Festival Focus – Luminato Festival, Toronto, Canada
29 June 2012, Toronto, Canada
Theory of light: 'Einstein on the Beach'(Photo: Lucie Jansch)
A scene from 'Laura's Cow'(Photo: Michael Cooper)
Report by Karyl Charna Lynn
As the Luminato festival entered its 6th season, it began a new chapter with welcoming a new artistic director, Jorn Weisbrodt, who believes the Festival should include all artistic fields, where artists and intellectuals join together in cross-cultural performances and dialogue, as well as making the festival an integral part of Toronto itself.
Although the theme this year was Anglo-centric, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the Anglo-American War of 1812, the Festival itself was cosmopolitan and encompassed all aspects of the visual and performing arts: from Glass’s epic Einstein on the Beach to the world premiere of Laura’s Cow; from the play La Belle et la Bête: A Contemporary Retelling, which combined holographic 3D animals, scenery and actors with live ones, to Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Music also came from many genres, spanning the gamut from a marathon piano recital by Canadian pianist Stewart Goodyear, who played all 32 Beethoven sonatas in one (long) day to a Rufus Wainwright concert at Windscape, Luminato’s artfully transformed hub in Toronto’s Pecaut Square where thousands flocked for his and many other free outdoor concerts. The Royal Ontario Museum offered Jorinde Voight’s ink drawing interpretations of Beethoven’s sonatas, while the Art Gallery of Ontario exhibited a rare collection of Picasso’s paintings from the artist’s personal collection. Showcasing the Festival’s theme was an innovative exhibition in Fort York called The Encampment, which retold the personal toll of the War of 1812. Literary discussions, movies, magic shows, and ‘1000 Tastes of Toronto’ culinary delights in the Distillery Historic District rounded off the gamut of activities.
The two operatic offerings couldn’t have been more diverse: Glass’ four-and-a-half hour Einstein on the Beach, part of the composer’s 75th birthday celebration world tour, juxtaposed with a new children’s opera, Laura’s Cow by Errol Gay and Michael Albano. Based on an historical event from the Anglo-American War of 1812, which was the last time America attacked Canada, Laura's Cow follows the story of Laura Secord (the wife of a Canadian solider wounded in battle) who walked 32km to warn the British of an impending American attack. That simple deed, which led to the defeat of the American forces, defined the future and changed the course of history. Legend has it she passed through enemy lines with her cow, giving the impression of doing domestic chores. In the opera, the cow – a talking cow – became Laura’s conscience.
Taking place in a black box theater inside a former power plant, the opera opened in a classroom where the children were taught about Laura’s historic deed, which then unfolded amidst cleverly executed child-like sets denoting the different locations of Laura’s journey. A narrator tied the various threads of the opera together by periodically explaining the historic events. Spoken dialogue alternated with melodic singing and expressive musical chords, painting the atmosphere and expressing the character’s moods, which ranged from rumbling and threatening to lyrical and soothing. There was humour too: the talking cow emerged from an authentic reproduction of one, initially singing ‘moo, moo’ in a melodic and seductive manner; and beavers built a dam following instructions from a book, Dam Building for Dummies. The talking animals also warned that ‘humans don’t listen’, until Laura did, when her cow sang ‘you have a chance to change the world around us’.
Anyone expecting to see Einstein amidst sun, sand, and surf at Einstein on the Beach, which inaugurated Luminato, was in for a big surprise. Except for a couple of photos of Einstein, and a violinist (Jennifer Koh) who was seated at the front of the stage wearing a big, bushy, white wig, Einstein was nowhere else to be seen. He was not the main attraction. It was his concepts of time, travel, space, distance, and movement that were. They were transformed into metaphoric images drawn from his life’s interests: light, a space machine, nuclear reactor, trains, airplanes, and ending with a bus that propelled the opera, along with themes of technical progress and nuclear annihilation.
Although called an opera at its premiere in 1976, none of the elements one associates with that art form are present in Einstein. There is no storyline, climax, or denouement, and not even any singing – unless you count endless repetition of numbers singing. Instead, it is a parade of theatre, dance, and vignette visualizations of Einstein’s concepts, seen in a series of tableaux joined together by ‘knee plays’ or intermezzos.
In this revival of Robert Wilson's original 1976 production, one tableaux showed a formally dressed couple standing on a train for an entire moon cycle, which ended with the women pointing a gun at her companion. In another, a rectangular white light slowly moved from horizontal to vertical position, while the orchestra endlessly repeated the same few notes. There were courtroom scenes, a fairly-tale like creature in a modern tower, a spaceship machine with pulsating lights, and frenzied repetitive dancing that went on too long. Temporary moments of fascination punctuated interminable stretches of tedium. Some loved it; others walked out and didn’t return. It was avant garde in 1976. Today, sections appeared dated, others still relevant. Yet it is still an experience, and a unique way to express Einstein’s contribution to mankind.
Although Luminato is only a half a decade old, it has already made its mark as a cutting edge, avant garde festival poised to enter the ranks of those top-notch international festivals that not only offer new and rarely performed operas, but a myriad of other unusual and stimulating art forms.
Next year’s Luminato Festival runs from 14 to 23 June 2013.