Soprano Measha Brueggergosman is one of the featured perfomers in Angel. Screenshot by Marcel Canzona

Opera Atelier’s first film production evolves past a tragedy and a pandemic

By 
  • September 16, 2021

There are no ugly angels. In the entire 10,000-year history of art, from the caves of Lescaux through the Mystical Nativity of Sandro Botticelli to Ms. Fleming’s Grade 3 art class, every single depiction of angels is a depiction of beauty. Opera Atelier co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski knows why.

“I see them as a visual representation of God’s presence. God, being perfection, God is the perfection of beauty. An angel is a reflection of that,” Pynkoski told The Catholic Register as the company was preparing for the Oct. 1 release of Angel, its first production for film.

Even the rebel angel, Lucifer, is beautiful.

“It’s what made Lucifer so dangerous,” said Pynkoski. “He was the most perfect reflection of God. He was the most beautiful creature. Which is precisely what made him think that he was God.”

With the feast day of St. Michael and all angels (known to the medieval English as Michaelmas) on Sept. 29, followed by the Memorial of the Guardian Angels on Oct. 2, fall was made for angels. But Opera Atelier’s journey into film production for Angel has been six years of evolving revelation in the face of calamities.

It began with the terrorist attack on the Bataclan theatre in Paris, Nov. 13, 2015. The little Toronto baroque opera company was touring Europe that fall with a production of Armide by Jean-Baptiste Lully, an 18th-century opera about a Muslim warrior princess who falls in love with the Christian knight Renaud.

Pynkoski and co-artistic director Jeannette Lajuenesse Zingg had just arrived in Paris when men who called themselves soldiers of the Islamic State, in a combination of suicide bombings and automatic weapons fire, murdered 130 people, 90 of them at the Bataclan. Another 416 were injured, many for life. Paris was in lockdown. But instead of calling off the performance, Opera Atelier believed the show must go on.

The production was the opposite of a terror attack, replacing irrational hatred and fear with a tale of love between a Muslim and a Christian.

Grateful Parisians then invited Opera Atelier to present a program at the Royal Chapel of Versailles, to coincide with Canada’s 150th anniversary in 2017. The company, dedicated to the meticulous production of authentic baroque music and dance, responded with something it had never done before. It got in touch with Canadian composer Edwin Huizinga and commissioned a new piece of music for baroque instruments.

Huizinga’s work for solo violin and a dancer was called Inception. It was presented in a program of theatre and liturgical music at the Royal Chapel of Versailles in 2017. This performance led to an expanded version of Huizinga’s composition at the Royal Opera House in England called The Angel Speaks. By adding onto The Angel Speaks, Opera Atelier eventually came up with The Eye and Eye’s Delight performed at Versailles, in Chicago and in Toronto.

Then COVID hit.

Live theatre has been impossible for 19 months, but Pynkoski believed there had to be an answer to a world driven apart and frightened to death, whether by hateful rhetoric and war or by a killer virus. Forty minutes more of music, set to texts by John Milton and Rainer Maria Rilke, transformed the evolving production into Angel, a work for film under the direction of filmmaker Marcel Canzona.

Twentieth-century Bohemian poet and novelist Rilke seemed to be speaking to our own anxious age when he wrote in 1923:

“Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me against his heart: I would be consumed
in that overwhelming existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains
to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”

Pynkoski hopes that people who watch the special release of the film, whether online or in person at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, can catch a glimpse of those shards of the divine as Toronto soprano Measha Brueggergosman sings words by two of the English language’s greatest poets.

“I think our loss of the divine, our loss of the connection to the divine and the eternal, has had dire consequences for the world that we live in on every level,” he said.

At a 2018 Mass for the Memorial of the Guardian Angels, Pope Francis urged us to remember our guardian angels.

“The angel is the daily gateway to transcendence, to the encounter with the Father: that is, the angel helps me to go forward because he looks upon the Father, and he knows the way. Let us not forget these companions along the journey,” the Pope said.

Angel will be available to stream from Oct. 28, 2021 at 7 p.m. (ET) until Nov. 12, 2021. Single tickets ($30) will go on sale Oct. 1. For information and to purchase go to www.OperaAtelier.com.

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