Breaking boundaries at Banff: Chamber Werx brings new take on traditional music

by | Jul 9, 2018 | Featured, News

This summer, as part of its Opera in the 21st Century program, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity will once again present an interactive exploration of art song, chamber music and opera in its multidisciplinary series, Chamber Werx. The whimsically named presentations bring an equally unconventional approach to their lineup—pairing more conservative genres such as chamber music with elaborate costumes, staging, lighting and design.

Featuring Opera in the 21st Century singers and musicians, the two performances on July 11th and 13th will be held at the Margaret Greenham Theatre at the Banff Centre with Stage Director Amiel Gladstone and Music Director James Cheung at the helm.

The performances are constructed around arias and art songs that are thematically grouped into a series of cohesive storylines. “What we do is, we take arias or chamber music with voice and piano…and the director weaves the narrative from all these different repertoires into one story,” explains Joel Ivany, the program’s Artistic Director.

Last year’s Chamber Werx, for example, incorporated modern elements such as modular electronics and live video into more traditional opera and chamber music pieces. In doing so, Ivany says the show aims to strip away the formalities typically associated with these musical genres. While some might consider chamber music, for example, a ‘dying art form,’ he disagrees.

“I think it could just use a creative injection in terms of how it’s presented.”

Chamber Werx 2017 at the Banff Centre. Photo: Rita Taylor

Chamber Werx 2017 at the Banff Centre, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo: Rita Taylor

Now in its fifth year, Chamber Werx invites audiences to come to Banff with open minds. Because of its intriguingly vague title, “people have no idea what they’re going to get,” which is all part of the fun, says Ivany.

What they can expect, however, is a unique theatrical and musical experience. Departing from the typical routine of simply walking into a concert and silently watching, Ivany explains that Chamber Werx shows are far more interactive, immersing and involving audiences in the performance. “It’s going to be more than the average concert,” adds soprano and Chamber Werx performer Gina Hanzlik. “[Audiences] can expect to be engaged at all levels—visually, aurally and emotionally.”

What’s also unique is the degree of cohesion and collaboration it encourages between singers and instrumentalists. “There’s usually a big divide in the world of opera,” Ivany explains. “They [the instrumentalists] usually play in the pit, they don’t really see the action on stage, they never really interact with the singers and I’ve always found that to be very odd,” he says.

Chamber Werx bridges that divide by deeply integrating singers as well as instrumentalists into all aspects of the performance. This July’s shows, for example, will see musicians not just playing their instruments, but also donning costumes, following stage directions and interacting with other characters onstage.

Chamber Werx 2017 at the Banff Centre. Photo: Rita Taylor

Chamber Werx 2017 at the Banff Centre, directed by Amanda Smith. Photo: Rita Taylor

The training process for Chamber Werx is similarly out-of-the-box. The shows are the product of weeks of intense collaboration where singers work closely with stage directors, sound designers and musicians on pieces that they have selected themselves. This unusually collaborative process means that, as Hanzlik says, “everyone has chosen music that’s really meaningful to them.”

“It’s also much more process-based,” she notes. “Right from the get-go, the creative team was de-emphasizing the final product and really encouraging us to engage in the process,” she explains, allowing her to “engage in my art in a different way.”

For performers, Chamber Werx is also an opportunity to expand their artistry. Hanzlik’s chosen piece, Franz Schubert’s The Shepherd on the Rock, is outside of her usual repertoire but presents an exciting new challenge. Such experiments and risk-taking are at the heart of the Banff Centre’s mandate when it comes to developing both programming and talent.

“As an artist, what you need to do is walk up to the edge and take that leap of faith and trust that the people around you are supporting you and that you’ll succeed,” says Ivany.

In the end, though, it really is about the music and voices, he maintains.  While costuming, staging and highlighting are great add-ons for performers, emotion “just has to vibrantly live in their voice(s),” says Ivany.

He looks forward to welcoming a diverse and enthusiastic crowd this month at Chamber Werx. The show is “not just for young people, it’s not just for old people—it’s just hopefully excellent art we’ve put on and experimented with—and it’s new and exciting.”





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