Last week the Canadian Opera Company revealed a surprising series of commissions from Canadian composers: Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe paired with Monteverdi’s Il Combattimento de Tancredi e Clorinda and Lamento d’Arianna in October and November 2015, Harry Somers’ monumental opera Louis Riel for the 2017-2018 season, and finally a new opera by Serbian-Canadian composer Ana Sokolović for the 2019-20 season.
The reaction from Toronto’s new music community has been one of surprise and delight. There are only a handful of Canadian composers who are capable of such projects, but Monk Feldman and Sokolović seem well suited to rise to the occasion.
With works such as The Svadba Wedding and Six Voixs pour Sirenes (both commissioned by Toronto’s now defunct Queen of Puddings theatre), Ana Sokolović writes from the gut, and pushes the boundaries of traditional vocal writing. This is fierce, challenging music – and it is to the COC’s credit that they committed to it.
With music that can be described as quiet, static, and full of an intense intimacy, Barbara Monk Feldman is on the opposite side of the coin: she is not typically known for her vocal works, and her focus is primarily chamber music. But exactly how the COC’s lavish and extroverted productions will capture the essence of her music remains to be seen. Both Sokolović and Monk Feldman are not “opera composers”, so to say, but rather composers with individualistic artistry that carries them through any genre.
Besides the surprising and recent leaps of faith, the COC has been notorious about commissioning and staging main stage works from Canadian composers. When the COC announced that American-Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright had been commissioned to write a new work for their 2017-18 season, the backlash was intense, with many people accusing the COC of poor judgment and sacrificing artistic integrity for star power. Locally, the most scathing criticism came from Musical Toronto’s John Terauds, who wrote a highly critical article back in November 2013. Are these new commissions an attempt to make peace with Canada’s new music community; a sort of karmic re-balancing after the Rufus Wainwright commission? Definitely not, the capable craft of Sokolović and Monk Feldman is justification itself, and Harry Somers’ Louis Riel is arguably the most important work of Canadian opera.
I often ponder the nationalism of Canadian new music ensembles, who commission new works by Canadian composers, sometimes at the expense of a wider international palette. I cannot speak for the general opera-going public, but I wonder if they share the excitement of these announcements? After all, the (idealistic, utopian) bottom line is that opera lovers just want to hear good opera, and it is debatable how frequently Canadian composers are contributing quality works to the genre. By random comparison, the Deutsche Oper Berlin produced just one German opera this season, Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Regardless, good artistic production requires dialogues from all sides: from Canadian artists, the international classical community, from connoisseurs, purists and radicals. Larger artistic organizations like the Canadian Opera Company need continuing pressure from opposing sides if they are ever going to commission new Canadian music. So far the COC has done commendable work in promoting and hiring Canadian singers and directors, but why not the same level of support for the occasional Canadian composer? These big questions aside, it is exciting to read that the Canadian Opera Company is taking artistic risks with their next few seasons by commission Sokolović and Monk Feldman.