16 September 2012

Spoiler alert: she dies of opera!

To launch the new season of the Opéra de Montréal, a lovely production of Verdi's La Traviata, featuring Myrtò Papatanasiu as Violetta, Roberto De Biasio as Alfredo and Luca Grassi as Giorgio.

As I am not a musical expert — I just know what I like — I will not attempt to critique the musical talents of the cast. I will say that the music itself is lovely and they did good service to it. The first act is really loaded with the tunes that are more popularly familiar, while the second features a lovely gypsy song (while I do not personally use that term to describe the Roma people, Verdi did) and a bullfight song and performance that was quite nice too. In the third act, I was surprised by Violetta's speaking the contents of the letter she received (who knew she could do something other than sing her words?!), and there were some more spoken words by the character later on as she draws near to death.

The plot, as usual, is very entertaining. Violetta is wooed by Alfredo, but cannot return his love. She does, however, invite him to return the day after the party, and relishes the state of being loved. My favourite line was something about being free to race from joy to joy, which is a delightful way to live if you can.

We skip to Violetta's house in the country, where she is secretly having her maid sell her Parisian possessions to maintain the country lifestyle she is living with Alfredo, and she seems after all to have become rather attached to him. Alfredo feels awful that she is selling everything to support him and secretly steals off to Paris to try to rectify that situation. While he's gone, his father Giorgio pops in to share the news that everyone thinks Alfredo is squandering his family's fortune on her and imploring Violetta to leave him to save the family honour. She reluctantly agrees but, of course, doesn't really come clean with Alfredo and leaves him on the sly with an ambiguous letter delivered to him later.

Meanwhile, back in Paris, Violetta's friend Flora is having a fabulous party. There is the Roma people song (!) that I mentioned earlier, and the performance that goes with the bullfighter song involves the killing of four mock bulls, the last seems to have been killed with a withering glance. There were supposed to be five bulls, so one of the guests obliges and does a bad job of being the fifth bull without the bull outfit.

Who knew that Alfredo would show up at this party?! He is incensed that Violetta seems to be there with the Baron and, after decimating the Baron's fortunes by gambling and winning against him, he throws his winnings at Violetta's feet in payment for past favours. How insulting! And adding injury to insult he seems to have challenged the Baron to a duel as well.

The next time we see Violetta, she is on her deathbed. The doctor tells the maid that she probably only has a few hours to live. The mail arrives! It is a letter from Alfredo announcing an impending visit, and Violetta perks right up to the point that we think she might survive. But alas, she is stricken by opera (an inoperable form) and is doomed to leave us. She does have time, however, to offer Alfredo a small bedside portrait of herself for him to give to his next lover (she has an odd sense of occasion, I must say!). She dies in a flourish as her visitors freeze in position and her spirit gets up and sings and dances before finally collapsing to the ground. Everyone is sad, but satisfied.

Some of the most entertaining spectacle of going to the opera is the hierarchy of applause at the end. The curtain rises and the minor characters are there to receive applause. In a surprising departure from custom, enough people leapt to their feet at this point that we all had to get up in order to be able to see! Kind of takes away the impact of leaping to one's feet for the more substantial stars!

Then we get waves of groups of characters building gradually to the leads, who lead the group in rushing forward to take collective bows, interspersed with individual accolades. The conductor joins them on stage and draw attention to the orchestra, which does not move, but receives its due. A couple of non-costumed people come out, likely the director and stage director, maybe the accountant (?) (I kid), and we embark on another frenzy of bows and applause until the curtain comes down and the lights go up.

The Opéra de Montréal, fresh from some live blogging experiences last year, has fired up the Twitter machine this year. I obliged by tweeting during the intermissions and pauses, and only some of my cleverness was frustrated by the autocorrect on my phone (bulldog for bullfight…really?!!). I thought they might have taken it too far when it looked like Violetta's bedside portrait was the Twitter egg (the one that is assigned to your profile if you don't upload a photo), but it might have been failing eyesight on my part combined with the distance from a rather small picture. They did, however, retweet one of my tweets (alas, the autocorrected one).

A delightful evening in delightful company, and a good start for the new season. Next up: Le vaisseau fantôme (The Flying Dutchman) by Wagner, in November.

15 September 2012

Clap Off Your Hands!

From the time I started to discover Walk Off the Earth via YouTube (their channel), I suspected that they would put on a very good show. When I discovered that Montréal was on their tour roster, I knew I had to see them. Not having actually gone to a concert as such in a long time, I made two friends accompany me. (Images, except those of my ticket and the bad far away ones I took with my phone, stolen from their Facebook page.)

Those friends might not forgive me for the warm-up act, who were probably not as bad as we thought they were last night (allow me to be charitable here, will you?). They didn't really announce their name, or at least not clearly, but I gather from the end of their "performance" (I guess the charity's gone!) that it was something like Trouble Your Daughter, or Warn Your Daughter Not to See This Band, or something like that. I kid. They have a lot of development of their act to do, and the WOTE performance they warmed us up for only served to drive that point home.

From their entry onto the stage to a deafening roar of the crowd, Walk Off the Earth gave us a really polished and entertaining performance. Little things like some choreographed moves and what looks like a real group spirit make all the difference to a show. I knew from their videos that I could expect a ukulele or two to be tossed around, but I was rewarded with thrown trumpet, harmonica and guitar as well!

I probably started liking this group because I think Marshall is as cute as a button. You'll be able to pick out which one he must be because I'm not all that unique in my tastes. But the best thing for me has been coming to appreciate the individual talents of the whole group, as well as what seems to be their excellent group dynamic. You'll be in awe of their multi-instrumental talent, but most of all, you'll feel good after listening to them.

I'm not going to be able to do an adequate job of describing the concert, so I'm going to have to share a couple of videos with you. The thing about this is that the live performance is even better because it is just as polished and you know it isn't having a bunch of re-takes. Imagine their performance of Gotye's Somebody That I Used to Know with five of them on one guitar. Here's my fuzzy picture of them doing it live, followed by the YouTube video that has now been seen over 135 million times.


The funniest thing I have to note is the incredible change in the behaviour of concert-goers over time. I went to a fair number of concerts in the time of the lighter held high, burning a message of "we love what you're doing" into the air. You can see in my fuzzy photo the cell phones recording, and it was impressive to see all the phones get lifted simultaneously at certain points in time. And to further demonstrate how old I am (we did figure that we were among the oldest people there, but not the only ones our age), it was lovely to see a concert in a space that was not full of smoke. The kids won't understand what that might have been like.

I haven't gone on nearly enough, so I'm going to do that by sharing a couple more videos. One of their newish songs really got the crowd going: Summer Vibe.

It's a calm and almost lazy song, but the crowd was involved as we were invited to sing along and provided with lyrics printed on big pieces of cardboard like flashcards.

It worked, too, as this was a refrain taken up by the crowd to incite the first of two encores.

And in the encores, one of my personal faves. It's a mocking of an auto-tuned news story that you may or may not remember from the past year, and it didn't look exactly like this video. It was very well translated to the stage and gave me occasion to whoop my approval and enjoyment from my balcony perch.

All in all, I'm very glad I went to this concert and I'm looking forward to this group's talent and creativity being around for a long time.

Remembering David

It's always hard to put into words what we feel about the death a family member, of a friend, even of an acquaintance. Not being a believer (not having any imaginary friends?), I don't take refuge in notions of "better places" or reuniting with lost love ones. I prefer to focus on the things I remember, little incomplete snippets of a life lived that brought shared pleasure or maybe a little learning.

David McCombs died recently. He wasn't my really close friend and he lived in another city, but I'm going to miss him, fondly remember some shared history, and regret the last visit we didn't have because he wasn't feeling up to it at the time.

David was a gay man living with HIV and Hepatitis C. When he lived in Montréal, he was a member of AIDS Community Care Montréal, of which I had the privilege of being the Executive Director for a time. This is where I met David. Volunteering for the ACCM Buyers' Club, participating in a number of the organization's activities, and finally getting involved in representing the organization in various ways, including at the Canadian AIDS Society AGM and Forum and at the International AIDS conference when it was held in Toronto.

We had some shared moments at those events, as we went out for breakfast a few times in Ottawa at the CAS events (our choice of "guilty pleasure" — so as not to have to say it out loud [McDonald's] — or somewhere we could admit to having gone). We were roommates in the dorm space provided at the Toronto conference…way out on Finch East…and even invented a line of fashion items for people with bodies misshapen by lipodystrophy (dazzling elements designed to draw attention away from the unwanted lumps and bumps).We never made them, just laughed about how clever we were to have thought of them.

You might say that we shared a sense of humour, too. I remember David searching high and low for a copy of Diseased Pariah News in order to scan a faux ad for his presentation to the HIV/AIDS course at Concordia University. Yes, it was the ad for AIDS Barbie and her Dream Hospice. Because there's really nothing better to laugh at than your own predicament, and in the face of what could sometimes be horror, laughing was really the best response.

The other good response is what David was doing at the Concordia class: sharing his experiences. He did it there in that ephemeral way that speaking to a group tends to be, the traces left only in the minds of those present. But he also did it by talking about his experiences on a blog that you can visit here. I'm going to keep it linked in my blogroll, and fully intend to go back and read and watch David talking about the things he was doing and the things that frustrated him.

The last time I saw David I happened to be in Toronto for a meeting, so I arranged to leave a little later than usual and went to brunch with him. He was in Casey House at the time, after a rather severe acting out of his liver, which upset the balance of his HIV treatment as well (or was caused by it!). We had our brunch and we went for a walk to visit his apartment before returning to Casey House. We sat on the porch there gabbing and laughing and undressing the construction workers across the street with our eyes (okay, and our words, too). We were there for so long that the staff came out a couple of times to make sure everyone was okay. It was a nice meeting.

The next time I was there I had managed to get tickets for The Normal Heart at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and was looking forward to sharing that experience with David, too. Alas, he wasn't feeling up to it that day, so I didn't get to share that with him.

And while it was not in person, we shared a lot of things on Facebook. A few months ago, I saw something that made me think immediately of him and I tried to share it with a mention of him so that he would see it pop up. I couldn't find him, like he had vanished from Facebook altogether. I timidly asked his sister if he was okay or if he might have defriended me (surely not!). The reply was that he had closed his Facebook account, saying that no one would miss him if he wasn't there.

It was wrong then (and corrected), and it's certainly wrong now. Too bad we have no way to correct this new absence.

05 September 2012

We Had An Election

Aislin cartoon from 1976 election

Well, that was interesting. An election that has left us with a new government that is nine seats short of a majority, an old government that lost about a quarter of its share of the vote, but only a fifth of its share of the seats, a new third party that did about two-thirds better than the old one it swallowed, and a fourth party that doubled its representation, albeit from one to two. The Premier lost his own seat, but only four other cabinet ministers lost. 74.6% participation this time, after a scary low of 57.43% in 2008.

The former government went from 42% of the vote last time to 31% this time. The new government also lost in percentage of the vote, from 35% to 32%. This reminds me of an election we had some years back where the leaders of both the major parties (there were really only two in contention then) lost their own seats (one of them may have gained it back by a hair in a recount). A fine comment on the public's appreciation of leadership at the time.

I played with the numbers a bit — because I'm a geek that way — and took a look at what might have happened if we had a strictly proportional system and everyone voted the same way they did yesterday. The flaws in that are obvious (knowing how the system works is a part of what makes us make the decisions we do), but this form of proportionality is practiced elsewhere, sometimes with a "threshold" as low as the vote percentage represented by a single seat. That's how I calculated it. They don't add to 125 because of rounding.

We have our first « Première ministre »! (First woman in this position in Québec.)

And after the vitriolic campaign, some recognition by each of the leaders of the contributions of their adversaries to public life, which was really gracious. Even their crowds of supporters were gracious in acknowledging the opposing parties with their applause.

When Pauline Marois spoke, she said some of the things I wish she had said during the campaign. She talked about setting aside differences and working together to improve our society. She reached out to the English-speaking community with a sentence in the best English I have ever heard her speak, affirming that the English-speaking community is a part of the history of Québec and of its future. She reached out to the first nations communities with a promise to work with them as equals. She has a very tough job to do trying to govern with only 54 of 125 seats. It would be nice to see all of the parties manage to work together and compromise to find solutions to problems: it would be to all their credit.

And then it happened.

Madame Marois was just reaching the end of her speech when two bodyguards appeared beside her and whisked her off stage. The audience, the media, the people like me watching on TV were all dumbstruck. What was happening?

From later reports, we pieced it together (still light on many of the details). A man had entered the back door of the club where the Parti québécois was having their victory rally. Inside, he shot two people who were working as sound technicians backstage (one dead, one in critical condition), then fled, lighting a fire at the back of the club (outside, I believe). He was rather quickly apprehended by the police. I know nothing about this man and the wheels of justice will take their course. So no speculation on my part about his level of sanity or his motivation.

Let me just say that the level of rhetoric in this campaign reached heights of shrillness we haven't seen for a long time. Yes, the Parti québécois was founded 42 years ago to lead Québec to independence, but no one has ever suggested that this would be done without its being an expression of the will of the population. Yes, there are real problems in a lot of people's attitudes about minorities (see my post on secularism), but there are significant actors fighting that xenophobia, too.

We have had a couple of referendums (yes, I know the proper Latin plural is referenda) on different versions of separating from Canada and we have had a whole lot of elections. Since it was founded in 1970, the Parti québécois has been the government several times, and even a majority government most of those times. So I really don't understand the over-the-top rhetoric I am hearing from people about being afraid to come here or planning to move away. Because of an election result?

Whatever the population decided yesterday (and the jury is really out on that one), we still have all of our democratic values. Not perfect, but there are people working on things like limiting even more the amount of money an individual can contribute to the political process, introducing some form of mixed or proportional representation and other issues. But those are the kind of changes that we vote on, or that we ask our duly-elected representatives to vote on.

We don't settle our differences with guns.

04 September 2012

J'ai voté - I Voted

We have ten candidates to choose from in my riding of Sainte-Marie-Saint-Jacques in the Québec election, including eight from among the twenty officially registered parties and two independents. That's my official reminder card above, with my red square to remind me what some of this is all about.

No candidates from the following parties in my riding:
• Bloc pot
• Coalition pour la constituante
• Équipe autonomiste
• Mouvement équité au Québec
• Parti conservateur du Québec
• Parti égalité/Equality Party
• Parti équitable
• Parti indépendantiste
• Parti nul
• Parti unité nationale
• Parti vert du Québec/Green Party of Québec
• Québec – Révolution démocratique

The only surprise there is no Green Party candidate, especially considering they scored over 5% last time around.

I ended up voting in the advance poll, because for some odd reason it was closer to my house than the regular poll, and my mind was made up anyway. For the last week, I have not been influenceable, but I don't seem to attract a lot of attention from the parties anyway: unlisted phone number, odd little part of the neighbourhood that doesn't draw a lot of flyers, and I have a "no flyers" sticker up anyway that, even if it doesn't apply to political tracts, seems to discourage them anyway.

So now I get to sit back and, nerd that I am, watch several TV stations and even more web sites for live election results, starting at 8 pm. It looks like it's going to be even more interesting than usual.

If you live in Québec…have you voted yet?

02 September 2012


I'm officially an old man, now that I'm having old man medical tests. This week, it was a colonoscopy, for no reason other than that I have reached a "certain age" and ought to have one.

I was quite nervous about this one. I had a brief visit with this doctor a few months back for some kind of related exam that turned out to be only preparatory. Still, at that time I had to do two enemas beforehand and then worry that I might embarrass myself by not having done a good enough job. I guess I did okay on that measure and the visit went okay, but I had several little bumps burned from my insides and that caused a swelling that made me feel constipated for a couple of days. You can see, then, how I might be nervous about a test that seemed more complicated.

The preparation was awful for this. Stop eating at 10 am the day before, with dosings of laxatives at 2 pm and 6 pm and then the next morning at 7. The instructions I got from my doctor and the ones on the inside of the Pico-salax warned that it might become hot when mixed with the cold water (kind of scary), but it didn't for the first dose. Friends had warned me that the product would work really quickly, so I was quite anxious when nothing happened until more than an hour and a half after drinking it! I dutifully consumed plenty of clear liquids, including some blue G2 (Gatorade product) and lots of my own iced herbal teas. I was convinced that I was washing out my bladder more than anything else.

I need not have worried. Things loosened up quite nicely and, by the end of the evening, all was liquid and even a little blue (which is disturbing). The morning dose of half a bottle of magnesium citrate solution acted similarly, to the point that I thought I might be late, as I was hesitating to get into the shower not knowing whether I might have to leap out to sit on the toilet. Yes, liquids from some sources are okay in the shower, but I can't wrap my head around what I was picturing there…

I got to the hospital early enough to update my hospital card (I have three of these from the different installations of the McGill University Health Centre, which seems wasteful, but I digress). I got some quick instructions from the person renewing my card about how to get to the place I needed to get to (the Royal Victoria Hospital is a crazy Victorian structure with odd tunnel and bridge connections between a bunch of buildings, so the help was total needed!). I made it to the clinic!

Upon check-in I had a hospital bracelet attached to me and waited. When called, you go through to the patient area and change into two hospital gowns (one each way…why don't they just rethink the design of these things?) and wait again. Little intravenous thingy installed on my right arm (the vein that usually manages to be the only one findable for blood tests), wait again.

When I went in to have the colonoscopy, I was installed on the bed, hooked up to the blood pressure and pulse monitoring machine and the nurse asked if I had sleep apnea. When I said I was beginning to suspect I might, she gave me oxygen (tube with little nostril inserts) for the duration. Then I got a dose of something explained as something to relax me and something for the pain. The next thing I knew I was waking up in another room in the same bed!

If I hadn't been in the hospital, I would wonder if I had been roofied! Knocked right out and someone doing things in my anal passages! But, like I said, I was in the hospital, so no such shenanigans.

They left me a lovely printout describing the procedure and its outcomes, with some delightful pictures of my inner passageways. To my great relief, it also said "The quality of the preparation was good." Phew! I got up, sat for the required few minutes and then got dressed and went home for a much-needed lunch.

On the whole, the preparation was way more intimidating and difficult than the test itself. But I'm still not sure how I feel about the recommendation to repeat in 7 to 10 years.