Monday, November 30, 2009

Tis' the season

Hello readers!

Do you know how I know that Christmas is approaching?

It's simple.

My agenda has exploded into a frenzy of activity!

I'm sure many of you can relate.

Sandwiched in between my impending final exams, carolling gigs, work, dress rehearsals and concerts to sing at and attend... there is little time for anything else. However, I know that it would not be Christmas if I wasn't insanely busy. Also, it wouldn't be Christmas without proper Christmas music, or in my case, it wouldn't be Christmas without a candlelight procession.

I remember my first year of choir we held our Christmas concert in the newly opened Francis Winspear Centre. It is a gorgeous venue. Up until that point, I had never sang for an audience of any sort so it was just staggering enter such a majestic auditorium. As well, that is where I was first introduced to the the concept of a candlelight procession. I was quite proud of the fact that my choir was old enough to use actual candles and not the candle flashlights the primary choirs were given. Take that 6-year-olds!

It is important to note some rules that go along with candle holding:

1. Allow a generous amount of space between you and your neighboring choristers in the procession
2. Keep hair product use to a minimum.
Long hair+lots of hair product+open flame does not a very fire-friendly combination make
*Note: A violation of Steps 1 & 2 is a choir fatality I have heard of
3. Do not gaze into the flame and become entranced
4. Blow out the candle of a neighboring chorister if they fall victim to step three
5. Memorise the music/carols since it is difficult to hold both a candle and an open binder. Plus, I find holding a binder ruins the silhouette of a chorister on stage during a candlelight procession. You should be creating an atmosphere of ethereal beauty, not reminding the audience that you don't know the words to basic carols.

Of course, there are many other rules but these are some that came to my mind. If the above steps are obeyed, you will have a very satisfying candlelight procession experience indeed. My inner chorister craves a good candlelight procession every year. There's just something about entering a dim venue, angelic-sounding voices singing carols, with only the glowing-warm candlelight illuminating the space. For me, it's one of the perfect Christmas scenes. I urge you all to make sure you head out to watch something Christmassy this year because it really isn't Christmas without music. It's so easy to get caught up in the stress of the holidays that it's important to take time to enjoy the things we like.

I will leave you readers with that lovely thought and if any of you happen to be in Edmonton and want to see me in my candlelight glory, come check out the Cantilon Christmas concert.

Welcome Yule
SUNDAY December 6, 2009 • 2:30 pm

Welcome the winter in song with all of the Cantilon Choir, organist Jeremy Spurgeon, and the Strathcona String Quartet. Featuring a newly commissioned work by Mark Sirett, selections from Vaughan Williams' "Folk Songs for the Four Seasons" and Mathais' "Salvator Mundi". Kindersingers, Primary Choir, Children's Choir, Chamber Choir, Belle Canto.

Winspear Centre for Music • 9720-102 Avenue
Tickets • $20/$17 (students)
Tix on the Square 780/420-1757

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Singing for a Cause

Greetings readers!

This past Sunday I had the chance to sing of a very good cause and it is actually the second time I have been given the opportunity since last year was the first annual "Brick by Brick" concert. It is a challenge for me to try and summarize the efforts of Memory and Christie and their organization, Malawai Girls on the Move, but I will try to do my best to convey the type of work that they do and how important it is. I was first linked to this project because Christie is actually the sister of my choir conductor. Christie is a secondary school teacher here in Canada and she volunteered to teach at an all girls school in Malawi for a year in August 2000. However, the school she was teaching at closed in December 2000 and the 24 girls were left without a facility to continue their education. Christie and Memory decided to continue their efforts to seek the finances that these girls would require and in that time that small goal was the stimulus for the formation of a school for underprivileged girls in rural Malawi. Christie currently fundraises and provides information for donors and sponsors in Canada and Memory is now the director of the APU Secondary School for Girls in rural Malawi which opened in 2008.

When I first heard about this project, as sad as it is to say, I just felt a huge amount of disconnect from it. Living where I am---being raised in a 1st world country, where I have always been allowed to go to school, places me in a bubble where I forget that I am one of the rare subsets of the female population that is given this much opportunity. How can I be raised in a society full of privilege, yet, I am ignorant to the realities of other women in the world? Of course, I do realize that there is gender disparity that still exists in my current society, but when we complain about how women are not treated equal in the workplace, we must remember that there are women who are not even provided the education to escape from the domestic sphere. As well, even if women do attend school, they may face emotional and physical abuse from members of their society. It's such a destructive cycle! I can't even imagine my current life without my education. I was raised in environment with education was required. I never questioned it. I always assumed I would be going to University even though neither one of my parents holds a University degree. Simply put, education provides the knowledge and skills for people to better themselves. My parents worked the jobs they needed to work in order to provide money and opportunity for my siblings and I to pursue our own academic goals. For this, I am ever grateful. Education is the tool that these Malawian girls require in order to elevate themselves from being yet another woman trapped by societal expectation. Education also provides the intellectual empowerment that these girls require in order to shape a better future for themselves: one where women have the right and access to knowledge and are not oppressed by societal forces.

The concert on Sunday was entitled Brick by Brick because that is exactly how this school is being built---brick by brick. The fundraising funds brought in by concerts and other fundraising efforts. Memory and Christie's continue to fundraise for the school in order to ensure that there are continuous funds to support these girls through their educational years. This project has not been endorsed by any major celebrities or funded by huge government grants, all the money has come from individual donors and communities who believe in the cause. There is so much more to learn that I cannot do justice in this short blog entry so I urge you to visit their site to learn more about this fantastic cause. There you can learn more about the girls, the founders, and ways you can volunteer or donate. As well, I have posted a short video that allows you to have a real context for this important cause.

Take care and thanks for reading this entry which, perhaps, isn't as musically related as my other posts :)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Accepting the Castrati

Hello readers,

Last week I was going through a pile of old music articles which I had photocopied for my Music and Gender class last year and there was one essay in particular that caught my attention once again. It is a topic I am close to since I was randomly assigned to present on this topic by the Professor and I actually have no idea what the topic was. The article was simple entitled "Pieces and Breeches" from the The Diva's Mouth text. I flipped through the article and quickly began to realize that is was a paper on Castrati. For those of you who have not come across the term, Castrati, this was a term used to describe, as you can probably guess from its root word, castrated men. They were described as being "ethereal, other worldly, disembodied, and superhuman." This was the case because these castrated males lacked the necessary hormones for regular male development during puberty; thus, they maintained their pre-pubescent voices. In addition to retaining their angelic voices, the Castrati were also less muscular and on average taller than other males with a torso that was commonly described as barrel-chested. But most importantly, their flexibly high voices and vocal training was uninterrupted by puberty.

Historically, the Castrati were not originally operatic divas. They were actually formed because the Church required choir boys to sing soprano and alto parts in the upper registers of music once polyphony was introduced. Women were not allowed to sing in church choirs at this time. Although castration practices were sketchy to say the least, this sterile subset of men filled a very specific niche in the musical world. However, they soon branched out and a few famous Castrati, such a Farinelli, found fame in the Operatic world. They were both celebrated and feared characters. These "half-men" had a reputation for possessing extravagant tastes and extremely bad tempers. It was reported that there were sing-off's between Farinelli and Bernacchi in order to top the vocal genius of the other and even Marchesi demanded that his choice aria should be worked into every Opera he performed in; thus, forming the term "suitcase arias." The Castrati also challenged gender roles because they either played lovers and nobles or else they played women. Even the Castrati seemed to entice Casanova as seen in this performance review:

In a well-made corset, he had the waist of a nymph... his breast was in no way inferior, either in form or beauty, to any woman's; and it was above all by this means that the monster made such ravages. Though one knew the negative nature of this unfortunate, curiosity made one glance at his chest, and an inexpressible charm acted upon one, so that you were madly in love before you realized it... When he walked about the stage during the ritornello of the aria he was to sing, his step was majestic and at the same time voluptuous; and when he favored the boxes with his glances, the tender and modest rolling of his black eyes brought a ravishment to the heart. It was obvious that he hoped to inspire the love of those who liked him as a man, and probably would not have done so as a woman. (Heriot 54-55)

The Castrati's ability to seduce both sexes turned him into a musical fetish. They were able to disrupt traditional gender categories because they were some of the first instances when men were able to substitute for women. Off-stage a number of Castrati were also cross-dressers. Castrati were also seen as superior to women in some ways because they were were not a slave to hormonal fluctuations. There were reports of women who had to wear a red flower pin when they were performing, while undergoing her monthly female cycle, in order for the audience to excuse the fact that she may not be in top singing form. There was also a fair amount of speculation surrounding Castrati since these exotic male temptresses were often rumored to be having affairs with many women, but due to the fact that they were sterile, the women never needed to worry about becoming impregnated and being discovered by their husbands. As well, a woman reported that she had 2 children with a Castrato and, in that sense, his incomplete castration made him the complete, ideal man.

Even though Castrati are extinct now, I believe that the role they played in the musical world is a pivotal one because they were able to pave the way for female singers. Due to the fact that they had both male and female characteristics, in many ways they were a transitional gender figure. After the reign of Castrati, it was not as hard for society to accept female sopranos and a new age of Operatic divas. It is just interesting to consider the role of men in music. The Castrati were initially for choir-use only but were soon worshiped on the Operatic stage. However, in the present day, if there is a man singing in a choir, often, his sexuality is questioned at least once in his lifetime. That is just because music and sexuality are so closely related. The need and desire to perform music is inherently tied to behaviors and tendencies which can be classified as "homosexual." A performing male does not subscribe to the socially accepted norms of masculine behavior which condone emotional repression. Therefore, it is seen that we must continually challenge what society sees as acceptable masculine behavior. Maybe a boy singing in choir isn't the coolest thing he can be doing... but if it worked in 18th C Italy for the Castrati, why can't it still be like that? Although I do not condone seedy castration practices, I do want to challenge peoples ways of thinking when it comes to stereotyping the roles of men within music. What is acceptable masculine behavior and who gets to decide what that is? I believe we must do it for ourselves instead of swayed by what society has deemed to be acceptable masculine acts. The Castrati signaled a time when men were able to play both men and women and embrace both sides of their character; thus, instead of questioning a musical man's sexual orientation we should just simply be accepting it.

Just something to think about next time we meet. As well, if you scroll down halfway on the Wikipedia page, they have a sound clip of what the last Castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, sounded like.

As well, here is a clip from the movie "Farinelli." This movie did not have actual Castrati voice tracks but they digitally merged a soprano and countertenor voice to create what they believe is representative of a Castrato sound.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below!