Saturday, February 28, 2015

A Night at Hogshead

Last night, Audrey and I accepted an invitation to join our friends Jay and Shelley for a tour of Hogshead Brewing in St. Albert. Of the four of us, I'm probably the only, I dunno, call it committed beer fan; Jay appreciates the occasional beer, but they don't always sit well with him, and Shelley is similar, while Audrey has yet to encounter a beer she likes at all, although she did relent last summer and admit that a grapefruit shandy was pretty tasty and thirst quenching. Despite this though, we all had an excellent time, and will probably be back there before too long.


We began with a tour of the brewery itself, which, in many ways is like a kitchen writ large: pots for boiling, stacks of ingredients like malt and hops (lots of hops!), and a variety of ways to monitor temperature and the like. In fact, Stu, their head brewer, is actually a graduate of NAIT's culinary arts program, but has followed his passion for beer to Hogshead.


Our tour guide, Brian, is one of the two owners and founders of Hogshead, and is proud of its many local connections like Stu. This is a man who readily admits that starting a brewery is the most difficult thing he has ever done in his life, "and that includes raising two little girls by myself!", but is clearly doing what he loves. He and his partner have started a brewery from the ground up based on making the kinds of big, bold, flavourful beers that they like to drink, and their tap house and grill in St. Albert is just the kind of place they would like to drink them.


I know that both the microbrewery and restaurant business are fraught with peril, and that the ditches are filled with the wreckage of failed attempts at both in this province, so I was relieved to hear Brian say that both are doing extremely well, and they are working furiously to keep up with demand. A nice problem to have, to be sure.


One of the stories he told was of applying for a loan at a particular bank, and the young lady helping him with the paperwork became incredibly frustrated because she could not wrap her head around exactly what it is that a brewery does (!), and ended up having to go look for someone who could tell her which box to tick on the application form. After half an hour alone in her office, Brian gathered up all the paperwork and left, not hearing from her again until he had returned home. On the other hand, he had high praise for both the City of St. Albert and Agriculture Alberta, which were both only too willing to help a local business to stir things up in not only agriculture, but also hospitality and tourism.


There are more new beers on the way, including two wheat ales (maraschino cherry and orange) and one called 'Freeballin'' which is named thusly for no better reason that to give Brian an excuse to wear a kilt. It also sounds like the nearly mythical Black Hog Down Imperial Russian Stout should be making an appearance by Christmas, and eventually half of their line will be seasonal specials like it backing up their stalwarts like Hop Slayer.


There are big plans for the brewery itself, too; they have reached a point where a warehouse is needed to keep their stock prior to shipping, which will give the pace needed for the brewing area to undergo a total refit and polishing up so that special events with up to 200 people can be held there. They also plan on adding a 6000 square foot deck to the brew pub, which will increase their seating capacity tremendously in the summer months.


Brian's exuberance and earnest nature are infectious, and make him an easy person to listen to, even for members of the group not particularly interested in the finer points of how beer is made. His strong desire to do things the right way for the right reasons make supporting his local agri-business an easy choice.


Following the tour, we returned to the tap house and received our choice of either a flight of samples or a pint. Some of their Rocky Mountain Moonshine was also available, including the much beloved Apple Pie and the newer Black Forest Cake. Seeing Jay's shock at tasting the latter of these, I took him up on his offer of a sip. "Am I crazy," I asked afterwards, "or can I actually taste three distinct flavours in there?"


"It's not just you," he assured me.


I enjoyed their Toboggan Winter Ale, which is their signature Hop Slayer ale conditioned for an additional three months, which not only increases the depth and complexity of the beer, but also brings the ABV up from 7.5% to a robust 8.5%.


A lot of beers and other comestibles were sampled, and they were all good, but the highlight of the evening (beyond the company we kept) was the food. The Hogshead Taphouse has a wonderful kitchen and a diverse, beer-themed menu which centres around comfort food like shepherd's pie and craft macaroni and cheese, but also leaves room for more unique rotational offerings, like Turducken at Christmastime, or the current Duck Confit sandwich. Adventurous diners may want to drop in next month when a Python Stir Fry makes its appearance!


The potato and bacon soup that Audrey and Shelley had as their soup and salad entree was brilliant, with the strongest potato profile I'd ever had in a soup, accented with aromatic, smoky bacon. Jay's Asian Chicken pizza left him extremely happy, but I was ecstatic with my choice of Sloppy Does, a variation on the classic comfort sandwich made with venison instead of beef (get it?).


Over the course of the evening we had the opportunity to try their nachos, tenderloin pork bites in a homemade bbq sauce, and their 'pig ears', a sort of warm pork rind snack in lieu of the more traditional peanuts or pretzels. All the food was excellent and the staff friendly, although rushed off their feet at times. In fact, to get the entrees out on time, Brian stuck around after the tour to help ferry the plates to the tables.


All in all, we spent about 6 hours in this modest venue in a St. Albert industrial park, but we did so in comfort and in the company of good people; the great food and drink went a long way to improving our comfort and spirits, and thoughts about what the future might the bring this ambitious local business continues to intrigue even on the following day.



Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 Oscars

So, another Oscar party draws to a close, and if you weren't here in person, I apologize for the smallness of our home. If i had my druthers, I'd have everyone here, but instead we have the two score or so that can fit.

Best picture and best director going to Birdman and Innaritu felt right, although slighting Michael Keaton didn't; where would this amazing movie be without his incredibly meta performance?

The Grand Budapest Hotel got more than its fair share of gold statuettes, considering it is a comedy from Q1 of the preceding year, and this gave me no small amount of satisfaction. In years to come, this movie may become the same sort of character litmus that Joe Versus The Volcano has, in that you are free to think the film is a greater or lesser work than I do, but if you hate it, then the odds of our becoming lifelong friends is greatly reduced.

In the end, films will win, creators will lose, but the best benchmark of any Oscars telecast should be its acceptance speeches. Sure, we got treated to more than our share of laundry list 'thank you's' including everyone from parents and hairdressers down to agents and the rest. Still, this year there were some standouts:
J.K. Simmons asking everyone to call their Moms, not to text' not to email, but to speak and to listen, and to be grateful, was brilliant.
Patricia Arquette using her time at the podium to push for female wage equality.
John Legend (who I already love from his Django Unchained track "Who Did That To You?"), along with Common gave the speech of the night talking about voting rights and the universal ideal of equality.
Graham Moore's speech as screenwriter for "The Imitation Game" that included "I tried to commit suicide when I was sixteen, and I'm still here."
Sure, it's easy to write off the Oscars as billionaires (esp. white billionaires) throwing recognition and statuettes at each other, but sometimes they remind us that art serves as a mirror that humanity uses to understand itself a little better, and I hope those of us in charge of making those important decision saw some of that tonight!

And in the end, our birthday boy, Earl J. Woods ended up with the most correct predictions (tied with me at 12!), but the Rev. James ended up walking away with the prize in our new new hat-based lotto format.

Another great Oscar party behind us at last!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Divestment Archives II: The Shirts Off Our Backs

Another category of items soon to be taking their leave of our household are a selection of two-decade old t-shirts.

Now, I want to stress here that I am not a hoarder. My tendency to hang on to items longer than I should is due to either an ill-judged overestimation of future practical application or excessive degrees of sentimentality, not some variation on obsessive-compulsive disorder. The normal life cycle of a t-shirt in my possession is much the same as anyone else's, I imagine: I wear the t-shirt, proudly, and with intent, until it begins to show overt signs of wear. Then it moves into its undershirt stage, worn discreetly beneath a polo or sweatshirt.
Then it either tears or gains some sort of stain, commonly a grease spatter from cooking, but on some occasions, salsa or something similarly sloppy and unforgiving. At this point, most shirts are typically consigned to the rag pile, but a particularly strong design or commemoration of a significantly awesome concert or vacation may work its way into rotation as a pyjama shirt.
Some shirts, however, have such tremendous provenance that they are rarely worn at all, spending much of their existence cloistered within a storage box. Periodically they are removed, examined, cherished, and then most often, returned, but this time, many of them are not returning.

Consider the shirt I took back from a conference of the ACTISEC (Alberta College and Technical Institutes Student Executive Council) conference, way back when I was president of my alma mater's student association. It was an absolutely excellent group of young leaders, great folk to work with, and we capped our year off by signing each other's shirts with fabric pens. There have been times in my life when I have felt quite a bit less than awesome, and just reading some of the comments on this shirt would put me right back in the groove, or at least make me laugh.

We created a similar shirt in our dormitory, Solheim, at Augustana, this time focused around a group picture of the residents in their pyjamas.
I'm grateful so many people in this picture are still a part of my life (besides the one that I married!), even if the contact is infrequent, but I am astonished at how many names I can remember of folks I have not seen since graduation two decades ago.
The college strata of the t-shirt record includes a couple of other pieces, these ones significant because I had a hand in designing them, like this one for Residence Life:

Or the collage a bunch of us threw together for the campus History Club:
Something for everyone in that one: the Bayreuth tapestry, Lenin, Hussein, Spock, Ringo, and even The Hansard from when the War Measures Act was brought into effect in 1970. Bear in mind children, this is pre-Google, so all this had to be done with a college library and a primitive photocopier!

One of my favourite commercial t-shirts of this period (and the one I wore for my college I.D. picture) was this lurid number inspired by The Joker:
Part of me is sad to think that may be the last time I'll ever wear purple, teal and apricot together again; a larger part of me recognizes that this is probably for the best.
Audrey's Orientation Team t-shirt boasts a history as interesting as its choice of graphics; designed by one of the school's larger than life characters, a man who, though funny, had difficulty managing things like boundaries, and scale. He ended up leaving school unwillingly, but I understand he is happy now, and working in comedy, which feels appropriate.

Unrelated to college life but occurring concurrently was my attendance at several iterations of Calgary's old science-fiction convention, Con-Version. A group of us attended from III to VIII (I believe...), and the VIIth one also happened to be Canada's national con, CanVention.
Fenya has already appropriated another con shirt featuring Réal Musgrave's adorable pocket dragons as a nightshirt, which is certainly a better fate for it than slowly degrading in a banker's box in the basement. I am less sanguine about giving up another custom job though: the tour shirts for our alien rock band, Unpronounceable In English.

We wore these the night before the costume contest and made like we were the group's roadies, and left press releases around to help build interest. The air guitar performance itself was...eventful, and warrants its own blog post at some point in the future. (And if anyone knows a cheap way to digitize old VHS footage, that could play a role as well.)

Prior to these misadventures, however, Earl J. Woods and I took a crack at selling t-shirts at one of the earlier cons. We found a cool design we thought would make for a decent Starfleet Academy tee, got a grant to finance printing them up...and then spent the following year paying it back, as they were not nearly the hot sellers we thought they would be. Still found of those colours, though.
At the lowermost level of textile sedimentation, the very bottom of this t-shirt archive, however, is something that predates all the others, and despite emerging from the same box as a self-produced Star Trek college tee, may actually be the single nerdiest piece of clothing I have ever owned. Those of you with a delicate constitution may wish to bypass this portion of the post entirely, especially if you have even the vaguest interest in maintaining the illusion that there was ever a time in my life when I might have been 'cool'.

Yes, that's right, gaze into the abyss that is the Dungeonmaster ringer t-shirt!

Created by Edmonton graphic designer and comic artist Adrian Kleinbergen (whom I subsequently met several times at Con-Version), this was part of a series of tees depicting various roles likely to frequent a Dungeons & Dragons game. I have no issue with the art, and the ringed neck and sleeves are a product of their time, but the sheer proclamatory nature of the piece, the complete lack of guile or irony, they make me grateful that I can point to the fact that I was still in high school when I bought it.

I have no memory of wearing it outside of a gaming session, although I am sure I must have at some point, probably proudly, since that sort of role-playing was still fairly nascent and hadn't entered the pop culture mainstream the way it has today.

In fact, I have it on fairly good authority that such a design, coupled with its vintage nature, gives it an unmistakable degree of geeky cachet that makes it potentially enviable...

...If the right person is wearing it, I suppose.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Divestment Archives: For the Record(s)

In anticipation of the addition of a second bathroom in our home's basement, we did some fairly significant tidying up of the storage area downstairs this weekend. In order to accommodate the new and improved Fake Fireplace, we need to amalgamate some boxes of, well, not necessarily detritus, but the accumulated nonsense that one picks up over time and may be reluctant to put down. When push comes to shove, however, what separates the sheep from the goats is the ability to admit, "no, I am unlikely to ever use that item again", and to let go of those items with little sentimentality and even less practicality.


Sometimes this is easy: promotional items of unknown lineage or purpose ("It looks kind of like a letter opener, but what do you think the 'MET479' engraved on it stands for?"), photos of forgotten or entirely unknown individuals, or the 'slightly' broken things destined never to be repaired.


In instances where some sentiment or nostalgia is in play, I have found it tremendously helpful in terms of reducing the sting of abandonment and loss to digitally photograph that component for archival purposes. In this manner, the memory can be revisited at will with practically no lasting impact in terms of one's storage or living space; a very decent compromise.


Onc of the less-than-useful categories of items vis-a-vis our basement stowage is a small but tenacious assortment of LP record albums, as in the full-on vinyl variety. It's possible that Audrey and I had a stereo with a turntable when we were first married, but we ended up getting a replacement when we lived in Toronto, so that's circa a full two decades of not even being able to play these vintage discs in any way whatsoever! So why hang on to them at all?


Well, they're very thin, for openers, so you feel like they don't take up any appreciable amount of usable space, but that is obviously a lie. The real reason hovers somewhere between nostalgic affection and the desire to postpone the inevitable decision to let them go. For instance, one of the first two rock albums I ever bought, Def Leppard's Pyromania, with its lurid crosshair cover art, always managed to stow away somewhere,from the move out of home, to college, to married life, to Ontario and back.


The same time I bought this record at the mall in Leduc, I also picked up Cut by Dutch rockers Golden Earring, based on the strength of their single, "Twilight Zone", but sharing a similarly firearmish theme on the album cover, with an intriguing high speed photograph of a rifle bullet slicing a playing card in half by way of the narrow edge. I'm not at all sure when or why I parted ways with that one.


Now, truth be told, I didn't need to take a picture of Pyromania; I could have used Google image search the way I did to find Cut, but somehow, strangely, seeing it there on the stack of other albums with the earmarks on its corner makes the whole thing that much more visceral. Not as visceral as the damage around the various logos on the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack cover.


Still a far better soundtrack than it ever was a movie, the illicit appeal of an animated feature containing overt references to drugs and sexuality as well as creative violence, action and adventure means that Heavy Metal remains the most unapologetically adolescent film I have ever seen. The soundtrack was primarily rock, rather than actual heavy metal, although it did feature tracks by Black Sabbath, Trust, Nazareth and Blue Oyster Cult. The album contained a fascinating melange of styles, from Donald Fagen's jazz-tinged "True Companion" to Devo's cover of "Working in a Coal Mine", but most intriguing to me was the fascinating logo of the magazine the movie drew its inspiration from, the right-most letters of the top row slowly crushing the bottom row beneath their presumably inexorable weight. I would not be at all surprised if the love I have for logos and typefaces came as much from this album cover as it did from all the comics I read as a youth.


Alas, such a a provenance does not make it a sensible thing to keep, and it will be making its exit shortly, and the CD is already in my Amazon cart awaiting another purchase or two in order to reach the free shipping threshold.


Like most right-thinking people of the time, I grew up thinking the world of Henry Mancini, and the Art of Noise cover of his "Peter Gunn" theme (1986) connected me to him in a cool new way while introducing me to the '50s twang-master, Duane "Rebel Rouser" Eddy.


I love twang to this day (Oingo Boingo's "Sweat", am I right? (No? Just me then?), and ended up picking Eddy's eponymous 1987 comeback album, notable at the time for containing the intro tune for MuchMusic's "Outlaws & Heroes", actually titled "Theme for Something Really Important." Man the liner notes on this thing are killing me; I'd forgotten that John Fogerty, George Harrison, Paul McCartney, Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Phil Pickett, and Steve Cropper all played on it, but a deal's a deal, and there's still no turntable in the house.


There had been a lot more vinyl in play at one point, but the basement flooded when I was 14, not two years after I had moved down there, costing me not only hundreds of awesome comic books but a couple dozen LPs. Most of them were soundtracks, including the original Star Wars double album, Superman, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and a bunch of others.


The bulk of my youthful music was collected on cassette, most of which exited the premises about a year ago, with the exception of the mix tapes, which I will clutch onto for as long as possible, and infact, should look for a way to podcast them into some sort of MP3 format.


As to the remainder, a Yello EP of "Oh Yeah" which I have on CD, excerpts from Rossini's Barber of Seville which I at least have the overture for on disc, and a few other odds and sods. Sadly, no real standouts in terms of cover art that might be worth framing, even if we had the wall space to spare, which we really don't. Still, I'll always have a soft spot for the iconic imagery and ska-derived sensibility of this classic Madness album:




Sunday, February 15, 2015

Class, Style and Substance: Kingsman: The Secret Service, Reviewed

(Spoiler-free, as always, but there's quite a few gossipy bits at the end. Fair warning and all that.)

Matthew Vaughn is fast becoming one of my favourite directors.  His keen eye and appreciation for the fantastic covers an immense range, from the charming neo-fairytale of Stardust, through the coarse violence of Kick-Ass, and he split the difference between these extremes quite handily with X-Men: First Class.  He was supposed to follow that up with the sequel, Days of Future Past, but opted out so that he could instead do another comic book adaptation: the much lesser known Kingsman: The Secret Service, written by Mark (Kick-Ass) Millar and illustrated by Dave (Watchmen) Gibbons. This worked out famously for fans, as it brought original X-Men director Bryan Singer back behind the lens for DOFP and got us a tremendously entertaining action/adventure spy film in the bargain, one which might have more to say than is immediately apparent.

In case you haven't seen the trailer, Kingsman centers around a young Londoner, fatherless and aimless, named Gary 'Eggsy' Unwin (Taron Egerton), someone whose lower-class upbringing and difficult family situation have seen him ignoring his potential and getting into all sorts of trouble, culminating with a joyriding spree that sees him sent to the lockup.  With his free phone call, he dials the number on the back of his father's posthumous medal, mysteriously presented to him and his mother as representing 'a favour', and finds himself sprung shortly afterwards by the dapper and disciplined Harry Hart. Hart is immaculately portrayed by the wonderful Colin Firth, makes his displeasure of Eggsy's lack of direction extremely clear.

In short order, Eggsy discovers this judgmental, upper-class ponce is, in fact, a member of a highly trained, deeply financed private intelligence organization called The Kingsmen. Unburdened by the foibles of politics, they dedicate themselves to protecting their country and maintaining the peace as best they can, aided by a nearly ridiculous assortment of covert equipment and weapons and an unmistakable sense of style that never descends into swagger.  When an opportunity to undergo Kingsman selection presents itself, Eggsy has a go.

The remainder of the film divides itself between Hart's investigation of the film's villainous technocrat, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), and Eggsy's experiences at what is essentially Hogwarts for spies, under the tutelage and evaluation of Merlin (Mark Strong, in a rare and compelling turn as a non-villain).  Nothing tremendously surprising about the way the plot slowly draws these two stories together, but in the end, it is a spy movie, so certain forms are to be expected, right? Perhaps even anticipated.

It's an R-rated action film, so there is a significant amount of violence in the movie, although they take tremendous care about 'spilling the claret' as it were, perhaps in deference to Valentine's aversion to bloodshed:
Valentine: "I have no stomach for violence. Literally!  I see one drop of blood, that is me, done.  Like, projectile."

Despite their gore-free nature, the action sequences are unsurprisingly well done, and Vaughn brings his trademark kineticism and judicious use of slow-motion and 360 degree pans to bear, along with a handful of "Whoa!" moments. He never lets the viewer lose sight of what the scene is about, whether it is triumph, escape, or in one tragically brilliant scene, something else entirely.  While such scenes often demand a fairly high amount of CGI, it is done with a light touch throughout most of the movie, and when an exception is made for the point of art or humour, it is completely on point.

There is also a liberal amount of f-bombing throughout the movie, so if that is an issue for you, well, forewarned is half an octopus.  It never feels particularly gratuitous, and in fact, it's difficult to imagine a fight in a dingy scouse pub with some miserable chav without hearing a surplus of carnal verbs tossed about.

As Kingsman operative Galahad, Colin Firth needs to convey two disparate and often incompatible elements: the aforementioned sense of style and gentlemanly manner (aided by a brilliant wardrobe and accouterments) coupled with the intrinsic ability to visit damage on those who oppose him.

Now, I like Colin Firth quite a bit, especially his comedic work, but I believe he brings his best to the table when he is required to blend humour and pathos together, such as he did in The King's Speech. With all that behind him, I would have forgiven Vaughn if he had the stuntmen doing the heavy lifting for Firth in the movie's demanding and highly engaging action sequences, a la the later Roger Moore Bond films.  Imagine my surprise then, when the 54 year-old fellow from Mamma Mia starts not only competently kicking ass in job lots, with an undertone of ruthlessness, and never without losing that same sense of style.  (Mind you, after seeing how well Vaughn handled Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, maybe I shouldn't have been so shocked, eh?)

No matter what he is doing in this movie, Firth is nothing less than credible, and I hope he gets more opportunities to show this newer side.

Taron Egerton does an amazing job carrying off what could have easily ended up a cardboard caricature of 'working class kid does good'.  The screenplay gives him a number of facets to work with, and he takes full advantage of all of them, from the dedicated son who is helpless to pull his mum away from her abusive, hard-man boyfriend, to the whip-smart military drop-out who doesn't dare appear like he is trying to be better than his social peers.  Whether it's laughing to show how little he cares for the scorn of dangerous people, or the actual anger he feels at how little control he has over his life and opportunities, this young actor shifts effortlessly from braggadocio to humility, and conveys deep emotional honesty as well as an ability to crack wise and bring laughs with the best of them.

(Egerton is rumored to be in consideration as Cyclops in the next X-Men movie, which is some pretty non-intuitive casting, but something I'd be curious to see.)

Speaking of class, though, this is where there appear to be a couple of interesting subtexts in Kingsman. Early in his training, it becomes clear that Eggsy is a bit of an experiment, as he is the only candidate without money or an aristocratic background. This societal gap gets brought up a few times in the course of the movie. Similarly, while Valentine's nefarious plan will bring wholesale destruction to a significant portion of the planet's population, he is also keenly interested in preserving the cream of the crop: royalty, heads of state, prominent academics and the extremely well-off.  The movie does a wonderful job playing the upper and lower class against each other without becoming a ghastly polemic, but given the eventual dispositions of these two groups during the film's climax, I wonder if there might be more to it.

I discovered something interesting about Matthew Vaughn this morning that made me wonder it even more.  I had no idea that there was any connection between him and American actor Robert Vaughn (The Magnificent Seven, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), but Wikipedia informed me that he was involved with Vaughn's mother, socialite Kathy Ceaton in the 1970's, and had initially insisted that young Matthew be given his last name, and favoured him with presents and the like.  At some point though, he dropped all contact, and the reason for it didn't come out until an interview published in 2002, just prior to the director's marriage to German supermodel Claudia Schiffer.

When asked if he would be attending the wedding, the actor slowly and deliberately stated, "That matter was resolved in the Eighties in America, both scientifically and legally in the Superior Court of Los Angeles. The litigant lost. That's all I'm saying. You understand what that means?" indicating that he was not Matthew Vaughn's father.  He refused to be drawn in as to how this could have remained for unknown for so long, especially given the persistent and remorselessness of Britain's tabloid culture, and it appears that the son himself had no clue whatsoever.

In a follow up article two years later, it appears Vaughn's mother confessed that his real father was actually a minor British aristocrat, and Vaughn now goes by the name Matthew de Vere Drummond in his private life.  Being illegitimate precludes him from someday becoming the earl of Oxford and Mortimer, but with his brilliant moviemaking career (both as a producer and a director), a supermodel wife and two healthy children, he seems to be doing all right for himself despite all that.

Still, with having grown up in a single parent household, with a completely incorrect notion of your father, overcoming obstacles (colour-blindness and ADHD) and transitioned from the working class to the upper crust through a combination of good timing, unrecognized talent and perseverance gives Matthew Vaughn a fair bit in common with Gary Unwin, wouldn't you say?

Where was I going with this again? Oh right!  Many of my friends in the UK would call Kingsman a 'cracking yarn', with action, thrills, laughs, and a bit of sadness and suspense to boot, a cheeky film that has its fun both within and outside the conventions of Britain's 'Gentleman Spy' genre, gleefully having its cake and shooting it with an umbrella too.  On top of that though, director Matthew Vaughn, perhaps due to his own interesting background, appears to have some pithy observations about society and class struggle that are an unexpected treat in what stands a good chance of becoming a new action franchise*.  Like the titular agency itself, Kingsman does good work, and looks good doing it.

* Oh, and if that doesn't work out, the filmmakers have also created a Kingsman line of fashions and accessories, vended by British online retailer Mr. Porter.)

Friday, February 6, 2015

Magical Flute, Amazing Moments

Given that it has taken me almost five decades (ugh) to attend a live opera performance, it's possible I may not live long enough to attend another one.  I mean, I would certainly like to; it was a tremendous experience that I would love to repeat, and far more accessible than you might anticipate.

Five or ten or more years from now, if I haven't returned to this epic melange of voice, symphony, colour and motion, if someone should ask if I have ever been to an opera, I look forward to smiling and saying, "Only one...but I did see it twice."

I had previously mentioned just how much work Fenya and her two Cantilon comrades have put in while preparing for the Edmonton Opera Company's production of The Magic Flute.  There were eight 4-hour rehearsals in the ten days leading up to opening night this past Saturday, plus another three hours technical setup on one of the afternoons, all while diploma exams loomed at the same time.  Thankfully Fenya only had one exam this time around, which she wrote a week ago Friday.  Once that was out of the way, there wasn't even an opportunity to sleep in, as her choir had another rehearsal for their presentation of Mary Poppins on Saturday morning.  It appears that "no rest for the weary" is not so much a cliché as it is an inviolable maxim for those in the performing arts.

In addition to Audrey, Glory and myself, the opening night audience included Fenya's Auntie Betty and cousin Kara-Lynn from Rocky Mountain House, as well as Auntie Tara and Uncle Jerry from Leduc.

We enjoyed a glass of wine in the lobby of the Jubilee auditorium, and examined an infographic by photographer Nanc Price that layed out precisely how much work and just how many people are involved in staging such a complex production.

Seeing Fenya's photo and bio in the Intermezzo magazine cemented the reality and scope of the event in our minds, while simultaneously adding a glaze of surreality to the proceedings. Soon the time came to take our seats,

How do I encapsulate such an experience?  With great difficulty, it turns out.  My points of appreciation included:
  • The deep resonance of hearing one of Mozart's last scores being performed live by talented musicians.
  • The giddy glee I felt at watching three lovely ladies brandishing spears at an origami-inspired giant serpent and trilling "Die monster, die!" in German, as a significant pyrotechnic effect laid the beast low. 
  • The beautiful menace of the Queen of the Night, dominating the stage in her amazing costume, and Teiya Kasahara's amazing rendition of one of the world's most recognizable arias.
  • The solemn bravery of the hero, Tamino (Adam Luther), juxtaposed with the humor and nervous energy of his counterpart, the birdcatcher Papageno (John Brancy), who provides a baritone Han Solo to the tenor's Luke Skywalker.
  • Jessica Muirhead's performance as Pamina, alternately funny and heartbreaking, and all tremendously moving, despite my lack of fluency in German.
  • The perverse villainy of Monostatos, portrayed with oleaginous mirth by Michael Barret, and balanced in such a way that, as creepy as it was for adults, wouldn't give younger attendees nightmares.  Also, another brilliant costume by Deanna Finnman.
  • A story that marries magic and reason in a tale extolling the virtues of diligence, love, and friendship.

The overall vibrancy of the entire production cannot be adequately captured in words, so I strongly recommend you check out Nanc Price's photos via her flickr album; they are simply breathtaking.

I would have enjoyed myself tremendously even without Fenya appearing in the cast, but the first moment she, Alla and Aanchel came onstage, my heart nearly burst. Fantastically attired, moving with confidence, smiling brilliantly, and singing sweetly, all at once the work and anxiety leading up to that moment crystallized onstage, and I literally felt my breath catch; this was the real thing.  My daughter was onstage for a professional production of the world's 4th most performed opera, and she was clearly having the time of her life.

'Pride' is not nearly big enough a word to describe how I felt, and how I still feel, days later.

We were grinning from ear to ear when Fenya arrived from backstage with her makeup still on, receiving accolades and hugs from everyone, and flowers from her sister and cousin.

John Brancy (Papageno) stopped to introduce himself on the way by, and to compliment Fenya on her singing and hard work; a complete gentleman.

The next morning, Audrey's sister Vera called to ask how it had gone, and confessed that she had taken to checking online for airline seat sales every couple of hours in hopes of coming to see the opera, but to no avail.  While she and Audrey commiserated over the phone, I used my iPad to confirm a suspicion, and once I'd done so, suggested we use some of our accumulated Air Miles to fly Vera  out on Tuesday.

Having sorted that out, she then contacted Oma, and after flying into Calgary Tuesday afternoon and driving her to Edmonton, the two of them (accompanied by Audrey) took in their first opera that evening, and shared our gobsmacked admiration.

Thursday afternoon, I decided it was ridiculous to not go see the opera a second time if I had the opportunity to do so; I'd greatly enjoyed the experience, and who knew when another opportunity like this might present itself? So I arranged tickets at the will-call window and texted Audrey so that Glory would be ready to go.  That evening even more friends of ours were in attendance (Pete, Ellen, Scott and his daughter Elizabeth (who seemed pretty chuffed that her occasional babysitter was singing in an opera)) as well as Rev. Mervin and his wife Debbie from our church, and most of the Cantilon Chamber Choir.

Everyone I've spoken to seems to be quite as impressed as I was, not only with Fenya's debut and the tremendous performance by the Three Spirits, but with the production as a whole.  The reviewer from the Edmonton Journal even mentioned them briefly, saying, "The Three Ladies and Three Spirits are compelling vocally and dramatically."

But as good as it was, the performance itself was not the highlight of the experience.

The best part, by far, was listening to Fenya tell the backstage stories, about the things that worked right away and the ones that didn't, the improvisations they were able to add, and the discipline needed for their choreography.

Every story she told about an off-colour joke, or good-natured teasing, made it crystal clear that the other principal cast members did not regard the three of them as mascots or accessories, but as valued colleagues, worthy of respect.  You should read some of the cards she got from them; instead of the "Great work and good luck!" or variations on "Have a great summer!" from high school yearbooks, a renowned soprano like Teiya Kasahara took the time to compliment Fenya on her harmonies and sense of pitch. Jessica Muirhead praised Fenya's acting and singing, and chided her with a reminder to smile (a common theme during rehearsal).

As a parent, you are naturally inclined to be proud of your children, and I am certainly proud of both of mine.  Watching one of them make one of the first big steps in transitioning to adulthood, that is to say, going to work with a bunch of talented professionals and impressing them with her dedication and ability, that's really something else. The simple initiation into independent adult conversation, away from one's comfort zone of home and family, is not to be understated. Most importantly though, working so hard, for so long, on something so complicated in detail and breathtaking in scope, and to have it all come off without a hitch and to be rewarded by an appreciative audience? Magic, truly.

Driving home last night for the final time, I knew Fenya's feelings would be mixed; relief at having the performances (and rehearsals) behind her, but sadness at the inevitable passing of a tremendous experience.  "You've worked really hard, with amazingly talented, dedicated and generous people,and you've accomplished something absolutely amazing," I told her.  "That's the best that anyone can hope for in their work, and, God willing, this won't be the last time you experience it, no matter what you end up doing with your life."

To the cast and chorus and staff and musicians of Edmonton Opera's The Magic Flute, thank you so much for giving Fenya, Alla and Aanchel an experience that so closely mirrors the story from the opera itself: a magical journey from darkness to enlightenment, through perils both spiritual and corporeal, and accomplished through perseverance, friendship and love.