Two powerful Toronto opera companies have teamed up for the first time to produce a radically new interpretation of a classical work.
Against the Grain Theater (AtG), the burgeoning independent opera collective behind last season’s famous “Messiah / Complex”, have collaborated with the venerable Canadian Opera Company to present a film production of “Requiem” by Mozart, available online for free. from Saturday evening.
Although AtG was the COC’s first company in residence from 2016 to 2019 – a program that provides independent opera companies with mentorship and dedicated administrative space – this production marks the first artistic collaboration between the two companies.
“Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ honors and recalls those who died during this time,” said Joel Ivany, director and founder of AtG. “Every issue in the news is about a real person and every death has affected the families attached to those people.”
Ivany took the piece out of its traditional concert format and lightly staged it, moving the four soloists around the expansive stage at the Four Seasons Center. He started planning this film with COC Music Director Johannes Debus about a year after the first case of COVID-19 in Canada was confirmed. Today, almost two years later – a time filled with loss and personal tragedy for many – it is an especially auspicious time to perform Mozart’s Meditative Mass for the Dead.
At times, the film switches to scenes at the foot of the Scarborough Cliffs, along the shores of Lake Ontario. The sounds of waves breaking on the shore end the 55-minute work.
For Ivany, the waves symbolize the grieving process. “Grief and loss can sound like waves in the way it can happen to you at different times,” he said. “There is also something so natural and uplifting about the water, the trees and the outdoors, so it felt natural to place the actors outside in that context.”
This is AtG’s third film produced during this pandemic era, and Ivany says digital media will be part of the company’s programming for years to come.
“What we’re fans of cinema is how many extra people you can reach,” he said. “Live theater is second to none, but with cinema you can also get closer and see more. “
Ivany has already worked on Mozart’s “Requiem”. In 2016, he conducted a semi-scenic production for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. For many soloists, the requiem is considered a staple of the classical concert repertoire.
But this “Requiem” is incredibly personal for all the artists involved.
Bass soloist Vartan Gabrielian has suffered immeasurable loss over the past year. In November 2020, the Armenian-Canadian bass baritone lost his father to COVID-19. Then his “spiritual father” – an Armenian priest who introduced Gabrielian to classical music and paid for his lessons – succumbed to the disease. Soon after, her uncle in Los Angeles also caught the virus and died.
Now he honors their memories through this film.
Gabrielian, along with the three other soloists, were invited to share their stories of loss to the pandemic in a series of short videos. These recordings are interspersed between the movements of the requiem, offering the audience a glimpse of the people behind the music and how the past year has influenced the performance of each of the soloists.
For Gabrielian, it was a painful, but cathartic process. “I have lost people who were very dear to me to COVID,” he said. “This project was sort of a way to help heal. We had to dive into a lexicon of emotions and life experiences, and try to make it stand out.
At the end of the piece, each of the performers – from soloists to the COC orchestra and choir – writes on a small sign the name of someone, or a group of people, who has died and to whom this performance is. dedicated.
In one of the film’s most moving moments, the performers walk into the auditorium and hang these signs on the backs of the seats – turning them into sort of epitaphs and a symbol of the incredible losses of the past year.
Kwagiulth and Stó: lō First Nations mezzo-soprano soloist Marion Newman wrote “215+” on her sign, referring to the hundreds of children in residential schools who were found buried in anonymous graves this year.
The daughter of a residential school survivor, Newman and her three siblings were the first members of her father’s family not to attend residential school. Throughout the days of production in late October, Newman thought of the thousands of children who never returned from residential schools and their families, who are only now beginning to find closure.
“My father remembers the older kids who were forced to dig these graves,” said Newman, whose father attended St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, BC. “So for me, that’s what I was thinking.
Newman hopes this film gives viewers a moment to reflect on the past months. “I hope it gives them a sense of comfort and an opportunity to contemplate and process a part of what we have all been through,” she said.
“And most importantly, I hope people will be blown away by the beauty of the music and the intention that each of us brought to it – by the meaning, the care and the love for those we miss.”