It was March 2017 and I was interviewing composer Brian Current over lunch. He mentioned having seen Geoff Sirett bouldering on the wall of the Royal Conservatory atrium and how he had an idea for a site specific opera based on the life of Glenn Gould. Eventually this became Gould’s Wall with a libretto by Liza Balkan. Announced and rescheduled more than once due to COVID it premiered last night under the auspices of Tapestry Opera and the conservatory’s 21C series.
It is about Glenn Gould but it’s not in any way a linear narrative. To quote Liza Balkan, it’s “a metaphysical meditation about art, music, creation, rigour and discovery”. Although much of it uses Gould’s own words the ideas are universal. It deals with art and how/why we perform. How, as an audience, we experience art. Even how that experience is mediated by what we are told to think by “authority”. And much more.
It’s told as a multi-dimensional dialogue between a young artist Louise and Glenn; the “spirit” of Gould, with, additionally, a small cast of commentators. And, of course, it plays out on the wall of the atrium transformed from an elaborate external wall of sandstone and brick to an interior wall when the Koerner Hall complex was built some fifteen years ago. It’s a much more elaborate and beautiful structure than I ever realised despite walking past it or drinking coffee under it times without number. And it’s transformed here by Lauren Pearl, as Louise, who brings the moves and sensibilities of both an aerialist and a climber as she traces patterns vertically and horizontally on the wall (all this while singing too!)
The foils to Louise are the earthbound Glenn sung by Roger Honeywell, who has the mannerisms of Gould down pat, and assorted characters who sing from the windows high up on the wall. There’s Keith Klassen as a rather crass celebrity, Andrea Ludwig as a worry wort mother, Caitlin Wood as an adoring housewife and Justin Welsh as a rather overbearing teacher. They double up as opinionated New York party goers. There’s also a lovely cameo from thirteen year old Alice Malakhov as a girl seeking Glenn’s help with some Mozart. Orchestrating all this is director Philip Akin, whose dance background clearly informs much of what we see.
The score is really impressive. There are nineteen musicians, including five pianos, so there’s plenty of colour. It’s got what I think of as the classic Current combo; driving energy, incredibly complex rhythmical structure and transitions from something quite abrasive to the most beautiful lyricism. It’s also at one with the libretto and the action on the wall. This far from easy music is beautifully executed by an excellent group of young musicians directed by Jennifer Tung.
There are imperfections. The acoustics and layout of the space are difficult and, despite the use of mikes, that means that the balance depends a lot on where one sits or stands. It’s also hard to make out the words and one is grateful for the printed libretto supplied. But overall it’s a satisfying, even moving, experience. Perfection may be unattainable but the journey lies within each of us if we trust ourselves rather than “expert” opinion. So don’t take my word for it!
Gould’s Wall continues at the Royal Conservatory of Music with further performances tonight and on the 9th, 10th and 12thy. Right now they are all showing as sold out but there’s a chance extra standing room places will be made available so you could check the RCM website.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz