Ted Littlemore is one of seven dancers in the latest iteration of Idan Cohen’s Orfeo ed Euridice, which will be available online April 6-13. (photo by Flick Harrison)
The first article the Jewish Independent published about choreographer and opera director Idan Cohen was about his reimagining of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. Much progress has been made in the few years since, and excerpts from the contemporary dance work will be streaming on demand April 6-13.
Cohen was a relatively recent arrival from Israel back in 2018. As artistic director of Ne. Sans Opera and Dance, which he established here in 2017, he has become a prominent part of the Vancouver arts scene. He is currently artist-in-residence at the Dance Centre, which describes Cohen’s approach to this 18th-century opera as one that interprets
“Orpheus not as a god, but as an artist – a human who looks at the complex and sometimes violent history of Western, classical opera and dance with eyes wide open, the dancing body serving as a living example of human strength and fragility.”
In the myth, poet and musician Orfeo mourns the death of his wife, Euridice, and tries to get her back from the Underworld. It is an effort fraught with challenges, not unlike creating a new artistic work.
“Staging an opera is a monumental task, and it is really exciting to have an audience who has been following this production from its inception,” Cohen told the Independent. “Alongside the Dance Centre’s residency, we were given a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, through the Piercey family – the Sheila Kathleen Piercey Fund – which enabled us to continue and present this final phase of the research, leading to the full production in 2022.
“For the past few months,” he said, “I have been rehearsing with Leslie Dala as the music director and with seven incredible dancers and five opera singers. We are presenting almost 40 minutes of a piano reduction of the score, played live by Leslie, and the singers, as a dance-opera. So you’ll get to see and listen to a live opera that is also a dance performance.”
In 2019, Ne. Sans presented Trionfi Amore, as a part of the research for Orfeo ed Euridice. That production featured Ted Littlemore, Kate Franklin and Jeremy O’Neill. For this April’s production, they are joined by dancers Hana Rutka, Rachel Meyer, Aiden Cass and Stephanie Cyr.
“The wonderful counter-tenor Shane Hanson is singing Orfeo and the chorus singers are Heather Pawsey, Tyler Simpson, Heather Molloy and William Grossman,” said Cohen. Costume designer and stylist is Evan Clayton, while Littlemore pulls double duty – not only performing, but in charge of the makeup and masks.
The number of people involved now brings its own challenges, given the continuing pandemic.
“The Dance Centre’s residency enabled us to rehearse in large spaces that allowed for our relatively big group to remain socially distanced at all times,” said Cohen. “Following COVID-19 protocols meant that we needed to be wearing masks and that the performers could not touch. I tried to look at these not as obstacles but as creative opportunities and I am very proud of what we’ve managed to achieve.”
Ever the one to look on the bright side of things, Cohen added, “It was wonderful to gather musicians and dancers and create. There’s nothing quite like it, and I hope that the result will be as pleasurable to our audience as it was to us.”
The April streaming, which will have been pre-recorded, includes a discussion with Cohen. Tickets are on a sliding scale, and can be purchased from thedancecentre.ca/event/idan-cohen.
Ben Caplan opens this year’s Chutzpah! Festival Nov. 21. (photo from Chutzpah!)
In the last issue of the Jewish Independent, Chutzpah! Festival artistic managing director Jessica Mann Gutteridge, festival host and stand-up performer Iris Bahr and event comedy closers Jess Salomon and Eman El-Husseini, aka the El-Salomons, were featured. This week, the JI offers a glimpse into the rest of the lineup, by order of appearance.
Musician Ben Caplan opens the festival on Nov. 21 with a recorded performance. Before the recent COVID restrictions, the show was to be presented live from the Rothstein Theatre.
Caplan was on stage here back in January, bringing Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story – which is based on the true story of two Jewish Romanian refugees coming to Canada in 1908 – to the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival (jewishindependent.ca/searching-for-a-safe-harbour). This show, Caplan will be performing songs from his album Old Stock, which is adapted from this music-theatre work.
“The story of Chaim and Chaya, and, by extension, that of a great number of immigrants and refugees who have come to Canada, is full of a great many hardships and tribulations,” said Caplan when asked what lessons from their experience might be relevant in COVID times. “Their story is not free from conflict, both with the outer world, with each other and with themselves. What we see in their story is that, through perseverance, they are able to cross the narrow bridge of their precarity into a sweeter time. It is a nice reminder that no matter how dark things get, there are always brighter moments ahead.”
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Last Chutzpah! Festival, former Vancouverite Tamara Micner performed her one-woman show Holocaust Brunch here. On Nov. 22, she’s offering a first peek at a new work-in-progress from her current hometown, London, England.
“Old Friends is very much in the early days – I would say it’s in kindergarten,” admitted Micner. “I’ve been working on it this year and the Chutzpah! Festival streaming will be the first time I perform some of the piece with a public audience. I don’t know exactly what the performance will look like or exactly what will be in it. It’s ‘nervciting’! I look forward to sharing some of the work with Chutzpah! audiences and doing a Q&A afterwards to speak more about the show. I’m hoping and aiming to present the full show in 2021.”
A key inspiration for Old Friends is the music of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, and their relationship.
“I find Simon and Garfunkel’s music comforting and uplifting…. The combination of Paul’s songwriting, Art’s voice and their harmonies are beautiful,” said Micner. “I also find the themes in their music resonant at this time – including loneliness, isolation, hope and a yearning for connection…. I’m also intrigued by the on-again, off-again nature of their relationship and the Jewishness in that – how we have a tendency to cling to each other, leave each other, not talk for years, but not be able to fully stay apart or let go. There’s a lot to mine in that, I think – where that comes from, what it’s about and how we can free ourselves from that cycle.”
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Also on Nov. 22, New York-based playwright Rokhl Kafrissen shares her new work-in-progress.
“Shtumer Shabes [Silent Shabbat] opens in the year 2000,” said Kafrissen. “A performance studies grad student named Jess is writing about the heyday of Yiddish theatre in Poland in the 1930s. Jess is studying what she calls the ‘hybrid potentialities of interwar Yiddish performance practices.’ How did Jews use their art to embody binaries like Yiddish and Polish, Jew and Catholic, urban and rural, capitalist and socialist? She argues that The Dybbuk is the ultimate expression of that hybridity.
“As the play opens, Jess stumbles into the chance to interview an honest-to-goodness Warsaw Yiddish diva. It turns out that Sonja, a 90-something veteran of the Polish-Yiddish stage, is living in her neighbourhood. Jess comes to believe that Sonja possesses a ‘lost’ play script: Shtumer Shabes. Her encounter with Sonja is also her opportunity to write history. But Jess is confronted by the elusiveness of ‘plain facts’ and the cost of writing history. For me, the encounter between Jess and Sonja represents two competing ways of understanding the past, through scholarship and through art.”
Imagining Sonja’s world wasn’t hard for Kafrissen, as she knows well Yiddish theatre, past and present, and the standard Yiddish reference sources. However, she did struggle with her protectiveness of the Yiddish past and her obligation as a journalist “to the people and productions I’ve been reading about, an obligation to tell their stories accurately and respectfully.”
“But, at some point, my inner journalist has to be thanked politely and shown the door,” she said. “If you’re going to write historically informed fiction (which is what I consider this piece), you have to be comfortable going beyond the facts. It gets even trickier because part of Sonja’s backstory … is flashback to the war, when she was imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto. I know enough about the Warsaw Ghetto to invent a plausible scenario. But depicting it feels daunting. The potential for kitsch or melodrama is high. My characters grapple with extremely sensitive issues, including allegations of collaboration with the Germans. It was important to me that if I was going to include such provocative topics, I had to stick closely to historical fact and stay within the realm of the possible. My characters would not be saints or holy martyrs, but real people, caught in the worst possible circumstances.”
Cast as Sonja is Shane Baker, who Kafrissen has known since she worked with him in 2009 on his one-man show The Big Bupkis: A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville.
“I quickly became a big admirer of Shane’s work,” she said. “He can go from the highest brow, as with his translation of Waiting for Godot into Yiddish, all the way to the lowest brow, as with his vaudeville show…. In the last few years, Shane had been working on a drag character called Miss Mitzi Manna. She was inspired in part by his close friendships with the last generation of Yiddish theatre grandes dames. So, when I got a 14th Street Y LABA Fellowship in 2019, I decided to write a play with a role for Shane in drag as my yearlong fellowship project. I knew from the beginning that the role wasn’t written for Mitzi Manna per se, but Shane’s development of the character was a huge inspiration. Writing the role of Sonja with a drag character in mind opened up a kind of playfulness and experimentation for me. Drag is such a dramatically rich device. It heightens our awareness of the artifice of theatre and interrogates the mimetic nature of theatre itself.”
A staged reading of Shtumer Shabes was supposed to have taken place last in April. “Unfortunately,” said Kafrissen, “that coincided with the world as we knew it collapsing. As I get ready to present excerpts from the play for the Chutzpah! Festival, I can see a tiny sliver of silver lining. Even with the pandemic, I’ve managed to sneak in some actor time in the last couple months, as well as getting thoughtful feedback on the script from folks both within my artistic circle and outside. The script is now so much better than the version I had in the spring, so I tell myself maybe it’s better that I didn’t present that earlier draft to the world.”
The Dybbuk by S. Ansky infuses Shtumer Shabes: Jess is obsessed with The Dybbuk and it’s why she went to grad school; and “Sonja’s career on the Warsaw Yiddish stage was tied up with the phenomenal, real world success of The Dybbuk,” said Kafrissen. “It was with a Dybbuk monologue that she auditioned for Yiddish drama school and the role of Leah (the young woman possessed by the dybbuk) was always her dream.”
This year marks the 100th anniversary both of Ansky’s death in November 1920 and the première of the Yiddish version of the play a month later. “I love the idea of having our Chutzpah! program serve as Sonja’s final tribute to Ansky and his creation,” said Kafrissen.
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Death … and life are at the centre of Israeli choreographer Ella Rothschild’s Pigulim, which is described as “a cultural narrative [that] unfolds against the backdrop of a meal at a long dining table where three characters suffer from unbearable loneliness and battle their way between life and death. Each character travels between their individual materialistic being and their consciousness, revealing their essential humanity in relation to existence and the quest for happiness.” A pre-recorded performance of the work will be shown at the Chutzpah! Festival on Nov. 23.
In the summer of 2019, Rothschild was selected as one of the first artists-in-residence at Suzanne Dellal Centre. She started Pigulim there and continued researching it in “other places in the world with different scenarios and different cast members.” This year, back at the centre, the piece premièred in its video version.
Pigul (pigulim, pl.) “describes a law from the Jewish tradition,” explained Rothschild. “It refers to a sacrifice that was prohibited to be eaten because of a forbidden thought that the priest (kohain) had in the moment he was making the sacrifice. It can mean abomination or loathsome, and it’s not a word used in everyday Hebrew. The idea that a thought can change reality has a direct connection to what I tried to present in Pigulim. If the thought one can have determines the reality of another entity, how much from our consciousness is being present in our reality and our society?
“Another aspect of choosing this particular name is another gap that unravels between the sound of the word and its meaning. Pigulim has a nice way of rolling in the mouth. The letters are round and when you pronounce it, it almost sounds like a name of a rare flower – but the meaning of it is the opposite. It contains strong emotions and gravity. Once more, it holds this gap between what we experience and the reality.”
This gap – “a certain detachment between our body and mind” – is something with which we must live, said Rothschild, and its loneliness is not changed by “how many people are surrounding you in the space.”
“As I see it and experience it, it is a state of being, not only of certain individuals but as a mass society,” she said. “I have learnt, through working with others, more about how this gap appears and how we perceive it. We behave inside these structures that are determined for us and, yes, it leaves a gap or an absence that we don’t really understand, or we will forever try to make sense of.”
However, there is more than just absence. “I did find out that we share more than we think,” she said. “We share beauty, laughter, sadness and grief. We cry from the same things and we worry and we fear. But we also love. And that is an overwhelming thing to share.”
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Israeli pianist and composer Guy Mintus – whose solo concert will be live-streamed on Nov. 24 – is about to release his third album with the Guy Mintus Trio: A Gershwin Playground.
Mintus’s study of piano didn’t follow a traditional path. “I didn’t start with classical piano,” he said. “I started on a little keyboard my parents got me, not an acoustic piano even, and I was studying a very mixed repertoire of adapted arrangements for beginning keyboard players. Among that repertoire were the Beatles, Israeli pop songs, Fiddler on the Roof and … two [George] Gershwin tunes: ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ and ‘Summertime.’ When I started playing those, my father handed me the Porgy and Bess album of Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong]. That totally blew my mind and I started trying to emulate the arrangements on my keyboard (which had the ability to switch between different sound samples).
“To me, these songs are timeless – musically and lyrically. They’re very rich and have a strong musical character but yet they remain very open and flexible to let you in and bring yourself into them. The lyrics also mostly speak of things that will always be relevant. It’s not by accident that generations and generations of jazz musicians have been interpreting Gershwin.”
One aspect of the music’s continued importance is that, “unfortunately, we’re constantly reminded by these horrific events that keep happening that racism is still very much around; that the colour of your skin can easily become a disadvantage right off the bat,” said Mintus. “When I’m thinking of Gershwin, I’m also considering his background as a Jewish-American composer coming from a family of immigrants. Of all things he could be fascinated by, he was fascinated by Black American music and ended up writing the first jazz opera bringing this marginalized music to the heart of the consensus. More than that, he wouldn’t allow Porgy and Bess to be premièred at the Met Opera because, at the time, they wouldn’t allow Black performers. He made it mandatory that, if Porgy and Bess is ever performed, main roles have to be performed by Black people. Now, Porgy and Bess has its controversies in regards to race and representation but I believe in the essence of its coming from a place of great respect to the incredible culture its getting inspiration from.
“I think that the Jewish and African-American communities actually share quite a lot in common,” he continued. “There’s certainly a collective trauma we’re each dealing with. To me, Gershwin was standing right in the middle of that – in ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ (which is on the album, as well, in a solo version) you literally have a meeting point between klezmer and the blues. I want to echo that connection, which is still very relevant to me, through my own lens as an Israeli who lived, studied and worked in New York. It’s important to give back, acknowledge and show respect where it’s due. Last July, the trio and I did an online fundraiser concert called Gershwin Global. It was in order to raise funds for the Jazz Foundation, who takes care of elderly musicians and emergency cases. This music comes from people who gave their lives to it – if we benefit from it, we’ve got to find a way to also give back to its source.”
The new album will be launched on Nov. 27 and, given COVID, touring it is not an option. Nonetheless, Mintus said it is worthwhile to put it out anyway. “Life goes on, music goes on and, in my opinion, it’s as relevant, if not more, to release new music in this period,” he said.
With the internet, there are many ways to connect with people all over the world, he added. “This poses a creative challenge how to find interesting, experiential ways to share this music with the world; how to share the story behind the album. Each single has a unique artwork, there are videos, a bunch of online live events that are planned – all of this is going to be available through my Facebook page (facebook.com/guymintusmusic). The fact that I’m not switching countries so often as normal allows me a different kind of focus and attention on how to turn this release process into the most fun, meaningful and creative process it can be.”
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Chutzpah! artist-in-residence this year is choreographer Idan Cohen (Ne. Sans opera and dance). The world première of his Hourglass, which is presented by RBC, will be performed and live-streamed from the Rothstein Theatre on Nov. 25.
“Both the residency and this opportunity to present at Chutzpah! are the best things that could have happened to me during a time when artists are facing difficult challenges,” Cohen told the Independent. “I believe with all my heart in the strength and importance of the arts for a healthy society. It is not a luxury but a necessity, especially within a specific culture. Judaism is not just a common history or a set of beliefs, but a diverse culture that needs to be ever-evolving, reinterpreted and recreated, respecting and learning from our common past while creating a shared future. Having Jessica [Mann Gutteridge] share some of the same core values, and acknowledge the importance of going forward with the festival this year, has been such an empowering force for me and my collaborators during these past few months.”
Hourglass is an exploration of aging set to music by Philip Glass. It is a duet with former Ballet BC company dancer Racheal Prince and returning Ballet BC company dancer Brandon Lee Alley.
“As dance artists,” said Cohen, “our focus is on our most intimate tool and instrument: the human body. When that body is extremely intelligent and qualified, as Racheal’s and Brandon’s bodies are, true magic happens on stage. It’s like an ancient fairytale told to you as a child: it represents both the past and the future, it’s exciting and haunting, and it teaches you something valuable through the most basic elements of storytelling. No need for fireworks or special effects.
“For this edition of the festival, we are presenting 30 minutes of dance to four out of 20 études composed by Glass played by the conductor and celebrated pianist Leslie Dala (Vancouver Opera, Bach Choir). Leslie was actually the one who first presented the idea of this project to me, and dancing and working with him has been a most gratifying experience. There are linear elements in the piece, but Glass’s music marries the abstract and the linear, the romantic and the intellectual, in a way that not many composers are able to do, and that’s what makes it so unique.
“Racheal and Brandon, who are young yet mature and highly experienced dancers, can embody different physical states in such a fascinating way,” said Cohen. “They had a significant role in our exploration of the theme of aging and time.”
Being a real-life couple means that Prince and Alley have been able to rehearse together safely during COVID, and the Rothstein Theatre is large enough for them to work with Cohen at a safe distance. “Since Leslie is also dancing (!) in the piece,” added Cohen, “we had to adapt in order to keep everyone safe, which is, of course, the priority. This has definitely been a great learning experience, and an immensely gratifying one.”
The Chutzpah! Festival runs Nov. 21-28. For tickets, which start at $18, visit chutzpahfestival.com or call 604-257-5145.
Toronto-based Dana Fradkin will participate in this year’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera long distance. (photo from Vancouver Opera)
Dana Fradkin is one of six participants chosen for this season’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program at Vancouver Opera. The multi-talented stage director has multiple interests and occupations: she is an award-winning writer, actor, filmmaker, producer and opera director.
“As a young director in the opera world, I knew I needed more education before I could truly become the director I wanted to be,” Fradkin told the Independent about her desire to become a resident in the program. “Vancouver Opera is the only young company in the country that has a stage director as part of their program, so when I saw the submission breakdown last year, I applied immediately! I had an interview in Toronto a few months later and then got the news shortly after.
“Coming from a background in classical theatre,” she said, “my understanding of classical theatre repertoire is very strong, as is my understanding of the stage, but I am still lacking in my knowledge of opera repertoire. By being part of the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, I hope to learn more about numerous different classical operas and develop a deeper understanding of the Fach system (the different vocal ranges). I want to practise my leadership and directorial skills in an educational and safe environment and be ready to think on my toes and adapt to any situation.”
Adaptation was necessary for Fradkin to even participate in the program. Based in Toronto, she originally was planning on moving to Vancouver from October 2020 to May 2021. But then came COVID.
“Initially, I was coming to Vancouver as part of the young company to do scene study work with the young singers and assistant direct all three of the main stage shows,” she explained. “I was very excited about this, as the original season consisted of Carmen, Cosi Fan Tutte and Falstaff, and I was to assist a female director on all three of these shows. Now, the program has changed: it’s only from January to May 2021 and it will consist of smaller scale concerts and scene study evenings, as opposed to large-scale productions. Although I am sad to not be part of these large-scale operas, I am very excited to be at the helm of these concert series and to have the creative freedom of working on something completely new.”
Looking at the wide range of Fradkin’s work – which includes being co-producer of ActionCan Films, which specializes in Canadian action films, and co-founder of Keystone Theatre – it seems that she is compelled to try new things.
“They all definitely feed a different part of me, yet, at the same time, they all feel like part of the same thing,” she said about her varied professions and areas of interest. “I chose this world because I love storytelling and what I find fascinating is pondering how to tell a story best. Is it through music, through word, through physical theatre and comedy or through action? As a writer, I ask, do I want to tell this story through cinema or on the stage? I love all types of stories: comedies, horror, romance, war stories, heartbreak, crime, inspiring stories, etc. And what I ask myself is how do I, as an artist, fit best to tell this specific story? I love acting in theatre, writing for film and directing opera, and usually I find the best discipline for myself to fit that story.
“I find cinema and opera quite similar actually, as they are both a very visual medium and it’s so exciting to bounce between the two. I’m inspired by artists like Atom Egoyan, Julie Taymor and others who use different genres to tell a story, using the different mediums to connect most with the audience.”
Fradkin grew up in the Ottawa Jewish community and it was there that her love of performance and storytelling was ingrained.
“I went to Camp Gesher for 10 summers and was deeply active in that community during my high school years,” she said. “The first large productions I was part of were community musicals put on by the Jewish community theatre company called JCC Theatreworks. Between Grade 10 and Grade 12, I did Peter Pan, Bye Bye Birdie, Babes in Arms and Fame with them. This was my first time performing in front of a live audience and I loved it! Connecting with all these Jewish artists at a young age really taught me about community and collective creation and embracing storytelling through community. Many artists I met at JCC Theatreworks are still working in theatre today and are still dear friends.
“I also love telling Jewish stories, and the mini-series I have been writing and working on for years is a six-part series about my father’s time working with war crimes at the department of justice. He [Arnold Fradkin] was the head prosecutor of the first successful case in Canada of having a Nazi war criminal deported and it’s a story I feel very passionately about sharing with the world. I love when I meet other Jewish artists in the industry, as I always feel an instant connection with them.”
Fradkin is joined in this season’s Yulanda M. Faris program by Toronto soprano Jonelle Sills; Cranbrook, B.C., native and mezzo-soprano Amanda Weatherall; tenor Ian Cleary, originally from Chatham, Ont.; Vancouver baritone Luka Kawabata; and Vancouver-based pianist Amy Seulky Lee. The program director is Leslie Dala, who will be part of the Chutzpah! Festival this year – as pianist in choreographer Idan Cohen’s Hourglass, danced by Racheal Prince and Brandon Lee Alley. (See the next issue of the Independent, Nov. 13.)
“I’m very excited and thrilled to be part of the 2021 Vancouver Opera season and I can’t wait to share our work with the community,” said Fradkin, adding a wish that many of us have – “May we all be able to meet and play in person soon.”
For more on the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program and Vancouver Opera, visit vancouveropera.ca.
The ship’s cabin in Pasazerka (The Passenger), as envisioned by UBC Opera’s creative team. The opera is part of a series of events at the University of British Columbia marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. (photo from UBC Opera)
UBC Opera presents the Canadian première of Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s Pasazerka (The Passenger). Opening Jan. 30 at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on the University of British Columbia campus, this will be the first time the work has been presented on any university stage in the world.
The Passenger opens on a luxury liner bound for Brazil. A newly married German woman, Lisa, who, earlier in life, had been an aufseherin, camp guard, at Auschwitz, thinks she recognizes a fellow passenger. The passenger is Martha, a Polish Auschwitz prisoner who was thought to have died at the camp. The effect that their meeting (either actual or imaginary – it’s never made clear) has on the two women, and on Lisa’s marriage to the German ambassador to Brazil, is the subject of this dramatic and powerful opera.
UBC Opera’s production is being created from scratch. The opera has proven so popular no sets or costumes are available for rent; consequently, new sets are being constructed and, at this writing, the students were sewing together dozens of striped prison pajamas for the Auschwitz prisoners’ chorus.
After receiving its world première in 2010 at the Bregenzer Festspiele in Austria, The Passenger has seen frequent performances in various German venues, a highly acclaimed production at the English National Opera in 2011 and, more recently, it has been performed successfully in the United States at the Houston Grand Opera and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. In spring of last year, it was performed at the new Tel Aviv Performing Arts Centre, and it will be performed in Spain later this year.
The UBC production has received funding from various sources, including the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, which promotes Polish culture around the world, and the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland, as well as Poland’s Department of Public and Cultural Diplomacy and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
When the president of UBC, Dr. Santa Ono, heard about the project, he committed further funding for the production. Other funding has come from UBC’s dean of arts, Gage Averill, and the David Spencer Endowment Encouragement Fund. The production also has received support from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, Temple Sholom and UBC Hillel House.
“In our time, antisemitism and neo-Nazism has become shockingly prevalent again. Even our own neighbour to the south has witnessed a growing social and political climate which has encouraged disrespect for other human beings and blatant racism,” said Prof. Nancy Hermiston, head of the Voice and Opera divisions at UBC and the director of this production of The Passenger, in a recent interview with the Independent. “In my opinion,” she said, “this has, in part, been released as a result of the behaviour and actions of President Trump. His attitude has given those elements of the world’s population promoting discrimination, hatred, antisemitism and neo-Nazism, a sense that they have a licence to do so. Our opera highlights the consequences of this hatred and racism. Now is the time to remind ourselves of respect and tolerance for others and of our humanity. It is the exact time to remind ourselves of the horror of the systematic extermination of millions of innocent people. Genocides continue to plague our world. Have we learned nothing from the past?
“We can never forget the tragic deaths of those millions of innocent souls nor can we forget those who survived that crime against humanity,” she said. “We cannot let another Holocaust occur.”
The Passenger is sung in Polish, Russian, Czech, French, Yiddish, German and English, which offers a particular challenge to the young singers at UBC. Equally challenging for the singers, according to Hermiston, is the difficulty of dealing emotionally with the subject matter, which, in rehearsal, has led to periods of weeping and feelings of deep sorrow, both for the singers and “even for me,” admitted Hermiston, “especially at the end, when the chorus of prisoners comes downstage and challenges the audience to ‘never forget, never forget.’” (Hermiston has engaged a counseling team to help the singers through their own trauma as they reenact this emotional narrative.)
The opera is part of a larger commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that is being undertaken by UBC Opera; the UBC Modern European Studies program; the UBC department of Central, Eastern and Northern European studies; the UBC Witnessing Auschwitz International Seminar; and UBC Go Global. During a symposium that runs Jan. 27-30, there will be various symposia and exhibits, and school-outreach programs featuring local survivors and UBC professors and students, as well as the opera The Passenger.
Guest speakers for the symposium include Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Dr. Bozena Karwowska, Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz, Dr. Chris Friedrichs, Aleksander Laskowski, Dr. Richard Menkis, Dr. Dorota Glowacka, Dr. Rima Wilkes, Dr. Anja Nowak, Dr. Peter Suedfeld, Dr. Tricia Logan, Dr. Ilona Shulman Spaar, Janos Benisz, Amalia Boe-Fishman and David Ehrlich, among others. For more information, visit auschwitz75.arts.ubc.ca.
Graham Forst, PhD, taught literature and philosophy at Capilano University until his retirement and now teaches in the continuing education department at Simon Fraser University. From 1975 to 2010, he co-chaired the symposium committee of the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre.
Dancers Jeremy O’Neill, Ted Littlemore and Kate Franklin. (photo by Idan Cohen)
Last May, Idan Cohen introduced local audiences to his reimagining of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice. He will share more of this ongoing work in EDAM dance company’s Spring Choreographic Series, in which he is a guest artist, along with Jennifer McLeish-Lewis.
In six performances between April 10 and 20 at EDAM’s home at the Western Front on East 8th Avenue, Cohen and McLeish-Lewis will present new work, while EDAM, under artist director Peter Bingham, will present a directed improvisation.
“I was introduced to Peter and the EDAM family through Linda Blankstein, who I met through the DanceLab residency I took part in last May at the Dance Centre,” Cohen wrote the Independent in an email from London’s Heathrow Airport, as he waited for his flight back to Vancouver. “Among the many other roles through which Linda supports Vancouver’s arts community, she is on the board of EDAM, and was kind enough to introduce my work to Peter.
“The space and people at EDAM were very welcoming,” said Cohen, who is artistic director of Ne. Sans Opera and Dance. “Peter invited me and the performers to take his daily morning classes, and offered this wonderful opportunity for me, Ne. Sans and the artists collaborating on this piece – musicians/dancers Jeremy O’Neill, Ted Littlemore and Kate Franklin.”
The part of Orfeo ed Euridice that Cohen will showcase next week is called Trionfi Amore (in English, The Triumph of Love).
“In Greek mythology, Orpheus [Orfeo, in Greek] was a musician and a poet who had the ability to enchant all living creatures through his musical gift, and could even stop the waves of the ocean from rolling,” explained Cohen. “In an attempt to bring his newly married wife Eurydice back to life from the dead, Orfeo persuades the guardians of the underworld to allow him entry to their kingdom.
“Trionfi Amore deconstructs the key elements and motives of the story and puts it into a contemporary context. We integrate dance with a bit of live music in a piece that speaks of love, and of the power of music and art to move, entertain and touch us. We also look at the power of art to manipulate, exploring the ways in which different aspects of love can be transformed into the act of performance. I am focusing on the ‘love story’ part of the mythological tale, recreating its themes through the intimacy and fragility of the body.”
Turning Point Ensemble performs The Old Man and the Sea, directed by Idan Cohen, March 9 and 10. (photo by Tim Matheson)
“There’s something that I really love about these kinds of projects and the agenda that Turning Point holds – creating an operatic experience that is contemporary and designed to communicate music in a truly creative way. I hope this will attract not just the core of new music and opera lovers, but also those of us who are passionate for the arts and want to experience something different. This is what opera is truly about,” said Idan Cohen about Turning Point Ensemble’s Words & Music, which is at the Annex March 9-10.
The collaborative endeavour features the theatrical mini-opera The Old Man and the Sea by Rita Ueda, and Bee Studies, created by poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar and composer and musician Owen Underhill. Choreographer and opera director Cohen is directing The Old Man and the Sea.
“This past summer, I was invited by Rita Ueda and Mark Armanini, who run the AU Ensemble, to stage their concert at the Podium Mozaiek in Amsterdam,” Cohen told the Independent about how he met Ueda. “I had a wonderful time working with the ensemble and found the work they do highly inspiring. Rita’s work is very immersive and, in her scores, the musicians play a significant role as characters, fully engaged and active on stage. We found a deep foundation of understanding, and so Rita introduced me to Turning Point. It’s an honour to be working on such a beautiful piece alongside such an exquisite group of artists and musicians.”
The Old Man and the Sea, composed by Ueda with a libretto by Rod Robertson, is based on the short novel by Ernest Hemingway. The story centres around Santiago, an aging fisherman, who battles with a marlin. In the concert, baritone Willy Miles-Grenzberg sings the part of the Old Man (Santiago) and Turning Point co-founder and trombone soloist Jeremy Berkman musically plays the marlin.
“Rita and the librettist Rod Robertson have created a highly poetic rendition of Hemingway’s novel,” explained Cohen. “It’s quite condensed and, at the same time, leaves a lot of room to reflect on its different topics and themes. It creates a rendition of the story that is almost abstract – I love this quality in opera, when the poetic aspects of a story are drawn out through the layered richness of the written word, music and live performance. I connected to it on a very deep level.”
The work is so expressive, said Cohen, “and focuses on the journey of Santiago … and his connection to the sea. There are beautiful moments that ‘paint’ that through the language of music. Unlike my other work, there won’t be any dance in this production, but I do focus on body language and sensitivities that are dance-related. Santiago is a humble man, full of wisdom, close to the end of his days, and Willy Miles Grenzberg, portraying him, embodies the part beautifully.”
Cohen hopes that this staged concert will appeal to a wide audience – “whether you’re a new music lover, a literature, theatre or poetry enthusiast, there’s going to be something there for each and every one of us,” he said.
This type of production can be somewhat complex to direct.
“My role is often to bring different elements together in order to create the operatic experience,” said Cohen. “By nature, music is abstract and, since the musicians are so valuable in this opera and play a significant role, I wanted to come up with creative ways to support this special vision. Drawing that vision from the mind of the composer and librettist to the experience of the viewers can be quite a challenge at times, but the musicians of Turning Point are truly exceptional, best in their field, and they do wonders.”
In addition to the power of the music, The Old Man and the Sea has many powerful – and universal – themes. Cohen described it as “a story about human determination, strength and faith but, most of all, it is about fragility and humbleness. It reflects on our connection to nature, and that is very valuable in our times, when there is so much denial and violence in the way the human race treats its surroundings. Robertson relates to this in a rich way and creates a very relevant testimony. The opera reflects on these important topics through the drama of the music, to expose an extreme human condition. It is powerful in a way that I find not just poetic, but also very emotional.”
Following the performance of The Old Man and the Sea is the première of Bee Studies, which includes texts from Sarojini Saklikar’s Listening to the Bees, a book of science and poetry, and features soprano Dorothea Hayley.
According to the press material for Words & Music, a “special bonus of the evening is a performance of some witty and rarely heard songs from the 1930s, Duet for Duck and Canary and Frogs by the great unheralded Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, plus his most-heralded work, Ocho por Radio.”
Tickets for Words & Music, March 9-10, 7:30 p.m., at the Annex are $33 ($20 for seniors and students) and can be purchased at turningpointensemble.ca.
Ted Littlemore, in Orfeo ed Euridice, the research for which will be presented by Idan Cohen and Ne. Sans on May 13 at the Dance Centre. (photo by Ted Littlemore)
A relatively recent arrival in Vancouver, Israeli choreographer and opera director Idan Cohen is already making his mark. On May 13 – with the support of the Dance Centre, Arts Umbrella and Vancouver Academy of Music – Cohen and Ne. Sans will present Orfeo ed Euridice, a glimpse into Cohen’s reenvisioning of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s opera.
The myth of Orpheus is a story of love. Poet and musician Orfeo mourns the death of his wife, Euridice, and he determines to get her back from Hades. With the intervention of Amor (Cupid), the god of love, Orfeo heads into the Underworld, gaining entry by winning over the Furies with his music, and he is reunited with his wife. However, Amor has set a condition – Orfeo must not look at Euridice, or explain why he is not doing so, until the two are back on earth. It’s a condition Orfeo breaks when Euridice begins to doubt his love and begs for a glance to assure her. When he gives in, Euridice dies again and Orfeo, grief-stricken, resolves to kill himself so that he can be with her. In the face of such love, Amor intervenes once more, to save both Euridice and Orfeo, and return them to earth.
“This opera was created in 1762 and, for me, a significant part of directing a classic opera is the studying of the values that originally inspired the music and the performance,” Cohen told the Independent. “Looking at concepts of novelty and tradition and respecting those as the DNA of this creation was quite valuable in my creative process. At the same time, those are values that are violent, discriminative and often quite outdated. One clear example that I personally find fascinating is the fact that Orfeo ed Euridice was originally written to be performed by a male castrato. Nowadays, it is often performed by a female mezzo-soprano or a male singer singing in a falsetto technique, but, for me, the history of the castrato and the violence that history entails against the human body is an example of difficult questions and issues that are a part of the time this opera was created in.
“It is even more fascinating and relevant,” Cohen added, “since the mythological story of Orpheus presents to us a musician and a poet who had the ability to enchant all living creatures through his musical gift. Orpheus’s strength was art and, hence, he is the ultimate representation of art and the artist. So, in Orfeo, these values can be represented in the most honest, vulnerable way, exposing their inner human truth and the limits through which we define and accept artistic beauty.”
Cohen grew up in Kibbutz Mizra in the north of Israel, but lived in Tel Aviv for 10 years before coming to Vancouver with his partner about a year ago. “When we got here, I completely fell in love with the city, the nature, the people,” said Cohen.
“Besides the personal reasons that brought me here,” he said, “I’m finding Vancouver’s arts scene most inspiring, and the city was very welcoming to me. I’ve received this wonderful DanceLab residency at the Dance Centre, I have been creating for Arts Umbrella’s pre-professional program, led by Lesley Telford, and with Modus Operandi, directed by David Raymond and Tiffany Tregarthen. These great artists invited me to teach and create when I just got here, and I immediately felt at home.
“Also, for the past years, I have been interested in directing opera through dance and movement … [and] there is so much going on in the city both in opera and in dance – I feel I have something to contribute to this city’s rich arts scene by fusing the two. Historically, they do belong together.”
As well, said Cohen, “living in Vancouver makes traveling so much easier and, when you travel often, this can be very convenient and helpful. This June, I will present at the Seattle International Dance Festival with Ne. Sans, my new Vancouver-based society, and, on the following day, will catch a flight to go to Sydney to present work in Sydney and Newcastle.”
According to Cohen’s website, Ne. Sans “is a home for the research and creation of work that seeks to deepen and reconnect opera and dance.” And this melding “opens a whole new world of collaborative opportunities: a space that involves working with singers, dancers, musicians, visual artists and designers.”
“Directing an opera like Orfeo ed Euridice through dance is a huge task that requires a tremendous amount of preparation,” said Cohen. “This opera was created 256 years ago, but has kept its immortality through its beautiful music and a story so rich, layered and full of depth.”
As he enjoys exploring operas with dancers in the studio – “It’s a great way to get intimate with the music, through the body” – Cohen said, “I’ve started this process by creating a 20-minute duet that was inspired by Orfeo ed Euridice, using parts of Gluck’s music and the main ideas behind the story, and translating those to pure dance. The dramaturgy of that dance piece was inspired by the opera and its libretto [by Ranieri De’ Calzabigi]…. But, looking at it closely and breaking it apart in the studio presented an opportunity to create a more abstract version of the story, in dance form. Fortunately, it was very well-received and won an award from the Be’er Sheva Fringe Festival, in Israel’s Negev.”
The presentation at the Dance Centre “will be performed by 18 singers from VAM [Vancouver Academy of Music] Schola Cantorum chorus, conducted by Kathleen Allan; six dancers from Arts Umbrella’s pre-professional program; two amazing dancers/musicians, Ted Littlemore and Jeremy O’Neil; and mezzo Debi Wong [director of re:Naissance opera company]. It’s a rather big cast for what I’m hoping will be an honest, pretty direct sharing of the research and ideas that will then be transformed into the ‘real deal,’ the full opera production.”
The Orfeo ed Euridice presentation is open to the public and is free of charge. It takes place in the Dance Centre’s Faris Family Studio May 13, 3 p.m. RSVP to [email protected] to reserve a seat.
A scene from Vancouver Opera’s production of Eugene Onegin. (photo by Trudie Lee)
“I’ve sung a lot of Russian, and I love it,” Jewish community member and opera singer Leah Giselle Field told the Jewish Independent. Field will have a lot to love at this year’s Vancouver Opera Festival, which starts next weekend.
Russian White Nights, the second annual Vancouver Opera Festival, celebrates Russia’s luminous midsummer nights. Among the festival offerings is Eugene Onegin, based on the classic of Russian literature by Alexander Pushkin, which was turned into a lyric opera with a libretto co-written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with K.S. Shilovsky. The festival will also feature the première of The Overcoat, an opera based on Nikolai Gogol’s famous short story, as well as Requiem for a Lost Girl, an original chamber musical collaboration that explores themes around homelessness and violence towards women.
According to the press material, Eugene Onegin – which plays April 29 in the afternoon, and the evenings of May 3 and May 5 – promises “breathtaking music [and] choreography, lavish orchestrations and compelling arias.” Field will be playing the role of Larina, the mother of the two main female protagonists of the story, Olga and Tatyana.
“The libretto includes portions of the original verses of Pushkin,” Field said, noting that the score is one of her favourites. “Tchaikovsky originally thought it would be blasphemy to make Pushkin’s poem into an opera, but eventually he agreed. I love the Pushkin poem the opera is based on as well – it’s so environmentally evocative, it is so Russian, and it takes you into right into that environment.”
A number of Russians feature in the cast, including baritone Konstantin Shushakov (Onegin), soprano Svetlana Aksenova (Tatiana) and tenor Alexey Dolgov (Lensky). This new production has been created in collaboration with Calgary Opera and is directed by Tom Diamond and conducted by Jonathan Darlington. Eugene Onegin will be sung in Russian with English surtitles projected on a screen.
In addition to Eugene Onegin, Field will participate in a chamber music performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s From Jewish Folk-Poetry Op. 70 on May 4, 5 p.m., at CBC Studio 700. This song cycle was written in 1948 by the Soviet composer, who initially wrote eight songs that were meant to reflect the hardships of being Jewish in the Soviet Union. In order to disguise this sensitive material, Shostakovich added three more songs depicting the “great life” Jews had under the Soviet regime. Despite these efforts, the censors were not fooled and refused to approve the work – it could not be performed until after Stalin’s death in March 1953.
On the lighter side, Field will also appear in a family-oriented original adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a student performance co-produced by Vancouver Opera and Delta School of Music on May 5, 1 p.m., also at CBC Studio 700. The production is one of four offerings aimed at children and/or teens on the festival’s Family Day.
Vancouver Opera general director Kim Gaynor, also a member of the Jewish community, is in her second season at the organization, which she came to after years working the festival circuit in Europe. Gaynor told the Independent that she has modified the Vancouver festival quite a bit from its first year, trying to take a more “out of the box” approach. This includes a more diverse and daring program with a mixture of classical and contemporary works, and the inclusion of chamber music. The festival will also include three films: the silent film Man With A Movie Camera on April 28, the 2001 CBC production of The Overcoat on April 29 and 1965’s Dr. Zhivago on May 1.
The festival starts on April 28 with an outdoor celebration at Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza that features Russian cultural performers, food trucks, market vendors, a circus presentation, a movie screening and a patio bar. Festivities that day will get underway at 2 p.m., and a highlight will be the re-creation of the pinnacle of white nights celebrations in Russia that evening. A 40-foot schooner with scarlet sails will serve as the stage for acrobatics, music and custom-designed projections on the 22-foot-high sails in a performance suitable for all ages. Scarlet Sails will also be offered April 29 and May 3 and 5.
The Vancouver Opera Festival runs to May 6. The full program and more information can be found at vancouveropera.ca.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He is Pacific correspondent for the CJN, writes regularly for the Forward, Tricycle and the Wisdom Daily, and has been published in Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.
Caitlin Wood and Alex Lawrence star in Vancouver Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Jewish community member Leah Giselle Field performs the role of Marcellina in the production. (Emily Cooper Photography)
I am thrilled and honoured to have been chosen to lead Vancouver Opera into a new era,” said Jewish community member Kim Gaynor when her appointment as general director was announced prior to the start of this season. “Vancouver Opera already has a long history of excellent productions and a well-deserved reputation for innovation under Jim Wright’s exemplary leadership.”
As part of its vision for the future, Vancouver Opera is holding an inaugural opera festival April 28 to May 13. The event features a variety of vocal offerings for audiences, as well as workshops and other activities.
“Opera seasons are planned years in advance, so this festival was planned long before I joined VO,” Gaynor told the Independent. “However, I have brought 10 years’ experience managing the Verbier Festival in Switzerland and I am using this experience to shape the festival-going experience here. For example, we will have lots of opportunities to follow the development of young singers, and for audience participation, two things which were very popular in Verbier.”
Her resumé prior to managing the Verbier Festival includes managing director and co-founder of Austria’s Festival Retz, administrator of London, England’s Yehudi Menuhin International Violin Competition and head of marketing administration at London’s Royal Opera House. She has worked at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montréal, the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa, L’Opéra de Montréal and Canada Council for the Arts.
Gaynor, who was born and raised in Ontario, returned to Canada from Switzerland last year, arriving in Vancouver in September. She was here in time for another recent Vancouver Opera innovation – the smaller-venue, family-friendly production of Hansel and Gretel in November.
“Hansel and Gretel was a huge success with people of all ages,” said Gaynor. “The whimsical, enthusiastic performances from our young artists and the wonderful puppets charmed everyone who came. I heard so many stories about young people being literally on the edge of their seats throughout the whole performance, and this could lead to a lifelong love of opera. One thing I learned was that the intimacy of the smaller Playhouse theatre really appeals to audiences. They want to be nose-to-nose with the performers – up close to the action.”
The upcoming festival will offer more opportunities to get up close to the action, including a performance at Vancouver Public Library – called Opera Tales – featuring singers from VO’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, who the audience will have a chance to meet after the show. One of these singers is Jewish community member Leah Giselle Field, who also will be performing the role of Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro. (For more on Field, see jewishindependent.ca/fairy-tale-reimagined.)
Among the other festival offerings are a video installation by artist Paul Wong, performances by vocal stylist Ute Lemper and Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, an evening sing-along with the Vancouver Bach Choir, a film night, master classes for young singers, forums and discussions, preview talks and happy hours.
“We believe that the festival format will attract a new and younger audience who likes fast and furious action, because there will be something going on all the time during the 16 days of the festival,” said Gaynor. “At the same time, we are convinced that our main-stage operas, Otello, Dead Man Walking and The Marriage of Figaro, will appeal to our traditional audiences, who may only want to attend for an evening or two. In our next season, 2017/2018, which has just been announced, we are offering a season and a festival, starting with the ever-popular Turandot in the fall and closing the season with a spring festival.”
Further explaining why the festival concept is being embraced by VO, she said, “Festivals are, by definition, a celebration and people, in general, love to celebrate. We will not only be celebrating opera, but the human voice and all of its expression, from throat singing to choral. Festivals offer the chance to mingle and meet lots of other people who share the same passion. This chance to come together with like-minded people creates an atmosphere which is hard to create in a normal season. But I don’t think festivals are a more attractive model, just a different model, and VO is in the mood for change.”
One of the attractions of moving back to Canada was that Gaynor would be closer to her mom, who lives in Oakville, Ont. One of the appeals of moving to Vancouver was the opportunity to be outside. While circumstances have made that difficult so far, she has found other fun things to do around town.
“Honestly,” she said, “it seems like it has either rained or snowed every day since I arrived (until about two days ago)! I am normally a person who loves the outdoors, so my highlights have been discovering the North Shore mountains and walks along the Seawall with my dog (a 3-year-old border collie). That was before I broke my leg badly at the end of January falling off my horse! I am also finding some great spots for brunch in my neighbourhood around Main and 12th, and have been discovering all of the fantastic cultural organizations in town.”
Gaynor was born in Hamilton, Ont., but the family moved to nearby Burlington when she was six months old.
“We lived almost in the country in Burlington, in a house with a big yard with a small forest behind. More importantly, we were less than a kilometre from a horse farm, where I discovered my passion for riding. My father was a passionate amateur pianist and we had a baby grand piano at home. I got my love of classical music from him.”
Gaynor’s father was a Holocaust survivor.
“My father was one of the 10,000 Jewish children who escaped from Western Europe to England on the Kindertransport,” she said. “He lived in London from 1938 until 1954, when he emigrated to Canada and met my mother, who is not Jewish. He even changed his family name, which was Geier, but sounded too German in postwar Canada and that, combined with his accent, was a handicap. So, he took the last name of his movie star idol – Mitzi Gaynor. Unfortunately, he died quite young, only 53 years of age.
“I know my father’s life was in every way coloured by having lost his family in this way but, like many Kindertransport children, he spoke very little about it to his children. I learned much later, after his death, that a part of his family escaped Austria and made it to Palestine. I was able to find them and went to meet them in 1996. I have often wondered how life would have been different if I had been born and raised in a Jewish family in Austria, or in London. But I have close ties still to the family who adopted my father in London, and to his relatives in Israel and this has enriched my life immensely.”
While she doesn’t “practise any religious traditions in a formal way,” Gaynor said, “I feel quite close to Jewish culture and traditions because of my family and friends, but also I have participated many times in Jewish celebrations, weddings, a few bar mitzvahs and even a bat mitzvah. I also remember some very poignant things from my childhood, such as my father criticizing my mother for not being able to make good matzah ball soup. Clearly, he had some things he missed from home!”
Taylor Pardell as Gretel and Pascale Spinney as Hansel in Vancouver Opera’s adaptation of the classic fairy tale. (photo by Emily Cooper)
While Vancouver Opera is presenting the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel Nov. 24-Dec. 11, cast member Leah Giselle Field is living one of her dreams.
Field first moved to Vancouver from Calgary – where her parents had moved from Montreal the year before she was born – for an undergraduate degree in opera at the University of British Columbia. “I left for a two-year master’s program in Ontario and then came back for my doctorate,” she told the Independent. “I came back to Vancouver several times during those years away, so I feel like I’ve been a Vancouver resident for the last 14 years.”
In fact, her connection to Vancouver goes back even further.
“Vancouver has always felt a little bit like home,” she said. “After the war, surviving members of my maternal grandfather’s family moved to Canada. My grandparents settled in Montreal, and my grandfather’s sisters settled in Toronto and Vancouver…. Growing up in Calgary, my family would take road trips to Vancouver over spring break and in the summers, and the time we spent with my great-aunt and my mother’s cousins’ families was formative. Friends of theirs have been part of family events and celebrations for decades, and it’s always fun to catch up during holidays. I’ve been part of the Congregation Beth Israel High Holiday Choir for the past few years and enjoy catching up with my BI family each fall.”
Her professional experience includes appearing “in the title roles of Carmen and Julius Caesar, and as Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, the Principessa in Suor Angelica, and Jennie in Maurice Sendak and Oliver Knussen’s Higglety Pigglety Pop!” notes her bio. “She is a past winner in the Western Canada District of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and a 2015 semi-finalist in the Marcello Giordani Foundation International Vocal Competition.”
In Hansel and Gretel, Field, who is a mezzo-soprano, plays Gertrude, the mother. All of the principal singers in the show, including Field, are 2016-2017 participants in Vancouver Opera’s Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program.
“My experience with Vancouver Opera so far has really been a dream come true,” Field said. “I still have moments of disbelief that I get to do this every day, that I have the opportunity to work and learn with such wonderful colleagues within an organization that treats its singers with so much respect. The eight of us in the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program [YAP] have become really dear friends – we had ‘YAPsgiving’ together last month (because Thanksgiving fell between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I brought matzah ball soup, round challah with raisins, apples and honey, and honey cake) – and our bass-baritone always says, ‘Goodnight, family,’ on his way out the door.
“Being part of this production of Hansel and Gretel has been amazing…. We have exciting, fresh perspectives from the director, conductor and designers to work with, the stage management team has been incredible, and the performers are so caring and supportive. It has been exciting every day – seeing the show come together is such a thrilling experience.”
Vancouver Opera is billing their Hansel and Gretel as a “family-friendly production” for ages 6-plus.
“There are all sorts of factors that make this production more family-friendly than our standard conception of ‘opera,’” explained Field. “First, the subject matter is familiar: anyone who has heard the Grimm story – about the brother and sister lost in the forest who find a house made of sweets and outsmart the witch who lives there – already knows the foundation of our story.
“We’re also performing an updated translation of the original libretto, so audiences will be hearing our story in English. [And] Hansel and Gretel is … an opera that involves child performers – we have a chorus of 14 children,” she said.
“Beyond the traditionally family-friendly elements of the opera, we have the most incredible design concept enhancing our production. This is a larger-than-life, technicolor world that brings to mind the dream world Maurice Sendak’s protagonist Max imagines in Where the Wild Things Are. This show is a co-production with the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, so costume pieces, the set, hand-held puppets and multi-operator puppet costumes help create this realm of ‘everyday spectacular.’ It’s such a visually rich presentation that audiences of any age will be engaged by the complete realm of story they see and hear.”
In addition, the new production has been shortened – it will run approximately two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission – and the “youthful cast of emerging opera stars” will be conducted by 24-year-old Scottish-born conductor Alexander Prior. The original score by German composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) has been adapted to suit the relatively small size of the venue – Vancouver Playhouse – and will be performed by “a 14-member ensemble of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, which includes strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion, a saxophone and an electric guitar.”
While Field’s focus is classical music, she said she also has some musical theatre, folk, jazz and pop music in her repertoire.
“Some of the music I’ve performed most includes Yiddish songs I learned in elementary school,” she said. “Whenever I can fit it into a program, I try to include ‘Oyfn Pripetchik.’ That’s always been a special song to me. When we learned new songs in Yiddish class, I would sing them over the phone to my grandfather in Montreal. He’d always say, ‘That’s very nice, Ketzeleh,’ but when I sang ‘Oyfn Pripetchik’ to him, he sang along. We had a party for his 90th birthday in 2010, and he got up to sing ‘Oyfn Pripetchik’ again with me then. I’m sorry to say he’s declined significantly in the past few years, but we still manage a sing-along every now and then.”
“Oyfn Pripetchik” is a song about a rabbi teaching his students the alef-bet, and it was written by Mark Warshawsky (1848-1907). In addition to folk songs, Field said that, since elementary school, she has “been interested in music and art suppressed under Nazism.”
“My maternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors and interwar European culture provides a fascinating snapshot of life and art amidst tragedy,” she explained. “Mary Castello, our pianist in the Yulanda M. Faris Young Artists Program, and I are beginning to plan a recital of suppressed music for the new year and hope to present it across the country.
“Jewish-Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick was commissioned by the CBC to write a song cycle for the great Canadian singer, Maureen Forrester,” she continued. “He used the translated text of children’s poems salvaged from Terezin for his cycle ‘I Never Saw Another Butterfly,’ and I had the honor of performing ‘Narrative’ from this cycle with pianist Richard Epp for UBC’s honorary degree conferral ceremony for Elie Wiesel.”
In addition to the recital planned for next year, Field said, “I’m looking forward to Vancouver Opera’s festival in the spring, and getting to play the bad guy in a production of Puccini’s Suor Angelica in Ottawa in February.”