Greg & Jenna's #RoundUp2017Editorial
Jenna: In an unexpected twist of 2017, the puppet opera based on a true story about a polyphagist name Tarrare became one of my top picks of the year. The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak was a total feat of storytelling from Wattle & Daub puppeteers Tobi Poster and Aya Nakamura. There was everything from a conjoined-twins-love-aria, to a German military chorus chanting “Shit it out! Shit it out!” Tarrare’s heartbreaking line seemed to sum up the bizarre story: “I don’t have dreams. I just want to be full.”
Götterdämmerung at the COC
Greg: One of my first shows of 2017, which was a full year of some great work here in the Greater Toronto Area, was Tim Albery’s production of the last piece of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Götterdämmerung, at the Canadian Opera Company. I had openly confessed that this was my first experience seeing a full, fully staged Wagner opera - and I have a grand total of less than zero regrets. For your first foray into seeing the grandest operas on the grandest of scales, what better choice than one where the character Brünnhilde - who is the genesis for pretty much all operatic stereotypes - literally sets the home of the gods on fire?
The show was ~4 hours long and it felt shorter than a 30-minute sitcom with the commercials removed. Take all of this and have the #flawless Christine Goerke as the Valkyrie we all love, and introducing me to one of the largest, most engaging voices I’ve heard in a while in tenor Andreas Schager. This remount of Albery’s production - which helped launch the opening of the Four Seasons Centre - featured loads of Canadian talent, and it was the perfect way to see Wagner in full for the first time.
Jenna: Talking with laryngeologist Paul E. Kwak was a totally illuminating experience, and one that certainly stood out in 2017. Dr. Kwak sees patients in New York - singers of the operatic and Broadway variety - and he’s also a trained pianist and vocal coach. We published his excellent essay, “Stop shaming Adele”, which unpacks the complicated topic of vocal fatigue; when I read it, I was eager to talk more about the issue, and he indulged me in my endless questions about vocal health and the demands of a professional singing career.
Greg: This is one of those shows where it’s hard to say you loved it because the subject material is so difficult. Oksana G., Tapestry Opera’s largest production to date, saw Toronto audiences presented with a very real, contemporary human rights issue that many of us in our safe Canadian bubble probably thought doesn’t happen much anymore - until the characters make reference to the time period, and that illusion is shattered.
The scale and style of the production was stunning and gave the whole opera scene in the GTA a shake-up that the season needed. Director Tom Diamond led a cast of brilliant singers to present a layered, complex story with top-notch nuanced characterisations. Adam Fisher and Jacqueline Woodley gave thrilling performances and Natalya Gennadi as the title character was definitely the season’s breakout star for me. A deeply personal topic for Gennadi, it brought a sence of urgency and realness to the story and both Toronto’s music and theatre scenes are richer for this performance.
Jenna: I counted myself lucky to be in London for the first revival of Katie Mitchell’s staging of Written on Skin, the 2012 opera by George Benjamin that has firmly nestled itself into the contemporary operatic canon. I had seen a handful of in-concert performances, and I was already wowed by the devastating score and the superb singing of Barbara Hannigan (Agnès) and Christopher Purves (The Protector), but seeing the full picture at the Royal Opera House sealed my love for the opera. The final scene stayed with me for a long time; The Protector chases Agnès up the stairs with predatory rage in his eyes - and Mitchell shows it all in horrific slow-motion.
Greg: The Toronto Symphony Orchestra teamed up with director Joel Ivany (Against The Grain Theatre, COC, Minnesota Opera) and choreographer Jennifer Nichols (Opera Atelier, Hit&Run Productions, The Extension Room) to present Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, featuring Canada’s own Wallis Giunta. Giunta brought her now world famous mezzo and interpretation to the Roy Thomson Hall stage in May. Supported by a remarkable quartet of singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Geoffrey Sirett, and Stephen Hegedus) Giunta and Nichols played Annas I & II in a dark, sultry, and emotional portrayal that was a stunning marriage with Toronto’s premier symphony orchestra.
AtG’s La bohème
Jenna: At this point, it’s almost a staple of Toronto’s opera repertoire; just as Puccini’s opera never ceases to bring on the tears - for me, anyway, and if you don’t weep at the “tramonto” line in Act IV, you’re a robot - Against the Grain Theatre’s “transladaptation” of La bohème adds to the mix a feeling of nostalgia. This year’s revival of the 2011 production featured a new cast (save for Schmopera’s own Greg Finney as Benoit/Alcindoro) and a new set, but stayed in the lovably dingy Tranzac Club in Toronto’s Annex.
Greg: With Peter Oundjian at the helm, the orchestra payed honour and tribute to Canada’s most celebrated contralto - the one and only Maureen Forrester. Presenting a program of new works and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde was the perfect way to remember Forrester who was both a renowned Mahler interpreter and, especially through her work as chair of the Canada Council for the Arts, a champion of new Canadian compositions. I got to hear new music by Howard Shore (anyone who knows me and my desperate love and addiction to the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, knows how excited I was to hear new works by the guy who gave me a soundtrack to Middle Earth). The singing was top-notch with mezzo Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade. You can check out my interview with Platts for La Scena Musicale here. A wonderful evening hosted by Canadian supertenor Ben Heppner, it was incredible to be there to pay respects to one who paved the way for so many of us today.
Jenna: Peter Hinton’s new production of Louis Riel, which went up at the Canadian Opera Company this year, isn’t in my list of favourites for 2017; yet, it’s hard to talk about the operatic year in Canada without mentioning Somers’ impactful opera about a major Canadian historical figure. The problematic piece - dated in its devices - piled onto one stage huge numbers of Canadian artists, and it illuminated what is uncomfortably wrong about our country’s history. Louis Riel was hard to listen to and hard to watch, but it was by no means forgettable.
Greg: You can always count on Against the Grain Theatre to be at the front of the pack when it comes to innovation with opera and theatre. They have a distinctly unique approach that is undeniably Canadian. Their team is made of an extremely diverse group of people; knowing them both personally and professionally, you can really see where each person’s voice has been added to this song.
The first installation of a series of workshops bringing this production to fruition, BOUND is the first multi-year commission project by the indie darlings who have become the first Company in Residence at the COC. BOUND was an exploration in citizenship, identity, and authority presented through vignettes of characters being interrogated for various “violations” in a totalitarian state. Alongside the brilliant casting of Canadian treasure Martha Burns as the voice of “The State”, the ensemble of singers was a who’s-who of the best talent in Canada. Miriam Khalil, Danika Lorèn, Victoria Marshall, David Trudgen, Asitha Tennekoon, and Michael Uloth singing these reworked Handel arias was, alongside Tapestry’s Oksana G., was the most moving theatre I’ve seen all year.
Coda: No year-end roundup for 2017 would be complete if we didn’t pay some final respects to the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky. He brought us decades of great performances and brought Russian art song to audiences around the world. Our condolences to his family and friends and we will be forever grateful for the beautiful music he brought to the world.
Readers, what were your top picks of 2017? Let us know in the comments below, or get in touch at [email protected]ra.com.