Edmonton Opera Brunch: “Les Contes d’Hoffmann”

Two Sundays ago Mack and I were invited as guests to attend Edmonton Opera’s Opera Brunch for its upcoming mainstage production of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffman). Though we’ve attended the opera and related events before (most recently, Storm the Stage last fall), this was our first time attending an event that would introduce us, in recital format, to the artists that would be performing in the show.

Held in one of the banquet rooms at the Sutton Place Hotel, we were told that the buffet brunch would feature some dishes inspired by the production – namely, the circus setting where this production of Hoffman takes place. We were looking forward to seeing what the kitchen had in store.

Opera Brunch

Table setting

The first few chafing dishes revealed some summer fair favourites, including soft pretzels, corn dogs, fries and popcorn. But for those who wanted more traditional breakfast and lunch dishes, there was an overwhelming amount to choose from, ranging from eggs benedict, sausages and bacon to cold salads, roast chicken and perogies.

Opera BrunchOpera Brunch

It became obvious that some items fared better than others in the chafing dishes – the scrambled eggs remained fluffy and light, while poached eggs became overcooked, for example. The throwback to circus fare was also a mixed bag – we weren’t convinced the kitchen handmade the pretzels (and if they had, why wouldn’t they have sized them down into half or quarter portions?), while the corn dogs were of the Pogo variety. I have to say the kitchen disappointed me that day – given we were told the food would be connected to the opera’s theme, I didn’t expect these feature dishes to come from a box.

Opera Brunch

Mack’s plate

The service staff, on the other hand, were fabulous from beginning to end. We started out the morning with a mimosa (the champagne was topped up generously), and the coffee kept on coming.

The performances began about an hour into the event. We would be treated to a total of ten songs, as well as some words from the Director, Designer and Maestro of Hoffman.

Opera is often said to be pretentious, or at least inaccessible. Part of that is the language of opera, to be sure, but part of it too may be the physical distance between the players and the audience. Compared with a smaller, more intimate theatre production, it can be more difficult to connect with the performers. For me, the Opera Brunch helped erase some of that distance.

Opera Brunch

Teiya Kasahara dashed into the audience

Each of the ten artists chose to sing a song of their choosing, and many of them, surprisingly, were in English – no need for supertitles here! Before starting their song, they provided the audience with a bit of context (the scene preceding the song, the general storyline of the opera), so we were able to understand the character’s frame of mind, or the humour in the lyrics. What amazed me, sitting so close to the stage, was seeing the theatricality of the performers; their physical transformation into the character as soon as the music began – a hunch, a scowl – was a subtlety that sitting in the rafters at the Jubilee, I would never have noticed. And I don’t think anyone will disagree that the finale from Hoffman himself, David Pomeroy, who performed “Danny Boy”, was so wrought with emotion that there were more than a few handkerchiefs out at its conclusion.

Opera Brunch

Krisztina Szabo on stage

We also relished the opportunity to find out more about Hoffman, from the words of those working on it behind the scenes. The passion from Director Joel Ivany in particular was evident, as he described the difference between opera in North America and in Europe – in the former, it is presented as entertainment, in the latter, it is discussed and debated in the culture pages. As Ivany shared his vision for the opera, it convinced us that we should go and see Hoffman – I’m curious to see how the opera manifests itself.

All told, the Opera Brunch was the best Edmonton Opera event I’ve ever attended. We were able to learn more about the forthcoming production, get to know the artists a bit more and listen to some wonderful music, all in an informal setting. I know the EO has tried to target a younger audience with the Explorer’s Club and Storm the Stage, but I think the framework of this event, transposed into an evening wine and cheese, would do more to help those 18-35 connect with opera.

Thanks again to Edmonton Opera for the invitation!

Les Contes d’Hoffmann runs at the Jubilee Auditorium on February 1, 3, 5 and 7, 2013.

City Market Report: Week 11 (and Dirt City, Dream City)

By the time we got downstairs to the City Market, it was later in the day and the rain had started to come down.

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Rainy market afternoon

In some ways, this was good for us, because the selection of fresh produce was still quite good, but I acknowledge that the weather wasn’t what vendors were hoping for.

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Sweetheart plums from Steve & Dan’s

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Pattypan squash from Kuhlmann’s

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Zucchini and summer squash from Kuhlmann’s

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Cauliflower from Riverbend Gardens

Thankfully, the rain cleared up that afternoon, and Mack and I took the opportunity to explore Dirt City, Dream City in The Quarters.

Dirt City, Dream City

Examining Crow’s Advice by Holly Newman

Dirt City, Dream City encompasses 17 different art installations spread across the neighbourhood. We weren’t entirely sure how we would locate all of them without a paper guide, but the “scavenger hunt”-like experience turned out to be fun, and the map printed on the descriptive boxes beside each piece was really all we needed. The pedestrian nature of the exhibit was fitting given it is closely tied to how most residents of the neighbourhood get around, and encouraged us down streets we probably wouldn’t have travelled on our own accord.

Dirt City, Dream City

Accompanying artists’ statements and biographies

Along the way, we encountered many different manifestations of art – from Adam Waldron-Blain’s live performance on a construction-ridden street to billboard canvases to an entire community garden.

Dirt City, Dream City

In Performance by Adam Waldron-Blain

The underlying message behind the installations was an expression of the dichotomy between the current reality of The Quarters and the optimistic future plans propagated by the City. Without question, there is progress being made (the YMCA Welcome Village set to open later this year is the first in a series of planned improvements), but after walking past too many derelict buildings and gravel parking lots it’s easy to see why residents would be frustrated.

Dirt City, Dream City

Simulacrum by Carly Greene

Unlike most gallery art we come across, I loved the open air nature of this exhibit, and how they interacted with the natural elements. One good example was Aaron Paquette’s Everyone is Welcome, which was so welcoming that we saw a rabbit settled comfortably in the centre of the piece.

Dirt City, Dream City

Aaron Paquette’s Everyone is Welcome

The Quarters Community Garden by Tiffany Shaw-Collinge also appealed to me because it was a living example of a piece larger than life, engaging residents in tangible art.

Dirt City, Dream City

Quarters Community Garden

The piece that resonated the most with me was The Placebo Effect by Emily van Driesum.

Dirt City, Dream City

The Placebo Effect

I couldn’t agree with her accompanying art statement more:

“A tree encompasses the strength, growth and enduring qualities of The Quarters Downtown, while reflecting Edmonton’s goal of bringing people and greenery back into an urban setting. In The Placebo Effect, stitching implies an attempted healing. However, by removing the root system of the tree, the stitching may not be enough to sustain healing. The Placebo Effect illustrates a potential revitalization of the Quarters community. Without the root system, the attempted healing process may have a beneficial result or no result at all.”

Dirt City, Dream City closes on July 30, 2012. Check it out if you can!

A Summery Sunday in Edmonton: Viva Italia Viva Edmonton and the Alley of Light

Mack and I started off our Sunday at Urban China for dim sum with my family. It’s been much too long since we’ve done that on a weekend morning, because we clearly underestimated the crowds: it was a forty minute wait from the time my parents arrived around noon. We’ll get an earlier start next time; Urban China is still one of my favourite places for dim sum in Edmonton!

Urban China

Crispy pork dumplings

We then headed off to Giovanni Caboto Park for the last day of the East Meets West Festival that celebrated all things Italian!

This was our first time at Viva Italia Viva Edmonton, though we’ve taken in the Chinese and African legs of the celebration in past years. It was easily the best part of the festival we’ve ever attended.

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Chasing Jones

Part of that had to do with the amount of space afforded in Little Italy, especially when compared with Chinatown or the McCauley School grounds. With a playground, spray park, wide green spaces as well as the street, there were definitely a lot more possibilities because of the area.

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Lots of families were out!

That said, the organizers still had to program the wide expanse, and they did that with panache. We arrived around 2pm, and found an abundance of things to peruse. Between browsing the shops and the car show, watching the soccer tournament, taking in the cooking demonstrations, or enjoying the on-stage entertainment, there really was something for everyone (Maki thought so too).

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Zocalo tent

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Mack’s dream car

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Soccer tournament

I have to say I particularly enjoyed Chef Daniel Costa’s demonstration. He made something I’ll never be able to pronounce, let alone spell out. Needless to say, it was a bucatini pasta with cured pig jowl and a San Marzano tomato sauce. He was great handling audience questions, and clearly loved sharing his passion for Italian cuisine with the crowd. Perhaps most invaluable was learning about some of his favourite products available at the Italian Centre (such as the Rio brand of olive oil for cooking).

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Chef Daniel Costa

Speaking of food, one of the most entertaining moments of the day for us was the pizza eating contest. Four women who work in local media were recruited for the spectacle, which required them to eat as much of a medium pizza as they could in five minutes. Brandy Taylor of Sonic and Kit Koon of OMNI tied, and ended up in a two minute eat-off. Brandy emerged as the champion.

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Sizeable crowd on hand

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Chow down!

There was also plenty of food options to keep festival-goers well fed. Fantasia Gelato easily had the longest line-ups that day, though Sorrentino’s and the Italian Centre were also serving up Italian fare.

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Gelato line

East Meets West 2011: Viva Italia

Cooking up sausages

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Wine and cheese tasting tent

Our only suggestion for next year is to have all of the information up on a website prior. The postcards with the festival week schedule were nice, but didn’t have the detailed information that would definitely help them attract an even bigger crowd.

We hopped on a bus, and on the walk home, came across the Alley of Light public art installation still in progress.

Alley of Light

It’s a really neat project – three artists were commissioned by the Edmonton Arts Council to create a design that could be made into a stencil. The stencil would then be used to paint a portion of the alley.

Alley of Light

Alley of Light

Featuring bold, bright colours, it is a project that puts art in unexpected (but welcome!) places, and will definitely turn some heads. And hopefully, as forecasted by the speech bubble, invite dialogue about public art and the Alley of Light itself.

Alley of Light

Check it out the next time you’re downtown!

Visualeyez 2010

Performance art has always seemed a bit elusive to me – more than anything else, it probably has to do with my lack of familiarity with the medium rather than the art itself.

So when I found out that the 11th annual Visualeyez Festival, put on by Latitude 53, had adopted a theme of food this year, I was excited. Nothing like a topic that I love to get me interested and more willing to take the leap into the unknown.

Unlike an art gallery, where the pieces are static and accessible, for the most part, during operational hours, and unlike the Fringe theatre festival, where every staged production is performed multiple times, the Visualeyez Festival is not only brief by comparison at six days in length, but also, performances of some works were only scheduled to take place once.

That said, on the day Communications Assistant Alaine Mackenzie invited me to the festival, I was able to get a taste of three very different interpretations of the theme (and still can partake in one piece not bound by time – by downloading an audio tour of the Sobeys Urban Fresh).

Alaine was also really excited about this year’s theme of food, and really thought the banner would help break down the barriers of those daunted by the idea of performance art. The gallery was quiet when I arrived, but by the time the afternoon’s main event was underway, the main space was nearly full.

First, she introduced me to Alison Reiko Loader and Kelly Andres, who described their project titled kinder/garden as a “food laboratory”. Different from most of the other performances, both were on-site tending to the lab every day, and made a point of changing the space daily.

Alison and Kelly are based in Montreal, where they applied for and received space at the Concordia University greenhouse. They used the greenhouse to explore the idea of manipulating life, including Alison’s creepy but fascinating project of force-growing vegetables into moulds that resembled fetuses.

Pickled tomato

Pickled fetus-moulded tomato and cross-sections

The installation also featured other “live” foods, including yogurt (packed in plastic containers resembling test tubes for patrons to take home), a “doughbie” (a loaf of bread in a baby sling), and bacteria cultures in Petri dishes. Kelly was even serving up wheatgrass martinis (wheatgrass pulp + sparkling mineral water). Alaine and I decided to indulge. More than tasting like grass, it smelled like grass, but it definitely seemed to cleanse on the way down.

Wheatgrass pulp

Kelly at work making our martinis

Alaine and me

Cheers!

Alison and Kelly were more than happy to talk about their project, and this struck me as the most exciting thing about performance art – the dialogue between the patron and the artist. Sure, some galleries host evenings with the artists, and some theatres offer talk backs with the actors, but here, the very point is the exchange itself.

Next, I chatted with Cindy Baker, the Festival Animator. Her role was to attend all of the performances and blog about it, in the hopes of generating buzz and documenting the festival itself. She has done a great job, filing several thoughtful posts a day. She did comment that for a festival about food, however, there wasn’t much food being served.

I also wandered into Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s rice painting set, called Hourglass. Cindy did an exceptional job elaborating on some of the themes of her piece, so much so that I feel like I don’t have anything to add. Except to say that while the task of attempting to fill the bowl with painted grains of rice was futile, I enjoyed the experience. I liked the fact that there were only two chairs (even though many more hands would have resulted in lighter work), and that I was able to connect with another person, even for a brief moment, by sharing in the same task.

Hourglass

Two patrons taking on the task

Though Food Wars was delayed a couple hours due to the sheer number of dishes the two artists were putting together, I have to say, the food was worth the wait. The performance was billed as an Iron Chef-esque showdown: “Armed with only amateur cooking skills and each family’s secret recipes, Mexican artist Manolo Lugo and Guatemalan born artist Naufús Ramirez-Figueroa cook up a storm to prove which nation has the best cuisine!” The intention was for patrons to sample food from both countries, and vote for their favourite.

Todd Janes

Latitude 53 Executive Director Todd Janes introduces the artists

Manolo and Naufús both did an exceptional job setting up their display tables, Manolo with a colourful fruit garnish and Naufús with an intense fondant-covered cake shaped like a Mayan pyramid (it was handy that a chef from Junction next door was in attendance, as she ended up helping Naufús with the fondant).

Preparing the cake

Dressing the Mayan cake

Guatemalan table

Naufús’s Guatemalan spread

From reading the description of the show, I did expect more exposition before the food free-for-all – someone in the audience had to prompt the artists for explanations of the dishes. Between the two, I thought Manolo did a better job, which was probably the main reason my vote went to him (because really, the food from both sides was equally good). An idea I was hoping they would explore further was substitutions in spite of their quest for “authenticity” – though some of the ingredients needed for their dishes were available to them here, Manolo expressed that he had to use similar but not the exact ingredients as specified in traditional recipes.

Mexican table

Manolo’s Mexican spread

Standout dishes for me included the Guatemalan stewed bananas in spicy chocolate mole, the Guatemalan cake (it was supposed to taste like Guatemalan egg nog, but I just thought it was delicious), Mexican stuffed poblanos with pecan sauce (the pomegranate seeds on top are such an inspired idea) and the Mexicn pibil chicken topped with pickled purple onions (you can check out the full menu here).

Mexican plate

Mexican plate

Guatemalan plate

Guatemalan plate (as you can tell, I reused the plate)

I think everyone was in a delirious food coma by the time I left, before the winner was declared (for the record, it was Mexico, though apparently some ballot box stuffing went down). And though a part of me still wanted more of a “performance” from Food Wars, between the food and the conversation, did it really matter?

Thanks again to Alaine for the invitation – I’m not sure I would have made it down to the festival without a push, and now that I’ve been to Visualeyez, I will likely return in the future.

artsScene Edmonton Summer Patio Party and Behind-the-Scenes at Fairmont Hotel Macdonald

Though I’ve attended a few artsScene Edmonton events before (notably their patio party at Latitude 53 last summer), this was my first of their behind-the-scenes series, which provides attendees with the opportunity to “go backstage” at cultural institutions such as the Alberta Ballet, Edmonton Opera, and most recently, at the Freewill Shakespeare Festival. This time, Hotel Macdonald was to be centre stage.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Hotel Macdonald

The haze outside meant most people opted to stay inside, which meant the room was all the more lively. With music from the Jerrold Dubyk Trio and beats from Mindy Cooper (DJ Sweetz) thrown in, it was a great atmosphere to mingle the night away.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Inside the Wedgewood Room

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Jerrold Dubyk Trio

Sarah Jackson was also on hand as one of the featured artists, showcasing her new project Angles of Love. I love that she is able to incorporate fun, interactive elements into her exhibits (at the last Refinery party at the Art Gallery of Alberta, Sarah created condiment portraits of guests).

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Sarah busy with card readings

Some hors d’oeuvres were included in the price of our $29 ticket, and I made sure to sample away. The kitchen had prepared all sorts of skewers, and, more up my alley, several crispy deep-fried treats, including spring rolls and spanakopita. A selection of cold appetizers were also available, including salsa and chips, cucumber cups, and very tasty squares of toast topped with brie and strawberry.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Food, glorious food!

I had been most looking forward to the tour portion of the evening, which was supposed to provide insight on the building’s history and architecture. It did somewhat, though not to the extent I was hoping for. Also, with such a large group, it was difficult to hear the guides at times.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Inside the Drawing Room (formerly known as the Ladies’ Drawing Room, where women would wait for their escorts)

I have dined in the Empire Ballroom before, but I had no idea the room had been used to house jean makers during World War II. Or, that the ceiling (called “The Chase”), featured anatomically correct hounds.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Empire Ballroom

The decidedly masculine Jasper Room was built to overlook the Fathers of Confederation painting on the wall next door. The room also includes windows set near the floor – done so they are level with diners seated at the table.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Jasper Room

Our last stop was up to the eighth floor rooms, where many high profile visitors have stayed – recent guests have included Van Morrison and Bon Jovi. Though someone was occupying their most lavish suite that night ($3000/night, where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie stayed), we were able to see the Churchill Suite, a cozy two-story room with generously-sized bathrooms, priced at $999/night.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Imagine waking up to Churchill in the morning

After the tour, we wandered outside to take in the patio, smoke be dammed.

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

The haze

artsScene Summer Party + Behind the Scenes

Lots of green!

Thanks to artsScene for a great night – check their website to find out about their future events!

You can read Mack’s post about the evening here, and see his photoset here.

2009 Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts

Last night, Mack and I attended the Mayor’s Celebration of the Arts for the second year in a row. This time we were lucky enough to snag two tickets (thanks to Bryan Cox of Molson, one of the evening’s sponsors) to the swanky pre-reception held on the second floor of the Citadel’s Tucker Amphitheatre.

Lovely waterfall

I loved the setting – still early enough to catch the late afternoon sun filtering through the greenhouse windows, surrounded by greenery, and accented by a lovely water feature, both of us had never known that this oasis existed (it’s the closest thing we have to Calgary’s Devonian Gardens). We were probably slightly underdressed (the number of suits and 3-inch heels were blinding), but we had a good time spotting local “celebrities” (City Councilors, MLAs, members of the arts community) and noshing on the Northlands-catered food.

Kabob, naan and fish (the kabobs were surprisingly tender)

Lettuce and fruit wrap (lovely idea, tied with a chive shard, but the fruit was non-existent)

Popcorn gnocchi with smoked salt (deep-fried, but you wouldn’t know it – a bit disappointing)

Watermelon sorbet and Espresso Cups (the latter was my favorite dish of the event – the crisp lemon mousse was a sweet finish)

We were also treated to a lively African drumming performance, and I had to wonder why the concrete stage (albeit small) isn’t utilized for more performances on a regular basis. I’m sure a Fringe-like show could easily make the most of the light and fantastic backdrop for a memorable production.

 

African drumming (I didn’t catch the name of the group, unfortunately)

Just before 7pm, we crossed the street over to the Winspear Centre for the show. Hosted again by CBC’s Peter Brown and CTV’s Carrie Doll, they were just as charming as last year, and I can share that Mack reacted with glee to Doll’s onstage Twitter reference.

I really appreciated the range of performances we were treated to, including the witty and entertaining blend of spoken words and music by The Raving Poets, the hilariously talented “ukulele cover band” known as The Be Arthurs, and a clever and spirited scene from Nathan Cuckow and Chris Craddock’s gay rap opera, Bash’d. I felt fortunate to be privy to some of the best Edmonton’s arts community has to offer, all in one evening. Of course, there were a few less interesting performances – the penguin-inspired number by the KO Dance Project went about five minutes too long – and no single entertainer captured my imagination quite like Samantha Schultz did last year. Also, though the closing Latin band Bomba! eventually did get people dancing up on stage (a Celebration of the Arts tradition), it was touch and go for a bit until the lead singer took it upon himself to teach some basic steps. Still, it was a great show overall.

Show-ending dancing on stage

Though the celebration had award presentations sprinkled throughout, they seemed secondary to the performances and almost like a necessary evil. I was happy to see that Tim Ryan (the man behind the musicals at Grant MacEwan) was recognized with an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement prize.

For just $25 each (with all proceeds going to the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers and the African Centre this year), the Celebration was a great opportunity to watch up-and-coming performers and help recognize some of the stellar contributions made by members of the local arts community.

You can read Mack’s post about the event here, and see the photoset here.