TORONTO - Last week, I had the glorious opportunity to spend three happy days in Toronto, where my poor, opera-starved soul got to spend all three evenings in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, that city's brand, spanking new opera house.
Opera is so important to me, that I wish I had some magic tool - a magic flute, perhaps - which could help you understand the artform's power, it's ability to both fire up and soothe the soul, so that you could join my campaign against the dark night of ignorance. Gosh, I sound like a Mozart opera, don't I?
Let me tell you a bit about how to visit Toronto, then something about each of the operas I heard there, and finally, some of the wonderful things I learned by listening to two of the talented young artists who sang major roles in one of the operas. It'll be fun, honest.
History can be found on the opera stage, as the Canadian Opera Company performs John Adams' 1987 composition ``Nixon in China.' Principal singers, from left, are Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger, Robert Orth as Richard Nixon, Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai, and Adrian Thompson as Mao Tse-tung.
I love visiting our good neighbor Canada, although it's more challenging to do it in February, than it is in the summer.
It occurred to me that driving on icy roads can be dangerous, and that one of the big drawbacks to visiting Toronto is that parking a car, there, is often hard to do, and always cruelly over-priced.
I spent literally a month, sincerely trying to find public transportation from Jamestown to Toronto. Airfares are easy to check, although not likely to be affordable. I found that flying from the Jamestown airport would cost between $1,600 and $2,000. Driving from here to Buffalo and flying from there would cost between $1,400 and $2,800. That wasn't a likely choice.
I tried to get help from a travel agent. I phoned two. One told me if I didn't want to fly, they couldn't help me. The other said they might be able to do something about trains from Buffalo, but I had trouble getting through to them and they didn't sound confident, so I gave up that route.
I like trains, and I've gone to Toronto by train from both Buffalo and from Niagara Falls, Ontario. Amtrak said that for about $100, round trip, they would take me from their station, near the Galleria Mall, to Union Station, in downtown Toronto. One train left just after 3 p.m. and was scheduled to arrive in just over 90 minutes. The second left around 5 p.m. and expected to arrive just past 7:30. Since my first opera started at 7:30 p.m., only the earlier train was a possibility. Coming home, there was a train at 8:30 a.m., planning to arrive back in Buffalo at 10:35 a.m., and one at 10:40 a.m., expecting arrival back at 1:40 p.m. Either would work, the second was more promising.
But then, I talked with several people who had made the trip by train, and I remembered the truly memorable time when my train from Buffalo got held up at the Canadian border, and didn't arrive for five hours. Some of the people I talked with had experienced no problem, but some had experienced very long and destructive delays.
I know that trains from the Canadian side of the border don't need to cross the border, and they offered to take me on a senior citizen's fare for about $60, round trip, although either I had to go a day in advance, or I had to leave before dawn, then get to Toronto and wander the city with my luggage, until I could get into my hotel, where the check-in time was 3 p.m. Coming home, I had to leave in the early hours, or after dinner, arriving around 10 p.m.
I made a total of 24 calls and e-mails, trying to arrange buses, but didn't succeed. I ended up driving.
One of the great things about the computer era is how easy it is to compare hotel rates. Sometimes, it's possible to get very good deals. Since the first time I visited Toronto, I've yearned to stay at the King Edward, a luxury hotel on King Street. I've walked past and pressed my nose against the glass, wishing I could walk into their beautiful lobby, and belong.
This time, by some miracle, I got a room there for less than $100 per day. It was only $3 per night more than the budget place where I usually stay in the city. Never were $3 better spent. It was a wonderful place to stay. To get to the opera, I walked out the front door, walked half a block, entered the subway, and took the train, right into the basement of the Four Seasons Centre. It was easy, weather-proof, and fast.
Consider it food for though, if you're thinking of going.
NIXON IN CHINA
Canadian Opera Company, which performs a long and exciting season in Toronto, each year, operates on the extremely rare situation that they would like people to see and hear their performances, so if you're thinking of coming to one or more, they'll try and help you to arrange it.
The company performs their operas, usually, in pairs, for example, so it's possible to see both in two, adjacent days. Today, they're just finishing up a run of John Adams' 1987 work ''Nixon in China,'' about the presidential visit which very much created the modern world. On alternating days, they were doing a production of Mozart's ''The Magic Flute.''
I sent a tentative e-mail to the company's always-competent press relations staff, and suggested that I would like to write about their productions, but being from out of town, I needed some suggestions on what they involved and how I could get connected to them. Shockingly, they wrote back with a number of suggestions and offers of assistance.
A word of wisdom to organizations who have opera companies, and who aren't trying to destroy them: When people indicate interest in seeing and hearing your performances, help them do it.
Among their suggestions was that if I came up on a Thursday, I could see what is called a Studio Performance of ''Magic Flute,'' followed by a full professional performance of the same opera on the following day, followed by a performance of ''Nixon'' on the third day. They volunteered to set up interviews with singers, directors, designers, or whatever I wanted. It worked.
Many opera companies have groups of young professional singers, who may perform smaller roles and who serve as understudies for the professional singers. In return, the company often arranges Studio Performances, in which they actually get to sing the role they have been understudying. They already have the scenery designed and created, the orchestra rehearsed, so the productions are less costly than an entire separate production for young artists.
The human voice typically grows and develops, if the singer practices and takes care of it. Performances given by young singers often don't have the kind of vocal firepower which more experienced artists can muster. On the other hand, the young singers have far more energy, as a rule, and pour it into their performances.
Often, they are more appropriate in physical appearance than more mature singers, to be young lovers, dragon slayers, tempting sirens, and the like. I've never regretted attending a Studio Performance.
American composer John Adams has made a very successful career out of turning actual history into moving and powerful operas. About a year ago, we wrote about his ''Dr. Atomic,'' about the first explosion of a nuclear bomb. His ''The Death of Klinghoffer'' deals with the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and the murder of a wheelchair-bound passenger by the terrorists.
Here, he has joined with librettist Alice Goodman, to give historical perspective to the first visit of President Richard Nixon to the country he had called ''Red China'' all his life, and against which he had advocated and demanded vast expenditures in money and weaponry to oppose.
There are six principal characters. Note that the text was created before the change to contemporary spellings of Chinese words. The chorus portrays the Chinese people, nearly all of whom wear the familiar shapeless uniforms with ''Mao jackets,'' and they carry the classic ''little red books,'' filled with the Chairman's official sayings.
The American characters are the former president himself, his wife, Pat, and his Secretary of State, German-born Henry Kissinger. The Chinese characters are Chairman Mao, himself; his premier, Chou En-lai; and his wife, Chiang Ch'ing.
There really isn't a plot, so much as a narrative. Each character at times seems out of sync - perhaps even foolish. All of them seem solid and intelligent at other times.
In the first scene, the leaders try to talk, but both tend to fall back on catch phrases and ill-informed generalizations. At age 79, Mao is feeble, and tends to philosophize. Kissinger treats the president like an untalented student, along for the ride, against the better judgment of the Harvard Prof.
In the second act, Mrs. Nixon tours rural sites, including the Great Wall, plus a health clinic, a pig farm, etc. She comes off as well-meaning, but far beyond her depth, yearning for a simple life as she knew in her youth.
Mao's wife clearly envisions the day, after her husband's departure, when she expects to bring about the rest of the Communist Revolution, which she feels he has allowed to stop too soon. Chou feels his age and dreams of retirement, wondering if all his life's work has truly accomplished anything.
They all attend a play, where Pat Nixon comes off as the hero of the day, stepping in among the actors out of pity for a suffering character, while Mme. Mao rants about weakness and waste.
At the end, the couples dance, each wondering if their lives and actions have meaning.
Adams' music is minimalist, with long periods in which the same musical phrase is repeated time after time, then changed by one note and repeated again. The driving rhythms and the musical power are thrilling for a while, although it lacks beauty, and can grow tiring.
Robert Orth's Nixon was solidly sung, if not powerfully so. His acting highlighted both the strengths and weaknesses of his character.
American soprano Maria Kanyova was a delight as Pat Nixon, soaring into the stratosphere, yet always maintaining an element of fragility.
Thomas Hammons was the original Kissinger, back in 1987, and still owns the role, acting superior and always planning something.
Director James Robinson took a very different turn from the Met's recent production, directed by Peter Sellars. He used televisions, all over the stage, representing the world, peering into the little conversations and interactions on the stage, through the cameras of the media. Sadly, although my seat was in the front half of the house, the screens weren't big enough for me to know what they were showing. I'm sure the people in the balconies had no idea.
Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado got the most from the powerful but challenging score. I've known conductors in minimalist music to lose their place, completely.
If you go to the opera for pretty music which enfolds your emotions, this isn't a work for you, but it brought opera into the late 20th century, with power and a bit of flash.
One of the most important signs of a work of art is that it can be viewed from many points of view, and can speak profoundly to people who are very different, from one another.
Mozart's ''The Magic Flute'' is a children's fairy tale. It's a romantic love story. It's a slapstick comedy. It's a morality production, highlighting the importance of thought and study over superstition and ignorance.
It's a revenge tale. It's a morality production, forcing the audience to judge for themselves whether the characters act wisely or foolishly. It has characters whose parts are written so they can be sung by actors who don't have elaborate voices, and it contains some of the most difficult singing in all of opera.
It's all these things at once, and it's simultaneously inspiring and delightfully entertaining.
Director Diane Paulus has set the opera in the formal gardens of a rich man's home, during the late 18th century, when the opera was written.
Designer Myung Hee Cho gives the audience an assist by color coding the cast. The loving couple wear pink and blue. The comic characters wear green and brown. The baddies wear black leather. The noble creatures wear white and gold.
The plot presents Tamino, a prince (in blue,) who is being chased by a dragon. Exhausted, he faints, but he is saved by the three leather-clad ladies of the Queen of the Night. The black-clad queen invites him to show his gratitude by rescuing her (pretty in pink) daughter, who has been kidnapped by a man named Sarastro, whom she describes as a demon.
She gives him a magic flute to help protect him on his journey, which she says can charm and calm the wildest beast. She forces a silly man, half-human, half bird, to accompany the prince. She gives him a set of magic bells, which has similar qualities to the flute.