Opera on the Cutting Edge: Thom Sokoloski Strives for the Total Work of Art at Autumn Leaf Performance

Article excerpt

When asked about the state of the arts in anglophone Canada, the founder and artistic director of Autumn Leaf Performance doesn't mince words. People with vision, Thom Sokoloski says, scare Canadians--because vision "doesn't ride tandem with the country's sociopolitical mandate. The U.S. has a vision to become something. It hasn't yet [attained it], so that vision is always there... France is still a republic with a vision. We're still a place to live. Our real desires are to ensure that everybody is happy--at the expense of minorities, at the expense of certain aspects that make up an interesting culture."

The verdict, delivered in ALP's spartan office next to the Poor Alex Theatre in Toronto, is perhaps a bit sweeping, but it has the sting of truth to it. And after perusing Sokoloski's curriculum vitae, you can't help but feel that if the 45-year-old producer, writer and director worked in mainstream theatre, he would likely have received the Order of Canada by now. Moreover, if anyone seems positioned to disprove Sokoloski's verdict on Canadian culture, it's Sokoloski himself.

Along with a handful of like-minded organizations--notably New Music Vancouver, Tapestry Theatre and Queen of Puddings in Toronto, and Montreal's Chants Libres--Autumn Leaf is passionately dedicated to the development of innovative Canadian opera, large and small scale. Sokoloski, who more or less is Autumn Leaf, pursues his dream with monomaniacal commitment; so far, neither the recession nor conservatism (big and small C) has stopped him. Since 1992, Autumn Leaf has developed, presented and/or produced over eight works of contemporary Canadian music theatre and opera: Union Station transformed into an alchemical/mystical theatre at midnight (The Alchemical Theatre of Hermes Trismegistos by R. Murray Schafer, 1992); a bereaved pianist shooting up with morphine and obsessively playing Scriabin (Artaud's Cane, 1994); a wacky improvisation by a bass clarinetist and a singer, the latter "playing" an empty olive oil tin by blowing vigorously into it (Abstract Chains, 1995)--such images from Autumn Leaf's multifaceted production history have made it a key player in the country's contemporary music scene. ALP has also brought international artists to Toronto's stages, including the Master Musicians of Jajouka, Morocco, whose evening of "exotic, rapturous and shamanistic" music was cited as one of the top concerts of 1995 by the Toronto Star.

Several interlocking visions emerge from an interview with Sokoloski. There's his dream of "total theatre"--a Wagneresque fusion of music, words, movement and visuals, or, as Sokoloski also describes it, "a nice alchemy" between the intellectual/verbal and the spiritual/musical. There's also his passion for exploring "the arena of the unknown, the unpredictable, the incomparable, the uncriticized, the unraved and undenounced, the un-un-everything." And when it comes to the question of forging a uniquely Canadian identity, Sokoloski fulminates and proselytizes like a preacher whose saints are Canadian culture gurus Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, George Grant and Arthur Kroker.

"We [English Canadians] are afraid to believe in ourselves," he says. "We're more than happy to say, `I believe in this new production of Wagner or Bartok' [a reference, presumably, to Robert Lepage's internationally acclaimed production of Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle for the Canadian Opera Company]. But when's the last time you saw real risk-taking?"

A native of St. Catharines, Ont., Sokoloski came of age in Buffalo during the Vietnam War. His early involvement in avant-garde theatre and dance, as well as his interest in cultural philosophy, led him to Paris. There he worked with the LaMama Theatre, attended Jacques Lecoq's legendary clown school and studied with the innovative Polish director Jerzy Grotowski. By the time he moved to Toronto in 1979, several of his own productions had been staged in Avignon, Edinburgh, Paris and New York City. …