Parlando: The COC Blog


Not to Perish: Peter Sellars on Hercules, Handel's poignant examination of psychic breakdown

By Nikita Gourski,  Development Communications Officer

“We have art so that we might not perish from the truth.” Friedrich Nietzsche

“There’s an idea that opera is some useless entertainment for rich people and has no larger civic function,” notes American director Peter Sellars. “And for me it’s really the opposite.”

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and educated at Harvard University, Sellars first captured the public’s attention with a 1981 production of Handel’s Orlando, which he set in the milieu of the U.S. space program on Cape Canaveral. Two years later he was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially known as the “Genius Grant.” He was 25 years old.

Since then, Sellars, who in addition to directing opera, theatre and film, is a professor in UCLA’s World Arts and Culture Department, has fascinated North American and European audiences with his unorthodox stagings. Some of his early efforts – notably the trilogy of Mozart/ Da Ponte operas (Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and Le nozze di Figaro) which he set, respectively, in a New York City ghetto, a seaside diner, and Trump Tower – were viciously attacked by certain operagoers and critics.

But the passage of time has allowed for a more thoughtful, and overwhelmingly positive, assessment of his work to emerge. “That people seemed eager to write off Sellars as an enfant terrible attempting to shoehorn opera into a pair of Nikes,” wrote Adam Wasserman in Opera News two years ago, “was likely the result, I think, of his ideas hitting uncomfortably close to home.”

But if Sellars has sought to put audiences in touch with the moral tensions and social problems of their day, it’s because his overarching ambition has been to rejuvenate theatre as an arena for political consciousness, to let opera speak to our society with the same invigorating immediacy as Greek drama did for the ancient Athenians. In the words of scholar Julian Young, the tragic festival in ancient Greece “was a sacred occasion on which the community was gathered into a clarifying affirmation of its fundamental ethos – that which made it the community it was.” You did not, in other words, attend the theatre to escape the world, but to see it more clearly; not to forget yourself, but to discover your membership in the political body; not to divert your attention from problems, but to participate in the search for answers.

With the new COC production of Handel’s Hercules, built in collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sellars is as adventurous as ever in pursuing that project. He sees in Hercules an examination of what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder; in less medically precise terms, the heartbreaking tangle of problems faced by returning soldiers and their families. He invites modern reality into the opera house, not to give the production a novel gloss, but to release the universal elements of Handel’s work within a grid of contemporary signs: battle fatigues; Abu-Ghraib orange jumpsuits; flagdraped coffins – and to emphasize that the social and psychological toll of warfare isn’t a bygone relic but an everyday reality.

“We’re now beginning to talk about this, because the situation in the United States is that one out of three homeless persons is a veteran,” Sellars says. “You have people whose lives have been so destroyed, whose capacity to live a meaningful life has been so devastated, who have everything stacked against them, even though they served [their country].”

Handel’s opera is based largely on Women of Trachis, a tragedy by Sophocles who, in addition to being a first-rate dramatist, was also a war general. He brought a rare insight to the emotionally intense – even dangerous – landscape that soldiers and their families had to navigate after reuniting. More than 2,000 years later, in 1745, Handel tackled the material with Hercules, an oratorio-opera hybrid he, himself, labeled a “musical drama.”

In the opera, Hercules returns triumphant after a prolonged war in a foreign city, but his loving wife Dejanira is caught off-guard by her husband’s relationship with a mysterious prisoner of war, a princess named Iole. Dejanira is soon plunged into an intensely felt jealousy. And though Hercules appears every bit the proud and honourable hero, his wartime experiences have left him fundamentally displaced from his past life, and equally unprepared for what awaits in the civilian world. “The god of battle quits the bloody field,” he sings, “And useless hang the glitt’ring spear and shield,” but the deeds committed in combat, including the likelihood of sexual infidelity, persist as an unacknowledged minefield between Hercules and his wife. They fight bitterly, he retreats into incommunicative silence, and she grows suicidal. Before long, the situation explodes.

“When everyone’s back together again [after a military deployment],” Sellars explains, “there’s a whole lot of things that neither side knows about the other, that have been covered up – for positive reasons maybe – but that end up becoming deadly fault lines.

“For Handel, as for Sophocles, it was this image of the most powerful person on earth, the strong man, being unbelievably vulnerable. And, in fact, being in denial about a lot of the deepest points of vulnerability.”

The genius of Handel is in finding a musical language commensurate to the psychological experience of post-traumatic stress. In Hercules, Handel uses da capo arias, which have a cyclical structure whereby the singer returns to a previous section of music, following an A-B-A pattern, as if haunted by a previously recurring experience. (Translated from Italian, da capo means, literally, “from the head.”)

Singing a da capo aria is a structural analogue “of what it means to work through your issues,” Sellars says. “You can’t just say, ‘okay, now you’re fine,’ but, in fact, you have to go back and work on it. And you have to dig out all of this emotional stuff that has been locked up and has been denied… it’s what’s involved in these extreme vocal melismas that Handel writes, where a single word will have 150 notes. And that’s because in one word – for most people it’s just a word – for [a veteran] there’s a roller coaster of emotions; there is an entire set of experiences that flash inside that one word.”

Alongside the personal excavation undertaken in the arias, Handel “places the huge choruses, where you get the power of citizens, and you say, ‘wait a minute, our whole society is in danger!’ You can’t just pathologize that person who just screamed in pain in the last aria.”

Though Sellars readily admits that the subject matter is challenging, he also emphasizes that “Handel believed that the first way to go into a difficult or dangerous place is with a lot of beauty. So the music is just ravishingly beautiful. It transmutes the suffering into another place and you don’t run away from it, but you go towards it.” In this way, Handel’s opera succeeds both as a precise, mimetically accurate diagnosis of the experience, and as a vehicle of the healing process itself.

Hercules runs until April 30 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, click here for tickets and more information.


Photos: (top) Alice Coote as Dejanira; (middle) (l-r) David Daniels as Lichas (in background), Richard Croft as Hyllus, Lucy Crowe as Iole and Kaleb Alexander as Soldier; (middle) Richard Croft and Lucy Crowe; (bottom) (at left) Alice Coote and Richard Croft. All production photos from the Canadian Opera Company’s Hercules, 2014 by Michael Cooper. Photo of Peter Sellars by Ruth Walz.

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in Hercules / comments (0) / permalink


10 Things to Know About Gaetano Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux

By Nikita Gourski, Development Communications Officer

10 things about Roberto Devereux

This April, Donizetti's 'Tudor Trilogy' comes to an end with the COC premiere of Roberto Devereux. Here are ten key things you may want to know before you head to your seat!

1) Royal Intrigues
In the opera, a cloud of suspicion hangs over the Queen’s beloved Roberto Devereux, who has been accused of treason by members of Parliament. Elisabetta (Elizabeth I) doesn’t believe the charges, but she soon learns that Devereux might have betrayed her in another, more personal way, by falling in love with Sara, the Duchess of Nottingham. As Devereux’s life hangs in the balance, the Queen must navigate between her obligations as monarch and her all-too-human emotions as a woman in love.

2) A prima donna role
Roberto Devereux (1837) is the final instalment in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Tudor Trilogy” which also includes Anna Bolena (1830) and Maria Stuarda (1835). Central to each of these operas is a soprano role which stretches the singer to the limits of her technical and dramatic capabilities. It’s generally agreed that the role of Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux represents the summit of these prima donna (principal female) roles with regards to difficulty.

3) The best of bel canto
Bel canto (literally, “beautiful singing”) is a term usually applied to early 19th-century Italian operas with a highly exhibitionist style of singing. Though some bel canto operas seem to privilege vocal showmanship at the expense of storytelling and characterization, in Roberto Devereux the brilliant singing stems directly from emotions related to the text and also from the influence of the words themselves – the colour of the consonants and vowels of the Italian language. This requires a huge investment of dramatic as well as vocal energy from the singer – quite the opposite of the stereotypical view of the prettily chirping bel canto “nightingale.” Hear the music in our listening guide.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena
Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a photo for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

4) The Return of Sondra Radvanovsky
One of the world’s best sopranos, Sondra Radvanovsky returns to the COC after her stunning debut with the company (Aida, 2010), to sing the role of Elisabetta for the very first time in her career. She has also been engaged by the Met to perform the role. 

Ms Radvanovsky “sings with unflinching honesty and uncommon intensity…The New York Times

5) Triple Crown
With her role debut at the COC, Sondra Radvanovsky will have performed all three Donizetti queens, a significant achievement. Famously, the great American soprano Beverly Sills, who also accomplished the triple crown in the 1970s, reputedly said the difficulty of singing all three roles may have shortened her career by at least four years.

6) COC Premiere
Roberto Devereux has never been seen at the Canadian Opera Company, and this premiere offers Toronto a unique opportunity to experience this powerful drama of show-stopping vocal fireworks and intense emotions.

Roberto Devereux

7) Elizabethan-inspired production
This production from Dallas Opera, directed by Stephen Lawless, takes its inspiration from the powerful personality of Queen Elizabeth I, and adopts a theatrical style that was popular during her reign. Within this historical framework, the creative team found inspiration in one of the most famous Elizabethan playhouses, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

8) Staging the Queen’s Biography

The production makes a number of references to significant moments in Queen Elizabeth’s life: three large display cases appear at the top of the overture, each containing an actor to represent an aspect of Elizabeth’s difficult childhood, including Henry VIII (Elizabeth’s father), Anne Boleyn (Elizabeth’s mother), as well as a young Elizabeth. At the end of the overture, models of warships sail onto the front of the stage, depicting the greatest naval victory of Elizabeth’s reign: repelling the vast Spanish Armada.

9) Elizabethan costumes
Designer Ingeborg Bernerth’s costumes are generally period-specific and reflect the era in which Roberto Devereux has been set, though some pieces have been modernized (the men’s costumes in particular). Queen Elizabeth was the first monarch to take an interest in fashion and its effect on status and societal perceptions. Her rule was a prosperous one and fashions were correspondingly luxurious and elaborate, often embellished and exaggerated.

10) What to Listen For
Get the musical highlights with our listening guide here. For a quick preview, visit our listening guide.


Photo: (top) (l – r) Scott Quinn as Lord Cecil, Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta, Andrew Oakden as Sir Gualtiero Raleigh, David Kempster as Duke of Nottingham and Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux in the Dallas Opera production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo by Karen Almond; (middle) Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a promotional photo for the Chicago Lyric Opera. Photo by Cade Martin; (bottom) Stephen Costello as Roberto Devereux and Hasmik Papian as Elisabetta in the Dallas Opera production of Roberto Devereux, 2009. Photo by Karen Almond.

Posted by Danielle D'Ornellas / in Roberto Devereux / comments (0) / permalink


Elizabeth I — The Role of a Lifetime

Helen Mirren, Elizabeth I, Cate Blanchett

Queen Elizabeth I is one of history's most dramatized monarchs. Her lasting legacy, and fascinating personal life, has inspired countless works for the stage, page and screen. From epic historical dramas to irreverent comedies and even sci-fi, many notable performers have made the character of the Virgin Queen their own.

When Sondra Radvanovsky makes her role debut as Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux on April 25, she'll add her name to that list! To celebrate this iconic role, we've narrowed down a selection of our favourite on-screen Elizabeths through the years.

Judi Dench - Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Legendary British actress Judi Dench holds the record for giving the second-shortest performance in history to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She was only in the film for eight minutes, but they were memorable ones! Making the most of her screen time, Dench captured the monarch's acerbic wit and showcased the glorious Elizabethan fashion. How could anyone forget her opulent peacock gown?

Cate Blanchett - Elizabeth (1998) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

Judi Dench wasn't the only actress nominated that year for playing Elizabeth I. Cate Blanchett earned wide acclaim and was nominated for Best Actress for playing the title role in Elizabeth. The dramatic biopic captured the terror of Mary I's bloody reign and the uncertainty of Elizabeth's early years on the throne. Blanchett reprised the role in 2007, as a slightly older and self-assured monarch at the height of her power.

Helen Mirren - Elizabeth I (2005)

It is a rare accomplishment for an actress to play both Queen Elizabeths in her career, so we had to include Helen Mirren on this list. This two-part HBO mini-series shows an aging Elizabeth navigating political powerplays, assassination attempts and the threat of invasion. Behind closed doors, she relies on the friendship and advice of her first love, Robert Dudley (Jeremy Irons), while beginning a flirtation with his dashing, yet hot-headed, step-son Robert Devereux (Hugh Dancy).

Bette Davis - The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and The Virgin Queen (1955)

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex also depicted the stormy and ultimately tragic relationship between Elizabeth and Robert Devereux. As Elizabeth I, Bette Davis led a cast of Hollywood legends including the ultimate swashbuckler Errol Flynn as Essex and Olivia de Havilland as Lady Penelope Gray. Like Cate Blanchett, Davis returned to the role for The Virgin Queen, about Elizabeth's later relationship with Sir Walter Raleigh (Richard Todd). She was so committed to this role that she even shaved her head to achieve an authentic Elizabethan hairline.

Miranda Richardson - Blackadder II (1986)

Not every portrayal of Elizabeth has been as serious as the baity roles above. Miranda Richardson's "Queenie" in the the second season of the much-loved British comedy Blackadder isn't anything like the Elizabeth we've come to know through history. She's silly, petulant and if you get on her bad side, watch out for your neck!

Doctor Who (2013)

And last, but not least, the character of Elizabeth I has even crossed over into sci-fi! Everyone's favourite Time Lord became quite close with the queen during his journeys through the universe.


Who do you think played Elizabeth I best? Let us know in the comments!


Banner photo credits: Helen Mirren in Elizabeth I; Queen Elizabeth I portrait; Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth.

Posted by Kristin McKinnon / in Roberto Devereux / comments (1) / permalink

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001

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