Monday, February 11, 2019

Elektra at the COC

We went Sunday afternoon (Feb 10, 2019) to see a performance of the COC’s revival production of Elektra at the Four Seasons Centre.

I first encountered this opera in a 20th Century Analysis class at McGill too many years ago. I didn’t like it very much. The constantly changing key centres made me seasick. It took a peculiar turn of events to change my mind.

I was singing in the chorus of La Belle Hélène in January of 1983 and Elektra, which has no chorus, was the other opera being staged at that time in the cavernous O’Keefe Centre. Incidentally, at least five of my FB friends had roles in that production. Elektra wasn’t selling out and I was offered complementary tickets to four different performances. Each evening, when the lights went down, I scurried forward to much better seats than those to which the tickets entitled me. This was the very first show that featured Surtitles and, given the wordiness of von Hofmannsthal’s libretto, understanding what was being sung added enormously to my enjoyment of the opera as did my growing musical experience.

I was certainly looking forward to hearing and seeing it again, this time from really good seats in a real opera house, which the O’Keefe never was. 

Some of my readers will have heard a performance in the production’s original run twelve years ago in which, surprisingly, this year’s Klytämnestra, Susan Bullock, sang Elektra!

The opera is wild one with a mad eponymous leading lady and fifteen other singers declaiming, frequently loudly, in quasi-Wagnerian fashion. Few people will leave the theatre humming the orchestral melodies which are often built up from brief leitmotifs. The vocal lines are like pitched versions of the rhythms of the text, a kind of extended Straussian accompanied recitative. There’s a huge orchestra (love those Wagner tubas) playing wildly eclectic and very busy music. It’s a testament to Strauss’s genius that he even wrote the piece, so complex and relentless it is. It is also written in one 90 minute long act. That pre-performance coffee might not be a very good idea!

All of the principal singers were wonderful. Christine Goerke, as Elektra, is one of the world’s great Wagnerian sopranos and sang brilliantly. She’s on stage for the entire opera and sings most of it. She never lost her dramatic focus and sang it as if it was written for her.  We heard the more dramatic side of the marvellous Canadian soprano Erin Wall, as Chrysothemis, whom we last saw as Arabella in that very different Strauss opera. Susan Bullock, as their mother Klytämnestra, was sometimes overwhelmed by the orchestra but was very convincing when the orchestration thinned out. 

Christine Goerke (Elektra) in COC’s Elektra. Photo: Michael Cooper

Wilhelm Schwinghammer played a fine Orest. MIchael Schade took a delightful turn as Aegisth, murderer of Agamemnon and husband to Klytämnestra. His bright lighter sound projected out over the orchestra and the his characterization of the loathesome man was just right. Owen Causland, a young servant, sang his short bit beautifully.

Of the women in supporting roles, some showed promise in this specialized repertoire, others, not so much. Simone McIntosh, as Klytämnestra's confidante and a COC Ensemble member, sang notably well, her voice clear and bright but powerful. 

The production is clearly inspired by German Expressionist art, more symbol than function. I missed the long staircase down which Klytämnestra is supposed to descend (it’s in the score) and which Maureen Forester did, so creepily, in that long ago COC production.

Should you go see this show? I liked it a lot but like Wagner’s Ring operas, this piece appeals to a very specialized taste. I can easily imagine some audience members, fans of Mozart or 19th C. Italian or French opera, wondering what it is they’ve paid to see and bemoaning the fact that one cannot escape until it’s over.

On the other hand, Elektra isn’t produced very often, and the opportunity to hear Christine Goerke is not to be missed. Moreover, it doesn’t require four or five hours of your time as it might in a Wagner show.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Xmas, Christmas, Yule and Tiny Tim.

Again this year, I've seen Keep Christ in Christmas and Keep the Original Meaning of Christmas type slogans on cars and lawns, and in Facebook postings. This illustrates the silos of thought and ideas in which most people live.

It ignores that fact that in modern Canada, Christmas and the Christmas Season have at least four different meanings and it's a rare individual who embraces all of them.

The most obvious one is that of Santa Claus a version of a mythic story that was popularized by Washington Irving and Clement Moore who wrote A Visit from St. Nicolaus (aka Twas the Night Before Christmas) almost 200 years ago. It was later capitalized upon by Coca Cola and later by every commercial interest imaginable. It is prevalent because it dominates every kind of medium and enables the monetization of the holiday. For those who depend on the retail and manufacturing world, what could be more important than that?

Another comes to us directly from another 19th Century author, Charles Dickens. He documents the gross inequity of Victorian society in his novels and is seen now as a social activist.  Dickens also wrote dozens of Christmas stories. The most famous, A Christmas Carol, helped employees secure time off work at Christmas time and popularized the practice of giving to those who in need, aided by Christian Methodism and its offspring like the Salvation Army.

The third is the Nativity Story as told in two different versions in the Christian Bible. It portrays Jesus's birth happening in the most modest of circumstances, celebrated by lowly shepherds and a divine angel choir. His prestige is affirmed later by a visit from gift-bearing wise men. For many people, this means that children, like Jesus, should receive gifts at Christmas time. Somehow the Massacre of the Innocents and the escape into Egypt which follow don't get much play.

The last version is the actual origin of the mid-Winter festival which was co-opted by the Christian church as early as the third century. It takes place on the shortest day of the year. That was December 25 two thousand years ago. 

It is still called Yule in Scandinavia although it's spelled differently. It was called Saturnalia in the Roman Empire.

People lit candles and fires to keep the light through December as the days grew shorter. In northern Europe they brought greenery into their homes to remind them that nature flourishes while it sleeps and that spring always follows winter. They drank and they partied.

All four of these versions of Christmas have been mixed together and no two families or communities celebrated exactly the same combination.

Personally, I have not been in a church for religious reasons since I was a young teen. For me, it has always been about music. I have taken part in or attended concerts and even services too numerous to mention. I carolled for money and sang in church choirs, first as a volunteer and later as a mercenary. I taught hundreds of children and adolescents Christmas songs, secular and religious. If a school principal, in the interest of political correctness, had decided there could be no more Christmas songs at school I'd have stopped running the school choirs. A descendent of British immigrants, I did my part to preserve and share my culture and traditions.

I find the onslaught of Christmas songs and merchandising, which began after Hallowe'en this year nauseating and irrelevant. I'd rather they left it much later. 

As for the Christmas some people want to keep Christ in, why would anyone who isn't a Christian celebrate it? Some lapsed Christians attend and participate but they no longer believe. 

Different people, families and communities celebrate the holiday season in different ways. It would be helpful for everyone to respect the differences and the reasons for them.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

"I don't really like classical music," he said

I’ve recently been getting to know someone who is in a class I’m taking. On learning that I’d been a “classical singer” he told me he doesn’t really like classical music.

I know him to be a university educated retired professional, an intelligent guy. He’s certainly entitled to like or dislike whatever music he wants. There’s lots of music I don’t like, why shouldn’t he? It got the music educator in me thinking, though.


The experience led me to consider why many people don’t like what they see as “classical music” even though they profess to love music and listen enthusiastically to other genres.

I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is not with the music, per se, but rather with the listener and her/his expectations.

People listen, overwhelmingly, to some version of popular, commercial music. It doesn’t matter whether that music is contemporary or not it all shares certain characteristics which are lacking or disguised in much classical music.

To begin with, everyone identifies individual pieces of popular, commercial music as “songs” even when they aren’t, strictly speaking. What they mean, of course, is there are vocalists of some description, singing or speaking words and they are the most important element of the piece. The language, its rhythm and meaning (if you can make it out) anchor the listener’s experience.

Everybody knows some version of the story in which, at a stadium concert, the band begins to play the introduction to their big hit. The guitar kicks in with the opening rift and the crowd goes wild. Some bars later, after too many repetitions of the guitar riff, the lead singer starts in and a bunch of other people cheer and jump up and down. They second group, who paid big bucks to attend and have probably heard the song dozens of times, didn’t recognize it until the singer came in. Think about that for a minute.

Secondly, commercial, pop songs are overwhelmingly danceable. They have a strong, repetitious beat, reinforced by percussion, usually drums. Even if nobody would actually dance to them they encourage the listener to move with the music, to feel the beat. The music engages them physically in an uncomplicated way.

So if your approach is to listen to the singers, the lyrics and the beat, even well know, accessible classical pieces are going in one ear and out the other. For the most part they have no vocalists at all. Even when the rhythm and beat are consistent and straightforward it is rarely supported by drums the way it is in pop music.

There’s no doubt that part of this is an educational issue. Off the top of my head I’d posit that people who had music lessons or played an instrument, especially in some kind of ensemble like a school band are far more likely to “get” classical music. That kind of experience has become more and more rare for kids these days. 

I was told, a few years ago by a musical parent, that their son had done well in high school music and loved it, but had to drop it because there was no room in his Grade 11 timetable. University or college admission was the big consideration and he wasn’t going to study the arts. Other families have to choose between music lessons and athletics. Hereabouts, where ice hockey is king, that’s probably not a very long discussion.

I think this stinks. Classical music is an important part of our shared heritage along with visual art, architecture and literature and much else. That a great swath of the population have no understand of it is a travesty. That something which has so enriched my life is closed to them and that they couldn’t care less makes me sad.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Henry V at Shaw, Julius Caesar at Stratford.

We went Wednesday afternoon (August 8, 2018) to see Julius Caesar at the Stratford Festival Theatre.

We knew, going in, that several of the principal male characters would be portrayed by women. We saw a gender-bending Midsummer Night’s Dream a couple of seasons ago and wondered in what direction this one would go. Curiously, the actor who plays Brutus in this production played Titania, Queen of the Fairies, in the other.

Seana McKenna as Julius Caesar

Each of the women playing a male role was played by a very fine actor and, even in costume and make-up, none could be mistaken for a man.

The most interesting consequence of this was in the scenes between Brutus, played by Jonathan Goad and and Irene Poole who was Cassius. The two men are very good friends. This friendliness might be taken to be something quite different between a man and a women although Shakespeare may have been subtly implying a different sort of relationship between the two men.

It is, otherwise, a typical Festival Theatre production with beautiful and approriate costumes, lighting and original music (save a Dowland song which was interpolated late in the show).

Seanna McKenna was a marvellous Julius Caesar, the centre of attention in all of her scenes. We found the pacing of the production suspect. The actors spoke the text more quickly than it could be easily understood. Jonathan Goad was a convincing Brutus but some of his lines were impossible to understand. Michelle Giroux, as Mark Antony was more intelligible but rushed through the funeral oration, surely one of the most famous speeches in Shakespeare’s canon. Yet, in a small part as Antony’s Servant, Amy Keating delivered her much of her speech lying prone on the stage but you could understand every word.

This show is a good, if not outstanding one, and worth the trip to Stratford.

On the other hand, We went Wednesday afternoon (August 15, 2018) to see Henry V at the Studio Theatre at the Shaw Festival.

Except it wasn’t Henry V like you’d see it at Stratford or in a school production for that matter. I probably shouldn’t have read a scathing review in The Spec last week which lowered my expectations. We had decided that if it was as dismal as the review claimed we were going to leave at the interval. As it happened, we stayed until the end.

The cast of 11, 4 women and 7 men play all the roles, some taken by different players at different times. The men are Canadian WW I soldiers in an underground trench system somewhere in France. They play much, but not all, of the first three acts of Henry V to amuse themselves, some reciting and some reading, while the war carries on around them. In the second act all but one of the soldiers are injured and recovering in bed in hospital and the four women are nurses. The nurses, who spend much of the act tending to the injured soldiers, join in with the play-acting and the cast finishes the play.

So it’s not really a dramatic presentation of Henry V at all, much more akin to a dramatic reading or a concert performance of an opera. Moreover, the text is isn’t all Shakespeare. Actors do occasionally speak in their real 1916 voices explaining, for example, that the King is in disguise or requesting a prop.

As one would expect of a professional company the actors are generally very good, the women perhaps better than the men. Natasha Mumba was a standout as were veteran actors Gray Powell and Patrick Gallican.

The problem is that there’s not much drama. There’s hardly any staging relating to Henry V. Any moving about relates more to the “real” situation in the trench or hospital. And you would have to know Henry V very well to be able to follow its plot because the acting does little to support that play-within-a-play.

So this production is an experiment that didn’t quite work. I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re comped. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018


Number 6 of my List of Albums that Make Me Happy, is Akhnaten by Philip Glass.

I saw the opera, almost by chance, in London in the spring of 1985. The ENO just happened to be playing it. I also saw Horne and von Stade in La Donna del Lago from the gods at Covent Garden about the same time and the same way. I found the Coliseum and bought a ticket for a great seat in the orchestra for top price, as I recall, £20. I knew who Glass was but hadn’t heard any of his music.

It was like no other opera, no other music, I had ever heard. Some would argue it’s not an opera but that’s what Glass and his collaborators called it and the ENO is an opera company.

It’s the third in his Portrait Series of operas following Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha. It’s musically more approachable than either of these. 

There’s no plot, as such. There’s not much action, either. The orchestra plays, the singers sing, much more like a staged oratorio than anything else. Beautiful costumes, great lighting and sets. Interesting staging. A group of wrestlers mimed a struggle in slow motion, far upstage, at one point, while the principals performed downstage.

The character Akhnaten, by the way, is sung by a countertenor. We know he was actually weird looking from statuary. In this context, the sound of Akhnaten’s singing is oddly otherworldly, appropriate for a pharaoh who attempted to transform Egyptian religion. The priesthood and his successor transformed it back, immediately he died.

I must have raved about the performance because I received the cassette album as a gift and I’ve listened to it many times although, I will confess, rarely from beginning to end.

My perception of that performance clouded my understanding of the nature of opera in general. 

The consensus is that opera is the synthesis of the various performing arts. There are actors (usually singers) portraying characters so it’s drama, a play if you like. As in a play, all the elements of stage craft can be present; costumes, sets, lighting, technical effects and so forth. There is solo singing and soloists singing in ensembles. There can be choral singing. There is instrumental music which can be accompaniement for the singing but is often also featured alone. There can be ballet or other dancing.

But is opera, then, drama or music or both at the same time?

It’s the composer whose name is attached to the piece. La Traviata by Verdi, not La Traviata by Piave, who wrote the words based upon Dumas’s play. With plays, it’s the author. Shakespeare, Samuel Beckett, Erin Shields.

Yet no one would argue that a recording of an opera, even a live one, is a faithful reproduction of an opera. It’s only the music. It’s the most important thing but without the ancillary elements of the performance, the things that make it opera and not a concert.

There are people who love opera and go to live performances and Silver City Met operas but wouldn’t cross the street to see a concert of opera highlights. ‘Cause, it’s not opera, right?

I’m posting this with just the first act music. If you’re interested there are videos of parts of performances available on YouTube.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Paradise Lost at the Stratford Festival

We went yesterday afternoon (Wednesday August 1st, 2018) to see Paradise Lost in the Studio Theatre at the Stratford (Ontario) Festival. The Studio Theatre is at the back of the Avon on Waterloo St. and seats about 260. It has a small thrust stage and the seating is as steeply raked as were the seats in the Patterson Theatre which is now closed and will be rebuilt.

This is not Paradise Lost, the long 17th Century epic poem by John Milton, rather a reworking of elements of that story in modern form by acclaimed Canadian playwright Erin Shields. Another of her plays, If We Were Birds, won the 2011 Governor-General’s Award for English drama.

Lucy Peacock, photo: Clay Stang

The principal actors play individual parts including Eve, Adam, God the Father, God the Son and Satan. The other seven in this cast of twelve each play two parts, one in Heaven and the other in Hell. The story is that of Satan, in the form of a serpent, persuading Eve to break God’s one rule, that she not eat the fruit of a particular tree. Eve convinces Adam to do it as well and then the two of them are expelled from The Garden (paradise) to live in suffering until they die.

This is a story told out of time. God the Father admits knowing what is (or was) going to happen but is unwilling or unable to intervene because he granted humans Free Will. The text is full of references to contemporary issues. Satan is well versed in what is happening in the audience’s present including issues like climate change and the building of pipelines and speaks directly to the audience in several monologues.

Shields manages to work a surprising amount of humour into a story which is both serious and metaphysical. In this matinée performance (also the première), attended by an overwhelmingly geriatric audience, there was some forced laughter each time an actor said something vaguely funny. This, mercifully, stopped after a few minutes. There was lots of laughter later however in response to genuinely funny bits and lines.

The angels put on a play, reminiscent of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, to remind Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It is, like Shakespeare’s play-within-a-play, intentionally inept but it seems out of place in Paradise Lost.

Juan Chioran, in the role of God the Father, gave a controlled depiction of Shields’ character. He’s not on stage much and one has the impression Shields wrote the role largely as a contrast to Satan.

Gordon S. Miller was God the Son. Again, he gave a restrained portrayal, even when he is persuading his father to allow him to become human and die horribly in order to redeem humanity.

Eve (Amelia Sargisson) and Adam (Qasim Khan) were delightful with many humourous bits to play as well as touching ones. They played Shield’s scene in which they transform from innocent stereotypes to complex modern people beautifully.

Among the smaller parts, Sarah Todd, as Satan’s sort-of daughter Sin, was a standout with some of the most hilarious lines in the show.

Finally, Lucy Peacock carried the show as Satan. Shields wrote this as the central part in the drama and Peacock ran with it. Her monologues were engaging and her interactions with the various other players always convincing. We’d seen her a couple of weeks ago in Coriolanus and she owned the stage there, too. Here performance is the best reason to attend this play.

For all that, I wasn’t blown away by the play itself, although it’s hard to fault the production. Shields puts a balanced feminist spin on the story as one would expect from a contemporary woman playwright. I’m well aware of these issues and of other contemporary ones that she mentions and the play didn’t deepen my understanding of them. Frankly, I don’t go to the theatre to be educated, however cleverly, rather to be entertained and, by that metre stick, this one is good rather than great.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Coriolanus at Stratford

I knew, going into the Robert Lepage production of Coriolanus, that it would be  something different from what one usually sees at Ontario's Stratford. Just how different I couldn't have imagined and I'm not done pondering.

I'd seen The Nightingale at the COC, another of Lepage's shows and it was, as I wrote then, unlike any opera performance which I had ever witnessed. Initially, I wasn't entirely convinced. Lepage, an obvious lateral thinker, employs devices which some might think gimmicky to alter the audience's experience of theatrical works.

If this had been another of Shakespeare's plays, one of the masterpieces, I'd be figuratively jumping up and down, raving about this show. The tragedy, Coriolanus, which we saw at the Avon Theatre yesterday afternoon (July 10, 2018), is not one of those plays.

So, I'll simply say that this production is not to be missed. I have never seen, or imagined, anything remotely like it.

Without giving much away, it's a full-blown multimedia extravaganza. The point is made at the very outset with a giant bust of Coriolanus which comes alive.

What exactly is this we are looking at? Live players, live video, recorded video, projections, a mobile frame around the stage and moving sets, are mixed together in such a way that, often, you simply can't tell. And actors are miked, at least some of the time. This is a show that was designed for the Avon Theatre's proscenium stage so everything is seen from in front, like watching a movie or big screen TV, which makes it easier to confuse the audience.

I've complained in the past that re-setting historical theatrical pieces in different periods rarely does anything more than provide a different look. It doesn't boost the drama. In this case the contemporary setting of a play which is supposed to have taken place in the 4th century B.C.E. is essential because the theatrical devices Lepage uses are so obviously contemporary. If your characters are texting, or watching an all-news channel in a bar, it'd better be set in the here-and-now.

As for the plot, Caius Martius, a Roman patrician and war hero, is named Coriolanus after winning an important battle against the Volscians. His tragic flaw is pride. He is uncompromising and views the lower class plebeians with disdain. After seeking the office of Consul at the urging of his noble friends and his mother, he manages to insult and attack everyone and is banished from Rome by the newly created elected plebeian Tribunes. In revenge, he allies himself with a former enemy, the Volscian Aufidius, attacks Rome, but in victory, makes peace and then is assassinated by Aufidius's lieutenant as a traitor.

There were several very strong appearances by veteran actors. Lucy Peacock, as Coriolanus's mother Volumnia, nearly steals the show with an over-the-top performance. She delivers the Shakesperian text with a  dominating mother's timeless power. Graham Abbey, as Aufidius, is seriously convincing in his scenes, using his voice virtuosically. Tom McCamus is sensationally entertaining as Menenius, Coriolanus's friend and Master-of-Ceremonies, always hitting exactly the right note of casual power and lightness. Stephen Ouimet and Tom Rooney are wonderfully political, and sometimes humourous, as the newly appointed plebeian Tribunes.

André Sills gives a one-note performance in the title role. He rants and insults the plebeians (as he must since it's in the text), seeming angry throughout much of the show but never as haughty or contemptuous as he should be. It probably wouldn't be as noticeable if so much of the rest of the cast hadn't given more varied portrayals. This could be due to the author's portrayal of the character in the script.  And any of what goes on on-stage could be the result of direction, not the actor's choices.

Yesterday's performance was sold out. This is a show which might well be extended beyond its current run but one never knows. It is truly a unique vision from Lepage's Ex Machina production company.

Get thee to Stratford! Purchaseth thou thine tickets. Taketh it from me.