Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Making of The Great Human Odyssey Soundtrack - A Chorister's Perspective

Ready to perform for a live studio audience

It blows my mind what can happen in 28 hours.

That is the amount of time Pro Coro had to record all the vocal parts for the documentary, The Great Human Odyssey. We received a copy of the coiled music, still warm from the printers, on Monday at 6 PM and we finished recording at 10 PM on Tuesday. Furthermore, in that time, we also performed the work to a sold-out audience at the Winspear for the Sound, Light, Motion Event hosted by Make Something Edmonton.

I had an inkling that this would be a pretty cool project but it didn't fully hit me until I saw the amount of media exposure there was in anticipation of this unique event. It is not everyday that a project of this size is realized while recruiting so much participation from the local arts community. The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra recorded all the orchestral lines and the film crew decided to use an live choral voices for all the recording instead of synthesizers.

The documentary gathers film footage and interviews from individuals all over the world over the span of 18 months. The documentary content investigates the journey of humans outside of Africa. There is an insightful interview and stunning teaser trailer released online for you to learn more. The three-part series airs on CBC in 2015 on David Suzuki's The Nature of Things. The unique part of this project is its connections to Edmonton. The filmmaker, Niobe Thompson, is from Edmonton as well as the composer, Darren Fung, who had less than seven weeks to compose the score.

Monday night was stressful because we had just received the music and two hours later we were performing it in front of a live audience. However, the warmth of the audience paired with the choir's first glimpses of the footage accompanying the music melted away most of our hesitation. Our vocal parts were just one component of this mammoth machine of Art. We were just coming in for a few hours to contribute our voices for aural storytelling. I can't even begin to imagine how the crew and filmmaker, Niobe Thompson, have been dreaming and living this project for the past few years. You just sense this grateful and excited energy from all of the crew which inspired us, as singers, to help them fully realize their vision.

It was my first time using a click track played through a one-sided headphone. It was a constant metronome click synced with the tempo markings in the music. The other ear was left open to listen. What I found right away is that having one ear blocked wiped out my ability to listen to singers around me and tune chords so I wore as much of the headphone off of my ear as possible during the actual recording on Tuesday. We also popped in some recording tricks to decrease noise, such as wearing slippers or flattening our music stand and turning them 180 degrees to help remedy the scrape of our page turns on the metallic stand ledge. The ESO had also been recording Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning so by the time Pro Coro arrived on Tuesday afternoon we were able to hear the metronome clicks as well as the orchestral parts played back into our ears as we were singing. I can't even begin to imagine the amount of quick turnaround the crew had to do in the recording booth since Darren was able to just say "two bars before measure 40" and they would be able to pull up those exact bars of orchestral accompaniment in our headphone and we could begin singing. The process also demonstrated the fluidity in music recording. We would add or remove lines, try different voicing on parts, sing different melodies in the piano reduction, change vowels, add more notes into the chord - it evolved into this organic process where the music was being created and tweaked right in that very recording session. Darren was having so much fun that there was no increased stress with the last-minute edits. There was an open willingness to experiment and see what we could come up with.

It is exhausting but satisfying to emerge from a 28 hour process that included six hours of recording and a two hour live concert. The entire spirit of the Make Something Edmonton movement is to take the visions of Edmontonians, and with community self-reflection, ask how we can help so individuals can realize their dreams. As a result, we create this common goal of a vibrant city that runs on community powered momentum. I'm left wondering when's the next time I can do something as cool as this.

Recording is a wrap!
I also had the chance to sing with Elizabeth, a blog reader and chorister in Pro Coro #CONNECT
Update: A The Making of a Filmscore Documentary has been released! January 14, 2014

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

mèi mei

Photo Credit: Nanc Price Photography

In October, I started a ukulele coverband with my sis. We had talked about forming a group for a while. We even had our band name picked out: mèi mei (translation: little sister in mandarin). However, securing a gig at the VIP Reception for a Nina Haggarty Centre of the Arts Fundraiser expedited our band's formation. 
It not confidence boosting to admit that you are the weakest link; however, it was true in this case. The only instrument I really had an ever trained was my voice. As you can imagine, there was as steep learning curve for me to be able to play basic chords on ukulele while singing at the same time. I have terrible fine motor skills. At the same time, nothing ever gets better without practice so I took the challenge to develop my brain's motor cortex regions. We carried off our first gig well enough with the ambient noise of the cocktail party to disguise any of my glaring musical errors. 
The whole process gave me a glimpse into how my neural networks consolidate new information. I gave myself very basic goals. My first week's focus was just holding my ukulele so I wouldn't be crushing my contorted thumb behind the bridge. The next week was trying to play chords and sing at the same time at a reduced tempo. The next week was learning that I can strum in different patterns to create rhythm. The following week was attempting to sing right words, play correct chords, strum, and keep a steady tempo. The only strength I have is that I am able to automatically sing a harmony line because I can hear it in my head. Plus, I am strumming the chords so I am supplying myself the notes.  

There were short intense periods of practice everyday. Drilling awkward chord transitions and willing my fingers to move with more accuracy between chord postures were at the top of my list. I felt a sense of satisfaction when my fingertips would tingle due to lack of sensation. I was forming callouses! One step closer into becoming a ukulele instrumentalist. I began learning on my niece's ukulele that is green and covered in tropical fruit. As the gig approached, I decided the week before I should pick up my own ukulele. While I was tempted to purchase a colored one, the sound was terrible so I opted for something in the mid-range.

Following the reception for the Nina fundraiser, we even had the chance to sing some holiday tunes for a private shopping event with Cory Christopher at Simons this past weekend.

Thanks to Nanc for these amazing pics from Simons!

While mèi mei's future is undetermined at this point in time, all I know it's fun to spend some time with my sis and have the courage learn something new.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Leap of Faith - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Jason Noble

Braving the icy chill from Edmonton's abrupt onset of Winter composer, Jason Noble, shakes off the bite of the windchill as he enters the warm surroundings of Remedy Café.  He sits down to discuss the premiere of his newest choral work, Missa Remissionem Peccatorum. Pro Coro Canada sings the debut of the piece at their concert on Sunday. In addition to his work as a choral composer, Noble is a musician and PhD researcher at McGill's Music Perception and Cognition Lab. Noble sings with voces boreales, a professional choral ensemble founded by Pro Coro's Artistic Director, Michael Zaugg. Missa Remissionem Peccatorum is Noble's largest choral work to date. Drawing upon his previous history with Zaugg as a singer, Noble states that it gave him a better perspective when writing a piece for one of Zaugg's choirs. "Zaugg has a compositional approach to conducting. He looks at scores so analytically. There might be sixteen independent lines going on at one time and he helps choirs see harmonic underpinnings, understand global textural effects, and how each note functions in terms of the overall sonority.  As a composer, that is how we would look at a score too,'" Noble says with a tone of deep appreciation. "He's also very passionate about contemporary music," Noble continues,  "to have somebody gifted at bringing out inner intentions and the compositional structure of a piece... it was a real gift," Noble states as he reminisces about his time when Zaugg conducting voces boreales in Montreal before moving to Edmonton.

This Sunday will not be the first time in which Pro Coro has premiered one of Noble’s works. "The first piece that I wrote for Michael was The Shadows Flee Away which Pro Coro did over a year ago. I think everybody would agree it was a difficult piece. It was 16 parts throughout with polytonal layering, lots of textures, and [Pro Coro] did a great job," he states.  "As much as I was happy with that piece, it helped me grow as a composer," he says.

Taking what he learned from that experience, Noble kept what worked and applied it to the Missa Remissionem Peccatorum.  As a result, there is some continuity between the two works. "In the beginning of the Gloria, for example, there are just four notes sustained but every singer is articulating the text at their own free pace. Later the Sopranos and Altos have this canon where there is a floating texture above and in the tenors and basses there is more of a homophonic chorale," he says before apologizing and continuing with a burst of explanatory excitement. "Basically, you've got two textures going on at the same time. One is the sparkly texture over top and the bottom appears as a unified statement of familiar chords.  Also, the crossfades where you have one choir decrescendo as the other choir does exactly the opposite with a crescendo," he explains. There is intent behind every aspect of Noble's musical construction: "There may be a straightforward D flat major chord but one of the voices on the third may make it major or minor. Other voices may move in microtonal intervals that are not major or minor but more like a band in pitch space. It is this destabilizing thing that takes you out of familiar harmony.  It is that moment of trepidation and instability which the audience will feel as much as the singers." There is also a section where singers are instructed to sing their lowest comfortable note. The pitch descends into a “black cloud of undefined sound,” ridding the section of any harmonic identity. These are all techniques that Noble uses to highlight the textual meaning in the piece. 

There are challenges associated with setting sacred text for secular audiences and still making it relevant. Noble casts a contemplative look downwards while he formulates his loci of thought into words: "Liturgical composers in earlier eras could just accept the text as something the audiences both know and believe. We live in a multicultural age now. Where we have people from all different backgrounds of faith and no faith. It would very naive to assume modern audiences will receive these texts as universal truths or as affirmations of unifying faith as audiences from previous eras might have. I think a lot of composers in the 20th and 21st centuries cut themselves off from tradition, whether that is musical or religious. The idea of complete renovation. Something radically new and different. I believe that we still have a lot to learn from the wisdom that has been handed down to us through the ages. The emphasis on the now and the new may be the sources of problems we face in the world today. Maybe those previous generations knew a few things that we would do well to learn from, including the teachings of faith. I try to find values in those teachings that are morally legitimate, even in the world today, without alienating people from any background.  For me, the concept of forgiveness is one of the most powerful ones. I don't want us to live in a world that loses the ability to forgive.  As opposed to radical individualism, where you're only thinking about yourself and your own needs. We all make mistakes and I want to believe that we can still forgive others and ourselves even in a secular world.”

The concept of forgiveness is poignant in Noble’s Kyrie section.  "The movement is about the confrontation with sin. Sin is the recognition of having done wrong in whatever moral sense that means to you. That sense of shame and self-reproach that is familiar to most people. The Kyrie is not a prayer to some sort of deity or God, although it can be interpreted that way if you wish, it's more of a hope that wrong can be set right. And wrong, once done, doesn't have to define you forever or be irreparable. Mercy is essentially a hope this can heal. Not a literal request for somebody to set things right for you. Just a hope and faith in the universe and in other people that forgiveness and reconciliation is still possible even wrong has been done," Noble summarizes with a philosophical fluency.

There is a sense of balance while Noble outlines how his personal upbringing has shaped his worldview: “I wasn’t brought up in a church-going family. My parents wanted me to grow up and make up my own mind. Now I sing in a Cathedral Choir, so I have more exposure to the teachings of Christianity than I did as a child. I think I take it in the same way I take philosophy books or other works of Art whether secular or sacred. All of them have something to teach me. All of them have something meaningful and beautiful that I can make meaningful in my own life. It’s not about which one is right or wrong. It’s about finding the value and meaning in all of them that come together in my own personal worldview. I'm hoping to convey something through the selection of text and through the music that I write.”

Art communicates through the transmission of meaning from one mind to another. This concept ties in with Noble’s research at McGill where he investigates the processes of thinking and interpreting that are common between people. Even though there are breakdowns in the message between his compositional intent and audiences, he notes that the process is a leap of faith. “As a composer, I know that meaning is always interpreted against a subjective context that is constantly evolving for everybody. By definition, it is impossible that the meaning that I have in my mind while writing is going to be the same for any one member of the audience let alone all of them,” he says while laughing at this lofty goal.

Noble views himself as a top down composer: “I don’t start with motives and materials and build something up out of them. I start with global intuition and feeling I am trying to work with. From that intuition, I get a sense of form. And then down from there into selecting materials that are appropriate to the concepts I am working with. Form and material and concept are all very interwoven with one another. There are still lots of choices to make, if I ever get it right!” he says while laughing before continuing. “What I want the work to be is clear from the beginning. If it is not clear, then I spend lot of time meditating on what I am trying to achieve. In the pieces I am most proud of, the musical choices follow almost as a matter of course once that concept is worked out.  I try to restrain myself from moving on until the concept is very clear. To the point where it’s almost self-propelling and the process unfolds where I feel like an observer and not an agent. That doesn't happen every single time but it happens at the best times,” he states in describing his compositional process.

There is an importance in how new music can document contemporary cultural identity: “We live in an age where identify is very plural and divided. In a big way, one of the reasons why I want to be a composer and write works like this is to draw attention to values that stand apart from the general cultural and moral currents around me. It would be far easier to produce music in a popular domain, using techniques, which are known to be popular. I don't want Art to be a commodity. I don’t want it to be something that’s just there to give people what they ask for because they ask for it. If you do that, then you just reinforcing people in what they already know. Which means Art will never move forward. Art will just become the perpetual recycling of things that are already known to be pleasant, and that’s not how new meanings are discovered. Our age deserves to have a unique voice. Our age deserves to have an expression through Art that documents and expresses what is unique about being alive today. How our age is not the same as ages past. What are the challenges we face? What are the feelings that we deal with? I don’t believe the best way to achieve that is by using the materials earlier musical ages have generated. But, at the same time, Art loses its power altogether if it’s written in a way that too esoteric or arcane that people can’t relate to. I don’t want to be a strictly academic composer that is only writing for my colleagues in the University while the rest of the world is unaware.  I want to write thing that have the potential to reach out to people but challenge them. Open their eyes to things that might not familiar or comfortable. I hope, by my leap of faith, that they find meaning in,” he summates, highlighting many of the themes from the conversation.

There is an overwhelming sense of gratitude when a Noble professes how honoured he is when a choir gives his music a voice. He clenches his fist in front of his chest, "it lives in here for months," he says before noting the sense of release he feels when he hears it live for the first time. “I really admire Pro Coro. I think it’s great you have a performing ensemble of this caliber here in Edmonton and that you do take on these challenging projects and master them to the degree that you do,” he says with affection. Thus, it was fitting that Noble’s opening statement to the choir at rehearsal on Friday night was just simply: “I love you.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

An Interview with Michael Zaugg, Conductor of the 2016 National Youth Choir

Michael Zaugg leads the way to his office. The hallway is filled with concert posters, which have been plaqued and mounted on the wall. A closer look at the posters reveals the signatures of soloists. The names amongst the array of posters include The Cantata Singers of Ottawa, voces boreales, and Pro Coro Canada. At the end of the hallway before turning into his office, there is a room lined with shelves, solely dedicated to music storage. Zaugg settles into the chair behind his desk and a quick look behind him shows a trio of glass message boards with dry erase etches of future repertoire ideas and thematic concert brainstorming. The board on the far right already has repertoire and commission thoughts for the National Youth Choir 2016. 
In the past ten years since arriving in Canada, Zaugg has been Artistic Director of the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, The St. Lawrence Choir, voces boreales, the Montreal Choral Institute, Chorusmaster of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and is now beginning his third season as the Principal Conductor and Artistic Director of Pro Coro Canada. During the Podium 2014 conference in Halifax, it was announced that Zaugg would be the next Conductor of the NYC in 2016. Conducting a mass choir of elite youth choristers is not unfamiliar territory as Zaugg has conducted the Ontario Youth Choir and Nova Scotia Youth Choir in previous years and also World Voices, a 40-voice choir of World Youth Choir alumnae; however, it will be his first opportunity at the helm of the NYC. Singing as a tenor was an integral part of Zaugg's musical upbringing. His choral experiences included tours with the Swiss Chamber Choir, the Chamber Choir of Europe, the Stockholm Chamber Choir, and five sessions in the World Youth Choir. Zaugg outlines his aims for the NYC choristers, which include, exposing them to great choral works and certain musical techniques. “I hope these young adults work in their communities and carry on some aspects of what they will be doing into the future,” he states. Zaugg makes it clear that there will be no slackening in his professional-level expectations of these youth choristers. He wishes to instill a high-performance work ethic in these budding young professionals. For those looking to become conductors, they can transfer teachings to their own work and increase their tools to help better prepare them for positions of musical leadership.
Zaugg reminisces upon his own memories from the World Youth Choir with fondness. “I arrived in Helsinki and then we took the ferry over to Tallinn. From that moment I stepped into a different world and it was only the morning on my flight back to Zurich that I realized that I had to get back into real-life. It had been a month of other-worldly experience,” he said.  Prior to WYC, Zaugg’s interest in conducting was already developing since he was teaching highschool music in his early 20s, conducting a girls choir and amateur choir, and was assistant conductor for a symphonic choir. “My early career path leaned towards pedagogy. There was always the element of making music, but being a musical pedagogue was foremost. Later on it was key moments, like hearing fantastic choirs, and saying: ‘That's what I want to do! I want to learn how to create that sound and do that particular music,’” he states. Upon arriving in Canada, Zaugg worked primarily as a conductor and in his position with the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, he tried to implement sound ideals from Scandinavia. Once he founded voces boreales in Montreal, he began to see how he could shape the free and colorful textures of voices and demonstrate a different evolution of choral sound. His approach with Pro Coro Canada has continued in this direction. “Pro Coro's full and vibrant sound wasn't here when I came 2.5 years ago. Working with a youth choir is very similar, young singers just need more guidance. The best thing is to always model what you want. I think my ears are tuned to hear individual voices, so my instruction is always very direct and that transfers into the work with the choir. I think the choirs had to get used to direct feedback," he says with a smile, breaking his stoic expression. His approach to differentiate between different voices stems from his Stockholm training. "I've sung so much for so many different voice teachers and conductors, I have acquired the vocabulary to solve various problems. It solves the problem without have to rehearse a section over and over," he says providing a rationale for his direct approach. 
Epic Photography Inc., Ian Jackson

In the two weeks given to prepare the NYC, Zaugg recognizes there will be no problem so long as the singers are prepared. He notes that he rarely takes pieces out of a concert program. "My programs have a theme. It is hard to cut something out because the story falls apart," he says. Indeed, a quick glance again at his brainstorming notes behind him reinforces how carefully he plans each repertoire item. 
Zaugg hopes that NYC singers will recognize that Alberta is a great choral province. Perhaps it will attract some young talent to Alberta and these singers will return home to transfer these teaching and experiences into their own communities. Furthermore, Zaugg notes that it is important that choristers have a great social time, forming bonds that they will keep for a lifetime. As any chorister knows, it is the on-stage and off-stage bonding that completes a musical experience. 

Follow @Podium2016 on Twitter 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Catching up with Phillip Addis, Figaro in Edmonton Opera's Barber of Seville

Metallic shelving units line the perimeter of the Jubilee Auditorium rehearsal hall. They are laden with props. A quick glance around the room reveals a barber’s chair in one corner. There is a side cart decorated with razors, combs, and a tall glass jar ready to disinfect any used combs. The stage manager helps me to clear a spot on the wooden prop vanity to interview Edmonton Opera’s leading man, Phillip Addis, playing Figaro in the Barber of Seville. Addis relaxes back in his seat with a sense of calm. He is no stranger to Principal roles having sung the title role in Pelléas et Mélisande with the Opéra Comique in Paris and Il Conte Almaviva in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro with Pacific Opera Victoria earlier this year; however, this is Addis’ Figaro debut.

It’s been a good rehearsal process because the first time through a role, you prepare as much as you can. But when you start staging, often you start to have realizations as to why the show flows the way it does,” Addis says with a mature sense of insight. “Once you start listening to what your colleagues are saying in the dialogue, it just changes. Instead of imagining what they’re singing, you become a listener engaged in a conversation. There’s something more immediate about the relationships as opposed to when you’re just reading it from the score, trying to picture how they’re going to deliver their lines in between your lines,” he states highlighting the collaborative importance of his fellow cast members.  


In preparing for his debut role, Addis reveals that he did not want to watch any videos prior to coming to the rehearsal process. He elaborates on his rationale: “I didn’t want to end up being a copycat. I know there’s a lot to be learned and there’s a lot of great resources out there but I wanted to make sure I was fresh and a clean slate for the direction both dramatically and musically. It gave me more freedom to figure it out myself, who Figaro is for me.” By unraveling the layers of his character, Addis found that Figaro’s primary motivation is money. The prospect of success and reward is irresistible.

Figaro is the grease that makes the town run. He maximizes on his influence as a barber and is able to exploit the knowledge of his diverse networks. As a result, he anticipates outcomes as problems are approaching. Addis also sees Figaro as being very observant character that soaks up facts and emotions behind what people are saying. However, at the core, Addis views Figaro as a sympathetic character. “Figaro just wants people to be happy and he wants people who love each other to be happy because that translates into success for him and money as well,” he states. 


There is an overall sense of urgency because Figaro is constantly juggling multiple storylines. In order to convey this to the audience, Addis must exude an energized physicality on stage. “I don’t want him to come across is just having had too much coffee, although there is a bit of that. I am trying to be fairly wide-eyed and physically exuberant… he knows there is no time to lose. Overnight, this opportunity could pass him… otherwise [Rosina] will be forced to marry Bartelo. He is keenly aware of the pressures of timing and that excites him instead freezing him into a panic.” 

Figaro’s opening aria is in no way relaxing. Addis laughs as he reflects on this fact. “The singing is challenging and we’re doing a lot of active things. He’s not just singing about his life, he’s reenacting it all,” he says. However, once everything is cleared from the stage, there is one brief moment of quiet before the Count arrives in his barbershop. From that point onwards, it’s non-stop for Figaro until the closing curtain.

In order to generate the energy required for the role of Figaro, Addis shares that he is still searching for that balance. “Occasionally, we’ll run through a scene and I’m a bit out of breath by the end of it. But that’s good. It means it’s a proper challenge. Hopefully, it means that what I’m doing is not boring,” he states before elaborating on the importance of breathing. “If you’re holding your breath the whole thing is off... I think that ties in with the idea that if [Figaro] is truly anticipating the problems that are going to arise then I need to anticipate where I need to take a deep breath before a burst of activity. The idea of that deep breath, wherever it may lie, it is supportive musically but it can also work dramatically too. If you want [Figaro] to be clear-headed, then he can’t be tense and frantic,” explains Addis. He notes that the goal of the whole ensemble has been working on exuding energy but being in control of the situation as well.

There is an allure of the Operatic form for Addis: “The thing about Opera is that so much that goes into the storytelling. It can be really engaging. But there’s a certain comfort in it. I find it less exposed than concert and oratorio work. In those other forms, it’s just you and your voice. You’re doing all the storytelling. And it’s between you and the accompanist and the conductor telling the story musically as well. There is no visual crutch so you have to be so precise. It’s just more exposed… In Opera it’s quite different. First of all you rehearse in the same setting for a few weeks. You get to pass the responsibility of the storytelling between more people… It’s a more complicated collective relationship.” 

As Addis prepares for future projects, he finds himself drawn back to the fundamentals of his craft. “I’m more aware not of things I want to improve and explore technically, which I think will serve me well for the larger roles that come along, and truly essential to get through the larger roles in the repertoire. [The idea of being a lead character] that, in itself, I don’t find scary. But it’s everything that goes behind making a performance that much more engaging… I’m trying to make sure that I’m always trying to put the best performance forward,” he states with a sense of humility.

In the days leading up to opening night, Addis is looking forward to the sitzprobe. The singers will get to rehearse with the Orchestra for the first time. “I’ll be grinning. I sometimes get excited to the point where I get teary-eyed. I love it. It’s a gut reaction. There’s nothing artificial about how profoundly orchestral music moves me” says Addis. He summates his thoughts on Opera: “The blend of great orchestral music with great vocal writing. That’s why I’m in this. It’s what I love the most about Opera and other classical vocal repertoire. It’s got two things I absolutely adore fused into one.”

All photography by Nanc Price courtesy of Edmonton Opera

Tickets are available from the Edmonton Opera Box Office (780-429-1000) and online.

Barber of Seville Shows:

Saturday, Oct. 25, 8 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 28, 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, Oct. 30, 7:30 p.m.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Survival of the Fittest - What Indie Opera Is Doing Right


This past weekend was the opening of #UncleJohn and it was exactly the kind of production I have hoped would come to Alberta. It was musically immersive and culturally relevant - all wrapped up in a sleek, modern, indie opera company. I will reiterate what I was hearing throughout the week: "This is the future of Opera."

Members of the Edmonton Opera Chorus took a roadtrip down to see #UncleJohn at the Cave and Basin, which was a part of the Banff Centre's Summer Arts Festival. What I didn't expect upon watching the production was how familiar I felt with this show even though I had not seen anything by this company before. One of the reasons for the familiarity is their stellar marketing on social media. Throughout the past year since working with some of the Against the Grain Theatre crew on Edmonton Opera's production of Tales of Hoffmann, I've been living vicariously through social media to keep up with their productions. Even though I was not in the audience for Figaro's Wedding, I could read updates, see pictures from the production, and even have conversations with people regarding the production. Many times, social media gets a bad reputation because it can decrease our face-to-face interactions; however, there is also a balance in recognizing that social media as a powerful networking tool. For the entity that manages to balance real world and digital interactions, they are able to master two powerful communicative realms. All those tweets and Facebook updates I have seen from preparation for their other productions have developed a cumulative artistic presence in my subconscious.

There have been numerous articles regarding about the future of Opera companies, such as a comprehensive one by Michael Vincent at Musical Toronto. There are inquiries regarding fianancial viability of traditional Opera companies and the presence of niche independent Opera companies with a fresh perspective. Whatever the the successful model is, if we take a note from Darwinian concept of survival of the fittest, it is all about adaptation. Organisms with the most advantageous traits will survive. In order for any Art to survive, whether it be Opera, Choral music etc. it must be accessible to a wide population. The sea of silver-haired patrons have the time and money now to renew their subscriptions; however, if there is no move to connect to younger audiences, the demographic of future attendees remain uncertain. If I study #UncleJohn as a model organism, here are some of the successful traits within the company:


AtG Theatre chooses the venue location to fit the context of the story that they are telling whether it is the Burroughes for Figaro's Wedding, the intimate Extension Room yoga studio for Kafka/Janáček/Kurtág, or the Cave and Basin outdoor patio for the wedding reception setting for #UncleJohn. The location allows the audience to be distributed throughout the set and a part of of the story. This is effective because there is nothing lost in translation in the setting. The audience doesn't have to imagine the reception space through a painted backdrop because they are sitting in the reception space. When Anna, Zerlina, Masetto, Elvira, and Ottavio are all descending upon Leporello from all angles, the audience can feel the panic of Leporello trying to a find a way out through the snaking spaces between chairs. Conversely, audience members can feel the wrath of sound from the singers tracking Uncle John down. 


No surprise here, but speaking in the audiences' dominant language increases understanding. It is not only the fact that #UncleJohn was translated into a new English libretto by Joel Ivany, but the show's vernacular is also current. My generation speaks in hashtags and uses terms like super perv, hot mess, and Tinder. When I heard these terms used within #UncleJohn, it unlocked an immediate sense of cultural familiarity. They were speaking my language.


Ticket prices are an important dividing factor for a potential audience members. #UncleJohn prices were $25 for student/senior and $30 for adult, which is pretty much comparable to spending VIP tickets at a major movie cinema. This is also cheap when compared to traditional Opera where ticket prices offset costs high production costs.


AtG theatre has a knack for booking singers that are emerging or already established voices of Canada. The exciting part about this for me is that these singers are amongst my generation of musical peers. My choral friends have gone on to study at Universities across this country with these budding Opera singers and it is always surprising how we are all interconnected within a few degrees of separation. I often see Instagram comments by a friend regarding a singer or a text notifying me when one of their Opera friends will be in town singing for a production. It is exciting to watch young professionals at formative stages in their careers where they are taking risks and challenging themselves in non-traditional settings. A significant amount of confidence is demanded from an Artist singing endless Mozart aria runs amongst audience members that can hear every breath and see every slight change in their facial expression. There is no hiding.

Social Media

AtG Theatre recognizes the importance of social media. They have created a network of users and active platforms to engage with the world. Artists have Twitter handles in their program biography and audience members were tweeting and posting photos before, during, and after the show. They took it even further to create Twitter profiles for Leoporello and Uncle John, which created continuity in the story. Their Facebook updates with videos and witty promo photos plus a coverage by Schmopera releasing behind-the-scenes rehearsal videos and interviews leading up to the show's release. It is not only a factor of having a social media account but it is also about being creative in its uses.

In many ways, our culture has been reinforced to admire Art through an impenetrable third wall. Thus, people can treat Art as an artifact too fragile for manipulation, something to be collected and admired with disconnect. However, reinterpretation of a work gives an art form new life because a different perspective is being shared. It is not a battle between Opera purists and Indie Opera voices, but it is about stimulating a discourse about Opera in the community. In fact, AtG Theatre's #UncleJohn is leading by example, collaborating with the Canadian Opera Company and The Banff Centre for this production. There must be adaptation to increase accessibility to audiences. It's time more people begin considering what traits we need to adopt to carry on these stunning musical scores and stories to future audiences. AtG Theatre's #UncleJohn is just just another way of how Indie Opera is doing it right.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Cor Flammae - Vancouver's Queer Classical Chorus

photo credit: belle ancell photography

It all began with a viewing of a lesbian opera. Cor Flammae co-founders Missy Clarkson, Madeline Hannan-Leith, and Amelia Pitt-Brooke caught the premiere performance of Leslie Uyeda's When the Sun Comes Out at last year's Vancouver Queer Arts Festival. Witnessing COC Ensemble Studio Graduate, Teiya Kasahara, challenge traditional voice casting as a coloratura playing a butch character confirmed that not only was there a sphere for queer artists, but one for those performing at a professional level. At the opera after-party, Clarkson, Hannan-Leith, and Pitt-Brooke were inspired to form a professional-level queer choir, Cor Flammae, meaning "flaming heart."

photo credit: belle ancell photography

Clarkson began contacting her local networks to do research into queer choral composers. Compiling a list of queer composers was somewhat challenging since Clarkson notes that historically composers are considered "straight until proven not-straight," and at the time rarely announced their sexual orientation. "We always view the past through a lens of the present. The past is an organic being," says Pitt-Brooke, acknowledging the bias that comes with historical interpretation. Much of the confirmation lies in interpreting the meaning behind omission, code words, or gender-neutral references when discussing composer relationships. One such veiled composer is Franz Schubert, who is included on the Cor Flammae programme with historical queer composers such as Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, John Cage, Maurice Ravel, and contemporary Vancouver composers such as Michael Park and Catherine Laub. There were three defining points for the repertoire: secular, a cappella, and queer. Interesting programming choices are also present, such as in exploring harmonic similarities of works by Barber and Menotti, who were romantic partners for over 40 years. The final madrigal of The Unicorn,The Gorgon & The Manticore that Cor Flammae will sing was a composition performed at Barber's funeral in 1981.

photo credit: belle ancell photography
Forming the choir was an expedited process. After submitting a proposal to the Queer Arts Festival organizers, the Cor Flammae creative team reached out to their musical networks to audition singers on March 15. They were also able to secure queer conductors Peggy Hua and Hussein Janmohamed, who had recently completed their conducting Masters at UBC, to lead the group in the chosen repertoire. Accepted choristers, or "queeristers," had to be ready to pose for a professional-level photo shoot on March 31. However, this was no conservative photo shoot. Stylist Adam Dickson orchestrated wardrobe and characters for every queerister after a series of short interviews to reveal individual personas. Clarkson, a hairdresser by trade, called upon her fashion industry networks to assemble a crew of 16 individuals comprised of hairdressers, makeup artists, videographer, photographers and styling assistants to execute this photo shoot: "I wanted it to be a fashion shoot unlike every other choir, having a uniformity of choir garb while showcasing people's personalities and letting that shine through. There is a lot of erasure in the classical music scene and I wanted people to be able to be their fancy selves," she announces.

photo credit: belle ancell photography

One would think that the difficulty in forming a queer choir would be finding the choristers. Clarkson revealed that the choristers all came out of the woodwork; however, for some choristers, it didn't come without personal struggles to publicly broadcast news of their sexuality. She could think of four choristers who had to officially "come out" as a result of joining the choir. A chorister revealed their bisexuality once their mother saw them on a Cor Flammae poster. In regards to self-perceived queerness, Clarkson states the position of the choir: "The idea is to be quite liquid about it. We don't have anybody in the ensemble that overtly identifies as transgendered at the moment, but we want to break those old gender-binary habits in our language around rehearsals. We are trying to queer the very un-queer space of classical music." The established presence of queer identity in choral music is noted to be more developed for queer men more so than queer women or gender-variant people. "It even comes down to dress code, sometimes queer women and trans people just don't feel welcomed because of their presentation," states Pitt-Brooke. It is uncertain which other factors are playing a role in the decreased visibility of queer women and the gender-variant in classical music. Cor Flammae tenor, Bruce Hoffman, noted a wish to assemble a queer choir 20 years ago but was unable to locate a sufficient number of sopranos and altos to form the group.

photo credit: belle ancell photography
Singing to a sold-out theatre at the opening of the Queer Art's Festival, Cor Flammae is aware that the audience members may have never been to a choral concert before in their lives. "We are happy to bring this choral music to the masses. It is not for the elite. It's for the people... theoretically, as queer artists we speak to people on the fringe. We are trying to create a platform for people to perform in their full selves and listen with in their full selves. We want to create an atmosphere where all people feel invited to classical music," states Clarkson speaking to the goal of the group. Pitt-Brooke adds that "the project is about finding people from different communities and joining in art together."

photo credit: belle ancell photography

It is significant that Vancouver has a queer population enough to form not only only a queer choir but one that performs repertoire at a professional level; this signals a cultural progression and accepted visibility of all artists regardless of their sexuality or gender identity. Every triumph in this regard creates an environment and open dialogue that supports the work all artists in a community. Kudos, Cor Flammae.

photo credit: belle ancell photography


Cor Flammae Inaugural Performance at the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival
July 24, 2014 7:30-9:30 PM
Roundhouse Community Centre, 181 Roundhouse Mews
Tickets $30 Adults, $15 Youth/Seniors/Underemployed are now SOLD OUT.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Art is a Gift - An Interview with Canadian Choral Composer, Peter-Anthony Togni

Settling down for a chat after the Composers panel at Podium 2014, Peter-Anthony Togni and I begin by catching-up from when we last saw each other in Edmonton. Pro Coro Canada performed the Canadian premiere of Togni's Missa Liberationis on Good Friday. There was a strongly worded review published following the concert that I wanted to get his thoughts on. "I think if you haven't rustled people's feathers in some way, then you're not doing your job," he states with an air of humor. However, with over 20 years as musician, composer, and CBC radio broadcaster, it hasn’t necessarily made Togni immune to such feedback. “I am as vulnerable as the next person. I know what it is I wanna write. I know what my aesthetic is and I know what I'm playing with and I know that not everybody likes it. And I know it's a direct reflection of my Catholic faith. For me it helps me interpret what I think is supernatural. If you get a moment like that, the rest of it doesn't feel like writing music anymore,” Togni states in summary.

The spiritual aspect of music is not to be overlooked when considering Togni’s composition perspective: “I was thinking of this the other day as I was listening to Mozart's Piano Concerto in D minor No. 24. There are some moments in that that are so perfect… I actually think what we're listening to is a conversation with God written down… it's like sticking your finger into the electric socket,” Togni says with a  twinkle in his eye. Sometimes Togni feels these moments occurs in his pieces; however, he emphasizes how music is a pathway and connection for him to this world. “There's everyday roads of life and there's the other world. Composers always want to live in the enchanted forest all the time. We're trying to create Utopia. I believe in the holiness of beauty. But beauty doesn't have to be pretty music can be ugly. Look at the Spanish cruxifices or Christ nailed to a cross, that's beautiful. Pain can be beauty,” he says while taking a moment to consider the aching torment of that image. A constant struggle between the roles of the mortal and divine appears to ripple beneath Togni’s calm façade.

Togni goes to explain how the role his Faith has shaped his character: “I flirted with Monasticism in my early 20s. I was drawn to the Benedictine monks. There was a monastery in Paris where I finished my degree. I flirted with Priesthood but I think what God was telling me to do was to be in the world. Now, I think the Church is about being in Church and I think it's about your being outside of the church. I think tradition is clouding what is right and wrong. What about talking about what we have in common?” Togni continues, “my Faith is not one to swim against the stream, but my nature is to swim against the stream. My friends call me a Catholic hedonist. I love it,” he says with a laugh fully aware of the conflicting nature of this label.

Currently, Togni’s most recent commission entitled, Warrior Songs, for percussion and choir was premiered by Ars Nova in Colarado. He describes the theme as being a warrior for peace. Not actually being the warrior, but having the power to kiss the blade and not use it. Exploring the use of percussion on the piece was a new area of exploration for Togni. “I never thought of Singers as being vehicles of rhythm. But it's all about rhythm. Anything that moves, even if it's melodic, it has rhythm,” explains Togni.

During the Composer Panel at Podium, Togni was one of the Composers who stated his inspiration comes largely from sound and not text. He described how he hears the structure of the piece within sound. Togni brings up the concepts of Theo Drama and  Ego Drama to highlight the philosophy behind his composition perspective:

“A great piece of Art is a beautiful flower in the middle of the forest and nobody sees it. Ego Drama wants the flower to be seen, adored, and noticed. My inclination as I get older is I can see clearly where my Ego is. I can see myself wanting people to like something, and hope that it gets great applause. I am trying to remove myself from that. My inclination as I get older is to move more into the Theo Drama. Music that is spiritual is not about impressing everybody,” he says. While Togni did not feel inclined to stand up and be recognized from the audience as the National Youth Choir premiered his piece during their Podium Spotlight concert, it allowed him an opportunity to say thank-you to the performers and audience. He notes that it is good to nurture his neurosis in order to fully embrace the role of being an Artist.

As for how Togni decides where to go next, he realizes that it is inspired by whatever is right in front of him at the time. “It is never anything I plan because most things I plan are a disaster,” he states with a laugh and contemplative coolness before we conclude our chat. Togni reminds me that "Art is a gift,"at the end of our interview, and following a weekend at the Podium 2014 conference, I have no doubt. 

 Listen to Togni's work here