Often described by performers and critics as “deliriously sensuous,” Messiaen’s Harawi is the veritable black pearl of song cycles. Is it really thematically a variation on Tristan und Isolde? How much Peruvian and Andean folklore is there in it, really? Are Messiaen’s invented words employed purely for sonorous effect? How many narrators are there in the text, how many persons, if any? Was Messiaen looking closely at the suffering of his spouse who was beginning to struggle with mental health problems at the time of its composition? Is this a rare Messiaenic creation that’s completely devoid of Catholicism? Or should we, as pianist Vanessa Wagner suggests, abandon any attempt at intellectual analysis of Harawi and meet its raw emotions with raw emotions of our own?

These are the questions which mezzo Simone McIntosh and pianist Rachel Kerr are already trying to grapple with in rehearsal for their own Harawi, to be presented on October 25 at the Canadian Opera Company’s noon-hour concert series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. While the piece will not be staged or even semi-staged, Harawi is not exactly amenable to a typical self-contained song recital either.

(from left) Simone McIntosh and Rachael Kerr. credit Ian G McIntosh Photography “When I started thinking how I want to interpret this piece,” says McIntosh when we meet in a café one bright late-summer evening, “I realized there’s no way for me to do it without there being some sort of breaking of boundaries when it comes to art song. When you’re studying art song as a singer, it’s important to understand that the beauty is to be found within the music and to portray something in art song means to portray it in a subtle, non-bodily way. I feel though that this piece lends itself to being explored in a bodily way.”

Her first encounter with Harawi was Against the Grain Theatre’s 2015 mashup of the Messiaen song cycle with Schubert’s Die Schöne Müllerin, which Joel Ivany staged in a Parkdale gallery and Christopher Mokrzewski conducted from the piano. Krisztina Szabó gave voice to the Harawi woman, who is in a troubled relationship with baritone Stephen Hegedus’s Müllerin narrator. This marriage of two very different pieces worked extremely well. And made McIntosh determined to sing it ASAP: “I saw the AtG’s Harawi, and Krisztina Szabó doing it so brilliantly, and said to myself: I want to do this so bad. Since that night, it’s been on my wish list. When I got into the COC Ensemble, Liz Upchurch asked me what I’d like to sing while I’m here and I immediately said Harawi.”

It’s hard to describe Harawi to somebody who’s never heard it. McIntosh gives it a try: “I’d describe it as an eclectic piece that explores the musicality of both folk and contemporary music, and joins the tonality with the atonality. It’s a piece with an amazing range of emotion and musical expression.” Is she going to try to make sense of the words? “The poetry of it is so bizarre and surrealist and abstract. At first I thought, Hmm, what am I going to do with this? But I found some really wonderful sources that preserve Messiaen’s thoughts when he was writing the piece so I’ll be definitely incorporating what he had in mind while composing … I’ll be making sure that there’s a through storyline that makes sense to me, but also respects what he wanted.”

Does Messiaen’s ailing wife comes into the equation? “That’s an interesting aspect, and one of the ideas that I’m toying with as I’m rehearsing the piece. But the main aspect is – it’s a story of two lovers that are separated by death and at the end united in death.” It’s a decidedly non-Christian view of death, however. “Messiaen presents death as this chaotic nebula that is full of stars … It’s kind of atypical for him.”

Do we ever know who is narrating, and if it’s one specific person? “In one of the songs, there is the young woman narrator, and then the narration clearly switches to the young man. None of the other songs have that. Whenever the words are addressing Piroutcha, you could argue that I’m performing the young man. All in all, I think I’m playing two, if not three characters – as there’s an outside narrator. Maybe even four: where Messiaen used syllabic mutterings, a witch may speaking. Or a character with witchy features that’s based on Goya paintings.”

McIntosh has been passionate about 20th century and contemporary music since early university. She went to school alongside a group of composers and has been able to sing a lot of new works from the get-go. If there’s a red thread running through her undergraduate years at UBC, the years of working on a master’s at McGill, the Merola program in San Francisco and now the COC Ensemble Studio, it would probably be new music. “My goal is to be a voice for contemporary music, specifically Canadian composers. It’s really important to encourage young Canadian composers to write for the voice – and to advocate for those pieces. A lot of the time some amazing new music is not recognized because of the lack of performing opportunities. I hope to be changing that.” If she were to be an ambassador for any of the composers from the past? “Definitely Richard Strauss. Berg. I also love singing Schoenberg. Then of course Mozart: I love him and will be doing a lot of Mozart in the near future.” Starting with understudying Dorabella in the COC revival of Atom Egoyan’s production of Cosi fan tutte next year.

In another unusual project that came her way, McIntosh actually had the opportunity to combine Mozart and new music. Crush, a modern reconstruction of Don Giovanni composed by James Rolfe to a libretto by Anna Chatterton, turns the title character over to a mezzo – McIntosh, that is – in a production that was workshopped and performed at the Banff Centre. Or rather, off-off-Banff Centre, in a night club which doubled as a sex club for the occasion. Donna Giovanna was a “sex addicted sociopath,” as McIntosh puts it, chased by lovers of both sexes. “There were dildos on the walls, condoms on the floor…” she laughs. “It was pretty racy.” As in Da Ponte’s libretto, the protagonist takes advantage of people, but dies by the hand of the character named Lola, who is a modern approximation of Donna Elvira.

Upon finishing the Merola summer training program in San Francisco last month, McIntosh returned to her busy and sometimes unpredictable days as a COC Ensemble Studio member. Ensemble Studio is really good at taking the voices that they want, rather than the voices that they, for practical purposes need, she says. “A lot of similar programs have some kind of equal distribution, and take two sopranos, two mezzos, two tenors etc.” The COC Ensemble actually lets itself fall in love with a young voice, and works around that. “They choose the voices that they want, and then program.” And sometimes, fortunately, those young voices will insist on tackling the Mount Everests of art song like Messiaen’s Harawi

ART OF SONG QUICK PICKS

OCT 9, 12PM: Canadian Opera Company, Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre | “The Best of Rossini: Artists of the COC Ensemble Studio.” Arias and duos, comedic and dramatic. The dramatic Rossini is heard nowhere near enough in Toronto, so even the slightest chance of a Tancredi aria is worth the wait in that line around the block.

Lauren EberweinOCT 18, 12PM: Canadian Opera Company, Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre | “Mélodies et chansons.” Graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Lauren Eberwein joined the COC’s Ensemble Studio as a mezzo, but is now a soprano. How has the voice changed since she won the second prize in the COC Ensemble Competition in 2015 with the trouserissimo “Parto, parto” from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito? A chance to find out, and meet the soprano Anna-Sophie Neher as well. The two will perform a selection of French art songs.

OCT 21, 3PM: Off Centre Music Salon: Trinity-St. Paul ‘s Centre. “The Mystery of History: 1889 in Paris and Vienna.”An intriguing chamber program indeed, including Brahms and Johann Strauss’ very different approaches to Hungarian and Roma/Gypsy cultures, and Massenet and Chausson amidst quite a bit of Debussy. Readings throughout from Arthur Schnitzler by actor William Webster; historical commentary by Stephen Cera. Shannon Mercer, soprano; Krisztina Szabó, mezzo; Inna Perkis and Boris Zarankin, piano; Mark Skazinetsky, violin.

OCT 27, 7:30PM & OCT 28, 3PM: Pax Christi Chorale: Grace Church on the Hill. “Slavic Devotion. “Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; Rachmaninoff: All-Night Vigil and Vocalise with Natalya Gennadi, soprano. David Bowser conducts.

NOV 5, 7:30PM: “International Resource Centre for Performing Artists presents Singing Stars: The Next Generation.” Zoomer Hall. A program of opera and oratorio arias. Singers to be announced; Rachel Andrist at the piano.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Erin Wall as Arabella in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Arabella, 2017. Photo by Michael CooperWhat is a thriving artist to do if serious illness strikes while everything else in life is going gloriously? Erin Wall, an elegant Straussian soprano in demand on both sides of the Atlantic, who defined Arabella and Kaija Saariaho’s Clémence for Torontonians and redefined Mozart’s Countess in a recent COC Figaro, had an extraordinarily difficult December last year. That winter, amidst all that bloom, professional and familial – she is happily partnered and a mother of two – she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

While looking at the treatment options, she also had to decide how to redraw the dense schedule of her professional engagements. She was going to have to invent for herself a new way of being in the world for some time to come: a much-travelled soprano who’s also in cancer treatment.

It’s crucial not to abandon everything – and to continue with life as you know it as much as possible, she tells me when we meet on a mild weekend afternoon in mid-August. Her hair, growing back after chemotherapy, is in a short boyish cut, which gives her a touch of punk. We met to talk about her upcoming song recital with Carolyn Maule at Prince Edward County Chamber Music Festival, but soon enough move on to the much bigger issue: how to go on living and working while healing.

“Generally the week after the chemotherapy is not easy – you feel sick and don’t want to go out – but the second week I would start to feel better and by the third I felt normal. Luckily a lot of the gigs fell on those second and third weeks. I only had to cancel, like, two jobs.” A few dates had to be negotiated. “Staff at Princess Margaret Hospital at first thought I was crazy. They’re used to saying to the patients, ‘This is when your surgery will be, just show up, and this is when your appointment will be, and you show up.’ They’re used to sort of everybody abandoning everything, and I’d go, ‘That date is not going to work for me, I need it to be next week so I can go to Cleveland and record Beethoven’s Ninth.’ And they worked with me.” Meanwhile, with her manager she let all the symphonies know that she may not feel okay the day of the concert. “He told them, if you’d like Erin to back out now, she will, and most of them said: ‘No, we’ll hire a cover and we’ll play it by ear.’ People were wonderful about it.” This summer, she’s keeping her two engagements at the British Proms: the first concert was on July 21, four weeks after her surgery, and the next one is coming up on September 6, Britten’s War Requiem with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Peter Oundjian.

Erin Wall as Clémence in the Canadian Opera Company production of Love from Afar, 2012. Photo by Michael CooperSinging has been a lifeline in the thick of the treatment; when we talked in August, she was undergoing radiation, which she was finding much easier. Singing, and also the rituals around getting ready and being in concert. “It was really nice to do, put on a dress and a wig and pretend that life was normal and not just be a cancer patient sitting on a couch watching Netflix.” You travelled quite a bit too? “It was fun actually because every time I got to go sing between the chemos, it’s like a vacation from cancer. Cancer treatment is like having a job. I rode to the hospital every day on the GO Train with the businessmen in suits, and it’s for weeks in a row, no gigging while this is happening-- it becomes your job.” As soon as she’s recuperated, it’s back to singing. “I’ve never sung more Beethoven Ninths in my life,” she jokes. “Which I love! And they’re easier to handle than, say, Mahler 8. I did a Mahler 8 I think between chemo four and five, and that put me absolutely to my limit.” This was in the Netherlands, with Yannick Nézet-Séguin. “Any other time when I’m healthy, the amount of effort in Mahler 8 is between six and seven but there, I was at eleven out of ten.”

How does the chemotherapy affect a singer’s body? “The thing that it affected the most is breathing,” she says. As a later side effect, it turned out that she was becoming anemic; the red blood cells were not able to bounce back as quickly as the white cells until with the help of medication, they did. “I had to stop running toward the end of chemo.” You maintained your running schedule?! “I was sort of able to keep it up in the beginning, going slower and slower, but toward the end it became impossible as your blood can’t carry enough oxygen.”

I rewind the conversation back to the wigs and ask her about the practicalities around that. As soon as she was diagnosed, Wall emailed a friend who’s a professional wigmaker at the COC to ask her if she could create a wig specifically for her performances. Then she cut her hair short – she was told by girlfriends who’ve been through treatment that it’s easier to mourn the loss of short hair – and sent all the hair extensions she used over the years to the wigmaker friend to incorporate in the wig about to be created. “A week or two after chemo, when it was about to start to fall out, I had my husband shave my head. We had a party in my bathroom with my kids and my parents. I was about to go to Calgary and sing Mendelssohn and I didn’t want chunks of hair in my hands in the hotel room, and also didn’t want to carry hair brushes, and hair dryers and shampoo AND a bagful of wigs. It was all too much: I’m going to go to Calgary with no hair.” But what grew back since that bathroom symposium actually did fall off while she was in Calgary. “I woke up in Calgary and it was all over the pillow. It was still traumatic because it was real.”

She doesn’t dwell too much. “It’s nice to have hair again. I dyed it bright magenta a while ago, and will try platinum on Tuesday.” Then she shifts into a comedy mode. “I used a long straight wig for social occasions, but they’re so hot and itchy when you have no hair on your head.” There are also the hot flashes to contend with, another side to cancer. “When you’re getting hot flashes and you have a wig on, it’s un-bearable. There were times when I was in public and decided that the wig has got to come off. I’d go somewhere and 30 minutes in, the wig would go into my bag and I would put a little cap on. And people give you looks, they know you’re a cancer patient… but you stop caring.”

As she’s made me laugh multiple times during our conversation, I tell Wall that she’s coming up with some stand-up quality stuff that reminds me of Tig Notaro, the first US comic to talk about her cancer onstage and to, in fact, turn the illness into comedy material. Wall’s eyes lit up. “I love her work! Her comedy about having cancer and all the horrible things that came with it, I could not stop listening to it. It’s what got me through December. Everything is so true. The most horrible thing about it – she had a double mastectomy – is, she says, that nobody can hug you after surgery. It’s the thing you most need and you can’t stand to be touched.” The first Notaro video that went viral and broke new ground in comedy? Wall keeps it on her phone. “She made the hard things funny. And I love that bit where she talks about making fun of her breasts for being so small, and how they have turned on her and went ‘we’re gonna kill her now’… I just love her. I remember driving through Texas with my sister – my aunt passed away from breast cancer in March – my whole family went there to say goodbye and as we were driving back through Dallas after, really depressed about it all, I was like: you need to listen to this, it’s about when life is really really horrible and how you can ache and still be funny. So we listened together.”

Erin Wall. Photo by Alexander VasiljevAlready in August when we spoke, in between the preparations for the Proms, Wall was rehearsing the songs for the September 14 recital in Picton with Carolyn Maule. A beautifully crafted program awaits, with long, complex songs by Debussy and Duparc, the three Korngold songs of the Opus 22, the delightfully mad Poulenc cycle Fiançailles pour rire, and a three-song cycle by the fin-de-siècle American composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. “They’re all songs that I like and know really well, that are fresh in my mind, body and voice,” she says. “These Debussy songs – I started singing them about 13 years ago. Which was ambitious of me then because I didn’t always have the low part of the voice to sing them. So I put them away for ten years, and then came back to them a few years ago, after I became a mother.” While she’s sung Thaïs and quite a few Marguerites as a fledgling singer, and had a French repertoire specialist for a coach, she’s more often asked to sing German rep now.

Which will also soon enough include Wagner. The recital program is capped off by Elsa’s Dream, the soprano aria from Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin – something she’s never sung before. Is this a sign of things to come? She smiles but can’t divulge too much. “There may be a staged Lohengrin in the cards. In a couple of years. But I can’t say more.” Can we at least know in what country? “…Spain.” Then adds: “I always thought my inroad to big Wagner roles would be either Elsa or Eva from Die Meistersinger… you know, the blonde ones. And that’s exactly how it turned out: Elsa it is.”

September 14 at 7:30pm: Prince Edward County Chamber Music Festival presents “An Evening of Song” with Erin Wall, soprano, and Carolyn Maule, piano. St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church, 335 Main St., Picton. 613-478-8416. $35. www.pecmusicfestival.com/erin-wall.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

In the dog days of Toronto’s musical summer, while the halls are lying dormant and musicians gigging on the Ontario festival circuit, two weeks of intense art song training will take place at the Toronto Summer Music Festival (TSM). Out of 90 applicants this year, eight singers and four pianists chosen by video auditions will work on all aspects of art song with international mentors, Christoph Prégardien and Julius Drake, and the head of Collaborative Piano at U of T and Canadian Art Song Project co-artistic director Steven Philcox. Tuition fees are covered by scholarships, which in turn are underwritten by TSM donors. Each week of work will be crowned with a group recital, in a program that will emerge organically from the training repertoire tackled.

Christoph Pregardien - Marco BorggreveThere will also be the opportunity for the Art of Song Institute singers and pianists to join forces with the fellows of the Chamber Music Institute, the other arm of the Toronto Summer Music Academy. A lucky precedent was set last year, explains Steven Philcox when I phone him on an early morning in May; song students enjoyed working with string players and TSM artistic director Jonathan Crow so much that a repeat was in order. This year, two pieces that call for inter-Institute collaboration will be in the final concert: a Menotti number and Chausson’s Chanson perpétuelle for soprano, piano and string quartet.

Each of the international mentors is here for one week, though their time will overlap enough to allow for a Prégardien-Drake recital on July 17. Their young mentees will be required to prepare eight songs for each week of the program, 16 songs total. “There will be daily sessions with Christoph, Julius and myself, and a lot of focused diction and language study,” says Philcox. “Michael Albano, resident stage director at the U of T Opera, will give a full session on recitation of poetry, away from the music – getting back to the words – and this is both for singers and pianists. They’re all required to prepare a piece of poetry from memory.”

Steven PhilcoxWhat songs exactly the singers end up working on during those two weeks of close collaboration with Drake, Prégardien and Philcox depends in part on their own interests. The repertoire is discussed early on in the selection process. “We audition everybody through the Young Artist Program tracker, and singers can upload their videos and submit their repertoire online. That way we can audition internationally.” The TSM artistic panel then looks at the applications and makes the selection.

Both the Festival and its Academy are loosely programmed around a theme each year, and this time it’s Reflections of Wartime. “At least some of the songs that the singers bring will be required to fit the festival theme. I ask the singers for 16 to 20 songs and out of those I am able to assemble the rep,” says Philcox. The final list of songs will also depend on who the mentors are and what their area of specialization is. “Christoph Prégardien’s wish was to focus on German lieder and we’ll have quite a bit of Schubert and Schumann – and a lot of students really wanted to work on Schubert with him.” There are two tenors, two sopranos and four mezzos, and in the self-generated repertoire there wasn’t much overlap. “Even within the same voice type,” he adds. “One mezzo happens to be closer to alto and she’s looking at some of the Mahler Kindertotenlieder and Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis.”

Here is the class of 2018: pianists Frances Armstrong, Leona Cheung, Pierre-André Doucet and Jinhee Park, sopranos Maeve Palmer and Karen Schriesheim, tenors Joey Jang and Asitha Tennekoon, and mezzos Lyndsay Promane, Danielle Vaillancourt, Renee Fajardo and Florence Bourget. A couple of the local names will be familiar to Torontonians – Promane and Palmer certainly, as well as tenor Asitha Tennekoon, who has just wrapped up in the first run of the newly composed The Overcoat at Canadian Stage here and in Vancouver.

The young tenor moved to Toronto only four years ago, but since then we’ve seen him in roles in just about all the core companies of the indie scene: Tapestry, Against the Grain Theatre, MY Opera, Opera Five and Bicycle Opera Project. I caught up with him over Skype while he was travelling through BC to ask him about his interest in the art of song and the kind of detailed work that the TSM Academy offers.

“My first TSM Academy was two years ago, actually,” he says. “This year when I found out who the mentors are going to be, I decided to apply again. I’ve listened to Prégardien for a long time, and know his work. Whenever I have to work on Bach cantatas and passions, I look for his versions. As a tenor, I think I might end up doing a lot of rep that he’s done.”

Tennekoon’s rep this year will be British songs and a lot of Schubert lieder. “I’ve done Schumann, I’ve done Wolf, but somehow never taken the time to study Schubert.” And since working on Schubert’s larger song cycles would be somewhat impractical in the context of a two-week summer school, he ended up choosing a few songs from Schwanengesang. “I love those pieces; they speak to me,” he says.

“Lieder in general. There’s something about the way those songs delve into human psyche that really engages me. How the poet and the character in the song put something across, deal with something in a matter of just a couple of minutes – and often so powerfully. That really makes me want to work on it and figure out why and how this happens.”

Part of it, he says, is that there are no operatic visuals, no plot development and no colleagues onstage to help build the character and help you make your case. “There’s an immediate spotlight – you dive straight in. I love that challenge. You can’t move around, there’s nowhere to go.”

One particular song from Schwanengesang in particular drew him in: Der Doppelgänger. “When I first heard it, it surprised me that it was Schubert. The way the harmonies worked, it all felt like Mahler – that sense of pathos and death to it.”

Asitha TennekoonAfter the Academy and in addition to Schubert, Tennekoon will continue to explore Britten’s vocal opus. “I love the way [Britten] writes for the voice,” he says. “I’ve already done a bunch of Britten songs and would like to continue singing Britten as much as possible.” Schumann too, and the French rep eventually. Contemporary music almost goes without saying. “Doing new music is the most enjoyable thing about my time in Toronto so far. Working with Tapestry, you kind of get thrown into it and I absolutely love it. Taking part in something out there that’s never been heard before, getting to talk to the composer and librettist and ask them questions and suggest your own ideas – it’s one of the most exciting parts of this business.”

But first , back to Bach. Tennekoon returns to Stratford Summer Music for the Coffee Cantata later in the summer, and there are a few solos in the Matthew and John Passions in the near future. And in the spring of 2019, a house debut at the Opéra de Montréal in what’s been billed as a jazz opera with boxing, Champion.

The joint reGENERATION recitals by the Art Song and Chamber Music fellows take place on July 14 and 21, 1pm and 4pm on each day in Walter Hall, Toronto; tickets are available at TSM’s website.

June Pick

Tapestry Opera is partnering with Pride Toronto for a three-day festival of naughtiness titled “Tap This” on June 7, 8 and 9. Soprano Teiya Kasahara will subvert operatic tropes about female characters in her haute butch style. Joel Klein (as his drag alter Maria Toilette), Kristina Lemieux (as Vadge) and Gutter Opera Collective will present “Cocktales”: salacious and tender first-person retellings of early sexual experiences. There’s more: the complete program and tickets can be found on Tapestry’s website. 

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Most songs are not created for the purpose of fighting injustice. There is, however, a definite period in the history of the English-language song when the political potential of songwriting craft became obvious: the 1960s and 1970s in the US, with roots reaching back to the 1930s and the odd branch extending into the 1980s. It’s this period, which we now call the golden age of protest song, that Art of Time Ensemble’s artistic director Andrew Burashko homes in on for the three-day festival “All We Are Saying” at Harbourfront Theatre. The festival runs May 10 to 12 with “The Songs Program” performed on May 10 and 12 and “The Classical and Folk Program” on May 11.

Andrew BurashkoWhere was the cutoff point for the protest song, I ask Burashko when we meet to talk about the festival. (It seems to me that few popular songs come out of political grievance these days.) They continue to be made, he replies, but generationally and aesthetically, he feels closest to the songs from this period, when the political songwriting was at its most creative. “Much of the first song program in our festival comes from the African-American experience. Nina Simone’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye. Billie Holiday in the extraordinary Strange Fruit.

“Then there’s Stevie Wonder’s Village Ghetto Land, which he opens with a string orchestra and gives it a surprisingly light, almost ironic tune, while the lyrics talk about extreme poverty and ghettoization,” Burashko says. How do you explain that discrepancy? Perhaps as a distancing of sorts, avoidance of sentimentality? “It’s hard to tell, but it’s fascinating, and Stevie Wonder did it in some other songs too.” For this occasion, Burashko asked a few Canadian composers to create original arrangements for the songs. “We had to find the fine line between too complex and ‘classical’ arrangements, and remaining true to the spirit of the song. There’s such a thing as being too clever as an arranger.”

Music in songs like these is there to amplify the words, not distract. And the lyrics have a core meaning that should be honoured. “In all fairness, some of the legendary singer-songwriters like Dylan and Cohen haven’t been particularly great musicians. They have been great poets, though. Words are what matters.”

As they do, I suggest, in hip-hop today, though only some of the hip-hop is political or concerned with injustice. And in pop and electronic music there are even fewer instances of songs concerned with broader societal issues. At the risk of sounding like an old person complaining about “the kids today,” I ask him, are today’s songs across popular genres largely apolitical and indifferent? Burashko demurs: young people surely have their own causes in pop song, it’s just that perhaps we aren’t following them very closely. An interesting coincidence, he says: just before this interview somebody sent him a piece by Theodore Adorno in which the German sociologist of music was being typically sceptical about the freeing potential of pop music. In Adorno’s view, the so-called popular song is opium for the people, crafted by corporations and selling the illusion of happiness and the illusion of political engagement. “And what we usually find in Top 40 is not far from that description,” says Burashko, unlike the best protest songs which have had mobilizing effects, have voiced the previously unsaid, and served as a form of collective memory.

The largely American program of the song night won’t be entirely devoid of Canadian creators. Buffy Sainte-Marie’s Universal Soldier, Bruce Cockburn’s ’Red Brother Red Sister and Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi are also on the program. One wonders what a heavily Canadian program of political song would have looked like; it would certainly have more Quebec and other Canadian Francophonie in it, possibly the reggae remix of Michèle Lalonde reading Speak White (which exists on YouTube). On this occasion, it’s the performers who will bring in the Canadian component: singers Shakura S’Aida and Jackie Richardson, guitarist and vocalist Colin James, and instrumentalists Rob Piltch, Lina Allemano, Rob Carli and John Johnson, with Burashko at the piano. Among those Canadian composers who have be asked to rearrange the protest song classics are Andrew Staniland, Jonathan Goldsmith (who composed the music for Sarah Polley’s excellent Take This Waltz and Stories We Tell and who is an Art of Time Ensemble founding member) and Kevin Fox, composer, cellist and frequent Steven Page collaborator.

Jackie Richardson and the Art of Time EnsembleThe second program of the “Festival of Protest Music” is a classical- and folk-flavoured night on May 11. It will feature the Rolston String Quartet in George Crumb’s Vietnam War-era Black Angels for electric string quartet, and Burashko himself at the piano in a selection of variations from Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated. A set of roots and folk songs will be performed by Skydiggers’ Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson. Jay Gorney/”Yip” Harbur song of life on a skid row, Brother, Can You Spare a Dime, made famous by Bing Crosby, will be heard, as will Dylan’s Masters of War, which borrows its melody from a late-medieval English folk ballad. Pete Seeger was an important link in the survival of the Black civil rights anthem Keep Your Eyes on the Prize and it’s his version that will be honoured on May 11.

Before saying goodbye to Burashko, I ask him who his all-time favourite songwriters are. He lists Lennon and McCartney, Tom Waits, George Gershwin, Paul Simon. “The last Leonard Cohen album I thought was exceptional,” he says. He also loves P.J. Harvey. Radiohead is still good – and will be touring Canada this July. And he really liked the 2010 album that John Legend released with The Roots, carried on the wave of activism well past Obama’s election.

But The Roots and John Legend compiled an album of songs from the 1960s and 1970s, not the Bush-era and Obama-era original content, I thought on my way back home. Not even Obama, the most youth-mobilizing US president in recent memory, managed to inspire much original political content in song. So far Trump’s presidency hasn’t ignited much either, Eminem’s anti-Trump song being one prominent exception. Or have I missed it, while trying to avoid being completely engulfed by American culture? Beyoncé’s performances and video art are certainly more political than her song lyrics, and her brand of feminism does mean a lot to a lot of young women. Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning album DAMN. has only two or three songs that struck me as being of the politically conscious hip-hop kind.

Björk, Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu are extraordinary artists, yet remain mostly non-political in song. Janelle Monaé’s recent single ‘Pynk’ and its accompanying video directed by Emma Westenberg is rightly adored far and wide but it won’t turn anyone into an activist. Kate Tempest’s songs are political – see her album Let Them Eat Chaos – but Brits are on the other continent and do things differently: it’s American and Canadian song that strikes me as privately focused.

Ani DiFranco, Kathleen Hanna and Amanda Palmer are still around, though working for smaller, not planetary audiences, and not very much in the media. Was punk the last crowd of musicians who were overtly political in their work? (Grunge wasn’t exactly political, despite a political lyric here and there.) To echo Marvin Gaye, what has been going on, reader? When were you last stirred and made to pay attention to a problem in the world by a song? Or does the issue lie with the media and the Internet: pop artists who are multinational corporations hog everybody’s attention broadband?

Let me know your thoughts through the email below. Meanwhile, the protest song festival on May 10 to 12 is for taking stock, and maybe even inspiration.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news to artofsong@thewholenote.com.

Quick, how many Gounod fans have you encountered in your life? Before meeting pianist Steven Kettlewell, the man behind the Castle Frank House of Melody’s new concert offering, “Ga-Ga for Gounod” (April 7 at St. Andrew’s United on Bloor St. E.), my answer would have been scarcely any. Composer of very Catholic operas and of the overplayed Ave Maria? Not a lot to be excited about there. When the early listing for the Gounod song recital arrived in this magazine’s inbox, I found myself intrigued. Of course he would have composed songs, as most of his peers did, but what were they like – how much unlike his arias, how Catholic, how Romantic, how French? Most of French 19th-century song before Debussy and Ravel remains little performed, with one notable exception, Berlioz’s masterwork Les nuits d’été.

Charles Gounod as photographed in 1859, at the time of the premiere of his opera Faust.Charles Gounod (1818-1893) is certainly best known for his operas, says Kettlewell when we meet in his apartment in a charming mid-rise, a short walk up the hill from behind the Castle Frank subway station. Some of Gounod’s better-known arias will be in the program—two from Roméo et Juliette and three from Faust. The motley selection of Gounod songs in the program contain several in the English language, to poetry by Tennyson, Wordsworth and Shelley. Was he an ardent English poetry reader? “He lived in England for a period of time. During the war of 1870 between France and Prussia, Gounod moved his family to England. His wife returned after the Paris Commune was defeated, but Gounod ended up staying another four years. He met there a certain Georgina Weldon, an eccentric battleaxe of many causes… One of her pet causes became Gounod.”

Gounod’s English-language songs sound very “English regional composer of the Victorian era,” says Kettlewell. “Even a bit like Arthur Sullivan. And some of the poetry is very sentimental.” One of the poems in the program is The Worker (1872), written by the then-in-demand lyricist Frederick Weatherly, also known for Danny Boy and Roses of Picardy. It could be taken for a social-realist song about the harsh conditions of a worker’s life were it not for the Catholic resolution, with angels arriving to take his soul to the higher plane of the afterlife for a well-deserved reward.

Gounod’s French songs, on the other hand, are very much salon songs, says Kettlewell. “He’s a lyrical composer who knows how to compose for the voice, and that comes across in songs as well.” Thematically, they involve “lovely, simple poetry, simple emotion. ‘I love you,’ or ‘It’s a beautiful spring day,’ or ‘A beautiful night’. Soprano Cara Adams is going to sing one called Boire à l’ombre, which has more meat to it than some of his other songs. Years ago I bought a collection of 15 duets by Gounod for soprano or mezzo and baritone, and here I’m including a selection.” Adams and two other sopranos, Patricia Haldane and Lorna Young, with mezzo Martha Spence and baritone Michael Fitzgerald, make up the soloist roster. Kettlewell mans the piano.

It was a heady operatic century for France, the 19th, and the program will show some of its range. We’ll hear some arias from Bizet’s Carmen, but also the more obscure Benjamin Godard and Fromental Halévy. And one song by Fanny Mendelssohn. What’s the connection there? “She met him while they were in Rome – where Gounod won the Prix de Rome. She wrote a letter to her brother in which she describes him as ‘charming.’ She extolled to him the virtues of modern German music at the time, and also Bach. Later, on his way back to France via Vienna, Gounod visited them in Weimar for a few days and got to know the brother Felix as well.”

On his return to Paris after the extended stay in Rome, Gounod seemed to be in no rush to become an opera composer. “What you’d normally do as a young composer is try to hook up with a librettist and start composing, maybe a short opera, in the hope that say the director of Opéra Lyrique would see it and give you a commission. He instead took a job as a church organist. He was that for a few years. He wrote masses and choral pieces and didn’t try hard to get invited to salons and meet librettists, schmooze, get to know people.” He also got a job writing music for schoolkids.

Steven Kettlewell, Martha Spence and Tricia Haldane rehearsing.It was Pauline Viardot who jump-started his career, says Kettlewell. “He had met her in Rome. Then in Paris, when they met again, she remembered him. Ah, le prêtre voluptueux! She asked him if he was writing any operas and promised to set him up with Émile Augier. She had just had a big hit at the Opera Garnier, they wanted her to come back next year, and she said to Gounod that she would if he composed that opera for her. And that was Sapho, his first.” It wasn’t a great success then and the intervening centuries did not re-evaluate it. The thoroughly heterosexual Sappho takes her own life over a man, and there’s even a ballet added to the story in a later version. What survives of the first Viardot-Gounod collaboration is the aria O ma lyre immortelle, which is still heard in concerts and which will be sung by Lorna Young in this program.

A lot of the operatic works of that time underwent rewrites and recycling, extensions and cuts, demanded by opera house directors, star singers or the state censor. “The second version of Gounod’s Faust, with recitatives instead of spoken dialogue, was much more successful than the first one,” says Kettlewell and hands me a book that’s been lying on his coffee table. “I’m reading this right now, Second Empire Opera: The Théàtre Lyrique Paris, 1851-1870 by T.J. Walsh, it’s hilarious. It’s about Théâtre Lyrique, the house that wasn’t subsidized by the government, unlike Opéra de Paris. [There are] a lot of composers in this book that we’ve never heard of, operas we’ve never heard of. The Lyrique would put on an opera and if it wasn’t very successful, they’d put a work on that was successful last year but rejig it for this year’s use. The stuff popular with the audience would push other works aside. They had to make money off opera.”

The works commissioned by the state-subsidized Opéra de Paris were always under the eye of the censor. Even Sapho was sent back for an edit because in one scene there was a hint of a sexual bargain between two minor characters. “All the while, the subscribers had the right to go back stage and flirt with the ballerinas. Viardot once said something to the effect that ‘what we were doing onstage was no worse than what was happening in the wings during the performance’.” The pestering of the ballerinas was part of the subscription package.

The censors also kept a close eye on anything that might cause political unrest. “They didn’t want people getting excited at the opera house and then running out to the streets and rioting … which was a French tradition.” Gounod’s own opera on Ivan the Terrible never saw light of day because there was never a good time to show regicide and assassination attempts onstage. While Gounod was writing it, Napoleon III was nearly assassinated on his way to the opera with his wife: somebody threw a bomb under their carriage. Gounod’s opera plot, coincidence would have it, also contained an assassination attempt. “People began saying to him, you’ll never get this on stage, start something else.” So he did. He relinquished the libretto to Bizet and moved on to other matters.

An example: the opera Cinq-Mars, which Gounod created for Opéra-Comique, and which was revived only in 2017 in a German opera house and recorded by Palazzetto Bru Zane as part of their lavishly designed French Romanticism series. (Kettlewell of course owns the CD.) When I tell him that Opéra-Comique is reviving Gounod’s second opera, La nonne sanglante, in June this year and that I have a ticket, since one of my favourite conductors is on the podium, the conversation veers into the phenomenon of nunsploitation (nun + exploitation), known to us from genre movies but already familiar to 19th-century operagoers. Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is still probably the best known of the type. “Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable also has some of that with the dance of the ghosts of nuns who rise from their tombs,” Kettlewell says.

As to the question of how Gounod fits in with the idea we have of French Romanticism: “I’d always offer some other names first in that context – certainly Berlioz – but with Gounod, there’s always a bit of restraint there, I think,” he says. He also mentions the then-star Meyerbeer as a more typical exponent. “What operas by Meyerbeer I’ve heard, I liked a lot. You sometimes wonder why some things fall out of fashion… and Meyerbeer has.” His Les Huguenots has seen some revival success in Belgium, France and Germany in the last few years. “Yes, and I just got a DVD of Margherita d’Anjou… and Robert le diable was done at the Covent Garden recently.”

Of all of Gounod, what would be his top five that everybody should hear? “Remember the Alfred Hitchcock Presents series? The opening credits music? That’s Gounod, the Funeral March of a Marionette, and he wrote it to poke fun at a British music critic.” Also on that list, the Jewel Song from Faust and Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette. “O ma lyre immortelle from Sapho is beautiful, as is the one from Cinq-Mars that we’re including in the program, Nuit resplendissante,” he says.

“And, of course, the Ave Maria.”

Ga-Ga for Gounod takes place inside the modernist concrete beauty that is St. Andrew’s United Church, 117 Bloor St. E., on April 7 at 7:30pm. Tickets $20 in advance (triciahaldane@gmail.com to arrange an e-transfer) or $25 at the door, cash only. There will be a salon party after, directions to the location to be given from the stage.

Lydia Perović is an arts journalist in Toronto. Send her your art-of-song news at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

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