Last night Pomegranate; music by Kye Marshall, words by Amanda Hale, opened at Buddies in Bad Times. Inspired by the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii, it tells the story of two lesbian lovers. Cass has broken up with Suzy in 1980s Toronto. She visits Pompeii as a tourist and is carried back in time to meet her lover in a previous incarnation in the Temple of Isis. There’s a whole act dealing with the Mysteries, Cassia and Suli’s burgeoning relationship and the attempt by the Roman state to suppress the religion. Then Vesuvius erupts. Fast forward to Act 2 in a lesbian bar in Toronto. Suzy, an immigrant from some unspecified war zone is pressured by her family to break up with Cass. There’s a slightly surreal byt dramatically satisfying epilogue where modern Cass reunites with Roman Sulli in the ruins of Pompeii.
There’s been a lot of new opera in Toronto at the moment and a lot of it has had either an Indigenous or a Queer angle; likely reflecting funding bodies trying to encourage diversity of various types. The latest one to come my way is Pomegranate which will play at Buddies in Bad Times from June 5th to 9th. It’s a lesbian chamber opera from librettist Amanda Hale and composer Kye Marshall and it’s a first opera for both of them.
How to present a mostly forgotten composer to a modern audience is an interesting conundrum. Reviving a four hour opera seria about Marcus Aurelius likely isn’t the answer and just sticking a few pieces in an otherwise mainstream program is unlikely to have much impact either. Better by far, I think, is the approach Ivars Taurins has taken in Tafelmusik’s current run of concerts of music by the Venetian Agostino Steffani (1654-1728) at Trinity St.Paul’s.
They just keep coming in! There’s another new kid on the block in the admirable tradition of young Toronto artists creating performance opportunities. This one is called Muse 9 and it’s a collaboration between stage director Anna Theodosakis and collaborative pianist Hyejin Kwon. Both of them are very talented with a track record in the Toronto indie opera scene. Their first production, From the Diary of Virginia Woolf, is a theatrical art song performance featuring the music of Dominick Argento and Amy Beach paired with excerpts from Woolf’s novels, letters, and diaries. It is an artistic exploration into the life and mind of Virginia Woolf through the performances of mezzo soprano Victoria Marshall, actor Keshia Palm, and dancer Renee Killough. It’s playing at the Ernest Balmer Studio on April 13th at 8pm. That’s the opening night of the COC’s The Nightingale so I won’t be there but I would be if I could. Proceeds from the event will go to CAMH. Tickets are available at brownpapertickets.com under From the Diary of Virginia Woolf. https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3351476
The first performance of Against the Grain Theatre’s Bound took place at the Jackman Studio at the COC. It’s the first public airing of the piece in piano score, as a workshop, so it’s not the finished product. The performance was followed by a lively discussion about the work’s potential and future avenues to explore.
I think it’s fair to say that Bound ventures into more serious territory than we have yet seen from this company, dealing as it does with the fraught relationship between the state and the individual in an age when the state, egged on by the right wing media, uses fear of terrorism to suppress “dissidents”.
The space where the audience assembles before the show is liberally decorated with propaganda for The State of the “fear anything that looks different” variety. In the performance venue itself the audience is ranked either side of a space that contains the piano and, at intervals around the large empty floor, seven chairs; one for each detainee. The detainees are all being held for things which aren’t actually crimes but bring them under suspicion; wearing a hijab, having a Nazi great-uncle, wanting to emigrate to Sri Lanka, converting to Islam, having a terrorist brother, protesting immigration restrictions, being transgendered. They are posed essentially unanswerable Kafkaesque questions by the State interrogator (Martha Burns) sitting off in one corner with a microphone. The only answer is to express frustration and despair and, occasionally, defiance and hope in arias using Handel’s music and words by either Handel’s librettist or Joel Ivany. Some of the music has been somewhat reshaped by Kevin Lau who also wrote/arranged the final ensemble number.
Against the Grain Theatre have announced the line up for their 2017/18 season. First up is a workshop of a Handel mash up called BOUND. It’s a collaboration with composer Kevin Lau and will explore aspects of the refugee crisis through Handel’s music as well as contemporary real life stories. It’s the beginning of a three year concept to production cycle. The workshop cast will include soprano Danika Lorèn, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, counter-tenor David Trudgen, baritone Justin Welsh, bass Michael Uloth, mezzo-soprano Victoria Marshall and soprano Miriam Khalil. It will play at the COC’s Jackman Studio on December 14, 15, and 16, 2017.
Yesterday we got the second recital by the song fellows of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. In the week since the first concert they have been working with mentor Soile Isokoski and it showed in the programming. There was quite a bit of Strauss and more Finnish and Swedish music than I have ever heard in such a recital. Among other things this highlighted just how difficult Strauss songs are to sing well. They are exceedingly tricky yet have to sound absolutely effortless. Three of the four sopranos on show tried. None of them succeeded completely(*). So it goes. And so to the details.
Toronto Summer Music Festival has two “apprenticeship” programmes; one for chamber musicians and one for singers and collaborative pianists. The latter is directed by Martin Katz and Steven Philcox. On Saturday afternoon in Walter Hall we got our first chance to see this year’s young artists. Eight singers and four pianists were on show. The singers were a mix of those who are well known to anyone who follows student opera in Toronto and newcomers. The pianists were all new to me.
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.
Anna Theodosakis’ production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia for MYOpera updates the piece from proto-historical Rome to somewhere in the mid 20th century which is fine but doesn’t seem, of itself, to add any layers of meaning to the narrative. There are neat visual touches in a simple but effective set design and the nature of and relationships between the characters are deftly drawn. The rape scene manages to be disturbing without being gratuitously graphic. It’s skilful theatre. But is that enough?