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Canadians abroad: Opera Atelier bridges east and west in Baroque style.

AS he stood backstage accepting congratulations and accolades after a thrilling opening night last November, Marshall Pynkoski looked slightly dazed. He was, first and foremost, taken aback at the genuine outpouring of appreciation from the audience. But what really had him shaking his head was the dramatic change of circumstance in which he and his company found themselves. "I just cannot believe that three weeks ago, we were performing Iphigenie en Tauride in Toronto." What a difference those short weeks made. From the cosy familiarity of Toronto's Elgin Theatre and a new production of Gluck's rarely performed work. Pynkoski now found himself halfway around the world in a cavernous auditorium, supervising his company's well-travelled production of Don Giovanni.

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What especially amazed the tall and athletic Pynkoski, who is known for his meticulous rehearsal process and exhaustive attention to detail, was how quickly the company had shifted gears from total immersion in the complexities of one production to another, given that most of the dancers, chorus and technical personnel were involved in both. Even several of the principal artists did double duty, including the title character of Mozart's drama giocosa, American baritone Daniel Belcher. They had begun rehearsing Don Giovanni with nary a day off, shipped the sets and costumes by air and sea, and then flew in to Seoul's Incheon airport in overlapping stages, all co-ordinated like a well-planned invasion. The last of the company arrived in the sprawling Asian mega-city with just five days to go before the November 25 opening night.

Though the timing gave Pynkoski and Co-artistic Director (and wife) Jeannette Zingg more than a few anxious moments, it was perfect for the presenter, the Seoul Arts Centre. The production was brought in as a grand finale to Celebration 2003, commemorating the 40th anniversary of Canadian-Korean diplomatic relations. The venue was suitably grandiose: the Opera House of the Seoul Arts Centre, a five-building complex with theatres, screening room, art gallery and the world's first and only dedicated museum of calligraphy. With funding from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Foreign Affairs, accommodations and transport assumed by the Arts Centre and a herculean effort by the staff of Opera Atelier (led by General Manager David Baile), everyone was confident the pieces were in place for a successful four-performance run.

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Two large questions loomed, however: How would the production rise to the standards to which the co-artistic directors aspired, given so little preparation time? And how would the citizens of Seoul react to the finished product? Opera Atelier, an internationally acclaimed company specializing in Baroque productions, has been received with rapturous reviews and standing ovations for dozens of Canadian productions ever since its first effort, The Choice of Hercules (Handel), in 1985. Almost from the beginning, the company had taken its signature stagings on the road. Audiences in France, England and Italy, along with several U.S. cities, have marvelled at the highly stylized vocabulary of gesture, along with the sumptuous period costumes (by the hugely talented Dora Rust-D'Eye), makeup and wigs. Gorgeous ballets are always a staple in OA's shows, choreographed with care and strict adherence to the appropriate style by Zingg. Whenever possible they have included authentic orchestrations played on period instruments, usually with Toronto's Tafelmusik Orchestra. Last year's trip to South Korea was the company's eighth international tour and fourth to Asia. The same production of Mozart's classic had already toured the length of Japan, and the company had previously presented Le nozze di Figaro in Tokyo and Singapore. While most elements of the Seoul production would be business as usual for the group, there were also, inevitably, compromises to be made.

"We were very pleased to use the Korean Symphony Orchestra for Don Giovanni," says Baile. "They were superbly prepared and played beautifully, and using them saved us the considerable effort and expense that transporting players and their valuable instruments would have required." Conductor David Fallis agrees the benefits of using the local orchestra outweighed the costs. "Yes, it would have been nice to perform the music with period instruments. Even when one gets the players to play stylishly and, especially, to lighten up, there are always limitations, especially in the winds and brass. But a lot of the players had studied in Europe and understood the techniques, and they were quite enthusiastic. In the end, I think it turned out wonderfully well."

The other major question was how this smallish production, presented in an intimate performing style, would reach the back of a 2,300-seat hall. The spectre of amplification loomed--not the electronic kind, thank goodness, but in terms of the performers having to expand their vocal output and make exaggerated movements. The authentic aspirations of Baroque and classical productions can be easily scuttled by the demands of a large theatre. Don Giovanni premiered in 1787 in a theatre with only 800 seats and the title character was played by a 23-year-old. Pynkoski was asked about this at a preview press conference attended by a large group of journalists and photographers from Seoul's five daily newspapers. He agreed it was a challenge, but insisted their approach to the opera would do most of the work for them. "We strive with our artists to build a strong connection with the audience. We don't perform this opera as though the audience weren't there; rather, we draw them in and make every effort to share the personal journeys of the characters with them. In this way, we feel we can succeed in creating an intimate atmosphere in any theatre, and we feel we've succeeded in that goal no matter where this production has travelled."

Pynkoski and Zingg also dealt with this problem in their production notes and made the point that their conceptual approach, plus careful casting, can enhance the authenticity of the work in any setting: "As opera houses grew larger throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, principal roles in Mozart operas were assigned to increasingly mature singers. Consequently, over a period of time, Don Giovanni turned into a dark, psychological drama dealing with a middle-aged man who hates women.... [Our Don] does not hate women; the problem--and the comic element--is that he adores every woman who crosses his field of vision."

Indeed, OA selected a youthful, attractive cast with uniform buoyancy in their portrayals and, to the last cast member, a lovely, unaffected sound. The poster boy for that kind of inclusive performance was the Don himself, Daniel Belcher, who played the role with irrepressible glee and a barely contained sense of mischief (an attitude, incidentally, he embodied offstage as well). He also attended the press conference and remarked on the vocal challenges. "A singer can only perform with their voice the way it is. If, as a young singer, you go out and try to make your sound bounce off the walls of a huge hall, you're doomed. If, however, you stay within your abilities but relish the experience, then the audience is drawn towards you and everything works."

The large press conference was only one part of an ongoing whirlwind that brought Opera Atelier hurriedly to opening night. The large facility certainly helped the company's cause. While Maestro Fallis worked diligently with the orchestra in one room, the local wig, makeup and wardrobe crews were being instructed in the care and handling of the incredibly detailed effects in another. The artists worked at every available opportunity. The dancers honed their detailed choreography under Zingg's watchful eye. There were special rehearsals in front of television cameras to promote the run. And there were also tense moments when the tight production schedule clashed with the Arts Centre's policy of rotating stage crews. For a while, it looked as if there would be a different set of stagehands for every rehearsal and performance, which would have been a stage manager's nightmare. Thanks to hasty yet delicate negotiations, the same group remained throughout the process.

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The compromises were made, the challenges overcome and the result can only be described as a triumph. The crowd roared with laughter at every comic moment (and there were many). The stage was flooded with applause at the end of every aria and ensemble. The ovation at the final curtain was long and passionate. None of those in attendance could recall a local audience responding so enthusiastically to an operatic production. Jah Lin Ahn, the Arts Centre's Director of Programming and the man most responsible for bringing the production to Seoul, reported that the follow-up ticket sales after the opening were the best in the Centre's history. The Canadian Ambassador to Korea, Denis Comeau, was beaming at the opening-night reception. "It was a wonderful performance ... [this] provides further evidence of Canadian excellence in the performing arts."

The success of the tour can only be attributed to the professionalism of all involved and their total commitment to Pynkoski's and Zingg's conceptual approach. They succeeded completely in drawing the audience towards them and their jewel of a production. A bond was formed that crossed the boundaries of three different cultures (Canadian, Korean and Mozartean), 10 time zones and hundreds of years.

The connection started with the restrained elegance and beautiful detail that is the hallmark of both Baroque opera and Asian culture. There is freedom that audiences and artists enjoy in such controlled artistic environments, but it can only emerge when all the elements are expertly knitted together. That such joy was expressed on both sides of the Seoul Arts Centre's curtain was a testament to the quality of Opera Atelier's entire production. It was all the more remarkable given the additional constraints of time and distance. In the end, it left Marshall Pynkoski shaking his head in wonder. His own joy would only be expressed when he finally had a chance to recover.

Michael Cavanagh is a stage director and librettist and was formerly artistic director of Edmonton Opera
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Author:Cavanagh, Michael
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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