Apr 26, 2009

Daughters, Not Victims

Last week I had the distinct and awesome privilege of seeing Simon Boccanegra onstage at the beautiful Four Seasons Centre. The last few years, I've developed a wholly new appreciation for an artform that I wasn't entirely sure I liked, even though it was thoroughly entrenched in my upbringing from childhood. Hmm, maybe it's a sign of maturity, or the fact I cover arts and culture for a living, or the fact that I've worked in theatre, and know how much time, effort, and skill goes into a production. And maybe it also has to do with the fact that I simply adore the work of the COC. Classy, musical, and deeply thought-full -just some of the ways I'd describe past performances (make that experiences) -and Verdi's Simon is no exception.

In a nutshell, the story can be reduced to a very simple equation: politics = family, and family is always political. Duh. Seems like that's the case with much of Italian opera. I'm still on the fence about it all, really; the entirely-gorgeous, crazily-romantic music has a way of drawing me in its spell, even if librettos are frequently ridiculous and maudlin. I mean, come on, throwing babies into fires? Magical love potions? Bitchy Ital-oriental women? That's not the composers' fault -obviously -and I realize grand opera, like romantic fiction, was the escapism of its day (and it's not like Wagner ever attempted realism -or social commentary -either). I tend, like many I suppose, to sit back and enjoy the marriage of music and mise-en-scene, and let the rest go.

But Rigoletto, easily one of the most famous operas ever written (as well as being my own mother's personal favourite) has always, always grated on me. Yes, the music is breathtaking. But the story... leaves me cold. The idea of Gilda, the title character's naive, shuttered daughter, being so naive, weak, and idiotic, and so willingly controlled by men... ugh. I know, sign of its time, victim-mindset, etcetcetc. Whenever it comes to shut-in daughters -and indeed, whenever I see or hear Rigoletto on radio or television -I always think of Shylock's Jessica, who, like Gilda, escapes her father's stern rules to go out and play.

But unlike Gilda, Jessica knowingly defies her father -for love, but also, we suspect, out of revenge. Shakespeare has it right: young women, especially those who feel their their freedom has been denied (or has, in fact, had it denied) by family or authority figures, are going to go out and find it themselves, in the most rebellious, dangerous, and irresponsible of fashions. So it makes sense that Gilda would take off with her nocturnal madrigal; the fact she'd be actually surprised -and then protest -at her kidnapping, however, is hilarious. The fact she'd be all good-girl over it, and protest his advances -when she probably had the hots for him all along -is beyond the pale. And then later telling daddy all about being ... uh, raped? N-O.

Maybe it's my modern sensibility. But even as a kid, never, for a second, did I ever buy it. The fact she's pining for the miscreant Duke later on, while perhaps characteristic of a woman who's been abused by her partner, remains, to my mind, woeful -and sexist. The Duke was never her partner -he was just that guy in the street she sadly trusted. The fact remains that neither she, nor her seemingly-heroic-meets-inept father see the truth of the sickly-karmic world they've created; Cordelia she is not. And why does that Duke wind up getting the best tunes, if he's such a dickhead?

Simon Boccanegra presents another kind of daughter: one who, though committed to her father, nonetheless stands up for her own choices. Okay, so she says she'd die for her man before she'd let her father harm him -*cue eyeroll* -but the fact she's essentially telling him, "Look, I love this person, and I really don't care what you think, or whether you like him or not" -is brave, and it was refreshing to see. The fact that, unlike Rigoletto, the daughter in Simon doesn't actually know her father until she's an adult does, of course, make a difference in their interaction -it changes the mindset of the character -but unlike Gilda, Amelia never comes off as a victim, despite having been denied knowing her father, and only meeting him later in life.

That sort of reunion holds personal resonance for me. The scene between Amelia and Simon, as they stare at one another for the first time, comprehending everything, was, in the COC production I saw, handled beautifully, with just the right amount of delicacy and drama. Unsure whether to hug, stare, or be with their own thoughts, the pair just gaze in wonder and awe. I know what that feels like. Sometimes opera isn't so fantastical after all -sometimes, it's just life, with a beautiful soundtrack.

Apr 25, 2009

Play On



I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing journalist Steve Lopez about his book The Soloist last year; the film version of his story, involving his unlikely (if wonderfully fated) relationship with musician Nathaniel Ayers had just wrapped, and I was curious as to how Lopez felt about his relationship with his schizophrenic, formerly-homeless friend being portrayed onscreen.

I've admired Lopez for a while, because he engages in the sort of journalism I aspire to: socially-conscious, full of humanity and integrity, shot through with passion. He writes about the most marginalized people in our society -people like Mr. Ayers, whose stories, while incredible, might never get told were it not for his bravery and heart. Yes, heart. Some journalists have them, you know.

After being moved up from its December release, the film The Soloist was finally released yesterday. I'm curious to see how it will marry the hugely important artistic sides of the tale with the terrible, sometimes-frightening twin realities of mental illness and homelessness. At the end of reading Lopez's book, I was moved beyond words, and the only thought I had was to put on Beethoven. I'm sure Mr. Ayers would like that.

Apr 22, 2009

Making the Worms Dance

This seems very appropriate for Earth Day:

Apr 20, 2009

Use It, Don't Abuse It

Okay, trite but still, important:



I've recently been considering the importance of playfulness, particularly since I was so woefully bereft of it in my twenties. One particular moment, when I first moved overseas, still strikes me as a time when I probably should've called up the playful/childlike/imaginative spirit, but didn't -cowed, I suppose, by insecurity, self-consciousness, and worried what my friend at the time would've thought. But once that junk gets cleared away -the need for acceptance, the drive for appeasement -the sense of being a child again is allowed to shine through.

After all, if you're a kid, do you really care what others think? At a certain point, sure, the self-consciousness kicks in. But before that, there's a joyous, free time when the world is yawning open with possibility and wonder -it's the spirit I tend to revel in whenever I engage in any kind of creative activity. Using my imagination in that child-like spirit makes me more productive to plough through adult stuff later on, too. It clears out the clutter, makes me calmer, happier, and more ready to embrace the myriad of people, experiences, and expressions this world has to offer.

So yay Elmo! Going to use my imagination now to sketch, write, and perhaps see about putting together my next painting -based not on a flight of fancy, but on an incredible photograph of women in Afghanistan protesting recently. There's no way I could've even approached this subject matter in the past. Now however, there's a weird kind of a calm, combined with an inner riot -a sort of neat yin and yang, I guess. We'll see. I'm staying open to the possibilities, and using imagination, yes, combined with awareness. So far, so good.

Apr 18, 2009

Cell Sell Cell

I attended the opening of the new Rick Miller show Hardsell Thursday night. Still not sure what to make of it, really -there are a lot of ideas around selling and advertising, and what that means to not just the wider society that created the selling culture, but to culture as well. Aren't performers -of any ilk -essentially trying to "sell" you something, tangible and otherwise? I'll be interviewing Rick Miller next week (Friday morning, in fact), so maybe I'll get some answers, or at least ideas, about how the show came to be.

Hardsell is another collaboration between Miller and Daniel Brooks. The pair previously worked together on the alt mega-hit Bigger Than Jesus (which a former editor of mine called "a ninety minute religious rant with TVs" -he also added that he liked it, natch). Like "Jesus" and Roberts' other hit, Machomer, Hardsell mixes improv, Pirandello-esque meta-theatre, sharp observations, role-playing, nods at past conventions, and Miller's own awesome gift of mimicry. In the show, he accurately imitates (vocally) a wide range of folks, including Morgan Freeman, James Brown, and Richard Dawkins, as well as perform a clever riff as a German marketing expert.

Mainly, though, he plays Arnie, the supposed mirror-twin of Miller himself, a bitter, washed-up entertainer tossing out proclamations, observations, cynicisms, witticisms, fantasies and hard-to-soft pitches. With his clown-like makeup and slick white suite with shocking-red satin lining, Miller gave a nod to the many mimes, clowns, and stylized performers within the cultural spectrum -Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp, the Joker, Kabuki performer, Mexican wrestler, Godot's tramps, and even... Tom Wolfe.

And yet, this is the main reference that came to my mind:

Apr 17, 2009

Sow, Seed, Screen


The Seed from Johnny Kelly on Vimeo.

This video is courtesy of awesome Irish artist Johnny Kelly, whose work (alongside brother Mickey) you can find here. There's also an interview over at excellent British site Don't Panic.

I love the embrace of the playful and child-like with Kelly's work; he uses a variety of loud colours, big shapes, and playful motifs. There's nothing poe-faced about it. His work is an expression of true joy, and this video is proof. It's a fascinating, compelling two minutes of online video. Gorgeous, and perfect for spring.

Apr 15, 2009

Surgical Poetry

I've started reading a book called Direct Red, by Gabriel Weston. It's about Weston's experiences in the world of a hospital; the British author was an arts grad who decided to become a surgeon, so she took the requisite night classes, and years of medical training, to achieve her dream. Direct Red is her account of day-to-day life in her chosen field.

But reading the book, Weston has the beautiful, flowing wordplay of a poet:
At medical school, while studying pathology, I was charmed by the names of the colourful dyes used to stain tissues for clearer microscopic viewing. Crystalline as jewels, primary as food colourings used for cake icing and egg painting, the names of these elixirs seemed brighter in my mind than the substances themselves, the Platonic hues offset by their arcane prefixes. And through a process I cannot chart, every time I feel sick in theatre, I summon a rainbow collage of these names to mind. They stimulate my ebbing consciousness and usually call me back from that strange physiological precipice to normal function.
Somehow, this shimmering language describing hues, shapes, shadows, forms and memories reminds me so much of a favourite poet I've recently rediscovered: Seamus Heaney, who is currently being feted in fine style by the RTE (and beyond) on account of his 70th birthday. More about him, and his poetry, in a future post.

For now, I'm going to sit back and enjoy Weston's beautiful, imagistic work; by bringing the poetical into the surgical, she marries the worlds of science and art in a way that hasn't been properly explored since Da Vinci.

Apr 14, 2009

Official Iscariot

A couple posts ago, I blogged about the greatness of a current production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot on now in Toronto.

During the production's rehearsals, I had the chance to speak with a few of its performers, as well as its director. Here's the official feature.

Enjoy!

Apr 13, 2009

Art Heals

The Brand Library Art Gallery & Art Center in Glendale, California is currently hosting an exhibit entitled Man's Inhumanity to Man: Journey out of Darkness. To quote Mark Vallen, an excellent blogger and one of the forty-four artists taking part, the exhibit "examines human rights violations that have occurred around the globe - the 1915 Armenian genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, repression in Central America, current atrocities in Darfur, and more."

Looking through the various pieces on the website brought to mind my experiences working for Amnesty International when I lived in Ireland in the late 90s. A number of people who had suffered human rights abuses in other countries were working out of the offices, and a great many were talented artists -painters, musicians, dancers and writers. At Christmastime, some offered their services and painted pieces that were later sold in the Amnesty store; others opened their homes to invite us to experience the joy of their culture. It was about sharing their lives as much as it was about using art -and others' experience of their art -to heal their wounds.

As the co-curator of the Glendale exhibit says, "Art is a powerful agent in society with the ability to awaken our consciousness, transform our minds, and ignite a desire to bring about change... this exhibition aims to do all of these things." Get thee to Glendale if you can.


Painting: Project 1915, by Sophia Gasparian.

Apr 11, 2009

Hey Judas

Toronto's Birdland Theatre is re-mounting their much-acclaimed 2005 production of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot in the Fermenting Cellar, located in the heart of the Distillery District. The Stephen Adly Guirgis play is a sprawling, wordy affair, populated by both real and mythological figures.

Sigmund Freud, Mother Theresa, Pontius Pilate, and Satan all make appearances in the courtroom setting Guirgis has set up as the play's basic construct. Is Judas guilty of the greatest betrayal in human experience? Should he suffer eternal damnation? Or is he allowed to experience the unconditional forgiveness the ministry of Jesus Christ represented?

It's challenging theatre, to be sure, with Guirgis' predilection for philosophical flights of fancy and long-winded backstories, but there's something eerily prescient about its timing, too. Back in 2005, the play was an obvious indictment of Bush-era policies and measures; now, with the pain of the financial mess -and itinerant anger toward the corporate corruption that contributed to it -the work asks its audience how much we're willing to forgive, both of ourselves and others. How long do we hang on to old enmities and grievances? Should we?

Questions around justification of choices and motivations abound, and director David Ferry keeps things moving along nicely, with the whole cast onstage, moving around sets and sitting as courtroom jury and observers. This makes the audience complicit in Judas' fate as well, giving the work a slight meta-theatre feeling (though not of the gauche variety, whew). Gorgeous lighting -sometimes with flashlights -and a gorgeous diorama between the acts give the piece a wonderful industrial-meets-impressionist look.

And the performances are magnificent too. Ferry has cast some of Canada's top actors in The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. As Pilate, Obsidian Theatre Artistic Director Philip Akin channels the spirit of General Petraeus (Roman quality and all), combining military harshness with liberal slabs of charm and male bravado. In the dual roles of Judge Littlefield and Caiaphas the Elder, Ted Dykstra is manic, moving, and magnetic; his exchange (As Caiaphas) with defence lawyer Fabiana Cunningham (Janet Porter) is one of the best theatrical moments I've experienced all year. In the title role of Judas, Shaun Smythe is heartbreaking; he plays the betraying apostle as a man with a good core but torn by the screams and howls of a needy ego. His acute sense of abandonment by Jesus (Jamie Robinson) is most keenly sensed in their heated, emotional exchange, and for those versed in scripture, echoes of "Oh my Lord, why have you abandoned me?" will ring loud (particularly this weekend, natch).

If you like your theatre challenging, chalk-full of ideas, people, concepts, and well, loads of talking (in other words, if you're a Shaw fan) get down to the Fermenting Cellar. Bonus? It's very near to a number of great wine bars, and perhaps the best cup of hot chocolate in the city. Nothing like cocoa, fermented grapes, and talk of purgatory to complete a weekend.

Wayson Soon

Last week I attended the launch of Wayson Choy's new autobiographical book, Not Yet.

It was too crowded and frantically busy to get a proper word with him this week, but I'm planning on interviewing him for Take 5 soon. Stay tuned.

Apr 6, 2009

Banned

Casually checking my Flickr as a kind of break from mad bouts of transcribing and article surgery earlier this evening, I came across a rather stern-sounding message: YOU HAVE BEEN BANNED FROM THE ABSTRACT PHOTOS GROUP. Oh dear.

Slightly perplexed, a bit flummoxed, but altogether curious, I took a look around the group to see what rules I had violated. Hmm, no porn, check. No photoshopping, check. No borders, check. No people, well... it's my hand. Does that count?

Perusing one of the Administrator's interestingly-labelled "Hall of Inappropriate" sections (I counted three) in which photos rejected by the group can be commented on by other (non-rejected) members, I came across my photo (above), with the following caption, written by said Administrator:

Attack of the hands still here for the month of April ;)


Yes, I like hands. And yes, I've posted weird close-ups of my hands before. They're an ongoing theme for me artistically and personally. I'm fascinated not only by mine but by others'. One of my earliest, most seminal inkling into visual art, before painting, drawing, or anything else, was taking hand traces. This particular shot (or series of shots) was taken during an especially joyous -and very fruitful -sketching session that yielded a lot of good material. I find something weirdly romantic, and deeply moving, about artists' hands dirtied by their passion. And yes, I do think some of these are abstract. But that's my opinion.

Alas, I suppose it wasn't -isn't -shared by ImaginationAlone. Admittedly, I may have violated the group rules by posting too many, else the Administrator just doesn't think my work is a good fit for his/her Abstract group. I wonder what he/she would make of Guggi.

Attack of the bowls/jugs still here since 1988! (insert cute winky)

Artists can't help what they're drawn to. By the same token, artists can't help what they're repelled by, either. It's all a matter of beauty in the eye of the beholder, of maintaining a degree of respect between artists. Not stepping on toes can be a full-time job; it takes patience, maturity, and a good sense of communication. Holding something you may not like up to ridicule by way of group-think doesn't strike me as an entirely classy way to handle what you deem to be a poor fit for your collection, even if it is egalitarian in a cold, technological sense.

Alas, I take being banned as a weird badge of honour. Here's looking at you, Groucho.

Apr 4, 2009

Saturday with Pav

My childhood was full of music. As well as taking lessons myself, I was surrounded by the holy trinity of Elvis, Abba and opera (with a good measure of Johnny Cash thrown in too). Classical music, and opera, was, and remains a huge passion of my mother's; she was a childhood singer who, through circumstance, was forced to move away from singing. That "thwarted soprano" ethos informed and drove her passion for opera throughout her life, and deeply influenced not only her choice of husband (a musician, natch) but the way she chose to raise her only child.

My Saturday afternoon were filled with the sounds of the Metropolitan Opera blasting out of every radio in the house. When portable radio players became the rage, I remember walking around the supermarket, thoroughly embarrassed over her swooning along, past aisles of tinned beans and dried pasta, headphones wrapped around her head, the melifluous sounds of opera tinnily emanating from the tiny speakers. There were also innumerable nights spent watching the "Live From The Met" specials, and trying to figure out how to work the then-new VCRs in order to ensure repeated-viewing rhapsody. Every month or so we'd also go to the O'Keefe Centre to watch the latest German/Italian/English spectacle; I barely knew what was going on sometimes (these were the days before surtitles) but I knew the music, having heard it already all those Saturday afternoons.



One of my mother's operatic dreams was realized when, in the 90s, we traveled to New York City and saw Luciano Pavarotti onstage. He was in L'elisir D'Amore, the opera that happens to be on my radio this afternoon. My memories around this opera are deeply tied to seeing the Pav perform it live many years ago. Though it's a silly little piece of pseudo-buffa, it has some gorgeous music, and it takes a real presence to bring any kind of levity to the material. Pavarotti brought it (duh); there was a noticeable, and rather incredible hush that descended over the sold-out crowd the minute he stepped onstage. He wasn't singing at the introduction - just standing there -but he was fully present, in every sense. And his smile lit up the room. I remember turning to my mother, and she had that same huge smile. Then he opened his mouth, and this... sound came out. I've never been able to quite describe it, but seeing him live (more than once) remains a treasured, beautiful memory on many levels.

This clip, with Pavarotti singing the gorgeous (and famous) aria from L'elisir with just a piano is incredible for the way he utterly inhabits the music -not just the words, but the music itself, encapsulating all of its passion and wisdom, making a merely silly little love song into a transcendent meditation for the ages. Grazie, Pav.

Apr 3, 2009

Living With Lions

Toronto-based writer Julie Wilson has a fantastic site called Seen Reading, where she writes about works she's observed being read in public places. It's smart, insightful, and deeply telling about our relationship to words, images, and each other.

Lately, Julie's also been collecting readings of poetry. To quote from the site,
30 in 30 was created April 1, 2009 to celebrate National
Poetry Month
. Thirty Canadian poets were asked to submit two readings: one poem of his/her own, and one cover/tribute. That audio will appear over the course of April.

But there are more than thirty poets, poetry lovers, and days on the
calendar. To that end, you, too, can help us build upon this growing
archive of appreciation and performance by sending your recordings to julie[AT]seenreading[DOT]com.
My own recording of Rumi's Ghazal 441 is included (scroll to the bottom). It's long been a favourite of mine, and I recited it, spontaneously, by heart one day when I had extra time in a radio studio. Enjoy, and if you have a poem you love, record it & send along to the good Julie Wilson! Share the poetry. Tis the month, after all.