Tag: Aida

Travels In Italy: Dolce e brutto

San Michele Arcangelo, the church where Verdi was baptized and was later an organist. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Two weeks ago I was touring the lands of opera composer Giuseppe Verdi in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy: the place he was born and raised, the splendid home of his benefactor, the lush gardens he would walk through. Those were the good parts.

Any sentimentality or indeed, romanticism, which so many feel in traveling to Italy, has been largely scrubbed out; never, in all of my travels, I felt more aware of my status — my vulnerability — as a woman. While there are finger-waggers who will tut-tut with inevitable “you should haves” and well-meaning “if only you hads” (instincts I find frustratingly passive-aggressive if not outright patronizing)  I stand by the validity of my reactions, deeply aware of the various costs of singledom as a woman, the frequently taken-for-granted privilege of coupledom, and the need to accept the wildly different realities of each, particularly within the wider context of travel experiences. I got to see a part of Italy very few people get to see, a unique experience to be sure, but one that comes with a bitter recognition in realizing that my only return to the country will be as either part of a tour, or for quick excursions to very specific places, namely Teatro Comunale di Bologna, the Teatro Municipale in Reggio Emilia, and of course, Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

A rose on the property of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

In retrospect, I wonder what Verdi, a man who felt such a clear kinship with the so-called “common man,” would have made of my experiences in his country as a woman in the 21st century. Would he have been appalled, I wonder, by the cat-calls, the leering, the begging? Being a solo woman traveler opened the door to an ugly jarful of assumptions, which led to harrowing experiences: theft, harassment, manipulation, and (as was the depressingly repeated case in so many restaurants), being totally ignored. What would Verdi have made of it all? What would he have made of my wrists being grabbed by a older woman wanting money? Or waiters running to serve amorous couples but consistently ignoring my inquiries about a missing lunch and requests for another glass of Lambrusco? Or of personal items being stolen from an abode? What of the forced kissing and repeated fondling after accepting help with luggage?  What am I to make of these experiences? Are they operatic? Is it “Italy being Italy” ? Should I not be bothered? Was it my fault? Did I somehow “ask for it?” Did I deserve it because I was alone?

In any terrible situation (or series of them), there are always minuscule shards of light, and it’s these shards I have to pick through now, with the benefit of hindsight. I will always remember the free shot of espresso provided by a friendly woman in a bustling shop in Parma; the plate of sandwiches set before me in a cafe by another woman who gave me a knowing nod when she saw I was alone; the warm, expressive tone of my tour guide at Villa Verdi (the composer’s primary residence for many decades), as I struggled in my limited Italian to understand her every detail. All of us were above a certain age, all of us perhaps had some shared understanding we couldn’t articulate. I remember these moments, cherish them, and I’ve taken a friend’s advice to try and focus on good things, like these moments, and the ones provided via music and history.

Roberto de Candia as Falstaff (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

Jacopo Spirei’s Falstaff was my favorite production, and I don’t write that purely because I interviewed him about it before I left. Smart, funny, timely, and with a marvellously human lead performance by Roberto de Candia, the production (presented at the Teatro Regio di Parma as part of this year’s edition of Festival Verdi) was a true standout, and I wasn’t alone in that reaction, as chats with members of a refreshingly friendly British tour group revealed. Spirei placed the action in a familiar present, and filled the scene with very familiar people. De Candia played Falstaff as a kind of slobbish everyman, notably lacking the cutesy quality so common to characterizations. Instead, he was a kind of bar pig whom no one wanted to spend much time around — women especially; Falstaff wasn’t cuddly and harmless, he was slovenly and horrible. Only through his spectacular humiliation did he becomes semi-tolerable. The production made it abundantly clear that a character like Falstaff must be brought low in order to be raised once more, not as the phoenix, but as more of a messy pigeon who pecks around rotting porticos, and has to be kept in line with brooms and hoses every now and again.

Portrait of Verdi by Giuseppe Boldini, 1866.

I thought of Sir John Falstaff when I went to Villa Verdi some days later, because, as with Spirei’s magnificent production, I was being allowed to glimpse a vivid humanity which lives beneath an image. The house is located just outside the town of Busseto, roughly 40-odd kilometres north of Parma. Verdi supervised its construction, and, together with lady love (and soprano) Giuseppina Streponi, moved in in 1851. The house contains a number of mementos, as one might expect, all carefully and lovingly displayed.

Observing the bed in which Verdi died in 1901 (which had been shipped from the Grand Hotel in Milan) and various personal effects (including letters, knick-knacks, and the top hat and scarf he wears in Boldini’s famous portrait), a portrait of a good man dedicated to music and the people he loved emerges. It sounds hokey, but somehow, it wasn’t — but it was odd to walk around the living quarters of someone whose music was the soundtrack of large swaths of my life, to say nothing of my mother’s; it was ordinary and yet not, simple and yet grand, intimate and epic, all at once. Two pianos on which Verdi composed his works (early and later) were there, a clear case covering their keys. I stared at those pianos, longing to touch them. (No photos are allowed inside the house, alas.) I couldn’t rip my eyes off the second instrument on which he had composed Aida; this epic of the opera world, this contentious, difficult piece, with clashing ideologies and a gorgeously intimate subtext about loving the wrong person in the wrong time, “Celeste Aida” and the so-called “Triumphal March” — all that was done on the simple, upright piano sitting before me.

Gelling those reactions with the personal effects (to say nothing of the little section on Wagner) was surreal but also beautiful. I wish I could have had a few moments to stand in that room and take it all in, quietly, thoughtfully; it was one of the rare times during my travels in Italy that I actually wanted to be alone.

Verdi house

The exterior of Villa Verdi. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

A more fulsome piece about my visit to Villa Verdi and the town of Busseto is set to appear in a future edition of  Opera Canada magazine, but at this website, expect a piece (soon) about a very unique version of Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) presented in Reggio Emilia, which featured members of the Berlin Philharmonic and Italian entertainer Elio. Mozart’s opera has been on my mind a lot lately, because it is, as Komische Oper head honcho Barry Kosky rightly has noted, a work infused with a deep loneliness, and that quality is one which haunted me throughout Italy. Perhaps it was the absence of my mother, the social isolation that comes with being an independent woman of certain means, an overall disappointment… whatever the case: I am happy to have seen and experienced the things I did in Italy — and it will take a lot to get me to return.

Opera: Relevant.

Leontyne Price. Photo via
I am an arts journalist and a longtime opera fan. I make it a personal mission to both examine the elements of opera production and clarify it for those who are not familiar with its finer points. Basically, you don’t have to know what coloratura or cabaletta is to have a great experience — and you shouldn’t have to. The widespread popularity of what I’d term “popera” is something I have mixed feelings about; on one hand, it introduces an artform to a wide audience in a fun, audience-friendly way that they recognize and appreciate, but, on the other, it waters down the art form in a way I don’t think is always necessarily helpful.


As I wrote on Twitter, I don’t consider what The Tenors do real opera. I realize this is snobbish and perhaps even offensive to some. I make no apologies. It’s singing loudly and with all the flash that might be perceived as opera, but. Generally, that’s okay; if it makes people more curious about the art form, and leads them to the opera house, or to iTunes to check out the work of various composers, great. Sometimes that curiosity bleeds into something else; sometimes it doesn’t, and that’s okay. If popera inspires the desire to learn more, provides some enjoyment, makes for a pleasant way for some to pass the time: great. I want to be a kind of human Pandora that says, “well, if you liked that, you’re going to love this…”


Russell Thomas and Anita Rachvelishvili in the Canadian Opera Company’s Carmen. Photo via
That very thing happened this past spring, when I brought friends to the Canadian Opera Company production of Carmen. With no more exposure to opera than a handful of clips of child stars and reality TV bits and bobs, the friends — of all ages —  sat rapt for over two hours (with intermission). They loved the pageantry of the sets, the splendor of the staging, the lively conducting, and were bowled over, in particular, by the power of the voices. They were awestruck that no one was miced. They wanted to know more, and hear more.


So yes, sometimes popera leads to other things, and it’s nice when that happens. Introducing newcomers to opera busts up fusty old perceptions while kicking open the door to a powerful new artistic experience. If that powerful experience doesn’t happen, that’s fine too, but problems arise when a group like The Tenors make ignorant political statements. The perception of opera being an elitist, privileged, out-of-touch artform made by and for primarily white audiences is reinforced in the ugliest way imaginable. Forget Tamar Iveri and her horrific homophobic slurs; The Tenors have a much broader appeal, and, as a result, a huge audience. Their presence at the All-Star game was a symbol of their mainstream appeal; their horrifying political statement (which I am not going to write here, because it, and the mindset behind it, are offensive) sent out a message that reinforces an ugly, unfair stereotype.


Eric Owens in the Metropolitan Opera’s Elektra. Photo via
Opera companies are working hard at wider representation — at both administrative and creative levels — and some are succeeding more than others. A mariachi opera was met with much success not long ago; a staging of Brokeback Mountain in Madrid was, equally, met with acclaim. Great black singers populate and have hugely shaped the history of opera — Arroyo, Price, Norman, Anderson: these are names we should all know, not just opera fans. Contemporary black opera singers have been vocal about struggles and it’s been good to see companies like The Met and the Canadian Opera Company hire more diverse casts. I want to see more of this, and am equally keen to see related programming expansions; it’s good for audiences, and frankly, it’s what the art demands. Fewer forms are more suited to examine issues of race, exclusion, class, and privilege than opera, which fuses music, theatre, and visual design to make powerful, searing statements that have contemporary relevance. The titular character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni is a member of the aristocracy who uses his male privilege in every way imaginable; equally vital issues of class and privilege are thoughtfully examined in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro as well as Verdi’s Rigoletto;  Rossini’s Maometto II and Verdi’s Aida explore notions of interracial relationships, power, and prejudice. I would argue that even Carmen, perhaps the best-known opera to mainstream audiences, explores all of these things. The strong title character is constantly slurred (as well as sexually exoticized) for being a gypsy, a fact to which the obsessive Don Jose is both drawn and repelled.

So while the three members of The Tenors may claim, “it’s not us, it’s him!” I would respond, it’s not opera, it’s you. All of you. You have reinforced a notion of a deeply relevant, deeply beautiful art form that is hurtful, ignorant, and toxic. Please, just try to be good — a good singer, a good student, and most importantly, a good person: one who doesn’t blame, doesn’t shame, takes responsibility and educates themselves. It’s the least you can do for opera — and the utterly, absolute least you do for Black Lives Matter.

Whither Aida?

Two vastly different, but related experiences of grandeur, have got me thinking about the value of big productions, culturally and otherwise. The Canadian Opera Company opened its latest season October 2nd with a startling, strangely unmoving production of Verdi’s Aida. The company, headed by the brilliant Alexander Neef, has seen an upswing in its popularity among younger culture vultures of the city (so much so that local fave Broken Social Scene will be headling their annual fundraising ball) while keeping their vital older subscriber base happy -until now, anyway. The production of Aida on now manages to confuse, infuriate, and perhaps worst of all… bore.

Like any good opera-goer, I’ve seen my share of staged Aidas -mainly at the Met, it should be noted, with live animals & a chorus numbering in the hundreds. Budget?!, you want to shriek when the gold-leaf-everythings are wheeled in alongside blinding elephants and bored-looking horses, what budget? Aida isn’t staged too often precisely because it’s so expensive, and often, the baggage that travels with it isn’t just the kind you can see. And the magic of the romance inherent within the tale gets lost amidst the grandeur. The tale of the Ethiopian slave-princess and her doomed love affair with the Egyptian captain Radames is Big Operatic Melodrama -which is fine -though coupled with Verdi’s stirring, awesome score, means you have the makings of an audience full of expectations: the set should be big, the emoting should be grand, the orchestra should be really, really loud. Right? Wrong, or so says director Tim Albery and COC music director Johannes Debus. Albery has purposely shied away from the Big Everything approach, eschewing grandeur in favour of story, subtext, and even meta-theatrical musings on the nature of performer-audience relations.

So there’s no Egyptophilia here, which would be a refreshing change if Albery’s production wasn’t so intent on going in the contrary direction for the sake of it. It’s a noble instinct to try to re-define an old operatic chestnut, but the idea kills the emotion. Set in some 1980s Trump-like super-state, where the Egyptian politicos are in tailored suits (a la Mad Men) and the ladies are trussed up like gaudy pseudo-Ivana cyborgs, the delicacy and beauty of both the story and the music are nearly lost. Nearly. Thank heavens (make that Isis) for Debus’ stunningly keen musical direction. Never have I heard such a beautiful, stirring, poetic rendering of Verdi’s score as here. It greatly helps that the cast, lead by the utterly awesome Sondra Radvanovsky (making her COC debut) are fantastic. Radvanovsky’s delicate, heartfelt approach to the material is gorgeous.

If only the same could be said of Albery’s direction, which positively reeks of over-stylization and heavy-handedness. While I enjoyed his underlining of the horrors of colonialism during the triumphal march, the gold-lame-come-stripper priestesses and humping skeletons did little to add to one’s understanding or appreciation of Ghislanzoni‘s libretto; the whole concept felt forced, insipid, and arrogant -and playing right into the kind of grandeur it was supposedly turning its back on.

In my next blog, I’ll be detailing the big event that did move me deeply -one that openly embraced largeness, and used it to incredible effect to create a sense of intimacy and wonder. Stay tuned…

Aida Photo Credits: © 2010 Michael Cooper

The Nightingale: Fluttering Simplicity

Igor Stravinsky has never endeared those who crave traditional melodic lines. His music is raucous, rough, and challenging –not the kind of thing you can hum or whistle to.

So it was with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I took my traditional-opera-loving mum to see the new production of his 1908 opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. She’s always thought of Stravinsky as “weird” (you might too, if your favourite music is grand Italian opera) and I know she was never a fan of the Russian’s challenging, difficult, definitely non-hummable music. His infamous statement, that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” has been assessed and analyzed, criticized and derided, and yet I suspect he may’ve been onto the same kinds of thing as Marcel Duchamp, or even later, Brian Eno. Stravinsky’s work isn’t about making you feel comfortable, and indeed, that isn’t the point of what I’d consider good art. Spoon-feeding is atrocious; it takes a keen director, respectful of the material but strong in their own sense of individualism and craft to bring a vision that might express something through the myriad of sounds and effects Stravinsky laid throughout his scores.

Enter Robert Lepage. The Nightingale marks his return to the Canadian Opera Company after a sixteen-year absence. Just as he brought a bold, striking vision to the 1993 production of Bluebeard’s Castle and Erwartung so he brings a playful, if equally visionary sense to this latest work. Stravinsky was the musical revolutionary of his time; LePage is his contemporary theatrical equivalent. Neither artist has ever taken the safe road with regards to their respective arts, so it came as no surprise when it was announced last year that the Quebec born, multi-award-winning theatre director would be filling the orchestra pit of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with 67,000 litres of water as part of his vision for the piece. That’s a whole lotta water, and people like my mother (a longtime COC subscriber) wondered if it was also a whole lotta waste-of-time.

But the idea -in its audacity, grandeur, and sheer weirdness -intrigued her, and I would imagine, many of those in attendance at Saturday’s opening. Opera is meant to be big and bold and ballsy; there’s no such thing as subtle opera in the larger scheme of things. The adjective “grand” is attached to opera (or at least some styles) for a reason, and it’s always this sense of “the big” that pervades popular notions around the artform. I’ve sat through more than one production of Aida that featured live animals, including elephants, horses, and even -once -a zebra. So why not fill up the orchestra pit? Why not have puppets? Why not embrace the grand-opera mystique and majesty?

But even majesty is best used when it’s done with simplicity, class, and most of all, awareness. To be big just for the sake of it smacks of narcissism; to go large without an overriding artistic idea feels simplistic. And the line between “simple” and “simplistic” is fine but it’s important. Too often in the arts world -of high culture and low culture equally -the “large” aspect is blindly presented and unquestioningly embraced. Lepage doesn’t offer any solutions for this modern artistic conundrum but he does have the visionary mindset to look behind and around him for clues as to how to solve it. In the program notes, he offers his theory theatre’s origins: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale. Theatre was born using nothing more than light and imagination.” It’s this sense of childlike play that the director transfers onto the complex musicality of Stravinsky, making for a unique opera-going experience that both pays homage to the roots (or suspected roots) of theatrical performance, and opens the door to a new way of seeing an old, frequently-stodgy artform. In other words, he reinvents the way we perceive opera and its relevance to theatre, performance, and music itself. he also make it personal, by injecting elements many of us recognize from childhood. They’re simple elements, but not simplistic. Lepage trusts and respects his audience -their capacity for creation, imagination, comprehension and invention -and this abiding love of humanity shines through every aspect of the production. Clever, creative use of light, shadow, water, and the human form tease out the the complexities of Stravinsky’s work, revealing its inherent playfulness and its gentle parody of the foibles and follies of human nature.

In so doing, the composer’s seemingly-barren, cold modern music is infused with a new richness. In The Fox, a Russian folk tale based on Russian Folk Tales by the writer Aleksandr Afanasyev, he creates a world where we see folk tales being literally shared -told, re-told, re-interpreted and recycled -with choruses of singers dressed in traditional Russian garb standing on side platforms. Fables about wily foxes, proud roosters, crying babies, and curious cats are shared, expressed, and laughed over. Another layer of theatre is literally grafted on top of this via a large, cinematically-shaped screen running the length of the stage, over top of the orchestra. Using shadows made by hands and later bodies (thanks to puppeteers), we see a cat’s tail swishing about, a rabbit’s eyes dancing to and fro, a rooster guarding his hens; each movement matches and accentuates elements in Stravinsky’s score. Here is a whole new way of experiencing the Russian composer -as well as the operatic form itself : as mischievous, theatrical, imaginative, perhaps even fun. Opera? Fun? Hell yeah. Even my mother said as much at intermission.

For The Nightingale, Lepage has taken Andersen’s fable about the golden-throated bird and the Chinese Emperor who covets her and turned it into a magical metaphor about the relationship of man and nature. As the singers control their puppets, with the aid of five talented puppeteers, I couldn’t help but notice the near-identical dress between the performers and their doll-like counterparts. Puppet designer Michael Curry has fashioned a series of creations that gorgeously complement their human counterparts in both appearance, and, thanks to choreographer Martin Genest, movement. Each puppet is like a child, with a larger grown-up version of itself controlling, manipulating, sounding, and speaking for it. It reminded me a bit of when my own mother would take me to the opera when I was very young, in fact. There was something sentimental and touching about the way each singer cradled and carefully controlled their smaller, ornately-dressed selves.

With lights from the orchestra musician’s music stands reflected in the water, I found myself musing, amidst the swirling raucousness of the music: art is reflected in nature; nature shows art what is truly is; nature reflects but has its own qualities one can’t totally control -and that is a good way of approaching (if not describing) the best sort of art. All this, from filling up an orchestra pit, though the genius was in the design. The reflections (intensified at the opera’s end by Diwali-eque floating candles) were not incidental; Etienne Boucher‘s specific, focused lighting strongly recalled the work of Bill Viola, with all of its spiritual, simple-meets-challenging aspects, encompassed within a live performance presentation.

The Nightingale involves so much more than mere, simplistic effect; it is a wonderous, child-like vision of an eternal dance between the natural world and the constructed one. Via the shadowplay of the first half, and the waterplay/puppeteering of the second, we’re reminded again and again to re-connect with our own playful instincts –ones, it must be said, that are as ancient as those first stories he refers to in the notes. Sometimes it’s via the most unexpected and challenging means that we come to find our own common humanity, and come to recognize our own nightingale, singing, flying, just waiting to be heard.

As to my mum? She’s still not a Stravinsky fan. But she adores Lepage. Bien sur.

All photographs from The Nightingale And Other Short Fables courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, photographer Michael Cooper.

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