It’s that time of year when we put the finishing touches on our next season’s plans. Toronto Masque Theatre will be announcing its 2017-18 season plans at the World Premiere of The Man Who Married Himself (by Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton) next weekend. I do hope that you will join us for this very special show.
What will be different about this year’s announcement is that this past December, after much soul-searching, I came to the decision to step down as the Artistic Director of Toronto Masque Theatre at the end of next season. In consultation with my associates and the Board of Directors, we have decided that the 2017-18 season will be the company’s final season. Reflecting on the pressures of fundraising, programming and grant-writing, and observing the changing trends in Toronto’s cultural landscape, it seemed to me a logical time for such a decision. We have always operated with a very lean administrative structure, pouring the majority of our modest resources into the work that appears on our stage: hiring top-notch performers and commissioning some of the leading creative artists this country has to offer.
I look back on the past 14 seasons with nothing but pride and joy. Over close to 60 programs, we have explored a wide repertoire and, I hope, have helped to inform our audiences about the great potential that the masque art form represents, existing as it does at the intersection of the performing arts of music, dance and theatre.
I am deeply grateful to all of the creative souls who have invested their time and talent in bringing each Toronto Masque Theatre production to life. Over a decade and a half, we’ve been privileged to present some of Canada’s most beloved and dedicated artists.
What is perhaps dearest to me are the major new works that Toronto Masque Theatre commissioned from composers James Rolfe, Dean Burry, Alice Ho, Juliet Palmer, Omar Daniel and Abigail Richardson, working with some of our best writers, including André Alexis, Anna Chatterton, Marjorie Chan and Steven Heighton. I hope these pieces will enjoy a life beyond the company and, together, will stand as a uniquely Canadian repertoire of “modern masques”
And it has, of course, warmed my heart every time we have been able to program anything by that genius, Mr. Henry Purcell!
The community’s support of Toronto Masque Theatre has been overwhelming. My thanks go out to our loyal subscribers, donors, sponsors and to the Toronto Arts Council, the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for their consistent and inspiring investments in the company.
There is one more season to come once this one concludes. And our plan is to make it an ambitious and celebratory year, the details of which will be announced next week.
In closing, I want to thank the Board of Directors of Toronto Masque Theatre and my close colleagues – Vivian Moens, Derek Boyes and Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière – for their support, counsel, friendship and tireless efforts on behalf of the company. At every turn, they have been an absolute dream to work with.
I look forward to celebrating in 2017-18. Please join us!!
I joined with millions of Canadians on Saturday night, August 20, at 8:30 pm to watch the broadcast of what many are calling the final performance of the great Canadian band The Tragically Hip. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer and Saturday’s performance, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, was the final stop on this summer’s cross-Canada Man, Machine, Poem tour.
While I’ve been aware of the band for years, the only line I knew from any of their songs was “ahead by a century”. But, a little sheepishly, knowing that Saturday’s concert would be heavy and significant – and with a great deal of empathy for Downie – I immersed myself in everything Hip for several days prior to the event. It was a supreme joy to discover this incredible catalogue of witty, poetic, catchy songs that celebrated so much of the Canadian experience that I have lived (Downie and I are basically the same age): hockey memories, political and cultural landmark references, as well as universal commentaries. I was amused, stimulated, pumped up and moved by these beautiful songs. I watched a few of Downie’s interviews – with Strombo and Ghomeshi, and a particularly poignant one with Wendy Mesley in 2012, where he discusses his wife’s breast cancer and the effect that had on his life and work. He’s articulate, cheeky and painfully honest. If you get a chance to see the 2012 Ghomeshi interview, it’s quite brilliant, seeing Downie fawn over the former CBC host with a twinkle in his eye: integrity meets phony.
So, I felt prepared for Saturday’s concert viewing, but I was unprepared for the emotional depth of the experience. From the first images of downtown Kingston – where it appeared that the whole town had come out to pay tribute to their brother – to the pre-show backstage sight of Downie kissing each of his bandmates on the lips and embracing them so warmly and intimately, it was clear that this was to be a concert like none other.
I don’t have to describe the rest. It’s been discussed and reviewed at length over the past few days. I will say – from a purely musical and performance standpoint – that it was a brilliant show. I was so impressed with the tight playing of guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay and absolutely floored by the communicative powers of Downie. His performance was part beat poetry, part crooner, part Shakespearean fool. He was cynical and yet totally heartfelt, fun and yet sad, full of energy and yet so fragile. And his “costumes” were so whimsical and ironic. It was a very painful to thing to watch, and yet so deeply beautiful at the same time.
I don’t know Gord Downie, and clearly I’m a very new convert to The Tragically Hip, but I am so grateful to him – and his bandmates – for teaching me (and probably others) about grace and courage and for further revealing the beautiful constellation of life on Saturday, one star at a time.
- Larry Beckwith
The following program note was written in advance of Toronto Masque Theatre’s performances of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen this weekend (May 27-29, 2016) at the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto:
How do you solve a problem like The Fairy Queen? One must begin by placing Henry Purcell’s music front and centre and making it the priority. One of Purcell’s masterpieces of the astonishingly productive last five years of his life, The Fairy Queen is known as a “semi-opera”, meaning that – in its original form – it is a full-length opera and a full-length play, featuring a separate cast of characters for each. The play is a plodding anonymous adaptation of two of the plotlines of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the opera amounts to a series of elaborate masques that meditate on the themes of the play: poetry, sleep, love, nature and marriage. The Fairy Queen was written and premiered in 1692 at the Queen’s Theatre in London, and revived – with additional music – in 1693. After Purcell’s death in 1695, the original full score was lost and not rediscovered until 1901, just in time to be included in an edition of the composer’s complete works. From beginning to end, Purcell’s musical contributions to The Fairy Queen illustrate his genius at setting the English language, his masterful way with a melody, his imaginative instrumental writing and his true gift at capturing a ceremonial mood, whether solemn or celebratory. Each number in the piece is of such high quality – and so tremendously moving and entertaining – that it is well worth the effort to solve the narrative challenges of the piece and allow the deeply affecting power of Purcell’s music to shine through.
- Larry Beckwith
Of all the musicians playing and singing in The Mummer’s Masque, only guitarist Terry McKenna and I can say we performed in the first Toronto Masque Theatre show back in May of 2004. Since then, Terry has been a frequent guest of TMT and it’s always a treat to collaborate with him.
He’s equally at home playing Renaissance lute and guitar, Baroque theorbo, modern classical guitar and rocking out on various electric instruments. He teaches at Wifrid Laurier University, plays in the Toronto Consort, is a longtime and frequent performer in productions at the Stratford Festival and he has a busy solo career, as well.
In The Mummer’s Masque, Terry will be playing the Irish Bouzouki, a folk instrument close the guitar, that is used for the style of Celtic folk music that Dean Burry has served up in the show.
Aside from being a wonderful player, Terry is a great bridge-builder between styles and genres and he’s been a tremendous help when we’ve done cross-disciplinary shows, such as the Masque of Love a few years back. That show featured the sensational Patricia O’Callaghan, blues/gospel guitarist-singer Ken Whiteley and others and Terry so expertly navigated both the lute-songs and modern pop songs on the program.
He’s also got so many ideas that he makes any show he’s in better. I’ve learned to listen to him when he comes up and says “You know, Larry, I was thinking…..”.
Rock on, Terry. We’ll see you at the Mummer’s!
I received an e-mail from Against The Grain Theatre the other day, with a video promoting their upcoming performances of a staged version of Handel’s Messiah. Against The Grain is an amazing company that has had great success in recent years re-imagining standard operas, especially the Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations. They have high musical standards and a cheeky, modern approach to attracting new audiences.
This is all good.
Towards the end of their video, they state that they like to “stir the passions” and be a bit controversial with their approach.
This is all good, too.
I must say, though, that there were a lot of pre-conceived biases in their ultra-cool promo that I would take issue with. These include:
“This is not your grandma’s messiah”
“Messiah is basically a very long piece with a biblical text….not very interesting.”
“The message that the New Testament represents, which is about half the piece, is about the secular….so Handel meant it to be for the guy in the pub.”
“Generally everyone in the audience will find The Messiah more approachable. It’s definitely a much more relaxed context. Hopefully they’ll hear something more different.”
“The fact that you can drink, the people who are there, the chill factor.”
“It’s not necessarily about that feel-good, happy Christmas memory”
I guess what I disagree with about these statements is that – apart from some of them just being wrong (the new testament one) – it implies that there’s something wrong with the time-honoured concert experience of communing with music and text in a direct and intimate way. And it’s a little insulting to oratorio singers, because they do use their bodies, their faces and, most importantly, all the myriad aspects of their voices to tell a story in a dynamic and unique way.
I wish AGT all the best for this upcoming show, but I wish they would dial down the denigration of other approaches and simply and positively promote what they’re doing: presenting a fresh look at classic repertoire.
For more information on Against The Grain, go to againstthegraintheatre.com
- Larry Beckwith
It’s been a busy week, getting set for the beginning of rehearsals for The Mummer’s Masque today. In fact, our stepdancers had a number of great sessions this past weekend and we’ve been meeting in various configurations to work out costuming, props, schedules, etc. Any show is complicated to put together, but this one is a real jigsaw puzzle, involving as it does, 4 soloists, 6 band members, 2 dancers and a children’s choir of 12.
I’m looking forward to working with everyone, but I must say I’m particularly pleased to welcome soprano Carla Huhtanen to the Toronto Masque Theatre stage for the first time. Carla is one of those versatile, fearless, open-minded singers who throws herself into all sorts of repertoire and projects. She’s a mainstay with Opera Atelier and is a brilliant singer of “early” opera and she works regularly with Soundstreams and Tapestry Opera, forging new ground in contemporary opera and song repertoire. In addition, she sings as a soloist with a whole range of small and large ensembles across the country and all over the world.
One of the many great things about The Mummer’s Masque is the way in which composer Dean Burry uses the four vocal soloists. They are comedic characters, but they have – at times – some quite intense and tricky music to sing. And the singers are called upon to make it all look and sound as though it’s being made up on the spot. It takes a special singer with a great technique, quick sense of humour and excellent ensemble skills to bring this piece to life. I could not be happier that Carla is part of the team. She’s going to be great!
To learn more about this remarkable and profound singer, visit carlahuhtanen.com
- Larry Beckwith