12 March 2017

Another Notch in Their Belt

I might be going out on a limb here, but I suspect that there were a lot of actual Pink Floyd fans at the opera this evening for the world premiere of Another Brick in the Wall, the opera. It might have been the rather lower age of the audience or the unfamiliar faces (although as an “extra” opera in the season and one with more performances than most the unfamiliar faces might be par for the course), but it really was the spontaneous standing ovation before the opera even began when it was pointed out that Roger Waters was in the audience. All before a single note had been played or sung.

To my usual caveat (of not being an expert in opera) let me add another: not a big Pink Floyd fan. But as a person of a certain age, “The Wall” is very familiar. It was ubiquitous in my youth, released at the start of my second year in university. It seems that, as I age, I get more generous with the category of “youth”. But I digress…

I really have to start with the multimedia expertise that the Opéra de Montréal has incorporated into its productions. It’s funny that I had been thinking it was much less present this season, but they were obviously gearing up for the flood of projection, light and sound that took us to a crowded concert, into war, to school and to a place of ghostly memories, among others. Three real stand-outs for me: with soldiers on stage and war on the screen, a rush of sound and a sweep of lights put us right under a passing warplane; the almost psychedelic projected corridors and shapes that led us into infinity without moving a muscle; and the looming memory of a lost love showing through a wall become frosted window, one hand print at a time. Extremely well done.

And for the projection of all this creativity? Another very simple and very effective set, basically two wall-like structures that pivoted and came together and apart and, more importantly, became whatever they needed to be. At one point, they were turned around and became a fire escape-like structure, full of people and eventually armed soldiers training their guns on us. Small furniture moved about, added and taken away, by the players.

Oh, and the players! There was a huge and omnipresent chorus that really evoked for me a “famous person” reality of never being able to be without an audience, even when alone. Just to situate the size of this chorus, the program tells us there are 46 choristers, plus 20 extras who weren’t singing. And while there weren’t as many soaring arias as there are in many operas, Montréal’s own Étienne Dupuis sang beautifully and acted well, too! I don’t know the name of the young boy who played Pink as a child, but he acquitted himself with aplomb.

Let’s have a nod to the choreography, too. Everything from the stylized slo-mo concert goers, including a body surf to the stage, to soldiers at war, protesters and riot police in the streets, and kids rebelling in the classroom. I’m not even doing it justice here, and it might have been because of the large number of people on the stage almost all the time, but I really felt this production stood out as being more thoroughly and noticeably choreographed than so many others. A real treat.

The second act was definitely the more emotionally powerful, as Pink is revisited by the notable figures of his past. There were two elements after the intermission that I found either confusing or bizarre. I don’t know if I was projecting today’s politics onto the content, but I felt like the whole fascist-looking force complete with torture and a wall might have been ripped from the headlines of today’s papers (or tomorrow’s). I also couldn’t tell whether the chorus was repeating “Run” or “Trump”. Apparently my hearing is not what it used to be.

Also, the wacky feathered costumes were just odd. For me, they brought back an opera memory, as there used to be a woman sitting near my seats who often wore a most lovely feather collar to the performances. She subsequently moved further to the front and off to the side, then seems to have disappeared altogether (or stopped wearing the feather collar). Anyway, that was a digression, just like the feather costumes were for the performance.

When it was over, a very quick and very long standing ovation. It started from the first bow by the chorus and the extras, built with the arrival of each more major singer, and then stepped up yet another notch when Roger Waters walked on stage. That’s almost too bad, as I really thought the stars and perhaps the composer ought to have been more celebrated than the inspiration of the piece. But there was an amusing moment in the curtain calls, too, as one of the extras bowed with the stars, then realized that she had made a faux pas, then just kept doing it until everyone joined in. A nice little laugh at the end.

There are nine more presentations of this opera coming up, and I would recommend seeing it for any of the reasons above. If you’re a Pink Floyd fan, get a taste of opera. If you’re an opera fan, try out something original and thoroughly steeped in multimedia magnificence.

What you probably won’t get is Roger Waters in the audience and then on the stage. We got that opening night.

05 March 2017

Sleight of Ham

Image credit (because the watermark is so faint): Happy Toast

Well, we’re there. There’s a side show on the main stage spouting truths (if they happen to align with your beliefs) or outrageous lies (if you’re at all connected to reality), and keeping our attention on the antics in front of us while other things happen in the shadows. And the stuff he is producing on stage looks more like it is being pulled out of something other than his nose.

Lest I sound like a conspiracy theorist, let me clarify that the shadows would be the levers of government that are normally quite open and which command the attention of critics and the press. They’re pretty much just as open now, but our collective attention, including the attention of much of the now oft-vilified press, is on the clown at centre stage doing his unwired act while the Republican majority in the House and Senate do whatever they want. And whatever they want seems to have nothing to do with the best interests of their constituents, which is why they are avoiding any encounters with those people back home.

With their trademark thoroughness, they are proposing such delights as reducing bank regulations (remember what the less-regulated banks did a few years back that plunged the world into a giant recession?) and eliminating the environmental protection agency. You can see the thoughtful authorship and research that went into this last one by reading the text of the so-called bill here. Really? You want to just let companies pollute at will and you couldn’t even come up with a piece of legislation that is longer than its own preamble?

There’s a whole list of legislation in the works by the current Congress in this article, which I’m sure would be denounced by some political actors as “fake news”, despite the fact that you can find the texts online just as I did.

And let’s talk about the “fake news” rage. It does seem like a large part of the population has become uncontrollably gullible overnight. When you see a story with an outlandish headline and share it like it’s real news, shame on those who swallow it as real. They might cast their eyes to other stories on the same web page that are equally outlandish, or maybe click on the “about us” tab to discover that the site is humorous or satirical. Instead, in this crazy mixed-up world in which we are living, I find myself having to caption my reposts of the funny satire with a reminder that it is satire and still some readers will go to Snopes to “disprove” it. What’s next, denunciations of the Daily Show’s Trevor Noah’s voice impersonations of the Prestidigitator-in-Chief because the fit black comedian on TV is not actually the T-Rump? I like to think we knew that.

So while he waves about his tweeted rants in front of the crowd, it seems that health care, environmental protection and any controls on the avarice of the super-rich are not the only things disappearing — satire and the capacity to enjoy it in the face of the sad (“Sad!”) reality unfolding before us is also being taken away.

29 January 2017

Tweeting Poulenc

I thought I would try a new approach to my blog review of last night’s opera by gathering together and commenting my tweeted review elements. Hope you find it amusing or informative! (And hey, if it’s good enough for bad governance, it must also be good enough for the arts. Yes, I’m looking at you, T-Rump.)

The caveat is important. Even after all these years, I go to the opera for the stories and sometimes get carried away by the music. Sometimes I am blown away by how much more effectively a story can be told with music and singing (see my review of Les Feluettes).

I have a strong tendency to love the sets! The simpler and starker the better. This one was so amazing with a floor that looked like it belonged in a large religious institutional building, some solid dark wood chairs and prie-dieu, translucent white curtains that sometimes allowed us to see only in silhouette the gathering crowd and sometimes served as suggestions of divisions between spaces. There was not much else there, and no need for anything else either.

The opera is set in the time of the French Revolution. The nuns’ habits being so timelessly unchanged, it seemed very jarring to see the militia members in dark, modernish military outfits. I have a much of a uniform fetish as the next gay man, but they looked vaguely nazi-ish, and I am probably already on edge about that kind of issue because of what is laying out on the news these days.

That’s what was playing out on the news even as we sat in the audience at Place des Arts. We’ll notice that I have a typo in this tweet — the “protest” should be as plural as the verb that follows — especially considering what I had the nerve to add afterward…

Yes, I’m a pedant, and one who makes his own typos. But isn’t this high-brow entertainment? (I jest: I think opera ought to be way more accessible, and I make a point of going in jeans!)

There is some real theological debate going on here. Reminding the nuns that the convent is not a place of refuge, but of work, not a place to affirm one’s strengths, but to test one’s weaknesses. And the rejection of the idea that the nuns could choose to be martyrs for their beliefs — that they could only believe and accept the consequences, but that God would decide whether they would be seen as martyrs. Oi! The Catholicism!

If you’ve read any of my previous opera reviews, you’ll notice how much I tend to like lighter Italian fare with bouncy tunes. I guess this would remind us of my caveat at the beginning about not being an expert!

It really was like hitting the pause button. The curtain came down on the nuns in formation on their knees, praying. After the 20-minute intermission, the curtain rose and there they all were again, in formation on their knees, praying!

Given the sparseness of the set, I was wondering if they were going to roll out a guillotine or pretend there was one off stage and lead the nuns there, one by one. Spoiler alert! I am going to describe how they did it after the next tweet…

The nuns standing in the lights of a checkerboard pattern of lit and unlit squares on the stage, hands together in front of their chests in the usual prayer way. They are singing a devotional song. A horrible sound and the light of one nun goes out as she drops her hands to her side. The others keep singing. One by one, each of the martyred nuns is guillotined in this way. The time between them is random enough that each is a horrible shock, each is as effective as the last. Really amazingly well done.

Bravo, Opéra de Montréal, bravo!