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Q&A | Director Rob Kempson Talks About Electric Messiah 2020

By Hye Won Cecilia Lee on December 15, 2020

Soundstreams' Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Though nothing much has changed for the classics themselves, having lived in what must be the weirdest year in decades, we are no longer able to hold our canons in the way we used to. The traditions of gathering, sharing and performing are not presently available, we keep shuffling away from one another to keep a good distance, and dark concert halls are filled with deafening silence. However, never a stranger to innovation and metamorphosis, Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah 2020, promises us a renewed junction, connecting us to our beloved tradition of Christmastide Messiah.

A playlist of the familiar tunes such as Comfort Ye and Ev’ry Valley will be intermixed with new takes — including compositions by Slowpitch Sound and Libydo, and a new commission by Ian Cusson, O Death, O Grave. Even the tunes we think we know have been transformed by musicians who dug deep to make personal contributions through making arrangements and adding spoken words. In a sense, Soundstreams is staying quite traditional to themselves “As in past years, we once again look at the material with a new lens,” said Director Rob Kempson.

Taking the Messiah out of the Drake Underground, Rob and the crew created a full-length digital concert, where the pre-recorded audio will be presented with visuals filmed around Toronto. We asked Rob a few questions about Electric Messiah 2020.

Robert Kempson directs Soundstreams' Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Rob Kempson directs Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

How did it all fall into place in this strange year? Where did you go to create, having to walk away from the familiar Drake Underground?

I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with Electric Messiah since 2017. I’ve directed the show for the last two years in the Drake Underground, and when we realized that wasn’t going to be possible this year, the Soundstreams team leapt into action. Every single aspect of what we do has had to be reimagined, and the incredible Emma Fowler (at Soundstreams) has had to manage an avalanche of new logistical considerations. When we eventually arrived at the idea of making a film, I began sourcing locations by visiting some of the places that I had found inspiring during my summer of pandemic walks. There are lots of underappreciated sights in our own city, so I wanted to share some of those with the audience.

What was it like for you to direct EM, from live performance to a 50-minute-long film project?

I have never directed a film before, so I was really excited to learn and grow as a director in this medium. However, I don’t really think of this as a “short” music project, since the final film will run at just over an hour. Each number of the show was filmed in a different location throughout the city; it was a massive undertaking, and we planned it all to be shot in only three days!

Since the pandemic hit, I have been involved in a number of online theatre/film hybrid projects. Some of these have been performed live and some pre-recorded. Regardless of the exact medium, I have loved exploring what’s possible with multiple locations. As we spend so much time in our homes these days, the outside world (and different spaces) feel particularly exciting. I have so enjoyed exploring my city in these last nine months, then finding the right location for each of these numbers, and working with our cinematographer (Blake Hannahson) to create the right shot for our staging.

What does Messiah mean to you, especially in relation to Christmas?

I have sung bits of the Messiah for as long as I can remember. People like to think of it as a “classic,” but that’s only because it has been selected over and over again by the ruling class. To me, the Messiah represents a great jumping off point for exploration. It is familiar in some way to many people, but that familiarity asks to be juxtaposed against something new and innovative. Electric Messiah does just that; this project makes a case for the contemporary relevance of the Messiah, and that’s what I think all performance must do all of the time… Is it “Christmas”? I mean, Handel would tell you that it’s mostly about Easter, but I think at this point, the world has chosen to re-write that narrative a bit.

Treble Teiya Kasahara in Soundstreams' Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Treble Teiya Kasahara in Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah 2020 (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Having sung it personally, how did that experience influence your shaping of EM?

Personally, I can remember the first time I ever sang Ev’ry Valley — and it was at the church where I grew up. I had worked so hard on getting every note just right; the thing about that kind of detailed work is that it stays with you. At this point in my life, I could sing most of the score from memory, so I am particularly grateful to get to work on a project where we deconstruct that very score and ask questions about it from within.

If you could’ve asked for a Christmas gift for this production, what would it be?

Time. Budget is always just an opportunity to buy more time.

But that’s not a very fun answer. There are a few places where we would have liked to film that we couldn’t access because of budget, but to be honest, I think I’m happier in the end with the places we ended up. I guess the only other thing would be to have had a costume designer. I did a bunch of coordination with our very accommodating singers, so they look GREAT, but it would have been fun to see how a designer might interpret this work as well.

How is Christmas 2020 different for you, from all the other years?

So many Christmas traditions won’t be the same this year. My number one is the annual Christmas carolling party which I have hosted for the last 15 years with my best friend. My friends and I gather together (now with their children and spouses) to sing carols with whatever instruments and harmonies we manage at the time. You simply can’t replace the magic of singing together in the same room. It’s generally my favourite day of the whole year, so I’m really missing that this holiday season.

Any words for the audience at home?

I hope that this film can remind people of the great gifts we have in this city, in music, and in one another. I hope that this film is not a reminder of what we’re going through, but rather an escape from it. Electric Messiah has always been about re-invention, so this project is simply the 2020 expression of that idea.

When you sit down to watch EM2020, what drink would you have in your hand?

My go-to is an ice-cold glass of white wine, but to get myself in the mood, I think it’ll be a good old-fashioned hot toddy this year.


Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah, “a cinematic love letter to the city of Toronto, where we reflect this well-known music through the filter of our contemporary world,” will be streamed on 17 December 2020, at 8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Details.


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