I met with Alaina Viau, Artistic Director of Loose TEA Theatre, earlier today to discuss her upcoming show Dissociative Me; a transladaptation™(*) of Gounod’s Faust. We started by exploring the reasons why one might choose transladaptation rather than either a “straight” production or simply a radical restaging à la Herheim or Tcherniakov. The starting point for Alaina, one that I completely share, is that certain works are so problematic that they can’t realistically be presented “straight” and still do the things that “art” is supposed to do; stimulate, challenge etc. If a work contains elements that have so radically changed meaning since the original composition that one must treat it as a museum piece or intellectually disengage to make a piece tolerable then, we both believe, something has to be done. I realise that there are those who can enjoy, for instance, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly; a squalid tale of paedophilia and sex tourism, at a superficial level but count me out there.
The question I then posed was why, in this situation, go beyond the European approach sometimes referred to as “Regietheater” and go to all the trouble of writing a new libretto? Here we began to explore the issues of relevance and contextualization. How does one communicate with a modern audience; especially one that’s not the core opera audience? Part of the problem is that Regietheater is hard work for the audience. It requires a knowledge of the work being de/reconstructed and, I suspect, a grasp of the techniques, symbols and language that directors use to get across what is not said and maybe it’s too much to expect that the audience, especially a new audience, will have that. An English language translation that clearly and directly places the work in a context familiar to the audience is more work for the creators and performers but much less for the audience.
So next we moved on to “why Faust?”. The issues here I think are pretty clear. It’s a work that asks us to believe in devils and angels and in a world where “sin” is largely defined in terms of female sexual transgression which can, in some way, be “redeemed”. These are not, for the most part, ideas that the contemporary population of Toronto gives much thought to! On the other hand the central issue facing Faust; one of finding meaning in an apparently meaningless world, is very relevant and by making Faust a newly minted PhD with a massive debt load and no job prospects Dissociative Me brings the work very much into the world of many young people today. Making it about mental health issues too is bold but makes sense. If Mephistopheles is not literally “The Devil” then what is he? If he’s another manifestation of Faust it makes more sense and, then, why not take this as far as being about multiple personality disorder where Mephistopheles represents the “protector” personality and Faust the “child”? Alaina points out that in the original where Mephistopheles addresses the world at large Faust is silent and vice versa. They only communicate with each other one on one. Food for thought.
There are some other ideas at work here too. It’s central to Loose TEA’s project to make this a work that will have appeal beyond the core opera audience (you lot!). This has shaped both the work and the venue. The decision was made early on to stage it at a night club in Liberty Village (**). Research in the neighbourhood suggested that it would compete for audience less with other conventional “arts” endeavours than with other evening out options locally(***) such as a night at the pub or a local comedy club. So, the work is being promoted locally as a “local happening” and it’s being done in a night club with lounge seating, drinks, popcorn etc. Whether this fusion of the more adventurous part of the opera audience with the hip Liberty Village crowd is feasible remains to be seen but it’s an intriguing idea. Dissociative Me is also about half the length of Faust (all that 19th century French grand opera paraphernalia like ballet is gone!) and will have the relatively familiar look and feel of a psychological thriller movie. There may even be a soundscape track to complement the piano accompaniment.
For amateurs of the local opera scene there’s another good reason to go; the casting. John/Faust will be sung by Kijong Wi and Lee/Mephisto by Michael York. These guys are pretty new to the Toronto opera scene but based on what I have seen of them, admittedly confined to the upstairs room of a pub, they are a bit special and we can expect to see more of them in the future. In particular, these are big voices; especially York. Rounding out the main roles are Beth Hagerman as whatever Marguerite becomes and Johnathon Kirby as Steve/Valentin.
There will be three performances of Dissociative Me at the RED night club, 135 Liberty Street on August 18th, 20th and 22nd. More details and tickets may be found here.
(*)We are using “transladaptation”; a term coined by Lydia Perovic wrt one of Against the Grain’s shows, to mean a new English language libretto based on the original but updated, placed in a more local context and, usually, somewhat shortened.
(**)An inner west end neighbourhood fairly recently created from former industrial land and now populated, largely, by fairly young condo dwellers.
(***)Torontonians typically have territories little more wide ranging than their raccoon neighbours.