Ayre Live launches AtG's new record label Miriam Khalil performing Ayre at the Toronto Ismaili Centre, 2016. Photo: Darryl Block Photography.

Ayre Live launches AtG's new record label

Jenna Simeonov

On December 7, Against the Grain Theatre has lots to celebrate. The Toronto-based indie opera company, now famous for churning out one innovative production after another, is launching its new record label, Against the Grain Records. Its debut album is the gutsy, political, and hypnotising Ayre Live, the sweeping song cycle by Osvaldo Golijov, performed by Canadian soprano and AtG founding member Miriam Khalil.

Ayre (2004) is a banding together of culture and language. It compiles Arabic, Hebrew, and Christian texts, and Sardinian, Byzantine, and Sephardic melodies; alongside the soprano is an ensemble of traditional and electronic instruments. The work’s premiere recording (2005) was done in studio and featured Golijov muse Dawn Upshaw; as gloriously unhinged as Upshaw sounds, Khalil’s 2016 performances in Toronto - which make up Ayre Live - offer an energy and understanding that make hers a new definitive interpretation of the work.

Miriam Khalil and composer Osvaldo Golijov, 2016. Photo: Darryl Block Photography.

Khalil was born to a Christian family in Lebanon and was raised in Syria before immigrating to Canada in 1987. Fluent in Arabic and even familiar with some of the melodies Golijov chose for Ayre, Khalil finds a connection with the aesthetic of the piece, and with its message.

“That time is imprinted in my brain, and I think it will be forever,” says Khalil of singing Ayre at Toronto’s Ismaili Centre, a cultural symbol of the city’s fostering of Islam. She gave three performances between November 10-12, 2016, less than a week after Trump’s election win. “This piece felt like it was so needed at that time.”

Miriam Khalil performing Ayre at the Toronto Ismaili Centre, 2016. Photo: Darryl Block Photography.

The texts - some contemporary, some centuries old - are on the ever-recurring themes of warring people, othering, and even walls. Two years after the performances that would become Ayre Live, Khalil still feels the acutely political facets of Golijov’s work. “This culture of fear, culture of ‘the other’, has been heightened, and permission has been granted to people with close-minded views to voice those views,” says Khalil. Timeless in its defiance, Ayre “was meant to be a statement of unity.”

Ayre Live is impressive on its own; Khalil’s technical proficiency with the challenging vocalism, particularly for a live performance. The album is also a bold way for Against the Grain to inaugurate its status as a record label. Ayre is not opera, and it’s perhaps not even representative of what AtG has become most widely known for - namely, its 21st-century-spun “transladaptations” of traditional operas by Mozart and Puccini. Yet for the launching of Against the Grain Records, to lead with Ayre is to lead with a strong message of putting art and diversity first - without compromising on quality.

Album cover image: Darryl Block Photography.

Ayre Live is sound-engineered by Pouya Hamidi, mixed by Dennis Patterson and Big Smoke Audio, and produced by Joel Ivany, Miriam Khalil, and Against the Grain Records. It is officially released on December 7, 2018 on Against the Grain Records, available for download on iTunes and Google Play Music, for sale in select Toronto stores, and at all Against the Grain Theatre performances of the 201819 season.

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