Situated on the shores of Lake Ontario just north of Canada’s largest city, Toronto boasts a world-class infrastructure and vibrant and diverse population – not to mention a reputation for producing some of the country’s most influential artists and organizations. This “Mozart capital”, as The New York Times recently dubbed it, has been part of Yo Yo Ma’s Groundwork Orchestra since 2014 and currently supports more than 70 local and international artists, from Brazilian Sufjan Stevens to Brian Eno and Solti, who came to work at Ma’s Kleinpreis Chamber Music Studio.
Next month, Ma and one of his fellow collaborators, Brian Weatherley, will help bring a new sound to the city when they kick off Toronto Opera’s MBS 2021 initiative, the largest arts collaboration in the city’s history. While MBS is a concerted effort at bolstering Toronto’s opera and arts scene by growing audiences and engaging community involvement, the production that got the ball rolling is nimble, self-aware and quite different from the ubiquitous opera of today.
An opera created by an indie hip-hop collective called the Arcade Fire Project (in collaboration with Toronto-based music firm Versus, Ma’s Groundwork Orchestra and a host of exceptional artists who took top billing in the project, including Brian Eno, Solti, David Bowie and Anthony Braxton), MBS 1911 is a celebration of opera and popular music and their associations with 19th-century Classical music.
Tackling subjects such as slavery, Sputnik and emancipation through the music of Haydn, Stravinsky, Bach and Mozart, MBS 1911 is anchored in the love of music and joyful humanism. It begins in 1907 with the piece Gurnemanz, a piece of African-German music often performed at churches and on the radio by the Nairobi Symphony Orchestra, the local outfit formed by Kenyan musicians in 1979. Here, the community is celebrated not through dialogue but through music as an open-minded scene is transformed into a sacred space. The opera eventually explores one of the most iconic texts in the music world, the enchanting Requiem of Antonio Vivaldi, whose Gianni Schicchi and Gloria beguile and challenge.
For the next two years, Ma, Braxton and Weatherley will teach students at Toronto universities, hold concerts across the city and host free concerts in a series of locations dedicated to celebrations of the classical repertoire. This focus on education, community engagement and the age-old ethos of opera is especially welcomed by Ma.
“We need to move people to sing, dance, drink, celebrate,” he says. “Toronto is like a whole new country that we want to explore and conquer.”
The two-year cycle will culminate in MBS 2021 in 2021, a production in multiple cities. The Toronto season will conclude with the world premiere of one of Eno’s many music collaborations with big names and big moments in history, something their longtime collaborator Brian Eno says is still up in the air.
“The question is, how do you bring together a bunch of unconnected people, not so much young people as members of a community? The dream is to do one of these collaborations and document that for posterity,” Eno says. “Here’s a star and here’s a Bowie, here’s a Vincent van Gogh, here’s a Ludwig van Beethoven. When you have one of these connections, that’s what ‘The Exchange’ is: making something here and, the more you write about it, the deeper it gets into pop history and where music goes next.”
“It’s hard to describe in a way that I can make it come alive,” Eno says of the final show. “I hope that we can do something that is … like a performance; as musical … It’s like a performance with music. We’ll go off on our own adventure and end up together again.
“We may come back in five years or more,” Eno says with the enthusiasm of true musicians, “and the new edition of the project will still be a spontaneous moment where … I can’t wait.”
• The Arcade Fire Project’s MBS 2021 is at TIFF Bell