Claude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus was revived for six performances this past April by Against the Grain Theatre. The opera unfolds in a series of scenes where Agni, the main character, undertakes a ritualistic journey where she encounters historical mythical beings who accompany her from one world to the next. Through a series of initiations, Agni ultimately reaches her final and purest spirit state—her dematerialisation. The opera pushes operatic boundaries, playing with genre expectations (the traditional duets and arias are notably absent from the score) and destabilizing typical avenues of listening (most of the opera is written in Vivier’s own invented language). Kopernikus is therefore a meditation of sorts, where Vivier invites the listener to follow Agni via tonal colours and emotions rather than typical parameters of form and language.
AtG’s cast (seven singers, seven instrumentalists, and two dancers) brought to life a complex score and deserve every single word of praise bestowed upon them by the critics. Singing Vivier without a score is extremely challenging, and the audience was treated to a display of refined musicianship, especially from the singers.
The complexities of the score, both musical and linguistic, as well as the non-traditional storytelling, have been the focus of many reviews. This ‘postmortem’ expands on these themes by focussing specifically on extramusical elements of the opera: translations, visuals, and the portrayal of Vivier in the media.
In his score, Vivier wrote: “Il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire, mais une suite de scènes...” This has repeatedly been translated, both in press releases and reviews, as “there is no actual story.” ‘À proprement parler’ is a common francophone expression and, in this case, it simply means that Kopernikus is not a story in the traditional sense. Although the narrative is not what opera goers are used to, Agni’s series of initiations is very much a story—it simply evolves in a musical narrative as opposed to a literary narrative.
A second mistranslation relates to the opera’s subtitle, “rituel de mort.” AtG’s press release translated this to ‘ritual for the dead,’ when in fact it should have been translated to ‘ritual of death’. This is not semantics; the difference in meaning is significant. Mistranslations are often inconsequential, innocent mistakes. However, in this case, these mistranslations prevent the audience from fully experiencing the meaning and aura that the composer originally intended.
As for the visual appearance of this production of Kopernikus, it was most likely influenced by the 2000 production of the Dutch National Opera, with the stage transformed by tiered scaffolding and the performers constantly moving around the multilevel set, via ladders and stairs. This, along with the additional cold effect of the scaffolding, stiff choreography and the dark exaggerated makeup, landed the production visually somewhere between a stereotypical image of a sanatorium and the underworld. This, for me, missed the mark: this piece is not about the underworld, it is about the ethereal. And the costumes and choice of setting do not help either—the story gains nothing by being placed in a factory. Vivier was such an intensely spiritual man, the assumption that the opera probably takes place somewhere on the highway to heaven would have served the production better. Perhaps the previously discussed mistranslation—that the story is a ritual for people who are already dead (for the dead) as opposed to for one’s journey towards dematerialisation (ritual of death)—also informed these choices. For the same reasons, they did not work for me.
Moving beyond the production to the core promotional material used by various outlets to promote Kopernikus, my opinion is that it set up a chain of causation that led not only to the perpetuation of the mistranslations referenced above, but also to the dissemination of a misleading portrayal of Vivier himself that interferes with viewing, and perhaps even producing, the opera in its own right. For one, the manner of his death: Claude Vivier was gay, and he was murdered, strangled, in his Paris apartment by a man he picked up in a gay bar. To leave the story here reveals only a partial truth. The complete story is that Vivier was the third victim of a trickster, a man who lured gay men back to their apartments to rob them and kill them. The individual press package given to every audience member at the AtG production (a yellow envelope with a black stamp of Vivier’s date of death) includes a copy of a newspaper clipping found in the most complete account of Vivier’s life to date, a biography by Bob Gilmore, where the author chronicles in detail the sequence of events that led to and followed Vivier’s death.
It is true that Vivier lived openly as a gay man in the ultra-conservative Quebec of the 1970s. In much of the promotional material leading up to productions of his work this is presented as “living hard and fast.” But we would do well to remember that this was a lens that was put on his behaviour at that time by his contemporaries, and also that complete information about Vivier’s death would only have been published in the newspapers many months after his death (there was no social media in 1983) and would not have been assumed to be information essential to an understanding of his work. In adopting that lens as essential pre-information, other aspects of Kopernikus that could have been discussed fell by the wayside: the influence of his musical lineage on his complex score; the origins of the sonic and linguistic environment created in Kopernikus; and that it was the opera that marks the beginning of postmodernism in Quebec’s operatic history.
A more rounded discussion would have provided the audience with a better general understanding of Vivier’s world and a deeper appreciation for the moods of Kopernikus. If the public is to fully understand the importance of this work, those involved in the performance process—from production companies to reviewers—need meticulous research in order to go beyond uncritically rehashing old accounts of Vivier’s life as an explanation of what the opera is about.
All that being said, restagings of Canadian operas are rare, and AtG’s revival of Vivier’s Kopernikus is a brave artistic and financial undertaking that should be celebrated. As I wrote in my preview of the production, with AtG's history of audacious reinterpretation of operas of the classical repertoire, it is a natural fit for them to move towards shaking things up in the unexplored world of Canadian opera (there are over 300 Canadian operas to choose from!). All my misgivings aside, director Joel Ivany's passion for the opera, along with that of the production's stellar musical team give much to hope for: hope that Kopernikus continues down the path of receiving the recognition it deserves; and hope that this leading opera collective will to guide us in towards a new era of (re)discovering our own Canadian works.
Sophie Bisson is a PhD student in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.