Tag: privilege

Opera: Relevant.

Leontyne Price. Photo via
I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience — and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.


As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”


Russell Thomas and Anita Rachvelishvili in the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen. Photo via
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages —  sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.


So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.


Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera’s Elektra. Photo via
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto;  Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.

So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.

Art Meets Heart

I’m always surprised and delighted by the sheer number of fascinating, artsy events happening in Toronto at any given time. In addition to Art Battle, A Work Of Heart, which also features live painting, is coming up soon. A Work Of Heart is an initiative that brings together artists and philanthropy in a spirit of cooperation, self-determination, curiosity and sharing. To quote its current release, “artwork is donated by seven local artists… half of the proceeds will go towards building a boarding school in Kenya’s Mathare Slum.”

Owing to conversations with TMS Ruge and other experts in the field of aid and development, I’ve developed a kind of mental alarm system for anything resembling Western-style feel-good-isms toward African nations. Too often those efforts are exercises in narcissism and brand-building, offering simplistic answers and reflecting the organizers’ romanticized (/stereotypical /racist) image of Africa and its citizens moreso than actively acknowledging the messy, complicated, multi-layered world of development and well, humanity overall. It’s easy to reduce a nation -its citizens within it, its continent around it -to easy slogans and poetic images, ones colored by celebrity visits and ad campaigns and big-ass concerts.

Work Of Heart is less interested in big gestures than it is in committing to long-term good. It’s a small, grassroots organization working at the grassroots level, lead by people who’ve been there, done that, and (vitally) plan to, for a long, long time. They put their money, time, energy and resources where their mouths are, their paintbrushes where their heart is. They aren’t afraid to get dirty, and they aren’t afraid to commit to the long-haul.
Laura Armstrong is the founder of Work Of Heart; she has a degree in Film and English, and has travelled extensively, working with Canadian organization Global Youth Network. It was through her work with GYN that she travelled to Kenya to work with HIV positive women and children, and subsequently got in touch with UCRC (Ugunja Community Resource Centre), an NGO that, to quote its website, “acts as an umbrella organization for more than sixty local community groups including women, children, youth, farmers and people with disabilities.” Their motto is “Local Action Is Beautiful.” Casey Mundy, a Toronto-based publicist with a degree in Psychology, also worked with the Global Youth Network, where she worked in the Dominican Republic as well as Morocco.
There’s something inspiring about these two young Canadian women who, though completely aware of their position as privileged women living and working in the Western world, are moving past that definition and into that of a citizen of the world through their long-term commitments. They understand you can’t just build a school, pat yourself on the back, and walk away; in fact, they keep walking towards goals whose benefits are not immediate, but are profound, real, and offer long-term benefit to communities.
A Work Of Heart’s latest art event happens tomorrow night in Toronto. I recently exchanged ideas about the organization, and about the roads that intersect between art, aid, and advancement with Laura and Casey. Their answers make me want to continue following A Work Of Heart to see how their initiatives progress.
How did you become interested in aid and development issues?
Laura: During my undergrad at Wilfred Laurier University, I started to participate in volunteer trips abroad. I helped build a house in the Dominican Republic, volunteered in India with famine relief, Peru for Dangue fever prevention, and Kenya to work with women and children with HIV. Different cultures and world issues fascinate me. I want to continue working abroad and learn as much as possible.
Casey: I also became extremely interested in aid and development issues while a student at Wilfrid Laurier. I have spent time volunteering in Morocco and Dominican Republic. Working and living with the local people in another country is a very different experience than simply visiting that location and its renowned tourist destinations. You get to really know the place, the people, their way of life and their motivations when you immerse yourself in their lifestyle.

The main thing I hear and read is that Western-style gestures don’t help in implementing long-term change – that it’s feel-good-ism for the privileged. How much of this initiative is about the long-term?

Laura: We work with an organization called Living Positive Kenya (LPK) which is located in the Mathare Slum, the second largest slum in Aftrica. This NGO is a support group for women and children living with HIV. Mary Wanderi, who founded this NGO (and is currently Director of Living Positive Ngong), is a pervious social worker who had the heart-breaking job of going into the homes of women who have died and retrieving their children. After dealing with an overwhelming amount of HIV related deaths she decided she had to take action. She then created LPK.

Women can come to LPK to receive support and job training. These women are taught how to live positively while HIV positive. When implementing a development project abroad you need to involve the community as much as possible and think in advance about potential problems and not assume what they would be. Observation and long term planning is key in making a sustainable project. We agree that education is the most vital way to change the future of the LPK children and will give their mothers time to work while their children attend school. That is why this boarding school project is where we are investing our attention and resources.

Why did you create A Work Of Heart?

Laura: I want to be there for the long haul. I am not looking for the the international ‘feel-good-ism’ experience and to simply walk away. These women aren’t just a group we support- they are our friends. We work together to figure out what the deeper problems are in the slum and try to find solutions that work for them and their community. After my first trip to Kenya, I felt that the amount of money needed to upgrade the LPK daycare was something I could easily fundraise. Selling my art seemed like the best bet to raise that money in my spare time. I paint as a hobby so it was nice to have a reason to do it more often.

What role do you see for art in helping to create social change?

Laura: Artists in general have a lot of passion and are always looking for ways to push boundaries with their talent. A Work of Heart allows them to push a new boundary because their art can now physically change a life for the better. Art is impossible to define but can be best described as something that makes us feel less alone. We want to take this concept and broaden it beyond the painting. Through the selling of our art we can connect to people across the world who are in grave need. It’s not just about painting a great picture; it’s about ‘painting a better world.’

Casey: Art is a positive practice that crosses language barriers and can be experienced globally. Art is exciting because it can mean something different to different people and create an emotional response. There is no right or wrong way to paint or be involved with art. I think that this project exemplifies how one person really can make a difference and that visual art, along with all types of art, like music, dance, can have a global reach and connect the world.

How do you find artists?

Laura: Networking. I have friends who paint who know other artists. It has slowly been growing over the past year. People I have never met want to donate pieces to me because they love the concept. It’s a great feeling to see how other artists connect to it so quickly and so passionately.

How do you hope to expand Work Of Heart and its reach?

Laura: We have decided to push our goals and limits further each year. Last year we aimed to raise $1,000.00 and this year we want to raise $10,000.00. This is our first art show. We hope to have larger ones down the road and have more artists from the GTA involved. We have a deep connection to the women and children we work with in Kenya and want to help them build a sustainable community for their children and themselves.

Casey: I hope to continue to raise positive awareness for A Work of Heart through the media and help to build a solid base of supporters. I am passionate about this project and happy to pitch something I truly believe in.

A Work Of Heart Facebook page is here.

Battle Royale

After seeing Oleanna for the first time, it’s a challenge to try to describe its effects in any meaningful way. Has it changed the way I view women, men, academia, relationships, privilege, and language? Yes. But finding the words to describe it… well, I’m at a loss. And the play? It’s infuriating, exhilerating, inspiring, difficult, breath-taking and exasperating. It’s also important.

David Mamet’s 1992 work is a two-hander that takes place in the office of a university professor. It offers us three different scenes, each with student Carol and teacher John. The first Act finds Carol coming to John for help with the course he’s teaching; from there, it moves into decidedly greyer areas that explore notions of power, privilege, position, and persuasion. As with so many of Mamet’s works, the language is deadly, sharp, occasionally sadistic, if always mesmerizing.

Soulpepper Theatre Company in Toronto opened their 13th season with Oleanna recently. Yowls about ‘that isn’t Canadian!‘ aside (really? in 2011? “World-class city”, remember!), it’s important to note that the award-winning troupe’s last Mamet production (of Glengarry Glen Ross) was so successful, it was remounted, and then extended to keep up with audience demand. The show was a tour-de-force of acting, production, and direction, all singing in a sweet symphonic harmony of cuss words, tossed papers, and overturned desks. Now, with Oleanna (running at the Young Centre through March 5th), they’ve yet again given Toronto audiences both a performance treat as well as a production that matches the nasty bite of Mamet’s monster of controversy. Brav-f*cking-oh, as the snappish playwright might write.

A big part of the production’s appeal, along with designer Teresa Przybylski’s fascinatingly crooked set and director Laszlo Marton’s masterful direction, is the acting. Soulpepper co-founder Diego Matamoros plays John, with equal parts pity, fury, ignoble entitlement and patronizing candour. Actor Sarah Wilson brings fistfuls of fortitude, attitude, and deep, wide-eyed passion to her role as Carol.

Their onstage exchanges are quietly disturbing and brilliantly explosive, building from small hand grenades to a full-on Dresden-style bombing. You’ll leave the theatre devastated -which is exactly as it should be.

Sarah and I recently exchanged ideas about Carol, the play, and the power struggle therein. It’s fascinating to read her insights, even if you haven’t seen (or heard, or read) Oleanna; the ideas about privilege, language, high educaton, confidence, and expectations around female behaviour are especially thought-provoking not just within the context of higher education, but the worlds of finance, law, development, media, and even (gulp) the arts.

How did you think of Oleanna prior to your being offered the role?

I’d read Oleanna in theatre school, but I think it was in a flurry of play-reading, because all I really remembered was that it was controversial, that there was a great female part, and that there was a fight. So, not much history, but not much baggage either.

Your role in Oleanna is so different from the other roles I’ve seen you do. Is it exhausting to play? or energizing? A bit of both?

I find this play requires a lot of energy, but it’s about focus, not athleticism. I remember rehearsing Act 1 and just praying that we’d move the heck on to Act II. I mean, we’d be doing it all day, so that was certainly part of it, but Act III, once Carol has a cause and responsibility, can absolutely be energizing in a way that I don’t think Act 1 ever will be.

What sorts of things did Laszlo tell you to keep in mind in terms of approaching Carol? What sorts of things did you think were important?

In Act 1 (the first meeting), Laszlo was very clear that he didn’t want Carol to be self-pitying about not understanding the work. That she thinks that her inability to understand the course is his failure as a teacher, not hers as a student, since she’s done all the work he told her to do. It makes the communication gap between them much larger, since they’re now starting from different places: he thinks she’s failing as a studen, she thinks he’s failing as a teacher.

In parts of Act III, he’d tell me to be “sharp as hell.” That she doesn’t need to be gentle. Any time I softened at particular points, wanting, I suppose, to make it sting less for John, he’d tell me not to…she doesn’t have to be nice, she’s right. And she’s got a responsibility to her group, which is a far greater thing than either of their feelings. It’s interesting, because I wonder if something people react to about Carol is that she’s not sweet. She’s rarely charming, she’s not flirtatious…she just doesn’t act the way she’s ‘supposed’ to, in a way that might make her opinions more palatable. What if, as she told him that her group suffers like this every day, she cried? Would that make him understand? Why?

And we would talk about how she’s not evil, she’s not at all villainous… she’s right. Which was of course, extremely important to me. She says, “I don’t want revenge, I want understanding“, and I believe her. I understand her. Hell, I love her. I just wanted to make sure that I understood her, so I could do my best to act well.

There’s an obvious structure of Him-Talking-A-Lot that goes to Her-Talking-A-Lot. How much do you think this unseen “group” she alludes to plays a role in her moving into pseudo-confidence and articulateness? How much of it is genuine?

Carol’s speech does change dramatically from Act 1 to Act III, and I think that’s largely due to confidence. Confidence transforms a person. You look different, people see you differently, you sound different…once she finds the language to describe what it is that angers her so deeply, what she feels is so unjust, she uses it. In Act I, she wasn’t able to name it. It was foggy, and then, it was not. There are still words she doesn’t know, of course, because she’s new to this. She doesn’t know the word ‘indictment’, and she’s not ashamed to say so, which I think shows real confidence.

Again, it’s interesting to wonder what the difference would be if she said (like I very well might), “Sorry, sorry, can you tell me what indictment means? Sorry.” I don’t think I’d call what she has pseudo-confidence. I think it’s genuine. She’s doing her very best at this language game with a man who’s been playing it a lot longer than her.

As far as her group, it’s an interesting question. We talked a lot in rehearsal about how really, in the end, they’re both losers within these systems that provides some with privilege at the expense of others. The school is a system, patriarchy is a system, and her group may very well be another one, although I don’t think they’re a bunch of crazed students trying to take down John and any similar colleagues. I think they’re a group which shares the same hope and rage, and is trying to make the world better. Maybe she’s being used, maybe not. Maybe every system must be flawed. But I think as far as her confidence, it’s genuine.

Why do you think Carol has so much anger toward the Professor?

There’s a quote I came across that says, “Some people are born on third base and spend all their lives thinking they hit a triple.” Being from a lower economic class than most of her students, and certainly of John, Carol is aware he’s been handed things which she has worked very hard for. That’s all fine, and very possibly inescapable, but it’s infuriating that he doesn’t know it.

To be able to say that higher education is a joke is a privilege. He’s so blase about rules and how stupid rules are because he’s the one that gets to make them up whenever he damn well pleases, and ignore them whenever they don’t suit him. If you are not quite so economically or geographically lucky, you have to bust your ass to follow these rules, and then to be told they’re worthless… that makes you a chump. Every time he puts down higher education, he’s calling her, and everyone like her, a sucker.

Carol’s not a kid who was taken to the museum on weekends. There wasn’t a family ski pass. She’s just had to work harder than others, but then, after she’s busted her ass according to the rules (she says ‘You have no idea what it cost me to get to this school’), he changes them. Just because he likes her. It’s that easy for him. All because of privilege, “and he won’t know it.” I swear, in many ways I think Carol’s incredibly patient and generous with him. I’d try to stab him in the neck with a pen half a minute into Act II.

My point is that it’s a larger issue for Carol. He said and did what she complains about because of this basic belief he has that he is entitled. And his entitlement means she, and her group, get thrown under the bus on a daily basis. And so she asks, “What gives you the right?” Which is, I think, more than fair.

There is a strong hint that Carol is a survivor of sexual assault. How much did you try to fill in the blanks of her past?

So hard to say. I mean, it’s never specified, but do I think she’s been through some kind of sexual assault? Yeah, I do. Hell, statistically, it’s very, very possible. She reacts very strongly to being touched, twice. As far as filling in the blanks, it was more important for me to think about money, and what a college education means to someone whose family doesn’t have any. What enormous pressure that is…she begins some sentences, like, “How can I go back and tell them the grades that I…” which, like all the other half sentences, I needed to finish.

You’ve worked with Diego now a few times -did that make working with him here? That fight at the end is super-intense…

This is my third show with Diego, and I guess we’ve known each other several years now. It made everything easier. We’ve seen each other work, we know how Laszlo works, and it just means that in a two-hander like this, the process (both rehearsals and after opening) can go further than it otherwise might. In a play like this where there’s so much intensity, it’s really nice to be able to be relaxed with the other actor.

How much do you think Mamet wanted people to take “sides” -or at least react This seems like a play that wants a strong reaction…

I’m just guessing, of course, but I think that if Mamet wanted you to take sides, it’s just so he could pull the rug out from under you a minute later. I mean, there are clearly two (or three, or four, depending how you count ’em) big red buttons pushed in Act III, which I think are absolutely there to make you react very strongly.
But then, you judge, you make your decision about who is the good guy and who is the bad guy, and there’s that last button, and who do you cheer for then? Who is right, and why? And what gives you the right to decide? It’s this endless, maddening string of questions. That’s my favourite thing about the play, really. Anything you think about it…whether you love it, hate it, love or hate Carol, love or hate John…you have to ask yourself why, and you’re confronted with how blatantly your opinion is shaped by your own privilege, or lack of it.

Photo credits:
Illustration by Chris Silas Neal
Oleanna Production Photos by Bruce Zinger
Photo of Laszlo Marton from LaszloMarton.net
Photo of Sarah Wilson by Sandy Nicholson

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