Marshall Pynkoski

Canadian Chat

Opera Atelier website

Joe Szekeres

Marshall Pynkoski and I shared a good laugh later when we were able to communicate via Zoom.

I had logged on earlier to be ready for our meeting. Because I had forgotten to re-start my computer after loading updates, we spent a few minutes trying to ensure our microphones were working. Completely my error on all accounts, but Marshall was so gracious and kind that he put me at ease immediately and we continued forward.

From Opera Atelier’s website: “Mr. Pynkoski has collaborated with many of the finest artists in the world of early music and his productions of opera and ballet have toured throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. In 1985, he founded Opera Atelier with his partner and co-Artistic Director Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg and he has since directed a wide range of period productions of Baroque and early Classical opera and ballet in close collaboration with Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

He is a recipient of numerous awards including the Toronto Arts Award, the Ruby Award for outstanding contribution to opera in Canada, and the TIME Magazine award for Classical music. He has been named Chevalier dans L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Government of France.”

Thank you so much for your time, Marshall:

As we now approach Year 3 of this worldwide pandemic, as Artistic Director of Opera Atelier, how has the company been able to weather the winds of this tumultuous time and move forward?

We did something called ‘Together Apart’ to begin with and had a tremendous response. And then we did ‘Together Apart Part 2’. Again, a wonderful response.

It then occurred to us there was a new Canadian composition we had begun in, I think it was, 2018 at Versailles, and this was with Edwin Huizinga who was writing new music for period instruments as part of a staged concert that we gave in the Royal Chapel. It had been so successful that we were asked to return the next year and expand it.

We had continued expanding it and we suddenly thought well maybe this is the answer – maybe we look at expanding what was first called ‘The Eye and Eye’s Delight’ with what we finished calling ‘Angel’. Maybe we continue expanding this and create something made for film rather than an apology taking something that was meant to be for the stage and filming it.

Do you know that It turned into the most wonderful experience for all of us, for all of the artists involved. It was all of our dancers, many of our favourite singers, Tafelmusik Baroque orchestra. We were working with the poetry of Milton but also poetry by Rilke. We had commissioned a wonderful English translation of that poetry. We put together a piece that was about 70 minutes long. It has already won a number of awards at film festivals. I just heard it was just accepted into the Austrian Film Circle as the Critics’ Select.
I’m very proud to say that money that came to us through the government. The government has been very generous to arts companies. They did everything they can to maintain our funding and to help us. It was made very clear that if we felt we couldn’t produce it wouldn’t be held against any company. Everyone decided to wait until this pandemic is over.

I’m very proud to say we spent every penny on producing, on composition. We spent it on singers, on dancers, on filmmakers. Consequently, we’ve learned a great deal, we’ve grown a great deal and we’ve maintained a sort of different contact with our audience in what we would ever have imagined possible.
That being said we’re thrilled to be going back into the theatre and even then, we’ve never hedged our bets. We’ve never been a company like that. I was very proud of the fact we were one of the last companies standing and saying, “We are opening in February!” The moment you say that, all the contracts kick in. If we had been shut down again, we would have still been paying the full contract to all the singers, all the dancers, a cancellation fee to Koerner Hall, all of those things.

Our Board of Directors were very fortunately behind us. We took a deep breath and said, “We’re in. We’re opening.”

And here we are, and God help us I don’t think there’s going to be another shutdown. We’ll be in Koerner Hall and it will be our much belated debut fully staged. This is something we would never have dreamed of producing otherwise. We’re calling it our valentine to Toronto entitled ‘All is Love’ and just hoping that people will feel comfortable enough that they will fill up the 50% capacity allowed to us and to celebrate together.

The global pandemic has certainly changed our view of the world we once knew. How have you been able to move forward personally during these tumultuous times?

Personally, I’ve been doing extremely well. I don’t want to sound flippant, but I don’t like fear. I don’t like people trying to control me with fear.

I do feel the media has done a wonderful job of terrifying everyone. Again, that doesn’t mean I don’t take this seriously because I do take it seriously. But I don’t need the media to frighten me. I’ve lot lots of things to be afraid and I can provide that for myself.

My concern is that we have been surrounded by a media and by individuals who cultivate fear and that I object to. Why would we cultivate that fear? We should be cultivating courage. We should be cultivating tenacity. We should be cultivating our imaginations and finding how we can make this into something that is positive and be able to look at in in a realistic way.

Again, I am being realistic. I have all of my vaccinations. Jeannette has all of her vaccinations. We spent $125K on tests for our artists in order to be able to film ‘Angel’. For our company our size, $125K is gigantic. So, we’re taking it all seriously.

But I also insist that we must recognize life has to go on. We have to create. Artists need to create. Meashha (Brueggergosman, Opera Atelier Artist in Residence) says, “We are the first responders.” We’re the people who are out there giving people hope and solace. This is the moment we can really shine and show who we are. It would be good for us and good for everyone.

Other than the fact we’ve had to plow and push through a certain degree of negativity and fear on occasion, I would say it’s been a very positive experience that has forced us to re-examine our values and the things we think are important. It’s created a degree of solidarity in the theatre community that I know, and it can only end up being something that we have all benefitted from.

When we’re dealing with singers, dancers, musicians, we’re dealing with young people who don’t remember other serious threats that the world has faced. I’m dealing with singers and dancers who never lived through AIDS. You want to talk about a pandemic at that time? I would need four hands to count the people whom I loved were lost. There have been huge issues.

We get back. We bounce back just like people did after AIDS, after the First and Second World Wars, after the Spanish Flu, after SARS, after diphtheria. C’mon, this is unfair and counterproductive.

Although I personally have no background or training in the study of opera and ballet, I’ve quite enjoyed watching Opera Atelier productions live before the shutdown. I’ve also enjoyed watching productions online.

I’m receiving the impression you believe it’s important to ensure this exquisite art form gets to be seen by as many as possible. Why do you believe this is an important goal to achieve?

I think it’s important because exposure to the arts that are built on such a groundwork of positivity. It benefits people emotionally, it benefits people spiritually and eventually has an impact physically as well.
The arts should have an important place in our lives to make us completely full, well-rounded human beings.

We are dying of a surfeit of a specialization in this world, in North America and Europe in particular. If you’re not specializing, then you’re considered a dilettante. The moment you’re considered a dilettante, you are discarded. It is and consequently we have people who are fiercely intelligent about one small area of knowledge and yet will know nothing about opera, nothing about ballet, nothing about music, nothing about literature.

We have to broaden our life experience. We all have to so we can be more well-rounded human beings and then maybe, when something like this pandemic comes up, we will be better equipped to deal with it spiritually and intellectually in every way.

I’m tired of hearing people trying to justify the arts by saying, “Oh, if you take music your Math marks may improve.” Well, that may be true, but that’s not what I’m interested in. I don’t need to justify music because that’s going to help you have better marks in the Math class. The Arts do not require that justification anymore than eating the best food and exercise require justification.

We know these things are good for us, and the responsibility to bring them into our lives or with artists to make sure to make them accessible so we bring them to people’s lives. If people have not had the opportunity to be exposed to them because of this specialization that I speak of, then we try to rectify that by making the Arts more accessible. I don’t mean by dumbing them down. I mean by not costing as much, finding ways to get them to people for free, finding ways to meet as broad a demographic as possible.
There are many people who don’t attend the theatre because they are intimidated by it. There’s this idea of a certain exclusivity and won’t be able to understand. I think that film allows us to jump past that and just say, “In the comfort of your own home, put up your feet. Pour yourself a drink, have a cigarette, whatever you need to make yourself comfortable, sit back and watch an artistic presentation.”

If it bores you, put it on Pause.

There’s something wonderful about the Arts and I’d like to think it becomes a catalyst to walk into the theatre, sit down and see what this is like live. If it can have a powerful impact on screen, what’s the impact it can have on a real-life situation? Something even more powerful.

I thought how appropriate Atelier is returning live to the stage (hopefully with fingers crossed) with ‘All is Love’ on the Valentine’s Day weekend.

In the press release there is reference to the character of Love, so obviously this emotion permeates the production. Along with ‘love’ what other messages do you hope audiences will take away after seeing the production?

I want audiences to leave the theatre feeling they have had a cathartic experience.

I take for granted that people will be nervous stepping into the theatre, why wouldn’t they be after all this time that we haven’t been in a large crowd? Even though there is only a 50% capacity with space between everyone, I still think it requires an act of courage for people for the first time to step out and go and do that.

I hope people come away feeling more alive. I hope people come away remembering what they felt before so much was taken away from us. It’s amazing how complacent we’ve become and convinced to live differently or in ways that are not good for us where we start to feel comfortable in ways that should make us feel uncomfortable. We start to become uncomfortable with real life contact, a real physical contact, a face-to-face meeting.

All of the inconveniences that are an integral part of being human - This is too easy. You could be wearing your pajama bottoms for all I know, Joseph, during our conversation.

We have to get back to living and all the grit of living and making our way to the theatre and sitting down and put on reading glasses to read the program.

We have to get back to something that takes us off the screen. I’m glad it does exist for some things, but we have to get off the screen and get in each other’s faces again.

Tell me about the genesis of ‘All is Love’ and its progress to the stage.

‘All is Love’ includes much of the repertoire that we explored on film, but again we’re accepting the fact that in a real-life situation it becomes a completely different repertoire, and it would be experienced differently. But we have also added additional pieces as part of that, pieces dealing specifically with Love.
We’ve moved into 19th century French art song for the first time that will be completely staged. So, you will hear Debussy and Reynaldo Hahn on period instruments, the instruments that it was written for.

Act 1 Peleas, something I’ve always dreamed of for thirty years, we are actually going to be doing. It’s so, so exciting.

We’re also moving into some brand-new repertoire that still has a very, very close link to 17th century French music. When I hear Debussy’s music, I hear Rameau, I hear Lully. When I listen to Reynaldo Hahn, I hear Charpentier. That’s what these giants were steeped in, and we forget that. We always look to where they were going, and we forget what was their grounding.

To have an orchestra that is immersed in French baroque music interpret Reynaldo Hahn and Debussy, I think we’re going to hear something absolutely a unique and legitimate perspective rather than trying simply to create something to amuse people or keep them coming to the theatre for whatever reason. We want to tell these stories succinctly and clearly; we want to be coherent not incoherent.

A coherent storytelling that people can follow because God knows Peleas is a difficult story anyway.
It’s such a pleasure to work on this repertoire and to have Meashha with us. The opening song she sings which was something created for her, that’s where the title of this show comes from and it’s perfect for the Valentine Season and to share with someone whom you love.

RAPID ROUND

Try to answer these in a single sentence. If you need more than one sentence, that’s not a problem. I credit the late James Lipton and “Inside the Actors’ Studio’ for this idea:

Who would you say was the biggest influence on your life in your pursuit of your vocation as a professional artist? What would you say to this influence right now?

The biggest influence was George Balanchine, the greatest choreographer in history and the founder of New York City Ballet. Jeanette and I make a trip, a pilgrimage to New York City on a yearly basis, to see those dancers dance that repertoire.

If I saw Balanchine I would drop to my knees and say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’ve changed how we listen to music. You changed how we experience music. Dancers literally changing how I hear Stravinsky. Thank you.”

If you could say something to the entire company of ‘All is Love’ what would it be?

“Remember all the reasons you chose your career. Bring all those things back together for this moment and let them crystallize in this performance for our audience.”

If you could say something to the audiences of ‘All is Love’, what would it be?

“Let yourself be carried away. Try to let any barriers or concerns that you have down. I want you to feel as those you are being in a dream. You’re in a safe place, and we’re giving you something that is like a wonderful, safe drug. I want you to wake up at the end and feel more human.”

What is a word you love to hear yourself say?

(Marshall had a good laugh) “Yes”.

What is a word you don’t like to hear yourself say?

Impossible

With whom would you like to have dinner and discuss the current state of the live Canadian performing arts scene?

(Another good laugh from Marshall) The current state of the Canadian arts scene…Ah, that’s a loaded question. There are so many possibilities. I would still go to the creator I admire most.

I would go to George Balanchine.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Canadian arts scene, it’s the ARTS SCENE that is happening universally and George never lost sight of the big picture. When he introduced Stravinsky to New York and was choreographing Stravinsky, there was a wonderful anecdote where someone said, “George, look at the people who are leaving.” And it was Balanchine who said:

“Look at the people who are staying.”

This says everything.

What would you tell your younger personal self with the knowledge and wisdom life experience has now given you?

I’d say, “Maintain your focus. Try not to allow yourself to be distracted by anxiety about where your career is taking you. Provided you are absolutely doing your very best, and you know you’re doing your best, it will take you in the direction you need to go.”

This advice would have saved me enormous anxiety if I would have just believed that I had direction.
But direction doesn’t mean a straight line, and this is what young people don’t understand. You can be following direction and be taking the most circuitous route. I look now and it makes total sense that I am where I am.

At 18 or 19, this would have made no sense at all.

With the professional life experience you’ve gained, what would you now tell the upcoming Marshall Pynkoski from years ago who was just in the throes of beginning a career as a performing artist?

Well, I’d probably say what I say to all artists: “The most important thing you can do is to create. You have to be able to follow your discipline. It doesn’t matter who the audience is or how much of an audience you have.

You have to follow your discipline whether you’re doing it for yourself, in a studio, working with other artists or only for a few invited friends - you have to keep pursuing that goal so that it takes on a life of its own and can grow organically, not to force it and not be frightened of it. Simply devote yourself to excellence and let it take you where it’s going.”

What is one thing you still wish to accomplish both personally and professionally?

I don’t make a big distinction between my personal and professional life. As Co-Artistic Directors, I would say Jeanette and I both hope that we’ll have the opportunity to explore more French baroque repertoire in the future – 17th and 18th century repertoire both with some of the major operas of Charpentier, Rameau and Lully plus we want to come back to those enormous productions that we were producing ten years ago and have been unable to visit.

We’d like to come back to these operas of ten years ago with many of the same artists who will have grown as artists and re-examine it and re-examine it as well as move into new repertoire.

And of course, the early 19th century repertoire like Debussy.

There’s no question of retiring; there’s no question of what will I do when I’m no longer doing this. If I’m no longer doing this, I will be dead. This is what I do because this is who I am. It’s not something I’m doing to fill up my time until something else happens.

Name one moment in your professional career that you wish you could re-visit again for a short while.

I would say our performance immediately after the terrorist attack in Paris. That was an extraordinary event.

Most theatres shut down entirely after that attack in, I think, 2016/17.

We had just arrived in Versailles with all of our Tafelmusik, all of our singers and dancers, about 80 people. We had enormous pressure to come home and not perform and that it was too dangerous.

We decided that we were going to stay, and it was absolutely unanimous. The Royal Opera House re-opened, and we re-opened the Royal Opera House just days after the terrorist attack. They insisted they would not be terrorized by terror, and we opened with Lully’s ‘Armide’, a story of the Muslim warrior princess and the Christian knight and their affair and attempt to find some way to live with each other and live out their destinies.

It was the most extraordinary event when the curtain went up and there was that gigantic Persian writing on stage. There was a gasp from the audience as they couldn’t believe it. It was as if we had planned this particular event.

For all of us, it was one of the most moving experiences of our lives. The army was backstage in the hallways with submachine guns. All of Versailles was an armed camp, and there we were packed house of Parisians and people from Versailles.

To learn more about Opera Atelier, visit their web page: www.operaatelier.com. You can also visit their Facebook page: @OperaAtelier; Twitter: @OperaAtelier.

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