Tag: design

My Favorite Things From 2017

sculpture nationalgalerie

At the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Before my most recent trip to Berlin for my birthday in earlier this month, I quickly jotted down a few music events that stood out to me without thinking too hard about the whys or wherefores. There have been so many special moments, and it’s hard to squish them into a list, let alone words and descriptions, and sometimes too much analysis not only muddles decent reflection but kills the joy of remembrance.

Many year-end “favorites” lists that show up this time of year tend to be steeped in memories and sentiment, and music is the best and most direct avenue to both. As music writer Tim Sommer points out in his own year-end feature, “no art form is as connected to our memory and our senses as music. Although music appears to exist primarily in just one of the senses, in fact it spreads to all of them, creating a connection with everything we were seeing, touching, smelling, and thinking.”

So much of my life is made up of lists — for packing, for groceries, for trips, and for stories to chase and features to finish. If I could write a list of feelings throughout the year the way I quickly wrote out my list of music experiences, how would it read? Disappointment might feature largely, but so would wonder. With a second near-solo Xmas Day under my belt, a lot of time has been spent in remembrance, on events recent and not, and on people new and old, near and far, present and not. In returning to my music list, muddling through the sometimes sticky waters of sentiment and memory, and ruminating on the ease of my choices, I’ve come to realize that wonder is the ribbon tying everything together. It’s a quality I fully realize can’t be forced, but can, perhaps, arise out of the right set of conditions. It logically follows then, that next year I hope to be writing this list from Europe. (You read that correctly.) Until then, please enjoy, and feel free to add your own favorites in the comments.

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The cast of “La damnation de Faust” take bows at the Opera Royal de Wallonie (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

1. La damnation de Faust, Opéra Royal de Wallonie; Liège, January.

Though I have loved the work of Berlioz for years, never have I heard it so vividly and lovingly brought to life as here, in the beautiful, ornate opera house of lovely Liège. American tenor Paul Groves, currently onstage at the Met in The Merry Widow (my interview with him here), turned his Faust strongly away from tormented-hero cliches and into something recognizably (and touchingly) human; his chemistry with Ildebrando D’Arcangelo’s Mephistopheles was warm, watchable, and quietly splendid. (More here.) Together with Director Ruggero Raimondi’s thoughtful production and strong orchestral vision from Music Director Patrick Davin, this was one of the best ways to start the musical new year.

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Lilian Farahani, Donato Di Stefano, and Anicio Zorzi Giustianini in “Il matrimonio segreto”. (Photo: Opera National de Lorraine)

2. Il matrimonio segreto, Opéra national de Lorraine; Nancy, February.

Conductor Sascha Goetzel led a vivacious reading of Cimarosa’s frothy and very Mozartean score (on the day of its 225th birthday, when I attended) in this fun production of the 1792 opera by Cordula Däuper in Nancy’s sumptuous opera house. Standouts included tenor Anicio Zorzi Giustiniani as the lovestruck Paulino, baritone Riccarado Novaro as seeming-fop Conte Robinson, and jovial baritone Donato Di Stefano as the bumbling Signor Geronimo. They, along with the entire cast, skillfully used Sophie du Vinage’s zany costumes and Ralph Zeger’s comical dollhouse sets to wondrous effect, embodying the very best sitcom stars with boundless energy and zesty, charismatic stage presences to match. This was “Three’s Company” 18th century style, complete with beautiful music and cartoon costumes — and it was fantastic.

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Christine Goerke as Brünnhilde and Andreas Schager as Siegfried in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Gotterdammerung.” (Photo: Michael Cooper)

3. Götterdämmerung, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, February.

Christine Goerke, who sang the role of Brünnhilde in this modern production, is one of the very great singers of our era, and you should run, not walk, if she’s performing in your town. This lady (my interview with her is here) understands, at a deep level, what makes Wagner  (and music) exciting, affecting, and fiercely human. If ever you’ve said ‘I don’t like Wagner” or “I don’t understand opera” or “Opera is boring,”  she is the person who will guide you to a place that may change your mind. This was her third turn in Toronto singing as part of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and with each performance, including the one last winter, her Brünnhilde grew ever more alive and vivid. Goerke is truly a gifted vocalist and a great performer, and in this final instalment of the immense Ring Cycle, she infused every scene she was in with an earthy, robust presence. In a word: magic.

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The set of Willy Decker’s “La traviata” at the Met in New York. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

4. La traviata, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, March.

I have seen this opera many, many times in my opera-going life, but never have I seen one with more unusual characterizations. It forced a rethink of every single trope I had taken for granted. Alfredo, the male lead, was not a lovelorn romantic figure, but an obsessive weirdo bordering on abusive. Tenor Michael Fabiano captured every nuance of the character with magnetic clarity, and he was matched here, beautifully, by baritone Thomas Hampson, whose Giorgio was desperate, mean, and possibly more abusive than his son. It was a remarkably theatrical approach, and it was gripping to watch the two interact with Sonya Yoncheva’s sad, exhausted Violetta, a woman so desperately at the end of her rope she overlooks the character flaws of the men who constantly surround her. I had my reservations of Willy Decker’s production overall (more here) but I loved the central performances, and still think of them with awe.

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Colin Ainsworth and Peggy Kriha Dye in “Medea” at Opera Atelier. (Photo: Bruce Zinger)

5. Medea, Opera Atelier; Toronto, April.

As with La traviata, the strength of the performances in Medea are seared into my memory. (My review here.) Tenor Colin Ainsworth embodied the wayward husband character with bravado, his Jason conniving, sexy, sensuous, and highly manipulative, always managing to say the right thing while shamelessly doing wrong, less a libidinous cartoon than a recognizably entitled man brought low by the slow-boiling rage of Peggy Kriha Dye’s titular sorceress. Their scenes together sizzled with an intense love-hate chemistry that so clearly reminded one of the all-too-human basis of mythology; these characters of yore may have odd names and be entangled in crazy-seeming stories, but Atelier’s production of the Charpentier work, for all its beautiful design elements, offered an important reminder that the human heart is a very messy and frequently painful place.

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky as part of Trio Magnifico. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov / Show One Productions)

6. Trio Magnifico, Toronto; April.

The concert marked both the Canadian debut of soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Yusif Eyvazov, as well as the final Canadian appearance of baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky. (My tribute to Dima here; my interview with Netrebko and Eyvazov here.) With the Canadian Opera Company orchestra led by Jager Bigiamini, the famed trio performed a Russian-heavy program that also featured several standard opera favorites, including Hvorostovsky’s anguished, heart-rending performance in a scene from Rigoletto. People can (and have) roll(ed) eyes that it was a concert about frippery and hype, that it lacked substance and/or deep artistry; everyone is entitled to such opinions. But for me, it was a concert where music became very real, where hearts were shamelessly worn on sleeves (and fancy dresses), and where the electric thrill of world-renowned voices was finally felt in a city that had waited too long for such a large-scale opera event. Bravo (and more of this, please).

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At the Konzerthaus Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

7. Herbert Blomstedt with the Vienna Philharmonic and Kit Armstrong, soloist; Konzerthaus Berlin, May.

Armstrong gave a beautiful, loving reading of Beethoven’s famous Third Piano Concerto, in a program that also featured Bruckner’s Fourth symphony. This concert was part of a series of programs dedicated to (and saluting the work of) pianist Alfred Brendel, and there was, I think, no better way to pay homage. The American artist didn’t pound the crap out of the keys or show off his Mad Finger Skillz the way some young soloists are prone to doing; rather, in perfect harmony with Blomstedt’s delicate direction of a creamy (if highly textured) Vienna Phil, Armstrong coaxed the gentle splendour out of  the fiendishly deceptive work with kindness, gentleness, and a profound sense of poetry. The focus was always very squarely on the music, as the audience at Konzerthaus so expertly proved with their careful, intense listening and, at the concert’s end, continuous applause and (rare for Berlin) standing ovation.

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The cast of “Die Krönung der Poppea” take bows. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.)

8. Die Krönung der Poppea / Ball im Savoy Komische Oper Berlin, May.

If you’ve spent any time around me this year, chances are very good you’ve heard me rapturously talk about this, and probably more than once. To be plain: this updated version of The Coronation of Poppea was one of the best experiences in my entire opera-going life. Monteverdi’s score was infused with creative, modern, character-focused touches, thanks to Elena Kats Chernin’s ingenious instrumentations, and Katrin Lea Tag’s sexy, sparse design, together with Barry Kosky’s seriously smart direction, confidently underlined every bit of timeliness inherent to the work. This was sex, blood, murder, madness, power, set to repeat, and to a bang-up smashing soundtrack. The Komische Oper’s easy pairing of what could be called “high classical” works (like those by Monteverdi) with fun, frothy pieces like Weimar Republic operettas (i.e. a sassy, very funny production of Paul Abraham’s Ball at the Savoy, featuring the great Dagmar Manzel) highlighted the eclectic, culturally diverse performing arts scene in the Berlin opera world. This is a company (my write-up on them here) that understands the role both opera and operetta play in a healthy music ecosystem, and they do both with incredible style and smarts.

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The cast of “Der Rosenkavalier” take bows at the Metropolitan Opera. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

9. Der Rosenkavalier, Metropolitan Opera; NYC, May.

Not only did this mark a goodbye (of sorts, maybe) for soprano Renée Fleming, it was also one of the most satisfying productions that has graced the Met stage in a very long while. Robert Carsen balanced every element with grace and panache, placing the story (about genteel Viennese in a battle of hearts and minds, of sorts) in a pre-WW1 setting, giving both the narrative and infusing its cast of characters with poignancy. The chemistry between Fleming and Elīna Garanča, in the pants role of Octavian, was gripping, magical, and very palpable. (More of my thoughts here.) We don’t have to guess at Octavian’s fate here; it isn’t, as so many productions might have you believe, happily-ever-after. Never has stripping the saccharine veneer off Viennese finery been more satisfying, or dare I say, beautiful.

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Marcelo Puente as Cavaradossi and Adrianne Pieczonka as Tosca in the Canadian Opera Company production of Tosca, 2017. (Photo: Michael Cooper)

10. Tosca, Canadian Opera Company; Toronto, May.

Mesmerizing stage presence, an imposing physique, a luscious tenor sound – this production could have well been called “Mario” for the heat Marcelo Puente brought to it. (My interview with him here.) The Argentinian tenor exuded star power in waves, even as he maintained perfect vocal control and demonstrated a deep respect for Puccini’s buttery score, his rendering of the famous “E lucevan le stelle” a clear cry out of spiritual and emotional darkness, dramatically rich as it was vocally fulsome. The chemistry Puente shared with leading lady Adrianne Pieczonka was notable for its casual ease; this was a Tosca and Mario who were clearly friends as well as lovers, something refreshing in an opera usually overstuffed with giant romantic gestures that don’t always feel sincere. This did.

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Vladimir Spivakov and Hibla Gerzmava with the Moscow Virtuosi in Toronto. (Photo: Vladimir Kevorkov for Show One Productions)

11. Hibla Gerzmava in concert, Roy Thomson Hall; Toronto, June.

Despite some apparent throat issues, Gerzmava gave a beautiful concert with the Moscow Virtuosi, providing a splendid introduction for Canadians unfamiliar with the soprano’s incredible range and repertoire. (My review here.) What struck me watching Gerzmava live was how easily she moved between modes: diva, philosopher, dreamer. Some opera performers have one mode, which they only slightly alter between pieces and roles, and that’s fine too — every artist is a little bit different, an they do what works best for them, in the moment and for the long term — but Gerzmava melted into every single thing she sang, one moment teasing Virtuosi performers, the next, falling beautifully into a French aria. Her clear commitment to the variety of chosen repertoire was matched by a quicksilver tone and a gracious stage presence that made me keen to see her live onstage again soon.

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RIAS Kammerchor at St. Hedwig’s. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

12. Berliner Festspiele; September.

Autumn saw a quick if very busy trip to the German capital to cover concerts and performances at the annual arts event for Opera Canada magazine (published in their next edition in early 2018). A standout from the Fest includes the RIAS Kammerchor, led by Justin Doyle. Together with period instrument ensemble Capella de la Torre, the choir marked the 500th birthday of opera forefather Claudio Monteverdi by performing a series of day-spanning concerts at both the historic St. Hedwig’s Cathedral and the modern Boulez Hall; the contrast was stark and beautiful, and very haunting. (My review here.) Also memorable was the Korean Gyeonggi Philharmonic Orchestra, who offered a program chalk-full of works by Isang Yun, a Korea-born German composer whose 100th birthday year was being marked with events throughout the Festspiele. The Konzerthaus audience at the Sunday morning concert responded with incredible passion and offered beautifully careful listening as conductor Shiyeon Sung led her very elastic orchestra on a very gripping sonic journey.

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Roberto de Candia as Falstaff in Parma. (Photo: Roberto Ricci)

13. Falstaff, Teatro Regio di Parma; October.

Go outside the Teatro Regio and into the streets of Parma, and I guarantee you would have found any of the characters featured in Jacopo Spirei’s smart production of Verdi’s classic, based on the (in)famous Shakespeare character. (My interview with Spirei here.) This was a presentation that got every element right, from design to blocking to performances, while leaving great respect for the challenging if fiercely sparky score. Roberto de Candia was brilliant as the titular Falstaff — not a fun-loving-fat-man cliche, but a vulgarian bordering on loathsome, who was only redeemed by the strength and grace of the women around him. This wasn’t merry old England but dirty old Blighty and it was brilliant — and a troupe of English travellers I met at intermission heartily agreed, adding it was the best thing they’d seen at the Festival Verdi this year. (I agree.) I really hope this production travels to North America at some point; it has so much to say, and says it in such a smart, and frequently funny way.

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Dominik Köninger with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

14. Dominik Köninger in recital with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin, Kammermusiksaal der Philharmonie Berlin; Berlin, October.

In seeing Die Krönung der Poppea, I wrote that the German baritone delivered a “snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance” as Nero, an observation perhaps made more poignant for it being one of the few darker roles he has done. Köninger is, as he told me over the course of a subsequent interview (link), usually cast in what could be considered good-guy roles like Papageno, Orpheus, Figaro, and lately, Pelléas. Perhaps he should consider adding more villains — or at least more darkly tormented figures. Köninger’s propensity and talent for deep, dark, yearning repertoire was shown to full effect in a concert given just before Halloween at the Philharmonie’s Chamber Concert Hall with the Deutsches Kammerorchester Berlin. Titled “Totentanz” (or “Death Dance”), the program was a smart, carefully curated mix of Grieg, Purcell, Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Schubert, and Mahler; it also featured gripping instrumental selections and abridged scores from various films (including Psycho), rearranged for strings. This was a concert that transcended the corny, faux-scary Halloween tropes and went straight to the heart – of darkness, isolation, longing, claustrophobia, sadness, desolation — and showcased Koninger’s coppery-toned baritone. Mahler’s “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world”) and selections from Schubert’s Winterreise were true highlights, performed with exquisite soulfulness. Forget the good guys!

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“Nabucco” at Deutsche Oper Berlin. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

15. Nabucco, Deutsche Opera; Berlin, November.

People who know opera have lots of opinions about this work (it’s too long; it’s never done right; it’s too narratively meandering) but everyone, opera fan or not, knows the famous Hebrew Chorus (“Va pensiero”). Unquestionably, that’s just what some of the Deutsche Oper crowd was there to hear this past November, holding collective breath until it unfurled, note by majestic note, under the careful baton of conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. Still, there was an overall curiosity and appreciation of the intriguing staging and strong singing. The audience was confronted with an uncomfortably familiar world where deep polarization was sewn by the brutality of fervent nationalism and intolerant religiosity. This spicy timeliness was underlined by Anna Smirnova’s magnetic performance as Abigaille, Nabucco’s doomed daughter. Director Keith Warner denied audiences the sentimental mood (and ending) which is sometimes presented in productions, instead presenting a world where tenderness is rare, and highly dangerous. The “walls” of Tilo Steffens’s immense set shut before the doomed Abigaille at the close; there was no forgiveness for her trespasses. It was a devastating, disturbing, and frankly, fantastic conclusion to a challenging production of a work too often soaked in sentimentality and star power.

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Katrin Wundsam and Elsa Dreisig as Hänsel and Gretel at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in Berlin. (Photograph: Monika Rittershaus)

16. Hänsel & Gretel, Staatsoper Unter Den Linden; Berlin, December.

Director Achim Freyer is known for his vivid designs, painterly approach, and almost cartoon-like visual sense, and I was very curious as to what he’d do with the beloved (and widely produced holiday standard) Hänsel und Gretel. No sooner did the music begin and I found myself utterly besotted by the whimsical effect in the famous Humperdinck work. The lost pair were rendered as living dolls, complete with giant eyes (which performers cleverly moved with well-placed levers) and charming, child-like gestures. The Gingerbread Witch didn’t have an actual face, but rather, an enormous, beckoning finger as a sort of stand-in “nose” (complete with a long, red fingernail) , a coffee pot “head,” and various bits and bites of food and goodies making up the rest (think Pizza The Hut, but with less gross factor and far more style). Together with Freyer’s captivatingly creative design, wonderful performances (including tenor Jürgen Sacher as the very campy witch), and strong orchestral coloring (thanks to conductor Sebastian Weigle), the essential tension of the original Grimm fairy tale (abundance vs. poverty) was underlined in large, small, and entirely unmissable ways. It was also special to have this opera be my first experience in the gorgeously renovated Berlin State Opera theatre  — talk about a delicious birthday treat!

Berlin Thielemann

Christian Thielemann and the Berlin Philharmonic with the Rundfunkchor Berlin and soloists. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

17. Christian Thielemann with the Berlin Philharmonic and the Rundfunkchor Berlin, Philharmonie Berlin, December.

I’m being perfectly honest when I write that conductor Christian Thielemann scares me — perhaps it’s the intensity, or that he reminds me of a few too many scowling band leaders from my high school days. Whatever the case, he didn’t need to smile or be cuddly to lead an astounding Berlin Phil through a non-stop, barn-burner performance of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Thielemann missed no chances to do the boom-bang version of Beethoven, but he also took time — lots of it — exploring, dare I say, the work’s many luxurious, foreplay-like moments (which sounds bizarre, since it is formally a religious piece, but!). The careful leanings into phrasing, the pregnant pauses, the fine drawing-out of vocal lines tenderly at one moment and whittling away strings and percussions into nothingness at others… some performances leave you (me) breathless, and this was one. When he held the rich, pregnant silence at the end, for several moments, no one in the Philharmonie breathed, or dared to; Thielemann has that effect. It was a very special and memorable way to experience the music of Beethoven at the Philharmonie for the first time — and again, was a special gift for my birthday week in Berlin.

18. Märchen im Grand Hotel (Fairy Tales from the Grand Hotel), Komische Oper Berlin, December.

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Talya Liebermann and Tom Erik Lie in “Märchen im Grand Hotel” at Komische Oper Berlin, 2017. (Photo: Robert-Recker.de)

Despite my lacking linguistic facility in German (which I intend to rectify in 2018), the production, with fantastically energetic conducting by Music Director Adam Benzwi, was totally understandable with its themes of sacrifice, acceptance, and change being the only constants in life. The assorted cast of animated characters were brought to vivid life by a dedicated ensemble dressed to the nines, with voices to match; soprano Talya Lieberman and baritone Tom Erik Lie were special standouts for capturing such lovely delicacy in their numbers. Another Grand Hotel-themed musical (the Tony Award-winning 1989 version) is being presented this coming season at the Shaw Festival (in southern Ontario), and I’m planning on a longer feature about this work’s various iterations in 2018, the staying power of Baum’s novel, and what it means for us in the here and now. Please stay tuned? More music adventures are afoot, though hopefully “close to home” will have a different meaning at this time next year.

Cracking Open

Heather Ogden in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zinger

There’s always something special about seeing The Nutcracker every December. The story of two children who, joined by stable boy Peter, enter a magical Christmas land, is a perennial favorite, and a compulsory part of many ballet companies’ holiday programming. The work, first premiered in 1892, features a libretto adapted from German author E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” and the National Ballet of Canada’s annual production, which features dancing bears, skittering chefs, and a sword-wielding King (of rodents, that is) —  is a feast for the eyes and ears. James Kudelka, choreographer and librettist, has created a visual feast that captures the glittering beauty of a snowy Christmas but still retains all the warmth and merriment of the season, with the perfect mix of grand and intimate movements reflecting Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

This year marks its 20th anniversary, and opening night, the company featured its first Peter, Rex Harrington, along with his partner, Bob Hope, as Cannon Dolls (various “dolls” through the years have included Toronto Mayor John Tory, author Margaret Atwood, skater Kurt Browning, and astronaut Chris Hadfield). The show, which is an opulent riff on Russian design motifs (it even features a giant, decorated egg from which the Sugar Plum Fairy emerges), is a clever blend of old and new, European and North American, art and entertainment, and it’s these integrations that make it so successful. You know you’re seeing something artful and beautiful (Santo Loquasto’s set and costume designs are truly stunning), but at the same time, you can’t help but smile, even chuckle, at the panoply of delights being presented, whether it’s the dancing horse, skating bears (my personal favorite) or the giant Christmas tree, with its gracefully waving branches and bobbing baubles.

Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

It’s equally heartening to see students of all ages from the National Ballet School onstage, proudly strutting their stuff; such a buoyant presence gives one hope for not only the future of the art form, but for cultural presentation and passion. Ninety-eight students in total are featured in the production; they’re from the Ballet School as well as local Toronto schools. That’s an incredible achievement in and of itself —I imagine the backstage area of the Four Seasons Centre this time of year to be something akin to organized chaos— so full kudos are in order to National Ballet School Rehearsal Director Laural Toto and assistant Patrick Kastoff, as well as Stage Managers Jeff Morris and Lillane Stillwell, and Assistant Stage Manager Michael Lewandowski. Thumbs way up.

As with any proper professional production, none of the backstage chaos is, ever sensed onstage. The audience is left to wonder over the myriad of riches being presented, and, because of this richness, there’s always something new for us to consider and marvel over. This year I felt drawn to the team of young male dancers who have an especially impressive ensemble number near the beginning of the show. From my own vantage point, 2015 has been a year littered with numerous (and frequently painful) examples of machismo gone awry, so watching this year’s presentation of The Nutcracker, it was deeply refreshing to note the young male dancers and their smiles, their light-footedness, their utter lack of self-consciousness. This isn’t to say ballet can’t be macho — ballet history is littered with many dancers, male and female in fact, who have channelled a particular brand of raw power that has thrilled audiences over the decades — but there was something, for me, awfully touching about seeing young boys onstage, engaging in an art form frequently thought of as “girlie,” from of a purely joyous, non-gendered place. “I love doing this!” their bodies seemed to hum, “I love it!”

McGee Maddox with Artists of the Ballet in The Nutcracker. Photo by Bruce Zingerr.

Greatly complementing this pure instinct on opening night was dancer McGee Maddox, who, as Peter, radiated a cuddly, floppy-haired boyishness in his impressive turns, pas-de-deux routines, and great leaps of James Kudelka’s choreography. Less swagger and more sweetness, Maddox is a lovely, deeply likable stage presence, the perfect fit for a production that is candy-apple sweet and spicy-cider cozy. Joining him was Heather Ogden’s Sugar Plum Fairy (a gorgeously warm performance) and Robert Stephen’s Uncle Nikolai, whose great leaps and dizzying turns nicely integrated both commanding authority and playful whimsy. There’s something so special about walking out of a production feeling plain old good, and in this, the National Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker absolutely excels. Smiles are in short supply these days, on both epic and intimate levels; it’s nice to have a work that channels pure joy, unapologetically. We need it.

To The Left

Trying to balance fashion design and ethical sourcing and production can be a right headche for many designers. Cleverly integrating past designs and looks with modern ideas can be just as hard. I thought about these issues as I took a wander through Canadian company Ukamaku‘s loft-style offices recently. Located in an up-and-coming, just-gritty-enough-to-be-hip section of west-end Toronto dominated by renovated factories, Ukamaku has a mission to promote young Canadian designers in new and innovative ways. A big “way” would be online, where you can go and buy all the items featured, read the designer blogs, and see just how much Ukamaku is trying to push the envelope in Canadian fashion with their offerings.

When I visited, it struck me just how many of the designers under the Ukamaku umbrella were interested in two things: one, trying to find that fashionable/ethical balance, and two, fusing the past with the present. This concern was made most obvious in my conversation with Heidi Ackerman. The bespecled young Canadian designer, who sports a huge set of green-black wings tattooed on her upper chest, has a sexy, cosy mix of styles but a consistent high-quality frame of cuts, colours, textures, and shapes. Her patterned cowl-neck dress proudly proclaims on its label that half its materials are bamboo, with the remainder of the dress’s fabrics being ethically-sourced soy. This label, running across the top of the garment, proudly adorns her other work as well. There was a real pride when Ackerman told me that, for the most part, she’s able to balance her design ethos with her ethical concerns, but she quickly added that design always comes first, and always will. Her work is reminiscent of the women’s pieces Sharon Wauchob designed for Edun this past fall, especially the modern, angular knits and Japanese touches. Ackerman captures something elegant, feminine, and experimental, all while balancing wearability and sustainability. Nicely done.

Worth By David C. Wigley also displayed an incredible flair for the fusion between forward-thinking and classic design. Like Ackerman, Wigley expressed a furrowed-brow over trying to balance sourcing and production with quality -and price point. Wigley’s work was among the most modern and stylish men’s design I’ve seen in a while in North America; eschewing the conservative dark palette most men’s designers favour, Wigley opted for an eye-popping furnace-red, sharply-cut suit. Like a lot of the Worth collection, it fuses punk-rock and dandy with more than a touch of hip-hop. This ethos extends into casual wear. My initial reaction to a Wigley-designed gold-studded hoodie jumper was, “I can see Jay-Z in this!” The response, met with a chuckle, was, “Everyone likes this one!” -and I can see why. Wigley is super-good at combining classic qualities -good tailoring, square shoulders, sharp lines -with modern sensibilities -bright colours, unique fabrics, details like studding and dyeing -and doing it in a high-quality way that is both cost-effective and entirely unique.

This talent for integration isn’t specific to menswear, either; he also for gals. Wigley’s angular, sexy, fitted crop dress has square, kimono-like sleeves that slit open from underneath, and sphere-like white embroidery that provides a nice contrast to the heavy charcoal color. Like other designers Ukamaku features, Wigley has a few tie-dyed pieces in his collection, notably a drapey hand-dyed silk dress that wouldn’t be out of place at an event like Open Roof Films next summer.

What accounts for the return of the 60s technique? “Designers like the organic quality,” Wigley told me, before adding, “you can’t control it.” It was interesting just how much this sentiment was echoed by other designers, and indeed, Marcus Kan, Ukamaku’s Fashion Director. “Retro theme is a major trend in the fashion world right now,” he said via email. “No one can forget the tie-dye trend back in the 80s. (It) gives off a fun, bright, care-free and funky feeling to the clothes, perfect for a Spring/Summer collection. If people are into technology more, laser print pieces is a great option. The feeling is similar to tie-dye pieces, but the laser prints are more precise and futuristic.”

Precision is one thing, spotaneity quite another. As Wigley noted, you can’t quite control what tie-dye on fabric will do, and that’s part of the joy for him as a designer. The sense of “happy accident” with the dyeing technique mirrors the sort of spontaneous, quasi-accidental artistic accidents that happen at something like Art Battle. Painters and some designers have this much in common: they’re willing to embrace the unknown if it makes the end result more interesting. They’re also willing to embrace the fantastical. While at the Ukamaku head offices, Wigley excitedly showed me another of his popular ladies’ pieces, a snappy fitted red coat that had a distinct Little Red Riding Hood vibe; the “hood” part was clevlerly. stylishly replaced by a massive sprawling grand collar that flattered the wide arms and fitted waist of the very-warm looking piece. It was like Kate Hepburn meets Sioxsie Sioux. Beguiling, sexy, adventurous.

This sense of creative exploration and spirited adventurousness most clearly seen in the work of Breeyn McCarney, whose 1950s-meets-punk-rock looks definitely makes her a stand out in the super-traditional world of fancy women’s wear. A myriad of cultural touchstones and figures, new and old, came to mind in looking at her stuff: Elvis Presley movies, Mad Men, Grease (the movie version), Johnny Suede, 1980s Madonna, 1990s Courtney Love, Tim Burton in Wonderland. A bright yellow party dress, a sheer, corseted, party-like black dress, another sheer lace number with big gold hearts… it was all very new and yet very vintage, all at once. McCarney has a distinct voice that defies easy categorization, which, I realized, is probably the way she wants it. Who wants to be stuffed into a box, in life, fashion, art, or otherwise?

In conversation, McCarney confessed her love of theatre, calling the dresses “costumes” and talking about the various elements of theatre she integrates into her work. Dressed in worn-looking leather boots, black leggings, and a ruffled, short-sleeved chemise with a spectacularly ruffled back, the petite designer gave off a vibe of punk, rockabilly, and pirate. In response to a question about inspiration, she, rather casually, responded with a bon mot I consider to be the good and proper mantra of artists of any discipline, at any given time:”Every day I wake up and wonder, ‘Who am I going to be today?’” (I would add, “Does this still fit me?”) McCarney’s adventurous, cute-sexy designs are clearly aimed for the downtown party-girl crowd who wants to make a statement with the confidence of modernity and the cool elegance of vintage. She’d have to be a theatrical gal for sure to pull off the numbers McCarney designs. I leaned towards a sheer, short, simply-cut polka-dot dress with a contrasting black polka-dot cloth belt; flattering, feminine, flowy… just plain pretty, the piece proves McCarney is a designer of many moods, visions, and talents. She, along with Ackerman and Wigley, will be ones to watch as the Canadian fashion designer scene expands further. It’s encouraging Ukamaku wants to be part of that road.

Later this week I’ll be posting a Q&A with a few of the people behind Ukamaku -why they started it, what it means. I think you’ll find it illuminating in terms of the cultural conversation around the role -and worth -of fashion in the 21st century.

Drawing Miss Jessica

The world of fashion is one I have a contentious relationship with. When I was a child I wanted to be a fashion designer. I understood the world visually, via style, first, and I would constantly be feeling fabrics and drawing little stick figures with dresses, flourishes of lace, satin, sequins, and ribbons in place. I dressed up Barbies, even cutting and dying their blonde tresses to match a look I was going for with each of them. When the then-newly-minted Fashion Television came on, I watched with saucer-eyes as girl after girl pranced down bright runways in all manner of thing beautiful: big hats, heely boots, swooshing wraps, tight skirts. It struck me as glamorous, theatrical, and exciting.

As I grew older, my fascination with fashion changed, transforming and integrating itself with my other pursuits, and into a passion for visual art, performance, and music. Fashion felt insubstantial, and in some cases, even cruel. My relationships with those in the non-profit world, coupled with my own research, gave me shudders when I learned the process of harvesting, manufacture and production involves a fair bit of exploitation. A recent clip of a current BBC World series hit me, as an Indian woman, formerly a garment factory worker, expresses the same ideas. It’s troubling, and it makes that “faaabulous dahlings” look at little less… um, fabulous. Never mind the narrow, old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes beauty (specifically female beauty) or presentation; the idea that a tall, thin, hipless, white girl of 18 looks better on a long (read: boring) runway, and is part-and-parcel of the “fantasy” fashion sells is… utter nonsense. My fantasy involves full hips, big lips, crooked noses, and lack of poses, standing, talking, sharing, connecting. Take that, Karl Lagerfeld.

So I was really impressed, happy, and intrigued when I attended the show for Canadian designer Jessica Jensen last fall. It was set in an art studio, and it featured all size, shape, and race of woman touching and feeling the garments, placed on faceless mannequins throughout the space. It was Warholian, experimental, daring, and very unusual. Jensen has since gone on to have a trunk show in Toronto, and is getting all kind of kudos for her elegant, comfortable designs and creative, curious approach. Also? She’s ethical, which only makes her more fashionable, if you ask me. And her connection to art, as you’ll read, is undeniable. Maybe, just maybe, my faith in fashion is being slowly restored.

What was the first piece of fashion you saw that made you want to go into the fashion world?

I can’t pin it down to a piece of fashion that I saw. I just remember opening a large trunk full of fabrics in my mother’s art studio and immediately asking her to teach me to sew. I wasn’t quite patient enough for her to share her expertise… so I hopped on the machine and just played and created with no real understanding of the technical details behind the process. I knew at a very young age that I would go into fashion… by Grade 7 I had my heart set on attending Ryerson. Although I toyed with the idea of architecture as a career, I only ever applied for the fashion program at Ryerson. My parents weren’t surprised by my confidence when not applying for other programs as a back-up plan. I was sure of myself and a little naive regarding the competition.

Do you have a favorite visual artist who influences your work?

In all honesty, my favorite visual artist is my husband. He sees the world very much as I do and translates his romantic and nostalgic sensibility into his work. I’m also regularly influenced by other artists, from openings, readings and films that I have recently viewed. Every artist has a unique perspective on life and there is always something from each that I can draw on for inspiration.

Your autumn show, at the Thrush Holmes studio, was really memorable for its mix of art, fashion, and conceptual design; how did this event come about? How much has his work been an influence on you?

Thrush has always been a strong influence in my life. We grew up in the same town, took art class together in high school and moved to Toronto within a year of each other. He remains a close friend of mine and Joshua’s. I would say that the three of us are constantly competing, motivating and inspiring one another. Thrush’s Gallery is very comforting to me and no other venue seemed to hold the same impact as his. The structure itself parallels his character of modest grandeur. Joshua’s landscapes also, despite their size, speak softly and the venue allowed them to breathe along with my collection. I wanted the show to hang like an exhibit, allowing the product to speak for itself and enabling the audience a chance to view it the way they would a work of art, appreciating the detailed hand-work that goes into each piece.

Furthermore, I wanted our guests to use the installation as a way to better understand the story behind the product: the visual inspiration, the design illustrations, the campaign images, the campaign video, and lastly the product itself. I never thought about how it would be perceived. I spend more evenings at art openings than I do fashion shows and I am of the strong opinion that designers are also artists. Fashion is simply a different medium and it is a shame that the audience is only given 60 seconds as it comes down a runway to see it and appreciate it. So much is lost in the distance between the viewer and the model.

When we spoke last Fall, you emphasized how it was important to you to meet the people who make your designs. How much do you see the fashion world changing to a more conscious kind of ethos when it comes to sourcing and production?

I’d like to say its making drastic improvements, but that would be a falsity. The majority of product sold in North America is manufactured to be competitive in price – a strong consumer demand. There is of course a trend to make socially responsible decisions wherever possible. Even Walmart is making these changes in their own way. I am in a position where my product is not solely driven by cost, and therefore I have the luxury of carefully choosing who I work with. Every worker that I employ in Toronto, New York, Italy and China is skilled in their work, and each takes pride in what they do. I try and meet everyone that works on my product; this way they know how much I care for it and they try to emulate the same respect and pride.

You’re known primarily for handbags and leathers, but you’re also into clothing now too -how difficult was it to expand? Or was expansion always in the cards for you?

It has always been in the cards. I’m still testing the market, slowly, with ready-to-wear, and I won’t launch a full apparel collection for quite sometime. My core business is leather goods and it is important to me to build my customer base before I expand into other product categories. With that said, I also plan on expanding into footwear, jewelry, eyewear, fragrance, home goods, etc in years to come. My vision for Jessica Jensen is a lifestyle brand providing modern day women with effortless style for their everyday lives.

What is your definition of “style” in the 21st century?

21st Century style, to me, is a strong sense of self and the appreciation for times past fused with a new perspective.

More info on Jessica Jensen here.
Special thanks to Tatiana for arranging, Kimberly for photos, and Jessica, for … being fabulous.


“You go into a bit of a vortex and then you hear the words, ‘Jeff Bridges‘… “

That’s Colin Firth talking about what goes through his mind this awards season.

The British actor didn’t have to worry about Bridges tonight, though; he won Best Actor at the BAFTA Awards for his stunning performance in A Single Man.

I saw Tom Ford‘s film (based on a work by Christopher Isherwood) just this afternoon, and I am not sure I can properly articulate its beauty in any meaningful way. The film revolves around George Falconer, a professor in 1962 Los Angeles, who has recently lost his partner. Ford features several long, meditative shots of Firth, whether he’s looking for something for breakfast, sitting in his car, sorting through his bank box, or remembering his times spent with Jim (Matthew Goode). George’s life is both bereft of life and hefty with love, as his interactions with his lifelong friend Charlotte (Julianne Moore) and new friend Kenny (Nicholas Hoult) demonstrate. With keen use of colour, a gorgeous sense of framing, and a flair for considered shading, Ford nicely balances the silence and the symphony, both literal and figurative. It’s an immense achievement that silently yet masterfully articulates the life of one man in quietly desperate circumstances.

Along with being a play on ideas of the single and solitary, the film is a meditation on aging. I was especially moved by the lingering close-ups of Firth’s expressive, natural face. No smooth-faced, muscled-up, botoxed Hollywood star, one could see the rough bumps and expression lines a late forty-something man has, and has righteously earned. In no way do those wrinkles detract from Firth’s physical attributes; in fact, they add to his attractiveness. In other words, never mind the Darcys -here’s the real thing. A Single Man gives us an honest portrait of an outsider -talented, articulate, even playful -who feels rejected by a world that deems him undesirable and considers his contributions worthless. This is deeply related to the speech George delivers on fear to a classroom full of pie-eyed students. The relationship between fear and love is profound in any arena, and Ford nicely, effectively explores this connection, using, again, the palette of Firth’s incredible face. Such an achievement is rendered with the deftest of strokes, and the most subtle arrangement of light, colour, shape and shadow balancing with the close, hard facial shots. It’s not hard to identify Ford’s design background here, but his translation of it into a cinematic expression is nothing short of astonishing for its emotional resonance.

Walking amidst a street fair after the film, I was still haunted by the director’s beautiful vision, the actor’s aged face, the silence, the noise, the light and the shadows. Questions around youth, age, beauty, and love, and one’s perceived “worthiness” of each whispered about like midnight waves lapping at cold toes. Some things are, perhaps, best left unanswered, but the shining faces on the street -of young and old alike -enjoying the sunny day, and the simple joy of living, was a fitting counterpart, and a beautiful reminder of the very things Isherwood wrote of. Viva love. Viva life.


Leaves, originally uploaded by catekustanczi.

Years ago, I decided to explore the one art I hadn’t yet tried: drawing.

After drama, music, dance and photography, learning the basics of good drawing is a logical step, after all. I tend to be one of those people who strongly believes in a balanced diet of exposure to all things; art is, for me, a big, madly delicious buffet of experiences and expressions. A little bit of this, a scoop of that… Jill of all trades, master of none, but happy. Once you find the right dish, you never run out of ways to improve it, or want to stop experimenting with the ways in which it matches up with other tastes.

I’m more conscious of my visual side lately, noting the beauty of theatrical design in various productions I’ve attended; the costumes, lighting, props, and set all started out as ideas first done in drawing. My own initial work with pencil, charcoal, conte, and watercolour years ago lead to one of my great passions: oil painting. I painted with mad passion for years, and found much solace and calm through my work with brushes, palette, and a bare canvas. At times it was my greatest comfort, at others an utter torment -but it was always there.

Alas, life being cyclical, I’ve moved away from painting and back to my earlier love of photography. Looking through recent shots, I was struck by their painterly qualities. Amazing, how some arts naturally integrate themselves within artistic expression and form. Does this mean I’ll be doing any free-form features in my arts writing? Doubtful. But it does mean I might trust in my subconscious instincts a bit more, without trying to fit into a mold of how I think I “ought” to sound. Writing is, for me, a careful balance of research, reason, observation, and experience; that doesn’t, however, mean it should lack passion or personality.

In that vein, the next Play Anon interview will hopefully be published this week. I recently met with a painter who thinks the Canada Council should be abolished; before you get your shoulders up, take a deep breath. He dislikes government -period. It was one of the most enlightening conversations about art that I’ve ever had. I hope you’ll enjoy it. Stay tuned.

Now get outside and enjoy the splendor of autumn. Take your camera, your pencil, your paintbrush.

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