The history behind an unknown-opera

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Introducing Claude Vivier (Pt.3): a three-part series on the life and works of Claude Vivier by Against the Grain’s Media Attaché, Michael Zarathus-Cook

On April 4th 2019, Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus will mark the latest occasion of the incredibly long arc in the production history of one of Canada’s most prolific operas. In the forty years between it’s premiere at the University of Montreal and it’s upcoming AtG premiere in Toronto, Kopernikus has toured the globe from Argentina to Paris and London to Amsterdam; and found its most recent Canadian stage at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in the Margaret Greenham Theatre. That Banff production was a workshop by AtG’s Artistic Director, Joel Ivany, and was praised in 2017 by the Calgary Herald as ‘the ideal opera of the future’. Stephan Bonfield, in that same article for the Calgary Herald, projected Kopernikus to be an opera ‘both for our times and perhaps, even possibly, for five hundred years from now’, indeed the simplicity and ambiguous spirituality at the core of this opera makes it an ideal candidate for posterity. Yet, in order for a work to remain available for the inspiration of future Canadian composers, it relies as much on it’s own merit as on the active endorsement of the arts communities and councils of each successive generation. Kopernikus is entering into its second generation of audiences, and it’s time for it (and its composer) to achieve the same renown in English Canada as it has enjoyed in Quebec and elsewhere outside of Canada.

“His music really resembles no other, and he puts himself right on the fringe of all trends. His music, of a direct and disruptive expression, could bewilder only those hard-hearted people who are unfit to categorize this independent man of genius. Claude Vivier found what so many others have sought for, and still seek: the secret of a truly new simplicity” — Musicologist Harry Halbreich, Harmonie-Panorama Musique, April 1983.

Back here in Toronto, rehearsals for the April 4th premiere are underway, with AtG’s Music Director, Topher Mokrzewski, reprising his role as conductor. Matjash Mrozewski who, in the Banff production “created a gestural language to unite the singers, musicians, and dancers” (Ludwig van Toronto), will once again take on the choreography for the ensemble. That ensemble is a cast of two mezzo-sopranos and two sopranos; a bass, baritone and bass-baritone; as well as two dancers who in the last production imparted “an air of ecstatic rapture to the piece” (Opera Going Toronto). Danielle MacMillan will also be returning to her role as Agni—“a fire spirit of ideal protean innocence” (The Calgary Herald)—the centerpiece around which orbits the rest of the cosmic ensemble.

The role of Agni was created by Jocelyne Fleury-Coutu, one-third of the creative triumvirate that helped bring Claude Vivier’s vision to life at the University of Montreal almost. The other two were: Marthe Forget, who staged the premier (and died 12 years ago); and Lorraine Vaillancourt as conductor and musical director. In the subsequent years after Vivier’s death in 1983, Vaillancourt was instrumental in the various productions of Kopernikus, beginning in Montreal and thereon to Paris. Her interview for AtG’s upcoming production was a revelation of Vivier’s character and a recollection of the unique character of his only opera: “…there’s not really a narrative, it is a ritual in an invented language, wherein the main characters, apart from Agni, are the passage, and eventually become the music (yes, the music!)”.

A short history of the international productions of Kopernikus

May 8-9 1980: (world premiere) Monument national by the Atelier de musique
contemporaine and the Atelier de jeu scénique of the University of Montreal
July 5-6 1985: (UK premiere) Almeida Theatre by Contemporary Chamber
Orchestra. London, United Kingdom
1986-1989: Les Événements du neuf, Montreal
1989: Les Événements du neuf, Paris
Sept-Oct 1990: Van East Cultural Centre, Vancouver New Music Society,
Vancouver
April 14 2008: Atelier de musique contemporaine de l’Université de Montréal, Salle Claude-Champagne / Lorraine Vaillancourt, Montreal
June 7-29 2008: Universität der Künste Berlin, Germany
Oct-Nov 2012: Holst-Sinfonietta – Christuskirche, Young Opera Company,
Freiburg, Germany
April 15-19 2014: De Nederlandse Opera – Boekmanzaal, Amsterdam,
Netherlands
May 11-14 2014: Ensemble oktopus für musik der moderne – Reaktorhalle,
München, Germany
June 12 2016: (American Premiere) Roomful of Teeth / Eric Dudley – Libbey Bowl,
Ojai, California, USA
June 6-8 2017: Margaret Greenham Theatre, Against The Grain Theatre, Alberta,
Canada
August 2 2018: (Argentinian premiere) Americas Society / Sebastian Zubieta
Festival Nueva Opera de Buenos Aires, Argentina
December 4-19 2018: Ensemble l’instant donne, Roomful of Teeth, Theatre de la
ville, l’Espace Cardin, Paris, France
Jan-Feb 2019: Mitglieder des Internationalen Opernstudios der Staatsoper
Unter den Linden, Alter Orchesterprobensaal, Berlin, Germany

Against the Grain Theatre’s Kopernikus premieres at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainstage on April 4th, and runs till April 13th.