Opera Transcriptions : a spiritual adventure

“Life and death. Those are the ultimate mysteries. We think about death not as an end in itself, but we imagine how that transforms us as energy,” says Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa, Vancouver-based contemporary pianist.

Music on Main celebrates its 15th season with music and conversation through its Listening. Together. free online festival from May 14 to 18, 2021. Iwaasa will perform Opera Transcriptions, a cycle of three pieces for solo piano written for the artist by composer Rodney Sharman on May 14. Inspired by pre-existing classics from the opera world and recollection of memories, together Iwaasa and Sharman thoroughly reimagined a spiritual performance that interprets the theme of death and transfiguration.

Grounded in the Western classical tradition

Life and death are the ultimate mysteries, says Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa | Photo courtesy of Music on Main

The three pieces in the performance speak to one another. They work their way through music history, from the early Renaissance to the Romantic period to the late 20th century. The first is inspired by Mercurio dal ciel in terra from Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea. The second is a transformation of Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner.

“It actually uses every single note of Wagner but is really transformed. It was written for a huge orchestra and huge voices, and Rodney has taken that and distilled that down until I can hold it and play it with just my two hands. And then the singing in it is very soft. It comes as quite a surprise in a sense because you don’t expect it,” notes Iwaasa.

The third is Wounded, a piece inspired by the Québécois composer Claude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus. It is a memoir and musical meditation on Sharman’s conversations with Vivier, whose music is grounded in Western classical tradition.

On Wounded

The music in Wounded is a conversation between Vivier and Sharman in their own harmonic languages. Iwaasa also tells the story of Vivier’s death through voice acting.

“It’s a little bit like opera. What happens on the piano speaks to and informs the part of the story that I tell and then the story responds to the feel of the music and so on,” explains the pianist.

It is a story, says Isaawa, that is often told in a judgmental way, whereas the story itself tellsmore of the spiritual side of how Vivier is seeking oblivion.

“It is profound and perhaps disturbing, but in a way also infused with humor and fondness and affection and respect. It’s very complex and paradoxical. Music on Main is a presenter that doesn’t shy away from things that might be difficult or controversial. I think Music on Main audiences tend to be quite adventurous,” she says.

A lineage of queer musicians

Performing Opera Transcriptions is like putting on a tailor-made suit, says Isaawa, because, based on their 20-year collaboration, Sharman crafted the music according to the pianist’s artistic skills. The music explores the sound colours of the instrument, particularly in the very soft realm, which Iwaasa excels at. The pieces have long arcs that require a good sense of the large scale as opposed to the small phrasing.

Vivier, Sharman and Iwaasa form a lineage of queer artists through mentorship
and friendship.

“Claude Vivier, as one of Canada’s greatest composers ever, took young Rodney under his wing and was there for him. In many ways that was also the role that Rodney has played for me as an older queer classical musician who has been a great support for my career,” says the pianist.

Iwaasa is also a co-founder of the Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver. As part of the festival, she will discuss queerness in music at the Zoom Artist Talk on May 14.

She is currently working on The Garden, which features the complete works of Sharman, written for solo piano.

For more information, please visit www.musiconmain.ca