Rachel Fenlon is aa unusual talent. She’s equally skilled as a soprano and as a pianist and she has combined those talents to create an evolving show called Fenlon and Fenlon where she sings (mostly) art song while accompanying herself on piano. I saw a very early version of the show in Toronto back in 2016. Last night there was a chance to see Rachel again; streamed from Berlin by Against the Grain as part of the Opera Pub series.
Back to the Tranzac last night for the first Toronto performance of Against the Grain’s national tour of the Joel Ivany transladaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème which started it all back in 2011. The Tranzac has changed a lot and so, of course, has Against the Grain. The room is way smarter, they brought in a proper piano to replace the one that Topher plonked the first performance out on (and which memorably accompanied Jonathan MacArthur’s rather startling Hitler a few years later). And not in any way to knock that first cast it’s a sign of AtG’s rising stature that this time they are fielding a cast that would not be out of place in most regional houses in Canada.
So you have sung the Queen of the Night exactly 2,327 times; high Fs and all, and you are sick to death of it and the Misogyny it rode in on. What do you do? Well, obvs you create a one woman show that teeters between mocking opera stereotypes of women and something much darker. At least that’s what Teiya Kasahara did as part of Tapestry Opera’s Tap This: A Queerated Opera Series presented in conjunction with Pride.
So our favourite inked butch dyke coloratura comes on in a foofy dress complete with Dollarama coronet and wand and starts to sing the heck out of that aria – you know, the one they sing at weddings. But then it rapidly morphs into a diatribe; first in German, then in heavily accented English, about the role, how women are portrayed in opera, occasionally veering into how women; sopranos in particular, are seen/treated in the opera world(*) before switching up into dress pants and a wing collared shirt with studs (despite pianist David Eliakis’ increasingly frantic pleas of “no pants”). Along the way there are jokes, some killer singing and some very sharp reminders of what it’s like to be a strong, athletic, queer woman in a world that expects its sopranos to behave as if they are romantically dying of TB on-stage and off. It’s a very moving and rather disturbing 45 minutes that I really can’t do full justice to. It’s a very brave show and I hope Teiya puts it on again. More people need to see it.
(*)It’s odd that it should come just after I first encountered Kiri Te Kanawa live for surely few sopranos have been as sexually objectified. I don’t know how many people remember Bernard Levin’s Times column written after her ROH debut in 1971 but it’s probably the only time the Thunderer was printed using drool.
Tapestry Opera is collaborating with Toronto Pride Week to put on a “queerated opera series” called Pride Toronto, Tap This. There are three shows:
Cocktales with Maria showcases Drag Chanteuse / Contralto Profundo Maria Toilette (Joel Klein) and her small motley crew (the Gutter Opera Collective). They will present Isaiah Bell’s settings of Cocktales: rapacious and tender 1st person retellings of early sexual experiences. June 8th and 9th at 9pm.
Queer of the Night features Soprano Teiya Kasahara subverting the tropes of women in opera with her trademark butch couture and powerful coloratura in cooperation with collaborative pianist, David Eliakis. June 7th at 9pm and June 9th at 4pm.
Tap This: Queers Crash the Opera is a selection of queer-themed opera curated by David Eliakis. It features selections from the classics as well as Tapestry original works. June 7th and 8th at 8pm.
All shows are at the Ernest Balmer Studio. More info and tickets here.
I went to see Whitney Mather sing yesterday afternoon. It was her second masters degree performance at Walter Hall with David Eliakis at the piano. (Probably the first time I’ve heard David play a proper piano!)
It was an interesting and well chosen program that allowed Whitney to demonstrate her musicianship and sensitivity to text. For the most part it avoided overly obvious territory, starting with Purcell’s rarely heard The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation which was followed by the obligatory CanCon. In this case John Greer’s The Red Red Heart; settings of poems by Marianne Bindig. The Purcell allowed some tasteful decoration and an opportunity to display appropriately baroque style. The Greer, like so many modern songs, perhaps had more of interest in the piano line than for the voice but it did allow a brief coloratura flourish.
Next up were Respighi’s Quattro Rispetti Toscani to texts by Arturo Birga. These are rather beautiful songs and should be heard more often. Whitney brought out both the pathos and humour in the rather rustic (Tuscan dialect?) texts.
After the interval we were on more familiar ground with Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen. Tiago Delgado played the clarinet part quite beautifully and Whitney managed the crazy pace of the piece very well, managing to maintain a clear sense of shape and line. She wrapped up with Milhaud’s Chansons de Ronsard. These are a bit of a tour de force. Some passages are really fast and much of the music lies high in the soprano range. Whitney may not have the easiest, most beautiful, high notes ever but she does have all the notes and she hit them here with accuracy and without sense of strain. She was particularly impressive in the crazy fast Tais-toi, babillarde.
All in all not a bad way to spend a late Saturday afternoon!
It’s been four years since the initial Canadian Art Song Project concert in the RBA. Since then they’ve commissioned a number of works and started a recital series that has included innovative presentations such as the performance of Brian Harman’s Sewing the Earthwormgiven in November. A work premiered that night; Erik Ross’ The Living Spectacle formed the conclusion to yesterday’s concert but first came a series of works performed by students from the University of Toronto.
This concert was the culmination of several days of workshops involving Wallis Giunta, Jordan de Souza and eighteen emerging artists; both singers and pianists. It’s a comparatively unusual opportunity to focus on contemporary repertoire for a while and the results were fun. As usual with these multi-participant efforts I’m not going to attempt to be exhaustive but just concentrate on my personal highlights.