In the weekly series The Enthusiast, The Globe and Mail’s arts writers offer a window into their own private cultural lives: what they’re watching, reading, seeing and listening to. This week, television critic John Doyle writes about his adoration of the artform
If blame is to be laid in the matter of my love for opera, it must be laid at the feet of that lovely man, the late Richard Bradshaw. He was the visionary general director of the Canadian Opera Company (COC) for many years until his sudden death in 2007. We never met, but talked on the phone.
The reason for talking was that COC productions were being mentioned in my columns. The reason for that was Bradshaw’s reaching outside the usual opera circles to hire people such as François Girard and Atom Egoyan to direct COC operas. Two stunning COC productions in the early 2000’s, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms and Richard Strauss’s Salome, had left me stunned, smitten and addicted – the energy, originality, the voluptuousness and erotic and moral tensions.
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What I wrote was that the Brother and the lads in his digs had gone opera crazy. The Brother was allegedly dating a cultured young woman named Majella who had introduced him to the work of the COC. He became infatuated. With opera that is, Majella not so much. The infatuation spread to the lads. The writhing mound of bodies, some naked, in Oedipus, dazzled them, and they were zealously in favour of the use of video in the charged eroticism of Salome.
For a while, the Brother and lads cherishing the opera big-time was part of the running commentary in my column. Bradshaw called. “How can I ever possibly thank you enough,” he was nearly shouting down the phone line. “What you have done is extraordinary! You have made my mission possible. You have helped make opera accessible!” Bradshaw talked like that in great amiable bursts of enthusiasm. I liked him and I liked what he was doing.
There wasn’t much opera when I was growing up in Ireland. If there was any, I was oblivious to it. There was a ton of theatre, mind you. Theatre is tightly woven into the texture of the Irish culture. The experience of live drama is hardly unfamiliar to me and I’ve been at more first-nights at the Abbey Theatre than I could count. I have been going to the theatre since I was four years old. The theatre I attended at the age of four was the town hall in Nenagh, a small town in Ireland. It was two one-act plays. The first was in the Irish language. It was called An Fear Suill, The Wandering Man. The second was called Spring, by T.C. Murray. I was there because my father was in both.
My father was devoted to amateur drama in those days. He was part of a group, the Kilruane Players, who performed in village halls and at theatre festivals all over the country. The plays they performed were about rural Ireland: farmers and their angry sons, emigration, the daughter who wants to marry a Protestant. They were good, the Kilruane Players. When they thought they were on to something, they’d hire a director from the Abbey or the Gate Theatre in Dublin to come and work with them for a week. They won awards. My father trod the stage at the Abbey for a week when the Players won an all-Ireland theatre competition.
At that first play at the town hall in Nenagh, according to my mother, I made the sign of the cross when the lights went out. I thought I was in church. In a way, I have worshipped at the altar of theatre and live performance ever since. What I felt that evening in Nenagh, I also felt the first time I saw a Canadian Opera Company performance, under Bradshaw’s bold guidance. It was a kind of genuflection and adulation.
Truth be told, my love affair with the COC faltered somewhat and I have been promiscuous in my affections. What drew me in soul and spirit was Baroque opera with its intricacy of music, singing, acting, scenery, costumes, and dance or ballet. For years I have been ardent and steadfast in my admiration for Opera Atelier, the Toronto company devoted exclusively to mounting baroque operas from the 17th and 18th centuries. What Atelier’s founders, husband and wife Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, have done is astounding. Their two operas every year are annual highlights of my life.
A couple of years ago, I even changed the timing of a planned visit to Ireland in order to see Opera Atelier’s production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and it was more than worth it. It was a 90-minute stunner, and what Wallis Giunta’s coiled, stricken Dido did almost rend me asunder. Last year’s Medea was equally stunning, from the superb cast to the creative choreography, there was perfection in that production. It is an immense story, one of love, betrayal, lust and power.
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As with any love affair or addiction, the person looks to defy the dictates of the normal. A new intensity is desired. And a few years ago my vows, you might say, were renewed. I’d read a run-don’t-walk review of Figaro’s Wedding by the young and tiny but barely known company Against the Grain. The show was around the corner from my house, so I went.
What I saw was a new adaptation of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro that modernized the libretto, translated it into English, and it was staged as if it were a real Toronto wedding, in a real wedding venue, with the audience attending as wedding guests. It was sublime and it was glorious fun. Rarely have I seen an audience as thrilled at the end of a show. The venue throbbed with exhilaration. Later, I sat at the window seat of a nearby bar and when some of the performers passed by on the street, I heard others who had attended the show just gush with delight. Somebody suggested the performers should have flowers thrown in their wake on the street.
There have been many nights of ardour at Against the Grain performances. A raw, barefoot Messiah at the rock venue The Opera House, a piece that completely liberated Handel’s work from stuffy tradition.
This year has been an anointed one for me, with two startling Baroque productions. Atelier’s mounting of Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses was gorgeous and deeply moving; emphatically a work about the steadfastness of true love. It’s about the left-behind Penelope, really, not Ulysses, and Mireille Lebel was heart-wrenching as a trammelled, wracked Penelope. Another Atelier regular, soprano Mireille Asselin then played a vital role in Against the Grain’s wondrous reimagining of the Gluck/Berlioz Baroque masterpiece, Orphée et Eurydice. Done under the title Orphée, it broke boundaries galore, at times being near-burlesque yet always exquisitely loyal to the original score. In the midst of the eye-popping choreography and the all-consuming music stood Asselin as the ghost bride Eurydice, an unforgettable sight. That production won five Dora Awards and Against the Grain certainly isn’t unknown any more.
The thing is, I suppose, I write about television and, sometimes, soccer and that’s my job, but television does not govern my life. Pursuit of pleasure and enjoyment is what matters. Obviously there is an immense and blessed contrast between screening and writing about television, and the uninhibitedly direct intensity of attending a live performance of opera. That is part of the appeal, but the sturdiness of my affection, which became devotion and then addiction, is anchored in all that opera is – the tender, passionate, biting, bawdy celebration of love and life, and experienced in the most transforming way. Put the blame on me for my own addiction.