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Volume 10 Issue 7 - April 2005

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COVER STORY What's Cooking The Queen of Puddings BY DA YID PERLMAN IN EARLY JUNE 1996, Dairine Ni Mheadhra sat in the upstairs home office of her and John Hess 's. west Toronto home and wrote eighteen words, two fewer than she could have for the $10 it took to place an unclassified ad in a one-year old classical music magazine called Pulse. . "CELLO LESSONS from very experienced teacher with 18 years professional playing. All levels welcome. Phone Doyrina at (416) ... . " J imagine rhar wriring "phone Doyrina" gave her a momenr 's pause. It is one of those little coices kn ? wn to ? nyone who has made the leap into a new society. You re puumg your name into a classified ad in the hope that people will phone . you, so you'd better spell your name in a way that the phomc majority can comfortably say. The years leading up to that moment, and . the ten . that have flown by since, make an interesting chapter 111 the still-unfolding story of Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. At age 17, in 1977, the "eight- Queen of Puddings co-directoreen years professional playing" began as Dairine hopped the train from Cork to Dublin to become the youngest ever musician in RTE, now the Irish National Symphony Orchestra. "To my insular eyes it was an exotic crew" she says, "Hungarians, Czechs, Poles ... . " By age 27, she had helped form, with other principal players from the INSO as its nucleus, a By then too, she was ' connew music ensemble calling itself Nua N6s. The name itself spoke volumes. Sean N6s, she ex- plained, is the Gaelic for "the old to-be, Canadian John Hess. "Banff is a huge part of the story of our relationship," she says "but the meeting was in Wales actually. John was there from Banff with Keith Turnbull, part of a Banff /Music Theatre Wales joint project. I was there because a Welsh tenor I'd met at Banff years previously suggeste?, to them I was someone to meet. vinced of two things: that this thing called "music theatre" was where her passion lay; and that to achieve it would take a great music". So to call the group Nua leap - leaving what she de- N6s was to say very clearly what scribes as "monocultural Irethe music wasn't, while at the same time asserting a relation- ship. Nua N6s addressed itself to new Irish classical work, but to a wide range of music beyond that land." By June of 1996, the leap had been made. Queen of Puddings Music Theatre had mounted its first show, Mad for all Reasdns. - to the works of Mauricio Kagel And Toronto was Dairine and and of Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, among many others. One day in 1993, in a concert that has particular relevance to our story, Nua N6s turned its that James Rolfe and George El- liott Clarke's Beatrice Chancey attention to a seminal piece of music theatre, Peter Maxwell Davies'· Eight Songs for a Mad · King. By 1993, other key pieces of the puzzle were already in place. Dairine had been playing cello at era for 15 years, seven of them while Wexford was under Elaine den, by way of the Royal Danish Opera. And by then she had al- ready met future husband and John Hess's chosen home. THAT FIRST SHOW, Mad for all Reasons, wasn't the spectacular breakthrough for the company would be, for Queen of Pud- dings and for soprano Measha Brueggergosman a few short years later. But, with its three vocalists and seven instrumental- ists functioning as equal and inthe annual Wexford Festival Opdividuated partners, it bore the stamp of where the fledgling company was coming from and Padmore, now at Covent Garwhere, right from day one, it was headed. "A hallucinogenic program of dreams and doubts consisting of Dtiirine Ni Mheadhra and John Hess four miniature masterworks" is how we described the upcoming show in the May 1996 issue of Pulse: Studio Variazioni Sull'A by Marie Pelletier; Tango Aleman by Mauricio Kagel; From the Grammar of Dreams by Kaija Saariaho; and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies. Kagel's Tango is a story told in an imaginary language as the performer struts around the stage. Saariaho's Grammar of Dreams transforms into music the idea that the movement of our body in sleep changes the direction of our dreams. Marie Pelletier's Studio lays waste the audience's assumptions about stuffy opera singers. And Maxwell Davies' "Eight Songs," the spectacle of an insane George III trying to teach caged birds (the instrumentalists) to sing, "hits the listener like a collective shriek from bedlam" in the words of the New York Times. In the nearly 40 years since it premiered in 1967, the work has not only led legions of classical warhorses to the waters of new music, but left them thirsting for more. "The show didn't encompass everything we do now" Dairine says. "For one thing, all our composers now are Canadian, Three of these (Kagel, Saariaho, Davies) weren't. But, you know, all three, right down to the specific works, John and I had discovered, independently before we met." So in that sense the show was an affirmation of the single-mindedness of their creative partnership. "In other ways, though" Dairine continues "a lot of what we stand for was already there: our understanding of this thing called music theatre; the belief that, as creator of the show we were responsible to our audience for every detail of their experience, from the moment of entering the Music Gallery to leaving the building; that the work has to be given the time to grow into itself; and that new music is music that any singer, not just specialists, can sing, and more important can want to sing." So NOW IT IS SPRING 2005. The cello has been long sold, the upstairs home office has been replaced with digs in the burgeoning Distillery Historical District, and Queen of Puddings Music Theatre is poised, it seems, to make another leap. The Midnight Court, a new Canadian opera by the brilliant Montreal composer Ana Sokolovic, with a libretto by Paul Bentley of The Hand1J1aid's Tale fame will premiere at Toronto's Harbourfront Centre Theatre June 11,14,16 and 18. It is based on a wild and famous 17th century Irish epic poem by Brian Merriman, a rambunctious and earthy tale, the principal themes of which include the plight of young women who lack husbands, clerical celibacy, free love and the misery of a young woman married to a withered old man. The news doesn't stop there though: The Midnight Court has been invited, by Elaine Padmore, to appear, in June 2006, at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (London, U.K.). (Padmore knows Paul Bentley's work because The Handmaid's Tale was commissioned by the Danish Royal Opera while she was there. And as mentioned she knows Dairine from their years at Wexford.) WWW. TH EWHOLENOTE.COM ArRIL 1 - MAY l 2005

Dairine is elated. "Finally we will be taking all the good stuff we knew we had here from day one out lO the world, the way I said we wanted to do from the very start ... the great composing, the unparalleled pool of singers." The singers in this case will be Shannon Mercer, Krisztina Szabo and Alexander Dobson. Mercer and Szabo are well known to Toronto audiences because of their work with the COC. And Dobson's talent will be on display this month in Tapestry New Opera Works' remount of Nigredo Hotel. According to Wayne Strongman, Tapestry's artistic director, Dobson is one to watch. "I know him from 1991 when I conducted the Ontario Youth Choir and he was a tall weedy eager young baritone. 1 remember we did a piece called Felix's Girls by Murray Schafer and I saw how it grabbed him. He reads quickly, and has the ability to go to some really dark places." Strongman, incidentally, was in the audience for that first production of Mad for All Reasons in 1996 and remembers it "in part because of an extraordinary performance by Ian Funk in Eight Songs - right then I said I want lO work with him, and we have ever since. But also because of the sense of community it gave: someone else on the scene with 'Music Theatre' in their name, and with an understanding similar to ours of what it meant." Tapestry Music Theatr_e changed its name to Tapestry New Opera Works in 1999, the year of Beatrice Chancey. "It was a loosely defined envelope that suited us very well as we grew, but one that had its problems. In a nutshell, south of the border if you said music theatre they thought, aha, Oklahoma I And in Europe they thought it stopped with Kurt Weill. Changing our title to Tapestry New Opera Works was for us taking ownership of what we were really doing. Although the 'Opera' tag has its baggage too." (Talking to Dairine you get the sense that Queen of Puddings will continue to tly the Music Theatre tlag for a good while yet.) So, with their first decade coming so gloriously to a close, what's next for Queen of Puddings? Queen of Puddings' other key animateur, John Hess's reply is somewhat unexpected. "In a very real sense" he says '·you could say we'll be starting all over again." JOHN HESS TEACHES THE ART Of collaborative piano at University of Western Ontario in London, and maintains a vigorous performance schedule. "The idea of collaborative piano is still a bit of a novelty up here," he says. ·'It's only been 8 years since we started it at UWO, and it only started at U of T this fall. What it does is to eliminate some of the taint that sticks to the word accompanist, the idea that the pianist who doesn't do the solo thing is someone who couldn't cut it, as opposed to someone who chose a different art." Call his art what you will, he is much sought after by singers as a partner, as busy in that field as he allows himself to be. "Deciding where to live," he says "I admit I was quite drawn to the romantic idea of staying in Dublin, but I couldn't do there what I do here. As Dairine said, much of what we de needs a busier and more diverse context." "'Midnight Court going to Covent Garden represents a huge triumph, make no mistake, it's as much the good housekeeping seal of approval for what we do, as Broadway for a stage play or Hollywood for film. But it raises fundamental questions for us." The issue is analogous to the one that .had them choosing Toronto in the first place - the impasse of monoculturalism, but this time applied to opera itself. "Opera is in its own way as monocultural as was the Ireland Dairine left. We need to be careful about saying we're taking our work 'to the world' when we mean we are taking it to people like us living somewhere else." . "Compare that," he says "to the world here in Toronto, a kind of emerging Canadian pancultural identity that is affecting our whole society. Our art needs to follow suit. The health of opera depends on it embracing the whole of society, and that means being prepared to re-invent." Something called Vanity and the Goddess Sarasvati: a new Canadian Opera built around the extraordinary South Indianbased vocal art of Suba Sankaran will be part of that reinvention. But that is another chapter. • ROBERT LOWREY Proudly Introduces F/lZIOLr I Grandi ltaliani Now only in Toronto (and nowhere else in North America) Can you compare The World's finest pianos Side - By - Side ii 11 Pn b o ttf Ptt BECHSTEIN FZIOLr SCHIMMEL Plus BECHSTEIN FAMILY OF PIANOS C. Bechstein • Wm. Knabe • Sohmer • Kohler & Campbell • Hazelton Five other new brands and lk )Roland" DIGITAL PIANOS All backed by our 20 person service facility Tour our famous piano workshops • Concert Rentals • Appraisals • Rebuilding ROBERT LOWREY'S - PIANO EXPERTS i tt i i 943 Eglinton Ave. East 416 423-0434 APRIL 1 - MAY 7 2005 WWW, THEWHOLENOTE.COM 3

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