Collaborative Art: Show by Show, Toronto Masque Theatre Is Finding Its Own Way to Fuse Old and New

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BY definition, a masque is a Renaissance or Baroque ceremonial court entertainment that fuses music, dance and theatre with pageantry and scenic splendor. Clearly, Toronto Masque Theatre, with a shoestring annual budget that has hovered between $105,000 and $165,000, is not routinely mounting such lavish spectacles. In fact, the conventional definition of a masque is only the company's point of departure. Thus, explaining the "masque" in Toronto Masque Theatre has proven one of the company's greatest challenges.

Here's how Artistic Director and founder Larry Beckwith defines his vision: "My concept of a masque is bringing together artists from different disciplines and seeing creative sparks fly. The key is collaboration. What we try to do is put a natural, human face on a juxtaposition of diverse repertoire I love throwing offbeat works into mixed programs, trying to make thematic connections."

In other words, Beckwith sees TMT as a multidisciplinary company, and, in fact, its letterhead motto is "the arts in fusion." But other companies are multidisciplinary, so what makes TMT unique? Perhaps it is what former board member Ian Alexander calls TMT's "wacky and wonderful" productions. "Larry gives new meaning to the word 'eclectic,'" he says. Innovative programming is one of the company's glories. For example, TMT commissions original works and twins them with early music. The very first TMT offering in 2004, revisited this year, was Masques of Orpheus. The concert linked a new opera, Orpheus and Eurydice, composed by James Rolfe to a libretto by Andre Alexis, with Marc-Antoine Charpentier's La descente d'Orphee aux enfers (1686).

Other companies have certainly programmed the old with the new, but without the Beckwith twist. Both operas were performed with the identical number of period instruments and the same cast of singers. In other words, Rolfe composed an opera for a chamber ensemble whose number and instrumentation were dictated 325 years ago.

Other notable TMT mix-and-match programs include The Fairy Queen (Purcell/Dryden) with excerpts from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream; the Randy Newman songbook coupled with poetry of irony; a collection of pop, blues and lute songs, madrigals and poetry for Valentine's Day; a Scottish masque that fused music and poetry to celebrate Robbie Bums Day; comamediae and Moliere evenings; and Masques of War, which featured Monteverdi's Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale and The Siege of Quebec, often attributed to Fran-tisek Kotzwara (1730-1791). As well at two operas by Rolfe, the company has also commissioned works from Abigail Richardson, Omar Daniel and Dean Burry. Says Rolfe, "Larry has his own take on expanding the early-music performance world. His reconceptualized programs give the audience fresh ears."

Beckwith, 48, has had a peripatetic career. Son of composer John Beckwith, he is a trained violinist, musicologist and singer. Variously, he has been a freelance musician, producer at CBC-Radio, general manager of Choirs Ontario and a member of the early-music ensemble Arbour Oak Trio, and is currently a full-time music teacher at Unionville High School. As a member of Arbour Oak, Beckwith became familiar with Baroque operas and incidental music for masques and plays. This led to a desire to mount larger-scale productions. "I got the bug," he says. "I had a long list of repertoire I wanted to do, but, at the same time, I had developed a deep interest in theatre and contemporary music. I was also disenchanted with both operatic institutions and the ghettoization of early music. I really wanted to work with an artist-driven company to explore collaboration in the arts."

Beckwith launched the concept of a masque company at a 2003 meeting at Massey College, a graduate residential facility at the University of Toronto. Beckwith knew the Master of the college, John Fraser, because Arbour Oak Trio had been ensemble-in-residence there. …