Friday, October 16, 2015

Comments on the demise of Opera Lyra Ottawa

I am very sad about the fall of Opera Lyra. I was AD there last season and devised a creative season for this year- an innovative Barber of Seville with a young Canadian cast, a double-bill of Canadian operas with Toronto’s Essential Opera, a lively kids show called Operation Superpower, Fidelio in a cutting edge production and lastly a co-production with Thirteen Strings and the Studio of young artists at OL, of Haydn’s opera L’Isola Disabitata. This last, of course has us in panic mode, as I try to save this, the last concert in 13S’ 40th anniversary season. We will see if we can do a concert version of the opera. (OL has already sold tickets—which we hope 13Strings will be able to honour.)
But even with this great season I put forward, it was not to be. I think the viability of the company was already impossible when I was there. With the best will of a Board and staff, both of which inherited an enormous debt and were locked into a structure which included renting an expensive venue for productions, it just couldn’t be done. The company didn’t have the support of enough of an audience to fill the venue and sponsorship had dried up. I saw and worked alongside an amazing staff, who worked their hearts out, and who are now out of a job.
It is a crying shame that such a company could not survive in our nation’s capital- but it is a reflection of the indifference of a government who can come up with $110.5 for a new façade at the NAC, but there is no will or way to save an important opera company which could survive on less than 00.5% of this money! But I suppose it’s more important that an arts building looks good.
It is getting harder and harder for artists and the arts now. Every granting agency has to deliver cuts to its clients because they have not received any new money in years. I do appreciate that there are serious social issues for Canadians and if the arts were losing money because we were assuring that Aboriginal people had clean running water then that would be one thing. But it does rather seem that a philosophy of the “me” is at the fore, and the ideology about how much taxes people will pay is the all. I’m afraid people will wake up one day and ask where all the arts organizations have gone…..

Monday, November 11, 2013

Thunderbird! By Kevin Mallon

Marion Newman first came into my life in 2003 when she sang in Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit in a recording for Naxos. I had the idea of interspersing versions of the original noëls into the mass, and it seemed only appropriate that we use a Canadian version of Une Jeune Pucelle- the Huron Carol. Marion sang it in the original language.

Marion sings the Huron Carol as part of the Aradia recording of Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit- at 4:53
Since that time we have collaborated many times and have talked often about First Nations issues and the idea of collaborating with Aradia. Central to this was the need to design a project that was sensitive to the inclusion and presentation of First Nation performers. I felt that all too often this music and the people involved were paraded out for special effect- or worse, as something trendy.
 We hit on the idea of presenting the different members of Marion’s family who were First Nation performers and artists and to use the theme of Thunderbird based on the masks carved by Master Carver Victor Newman, Marion’s father. 

The theme continues, with the Thunderbird danced by Marion’s cousin Jason Taylor, who will be accompanied by his father George Taylor, singing traditional songs with hand drum.

 Recently I asked Marion what it meant to be involved in projects that mixed First Nations and Classical Music:
 “I've been involved in various projects that combined my two worlds of First Nations culture and classical music. The Magic Flute with Vancouver Opera was the biggest thus far. It was very successful and really made me want there to be more of that kind of good collaboration in my career. The kind of collaboration that helps people to understand that First Nations culture is still very much alive and that we are evolving and yet keeping our traditions close to our hearts. As part of the stage of healing from past wrongs, we need to share, discuss, make new art, create music that makes us happy and that opens the table for healthy discussion and understanding.

 My uncle, George Taylor, has been touring around the world, singing our traditional songs and sharing our dances with people in an open and respectful way for a long time. I have always been encouraged by my family to be a spokesperson for our culture. Someone who can show that we are not all stereotypical, in the movie and bad news way, but that we are open to questions and that we want people to understand that very many of us are healthy and happy, living productive lives”.

The Thunderbird theme inspired me (Kevin) to find music which similarly depicted the moulding of the natural world through supernatural forces. Into the bargain I am reminded that according to Robert Graves, “Aradia was the daughter of Apollo’s twin sisters, who was sent by the gods to teach humankind to order the music of the natural world into song”.

The Thunderbird is a legendary creature in the First Nation’s history and culture. Considered a supernatural bird of power and strength, it is richly depicted in art, songs and oral histories. The Thunderbird's name comes from the common belief that the beating of its enormous wings causes thunder and stirs the wind. It is described as a large bird, capable of creating storms and thundering while it flies. Clouds are pulled together by its wingbeats, the sound of thunder is made by its wings clapping, sheet lightning come from the light flashing from its eyes when it blinks, and individual lightning bolts made by the glowing snakes that it carries around with it.
The plural Thunderbirds (as the Kwakwaka'wakw tribes believed) could shape shift into human form by tilting back their beaks like a mask, and by removing their feathers as if it were a feather- covered blanket. There are stories of Thunderbirds in human form marrying into human families; some families may trace their lineage to such an event. Families of Thunderbirds who kept to themselves but wore human form were said to have lived along the northern tip of Vancouver Island. The story goes that other tribes soon forgot the nature of one of these Thunderbird families, and when one tribe tried to take them as slaves the Thunderbirds put on their feather blankets and transformed to take vengeance upon their foolish captors.

Aradia Ensemble performs with Aboriginal musicians  
As part of the Aradia Thunderbird project Aradia presents works from the Baroque cannon which also have supernatural themes including Matthew Locke’s music for Shakespeare’s Tempest (as presented by in 1674 by Thomas Shadwell re-named as The Tempest or, The Enchanted Island). Also included will be two sings from Henry Purcell's Tempest music.

In addition to the relationship between supernatural influences on the music, this concert attempts to find an even more basic connection between First Nations and Baroque music.
Again as Marion said: “The biggest thread that ties together Baroque and Aboriginal culture would be the beat that music provides. It starts with the heartbeat, it moves to the drum, the instruments strike up, people's feet begin to twitch and dance is born. It may seem like a crazy thing to be combining such forces, but in my heart and mind it makes perfect sense that we are doing this concert.”
The climax of the concert is the performance of a new composition called "Thunderbird" by Dustin Peters, who wrote of the work:
The Thunderbird legend is of particular importance to the Kwa'kwa'ka'wak'w Nation of the Pacific Northwest. Thunderbird's beating wings bring wind and thunder, and lightning flashes from his eyes; when Whale consumes more than his fair share of fish in the ocean, a great battle between the two sees Thunderbird lift Whale from the sea, dashing him onto the land, thereby causing earthquakes! Commissioning "Thunderbird," Kwagiulth and mezzo-soprano Marion Newman wished to perform a work that was particular to her distinct Aboriginal heritage, but set it in the European medium in which she is trained. Cultivating text from the Kwakwala language, Ms. Newman and I worked closely to develop a piece that satisfied both objectives. Instead of writing a work in a baroque style, I considered the particular timbres and sonorities of the ensemble to create a unique soundscape; that is, modern music to be performed on period instruments. Continuo instruments (harpsichord, organ, double-bass and cello), usually relegated to "grounding" roles, are given distinct voices that contribute to the characterizations and moods depicted in the work.

Concert Reviewed:  Thunderbird – A First Nations / Baroque Collaboration
Aradia Ensemble;  Kevin Mallon, Conductor.  Marion Newman, Mezzo-Soprano; Victor Newman, Masks; George Taylor, Drummer and Singer; Jason Taylor, Dancer.
Heard at Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, Saturday, May 15, 2010

Historically, the European Baroque period and aboriginal spirituality are not comfortable bed partners.  Ontario’s first European settlement, Ste Marie among the Hurons, was built at what is now Midland in 1639 when the Baroque age was in full flower in Europe and burnt down 10 years later when repeated Iroquois attacks made the settlement impossible to maintain.  Why then did the Aradia Ensemble and its conductor Kevin Mallon decide to devote their final concert of the season to the telling of the aboriginal Thunderbird story?  Mallon, who is also director of the Cork Opera in Ireland, has often collaborated with Marion Newman, a mezzo soprano and a member of the Kwakiutl First Nation.  Newman told Mallon about her family back home in Alert Bay, BC and how her father Vincent Newman is a master mask carver with a special interest in Thunderbird lore.  Mallon decided to focus on the supernatural, a popular theme in baroque music and use this as a point of contact with the Thunderbird legend.  Saturday night’s  program  was the fascinating result of this collaboration.  

Mallon programmed the evening to start with Matthew Locke’s Curtain Tune from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Thunderbird is believed to cause thunder by the flapping of his wings, so that the Tempest was an appropriate choice.   Once the last strains of the violin solo died away, aboriginal drumming and chant claimed attention as George Taylor, a Kwakiutl chief and his son Jason entered Glenn Gould studio to perform a ritualistic welcome in their own language.  Taylor then explained in English how honoured he and his son were to perform their traditions in Toronto and share the legends of their people with the audience.  He reminded us that dance and chanting normally happened at a potlatch but that the Canadian government had made these illegal in 1885 so that cultural survival became a matter of underground activity.  Fortunately for us, the ban was lifted in the 1950’s so that Jason Taylor was able to perform a Raven Dance and a Wild Man of the Woods Dance that were both quite spectacular.  The stage was then given back to the Aradia ensemble who bravely played Matthew Locke’s Tempest Suite even though Mallon himself admitted the Wild Man dance was a hard act to follow!  After the break, Taylor and his son performed three more dances, ending with the Thunderbird, whereupon Marion Newman came onstage to provide a lively interpretation of Clérambault’s La muse de l’opéra.  I am certain Clérambault, who worked for Louis XIV’s mistress, Mme de Maintenon, would have been just as delighted with Newman’s performance as her audience was Saturday night.  However, the evening’s finale and new commission from Toronto composer Dustin Peters entitled Thunderbird synthesized baroque and aboriginal music with a brilliant flair that drew the audience to its feet with shouts of bravo.  Mallon’s operatic experience has given him the vision to create new horizons in Toronto’s musical scene.  Aradia’s new season promises an interesting sequel to Saturday night’s adventure.

Catherine Limbertie

Conductor, Kevin Mallon was brought up in Belfast. Northern Ireland. He studied at Chetham’s School of Music, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and at Dartington College of Arts, studying composition with Peter Maxwell Davies and conducting with John Eliot Gardiner, and specializing in baroque violin. He became concert-master with Le Concert Spirituel and Les Arts Florissants in Paris and led and directed The Irish Baroque Orchestra before moving to Canada to take up posts with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and the University of Toronto, (positions he left to pursue his conducting career). In 1999 he founded the Aradia Ensemble, with whom he has toured widely, and become conductor of the Toronto Chamber Orchestra. With both of these orchestras he has made some 50 recordings for Naxos. A frequent conductor of Toronto’s Opera in Concert, together they have performed ten baroque operas. From 2005-2009, he was Artistic Director of the Irish company- Opera 2005; his seventh production with them being Verdi’s Ballo in Maschera in September 2008 for which he achieved his third Irish Times Theatre Award nomination. Kevin's most recent appointments are as Music Director of the Thirteen Strings Chamber Orchestra in Ottawa (2010) and as Conductor of New York’s newly formed West Side Chamber Orchestra (2011). Since 2010, Mallon has also been the conductor for the summer program at the Centre for Operatic Studies in Italy.

The Aradia Ensemble is one of the most exciting period instrument ensembles to emerge in recent years.  Under the direction of Kevin Mallon, Aradia presents an innovative concert series at Toronto’s state-of-the–art concert hall, the Glenn Gould Studio. Projects incorporate old-world artistry and modern-day relevance and often include dancers, actors, singers or “esoteric” other-world collaborations with for example Balinese Gamelan or Irish musicians. Aradia has made music videos and film sound tracks (most recently appearing on the soundtrack for Jim Carey’s Yes Man) and (together with its sister organization, the Toronto Chamber Orchestra), has produced 50 CDs for Naxos. Many of these have won awards, including a Gramophone Magazine Editor’s Choice Awards. Tours have taken the ensemble across Canada and internationally to New Zealand, Italy and the USA. For the last four years, the Aradia Ensemble has been the Orchestra in Residence for COSI (The Centre for Opera Studies in Italy) in Sulmona, Italy. According to Robert Graves, Aradia was the daughter of Apollo’s twin sisters, who was sent by the gods to teach humankind to order the music of the natural world into song.

Marion Newman, Mezzo-Soprano

First Nations mezzo-soprano Marion Newman "has a distinctive, dusky voice that suggests drama with every note" (Toronto Star) and has been noted as "a show stealer" (BBC Music Magazine). In her debut with Cork’s Opera 2005 in the title role of Carmen, she was widely praised for her “superbly sinuous sexuality” and as “a very exciting new talent” by the Irish Examiner. She returned to Cork to appear as Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and has appeared as Margret in Wozzeck and Juno in The Tempest with Pacific Opera Victoria. 

On the concert stage, Marion has performed with the Victoria Symphony, Vancouver Symphony, Portland Baroque Orchestra, Kingston Symphony, Symphony Nova Scotia, Elora Festival Singers, Talisker Players, and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

Recently,Marion sang Cherubino and Cenerentola with Ottawa’s Opera Lyra , debuted in Vivaldi’s Dixit Dominus with the National Ballet of Canada in a new production by Sabrina Matthews, and was Hansel in Opera Hamilton’s touring production of Hansel and Gretel.

Highlights of the 2009/10 season for this accomplished artist include de Falla’s El Amor Brujo with Toronto Philharmonia, Messiah with Symphony Nova Scotia, (conducted by Kevin Mallon), Mozart’s Mass in C with London Fanshawe Chorus and in April 2010, the world premiere of Spy Denomme-Welch/Catherine Magowan’s opera for Native Earth Performing Arts, “Giiwedin”. Marion joined Toronto’s Aradia Ensemble for “Thunderbird” at the Glenn Gould Studio in May.

Returning to her hometown last season, Marion played the vain stepsister Tisbe in Pacific Opera Victoria's La Cenerentola. In Montreal, she sang Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle with Choeur St.-Laurent, followed by Messiah with Aradia Ensemble, Orillia's Cellar Singers and Kingston Symphony. With Peterborough Symphony, Marion was a guest soloist in El Amor Brujo and Carmen arias, and with Toronto's Opera in Concert she starred in Dvorak's comic opera The Devil and Kate.

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Victor Newman, Masks
Hereditary Chief Victor Newman was born in Alert Bay, of Kwagiulth and Salish descent. Known for his fine quality craftsmanship and the powerful simplicity of his lines, Victor has won many awards for his carved masks, totems, serigraph prints, and gold and silver jewelry. His artwork is on display in private and public collections around the world. As a young boy Victor was inspired by his aunt, Ellen Neel, who was the first woman carver, as he watched her create the works that would keep the Kwagiulth artisan tradition alive. His great grandfather, Charlie James, is widely regarded as one of the true masters of totem pole carving. As a native art teacher in the Victoria School District for twenty years, Victor has passed on his wisdom to hundreds of young people, making him an integral figure in the recent Native cultural resurgence. He taught not only the symbols and rules of the artwork, but also the pride and self -respect that are so important to the continuation of a people.

Through his carving, Victor has revealed his skill and imagination. Through his teaching, he has shown us his humanity. Victor has been honored with the name “Hemu-Sacha,” which means “the making of a chief.”

George Taylor, Drummer & Singer, and Jason Taylor, Dancer
George and Jason Taylor are from the troupe The Le-La-La Dancers. The Le-La-La Dancers are a traditional First Nations dance troupe whose members are from the Kwakwaka'wakw (Kwak Kwak kee wak) Nation of northern Vancouver Island. Le-La-La means, "travelling form here to there" in the Kwakwaka'wakw language. The troupe has been performing all over Canada and internationally since 1987 under the direction of George Taylor (potlatch name Me'las).
George began singing and dancing at potlatches when he was just a young lad. Many respected elders and Chiefs have influenced and contributed to his repertoire of songs and dances. George's son Jason Taylor began to sing and dance as soon as he was able to walk and talk. The "Spirit of the Masks" dance presentation delivers strong messages of respect and honour for each other, as well as towards our environment and Mother Earth. Many former Le-La-La dancers have gone on to success in life strengthened by the mentoring of being a "Le-La-La Dancer".