One-woman show. A listening room. A melding of narration and sound-making. Personal and universal. A monologue but also very much a dialogue with the musical tradition. I’m seated at a picnic table in Leslie Grove Park with Toronto-based soprano Zorana Sadiq, trying to tease out what her new creation opening at Crow’s Theatre on November 9 is going to be like.
Art of Song
I stay sane these days by walking industrial wastelands, edges of construction fields, less travelled ravine trails and the dead-quiet side streets of Toronto’s east and north. Last time I clocked in just over 9.5km – it was raining, then overcast with nasty winds – while listening to This Jungian Life, a podcast in which three Jungian psychoanalysts talk amongst themselves. The recent shows have all been about the current situation, with titles like Facing the Fear, and When Everything Changes: Is There Opportunity in Crisis, and Nigredo: Finding Light Out of Darkness. As I was rounding the final stretch of Rosedale Valley Road where it joins Bayview Avenue, past the outlier graves on the slopes of the St James Cemetery, I could hear the analysts in my earphones saying, When the darkness descends, when the Nigredo is upon us, we will have to sit in it for a time. We can’t deny it away. We will have to stay in it, and then survive it. But the only way is through.
It’s been impossible to read fiction these last few weeks. I’ve been searching for something escapist and plotted, precisely the books I don’t enjoy in ordinary circumstances. My own library doesn’t contain anything carefully plotted and neatly resolved, so I call Book City on the Danforth and bike over for a curbside pickup. I’m now nursing what turned out to be the least-plotted thing Patricia Highsmith ever wrote, Found in the Street. Jenny Offill’s Weather was pointless; Jean Frémon’s Now, Now, Louison non-immersive and even self-indulgent. It’s been impossible to listen to recorded music too because you can’t give over to it. Seconds in, you’re besieged by thoughts about the future of live performance. I’m not a techno-optimist on the topic of performing arts. Every now and then a few singers start the conversation online with “how we can change and improve our profession for the future,” presumably by adding an aspect of digital distancing to it. You can’t. We can’t. Things are either live, or they’re not performing arts. Anything consumed on a screen at home is a different shebang.
We’d already begun self-isolating too much before the pandemic lockdown forced us to go full hermit. We as a society have already started preferring screens to live performance, digital communication to people in the flesh. Maintaining friendships outside the family unit was already made hard. Ticket sales for opera and song recitals have already been slowly but steadily declining in Toronto. We’ve already been living as citizens weary of other fellow citizens, not bothering to abstract out of our own condition to the life of the commons, in the public square. The end of the lockdown won’t reverse this trend.
The year 2020 is coming up roses for mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender, who grew up in Turkey and moved to Canada at the age of 22 to pursue two great interests – post-graduate research in the psychology of musical cognition, and professional singing. One of those is now clearly taking over, and the current year is marked by gigs that she finds particularly meaningful. “I hope I won’t be just a singer who sings pretty music and has no other interests,” she says when we meet in the RCM cafe, deserted for the long weekend. Our voices are ringing in the empty space but the security guy on duty doesn’t seem to mind us being there. “I’d like to be able to engage with larger issues and causes. And have my own distinct voice. This year feels like I do.”
One of those larger causes is cross-cultural collaboration. Last month, Kalender performed as a soloist with Sinfonia Toronto in Musical Bridges: Komitas@150, a program of Armenian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, Hungarian and Greek music conducted by an Armenian-Canadian, Nurhan Arman. Komitas – composer, Orthodox priest, ethnomusicologist, and the first Armenian national music systematizer – was born in the Ottoman Empire in 1869. April 24, 1915, Komitas was among more than 200 prominent Armenians rounded up by Ottoman/Turkish forces and deported from Istanbul to Ankara. Unlike most of the group, he survived, but he had a breakdown, was moved between military hospitals, and ended his life in a Paris asylum in 1935 a broken man. “This concert is about celebrating Komitas, and it’s about celebrating peace and always working to keep it”, says Kalender. “I’ve listened to a lot of Armenian music alongside my Armenian friends at the Conservatory in Istanbul, and loved it. Our musical traditions share so much.”
Messing with Winterreise is a growing and delightful industry within classical music performance. Schubert’s best-known song cycle has been fully staged and orchestrated for a chamber ensemble (Netia Jones/Hans Zender/Ian Bostridge), divided between three female singers (Toronto’s Collectìf ensemble), multi-mediatized (William Kentridge’s video projections), arranged for singer, puppet, guitar, and piano with animated drawings (Thomas Guthrie) and staged with the piano and illustrated backdrops (Ebbe Knudsen). On January 17, Toronto will have a chance to see another contribution to the conversation on the meaning of Winterreise, when Le Chimera Project, with baritone Philippe Sly, bring their klezmer- and Roma-inflected take on it to Koerner Hall.
“The inspiration came when I saw a video clip of two friends, Félix de l’Étoile and Samuel Carrier, performing Gute Nacht on accordion and clarinet at a recital,” says Philippe Sly on a Skype call from San Francisco. “I thought, Oh my God, that sound suits this musical content so well. I approached Felix and asked what he thought would be the best arrangement if we were to continue with this klezmer-Gypsy-like aesthetic and he came up with the idea of having trombone, clarinet, violin and accordion instead of the piano.” De l’Étoile and Carrier wrote the draft arrangement and the entire group with Sly worked intensely on the piece for two secluded wintry weeks at the Domaine Forget in Charlevoix, where the Chimera Winterreise had its premiere.
Not a lot of people in Canada know a whole lot about Colombia, the third largest country in South America, and what we manage to gather usually comes from American television shows and media reports on drug wars. The November 5 Toronto edition of Crossing Borders, the recital series founded by the Halifax-based soprano Maureen Batt, which pairs up Canadian composers with foreign ones in creatively themed evenings, may just change things on this score. Batt’s key partner in programming this time is Colombia-born, Ontario-based tenor Fabián Arciniegas, whom Toronto audiences may remember from the productions with Essential Opera and Opera in Concert. He left the Republic of Colombia in 2010 to complete a master’s at U of T, and stayed. “If any Latin American music is presented here in Canada,” he tells me on the phone from Coburg, where he now lives, “it’s usually a zarzuela – and that’s rare enough. When people think of music from Hispanic places, Spain included, they think either dance, or zarzuela, or de Falla. Composers from South America that are being performed outside South America are few. Carlos Guastavino is one – and he died in 2000. Piazzolla is another. And that’s where it ends.”
One day not so long ago, Batt and Arciniegas were chatting over instant messenger when the tenor mentioned in passing that he really wanted to put on a recital of songs by living composers from Colombia. Batt liked the idea and offered to produce it as a half-half evening, Canadian and Colombian/Latin American, and soon enough they were posting public calls for scores. Arciniegas urged the Colombian composers that he knew or knew of to submit, but nobody’s placement in the program was guaranteed. It was, unusually, a blind submission process, which upon completion of the first round, Batt, Arciniegas and pianist Claire Harris tweaked here and there for diversity of themes and musical approaches.