Oddly Enough, Schafer Non-opera Makes Good Opera

Rare treat: Parts of R. Murray Schafer’s massive, twelve-part ‘Patria’ were mounted by Toronto’s Soundstreams.
The cycle has never been performed complete. (Production photos by Trevor Haldenby)
By Colin Eatock

TORONTO — The Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has never much liked opera, and he has taken pen in hand to explain exactly why:

Composer R. Murray Schafer (André Leduc)

“The waste of capital is more conspicuous in opera than in any of the other arts. It is also the art form most seriously hampered by the Hollywood star system. And it has taken upon itself the task of perpetuating a good many works for their musical values alone, regardless of the fact that dramatically, and in other ways, they no longer excite. Yet there it stands in the midst of society with the appetite of a dinosaur, fed by blowzy socialites.”

For his own staged works, Schafer coined the term “theater of confluence,” which he describes as “a kind of theatre in which all the arts may meet, court, and make love.” Armed with this quasi-Wagnerian ethos, he has created a massive, twelve-part cycle called Patria, begun in 1966 and completed in 1990, that dwarfs Wagner’s Ring cycle.

However, Patria has never been done as a complete cycle. And it probably never will be, as some of its component works are notoriously difficult to stage. Most are site-specific: Several must be performed outdoors, in forests, or on a wilderness lake. Others that could be done indoors require a space much larger than most conventional theaters provide.

‘Odditorium’ requires a singing head, here soprano Carla Huhtanen.

Because of these willful impracticalities, Schafer’s works haven’t been mounted often, and even in Canada they are more known of than known. That’s why Odditorium, staged by the Toronto-based presenter Soundstreams, was a rare treat — and just the kind of thing that’s needed to make more people aware of Schafer’s massive oeuvre. Presented March 2-5 at Crow’s Theatre, the show featured four excerpts from Patria, staged by director Christopher Abraham, with music direction by John Hess.

Accordionist Joseph Macerollo controlled “the head” with quirky riffs.

“La Testa d’Ariadne,” which opened the show, was the oddest piece in Odditorium. Excerpted from Patria 3: The Greatest Show, it featured just two performers: accordionist-speaker Joseph Macerollo and the head of soprano Carla Huhtanen. I say “the head” because that’s all that could be seen of her, protruding through a hole in a table to give the illusion of a severed head. Macerollo explained that she was being held between life and death through “secret science.” He proceeded to “control” the head with his instrument, playing quirky phrases that “caused” Huhtanen to hoot, squawk, and screech, before Macerollo wandered off stage playing a paraphrase of “Death and the Maiden.” The whole thing was brilliantly executed, with some welcome touches of humor.

Then things got serious. “Tantrika,”(also from Patria 3) is a kind of extended vocalise, sung by mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, accompanied by percussionists Ryan Scott and Daniel Morphy. Ludwig’s performance was taut and urgent, as she skillfully negotiated the extended range of the piece. “Tantrika” also brought two dancers — Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt — to the stage area to perform a lithe and erotic pas de deux.

Andrea Ludwig, in ‘Trantrika,’ sang of the sun’s night journey.

Ludwig and Scott remained on stage for “Amente-Nufe,” an aria for mezzo-soprano and percussion from Patria 6: Ra. The text, in ancient Egyptian, evoked the sun’s nighttime journey from West to East — a journey accompanied by mysterious Ur-sounds from Ludwig. The piece was also a virtuosic display for Scott, as he deftly negotiated a vast array of bells, cymbals, and gongs.

Similarly, “The Crown of Ariadne” (from Patria 5, of the same title) was a showpiece for harpist Judy Loman. For this six-movement work, Schafer asks the harpist not just to pluck strings, but also to strike various small percussion instruments. (A performance by another harpist, Milana Zaric, can be seen on Youtube.) Loman took all of this in stride, along with the tone-bending and de-tuning of her instrument called for by Schafer.

Nann and Wyatt returned to the stage in “The Crown of Ariadne” for an even more erotic and feral pas de deux. This was the one aspect of Odditorium that I don’t think worked very well. Their intermittent presence made Odditorium neither a dance piece nor not a dance piece.

Dancers Andrea Nann and Brendan Wyatt in ‘The Crown of Ariadne’ pas de deux.

So what, exactly, was Odditorium? It’s perhaps ironic that a composer who has struggled mightily against the conventions of traditional opera could be so well served by an opera excerpts concert. Although dressed up as a “cabinet of curiosities,” with plenty of bells and whistles, that is what Odditorium was at its core.

Colin Eatock is a Toronto-based composer and critic. He is the author of Mendelssohn and Victorian England and Remembering Glenn Gould. He has written for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Houston Chronicle, and many other publications. He also teaches at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music.