Thursday, May 31, 2012

What it's All About

Great art is a wondrous thing. I don't know how it works, but it works on me. I don't have to understand it, or even always like it, but I relish where it takes my thoughts and feelings. I can't live without it.

As it happened, I saw two more operas this spring.

The Canadian Opera Company's Semele caused a bit of a sensation. Visual artist Zhang Huan set the Handel opera in a 400-year-old temple. An actual Ming dynasty temple. The story behind the production was fascinating: a Chinese man, who lived with his wife and son some 20 or 25 years ago in the temple, was executed by firing squad for killing his wife's suspected lover. The widow sold the temple bit by bit to survive. Zhang bought what was remained of it and reconstructed it in his studio in Shanghai. The opera itself has a story set in Greek myth, about a silly girl who wishes for immortality. Her lover just HAPPENS to be the god Jupiter, but Juno, his wife, isn't happy about that - no wonder - and sets about her revenge. Zhang saw a link and so his production was born. He brought the universality of suffering and the impermanence of life to the stage in a manner I cannot imagine bettered. The overture was played as a silent black and white film was projected. The temple's story was told by the villagers and the widow. As a time lapse sequence showed the reconstruction of the temple in Zhang's studio, so the curtain lifted, and there it was. I was surprised to find tears in my eyes.

There was some fuss about the saucier goings on in the production: the temple's horizontal beams were all huge, two-headed phalluses, a two-person-operated donkey sported a ginormous erection, etc., etc., but it seemed that the greater part of the audience were as struck as I was. Of course, the vocal pyrotechnics and delicious stage presence of such stars as Jane Archibald, sent it over the top.

The final touch was the addition of a temple sweeper, a woman who silently appeared on stage at the start and end of the performance. She was, in fact, the widow herself. Just another stunning night of theatre at the COC (OK, some of you know that I may be biased, but I mean it).

A fraction of the production costs of Semele provided a no-less thrilling evening when I saw Against the Grain's production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw. This is a small, roguish company, made up of a handful of Toronto's finest opera/music talents, many of whom have been associated with the COC in some way. They've been around a couple of years, and their Bohème, which was performed in a pub, garnered attention and respect, and I could kick myself for not seeing it. It's not too late though! Waste no time, readers: do yourselves a favour and check them out next time they're in production.

The Turn of the Screw
was performed at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse in a space that could hold no more than about 90, by my estimation. A long room, flanked on both sides by three rows of seats, with the performance area running down the middle, was simply decorated with broken tiles on the floor, and dried leaves gathered, no doubt, from the University of Toronto's playing fields just outside. The costumes were period, the piano was orchestral, the acting filmic, the singing excellent, the effect chilling. Afterwards, our small group retired to that lovely sunken living room to talk animatedly about opera, theatre and much more into the small hours.

Life is good. Art is necessary.


Bill said...

Marvelous story ... I too love art and have worked at doing art for a long, long time. But what is often equal to the art are the artists themselves ... the crazy, self-centered, often exasperating, always interesting artists I've known or met have been my best experiences.

Zuzana said...

I agree with you, art is what gives our life its essence, it is what moves us as we can recognize the joy or the pain. It is what feeds our imagination and makes us as a species bearable.;)
Have you ever seen the movie called "Equilibrium" with Christian Bale? I think you would like i.;)

G said...

Bill: A wise man told me that creative people are the most neurotic. I believe it. They're often so fascinating too, and - on occasion - to be avoided. I think of Wagner, and what a first-class, Grade A, 100 proof arsehole he was... but the music... where does that genius come from? You're an artist I like!

Zuzana: I'm with you there. I quoted this on my blog recently: "Art is in itself a 'happy end', despair becomes sublime, pain beautiful." (Herbert Marcuse) It helps. :) And, no, I've never even heard of that movie, but will investigate it now - thank you!