The Oud & the Fuzz back patio (image c/o blogTO).When I first walked into The Oud & the Fuzz, it was a profoundly sensorial experience. The aromas of incense and Armenian cooking envelop you. Black-and-white photos of weathered brick buildings in the city of Gyumri, Armenia, catch your eye. Music wafts you through the entrance to the back patio. There, silent listeners are engrossed by groove-based music, or Armenian jazz, or cross-cultural cello improvisations. Though the type of music varies from day to day, its familiar low pulse always seems to force you into movement.

Every sensory feature of the experience has been carefully selected from within a community of like-minded people. Armenian photographer Aren Voskanyan shot the images specifically for the venue. The incense was bought in Kensington Market, and the food is from Karine’s – an Armenian restaurant run by a mother and her two daughters a few blocks away. And the music that determines the space’s atmosphere is created by some of Toronto’s top musicians.

The Oud & the Fuzz is a family affair, owned by Armenian-Canadian brothers Shaunt and Raz Tchakmak. Twenty-eight-year-old Shaunt books, manages, and curates the music in the space.

Read more: The Oud & The Fuzz – community-building in challenging times

bannerOver the last few weeks, The Piano Lunaire founder Adam Sherkin has been braving the cool autumn wind in order to rehearse with fellow pianist Stephen Runge – the two musicians recently managed to find a space suitable for playing fifteen feet apart, windows open, in advance of their next show, Lunaire Live III: The Blue Moon Gala.

The Piano Lunaire, a Toronto-based music presenter founded just two years ago this month, has already gained attention for their monthly concerts of contemporary piano repertoire, held on full-mooned nights. Coinciding with the second full moon to appear this month, The Piano Lunaire’s third online concert will stream this Friday, October 30 from the studios of their performance partner, Yamaha Music Canada.

It’s the second of two local piano-collective projects unveiled this month. The other is reTHINK, the debut album of junctQín keyboard collective released on October 23 by Redshift Records. Founded in 2009 by keyboardists Joseph Ferretti, Stephanie Chua and Elaine Lau, junctQín has commissioned and premiered over forty experimental works for keyboard instruments – including toy pianos and synthesizers – over the past ten years. reTHINK features some of their signature pieces from the last decade, such as Ravel’s 1918 six-hands piano work Frontispiece, and Chess Suite, a 2011 duet for two toy pianos by Canadian composer Monica Pearce.

We caught up with members of both groups this week to discuss their founding visions and new projects this season.

Read more: This fall, two Toronto keyboard collectives are pushing forward – and embracing the new

GG prize jury 2 bannerAlanis Obomsawin“No matter how difficult times are, try to remember that everywhere in the world there are a lot of good people and somehow, in the worst times, you meet someone who will help take you away from the danger. Do not forget that, because if you only think of the bad part, you do not have much hope for the future. But I think it is the contrary. All these years, many times I was in danger and there was always someone who would appear and help me and get me out of that danger. I want to thank all the people who helped me in my lifetime when it was difficult.”

– Alanis Obomsawin

Every two years, the Glenn Gould Foundation convenes an international jury to award the Glenn Gould Prize to a living individual for a unique lifetime contribution that has enriched the human condition through the arts. Alanis Obomsawin, prolific documentary filmmaker, singer-songwriter, visual artist, activist and member of the Abenaki Nation, was chosen as the 13th Glenn Gould Prize Laureate on October 15, by a distinguished international jury chaired by groundbreaking performance artist, musician and filmmaker, Laurie Anderson.

Announced in an emotionally compelling virtual press conference that stretched across the planet, from Chennai, India, to Hollywood, the Glenn Gould Foundation shone a light on the greatest Canadian filmmaker you may never have heard of. Alanis Obomsawin has directed more than 50 films for the National Film Board of Canada, where she has worked since 1967. Her body of work includes the landmark documentary, the internationally acclaimed Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993), the first of four films she made about the 1990 Oka Crisis.

Read more: Celebrating Alanis Obomsawin: 2020 Glenn Gould Prize Laureate

L-R: Teiya Kasahara, Marion Newman, Asitha Tennekoon and Aria Umezawa.When opera artists Aria Umezawa and Teiya Kasahara decided to use the name ‘Amplified Opera’ for a new Toronto-based opera company and concert series, they knew it would sound like a misnomer.

“A colleague of mine came up with the name ‘Amplified Opera’ because he thought it would be deliberately provocative to opera audiences to say ‘amplified’,” Umezawa explains over video call in May 2020. “That, and this idea of amplifying voices from different perspectives in the industry.”

The opera world is one that holds on fiercely to its traditions, and a feature of the art form is that operatic singing is typically—and famously—acoustic. But when Umezawa and Kasahara officially launched Amplified Opera in Toronto in October 2019 (with a totally acoustic series of concerts), their paradoxical name, and the irreverence it suggests towards what many view as a defining characteristic of opera, was a key part of their mandate. They wanted to create a company that placed equity-seeking artists with diverse lives and experiences at the centre of public, operatic discourse—something where many traditional opera houses have repeatedly fallen short.

Opera has repeatedly been reported as an industry where racist and colonialist caricatures abound onstage; where in many opera houses the legitimacy of blackface in costumes is still considered a contemporary debate; and where, in one prominent example, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin marked their first performance of an opera by a woman in 113 years.

The issue is not just one of representation and misrepresentation, but of the deeper, structural problems to which these stories point. In a recent interview with Michael Zarathus-Cook at Toronto-based online publication Ludwig Van Toronto, baritone Andrew Adridge talks about how representation in opera doesn’t work without structural change: that seeing the occasional Black artist in a lead operatic role does little for solving systemic issues within the industry, and does little for BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) aspiring artists beyond proving that they need to be exceptional to be welcomed into what many see as an overwhelmingly conservative and Eurocentric tradition.

Where many big opera houses have failed—weighed down by an aversion to risk-taking, a commitment to a flawed canon, a structural system that funnels the most privileged students and young artists into the most powerful positions, or a combination of the three—smaller companies like Amplified Opera have found their strength. In their ability to be flexible in challenging the operatic status quo, Amplified Opera, and other grassroots groups like it, have championed the idea that values-driven innovation in opera is possible and necessary—and that within the art form, there are newer, more relevant stories to be discovered.

Concept to realization

Umezawa and Kasahara explain that the idea for building an opera collective began in 2017 while Umezawa was visiting Canada from San Francisco, where she had been working as an Adler Fellow in stage direction at the San Francisco Opera.

“It was June, and I was expressing to her how frustrating it felt for me still within the opera industry, struggling with my gender and how I should present myself—even in an audition,” says Kasahara. “If I should wear the heels, or stuff my bra, or have the long hair, or have the short hair—all of this stuff. And Aria was explaining: ‘Well, not being yourself hasn’t gotten you anywhere—so why not be fully yourself and see what happens?’ It was like a huge lightbulb for me at that time.”

“We had also been talking about different ways to help artists find their agency,” they add. “So this idea of wanting to create an initiative to help artists and stimulate a conversation around the industry, around music, around art—it was kind of born that summer.”

When Umezawa returned from the United States after her fellowship, she and Kasahara decided to formalize their ideas as a Toronto-based opera company. For Umezawa, it was a chance to show the industry at large that there was a way to create operatic programming in which artistic merit and values-based organizing weren’t seen as separate initiatives.

“While I was [in San Francisco], there seemed to be industry-wide conversations starting around equity, diversity and inclusion, but often the way they were framed was that there were our ‘equity/diversity/inclusion concerns’—and then there were our ‘mainstage concerns,’” Umezawa says. “Many reasons were cited for why it was difficult to do an equity-focused mainstage show: ‘lack of talent at the right level’, ‘donor interests’, that it’s easier to do it in new opera but not easy to do it from the canon. I felt like there was a misunderstanding about what an opportunity including diverse voices in opera was.”

“When we are talking about how to make opera relevant—it’s to empower the artists performing opera to tell stories that resonate with them, and to actually invite conversation and critique and dialogue,” she adds. “I figured: this new company could actually be the proving ground for what can happen when you empower artists to tell stories on their own terms.”

Umezawa and Kasahara’s inaugural project, a three-concert series in October 2019 titled AMPLIFY, attempted to put their ideas into practice. Their first concert, The Way I See It (directed by Umezawa), featured mezzo-soprano/author Laurie Rubin and pianist Elizabeth Upchurch, who used their experiences as blind and visually impaired (respectively) individuals navigating the opera industry as a creative and curatorial starting point. The second event, The Queen in Me (directed by Andrea Donaldson and accompanied by Trevor Chartrand), was a one-person show that reinterpreted the story of the Queen of the Night to explore queerness and expressions of gender, starring Kasahara in the soprano role. The third concert—What’s Known to Me is Endless (directed by Michael Mohammed)—explored experiences of Black identity in Canada and the United States, featuring African-American baritone Kenneth Overton in collaboration with Canadian pianist Richard Coburn.

Teiya Kasahara (R) performing The Queen in Me in October 2019 at Amplified Opera’s inaugural concert series. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.Umezawa describes a moment in their first AMPLIFY concert when Rubin sang “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. “Beforehand, she told a story about her first and only guide dog and how that guide dog taught her what it meant to trust,” says Umezawa. “Then she revealed that the dog had passed away recently and dedicated the song to the guide dogs of the world, singing ‘you'll never walk alone.’ It was really touching—and not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that song. I thought that was a great example of how we could reframe and reread some of these canonical works.”

Flexible futures

In April 2020, Umezawa and Kasahara announced the addition of opera artists Marion Newman and Asitha Tennekoon as co-founders to the Amplified Opera team. Both artists have years of operatic experience on local and international stages, and both bring fresh perspective to the one-year-old company.

Though they are new additions to the team, Newman and Tennekoon are joining as co-founders, with the idea that the four artists will share organizational roles and responsibilities in a fluid and non-hierarchical manner.

“When [Kasahara and I] started the company, we started out calling ourselves co-artistic directors and co-founders,’ says Umezawa. “And then we had a talk about the social structures that exist in opera that we would like to challenge. For me personally, the hierarchies that we’ve put into place in opera is something that I don’t believe is necessarily serving us anymore. So Teiya and I removed every title but co-founder, and when we brought Marion and Asitha in, we decided that if we’re all going to be doing all of the work, we’re all co-founders at this point.”

“I think it speaks to the transparency that we are trying to foster within this little company,” adds Kasahara. “Being small, and being new right now, and being nimble, we can be adaptable and flexible, especially to the situation we all find ourselves in.”

During a time when most arts organizations have had no choice but to streamline their activities due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, news of their expansion came as a welcome surprise. For the team, these steps forward as a young company, and the time they have in quarantine to dedicate to this project, represent a source of positivity amid cancelled concert work.

“This is a really great time for us to get to know each other and how we work, and to actually have enough time to decide on our best practices,” says Newman. “That’s pretty special, because what we all had planned meant that we would all have been very busy, had all of that stuff gone ahead. So I'm keeping that in my heart as a good thing.”

“I love that we’re taking care of how we work with each other—the kind of culture we want to create for ourselves and thereby impact the industry as a whole,” adds Tennekoon. “Trying to hone in on the focal points that are the most impactful, so that we're not just figuring it out as we plan a specific event. I think that's important, because I don't think that what we want to say has been effectively brought forward and presented as one collective front for the industry [before].”

In the coming months, the team plans to launch Amplify Beta, a retrospective project that will include documentation from AMPLIFY, as well as personal stories submitted by AMPLIFY concertgoers last fall (which will be interpreted on digital media and through a visual art piece by local artist Aquil Virani).

They’ve also just announced an upcoming digital collaboration with Tapestry Opera, another independent company in Toronto focused on showcasing new works and perspectives in opera. Titled ‘Holding Space’, it will take the form of a three-part series of private digital discussions with BIPOC opera artists in Canada. Taking place on June 30, July 5 and July 8, the conversations will be moderated via Zoom, and will serve as open forums for artists to share their experiences. (There is also an option to submit discussion proposals anonymously on Amplified Opera’s website. Details and registration info can be found here.)

During our conversation in May, Newman expressed a similar sentiment around the need to give BIPOC creators opportunities for artistic agency within the opera creation process. Reflecting on musical projects in Canada on themes of Indigenous reconciliation that she’s been a part of as a First Nations mezzo-soprano, Newman recalled how efforts by some established organizations have lacked some of the deep and slow thought required to ensure that invited Indigenous artists were able to make informed artistic choices.

“One of the things I have felt quite deeply is frustration, when I see people who these stories are about or who are [asked to] create these stories—say, an [Indigenous] librettist who’s never written an opera before—and because they don't understand the art form, the things they are asking for might not actually reflect opera,” Newman says. “We need to be spending this time figuring out a way of working with community so that [artists] feel they are being heard—and their questions about how opera amplifies a story are being satisfied—before they actually have to produce a piece that goes onstage, or make recommendations about a director or designer who may or may not be the best person for that piece.”

“Create really good teams that understand from the root what those stories are, and give them the power to actually say [what they think],” she adds. “I have seen that being attempted, but not quite met yet with companies that are more established and used to doing things a certain way.”

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What’s striking about the work of Amplified Opera is how absolutely unapologetic they are in their commitment to addressing issues in their field—and to doing it loudly, with an artist-first philosophy. Umezawa mentioned the hope that their company would serve as an example for what operatic programming that centres artist agency could look like; so far, it’s a plan that’s working.

“We went for it,’ says Kasahara. “We put something up, and the reaction from not only the public but also from our colleagues was that we didn't realise that we needed something like this. And we want more opportunities to talk: to engage with art, and with our personhood as well.”

Amplified Opera co-presents ‘Holding Space’ with Tapestry Opera as a series of private Zoom discussions on June 30, July 5 and July 8, 2020. For more information, visit https://www.amplifiedopera.com/.

Soprano Melody Courage (left) and tenor Bud Roach in Pimooteewin, from Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s co-production Two Odysseys. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards, given annually to celebrate outstanding achievements in theatre, opera and dance, are taking place on June 29, 2020 – not in person as is usually the case, but online on the Youtube channel of the Toronto Alliance of Performing Arts (TAPA).

Though this is the first time the awards ceremony has “gone virtual,” it promises to be as much a highlight of the theatrical year as it usually is, with a pre-taped award ceremony followed by a live “dance party” for anyone who would like to attend – even an invitation to dress up for the occasion and share photos of your outfit with TAPA’s social media channels. Unlike Broadway’s Tony Awards, the Doras are not typically televised; this year, producers have promised added entertainment for the occasion, with the irreverent Rick Mercer slated to open the evening, a script by Diane Flacks, and other special guests and VIP presenters throughout the show.

At the heart of the event, though, is the work being celebrated. Looking at the list of Dora nominees is almost surreal: almost 15 weeks into an unexpected life of COVID-19 quarantine and “physical distancing,” the list is full of reminders of the amazingly rich, diverse season of live performance that was forcibly shut down in March.

There isn’t room here to cover all 88 shows nominated over the seven award divisions, but one general observation I will make is that innovation and risk-taking are highlighted throughout. This is particularly true of the Opera division, with four of the five operas nominated for Outstanding Production being new creations and another two premieres nominated in the Outstanding New Opera division.

Opera

Tapestry Opera’s Jacqueline, Soundstreams/Luminato co-production Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, and the Tapestry/Opera on the Avalon co-production Shanawdithit are nominated in both categories. FAWN’s exciting melding of opera and dance, Pandora, is the fourth new opera in the Outstanding Production category; the Outstanding New Opera category is rounded out by Loose Tea Music Theatre’s Anne Frank opera Singing Only Softly and Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s Two Odysseys.

Also exciting is that two of these nominees are Indigenous works. Tapestry and Opera on the Avalon’s May 2019 premiere Shanawdithit is centred on the story of the woman believed to be the last living member of the Beothuk Nation in what is now called Newfoundland. With a libretto by celebrated Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan and a score by Newfoundlander Dean Burry, the whole was anchored in the person and beautiful voice of the Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish soprano Marion Newman, who is also nominated for Outstanding Performance.

Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit, presented in November 2019, was even more groundbreaking: a double bill of the world’s first operas sung and narrated in Indigenous languages Cree and Sámi. It is also nominated in multiple categories.

Musical Theatre

Leading the Musical Theatre division with eight nominations is the Musical Stage Company  and Obsidian Theatre’s glorious production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s civil rights-era set musical Caroline, or Change in January and February 2020. Tied for the most nominations with Soulpepper’s The Brothers Size, another powerful show chronicling the Black experience in America, Caroline, or Change proved to be a showcase for outstanding performers in a top-notch cast. R&B star Jully Black (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year), in her musical theatre debut as the title character, is nominated for Outstanding Performance. Vanessa Sears, who played her daughter, Emmie, and Stewart Adam McKensy, who played the Bus and Dryer, are also both nominated for Outstanding Featured Performer. (As you can see, the Doras no longer have gender-specific award categories – a change they made in 2019.)

Another exciting, innovative show that just got in before the COVID-19 “shutdown” is Eclipse Theatre’s location-specific Sunday in the Park with George, which made the audience feel as if we were in the middle of the Georges Seurat painting as it was being created. Among other nominations, Tess Benger, who brilliantly made the part of Dot her own, is nominated for Outstanding Performance. Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre’s Ghost Quartet, an exquisitely directed odd, eerie musical about four people whose stories transcend time and space, is also nominated for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction (Marie Farsi), and Outstanding Performance (Hailey Gillis).

On the more traditional side in the Outstanding Production category (though pushing boundaries in different ways) is the Mirvish production of Piaf/Dietrich by Daniel Große Boymann and Thomas Kahry, in a new adaptation by Erin Shields that explores the real-life friendship between Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, as well as Young People’s Theatre’s (Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s) The Adventures of Pinocchio, a musical version of the classic fairy tale. The stars of both shows – Lousie Pitre (Piaf) and Jayne Lewis (Dietrich), and Connor Lucas (Pinocchio) – are also nominated for Outstanding Performance.

Dance

In the Dance division I am pleased to see that the highly talented young company Human Body Expression’s timely and provocative show Resonance has been nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble.

Also on the evening’s menu will be the Jon Kaplan People’s Choice Award, named for the late, beloved theatre critic at NOW Magazine. Voting is open until June 21 at midnight. There is an added element of chance here, as voters can choose from any nominated show, or write in another show of their choice. You can cast your vote online at https://nowtoronto.com/doraawards.

There has been so much good theatre, opera and dance on offer this last season that I predict that the races in most of these award divisions are going to be tight – which will make the evening that much more exciting.

The 2019/20 Dora Awards will be presented online on Monday, June 29, 2020, from 7-9:30pm EDT:

- 7pm: use #Doras2020outfit on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and post your outfit

- 7:30pm: Watch the Dora Awards on YouTube or via Facebook

- 8:30-9:30pm: Virtual Doras Dance Party

You can find a complete list of all the 2019/20 Dora nominees here.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

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