Backstage at Toronto’s opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, I wait for my cue. The maestro is in the pit, taking applause. The stage manager gives him one minute, ten seconds to be adored by the audience, but not a moment more: she flashes a light, and the Vorspiel begins with swooning strings. The curtain rises. I’m tucked behind the set holding a broom, my prop. The set is made to look like the backstage of a travelling opera company: fake dressing rooms, a steel staircase, a carefully choreographed mess of suitcases, wardrobes, chairs, trunks, and footlockers, and a gaggle of sopranos and tenors running about. I am an extra, or what opera calls a “supernumerary,” walking, breathing stagecraft meant to fill out the production, to give it some human character. My job is to sweep the floor in the first act of Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, and to look as if I know what I’m doing. I cannot sing, I cannot act. I am playing a stagehand. Watching a TV monitor behind the set, I can see the maestro. Behind him is the first row of the audience. A man in a cream suit and lavender tie has on two pairs of glasses, one on his nose, one on his head. Next to him, another man twists the cap of a water bottle. They look grim, waiting to be amazed. Behind them are over 2,000 opera fans, some of whom paid up to $300 to see a hundred-year-old masterpiece of German opera. Here’s what I know about opera: nothing. Molière says, of all the noises known to man, opera is the most expensive. When I’ve listened to opera, this is what I’ve heard: take a soprano, train her for years in technique. Now slam her hand in a car door. The result is opera.
A tenor bellows his line, “Mein Herr Haushofmeister!” and the assistant stage manager points at me. I enter stage left, pushing the broom past a ladder, and pretend to be grumpy that it’s in my way. This is called “business,” or acting. Both of my grandmothers worked as maids when they immigrated to Canada from Finland. I feel I know something deeply genetic about sweeping floors. I have strong janitorial roots. Thinking this distracts me from the facts of my situation, but the facts pile in: I have never been onstage before; I don’t understand German, neither sung nor spoken; my opera education comes from the Bugs Bunny cartoons; my heart is beating like a beached minnow; my mouth is dry, as if I’ve eaten a horse blanket. Safely, I exit stage right and pass my broom to the real stagehands, who sit by the props table, whispering. My first entrance lasted sixteen seconds. I have two more before the end of act one.
Ifeel about grand opera the way I feel about wine. I am sure there are differences between red and white, and I am told that even within the definition of red there are variations available to those with taste. To me, it’s all of a kind. Same with opera: I applaud the real fans, the fans with two pairs of glasses, who find entry into a world of high human emotion—love and death, sex and betrayal, sex and death, and love and betrayal.
I’m glad opera exists for those who treat it like a liturgy: it speaks to a culture not entirely caught in the blinding lights of commerce and cutthroat self-advancement, a culture that values beauty and truth. But I have next to no musical training, save two years of junior high school band in which I played the tuba, a poor lens through which to contemplate the complexities of music. At that level, the tuba is not much more difficult to play than holding a blade of grass between your thumbs and making raspberry noises. I can’t read music. It’s ants on a page.
My friend Mr. Pete (even his mother calls him Mr. Pete) came from what, to me, is another world: his Irish father held season tickets to the Canadian Opera Company, where Mr. Pete’s aunt, Patricia Crum, was a lead soprano. On road trips, Mr. Pete’s father would roll up the windows and play Italian opera from a cassette and light a cigar, and his wife and sons would choke on the noise and the smoke. While it’s true Mr. Pete still has a Pavlovian gag response to Verdi, he grew to love opera, especially twentieth-century composers, the twelve-tone masters like Schoenberg. From there he found jazz, then complicated, atonal pop music like Captain Beefheart.
Meanwhile, the first music I ever bought was Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love,” which seemed complicated enough. At home, my parents played Jim Croce and Chicago. I won’t blame them for my lack of exposure to the fine arts: we can’t all have rich, textured childhoods trapped in smoke-filled cars with Italian opera. Instead, I blame my grandparents, or rather the genetic line on which they converged. Three of the four were Finnish immigrants. It’s accepted as fact that Finns can be emotionally unavailable, remote from the blustery romantic ideas expressed in music and art, favouring the thrum of Sibelius, or union fight songs learned in lumber camps. The Finn wears his heart not on his sleeve, but in a Tupperware container in the refrigerator, the better to bear the trials of a working life. Tell him a joke, and if he deems it funny, having appraised it on all sides for joke-worthiness, he will not laugh but will say, “That’s funny.” This may go some way to explaining why I favour irony and a kind of distant, smartass cynicism over open sincerity. Growing up on ironic smartass television had a lot to do with it, too, but in quiet times I wonder about my own wiring, whether I’m too cold to know the beauty of an aria.
But then there’s the fourth grandparent. I never knew him. He died of consumption, that tragic, operatic disease so common to immigrants, when my mother was just a girl. He was Italian—the culture of romance and heart.
I can live a happy enough life, I figure, never knowing the difference between a bel canto and a Bell Calling Card: the idea of two people singing at each other strikes me as counterintuitive, unless those two people are Sonny and Cher. But now that I’m in my late forties, I wonder about the current of hot Latin running through the depths of the ironic, cranky, slow-moving cool Finnish river, and whether I’m too late to find a connection to great art, or if what I have to do is swim deeper. The truth is, there is a finite number of things that will happen to me before I’m dead. Perhaps I shouldn’t wait to accidentally trip over the sublime but instead seek it out. So my inner Italian sent me to the COC. I sought access, to see how opera is made and if I, without training, could learn to love it, or tolerate it, or at least sit through it—boot camp for the artistically stunted.
I met the company brass in the office of the general director, Alexander Neef, at the old brick fruit warehouse on Front Street East that serves as the COC’s administrative headquarters and rehearsal space. In an act of goodwill (and with the knowledge that I would be writing about my experience), we shook hands: I would be welcome at rehearsals, coaching sessions, and backstage of the big spring productions. Later, when I sat down with the company’s head of communications, I upped my bet: most operas use extras, spear carriers or angry peasants with pitchforks, human props. The collective agreement between the company and its performers allows for civilians in small roles, supernumeraries (or just “supers”) who bring no acting or singing skill, only an ability to fit available costumery. Was there room for an extra extra in one of the spring shows?
“Can you dance? ” she asked. I cannot. Too bad; they needed six dancers in the spring production of Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola) to play rats. But they did need four supers in Ariadne auf Naxos, a modern production of the opera-within-an-opera by Australian director Neil Armfield. I promised, as per the collective agreement, that I had no special skills or training of any kind, and that no matter the outcome of my cockeyed trip into opera I wouldn’t let them down onstage.
Director Neil Armfield premiered this production in Wales. It has done a small circuit, including Boston and now Toronto. Opera companies are always looking for artistically sound ways to save money, and they’ve found economies of scale in co-productions. Opera has become a global game: by teaming up with other companies, they can share resources, and they don’t have to build sets or acquire props from scratch. Ariadne in effect came here in a box, ready for unpacking and staging. Armfield, fifty-six, is the former artistic director of Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Australia, a proponent of “poor theatre” that favours simple human interaction over fancy sets and technical flummery. He has just wrapped an off-Broadway show with Geoffrey Rush, Gogol’s The Diary of a Madman. At the first meeting of cast and crew, in a high-ceilinged rehearsal hall, he briefs us on the opera. He wears a grey Brooklyn hoodie, heavy square glasses, and a puckered smile that hints at mischief.
“It’s taken me a long time to fall in love with Ariadne auf Naxos,” he tells us, passing out photographs of the Welsh production. He had seen it only once before, and no one he talked to afterward could remember what it was about. “It was dull—horrible, really,” he says. Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were keen to present an elaborate inside joke, a tribute to serious opera with a comic twist. They first performed it in 1912, reworked it in 1916. The first act opens backstage of the actual opera to follow in act two. A star soprano, a tenor, three women who will play Wagnerian nymphs, a beleaguered composer, are all told by the Major-Domo, right hand to the Richest Man in Vienna, that they will have to share the stage with a travelling commedia dell’arte troupe. This is to save time and up the entertainment value at the Richest Man’s dinner party. The performers go bananas: how dare they cheapen serious opera with a bunch of street performers?
In act two, the serious opera begins: Ariadne (played by the diva soprano we met in act one) has been dumped by her lover, Theseus, on a desert island. Heartbroken, she wants to die. The commedia troupe tries to cheer her up. She’s deaf to their games. Then Bacchus, god of wine, arrives and sweeps her off her feet in an eighteen-minute duet in which he and Ariadne circle each other, sing, and finally embrace. Love conquers death.
Armfield’s idea is to scrap the chandeliers-and-powdered-wig convention of the original production and make it modern. The comedians arrive dressed as if for a beach party, carrying pizza and beer. One of the nymphs has a cellphone, with which she constantly texts her boyfriend. Stagehands sweep the floor, move gear, climb ladders, and look busy. In Wales, Armfield used real stagehands, but in Toronto this would be cost prohibitive: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, the union that represents real stagehands, has a collective agreement that allows for crew members to appear onstage in exchange for an extra hour’s wage per hand. Supers are paid $12 a rehearsal, $13 a performance, a comparative bargain.
“If you’re a cynic,” says Armfield, as if he’s talking directly to me, “the eighteen-minute duet is sheer torture.” The job is to match the production to the beauty of the music and the text, an amazing human moment between two lost but hungry lovers, Bacchus and Ariadne. Sheer torture, he says. And he’s the director.
If my encounter with opera is to be a kind of irony repression therapy, I should iron out what I mean by irony. Let’s say we can split the world of aesthetic pleasure into three camps: those who can feel; those who cannot feel; and those who feel but have found the tools to cover it up, to look cool. The last camp describes the nonchalant posture known as sprezzatura, an Italian term coined by Count Baldassare Castiglione in the sixteenth century to describe the ideal courtier: skilled in arms, fine arts, music, and dance, but without affect or emotional flourish. You could say sprezzatura is at the root of twentieth-century Gen X/Gen Y/Millennial “whatever” culture that takes nothing that’s too serious too seriously: the culture of irony. Which, by the way, has been declared dead over and again in the past ten years (9/11 was to be the end of irony; the Obama election of 2008 was to be the end of irony), but ironically irony persists. See Twitter: the literature of crank, instant judgment, and smartassery.
Living at the far end of Gen X, a totally arbitrary demographic mark that works mainly to separate me from the too-earnest baby boomers (by about a year), I can pin my own taste for cool irony not just to the Finn-trumps-Italian nexus, but to the culture that teaches a boy to raise his eyebrows at the pompous and self-important. Opera is, for me, what cartoons tell me it is: highbrow and elite, the fat tenor Giovanni Jones in “Long-Haired Hare,” who is brought to a lung-busting, collar-snapping, impossible high G by Bugs Bunny, who is dressed as the great conductor Leopold Stokowski and won’t let the singer off the hook until the whole concert shell collapses on top of him; Fred Flintstone (season one, episode five, “The Split Personality”), who suffers a conk to the head and awakes as Frederick, his own opera-loving alter ego. Frederick sings off-key arias to the record player (the stylus of which is a long-suffering, long-billed bird who covers his ears with earmuffs to block out the noise), torturing Wilma and the neighbours, and is finally returned to his senses through the cartoon logic of a second conk to the head (rock, door jamb). Opera is at odds with the cool, lowbrow, but democratic tastes of working-class heroes like Bugs and Fred. No coincidence, they share an age with Warhol and pop art that makes the same joke about the great masters.
But late in life, I’ve come to see that the problem with irony is that it provides a reflexive means for missing the point. Watch “Long-Haired Hare” again, as I did recently, and you’ll see that Bugs is not so much poking fun at opera as he is kicking the stilts from under artistic pretension, the diva (or, in the case of Giovanni Jones, the divo) whose ego gets in the way of his art. In “The Split Personality,” the bird doesn’t hate opera (in fact, he debates with Frederick the merits and flaws of the music); he just hates bad opera. Neither case is an indictment of art, but rather the people who take it too seriously and pervert it. Maybe I’ve been avoiding opera not because I’m not wired for it, but because I’m afraid if I do accidentally fall in love I’ll be on the fast track to twin pairs of glasses and a lavender tie: I fear my own inner Frederick.
John Easterlin is a Broadway veteran, a Tony Award winner turned opera star from New York, and a master puppeteer. About my age, with boyish features and stature, and a helmet of hair last seen in the New Romantics craze of the ’80s, he has a seemingly endless supply of long-sleeved, striped rugby shirts that come near to his knees. In early rehearsals, he seems grumpy, brusque, and fidgety. He plays the dual role of the Dancing Master and Brighella, one of the four commedia dell’arte clowns who are busy onstage with tough choreography, antics involving a mix of (deliberately) awkward ballet, Irish dance, and the tossing and catching of props, including umbrellas and plastic pineapples. His partners are three young male singers who play clowns.
Running through the act two routine, in which they try to cheer up a grief-stricken Ariadne (whose stand-in for this rehearsal is a towel laid out on the floor downstage), the boys study their feet. Denni Sayers, the choreographer, makes it clear: pointed toes are good toes, flexed toes are bad toes, and all things being equal she prefers good toes.
Armfield, the director, watches from behind a table loaded with scores, binders, Post-it Notes, a jug of water, and a cup of pencils. I have been to a few rehearsals at this point, and always there is a cup of pencils, and no one ever uses them. I assume them to be talismanic, like candles in a church.
The rehearsal hall is a ballet studio in the old warehouse, with one mirrored wall, a sprung floor, the waist-level dancers’ barre. In one corner is the piano, an upright, on which the pianist plays stop-start with the Strauss score, standing in for the orchestra.
“You’re going to take off and land on the same foot,” Sayers says to the group, “and your back leg is in an arabesque. Do bend your leg when you land.” She is wispy as a reed, with a dancer’s physique, close-cropped hair, big eyes, and toes that point in the good way under Patagonia yoga pants. “No, not that leg,” she says to one of them.
“Be facing Ariadne,” Armfield says, and the commedia boys consider the towel.
“I have a suggestion,” Sayers responds. “A bit of Rudolf Nureyev. You hop on the right foot with a little semicircle. If you were doing classical ballet, you’d cross the back foot, so we set up the expectation of Rose Adagio, but what we get is Riverdance.”
In action, it is genuinely funny, raunchy stuff, vaudeville meets German opera: Easterlin swings across the stage in a Groucho Marx strut, wagging a plastic salami. Sayers tells him to bop one of the clowns in the belly with it; he swings hard and hits his partner square in the nuts. The music stops.
Easterlin frowns and walks a quick circle. This is not the way it was yesterday, he says. The moves are changing; he can’t keep track. The first run-through, he mentions, is two days away, and the head of the COC will be there to see it. All this action, it can’t be worked out in time. The other comedians look at the floor.
“The good news,” adds Sayers, “is you’re singing while you do this.”
“Well, fantastic,” says one of the clowns, laughing. Easterlin folds his arms.
Once more through the dance, they find themselves standing on the towel.
“You have just trodden on Ariadne,” Sayers announces.
Over the days, I become fascinated with Easterlin. Not quite a full-on divo, more divo-esque, he sets himself off from the pack by challenging Armfield and Sayers on their directions, whereas the others are more likely to do as they are told, smile, dance, sing. Does he find the role demeaning? Does he think the crazy action distracts from the music? He has a powerful, crisp tenor voice that rattles the pencils in the cup on the table. Where most singers mark their performance in rehearsal, singing at half-steam to save the vocal cords, Easterlin belts it out. Rehearsing a section of act one, he is to wield a parasol, jab it like a sword, flip it, catch it, wag it phallically between his legs, and then swing it open for a twirly “Singin’ in the Rain” showstopper. The clasp on the umbrella is sticky, he says. It takes too long to open and has to be fixed. Sayers smiles and promises to send it off to the props department. Then when he flips the umbrella, he rears back as if beset by wasps, afraid he might poke out his own eye with the pointy end.
“It’s called a ferrule,” Armfield says helpfully, offering up the proper name of the band on the pointy end of an umbrella. In other words: let’s move on.
I have come expecting spectacle, pageantry, but instead I find a production built on detail and nuance, proper toes and placement of a foot or a hand. When Alexander Neef drops in on the rehearsal, he tells me that what people want is a “credible theatrical experience,” with attention to dramatic realism. Later, when I speak with Armfield over lunch, he tells me that modern opera, the way he sees it, is not inconsistent with what his small Belvoir company tried to do in Sydney: simple, human, above bluster and fireworks. He tells me his approach to drama is strongly influenced by a moment from his own childhood. He remembers when he and his mother went to visit his aunt. This was just after both his older brother and his cousin, his aunt’s son, had died. Neil was just a boy. He remembers walking to the screen door, his aunt in the hallway inside, his mother on the porch. “My aunt had this incredible smile as she saw her sister-in-law,” he recalls. “There are no words for it, but it’s a life-stopping moment, these two women who had both lost sons, in this eloquent, emotional connection.”
“How plain,” he says, “most dramatic moments are.”
The Ariadne props, umbrella and salami included, have come from Wales as part of the production kit, but upstairs the COC has a room crammed with pieces from decades of original productions, from the days when operas were mounted from scratch. Guy Nokes, the props supervisor, shows me around. It’s like a medieval flea market: shelves of cooking pots, chalices, vases, chintz pillows wrapped in plastic. They’re wrapped because the old building is haunted not by dead tenors, but by the ghost of its own past as a maraschino cherry warehouse: sometimes when it’s hot, the roof leaks red syrup. A shelf is devoted to crucifixes, Jesus sized and otherwise, tin censers painted gold, monstrances, and various Catholic ware. There are basketballs, lances, broadaxes, a rubber chicken, swords dripping blood, rags stained blood red. There seems to be a large roller skate inventory. There are rubber peasant heads on pikes, bows, arrows, and pitchforks. A wardrobe case reveals eight hanging corpses wrapped in white muslin, dead warriors from a production of The Valkyrie. I once worked in a funeral home. The warriors are convincing, like the real dead as they appear wrapped in the hospital morgue. Here, they’ll wait patiently in case Wagner’s Ring cycle is ever remounted. Nokes says he is desperate for space: “I’m reluctant to throw things out.” Tankards hang from hooks on the ceiling because the shelves are too crammed.
Here, I think, looking around, smelling dust and pickled wood, is a static, overstuffed history of staged opera, all the shows I’ve never seen. Is it possible to be nostalgic for something you never experienced in the first place? The place feels like a cemetery (the corpses help), not just an archive of dead objects, but something bigger than my self-absorbed, do-it-yourself, buffet-style cultural life, where I pick and choose from a cloud of pop options—indie hardcore, Ethiopian hip hop, Moroccan beats—consuming, discarding some like tissues, always moving on. As with a cemetery, there’s permanence here.
Maybe that’s what I miss: permanence, a culture that lasts. Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman says we live not in modern but in liquid times, where “the distinction between the mundane and the eternal, transient and durable, mortal and immortal, is all but effaced.” There’s no consensus, no frame of reference, just a boatload of options, each as good or as worthless as the next: I can move from one pursuit to another without fear of sanction, just fear of disappointment. There’s no peer pressure, because there are no peers; I’m on my own. But if I’m a cultural nomad, I wonder what it’s like just to stop, settle, find a community. This room is packed with the artifacts of community, thousands of people over generations who have seen Rigoletto, the same one heard in Venice in 1851, the same one that will be seen in 100 years, and it all goes on without me. I have a hunger, no matter how uncool, to be part of something bigger than just me and my tra-la-la cultural bed hopping. As we leave, Nokes bangs shut the barred gate that serves as a door and snaps the padlock.
The trouble, for me, is opera’s operaness. The soprano’s high-pitched vibrato makes my inner ear itch so much I want to scratch it with a toothbrush. It may be a matter of brain tuning and experience: on a straight-up analytical level, I can agree there is great, startling beauty in the perfect high G, and these people work so hard to be perfect. Ambur Braid is covering (acting as understudy) for one of the nymphs in Ariadne, and has a solo role in Robert Carsen’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which runs concurrently with my opera. She plays Amore, goddess/god of love (she switches genders midway through the show). She is tall, thin, with Audrey Hepburn eyes, long auburn hair, and perfect teeth, at twenty-eight one of the older members of the COC ensemble. When she sings, she tells me, she imagines a Ping-Pong ball hovering over a vacuum hose set on blow: if she keeps the imaginary ball in the air, she knows she’s on track. The ability to loft the ball is a matter of technique, a combination of placement, confidence, and breath. “What I hear in my head is gross and fuzzy,” she says. “You have to go by sensation. The worse it sounds to me, the better it sounds out there.”
Braid can’t drink red wine; the sulphites dry up her vocal cords. She takes no Aspirin or blood thinners: if she overworks her voice, she can rupture a cord and bleed. When she menstruates (I didn’t ask, but she’s trying to be helpful here), her cords swell. She eats big, high-protein organic lunches that she has delivered daily by a company called Fuel Nutrition: there’s a pork tenderloin in her purse as we speak. “It’s so fulfilling,” she says of singing on the mainstage, “but there’s the stress—the stress of coming to grips with the fact that you’re not perfect.” In the fifth show of Orfeo, she got so stuck in staging, how she placed her feet and held her arms overhead, that she forgot the words to her aria and had to improvise. After the show, Maestro Harry Bicket asked if maybe it was Polynesian she was singing out there (the opera is in Italian). Next time, she spent the pre-show backstage reading fashion magazines, took her cue, and nailed it: over-thinking, over-preparing can shipwreck a performance.
When Simone Osborne was twenty-one (and this was only four years ago), she won the soprano category at the Metropolitan Opera competition for young singers in New York. This is a ticket to contract offers and a career. She chose to stay in Canada, auditioned for the COC’s ensemble program, and got the gig. She looks young enough to be carded at bars, with a sweep of hair that the wig makers struggle to fit under a hairnet, a dark complexion (her mother is Iranian), and a cheeky, playful smile. It was great to win the Met, she says, but it’s a double-edged sword: now the expectation is that she’ll succeed, and she must succeed early or be forgotten. She wants the long-term career, which means she has to turn down roles, for example Mimi in La Bohème, which she is too young to sing: the role could easily ruin her still-developing voice. At the same time, she can’t spend ten years as Carmen’s gypsy friend or a nymph (her role in Ariadne auf Naxos), so with coaching, training, and advice she sometimes steps into shoes a size too big; she’s about to sing the lead in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in Vancouver. Sitting tight with small roles is not an option: opera is a global marketplace with global raw materials, and there are singers from the former Soviet bloc, the Czech Republic, and South Korea who aren’t afraid of blowing out their instruments and who will work for four cents to the dollar, unlike North Americans. Then there’s real life, she says: mortgages in a racket with no pension; illness, car accidents, throat surgery.
“I think about this all the time,” she says. “I’m putting milk in my coffee, and I’m thinking about singing or what could happen.” She is blessed with a great soprano voice and expressive skill, and she knows it’s a blessing, but she can’t escape a dark cloud of what-if. She tells me of a YouTube clip of coloratura soprano Natalie Dessay, who had to take a break from a big career after throat surgery. “She couldn’t sing for two months; she couldn’t talk,” says Osborne. “She wasn’t allowed to cry or make a sound. And there she is walking on the beach, bawling silently. It’s heartbreaking, a nightmare.”
What I end up with, talking to Braid and Osborne, is a peek at what makes the soprano more than a singer of songs. There is technique, the ability to loft the ball, the ability to know the difference between the right note and the wrong one, and choosing, instinctively, through years of training, coaching, and trial and error, the right note. That’s mechanics, but what also drives her is fear: in Braid’s case, the fear of not being perfect, of over-thinking; and with Osborne, the what-if, the fear of losing her place in the pecking order, of losing her instrument. This makes them human, not aria production machines. It strikes me that I could do worse than to try and see opera not as a monolith, but as the collaborative, musical barn raising of a group of talented people who have the same fears and troubles as I do: I’m over-thinking, too, not just about my piddling little stagehand’s role, but about the music, the event. If I can learn to just listen and watch instead of clinically picking the work to pieces, I may hear something I haven’t heard before.
In the first rehearsal with supers, I meet my fellow “stagehands.” Chris Pemberton, thirty-six, is a veteran super who last appeared in The Flying Dutchman, as a zombie boatmen. He’s a working artist, a painter who runs a club show called Art Battle, in which painters compete to finish a piece on the clock while a DJ spins music (“dirty, dirty, filthy beats,” says Pemberton). In Dutchman, he says, the zombie boatmen spent most of the show under a false stage, the hold of the ship, leaning out into the audience and looking menacing. At one point, he fell asleep; at another, he and a second zombie spotted a man sleeping in the first row, and they took to staring hard at his wife, until she noticed and nudged her husband awake. Mike Gibbons is thirty-one, also a vet: he last appeared in The Magic Flute, as a crocodile and a slave. The only African Canadian in our cast, he’s a bike courier by day, a wedding DJ at night. I practise sweeping the floor, then clearing jackets, pants, and hangers from the crossbar of the ladder where the comedians have hung their street clothes. Gibbons and Pemberton climb the ladder and check lights that aren’t there. We get notes from Sayers. We are moving too fast. Slow down, she says. For the purpose of research, watch the real stagehands at the Four Seasons. They are efficient but never rushed.
At the first rehearsal at the Four Seasons Centre with the full orchestra, I over-think my directions, move like molasses. Lingering at the ladder while I collect clothes hangers one by one, I end up colliding with the Harlequin, who gently pushes me out of the way. On my final entrance, I’m to pick up a battered blue footlocker, but by the time I reach it the curtain is dropping on act one: I’m roughly six minutes late. I get more notes. Please move with more urgency, I’m told.
Over-thinking is a hobby of mine, a way of advancing to conclusions about art, literature, music, without having to actually experience them. “I like the people who come with no expectations,” says Alexander Neef when we meet in his office at the warehouse. One wall is exposed brick, the coffee table between us is glass, and Neef sits cross legged in a chair while I sink deep into a couch so I have to look up to address him. It’s a mistake, he says, to think you have to know the history of music to appreciate opera. If you’re driven to learn more, to learn to read music or the composer’s biography, that’s fine, but you are the final arbiter: this is not entertainment, he says, but great art, and the opera fan must take personal responsibility for his or her experience, not soak up someone else’s from Wikipedia. Watch it, feel it. Or not. There’s a commercial motive here.
He has his core subscribers who know this world and keep coming back, but to justify a $180-million opera house and a $35-million annual budget he needs new eyes and ears, so “Just come, stop worrying” makes for a sound marketing strategy. But I believe, from my sunken couch perch, that he’s sincere: he feels putting on masterpieces will help people learn something about themselves, not just about opera or what it means. It’s a struggle for me. I am a meaning junkie; even better if someone else parses meaning and I can parrot it at a dinner party as my own. Maybe it’s because I can’t bear the random. A mystical text, whether Strauss or Kafka, invites interpretation and digging because the alternative, the possibility that great art is as random and arbitrary as life, feels unbearable. The point of a mystery is to figure it out.
For literary critic Frank Kermode—whose book The Genesis of Secrecy has been gathering dust on my shelf since I bought it, with the idea that to understand literature I first had to understand those who understood literature—there are two schools of interpretation: inside, outside. The insiders have the protection of institutions (academia, the Church… let’s add the opera house), and they carry a whiff of authority: a text means what they say it means because they bear the weight of consensus and tradition. Outsiders fly solo. They follow instinct and senses. Something in the text strikes them as moving, important, oracular, but they can’t give it shape. They can’t draw conclusions. The best outsider doesn’t want to. Art’s dirty secret, if I follow Kermode, is that the insider is doomed to disappointment. Make meaning from chaos all you want; there’s more chaos to come. Instinctively, the outsider gets this and throws up a white flag, not from frustration but in acceptance of the beautiful occult madness of the text. In other words: stop digging; the work is what it says it is.
It happens so rarely, this unsolicited knock on the head by art, that when it comes I notice. I remember reading a New Yorker story about land art—the great, huge-scale, crazy works of art like Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Utah—and growing bored, my mind and eye wandering the page to mail-order steak adverts, then these lines:
Anise and marjoram used for preserving corpses,
For preserving or enhancing food and drink.
It appeared not in the article but rather a poem by Robert Pinsky, and I know as much about poetry as I know about opera, yet it caught me, made me sit and feel something, a dizzy, haunting sort of dryness: such a weird paradox. Forget meaning, forget parable. The lines carry no lesson but sit in the poem like a dare: read, feel. It hit me the way opera should—or may eventually, if I learn to hear it without so much strain and effort.
It’s the beautiful occult madness of opera that appeals to Cecily Carver, who at twenty-eight is an unlikely fan, if you buy the received notion that the average opera-goer either has a pacemaker or will soon be fit for one. She bears the signifiers of the hipster (groovy, red-framed glasses and a dark, razor-cut bob) and runs the COC’s social media presence on Facebook and Twitter. As a teenager, she was drawn to the big, the florid, and the romantic, including opera, making mix tapes of Tosca and Tristan und Isolde for her friend Alex. They talked about opera in the same abstract language with which they would deconstruct pop and alternative music. Then, she says, she outgrew the romantic in favour of the complex: silent movies, modern opera, both dream worlds with their own emotional languages. “People go to opera not because it has mainstream appeal,” she says, “but because it is a little weird.” Broadway shows like Wicked blend music and theatre, but all the weird has been sucked out, cleaned up: what you get is accessible, hummable, bland. In opera, you see the seams: here’s an aria written for a specific tenor whom history has forgotten; here’s a decision made 200 years ago by a composer who just wanted to keep his company happy. The recitative music and dialogue hybrid that drives the action in opera is weird. Arias are weird. “It’s a beautiful mess,” she says.
Now I’m so frustrated I could bust a sinus. Here’s Frank Kermode in one ear telling me to relax, to open my heart to the mystical madness of art, and here’s wise, bright Carver in the other with a theme variation: it’s weird, accept it, lie down and close your eyes, and soak in the beautiful mess. If I had more ears, I’d have Alexander Neef telling me to relax, don’t be afraid to come unprepared; and Robert Pinsky whispering, “Anise, marjoram.” Combined, it’s a rational argument for the irrational, and as much as I pretend to an AA “fake it till you make it” approach to the music, I still can’t wrinkle my nose and conjure a real, sincere emotional connection. Sincerity can’t be willed.
But it catches you, in unlikely ways. When I sit down with John Easterlin in the artists’ lounge at the Four Seasons Centre, with nymphs coming and going, buying fruit juice from a vending machine, heating rice and lentil suppers in the microwave, I am prepared for an encounter with the artistic temperament, based on his tart, terse manner in rehearsal. The man I meet surprises me. He has spent most of the past year on the road: Herod in Strauss’s Salome at the Vienna State Opera; Covent Garden in London for Prokofiev’s The Gambler ; Paris for Britten’s Billy Budd ; then Toronto for Mozart’s The Magic Flute ; and now Ariadne, in a role he has played four times before. It’s an itinerant life: the alarm buzzes, the shades are drawn; what city am I in? By the seventh week in any one place, you’re scratching the walls, you miss eating off your own dishes, miss grocery shopping. He sits, hands folded, speaking softly: “When I was wooed into the opera world, people stood around like French paintings onstage. That’s all changed. Coming from Broadway, I knew you had to be a good actor, too.” He is a champion of dynamic staging, of opera’s shift to credible theatre from the old days of the “park and bark,” the soprano who hits her mark and bellows her aria without the distraction of dramatic business. “I was rattled,” he says, referring to the rehearsals. “I just wanted to get under the fingernails of the character, to understand him.” Sometimes, that means speaking out, challenging the director and the choreographer for clarity, for the sake of the audience, for his own integrity and the character’s.
When he was a boy, his parents gave him creative toys. Puppets. He started with eight puppets, a little stage.
“A clown,” he says, closing his eyes to remember. “A hillbilly, a fairy princess, an alligator. A dog, an old woman with her hair in a scarf. A little girl.”
“That’s seven,” I say.
“A harlequin!” he exclaims, remembering the little stock character from commedia dell’arte. Every story began happy, moved into conflict, ended happy. Two of the animals, he remembers, wanted to woo the fairy princess. “They don’t want to be her pets,” he says. “They wanted to fall in love with her.” The old woman gathered a jury of clown, harlequin, little girl, to decide who would win the princess. “In my imagination, they both won her heart,” he says. He put on shows for neighbourhood kids, twenty-five cents in a coffee tin. The money went into new puppets, and by the age of eight he had a lawyer and had incorporated as Hand in Hand Puppet Productions. By the time he was ten, the Miami Herald, his hometown paper, had published a picture of him in a clown costume with his puppets: “Meet the Miami Herald ’s Spirit of Christmas,” read the headline.
All this is as odd and contagious as the Pinsky line. It isn’t a lesson or a parable, just what matters to him. We don’t discuss his Tony Award or interrogate the artistic impulse. Instead, I am caught in the light of clean, unfiltered sincerity. I leave having met a man who loves his parents, misses home, remembers a blessed childhood, the time in his life when he learned about enchantment. Most of us grow up and lose the enchantment. Easterlin holds on. The music of Strauss hasn’t moved me. John Easterlin has.
At dress rehearsal, with the full orchestra and an audience at the Four Seasons Centre, life conspires to kick up a mess at the expense of the beautiful, at least backstage, the real backstage. Chris Pemberton and I whisper behind the fake dressing rooms about all the things we could do to derail the show if we were evil: he imagines climbing the ladder on his second entrance, eating a sandwich, and staying up there for the full length of the first act. What could they do? The show would have to go on. I imagine sweeping my way to the front of the stage, facing the maestro and making to follow the Strauss on air guitar. Instead, I take the cue, sweep, keep my head down and count steps, not too fast, not too slow. By intermission, real drama is unfolding in the stage management office: Adrianne Pieczonka, our Ariadne, is ill, laryngitis. She struggled through the first act, but has no voice for the demanding second, that punishing eighteen-minute duet. Amber Wagner, a young soprano from Arizona and Pieczonka’s understudy, is rushed into costume. Armfield has sad news from Australia: his father has died. He will leave the production at once, will have to skip opening night. In the hallway next to Pieczonka’s dressing room, he receives cast and crew: the death is both expected and unexpected, and anyone who has lost a loved one after a long illness knows what this means.
Easterlin, meanwhile, has stabbed himself in the leg with a safety pin and wants to see the doctor at once for a tetanus shot (“As if he’d been shot through the heart” is how one member of the administrative staff describes the event later). The doctor is called, in the midst of delivering a baby. In the stage management office, a crew member reaches to a shelf above the printer for a bottle of single malt scotch, then puts it back: the gesture suffices. “This is not what it looks like,” says Wagner, rushing through the stage door with a copy of the Strauss score: she knows the part but wants a last-minute refresher on the tough rhythmic variations in act two. She takes her place on the stage, now cleared of the fuss and mess of act one, a bare island of earthy green, tan, and the soft yellow light of the Mediterranean. The curtain rises to reveal her half-prone, half-leaning on the seat of a simple wooden chair, head on her arms like a stone angel on a tombstone. Osborne and the nymphs sing a lament, sweet and simple, their long wigs streaked with white clay, eyelashes white as feathers. On the sharp report of a trumpet, Bacchus arrives, lowered from above on a bridge, and he circles Ariadne, she circles him, the duet begins. I stand stage left, behind a light tower with Chris Pemberton, arms folded. Our business is done. We watch. Behind me is the red stage clock, and I promise not to look but can’t stop myself: two minutes down, three-fifteen to go. Bacchus sings:
Hear me, mortal one who stands before me,
Hear me, you who wish to die.
Does nothing remain of Ariadne but a breath?
Wagner’s voice is rich chocolate milk. Richard Margison as Bacchus is a wall of sound. They circle again, unsure of each other. She mistakes him for her lost Theseus; he mistakes her for the temptress Circe. They’re like two teenagers locked in lust but afraid to admit it, to themselves or each other: Who are you? What do you want from me? I try to bracket out distraction, as the cast members gather around us, waiting for their last cues, the clock, and watch a simple human moment stripped of spectacle, leaving just music. If language is how we communicate, language is also how we trick each other, lie. But the music, it seems, if I close my eyes, doesn’t lie. They mean it; they are sincere because they sing; it’s the only way they can communicate without deception, intentional or accidental. I try to let the long duet pass without judgment. But I am not “slain in the spirit,” as evangelical Christians call that moment when grace sends them writhing to the floor. I am nudged by the music, the best I can manage given the strangeness of a love scene sung, not spoken. All I can say is that the truth of the moment is not a grown-up’s cool, rational truth, but the truth of a little boy who at eight was the Miami Herald ’s Spirit of Christmas: wonder and weirdness. In my head, I will Bacchus to stop singing and kiss her already, and as starlight sparkles on the floor around them, he does. The nudge, as odd and haunting (and true) as the Pinsky poem, is enough for now. There are eight performances to come, and a million more long after I’m dead, thousands of sopranos and tenors singing thousands of duets of Ariadne auf Naxos, a welcome bit of permanence amid a culture of churn.
It barely matters if I ever fall in love with opera. The weirdness, the emotional language of dreams, is enough of a hook for now, as are the complicated, often conflicted people who make it. Opera is a collaborative, human art, if you have the ear for it. I can sit on a yoga mat and wait for samsara, and it might come tomorrow or ten years from now or never; or I can sit in a movie theatre once, twice a year, see The Met: Live in HD opera broadcasts, where they serve coffee and brownies the size of King James Bibles; or come back to Toronto for the real thing. Maybe I’ll hear something I haven’t heard before, a sung line of Italian I won’t understand but will somehow recognize.
Tom Jokinen, a writer and broadcaster, has worked with CBC’s Morningside, counterSpin, and Definitely Not the Opera. He is a regular contributor to The Walrus.
Andrew B. Myers earned a 2013 Juno nomination for album art, with the Tragically Hip’s Now for Plan A. He has contributed three covers to Time.