On The Marriage Of Figaro, Dead Man Walking, And Tanya Tagaq At The Vancouver Opera Festival


Today is the last day of the Vancouver Opera Festival’s inaugural run and I am happy to say that I was succesfully woo’d by a whole bunch of great music. Mission accomplished my friends! In a mean fit of musical acrobatics, I somehow managed to give the star production of the festival, Verdi’s Otello, a wide berth and focus on some of the other gems surrounding it. It was partly a matter of convenience, but mostly a matter of personal taste – more on that another time.


Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro is usually hailed by opera buffs as one of the best – if not THE best – and while I disagree with them on almost every point about their art (I can’t stand Wagner, can hardly tolerate Verdi, and don’t have the stamina for eight curtain calls) I actually agree with them on this one. From the last dozen or so bars of the overture to the ensemble number in the finale I’m a gurgling mess of tears and blubbering.

It could be something to do with the pacing and hookiness of it, which is probably on the right track to my heart, but it also might just be that Mozart’s writing makes opera singers sound their best. How it does this, I have only my own rambling conjecture but I find myself really getting into the voice when I listen to Mozart. That is to say, I start thinking about the subtle colours of the opera voice, which ones I like, and which ones I don’t and think this is because the composer is presenting them in an uncluttered way. Part of it could be that Mozart’s orchestra was quite a bit smaller than what came later – a bigger orchestra will pump out more sound; even just sitting there, noisily turning pages, swapping out mutes, and mumbling incoherently – so the singers have a greater dynamic range to work in.

He also lives less in the extreme registers of the human voice which means things just ‘fit’ better: a singer is more restricted in how they do things when they’re singing a really high or low note. His mission might be his love for the voice and his success would be how well he shares it with people who don’t “get it” right away – which could be the ultimate lesson for composers everywhere.


It pains me to say that I was less impressed by Dead Man Walking – which puts me at odds with just about everybody who saw it. The subject matter has huge depth and relevance – not to mention some gorgeous staging and an exquisite ensemble number in the first act. But it suffers from a common contemporary opera malady: at no point does anybody on stage ever sing something resembling a song. Instead, the voices live in a state of recitative which feels like vocal purgatory to me. Because of this, the score is pregnant and waiting to burst but never really gets the opportunity to. This is a phenomenon that others have remarked on (Most notably, John Corigliano when discussing his approach for his own opera, Ghosts Of Versailles) so it’s not like this score owns the problem completely. I feel like contemporary music, in it’s haste to be outside the box, has rejected this fundamental building block of music, the song, without realizing how that’s like making an apple pie and leaving out the crust.


Tanya Tagaq is a true treasure and I will never forget her performance at The Vogue Theater – definitely one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen. Her vocal practice, based on Inuk throat singing, has an extremely wide palette of colour. At her most guttural, she is deep and eldritch but she also soars high, pristine, and clean like a folk singer. Backed by Jesse Zubot on violin, Jean Martin on percussion, and a fabulous pick-up choir they took us on a dark ride that touched on environmental destruction and Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women (The latter culminating in a haunting cover of Nirvana’s Rape Me that chills to the bone).

The set was largely improvised and really brought home for me how good improvised music can be when it’s at it’s best. Improvisers whom I love and respect have talked about improvisation as a journey with a goal of bringing an audience along for the ride. Tanya addressed this at the beginning of the show by asking us to leave our phones alone. She half joked that she was of a generation that did things to do them rather than show the internet that you did them; the point sort of being that instagramming a live performance is as useful as filming a painting. Everything you want to capture (ie. being there) is lost because disengaging from the performance to play with your phone effectively removes you from the audience (Where did you go?).

I’m really happy I got to attend the few shows that I did and look forward to more next year!