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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 2

Marshall Pynkoski Opera Atelier

by Wah Keung Chan / October 1, 1998

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marshall.jpg (32399 bytes)Toronto’s baroque opera company Opera Atelier is busy gearing up for its millennial production of Jean-Baptiste Lully's opera Persée, which will open in Toronto and tour the world in the year 2000. They finished the first phase of their training in August, running a dozen singers through their paces. More than ever, Opera Atelier founder Marshall Pynkoski is immersed in the recherché world of baroque performance practice, trying to reproduce the gesture and movement of singers and actors as they were seen at the court of Louis XIV.

Opera Atelier was founded in 1985 by artistic directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Zingg. Pynkoski and Zingg originally danced with the Canadian Opera Company ballet when Lotfi Mansouri was general director. "Mansouri always tried to get the ballet involved," said Pynkoski. "That was my first experience with singers, seeing the differences between singers' rehearsals and dancers' rehearsals. Back in the early 1980s Jeannette and I started attending performances given by Tafelmusik. I was intrigued with the tunes and the pitch and the enormous physicality involved in playing authentic instruments. I became captivated with the music.”

"When Tafelmusik started moving into vocal repertoire, I found it the most ravishing music I had ever heard, though it was often from obscure operas that were never performed. People thought these operas were hopelessly outdated, but these same people admitted they had never seen or heard or been involved in an opera by Charpentier or Lully." Pynkoski decided to prove the doubters wrong by starting Canada’s first opera company specializing in historically informed performances.

A staged Opera Atelier production involves elaborate period costumes, baroque dancers, opera singers and Pynkoski's staging. In an address to the National Association of Teachers of Singing in Toronto last July, Pynkoski explained his ideas on baroque gestures.

According to Pynkoski, "The 18th century was the great age of storytelling. Operas were word-dense and singers described their hysteria rather than demonstrating it. People felt real emotion represents real life, and they went to the theatre to see art, not life. If the audience saw tears on stage, they would be fascinated rather than become drawn into the drama."

"The 18th century realized that there had to be a technique to help singers to move that would look natural and allow them to sing comfortably and naturally. They observed that in real life, people move when they talk, with gestures. Gestures are from the elbows. The elbows control the arms. Movement is circular from the hairline, and are quick, easy and articulate. The arms go only so high and so low. If the hands are too high and extended, it is difficult for the audience to concentrate on both the face and hands at the same time. A singer's movement must reflect the text. Individual gestures happen on individual words and are suspended to the next important word.”

When it comes to a da capo aria, Pynkoski says that the repeat section should be in front of the stage, "There is no reason for a da capo movement. It's about the music. I only allow three gestures: play to the left, play to the right, and play to the balcony."

Opera goers will get a chance to see the fruit of Pynkoski's ideas in Opera Atelier's staging of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. "The opera is not just a visual story; there is so much humour within the text. Jeremy Sams' translation for The English National Opera caught the flavour and the raunchiness of the period. When I read the translation, I knew I had to produce it."

Opera Atelier performs Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in English at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre Oct. 22, 24, 27, 29, 30. Ticketing: 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.

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