SCRUTINY | Production Values Lift Gould’s Wall Above The Ordinary

By Arthur Kaptainis on August 11, 2022

L-R (clockwise): Roger Honeywell; Lauren Pearl; Conductor Jennifer Tung & musicians (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
L-R (clockwise): Roger Honeywell; Lauren Pearl; Conductor Jennifer Tung & musicians (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

Tapestry Opera: Gould’s Wall. Composed by Brian Current; Libretto by Liza Balkan; Directed by Philip Akin. Aug. 4 – 12, 2022, 8:30 p.m. Royal Conservatory of Music Atrium. Tickets here.

Many are the chances taken and boundaries breached these days in the name of opera. Tapestry, a Toronto company that treats innovation as its stock-in-trade, has combined something like psychoanalysis with rock climbing in Gould’s Wall, which is nearing the end of its run in the Atrium of the Royal Conservatory of Music. A divertissement for the eye if not the ear, the piece will surely be remembered as a hit, though not for what an opera traditionalist would regard as the right reasons.

The subject is Glenn Gould, played with surprising visual verisimilitude by the tenor Roger Honeywell. With a cap, rumpled trench coat and open-fingered gloves, he is a constant if relatively static presence on stage, sometimes standing, sometimes seated in his famous folding chair. The natural invitation is to regard the strictly nonlinear libretto of Liza Balkan as a stream of consciousness and the vast sandstone west facade of the old RCM building as a metaphor for the mind of the pianist (who remains, of course, the most famous alumnus of the institution).

Various characters sing from the windows and balconies of that wall, at the behest of director Philip Akin, but the central figure is Louise, an aspiring pianist who invokes Gould’s spirit and becomes something like his alter ego, joining the pianist in the opening minutes in an adversarial exchange with The Teacher, and later engaging Gould on subjects as relevant as audience applause and as trivial as the menu at Fran’s restaurant.

The main exploit of Louise, however, as played by aerialist-soprano Lauren Pearl, was to climb the wall and swing from window to ledge to window, singing all the while. With a harness and safety cord, of course, but in a manner that looked positively death-defying, and was often uncomfortable to watch. The purpose was to create another metaphor, for struggle and achievement. The effect as experienced from a balcony level seat was anything but abstract.

The Canadian cast projected sturdily, though with amplification, the high-altitude Atrium (in effect, the space between Koerner Hall and the original Conservatory building) not having been designed with acoustics in mind. Baritone Justin Welsh as The Teacher and mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig as Gould’s unduly solicitous mother (“be careful of germs”) made strong impressions.

Lauren Pearl, Roger Honeywell and Jennifer Tung in 'Gould's Wall' (Photo: Dahlia Katz)
Lauren Pearl, Roger Honeywell and Jennifer Tung in ‘Gould’s Wall’ (Photo: Dahlia Katz)

But, this was no night of bel canto, composer (and conductor) Brian Current preferring a declamatory style. Much of his turbulent instrumental music (for five pianos and an ensemble of 13 on the lower level) was made of restlessly climbing scales that evoked the hallway hubbub of the Conservatory, but seemed only fitfully connected to the elements of pathos in the text. Credit Current with not succumbing to the temptation of using the Goldberg Variations or other bits of Gouldiana as easy soundtrack material. Yet, it was surprising not to hear any traces in the score of the music the pianist loved so well.

As for the text, there were a few references to well-known events in Gould’s life. “The Brahms was a fiasco,” say some mean-spirited onlookers, obviously talking about the infamous 1962 performance with Leonard Bernstein of this composer’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Other scenes seemed to be imaginary, such as the encounter with another young piano student (The Girl, played affectingly by Alice Malakhov) who seeks Gould’s advice [see note below].

Balkan and Current manage a tone of apotheosis in this final scene, but for much of its 55 minutes the opera portrays the title character as fragile, indecisive and beset by cares. This does not correspond to the brilliance and defiant spirit of Canada’s favourite musical son or, it must be said, to the profile of a major character in any opera with a serious claim to repertoire status.

A mixed evening, then, especially for opera fans, but a theatrical undertaking worthy of Tapestry in its audacity and technical panache. Possibly this is all Gould’s Wall needed to be. The spectators on Wednesday evening, including many who bought standing room, certainly expressed approval.

It should be noted that Maniac Star, the RCM, Toronto Summer Music and the Glenn Gould School (where Current is director of the New Music Ensemble) all got credit as production collaborators.

The last performance of Gould’s Wall is on Friday.

UPDATE — Liza Balkan writes: “The penultimate scene in the piece involving the young girl is in fact not fictional. This encounter was discovered in The Great Gould, by Peter Goddard, published in 2017. I was fortunate enough to have had a conversation with the late Mr. Goddard, wherein we chatted about this young girl — now an older woman — and he gave me his blessing to use the story in our operatic meditation. As a very young girl, she did in fact call Gould on the phone  requesting his help with a piece of music. He did agree. I took a small amount of artistic licence. One example: it wasn’t Mozart that she had ‘issues’ with, but rather, Beethoven!”

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