Canada Day 2017: Happy 150th

As a Canadian, I have a number of rights and responsibilities which I could rattle off to you if you wanted. One of them is to work to the best of my ability and to take care of my family as best as I can. My plans for today were to honour these responsibilities by doing work on revising my book and relaxing with a movie and maybe some games with Andrew, my family. But this morning I awoke with more energy (or extra coffee) and decided to clean as well, which feels important in taking care of my family. I seem to do a lot of thinking while I clean.

It was a conscious decision to concentrate more on my career, writing novels, than writing without compensation. Too often in my life I’ve been solicited to do research work or other work without monetary compensation. Would we expect the same of others whose work we consume? So why am I writing this? Writing is isolating, and I find it rewarding to write blogs for feedback and for the feeling that I’m making a contribution, no matter how small it might be. Maybe I promote a novel I love or a musical performance that has transformed me. One of my responsibilities as a Canadian is to volunteer. I think of my pro bono writing as a way of contributing to my country and the arts organizations that I find so critical in a world that can seem bankrupt of valuing beauty, poetry, creativity, and art. How much value do we place on art? Is something’s value only commensurate with how profitable it is? Of course not. Society seems to place importance on financially lucrative pursuits, but there are so many significant entities that come unattached to price tags. Like the invitation my friend extended to coffee when I told him I’ve been down. Or a free concert I recently saw featuring the sensitive soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, and incomparable pianist and maestro, Alexander Mickelthwate. Value is inherent in art that moves us, the music that sustains us, and the books which teach us about other cultures, experiences, and relationships.

I went to Paris in May for a change of scene and to give myself a fresh start and rebirth myself from the stagnant quagmire in which I was mired. It worked for a little after my return, but on occasion I reverted to old ways and old thoughts, old patterns. This process of becoming and growing seems to occur in fits and starts, plateaus, and ascents. An occasional descent. And it’s not without its surprises. It’s a process, continuous like the electromagnetic spectrum, rather than discrete as in something quantized.

I am gradually changing. Emerging from my cocoon and truly understanding who I am and how I wish to contribute not just to Canada but to my family, friends, and beyond. I take each day one day at a time and squeeze in my novel writing or writing research, physics, and music whenever I can, letting it buoy my mood by being immersed in endeavours I find valuable. Everything we do which raises us from the quicksand we can so often revert saves our lives. Writing does this for me and also the feeling as though my writing resonates with others. This doesn’t mean I don’t have an ambivalent relationship with exposing my vulnerabilities and innards through sharing my writing, but somehow I’ve been training myself to do so and feel gratified when I can connect to my audience, that it touches people.

While cleaning, I meditated on how I don’t have a schedule any more. This is something I’ve struggled with my entire life. I try instead to just do whatever I can each day to feel like I’m making my contribution to my work and my family and my family which is Canada. To do the best I can. I don’t take a single day for granted nor a single moment with my loved ones. I’m discovering new friends who reach out to me and offer their friendship which I return with love. I’m discovering there are pockets I haven’t explored yet and still more lessons to learn. This is another reason why I write, to learn from my characters. They all have something to teach me. My aunt always says everything is a learning experience, and it is.

Today is a historic day. I will finish my cleaning quickly and then celebrate at the zoo and a concert a friend invited me to. I’ll watch a movie and work on my novel.

My gift to you is these words. Don’t take a single moment or your loved ones for granted. Find honour in your rights and responsibilities and work every day to do your best to fill your life with meaning and joy and following your principles. Live a life and value the music and poetry that surround you. And when your mind is shrouded by darkness, hold on to the thoughts, memories, people, places, and experiences that can get you through until a beam of light can shine through. Life is short. And perhaps meaningless. So distill meaning from the little things. Even if it’s just improving your immediate surroundings.

Happy Canada Day!

Addendum: My celebration of Canada Day was even more memorable than I had anticipated.  Instead of going to the zoo, my friends and I stayed after the concert among the politicians gathered for the occasion.  First we proudly sang O Canada as a united group gathered outside all in red and white to be followed by the inspiring words of her Honour the Honourable Lieutenant Governor Janice Filmon.  She urged us all to use our voices, a major theme in my fiction.  If memory serves correct, the Honourable Premier Brian Pallister welcomed the diversity which makes Canada Canada.  But what resonated the most was His Worship Mayor Brian Bowman’s call to action for all of us to think of three things we can do to contribute to our country this year.  What are you going to do to add to Canada’s story?

Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.

Notes on a WSO Concert from the Second Movement Girl

As you can imagine from the title of this blog, I just attended the WSO performance featuring Angela Hewitt playing de Falla’s Nights in the Garden of Spain and Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major as well as a Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, all conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch.

I wrote Maxwell’s equations on a poet’s blank paper on her wall this week and saw in them not just the equations which describe light but also the letters for the magnetic field, B, and the electric field, E. BE. In music, in a concert, in an evening at the WSO, we can simply let go of the boxes and equations we imprison ourselves in and be. And that’s exactly what happened for me tonight, especially during the second movement of the Ravel concerto where my eyes squinted from tears rather than tension. Second movements. The adagio. So perhaps I should have introduced myself to the marketing interviewer for the radio as “The Second Movement Girl” instead of by my title and name. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The concert opened with Stafylakis’s Arc of Horizon. I will confess now that I didn’t read the program notes as I usually do. I wanted my impressions to be my own. Unadulterated. In this piece there were contrasts of light and dark with menacing undertones. There were moments of free song and periods where threats crept in. It was cinematic in its feel possessing all the ingredients of a good film captured in sound.

Following the Stafylakis was the de Falla. Impressionistic images painted in sound. Blurred piano tones sometimes overpowered by the orchestra. I was so fascinated in the complicated fingering, I was as intrigued by the visual performance as the aural one.

The story continued with the Ravel. Angela Hewitt’s playing was so joyful and expressive, her dancing hands so deliberate and precise, the concert felt like a lesson in technique and piano by itself. My mind would sometimes wander, lost in the world of the soundscape. Losing myself. Forgetting my name. Forgetting who I am, and what I want to be. Until the second movement.

The second movement lifted me out of the time and space of the concert hall and into the realm of the human condition. I feel like I wrote these words before. Perhaps I did. I told you, second movements kill me. The Ravel second movement expressed an exquisite melancholy. A beauty and sadness all mixed up. In it was the heartbeat of tenderness and a distillation that there is meaning in suffering. Yes, there was meaning in it. Intention. A deliberate message perhaps that we can understand something in this mess and confusion that is the world. That is ourselves.

Finally, Stravinsky’s Firebird. In a word, triumphant. A thrilling conclusion to the story woven by music. Music that expressed the world in a symphony of ideas and clashing passions. Maybe my interpretation is all wrong. Maybe the story I heard is different from the one you hear in the music. My thoughts blur together in a pointillist staccato impression that in this turmoil that is the world, that is ourselves, there is a solution. There is a solution in music. In art.

Afterwards my star-struck self was thrilled by a signed CD by the very gracious Angela Hewitt. I did notice in her pre-concert talk (during which I was mostly too excited by anticipation to pay attention) that she mentioned a four-year project. I often don’t make plans, or if I do, I change them. I usually try to exist in the present moment yet am so inspired by the thought of a project. In the frenetic frenzy to do everything immediately, lest the moment pass, it’s difficult to make plans past today. In the precarious world we’ve always lived in, always a threat looming, what a beautiful notion to make plans. Calculations without desperation. Space for projects. For music.

Yes, I am inspired. When I first saw Angela Hewitt’s DVD on piano playing, Bach Performance on the Piano, I thought I would need to travel to Montreal to hear her in person. And yet today I felt humbled to be in her presence.  In Winnipeg. A concert takes you on a journey. Through different musical eras and different emotional states. I didn’t know the geography of where I would travel tonight as I was unfamiliar with these pieces. As I said in the interview, if you attend a concert (or a ballet or opera or play), you might be surprised into falling in love. And you might be inspired. And grow. And learn what is important. And maybe it will be the map that will help you hear your own heartbeat. To find yourself.

Brava to all involved tonight!

Be bold. Be fearless.

I don’t think we ever really need an excuse to reflect or turn our lamp inward to assess and to consider. Yet as the days are spent as much in shadow as in sun, and we mark the completion of the elliptical path of the earth, we can generally find such a reason to ponder our personal journeys as well. A year ago I committed to a new year’s resolution essentially not to make any specific goals for the year, not to try to confine my aspirations to a specific elusive routine, plan, or agenda.

And, indeed, I succeeded.

At times I might have temporarily relapsed and tried to write an algorithm for living my life, but I always surrendered these prescriptions in favour of living more organically, naturally, and less punitively. I finally accept that my spirit and moods don’t thrive caged by routine. It’s not to say I didn’t make general goals for the year which I compiled in a list and dutifully checked off to help steer my course, but they were more stones I placed on which I skipped across the stream, rather than some overarching plan. For example, I intended to write at least one blog and one Wellesley Underground interview a month, to read books on a list I made, to write my second novel and to submit my first, to earn pay for writing, and to do more music, all of which I completed. I also aimed to prioritize with the thought that should I perish in six months time, I would die without embracing regrets. I mentioned this philosophy to a friend recently who reminded me of it at a later meeting. I conveyed to her that my intent is to live such that when I die I’ll die with a true acceptance of my life and without wishing I had lived differently.

Be bold. Be fearless. My voice teacher advised me of these principles to live, or perhaps sing, by in a recent lesson. I think most of her instructions are geared more towards my approach to singing, but I find them even more relevant to moving through life.

Be bold. Be fearless. Should we die sooner rather than later, what would our legacy be? Is it what we would hope for it to be? What would our epitaph be? What truly matters to us? Would it be that we were beloved by a partner, family, and/or friends or would we want to be defined by some specific achievement? What do we value? What are our priorities? Do we try year after year to achieve the same aim (perhaps some number on a scale, either figuratively or literally)? How do we remove ourselves from possible recursive loops in which we might find ourselves? Or worse yet, an infinite (to) do-loop (sorry, I’ve spent most of my life computer programming)?

Maybe figuring out what we don’t want is easier than figuring out what we do want. I don’t want to be static. I don’t want to self-sabotage. A former voice teacher once told me she learned at a workshop that when we choose to spend our time one way, we choose not to pursue some alternate activity. This makes the question of self-sabotage difficult, because we might think we are acting to fulfill one dream, and yet this expenditure of time and energy might deprive us of satisfying another. I also think we make many choices in our life based on psychological blocks and saboteurs who reside in our heads. I know this is the root of my obstacles in music as well as elsewhere.

Be bold. Be fearless. I guess directing my life with these words as my guide is my new year’s resolution this year. Whatever your resolutions are, or if you choose not to make any, I wish you a bold, fearless, lovely journey.

Happy New Year!

Change

I am listening to Glenn Gould’s 1955 performance of Bach’s The Goldberg Variations. I grew up with Glenn (yes, we’re on a first name basis); the first recording given to me at the age of three or four was a recording of him playing piano, mostly Bach if I recall, and intended for young children. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t occupy a part of my life, when I hadn’t known of The Goldberg Variations. As it turns out, about eleven years ago I decided I liked the 1981 version best and usually listened to that rendition. I gave my PhD co-supervisor a boxed set of The Goldberg Variations when I graduated, since I listened to it almost daily during my graduate school years. But over the last few weeks I’ve turned to 1955. This might seem an insignificant change in my listening habits, but a change it is indeed.

Change. How comfortable are you with change? Do you follow a routine? Is it helpful? Is it comfortable? Or does it hold you back?

I’m not sure how comfortable we are with change. I’ve lived in seven cities in my life, some of them multiple times, not including the ones I lived in for a month to ten weeks, also some for multiple times. People say a constant in life is change. We grow older and have birthdays. We evolve. Many of the people in our lives change, especially for those of us who have lived peripatetic lifestyles. But then, would we want to stay stagnant? What if we ate the same meal every day for dinner? Wouldn’t the repetition become tiresome and loathsome? What if we listened to the same music and never added to our repertoire, or if we watched the same film every day?

I think we hold ourselves and others to an expectation that we will remain the same, but there is so much possibility for beauty if we embrace transitions in ourselves and in our lives. We can write our own new stories and learn. Isn’t acquiring and assimilating new information part of the process of building our selves? And should we hold on too dearly to the past, to our past selves, and even to our past dreams if we have adapted ourselves to new versions of ourselves with eyes for different possibilities?

I just finished watching the movie Her about a man, Theo, who falls in love with his artificially intelligent operating system, Samantha. It’s fascinating to see both Theo and Samantha develop and evolve, but I especially find Samantha’s development intriguing. She transcends her original purpose and discovers new colours in the palette of life. She possesses maturity and emotional curiosity, and her transition is a hyper-intelligent multidimensional coming-of-age story. I admire her independent thinking and lack of resistance to change. In fact, rather than loathe change and moving from her comfort zone, she enthusiastically experiments in a wide range of prospects for herself, intoxicated by the variegated experiences open to her.

I have to admit I’m becoming less resistant to the idea of change than I used to be. My New Year’s resolutions used to be lists of a daily routine I would prescribe to myself in the hopes of attaining a better life. They always soon failed, as most people’s New Year’s resolutions seem to do. But why would I want my life to be confined to predictability? Isn’t novelty what teases our senses? I used to nurse nostalgia for the past, especially the friends who have passed out of my life and have become lost. That too has ceased. Change is often the harbinger of discomfort and tragedy. And uncertainty and instability. This is true. But it is also the herald of possibilities and growing into new identities, carving out new niches in the landscape of experiences. Opening our awareness to new dimensions in life.

Some romances are lifelong attachments. As my husband and I grow, we adapt to each other and develop in compatible ways. And maybe I’m listening to a different recording of Glenn’s. I find the 1955 version of The Goldberg Variations to be stimulating, novel, and welcome. But Glenn is still with me on this journey.

Backstage Tour at the Manitoba Opera

When I found out I was moving to Winnipeg, my piano teacher in Montreal told me the city was known for the arts. Although I’m used to a peripatetic lifestyle and was excited by the move, it was news to me, since all I knew about Winnipeg was that 1) it was cold, 2) it was home to a world-renowned ballet company, and 3) there weren’t any current nearby cosmologists or string theorists (until Andrew and I came here).

I’ve discovered that with proper clothing even on the coldest days, the weather in Winnipeg really is tolerable, and I walk or bus everywhere, so I’m out a lot even on the most frigid days. In fact, anyone who knows me has heard the story far too many times how the coldest period of my life was living in an unheated, LA apartment as a UCLA graduate student where the windows didn’t close as the weather plummeted to freezing; my only consolation as I shivered in my winter coat in bed at night was reading the biography of a freezing Marie Curie in Paris.

However, the reputation that preceded Winnipeg as an arts city, I’m discovering, is not unfounded. Where else have I been able to find high caliber music teachers, tickets to the symphony, opera, ballet, or plays (in venues small enough that even in the worst seats you don’t need your binoculars) that are accessible and affordable? And where else can you spend a Sunday afternoon free at the concert hall for a backstage tour of the opera?

I didn’t know what to expect. Since the tour started every twenty minutes, I thought it would be a twenty minute lecture on the stage. However, the tour was comprehensive, starting in the orchestra pit where we were privy to view not only the concert hall from below but also the celesta (a keyboard instrument) used in the Manitoba Opera’s last production Of Mice and Men, composed by American composer, Carlisle Floyd, and based on the John Steinbeck novel. I believe it was the executive board member, Robert Vineberg, who explained the relationship of the conductor to the music (where the conductor studies each note weeks before rehearsals and how the orchestra is blind to the performance on stage, only the conductor can see the singers).

At this point in the tour, we were conscious of the obvious talent behind the production, the musicians and singers on stage. It was only later in the tour where the full magnitude of how many talents behind the scenes are required for a three-day-run of an opera. For example, we see the orchestra members, but how often do we think of the simplest of matters in a production, such as the procurement of the copies of the orchestral scores?

The second stop was in a rehearsal room with the CEO and Director of the Opera, Larry Desrochers whose photo I pass often at the University Winnipeg where he won a Distinguished Alumni Award.  The first point of note was how humble and passionate all of the speakers at the backstage tour were. How Desrochers expressed his wish to make opera accessible to everyone (and so he encouraged people to phone legislators to provide the necessary funding). He demonstrated how a score is marked, one page of music, the other with blocking that would match the spike marks (tape on the floor designating the performers’ marks, which seems similar to film). His gracious talk to us on the tour emphasized how little the ticket sales cover expense of an opera and how critical opera accessibility is to the vitality of a community.

Third was the make-up artist. Again, I was impressed by his passion for stage make-up and happy with his response to my question about how he maintains sanitary conditions with make-up (alcohol sprays on the make-up, disposable applicators, brush cleanings between applications to different performers). Next was hair, where we were treated to the behind the scenes work of the hair dresser and wig maker. From the wardrobe manager, we learned that, like the rented sets, the costumes are rented, though the performers could use their own shoes. I also found this interesting since I would fathom using unknown shoes could make it difficult to perform optimally. Would it?

We also saw the director of production, Sheldon Johnson, who emphasized that even a relatively small production, such as Of Mice and Men, which features a cast of eight principals and twelve chorus members, requires sixty orchestra members of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra and 107 people backstage not including ushers, the box office, the bartenders, etc. The first thing he said is that productions require 1) lots of people and 2) lots of stuff. He mentioned how the scores must be rented, customs attended to, props, tape (for the marks), piano movers for rehearsals, piano tuners, rehearsal props, sets etc. all must be organized. There are 150 lamps alone above the stage which each must be focused for this production. I must admit, I became lost when he started talking about the machinery (chain motors?) needed to keep the 2600 pounds of bunk beds above the stage (in the fly) or the barn set.

The next stop was with the Stage Manager, Robert Pel, who came to Winnipeg specifically for five weeks to work on this production. One aspect of his job was to plot out (in twelve hours over two days) the 120 looks needed for this production with the lighting designer and director. He arrived one week before the artists, there were two weeks of rehearsals, one week when the set had arrived during which it was unpacked and set up by Monday night, Tuesday the orchestra and singers rehearsed, Wednesday costume, make-up, hair were done with a rehearsal accompanied by the piano (no orchestra), Thursday a final dress rehearsal with orchestra and an audience of students, Friday off, and performance on Saturday. From his location in the wings, the stage manager watches monitors of the performance, which are also available to the performing artists to watch, whom he calls to the wings 5 minutes before their entrance. They prepare two minutes before they go onstage from the wings. It is also the stage manager who takes care of the extensive safety precautions needed when props include firearms (hearing protection for the actors, permits, making sure it is clean and without bullets, overseeing that two people watch the firearm at all times before it goes on stage, etc).

The final treat of the tour that we attended (we opted to skip the last stop, which was the lighting booth in the back of the theatre) was conducted by Lara Ciekiewicz, whom I have enjoyed watching from the audience as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and in Turandot. As with all the other talent who spoke on the backstage tour, Ciekiewicz was humble and modest, though possessed a confidence which I admire. She even demonstrated for us by singing an excerpt from Bizet’s Carmen. She truly embodied an artist, as all the backstage talent did as well, communicating that the stage is her office, that she envisions the 2200 member audience (who bring their own stories to the theatre) as surrounding a campfire on the stage where the artists connect to each other and the audience in the conveyance of a story. She discussed how important it is for her to warm up her body as well as her voice before performing, that an opera is, in a way, akin to a vocal marathon. And, as she relayed to us, she feels as though the performing artists are the tip of the iceberg of backstage talent that supports the performance. She discussed Mozart’s emotional as well as musical intelligence, which is evidenced by anyone who has ever played one of his sonatas on the piano, sung one of his art songs or arias, or read his letters.

I enjoyed listening to Ciekiewicz’s enjoyment of singing in choirs, loved her statement of “phlegm begone” (as my throat is often phlegmy when I sing), and her discussion of the flawed perception a singer has of her own voice as she sings. I have hence recently learned to rely on the feeling of my body (or my teacher) and to not worry about the sound, and, as Lara so eloquently said, it’s not about you. It’s about the text and the music.

And with that, I thank the Manitoba Opera for all you give to our community and look forward to the season in Winnipeg!