There are many opera companies all over the world, but there’s nothing else quite like Toronto’s Opera Atelier. The company was founded in 1983 by two dancers: Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, and in 1985 they mounted their first fully staged opera production. Thirty years later, the couple (who are married) still run the company.
What makes Opera Atelier unique is that it’s a “period” opera company, specializing in baroque and classical operas from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, by such composers as Monteverdi, Lully, Handel and Mozart. Their historically informed productions are rooted in the styles and sensibilities of their eras.
In December, shortly after returning to Toronto, Pynkoski spoke about his company’s recent appearance in France, and about Opera Atelier’s thirty-year history.
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CE: Many Opera Atelier fans know you as the man who steps out in front of the curtain to talk to the audience before the show. How did you get started doing that?
MP: For a long time, I resisted doing it. Jeannette and I were always very much anxious that Opera Atelier should not be a vehicle for star singers, and also not a vehicle for us. We wanted Opera Atelier to be a vehicle for the repertoire. But about ten years ago, one of our board members said, “Marshall, there has to be a face associated with the work. People have to identify with a person, not just a name.” So the board insisted that I had to address the audience.
It was, and still is, the most difficult thing I’ve ever done! I find it incredibly nerve-wracking. At the same time, I can appreciate that it has had tremendous impact. When I started stepping out, our sales went up. Now I talk to people on the street or in the subway all the time. So I can’t argue with the results.
CE: You’ve just returned from staging Armide at Versailles. What was it like to be in France at such an eventful time?
MP: I still can’t believe it happened the way it did. If you wrote something like this into a novel, people would say it sounded too contrived to be true. Jeannette and I arrived in Paris on the day the shootings took place. We found out about it from a note at our hotel from the Toronto office, saying there had been an attack in Paris and urging us to be careful. I took it for granted that the office was over-reacting in a huge way – and then we turned on the TV in our hotel room.
It was a shock to see how real and serious it all was. And we were particularly concerned about whether the Royal Theatre in Versailles would stay open, because major institutions all across France were shut down – ostensibly as a memorial to the victims, but also for security reasons. On opening night, the Royal Theatre would be full of politicians and dignitaries, and it would be a natural target.
However, it soon became clear that the Parisians were going to go on with their lives, even in the areas where the attacks took place. We realized there was no question that the theatre at Versailles was going to cancel our performances.
But we also wondered if all of our artists would even come to France, under the circumstances. We had emergency board meetings over the phone, because the board wondered if it was safe. The response of the artists was incredibly impressive, and very moving. First, the office administration arrived, then the singers and dancers, then the Tafelmusik Orchestra. Some brought their children, and one of our dancers was still nursing a baby. People might have said, “Not right now,” but there was a powerful sense of solidarity – that we were able to offer something that was really profound.
Our production was the first show in the Royal Theatre after the attacks, just a week later, and the performance was dedicated to the victims of that violence. The director of spectacles at the château spoke, and so did I. Then there was a minute of silence, Tafelmusik played La Marseillaise – and we launched into an opera about a conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds, with a French knight and a Muslim princess!
CE: How did the audience react?
MP: The reaction was absolutely stupefying! We knew that audiences there are warm, and we thought we had prepared enough bows. But they went on for fifteen minutes, with rhythmic clapping and stomping on the floor – and it finally all fell apart because we had nothing left to give them. We seem to have a special affinity with French audiences.
CE: In a way, Paris is where Opera Atelier began. Can you describe what you and Jeannette did there, over thirty years ago, that led to the creation of Opera Atelier?
MP: Both Jeannette and I had a very standard education in music and dance. We were taught that all the big stuff begins in the nineteenth century – everything before that was “baby opera” and “baby ballet.” It was when we started to attend concerts by Tafelmusik that we heard glorious music that we were completely unfamiliar with. Thirty years ago, nobody in Toronto knew the music of Lully, Rameau or Monteverdi.
Our interest in this music that led us to do some research of our own. We went to the Library of the Performing Arts in New York, and learned to our amazement that there was a dance notation developed in the seventeenth century, and there were books that taught you how to read it. The more we found out, the more it became clear that the place we needed to be was Paris, where Louis XIV established the first Academy of Dancing. We decided we would find a way to go to Paris.
In Paris, we auditioned for the Moulin Rouge, so we could afford to stay there. We were hired on three-year contracts. We did two shows a night, seven days a week, and our days were completely our own. After a year we came back to Toronto. We ran out on our contracts, I’m ashamed to say – and sent back doctor’s certificates, so they couldn’t sue us. We came back with massive amounts of information about dance notation, and also about staging and the use of rhetorical gesture.
CE: And how did this information-gathering project in Paris turn into an opera company in Toronto?
MP: The Royal Ontario Museum had just undergone a renovation, and we were invited to enliven their new spaces by presenting what we had learned. We had some costumes made, plugged in a tape-recorder with a Tafelmusik recording, and told people that we would do a performance of baroque dance. The response was amazing – so many people wanted to watch us. The museum brought us in three days a week, for three sets of performances. We weren’t paid, but through this platform we did very well by the ROM.
Then they moved us to the lecture hall, and we put together an orchestra. We did Bach’s “Coffee Cantata.” At the time we called ourselves the Atelier Theatre Society. After that, we called ourselves Opera Atelier.
We also performed at the Art Gallery of Ontario. In the last performance we gave there of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, we let so many people in that we violated the fire regulations, and were asked to leave. Then David Mirvish phoned us – we didn’t even know that he had attended our performance – and he said, “You people need a real theatre. I’m willing to put you on my subscription series at the Royal Alexandria Theatre.” He really launched us.
CE: In the early years, was there any kind of model for your company, anywhere in the world?
MP: The only company we ever felt we were modelling ourselves on was the New York City Ballet, founded by George Balanchine. I think it’s the greatest company in the world. We were always impressed by the integrity of Balanchine’s vision. He built a team of artists around him – with teachers, musicians, composers, costume designers – and he stayed with that team, and he worked with them till they died! He forged incredibly strong links. We always felt there was something exceptional about that: a company that was directed by the founder, surrounded by like-minded people, so they could all grow and develop together, rather than constantly looking for new people with new ideas. Balanchine grew his ideas out of that group of people – and if you couldn’t grow with him, you had to leave.
Every year, Jeannette and I go to New York. We usually see five ballets in three days, and it’s always the New York City Ballet. It never pales. And we’ve always thought that’s the company we want to be – not a ballet company, but a company that functions in the same way. I’m very proud of the fact that Gerard Gauci, our scenic designer, has been with us for thirty years. We’ve had only three costume designers, and just a couple of lighting designers. We go back to the same people again and again. And of course we have an extraordinary relationship with the Tafelmusik Orchestra.
CE: Yes, I wanted to ask you about Tafelmusik, and also your long-standing music director, David Fallis. How did you establish those relationships?
MP: It all grew so gradually and organically that it’s hard to answer that question. Nothing of what Opera Atelier has become was planned – absolutely none of it. When Tafelmusik’s artistic director, Jeanne Lamon, put together a band for us in 1985 for the Bach 300 Festival, it wasn’t because we had any ideas about continuing. We didn’t know what we were going to do! We simply thought that Bach 300 was a wonderful opportunity, and the Royal Ontario Museum had a budget for us to do something there. But as more and more musicians were brought in, it became clear to us that we should use the Tafelmusik name, because we were using so many of their first-desk players.
When it got to the point that we were producing more seriously, and making applications to arts councils, we had one very amusing encounter. People didn’t know what to make of us: Jeannette and I were dancers, and we had an opera company, and that bothered some people a great deal. At any rate, we went to a council meeting because we had been given a grant – but it wasn’t as much as wanted, and we were allowed to appeal.
One of the people on the committee said, “How can you possibly have the gall to come in hear and appeal, when you call yourself an opera company, and you don’t even have a music director?” I replied that Jeanne Lamon is the director of Tafelmusik, and they play for us. And he said, “Yes, but she’s not your music director. Unless you can come back with a music director, we can’t do anything more for you.” So I said we would be in touch very soon.
I got in touch with Jeanne, and she said that the person who sprang to mind was David Fallis. I met David at a restaurant, and we chatted for about an hour. I asked him to be our music director, and he said, “Sure, why not?” Then I went back to the arts council and told them that David Fallis was our music director – and at the time it may have made them even angrier, because it looked like we had done something rather flippant. But we had simply turned to the most knowledgeable person we knew, asked for advice and it was great advice! He’s been our music director for twenty-nine years.
CE: Today you are Opera Atelier’s stage director, and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg is the company’s choreographer. How did your roles become defined?
MP: Jeannette had a stronger dance background than I did. She started early, and I was a late starter in ballet. She leaned more towards choreography, and her fascination with reading notation. It’s not easy to learn to read dance notation – you’re reading music and dance-steps like a roadmap at the same time. It takes an enormous amount of application, and it suited Jeannette right down to the ground.
For a long time, I danced in our productions. But when we started bringing singers to work with us, it was natural that it fell to me to work with them. I’d always been very interested in acting. So we both fell into the roles that are of particular interest to us. All that said, our roles overlap a great deal. She has to work closely with the singers, and I have to work closely with the dancers. I’m in on all of Jeannette’s rehearsals, and she’s in on almost all of mine.
CE: After thirty years, what would you say were Opera Atelier’s highlights?
MP: Our first huge milestone was Monteverdi’s Orfeo at the Art Gallery of Ontario. We had invested everything we had in it – financially, emotionally, artistically. It was the kind of excitement that makes you feel physically ill. And it was an amazing experience. It was done in conjunction with the gallery’s “Splendours of the Vatican,” and when that exhibition travelled to Montreal, the Museum of Fine Arts asked us to come with it. Soon we had reviews from Toronto, Montreal and even New York, because there was critic who came from the New York Times. Suddenly, everything was real: we existed, even though Opera Atelier was just a telephone in our dining room.
Another major milestone was our production of Mozart’s Magic Flute. It was a new direction for us. But there had never been a fully staged “period” production of Flute in North America. And by doing a piece that was so well known, we knew we were taking the biggest risk imaginable. From some people, there was enormous resentment. They said, “Why are you doing it? You have no reason to do it, and you have no ‘right’ to do it. It’s a misuse of public funds, and you’re stepping on the toes of the Canadian Opera Company.” You wouldn’t believe the pushback we got. It was as though we were committing a crime.
The other big things for us were the French baroque repertoire – such as Lully’s Persée and Armide. We always wanted to do it, but we knew that the expense would be prohibitive. That’s still a big issue for us, even though we just did Armide for the third time. But I think seventeenth-century French opera is the greatest repertoire in the history of Western music.
CE: You were doing very well as a baroque opera company. So why did Opera Atelier move forward into the classical era?
MP: I was intrigued because Tafelmusik had started to make recordings of Mozart – and when I heard them, I was astonished. Also, Jeannette and I did some research on the singers who first performed Mozart’s operas. The fact that the stars of Mozart’s day could be teen-agers, said something about the way Mozart was performed. The first Zerlina in Don Giovanni was just twelve years old! Suddenly her aria, with almost no accompaniment so a child can sing it, makes perfect sense. Yet at the same time, think of how sexually savvy her character is. Children got married in Mozart’s day – Marie Antoinette was only fourteen. The moment girls could reproduce, they were “out there.”
We felt strongly that there was something very important, musically and dramatically, about Mozart’s repertoire. And we knew that if we could pull it off, it would make a bigger impression than the earlier repertoire, because with baroque opera nobody in the audience could judge us in comparison with anything else. With Mozart, we were saying, “We’ll do it differently.”
CE: And you’ve done Weber’s Der Freischütz, which was first performed in 1821.
MP: That’s as far forward as we’ve gone – so far. There will be more big changes, in a few years.
CE: There’s a persistent rumour that you want to stage Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande. Could you present an opera that was first performed in 1902?
MP: Absolutely! I love Pelléas. And when I hear Debussy I hear Rameau. I hear where Debussy came from. He’s immersed in French history. I always feel that when we see productions of Pelléas, everyone says, “He was so forward-looking!” I don’t think that’s a good way to look at it – it doesn’t make sense. No one knows about the future. The future doesn’t exist, but the past does. He knew where he came from. And I think with an orchestra that’s immersed in Lully and Rameau and Charpentier we will be in the perfect place to take this step.
When I talked to Jeanne Lamon about Tafelmusik playing Debussy, she said, “We all own modern instruments. We can put down our baroque instruments and pick up modern ones.” The only thing that is stopping us is that we won’t do it until we can afford to do the show that it needs to be. I think it needs enormous amounts of rehearsal.
CE: I’ve noticed that your approach to staging has changed over the years. These days, you seem to be playing fast and loose with the idea of period style. Certainly your wigs and costumes are less lavish than they used to be.
MP: The whole process of Opera Atelier for the last decade has been to strip things away. I had an epiphany when we first produced Charpentier’s Medée. We got rid of all the wigs, and the make-up and costumes had to be changed. It was a turning point: I realized we had been drowning in décor. How much more stuff could we lard on to a show? I was so sick of people raving about our costumes, and scenery, and I felt we were “camouflaging” our work.
I think style is a great place to start – you have to start somewhere – but then you have to ask, “What are we trying to say?” We don’t want to just do pretty, exotic things. The whole idea of opera was that the music and staging are supposed to heighten the text, and illicit an emotional response from the audience.
The process of stripping away continues – and we now look at the idea of “period style” as a take-off point to create anything we want to create. I was proud that in our last production of Armide, there were moments when our principal singers stopped “singing” – they were just shouting. There was still a sense of pitch, but there were nights when it was incredibly daring, and I thought, “This is what it has to be.” It’s that kind of commitment is that makes our productions so thrilling.
CE: There was a time when Opera Atelier seemed like a “civic secret,” in Toronto. But now you’re starting to get around more, and you’re becoming known internationally. How did this come about?
MP: For us, it really began when we first went to Versailles, when we took our first production of Armide there, six years ago. Marc Minkowski was in the audience – he had just been named artistic director of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. And he asked us if we would be interested in staging Mozart’s Lucio Silla in Salzburg. On the opening night, Alexander Pereira, the artistic director of La Scala, was there. He asked us to be part of his next season in Milan.
This is a really thrilling time for Opera Atelier. I love touring, but I don’t want to tour just for the sake of touring. It’s expensive, and it’s exhausting. I want to tour when I think it will help the company grow.
CE: What are your plans for the future?
MP: I do want Opera Atelier to continue to exist when I am no longer alive. But I hope we will be actively involved in the company for our entire creative lives. To me, retiring is a ridiculous idea. I don’t know what I would do if I retired. This has become 100 percent our lives. It’s what drives us. It’s what we’ve poured ourselves into – our finances, our creativity. Opera Atelier is the first thing I think of in the morning, and the last thing I think of at night. And I feel like the luckiest person in the world!
© Colin Eatock 2016