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BANFF | Scrutiny: Kopernikus Heralds Opera In The 21st Century

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Kopernikus at Banff Centre (Photo: Rita Taylor)
Kopernikus at Banff Centre (Photo: Rita Taylor)

This summer, Musical Toronto shadowed Banff Centre’s refreshed classical music programs over nearly two and a half weeks. This article is part of our BANFF series chronicling their rebrand, featuring notable faces of this year’s edition along the way.

After three years of “transadaptated” and time-warped Mozart, this year Joel Ivany’s Open Space residency at Banff Centre has discovered more recent material: Claude Vivier’s intriguing and ambitious chamber opera Kopernikus from 1979, and with it a surprising comfort with the unaltered text.

The slightly awed production team (Ivany: “This may be the greatest work of Canadian chamber opera.” Topher Mokrzewski: “Why qualify it?”) took an unfamiliarly reverent approach to the score. If the trombone player is written as playing the crotales, then nobody else will touch them. What they did add were new perspectives, inviting Dene singer Leela Gilday as dramaturg, and choreographer Matjash Mrozewski, who created a gestural language to unite the singers, musicians, and dancers. And they set the performance in reverse with the audience onstage facing a hill of seats and scaffolding.

The opera has no plot and is more gibberish than French words, but it has an anchor, a young woman called Agni who was sung intensely by Danielle MacMillan. Agni is probably dead, and as she wanders through a harmlessly ghoulish afterlife, she receives messages from friends of her dreams like Lewis Carroll, Merlin, the Queen of the Night, Tristan and Isolde, and Mister Mozart. They speak in poems when they speak any language at all, and you might miss some of them. Characters are not always introduced and roles drift like possessive spirits—they inhabit one singer and then emerge from the bell of a trombone. Kopernikus is like listening to a colony of ants, and the best moments in this production came from a complete embrace of this unfocused attention.

Voice is just another instrument in Vivier’s kit, and the work is full of playful blub blubs and wah wahs. Kopernikus is subtitled “Rituel de la mort” but you could add “as imagined by a child.” This is a compliment. Vivier found a way to explore death without fear (“ça sera doux comme une maman, la mort”) or pretension—except for the ending, a jabber of scientific quotation that sounds like a cage full of professors eating speed.

With few individual lines longer than a sentence or two, singers rarely distinguished themselves or had to pass the typical operatic endurance test. In the rock-solid cast the women might have edged out the men in beauty of tone and unforced presence: Jennifer Taverner, Katie Miller, and Danika Lorèn were powerful. In the past, musicians were shared with other musical residencies at the Centre but this year the production had a dedicated orchestra of seven: the additional confidence was palpable, and memorizing scores freed them to join the dance.

Kopernikus at Banff Centre (Photo: Rita Taylor)
Kopernikus at Banff Centre (Photo: Rita Taylor)

As Agni attunes to her new world, she trades an orange cocktail dress for the working-class blues that are its uniform (interdimensional space is janitorial) and she begins to join the ritual without necessarily understanding what is going on. The audience had a similar experience. We were challenged by a work that never had much focus and loses it as Agni recedes. Fans of dance may not even notice; they are used to finding their own fascination in onstage movement, but opera-goers (and opera producers) can have other reactions. It is hard to let go.

While musicians, singers, and the two dancers wandered through the seats or clambered over scaffolding and the production treated them more or less equally—like musical atoms—it worked brilliantly. My attention swelled to fill the space left in the opera. But an unhealthy rhythm developed in the last quarter hour when spotlights increasingly paired the singer of the moment with a respondent—usually Agni looking intrigued, or the pair of dancers. This narrowing of focus felt like overreaction, or a loss of confidence in the work’s ability to keep our attention. At 70 minutes, Kopernikus is not long enough to need the help—though it’s possible I don’t represent a typical tolerance for weird opera.

As good as the “Ivany Technique” was at finding new delights in the Mozart/Da Ponte marvels, it is a good sign that this year’s residency took on a new kind of challenge. Banff is our de facto national opera lab, and its claim to the title must be renewed each year with fresh thinking. As the program continues to grow, it will have to avoid the temptations of standardizing its approach and of always working with the same nice people.

Without witty wordplay, opera returns to the fundamentals of bodies in space making noises. It’s not quite the universality myth that plagues contemporary ‘spiritual’ works—this is definitely a piece from 1979 by a Quebec-born, Catholic-raised student of Stockhausen—but that was always a false goal. Kopernikus is astonishing and that is enough, give the damn thing a national tour and let’s stop pretending that great Canadian opera has to tell stories from tourist brochures.

Kopernikus is more complex, and much more original. It is a ceremony that implicates the audience, sometimes in an overwhelming way. Between visits from Tristan and Isolde and our arrival at a Mayan river, the performers solemnly walked out and surrounded us. For a moment of exquisite tumult, voices and textures came from all directions. It was as if the opera had opened its mouth and tenderly swallowed the world.

#MUSICALTORONTO

Follow MT on their adventures in Banff HERE.

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Lev Bratishenko

Lev Bratishenko has written for Abitare, Canadian Architect, Cabinet, CBC Music, Gizmodo, Icon, Maclean’s, Mark, Triple Canopy, and Uncube. He reviews classical music for the Montreal Gazette and was a 2013 Online Editor-in-Residence at Abitare. Lev studied architecture and art history at Yale University. In 2013 he was the first Canadian to receive a USC/Getty Arts Journalism Fellowship. He lives in Montreal and at: www.yesyesyes.ca
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