Bohème and Me: 12 Things

I couldn’t possibly write anything grown-up about La Bohème, which I’ll be seeing tonight at the Canadian Opera Company. Like many of the operas I loved before becoming sophisticated, the music is more like a part of my body than anything I experience with my mind. So, I give you my personal history with it, in the form of a list of trivialities.

1. Bohème was my first “favourite opera,” the first opera that really sunk its manipulative little hooks into my teenage brain. I got there through a “best of opera” compilation that included Che gelida manina. The operas I loved back then remind me now of taking the bus to the mall and having a lot of feelings.

2. The part I still love the most is the first 20 minutes or so, with the friends grumbling, celebrating, and carousing before Mimi shows up. The first couple of bars promise that exciting things are about to happen.

aside: Carreras sure was handsome back then.

3. The part I put on opera mixtapes, however, was the Mimi/Marcello bit from Act III.

4. I couldn’t afford to buy opera box sets (and wouldn’t buy “highlights” discs on principle) so I got them out from the library instead. The recording I learned the music from featured Renata Scotto and Gianni Poggi. Later, looking it up in the Penguin Guide, I discovered that it’s considered to be rather dreadful. I eventually bought myself a cheapo set featuring Miriam Gauci. It was unsatisfying.

5. Tonight will be my fifth live Bohème, I think. This is the quintessential date-night opera, but I’ve always attended alone. The same will be true tonight.

6. My first was at Edmonton Opera in 1999, and I cried, of course. After I became a full-blown opera lover, my mother became a member of the opera guild, primarily for my benefit. It mostly meant I could hang around backstage with her before and after the performance (one chorus member taught us how to correctly pronounce the word latte). I also had good access to posters. After that first Bohème, I took a poster to the Mimi’s dressing room to have it signed. Her name was Monique Pagé, she was French-Canadian, and she was very kind to me.

7. My second Bohème, in 2005, was an accident. I had just moved to Toronto, wanted to Take Advantage of the Cultural Offerings, and fixed my intentions on a string quartet performance. My path took me past the COC’s erstwhile venue on Front Street, and on my way to the chamber music someone called out: “want some opera tickets?” Turned out I did. After some mild haggling I gave him $25 for an orchestra-level seat, perhaps too much given that the performance had already started. The ushers were kind enough to let me in during Act I to stand in the back. I was bored of Bohème by then, but I still cried at the end.

8. Against the Grain Theatre’s version had a modernized libretto that included the phrase: “the first chance I get, I’ll make an appointment for some manscaping.” That’s the main line from Joel’s libretto that I remember. I still cried at the end.

9. Bohème was a supremely comforting opera for me as someone on the cusp of adulthood. It’s about young artists in the big city! They don’t have money or success, but they are full of energy. They eat, drink, and carouse; they fold themselves into the bustle of the city; they form deep and close friendships; they embark on exhilarating romances. And they work on their art. Those were all things I wanted for myself. The prospect of dying of TB wasn’t a concern.

10. I’ve met people who never really grow out of the things they loved when they were young; whatever movies and albums blew their mind at age 16 are on their top five lists for all time. Perhaps all of us are like this at heart, but for anyone aspiring to connoisseurship it’s imperative to develop and discard.

11. There are so many reasons for an advanced opera-lover to discard Bohème: its postcard nostalgia, its cold and cloying manipulations, the fact that it’s comfort food for your aunties and a cash cow for opera companies who churn out plush productions in soft colours season after season. If you go to the opera with any regularity, Bohème’s popularity will virtually ensure that you soon tire of it.

12. Even so. When I think of how many great operas are dull or straight-up incoherent in patches, how many attempt sweetness and fail, how many depict love in a way that seems mechanical and foreign, or don’t make me cry in the sad scenes, it’s hard to see Bohème as anything other than a masterwork. It is precisely what it needs to be.

Why I am at the Opera Tonight

(La Boheme is my example this evening, because it is the first opera I ever loved)

1. Because I love La Boheme.

2. Because I’ve been a subscriber for thirty years.

3. Because my girlfriend just broke up with me, and La Boheme always makes me cry, and I need a good cry.

4. Because I’d given up on productions of La Boheme after seeing five dull ones, but I hear this one is really something.

5. Because my favourite singer is in it.

6. Because my friend from music school is in it.

7. Because I think it will impress my date if I take her someplace where she’ll feel slightly intimidated.

8. Because my date loves the opera and I need him to think I love it too.

9. Because I am obsessed with Phantom of the Opera and would love to see a real live opera.

10. Because I was saying to Ginny the other day, isn’t it silly that we live three blocks away from the opera house and we’ve never been?

11. Because I’m obsessed with opera and see everything I can, whether it’s a student production of The Magic Flute or The Ring Cycle set in colonial Hong Kong.

12. Because I could never sit through any of that modern trash but I just love Puccini.

13. Because I’m trying to convert my friend to opera and I think this will be the perfect “foist.”

14. Because my 10-year-old nephew is singing that line about wanting the toy trumpet.

15. Because my company got some comp tickets and it’s the perfect place to take that new client.

16. Because I desperately want somewhere to wear my new silk dress.

17. Because I work for the opera company and am taking full advantage of the free and cheap tickets.

18. Because I work for the opera company and attend out of a sense of obligation.

19. Because I work for the opera company and it’s better to see the show than twiddle my thumbs for an hour between the pre-show and the intermission.

20. Because my opera-loving friend assures me I’ll like this one, really, the music is very pretty and romantic and it’s a classic love story and it’s short. And she came to see my boyfriend’s band play so I owe her one.

21. Because I’m in the city for the very first time and try to go to the opera in as many cities as I can, in order to educate myself.

22. Because I think this young singer might be on her way to a good career if she plays her cards right, and I want to see how she handles this role.

23. Because I want to see this very-famous-but-getting-long-in-the-tooth singer before he retires.

24. Because since leaving University I feel like I’m getting dull and boring, and want to keep my cultural appreciation skills sharp. I used to read Spenser, dammit! I’ve got to prove I’m still capable of enjoying something other than Real Housewives!

25. Because I think it’s important to support the arts.

26. Because I think it’s important to support this tiny opera company, even if their standards aren’t as high as the big organizations.

27. Because I’ve only ever been to the opera at my mediocre regional company, and traveled to the big city just to get a taste of what great singing sounds like.

28. Because I think my kid will benefit from being exposed to it.

29. Because my kid has suddenly gone opera-mad and has been begging me for months to take her.

30. Because I wanted the chance to see the inside of this building.

31. Because all my friends will be there.

32. Because someone I really want to meet will be there (I think I’ve even figured out what section she’ll be sitting in).

33. Because I just turned 29 and realized I’ll only be able to get the cheap tickets for one more year.

34. Because I”m in music school and need to beef up on my knowledge to keep up with my classmates.

35. Because I’m in school and have a desperate crush on the professor who organizes the departmental tickets and I want to impress him with my cultural literacy.

36. Because the paper gave it a good review and the photos they ran looked pretty.

37. Because the director has a very interesting concept and I want to see how it plays out.

38. Because “che gelida manina” is on my CD of “20 most romantic opera arias.”

38. Because no matter how many times I hear “che gelida manina,” it still thrills me.

39. Because I think “che gelida manina” is overrated but I love “donde lieta.”

40. Because I just started taking singing lessons and my teacher suggested it might be a good “aspirational” outing.

41. Because my friend had an emergency and was giving away her tickets, and I thought, what the hell, why not.

42. Because it’s a stop on my five-city, ten-night opera tour, and though I really do prefer Wagner, you can’t help what winds up in the package.

43. Because I’m bent on seeing every single performance by my diva assoluta (and hopefully work my way into her good graces). I save money by buying standing room and afterwards I wait for her by the stage door.

44. Because there’s a dearth of good musical theatre to go to, and someone said Sweeney Todd was kind of like opera, and I love Sweeney Todd so it seemed worth a shot.

45. Because usually I go to the ballet but their season doesn’t start for another month, and I wanted a night out.

46. Because my girlfriend’s irritating brother is staying with us and I desperately needed a reason to get out of the house.

47. Because last time I saw this production someone was unwrapping a cough candy during Musetta’s Waltz, which I wanted to hear more than anything. This time I bought a box seat.

48. Because I need somewhere to go with my secret lover and I know I won’t run into anyone we know at the opera.

49. Because I was walking past the rush line this morning and felt that anything with that long of a line must be worth going to, so I thought “why not be spontaneous” and got in the line myself.

50. Because I would rather be at the opera than anywhere else.

The Handel Singing Competition

I am Canadian, and I am under 30 years of age, and I have been known to sing on occasion. To sing Handel even. But I will not be applying for the Classical Music Consort’s Handel Singing Competition, because I don’t sing very well. Perhaps all these qualifications (Canadian, under 30, sings Handel) apply to you except for that last one (sings poorly)? In that case, you should probably apply.

The Classical Music Consort has been involved in a lot of neat things in Toronto, and for non-applicants like myself the competition will probably be very interesting to attend. It will be part of an overall Handel festival taking place from May 3rd to 8th and featuring a performance of Handel’s first oratorio, Il Trionfo del Tempo e del Disinganno.

Sondheim: “Big Problems” in Contemporary Opera

I had the great pleasure this evening of attending the Mirvish-produced Evening with Stephen Sondheim, featuring the man himself being interviewed by critic Robert Cushman. Because I was raised on American musicals and continue to love them to this day, the works of Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Gershwin and the rest are embedded deep in a primal place in my brain, along with Sondheim, a titan of the genre. His work meant, and continues to mean, so much to me – as much as opera does. Sondheim is probably the most operatic of the major musical theatre composers, and opera is of course an older sister to that genre, so when the question “would you ever write an opera” was posed to him, I perked up my ears.

Throughout the evening he’d acknowledged the debt of modern musical theatre to opera – how the transformation from “number”-based musicals to more integrated ones mirrored how opera had transformed itself a century before; and how opera composers have always known the ways that music can be used to convey subtext.

But when asked if he’d ever compose an opera, his answer was “no”, because he believes that the current institutional structures in place for premiering new works cause the work to suffer.

He explained that he views the audience as a collaborator, and that the process of modifying a work based on audience response is indispensable to him. Without being able to have several performances (several nights in a row, with a consistent cast) in front of a real audience, observe where they’re rapt and when they’re bored and then tweak accordingly, he believes that no new work can truly succeed. “For this reason, most contemporary operas have big problems,” he concluded (I paraphrase).

His complaint put me in mind of this John Terauds blog post, discussing an Opera America article that I (sadly) have not read. “The System is Set Up to Fail New Operas” is its provocative headline, and though the reasons are different, the underlying sentiment – that there’s something strangely clinical, detatched, and unexciting about the way we approach new works – is quite similar.

I’m Speaking at CAPACOA

I’m writing this from a VIA train on the way to our nation’s capital (yay for on-board WiFi). I’ll be speaking on a panel tomorrow at 1:45 about how arts organizations can use social media to their benefit at the annual CAPACOA conference in Ottawa. Since I’m relatively new to the social media game (at least professionally), I’m hoping to learn a lot from the three other impressive women who will be participating. If I happen to have any readers who are also attending, let me know and hopefully we can connect.

Review of Opera Atelier’s Acis and Galatea

Opera Atelier's Acis and Galatea
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Mireille Asselin & Thomas Macleay / Handel's Acis and Galatea

First, I have to admit that I came to Acis and Galatea last night with a clouded mind. Over the last month I’ve done a lot of thinking about performance tradition, the boundaries of style, and the question of who, precisely, owns the “meaning” of an opera (the correct answer, for my money, is “no one,” not even the composer, but there are many who believe otherwise). Acis and Galatea, like all Opera Atelier productions, is produced in a very specific and highly stylized way that attempts in some ways to evoke the performance conventions of the period in which it was composed.

Of course, “period accuracy” is a slippery goal and part of Opera Atelier’s genius lies in carefully choosing which aspects of Baroque and 18th century performance to preserve and which to dispense with. Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski nodded to this notion in his opening remarks, telling the audience that while they started out as a company “obsessed with period style”, that they’ve come to believe in the adage that “style is not the bull’s-eye; style is what you use to take aim.” I would like to hear more from him about how he sees his aims as having changed – where the bull’s-eye is now – and in what areas they’ve chosen to sacrifice period authenticity in favour of a different vision.

I can make guesses about this to some extent. Part of what makes Opera Atelier productions so visually unique – and what, perhaps, I love about them the most – is the very precise and stylized stage movements of the performers, meant to imitate the style of gestural acting characteristic of the Baroque. The singers pose as though for paintings, each arm movement and head tilt suggesting emotion while maximizing their beauty. And a commitment to visual beauty is always on display: not only in the prominence of ballet and the soft lighting but in the casting of young, slim, and attractive singers clothed in very revealing costumes. This last item pushes OA productions to the heights of sensual deliciousness while giving ammo to critics who sometimes dismiss them as lightweight and vulgar (the display of male beauty, in particular, seems to reliably ruffle feathers).

So, where does Acis and Galatea fit in to all this? I wouldn’t call it lightweight, but it is certainly light – light as a balloon that threatens every minute to blow away but always, to overwork the metaphor, bobs merrily along at the end of its string. All of the aforementioned OA hallmarks are present, meaning that the production is beautiful to look at and staged with deftness and intelligence. As I noted in an earlier DVD review, A&G isn’t always an easy work to like. While a lot of operas might be described as dramatically static, Acis and Galatea is static in the extreme. There are perhaps two or three actual plot events and they’re clustered near the end. The rest plays almost like a song cycle or collection of arias rather than a drama.

In this production the vast spaces are filled with dancing (much more prominent in the first half than the second) and comedy. The choice to play Polyphemus for laughs is an interesting one, and I’m not entirely sure that it works. While it does enliven the drama, it does wind up robbing the finale of some of its gravitas. Both director and tenor Lawrence Wiliford deserve kudos for making the character of Damon make sense as a participant in the drama, and all the actors on stage display a charming vulnerability.

In conclusion? Think of it as a series of tableaux, both musical and visual, and enjoy all the beauty on display. Any attempt to inject more drama into Acis and Galatea would have popped the balloon.

Acis And Galatea Final from Douglas Brown on Vimeo.

Other opinions:

Globe and Mail:”The four singers were for the most part exemplary, headed by the consummately brilliant and nimble tenor Lawrence Wiliford as the Ariel-like Damon”

Toronto Star: “Saturday night’s opening performance of George Frideric Handel’s sweet pastoral Acis and Galatea merged excellent musicianship, fine stagecraft and a keen sense of movement.”

Mooney on Theatre: “This is the kind of opera that anyone could see and enjoy.”

Art & Culture Maven: “It’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening of Baroque Opera to continue the company’s longstanding legacy.”

James Karas Reviews: “this is a superb production in period style that is worth seeing more than once. By happenstance, I saw it twice and enjoyed it even more the second time.”

Orlando/Lunaire Review: Intriguing but Unsatisfying

Orlando/Lunaire To paraphrase the fine gentlemen from The Awl, a lot of tartar builds up around opera’s conventions and repertoire, and regular efforts need to be made to scrape it away. Orlando/Lunaire, the product of a collaboration between the Classical Music Consort and Opera Erratica, represents just such an attempt. Even the location was unusual for an opera – far, far away from the Four Seasons Centre, in an industrial shed, in a neighborhood on the tantalizing edge of gentrification. The audience consisted both of tweedy academics and mustachioed hipsters.

The central concept is not unlike a wine-and-cheese pairing – but rather than epoisses with Burgundy, Schoenberg’s masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire is paired with Handel’s Orlando. Segments from Lunaire alternate with arias from Orlando, with soprano Carla Huhtanen and countertenor Scott Belluz trading singing duties with one another. The writeup promised nuanced emotion, video projections, and gender ambiguity. Sounds fascinating on paper.

There was a lot to enjoy in the execution – first and foremost the vocal performances, which were full of beauty and sensitivity. Huhtanen brought a vaudevillian sure-footed theatricality to her numbers, while Belluz remained enticingly aloof. I also enjoyed the “surtitles”, a mishmash of words projected on the screen. Sometimes they projected the text in its original language and sometimes a translation; sometimes the words formed coherent fragments and sometimes they were scattered all over the screen; sometimes they corresponded to the words being sung, and sometimes not. I’m a fan of theatrical productions that do interesting things with text-as-art, and this fit the bill.

However, I was unsure what it was meant to add up to in the end. The “mashup” element never extended beyond simple alternation, making little effort to combine the two styles into something new. The various characters played by Huhtanen and Belluz were never clearly distinguishable from each other, and the two singers rarely engaged in any kind of dramatic interaction. While I’m sure the pieces were chosen in order to create interesting pairings (there’s that wine/cheese word again) and follow some kind of emotional arc, most of this was entirely over my head – I was never sure about the reasoning for the placement of the Handel arias inside the framework of Pierrot Lunaire. The dramatic action was almost entirely static save for a few very abstract symbolic gestures. And, while the gender ambiguity of both singers was admirably conveyed through makeup and nightmarish yet sexy baroque-inflected costumes, I was supremely irritated by the frequent presence of a 10-foot-tall, headless, naked female torso projected onto the screen during several of Belluz’s arias. This torso was (as if anyone could expect otherwise) slim, smooth-skinned, large-breasted, passive, and attractively-lit – the opposite of provocative, just in case we needed to be reminded what desire consists of. Boneriffic.

Here are some other opinions:

Eye Weekly: “Their oeuvre is a mystical mash-up of contrasting eras, languages and musical genres, and — surprisingly — it works.”

NOW Magazine: “the evening is a marvel of nuanced emotion, unexpected visuals and splendid music-making.”

Toronto Star: “At its opening performance on Sunday evening, the experimental staging was not perfect, but sheer imagination and two fantastic singers turned it into a memorable, intellectually provocative two hours.”

Globe and Mail: “But I did come away desiring a complete performance of Orlando and a complete performance of Pierrot lunaire on decently separate occasions. The mashup told me less about Handel and Schoenberg and more about the feverish fancies of Young than I need to know.”

Operatoonity and Other News

Gale of Operatoonity has posted an interview with me in which I discuss the Canadian Opera Company’s hopes for the new blog, Parlando. If you’re interested in what I’ve been doing in the opera world lately, go check it out.

Also, this weekend I’ll be attending Orlando/Lunaire (here’s the listing at She Does the City). The description makes it look unusual and intriguing:

Orlando Lunaire is an underground cabaret opera that will bring music, video projections, and avant garde fashion…to a west end industrial storage shed. Mixing the Handel’s baroque opera Orlando and Shoenberg’s atonal masterpiece Pierrott Lunaire, (for those of you who have never taken any 20th century music classes, this one is quite something.) and with costumes designed by Heidi Ackerman, this promises to be a truly unique and stunning event.

Carla Huhtanen, whose Susanna I recently enjoyed at Opera Atelier, will be performing. Watch for a review!

I’m Blogging with the COC

If you’ve been disappointed in the relatively low posting volume here at All Time Coloratura in the last couple of weeks, fear not – I am now commandeering not one but two opera blogs.

Parlando, a blog for the Canadian Opera Company, went live this morning. I’ll be blogging there about all things COC. I hope you click over and take a look! There you’ll be able to see some of the behind-the-scenes items that I didn’t have access to as a civilian blogger, and if you’re local to Toronto, it will help you stay informed about the multiplicity of events coming up.

In the meantime, here’s another fun video.

In Which I Let Others do the Work For Me

I’ve been meaning to post this particular item for several weeks, and since I can’t permit this hiatus to continue any longer, now is the perfect time. This youtube clip comes via a Parterre Box comment thread, one of the epic youtube contests that have yielded up a bounty of treasures from the bowels of the internet.

The entire comment thread is worth digging through, as is the one for the other contest. Until you find the time, just watch this:

You’re welcome.