24 March 2018

Ritual Beauty, Unusual Sound


What a lovely evening I just spent. Delightful company and an extremely engaging première performance of Svadba by the Atelier Lyrique of the Opéra de Montréal.

When I invited my friend, I described the performance as an a capella Serbian hen party. Not far off in terms of the content, but I sold it short in omitting what I couldn’t have known at the time — a multimedia experience, an exposure to voices that reminded me of a Bulgarian women’s choir with which I and my colleagues were completely obsessed at the end of the 1980s/beginning of the 1990s.


Let’s start where I know my way: the story. It is a group of women who are preparing their friend for her wedding. The go through all manner of things…grooming, hair dyeing, discussing how the proposal came about, the qualities of the groom, their reminiscences of childhood games, and what a marriage means in terms of separation from family and reconnection with a family to be. It ends with the bride and her five friends, all bridesmaids, lined up for the wedding.


It’s really all about the voices, and they were beautiful and strong, wrapping around each other in amazing melodies, swooping and curling into strange and sometimes jarring sounds. I know that some of these were just nonsense syllables, one trip took us through the Serbian alphabet, but also words and phrases, sometimes sung in the round and slightly out of synch (intentionally) like some modern music on loops of slightly different lengths that phases together and apart. I was amazed at the capacity of the six women on stage to maintain a nonstop performance through multiple changes in cadence and tone, notes that took us to the mystery of the foreign by seeming to sour at the end, just slightly. Strikingly beautiful.

As if the challenging singing were not enough, the women also contributed sounds, whether by stomping, clapping, slapping their thighs, or with instruments like a little whistle deftly played into birdsong, cylinders manipulated into rain or shower water, a drum. These combined seamlessly with the vocals to create a very impressive performance.


The set was very simple, with thin white curtains/blinds “hiding” the bridesmaids’ dresses, but also serving as surfaces on which words and syllables and nonsense sounds were projected, floating up organically from the singers. One of those blinds turned out to be more like a circus silk, as the bride sat in it like a swing. A few chairs, a white sheet and a table on wheels completed the props, transforming smoothly into what they needed to be.


At the end, after all the applause (and how refreshing that every person joining them on the stage in the various supporting and directing roles was also a woman!) two guys with traditional wedding-type instruments (a big bass and an accordion) came out as plates of cake were set out. I don’t know if the traditional wedding follow-up of cake and dance will follow every performance; we had the honour of sharing our experience with the Serbian Ambassador and the Honorary Consul in Montréal.

Let me know if there’s cake on the other nights. And that — in case it wasn’t already clear — means DO go, and then report back on the cake situation.

Enjoy!



28 January 2018

JFK: it’s the journey; we all know how it ends


“There will be gunshots” they said. I’m here to tell you they are not the gunshots you were expecting. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

I always preface my opera reviews with the disclaimers — not a music or opera expert, tend to be shallow or at least not very sophisticated in my tastes, and so on. Give me a light Italian opera any day! On the other hand, I like to think of myself — without any justification whatsoever — as someone who can appreciate the new and the avant-garde. We have an excellent test of that in JFK.


To start, I really didn’t like the music. And then it grew on me a bit, starting with the almost country song sung by Lyndon Baines Johnson and the boys as they humiliated JFK in the bathtub (more about the scenario later). Then I started to appreciate the rest of the music, ominous and haunting notes that seemed to sour as they finished, like a crazy nightmare unfolding. I ended thinking that I would really like to listen to the music on its own, to see how I would like that.


The Opéra de Montréal (and I guess the production itself) did the usual amazing job with the set. Lights! Neon! Marquée lights! They were all on the stage and part of the set. Some of them were a bit annoying (my friend and I didn’t really like the green neon, which was jarring) and I couldn’t get past the horrible “S” in the TEXAS sign: it really seemed like it was the wrong font (I’m a font geek), at least until I got home and was able to find a historical photo of the Hotel Texas sign in the background of an actual JFL speech. So I’ll shut up about the “S”, despite really not liking it!



There were other interesting elements of the set. Four rooms of a hotel suite on a turntable, so we could see where the action was happening. A big head table of an official breakfast that actually pulled apart to each side when we needed to return to the hotel room because JFK and Jackie (Jacquie?) had not yet arrived for the breakfast. That device was particularly interesting, as the breakfast guests who were already seated continued to look like they were eating and chatting while the focus and the light were redirected to the hotel room. Well done.


One prop that drove me crazy was deployed in the Soviet scene. A giant hammer and sickle (as separate parts) that were moved together with regular rhythm…but the sickle was upside down! I’m a stickler for an upright sickle, or at least one that, brought together with its hammer, would make the classic symbol, not some new permutation of it. Luckily, that was over quickly. Kruschev, however, came back for a cameo in the bathtub. Yes, surrealism reigned.

So the scenario was a bit out there. I guess that’s a good way to address a trauma that turned the world upside down for Americans and for many others as well. A strange and surreal event follows a strange and surreal build-up, which is completely reasonable, especially when we remember that it is opera. Friction between JFK and LBJ blows up into an invasion of gaudily costumed loudmouths to mock the president in his bathtub. A row of 3-D glasses wearing spectators face us in the audience at the end. And in between, random cheerleaders and a children’s choir, which I guess might be less surreal in the time and place than I perceive them to be in my time and place.


But there were real ties to the familiar events, too. The pink Chanel suit with the pillbox hat, hanging in the hotel suite closet and then worn by Jackie on what we all knew would be the fateful day. A degree of discord between JFK and Jackie, but with signs of wanting to be better together. And while the story on stage only takes us up to the fateful time and day, the Opéra de Montréal pulled out the projector again, and the real footage of the motorcade’s progress through Dallas was projected onto the set as the opera came to its end. Very tastefully done, and effective.


One more thing to talk about that left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. The Fates. We’ll leave aside the Cutter, who seemed to be the Lee Harvey Oswald character, complete with Soviet connections and a gun shooting from a window. The Spinner was also hotel maid Clara Harris and the Allotter was Secret Service advance man Henry Rathbone. Fine. I don’t know if these were real people (and I am apparently too lazy to look it up on the computer on which I am writing this!), but if I had a production in which there were two characters whose role it was to announce doom and they ended up being the only two people of colour on the stage (in my observation and memory), I might feel a twinge of discomfort. On the other hand, they are both big roles, so there’s that.


Overall, well worth seeing. Be ready for surreal and be ready for modern music that can be jarring at times, but let yourself be seduced by it, if only to be able to say that you’re not as much of a fuddy-duddy or shallow appreciator of light, standard Italian opera fare. It’s working for me so far.



28 December 2017

Abby Lippman


I have lost a friend this week, and many others have lost a seemingly tireless ally in a number of struggles for rights and recognition. I know that I will not do justice to Abby Lippman’s contributions to academia or to a number of the social movements where she made her mark, so allow me to concentrate on those areas where our lives happily intersected.

I met Abby at Head & Hands, a youth organization in the NDG neighbourhood of Montréal where I worked as Coordinator of Legal Services and then as Executive Director, all in the 1990s. Abby was a member of the Board of Directors and President of that Board for a number of years. Not your usual President, but one who came with extensive knowledge and history in the women’s health movement, and one who demonstrated her commitment to the cause with every act. I remember that we had an annual fundraising mailing to our members at the beginning of December, and Abby personally signed each of those letters, often adding a personal note to the member/donor. There weren’t dozens of these letters, there were hundreds of them. Every one of them got a signature that could be smudged to demonstrate its authenticity, putting some real meaning into the strength of a small charity: that it can be close to and personal with its donors.

When I left Head & Hands, I was very happy to be able to pursue my relationship with Abby, now more as a friend than as a colleague. Oh, we talked about health issues and didn’t always agree about everything (I’m thinking of the funding from pharmaceutical companies that I felt my organization could accept without impact on the content of the programming it served to support or the issue of HPV vaccination). Even when we didn’t agree, Abby always gave me a reason to reflect on my opinions and to see them through other eyes.

We are both big fans of the arts — my taste in films was often much more pedestrian than hers — and we had occasions to go to the movies or to a student production of an opera at McGill. I have two favourite memories of Abby at the cinema. First, when we participated in the time-honoured tradition of going to see a film (or two) on Christmas Day. Abby was determined to sneak into the second film without paying, while straight-laced Ken insisted on going out and paying as we should…I paid for both of us in my slavish following of the rules.

The second movie memory was when I encouraged Abby to sign up for the cinema’s loyalty program in order to be able to accumulate points for free movies. She painstakingly did her sign-up at the automated kiosk and got her temporary number…whereupon I learned that her concern for privacy had led her to use a pseudonym and give a false address and invented postal code! How, I asked, are you going to get your card, which they send through the mail? I don’t know if she ever went back to deal with that one, but it left me giggling.

The most moving thing Abby did for me was to include me in her family, inviting me to participate in the family meals for all of the Jewish holidays. Her Seder evolved over the years, with multiple texts to choose from (traditional, feminist, humanist, and a Dr Seuss-like version called Uncle Eli’s Haggadah) and some extra items on the Seder plate — an orange for the place of women and Palestinian olives to remind us of the occupation and the injustice in that situation. The year (one of the years?) when Israeli forces invaded Gaza, all texts were set aside, and Abby read a letter she had written denouncing that action. The meal was always permeated with the political significance that it deserved, even if the metaphorical connections to current social justice issues might have been more pronounced around her table than around many others.

Abby wrote editorials, marched, picketed stores, participated in an ongoing vigil of Jewish and Palestinian women outside the Israeli consulate… Like I said at the beginning, it would be impossible for me to list every cause and every action without unjustly leaving several out. She exuded boundless energy for social justice and little tolerance for its absence. She was opinionated and loving, loud and giving, quirky and intelligent. Most of all, she was someone I was glad to be able to count as a friend.

I will miss you, Abby Lippman.

*****
Article in The Gazette here.

In lieu of flowers, Abby's family requests that dontations be made to The Native Women's Shelter of Montreal.

22 December 2017

AIDSiversary #20


So, I have now survived my AIDS diagnosis by 20 years and I will mark the occasion by venting about language in relation to this epidemic.

Some will balk at the use of the term AIDS at all, and I can understand that to some degree. As the — uh — proud (?!) owner of a diagnosis of AIDS, I have to recognize that it just doesn’t mean the same thing that it did decades ago. In the beginning, it was as much a prognosis as a diagnosis, an indication of where one was on the one-way trip to disease and death. Not anymore. “AIDS” as a term is still useful to diagnoses someone who has waited too long to get tested for HIV or for whom treatment hasn’t been working, but one can now expect to recover from those things. Even I, with my very late diagnosis at a point where I was basically without an immune system, have survived 20 years in pretty good health with treatment.

So I’ll concede that it is not always appropriate to speak of AIDS and most times more appropriate to refer to HIV.

Now we seem to also be dealing with the disappearance of the acceptability of using HIV as a term. I’m not talking about our governments’ tendency toward convergence in their funding and strategies, bringing all sexually transmitted and blood borne infections together — that makes sense all the time for prevention, although it is still useful to pull out the HIV to recognize some of the social effects and stigmatization that are less evident with the other STBBIs. No, I’m talking about addressing HIV stigma by not saying its name out loud, by changing organization names to omit all reference to HIV or AIDS, by speaking strangely about “lived experience” as code for living with HIV instead of naming it. (We all have lived experience of something, right?)

Hiding HIV and hiding AIDS will do nothing to address the stigma that is associated with this epidemic. If anything it will make it worse.

In that vein, let me turn to another practice in our movement, marked as it is by what I like to call the culture of secrecy. I understand confidentiality and the need for it for people the most likely to suffer negative effects of stigma. What I don’t understand is the special brand of zealousness that would impose that secrecy on my own speaking of my own experiences. Let me illustrate with a few examples.

I was recently at the hospital testing centre for my regular blood tests. As the clerk at the desk shuffled through the too-many papers that my doctor had given me to identify which tests to do, she began handing papers back to me. One was for my HIV viral load, and I pointed that out to her: “If I’m not getting an HIV viral load, why am I even wasting my time here?” She fell all over herself trying to keep my voice down, so as not to compromise the confidentiality that I guess I was too thick to protect for myself.

On another occasion, years ago, I was at a gathering of HIV-positive people and proposed a resolution to change the way the minutes of the meetings would be reported. There was in place a practice of blacking out the names of the proposers and seconders of motions to protect the confidentiality of those participating actively at the meetings. My proposal was to allow us to choose whether or not our names would appear as a part of the official record. My motion passed quite easily. When we returned to the same meeting the following year, the most egregious example of this culture of secrecy sprang forth, as the minutes of the previous year’s meeting were presented to us, my motion clear on the page, but my name and the name of the seconder blacked out. (We objected!)

Finally, when my friend Doug died in 2014, the organization with which we had both identified in our pasts proceeded with its annual ritual at its general meeting, naming those we had lost during the year while lighting candles and inviting the crowd to observe a moment of silence. The person reading out the names made an error, diverging from the organization’s usual practice of pronouncing the first name and the initial of the family name, and actually read out whole names. Doug would have approved heartily, as did I. I got up at the end of the meeting and congratulated them on the move, expressing my hope that it was a change of policy and they would not be returning to the other practice.

I understand that not everyone is in my position — I am living my experience of HIV with a lot of privilege. I have supportive friends and family members, it would be much more of a scandal for me to lose my job for being HIV-positive than to keep it (I work for an AIDS organization) and I go about freely identifying myself as a person living with HIV. After all this effort, I will not tolerate my experience of living with HIV being scrubbed from the record, as that would go against everything I stand for.

I would rather be forgotten entirely than anonymized posthumously by some misguided notion of protecting my confidentiality.

12 November 2017

La Cenerentola: Come for the music, Stay for the rats!


Over the years that I have been going to the productions of the Opéra de Montréal, I don’t think I have ever had such a crazy, funny, over-the-top experience as I had last night at their production of La Cenerentola. It had everything I love and expect with a healthy dose of some very entertaining surprises.

The audience was in a very good mood, and there really is nothing like Rossini to make you feel upbeat and enthusiastic. I think my favourite operas have this Italian flavour — light, lifting music, wonderful songs intertwining and underlining the voices of the singers. This is the first time that I remember the overture (that music that begins and ends before the curtain goes up) getting a sustained ovation and this before a single not was sung. Totally beautiful.

When the curtain does go up, a lovely simple set that later proves to adapt well to all of the locales it is to portray. For me, yet another set I want to have as an apartment, as I kid myself that I could ever maintain something so stark and beautiful while also living in it. But the best treat of last night was also revealed as the curtain went up for the first time: the rats!


I figure it was the six dancers, who all seem to hail from Montréal, under the direction of choreographer Xevi Dorca from Spain, who so expertly played the rats. They are worth naming: Aymen Benkeira, Dominic Caron, Gama Fonseca, Geosmany Perez-Pulido, Pascal Lalancette and Mathieu Rainville. They sat in the shadows, scurried to avoid the people they knew wouldn’t like them, scratched themselves, scratched at the air and frankly moved like rats. Memories of my own brush with the creature flooded back, this time with much pleasure. And then they did things rats don’t do, but with the same rat movements: moved furniture, conducted a silhouette carriage carrying the prince across the top of the set, then a toy one across the front, with resultant loss of wheel that leads the prince to seek refuge in the wicked stepfather’s house, and they made the sounds of a wind- and thunderstorm with classic soundmaking implements. When in the background, they scurried and his, and yet were visible in their mirroring of the choreography of the rest of the cast. When in the foreground, they rolled and gambolled about in perfect complementarity to the music. Every movement was a joy and a chuckle. Total scene-stealers!


Costumes! A crazy surreal interpretation of renaissance style. The evil step-sisters wandered about in their underclothes for quite a long time, showing us the various structural elements that would give them exaggerated hips under their gowns, balancing towering neon pink and yellow wigs (one pink, the other yellow). The prince’s retinue looked like the Oompa Loompa, but with bright blue wigs, and in true operatic style simple costume changes could disguise a prince as his servant and vice-versa.



Yes, a Cinderella story, but with a few differences. Wicked stepfather, who wastes the fortune that should have belonged to Angelina (La Cenerentola) on his own spoiled daughters, Angelina is sent to the party by a philosopher (not a fairy godmother), who arrives as a beggar (how better to separate the truly good from the evil, but by playing beggar?), and the clue she leaves behind for the prince is her bracelet, one of a pair for which he can search if he really desires her. I saw an interview with Patrick Corrigan, the Opéra de Montréal’s General Director, in which he explained the slipper-bracelet difference. At the time of the debut of this opera 200 years ago, it was considered unseemly to expose a woman’s ankles on stage. The solution was to switch out the slipper for a bracelet, which we all know goes on the much less provocative wrist of its wearer. A pair of them so they could be matched for a positive ID, of course.



So let’s see…music, sets, dancers, costumes, story… Oh! Singing!

I remember seeing another version of Cinderella years ago with a crazy surreal 1950’s-type kitchen in which I felt like the male singers’ voices were totally swallowed by the set. No so this time. I particularly loved Vito Priante in the role of Dandini (the prince’s servant who pretends to be the prince for much of the opera). The wicked stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe (why aren’t people naming their children such delightful names these days?!), played expertly by Lauren Margison and Rose Naggar-Tremblay, respectively, have some delightful songs to sing and do it with gusto and force. By comparison, Julie Boulianne in the role of Angelina (La Cenerentola) seems a bit quieter (maybe it’s the nature of the songs she has to sing?), but really bursts forth in her solos. The best of it is the duets and the many instances in which the whole cast seems to be singing sometimes competing parts of the same songs. That really brings the whole thing to life.


I keep pointing out that I am no expert on music or opera, and I’m sure that those who are will have figured that out long before this point in my review. But let me just say that if you aren’t an expert and always wanted to know why people would find opera so entertaining, this production of La Cenerentola should be your gateway drug. It continues playing this week, with performances on the 14th, 16th and 18th. Go see it!


30 July 2017

Hostage Comedy, part 5: A Hermit with a Modest Proposal or Three


As it turns out, the race days themselves were not so disruptive. Yes, we had crazy loudspeaker radio broadcasts from 8 am that you could hardly ignore (although as we speak, with the windows closed and the air conditioning on, it’s a low rumble in the background), but the cars themselves make a funny whiny sound that one friend compared to something out of Star Wars. Way quieter at this proximity than the Formula 1 cars were at a distance before they built all those condos to absorb the sound.

There’s a certain amount of crowd noise — mostly some annoying whistles that they must have been giving out (stop that!) — but nothing unbearable. A little helicopter noise that I could do without as well. As a whole, however, I stayed in my apartment (not the first weekend I have given over to sloth) and the inconvenience of being walled in slipped by almost without notice. While I didn’t go out to watch, I did watch the main races on TV — and I’m loving that my corner was dubbed “the bus stop chicane”. I may call it that going forward.

But that’s the two days of the race. The three weeks plus all around it is the annoying bit that the city needs to fix if it wants to get me on side.

“On side” might be a bit of an exaggeration. I will likely never see the point of driving around in circles, or believe in the “athleticism” of driving any kind of car. I’m much more sold on the human-powered sporting events, like the marathon and the Tour de l’Île cycling events. They often come past my house, and I find those part-day interruptions of my regular life to be soothing and welcome. Replacing car traffic with runners and cyclists is always a plus, even if it makes crossing the street a bit of a game of Frogger.

So what could make this experience better for me, especially if it comes back next year and the year after? I have a few ideas.

1. Make the installation of the track more green and more friendly to the residents. Work during the day and leave the bus stops operational until the last minute. I really don’t care about the personal car traffic, and I’m sure that will set me apart from many of my neighbours, in particular the ones with cars. If you think your event is going to promote green transportation, especially electric transports, then you bend over backwards to accommodate as long as possible the single-passenger (yeah, I often notice that) combustion engines to the detriment of public transit and the sleeping time of the people who live around the track, you are doing something terribly wrong.

2. Give the residents some real advantages. Everyone in the neighbourhood, inside the track and around it, is living with some degree of inconvenience from the event and the preparations (and doubtless the dismantling to come). Many would say that my last statement is really soft-pedalling it, even though our mayor (who notably lives somewhere far away from all this) is happy to assume the inconveniences as the price of a notable event. So how? Give us all good tickets with seats, accessible from where we live. Rumour has it that many of the tickets were handed out free of charge in the days leading up to the event (can’t wait to see the final accounting on this!), so why not give those tickets to the residents first, before handing them out on the street to other people or making the residents jump through hoops to get standing room tickets? I’m not sure if I would go (didn’t go at all this time, with my stand-in-the-sun-and-get-melanoma tickets), but you never know. (I made no effort to catch Stockholm Syndrome this time around.)

3. The best change of all would be to move the thing to the Formula 1 racetrack we already have (and already have commitments to spend a bunch of money upgrading), avoiding all the inconvenience for the neighbourhood and those who pass through it daily. That’s a winner of an idea — you wouldn’t have to be giving away a bunch of tickets or saddling the public transit system with your apparent unilateral declaration of free transit for the weekend. You would avoid suspending all the parking for kilometres around the site (no parking outside my office 1.5 km away) and avoid ordering the restaurants and bars that count on their terrasses to draw customers in the nice weather to tear them up for the weekend.

So a few modest proposals to consider, while I consider looking for an apartment elsewhere, pushed out of my central neighbourhood where I have lived for 22 years because of the city’s bad planning and worse communication skills.

Oh, and yes, there IS an election coming in November. Will the mayor’s party be riding a wave, or be submerged by it?

26 July 2017

Hostage Comedy, part 4: You Can’t Get There From Here


Sunday morning I had an interview, and it wasn’t even about this! The International AIDS Society conference in Paris was getting underway and we had requests for interviews from RDI and ICI Radio-Canada. Did I say early interviews? Not early in the broad scheme of things, but for a Sunday morning when I was expecting to laze about and take my time doing the most basic of things, it was early.

I set out to walk the three and a half blocks from my house to the Maison Radio-Canada with a few minutes to spare. It was a short trip after all, and since my apartment and my destination were both inside Gaytanamo — er, the Formula E track — I figured it would be a quick walk.

A block and a half in, clearly not so simple. I skirted around the “trottoir barré” sign and then a security guard came into view, making signs for me to stop and not to proceed any further. He started to tell me that I would have to circle around the whole area on which the CBC building sits and I cut him off. "I have an interview right there in ten minutes," I said. Subtext: I have no time for your ridiculous bureaucratic attempt to have me take a circuitous path to my clearly visible destination. Oh, and I really have no interest in stealing the bleacher parts that you seem to be guarding.

So I am here to report that bullying (not so proud, but pushed to it) works. I made it for my interview inside the building and then proceeded to interview #2 which we filmed outside (and outside the fences) in the Parc de l’Espoir, our park commemorating those we have lost to HIV/AIDS. (I was happy they agreed to the choice, as we have been trying to make sure to use the park for HIV-related activities as a means of reinforcing its purpose.)

Back to the matter at hand…I will be very interested to see how our movements are restricted within the zone on the weekend. It’s almost enough to persuade a boy to get up early and wander the perimeter!

If you’re interested, you can find the interview here.