Opera is no laughing matter -- or is it?
This weekend offers Toronto opera fans a rare opportunity to witness two opposing points view in new music. There is much more to this coincidence than meets the ear.
On the one side, we have four new, short works getting their world premieres at the hands of Tapestry New Opera Works at Harbourfront’s Enwave Theatre. Three of them place humour front and centre, daring us to laugh along with the composers’, librettists’ and performers’ comedic antics.
Passing through a metaphoric black curtain, we have Opera in Concert’s premiere of Charles Wilson’s adaptation of Anne Hebert’s Canadian classic, the gothic melodrama Kamouraska, at the Jane Mallett Theatre. There is no comedy here. Not even a chuckle.
Wilson’s serialist-inspired atonal score is as dense and claustrophobic as the story. I asked him earlier this week if he had considered quoting some Quebecois folk tunes in his score, given that the action takes place on the south shore of the St. Lawrence river in the early 19th century.
The composer’s piercing, dark eyes bulged at the effrontery of my question. “This is a serious story, there’s no room for folk tunes here,” was his stern reply.
He added how he dislikes the current practice of many composers to quote other people’s music freely. For him, serious music is no place for the mischievous winks that artists routinely weave into their work -- be it literature, music, theatre, or the visual arts -- in the 21st century.
The Tapestry comedies liberally quoted other music and worked hard to make us laugh with traditional shtick as well as clever use of irony. The Perfect Screw, by composer Abigail Richardson and librettist Alexis Diamond, went a step further in borrowing the devices of operatic melodrama (both written and sung) to create a biting satire. (The photo above shows baritone Peter McGillivray, right, and countertenor Scott Belluz in The Perfect Screw.)
As wonderful as the Tapestry creations are, they are too light to be the basis for an intellectually and emotionally fulfilling evening. It’s fun snack food, not a meal.
As culturally significant as Kamouraska is (I’ve struggled with the score at home on the piano, but have not been to see it), the intensity leaves me physically and metaphorically gasping for air and sunshine.
Can there be a middle ground between laughter and tears?
Yes, but it doesn’t come easily. I’ll let Robertson Davies explain.
Less then15 years since the death of this iconic Canadian, his novels, set amidst the white, Anglo-Saxon culture of historical Ontario, already feel like museum pieces. But his insights into human nature and arts criticism are as sharp as ever, transcending their time and place.
Among the wide range of essays and lectures collected in Happy Alchemy (published by McClelland & Stewart in 1997), is a fascinating lecture entitled “Opera and Humour,” Davies gave in 1991 at England’s Aldeburgh Festival (founded by Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears).
The lecture’s argument is so tightly structured that I’d literally have to quote the entire thing to do it full justice. But hopefully it won't need further explanation to look at his main point, which is that tragedy and comedy need to coexist in our narratives.
“The Comic, pursued without discretion, runs into a shallowness which brings in its wake a triviality of mind and spirit which produces results that may be tragic [You can almost hear the voice of Lady Bracknell]; the Tragic, as with my friend who declared it to be the only endurable intellectual stance for an intelligent man, produces in its farthest reaches a gloomy egotism which impresses the onlooker as comic. But in seeking the Golden Mean, we cannot be content with a bland rejection of both the Tragic and Comic until life becomes a kind of vanilla custard, fit only for spiritual and intellectual invalids. No, the Golden Mean is not a sunny, untroubled nullity, but a deep awareness of possibilities, with one eye cocked toward Comedy and the other eye skewed toward Tragedy, and out of this feat of balanced observation emerges Humour, not as a foolish amusement or an escape from reality, but as a breadth of perception, and what Heracleitus called ‘an attunement of opposite tensions, like that of the bow and the lyre.’ A reconciliation of opposites, indeed.”
Davies asserts that the Golden Mean is a rare find: “Quite simply because to introduce tragedy into comedy and vice versa is work for a great master, and great masters are few.”
The late novelist does provide several examples, starting with Shakespeare. His operatic paragon is Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
“It moves us not precisely as optimism, because that word has been abused and suggests a shallow refusal to see and take heed of the dark side of life. Perhaps the word for that feeling I mean is serenity, a high acceptance, a recognition that Heraclitus’s doctrine of eternal flow is a great truth, and while we may not, in ourselves, find the moment when the one element changes into the other, that moment will come and the consciousness of its inevitability may give us courage in adversity, and balance in good fortune.”
There are several younger Canadian composers who, I think, have the means to deliver this kind of satisfaction (Dean Burry and James Rolfe are two Torontonians who come immediately to mind). Let’s hope Canada can one day lay claim to a full-length opera that can give us even a fleeting glimpse of that Golden Mean.