Who would have thought a wall, a vertical object, could become a stage to perform an opera on? This was certainly not a conventional opera. I was privileged to be able to participate in a world premiere of “Gould’s Wall,” an opera written and performed by the Tapestry Opera, a vibrant Canadian cast, at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. Where shall I begin? Perhaps in describing the venue. It is a fusion of old and new architecture, next door to the famous ROM (Royal Ontario Museum) which looms with glass and metal over the entire corner of Avenue Road and Bloor Street. The Royal Conservatory of Music envelops the entire old building in a modern façade and includes a multitude of performance halls, as well as an impressive atrium. The external wall of part of the old building has remained intact, and is the backdrop for the Atrium cafeteria. The building itself was named after one of the most famous students of the Conservatory – the pianist, performer, and interpreter of Johann Sebastian Bach, the legendary Glenn Gould, who received his ARCT Diploma at age 12, in 1945.
The conservatory itself was founded in 1886 and gradually established the standards for music education in all of Canada. The Toronto Symphony orchestra grew out of the Conservatory Orchestra, and in 1946 the Opera School was established. The Opera School later led to the formation of the Canadian Opera Company. Many famous opera singers of the 50-60s received their education at the conservatory: for example, soprano Lois Marshall, tenor Jon Vickers, and soprano Teresa Stratas. In 1963 the conservatory moved into its current location. In 1997 The Royal Conservatory of Music Professional School was re-named The Glenn Gould School. The Government of Canada designated the school as a National Training Institution.
The new building includes a state-of-the-art performance center, studios, and performance spaces. Part of its construction included restoring the historic McMaster Hall. It opened in 2009, and is now called the TELUS Centre for performance and learning. Never in my life could I imagine an opera singer climbing a wall. The aerialist soprano (Canadian-American interdisciplinary artist Lauren Pearl) is the protagonist musician striving for mastery of her trade. She is held by a harness suspended from the steel beams that connect the old and new buildings. The beams serve both as metaphor and a practical rigging solution. Singing beautifully in climbing gear, she navigates an 18-metre rock wall while her mentor, the peculiar superstar pianist Glenn Gould, played by Roger Honeywell, watches and encourages from below.
The libretto, based on Gould’s idiosyncrasies and troubled life (combined with his genius), is written by Liza Balkan and the music, incorporating Gould’s interest in unusual scales, is cleverly fused with scaling the wall. Brian Current, a well-respected Canadian contemporary composer and opera conductor, composed the music in which scales go up, down and sideways. The chamber orchestra and five pianos work on the atrium floor. The write-up in John’s opera ramblings declares:
“The score is really impressive. There are nineteen musicians, including five pianos, so there’s plenty of colour. It’s got what I think of as the classic Current combo; driving energy, incredibly complex rhythmical structure and transitions from something quite abrasive to the most beautiful lyricism.”
Close by, audience members sit in Muskoka chairs, specifically used to remember where Glenn Gould grew up. The audience sitting there can look up at the action on the wall without craning their necks. Other seats (and standing-room space) are on a mezzanine that more or less rests level with the climbing singer.
When I learned about the opera and tried to get tickets, there were none to be had. A few days later the standing-only tickets were offered, and I immediately grabbed 2 tickets. My old friend whom I had not seen in 3 years joined me. Since I have my trusted walker, I was actually able to have a front-row seat, almost face to face with the climber, who also flew out, and almost touched me! The libretto is inquisitive, with occasional moments of whimsy. We see a young musician on a quest, maneuvering the wall’s challenges one ledge and finger grip at a time. Along her climb, cast members from inside the building pop out of windows. The mother appearing in the upper window exposes the listener to the complex dynamic which existed throughout Gould’s life. I was touched by the song of the mother explaining the enmeshment between her and her son.
From the libretto: “You came out humming. Three days old. And you’d be waving your arms. Like a conductor. Other children cried. You Hummed. Don’t Slouch. Sit up straight. It’s appalling. I sang to you. Before you were born. And you came out humming. And your fingers never stopped moving. And your arms were swinging back and forth. Back and forth. Three years old. And you had perfect pitch. Absolutely perfect. Your hands. And your back. Be careful of swimming. Be careful of running. Be careful of germs. Be careful of shaking hands. Of touching filth. Of catching cold. Of climbing. Be careful of falling. Of falling down. Of falling ILL. Get down from there! You have no idea the sacrifices I have made. And PRACTICE.”
Glenn Gould was and is one of my favorite pianists in spite of his constant humming while he plays. The first time I heard him play live in a concert was in 1958 with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Man Auditorium in Tel Aviv. He played Beethoven’s second piano concerto. He was only 25 years old, but came on stage with an overcoat, a scarf and his iconic black fingerless gloves. He did not look at the audience. He sat down at the piano, eyes closed, humming quietly. But when he started playing, he came alive with the music. And got lost in it. It was a stellar performance! Not long after that he stopped public performances and worked exclusively in recording studios. There is no one, in my opinion, who plays Johann Sebastian Bach’s compositions better than Gould. In spite of his reputation as a recluse, he gave some delightful radio interviews. I also particularly enjoy listening to his own composition of “So you want to write a fugue” – both the text and the music alike deal not only with the rules and techniques of composition for the genre, but also the relationship between intellectual work and artistic intuition in the creative process (“Just forget the rules and write one”). It was first aired by the CBC in 1963, but I heard it many times after that. Knowing much about Gould’s life and his tragic death just days after his 50th birthday, which I mourned together with all Gould’s fans on October 4, 1982, I felt a special connection to the lyrics in the opera. Now republished, his writings reveal a profoundly individualistic musical insight and continue to stimulate interest among new audiences.
The opera I just saw confirms the great influence Gould still has on music today. Gould – or possibly the ghost of Gould – offers advice. He notes the “inner ear of the imagination” as a harbor and a haven. Many of Gould’s own words are woven into the libretto. He also wrote a prediction: “By the year 2000, the public concert as we know it will be dead, anyway.” A few years later, the pandemic brought the concert hall to our living rooms, and proved him right.