Igor Stravinsky has never endeared those who crave traditional melodic lines. His music is raucous, rough, and challenging –not the kind of thing you can hum or whistle to.
So it was with a mix of trepidation and curiosity that I took my traditional-opera-loving mum to see the new production of his 1908 opera The Nightingale, an adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fable. She's always thought of Stravinsky as "weird" (you might too, if your favourite music is grand Italian opera) and I know she was never a fan of the Russian's challenging, difficult, definitely non-hummable music. His infamous statement, that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all,” has been assessed and analyzed, criticized and derided, and yet I suspect he may've been onto the same kinds of thing as Marcel Duchamp, or even later, Brian Eno. Stravinsky's work isn't about making you feel comfortable, and indeed, that isn’t the point of what I'd consider good art. Spoon-feeding is atrocious; it takes a keen director, respectful of the material but strong in their own sense of individualism and craft to bring a vision that might express something through the myriad of sounds and effects Stravinsky laid throughout his scores.
Enter Robert Lepage. The Nightingale marks his return to the Canadian Opera Company after a sixteen-year absence. Just as he brought a bold, striking vision to the 1993 production of Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung so he brings a playful, if equally visionary sense to this latest work. Stravinsky was the musical revolutionary of his time; LePage is his contemporary theatrical equivalent. Neither artist has ever taken the safe road with regards to their respective arts, so it came as no surprise when it was announced last year that the Quebec born, multi-award-winning theatre director would be filling the orchestra pit of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts with 67,000 litres of water as part of his vision for the piece. That's a whole lotta water, and people like my mother (a longtime COC subscriber) wondered if it was also a whole lotta waste-of-time.
But the idea -in its audacity, grandeur, and sheer weirdness -intrigued her, and I would imagine, many of those in attendance at Saturday's opening. Opera is meant to be big and bold and ballsy; there's no such thing as subtle opera in the larger scheme of things. The adjective "grand" is attached to opera (or at least some styles) for a reason, and it's always this sense of "the big" that pervades popular notions around the artform. I've sat through more than one production of Aida that featured live animals, including elephants, horses, and even -once -a zebra. So why not fill up the orchestra pit? Why not have puppets? Why not embrace the grand-opera mystique and majesty?
But even majesty is best used when it's done with simplicity, class, and most of all, awareness. To be big just for the sake of it smacks of narcissism; to go large without an overriding artistic idea feels simplistic. And the line between "simple" and "simplistic" is fine but it's important. Too often in the arts world -of high culture and low culture equally -the "large" aspect is blindly presented and unquestioningly embraced. Lepage doesn't offer any solutions for this modern artistic conundrum but he does have the visionary mindset to look behind and around him for clues as to how to solve it. In the program notes, he offers his theory theatre's origins: “Man was sitting around a bonfire in a cave telling stories and one day he stood up and used his shadow to illustrate his tale. Theatre was born using nothing more than light and imagination.” It's this sense of childlike play that the director transfers onto the complex musicality of Stravinsky, making for a unique opera-going experience that both pays homage to the roots (or suspected roots) of theatrical performance, and opens the door to a new way of seeing an old, frequently-stodgy artform. In other words, he reinvents the way we perceive opera and its relevance to theatre, performance, and music itself. he also make it personal, by injecting elements many of us recognize from childhood. They're simple elements, but not simplistic. Lepage trusts and respects his audience -their capacity for creation, imagination, comprehension and invention -and this abiding love of humanity shines through every aspect of the production. Clever, creative use of light, shadow, water, and the human form tease out the the complexities of Stravinsky’s work, revealing its inherent playfulness and its gentle parody of the foibles and follies of human nature.
In so doing, the composer's seemingly-barren, cold modern music is infused with a new richness. In The Fox, a Russian folk tale based on Russian Folk Tales by the writer Aleksandr Afanasyev, he creates a world where we see folk tales being literally shared -told, re-told, re-interpreted and recycled -with choruses of singers dressed in traditional Russian garb standing on side platforms. Fables about wily foxes, proud roosters, crying babies, and curious cats are shared, expressed, and laughed over. Another layer of theatre is literally grafted on top of this via a large, cinematically-shaped screen running the length of the stage, over top of the orchestra. Using shadows made by hands and later bodies (thanks to puppeteers), we see a cat’s tail swishing about, a rabbit’s eyes dancing to and fro, a rooster guarding his hens; each movement matches and accentuates elements in Stravinsky’s score. Here is a whole new way of experiencing the Russian composer -as well as the operatic form itself : as mischievous, theatrical, imaginative, perhaps even fun. Opera? Fun? Hell yeah. Even my mother said as much at intermission.
For The Nightingale, Lepage has taken Andersen’s fable about the golden-throated bird and the Chinese Emperor who covets her and turned it into a magical metaphor about the relationship of man and nature. As the singers control their puppets, with the aid of five talented puppeteers, I couldn't help but notice the near-identical dress between the performers and their doll-like counterparts. Puppet designer Michael Curry has fashioned a series of creations that gorgeously complement their human counterparts in both appearance, and, thanks to choreographer Martin Genest, movement. Each puppet is like a child, with a larger grown-up version of itself controlling, manipulating, sounding, and speaking for it. It reminded me a bit of when my own mother would take me to the opera when I was very young, in fact. There was something sentimental and touching about the way each singer cradled and carefully controlled their smaller, ornately-dressed selves.
With lights from the orchestra musician’s music stands reflected in the water, I found myself musing, amidst the swirling raucousness of the music: art is reflected in nature; nature shows art what is truly is; nature reflects but has its own qualities one can't totally control -and that is a good way of approaching (if not describing) the best sort of art. All this, from filling up an orchestra pit, though the genius was in the design. The reflections (intensified at the opera's end by Diwali-eque floating candles) were not incidental; Etienne Boucher's specific, focused lighting strongly recalled the work of Bill Viola, with all of its spiritual, simple-meets-challenging aspects, encompassed within a live performance presentation.
The Nightingale involves so much more than mere, simplistic effect; it is a wonderous, child-like vision of an eternal dance between the natural world and the constructed one. Via the shadowplay of the first half, and the waterplay/puppeteering of the second, we're reminded again and again to re-connect with our own playful instincts –ones, it must be said, that are as ancient as those first stories he refers to in the notes. Sometimes it’s via the most unexpected and challenging means that we come to find our own common humanity, and come to recognize our own nightingale, singing, flying, just waiting to be heard.
As to my mum? She's still not a Stravinsky fan. But she adores Lepage. Bien sur.
All photographs from The Nightingale And Other Short Fables courtesy of the Canadian Opera Company, photographer Michael Cooper.