Opera Review: Canadian Opera Company, Eugene Onegin

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Photo by Michael Cooper

Review – Canadian Opera Company, Eugene Onegin by P.I. Tchaikovsky, conducted by Johannes Debus, directed by Robert Carsen, designed by Michael Levine, Four Seasons Centre, Sept. 30 to Nov. 3, 2018.

I actually saw this production when it debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997, and I thought it was brilliant – a magical blend of focused minimalism and exquisite visual details. If memory serves me right, and it was 21 years ago, I was shocked to discover at the time that the New York critics had savaged the production. As I recall, the Times critic, thought more kindly about this Robert Carsen/Michael Levine effort in his season wrap-up months later, but it was too little, too late.

When I say focused minimalism, I mean director Carsen and designer Levine’s vision of a memory piece which translates into an uncluttered stage with each scene conveying a strong single point of view. The creators have taken as their overall theme, that of Onegin’s personal tragedy – how he could have had Tatyana but lost her. Thus we see his empty life symbolized by his sitting in a chair, alone on stage, as both the opening and the closing images of the opera. For each vignette, there is no scenery other than what is necessary. For example, the trunks of a few carefully placed birch trees, and a carpet of fallen leaves indicate the Larin country estate. Similarly, Tatyana’s tiny bedroom is set right in the centre of the stage, almost adrift in the hugeness of the playing area. Augmenting the dream aspect of the production are the three huge walls that convey changing moods through Jean Kalman’s original lighting palette. (There are some design miscues, however. The creators may want to convey that Tatyana has chosen to live in the attic so she can look at the moon, or that Onegin imagines her living in an attic, but the trap door into her bedroom is jarring. It is clumsy and distracting and does not work. In short, I hate it.)

Photo by Michael Cooper

As for Levine’s exquisite details, when I realized that the COC was bringing this particular production to Toronto, I instantly recalled two visual images – and this is over two decades later. The first was the mismatched circle of chairs at Tatyana’s name-day fete. It is almost as if the Larins used every stick of furniture they had in their house, and then borrowed every chair they could from their neighbours. And at that same name day ball, there were the dresses of the ladies. In their attempt to copy their style-setting city cousins, these provincial women had added just a little too many frills, and a little too many garish colours to their finery. The combination of the chairs and the clothes captured the country gentry’s lack of sophistication to perfection.

Musically, the production is superb. I’m starting to sound like a broken record on the subject of Johannes Debus’ conducting, but he continues to impress at highlighting the dramatic elements of composer’s intentions. I find myself hearing new musical accents in opera scores I know well when he is at the helm. I should add, however, that the French horns were a little wobbly at the performance I attended.

Photo by Michael Cooper

As for the singing, the cast is populated by talented Canadians with well-deserved international careers, several of them COC Ensemble Studio graduates. Unfortunately, it was announced that bass-baritone Gordon Bintner (Onegin) was under the weather and so we never got to experience the full out-pouring of his voice. His stiff, pompous characterization of the eponymous anti-hero was right on the mark, however. The handsome Bintner cuts a romantic figure on the stage, and he sang well enough within his constraints, but it was disappointing not to hear him give his all to the role. Soprano Joyce El-Khoury (Tatyana) was divine, both in acting and singing chops. She has wonderful voice control and can manipulate her output to soar or to soften as needed. Her letter-writing scene was a marvel of nuance, and I thought she deserved a greater response from the audience than she received. Joseph Kaiser (Lensky) has grown up into a wonderfully expressive tenor, fulfilling the promise of his COC Ensemble days. He is a master of emotion. One current Ensemble member caught my attention. Bass-baritone Joel Allison was Zaretsky who is Lensky’s second in the duel scene. Although it is a tiny role, he displayed a rich fulsome sound that bears watching.

As for the singers from away, Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan (Olga) has a lush, fruity sound that captures the ear. It seems Russian basses are best in the role of Gremin, and Oleg Tsibulko certainly had the rolling low notes in his boots that you need to sing the role. He also cuts a handsome, courtly figure in his impeccably tailored uniform. Rounding out the cast are American mezzo-sopranos Margaret Lattimore and Helene Schneiderman (Filipyevna and Madame Larina respectively) who are both accomplished singers, and French character tenor Christophe Mortagne who captured the fussy twee Monsieur Triquet in delightful fashion.

This abused Metropolitan Opera production works on every level, and I’m delighted that companies like the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the COC are taking it off the shelf and giving it a well-deserved airing.

 

Theatre Review: Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – Gertrude and Alice, conceived & created by The Independent Aunties

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Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

It might seem self-serving that Evalyn Parry, the artistic director of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, has opened up the 40th anniversary season (“40 Years of Queer”) with her own play, but when a vehicle is brilliant, I say flaunt it. Gertrude and Alice was a giant hit in 2016 and is always welcome.

The play about long time lovers Gertrude Stein (Parry) and Alice B. Toklas (Anna Chatterton) was written by Parry and Chatterton, and dramaturged and directed by Karin Randoja. The three women come together from time to time to make theatre projects under the umbrella name (which I love) of The Independent Aunties. In fact, the eight members of the creative team are all women, which is just terrific from my point of view. (The others are Sherri Hay, set design; Michelle Ramsay, lighting; Ming Wong, costumes; Aleda Deroche, sound; and Christina Cicko, stage management.)

But back to the play. It seems that Gertrude and Alice have come back from the dead to tell their real story. Gertrude, in particular, wants to know if her books are still being read (and is quite dismayed to find out how few in the audience have tackled her canon). The bleacher seating is on two sides with the action in the middle, and so it is an intimate encounter between Gertrude, Alice and us. The audience has also been given a wonderful, annotated souvenir cahier of the timeline of their lives that is absolutely worth keeping.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

The sheer brilliance of the play is the very sophisticated script. As well as their original dialogue, writers Parry and Chatterton have incorporated the words of Stein and Toklas from their books, and it is this fusion of the actual and the imagined that allows the real women to emerge. Clearly, their research has been monumental. The dynamic between the two characters is palpable, and the acting absolutely believable. We also get to hear about all their famous friends who frequented their Paris salons such as Picasso and Hemingway (who was apparently a pill). The modern art collection that Gertrude amassed is like another character in the play.

In the case of Stein, her famous (or infamous) circular, repetitive, elliptical “play on words” and bizarre punctuation (or lack thereof), that mirror the construction of a modernist painting, is first and foremost in her dialogue, and many of her most famous quotes make an appearance (“There is no there there”; A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose). We also get a cogent explanation from Gertrude herself about her literary philosophy, in particular, her desire to smash down the very conventions of what constitutes good writing. (“Commas are servile”.) Parry swans around the stage like a queen, sporting her short-cropped hair, cocooned in her padded costume to give her figure girth, her rich, plummy, affected voice filling the stage with grandeur.

Chatterton’s Alice, replete with the famous moustache, funny “s” sounds, humped shoulders, and servile walk, is there as Stein’s apologist, and to set the record straight when Stein veers off course. Her devotion to Gertrude is the focal point of her life. She even converted to Catholicism because that religion embraces an afterlife, and she wanted to join Gertrude in death. (Jews don’t have that belief.) Chatterton, however, never portrays Alice as weak. She is as strong as Gertrude in her own way, and is capable of a dogged feistiness when needed. After Gertrude’s death, Alice manages to fill the stage in her own right.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh

There have been two important changes from the initial production. Contemporary artist Sherri Hay has crafted a series of colourful, whimsical sculptures and mobiles that festoon the stage and represent the art collection. These pieces also contain surprises. Lift up one, and Alice’s cooking ingredients are revealed; lift up another, and it is her typewriter. They also have parts that twist off and become a cup, for example, or a funnel that releases the sands of time. The second innovation is that dramaturge/director Randoja has composed a score that literally accompanies the play. At times it is cinematic, a burbling, gurgling electronica backdrop that fits the eccentric natures of the women exactly. Randoja also uses the music for emphasis. Strong chords, for example, underline Gertrude’s declamations.

In short, sometimes all the theatrical elements align to create perfection, and such is Gertrude and Alice. Bravo Parry for bringing back the production.

Gertrude and Alice, written by Anna Chatterton and Evalyn Parry, directed by Karin Randoja, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Sept. 15 to Oct. 7, tickets 416-975-8555 or buddiesinbadtimes.com.

Theatre Review on Ludwig van/Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life

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Photo by Dahlia Katz

Just published my review on the Ludwig van website of Musical Stage Company and Outside the March/ Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, book, music & lyrics by Anika and Britta Johnson, directed by Mitchell Cushman, music director Elizabeth Braid, Heliconian Hall, Sept. 13 to Oct. 14. Tickets available at 1-888-324-6282 or DrSilverTO.ca.

Here’s the link. https://bit.ly/2IfSzAz.

Theatre Review: 4th Line Theatre 2018 – Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson

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Photo by Wayne Eardley

The 4th Line Theatre bill of fare is typically jolly and/or whimsical, and always informative because of a tie-in to local historical happenings. (The outdoor summer theatre is located on a farm near Millbrook, Ontario.) The world premiere of Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson is a radical departure. Thompson is a distinguished Canadian playwright who writes with her heart on her sleeve. Who Killed Snow White? addresses sexual assault, cyberbullying and teenage suicide head-on. In her program notes, Thompson says that the wellspring of the play was the heart-breaking life and death story of Rehteah Parsons, an infamous 2013 case of cyberbullying that made national headlines. The traditional 4th Line audience, who usually comes to the theatre for a good time, is going to find a serious treatment of a serious subject.

Thompson’s heroine is a young girl called Serena (Grace Thompson) whose life is presented from cradle to grave. By tracing Serena’s life story, clearly Thompson is trying to come to grips with why Serena is so overwhelmed and destroyed by being plastered over social media, that death is preferable to living. (The posted video shows Serena lying naked and unconscious being sexually assaulted by a trio of boys at a party.) Thompson hypothesizes that Serena has always been fragile. From her early years, she was sensitive and an outsider, which made her an easy target to be bullied by the more popular girls. In fact, Serena is devastated when her one and only friend Fancy (Cassandra Guthrie) ditches her to join the ruling clique. In her teenage years, Serena is still an outsider, but she has a support system. Fancy is back in her life, and the girls have a firm friend in the openly gay and fellow outsider Riley (Tom Keat). Yet, despite a loving family and loving friends, Serena cannot survive the onslaught of negative social media.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

The playwright tries to bring out many points of view. The narrator Ramona, Serena’s mother (Cynthia Ashperger) drives the telling of her daughter’s story with her rage, asking the audience if they can see where and how Serena’s fate was sealed. In Ramona’s powerful speeches, Thompson has embedded all the frustration, helplessness, despair and incomprehension that the tragedy has left within her. The parallel lives of the spoiled brothers, one of whom gives Serena the date rape drug, is also presented. Pratt (Steven Vlahos) and Dodge (Andrei Preda) are brought up to be manly men by their Uncle Si (Christian Lloyd), who speaks for the male state of entitlement. As police chief, Si makes the boy’s indiscretions go away. On the other hand, Dodge, who is against the assault of Serena, still supports his brother in the cover-up because family is more important than truth. Fancy’s grandmother Babe (Maja Ardal) represents the older generation of women, who as lesser vessels in society, learned to manage men. Doreen (Saskia Tomkins), the mother of Pratt and Dodge, is her sons’ enabler because, in denial, she sees them only as good boys. Rounding out the main cast are Vlad Khaimovich and Joseph Roper, who join with Pratt in taking part in Serena’s rape, and Mark Hiscox as Serena’s loving but ineffectual father.

Writing character has always been a Thompson forte, and there are strong portrayals in this play. In fact, the acting is excellent overall, with Ashperger and Grace Thompson (the playwright’s daughter) being standouts. Even though some of the monologues are obvious in message, and Thompson does use words as a cudgel to hit the audience over the head to make a point, there is no denying the fact that the play does pack a wallop.

Who Killed Snow White? is a vehicle that could be performed by just a few people in an empty school gymnasium. What is fascinating about this production is how director Kim Blackwell has opened it up to accommodate the main barnyard performing space and the fields beyond, with her actors ranging far and wide. Blackwell presents Serena’s story as a Greek tragedy, because, sadly, cyberbullying and teenage suicide have become a universal theme in today’s world. Set designer James McCoy has added a facade of a Greek colonnade onto the barn, with a further archway in the field. The stonework appears to be crumbling – a metaphor for a civilization in ruins, perhaps? Costume designer Meredith Hubbard has clothed the entire cast in white Greek-style tunics with wreaths of vine leaves for their hair. The uniformity of the stark visual concept works very well indeed.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

One of 4th Line’s charms is that it mounts productions with very large ensembles. A director can always round up a humungous cast that includes very young children right up to the older generation. A remarkable aspect of Who Killed Snow White? is that it features a company of 17 young people who represent the Greek Chorus, and Blackwell, working with choreographer Monica Dottor, has fashioned some very evocative movement patterns for them. For example, to represent the bullies, the Chorus is wedged into a phalanx that bears down on Serena. These young people are almost always on stage, either in the barnyard or in the field, shaped into some telling formation or other, and are a very strong visual component to the show.

There is none of the usual 4th Line live music in this production. Rather, the cinematic soundtrack that runs throughout includes an atmospheric score by composer Justin Hiscox and ambient sound by Esther Vincent. It is a rich background that adds depth, breadth and gravitas to the production. Taken together as a whole cloth, Who Killed Snow White? works on every level.

Photo by Wayne Eardley

And a few final notes. The program includes a flier from the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre with a 24-hour help line, a timely feature indeed. In a conversation I overheard at intermission, two elderly gentlemen were talking about the play, and one of them said, “Isn’t it terrible the pressure young kids are under these days?” Clearly, he was getting Thompson’s message. At the very end of the play, which is a devastating recital by the cast of the names of young people who have killed themselves, I noticed that the middle-aged couple across from me, both the man and the woman, were wiping away tears. Blackwell’s leap of faith to mounting more serious fare such as Who Killed Snow White? has clearly touched the audience.

4th Line Theatre 2018, Who Killed Snow White? by Judith Thompson, Winslow Farm, Millbrook ON, Aug. 6 to 25.

 

 

Interview – Laura Nanni, artistic and managing director of SummerWorks Performance Festival

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Photo by Tanja Tiziana

INTRODUCTION

Laura Nanni, 38, is a mover and shaker in the arts. She is a curator, artist and producer, who since 2016, has been the artistic and managing director of the prestigious SummerWorks Performance Festival, Toronto’s annual curated showcase for contemporary new work in theatre, dance, music, live art and multidisciplinary productions. She has also been on the staff of some of the city’s most experimental forums such Nuit Blanche, the Rhubarb Festival and HATCH. Nanni’s wide background also includes front of house, stage management and programming experience with important arts organization such as the Stratford Festival, the Luminato Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. Her career also includes mentoring emerging producers and curators, most notably for the Banff Centre’s Leadership Development Program. Her own creative endeavours include performance and installation work, often site-specific, that has been presented across North America, the UK and Europe. Both artistically and administratively, the prime focus of Nanni’s career has been on experimentation, community building, and interdisciplinary collaboration.

As SummerWorks heads into its 28th season (Aug. 9 to 19), Nanni gave paulacitron.ca a wide-ranging interview about her relationship with the festival, and the festival’s relationship with the cultural scene in general.

THE INTERVIEW

Where did you study, and what was the wellspring of your career focus on arts experimentation?

I did my degree in theatre and visual studies at the University of Toronto. The epiphany for me was bluemouth inc.’s 2003 production of What the Thunder Said. We were blindfolded and taken on a bus to a warehouse. This site-specific work, a mix of dance, visuals and theatre, showed me the possibilities of what performance could be. I’ve been a passionate supporter of innovation ever since.

(Note: The devised work, What the Thunder Said, is the third part of the trilogy, Something About a River. It used the metaphor of the family to examine the political and emotional contradictions that face society today.)

How does SummerWorks contribute to experimentation?

 We help artists to realize new ideas, to take creative risks. We nurture innovation by creating spaces where they can experiment and find solutions. At the same time, artists can find something new about a piece that they didn’t know that they were looking for. Experimentation can often mean learning something new about yourself that can be unexpected or exciting.

What have you seen as key factors in your job?

Evolving a structure that can be sustainable for artists – not growing in size, but developing the artistic environment. And discovering who we are engaging with, and playing too. The ecology of SummerWorks has always been a platform that artists aspire to, and we must maintain that. The productions are multidisciplinary – we cover dance, music and hybrid works. We also have a very adventurous audience, and both are part of the mix. The festival is highly regarded nationally and internationally. We attract 30 to 50 presenters a year. These curators come to discover work to be shown elsewhere. I inherited an artistically strong entity. My job is to discover how we can improve on that strength by determining our platform needs.

You mention that you don’t want the festival to necessarily grow larger.

Because of increased volume, larger festivals can tend to embrace cookie cutter formats. In SummerWorks, we can address questions like, how can we be more nimble in addressing artist-specific needs? For example, does an artist want their work to evolve during the festival? Does a work need rehearsal time between shows? What spaces can support new technology? I believe we can keep reimagining our relationship with artists and be responsive to individual demands, while not forgetting that we are a place where artists, audiences and presenters want to come. We can be a resource for artists. We want to get better, not bigger by finding the right essence of evolution.

Part of the thrust of this year’s festival is reframing? What do you mean by that?

We have formalized practices that have been ongoing at the festival for some time by naming three official streams. This way the audience absolutely knows what they are getting. Presentations is the showcase of contemporary performances that have had extensive previous development or are touring productions. Lab is a place for work being shown at a crucial stage of development that needs to be performed before an audience. These artists are experimenting with form or new technology, and have feedback sessions with the audience. Exchange is for the industry and arts professionals, and includes such things as open studios, the presenting of early works, workshops, and meet the artists.

How do you choose the SummerWorks programming?

I read every application myself, and there is also a different multidisciplinary artistic advisory committee each year to help formulate the short list. There are even follow-up conversations with some applicants about their goals. The Lab is a special call project because of the special nature of these shows. Applicants identify the multi-genres that apply to their productions by checking discipline boxes. The emphasis overall is on new work, but obviously, the curating of what proposals rise to the top is more complex than that. How much dance and music should there be? You have to think about balance. What about the range of artistic forms? What conversations can develop between works? What can we learn from them? What connections can happen? Are we targeting specific audiences, and if so, how do we create an overlap? All these considerations play a part.

SummerWorks has waved the $700 participation fee. Is that not a big drain on your budget?

True, the fee did help defray infrastructure and production costs. We have certainly had to readjust the budget and the calibration of expenditures, and we are actively looking for a core sponsor or infrastructure donor. On the other hand, one of my key priorities is accessibility. Waiving the fee has encouraged a growth in the number of applicants, which shows that we are moving in the right direction by taking away that barrier. This year we had 300 applications, 50 more than last year. We want artists to take creative risks, not financial ones.

How else is accessibility manifesting itself?

This year we have an accessibility coordinator, Victoria Lacey, to oversee this aspect. All venues will have ASL interpretation and relaxed performances. We also have Tangled Art + Disability doing an audit. This is an organizations that presents the work of and enhances performing opportunities for artists with disabilities. They also provide consultancy services and examine cultural shifts concerning the disabled. How we can support artists, audiences and staff members identified as disabled, is part of our long-term discussions with Tangled Art. Accessibility is a multi-year commitment for us.

Can we talk about nuts and bolts, so to speak? How many shows, out of town productions, number of performances for each show, box office split, venues, ?

This year there are 32 productions equally split between Presentations and Lab. It happened that way organically. Five projects are from outside Toronto or international. Six shows are collaborations between Toronto-based artists with either Canadian or international artists. The average performance number for Lab productions is three, while Presentations have five showings. The artists get 70% of the box office, the festival 30%. There are two venues – three spaces at the Theatre Centre, and six spaces at the Toronto Media Arts Centre. The latter is a new cultural hub that is two floors under a condo on Lisgar, so, on the same street as the Theatre Centre. It is a home for media arts and new technology. We really wanted to centralize the festival footprint this year so people can get easily from one building to another.

It seems to me that being both artistic director and managing director is a huge job.

The structure is changing. Originally the board amalgamated the two jobs to make it a more fulsome fulltime position, with me as the only permanent employee. The rest of the staff is on contract. This year there will be a festival producer, Rosanna Lowton, who will stay on beyond the actual festival, and who will be my collaborator. Her responsibility will include management and operations. I will be in charge of artistic and strategic planning. The main point is, our jobs will be evolving together.

In summary, how would you define SummerWorks?

How we represent ourselves is important. My hope is that we will always remain responsive to the needs of the community, and that all change will happen with that in mind. At our heart, our core, is the possibility of performance – how performance is presented, created and experienced.

(SummerWorks Performance Festival runs Aug. 9 to 11 at the Theatre Centre and the Toronto Media Arts Centre.)