Tag: singing

Tomasz Konieczny: Acting Before Singing Was Hard!

Erin Wall as Arabella and Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Hearing Tomasz Konieczny speak, you can’t help but think “well of course he’s a singer.” But he didn’t start out as one.

In a recent chat I had with the Polish bass baritone, who’s currently in Toronto for the Canadian Opera Company’s season-opening production of Strauss’ romantic comedy Arabella (running October 5th to 28th), Konieczny admitted that being an actor first was a hindrance, not a help. As you’ll hear, re-learning everything anew was not an easy task. While there is a greater focus on acting in opera these days (especially since the advent of the Met’s Live In HD series, where gesture is writ large on cinema screens around the world), sometimes knowing the acting part first makes things harder, not easier.

I first heard Konieczny as Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in a compelling 2014 Salzburg Festival production by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. (I liked the production on DVD so much I had to go see it live for myself at its revival in Salzburg in 2016, though Canadian bass Alain Coulombe sang the role). What strikes me about Konieczny is how he modulates authority; his Commendatore, for instance, was commanding (as the name may imply), but it was also restrained, which is something not always conveyed when performing the role of a ghostly, avenging father. His performance oozed a quiet kind of power that was hypnotizing, creepy, and very memorable. Konieczny performed the role again this past spring, in a production by the famed director Robert Carsen, at Teatro alla Scala Milan, opposite Luca Pisaroni’s Leporello and Thomas Hampson’s Don.

Claire de Sévigné as the Fiakermilli, Tomasz Konieczny as Mandryka, John Fanning as Count Waldner and Gundula Hintz as Adelaide in the Canadian Opera Company’s new production of Arabella, 2017. Photo: Michael Cooper

Along with discussing the challenges that come with moving between various roles (Konieczny has a long and impressive resume that includes a lot of Wagner roles), he and I also discuss voice types, a debated area in the singer world; while some are comfortable with the ‘bass baritone’ label, some are very much not. Konieczny provide a helpful template for how to think about these voice types. We also talk about the romantic Mandryka, in Arabella, a role he’s well familiar with (having performed it a numerous occasions with the Vienna State Opera), and the influence (or not) of aristocracy and money on his character in Strauss’ 1933 comic opera.

Danke, meine Damen!

Looking up at the Komische Oper. (Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.)

Trips to Berlin always seem like a whirlwind. My first visit in January was essentially just that, part of a larger two-week European winter opera jaunt that also included explorations through Belgium and France. In the four nights I spent in Berlin this past winter, I ensured visits to the Komische Oper, Deutsche Oper, and of course, the Berlin Philharmonic, even as temperatures dropped and Siberian winds made me glad to have brought my mukluks and wooly sweaters.

Returning to Berlin in spring, visits to productions by these organizations were a foregone conclusion, but because I had the luxury of more time this particular jaunt, I included others as well (notably the Staatsoper Berlin, as well as NYC’s Metropolitan Opera, at the very end), which yielded a bouquet of thought-provoking experiences. Of the panoply of cultural riches I experienced over the course of my recent two week trip, what connected everything, and stands out in retrospect, were incredible performances by women. Longing, love, loneliness, intimacy, identity, community — all of these themes were covered, in moving, creative ways that felt all too familiar and close at times. Each performer embarked on different types of journeys that would intersect, move apart, race in parallel lines, only to twist and turn again. Looking for love, finding love, rejecting love; looking for self, finding self, reinventing self; seeking kindred spirits, finding those spirits leaving or being abandoned by them — all this, plus narratives of dedication, deception, and rejection, helped to elevate the performances I saw from mere entertainment into real (and very familiar, for me) human experience. Despite the cool and rainy Berlin spring, there was something warming about all of it. That isn’t to say everything I saw was comforting, though some of it was certainly entertaining.

The work of Komische Oper left a strong impression, visually, sonically, and theatrically. This fine company (which translates literally as “comic opera,” though the work it presents isn’t strictly comedic) impressed me during my previous visit, when I attended opening night of its whimsical double-bill production (working together with British production outfit 1927) of Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. Vibrancy, color, and imagination, together with a deep respect for the scores and great, rave performances, left me wanting more.

Returning to Berlin, I saw three productions at the Komische, which is located just steps from the famous Brandenburg Gate. Ball im Savoy (Ball At The Savoy) is a fun, naughty 1932 operetta by Paul Abraham,  a Jewish-Hungarian composer who enjoyed immense success in the 1930s with a string of musical hits and big screen adaptations. Originally presented by the KOB in 2013 as director Barry Kosky’s closing work to mark his first season as Chief Director for the company, this was a fantastic, uproarious production, filled with solid performances, beautiful designs, and smart commentary on the nature of human relating, particularly within the sometimes complicated sphere of sexual intimacy.

L-R Katharine Mehrling, Dagmar Manzel, and Christiane Oertel in Ball im Savoy.
Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

I especially appreciated the casting and performance of Dagmar Manzel a well-known, deeply entertaining German actor who, like many artists in Berlin, goes totally against the Hollywood aesthetic of young, cute, and Instagram-hot; Manzel is pushing sixty, broad-shouldered and large of laugh, with a raspy, sexy, low voice and a a wonderfully confident stage presence. What a treat it would be to see her live again; Manzel is an eminently watchable performer, who ably delivered a smart, nuanced performance playing Madeleine,  the just-married wife of Aristide (Christoph Späth), a man with a past, and who seemed frequently more attached to his fear than to his wife. The scenes between the two crackled with a spicy, natural chemistry and volcanic verve. As Opera News reviewer A.J. Goldmann noted in his 2013 review of Ball im Savoy, “Not only is the KOB an ideal forum for rescuing such works from obscurity; the works themselves — and the worthy productions they come packaged in — add immeasurably to the company’s luster.” No kidding.

Manzel will appear at Komische Oper next season in two productions, both of which I’m keen to see: as the lead in the 1923 musical Die Perlen der Cleopatra (The Pearls of Cleopatra) by Oscar Straus, in a production directed by Barry Kosky (which she’s also doing this July as part of the KOB’s Summer Festival); and in another Straus work, this one from 1932, helmed again by Australia-born director, Eine Frau, die weiß, was sie will! (A Woman Who Knows What She Wants!). The latter will be staged this fall, when I am planning on possibly making a return visit to Berlin, so… stay tuned.

Gunter Papendell as Don Giovanni.
Photo: Monika Rittershaus

More color and entertainment at the Komische came in the form of a very surreal, commedia dell’arte-influenced staging of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which was sung in German, a choice which I found myself initially stunned at sonically, but grew to eventually appreciate, even adore. Very purposely leaving the lyricism, romance, and poetry of the original behind, director Herbert Fritsch, together with conductor Jordan de Souza, produced a raucously entertaining spectacle that, while not offering any emotionally moving moments for me personally, did offer a bold canvas onto which Fritsch painted his garish vision.

Philipp Meierhofer’s Leporello, costumed in baggy black but clearly embodying a Pulcinella-style characterization and presentation, was the sort of wise man figure to Günter Papendell’s Don Giovanni, a lithe, foppish figure with clear visual references to the Joker and, more directly, German actor Conrad Veitch in cinema classic The Man Who Laughs. Singing a feisty, sexy, diva-tastic Donna Elvira was Nina Bernsteiner, whose steaming middle voice and glassy tones perfectly reflected both Fritsch’s opera buffa-first approach, as well as the earthy nature of the woman behind, or perhaps physically manifesting, the fabulously grand Victoria Behr-designed yellow gown; Elvira wasn’t playing at being a needy diva, she simply was a True Actual Diva (and she made sure her purple-suited Lothario knew it). From its surreal opening, featuring assorted smashings, to the indelible image — Giovanni’s outstretched hand — of its sudden close (a nod to Mozart’s alternate ending), this was a strong vision for a work that aways provokes strong opinions. Was I moved? Not especially.  Did I have a new appreciation for the characters? Yes. Was I entertained as all hell? You bet. Sometimes it’s nice to see something you thought you knew very well, to be surprised by it in new ways, and find out there is still yet more to discover; this was one of those moments.

Peter Renz, Katazyna Wlodarczyk, Talya Libermann. Photo: Iko Freese / drama-berlin.de

This year being the 450th birthday of Claudio Monteverdi (an important moment for opera), I couldn’t resist seeing The Coronation of Poppea (Die Kronung der Poppea), the third Komische production I attended, and easily the one that left the strongest impression. I’m going to be exploring this work, and the KOB’s very sexy, very disturbing production in a future post which will feature the talented German baritone Dominik Köninger (who sings Nero in the show), but suffice for now to say that of the seven operas I saw in Berlin, this one has stayed with me the most. The story of the Emperor Nero, of his decadent world, and his ruthless murder of Seneca (Jens Larsen), his casual tossing-aside of wife Octavia (Karolina Gumos) and his lust for (and with) Poppea (Alma Sadé), were staged with class, intelligence, and vision. That’s not to say there weren’t some shocking scenes; Nero’s coterie includes some fully nude celebrants (male and female), and Seneca’s murder featured both frontal male nudity and a copious (/ disturbing) amount of (stage) blood.

Monteverdi’s original, stately score has been given a very creative re-working by composer Elena Kats-Chernin that features modern instrumentation (the orchestra includes a banjo!) and the transposition of not only instruments but roles (including Nero, from a counter-tenor to a baritone), bringing a new-meets-old sound that places firm emphasis on music as storytelling, and perfectly matches director Matthew Toogood’s decadent, stylish production. Presented as a remount for the KOB (Poppea is part of a Monteverdi cycle by the company, originally done in 2012), the piece kept a perfect respect for Monteverdi’s original vision while contemporizing its subtext; there was something alarmingly timely (and of course, timeless) about the ruthlessness and greedy ambition of its sordid cast of characters, and, led by Köninger’s snarling, sexy, utterly magnetic performance this was a coronation that felt, at times, far too close. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything so highly charged on an opera stage in a long time. More on this one soon, but for now, in a word: WOW.

Curtain calls at Staatsoper Berlin’s La Traviata. Photo: mine (via). Please do not reproduce without permission.

There were more big “wow” moments this trip, too. Verdi’s La Traviata was given a high-concept treatment that made liberal use of sand (truth: if I see another heavily symbolic, time-is-running-out-for-Violetta production, I will scream) but the singing, specifically that of Ailyn Perez in the lead, and Simone Piazzola as Giorgio Germont, was gorgeous. Her rendering of “Sempre Libera” (“Always Free”) specifically, was defiant, almost angry, a nice contrast to the puffy, cute, la-la-la interpretations I’ve seen over many decades now. (I kept hearing Perez’s version play, over and over, in my head on the plane ride home, in fact.) Soprano Perez’s Violetta was indeed defiant, angry, — and also, I felt, tired: tired of her life, tired of the fake people around her and the phony relationships, tired of the obsessive little boys she attracts. Her scenes with baritone Piazzola, in particular, brimmed with humanity, and highlighted an intriguing subtext, that perhaps Violetta had met her equal not with Alfredo (tenor Abdellah Lasri), but with his father. There was an emotional rawness to the charged, dramatic scene between Germont Sr. and Violetta, where he comes to beg her to break things off with his son for the sake of his family’s reputation. Piazzola (who sang the role in a circus-themed production directed by Roland Villazon in 2015) offered a poetic portrayal of a man who’d perhaps had fatherhood foisted onto him far too young, and who had little to no real relationship with the son whose reputation he wants to protect. These were wonderfully alive, complex, human performances, and I am looking forward to seeing more of Perez and Piazzola sing again soon. (Ernani at La Scala next September is certainly tempting, if a bit far off!)

Cristina Pasaroiu as Magda in Deutsche Oper’s production of La Rondine. Photo: Bettina Stöß (via)

Other performers I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing again are soprano Cristina Pasaroiu, a beautiful, bell-toned lead in Puccini’s beautiful La Rondine (The Swallow) at Deutsche Oper, and soprano Dorothea Röschmann, whose portrayal of the Countess in the Staatsoper’s Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) was one of the most honest portrayals I’ve ever witnessed. Both performers gave truly memorable performances, with Pasaroiu providing a lovely focal point for Rolando Villazon’s gorgeous, colorful production of Puccini’s 1916 work, and delivering a searing rendition of the famous “Chi il bel sogno di doretta” aria. Confession: I ruined my mascara at Pasaroiu’s interpretation; she captured the deep longing at the heart of this aria so, so perfectly. (Saturday night’s alright for crying, clearly.) Even standing still, watching Ruggero (Vincenzo Costanzo) in a club, or leaving him at the opera’s close, Pasaroiu said so much with such simple, elegant body language; I got the impression, in watching her, that she would have been a great silent film star. The Romanian soprano projects such rich poetry with her every gesture (and in Rondine‘s case, a beautiful sadness), which clearly translates vocally, something conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli sensed at a very intrinsic level, particularly with his careful shaping of the string section.

Another conductor with a very deep sense of relationship with his performers, Pablo Heras Casado, led a buoyant if equally thoughtful orchestra in Jurgen Flimm’s very funny (if occasionally tiresome) production of Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) at the Staatsoper Berlin, a remount of a production from November 2015, with the same cast intact. Heras-Casado kept all the drama and tension (particularly hierarchical ones) of the original play (by Pierre Beaumarchais) fully intact, employing a rhythmic undercurrent that powered the score while keeping players inspired to provide a true heartbeat, and some needed counterpoint, to the slapstick-like follies and shenanigans that characterized much of Flimm’s production.

Anna Prohaska and Dorothea Röschmann in Staatsoper Berlin’s Le nozze di Figaro.
Photo: Staatsoper Berlin / Clarchen and Matthias Baus (via)

Dorothea Röschmann, reprising her role as Countess Almaviva, offered the most authentic characterization I may have ever seen Hers was a woman who loves, or wants to love, deeply, who is deeply saddened at the way her position, and the ridiculous behaviour of her husband the Count (Ildebrando D’Arcangelo), by extension, has separated her from this desired intimacy. Röschmann proved her acting chops in small but powerful ways; the way she gazed at Cherubino (a fantastic Marianne Crebassa) at points, the way she squeezed her eyes shut and swallowed her words in admitting to the Count who was hiding in the closet, the way she looked at him when the great reveal finally happened — all were highly theatrical moments that offered small slices of humanity amidst a zany comic staging. Her’s “Dove sono i bei momenti“(“Where are they, the beautiful moments”) was lushly voiced and achingly human, her scenes with Susanna (a sparky Anna Prohaska) brimming with vitality. This was a smart, nuanced, adult portrayal, and even with the nearly non-stop comedy that filled Flimm’s production, Röschmann’s Countess came off as authentic, sincere, and truly, deeply heartbroken, even at the opera’s end, when all is supposedly forgiven.

Renee Fleming at the curtain call
for Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera.
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

This post about my latest opera travels wouldn’t be at all complete without briefly exploring its incredible conclusion: experiencing Renée Fleming and Elina Garanča at the Metropolitan Opera in the penultimate performance of Der Rosenkavalier for the season. Seeing the two singers together in what amounted to a beautiful exploration of love, loss, aging, and acceptance felt like the apotheosis of a trip that carried with it strong undercurrents of disappointment and sadness, but also discovery and quiet renewal. I felt tears brimming listening to Fleming, especially as her character, the Marschallin moved between ponderings on the capricious nature of men (“Da geht er hin…” / “There he goes… ) and her relationship with the young Octavian (Garanča), to the inevitable (and cruel) passing of time (“Die Zeit, die ist ein sonderbar Ding” / “Time, it is a weird thing“) at the end of the first act. She didn’t just act the role of the aging, glamorous Marschallin here, or churn out something mediocre, maudlin, or in any way predictable; she was living her soul, bearing it, live, in front of the Metropolitan Opera audience, and it was breathtaking to behold.

Tired but happy me in Berlin. (via)
Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Fleming’s signature creamy soprano was lilting, spinning, soaring, twisting and arching, and joined with Garanča’s gorgeous, chocolate-toned mezzo in a seemingly effortless series of tiny tornados that spun in, around and through the audience. Both women were fiercely confident and utterly loving in their embrace of Strauss’ poetic score, and fully committed to Robert Carsen’s beautiful vision of a world about to completely vanish, in both micro and macro ways; these ladies surely vanished into their respective roles, musically, dramatically, spiritually. Bye composer, bye mascara…  by God, bravissime!

I’m saving my symphony-going experiences for a future post, but suffice (for now) to say that seeing conductors Mariss Jansons, Herbert Blomstedt, and Daniel Barenboim live was very special; I had my mind changed about Sibelius and Bruckner in ways I never thought would happen. Danke Berlin…. Danke NYC… you ladies especially made it very beautiful, very memorable, and very worth every tube of mascara. Wahrheit!

“The True Sound Of The Human Voice”

Photo via Opera Royal de Wallonie

Being in Europe again is a special sort of a treat; there’s an overwhelming number of cultural options at any given moment, and it can be easy to choose one thing, only to find out later there’s something else at the exact same moment that you just can’t miss.

One place I’d really love to be right now is San Francisco, specifically because of Berlioz, and more specifically, because of who is singing it. Thursday (that’s tonight), Friday, and Saturday (May 4, 5, 6), Maestro extraordinaire Charles Dutoit leads the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus in performances of Berlioz’s magnificent Requiem, which features none other than American tenor Paul Groves, whose work I so thoroughly enjoyed on my last opera trip to Europe in February, when I heard him sing another work by the great French composer, his immense La damnation de Faust at Opera Royal de Wallonie.

I’ve always loved French opera, but Groves’ performance as Faust (which he stepped into at the eleventh hour, after the scheduled lead was ill) brought a whole new level to my appreciation, with his incisive phrasing, beautiful diction, and warm tone not only complementing the intricacies of Berlioz’s challenging score, but highlighting its power and poetry. It was exquisite, divine.

A proud New Orleans native, Paul was a winner of the Metropolitan Opera’s prestigious National Council Auditions in 1991, and is a graduate of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program. He has an impressive roster of performances to his credit, and has appeared at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Madrid’s Teatro Real, Theater an der Wien (Vienna), Opéra National de Paris, and the San Francisco Opera, among many others. He returns to the Metropolitan Opera in NYC this December, as Danilo in the very fun, apologetically frothy The Merry Widow.

I had the chance to catch up with Paul as he prepared for his next Berlioz in San Francisco. Just like the man in person, Paul is forthcoming in his opinions, unpretentious, funny, generous, and warm, and like I said, he has a knock-your-socks-off voice, too. Bien sur!

What do you think the big differences are between French opera and other forms, like Italian, and German opera?

There are a few big differences between French opera and other forms, but the biggest has to be the language itself. French operas are built around the language more than any other forms. This is why it’s is so difficult to translate into other languages; I’ve never heard or sung a convincing translation of a French opera — whereas I have sung many wonderful translations of German, Italian and Russian works.

Therefore, it is particularly important to pay close attention to diction and vocal production when studying, and finally performing, French opera.



What kinds of demands does French opera place on you vocally?

I feel the language is very helpful for vocal technique — the closed vowels tend to keep the voice gathered when pronounced correctly. The demand comes from the extended tenor range of many French operas. A majority tend to be at least a step higher than most Italian or German romantic operas.

One of the reasons for this is the tenor technique was completely different at the time these operas were written. The tenors these roles were written for approached the high notes in a supported head voice, and the modern tenor technique is more of a chesty, manly sound in the high register. Now, this makes singing the role more difficult, but it’s also much more thrilling.

Why is Berlioz so special for you?

Berlioz was many years ahead of his time when you consider what was coming out of France and Italy at the time. His music wasn’t well-accepted until later in his life, and still today, many musicians have their doubts about what he intended with his orchestration. I’m doing one of his pieces at the moment which has a bass trombone-and-flute duet. Strange, but amazing when performed correctly.

In his operas, the drama is written into the orchestration and text is not necessary to feel the full power of the drama. An example is “The Ride to Hell” in the last part of La damnation de Faust.



Describe your first powerful opera memory.

Well, my first powerful opera memory is Pavarotti’s recording of Canio’s aria. My father, who was a conductor, brought home a Pavarotti album and after hearing it a few times, I conveniently added his album to my collection of records, which was mostly a Led Zeppelin and Beatles collection. 

I was completely blown away, but had no idea that all opera singers (tenors) didn’t sound the same. I found this out when a traveling opera company came to my town a year later to perform the complete opera. I was so disappointed in the tenor’s performance. Looking back now, he was probably fine. Who could live up to my expectations at the time? Only one guy!!!!!

Photo: Nicholas Roberts for The New York Times (via)

You’re going to be at the Met next season in The Merry Widow; how do you approach performing comedy versus tragedy? Do you have a preference? 

I don’t have a preference between comedy and tragic opera, but I get to do comic opera so infrequently that I really look forward to the fun and laughs, not only from the audience, but in the fun we’ll have in the rehearsal room. I’m playing opposite one of my best friends and opera soulmates, the lovely Susan Graham.

The challenging part for me and most singers is always the dialogue — how to make it real and heartfelt. We’re so used to relying on the music to help, but when the music is missing, it feels like we’re standing up there with our pants down!!

The one thing all newcomers to opera should know is…

… be prepared for the power of the unamplified human voice! This is the one thing that newcomers are so shocked about.

It is my life and art form, but I still get goose bumps when I hear a powerful, beautiful, natural voice. This is what separates opera and classical singing from all other art forms. Amplified performances can be enhanced, tuned and sometimes lip-synced. That’s not the case in classical singing; what you hear is the true sound of the human voice with all its flaws and gloriousness.

Darling George

photo via

I have known and loved the music of George Michael for almost as long as I have known and loved opera. The sound of that creamy tenor has been as omnipresent in my life as the sounds of Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti. It was strange, and strangely satisfying, to see the idol of my youth aging and growing as an artist, cultivating his talents while expanding his range, repertoire, and sound with quiet determination.

The grimness of 2016 intensified with news of his passing on Christmas Day. I learned the news as I imagine many others did, on Facebook, noticing the update, “RIP to the best pop star of my life” from music writer Maura Johnston. I didn’t need to click on the link she’d posted to realize, with an awful sinking feeling, who she was referring to. Maura and I share a deep, abiding love of George and his music; we had traded tweets and notes about it over the years, and I had even contributed a piece to her magazine about that passion, which became part of a multi-issue, George-Michael-focused release. Maura has penned a perfect tribute for TIME and another, more personal piece for The Guardian; the latter is filled with smile-worthy memories and brilliant observations, this one striking so many recognizable chords:

While I was initially drawn in by Ridgeley’s cheekbones, I stuck around through Wham!’s breakup, and Michael’s eventual solo career, because the songs were thrilling, spinning like tops perched on a ledge, ready to fly off in another direction at any moment. Michael displayed reverence for all the right things – compositional craft, searing vocals, kindness, writing pop songs to make the world feel, briefly, like everything was OK – while also feeling ambivalent toward the aspects of his job that distracted from them.

I can’t be sure, but I suspect I am the only classical writer who contributed both to that all-George issue of Maura, and to Torontoist, in the form of a live concert review — which strikes me as funny and quite delightful, especially since one of George’s most memorable concerts in the last decade happened at the Palais Garnier. Indeed, George (it feels strange for me to call him anything else, though I never got the opportunity to meet him) was the first contemporary artist to play the historic opera house, and, all things considered, he seemed eminently suited to it, not only because of his then-recent Symphonica release, but because his deep and continuous cultivation of musicality, music history, the ever-changing pop idiom, and his place as an older artist.

(photo: Caroline True, via)

As a current opera writer with a pop-loving past, I tend to live in multiple sonic worlds that embrace rock, funk, R&B, hiphop and country right alongside classical. My current work and the way I’ve grown to listen and pay attention to performance and voice have opened the door for a broader appreciation of the musical gifts George Michael offered over his almost four decades of output. That magical tenor of his was far more agile, sensitive, and expressive than has been sometimes been acknowledged; over the years I’ve heard it called “flat,” “bland,” “too smooth” and “devoid of emotion.” Such criticism always struck me as facile at best, and snobbish at worst; they pointed to a kind of passive-aggressive whisper of, “that music isn’t real music” and “he isn’t a real musician.” As a teen, I’d hurriedly point out he played all the instruments on Faith and even did the backing vocals; it wasn’t vanity, I said, it was talent, an intentional exercise in creative control. What is “real” music anyway?! There are any number of overwhelming examples to point to that might explode such a ridiculous accusation, but more potent than all of them was the live experience.

My first big stadium concert experience was attending the gargantuan Faith tour in the late 1980s. Outside of hearing my favorite singer with tens of thousands of other cheering fans (I recall it being overwhelming at times), hearing that voice, live, was  —and there’s no other way to say it — life-changing. Even amidst tends of thousands of screaming teens, with amplification and effects, that voice was incredible; it swung, it swooped, it mewled, it roared. Having seen Pavarotti and Domingo live at the Met as a teenager, I knew the effect a beautiful voice could have — on me, and on others. I didn’t understand technique back then, and I didn’t fully appreciate what I was hearing, but listening back to both his live and album material now, as an adult, I am, more than ever, struck by the myriad of ways George could shape and bend his sound, to say nothing of the length and power of his vibrato to make a sound that glistened, floated, soared, or roared, cut, slashed; George did it all, with class, style, and elegance. He wasn’t a screamer, and he didn’t feel the need to be. In an era where “soft” was equated with weakness, and “sensuous” with vulgarity, he became the object of ridicule. Throughout my high school years, when being out wasn’t even an option, he was laughed at, his music met with eyerolls; George wasn’t “macho” enough for many of my fellow students to like (or at least admit they liked) —but it was always the lack of screaming, the lack of roughness or aggression that I liked.

(gif via)

The fact he was also blessed with good looks, great style, and a clear need to move to a beat helped. When acts like New Kids on the Block and Milli Vanilli cropped up, I curled my nose. How were they more acceptable (or even better) than George? Aside from their music holding no appeal, respective choreography seemed forced and joyless; by comparison, George’s hip-shaking, arm-waving, and bum-wiggling seemed fun, sexy, and frankly, familiar. He seemed like he’d be so much fun to go out dancing with. Also, I couldn’t listen to either Kids or Vanilli for very long; those voices were, to my ears, not good.  I’d been so spoiled. The way George had performed Black Cherry’s classic “Play That Funky Music” live, for instance (as part of the Faith tour), was saucy, playful, and very funky, with all of the original’s bounce intact, but a keen awareness of pace and rhythm. It was deeply musical and fun and smart and… you could dance to it! The combination was intoxicating, and remained so, through many decades.

However, the past few years deepened my appreciation of his vocal gifts. George had a warm, wheaty timbre he could expertly wield to accommodate any number of styles, including classic ballads, soul, funk, rock. His skill with balladry was on full display in the astonishing “One More Try” from Faith; he lived the words of that song, lovingly infusing each one with a profound, personal meaning that makes listening to it almost unbearably personal. The halting quality in his voice as he sings “stranger” and then “feet” in the second verse, then the sharp, biting contrast with singing “danger” and “heat” in the second couplet, reveals a world of heartbreak and thwarted hope that colored so much of his later work. It was one of George’s most famously soulful moments, and I feel, one of his most operatic.

(photo: 10awesome.com via)

Similarly, many will recall his soaring performance of Queen’s “Somebody To Love” in 1992. Who else could have realistically stepped into the shoes of the great, opera-leaning Freddie Mercury, and done such a bang-up job? He wasn’t Freddie — but he didn’t aim to be. “I work hard,” he declares at the start of the second verse, improvising a higher melodic line and threading it in with the main melody. Simultaneously buoyed by a monstrously wonderful backing choir and a regal authority, his was the performance everyone remembered from that tribute concert. (It was lovely to come across a video recently showing David Bowie smiling at that rehearsal.) Near the song’s end, George soars into a smooth if equally impassioned falsetto with the ease and grace Mercury excelled at, bringing a raw vulnerability to a raucous, jaunty rock and roll classic.

Years before this performance, he’d caused shock with “I Want Your Sex” but I suspect it wasn’t solely the title or song’s content that caused controversy. The way George sings it is just deeply, deliciously dirty. His is a throaty, pushed kind of growl, one cleverly combined with whispers, shouts, and whimpers. One of the supreme pleasures of re-listening to the entirety of Faith over the last few months has been how nicely the material, and this song in particular, translates into adulthood. We (us fans) all merrily sang along to “I Want Your Sex” as teens, screamed it back at its creator live, winked and giggled and may have done some theatrical pelvic thrusts on the dance floor on Club Med vacations, but hearing it as a woman, the reaction is (for me at least) less outward, and more quietly confident, a seduction delivered in slow smiles, eyebrow raises, lingering stares. The subtleties of the song — and they are myriad! — reveal themselves in George’s exquisite vocals, which are brilliantly contrasted by the repeated, organ grinder-esque synth lines and a squishy, pumping rhythm. The simplicity of the arrangement echoes that other perfect synth masterpiece, “Everything She Wants” but contains its direct opposite in experiences, while holding the same musical tension and intensity. Near the song’s close, as his own backing vocals provide a rhythmic, staccato-like declamation filled with a sort of hip-thrusting jubilance (“Hua, SEX!“), George’s knowing vocal punctuates the line:

I’m not your father
I’m not your brother
Talk to your sister
I am a lover

These lines are delivered as statements, full stops, declarations; the confidence of the vocal is breathtaking, to say nothing of the beautiful howl that erupts at the end of that, followed by a carefully-pitched, descending moan. Every time I hear it now I think of Camille Saint-Saëns’s famous “Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix” from the opera Samson et Dalila — each being, for me, a delicious, potion of desire, fever, seduction, even romance — a fervent paean to being alive, a shiny talisman against despair.

(photo via)

And this, in the end, is George Michael’s catalogue to me. I haven’t even mentioned the many beautiful collaborations he did with favorite artists — Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, and many others — or the sparkling cover versions he did of of songs new and old. His music (whether it’s specifically his, or music he has made especially his own) isn’t so much a tie to a rosy, cozy pat as it is a flowing river connecting that past with a harsher present, and ever-shifting future. He was magic, he was opera, he was a legend, but he was also defiantly, utterly himself — and in that act, he whispered, moaned, shouted, crooned, and pleaded, with that magical voice of his, for me to be myself. We never got to go dancing (something I’d dreamed of as a teen) and I never got to shake his hand (something I dreamed of as an adult) but he showed me how to listen for the beat, to create my own steps, to choose my own partners, and to walk off if things weren’t working. I owe him so much. We all do. George, you have been loved.



An Evolving Tapestry

Photo via my Flickr

Canadian company Tapestry Opera are known for being inventive. Their creative takes on presentation, production, and composition are, in many senses, helping to redefine what opera’s role is (and perhaps should be) moving into the 21st century. Next month they’ll be presenting the North American premiere of The Devil Inside, an adaptation of a scary tale by Robert Louis Stevenson that has been given a contemporary update. A co-commission and co-production by Scottish Opera & Music Theatre Wales, the show was lauded upon its premiere last month in Glasgow and is already creating something of a stir in Toronto’s music scene.

Before that, Tapestry is getting set to present Songbook VI, which continues their popular songbook series. The evenings are notable for their mix of old and new with a kind of aplomb that keeps respect of opera’s history intact while throwing its starchy pretensions out the window. Past concerts have heartily thrown together opera and electronic music, and presented the mournful with the playful in equal measure (and sometimes on the same bill). The concert, happening this Friday and Saturday (February 5th and 6th, respectively), is set in the intimate confines of the company’s studio spaces in Toronto’s historic Distillery District. The physical environment makes one feel as though dropped in the middle of a no-holds-barred rehearsal and an ever-unfolding artwork whose resolution is decidedly unknown.

No details from the evening have been released yet, but audiences are being promised snatches of works from some of Tapestry’s most popular shows, including 1992’s award-winning Nigredo Hotel, which features a libretto by acclaimed Canadian author Anne-Marie MacDonald. While we can’t expect any murderous wives or mid-aria heavy metal guitar solos, I’m also thinking: it’s a Tapestry show, so go with the flow. Anything could happen. That’s the great appeal of Tapestry’s approach, and, perhaps, of modern opera itself. 

Songbook VI will feature the talents of mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and Tapestry Resident Conductor Jordan de Souza. Giunta, whom Toronto audiences may remember from her turn in the memorable Atom Egoyan-directed production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte at the Canadian Opera Company in early 2014, took some time between gigs recently to answer a few questions about singing and repertoire; Tapestry’s Artistic Director Michael Mori, who was a regular panelist on my radio show last year, adds his thoughts about diversity in opera.

Photo by Michael Edwards

Last year you performed in a recital that featured music written from both male and female perspectives; what do you get out of singing parts written for men? 

WG: It always adds a layer of interest and intrigue when a person performs in drag, whether male or female. I’m hired to perform many male roles in opera, because of my voice and body type. It’s just what I do, and I’m totally used to it. (I also love it!) Whether in opera or recital, it’s very interesting to witness a character interpreted by a performer of the opposite gender. That artist can bring something to it, perhaps a more conscious approach, that a performer of the “correct” gender would not necessarily be able to do.

How difficult is it for you as a singer to go between various ‘sounds’ – from Mozart to modern work like that of Gordon Lightfoot?

WG: Not difficult at all. In fact, it is a joy for me, and often a welcome feeling for my voice to switch between different styles of singing, either within one performance or from contract to contract. There are basic principles of my vocal production that stay consistent no matter what the style is, like how I breathe, but for the rest of it, it’s like one part of my voice get a little break, while the other takes over.

Do you think it’s important for singers to embrace genres other than opera? 

WG: I think it’s totally up to each performer, and where their interests and abilities can take them. It’s neither important, nor necessary, for all of us performers to be terribly diverse. To each their own. There are some people who can sing the bejeezus out of one particular style or role, better than anyone in the world, and then there are people like me: chameleons. As long as we have all the bases covered in this industry (and with the amount of singers on the market, that will never be an issue) I think artists can define themselves as they choose, and stray from the trodden path as much or as little as they like.

Photo by Amy Gottung

What are your thoughts around diversity in opera? 

MM: Diversity in opera is a loaded topic. The traditional repertoire is filled with works that stereotype, exoticize, villainize, parody, and/or simply exclude (perceived) “others”. Larger houses similarly face challenges in existing in the present, with diversity as one of many things that has not been dealt well with. (Name a big-house General Director, Composer, or Conductor that is either a woman or a minority.) 

Contemporary opera, on the other hand, if true to its etymological roots (con meaning “with”; tempo meaning “times,” or “with the times”) should reflect the time and place that it is created in. So if a producer / commissioner / arts council does their job, it is a welcoming, inclusive… a normal place to be for a diverse public.
There is an old rule that if you can see yourself reflected in the thing you are looking at, then it is more attractive and welcoming. (Potential “things” can include administrative leadership, performers, stories, creators, audiences, design, style, and language.) Toronto is widely considered to be one of the most diverse cities in the world; why wouldn’t its contemporary opera embrace that? Tapestry has a history and practice of representing gender and race diversity at all levels. Inclusion is a great opportunity to take advantage of a wealth of talent and perspective that reflects and informs who we are today.

Why is contemporary opera important?

MM: For the same reason that sex is important to humankind. Without contemporary opera
collaborations and the subsequent conception and birth of works, the art form is doomed. A new generation of art builds a new generation of art goers…and when it is really good, there is nothing quite like it!

WG: It is relevant today and speaks directly to people’s experiences in life. Sure, the usual themes of opera drama will always be the same (love, revenge, and betrayal), but with modern opera, we hear stories that we know, and socio-cultural references that make sense to us, just as our classical operas did to the audiences of their time. I think this is very exciting and very important for the future of opera.

A Joyful Noise

Stephen Hegedus and chorus members in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

Handel’s great Messiah is associated with many things: ceremony, contemplation,  a quiet joy. One thing it is not widely noted for is playfulness. That’s just where Toronto’s Against the Grain Theatre comes in. The company, known for their creative updates of opera works, is currently presenting a reimagined Messiah at Harbourfront Centre, one that fuses theatricality and musicality, and riffs off many moods: anger, fear, joy, rejection, abandonment, and… fun.

What makes this Messiah so special is the extent to which intimacy works as a strong, spicy partner to the essential grandeur of the work, which was composed as an oratorio and first performed in Dublin in 1742. Generally presented with an orchestra and soloists on a large stage, in a church, concert hall or auditorium, Against the Grain’s Messiah uses the audience as an integral part of the production, allowing us to experience the music in a closer and more revelatory way. At one point the chorus, divided by gender, fills the aisles on either side of the theatre and immerses the audience in a cascading waterfall of harmonies; it’s as if the God-made-flesh tale is being paralleled by the singers via musical metaphor, the heaven-to-earth connection made real. During the famous “Hallelujah” chorus, the ensemble is again in the aisles, singing and urging members to stand. (Some audience members at the performance I attended even proudly and loudly sang along.) Immersion and interactivity are not unusual for Against the Grain productions; their successful show #UncleJohn, a re-envisioning of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (produced in Toronto last winter) placed the audience in the middle of a wedding reception, with the action in the libretto unfolding with a delicious immediacy. What makes stagings like these so special is that one gets to experience the singularly unique experience of opera singing mere inches away, as opposed to several feet; the stage isn’t formalized, the performers aren’t distant. This choice of presentation has the effect of bringing the work — perhaps previously considered starchy, unapproachable, snobbish – into close relief, allowing an experiential understanding that frequently moves beyond the verbal. In Messiah, such an understanding approaches the divine, but it skillfully integrates an earthy aspect that is at once highly inspired and deeply moving.

Andrea Ludwig and Owen McCausland in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

While many symphonies program the Messiah this time of year (some featuring creative re-orchestrations), Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski make elegant use of a small ensemble to showcase ideas around beauty, spirituality, and play, within an intimate and ultimately enriching context. With an eighteen-piece orchestra and sixteen-person chorus, the work’s two-and-a-half-hour running time flies by, moving seamlessly through the various stages of the life of Jesus Christ. The work opens with tenor Joshua Davis carefully moving to Jennifer Nichols’s highly stylized choreography, eventually draping himself (in a rather impressive back bend) across a block. The music that accompanies is mournful and stately; as the work progresses, the musicians and performers onstage develop a synergistic chemistry that allows an equal and vivid exchange of energy that extends to the audience. Ivany features some nice meta-theatrical moments, throwing off the formalism of the work and its starchy classical associations. Tenor Owen McCausland removes his suit jacket, bow tie, shoes and socks near the start of the work; the female soloists (alto Andrea Ludwig and soprano Miriam Khalil) follow suit, their draping skirts revealing puffy layers of tulle beneath. The entire chorus and four soloists (including bass baritone Stephen Hegedus, who performs his own kind of strip-down later on) are barefoot throughout the production, despite their formal wear, pointing at an earthy experience, free of past constraints in either music or religion, though to some of course, they are one in the same. This Messiah doesn’t let you forget that.

Joshua Wales in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

The color scheme employed throughout the work is expressed via the rich, wintery tones of the dresses and suits — it’s a blend of wine reds and aquamarine blues — and helps to offset the stark, near-clinical simplicity of the set, which is composed of a few white blocks on a black floor. These blocks — picked up, carried, lain across, stood upon — resemble recognizable shapes (a cityscape, furniture, oversized toys) as different passages of music are performed; at one point, two tall rectangular shapes resemble nothing so much as the fallen World Trade towers, while at others, they’re a plinth for statuesque bodies and sensuous fabrics. Ivany marries Handel’s score with striking visuals to create a kind of Rorschach Test that integrates Baroque sounds and contemporary performance, where narrative is entirely secondary —or more specifically, non-existent. Ivany trusts his audience enough to allow us to to knit together the various fragments of the work. As opposed to emotional dictation, Ivany and AtG have opted for imaginative individuation, with elements of potential meaning (or non-meaning, in the form of pure experiential beauty) poking out like welcoming tentacles from a much older body.

The idea of “playing” — playing music, playing games, playing with each other, playing with notes, playing with ideas and identities — takes on huge significance in Ivany’s vision. As I’ve written about before, play is something I believe is central to creation; the act of play itself is akin to taking a ride on a highway of experimentation and imagination, and with Against the Grain’s Messiah, it’s given a robust workout. The famous passage “All We Like Sheep” is done with members of the chorus in a circular “flock,” shuffling back and forth across the stage, warily eyeing soloist Stephen Hegedus, who haplessly bleats out a few “baaaahs” after the chorus sings the title, as if against his own will. Watching the scene unfold, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a few pop culture corollaries; it’s strange to think of cartoons and puppets when one is watching a classic oratorio, but then, why wouldn’t you? Against the Grain seems to welcome these kinds of associations, and to see them as valid as references to Nordic mythology and gypsies. Why should classical culture be strictly self-referential? Surely a fusty insularity doesn’t help its broader appeal; a bit of pop culture might be just the thing — and with it, a bit of playfulness.

Stephen Hegedus in AtG’s Messiah Photo: Darryl Block

It’s that very sensibility, of playfulness fused with a kind of pop culture knowingness, that permeates one of the most memorable scenes in Messiah, which that occurs during “The Trumpet Shall Sound.” Stephen Hegedus, last seen for Against the Grain in their summer production, Death and Desire, jauntily delivers in his signature rich, robust tone, before stripping down to a gold unitard, striking various statuesque poses, and gleefully tossing glitter. What a refreshing contrast to his dour, serious expression in earlier scenes, and what a wonderful way to physicalize the joyousness of this passage! Dr. Frank-n-furter would surely approve, as would the travelers on the Priscilla. Ivany brings a fresh approach and wonderfully experimental spirit to each of these theatrical scenes, making Handel’s rich and (to my ears) sometimes dense score a highly digestible, vibrant, and yes, playful piece of music-performance art that suits the tone and tenor of the times, to say nothing of the direction opera and live performance may be moving in. By the end of Against the Grain’s Messiah, you feel buoyed by the energy, moved by the intimacy, and inspired by the sheer imaginative bravado it took to bring this piece to vivid life. Baroque music: ballsy, brave, and… fun? In AtG’s hands, you bet. Bravo.

Stormy Pacific

For all its sheen, there’s something awfully disquieting about South Pacific. The beloved Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, about the shenanigans of a group of U.S. army men stationed in the south seas, features some super-famous tunes (including “Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair”, and “Some Enchanted Evening”), but some genuinely uncomfortable moments that, in the Bartlett Sher-directed version currently back in Toronto after last summer’s run, don’t get smoothed over, but underlined. I love this. Few things are more annoying than a musical production that isn’t conscious of its own dated attitudes or troubling subtexts. Sher doesn’t want cute, shiny, and lovable; he’s more interested in difficult, ugly, and awkward. Those dark places are where the humanity of the piece reside, silent, lurking, and treacherous.

The Tony Award-winning production (running at the Toronto Centre For The Arts through April 10th) features top-notch performances and choreography, but it’s in the show’s design, and particularly, its direction, where one really notices the troubling underbelly lurking within James Michener’s tales. The alarmingly leanings of earnest Lieutenant Joseph Cable (Aaron Ramey) for the young native Liat (Sumie Maeda) gives the gorgeous “Younger Than Springtime” a much darker undertone. Her ambitious mother, Bloody Mary (Jodi Kimura), lurks around the two young lovers after their first initial tryst, singing “Happy Talk” as more of a desperate sales pitch than a romantic lullaby, stalking and wildly gesturing at the stunned Cable and pushing her pie-eyed daughter toward him: “If you don’t have a dream / you got to have a dream! / How you gonna make a dream come true?” But whose dream is it? And how much compromise does it take to make that dream a reality? What’s the price? Sher’s production doesn’t provide any easy answers.

Equally, the dark undercurrent of racism that snakes through Sher’s production gives it an edge against the saccharine moments, that, once they occur, seem at once beautifully poetic and confusingly florid; the powerful ballad “You’ve Got To Be Taught” is delivered as two black airmen stand on one side of the stage, and two white cohorts on the other. It isn’t hard to recall the words of transplanted Frenchman Emile De Becque (David Pittsinger) talking about why he left France -the ostensible reason he gives is “freedom” -but the fact he has no problem having a black servant becomes all the more troubling. Suddenly he and his nurse love-interest Nellie Forbush don’t seem so different after all. Their “Some Enchanted Evening” ballad is indeed, enchanting, but you can’t quite forget that they’re working through the same difficult issues around race, hypocrisy, and Western privilege.

By the musical’s end, love conquers all, though we sense a long road ahead for the couple. Playing a role as complicated -and as fraught with historical baggage -as Nellie isn’t a walk in the park, even with that beautiful, catchy music. American soprano Carmen Cusack captures the frustrations, fears, and outright confusion of a women at an emotional crossroads: trust a man her logical mind says “no” to, or trust her heart, which says just the opposite.

Carmen and I recently exchanged ideas about the challenges of playing Nellie, of singing Rodgers and Hammerstein with opera singers, and what South Pacific might tell a newer generation.


What’s the biggest challenge to playing Nellie?

The challenge with Nellie is going through her emotional ride every night without exhausting myself too much. She laughs, sings, dances and cries, she is tormented at various points and to genuinely give that to an audience, my body has to endure her journey. So keeping myself strong and healthy to maintain 8 shows a week is the main goal.

How much did past interpretations of the role affect your own (or did they)? It must be challenging, knowing so many people are walking in with an image of Mitzi Gaynor in their heads.

I can’t say that any particular interpretation of Nellie affected mine. I looked at the script and saw a woman that I could relate to on certain levels and then just watched a bunch of old 1940s films and came up with something that worked for me. Although, I will say that Mary Martin’s spunky, sort of tom-boy feel was inspirational.

Your leading men in this touring show (David Pittsinger and Jason Howard) come from operatic backgrounds. Does that change the way you approach the music, vocally? How much has your own style and approach influenced them?

The music is written so well that there really aren’t any adjustments vocally to be made. The songs come into the scenes and are a perfect flow of the conversation. Rodgers and Hammerstein certainly knew what they were doing. I am lucky to have had several years of opera training behind me so I can blend with my operatic costars. As for my style influencing them…. you’d have to ask them.

One of the hardest things about playing Nellie is the accent -it must be dangerously easy to fall into Hee-Haw rhythms. How conscious are you about this when you’re onstage?

I don’t really think too much about that. As soon as the wig and costume goes on the accent comes. I just try to keep it subtle.

The music from this is so famous and so beloved; how hard is it to stay in character onstage, and not totally swept up by that music?

Not hard at all! It’s the music that helps put me into character and places me on that tropical paradise and keeps me there for those three hours. It’s an awesome ride!

South Pacific has a timeless, and yet timely quality to it. What sorts of things do you think it says to a 21st century audience, one that hasn’t lived through civil rights or World War Two?

How much we’ve learned and yet how much there still is to learn.

Photo credits:
Top photo, David Pittsinger as Emile de Becque and Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Middle photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush. Photo by Peter Coombs.
Bottom photo Carmen Cusack as Ensign Nellie Forbush and the Nurses of South Pacific. Photo by Peter Coombs.

December, Baby

Birthdays are always time for me to reflect. This one feels better than others, probably because I’ve been thinking I am the actual age I’m turning through most of the year. Always being one step ahead makes the actual date feel like less of a shock. Birthdays as a kid -complete with party dress, streamers & ice cream cake -are fun but their effect feels less temporary; the older one gets, the more one feels the wear of time bearing down, and the feeling one ought to be doing something awfully important -or at least, focused. Right now I’m focusing on the champagne that’s being uncorked at the end of the day. It’s a start, right?

I’ve also been thinking of the events that have colored many a December -deaths, both recent and not, as well as births. Sharing a birthday month with Christmas, no matter your religion, is a d-r-a-g. I used to tell my mother as a child that I wanted to celebrate my birthday in July with a pool party; now I’m overjoyed if people even remember, let alone take the time to write me, or to write on that eponymous modern mode of communication, the ever-present Facebook wall (which many have done, and thank you very kindly). It’s cheering and surreal, all at once.

Two of my favorite artists, people who music I grew up with, were born this month. Though the exact date of Ludwig van Beethoven‘s birth is disputed (possibly December 16th; he was baptized the 17th) his effect on the music world… well, earth-shattering. Plunking at the piano as a kid, LVB was always my go-to guy; I aimed to, and eventually did play Fur Elise and Moonlight Sonata, along with other (very hard, but very awesome) works. I struggled to manoeuvre my small hands over the wide swaths of ivory; I swore and gnashed teeth when I couldn’t put this note down with that one, let alone reach that other one. Ouch.

At some point, I knew my hands weren’t made to play his work (or indeed, much classical at all) but that realization didn’t dim my passion for those beautiful, indescribable sounds. I loved the energy and anger of his work; as an adolescent I swooned over the romantic melodies and dramatic qualities. I’d write great swaths of poetry while blasting the Seventh symphony, or one of the Concertos, especially the onerously misnamed Emperor. Really, I loved it all. I had a gigantic poster of Beethoven on my bedroom wall. He was my rock star. Dead? Whatever. Ugly? Whatever. I skipped my high school prom to go to a big symphonic gala featuring the famous (and mysteriously powerful) Ninth. LVB understood the frustrated anger seething through my veins and expressed it in powerful, bang-whoosh flights of orchestral mastery.

While I still love the manic, raging energy that emanates from his work with the force of a million waterfalls, I also adore (and swoon) over his capacity for tenderness. The second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto has been a favorite for over fifteen years, and indeed, it still is. I’ve done a lot to this piece of music: sighed, cried, drawn, written, meditated, driven in the dead of night, walked on an autumnal afternoon, cooked, and stared out windows on silently-falling snow. I should probably do that last one again before the season ends. I’m especially happy to share Daniel Barenboim‘s interpretation (above) as I think he really, truly captures the intricate beauty without getting bogged down in technicality; there’s a lovely blend of poetry and fussiness here, but ultimately, as you’ll hear, one definitely trumps over the other through sheer emotionalism. The charming unconscious-eyebrow-raises of Barenboim’s tells you everything you need to know about how deeply this piece reaches into the nether-regions of the soul, pulling out things you didn’t know, or want to acknowledge, gently, if firmly, ever profoundly plumbing depths that may not see the light of day again -or until you listen to it next.

That sense of keen emotional beauty is what makes my second December-born artist so special. He excelled at it, just as much as he excelled at joy. Frank Sinatra would’ve been 95 on December 12th. More than any other, this man profoundly shaped the way I experienced popular music; he opened doors into expression and interpretation not using any external instrument (as I’d been trained to do), but via his own body -via that remarkable voice he’d been blessed with, which alternated between tenor and baritone with effortless ease, wrapping like a cashmere glove around songs notes, and octaves, caressing ears, minds, and hearts across generations.

My first exposure to Sinatra (and to much jazz, both vocal and instrumental) was as a teenager. I was at the house of my mother’s smart, cool, downtown friends and looking through their CDs (remember those?) when I came across his stuff. Naturally, I’d heard of Francis Albert. I’d heard his work, and I knew him from the celebrity roasts on television. My mother was (is) a bigger fan of Dean Martin‘s work, so it was familiarity-via-association. Once I put on the CDs … that was it. I was hooked. My Sinatra obsession continued well into my twenties (and beyond), when I picked up his masterful, profoundly sad, hugely powerful albums from the 1950s: Only The Lonely, In The Wee Small Hours, Where Are You?. His poetic, masterful singing of “I’m A Fool To Want You”, written about Ava Gardner (who subsequently took her place among my gloriously surreal, beautiful collection of heroes), as well as songs like “Lonely Town”, “Angel Eyes” and the famous “One More For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” still stop my heart in my chest. Each is a revelation, a prayer, a blessing, darkness, and light, all at once.

Much as Sinatra excelled at expressing pain, he was equally good at doing happy, something a lot of singer and artists don’t succeeed at; as I recently said on television, painting in white is hard. Few do it well, with any effect that isn’t sickeningly saccharine or cloyingly cheesy. Sinatra pulled it off with just the right mix of joy and smarts. Albums like Swing Easy!, Come Fly With Me, Ring-A-Ding, and Nice And Easy demonstrate a man who can just as easily access pure, simple joy -in singing and in sound -as fear, anger, and loneliness. Sinatra-Basie and It Might As Well Be Swing (with Quincy Jones) are landmark recordings; they also have a place as two of my most cherished albums, ever. Musical mastery has never sounded better, or more obvious.

I had a recent upset at not being able to find my treasured collection of Sinatra holiday hits, if only because I love –love -his interpretation of one particular winter classic. Thank goodness for the internet:

Silly, smart, smarmy, playful, loving, celebratory… I hear a full embrace of life when I hear this song.

Maybe that’s why I love both LVB and Sinatra so much: they represent the pinnacle of artistic mastery and creative human expression, integrating all the colours of the human experience with a zeal I, and many, can immediately recognize and occassionally identify with. As to December babies… we might forget their birthdays, but we never forget them.

It Ain’t Necessarily… Oh Wait, It Is.


If there’s one thing I adore, it’s making connections -whether it’s between people, or ideas, or a crazy, heady mixture of both.

So it was with a mix of curiosity and excitement that I attended the opening of The Soul of Gershwin: The Musical Journey of an American Klezmer recently. It’s the final show offered in the current season of Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company, whose last work, Talk, I was pretty nuts about. The Soul of Gershwin was created and written by Joseph Vass, and it deftly draws connections between the musical artforms that so informed and shaped the work of the inimitable George Gershwin. Using a live band, Klezmerica -a super-talented music ensemble that has performed all across the US and at the International Klezmer Festival in Israel -along with three vocalists (Bruce A. Henry, Prudence Johnson and Robert Marinoff) and a narrator standing in as Gershwin himself (Michael Paul Levin), the show is a celebration of music, culture, history, and heritage -between and around and through several, in fact.

Musical combinations are sometimes magical and sometimes unusual, with surprising, delightful results. The duet between Henry and Marinoff, particularly, as the two engage in a kind of sonic duel between the plaintive intonations of a Cantor and the peppy joy of gospel is particularly beguiling; the duel soon gives way to a smooth synthesis, as the the intimate sonic connection between the two is rendered undeniable. Shalom and Hallelujah become joined in one joyous sound unto every Lord. Magnificent.

Another memorable moment occurs with the sung introductions to common Jewish traditions, followed by a winkingly sly “It Ain’t Necessarily So” -a song that was considered scandalous in its day for its flagrantly non-biblical approach. The “shock” we realize, must’ve been every bit as pungent in the Jewish community as the Christian, what with the convenient lifting of a religious melody to underscore a fundamentally naughty, amazingly tuneful song that hasn’t aged a day since its debut in Porgy and Bess in 1935. Johnson gives a playful, slinky interpretation that shows off the song’s timeless appeal while underlining the sly, naughty lyrics that so shocked (and delighted) audiences at its premiere.

It’s these kinds of connections -between past and present, between cultures, genders and traditions -that The Soul of Gershwin does so well: show (or rather, play) the history, and then show how Gershwin played with it to create something that was entirely new in its day, and still retains the gorgeous, rich sheen of genius crafted so carefully and lovingly by a man who understood how America is, at its very best, a crossroads of history, peoples, experiences, and an ‘otherness’ creating a unified whole. His music, even -or especially -now reflects this.

Now there were whisperings at the show’s opening that the Gershwin pieces were few & far between. But those with complaints need to read the full title of the show: the musical journey of an American klezmer. It’s not meant to be a turnstyle of Gershwin’s Greatest Hits. “Klezmer” (in this sense) means a lowly-paid musician who plays parties. Vass & Co. clearly feel Gershwin was a kind of modern klezmer made good, and it shows. The production is par history lesson, part remembrance, entirely celebration. If you don’t know much about Jewish music or culture, don’t worry: cultural traditions and words are clearly explained, and Klezmerica, as a band, are completely mesmerizing. Levin’s narration occasionally becomes slightly overbearing, if only because the power of Gershwin’s music is such that it really doesn’t need the kind of detailed introduction Voss has written, but then again, if you’re not sure about the history, and enjoy context, the interjections might be for you. Overall, you’ll come away from The Soul of Gershwin rich in knowledge, and in spirit. Shalom, Mr. Gershwin, and thank you, HGJTC. Can’t wait for next season.

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