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Sunday, April 27, 2008


Last night I went to opening night of the Opera Atelier's run of Idomeneo, an opera Mozart wrote when he was 24 – young only for anybody but Mozart. Opera Atelier is a company here in Toronto that specializes in baroque opera, and everything I have seen from them has been both freaky and wonderful. For example, they chose Idomeneo in order to work with a male soprano. It was gripping. Fantastic. The audience was breathless and spell-bound for three hours!

I have an ongoing argument with someone about elite versus popular in the arts. He feels that opera is old, unpopular, snobby, and possible only due to massive subsidies and supporters able to influence policy. Not actually a bad point. However, if you think about what Brian Eno suggests as an Oblique Strategy: Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify, you more or less have an idea of the way Opera Atelier presents baroque opera: Male sopranos! 200-year-old ballet stylings! Special effects consisting of waving sheets! And it is a recipe for success – a baroque-feeling experience, a laff riot, a thrill. Not stuffy, not predictable, not like going to the opera with Grandma on Sunday afternoons. (Of course, they still require subsidies.)

What I mean is that this is the way they break through the hide-bound opera tradition, make the oldest opera fresh, by emphasizing the strange pre-technical otherness of baroque opera. To be fair, I should say that Idomeneo was also flawlessly presented. The Tafelmusik Orchestra is a wonderful, experienced, period-instrument orchestra, conducted in this opera by Andrew Parrott, who is a scholar of pre-classical music. All the singers were perfectly chosen and worth a mention: the male soprano was Michael Maniaci, not a falsetto, but a natural voice, oddly beautiful; the two female sopranos were Measha Brueggergosman (fabulous in every way, as Elettra should always be, and already famous beyond opera) and Peggy Kriha Dye as Ilia; an unbelievable tenor, Kresimir Spicer, was Idomeneo (someone to follow, for sure). Imagine the four of them singing their high notes together! Plus Neptune was danced or posed, more than sung, by a half-naked, sculpted, bass-baritone, Curtis Sullivan and the High Priest of Neptune was performed by a baby-baritone, Vasil Garvanliev, still an undergrad, grinning with obvious delight. Not to mention the in-house chorus, which gave me goosebumps when they sang from one of the boxes instead of the stage. The experience was musically complete, with dimension provided by the researched, historical, baroque bent in all facets of staging a production that Opera Atelier offers.

I had a chance to see Il Turco in Italia, by Rossini at the Rossini Opera Festival last year. Old-fashioned comic opera! Turbans! Gypsies! Three hours! Every bit as fun. Of course, in both cases, the music was truly beautiful. On the other hand, I think part of the wonderfulness is the surprise. Would I rush to see future performances of these operas? I doubt it. I love looking for the "shock of the new". I would rather be offended than bored. The old chestnuts are great to see over and over and sing along with. They are the spaghetti of life that we eat every day. These fabulous and odd ones are rare treats, to be enjoyed as the ice cream of life. (Should I say that I think children love their mothers like spaghetti and their fathers like ice cream, in exactly the same way?)

PS Oblique Strategies were developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt as a way to break through a creative block. I think they are cool for any kind of problem solving. I have included links to the complete list of Oblique Strategies for anyone who wants to hand-make cards (as many people, me included, have done), and a link to an on-line random card generator under my Fun, Cool, Funny list. To read about more Oblique Strategies, check out Brian Eno.

How perfect is this? The marigold was wondering nervously what kind of question to ask. I checked out Oblique Strategies and it said the inconsistency principle. Thus, no question today.

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