Thursday, January 30, 2014

Die Fledermaus: A Bubbling Satire

A Wednesday night backstage at the Jubilee Auditorium creates a bustle of activity. Edmonton Opera Principal singers are heard warming-up in their dressing rooms, Chorus girls walk past with their hair in pin curls towards the rehearsal hall to don their towering wigs, and the Chorus men take one last look in the mirror to ensure that their perfect moustache swirl is staying in place. Everybody is ready to attend the Viennese masquerade ball of the season.

At the helm of Edmonton Opera's production of Die Fledermaus is Director, Allison Grant. She reveals her starting point for a production like Die Fledermaus: "The music is what informs every choice that you make. This music is really bubbly, infectious, champagne-like so the whole production ends up looking like a fabergé egg that you open up and there's all this frou-frou inside." The images of embellishment and excess summate the visual allure of this Die Fledermaus production.

However, Grant does not view Die Fledermaus as mere confection. Strauss wrote the piece in response to the Viennese stock market crash 1873; thus, "it's satirizing these over the top characters who are these bourgeois, rich folk and their silly foibles," Grant elaborates further, "The people who were watching it were the same social class satirized. So they were laughing at themselves... we look at these characters and see ourselves... we see ourselves in them because it's realistic."

There is a collegial energy, connection, and openness between the Principal singers and Chorus which is evident in the intermingling partners throughout the Act II ball scene. Grant gushes about the amount of local talent, stating names like Stewart Lemoine, John Ullyatt, John Kirkpatrick, Jeff Haslam, and Mark Meer. The strength of the theatre community is not to be overlooked according to Grant. "Everybody looks to Edmonton as the centre of new theatre," she continues, "The whole Fringe theatre phenomenon in Canada started here.  That hasn't weakened... this is a community that has built a strong following... that's what I hope for all the communities in Canada." Another Edmonton-based actor, Julien Arnold, is playing the role of Frosch. Frosch is the working-class voice of the production playing the jailer in Act III. He contrasts the upper-class frivolity of the other characters. He is the comedic critic and his stand-up monologue references make you wonder whether or not you are in 1880's Vienna or modern-day Edmonton.

With the opening of the show coming this Saturday, Grant faces the challenge of these final rehearsals. "You have to let go. [The cast] have to find their way on the stage. All of directing is about leading people down a path and letting them go," she states. The frenetic energy of the cast creates a colorful blur that is visible from the audience vantage point. It is certain uncertain whether the audience will be searching for the dark satirical undertones or merely soaking in the opulent gleam; regardless, there is no escaping the ornate indulgence of the Opera.
Director, Allison Grant


Saturday, February 1, 2014 » 8:00pm
Tuesday, February 4, 2014 » 7:30pm
Thursday, February 6, 2014 » 7:30pm
Tickets are available online and by calling the Edmonton Opera Box Office (780.429.1000)

See all photos by Nanc Price

This entry is cross-posted on The Sound + Noise

Sunday, January 19, 2014

My Inner Chorister

 It is less than two weeks until Toronto.

Firstly, I have to admit, that I am a bit disgusted at how lucky I am to be singing with Pro Coro and going to Toronto at all. Throw in terms like Soundstreams, Professional Choral Singing, Pro Coro Canada, Elmer Iseler Singers, The Vancouver Chamber Choir, Kaspars Putniņš, R. Murray Schafer, Vejlo Tormis, Koerner Hall, Uģis Prauliņs and my inner choir girl is fanning the static air around her face in a frenzy.

In case you have trouble visualizing my inner choir girl, I see her as a contemplative, bespectacled, chubby, preteen wearing a navy choir polo and frumpy denim while holding a miniature pumpkin that she received at her first choir camp for good posture. Internally, I am giving my inner choir girl a solid high five at this point in time. We did it you awkward but charming creature!

I have never toured as a professional chorister. In the past, when I have been on tour, it is for some kind of competition. After months of fundraising, memorization and rehearsals, we compete in hopes of getting some type of award that validates our collective hard work. This is not the mentality I am adopting for this Soundstreams tour. I do not view this tour as a competition against the other professional choirs in our country, but rather, as an opportunity to share the music from our local choir communities with a larger audience. It feels like a choral reunion in many ways, as if we are getting ready to head to the most awesome choir camp ever.

However, at the same time, I feel this pervasive sense of anxiety. It is frightening and motivating at the same time. I want to perform my very best. The music deserves it. For example, on this tour, we are singing not just one Prauliņs but TWO Prauliņs works: Laudibus In Sanctis from our Canadian Connection's concert with the Vancouver Chamber Choir and the North American premiere of O Lux Beatissima. When singing Prauliņs, you are not just singing a line, but living in the world of the piece. The music exists in that transient point in time, as real as anything you can see and touch. I don't know exactly how Prauliņs does it, but he manages to write pieces that I have always wanted to sing... even though I do not know it yet.

It is my first choir retreat. I can see my inner chorister sitting, cross-legged, on top a sleeping bag lining the crinkly plastic coated bed mattress nearest to the squeaky cabin door. She is overwhelmed by the amount of music covered. She is not used to reading music. There are so many unfamiliar faces. Most of these faces seem to know one another. I would go to reassure the pensive girl, mustering up the courage to go play soccer or partake in a nature walk, that this whole choir thing is going to work out. That she will actually be able to go places as a result of it. That she will be able to connect with others through performing and writing about choral music. But then again, what would be the fun in that? She is about to find out for herself.

More information about the Soundstreams concerts on Feb 1 and 2, 2014
3 Choral Recitals
Canadian Choral Celebration

Reader Challenge

Dear readers, I am issuing you a challenge: I think it's time that I meet as many of you as possible. Find me at a concert, rehearsal venue, reception... or anywhere I happen to be while in Toronto. Come take a pic with me, it could be a selfie or epic group picture, it is up to you, and post the picture on Twitter or Facebook with #thechoirgirl. If you don't like posting on social media, no worries, I will post it for you. Tweet or message me @misssable or via the Choir Girl Facebook page to find out where I am. I will compile all the photos of readers I meet in a summary blog post. Even if you are not in Toronto, tweet me a picture of you in your musical habitat and I will include you in my collage as well.

I'm serious about this. It is time that social media works its magic to connect blog readers and choral music lovers. Hashtag (#thechoirgirl) photos by Friday, February 7, 2014. See you all soon!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Behind Clara's Dream with Shumka

All photography by Nanc Price

The sibilant consonants of excited voices and the sock dampened jump landings echo down the hall of Shumka School of Dance on a chilly Tuesday evening. The school is brimming with energy from the collective presence of Ukraine’s Kyiv Ballet, and professional Folk Dance ensemble, Virsky, collaborating with Shumka for the opening of Clara’s Dream this weekend. Taking a stroll down the hallway, a peek inside one of the smaller studios shows male Shumka dancers warming up their high kicks.

Pass through another doorway in between tables laden with healthy snacks. Enter the large studio. Young Shumka girls sitting poised along the stage edge, students and parents sit along the walls the studio, while the dancers from Shumka, Virsky, and the Kyiv Ballet weave throughout the crowd with silent purpose to their starting positions.

There is a sense of history throughout the rehearsal. The Nutcracker Prince, Jeff Mortensen, is a Shumka aluminist, and now a professional dancer. Mortensen is remembered with fond memories by eight-year-old Nikolas Shewchuk when Mortensen was here playing the Fritz character in the last Nutcracker.  “I really like hanging out with Jeff Mortensen. The first time we met he was really fun and was one of my buddies,” recalls Shewchuk with admiration. Shewchuk loves everything about dance from the tricks and costumes to the collaboration with other companies. Dancing for at least half of his life, Shewchuk has no thoughts of slowing his pace: “Dance means everything to me,” states Shewchuk with maturity in his tone that contrasts with his youthful demeanor before heading off to take his place at the start of the run.

Peter Eeles plays many roles. In addition to being the Principal at The Shumka School of Dance and Shumka dance member, he is also a core dancer in Clara’s Dream playing the role of the Nutcracker. While he has been understudy for the production in the last two years, he assures me that it is no different this time approaching the role as a core dancer. “You have to work hard to perfect the roles you are given,” he states. There is also ample surrounding inspiration since Eeles feels he improves the most when he is dancing alongside Virsky: “They’re so pulled-up and they dance with such passion and heart…it’s infectious even just being in the same building” he says with a laugh, releasing a elation that only comes from working alongside your role models.

I am curious about the collaborative aspect between the dancers since Kyiv Ballet and Virsky only arrived on Sunday. During warm-up on Sunday, Eeles shares that there was the Shumka barre and a Virsky barre but by today the barre’s were more mixed even though it was only the third rehearsal. I imagined it in my mind to be like a junior high dance. The boys and girls line opposite sides of the school gymnasium, either unsure of who should make the first move. Before Eeles is pulled away to being the start of the run-through promptly at 7 PM, he confesses, “I don’t do it for money… I do it because I love it." That is his last parting thought.

The rehearsal run of Clara’s Dream begins.

The dancers all don their character faces, as if this run-through wasn’t in a studio, but on the stage of the Jubilee Auditorium itself. The dancers beam with warm smiles and act with such authenticity that you can sense their characters without even seeing their costumes. The actors flow through the different acts from the party to Clara meeting the Nutcracker Prince after the fight with the Mice. Enthralled by the physical stamina and energy of the run-through, I am jolted back to reality when a 20 minute break is called in Ukrainian.

Executive Director, Sandra Gajic, meets with me during the break. I inquire why Shumka appears to be a well-known organization, yet, unknown at the same time in the Edmonton’s Arts community. Gajic believes it comes down to awareness. ”People have not been aware of the level of the company. We are not a little recreational ethnic dance group. We are much more than that. We are a professional Arts organization. People still don’t see us that way,” she states with openness.

Shumka instructors have developed a technique and syllabus that is unique to the school. Somebody visiting the Ukraine would not see Shumka’s style of dance because there is a specific Ukrainian-Canadian gestural vocabulary that they use. Gajic describes it as being a hybrid mix of Contemporary, Ukrainian, Folk, and Classical dance forms. Shumka is also expanding as an organization by employing professional dancers and running Summer Intensives that have options for recreational and professional dancers.

It is all about stories. Gajic hopes for Shumka to continue commissioning new works that explore the multicultural identity of Canada through, not just Ukrainian dance, but Folk Dance in general.  This could include topics such as the Ukrainian immigrant experience or collaborating with other groups to share stories of their culture. The most important thing is to find stories that are relevant to and resonate with modern audiences.

“What is at the core of Folk Dance that makes it such a powerful form to convey these stories?” I wonder aloud.

“I think the expression of human emotion through movement. I spent all my life in the world of Opera and the human voice. I never thought I would hear myself think, nevermind, say aloud, that what probably came first is the movement. I’ve traveled extensively throughout the world. When you look at how people express their joy, fear, loss. It is much more through movement. “


Cross-posted on Sound + Noise

Visit the following link to see more photos from this series by Nanc Price

Clara's Dream

January 10 and January 11


Northern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium

Tickets start at $25, and are available via Ticketmaster.