The grand, red-carpeted Piano Nobile of Winnipeg’s Centennial Concert Hall rests majestically under several chandeliers, which are not unlike bushy, shimmering inverted Christmas trees the size of the four-storey early 20th-century neo-classical corporate buildings that continue to dot the downtown streets of this once-powerful Midwestern Canadian burgh that reigned for three quarters of a century as a transport hub so vibrant it was dubbed ‘Little Chicago’.
These days, one is more likely to see tumbleweeds scuttling across Winnipeg’s wide avenues rather than people, but on blisteringly subarctic nights like this one, 26 January in the year of Our Lord 2014, one spies a few mighty snow-ploughing tractors and, sadly, weather-beaten panel vans filled with humanitarian aid workers dispensing hot coffee, sandwiches and blankets to the city’s homeless who stumble, Dawn of the Dead-like, o’er the icy streets under the warming influence of Lysol and cheap cooking wine from nearby Chinatown.
This is the Winnipeg currently governed by Mayor Sam Katz and a city council working in the grand tradition of those civic rulers before who, for personal gain, destroyed a once-great city’s genuinely vibrant downtown.
There is, however, no such blight within the warm confines of the palatial home to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra where a happy post-performance reception takes place in homage to a night in which history, albeit cultural history, has been made here in Historic Winnipeg, the Forgotten Winter City of Death, Dreams and Dashed Hopes.
The guests of honour are none other than celebrated American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and his collaborator, composer Phil Kline. They are here to present the world premiere of what will be the first of several public offerings of an exciting new work-in-progress, an opera entitled Tesla in New York. This collaboration between the pair of childhood chums, now well into their august years, bears the armament of their mutual love, appreciation and admiration for the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla.
Jarmusch himself is an impressive figure to his assembled admirers. Adorned in a military-green long-sleeved flannel shirt and black jeans, and sporting his trademark shock of white porcupine-needle hair upon his huge, brain-stuffed dome and his intense, and impressively chiselled, Hungarian facial featurs, he also fits the mould of the youthful ’Pegger artists who join him amongst the tony, blue-rinse set of Winnipeg’s ‘Old Money’.
‘Music,’ says Jarmusch after the performance, ‘is the most beautiful form of artistic expression and I sincerely believe film is the most closely related artistic form to music. It’s why I make movies, but it’s also why I feel the need to make opera.’
To say that music is often the driving force behind Jarmusch’s cinematic visuals, if not their very heart and soul, might well be an understatement. Can anyone imagine Eszter Balint in Stranger Than Paradise dragging her luggage through the monochrome warzone of New York without Screamin’ Jay Hawkins intoning his crazed seductive yelps of ‘I Put A Spell on You’, or for that matter as the film’s Greek Chorus of ennui and passion?
‘Music’, Jarmusch elaborates, ‘is my guide into the greater world through the medium of film. There were many places I’d never visited and wanted to get to know because of the music that came from them. The music of New Orleans and Memphis, for example, are what led me to eventually make films like Down by Law and Mystery Train. As for Tesla in New York, I know New York intimately, but I’m hoping the opera will allow me, through fact, fancy and imagination, to get to know Tesla’s New York.’
Music and made-in-Winnipeg-cinema have always nestled cosily under the fluffy blankets of glorious warmth and forgetfulness. To wit: earlier in the evening, while grabbing a smoke outside the Centennial Concert Hall in the -40 climes, I spied Guy Maddin, surely one of cinema’s great working film artists. He was scuttling maniacally up the granite front steps, strewn with sand to prevent icy tumbles, hurtling himself into the balmy ticket vestibule.
I sucked back the remainder of my bâton de cancer filled ever so generously with tax-free all-Natural Native Tobacco I secured earlier that day on a nearby reservation populated by my entrepreneurial Aboriginal Brothers. I then made my way to greet the esteemed Mr Maddin who was waiting patiently in line at the ‘Will Call’ wicket.
Adorned unrecognisably in my heavy-duty Ukrainian-immigrant-to-Canada Winnipeg chic, I jammed myself rudely in front of him in the line-up with nary a glance, nor word. I could feel Guy’s fury over this rude display of line jumping. I took further delight in imagining his steely Icelandic eyes boring deep holes of mounting anger in the back of my bushy rabbit-fur Dr Zhivago hat (purchased years ago from a street vendor on the Maidan of Kyiv, long before it was stained by the blood of Ukrainian freedom fighters).
I chose, however, not to let the magma well up too much in my old pal’s head and soon turned to offer my familiar visage, which was immediately met with a most incredulous jocularity from within his very being that filled that delectably bearded face of aquiline Nordic fortitude.
Where else could Jim Jarmusch launch a new opera?
Guy was torn about attending the post-concert reception. He’d never met Jarmusch and really wanted to, but he also expressed that this was ‘Jim’s night’ and he didn’t wish to cast any ‘pestilence’ over the affair with his presence. Guy did not elaborate beyond this. For some, he seldom needs to. I did, however, know immediately I’d not see him on the Piano Nobile later and that it would indeed be for very good reason.
To paraphrase James Cagney in Raoul Walsh’s Strawberry Blonde, ‘It’s just the kind of hairpin he is.’
And sure enough, Mr Jarmusch later expressed some disappointment that he’d yet to make Mr Maddin’s acquaintance. He furthermore noted: ‘Guy Maddin is an incredible musician. His films are incredibly and purely musical.’ Jarmusch is especially taken with Guy’s latest project, Spiritismes, an epic feature undertaking to remake lost films from the dawn of cinema that never existed but should have. ‘Guy wants to recreate things that don’t exist,’ Jarmusch intones respectfully. ‘Who else laments films and music that are lost and gone for all time? I want to hug Guy and yet, I don’t even know him.’
I suspect Maddin and Jarmusch know each other all too well, if only through the shared language of cinema and, of course, imagination.
‘Imagination is the strongest thing we have,’ says Jarmusch. ‘It’s always the beginning of any artistic or scientific endeavour.’
How appropriate, then, that we will soon have a chance to witness the blending of art and science. Below is a revised version of my Film Corner review of Tesla in New York.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both.
A night sky, an ocean, wisps of white and a blue, so radiantly, yet alternately nocturnal and aquatic, cast a glow upon a stage empty of human figures on a landscape of instruments, music stands, speakers and amps – all standing forlorn in silhouette, waiting to be held, caressed and lovingly brought to life by the warmth of a human touch as the vaguely industrial aural pulsations of an unsettling drone wash over all in its path. It’s like Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music on lithium – so uneasy, so disorienting, yet so lulling – a magnet drawing us closer to either death or rebirth. Or both. This is the appetiser to the main course of several new musical pieces performed by a myriad of brilliant, talented performers.
The performance is unveiled in the acoustically rich Centennial Concert Hall and though, in typical Winnipeg fashion, a Winnipeg Jets hockey game proves to be enough of a rival that the 2,000+ seats appear mostly empty – save for about one half the capacity of the majestic hall’s Orchestra level – those Winter City denizens who are not eyeball-glued to the town’s newly-restored-to-NHL-glory Jets are treated to an event of such artistic magnitude that they will carry the memories of it to their progeny and subsequent generations, long before they flutter away to their eventual respective deaths with the sounds and images of a work that seems destined for greatness dancing across their cerebella and into the warm, white light that awaits us all.
This was, to coin a phrase from one of my mentors, the late, great Meyer Nackimson, the legendary octogenarian film distributor who refused to retire and ran the MGM/UA distribution branch office on Hargrave Street in Winnipeg until he was forced to leave the movie business when the office was completely shut down in the late 80s:
‘Kid, Estelle and I saw the picture the other night and it was ONE HELLUVA GOOD SHOW!’
Though it was not a motion picture in the traditional sense (and the late Meyer and wife Estelle could have only viewed the proceedings from the Heavens), what we witnessed was indeed one helluva good show, , and most definitely a profoundly moving experience. Like so much great art presented within the picture-perfect magic of the proscenium, Tesla in New York was a visual and aural treat that made expert use of the stage in terms of the placement of singers, musicians and conductor/artistic director Alexander Mickelthwate (adorned ever so stylishly in a perfectly fitting suit of Winnipeg Grey as he wielded his mighty baton).
The simple, but beautifully focused and operated lighting cast its sweet glow over the renderings of exquisite music whilst, most notably, the aqua-blue screen morphed into an astounding montage of early Edison motion picture footage, edited by acclaimed experimental Winnipeg filmmaker and one-time Maddin collaborator Deco Dawson (who, according to Jarmusch, has ‘liquid hands’) and Matthew Patton (the New Music Festival’s fancifully chimeric co-curator) and under the guidance of Mr Jarmusch himself (who described his own words of direction in this matter as an ‘oblique strategy’).
Oblique or otherwise, it all pays off.
With Mickelthwate and company, plus the audience itself, being enveloped in the historic Edison footage (stolen for this production on, it seems, Tesla’s behalf in a perverse retaliatory act for all that Edison stole from Tesla – and, in fact, what Edison pilfered from pretty much everybody), I simply cannot imagine any subsequent production of this work without motion picture footage.
Though I was somewhat embarrassed to have used the clichéd word ‘electric’ to describe the production to Messrs Mickelthwate and Patton in their sumptuous Green Room after the show (well stocked with a fridge full of lovely spring water from the majestic Loni Beach in Gimli, Manitoba), I think, in retrospect, that it’s a perfectly fine word to have used.
Tesla, the Serbian inventor from Croatia who eventually found fame in the New World, was nothing if not the father of all things electric (in spite of Edison’s thefts) and it felt to me like the music and the performance were definitely infused with the very quality of electricity – aurally, emotionally, thematically and yes, at times, even visually.
Take, for example, the stunning, partially improvised Overture, wherein Mickelthwate guided singers and musicians alike to provide both melody and a fluffy, comfy bed for the onstage extension of the Lou-Reed-like Metal Machine Music drones in the pre-show. Kline and Jarmusch took to opposite ends of the stage and created some of the most haunting electric guitar feedback I’ve yet to experience, signalling precisely what this show seems to be all about: the force and power of electricity and all the ramifications and permutations of its magic as born from the mad genius of Tesla’s mind, and to put a perfectly appropriate fine point to it, Tesla’s boundless imagination.
Once the several pieces beyond this staggering overture began, one could, at points, gently close one’s eyes and launch into a very private place in one’ imagination to recreate Teslas’s heart and soul, allowing Kline’s often heart-breaking and alternately, elatedly soaring score to take us to those hidden, magical places of what Nikola Tesla wrought for us all, but what, he in fact, wrought for himself. The evening’s musicians and singers were all in superb and inspired form, but it would be remiss of me to not make special mention of the stunning work of mezzo-soprano Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek, whose voice took us to places of both darkness and romance.
I must also single out countertenor David James (of the astonishing a cappella Hilliard Ensemble who so gorgeously opened the evening’s program). James fit this score like a glove. When I think of Tesla, I am always infused with thoughts of madness, genius, passion and an overwhelming sense of the unrequited (in terms of both love and career). James took me to places I both wanted to be and didn’t want to be and I can think of no better approach to a figure as important and complex as Nikola Tesla.
In all, the importance of this event to the cultural fabric of our new century seems clear. This was history in the making and from this point forward, one can but marvel and dream as to what magic will ultimately be produced when Kline and Jarmusch move forward with this work that explores one of the great human beings to have ushered us all into the 20th century.
Now, however, as we face in this 21st century both the power and danger of manmade resources and accomplishments, Tesla seems even more vital a figure for us to consider. To do so with art, with imagination, with music, with a myriad of multi-media and live performance seems very much a no-brainer. After the evening’s performance, Jarmusch cited the following inventions as the greatest manmade accomplishments: ‘Mapping the human genome, the Hubble telescope, the electric guitar and the bikini.’ One would like to think Tesla might approve.
Good Goddamn! My appetite has been whetted.
The buffet will follow and it will be sumptuous.
Tesla in New York, a collaboration between Phil Kline and Jim Jarmusch is currently a work-in-progress for an opera that will eventually take the world by storm. Thanks to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra’s New Music Festival, the first gold bricks have been laid down to take all of us to the Castle of Operatic Oz – a place of beauty, of imagination and wonder. Nikola Tesla himself would have it no other way.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty, ‘Bon Cinema!’