Sunday, April 23, 2017

Opera in Canada

It is illuminating to compare the origins of opera in Italy with opera in Canada where an iconic opera commissioned for Canada's centenary in 1967 has just been revived and revised to celebrate Canada's 150th. The opera is Louis Riel, the story of a Métis rebel in 19th century Canada. There is a review of the revival in the Globe and Mail by Robert Harris:
It’s hard to remember a production more eagerly anticipated than the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Harry Somers’s and Mavor Moore’s Louis Riel, which opened Thursday at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre. Here was the iconic Canadian opera, conceived on a grand scale, commissioned for Canada’s centennial year and revived for its sesquicentennial. A co-production of the COC and the National Arts Centre. A Canadian opera presented in two major houses. An all-star Canadian cast. A renowned Canadian director.
And how did it turn out?
The problem with the COC’s and director Peter Hinton’s Louis Riel is that a surprisingly small story, in the end, was played very large. I’ve never seen the gargantuan Four Seasons stage seem so immense and lonely, with vast open spaces yawning between characters who should have been in intimate connection. Sometimes characters in conversation are 20 or 30 feet from one another. Perhaps that was Hinton’s idea, to portray the power of our landscape on stage, but the unoccupied spaces tended to drain the drama from the story, make everything into tableaux, turn intimacy into historical set-piece. Hinton used space this way because he had, in effect, two choruses on stage for virtually the whole opera – one representing white Canada, often arrayed in a jury box that stretched across the entire stage; the other a collection of Indigenous people, mute, the Land Assembly, as he calls it, one of his innovations to try to restore the Indigenous reality left out of the original Riel production. I wondered before Thursday whether the Land Assembly would seem irrelevant, or powerful, and in the end it was neither, actually. It was a dramatic technique that sometimes added to the sense of the story and sometimes provided mere visual interest, but tended to dissipate the drama on stage rather than heighten it. Often, the onstage chorus interceded between us and the main characters, diminishing our response to the drama those characters represented.
The composer was Harry Somers:
But the basic problem that all cast members had, as well as the COC Orchestra under Johannes Debus, is that Somers’s score for Riel has not aged well in the 50 years since its composition. Somers wrote Riel in something of a quasi-dissonant, highly angular, international style in the mid-sixties, sort of the musical equivalent of all those anonymous steel and glass office towers that clog North American cities today. The problem with the style is that it is consummately anti-lyrical, refusing the human voice its natural concourse and ambit, and so fails to reflect a human story with essential warmth and needed passion.
I suspect there might be another layer of problems, both with the original and with the revival and it is one endemic to the arts in Canada. There is this deeply rooted belief that Canada always has to have a "national policy" for everything: crises, economics, and, sadly, the arts. There is always a kind of deadening collectivity like a blanket of mediocrity over everything. The essential truth about the arts is that there, as in everything, creativity always comes from individuals. Perhaps the greatest Canadian musicians were Glenn Gould and Leonard Cohen, both of them very unusual individuals and for that reason, often treated with suspicion by their fellow Canadians. Success in the arts in Canada is dependent on the good regard of your colleagues who run those sources of publicity, support and promotion: the Canada Council, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Arts Centre. All of them following some sort of national policy. And just as the individuals were lost on the stage of the Louis Riél opera, so the creative individuals in Canada tend to fall through the cracks of the "national arts policy". Good God, why would anyone think that the arts come from government bodies and policies! But that seems to be the view in Canada.

It doesn't work that way. My evidence is that there are no Canadian composers who are internationally known. The only two who come close are Claude Vivier and R. Murray Shafer and unless you are Canadian, I suspect you have never heard of either of them.

As an envoi, here is some music by Claude Vivier, Lonely Child, for soprano and orchestra:

10 comments:

Will Wilkin said...

True, I never heard of Vivier or Shafer, but I browse catalogs and see there are a lot of contemporary composers I don't know. I don't have the money to sample even a small percent of them. I attend a lot of symphonies and chamber concerts, but the repertoire is mostly traditional and, given the "difficulties" with much contemporary "serious" music, that is probably for the best. There are almost no contemporary composers who I come to accept as "great," and I suspect that was true throughout the ages --the ones we remember from the past were probably "best," with the caveat that there is subjectivity and luck involved in those judgements and who ever gets promoted/known in the first place.

I'm not expert in the history of state support for the arts, but when I think of "national" music I think of the 19th century east European composers who toured the countryside and collected melodies and rhythms from the folk. In the USA, some music of Gershwin and Copland has a similar mining of the African-American and hymns of the early national period. But before nation-states there was still power and wealth, and despite the cultural left who resent it, we should thank that elite for their patronage of great artists, especially the church with its many centuries of developing traditions and great forms still serviceable today.

For all that may be "wrong" with "official" art and its politics and conformism, your frequent commentary on popular music and popular taste agrees with my assessment that democracy in the arts is not necessarily "good" for the arts. But then again, as the critics in the New Yorker or Guardian or at "Musicology Now" would all say --I must be a racist sexist imperialist xenophobic elitist hiding in tradition to veil my guilt and inferior individual character.

Bryan Townsend said...

Serious composition in Canada certainly does not have a long history, but it is shocking to compare with Finland, a musical superpower with a tiny population.

Will Wilkin said...

I meant to add, "almost no contemporary composers I consider to be great" is ALMOST and not absolute, because I really love the music of John Adams. Its funny because he was always associated/categorized as among the so-called "minimalist" composers, none of whom I like much and some not at all. But just Friday night I heard the Yale Philharmonia play John Adams' "Naive and Sentimental Music" and I loved it! I have never not liked a piece by John Adams. I hear why he might be grouped with the minimalists but, unlike my experience with the rest of them, he NEVER lets his use of devices (such as repetition of short phrases) take over for its own sake or block the musicality of the piece, always there is an integrity and larger musical idea that works for me.

I had the novel experience that on my only visit to the NY Metropolitan Opera in NYC, it was opening night for Adams' "Death of Klinghoffer," complete with huge loud protests outside --not normal for opera. Also novel was I went with a friend who has a well-connected friend who gave us a backstage tour of the Met before the concert. I even got to walk onto the orchestral pit (empty of course) and look up at the tower of balconies of seats (also empty).

Bryan Townsend said...

I've never quite been a fan of John Adams, but perhaps I have just not given him a fair hearing. Maybe I should do a post on him with a more in depth consideration...

Christopher Culver said...

It's odd to suggest that Vivier's popularity is limited to Canada when most recordings of his work are made by European musicians and released on European labels.

Bryan Townsend said...

You know you could be right! I really have little idea of how well he is known in France, but it could be a lot, yes. But he is certainly almost entirely unknown in the US--and English Canada for that matter! The first item up on YouTube if you search for Claude Vivier is Lonely Child and it has fewer than 25,000 views. Not very many...

Christopher Culver said...

I didn’t say anything about France, I said European. The strongest support of Vivier's music in recent years has come from Holland, Germany, and Austria. Vivier might have briefly lived in France and been murdered there, but his music has never been greatly championed there.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the information!

Marc Puckett said...

Never knew this opera existed. There is no recording at Spotify but I listened to Somers's North Country and two or three of his songs: each pleasant enough, and not every composer has to create works of greatness, after all. I may listen again to his String Quartet no 2 but maybe not. (There is the curiosity that both Somers and Vivier have about 1,100 monthly listeners at Spotify.)

But the politics, the politics of Louis Riel! Gosh. Too complicated for me to try to figure out although that won't stop me from remarking that before too much longer operas with plots or characterisations that offend against the prevailing party line will be kept from the stage lest their immorality do too much harm to the delicate sensibilities of audiences.

Bryan Townsend said...

Harry Somers was chosen to write THE big piece of music commissioned for Canada's centenary. For this year's 150th anniversary they have taken the much safer course of commissioning dozens and dozens of little pieces, fanfares, from everyone and his dog. That's the Canadian Collective Way! But reviving Louis Riél has been very revealing of some basic problems. Oh yes, everything is political now.