The biography of Claude Vivier can almost be read from the titles of his compositions. Lonely Child was written by an orphan; the opera Kopernikus, by a man who believed that the way to get to the truth of life was to look at it from previously untried angles.
There is even an epitaph of sorts. A piece called Do you believe in the immortality of the soul? was lying unfinished on Vivier's desk when he was found in his Paris apartment in 1983, strangled and stabbed by a young man the openly gay composer had picked up the night before.
That senseless conclusion to a troubled and radiant life has inevitably coloured Vivier's posthumous image, even while his artistic reputation grows. He is now perhaps the most prominent Canadian composer on the world scene. His works were a centrepiece of last year's Holland Festival, and have been recorded for Philips by the leading Dutch conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. A new Canadian-French co-production of Kopernikus, his "ritual opera of death," visited festivals in Strasbourg and Huddersfield, England, last fall, and has now arrived in Vivier's hometown of Montreal for two performances at Place des Arts starting tonight.
Vivier is hot because, almost 20 years after his death at the age of 34, his music still feels fresh and original. He was a pioneering explorer in the search for a new simplicity. For Vivier, that did not mean resorting to the clichés of the past, or the pop idioms of the present. He saw simplicity as the hidden continent upon which we build our busy dreams of control over life, and even death.
"Childlike" is the word most often used to describe the music. And yet the means of its composition are often highly sophisticated. Vivier, who studied musical system-building with Karlheinz Stockhausen, sometimes calculated pitches from the frequencies of notes in the bass or melody. But technical manipulations never intrude upon the appearance of the work as a glittering, sensual object of primitive force and beauty.
In Vivier's universe, the conscious mind is the guardian of the structured disorder of grownup life. So it's not surprising that his preferred method was to dart around this gatekeeper, and leap over the fence into the subconscious.
In a report after the premiere of Kopernikus in 1979, critic Daniel Moisan wrote that Vivier's music aimed to "hypnotize the spectator, to literally captivate him, without providing any insight as to its meaning."
The interior voyage taken by the heroine Agni is not just to be observed, but in some way replicated, without pointers that would constrain and falsify the act. Listening to Kopernikus involves listening to oneself.
"There is no actual story," Vivier wrote of the opera, "but rather a series of scenes which carry Agni along towards total purification and the attainment of a state of pure spirit."
These scenes take place in no particular setting, using languages mainly of Vivier's own invention. One singer is associated more or less constantly with Agni, but the other six have floating identities. Through them, figures like Mozart, Lewis Carroll and Copernicus himself appear, more as thoughts or recollections than as characters.
Single melodic lines predominate, sometimes running parallel like the marks left on rocks by retreating glaciers. Vivier was fascinated by Asian music, and treated each note and gong stroke like a resonant, symbolic event.
The surviving scores for the opera, still unpublished, are "a mess," said Tom Sokoloski, whose Toronto-based company Autumn Leaf Performance assembled the new production. Pascal Rophé, the French music director recruited for the project, had to make his own performing edition.
There are almost no stage directions in the score, which has left much to the imagination of everyone who has done the opera. The original production featured elaborate costumes and headgear, and clad the seven instrumentalists in white robes. A Vancouver New Music production in 1990 included a dancer, and a painter who painted the sets while the work was performed. For Autumn Leaf's production, French director Stanislas Nordey chose to situate the work "in a space rather than a scene, through which dreamlike costumes play in the changing light."
The production was first seen last summer at the Banff Centre for the Arts, which took a vital co-production role in the early stages. For Banff, the venture was entirely in line with its role, developed over the past decade and more, as an international incubation centre for new-music theatre and opera.
For Sokoloski, Vivier's spiritual journey was a ticket out of a constrained situation in Toronto, where the market for new opera is limited and the supply is growing. Tapestry New Opera Works (producer of the current premiere run of Chan Ka Nin's Iron Road), Queen of Puddings (producer of James Rolfe's successful Beatrice Chancey) and the Canadian Opera Company are all chasing the same or similar audiences.
"The local market is saturated," said Sokoloski. "The question was whether we could come up with a product that could compete on the international market."
Sokoloski's project attracted interest in Europe, where earlier productions of Kopernikus had been seen at festivals in England and France during the eighties. A conversation three years ago with Opéra de Montréal's outgoing director Bernard Uzan brought him another Canadian partner.
Most of the seven singers are Canadian, including cabaret diva Patricia O'Callaghan. The largely French creative team brought French government support, and suits Sokoloski's belief that it's important for Canadians to experience an outside view of Vivier's work.
"For the French, Vivier is a great composer, but he's not their composer," he said. "For them, Kopernikus is just another piece."
The production had to be portable enough to fit into one standard container, and cheap enough to be desirable as a one-stop purchase for European festivals. The $75,000 (U.S.) price tag, per show, was ultimately too low to cover Sokoloski's costs, but it helped close the deal in Strasbourg, where Kopernikus played the Musica Festival last September, and at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in November. Opéra de Montréal chipped in an extra $20,000 as its contribution to the production's development. By the end of the Toronto run in June, Sokoloski expects to break even.
With a clutch of favourable reviews already in hand, Sokoloski is planning a three-year strategy to strengthen his European links. His only problem: finding another Vivier.
Kopernikus plays the Place des Art's Théâtre Maisonneuve in Montreal tonight and Saturday, and Toronto's MacMillan Theatre June 21-23.