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.

On a pleasantly cold February evening, Toronto Masque Theatre held one of its last shows. It was a program of songs: Bach’s Peasant Cantata in English translation, and a selection of pop and Broadway numbers sung by musician friends. An actor was on hand to read us poems, mostly of Romantic vintage. The hall was a heritage schoolhouse that could have passed for a church.

The modestly sized space was filled to the last seat and the audience enjoyed the show. I noticed though what I notice in a lot of other Toronto song concerts – a certain atmosphere of everybody knowing each other, and an audience that knows exactly what to expect and coming for exactly that.

I was generously invited as a guest reviewer and did not have to pay the ticket, but they are not cheap: $40 arts worker, $50 general audience, with senior and under-30 discounts. And the way our arts funding is structured, this is what the small-to-medium arts organizations have to charge to make their seasons palatable. Now, if you were not already a TMT fan (and I appreciate their operatic programming and will miss it when it’s gone), would you pay that much for an evening of rearranged popular songs and a quaint museum piece by Bach?

The stable but modest and stagnating audience is the impression I get at a lot of other art song concerts in Toronto. Talisker Players, which also recently folded, perfected the formula: a set of readings, a set of songs. Some of their concerts gave me a lot of pleasure over the last few years, but I knew exactly what to expect each time. Going further back, Aldeburgh Connection, the Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata recital series, also consisted of reading and music. It also folded, after an impressive 30-year run. It was largely looking to the past, in its name and programming, and it lived in a cavernous U of T hall, but it could have easily continued on and its core audience would have continued to come. Stable audience, yes, but also unchanging.

The issue with a stable and unchanging audience is that the programming will suffer. It’ll go stale, ignore the not already converted, abandon the art of programming seduction. And the ticket will still cost at least $50.

I’ve also sat in the Music Gallery’s contemporary music recitals alongside the audience of eight so it’s not entirely the matter of heritage music vs. new music. Empty halls for contemporary music concerts are as depressing as book events in Toronto, to which nobody, not even the writer’s friends, go. (I know this well; don’t ask me how.)

So, where is art song performance in Canada’s largest city going?

Due to the way they’ve been presented for decades now, there’s a not-negligible whiff of Anglican and Methodist churchiness to Toronto’s art song concerts. They usually take place in a church (Trinity-St. Paul’s, Rosedale United, Trinity Chapel, St. Andrew’s, etc) or a place very much like a church (Heliconian Hall). They are often programmed as an occasion for personal edification – as something that’ll be good for you, that will be a learning opportunity. Why are we being read to so much in recitals – instead of, for example, being talked to and with? Does anybody really enjoy being read to in a music concert?

I sometimes wonder if the classical music infrastructure of concertgoing, its comportment etiquette, regulation of space, fussy rituals of beginning, presentation, breaks and ending wasn’t built to control and disguise classical music’s visceral power over humans? And to keep tame its community-expanding, boundary-blurring potential?

In other words, getting out of the church and the U of T will benefit Toronto’s art song performance. Classical music, including art song, is a pleasure, not homework; it’s inviting the stranger over, not getting together with the same group each time. Some of those who program art song and chamber music in Toronto are already grappling with these questions, fortunately.

Collectìf

Among them is the ensemble Collectìf, consisting of three singers and a pianist: Danika Lorèn, Whitney O’Hearn, Jennifer Krabbe and Tom King. They scour the city for locations and choose places off the beaten path. They held a recital in an Adelaide St. W. loft, and a raucous songfest at an old pub in Little Italy. For a Schubert Winterreise, performed in the more familiar quarters of Heliconian Hall, Danika Lorèn had prepared video projections to accompany the performance and the singing was divided among the three singers, who became three characters. For an outing to the COC’s free concert series, they created their own commedia dell’arte props and programmed thematically around the poets, not the composers who set their poems to music. Collectìf is a shoestring operation, just starting out, yet already being noticed for innovation. Lorèn is currently member of the COC’s Ensemble Studio, which is why the Collectìf somewhat slowed down, but when I spoke to her in Banff this summer, she assured me that the group is eager to get back to performing. Winterreise toured last fall to Quebec and an art song program around the theme of nightmares returns to the same festival later in the year.

Happenstance

Another group that caught my eye did not even have a name when I first heard them in concert. They are now called Happenstance, the core ensemble formed by clarinettist Brad Cherwin, soprano Adanya Dunn and pianist Nahre Sol. That’s an obscene amount of talent in the trio (and check out Nahre Sol’s Practice Notes series on YouTube), but what makes them stand way out is the sharp programming that combines the music of the present day with musical heritage. “Lineage,” which they performed about a year ago, was an evening of German Romantic song with Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Rihm and not a dull second. A more recent concert, at the Temerty Theatre on the second floor of the RCM, joined together Françaix, Messiaen, Debussy, Jolivet and Dusapin. The evening suffered from some logistical snags – the lights went down before a long song cycle and nobody but the native French speakers could follow the text – but Cherwin tells me he is always adjusting and eager to experiment with the format.

Cherwin and I talked recently via instant messenger about their planned March concert. As it happens, both the pianist and the clarinettist have suffered wrist injuries and have had to postpone the booking for later in March or early April. Since you are likely reading this in early March, reader, head to facebook.com/thehappenstancers to find out the exact date of the concert.

Happenstance (from left: Adanya Dunn, Brad Cherwin and Nahre Sol)In the vocal part of the program, there will be a Kurtág piece (Four Songs to Poems by János Pilinszky, Op.11), a Vivier piece arranged for baritone, violin, clarinet, and keyboards, and something that Cherwin describes as “structured improv involving voice”. “It’s a structured improv piece by André Boucourechliev that we’re using in a few different iterations as a bridge between sections of the concert,” he types.

I tell him that I’m working on an article on whether the art song concert can be exciting again, and he types back that it’s something they’ve been thinking about a lot. “How can we take everything we love about the chamber music recital and take it to a more unexpected place. How can repertoire and presentation interact to create a narrative/context for contemporary music. How can new rep look back on and interact with old rep in a way that enhances both?”

He tells me that they’re looking into the concert structure at the same time – so I may yet live to see recitals where the pieces are consistently introduced by the musicians themselves.

Will concerts continue to involve an entirely passive audience looking at the musicians performing, with a strict separation between the two? There were times, not so long ago, when people bought the published song sheets to play at home and when the non-vocational (better word than amateur) musicianship enhanced the concert-goers’ experience of music. Any way to involve people in the production of at least a fraction of the concert sound or concert narrative?, I ask him, expecting he’ll politely tell me to find a hobby.

“We’ve thought a lot about that actually,” he types back. “It’s a difficult balance. Finding a way to leave room for collaboration while also having a curated experience.” Against the Grain Theatre, the opera company where he now plays in the permanent ensemble, also wants to push in that direction, he tells me.

Boldly Go

There is a corner of the musical avant-garde, it occurs to me as I thank him and log off from our chat, that actively seeks out non-professional participation. There are Pauline Oliveros’ tuning meditations, of course, but more locally there is also Torontonian Christopher Willes, whose various pieces require participation and are fundamentally collective and collaborative. Though he isn’t a musician, Misha Glouberman’s workshops in social behaviour, like Terrible Noises for Beautiful People, are arguably a process of music-making.

But how to achieve an active audience in the small, chamber or lieder situations? It’s easier with choruses and large production, where sing-alongs are possible – some smaller opera houses are already doing it, for example Opéra-Comique in Paris. The Collectìf trio did get the audience to sing at the Monarch Tavern that one time (the Do Over, January 2016) but the experiment hasn’t been repeated in Toronto.

Speaking of pub recitals, Against the Grain’s Opera Pub is a glorious project (first Thursday of every month at the Amsterdam Bicycle Club), but it’s more operatic than art song, at least for now. ClassyAF are a group of instrumentalists who perform in La Rev and The Dakota Tavern, no vocals. Drake One Fifty restaurant in the Financial District has just started the Popera Series with opera’s greatest hits performed in a restaurant full of people, but again, it’s opera, the more glamorous and easier-to-sell sibling to the art song.

Against the Grain's Opera Pub at the Amsterdam Bicycle ClubWill Happenstance, Collectif and similar innovative upstarts, and their more established peers like Canadian Art Song Project, endure over the years, obtain recurring arts council funding and renew art song audience?

With that goal in mind, my immodest proposal for the present and future art song presenter: move out of the churches and university halls. Musicians, talk to people, introduce the pieces. Program the unfamiliar. Always include new music, maybe even by composers who can be there and say a few words. If the music is danceable, allow for concerts with audience dancing. (I’m looking at you, Vesuvius Ensemble.) Engage the people. If live music is to be different from staring at the screen, make it different from staring at the screen.

Some March highlights

Meanwhile, here are my March highlights, which are of the more traditional Toronto kind, though still of interest.

March 19 at 7:30pm, Canadian Art Song Project presents its 2018 commission, Miss Carr in Seven Scenes by Jeffrey Ryan. Miss Carr is Emily Carr, and the song cycle, based on her journals, was written for Krisztina Szabó and Steven Philcox. At (alas) U of T’s Walter Hall.

March 4, as part of Syrinx Concerts Toronto, mezzo Georgia Burashko will sing Grieg’s Lieder with Valentina Sadovski at the piano. Baritone Adam Harris joins her in Schumann duets for baritone and mezzo, whereas solo, he will sing Canadian composer Michael Rudman’s The City.

March 11 at Temerty Theatre, Andrea Botticelli will give a lecture-recital (I like the sound of this) on the Koerner collection, “Exploring Early Keyboard Instruments.” Vocal and keyboard works by Purcell, Haydn and Beethoven on the program with tenor Lawrence Wiliford singing. The only U of T chapel to which I will always gladly return, the Victoria College Chapel, hosts the Faculty of Music’s Graduate Singers Series, also on March 11.

Finally, if you are in Waterloo on March 7 and up for some Finnish folk, the U of W’s Department of Music presents the EVA-trio (cellist Vesa Norilo, kantele player Anna-Karin Korhonen and soprano Essi Wuorela) in a noon-hour concert.

Am I wrong about the future of art song in Toronto? Send me an email at artofsong@thewholenote.com.

You don’t often find yourself discussing the concepts of evil and ethical conduct ten minutes into the phone conversation with somebody you’ve never met before, but that’s exactly what happened during my phone interview with the playwright and hip-hop artist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. I rang her at the agreed time to ask about her latest project, the libretto for the opera Forbidden, and while phone interviews usually take time gearing up, she was immediately deeply engaging and generous. A Tapestry Opera production that runs February 8 to 11, Forbidden is created out of scenes of interdiction, loosely held together by the character of a girl who is visited by Lucifer. As a hip-hop emcee, St. Bernard brings the song into the mix, and how!

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard in the Theatre Passe Muraille production of The Sound of the Beast, 2017. Photo by Matthew Cooper.How did Forbidden come together?

Director Michael Mori and composer Afarin Mansouri started the project, and Michael invited me in and we just hit it off. It was a very collaborative process. We generated about 40 story ideas – the piece now has a number of vignettes that are stitched together – and we started out by asking what is forbidden and what interests us about the forbidden. We went with stories that both of us found most intriguing. And then talked them out. Afarin was able to describe to me scenes that she actually experienced that absolutely captivated my imagination. And I would take that back to the text and mix it with my own experience and then go back to her.

I won’t ask you what the libretto is “about,” as that’s always the hardest question, but still – what is the libretto going to be like?

We looked at questions around the management of women’s bodies, around religious restrictions, around political oppression. In the stories that we’ve chosen, the thread was rules and restrictions imposed by authority figures. I’m really interested in the conflict between the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. I come from a Catholic upbringing and I’d get into these arguments as a child when I was trying to understand: Why don’t we bring that homeless person to our home, mom? Well that’s not what you do, was her reply. OK, but here in the Bible… Yeah, but that’s not realistic, she’d say. What does realistic have to do with it, you told me this is absolute truth!

And as an adult I am exactly that unreasonable. If you have something that someone needs, you give it to them. I don’t understand why churches lock their doors and are gilded in gold when they can feed people instead.

So when you accept what you’ve been taught from a moral authority, and that moral authority seems to be inconsistent with what they’ve imposed on you, you have to question the teaching, you question the teacher and you have to re-orient your understanding of how the world works. That’s the territory that we’re living in. Why are things forbidden, who has the authority to forbid things, and what moral ground are they standing on – and am I following them as a matter of choice or is this somehow imposed on me? And that kind of thread runs through all of the stories in the opera.

Do all religions share a fear of the female body and the will to control it?

There are people who are drawn to leadership in those faiths who misuse the intentions of the spiritual teachings in that way. There are very few faiths with female spiritual leadership. In most faiths of which I have any experience, formal religious training happens from a male authority in a formal institution, while personal individual spiritual training happens in a home from a maternal authority. We found that to be an interesting dichotomy; institutional leadership in any faith tends to be male, but then the ongoing management of that faith tradition tends to be female-led. We are being taught to self-manage and to impose on each other rules that are not our rules; you are handed the rules and then handed a stick to keep other women in line with.

Should women not abandon all existing religious traditions, then? Why try to reform and salvage something that proscribes you?

I am very interested in Christian faiths that have women ministers. I attended a wedding once that had a woman minister officiating and I was really confused. And I have from then till now retained great disappointment in myself for how confused I was by that. Women who are fighting for leadership within the church are kind of doing it alone – women of the faith are not supporting them because we are taught not to question the religious authority. I have mixed feelings about it because as a child I thought being a nun was the greatest thing one could achieve. I really wanted that, until actually one day – I went to an all-girl Catholic school – one day a nun who was teaching there punched a student in the face. And that day I understand that being a nun would not make me a better person. That I would still be the person that I am. And that I can be the person that I am in my own clothes. And still do what I consider to be God’s work.

This is a roundabout way to say: when we think about salvaging, I think about how people who are oppressed by patriarchal structure have a desire to be absorbed into that patriarchal structure just because of the absence of alternatives – and the inability to imagine alternatives. Myself included. When I say, for example, that we should abolish prisons, that’s just obvious to me, and when people ask me then what should we do with people who break the law, all I can say is I don’t know because we haven’t been permitted the space to imagine things being any different. Maybe the institution can be salvaged, but what would it look like if we rethink the institution?

Are you in favour of the Catholic church finally allowing women to be ordained and priests to get married?

Wouldn’t that be awesome? I mean, I grew up with deacons who are married and have children and if I had a question for somebody I’d go to a deacon before a priest because I understand that they know what life is – that they’re not living in a way that’s separate and above me and at a distance from all the experiences I’m struggling with.

I guess I hope for those things, but at the same time the church has become such a political organ, and I don’t mean now with this new Pope, or with the evolution of what Islam is right now… Catholicism, and Islam, and Buddhism, it’s all becoming quite perverted in a political way and my understanding of what Christianity is is not a political Christianity. It’s so unreasonably and childishly absolute and whole. I care for everybody. I value all light. It’s hard to do, yes. That’s why it’s a goal; your spiritual life is not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be, in my opinion, all about serenity. The way that the Buddhists teach that all life is a struggle, and that the struggle has a reason – yeah. Yeah. There will be poor people – give them stuff. It’s that easy to me. Yet it’s not easy. It’s simple, but nothing simplistic about it. I think that all the faiths have a valuable core. Religion is like driving or work or anything in the world – what’s wrong with it is people. And people will always be flawed, so this will always be a problem. But at the core most faiths have really valuable guidance for us. And this is not to say that if you’re atheist or agnostic, you don’t have a moral code – you do, it’s just based in something else. We all look to find things that make us our best selves.

Donna-Michelle St. Bernard (left) and Afarin MansouriLucifer too features in the Forbidden. How does that play out?

In our story, Lucifer is both the catalyst to enlightenment, and an object of pity. The central interaction is between Lucifer and a child and there’s some negotiation there. Lucifer says something I believe to be true, which is: you can’t just blindly follow this authority, you have to question things. What we’ll be seeing is a child – in my understanding, everyone’s spiritual positioning is childlike – who’s torn between the intellectual understanding that rules have to be followed, and the visceral alignment with what Lucifer is saying, You know that that guy is not always right, so why follow? Look at the world; is the world what they’ve told you?

Probably the longest conversations that I’ve had were on the nature of Lucifer. Both Afarin and I spent a lot of time looking at our respective traditions. In both cases, Lucifer has always wanted nothing but to be close to God, and my concept of how not to be allowed to be close to God is what is done to Lucifer…. I feel like western pop culture has inflated the importance and the power of Lucifer. Because it’s “juicy.” The idea that the devil wants all the souls, and evil for evil’s sake. I don’t believe in evil for evil’s sake; I believe that every villain is trying to achieve an objective, and we don’t always agree that that objective is worthy. I think that Lucifer is on this eternal punishment, and who would not be spiteful, who would not be bitter and angry in such circumstance? Who would not hurt so much that they would want to hurt everyone that they can reach?

How can I not have some compassion for that? We’re bunch of saps, I tell ya. We are a couple of soft-hearted saps, Afarin and I. But we really worked from aspects of Lucifer that are consistent between our faiths. And sort of negotiated a shared story about Lucifer. I honestly think that the devil from the movies is for people who haven’t read the Bible. If you really read the story and really look into the fallen angel concept, it’s the saddest story every told.

I don’t know if you’ve read J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello? The title character, who’s an atheist, says something that struck a chord with me, also an atheist: evil, as a concept, survives even for the atheists. We’ve all seen it – if not in person, then in the news of war crimes, concentration camps... You don’t need an elaborate religious system; the concept remains useful, unfortunately.

Yes. There is such a thing as certain things being wrong. And if there was no God, those things would still be wrong.

But let’s return to the libretto. And the music. The opera will have Persian, Western classical and hip-hop music. Hip-hop is there thanks to you?

Yes, hip-hop is my primary artistic form. And because it’s TAP:EX, we want to experiment with form, we want to see what happens when the aesthetics collide. It’s not only a matter of rapping on opera, which is not a brand new thing, but it’s also a matter of engaging hip-hop aesthetics. We’re going to be doing something that’s probably uncomfortable for the singers - coming into rehearsals and going, like, “Switch it up!” Equally, we’ll be doing some things that are uncomfortable for the rapper. In the kind of hip-hop that I practise, you do not speak what you didn’t yourself write. And in this performance, that’s not the case. I’ll be writing rap for another emcee. In Tapestry Lib Labs, we worked on how opera is structured, and how different roles interact, and how it comes together. And then I went back home to hip-hop, and did a show where if I didn’t feel like saying a thing, I wouldn’t say that thing and would say something else instead. Now we’re trying to work in this way, with a certain amount of prepared material. And then every day – we unsettle it. Which to me is at the heart of what we’re doing: we’re unsettling both practices. And then, if possible, unsettling your entire spirit.

TAP EX: Forbidden runs February 8 to 11 at the Tapestry Opera Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District, featuring Neema Bickersteth, soprano; Shirin Eskandani, mezzo; Alexander Hajek, baritone; Saye Sky, Farsi rapper/spoken-word artist; and Michael Shannon, conductor.

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

Vesuvius Ensemble - Photo by Scarlet O'NeillIf anything’s desperately needed in Toronto in December, it’s a dash of the south. The Vesuvius Ensemble to the rescue: the trio that specializes in Southern Italian music (mostly from Naples and Campania but also Calabria and Puglia) is preparing a pastoral Christmas program for mid-December, just as the Toronto winter is about to take over.

Vesuvius is a three-lad enterprise: Francesco Pellegrino is the voice of the group, while Marco Cera and Lucas Harris play a variety of plucked string instruments, and are most likely to be found manning Baroque guitar and theorbo respectively. Various other period instruments are added depending on the songs chosen, like tammorra, a large tambourine with bells, or ciaramella, an early oboe with an ear-trumpet-like shape. This instrumentarium is there to accompany the songs both folk and composed, roughly from the same period, the 1500s and 1600s. The most interesting part of the Vesuvius mission is this mix of the popular and the authored material. There have always been song composers open to the influence of the folk, and among those who have used either folk music or folk lyrics you are likely to hear in Vesuvius concerts are Andrea Falconieri (d. 1656), Giovanni Girolamo Kapsberger (1580-1651), Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Leonardo Vinci (1690-1730), and Francesco Provenzale (1624-1704).

The study of Italian folk song got a significant boost in the 20th century thanks to recording technology. In the mid-1950s, Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella travelled to villages up and down Italy to record traditional peasant songs sung in dialect. Some of the songs were work songs, some were dances like the tarantella (which, myth has it, cures poisonous spider bites and bilious moods of other kinds), and others were laments, or love songs, or wedding songs. Commercially released recordings of some of the Carpitella-Lomax treasures still exist – the Italian Treasury series of CDs divided into regions is not exactly easy to buy (an Amazon search will yield second-hand, vinyl or MP3 offers) and is best sought out in large and university libraries. Puglia: the Salento (2002), Calabria and Folk Music and Song of Italy: A Sampler (1999), for example, are available at the Toronto Reference Library and each includes booklets with lyrics and translations.

Another important figure of the Italian folk revival of the 20th century is the musicologist, theatre artist and composer Roberto de Simone (b. 1933). In addition to the research and archiving of the popular chant, de Simone incorporated folk practices into his own writing and stage directing and is probably best known internationally for the opera La gatta Cenerentola. (Look for Secondo coro delle lavandaie – The Second Chorus of the Washerwomen – on YouTube.)

Which of the Italian traditional and composed treasures will Vesuvius perform in their Christmas concert? We’ll find out on December 17 or 19 in Heliconian Hall, though a few days earlier is also a possibility since the group will perform a similar program at the Four Seasons Centre’s Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on December 12 at noon. When I spoke with Francesco Pellegrino for this article in mid-October, the program had not yet been finalized. What is certain is that Tommaso Sollazzo, a connoisseur of the Italian bagpipes called zampogne, will be joining in. The trio performed with him in Italy a few years back and now he’s making the trip to wintry Toronto.

And since the tarantellas and the tammurriatas are so danceable, will Vesuvius let the audience dance during their concerts, maybe preceded by some dance instruction? “Not yet,” says Pellegrino, “but we are expanding this program and in the next couple of years our concerts may also have dancers from Italy who are well versed in tarantella or tammurriata. We’re working on it.”

Outside Toronto, you can hear (though not yet dance to) Vesuvius’ Christmas concert on December 18 in Hamilton and December 20 in Montreal.

January

Twenty-five years after its world premiere, the song cycle Honey and Rue is still regularly performed by symphony orchestras and coloratura sopranos in the US. Carnegie Hall commissioned it and André Previn composed it for Kathleen Battle, who was a keen reader of Toni Morrison and wanted her as a lyricist. We don’t hear the cycle that often in Canada, and it’s St. Catharines, not Toronto, that got lucky this season, with two Honey and Rue performances with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra in January. Morrison’s poems are a rich and intense read and should be relished without the music first (keep those programs, concertgoers: the poems are not easy to find).

Young soprano Claire de Sévigné will sing. Last time I heard de Sévigné was in the COC’s Arabella, where she effortlessly produced the coloratura for the Viennese ball ingenue, Fiakermilli. There probably isn’t another Canadian soprano whose timbre more resembles Battle’s. I caught up with the travelling soprano via email to learn more about her take on the piece.

Claire de SévignéWhen I ask her what it is that she likes about Honey and Rue, she starts with the orchestration. “Singing with an orchestra is always thrilling but singing a piece that’s in the style of ‘classical-jazz-blues fusion’ feels like a real jam. The fourth song is a huge contrast to the rest of the cycle in that it is a cappella, and this moment can be magic. I also adore the lyrics. Very strong text with stunning imagery.”

I tell her that my first impression of it was that it was extremely high. Her answer doesn’t surprise me: “I don’t notice it being all that high actually – but that’s coming from a coloratura soprano and my voice lives in the clouds, haha. I think that Previn knew how to write for the voice, since the performer doesn’t notice it being all that high! I actually find the set quite lyric – the highest note is only a B flat, a whole fourth lower than my high notes, and the set sits in quite a nice place for a light soprano’s voice to spin and shimmer while still being able to sing the text… It’s quite a pleasure to sing.”

The cycle was written by an African-American writer for an African-American singer originally, and although it’s still frequently sung by African-American singers, it’s become a cycle for any talented soprano who can meet its challenge. I ask de Sévigné what she thinks of the recent rise in discussions about what cultural material can be performed by who, and in what context. “It’s true, the cycle was originally commissioned after Battle read The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison. The poems of Honey and Rue are different however – they don’t explicitly or exclusively portray the same themes from the book, with the exception of the sixth song, which I would say is outwardly about slavery and abuse.” The final poem is based on the African-American spiritual Take My Mother Home, though with added lyrics and musical material. “The cycle as a whole,” writes de Sévigné, “explores questions around equality, suffering, freedom and acceptance, which are themes that humanity as a whole has experienced and can appreciate.”

This will not be the young singer’s first encounter with the piece. “It’s the second time I’ve been asked to sing it. I first performed it with piano in the Aspen Music Festival concert series in 2012 and have performed excerpts over the past years in several recitals. I find something new every time I perform it. I have found that my best way to interpret the songs is by switching between the first person and the narrator.”

And what is next on her schedule? “I’m currently doing a concert tour in China with the Hantang International Music Festival in collaboration with the Salzburg Festival (writing to you from Beijing right now!). I’m back to Canada in December for the Messiah with the Edmonton Symphony and in February, I’ll be at the Canadian Opera Company singing the role of Blonde in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail. There’s also a Mozart C Minor Mass this season, and a Carmina Burana with the Grant Park Festival in Chicago.” 

But as the first thing in the new year, Honey and Rue: January 20 and 21, 7:30pm, with the Niagara Symphony Orchestra. Also on the program: Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and Ravel’s Mother Goose (complete ballet). Bradley Thachuck, conductor. FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, St. Catharines.

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

Agnès in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, and soon to be Isabel in another world premiere by the same composer, Lessons in Love and Violence. Title character in Toshio Hosokawa’s Matsukaze. Ophelia in both Brett Dean’s Hamlet and in Hans Abrahamsen’s song cycle let me tell you. Vermeer’s model in Louis Andriessen’s Writing to Vermeer. The She character in Pascal Dusapin’s Passion. Title character in Gerald Barry’s Alice’s Adventures under Ground. Mélisande in the Katie Mitchell-directed paradigm-shifting production of Pelléas et Mélisande. Berg’s Lulu in productions by Christoph Marthaler and Krzysztof Warlikowski. Voice of Salvatore Sciarrino’s cycle La nuova Euridice secondo Rilke per soprano e orchestra.

This is just a tiny selection of the world premieres and roles brought to life by Canadian soprano of global renown, contemporary music advocate and now also conductor, Barbara Hannigan. She returns to Toronto on November 10 for a Koerner Hall recital programmed around the Second Viennese School and the preceding generation of composers. Dutch pianist, composer and conductor Reinbert de Leeuw will be at the piano. De Leeuw has been music director and conductor of the Schönberg Ensemble since its founding in the mid-1970s. The ensemble, now known as Asko|Schönberg, continues to prioritize new music and perform the works of the 20th and 21st centuries exclusively.

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasHannigan is based in Paris, where she lives with her partner, actor and filmmaker Mathieu Amalric. I asked her a few questions via email about the forthcoming Toronto recital and its program consisting of songs by Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Zemlinsky, Alma Mahler and Hugo Wolf.

WN: Schoenberg’s Four Lieder, Op.2 and Webern’s Five Lieder have poet Richard Dehmel in common. Does this also make Schoenberg and Webern musical siblings? (They sound like it to me, I could be wrong.) Both atonal and Sprechgesang, poetry-driven, rather than songs as we know them from the Romantic and post-Romantic eras?

BH: Dehmel… well, he wrote a very important book in the 1890s called Weib und Welt, for which he was put on trial for obscenity. I mean, we read those poems now and we don’t feel that at all, but in the time, just to try and express sensual feelings, and from the imagined woman’s perspective… WOW! He was using imagery like… reflections in water, a beckoning hand from a window, a kiss outside marriage, a woman pregnant from a man she did not know or love… it was shocking. Dehmel was a huge influence for Schoenberg’s early vocal works (his writing was the reason we have Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht) and Berg, Webern and many others. So…is the music related because of Dehmel? Not necessarily. There are images, reflections, a fluidity of the music which was a musical development and style at the time. If it hadn’t been Dehmel it would have been Stefan Georg, who was a later influence for Schoenberg. The tonalities are not yet what I think of as atonal…that came a little bit later. Certainly the Schoenberg Op.2 are closer to Strauss than anything (but better than Strauss!). Webern’s five Dehmel songs are absolutely atonal. They avoid harmonic centre, though their endings always seem to confirm some kind of tonal centre which was elusive for the entire song.

How does the singer make them dramatic, as something unfolding before the audience? We rarely get to hear songs like this in recital, and the Romantic and post-Romantic songs have spoiled us in terms of drama, contrasts, things happening, and big, legible emotions.

I don’t need to make them dramatic. They already are dramatic. I just have to sing them, rather than interpret. I find the idea of “interpretation” very foreign. The emotions are deep, pure, full of instinct and that very Viennese idea of Sehnsucht… longing. It’s all there. I just need to get inside it. And with a pianist such as Reinbert de Leeuw…a huge mentor to me for over 20 years…this is a kind of musical heaven for me. An earthly heaven.

Berg’s Seven Early Songs come across as more varied. The texts are from different poets – but the songs differ musically too, for example the intense, soaring Die Nachtigall vs. the playful Im Zimmer. How do you approach this cycle? Berg is very much “your” composer, if I can put it that way – you’ve sung Lulu of course and your new CD is planned around the character of Lulu.

The Berg are more accessible I suppose. We have to remember that in this late-Romantic period, the song was still the centre of a composer’s expression. Every composer began with writing songs. They developed their harmonic style through the very intimate union of piano, voice and text. And from that, they expanded to larger works. Nowadays things are very different...

Barbara Hannigan - photo by Elmer de HaasIntriguing that there’s Alma, but not Gustav Mahler on the program. We rarely get to hear her in recital. How would you describe her songs? (I thought Laue Sommernacht probably the most melodic song on the entire program?)

The Alma Mahler songs we chose were in part written when she was a student (and love interest) of Zemlinsky. And the songs we present of Zemlinsky were, by the way, written when he was teaching her. They seemed to be in love, before she met Mahler. Honestly, her songs are good but they are not great. They are the weakest on the recital program but we included them because she was such an important figure at that time. A muse, later a patron. She was the lover of Kokoschka and inspired his work, also Klimt, also the writing of Werfel; and the early death of her daughter Manon (with Gropius) inspired Berg’s violin concerto. She was a very, very important figure in the musical world of the early 20th century. These four songs show her potential but she did not develop it. Mahler told her before they married that she had to stop composing. So she only achieved a certain niveau in her work and then she stopped, and became Mahler’s wife. Laue Sommernacht … is it the most melodic? I don’t think so. Die Nachtigall of Berg is more soaring, I’d say. Or Irmelin Rose, the strophic fairytale song of Zemlinsky. And really, what does melodic mean? Something with a tune? I don’t know. I think melodic means something different to everyone.

The concert ends with Wolf’s extraordinary, almost operatic Kennst du das Land. How does a singer conserve the energy, physical and dramatic, up to that point and then deliver that Mignon mini-opera at the end?
I don’t know how other people do it but for me, there is a degree of strategy in the pacing of the recital and then… I count on adrenaline to get me through the final four songs of Hugo Wolf. I love them so much, I love Mignon and her need for secrecy. I just slip into her skin and she carries me through the music; her need to try to reveal herself, without explaining herself, is so powerful that the songs just… pour out. This recital program was devised by Reinbert de Leeuw. As I wrote earlier, my mentor. He is the guide and inspiration for me through this musical journey. And he carries me through it… every rehearsal reminding and insisting that I attempt the most delicate adherence to the composer’s wishes. Always searching for the real pianissimi that the composers demand, rather than the verismo of the earlier part of the 19th century. This world is one of reflection, of suggestion, of intimacy without explanation. And I am so thrilled to bring this program, with Reinbert, to Toronto.

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

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