The Lion Heart

lionheartThe Lion Heart is a new opera by Corey Arnold and Kyle McDonald.  Their aim, as described in an interview on barczablog, was to create an opera that was more accessible to modern audiences than “most modern opera”.  I’m not sure how much “modern opera” they have actually seen/heard but what they seem to mean by accessible is a heavily scored neo-Romanticism supporting a through sung vocal line with nothing much in the way of an aria or any way for their singers to display their chops but we’ll come back to that.

The opera deals with the well known legend of Richard I of England being rescued from imprisonment by Duke Leopold of Austria by his faithful minstrel Blondel.  In this version various decidedly non-canonical events take place.  Richard is challenged to a contest/fight by the duke’s son.  Each gets to thump the other one in turn until one falls over.  It’s a bit like the version of rochambault in South Park.  The duke’s son, Walo, is played by John Kirby as a sort of comic circus strongman and I wasn’t at all sure whether this was supposed to be a comedy until Richard’s punch kills the boy.  The Duke then has a hissy fit and has Richard thrown into a pit with a lion.  The orchestra plays loudly, there is a tape of fighting lion noises, slides tell the story of the epic fight.  Eventually Richard strangles the lion, sticks his mitt down its throat and rips its heart out.  At this point I expected somebody to throw the lion from the Monty Python “Scott of the Sahara” sketch on stage but instead we get Richard appearing with the heart and biting a big chunk out of it.  I guess that’s how he got his soubriquet.  I really wasn’t sure whether this was supposed to be a comedy.

Meanwhile there’s been a bit of romance going on between Richard and the duke’s daughter Marinella which is abruptly terminated when he gallantly reveals that he is already married.  Marinella is surprised.  She must be the only duke’s daughter in Europe who doesn’t know that the king of England has a wife.  Then Blondel shows up singing his signature tune and rescues Richard.

At least that’s what I think happened because there were no surtitles. The singers were behind the very loud fourteen piece orchestra and the acoustic of College Street United Church was not at all helpful.  The orchestration was often very dense and the singers were covered much of the time.  The acoustic, besides not aiding clarity, took the bloom off the voices which often sounded dry and harsh  (Listening to the promo excerpts on Youtube shows them to be much better balanced and pleasant to listen to)  There were moments when things lightened up to good effect.  Richard and Mirella got a nice duet in Act 3 but even here they didn’t have a whole lot to work with in terms of showing off their voices.  There were some good singers in the cast too so this was a shame.  Kyle McDonald in the title role sounded like he was capable of much more than I could hear.  I know that Nicole Dubinsky as Mirella is.  She’s got excellent coloratura chops but they weren’t used here.  Both Andrew Tees, as captain of the guard, and Andrew Derynck, as Leopold, showed they had plenty of power (as well, rather oddly, as being about twice the size of Richard).  Really only Tonatiuh Abrego, as Blondel, got music that showed the best of the voice.  In this case some really nice lyricism.

In summary, the work had its moments but it felt dramatically and musically undercooked and to an extent ill conceived, though the acoustic and lack of surtitles didn’t help.  But t’s a first opera from a team that obviously has talent and drive.  I might suggest that dismissing “modern opera” is not a great starting point for creating one.  There’s a wealth of good new opera out there even if it hardly ever gets programmed by Canada’s major companies.  A look at George Benjamin’s Written on Skin or Missy Mazzolis Proving Up would show that intriguing, relevant, accessible opera is possible without trying to reinvent Puccini.

13 thoughts on “The Lion Heart

  1. You said “I might suggest that dismissing “modern opera” is not a great starting point for creating one.” And yet there’s a long tradition of composers dissing one another even if it’s not terribly nice.

  2. Pingback: Composers dissing composers | barczablog

  3. Dear John,

    Thanks for taking the time to watch the first in-concert performance of our new opera, and for saying a few words about it!

    The accoustics of the venue DO leave a lot to be desired, (though we’re very grateful to the church for being so generous) and yes, our studio recording is much cleaner – this is what we’re aiming for!

    We were able to sort most of our audio woes by Sunday, and much more of the book was intelligible – which is especially important to me since I wrote it! And we were also dogged by streaming problems on Saturday – the curse of tech that works, but doesn’t. We were able to largely fix this too, though there is yet some massaging necessary.

    All in all, however, two artists without institutional backing were able to assemble a team of 32 quality musicians and technical staff, and realize their dreams – and I take that as win!

    Just a few friendly rebuttals:

    1) We were riffing with the Barcza blog when we were talking about “modern” opera, and there’s more context needed to that statment; however, I stand firm that for at least the last 50 years (and I actually say it’s 70) we’ve been promoting deconstructionism in the fine arts (starting with visual art and poetry, if I recall correctly), and there’s quite a bit of documentation about this, though, much of it is scholastic…and…boring for most people. And of course, there are differences between Europe and the Americas etc. but, the point stands.

    I’ve been a working professional artist for over 20 years (in film/tv, theatre, media, playwriting, and a host of other things with…intermittient rewards) and I’ve seen these destructive, anti-human sentiments at play in a lot of new work, especially in companies struggling to stay “relevant,” or those grasping for relevance. Oftentimes, the artist class is so deeply consumed by deconstructionsm, that they actually can’t tell that they’re in it. I confess that that was me in early 20’s – reviewing my work from back then, I see a colossal black hole of “F you!” that was invisible to me at the time, and did my work no favours.

    Of course, “cultural products” that don’t rely on government funding can’t get away with this, so they have to aim to please the crowd (which, of course, has its own pitfalls). Opera houses around the world (on average) are subsidized by governments first, a donor class second, (those blessed, generous people who also tend to be aficianadoes), and, somewhere between 3rd and dead last, by ticket sales. We just spoke with a German impresario who runs a regional venue with a 40 million dollar budget (the equivalent to our Stratford), and 80% of his funding comes from the German government, while only 9% are from ticket sales.

    Canada is no different (except our donor class is exponentially smaller, and we derive more revenue from ticket sales – though our tickets are upwards of 3x more expensive).

    Why Kyle? Why make me read this? Becaaaaaaause, it leads me to my next friendly rebuttal:

    2) We’re not talking trash about composers of modern operas. First of all, they’re us. Secondly, they’re our friends and colleagues. What we’re alluding to is the *incentive structure* of what gets funded and produced: it’s mostly governed by grants in Canada, which in turn, have some very specific (and in my opinion, completely irrelevant and flagrantly immoral) criteria. I’ll leave this here.

    And as a more direct commentary on the zeitgesit, we’ve spoken with profs in composition programs – there are frustrations in trying to get their kids to make tonal work. This may or may not be universal, but it exists.

    And I’m sure there ARE exceptions to what we’re talking about – in which case, we want to see and hear ’em! We’re also not saying that there isn’t room for experimental music- I’m saying that I believe that most professionals and impresari are so absorbed by the current mood, that they *don’t know they’re doing “experimental” work.* There’s obiviously room for debate on this, because it’s an issue of taste, but focus testing almost always reveals a pretty clear line.

    We’re out to ignite a renaissance, not a civil war.

    3) And I don’t think this particular story of the Lion Hear is well known at all. Ask the regular person about Richard I the Lion Heart and you’ll probably hear something about Robin Hood. As for departing from the lore – I actually took my story directly from the original sources of the legend, and then combined several into one.

    The beauty of myth and legend is that the truth is the least of their interests – they’re meant to inspire and delight.

    Though, Richard DID try to pass through Austria as a woman! Ha ha!

    We didn’t make this opera for aficionadoes. We made it for our friends, our uncles, our nieces, the lovers of music, those curious for something new and fun, and those in need of hope.

    4) Yes! The opera begins as a comedy with all the approrpriate hallmarks – and, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (which, after the opening scene, also unfolds like a comedy), the Act III accident occurs, and the tone changes.

    It makes it hurt more if we like things first – playing a tragedy as a “TRAGEDY” is always a mistake, and makes for dismal watching. This is also a tale of hope, so we have to start from a high place to feel the drop more keenly – only to be buoyed once again, when, even as darkness pervades, hope glimmers again.

    5) I do wish we could have had full staging with all the aciton of the lion fight! But, one step at a time. There’s been interest, so we’re hoping we’ll be able to get a fully mounted production by late 2022/early 2023, in which case, we’ll gladly invite you to attend to have a look at 2.0!

    Stay well, and thanks for taking the time to read through!

    -Kyle

  4. “There’s a wealth of good new opera out there” but as a casual opera-goer I’m not familiar with any in a top-of-mind way. Partly my bad, I know, but also I think I’m a typical victim of the over-reliance on canonical programming. Is there an article/listicle idea (in your spare time lol) introducing the top 3/5/10 “new opera classics” — or some such treatment — for an audience of the uninitiated? I’m looking forward to seeing The Queen in Me in the next month and hoping to experience a taste of it there.

    • The problem is that much of it hasn’t been recorded so I could say “go see Vespers for a new Dark Age” but how could you? There is a page in the DVD review section that lists some of my favourite video recordings of 21st century opera, though it needs updating. My best advice would be watch this space and Whole Note and try to catch what is on in Toronto. Tapestry have a couple of shows coming up over spring/summer. There’s Nicole Lisée’s “RUR: A Torrent of Light”. I saw some scenes in workshop early on and it should be good. Then there’s Brian Current’s “Gould’s Wall” which will be staged on the wall of the RCM Atrium!

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