Tag: COC

Whither Aida?

Two vastly different, but related experiences of grandeur, have got me thinking about the value of big productions, culturally and otherwise. The Canadian Opera Company opened its latest season October 2nd with a startling, strangely unmoving production of Verdi’s Aida. The company, headed by the brilliant Alexander Neef, has seen an upswing in its popularity among younger culture vultures of the city (so much so that local fave Broken Social Scene will be headling their annual fundraising ball) while keeping their vital older subscriber base happy -until now, anyway. The production of Aida on now manages to confuse, infuriate, and perhaps worst of all… bore.

Like any good opera-goer, I’ve seen my share of staged Aidas -mainly at the Met, it should be noted, with live animals & a chorus numbering in the hundreds. Budget?!, you want to shriek when the gold-leaf-everythings are wheeled in alongside blinding elephants and bored-looking horses, what budget? Aida isn’t staged too often precisely because it’s so expensive, and often, the baggage that travels with it isn’t just the kind you can see. And the magic of the romance inherent within the tale gets lost amidst the grandeur. The tale of the Ethiopian slave-princess and her doomed love affair with the Egyptian captain Radames is Big Operatic Melodrama -which is fine -though coupled with Verdi’s stirring, awesome score, means you have the makings of an audience full of expectations: the set should be big, the emoting should be grand, the orchestra should be really, really loud. Right? Wrong, or so says director Tim Albery and COC music director Johannes Debus. Albery has purposely shied away from the Big Everything approach, eschewing grandeur in favour of story, subtext, and even meta-theatrical musings on the nature of performer-audience relations.

So there’s no Egyptophilia here, which would be a refreshing change if Albery’s production wasn’t so intent on going in the contrary direction for the sake of it. It’s a noble instinct to try to re-define an old operatic chestnut, but the idea kills the emotion. Set in some 1980s Trump-like super-state, where the Egyptian politicos are in tailored suits (a la Mad Men) and the ladies are trussed up like gaudy pseudo-Ivana cyborgs, the delicacy and beauty of both the story and the music are nearly lost. Nearly. Thank heavens (make that Isis) for Debus’ stunningly keen musical direction. Never have I heard such a beautiful, stirring, poetic rendering of Verdi’s score as here. It greatly helps that the cast, lead by the utterly awesome Sondra Radvanovsky (making her COC debut) are fantastic. Radvanovsky’s delicate, heartfelt approach to the material is gorgeous.

If only the same could be said of Albery’s direction, which positively reeks of over-stylization and heavy-handedness. While I enjoyed his underlining of the horrors of colonialism during the triumphal march, the gold-lame-come-stripper priestesses and humping skeletons did little to add to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ghislanzoni‘s libretto; the whole concept felt forced, insipid, and arrogant -and playing right into the kind of grandeur it was supposedly turning its back on.

In my next blog, I’ll be detailing the big event that did move me deeply -one that openly embraced largeness, and used it to incredible effect to create a sense of intimacy and wonder. Stay tuned…

Aida Photo Credits: © 2010 Michael Cooper

The Nightingale: Fluttering Simplicity

Igor Stravinsky has never endeared those who crave traditional melodic lines. His music is raucous, rough, and challenging –not the kind of thing you can hum or whistle to.

So it was with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I took my traditional-opera-loving mum to see the new production of his 1908 opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. She’s always thought of Stravinsky as “weird” (you might too, if your favourite music is grand Italian opera) and I know she was never a fan of the Russian’s challenging, difficult, definitely non-hummable music. His infamous statement, that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” has been assessed and analyzed, criticized and derided, and yet I suspect he may’ve been onto the same kinds of thing as Marcel Duchamp, or even later, Brian Eno. Stravinsky’s work isn’t about making you feel comfortable, and indeed, that isn’t the point of what I’d consider good art. Spoon-feeding is atrocious; it takes a keen director, respectful of the material but strong in their own sense of individualism and craft to bring a vision that might express something through the myriad of sounds and effects Stravinsky laid throughout his scores.

Enter Robert Lepage. The Nightingale marks his return to the Canadian Opera Company after a sixteen-year absence. Just as he brought a bold, striking vision to the 1993 production of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung so he brings a playful, if equally visionary sense to this latest work. Stravinsky was the musical revolutionary of his time; LePage is his contemporary theatrical equivalent. Neither artist has ever taken the safe road with regards to their respective arts, so it came as no surprise when it was announced last year that the Quebec born, multi-award-winning theatre director would be filling the orchestra pit of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with 67,000 litres of water as part of his vision for the piece. That’s a whole lotta water, and people like my mother (a longtime COC subscriber) wondered if it was also a whole lotta waste-of-time.

But the idea -in its audacity, grandeur, and sheer weirdness -intrigued her, and I would imagine, many of those in attendance at Saturday’s opening. Opera is meant to be big and bold and ballsy; there’s no such thing as subtle opera in the larger scheme of things. The adjective “grand” is attached to opera (or at least some styles) for a reason, and it’s always this sense of “the big” that pervades popular notions around the artform. I’ve sat through more than one production of Aida that featured live animals, including elephants, horses, and even -once -a zebra. So why not fill up the orchestra pit? Why not have puppets? Why not embrace the grand-opera mystique and majesty?

But even majesty is best used when it’s done with simplicity, class, and most of all, awareness. To be big just for the sake of it smacks of narcissism; to go large without an overriding artistic idea feels simplistic. And the line between “simple” and “simplistic” is fine but it’s important. Too often in the arts world -of high culture and low culture equally -the “large” aspect is blindly presented and unquestioningly embraced. Lepage doesn’t offer any solutions for this modern artistic conundrum but he does have the visionary mindset to look behind and around him for clues as to how to solve it. In the program notes, he offers his theory theatre’s origins: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale. Theatre was born using nothing more than light and imagination.” It’s this sense of childlike play that the director transfers onto the complex musicality of Stravinsky, making for a unique opera-going experience that both pays homage to the roots (or suspected roots) of theatrical performance, and opens the door to a new way of seeing an old, frequently-stodgy artform. In other words, he reinvents the way we perceive opera and its relevance to theatre, performance, and music itself. he also make it personal, by injecting elements many of us recognize from childhood. They’re simple elements, but not simplistic. Lepage trusts and respects his audience -their capacity for creation, imagination, comprehension and invention -and this abiding love of humanity shines through every aspect of the production. Clever, creative use of light, shadow, water, and the human form tease out the the complexities of Stravinsky’s work, revealing its inherent playfulness and its gentle parody of the foibles and follies of human nature.

In so doing, the composer’s seemingly-barren, cold modern music is infused with a new richness. In The Fox, a Russian folk tale based on Russian Folk Tales by the writer Aleksandr Afanasyev, he creates a world where we see folk tales being literally shared -told, re-told, re-interpreted and recycled -with choruses of singers dressed in traditional Russian garb standing on side platforms. Fables about wily foxes, proud roosters, crying babies, and curious cats are shared, expressed, and laughed over. Another layer of theatre is literally grafted on top of this via a large, cinematically-shaped screen running the length of the stage, over top of the orchestra. Using shadows made by hands and later bodies (thanks to puppeteers), we see a cat’s tail swishing about, a rabbit’s eyes dancing to and fro, a rooster guarding his hens; each movement matches and accentuates elements in Stravinsky’s score. Here is a whole new way of experiencing the Russian composer -as well as the operatic form itself : as mischievous, theatrical, imaginative, perhaps even fun. Opera? Fun? Hell yeah. Even my mother said as much at intermission.

For The Nightingale, Lepage has taken Andersen’s fable about the golden-throated bird and the Chinese Emperor who covets her and turned it into a magical metaphor about the relationship of man and nature. As the singers control their puppets, with the aid of five talented puppeteers, I couldn’t help but notice the near-identical dress between the performers and their doll-like counterparts. Puppet designer Michael Curry has fashioned a series of creations that gorgeously complement their human counterparts in both appearance, and, thanks to choreographer Martin Genest, movement. Each puppet is like a child, with a larger grown-up version of itself controlling, manipulating, sounding, and speaking for it. It reminded me a bit of when my own mother would take me to the opera when I was very young, in fact. There was something sentimental and touching about the way each singer cradled and carefully controlled their smaller, ornately-dressed selves.

With lights from the orchestra musician’s music stands reflected in the water, I found myself musing, amidst the swirling raucousness of the music: art is reflected in nature; nature shows art what is truly is; nature reflects but has its own qualities one can’t totally control -and that is a good way of approaching (if not describing) the best sort of art. All this, from filling up an orchestra pit, though the genius was in the design. The reflections (intensified at the opera’s end by Diwali-eque floating candles) were not incidental; Etienne Boucher‘s specific, focused lighting strongly recalled the work of Bill Viola, with all of its spiritual, simple-meets-challenging aspects, encompassed within a live performance presentation.

The Nightingale involves so much more than mere, simplistic effect; it is a wonderous, child-like vision of an eternal dance between the natural world and the constructed one. Via the shadowplay of the first half, and the waterplay/puppeteering of the second, we’re reminded again and again to re-connect with our own playful instincts –ones, it must be said, that are as ancient as those first stories he refers to in the notes. Sometimes it’s via the most unexpected and challenging means that we come to find our own common humanity, and come to recognize our own nightingale, singing, flying, just waiting to be heard.

As to my mum? She’s still not a Stravinsky fan. But she adores Lepage. Bien sur.

All photographs from The Nightingale And Other Short Fables courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, photographer Michael Cooper.

Daughters, Not Victims

Last week I had the distinct and awesome privilege of seeing Simon Boccanegra onstage at the beautiful Four Seasons Centre. The last few years, I’ve developed a wholly new appreciation for an artform that I wasn’t entirely sure I liked, even though it was thoroughly entrenched in my upbringing from childhood. Hmm, maybe it’s a sign of maturity, or the fact I cover arts and culture for a living, or the fact that I’ve worked in theatre, and know how much time, effort, and skill goes into a production. And maybe it also has to do with the fact that I simply adore the work of the COC. Classy, musical, and deeply thought-full -just some of the ways I’d describe past performances (make that experiences) -and Verdi’s Simon is no exception.

In a nutshell, the story can be reduced to a very simple equation: politics = family, and family is always political. Duh. Seems like that’s the case with much of Italian opera. I’m still on the fence about it all, really; the entirely-gorgeous, crazily-romantic music has a way of drawing me in its spell, even if librettos are frequently ridiculous and maudlin. I mean, come on, throwing babies into fires? Magical love potions? Bitchy Ital-oriental women? That’s not the composers’ fault -obviously -and I realize grand opera, like romantic fiction, was the escapism of its day (and it’s not like Wagner ever attempted realism -or social commentary -either). I tend, like many I suppose, to sit back and enjoy the marriage of music and mise-en-scene, and let the rest go.

But Rigoletto, easily one of the most famous operas ever written (as well as being my own mother’s personal favourite) has always, always grated on me. Yes, the music is breathtaking. But the story… leaves me cold. The idea of Gilda, the title character’s naive, shuttered daughter, being so naive, weak, and idiotic, and so willingly controlled by men… ugh. I know, sign of its time, victim-mindset, etcetcetc. Whenever it comes to shut-in daughters -and indeed, whenever I see or hear Rigoletto on radio or television -I always think of Shylock’s Jessica, who, like Gilda, escapes her father’s stern rules to go out and play.

But unlike Gilda, Jessica knowingly defies her father -for love, but also, we suspect, out of revenge. Shakespeare has it right: young women, especially those who feel their their freedom has been denied (or has, in fact, had it denied) by family or authority figures, are going to go out and find it themselves, in the most rebellious, dangerous, and irresponsible of fashions. So it makes sense that Gilda would take off with her nocturnal madrigal; the fact she’d be actually surprised -and then protest -at her kidnapping, however, is hilarious. The fact she’d be all good-girl over it, and protest his advances -when she probably had the hots for him all along -is beyond the pale. And then later telling daddy all about being … uh, raped? N-O.

Maybe it’s my modern sensibility. But even as a kid, never, for a second, did I ever buy it. The fact she’s pining for the miscreant Duke later on, while perhaps characteristic of a woman who’s been abused by her partner, remains, to my mind, woeful -and sexist. The Duke was never her partner -he was just that guy in the street she sadly trusted. The fact remains that neither she, nor her seemingly-heroic-meets-inept father see the truth of the sickly-karmic world they’ve created; Cordelia she is not. And why does that Duke wind up getting the best tunes, if he’s such a dickhead?

Simon Boccanegra presents another kind of daughter: one who, though committed to her father, nonetheless stands up for her own choices. Okay, so she says she’d die for her man before she’d let her father harm him -*cue eyeroll* -but the fact she’s essentially telling him, “Look, I love this person, and I really don’t care what you think, or whether you like him or not” -is brave, and it was refreshing to see. The fact that, unlike Rigoletto, the daughter in Simon doesn’t actually know her father until she’s an adult does, of course, make a difference in their interaction -it changes the mindset of the character -but unlike Gilda, Amelia never comes off as a victim, despite having been denied knowing her father, and only meeting him later in life.

That sort of reunion holds personal resonance for me. The scene between Amelia and Simon, as they stare at one another for the first time, comprehending everything, was, in the COC production I saw, handled beautifully, with just the right amount of delicacy and drama. Unsure whether to hug, stare, or be with their own thoughts, the pair just gaze in wonder and awe. I know what that feels like. Sometimes opera isn’t so fantastical after all -sometimes, it’s just life, with a beautiful soundtrack.

You Can Go With This…

Busy times.

The past two weeks alone, I’ve interviewed a variety of neat and interesting people (on radio morning show Take 5 in Toronto) about a myriad of topics: Erin Karpluk spoke to me about the CBC TV show she’s on (Being Erica), Emm Gryner chatted about her new album Goddess, Rounder Records co-founder Bill Nowlin talked about his company’s five-time Grammy-nominated album Raising Sand, and George Stroumboulopoulos spoke with me about One Million Acts of Green. I also did an on-camera interview with Garry Marshall about the newly-opened Happy Days musical (I’ll put a link up as soon as the video’s ready, so be patient!), which was very exciting.

Regular readers to this blog will also know I interviewed actor David Jansen about the collectively-created theatre piece Ubuntu, as well as director Simon Rice about Toronto-based Praxis Theatre Company’s adaptation of Albert Camus’ Stranger. Next week, expect chats with director/actor/playwright Andrew Moodie, actor Kevin Hanchard, and Sarah Forbes-Roberts, co-owner of Toronto sex shop Come As You Are (Sarah’s the woman behind next weekend’s Erotic Arts and Crafts Fair -perfect timing for Valentine’s Day, methinks…).

Anyway, some of you will have noticed my moving away from theatre writing and reporting. There’s a reason -and it has everything to do with my inherent curiosity about the world around me. I’m branching out to explore stories that run the gamut from environmental-meets-social media (like One Million Acts of Green) to pop culture (ie -television, film, and music) to the just plain fun (like Ms. Forbes-Roberts and her fantastic fair). So in the coming days and weeks, expect to read more about my thoughts on all this stuff, and less on the performing arts. I still love ’em (deeply -I saw the COC production of Fidelio today, in fact -beautiful) but I love a lot of other things, too. The topics I pursue still have a distinctly arts-and-culture bent, as befits my own interests, but this feels like a natural progression in terms of range and breadth.

Play” doesn’t just refer to what happens in theatres; the term also encompasses what we do in childhood, the very thing we forget moving into adulthood. It’s also the thing we all want to re-embrace, and what artists -of any discipline do (bravely) embrace. If the “play” really is “the thing,” to quote Hamlet, then Play Anon is about just that -playing, in a lot of different areas, free from the shackles of “should.”

As someone once told me (speaking about themselves) many years ago, “I may not be the smartest person in the world, but I am one of the most curious.” That describes me too. Here’s to a new day, and a new Play Anon.

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