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Some silver lining, amid the uncertainty and the literal isolation, is an abundance of virtual entertainment options. It’s hard to say for how long it will last, but it is truly the time to get one’s cultural fix, remote as it is. Out of Canada’s opera and classical music scenes, seven major figures offer their listening picks for times of crisis, as unprecedented as this one is. And maybe more inspiring are their thoughts on the role of the arts – often considered dispensable, despite their ubiquity – during this pandemic.

Barbara Hannigan: Grammy-winning singer, conductor

Canadian singer Barbara Hannigan performs with Prague Philharmonia during the opening concert of the 18th Strings of Autumn classical music festival at State Opera in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sept. 23, 2013.Simanek Vit/The Canadian Press

What are you listening to?

So, there’s this microtonal Austrian composer named Burkhard Stangl, who had given me his CD. And a young pianist who works with Equilibrium has two CDs, one of Liszt and Wagner, and one of Beethoven bagatelles. I also took Reinbert de Leeuw’s CD of Satie piano music, because Reinbert passed away recently and he was my mentor and I really wanted to have one of his recordings with me here.

It’s kind of interesting, this “playlist for the end of time.” It’s like Quartet for the End of Time of Messaien!

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

We have a role in society as far as what we are giving and contributing to society. You could call it our vocation. Just by the nature of the kind of people we are, we need to create. We need to do that for ourselves. It’s the analogy of putting on your own oxygen mask. Artists generally become artists because they have a need, an inner drive. If we can’t prepare for public performances, we still have to have some kind of outlet for our – I don’t even want to call it talent, I want to call it who we are as people.

Bramwell Tovey: conductor, Grammy and Juno winning composer

Bramwell Tovey leads the Vancouver Symphony and music students from around British Columbia to break a Guinness world record, in Vancouver on May 15, 2000.CHUCK STOODY/CP

What are you listening to?

There are a couple of things that are slightly off the wall, which I find full of solace. One of them is ‘Marietta’s Lied’ from Die tote Stadt. It’s one of these stacking tunes that barely goes anywhere, and yet it’s full of great power. Delius wrote a piece called A Song of Summer, and it was the last piece he ever wrote. It’s an orchestra tone poem, about 11 minutes long, and it’s so full of beauty and optimism. It’s got this thing about music, this standing-still-while-drinking-in-the-summer. I find it very good for bleak moments.

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

For me, I’m very mindful of what Benjamin Britten did during the Second World War.

He didn’t do very much for the war effort at all. He was a conscientious objector, and he spent the war years writing Peter Grimes. When peace was declared in Europe, he had been preparing for the end of war. I think a lot of what an artist can do at the present time is to use the time to create.

Alexander Neef: general director of the Canadian Opera Company

Canadian Opera Company general director Alexander Neef is pictured on July 24, 2019.Gaetz Photography/The Canadian Press

What are you listening to?

“I think the power of Beethoven’s music definitely is able to get me out of places. I was listening to the Missa Solemnis, for example; I think there’s really something there that’s uplifting. It’s such a cliché, really, but I think it’s able to take you out of the ordinary, and makes you look at things a little bit differently.

“For me, the great composers that really go to the bottom of the human condition are Monteverdi, Handel, Mozart, and Verdi. You can go to The Coronation of Poppea, all the great Handel operas like Ariodante, Alcina, Giulio Cesare, the whole bandwidth of it, right down to [Mozart’s] Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, Idomeneo.”

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

“Being an artist is not like a job. It’s really a commitment that goes a little bit further than that. At some point, we’re going to be through this, and see that the artists have helped us get through this. Hopefully, people will not forget about their cultural routines, and the kinds of help that is available to them in that way. There’s always the danger that we just move on without what is loss, and I hope the arts are not going to be affected by that.”

Sondra Radvanovsky: Dora-award winning singer

Opera singer Sondra Radvanovsky.Handout

What are you listening to? We Belong by Pat Benatar. It’s total cheese. And I love Walking on Broken Glass by Annie Lennox. It’s got a catchy tune, and it always makes me move and feel better.

When I get into full-on depression mode, I go for dark and brooding, like Beethoven, or Barber’s Adagio for Strings, or full-on Russian, Tchaikovsky, doom and gloom. If I’m trying to make myself happy, I actually don’t even listen to classical music, because as a musician, classical music sometimes feels like work. So, I go for seventies and eighties pop, really cheesy bubble gum. Pat Benatar, Barbra Streisand, film music, all that candy-coated, sugar-sweet stuff.

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

I’m floundering right now. I think that once we, as musicians, all of us, get over the initial shock, I think it’s going to be our job to lift people up and to really help them feel better through music, and help them deal with all these emotions. We, as artists and musicians, oftentimes we … have to put our emotions aside so that other people can feel their emotions. We have to put our ego and our issues on the back burner. I don’t think our job has changed at all, I think it’s even more important right now. I hope that people understand how much we, as self-employed people, are financially suffering right now. Classical music was already walking on a very precarious precipice, and I just pray that this hasn’t pushed it over the edge. We have to do everything in our power to keep it alive, and hopefully make it stronger.

Royce Vavrek: librettist, playwright, Pulitzer-Prize winner

Royce VavrekRicardo Beas/handout

What are you listening to?

“I’m obsessed with this opera called Der Mond (The Moon), by Carl Orff. It’s a one-act opera about these boys who go out to steal the moon to bring it back to their home country. The prologue is this absolutely extraordinary piece for tenor, to sing in head voice. It’s one of the most delightful, beautiful things. I wake up to it every morning. In times of crisis, going into fairy-tale and surreal is a really healthy place to live.”

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

We rely on the arts so much, not only to get us through good days, but to give us something to occupy our imaginations when we’re really closed off in these places that may need a little bit of brain jogging, inciting creativity. We’re going to come out of this and people are going to need live arts. I hope that this really makes us understand the necessity of communal artistic experiences.

Measha Brueggergosman: Juno-winning singer, author

Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman in Toronto, on Sept. 24, 2019.Christopher Katsarov

What are you listening to?

New Wine by Hillsong Worship. That’s the song that starts my day every day, whether there’s a pandemic or not. I just think the peace that I live in has to waive these storms, and faith is never grown in comfort. It has to be tested, it has to be subjected to adversity--otherwise, it’s not really faith, is it?

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

“There’s nothing that allows you to invest wholly into the state of your soul like music does. It really is a worthwhile investment, and it’s not something to be taken lightly. It’s an isolating time, but it can also be this gathering, this spiritual gathering of souls, whether they’re in the same room or not, we can still be a collective. Collectivity and togetherness aren’t a physical space.”

Gustavo Gimeno: conductor, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Gustavo Gimeno.MARCO BORGGREVE/Handout

What are you listening to?

The third movement of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. It contains, even in the first line, different layers and moods at the same time. This, I find, appeals to the experience of human beings, where you can feel different things at the same time, but definitely always with hope and optimism.

What is the role of the arts during a worldwide crisis?

I think it’s a good moment to reflect and find out about ourselves. We do feel an emptiness of not having access to culture in the same way that we’re used to. That’s confronting. It’s a chance to give even more value to, and not take for granted, what we have.

Interviews have been condensed and edited

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