in the synopsis and promotional materials for Kopernikus, we are invited to join the opera’s mysterious protagonist, Agni, on her spiritual adventure into the afterlife. in fact, the adventure is wholly ours. transporting the tropes and traits of conventional opera far from its comfort zone, Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Claude Vivier’s tortured masterpiece goes all in on an atmospheric, almost religious experience of art as pure immersion. shining especially in its set design and staging, the production is a bold intervention into both the past and the future of opera in canada.
true adventures, however, are not made only by what takes place within them, but also by what the adventurer puts at stake—what they themselves bring to the fold of the encounter. with this in mind, i am convinced that giving Kopernikus its due must also mean shirking my responsibility to review for the ostensible everyman. instead, the following is a sort of choose your own adventure review, a forked entryway into a dreamscape that, regardless of where you begin, promises to leave you either tweaked or transformed.
if you’re an “average joe,” or even an average espresso-guzzling urban aesthete, it’s worth knowing that Kopernikus is the kind of performance that’s far easier to parody than to illustrate. while Agni’s entrance in an innocently shimmering orange dress and shoes is reminiscent of Dorothy’s arrival in Oz, the opera quickly abandons any semblance of sympathetic characterization or narrative structure. what it does instead is inundate its audience in a single artistic vision. from beginning to end, this is a vision of orchestration rooted in a haunting, somnolent drone; choreography composed of stiff, ritualistic mime; and a mix of repetitive choral chanting with inane—though strangely musical—babbling in a language of Vivier’s own invention. occasionally someone shouts, laughs, or hits a gong, and the band of 15 or so performers shuffles to a new set of arbitrary positions before starting all over again. when the libretto does speak human language, usually french, it’s in a string of unmoored symbolist imagery: “dark planets,” “cosmic rhythms,” “philosophical flowers.” what stands out most powerfully is Vivier’s fascination with the range and play of the human voice, as singers waggle fingers across their lips, wave palms over their gaping mouths, and sing and speak in echoing slides and rises.
the whole thing is WEIRD, not so much because of its core aesthetic but because of the production’s insistence on giving us nothing else. yet this is also precisely where Kopernikus has something meaningful to offer every art-lover: an intense, if narrow, idea of what the purpose of art is. for Vivier, artistic rapture is akin to the awe of a child attending holy mass—or, closer to my own experience, rabidly chanting “holy fuck” at a hardcore professional wrestling event. in short, it’s about being swept up in your surroundings, no matter how unlikely or unfamiliar. for its part, AtG’s creative team has worked earnestly toward Vivier’s vision, coordinating their scaffolded stage with Theatre Passe Muraille’s twin-level seating to achieve the pressing sense that the performance is among us, not in front of us. despite Kopernikus’s brazen failure to deliver much of what we expect from typical works of art, the extent of its immersion is certainly an experience worth having.
if you’re a connoisseur of opera in particular, you’ll find that Kopernikus exhibits an inspiring range of innovations in opera production, yet also holds back on some of the most enjoyable parts of operatic performance. featuring a jungle gym of metal scaffolding, industrial ladders and railings, and performer walkways seamlessly integrated into the audience’s common space, Kopernikus’s set is unique in both appearance and effect. instead of dazzling its audience with an imagined visual spectacle, the stage conveys an ‘in-progress’ aesthetic that makes the otherwise bizarre performance feel intimate, immediate, and paradoxically possible in real life. this is further enhanced by Music Director Topher Mokrzewski’s remarkable decision to intersperse his orchestra among the singers and dancers on stage, shattering and reinventing operatic staging conventions all at once. the overall result is an experience of being with and in the opera that is seldom replicated in any performance genre.
despite its complete eschewal of traditional operatic musical forms—with no arias, few solos of any kind, and no significant shifts in mood or action to speak of—Kopernikus featured vocal performances that were beyond competent. as Agni, mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan’s singing was clear, vibrant, and auratic, injecting a note of human exceptionality into an emphatically alien soundscape. as Merlin, bass Alain Coulombe’s sonorous, booming notes brilliantly conveyed the blend of warmth and otherworldly horror that defines his surprisingly subtle character. nonetheless, both performances suffered from their sheer scarcity in the score, which takes exponentially more time developing a series of liturgical choral dirges. like its singing, the opera’s orchestration is peppered with scraps of rich, vibrant melodies—including the accompaniment to an entrancing dance sequence in the middle of the performance—but for the most part restrains itself to an alternation of atmospheric backdrops and jazzy transitions with little build-up or payoff. for better or worse, Kopernikus radically sheds opera’s conventional obsession with extended virtuosic solo performance. rather than setting the emotional payout of its performers’ capabilities in front of our eyes and ears, the production asks us to discover its intensity within our own minds, specifically insofar as they have succumbed to the rapture it is intended to evoke.
finally, if you’re looking for the next Great Canadian Artwork, Kopernikus offers an experiment in national canon-formation worth taking heed of. much of the production’s promotional material focuses on the remarkable life of its celebrated composer, Claude Vivier, a french-canadian orphan murdered in a parisian hotel in his mid-thirties. prior to the performance, attendees were even given “dossiers” containing elaborate mock-ups of items imagined to be on Vivier’s person at the time of his death, including a map of paris, a japanese postcard, and facsimiles of the handwritten 1979 score for Kopernikus. these efforts convey a clear message: Vivier is an obscure genius whose opera, widely performed in europe but seldom seen in his home country, must be restored to its proper role as canada’s leading modern operatic work.
while i don’t have the expertise or training to frame this background better than others already have (see, for example, Sophie Bisson’s excellent WholeNote article on the opera’s history), i wonder how the prospect of repatriating Vivier’s work appears when we begin not from his biography, but from the AtG production it spawned. going in blind, it’s hard to imagine Kopernikus speaking meaningfully to canadian identity or experience—and certainly not in the same way as Louis Riel, the currently most-performed canadian opera in canada according to Bisson. for one, Kopernikus feels drastically detached from Vivier’s time and place, coming across more like an experiment of the continental interwar avant-garde—perhaps due to AtG’s choice of drab, depression-era workman’s clothes for most of the characters’ costumes—than late-twentieth-century post-conventionalism.
more pressing, though, is the way in which Vivier struggles—and AtG succeeds—in transcending any time, place, or culture whatsoever. Kopernikus demands that audiences leave all their preconceived understandings—whether about art, themselves, or the imagined community called canada—at the door. to engage with the work means being swept up in its own eccentric belief system, to the destruction of all others. of course, to the extent that Kopernikus constitutes genuine innovation and inspiration for the future of opera in canada, its pretensions to an ideology beyond nationalism may be partly reconcilable with the demands of the maple leaf. but balancing those demands against the irrepressible idea of art advanced by Vivier’s work may still remain a insoluble puzzle for future generations of audiences. and to my mind, that’s just as it should be.