THE WORLD PREMIERE OF ‘CHOIR PRACTICE’ STRONGLY CONVINCES --AND CREATES CONTROVERSY TOO
Stephen Chatman/Tara Wohlberg, CHOIR PRACTICE, Sheldon Baxter (William Stoker), Katie Miller (Dawn), Alireza Mojibian (Corey), Gwendolyn Yearwood (Heather), Isabella Halladay (Julia), Paula Berry (Marilyn), Rachel Stewart (Amy), Geoffrey Schellenberg (Richard), Scott Brooks (Dr. Dave), Duncan Watts-Brown (Kenny the Clown), Sierra Campbell (Diva), Jack Foster (Angry Man), William Grossman (Gerhardt), Leanne Kaufman (Sally), Tamar Simon (Adonia), conducted by Jonathan Girard; directed by Nancy Hermiston, UBC Old Auditorium, May 9, 2015
A new Canadian opera of any scale is to be heartily welcomed into discourse and Choir Practice is a tiny wonder; a scintillating and effervescent one act romp. Tara Wohlberg’s libretto faithfully probes the prides and pitfalls of any small community group of amateur musicians, and in doing so reveals a minefield of psycho-drama, sometimes acted out, sometimes repressed until explosive pressure triggers release. The story itself is simple: a Vancouver choir (circa 1985) wishes to compete at the national level (in Toronto, of course) but so far is stopped from doing so by their lack of self-awareness and artistic integrity, as induced mainly by the inadequacies of their director. At once, we are on familiar territory: the failings of a leader of a team come to permeate the attitudes of the entire group.
Wohlberg’s libretto allows for rich characterizations with simple materials. Her central character is the libertine choir director, Mr. William (Willy) Stroker, sung by Sheldon Baxter. Baxter is well suited to his role and sings it well, but a deeper dimension of male chauvinism perhaps eludes him. Hapless and unmusical, the portrayal of Stroker seemingly has to convey more of the effects of his undisguised sexuality on the people under him. In reaction to their leader’s ineptness, the female characters of the choir react like members of a jealous harem, clawing and spitting at each other, each vying for the title of most desirable, with the important exception of a blind soprano named Dawn. In counterpoise to Dawn is Heather, an overly-confident drunkard most ably sung by Gwendolyn Yearwood, a very convincing rabble-rouser. The presumptive candidate for the dubious distinction of sexual ‘favorite’ is the youthful and seductive Marilyn (sung by Paula Berry) who is saving her wiles not for her musical director but for a tenor named Corey (Alireza Mojibian) who is ‘easy on the eyes’. However, Corey cannot sing and accordingly cannot lend assistance to his nominative leader by reason of his own disability, a stutter. This disability is further symbolic of the neuroses and tensions that can be created in a group without effective leadership: each character is weakened and even the rules of love are turned on their ear!
Wohlberg’s creation gives a familiar story in a fresh new setting. The role of Mr. Stroker’s has its analogue in works of mythology: the ‘sick king’ whose sickness has, by dint of his title, tainted all that dwell within his kingdom, or in this case, the choir. As it is with Amfortas and Percival, so it is with Mr. Stroker and his incumbent blind hero, Dawn. However, before the latter can dispense her life-affirming boon to the choir, the dysfunctionality of the group also attracts other strange characters: a Clown, a Diva, an Angry Man, and a Belly Dancer all make appearances, perhaps concocted by Mr. Stroker’s own identity, and rendering him even more ‘blind’ to the reality confronting him. Stephen Chatman has written the part for the artistically accessible Diva as a challenging coloratura, the Clown as a basso profundo, whereas the belly dancer has no lines at all!
Choir Practice culminates in an all out orgy of childish demands on the part of the choristers which is finally quelled by Dawn, whose lack of physical sight is the clichéd indicator of deep spiritual understanding. With her fresh vision, she instructs the choir and its director on the gentle arts of harmony and all is made well within the ranks. Now armed with the knowledge of the right way to practice, the choir will inevitably reach its goal of competing successfully in Toronto.
Stephen Chatman’s music is light and playful, consistent with the frolicsome fabric of the proceedings. With a ‘classical’ story underlying it all, the composer obviously felt free to insert a variety of references from the musical canon. Quotes from Mozart, Wagner, Goodman, Fučík, and even some of the composer’s own works reward the attentive listener but they all fit very well with the stage action. Chatman’s choral writing style is not always to my personal taste. I find his arias tend to the melodically anti-formulaic and this sometimes gives the impression that they are a little too lofty and intellectual for the subject matter at hand.
As with many people, I was much looking forward to hearing the infamously-blue ‘Hanky Panky’ aria (still on YouTube), controversially excised from this performance on the grounds that the audience will not “appreciate the language” (see video and comments by Tara Wohlberg below). No matter: Chatman’s music and Wohlberg’s crystalline and original libretto still seemed to carry the day. The entire cast handled the comedic elements with aplomb, which helped give the action continuing interest and the whole work a feeling of cohesion. The only problem of this excision for the critic is that it removes the ability to fully evaluate the quality of Wohlberg’s creation relative to other texts of a similar genre with a similarly ‘bawdy’ dimension – and unfortunately that is a key artistic standard of judgement. To have the singing sometimes directed towards the back of the stage, rather than to the audience, seemed like a noticeably bizarre way of hiding the text, not bringing it to life.
It could not have been much of a stretch to turn UBC’s Old Auditorium into a community rehearsal space, since that is still its major function at UBC’s School of Music. The staging was very well done for a student production and difficult action-filled moments on stage were choreographed smoothly. The costumes were fun and well chosen for the characters, although I suspect some of their own clothing might have slipped into the mix as well. A most delightful evening of light opera and a fresh look at a familiar story.
© Kate Mackin 2015
COMMENT BY TARA WOHLBERG
The initial concept of Choir Practice was one of a whimsical, slap-stick one act comedy set in the recent past -- a scarcity in the opera world right now. As a classically-trained musician and poet, I have collaborated with composer Stephen Chatman on many occasions for choral texts, but thought the setting of a ‘choir practice’ had endless comedic and dramatic possibilities. I did extensive research on operatic forms and traditions and work with an uber-experienced local dramaturge Pamela Hawthorn. Her advice was invaluable in developing the structure from which the composer would later hang his skillful and entertaining music.
The placement of “Hanky Panky” is deliberate. It book-ends the mezzo aria "He's Only Just Arrived" as a companion piece. It is the last bit of comic relief, which serves to enhance both musical flow and the plot as it leads into the inspirational tone of the finale. It gives Corey his 'big moment' in a burlesque tango. Hanky Panky is part of "Love Songs" which was commissioned for Festival Vancouver (especially for local baritone Tyler Duncan) some years ago and it has been published by ECS Publishing, broadcast on CBC Radio and sung in Carnegie Hall without incident.
Six weeks prior to the world premiere, the composer was informed by the Opera Director that Hanky Panky would not be performed because "I do not think my audiences will appreciate the language...My audience will not react well to this piece..." There was no discussion with me. In fact, there is no profanity in the libretto, just wry, sexual innuendo of a type that still possibly persisted at the time (1985) in which the opera is set. As well, the aria "He's Only Just Arrived" was eventually staged in a fashion in which the singer faces the back wall during any of the flirtatious lines. There was also the clear insistence that surtitles not be used, even though surtitles are universally de rigueur and used in all other UBC Opera productions. To me, it seems unconscionable for a world premiere to pursue the artistic intent of making the audience hear as few of my words as possible!
I really do not know how this happened in 2015 on a university campus of international repute, since this is one place where in principle bold experiments can be tried out and welcomed with both tolerance and enthusiasm. Let's have the public conversation: if a university can spend valuable resources to establish that 'Get my leather stretched real tight' is essentially pornographic in content, then are they really focusing on artistic merit – or just moral cosmetics? Yet how can universities ever be the moral arbiter of the Arts? And what responsibility do they really have to protect an allegedly ‘fragile’ audience from both the bawdy and the comic? Both objectives are presumptuous and dangerous, and can only foster safe (and likely sterile) ‘entertainment’ rather than art. Was Richard Strauss’ Salome ripped apart at its premiere on the same grounds – or at least marked ‘PG’? Granted, it shocked audiences but, after its first performance in Dresden in 1905, it had been presented in another 50 other opera houses within two years. I think that the community must be the ultimate arbiter on a work of art and, if there is controversy, then perhaps everyone can learn from it.
In principle, the only thing that a university can do is make some professional judgment on whether an artistic creation is initially worthy of support, and if not, to refrain from sponsoring it. They cannot agree to perform a work such as Choir Practice, and then months later rewrite it to suit their own purposes, since the resulting product is then effectively a joint collaboration between myself and UBC. I am fairly certain that UBC doesn’t want to be listed as a co-author.
Tara Wohlberg (May 14, 2015)