and hear her everywhere — on the radio, between the notes, within the sighs, in the opera house — but it isn’t the same. Seeing the spaces where she should sit, hearing the arias she’d swoon over, hugging the people she adored, eating the (rare) dishes she enjoyed — these things underline and highlight an absence that is still, for all intensive purposes, a shock. Art doesn’t help to answer any of the questions I’m left with, or resolve the sea of emotions I’m navigating, but it does remind me of the legacy that lives within me, and within those who’ve checked out a production, a show, a book, a movie, a restaurant, because of our loud, shared cultural passion. This was her gift; it remains her lifetime contribution, one that defies even death, one that I hope will counteract the yawning absence, and become a part of a divine presence that never leaves.

Home

Photo / my Flickr

Of all the challenges I faced this past autumn and winter, perhaps the biggest was trying to keep my cultural writing alive. That I let something go that meant (means) so much to me is troubling, and I’m hoping to amend that in a number of ways as 2014 unfolds.

Embracing opera in a new, far more powerful way than I have in the past, is the first step in this correction. While studying in New York, I found myself missing the Canadian Opera Company’s zesty experimental approach to an old medium, and its fulsome orchestral embrace of many beloved scores. Sure, the Met is great  but it’s not the same. It’s hard for me to have an honest emotional experience when I feel like I’m part of a capital “e” event; attending an opera at Lincoln Center sometimes always feels that way, to say nothing of the itinerant activities around performances. There’s something so big, so epic, so fraught with legend and the baggage of history, that actually sitting in the Met house proper opens up a world of doubt about whether production (and performance) choices are to move the audience, or merely impress us with illusions of artistic authenticity. (There was, refreshingly, a ton of artistry, authenticity, and heart in the Met production of Strauss’ Die frau ohne schatten last month, but that’s for another blog post. I’m still ruminating on it  — something that’s never happened in my almost thirty years of Met-going experience. Surely it must mean… something? Hmmm.)

Despite the few things the COC’s produced that haven’t work for me (both Martha Clarke’s meta-theatrical vision of Mozart’s The Magic Flute from the early 1990s and a stilted, emotionally hollow production of Elektra in 2007, come to mind), some of the best theater I’ve ever experienced — particularly in the few years — has been from a seat in the Four Seasons Centre. From Christopher Alden’s deeply unsettling vision of Rigoletto in 2011 (a favorite production, having sat through many versions of it), to his wickedly smart, sexy 2012 production of Die Fledermaus, to the jaw-dropping beauty of Peter Sellars’ Tristan und Isolde, and the disturbing magic of Atom Egoyan’s Salome, I go to the COC to be inspired and challenged, disturbed and knocked off balance. Opera is more than pretty songs; it engages heart and brain at once, that understands how thinking, feeling, and being challenged need not be mutually exclusive from being entertained. Opera has become less of a diversion than an immersion, a whole-hearted embrace of something both larger than myself, and yet entirely of myself. 
Photo / my Flickr

I grew up listening to opera; it was as much a part of my household as the music of ABBA, The Carpenters, the Bee Gees, and Queen. Luciano Pavarotti, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dean Martin, and Freddie Mercury were the voices of my childhood. “Saturday Afternoon At The Opera” was (and remains) a tradition. Naturally, I went through the predictable teenaged phase of kicking out, rolling eyes, plugging ears, and closing heart: “turn that shit off!” I found my mother’s opera obsession embarrassing and annoying. I wanted my rock and electronic music on the stereo (loud). The many operas I’d go to as a child and fall asleep halfway through out of youth and it being a school night, I fell asleep to out of sheer disgust and outright boredom. I’d heard it all, and I was no longer interested.

But when I moved to Dublin in my early 20s, I found myself missing the opera world terribly missing the magic of the melody, surely, but missing the drama as well. I have always loved theater; I sought it out as a kid, even running into Atom Egoyan many years ago during a production of King Lear at the Bathurst Street Theatre.  I’ve immersed myself in theater at various points throughout my life: as a writer, an actor, a behind-the-scenes person, a front-of-house person, a PR person, and now, a journalist. No matter where I’ve lived, I’ve always run to the theater, for community, familiarity, comfort, yes… but for being challenged, too.

Photo / my Flickr

And over the years, I’ve discovered the opera I enjoy most is that which provides a challenge, but always respects the music. I’ve fallen back in love, in a newer, stronger, more adult way, with the music I rejected as a youth. There’s a strange, intoxicating power when theater and music join forces; it is the best kind of sensory overload. Even when the 2010 Tim Albery-directed Aida didn’t work for me, its score — and interpretation — did. A night at the opera reminds me that theater and music is precisely the kind of holy union I want shaping and informing my 2014.

Coming away from a night at the opera, I am inspired to think more deeply not only about the art itself, but about music, science, technology, history, philosophy… even love… and the intimate connections therein. I want to get back to not only writing, but painting, cooking, drawing… to creativity, to authenticity, with head, with heart, taking small footsteps, but always moving forward. 

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