2022 was the year when live performance in Toronto rose from the dead. It almost didn’t happen though. It’s a bit weird to remember just how strangely 2022 started. The theatres and concert halls had reopened in late 2021 and it looked like “normality” was returning. Some venues had masking policies or vaccine mandates and there were some “50%” performances but my calendar was starting to look something like pre plague. Then the government lost its marbles. Two weeks after a spike in COVID cases and at a point where all the indicators were actually heading south at the speed of a Messerschmidt in a power dive they closed everything down again. And although the shutdown was brief it was extremely disruptive causing all manner of cancellation and rescheduling. But get going again we did eventually and here’s a summary of the best things that came my way in 2022.
Live opera – This may have been the most impacted category one way or another. Pickings were slim. The COC eventually returned with a bunch of ultra-safe main stage revivals for both the end of the 2021/22 and beginning of the 2022/23 season. The shows were OK but I’d seen them all before and none of them were exceptional. Probably their best shows were the ones in the COC Theatre where they put on Teiya Kasahara’s The Queen in Me and Ian Cusson’s Fantasma. The smaller Indie companies were slow to come back too which really left the field to the colleges, Opera Atelier and Tapestry. I liked Opera Atelier’s Dido and Aeneas much better than with the previous cast but I still don’t think it quite makes the cut. The shout outs go to two brilliant new works from Tapestry.; Brian Current’s Gould’s Wall, with it’s highly innovative staging, and Nicole Lizée’s RUR: Torrent of Light for it’s thought provoking libretto and interesting fusion score. In a year where scarcely anything sold out these were the hot tickets! There were two student shows that deserve a mention too. Tom Diamond directed a bold, new look, version of Handel’s Rinaldo for the Glenn Gould School showing that a return to Met style conservatism isn’t the only option in Toronto. At UoT Michael Patrick Albano and Sandra Horst brought us a trio of lesser known comedies that, equally, showed that there’s more to opera than Carmen and La traviata.
Live theatre – This was the first year I covered a fair amount of straight theatre. I can’t claim to a comprehensive view of the Toronto theatre scene. Frankly I couldn’t fit in enough plays to do that even if I aspired to. So much of what I saw was either peripherally connected to opera or at Crow’s. Highlights included the Ashkenaz Festival’s irreverent and touching Last Night at the Cabaret Yitesh at Harbourfront, an intimate cabaret style show about Al Purdy; The Shape of Home, in the small studio at Crow’s and, on their main stage, the (very) darkly comic and disturbing Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. No claims that these were the best shows in Toronto, just the ones I managed to see and enjoyed most.
Live concerts – This was a funny year when the big names who showed up in town didn’t really blow me away. So the most memorable concerts were less obvious. The one exception I suppose was a beautiful Lieder recital by baritone Benjamin Appl and pianist Wolfram Rieger at Toronto Summer Music. Germans doing what Germans do best. The other pure song recital that really impressed me was McGill’s Elisabeth Saint-Gelais in a lunchtime gig in the RBA. Star of the future material for sure. Slightly less conventional but excellent concerts were Confluence Concerts’ The Drawing Room featuring a new Lear themed theatre piece by Ian Cusson and André Alexis and the Happenstancers Pierrot; a mash up of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and contemporary work on the same theme featuring Danika Lorén who I hadn’t seen for way too long. Also in this category, the Tapestry bilingual show Les shorts qui chantent at the Allance Française; LibLab material presented in an engaging staging by Tim Albery. And finally, the show my pre-Christmas run ended on; the revival of Electric Messiah by Soundstreams. This year it was at Crow’s, neatly tying up a year of pre COVID territory and some new ground.
Video streams – The COVID legacy. We still have a bunch of “films” being made. Favourites of the year for me included Opera Q’s gender fluid reimagining of part of the Medusa story; Medusa’s Children and two shows that were actually staged performances that were live-streamed on the OperaVision channel on Youtube, one of which even had a live audience. The first was Opera North’s production of Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins notable for me because I finally got to see Wallis Giunta do the whole thing with orchestra!. The other was a new opera by the genius pair of Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek. It was The Listeners staged by Det Norske Opera and it dealt with cults and conspiracy theories in a thoroughly dark, funny (and rather profane) way.
Video recordings – I watched a lot of video on disk this year! Highlights ranged from a visceral La traviata, to a very funny and irreverent Tannhäuser, a surprisingly good Madama Butterfly from the lake stage at Bregenz and some modern Polish and Spanish opera. Herewith my top picks of the year’s recordings:
- Casablancas – L’enigma di Lea – Liceu, Barcelona
- Wagner – Tannhäuser – Bayreuth
- Moniuszko – Halka – Theater an der Wien
- Weinberg – The Passenger – Graz
- Janáček’ – Jenůfa – Royal Opera House, London
- Puccini – Madama Butterfly – Bregenz
- Verdi – La traviata – Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
There were a lot more very worthwhile recordings but one has to draw the line somewhere…
Audio recordings – In the CD category we have some Barbara Hannigan, new Canadian art song, reimagining of old myths, and two historical milestones. Barbara makes the list with music by Hans Andriessen; let me tell you, and (with friends) music from early 20th century Vienna; Sehnsucht. The Canadian art song is Jeffrey Ryan’s Found Frozen which includes his brilliant Emily Carr songs. James Kallenbach’s Antigone looks at parallels between Sophocles’ heroine and the White Rose movement while Anthony Brandt and Neena Beeber’s Kassandra transfers the unfortunate prophetess to the world of Artificial Intelligence. The first milestone is in the history of the genre of opera. It’s Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable which in. many ways defined the grand opera as it emerged n mid 19th century Paris. The second milestone is a huge one in the history of recording opera. It’s the first taster of the new, rather remarkable, restoration of Georg Solti’s recording of Wagner’s Ring. This recording is the one that got sixteen year old schoolboy me excited about opera, an experience I share with Sir Donald Runnicles!
Special lunchtime achievement award – The special lunchtime achievement award goes to Opera Revue. Actually most of their show’s are a bit later than lunchtime but whatever. Dani Friesen, Claire Harris, Alex Hajek and assorted friends were one of the first of the smaller groups to go live again, bringing opera and awful sweaters to dubious venues around the city and even managing a rather indescribable gala back in November. If you haven’t tried one of their shows and you aren’t averse to slumming it a bit give them a go.
So that’s pretty much a wrap on 2022. It was an odd year. Conservatism prevailed, to a large extent and cerrtainly at the COC and the TSIO, in programming but it didn’t result in full houses. The most successful shows tended to be the bolder ones. The smaller companies are still largely missing from the Toronto scene. . What excitement there was came from the “middle ground” like Tapestry who had a really strong year and Soundstreams who also had a pretty good year. I don’t know what the future holds for the smaller companies. Costs have got silly, we pretty much missed a generation of students looking for performance opportunities and a lot of creative people have fled the cost of Toronto; none of which helped. It will be interesting to see what 2023 brings.