If you have a few bucks left in your giving budget this holiday season, consider donating to Neworld Theatre’s upcoming show, King Arthur’s Night. I had the extreme pleasure of being part of the choir that helped workshop the music for the show, and that little glimpse inside the incredible creative process of Niall McNeil, Marcus Youssef and Veda Hille gave this project a permanent place in my heart.  A professional actor and playwright, McNeil’s experience also includes down syndrome, and this is his second collaboration with Youseff and Hille, after the hugely successful Peter Panties. “Radically inclusive,” the playmaking process these collaborators have honed is a model of how to do inclusive creative projects that truly pull from everyone’s insights. In Neworld Theatre’s words:

Refined, brutal, crude and tender, King Arthur’s Night tests what we know about the limits of theatre, language and our collective understanding of the narratives that are permitted to shape our world. It invites audiences to reject the idea that some experiences are inherently marginal, and instead witness those stories front and centre on stage.

I can’t wait to see the final show. It’s going to be fantastic.

To add a bit to my post on Don Giovanni, I’ve been unable to put the opera down – due both to the gorgeous music and my unresolved feelings about a plot so heavy with archaic sexism, and what it means to perform it today.  A friend asked me once “Why perform old operas at all, especially if they have such problematic content?”, which I didn’t have an answer for, but equally and oppositely struck me as not the solution.  Responding to a comment thread in another blog, I was able to articulate some of my feelings in both directions: why it is important to be critical of sexist or racist content when staging a historic work, but why it is also vital to perform these works and how they have so much to give us.

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I first was introduced to Mozart operas by The Magic Flute, which while I love a fantastical story filled with magic and allegory, left me feeling sorry for the Evil Quee…I mean Queen of the Night and thinking “wow this is SO sexist!” Two years later I finally see The Marriage of Figaro and find it full of resistance (against class and patriarchal structures), much to my delight. Differing attitudes are totally there in the context of the time, and contemporary audiences can’t just be lazy and use “product of it’s time” as a blanket excuse not to be critical.

I think simultaneously, the modern construct of artistic genius and veneration of the cannon clouds the way contemporary audiences perceive historical works. When operas were written for patrons or to fill a theatre with the flashy story of the moment composers and librettists were writing to the dominant cultural climate, and the stories don’t always make sense out of temporal (or geographical) context. Don Giovanni is a prime example (I am totally obsessed with it – I love the music so much, and find myself returning to it again and again despite it seeming like the opposite of everything I believe, plot-wise), as it’s a reaction to things that were actually happening at the time, allowing an audience to indulge in both voyeurism and moral superiority while giving them a peek into what people like Casanova and The Marquis de Sade were doing while they were running around trying to turn being an aristocratic a**hole into a philosophy. Taking it out of context of the rise of Libertinism and perform it a post-sexual-revolution world where people have access to reproductive control and feminism makes the plot even more alien. I think there’s so much about class in Don G that get’s ignored by contemporary “historical” performances. One of the main points – that libertinism really only works for rich dudes who have the money to get away with anything – could really be intentionalized in contemporary performances as a point that is still relevant (as we are all so unfortunately familiar with in recent US politics). My major objection is that the marketing of modern historical performances still banks on this romanticizing of the idea of “seduction” when the plot begins with an attempted rape and a murder, and rolls all of this up into highly euphemistic language instead of acknowledging it as dark and complex. That tricking women into sex is considered “seduction” today is a huge problem with doing conventional this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it productions with no analysis.

There’s this perception out there that “historical” performances as somehow being more “authentic” or “what the composer would have wanted” but people forget that we view historical performances through our contemporary lenses – and that any performance or marketing choice brings contemporary assumptions (often sexist, etc. in their own right). There are other ways of getting to the truth (and potentially other truths to be brought to light if the composer/librettist did a good job of turning a flashy story into a meditation on human nature).

I think there’s a way to use these pieces to deepen our understanding of the period in which they were created, not discarding the work because of the sexism, and not glossing over the sexism because of the work. Live presentations of historical works are like living artefacts that both allow us to understand the past and hold a mirror up to the present to show the work that still needs to be done.

Holding my queer family in my heart today. Gay bars are never just bars – they are places where we come together in joy and love, and the everyday dramas of our lives, hold fundraisers, produce shows, make art, and build communities. For some of us “the bar” was one of the first places we could be and discover ourselves. Sending so much love to everyone affected by the shooting at Pulse in Orlando, and also thinking of my queer and drag families, and all of the wonderful shenanigans, and the things we did together that built us up into the people we are today.

Also standing in solidarity with queer Latinx and Muslim people who are hurting today. Sending you love, hope and courage.

Happy pride to everyone celebrating across the world these upcoming months. Be fierce and wonderful, and keep fighting the good fight. We are not done until everyone is free from the fear of violence.

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I need to write a love letter to the PuSh Festival.

I’ve been waiting 10 years to see Holy Body Tattoo. monumental, their production with Godspeed You! Black Emperor on Thursday night, was like watching an exorcism  – an exploration of the worst of ourselves, our anxieties, angers and terrors as they ripple through our lives from the internal, to the interpersonal and then the political. It was visceral and transporting – dancing that hit you in the gut and music you could feel in your bones. All presented with visuals that added another layer of meaning and aesthetic. I’ve never seen the Queen E so packed, and with an audience so ready to party. The energy in that building was something else.

Last night at the Fox Cabaret, the Queer Songbook Orchestra and the always wonderful Veda Hille delivered an intimate, innovative and touching concert of works from the queer cannon of pop music, exploded and re-imagined into new constellations by Canadian composers. The first word that pops to mind is lovely; incredibly beautiful but also loving – a tribute not only to queer icons, but to our past selves developing our identities through a relationship with music. I was so honoured to be invited to participate as one of the narrators (alongside the ever delightful Bill Richardson), and to have been able to contribute a story of my own to the collection personal anecdotes performed as introductions to each song. It was a wonderful night, full of incredible music and friends.

Thank you, PuSh, for presenting such an amazing calibre of art, and with such a broad scope that we feel it in all the cracks of our souls. Thank you for bringing all these people together – performers and audience – and inspiring us, and making three weeks of not only monumental art, but community as well.

The Queer Songbook Orchestra

#TBT to that time my awesome wife had an awesome harpsichord in her awesome salon:


It was pretty epically, wonderfully amazing. Some amazing people played it and sang some delightful baroque chamber music for an intimate, 25 person audience, and I got to take pictures. To see them, or to throw a Salon Salon of your own (if you happen to live in Vancouver), visit the Studio209 website. Alternately, if you have a harpsichord that needs a loving home, this one was just visiting and now we’re hooked. ❤️

Much love and thanks to Jake Gramit and Madeline Lucy Smith for organizing all the amazing musicians, and performing such exquisite music for us! It was a privilege to be in your audience and best of luck in your travels!

Major change is afoot at Vancouver Opera – as everyone has heard, they’ll be moving from a regular season format to a festival structure in 2017. Sadly, this means that the wife and I may not be able to achieve our goal of clinging on to our subscriber seats until they pry our cold, dead fingers from the armrests. My hope is that they’ll do something for season subscribers to entice us into buying boatloads of tickets for this festival arrangement (which won’t be too hard), but amongst other sadnesses (mostly the loss of funding that has caused this shift), I fear that we may not be able to find multiple occasions within a concentrated group of weeks in order to go to all the operas we would like to.

There will still be opera in Vancouver – plenty of chamber operas can be found, the smaller City Opera is active in producing and performing work, and everything Early Music Vancouver touches turns to gold – but I will miss having regular large-format work.

2014/15 was a great season – a Carmen sultry, breathtaking and complex (equally dark and humourous), a Die Fledermaus that couldn’t be characterized in any other way than effervescent, and the challenging, interdisciplinary new production Stickboy, a piece commissioned by VO and grounded in the contemporary realities of bullying. We missed out on their production of Sweeny Todd, but I’m sure it was loads of fun too (I have a weakness for Sondheim).

I’m looking forward to 2015/16, our last season in our beloved second row (too close to read the surtitles, but it’s like you’re practically on stage), which will be a combination of classic opera titles and newer works.  I will be brushing off my Italian and packing some hankies for Rigoletto and Madama Butterfly, while I’m not sure what to expect from Dark Sisters, a new opera about a woman escaping Mormon polygamy. Rounding out the season with Evita (which I’m not seeing, but will read the reviews, of course), it will be interesting to see if themes of feminism pop up in a selection of works heavily centred around women, agency and patriarchy.

Toi toi toi everyone! I can’t wait!

Speaking of writing that’s been sitting on my hard drive (or in this case, over at issuu.com), I thought I’d share the fruits of some of my Cor Flammae labours in 2014.  We produced our first concert in July, to an appreciative and full audience at the Queer Arts Festival, of works by entirely queer composers.  This meant a lot of research, first in finding the pieces (done by our brilliant Managing Director and Repertoire Committee), and then in expanding it in the Cor Flammae program, which is where I got to play. I wanted to synthesize something about each composer – the contexts, music and personal stories – that would illuminate the concert experience for choral music fans and new audience members alike. It was both an incredible deepening of my own knowledge and a huge privilege. This blog has actually been hugely instrumental (so to speak) in getting me to a place where I can write about music, so it seems only fitting to share it here.  Click on the image to have a read.

The Cor Flammae 2014 concert programme

The Cor Flammae 2014 concert programme

Reincarnations was a concert introducing our concept focusing on queer composers through time, and so we kept it completely secular to be inclusive of our new audience regardless of religious affiliation. Choral music’s history is dominated by religious music (and spaces), so this summer we’re excited to present FALLEN ANGELS, a selection of sacred and profane works by queer composers. Check us out on July 17th and 18th if you’re in Vancouver!

Just discovered the reason the coconut water I just bought was on sale. “Pulp.” This is not a user approved feature. Especially when it’s just chewy chunks of chopped up chunks of coconut.

I’ve been neglecting my blog for the last while.  It’s largely due to life and projects taking the driver’s seat (exciting projects that I’ll expand on later), so I thought I’d just pop up a review of the February production of Handel’s Theodora by Early Music Vancouver that’s been sitting on my hard drive.  My awesome wife was in the chorus, but I would be as enthusiastic about this production if she had been sitting beside me in the audience. I am a huge EMV and Pacific Baroque Orchestra fan (see my fangirlish post about their Israel in Egypt), and this production was another treat.  As the merchandise table attendant for the VCS, I had the huge privilege of accompanying the musicians on their mini-tour to Victoria, and I got to meet the soloists backstage (and then give them t-shirts), who were all wonderful.  Here’s a picture of tenor Zachary Wilder being adorable:

Zachary Wilder putting the rad back in tradition.

He’s a hilarious and sweet guy with a voice that will make you cry. Anyways, on to the real review.


Review of Theodora, produced by Early Music Vancouver, featuring the
Vancouver Cantata Singers and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra.

Performed Saturday, February 14th at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts.

Continuing a tradition of excellence, Saturday’s performance of Handel’s Theodora by the Vancouver Cantata Singers and the Pacific Baroque Orchestra was yet another not-to-be-missed event by Early Music Vancouver. Conducted with equal parts fiery passion and delicate sensitivity by the PBO’s masterful director, Alexander Weimann, this baroque oratorio was a transcendent treat for Valentine’s audiences. Building off a history of solid performances by Weimann and the PBO, including the Juno-nominated Orlando, EMV again unites a cast of accomplished international soloists with local talent.

The soloists provided a world-class performance, singing sublimely while performing a subtle dramatic interpretation of the tragic plot. Soprano Nathalie Paulin joined the production as the virtuous martyr Theodora, with mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó as Irene, her faithful confidante. Countertenor Lawrence Zazzo was Theodora’s adoring and virtuous lover Didymus, while tenor Zachary Wilder portrayed his friend and co-conspirator Septimius. Matthew Brook, bass-baritone, sang the role of the closed-minded and cruel Valens, President of Antioch.

Joining the PBO as local talent, the Vancouver Cantata Singers provided the chorus of Christians and Heathens. The choral part was a kind of Greek chorus, reflecting the mood of the soloist’s characters and creating a vocal tapestry of emotion underpinning the dramatic action. By leveraging an established local ensemble, Theodora took advantage of a pre-nurtured synthesis of voices. Prepared by VCS director Paula Kremer, the award-winning VCS was more than up to the task, either shimmering and contemplative as the mournful chorus of Christians, or bombastic and gleeful as the voyeristic Heathens.

It was a rare pleasure to hear a baroque masterwork performed live – rare because it takes the  combined forces of multiple organizations and talent. Producing a dramatic oratorio with period instruments provides a glimpse into the way Handel designed his work to be performed, and insight into our rich classical music traditions. It may have taken 265 years for Theodora’s Vancouver premiere, but it was well worth the wait.

Don Giovanni is a strange story. It is about an amoral man who devotes himself to sensual pleasure and is dragged down to hell by a stone statue as punishment.  It would seem like a story designed to scare children away from the seven deadly sins, except that the particular sin it focuses on is so adult.  The story includes attempted rape, murder, pre-marital sex with multiple partners (2065 to be precise), deception, and gluttony, accompanied by incredibly gorgeous music.

The character of Don Giovanni is often described as a libertine. Libertinism was an anti-authoritarian philosophy that rejected the behavioural restrictions imposed by church and state. Famous libertines included fellows such as Giacomo Cassanova and the Marquis de Sade, both of whom would have been alive at the time of Don Giovanni’s first production in 1787.  Apparently, the ‘Don Juan opera’ was an actual genre at the time, and a favourite in Prague where Don Giovanni was commissioned.  The subject matter was topical, taboo and therefore probably highly titillating to a curious and voyeuristic eighteenth-century audience who would have publicly condemned libertinism but been very, very interested in it.

To a modern audience, Don Giovanni floats contextless, adrift in a sea of new attitudes towards sex and gender.  We have the sexual revolution recently behind us, as well as the closely-tied feminist movement.  Women’s rights make sexual liberation work – without the idea of the importance of consent and reproductive freedom, libertinism is just rich guys being dicks (so to speak), which is why it didn’t really have a leg to stand on.  Modern audiences (at least on the surface) don’t care how much sex Don Giovanni has, who he has it with, where he has it, whether he’s married to the person he’s having it with or not, how late he sleeps in, how much he drinks or likes a good meal.  What we do care about is that he kills, lies to get laid, and is a rape-y creep.  Through a modern lens this story is strange to encounter.

At the intermission, I heard members of the audience murmuring concernedly about the Don being such a bad man. It’s somewhat confusing to have the main character be a terrible person, but Mozart is pretty clear about it.  How terrible he is to women would have been visible even under the prevalently misogynistic attitudes of the time.  The obvious red-flags start with his murder of an authority figure, and his attempt to force himself on the Commendatore’s virtuous daughter. While the attempted seduction of a working-class girl under false pretenses makes up the “amusing comedy” bit of this drama giocoso, his disregard for the class system when it can get him laid is the other clear indication of his predatory nature.  The fact that he throws a party for peasants would have been simply something that never would have happened out of genuine benevolence or good will – something that the buffoonish but not unintelligent Masetto picks up on immediately.  His fiancée, Zerlina, whom Don Giovanni is trying to seduce, may seem disloyal for even considering Don Giovanni’s proposal, but she would have had more than just love to think of in 18th century Spain.  Marriage was an economic practicality at the time, and marrying up the social ladder was pretty much the goal for every woman.  Her love for Masseto would have been almost besides the point.  Still, for the same economic reasons, the genuine interest man of means would have in a poor girl for more than a tumble in the hay would have been hugely suspect, and we the audience collectively go “Zerlina! No! Don’t dooo it” in our minds.

Another note on class is the plight of Leporello, Don Giovanni’s servant.  Modern audiences may wonder at Leporello’s weak will for not leaving a master who treats him horribly, and who’s behaviour he does not condone, but the fact is that Leporello has to work for a living, and gainful employment under a wealthy patron is something not easily thrown away.  Being Don Giovanni’s servant allows Leporello to reap some of the benefits of his master’s lascivious lifestyle, but mostly it gets him the lion’s share of the down-sides.  Libertinism again, only works for the independently wealthy who can foist the results of their self-centred decisions on to their paid staff, and this is another way the character of Don Giovanni is set up to be hated.

Perhaps the most confusing part of the Don Giovanni experience is actually how musically charming it is.  The Don’s character truly does become a seducer when he sings.  Both “La ci darem la mano” and “Deh vieni alla finestra” are exquisite and gem-like, and now part of my roster of faves.  The music ranges from these light-hearted delights, to the sweeping and serious pieces accompanying the tragic revenge plot of the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna.  Voice is very important to the construction of Don Giovanni’s identity – it is how he is recognized for murder, how he seduces Donna Elvira under the window, and when tells Leporello to impersonate him he instructs his servant to mimic his voice.  This is a practical consideration, allowing the mystery the Commendatore’s murder to be solved in the absence of CSI techniques, and to set up the improbable identity mixups that only work with audience participation. But these musical nods also place a commentary on the character of Don Giovanni as a performer (in a kind of “all the world’s a stage”, momentarily lifting the veil of narrative kind of way). In this particular production, dressing scenes show the “crew” of servants that help create the illusion that is the man, and later Don Giovanni is pulled into the pits of hell, which in a stage production are located somewhere behind the orchestra pit.  Musicians or instruments are constantly being brought on to stage – the party scene, the mandolin in “Deh Vieni Alla Finestra”, and in the final supper scene.  The pleasure of music is a constant that runs parallel to Don Giovanni’s physical pleasures, and I can’t help but wonder if there is an invitation to consider our own implicitness in our enjoyment of the plot, or if perhaps music is the one redemptive pleasure that remains pure.

The story reads like a Christian karmic narrative: if you flout the law of The Lord and you’ll get yours in the end, even if no-one else in life can stop you (but with strangely pagan imagery of the magical-statue-ghost).  It’s a structure that allows us to participate in Don Giovanni’s libertine freedom without condoning it – karmic retribution allowing us to enjoy the story’s dark sexy undertones with the safety that the predator gets his just desserts (after dinner, of course). The Christian narrative asserts itself several times, by providing opportunities for repentance in Donna Alvira’s continued love and eventual forgiveness, and the vengeful statue giving him one last chance before smiting him.  This also allows for the creation of a character we all love to hate and also allowing us the somewhat un-Christian satisfaction in seeing him punished.

There is so much more to talk about with this piece – the gender dynamics between the other characters, the characters’ roles and functions in the plot, more on the opera as a cultural artefact – I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface.  I haven’t even resolved my own feelings about Don Giovanni, though I was once again thoroughly impressed by the singing and had a fantastic time (I have some opinions on the lava-lamp projection effect in the final scene – sorry VO, it was not a win).  Regardless, I do have a feeling that what happens in Ispagna stays in Ispagna.