Wednesday, September 18, 2013

In a Word... Conductor, pianist, music director, répétiteur Topher Mokrzewski

The Good Season
put your trust in the artistic process and in artists. They may succeed or fail, and you can debate that to your heart's content
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Christopher "Topher" Mokrzewski is Resident Conductor at Calgary Opera, Music Director of Against the Grain Theatre and a frequent music staff member at the Canadian Opera Company. A graduate of the COC Ensemble Studio and the Eastman School of Music, he resides primarily in Toronto with his wife. More information may be found at

CHARPO:  So a new season begins. Where is Topher going to be this year?

MOKRZEWSKI: Am I ever lucky that you've asked this question in a good season! It is so often the case in this business that we encounter uncertainty and periods of professional inactivity. Nothing is certain! I am very fortunate to have an extremely active season ahead of me. I begin my tenure as Resident Conductor and Coach at Calgary Opera this October. Throughout the season, I'll travel between Toronto and Calgary and will be involved in four productions there: The Italian Girl in Algiers (Rossini); The Flying Dutchman (Wagner); Madama Butterfly (Puccini); and Britten's The Rape of Lucretia, which I'll be conducting. I'm delighted that I'll also be coaching and performing with the members of the Emerging Artists Program as well.

Like a proper maniac, I have managed to fill in the remaining bits of free time in the season with all manner of other exciting projects. When I return to Toronto in December, my Against the Grain Theatre comrades and I will delve right into our winter (as yet unannounced) project. In February and March I shall be doing a concert tour (details to be announced soon), and I'm over-the-moon-excited to report that I'll be serving as conductor for Saskatoon Opera's production of The Magic Flute (one of my very, very, very favourite pieces!) in June. I'll round off the season by spending the summer as a member of the music staff at the Chautauqua Institute. It's going to be an exciting and inspiring year, I think!

I might loathe a traditional production and love the weirdest production (and vice versa).

CHARPO:  Now I'd like to talk about adaptation, for a second. You've been involved in some real "abominations" with Against the Grain and coming from the world of Shakespeare I understand that. But how common is it becoming for other companies to veer away from the composer's work musically (as we know they pretty much all do scenographically)?

- I saw a production of Turn of the Screw where the director (I asked) made a duet into a quartet. Was that normal?

- What do you say to the opera purists?

MOKRZEWSKI: These are important questions that lead to many interesting conversations among my colleagues. A short preamble: my musical background is as a solo pianist. I began my studies at a very early age and spent many years in conservatories and other such places for musical training. Though it is not universally so, one tends to encounter some conservative folk who approach the classical tradition with quasi-religious piety. The positive side of such an outlook is that you grow up with a healthy knowledge of, and respect for, the heavy hitters, both composers and performers. The danger, I think, in adhering too strongly to these sentiments is that you forget that this work we do is not about curating a dead art, luxuriating in a crypt, but is about recreating and engaging in a living tradition.

I have a lot of nice things to say to purists. I'm one of them sometimes. I'm thankful to them for knowing and caring so much about the art form. The fact of the matter is knowledge -- awareness of performance practice, styles, form -- can only enhance a musical, dramatic, theatrical, dance or art experience. The more synaptic connections you can make, the more awe inspiring a great new or old work becomes in the eye of the beholder.

But we're not slaves to that knowledge! We oughtn't be held back! I suppose I strike a middle ground. I want continued experimentation and the freedom to occasionally do the wrong thing. But I do believe it's crucial to bear in mind the intentions of the composer, understand period practice, and be well-versed in everything pertaining to a given work. So, I reckon adaptations are possible and necessary in opera and theatre, just as new interpretations of symphonic, chamber and solo repertoire are always being realized. A piece, each time it is performed, should have some semblance of spontaneity, some sense of it occurring for the first time. Therefore, I think every performance ought to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I might loathe a traditional production and love the weirdest production (and vice versa).

So to purists, I'd say: put your trust in the artistic process and in artists. They may succeed or fail, and you can debate that to your heart's content. Debate is essential to the vibrancy of any intellectual pursuit (why don't people like it a bit more, in a good spirited sort of way??). But if there is no variety, no diversity and no risk, then the whole process is for naught and we might as well give up and talk about banking.

As in all fields, there are wonderful colleagues and there are less than wonderful colleagues.

CHARPO:  I'd like to talk about your role as a very busy répétiteur - you must see everything! Diva fits, divo fails, head-to-heads. How much do you have to keep your own head down and how much do you have to intervene musically during the very delicate process of rehearsal (especially with your other hat as a coach)?

MOKRZEWSKI: I suppose I've seen my fair share of insanity. Perhaps I've even participated in it on occasion! There is a very widespread notion in the cultural collective unconsciousness that opera is inhabited by unstable, high-strung artistes. While it may be the case that I've simply spent too much time in this job and am inoculated to the negative effects, I don't think that's the case at all. As in all fields, there are wonderful colleagues and there are less than wonderful colleagues. I have certainly encountered a few of the latter but, in my estimation, we're mostly a good lot.

I recently celebrated my wedding (to my beautiful partner Cait [Coull], who is also very involved in the arts) and that celebration was attended by many singers, conductors and pianists. It was the best day of my life -- a family affair! And they really know how to bring the party.

I think, for the most part and with only a few exceptions, that those who have the great fortune to be involved in this vocation are well adjusted, professional, caring and compassionate individuals. It is this fact which accounts for the rehearsal process of each production being such a bonding experience.

CHARPO: If you were forced to choose, which path would you take: solo or collaborative.

MOKRZEWSKI: I am thankful for the many years I spent as a soloist, as it helped me to develop my technique and strictly pianistic abilities. There was once a time when I wanted to exclusively focus on solo, but in my early 20's I turned away from that, vowing I would never play another solo recital. I've moved away from those extremes these days. I have no intention of focusing on a solo career to the exclusion of everything else, as I'm not in the slightest bit interested in the various avenues of that lifestyle (competitions, competitions, competitions and endless repetitions of the same repertoire). But when interesting opportunities arise and circumstances are right, I love returning to these roots and will continue to do so.

That being said, I have enjoyed the act of collaborating with other musicians since I was a child. I love playing with singers, I love playing chamber music, I love sharing music and the act of music making with others.

CHARPO:  Is conducting (primarily) in the cards? And feel free to tell me that is a dumb question (others have not held back with me…).

MOKRZEWSKI: I've wanted to be a conductor since I was seven years old! Most of my childhood musical heroes (and present heroes) are conductors. I am so delighted, pleased and thankful that I have numerous opportunities to conduct this season and it is my hope to continue moving forward on this path professionally.

As a side note, I can't believe every pianist doesn't want to be a conductor! The only way I know how to play the piano (and this a probably a specific consequence of my training in opera) is as an orchestral instrument. It's only hammers, metal and wood if you don't do a little bit of imaginative speculation and experimentation with orchestral sound!

When it comes to how Joel and I work, I think it is a perfect partnership.

CHARPO: Against the Grain is as much your house as it is Joel Ivany's, it seems. Tell us about your relationship with him.

MOKRZEWSKI:  Joel's one of my best friends. We met five years ago, while working on a production of La Bohème at the COC. Since then, we've done a lot of drinking, travelling, location scouting, both gotten married (he was in my wedding party), and grown as individuals and friends. When we're both in Toronto we see one another multiple times a week.

AtG was Joel's brainchild, and I had the luck of being a founding member at the very beginning. The collective is very much a family (including Miriam [Khalil], Nancy [Hitzig], Cecily [Carver], Cait and now Lucia [Cesaroni]) and we've managed to create a very special thing, I think. When it comes to the overall planning and execution of our seasons, we are a wonderful and diverse team. Most of our "meetings" would be considered by the faint of heart to be a raucous party.

When it comes to how Joel and I work, I think it is a perfect partnership. In the sphere of repertoire planning, we agree and love much of the same stuff. Moreover, I think we balance each other out quite well. If left to my own devices, I would probably only program new or weird music and nobody would come. I admire Joel's ability to see the new in the most standard pieces of the repertoire. He can also do straight up new. You cannot stop the man! We've done so many productions together now that I think we each have a real understanding for what the other wants or needs at any given moment in a rehearsal. We have a shorthand; in fact, sometimes we don't have to speak. I remember the week prior to our mixed program entitled The Seven Deadly Sins (and holier fare), rehearsals were intense and crazy and we were fearful the thing would collapse. At the end of the first performance we congratulated one another and realized that we had barely spoken directly throughout that week as we were each completely engrossed in our areas of responsibility for getting that thing up and running. Yet we were moving in perfect sync, and it was one of the coolest shows we've ever pulled off. Collaborating with friends, executing unlikely ventures, and doing it with a beer in hand - life doesn't get any better.

Also read: Our review of The Seven Deadly Sins
Against the Grain website

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