Tag: death

Dmitri Hvorostovsky: Memories, Magic, And “Significant Presence”

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Trovatore

Baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Count di Luna in Il Trovatore at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009. (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

The passing of Dmitri Hvorostovsky didn’t shock me, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t painful. The experience of living with a loved one with cancer for over a decade has made me cynical about happy outcomes, but, my reaction yesterday was less related to cynicism than to the direct experience of seeing the baritone this past April, recalling the last time my mother saw him, and accepting, with a heavy sigh, the finite nature of humans living with terminal illness.

Dima, as he was known by friends and fans alike, sounded magnificent on that cool April evening. Part of a concert event called Trio Magnifiico which marked the Canadian debuts of fellow Russian opera singers Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov, it was, I later realized, powerful for not only the chosen repertoire (largely by Hvorostovsky himself, as Netrebko had told me in an earlier interview), but for the inherent power of a man clawing at his own fate through his art. The appearance marked Hvorostovsky’s first public performance in several months, following the announcement of brain cancer in 2015. If ever there was an occasion when one could say a man was raging against the dying of the light, April was it. Hvorostovsky didn’t seem sad, but his performance (consisting mostly of Russian repertoire) had the fiery edge of anger, an impulse I remember thinking my mother would have recognized and wholly understood. His body language, especially in one aria (from Rigoletto, an opera about a man struggling against his own dying light, embodied in Gilda, the character’s daughter), expressed rage, sorrow, an intensity of flesh and spirit — of their collision, and the chaos that created. I remember clenching my jaw toward the end of the aria in a vain attempt to prevent tears. (It didn’t work.)

When I learned of Hvorostovsky’s appearance at the 50th Anniversary Met Gala shortly thereafter, I had to smile; I was in Berlin at the time, and I had wondered, with every deep-voiced performance I had heard, “how would Dima have done this?” I wasn’t comparing so much as curious: where would he have taken a breath? How would he have finished that phrase? How would he have approached this role? Why would he have made x or y choice? I equally realized, with many heavy sighs, that I would never see Dima onstage in Berlin, or probably anywhere else, for that matter, again. There’s a bittersweet fatalism that develops when you’ve lived with death for so long, sat across from it at every forced meal, driven with it humming in the backseat to doctor’s appointments, dragged it around shopping malls at the holidays. When it forces you to its logical endpoint, somehow the goodbye feels too soon — too mean, too heartless, and you realize the unfair bargain you were forced to make and live with. It makes perfect sense, and no sense at all. Cancer is grotesque that way, and no amount of fighting language popularly attached to it will ever remove the sting of sudden loss, much less the slow, dull ache of a long one.

Hvorostovsky Met Opera Boccanegra

Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Simon Boccanegra at the Metropolitan Opera in 2011. (Photo: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

And so yesterday, as I attempted some degree of work productivity, I found myself listening to his voice blazing out of my radio, watching clips of him from 1989 (when he won the prestigious Cardiff Singer of the World competition), and being plunged into a deep well of memories, recent and far, fond and bittersweet. In trips to New York, my mother and I saw him in a variety of works, including The Queen of Spades, Eugene Onegin, Don CarloRigoletto, and Simon Boccanegra. One didn’t merely hear his voice or watch him move; one experienced him and the force of his artistry, his confidence, his je ne sais quoi as a whole. It wasn’t just his considerable physical beauty — there are lots of good-looking people in opera, and always have been — but a kind of magic he conjured, contoured, and conveyed in waves. Few and far-between are the times in my life when I’ve sat in an opera house and been thoroughly, utterly thunderstruck by a perfect combination of vocal power, theatricality, confidence, ease, and … what? It isn’t easy to name. Call it star power, call it magnetism, call it presence; Hvorostovsky had it in jar-fulls, but carried it so lightly, like any star should. In a 2006 interview with New York Magazine, he commented that “(t)he sex appeal is part of the package. My voice is sensual, too, and it is part of my image and my character and my personality. It has something to do with a little magic called the “significant presence,” or whatever.”

Saint Cecilia

“Saint Cecilia”, Circle of Simon Vouet, 1613-1627

The velvet-smoke sound of his baritone was every bit as ubiquitous in my house growing up as the silvery tones of a certain famous Italian tenor; if Pav was the soundtrack of my childhood, Dima’s filled the role for my youth. I felt what virility was before I understood it. That sound would make everything stop: thinking, activities, hearts, breath. It commanded attention. He existed firmly within the world of opera, but also without, in an entirely different category, one I think he carried inside of him, guided by his homeland, by family, by the responsibility he felt toward the composers whose work he performed as well as the spirit behind those works There’s a bitter irony to Hvorostovsky passing away on November 22nd, the Feast of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians; it’s the day before Pavarotti made his Metropolitan Opera debut (in Puccini’s La bohème), in 1968. The sad realization that two of my mother’s very favorite singers, both of whom I saw live on multiple occasions, were taken by the same disease that took her, has forced some painful contemplations, though she’d remind me not to be so morbid, to simply “think of the music!”

The last time my mother and I saw Dmitri Hvorostovsky live together was at a 2014 recital at Koerner Hall in Toronto. My mother was suffering the horrendous effects of her umpteenth round of chemotherapy, and worried she wouldn’t be able to use the (great) tickets I’d hastily bought the day they went on sale months before. But something — her music passion, love of his work, curiosity, happiness to escape the house, worry at letting me down (or a mix of everything) — propelled her. I remember dropping her off along a bustling Bloor Street; she waited on a shady bench as I parked and ran back to meet her, trying to hide how rotten she felt, how tired she was, how fragile and thin she’d become. We slowly made our way through the venue, and she clutched her program as she carefully lowered herself into her seat. Trying to describe her face as Hvorostovsky stepped onstage is still impossible; I only remember her being lit from within. Over the next two hours, something happened: suffering stopped, disease stopped, the horrible daily details of illness stopped. There was purely sound, presence, pull — of being with Hvorostovsky through every breath, pause, roar, turn, smile. closing of eyes. We were with him.

Trio Magnifico Hvorostovsky

Hvorostovsky at the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts for Trio Magnifico, April 24, 2017. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

I felt this once again in April, and I remember it now. Watching Hvorostovsky, I am in that world where everything stops; death gets out of the car, steps away from the table, is rendered powerless. It’s what magic does, and what music does, and it is pure magic.

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.

Loss And Magic

It’s a strange experience, to mourn someone you never knew.

To write of the horrible shock I felt Sunday morning would be too easy. In public, amongst a throng of people on the Lower East Side, I had to swallow my grief and wait -hours – until I had the privacy of my room and the quiet half-lit space of familiar wood floors and white walls to fully mourn. Tears came -and appreciation. And love.

Along with a bevy of beautiful songs streaming through my mind – hell, my heart (because for all of Lou’s impressive, deep intellectualism, he was, above all, a musician of the heart for me) -my thoughts all through Sunday turned back to my first night of living in New York City. I’d been on a bus all night, and had arrived at Port Authority on a grey March morning, bleary-eyed, coughing, exhausted. But I summoned the energy to scamper off to Le Poisson Rouge that very evening for a Japanese earthquake benefit concert featuring Yoko Ono and Patti Smith. The special guest  -a poorly-kept secret as I waited in line, stomping feet to keep warm outside -was Lou Reed. Performing a raucous, gloriously loud and chaotic version of “Leave Me Alone”, he focused intensely on the performance, directing the backing band with a nod or cock of the head, a small frown, a vague hand gesture.

But it wasn’t all dark moods; more than once, this legend, this King of New York, this Factory Poet, this Velvet Transformer, was just a man thrilled to be playing to people in an intimate setting, sharing his work and feeding off the love and appreciation we so gladly provided. He smiled gently at us tiny women rocking out in the front row, and, more than once, our eyes met. His warm smile, the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, the soft mouth, the sincere gratitude, the joy of sharing this sound, this moment, this rock and roll, this magic… taken together, it was intoxicating, holy, beautiful.

There’s a kind of intimacy that happens between artists and admirers of their work; words, melodies, voices, the colors chosen, the textures conjured, the shapes and shadows dance and smudged and murmured of, the breathing and sighing incantations with a through-line to divinity, striking chords individual, collective, intimate, epic, to rejoice, to contemplate, to worship. From artists’ bearings in live settings to the way they behave alone, bending and shaping lights, shadows, notes and soon-to-be familiar phrases, the thorny-rosy path of creativity always has overhanging clouds that whisper of the intangible connection between artist and audience.

Something I really enjoy about Lou’s work, no matter what it is, is its insistence on being itself -whether that’s noisy, strange, uncomfortable, irascible, or, alternately, beguiling, thoughtful, romantic, dreamy. His artistry defied easy categorization, definition, or labeling. From the rocker-cool of Transformer to the static chaos of Metal Machine Music to the tender poetry of Magic And Loss, Lou was nothing like anyone, but entirely, unapologetically himself. His genius lay in his ability to fuse pop culture with the avant garde; he could capture the most abstract ideas sonically or in words, and simultaneously write very, very genius, and usually very catchy, music. “Walk On the Wild Side” and “Waiting For My Man” are perfect examples of this fusion, painting a debauched portrait of a seedy situation, while nonchalantly mainlining a catchy, earworm-ish  rock sound. It takes real skill to integrate like this -but Lou wasn’t merely a skilled technician; he actually liked -identified -with his cast of characters. He was one of them. That didn’t make him “cool,” as he has been reductively described since his passing; it made him Lou.

There are plenty of articles posted now, from a variety of famous/impressive music and culture sorts: Sasha Frere Jones, Michael MustoLegs McNeil. There’s also a lot of curiously reductive stuff being written, nay, proclaimed; everyone has a version of Lou, a little box they want to put him in. But his body of work, his sometimes spiky nature, his occasionally contradictory statements throughout the years, they all lend themselves to a sort of Rorscach- like interpretation, as if one could create a Lou-Identi-Kit, piecing him together with any of the pieces that gelled with one’s tastes and beliefs: a dash of Berlin, a dollop of “Dirty Boulevard”, a slab of Bowie, a crumb of Warhol. “The First Openly Bisexual Rock Star“,  a male (perhaps wannabe) Patti Smithhis Spotify listswhat and where he ate — everyone has a tidy category or click-friendly angle (hiding a dull cultural cliche) in which they want to slot him. But as Los Angeles Times book critic David L. Ulin wisely noted,

Poet, songwriter, singer, guitarist: the labels don’t matter. They never did. “But you know,” he wrote in “Street Hassle,” “people get all emotional and sometimes, man / They don’t act rational / They think they’re on TV.” 

There it is again, that intention, pop culture blurring into something deeper, something darker, something that tells us who we are. 

As a teenager, I immediately attached to Lou’s rebellious spirit, clever lyrics, and dark-shaded image. Growing older, I find image matters less, and poetry matters more. Lou’s music and words made me accept age and all it brings, good and bad; he understood “passing through the fire” happens at all stages of life. Lou’s was a wisdom of acceptance and rebellion simultaneously existing and manifesting in the most authentic way possible, whether in the ballsy experimental Lulu with Metallica, or in writing about his intense admiration for Kanye West’s Yeezus.

On Sunday night, all of New York City’s evening news reports reported on his passing. Like many, I identify him with this city. Walking around the Lower East Side earlier that day, everyone seemed to have a connection: one woman did his assistant’s hair; another woman is friends with Laurie Anderson; another woman organized a private event he was booked to play in November. Everyone in NYC has a memory, an opinion, an idea of who or what Lou Reed was: he was kind, he was arrogant, he was grumpy, he was generous, he was full of himself, he was jovial. No matter the opinion, one thing is certain: his work proclaims its innate authenticity, of being one’s self without excuse, and asks -nay, demands – one manifest that authenticity within one’s own life. That is sometimes a tall order, and yet it feels like the right one, as I wake up every day to a time and place asking for masks, images, lesser, more pliable versions of myself. Authenticity is easy; it’s our need to be liked that sometimes gets in the way. Lou didn’t seem to feel the need to be liked much. Yet he understood gratitude, and the intesne connection between an artists and admirers. That intimacy expressed itself beautifully in the silent / loud rock and roll moments we shared in March 2011 at Le Poisson Rouge. It was and remains the best welcome ever: welcome to the city; welcome to your next life; welcome to You.

When the past makes you laugh and you can savor the magic
that let you survive your own war
You’ll find that that fire is passion
And there’s a door up head, not a wall… 

…There’s a bit of magic in everything 
and then some loss to even things out…

– “Magic And Loss: The Summation“, 1992.

PHOTO BY AFP/STRINGER/GETTY IMAGES

Thank You, Ken

I’m shocked and saddened to learn tonight about the death of one of my favorite food personalities, Canadian host Ken Kostick.


I interviewed Ken along with his TV partner Mary Jo Eustace two years ago, as they were preparing for another season of He Said, She Said (related Mary Jo-centric blog here). Their salty banter and biting commentary made for a lively interview, and I’ll never forget Ken’s kindness toward me, and the immediate interest he took in my own cooking endeavors. I’ll always remember us trading tips about spicing and roasting. He made me feel truly at ease.
His death is a big loss not only to Canadian food TV but to the worldwide market, and to every budding chef. Thank you, Mr. Kostick. You will be missed.

On Bill The Quill

Today marks the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1616 (and, some might argue, his birth in 1564).
Much has been written, of course, about the playwright who left an indelible mark on drama and culture. It’s impossible to imagine life without him; like Andy Warhol (more on him in a future post), his influence is felt everywhere. Amidst the volumes of academia and the wide-eyed worship, I frequently feel as if the human -the regular, ordinary, beer-swilling, bum-pinching Bill -gets lost.
Filmmaker Anna Cohen seeks to find him, with this wonderful stop-motion animation video, Shakespearean Tragedy (A Comedy), that reminds us that Shakespeare probably suffered from something that afflicts writers everywhere. Hey, we all know Romeo And Juliet was inspired by various poems and stories, but it’s fun to see the figures come to life on the blank pages before him, and I love the contemporary touches.
I never enjoyed reading Shakespeare myself; when I’d have to do for high school or university, I’d go to the library and borrow the RSC audio or video performances. There’s something about hearing those words aloud, in all their rhythmic, dancing, shimmying glory, that makes them -and their creator -feel more alive.
The clever thing about this video is that there’s no dialogue -it’s entirely visual. What would Bill say? What should he say? It’s refreshing to see a figure held in such high regard by so many has been rendered more human, even in clay.

Merci, Mr. French

2010 began with the death of an artist I admired; so it also ends.

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of singer Lhasa de Sela in January. Equally, on this snowy December day, I am deeply upset to learn of the death of David French.

I interviewed both Lhasa and David French, though Lhasa was a phone interview, rendering any sense of the intimacy that comes with eye-to-eye-contact impossible. We chatted about favorite singers, concerts, technology, and those lovely “a-ha!” artistic moments, and it felt like a yack with a longtime gal pal. Interviewing Mr. French was a different experience altogether -more formal, less loose, a bit more scary, but no less intriguing, inspiring, and ultimately rewarding.

One of Canada’s most beloved playwrights, David French was probably best-known for works that feature the faulty, feuding, brooding, bruised and confused Mercer family. Leaving Home, Saltwater Moon, and Leaving Home are works I return to again and again through the years, finding more and more to draw inspiration from, as well as more compassion, more humour, and more humanity. Yet it isn’t familiarity so much as the raw emotional honesty of his characters that draws me back. These are characters who don’t merely propel plot points -they live, breathe, sweat, swear, fight, and bleed, frequently making even the best British kitchen-sink drama seem maudlin. Anger isn’t the driving force behind French’s characters; love is. That love is palpable in the back row as much as the front; it’s present just as much on the page as on a stage. You don’t have to know a lot about theatre, much less even like it, to feel that overpowering sense of love that infuses the work of David French. Maybe that’s what made him not only an accomplished playwright in his own regard but a sought-after translator of works like The Seagull and Three Sisters (classics that, like his own contemporary counterparts, revolve around families and a powerful love) and a popular mentor and teacher to many aspiring writers.

His reputation as an incredible, incredibly accomplished writer was an interesting companion to the smiling, quiet figure I ran into at various theatre openings, most notably at Toronto company Soulpepper, who produced his beautiful, heart-rending works many times in the past decade. It was they who arranged our interview one rainy spring day in 2009, when Of The Fields Lately was set to open.

David arrived ten minutes before interview time, his blue shirt dotted with raindrops.

“Damn rain,” he grumbled, before meeting my smiling gaze and taking my outstretched hand.

We chatted a bit as my crew got mics and lights ready. David seemed a wee bit overwhelmed by the technology, and in truth, I felt bad at his coming through the rain and patiently enduring a last-minute microphone change-up. When the interview began, I was understandably nervous, and I think he was, too. We played off each others’ nerves, as I gently opened the interview, asking a few basic questions around the play. I remember being wildly worried I was making a horrible impression on this Canadian genius playwright. But the minute he smiled at me, a warm, deep smile that lit up his eyes, I relaxed.

Still, like the good writer he was, David chose his words carefully, and was always quite guarded, if equally opinionated. He frequently paused, his answers coming like the best syncopated lines from a Monk solo: when the chords inevitably hit, you knew they meant something, and damn it, you wanted to listen. His sometimes-stern, lion-like demeanor belied the pussycat heart that beat within. He had to trust you to open up to you fully.

A great way to create that trust, I learned, was to ask him about his process of writing, of creating worlds using the power of words -something he knew a thing or two about. David’s love of writing was awe-inspiring. When I shared my visceral reaction to his characters, the very element I feel drives all of his work, he half-smiled, perhaps lost in his memories of their creation, before offering the honest, if deeply insightful observation that “a large part of every character I write comes from myself. I am every one of those characters“.

In a way, David French lives on through “those characters” -through Jacob Mercer, through Mary Mercer, and even (especially?) Jessica, Patrick, and the rest of the jumpy Jitters team. It feels like a special blessing for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing his work produced -and again, special thanks to Soulpepper, otherwise me, and thousands like me, probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity. We’d be relying on reminiscence, reports, nostalgia. Producing the work of David French was, and is, a reminder of the contemporary feel, and equally, the timelessness, of human, humane creation. He was Canadian, but belonged to the world. His creations are specific to this country; the emotions and situations within are universal. He is ours; he is everyone’s; he is unto himself. David had that special magic to be able to conjure those various parts of himself and translate that into a real, raw, forcefield of human energy and… love. Always love. That quality -a combination of raw skill and deep emotion -never goes out of style, in theatre, or indeed, in any art form. And it never will.

Thank you, David. For everything.

Bottom photo credit:
Noah Reid, Kevin Bundy, Mike Ross, Oliver Dennis, C. David Johnson in Soulpepper Theatre Company’s 2010 production of Jitters.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann.

It’s Time

I felt the need to share this on World AIDS Day. It’s a simply-done work about the numerous NYC-based artists who’ve died of AIDS. Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz, and Robert Mapplethorpe are just a few of the names here.

Yes, there are millions who’ve died, many of whom never achieved the fame many of the people in this film did, any who will die nameless, faceless… but to us North Americans, the victims are far away, out of our reach, outside our scope of experience. Aren’t they? This film (and accompanying website) “Last Address“, challenges that attitude.

With simple shots of New York life, including birds, cats, people, roads, traffic, etc, the film shows the abodes (with addresses) of all the artists who died. The absolute ordinary-ness is striking. These are people, not statistics. People like you and I.

Ordinary people get AIDS. We are all ordinary, and we can do something that is ordinary, logical, and .. ridiculously right: demand a cure. It’s overdue.

Painting: © All rights reserved by Keith Haring.

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