Went to Kooza last night, the Cirque du Soleil’s new show playing in Toronto until October 7th.

Its fabulous and breathtaking. It’s a return to their circus performer roots of acrobats and clowns, with all the polish and glamour that they’ve gained over the years but no pyrotechnics or anything else to distract from the amazing performers.

Go on, get tickets now.

Gardiner Museum of ceramics

I finished my week of culture by visiting the Gardiner Museum on Saturday — Canada’s only museum dedicated to ceramics, from early Mesoamerican through the invention of porcelain in early Chinese dynasties to contemporary ceramics. I’ve visited the Gardiner before, but not since the major renovation that added a third floor, considerably more exhibit space and a Jamie Kennedy restaurant. This is also the first time that I’ve done a guided tour with a docent: Saturday’s visit was compliments of my professional engineering society, and we received the grand tour.

It’s not possible to have a guided tour of the entire collection in 1-1/2 hours any more, but we did see some selections from the early Chinese and Japanese porcelain works, as well as German porcelain, Italian Renaissance ceramics and English pottery, before finishing up with Mayan pottery.

We also had a chance at the end to duck into the special exhibit, “On The Table: 100 Years of Functional Ceramics in Canada”, which closed the following day. It included some amazing older stuff such as the now-defunct Blue Mountain Pottery (whose mother doesn’t have a piece of this kitsch around somewhere?) and a few pieces by Emily Carr (who I always think of as a painter rather than a potter), plus many modern pieces. Teapots, plates, bowls, decorative pieces, and one incredible ashtray from the 60’s shaped like a curling stone. I had the pleasure of seeing works by four ceramic artists whose work I also own, including Bill Reddick and Scott Barnim.

It was around 2 when we finished, and the wonderful smells from the Jamie Kennedy restaurant on the third floor drew us upwards, but unfortunately they were closing early for a private engagement and we didn’t have the chance to try them out. The restaurant is very airy and full of light, with a great view across University Avenue to the ROM — given my experiences at his restaurant down on Church Street, I’ll definitely be back.

An evening of opera and operetta

In stark contrast to the previous night’s Rocky Horror Show, Friday evening I attended an evening of opera and operetta, featuring Geoffrey Butler, a friend of mine who is a professional tenor. Geoff has a powerful voice, and my favourite memory of him is during one rather drunken dinner party at my place years ago when he serenaded us with Italian arias — with the windows open, he would have been heard for blocks around.

Friday’s performance, also featuring the soprano Helena Holl and bass-baritone Jan Vaculik, and accompanied by Mila Pashanova on piano, had two very different parts. The first half was six arias and scenes from Bizet’s Carmen, with two piano intermezzos tossed in. The singers dressed in costume and actually acted out the scenes as opposed to just singing the arias — a bit strange considering that it was performed at Christ Church Deer Park, but entertaining nonetheless. The second half was two songs from musicals, and seven selections of Viennese operetta by Emmerich Kalman (Die Csárdásfürstin, Die Zirkusprinzessin and Countess Maritza), who was actually Hungarian but did his well-known composing in Vienna. Damir, who is from eastern Croatia very close to the Hungarian border, commented afterwards on the use of the Hungarian Csárdás folk dance forms in the operettas.

I was amazed at the number of Russians and eastern Europeans in the audience, although with a Russian soprano, a Russian pianist and a Czech (I think) bass-baritone, it’s not that much of a surprise.

A Tale of Two Musicals

Two rocksI often go months — or years — without seeing a musical stage production, but somehow I’ve managed to see two in the last month.

The first was We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen in the same sort of way that Mamma Mia is based on Abba’s music: the songs and lyrics are woven into a storyline that was never intended by the original songwriters, but it’s a lot of fun. Yvan Pedneault makes an adorable Galileo, with his noticeable (but not in a bad way) Quebecois accent, and there’s a real chemistry between he and Erika Peck, who plays Scaramouche. I love Queen music, and the performances, sets and costumes were all great.

The second musical was The Rocky Horror Show, the second time that I’ve seen the stage production in a year, but very different performances. I have a soft spot for RHS, having first seen the movie version in 1979 during my first term at university while under the influence of some, ahem, mind-altering substances. I’ve seen the movie many times since then, including midnight shows at the now-defunct Roxy Theatre in the early 80’s, but didn’t see the stage production (which preceded the movie) until last year, then again last night. The current performance at CanStage was a great interpretation, although it took me a while to get used to a bald Frank ‘n’ Furter (Adam Brazier). Rocky (Gerrad Everard) could have been a bit beefier, although maybe I’m biased by the film actors.

A couple of things struck me about these two productions. First, how old the audiences were: I saw people at both performances who were well into their 60’s, although both RHS and Queen were started in the early 70’s, which would have made these people 30-ish at the time, so maybe not so odd as I first thought.

The second thing that struck me was that We Will Rock You came across to me as the sort of musical where the actors manipulate the audience into getting into the music — breaking character to face the audience start rhythmic hand-clapping, for example — whereas the Rocky Horror Show was just a force of its own. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy We Will Rock You, just that it’s impossible to get too caught up in the story or music when it’s too obvious that you’re being guided into certain moods along the way. I have the same issue with most musicals, which is why I don’t see them too often. Rocky Horror Show has a whole cult of audience participation around it that has built up over the years, and although that was pretty mild at the production last night (no water spritzing or throwing of rice allowed, for example), the ritualistic shouts and lighting of lighters somehow seemed more spontaneous than the artificially-induced audience reaction at We Will Rock You. Maybe because those of us who did shout, or light, or do the time warp, did so because we chose to do so before we even came to the theatre, not because we were guided to do so by the actors.

Somehow, being manipulated by the original playwright and years of tradition is better than being manipulated by the actors currently on stage. And that’s a little weird, too.

Sex. Death. Siberia.

I had a last-minute invitation to see Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto this week. From their description:

The frustrated and lonely wife of a wealthy man falls into a passionate relationship with one of his workers. Fuelled by lust and a need to escape her bleak existence, Katerina risks all and suffers the horrifying consequences.

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk scandalized Stalin and the Soviet Union of the 1930s, and was denounced for the naturalism, vulgarity, and overt sexuality in the story, which is mirrored so potently in the music. It remains as relentlessly powerful and extreme today.

Usually when I go to the opera, I don’t see simulated sex on stage. Okay, I admit I haven’t been to the opera in a few years, but the last time is was all zaftig sopranos and portly tenors in elegant costumes singing about love while casting sidelong glances at each other, or clutching hands. This time, it’s an attractive couple, her in a silk slip and him stripped to his boxers, singing about how she shouldn’t be cheating on her husband as she mounts him and gets it on.

The story is a great classic tragedy: Katerina and Zinovy have an unhappy marriage, living with/near his father Boris, who also owns the factory that Zinovy manages. Although it appears that their marriage is unconsummated due to Zinovy’s disinterest, the old man has the hots for her. Meanwhile, she takes up with Sergey, one of the factory workers who was fired from his last job for screwing the boss’ wife, while her husband is out of town, but they are discovered by Boris. She poisons Boris, then is haunted by his ghost. Zinovy arrives home and catches Katerina and Sergey together in bed, so they kill him, and she starts being haunted by both ghosts. On the day of Katerina and Sergey’s wedding, Zinovy’s body is discovered, they’re arrested and sent off to Siberia. Sergey blames Katerina for all of this and rejects her, then gets it on with one of the female prisoners during transport to Siberia. Katerina kills the other woman and herself. See? Sex, death and Siberia.

There are some great anti-Soviet satirical bits as well, such as when all the workers in the chicken-plucking factory sing about how eager they are to go off to work.

Great music, and the sets were really fantastic, including a raised portion representing Katerina’s apartment that moved forward into view when required.

Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk finishes its run in Toronto tonight.

The Emperor’s Children (Claire Messud)

I know that I said in my review of jPod that there are few books that I don’t finish once starting them: The Emperor’s Children is one of those rarities. I struggled through about half of the book, wading through the overly-complex and pompous wording and characters that I really didn’t care that much about, until I read something that made me realize what a bad writer that Messud actually is, and what a crappy editor that she has: “is comprised of” when she meant “comprises“. Twice. I put the book down and backed away, slowly.

jPod (Douglas Coupland)

My LibraryThing icon in the sidebar has been pretty busy lately; I arrived home on the 10th after being away for a month and found that three of the books that I had put on reserve at the library had already come and gone, and four more were ready to be picked up. I love the reserve system, and owe it all to Ingrid for telling me about it: just get your TPL library card and sign up online, then search away. When you find something that you like, you can put a reserve on it and it magically shows up at your local library branch when it’s available. The system sends you an automated phone message (which I wish was email) when there’s something for pickup, or you can login and check online. The unfortunate part is that after months of waiting for some of these, they all seem to be coming in at the same time: I have four things out on loan now, and another five waiting at the library for me (although two of these are DVDs).

The first one that I attacked was Douglas Coupland‘s jPod, and I have to admit that I was disappointed; although this is called “Microserfs for the age of Google”, I found it inferior to Microserfs. I actually liked most of the story and the characters: a group of Vancouver-based game software developers who were building an entire evil subplot into what was supposed to be a children’s video game, and some of their strange companions. However, there were some really stupid page-wasters, such as when one of the characters created a challenge related to the first 10,000 digits of pi, it was accompanied by the entire 10,000 digits. Yawn, interrupted only by the fast flipping of pages past this nonsense. The largest of these went on for several pages, and became more than a little annoying. The most annoying thing, however, was the way that Coupland wrote himself into the book as some sort of evil genius. Not funny, not even interesting.

There’s very few books that I haven’t finished, once I pick them up, and I did finish this, although I don’t recommend it. Also, I wanted to include it the arts challenge (although I figure it’s cheating a bit, since that I can pop off 50 books pretty quickly and wouldn’t consider that to be fulfilling the arts challenge obligation).

2007 Canada Council Arts Challenge

Back in December, I received an email from Ingrid about the Canada Council for the Arts challenging Canadians to participate in 50 arts activities in 2007. Of course, I just noticed that I missed the registration deadline of January 15th, but what the hell — I’m doing it anyway, and not just because Ingrid’s suggesting a mid-year BBQ/sailing party to compare notes. (Why they would choose to be so exclusionary as to have a specific sign-up date, or not to provide a way to post your arts activities directly on their website, is a mystery, but this is the federal government that we’re talking about).

I’ll be blogging about my arts activities this year under the “arts challenge” category, so feel free to drop back and check how I’m doing.

A Viennese New Years

Train through Slovenia (Zagreb to Vienna)We arrived in Vienna on Friday, after an early morning train ride from Osijek to Zagreb, a stop-over of a few hours spent with friends in Zagreb, then a longer ride from Zagreb through the beautiful countryside of Slovenia and on into Austria.

We figured that we’d scout around and find a party to go to on the big night, so Saturday we strolled around Graben and Stephensplatz, and picked up a program for the city’s Silvester (New Years) celebrations. Reviewing it made us realize that the party was going to be the entire central core of Vienna: 11 separate stages spread throughout the core, ranging from the formally-dressed orchestra playing waltzes at Rathausplatz (city hall square) to a variety of live classical music at Graben to a rock-and-roll DJ at Kärntnerstrasse. Events kicked off at 2pm on Sunday with waltz lessons at Rathausplatz and kids programs at some of the other stages, meaning that our biggest problem was not going to be finding a party, but deciding which party to be at during which parts of the celebrations.

I started dropping the suggestion that we should go to the waltz lessons in the afternoon so that we could dance our way into the new year later, but Damir seemed immune to the suggestion. Considering that I’ve never seen him dance in our 4+ years together, I figured that I just needed to increase the pressure a bit. Finally, a bit exasperated, he said “but I already know how to waltz!”, a phrase that I would have never expected could come out of his mouth. Apparently, if you grow up in part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, you learn to waltz (several times) in grade school — who knew?

New Years gluwein mugsNew Year’s Eve day arrived, and we headed out in the afternoon through the centre of the city towards Rathausplatz for a bit of a waltz refresher. People had obviously been out on the street for some time, eating and drinking at the many booths selling bratwurst and Glühwein. We had a bit of a dance lesson, ate and drank around town, then headed back to our hotel around 6 for a Wiener-schnooze before the real party started. Looking out our hotel window to the northeast, we could see fireworks going off all over the city.

After 10pm, we were back out on the streets of Vienna, and it was incredible — definitely the biggest street party that I have ever seen. Not for those who dislike crowds: we had to push our way between people wherever we went, through Stephensplatz, all the way down Graben, past Am Hof and over to Rathausplatz. We stopped to watch stage performances several times along the way, including Rondo Vienna, an amazing group of young women playing violin, cello and keyboards in a most energetic fashion, and the Ensemble des Wiener Operettensommers.

Lights on GrabenAbove every street were amazing light creations, the ones on the Graben replicas of the chandeliers at the Opera House. Rathausplatz, filled with thousands of people, is too open for overhead light sculpture, but the Rathaus itself was lit from within and without, and people were sending up fireworks from the adjacent open areas. The orchestra played, and finally the countdown began. At midnight, fireworks went off, people kissed, the crowd cheered, and the orchestra struck up the Blue Danube waltz. With 10,00 other danceres and probably 100,000 onlookers, we waltzed our way into the new year.

Walking back to our hotel after 1am, the party showed little sign of abating. Many of the stages were playing until 2am, the food and drink stalls were open, and everyone was having a great time. I’m sure that many were out all night, but we managed to tuck in sometime after 2.

In the morning, the original reason for our choice of Vienna as a New Year’s spot: the Wiener Philharmoniker famous New Year’s Day concert. We never did manage to get tickets, although I bid on a pair on eBay until the price went above 400 Euro, but we made tea in our hotel room and snuggled back under the duvet to watch the live broadcast on TV. Another year, we’ll try for the tickets when they sell by lottery in January, and go back for the big Silversterpfad in Vienna.