Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
We are living in unsettling times. Our country is more polarized than it has been in decades. We are bombarded hourly by a barrage of news feeds and sound bytes, and never have the words and actions of leaders and followers felt so…well, absurd.
By some brilliant prescience, Théâtre français de Toronto (TfT) has chosen Franco-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco‘s absurdist comedy The Bald Soprano (1950), to launch its 52nd season. The production is directed by Gemini-nominated and two-time Dora Award winning director Chanda Gibson. It is being presented in French, with English surtitles, at the Berkeley Street Theatre from until November 3, 2019.
Much has been written about the play’s themes – chief among them, the futility of most communication. And in casting Christina Tannous as the maid Mary a.k.a The Bald Soprano, Gibson has injected into Ionesco’s self-described “anti-play” an extra dose of the unanticipated. You see, technically, there isn’t a bald soprano in The Bald Soprano. Yet since Tannous is a real soprano, she will sing her role.
The bilingual Tannous is a voice alumna of the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, and has performed as a frequent soloist. Recently, she has begun to expand her repertoire of acting roles on stage and screen. Her theatre credits include La Mélodie du bonheur (Just for Laughs), Les Leçons de Maria Callas (Théâtre du Rideau vert) and The Baklawa Recipe (Centaur Theatre), for which she was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Performance-Actress at the Montreal English Theatre Awards. Next season, she will be guest-starring in the new series Nurses.
When Ionesco wrote The Bald Soprano, he was trying to learn English by repeating phrases like “the ceiling is up. The floor is down.” Thus, The Bald Soprano is filled with rapid fire dialogue, improbable language and non sequiturs. Clichés, platitudes and polite maxims spew forth in inappropriate contexts from characters who are too busy talking to listen to one another. Their torrent of words devolves into babbling before doubling back on itself. In her Director’s Notes, Gibson posits The Bald Soprano as a “critique of ‘acceptable’ structures in society” and a reflection on the extent to which “conformism” is always “devastating for people, for society, for culture”.
Does this sound at once exotic and uncomfortably topical – especially at this time of political and social unrest? The Bald Soprano suggests that we embrace the phrase “how curious it, how bizarre, and what a coincidence!” as our motto. That we allow our synapses to slip the shackles of linguistic rules and embrace free association. In a SesayArts conversation with Christina Tannous, she unpacked the delights of Ionesco’s landmark work, her innovative interpretation of Mary as “the Virgin, Mother Nature”, and explained why everyone should see this play.
SesayArts: Believe it or not, I have never seen The Bald Soprano, so let’s start there. What attracted you to the play and to your role, Mary, the maid? What’s you approach to playing her?
CT: Well, this is the perfect timing for your initiation into the absurd world of Eugène Ionesco! In my twenties, I started developing an interest for theatre and out of curiosity, went to see a production of The Bald Soprano after I had heard about it in one of my classes.
It was a revelation! I didn’t really know what to expect as I had never been exposed to anything like it. I ate it up. It was a really great production with some of Montréal’s most seasoned actors. I considered it to be both a challenge and a treat for any actor and hoped to, one day, have that opportunity to tackle it as well.
The challenge is in the memorization, as nothing makes sense. The character’s thoughts aren’t structured in a coherent way; many phrases repeat themselves using the same patterns and words but changing slightly every time; there are many tongue-twisters… Ionesco obviously loved the French language and enjoyed playing with it, even deconstructing it. And yet, amidst the chaos, everything is well thought out, and we can somehow make sense of it. Or not. And that’s ok.
All the roles are attractive. Mary’s part is smaller but our director, Chanda Gibson, wanted to give her a bigger voice, a bigger presence. She saw her as the puppet master, the conductor, and that gives Mary a lot more power and strength. Powerful characters are always attractive, and it was nice to see that a maid doesn’t have to just be a maid.
SesayArts: Chanda Gibson describes you character as “the Virgin, Mother Nature. She exercises a Power and a Force on her environment. She embodies femininity and the subversive power of women.” What does she mean by this, and do you agree with her?
CT: I do agree with her. In Chanda’s interpretation, Mary is not only a maid; she is also the Bald Soprano. The Bald Soprano is not a character that exists in the play, but our director decided to bring her to life as Mary. I am a trained opera singer but have been working mostly as an actor in the last few years. This could be the first time a director casts an actual soprano in the play and would make this version of The Bald Soprano quite unique (but spoiler: I won’t be bald!).
The Bald Soprano (Mary) is described as Mother Nature, the powerful force that controls everything and keeps things moving. She has plans for those other characters. The Fire Captain represents fire and climate change and global warming. The Smiths are the face of Capitalism, old money, right-wing policies and the Martins are the face of Industrialization, Innovation and Technologies. Mary represents change, the emancipation of women, the force of nature that controls humans and their environment.
This is why her role is enhanced in this version of the play, not only with her voice, but also with her actions. She controls timelines in the hopes of projecting the other characters into a better future. This description of Mary definitely adds a lot of depth to the character and to the whole play, giving it a more dramatic edge.
SesayArts: Why is this a good time for Toronto audiences to experience The Bald Soprano, and who should come to see it?
CT: Everyone should see it, if only out of curiosity, to discover a play one isn’t familiar with or to experience first hand the unique writing style of Ionesco. This play is quite funny, so the audience should be getting a good laugh. We certainly get plenty in our rehearsals; what a cast!
The play will be performed in its original French language but will be surtitled (except on Sunday performances), so no worries if you’re not fluent in French.
I will admit, this won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But sometimes, it’s important to step out of our comfort zone and expose ourselves to something new and unusual. Some may be pleasantly surprised.
SesayArts: What question should I have asked you that I didn’t?
CT: How about the thing that I enjoyed about my work on this play? I enjoyed being able to also be a singer in this play. Chanda gave me carte blanche with my singing after discussing with me what she was looking for. She wanted something that sounded more classical to contrast with the dissonance of the text and the music being composed for the play. She also wanted the Bald Soprano to express herself in Italian, in contrast with Mary, whose lines are in French.
So some of the stage directions written in the text are sung by the Bald Soprano in the style of Mozart opera recitative. And some other sung interventions that derive from the Italian translation of the play are sung in a more baroque style. This version of The Bald Soprano is seriously unlike any other!
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What: La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) by Eugène Ionesco | Directed by Chanda Gibson | Produced by Théâtre français de Toronto | Scenography by Alexandra Lord | Sound by Ben Gibson | Costumes by Yvan Castonguay
Performed by Sébastien Bertrand, Sophie Goulet, Geneviève Langlois, Pierre Simpson, Christina Tannous, Manuel Verreydt
When: On stage until November 3, 2019; running time: 110 Minutes
Where: Berkeley Street Theatre-Upstairs, 26 Berkeley Street, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: theatrefrancais.com
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SsayArts Magazine, 2019