fri 31/10/2014

theartsdesk in Toronto: Luminato Hosts Wainwright and Malkovich | Dance reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk in Toronto: Luminato Hosts Wainwright and Malkovich

The Canadian festival could be more illuminating

Operatic history of Aids: Peter McGillivray embraces Neema Bickersteth in Dark Star Requiem
Operatic history of Aids: Peter McGillivray embraces Neema Bickersteth in Dark Star Requiem
To get a feel for whether an arts festival has truly penetrated a city’s psyche, it helps to strike up a conversation with local Starbucks baristas. That’s why I was grateful to be asked one recent evening in Toronto, “So what exactly is Luminato?”As the green-aproned server handed me a post-show cup of tea, I thought, good question: what is Luminato? Four years after the festival’s founding, it seems many Toronto residents remain unsure. I explained that it’s an arts festival with many different events, including performances at nearby theatres. As it happens, I had just come from a Luminato show featuring the actor John Malkovich.“John Malkovich? I love John Malkovich!” piped up a nearby barista.

“Did you know he’s across the street?”

“No way? Really?”

Yes way. Really. But if the big fan a block away hasn’t a clue, I would argue that a festival like Luminato still has marketing work to do. From the very first brainstorming sessions in 2003, organisers envisioned a festival that was city-wide and multi-disciplinary. The 2010 version has boasted more than 150 events, most of which were free, over 10 days in June. Total budget: $12 million, including $2.5 million in federal recession stimulus. (John Malkovich in The Infernal Comedy pictured below.)

The-Infernal-ComedySeveral Luminato commissions have been well received in other cities, including the Monty Python oratorio Not the Messiah and Nevermore, a Poe-inspired theatre piece scheduled to run in London and New York next summer. Another commission, Norman, has been performed on four continents. Which is great. But trying to explain that Norman is a dance/multimedia work by an experimental theatre company from Montreal about Canadian National Film Board founder Norman McLaren does get a bit unwieldy. More succinctly: hard-to-define works have become Luminato’s hallmark. Or as CEO Janice Price is fond of saying, “We want to be about the intersection.”

On opening night, festival goers' choices included a one-man music and theatre piece starring Malkovich, the world premiere of a chamber oratorio about AIDS, and an evening of post-modern Australian dance theatre. Day one found me cabbing directly from the AIDS requiem to an after-party sponsored by Giorgio Armani. Inside the glowing white tent, black-clad, swarthy-looking men passed out samples of pricey cologne. No rugged Mounties here. So why would a high-end Italian designer sponsor a Canadian arts festival?

Armani is one of 30 brands owned by L'Oréal, a makeup conglomerate with a significant Canadian presence. In 2007, the company signed a multi-year sponsorship agreement. Very generous, but confusing for uninitiated locals. Each marketing poster, ad or brochure features a female face of indeterminate race, with Luminato scrolled across the top and L’Oréal across the bottom. Unless you read the fine print - “Festival of the Arts+Creativity” - it’s easy to mistake Luminato for a new line of foundation.

The word Luminato is a construct of marketing etymology. “We needed a name,” Price said. “We did not want to be the Toronto Festival of the Arts.” That moniker could be confused with a little September shindig called the Toronto Film Festival. In research studies, the name Luminato scored big with all demographic groups. Older concert-goers thought it sounded classy and Italian, younger folks thought it was hip. Most importantly to Torontans, it included the all-important suffix “-to”.


When it comes to artistic planning, Price and her creative team must please a tricky triumvirate. The festival is Toronto’s first, Canada’s second, and the world’s third. Yet there were no North American models for city-based multidisciplinary arts festivals. From day one, Luminato’s leaders sought out help from overseas, including Graham Sheffield, the Barbican’s artistic director. Price proudly calls Manchester a sister festival, and the two artistic teams continue to scheme.  When the Metropolitan Opera scrapped plans to stage an opera by indie torch singer Rufus Wainwright, the Manchester Festival and Luminato stepped in as co-commissioners.

Wainwright has dual Canadian-American citizenship, and in Toronto last week, one couldn’t help but sense a bit patriotic gloating. If America rejected Rufus, well then, Canada would welcome his opera with open arms. The opening night for Prima Donna attracted a slew of Canadian celebrities, relatives from the vast Wainwright-McGarrigle clan and drag queens dressed as the opera’s protagonist.
As the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterwegger, Malkovich was appropriately unsettling. He greeted the audience with charm and humour, then launched into his life story

In this third iteration, Prima Donna had a pared-down set and two strategically cast Canadian baritones. Janis Kelly was still valiantly filling the role of fading soprano Régine Saint Laurent, but here she gets a few extra laughs. Chuckles petered across the Elgin Theatre when Saint Laurent affirmed that she is originally from Quebec - not unlike the opera’s composer. And her name?  Not a marketing tie-in for Yves Saint Laurent (another L'Oréal brand) but an allusion to the mighty river east of Montreal. A post-performance toast gave Wainwright a chance to applaud his hosts and pooh-pooh the Met. “Opera is a very fickle thing,” he said. And coming from such a diva of a pop singer, that was saying something.

Prima Donna enjoyed a four-night run at the Elgin, a 1914 vaudeville palace deemed a National Historic Site in Canada. It’s well restored and impeccably maintained. A few blocks away, century-old Massey Hall moulders. It’s hard to believe this decrepit-looking venue for rock bands was once home to a Toronto Symphony conducted by Seiji Osawa. Hard to believe, that is, until you hear a period ensemble like the Vienna Academy Orchestra, directed by Martin Haselböck, fill the same space with cleanly articulated music.

Watch Wainwright talk about Prima Donna on Canadian TV



Canada is the 11th country to host The Infernal Comedy, an evening-length work for John Malkovich, orchestra and two sopranos (Bernarda Bobro and Marie Arnet). It travels to the Barbican next year for its first UK showing, and is the sort of event that draws a diverse, curious crowd. As the Austrian serial killer Jack Unterwegger, Malkovich was appropriately unsettling. He greeted the audience with charm and humour, then launched into his life story: how the child of an Austrian woman and an American soldier spent 15 years in prison for murder, wrote several books, got freed for good intellectual behaviour and then proceeded to kill 11 prostitutes. Each monologue was punctuated by an aria or orchestral interlude. For example, after Malkovich mock-strangled one compliant soprano with a bright red brassiere, the other came forward to sing Ah, perfida, Beethoven’s ode to a woman scorned in love. How touching.

Perhaps the only people listening to music and having fun during Luminato’s opening weekend were those who didn’t pay a penny. Free outdoor concerts abounded, and the festival didn’t skimp on booking fees. The likes of Béla Fleck and Salif Keita drew thousands to public parks. But back indoors, doom and gloom without a headlining movie star proved a tougher sell. The world premiere of Dark Star Requiem less than half-filled the new 1,100-seat Koerner Hall at the Royal Conservatory.

Two_Faced_BastardDark Star, a fascinating, complex project by Tapestry New Opera, paired Newfoundland composer Andrew Staniland with poet and activist Jill Battson.  Their 14-movement oratorio traces the spread of the AIDS virus from forests of the Congo through the 1980s urban party scene and back to Africa again. Staniland had Toronto’s finest forces at his disposal, including four soloists, two percussionists, the 20-member Elmer Isler Singers and the Gryphon Trio.

Koerner Hall is one of about a dozen new buildings that have bulked up Toronto’s arts infrastructure in the past decade. The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opened in 2006 with a Ring cycle. It doubles as home to Canada’s national ballet. For Luminato, the ballet company contributed a terrific triple bill featuring a cheery new ballet by Jorma Elo, Jerome Robbins’s classic Baryshnikov vehicle The Dreamer and, for a little musical theatre crossover, Robbins’s West Side Story Suite.

The festival’s alternative opening weekend dance offering, Australia’s Chunky Move, was actually equal parts drama, movement and live synthesised sound. It sold well, but artistic director Gideon Obarzanek said he was a bit disappointed to be slapped with a “dance” label. His show, Two Faced Bastard (pictured above) was performed black-box style with audiences sitting on both sides of a curtain. There was different theatrical action on each stage. “If I were someone who came to expecting see dance, and I sat on the side where two actors sit talking about the dance show happening on the other side of the curtain, I’d be disappointed,” Obarzanek grumbled.

He has a point. Over the course of my six days in Toronto, I heard people complain that Luminato doesn’t have enough (a) classical music, (b) theatre and (c) dance. The thing is that the festival has plenty of all three; you’re just getting multiple art forms for the price of one. If that’s not OK, well, plenty of other festivals are selling tickets.

Photo credits: The Infernal Comedy - HJ Fink. Two Faced Bastard - Proud Mother Pictures
Wainwright has dual Canadian-American citizenship, and in Toronto last week, one couldn’t help but sense a bit patriotic gloating

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