Makaya McCravenOn Saturday, June 22, I attended drummer/producer/bandleader Makaya McCraven’s concert at Adelaide Hall as part of the 2019 TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was the sole festival show taking place at Adelaide Hall, also known as RADIO (it’s listed as Adelaide Hall on the TJF brochure, as RADIO on Google Maps, and as both on the venue’s website, although apparently the name was officially changed last year).

Conveniently, I was able to chat with TJF artistic director Josh Grossman, who happened to be standing near me in the audience before the show started. Grossman – who, it should be noted, was sipping a Mill Street beverage, an appropriately on-brand gesture given that the brewery is an official TJF sponsor – informed me that the show was originally meant for the Horseshoe Tavern, but, due to some logistical issues, had to be moved to an alternative venue. A few nights after the McCraven show, the Horseshoe hosted a double bill with Ghost-Note and Rinsethealgorithm; as all three groups play within a certain groove-based tradition, it’s easy to see the spectral framework of a venue-specific series that didn’t quite materialize. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the festival’s first choice for venue, Adelaide Hall has good sound, a relatively open layout with good sightlines, and an atmosphere that lent itself well to McCraven’s music.

I first heard the Chicago-based McCraven relatively recently, on Marquis Hill’s 2017 standards album The Way We Play; I remember being struck by McCraven’s ability to play time with propulsive authority while still remaining open and communicative. (Listen to his brushwork on “My Foolish Heart” for evidence of this, as he brings intensity and weight to the arrangement’s 3/4 groove.) It wasn’t until I did a bit more research on him that I realized the extent of his creative output and the breadth of his artistic practice, which includes playing in more traditional jazz settings with artists such as Hill and guitarist Bobby Broom, performing DJ sets at Turntable Lab NYC, and playing with his own project for Boiler Room London

It was a version of the latter band that played in Toronto. In addition to McCraven on drums, the ensemble included Greg Ward, saxophone; Matt Gold, guitar; Junius Paul, bass; and Greg Spero, keyboards. McCraven and co. played funky, groove-oriented material – music that, though deeply rooted in jazz, had strong elements of hip-hop, rock and other genres. With the exception of some crisply-delivered lyrics, sung by Paul on the Tony Williams composition “There Comes a Time,” it was an instrumental show, with a setlist that seemed specifically organized to keep the energy high throughout the evening. All five band members have chops to spare, but it was in the intelligent, methodically-constructed arcs of tension and release that the group really shone, honouring the compositions by putting the emphasis on groove and group interplay rather than individual feats of musical athleticism. Not that there weren’t thrilling solos (there were!), but the show’s most rewarding moments had more to do with texture and groove.

The last official song of the show – before the encore – was the McCraven original “This Place, That Place,”  a jittery, high-energy piece that features syncopated sixteenth-note shots over an odd-metre vamp. McCraven soloed over the vamp near the end of the tune, and even then, in a moment in which an audience might expect a band-leading drummer to let the notes fly, he played a measured, thoughtful, patient solo that ultimately proved to be one of the highlights of the evening.

An exciting show overall, in an unexpected venue that functioned well as a Toronto Jazz Festival showcase space for beat-driven music. 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Makaya McCraven on June 22, 2019, at Adelaide Hall, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Adanya Dunn, in the 2017 production of Charlotte. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.On June 1, I had the opportunity to see Theaturtle's Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music at Hart House Theatre. A three-way collaboration between Canadian librettist (and Theaturtle's artistic director) Alon Nashman, British scenographer Pamela Howard and Czech composer Ales Brezina, this was the only performance in Toronto before the company goes on a world tour. Two years ago, an earlier work-in-progress version of Charlotte was presented at the 2017 Luminato Festival before touring abroad for the first time, and I became fascinated by the show and the creative team's innovative approach.

Inspired by the autobiographical series of 700+ gouache painting/collages entitled “Life? Or Theatre?” created by the young German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in the two years before her death at Auschwitz in 1942, the design of the costumes and props are taken literally from Charlotte's art. They are stylized, colourful, and evocative of a slightly surreal version of Germany and southern France in the 1930s and 40s; surrounding the stage are thin plastic sheets daubed with splashes of paint, meant to evoke the tracing paper with which Charlotte covered her creations. The music and text notes she made as part of her collages inform the libretto and music as much as the drawings inform the physical design, the creators aiming for a complete synchronicity of word, image and music to immerse us in her world.

According to Nashman, the team approached the musical aspect of the project as a singspiel in the Brecht/Weill tradition. “It is neither opera nor musical, even it it contains elements of both,” he explained to me last month. “There are moments of bitterly ironic cabaret, classical music references turned on their heads, some intense vocal experiments and contemporary sound poems.”

The script follows the story depicted in Charlotte's art (although the approach has changed quite a lot since the first time I saw it – more on that shortly). At heart, as the creative team feel, it is a real story that still resonates today, particularly now when people around the world are suffering under a frightening upsurge of far-right politics. Yet it is not so much a story about the rise of Nazism, but a young girl's journey to selfhood and her struggle to understand what is right in a world full of horrors – a girl who chronicled this coming-of-age during the rise of fascism as if she somehow knew that her own time was short. She was only 26 when she died.

What caught me so strongly in the 2017 workshop performances was the depiction of this struggle not to let the horrors, or horrible decisions Charlotte herself has to make, destroy her soul or spirit. I felt that there was still work to be done tightening and strengthening certain parts of the storyline, but this central theme shone through at the end of the play, making it a satisfying, as well as fascinating (although sometimes rather uncomfortable), experience.

Given this reaction to the original work-in-progress, my expectations of the revised version I saw on June 1 were very high. Reaching out before the performance to ask about how much the production might have changed, I learned from Nashman that “the past two years (had) been devoted to a process of refining and deepening.”

Interestingly, my original expectations of where the revisions and changes would happen were very different from where they actually did. One of the things I had liked best in 2017 was the opening sequence: in real time, in the south of France, we meet the parents (father and stepmother) looking for any tangible trace of Charlotte left behind after the end of the war. They are handed a paper-wrapped package which turns out to be the series of over 700 paintings she had created while exiled in France. As her parents start to look through the artwork exclaiming at memories from their past life together, Charlotte herself comes onstage and starts to tell us about the paintings and the people in them. As I wrote in my notes at the time, this opening offered an easy entrance into Charlotte's story – “grabbing our interest in a gentle way then segueing into the storytelling itself. As the story jumped ahead, Charlotte would pop out of the frame now and again, anchoring us and connecting us to each time period and introducing us to anyone new who entered the story.

In the 2019 version this opening is gone, and is replaced by a new prologue for Charlotte alone with her paintings which then leads into the autobiographical story depicted in her artwork. In this new version, rather than occasionally “popping out of the frame,” Charlotte is very much the narrator from beginning to end.

This fits with what Nashman had told me about the revision process. “Watching the video and reflecting on the 2017 productions at Luminato and the World Stage Design Festival, I came to realize that Charlotte had to be kept in the centre of the frame, that her voice needed to be even more present,” he explained. “I worked with dramaturge Ellie Moon, and found ways to bring Charlotte, both as creator and subject of the paintings, into sharper focus.” This he has done – but in moving away from the more naturalistic original opening and the more subtle introduction of Charlotte, something has been lost, and she has become a much less sympathetic character.

I felt the same way about the new ending. In the 2017 version, we realized in theatrical real time along with Charlotte the true horror of her family's history of suicide, and were caught up with her (as I wrote in my notes then) as she is torn apart by the need to decide whether she should  kill her predatory grandfather ‘as one kills an evil rat with poison,’ and as her memories of her lover lead her to choose life and creation instead of death.

In the new version, Charlotte talks about the decision she made, but without sharing the process with us in real time, and so it becomes a less personal moment, and to me felt less uplifting as a consequence.

The tone of the play is altered further by a change in the direction. There is now a more stylized physical acting approach for all the characters, a broader and sometimes over-the-top attack on character creation, particularly when actors are playing secondary parts (there is a lot of doubling), an approach that not all the company seem comfortable with. Thinking about this now, I wonder if the creative team is wanting to move toward a more thoroughly Brechtian approach to telling Charlotte's story: an approach that would use Brecht's famous “alienation effect” to present the story in a less personal or naturalistic style, using instead broader dramatic strokes and shocking juxtapositions to awaken in audiences, as Nashman said he hoped the new version would do, “a greater sense of amazement and loss as the story unfolds.”

The character of Charlotte is presented in a brasher, more modern way, with little vulnerability (though this may be partly due to changes in casting). This could be taken even further. For example, in the new version there is no indication that Charlotte is dead or that she died soon  after completing her series of paintings. Looking back at the opening scene, I would have liked her to say to us, straight out, something like: “I died in Auschwitz when I was 26. Somehow I knew that I had to record my life and hope in my art as quickly as I could.” A clearer differentiation between the narrative bridges and the story sequences throughout would have made both more effective.

Before seeing the new version, I had asked Nashman if he thought that the show was in its final form. His reply: “From everything I have experienced, music theatre demands a much longer development period than a play. There are so many creators, so many moving parts. I suspect that we will continue to tinker, but I would say that we are getting close to the final form.”

I am very curious to see how Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play With Music will continue to evolve as the production visits festivals around Europe and is experienced by different audiences. Will the company go 'all out' in the direction of a very stylized physical presentational performance, or go back and reincorporate some of the best bits of the earlier, more naturalistic storytelling?  Whichever direction they take, this is an important story – and a fascinating theatrical production to experience.

Theaturtle presented Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, at 2pm on June 1, 2019, at Hart House Theatre, Toronto.

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.

Alex Fournier. Photo credit: Paul Hillier.Alex Fournier – bassist, composer, bandleader, concert curator – has established, steadily and surely, an important presence in the Toronto creative music scene. You can find him at clubs like The Rex, at which he played, in March of this year, with trumpeter Jim Lewis, drummer Nick Fraser, and famed American saxophonist Tony Malaby; in a variety of groups, both as a co-leader (Money House, Gardening Club, Quartzite Jongleur) and as a sideperson (Colour and Noise, Lake Affect, Bearrah Fawcett, the Dan Pitt Trio, Pineapple); and programming and running his own concert series, Furniture Music, which, as the name implies, began as a series of house concerts (Furniture Music events now tend to take place at The Tranzac, Toronto’s de facto home base for free and improvised music, and Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, a relatively new venue which, in an improbable but happy turn of events, has been hosting a number of creative, musician-curated series). The Rex is also where Fournier will be releasing his sextet’s eponymous debut album, Triio, on June 2. Triio is Fournier’s longest-running project, and has grown organically from a standards ensemble into its current iteration, which, in addition to Fournier’s bass playing and compositions, features Bea Labikova on woodwinds, Aiden Sibley on trombone, Tom Fleming on guitar, Ashley Urquhart on piano and Mark Ballyk on drums. 

Triio begins with ESD, an urgent, pulsing song that functions as an effective example both of Fournier’s compositional style and of his band-leading philosophy. A lengthy solo piano introduction gives way to a snaky melody, which sits atop jittery drums and a doubled bass line; in time, this dissolves into a free improvised section, which ultimately morphs back into the melody at the song’s end.

It is common, in this style of playing, for bandleaders to bring in fairly simple melodies, and to treat the compositions as seasoned jazz musicians would treat a leadsheet in a straightahead setting; that is, as a melodic and harmonic sketch, which they collectively fill in. This is not the approach that Fournier has taken. One of the most striking features of Triio songs like ESD, Noisemaker, and Permanently Hiccups is the specificity that Fournier employs to realize his musical vision; more striking still is that the shifts from composed to improvised material never feel unnatural, but rather like the inevitable consequences of the proceedings. The notable elements of Fournier’s tunes – through-composed forms, textural shifts, tightly orchestrated (and highly technical) melodies – don’t seem to hamper the creativity of the rest of the band as much as inspire it, by providing clear parameters in which a certain kind of musical play can happen. That this all seems to happen readily and unselfconsciously is a testament to Fournier’s musical leadership qualities; it’s easy to imagine that he would be good at teaching someone how to play a board game, or cribbage, or any activity in which the purest expression of play comes from a solid understanding of the rules, and the paradoxical freedom of being bound by those rules. 

Fournier’s developmental path has been somewhat different than that of some of his peers. After graduating from the University of Toronto’s jazz studies program, he did what most young jazz musicians do: established a freelancing career, taught privately, and attended workshops, including the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and the School for Improvisational Music (SIM), which takes place in New York at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. It was at SIM that Fournier first worked with the American bassist Michael Formanek, whose 2010 ECM album The Rub and Spare Change had been pivotal in Fournier’s compositional and improvisational outlook. As Fournier describes, it was the first time that he saw how all of the musical elements that he loved could fit together: “you can play this composed thing, you can do whatever you want with it, you can continue the momentum, you can abandon it, you can change it, and then the tune comes back in, but it’s not even the same tune that you started, but you can just end it there.”

Fournier got along well with Formanek at SIM, which led to a grad school application to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where Formanek was a faculty member. While most Toronto jazz musicians look to New York for their grad school experience and are more focused on being part of an inspiring scene and an elite cohort, Fournier opted for Baltimore, a smaller city, and Peabody, which is better known for its classical program than for jazz.

The trade-off – working with Formanek – was worth it. Fournier’s experience with Formanek at Peabody was much closer to an intimate mentor/mentee relationship than one commonly finds in jazz programs, even at the graduate level. Beyond productive private lessons, Fournier had the opportunity to guest-lead some of Formanek’s classes, including a big band, small ensemble, and a global improvisation class, which focused on what Fournier describes as “empirical ideas that you can apply to different aspects of your improv.” For Fournier, it was a rare experience: a relationship in which, as he puts it, “you go in as student/mentor, and you come out as friends.” 

Upon returning to Toronto, Fournier jumped back into the scene, working in other people’s bands, helming his own projects, and organizing the aforementioned Furniture Music series. When I suggest that he is becoming a bit of a leader in a particular corner of the local music-making community, however, he’s quick to shift focus onto the musicians who inspire him, “fantastic luminaries” such as “Lina Allemano, Nick Fraser, Andrew Downing, Rob Clutton,” and others who are “able to have their feet in both worlds” – the worlds of free improvised music and more straightahead jazz. (Like many musicians in the field, Fournier doesn’t love using the term “free jazz” to describe certain aspects of what he does; “modular music,” his preferred way of describing his process, is more formally accurate, while still as generically vague as terms like “improvised music,” “creative music,” or, on the classical side, “new music.” Nomenclature is particularly tricky for music focused on exploring the porous boundaries between ideas and styles.)

Triio.Fournier’s curatorial efforts, his respect for the formal and informal mentorship process, and his band-leading all share one key component: a willingness and enthusiasm to make room for others, and to facilitate unique collaborative work. With the release of Triio, Fournier’s work has come full circle: by embracing a generous musical model, he has created a band, album, and performance practice that showcases a wide range of his abilities, all the while honouring his band members and the work of those who have come before him. 

Alex Fournier’s group Triio releases its eponymous debut album at 9:20pm on June 2, at The Rex, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Against Nature, by Citadel + Compagnie.In a former Salvation Army building on lower Parliament Street in Toronto, a quiet revolution in music/dance/theatre creation is emerging at the hands of Citadel + Compagnie’s artistic director Laurence Lemieux and resident choreographer James Kudelka.

At the end of May and beginning of June, the company is remounting their Dora-nominated 2016 work Against Nature, based on the decadent 1884 novel of the same name (À Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysman.

The central character of the story is Jean des Esseintes, a 19th-century aristocrat who has become so disgusted with human society in fin-de-siècle Paris that he exiles himself to a villa in the country to create for himself a perfect world of art and artifice. Against Nature is widely believed to be the novel that poisons the mind of Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s famous story The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in James Kudelka’s work we will also see the downward spiral of the hero, des Esseintes (played by baritone Alex Dobson), as he tries to escape nature and mortality with the help of his two servants (played by dancer Laurence Lemieux and baritone Koran Thomas-Smith).

What makes this work unique is its combination of opera, dance, theatre and visual art, and its creation for the specific salon-style performance space of the Citadel, which seats only 60 at a time. The creative team is a powerful mix of award-winning Canadian artists, including  composer James Rolfe (The Overcoat, Beatrice Chancy), librettist Alex Poch Goldin (The Shadow), lighting designer Stephen Rossiter, and projection designer Jeremy Mimnagh. Accompanying the three performers onstage there will also be three musicians performing the score live: pianist Stephen Philcox, violinist Pamela Attariwala, and cellist Carina Reeves.

Leading the creative team as director and choreographer is James Kudelka, perhaps best known here as the artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada from 1996 to 2005, and the creator of many large-scale ballets including his own versions of Cinderella, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, as well as many works for companies around the world, including audience favourite The Four Seasons.

Intrigued about the genesis of this project, its experimental nature and scale, I reached out to Kudelka to ask him about what had inspired him to make this change in focus from his earlier work.

James Kudelka. Photo credit: Ian Brown.The WholeNote: What drew you to this initiative, creating not only intimate salon-sized works, but works that cross genre lines to combine ballet/opera/theatre?

James Kudelka: First, let me say that my preferred way to describe these works is music/dance/theatre. I don’t want anyone to think they are seeing a ballet or an opera, but I do want them to think they are seeing a theatrical event. We use singing and dancing, voice and movement—whatever will tell the story best. To call it opera will keep as many people away from it as calling it ballet would.

In brief, I was wanting to do something that used Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth but because of the nature of the story the possibility of it being a full-fledged opera house style ballet for the National Ballet of Canada was remote. There was too much in the novel that couldn’t be danced, mostly to do with debt and money. It went well beyond Balanchine’s saying that there are no mothers-in-law in ballet. This was an unmeetable challenge.

Because I was beginning to work at the Citadel I thought it was a good place to try an experiment, and use a librettist and a composer, and to make a rule that the women in the cast would dance and the singing men would carry the narrative challenges through text, and that the whole thing would be to music. Each of the art forms would be used to what it could do best. The remarkable thing is that though the men in the cast of From the House of Mirth carried the language, one never had the feeling that the women had no voice.

WN: Against Nature is the second part of a trilogy (of which the third part is still to come). Can you tell us about your choice of source materials and why they inspired you? I am intrigued by the contrast between Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, the source of the first part of the trilogy, and Against Nature (À Rebours) by French-Dutch author Joris-Karl Huysman, the source material for the second part and current production.

JK: We had been working very hard to secure the rights to a different second project, that never came about. I went into my library and found Against Nature, which was a fascinating book I had read, but I really wondered if a music/dance/theatre adaptation was possible.

I met with the team—Alex Poch Goldin who had written the libretto for From the House of Mirth, and James Rolfe, a composer whom my agent suggested I meet—after the novel had been presented and read by them, and strangely I got excited enough by the idea of it that it lit a spark in us all. I don’t think any of the three of us went to that meeting with much faith in it until then. It was actually pretty grim.

From the House of Mirth had four female dancers, four male singers and five instrumentalists. For Against Nature I wanted to use a smaller ensemble, in the hopes that it would be less expensive to tour.

WN: Do you know yet what the source material of the third part of the trilogy will be, and how the three pieces will fit together?

JK: Yes, but there is no real connection between the pieces other than that they are all music/dance/theatre works. It is true that they are all late 19th or early 20th century sourced. I don’t have a thematic agenda, though I am the artist I am, and no doubt everything I do has some kind of connective theme because it has to come from a deep place within me to bother with it. As I get older I begin to wonder whether a whole career of creations is really just an exercise in trying to get the one idea you have right.

WN: How did the creative team for this project come together? Had you worked together before?

JK: I keep the librettist; I change composer from project to project. It happens that Alex Dobson (the baritone) and Laurence Lemieux have both been involved in both productions so far. It is not unusual for me to try and work with people I know, but I always try to work with someone I don’t know in each project to keep things stirred up and keep me out there and social, meeting artists from all disciplines and introducing new people to the team I know.

I prefer to work with Jim Searle and Chris Tyrell from Hoax for costume because we are a small organization and though we don’t have a permanent wardrobe department, having the same designers creates continuity from project to project and we can borrow from ourselves. They are also lovely and very flexible people…

WN: You are both choreographer and director of Against Nature. How do you incorporate directing actors and singers into your usual work as a choreographer of dancers? Have you found that your approach has changed between the first and second parts of the trilogy?

JK: I am not the music director of Against Nature, but in terms of basic moving the players around the stage, creating the situations and blocking and staging, motivations of character, props and overseeing all the elements, I am not doing anything differently than I would do or continue to do when I create a ballet for a ballet company. (When I rehearse something like The Nutcracker, my job is really almost solely direction, since the choreography was done before the show opened in 1995 and is still performed.) If there is something on a stage, it has been a choice made by a director, or a choreographer. The title ‘choreographer’ tends to lead one to think only of the dance. As artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada I was in charge of a large repertoire of narrative ballets that I myself did not create and these works do not direct themselves.

There is a confusion in this, because people have seen my two music/dance/theatre pieces and can’t really figure out how they came about. I think it would be more usual for a composer to want to write it before a theatrical production was planned. The truth is that in essence, I have an idea, and I invite a librettist and a composer, and after some discussion of tone and numbers and very basic restrictions (since creativity is best achieved with restrictions), I sit back and wait until everyone has finished their jobs and then I come in and finish the work by directing and choreographing. I basically start the fire and then I have to put it out.

We usually have a series of workshops on the way to the premiere. I think FHoM and AG both had two or three 2- to 3-day workshops which usually ended with a showing to interest patrons and start some conversations about how we are doing. It is then also a chance to invite costume and scenic designers in. We are able to work very holistically at the Citadel, creating the show as it evolves, lighting and projections coming into the space early and over a longer period. We bring lots of props and clothing from home. It is a very lovely process, very natural as the project takes shape. By the time we perform the finished project, it has not gone through the usual franticness of a move to a theatre and a broken projector and an unhelpful union crew. So often in our world the day of the opening is a nightmare and has little to do with the weeks of work it took to get to that day.

WN: Do you find that the intimate performing space changes how you approach directing and choreographing, and do you find that audiences relate differently to these hybrid works—particularly being in such close proximity to the performers?

JK: I do this work because of the intimacy, after so many years of trying to fill a stage in a 3200-seat hall. Not that I can’t do that, but it is exhausting. I think to put the audience itself in the actual room with the performers demands a heightened discipline from all concerned in that room. (If your cell phone goes off during the show you can’t hide in a 60-seat theatre!) To hear the breathing, and the inhalation before a word sung, the rustle of a silk gown six feet away, the sweat flying off a dancer, it just may be this kind of intimacy that is the future of theatre “in a world that’s at its end,” to quote the Master in Against Nature.

Against Nature plays at the Citadel May 22-25, and May 29-June 1 at the Citadel: Ross Centre for Dance, Toronto.

The Ensemble of Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus. Photo credit: Darryl Block Photography.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.

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