Category Archives: Recent Reviews

My first : Aida grand opera emphasizes human qualities and delights audience

Aida – produced by Vancouver Opera

Remaining dates April 28, May 1st, May 3rd

Reviewed on April 26th, by Todd Wong and Deb Martin

19th Century Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi was commissioned to write an opera, with French Egyptologist Auguste Mariette by Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt.  It is set during the ancient wars between Egypt and Ethiopia, and many years later Vancouver Opera stages with Russian singers, as well as Americans of Greek, African and Hawaiian ancestry in the lead roles.  Oftentimes, operas were set in exotic locales to entice the audience, resulting in many cultural stereotypes – but Aida was commissioned specifically for Egypt and had it’s world premiere in Cairo.  We went to see the opera after having dinner in a French-Tunisian restaurant on Commercial Drive.  Welcome to a very intercultural Vancouver.

There were no elephants or camels or falcons on stage at Vancouver Opera’s season closing production of Aida.  This is the opera which had been infamously presented at BC Place in 1989 with a large pyramid towed in on a barge, as well as at the base of the pyramids in Egypt and at the Masada.  No, the Vancouver Opera production alluded to grandeur with a set that featured the large head of a sphinx and entrance to a temple.  But oh – the singing was indeed grand, and it is what everybody was talking about.

Aida is played by Russian soprano Mladda Khudoley, whose voice soared above the combined chorus of epic singing, with almost 80 people on stage.


Aida’s love interest is Radames played by American tenor Arnold Rawls, which sets up a complicated love triangle because the Pharoah’s daughter Amneris, played by Greek-American mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, is also smitten with him.  Hawaiian-American Quinn Kelsey is Amonasro the Ethiopian warrior king who is also father of Aida.  African-American Morris Robinson brings his earth shaking bass voice to the role of Ramfis the priest.

These are all wonderful voices with strong acting skills that add to this wonderful production.  Their nuanced glances and movements greatly enhanced their performances.

The first half of Aida which sets up the plot was typical Verdi, long & a bit musically boring, but the visuals and solo arias were interesting, especially the dancing choreographed by local Vancouverite Chan Hon Goh, former soloist with the National Ballet.  The 3rd Act opened after the intermission with a   a different style of music that really echoed Egyptian music, that brought back our attention.  Oftentimes in Grand Opera, someone launches into a long, long aria and death scenes are equally long, but this time, the brevity of the final dying scene took us by surprise.

The cool parts: the super pianissimo from the men’s chorus & the trumpets on stage. The huge chorus was exceptionally good – thanks going out to Leslie Dala for preparing them. The trumpets are on loan from the West Vancouver Youth Band and Burnaby South Secondary. They are trumpets, just straightened out instead of looped up.

Vancouver Opera’s most recent production of Barber of Seville, featured partial male nudity, with chorus and supernuneries getting changed as if they were in a movie set dressing room.   This time male Egyptian guards showed off some nice pecs and abdominal muscles, as well as the diversity of the human form.  But of course, the dancers had the best bodies and athletic skills – too bad it was hard for them to dance more expressively wearing hindering costumes.  We also thought the spray tans on the Egyptian guards were funny. The opera glasses let us get a good look.

We were excited about seeing Aida for the first time, having heard, of course, of the huge productions with live elephants & pyramids.  We almost expected the sphinx head on stage to open up at some point and release warriors, as the seams of the blocks it was built out of were so visible.  We thought surely it would come apart, having seen something similar in the VO’s production of Lillian Alling, when the forest trees parted to reveal a car “driving down the highway”.

Vancouver Opera productions have been consistently great in recent years. 2010’s version of Nixon in China has now been re-mounted by other companies and is becoming the go-to production.  For Aida, the orchestra is first rate, the chorus shines, and the soloists carefully selected to thrill.  While this show didn’t sparkle & zip like West Side Story, or amuse us with novelty & “buffa” like Barber of Seville or Italian Girl in Algiers, it was solid and classic, and beautifully performed.  We will remember it because it was our first… maybe just like the lovers of Aida and Radames!

Check out this youtube footage of Vancouver Opera’s AIDA rehearsal:

AIDA rehearsal footage with interviews – YouTube Apr 2012 – 2 min – Uploaded by vancouveropera
Vancouver Opera presents Aida at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. April 21 – May 3, 2012.

Chelsea Hotel is an inventive presentation of Leonard Cohen songs

Chelsea Hotel is inventive and theatrical – and probably more fun than a Leonard Cohen concert!

Adrian Glynn McMorran (The Writer), Marlene Ginader (The Lover), Steve Charles (The Sideman), and Lauren Bowler (Sister of Mercy) perform many dramatic and musically diverse collaborations of Leonard Cohen songs during “Chelsea Hotel” at the Firehall Arts Centre – photo David Cooper, courtesy of Firehall Arts Centre

Chelsea Hotel featuring the songs
of Leonard Cohen

Dates and
8 February – 3 March 2012, 8pm, (2pm Weekend matinees
& 1pm Wedmatinees) | Firehall Arts Centre

Conceived and Directed by Tracey Power

Artistic Direction by Donna Spencer

Music Direction by Steven Charles

Performed by Rachel Aberle, Lauren Bowler, Steve Charles, Benjamin Elliott, Marlene Ginader, Adrian Glynn McMorran
DATES: February 8 to March 3, 2012

8pm, 2pm (Weekend matinees), 1pm (Wednesday matinees)

Today is opening night of “Chelsea Hotel” at Firehall Arts Centre –
featuring songs and poetry of Leonard Cohen…. AND the ACCORDION is a
featured instrument… actually it is the first musical instrument to play in
this amazingly theatrical production.  There are constant visual surprises for the audience.  And there are musical surprises too.  Three
males and three females take turns on up to many different instruments
including violin, cello, double bass, electric guitar, electric bass, drum kit, acoustic guitar, keyboard, ukelele, tambourine, and kazoo…

I saw Chelsea Hotel on Friday Night – the first performance… a world premiere – preview version… and LOVED IT.  I have had Leonard Cohen ear-worms in my head all weekend, as I listened to my Cohen cd's trying to figure out the titles of the songs that were included in the production.

There have been many musicals made of songs by specific songwriters.  Mama Mia by ABBA… Jersey Boys is based on the music of The Four Seasons… Uptown Girl is the music of Billy Joel.  And way before that, musicals were made of George Gershwin and Cole Porter songs.  All of these have a story arcs, and dialogue to develop the plot lines.

But there is no invented dialogue in Chelsea Hotel, nothing but the songs and poetry of Leonard Cohen.  Director Tracey Power has conceived and created a theatrical presentation that moves seamlessly from song to song with interspersed words of poetry.  The drama is in the storytelling of the songs.  The dynamic tension is in the body language and the faces of the performers.  The story is in the words of each song, as they speak of love, break ups, regret, hate, and reconciliation.  And somehow it all works.

Like the musical Chicago, these performances are part fantasy and part memory recall.  The character called The Writer (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is trying to write at his desk and having difficulties.  The inventive set is piled high with crumpled pieces of paper.  The Writer is having writer's block in a room at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City (where Cohen lived for awhile).   He groans and crumples up another piece of paper to throw it against the wall.  Suddenly a man pops up playing a tune on an accordion… and thus the interior workings of The Writer's attempts at song writing began,  The Writer recalls a woman in his life – and a female performer steps onto the stage singing about their relationship.  Then next another musician steps onstage for accompaniment, and another woman who joins in the singing…

Steve Charles (guitar), Benjamin Elliott (accordion), Marlene Ginader (violin), Rachel Aberle (voice), photo David Cooper, courtesy of Firehall Arts Centre

The songs are strangely familiar, as they take their turns like old shirts from a long forgotten box of clothes.  They are comfortable, and in a variety of musical styles and arrangements.  Some songs are old like Suzanne or Lover Lover Lover.  Many are from Cohen's middle period of the 80's and 90's such as I'm Your Man, Tower of Song, First We Take Manhattan and Hallelujah. 

The production is sooooo playful.  There is a carnival cabaret atmosphere, with the performers all wearing whitened faces and exagerated costumes.  Benjamin Elliot's character is called The Magician.  Musical Director Steve Charles is performing as The Side Man.  The arrangements vary from solo instruments to string trio, acoustic folk stylings, to full-on rock and roll.

I found the
musicianship to be surprisingly good… the performers pick up
their instruments and play them when you least expect it.  Rachel Aberle and
Lauren Bowler as The Sisters of Mercy,  both have amazing presence and create dynamic and sexual
tension with Adrian Glynn McMorran's The Writer and the audience.  Marlene Ginader is innoculously beautiful to watch.  She first seems to float down from the mountain of
crumpled paper after appearing first as musical supporting cast on violin, and her character The Lover, takes on increasingly important dynamics.

Friday night was the first audience performance prior to Wednesday's Opening Night on Feb 8th.  I thought the production flowed well.  There was a standing ovation for the performers.

Chelsea Hotel is a fun production.  There are constantly visual and musical developments happening as well as the interaction of the characters.  The songs are entertaining in themselves – both for lyrical beauty, irony and humability.  My recommendations are:
1) don't sit in row A on the floor – there is a row AA in front of you that obscures your view. 

don't sit in the audience far left side.  It is hard to see some aspects
of the stage and performers – that are hidden by a set design.

Marlene Ginader (The Lover), and Adrian Glynn McMorran(The Writer) sing their hearts out to each other, after loving, hating, resenting, pining, forgiving each other to find resolution. – photo David Cooper, courtesy of Firehall Arts Centre

see other links about Chelsea Hotel:

Allan Cho checks out VAFF

Vancouver Asian Film Festival is “Almost Perfect” with guest actor Edison Chen

Written by guest blogger, Allan Cho

I checked out opening day’s VAFF
program.  What a great festival – seems
like this year is the biggest one yet.  
VAFF is celebrating its FIFTEENTH anniversary (
Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society and Asian Canadian Writers’ Workshop, and Ricepaper incidentally also celebrate their FIFTEENTH
anniversaries).   Great chance for me to
catch up with our old friends from at VAFF – its dedicated executives:
Grace Chin, Callan Tay, Kathy Leung, and
Clement Woo, and board director Iven Tse
VAFF founder and president Barbara Lee was also there, and we exchanged
a few good laughs.   ACWW friend, filmmaker
and director of One Big
Hapa Family’s Jeff
Chiba Stearns
was also on hand.

The first film I saw was “Almost Perfect,”
Kelly Hu, Edison Chen, and Tina Chen.  A remarkable film, about the complexities of
families and the wrenching realities of modern relationships and marriage, the
film won the hearts of the audience, as they gave a roaring applause at the
film’s end.  On hand was also Asian mega
Edison Chen, who was greeted by curious observers and fans
alike.  I had a chance to exchange
greetings with Edison, and even had a chance to ask about his most
recent controversy
in Asia
, but he declined
comment.  Along with renowned actress
Tina Chen on a panel discussion after the film, Vancouver-born and
raised-Edison revealed that he is currently working on three music albums and
another film project.  What a hard

Check out the VAFF Website at

Accordions VS Ukelele Grudge Match for Accordion Noir Festival: Accordions Rule!

Accordions VS Ukelele: Grudge match of the under-appreciated music instrument
The trash talking was going full bore on the Facebook group event page, escalating in the days before the event.  Saturday September 24th, 8pm at Little Mountain Gallery on 26th Avenue, just off Main St.
It was the Great Accordion
VS Ukelele under-appreciated instrument GRUDGE MATCH.
event was MCed by accordionist Barbara Adler of the punk band Fang. 
Team Accordion also featured Jack Gordon of the group “Maria in the
Shower”. Lots of trash-talking, between the Team Captains… too much
Team Accordion
demonstrated great diversity of performances… while Team Ukelele tried
to use the option “Call a Friend” – a total of 3 times, bringing in
bagpipes, mouth harp and saxophone – to pinch hit for them. My solo
performance was a rebuttal to their “avante-garde-classical-mo
ment”, for which I played J.S. Bach's “Toccata in D Minor, to a rousing ovation. Take that! ukeleles!
I perform J.S.
Bach's Toccata in D Minor – with lots of cheering, heckling, laughing
and applause – not your typical setting for classical music. 
performance Accordion Noir Festival on Saturday

performance Accordion Noir Festival on Saturday

plays JS Bach for Team Accordion at the Accordions vs Ukuleles Grudge
Match – Day 2 of Vancouver's Accordion Noir Festival, held at Little
Mountain Art Gallery
Here is a list of the videoed performances of Team Accordion and Team
Ukelele, recorded by Alan Zisman, and conceptualized by Barbara Adler, as part of the Accordion Noir Festival – founded by Rowan Lipkowits.

last weekend's Accordion Noir Festival? Or went but want to remember
it? I've posted video clips from Fang (Friday night): , Geoff Berner (Friday night): and the Saturday Accordions vs Ukuleles Grudge Match: for your listening pleasure.

Hapa-Palooza literary event with Fred Wah, Joanne Arnott and Tanya Evanson

Hapa-Palooza poets helps celebrate Vancouver 125

The largest meeting room at the downtown Vancouver Public Library was full.  Anna Kaye Ling was moderating questions from the audience to poets Fred Wah, Joanne Arnott and Tanya Evanson.  Ling is one of the co-founders of the brand new Hapa-Palooza Festival, and is also a director for Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop – the sponsoring organization, that helped submit the grants to Vancouver 125.

Each of the poets grew up from mixed race ethnic backgrounds.  Wah is Swedish/Chinese/Scottish/Irish, Evanson is Black/Mixed Caucasian and Arnott is Metis/Mixed.  I've known Fred Wah since 2003, when Asian Canadian Writers' Workshop presented him with the ACWW Community Builder Award.  A few years later, I invited Wah to be the featured poet at the 2005 Gung Haggis Fat Choy Robbie Burns Chinese New Year Dinner.

It would be simple if as the last person from the audience to ask a question, suggest that we forego all labels of race or ethnicity and simply “recognize each other as human beings.”  But poetry and experience that addresses growing up mixed-race isn't that simple.  Humankind has always created a sense of “otherness” to shun those “not like us.”  Wah's award winning poetry books “Diamond Grill” and “is a door” both address the joys and pitfalls of “looking different”.

While the topic of racism, and not fitting in on both your mother's side, and your father's side, was upsetting to some members of the audience, there was a larger sense that this was community.  It was a community of recognition.  It was a community of meeting other people like themselves.  It was a community that was saying “our time has come,” as Canada's first Festival celebrating Mixed Ancestry kicked off it's first of 4 days.

Hapa is a Hawaiian term meaning Half.  It is historically used to describe somebody as hapa haole (half white), but recently it has been used to describe somebody who is half Asian or Pacific Islander.  But now it being used to describe a new emerging tribe of Hapa-Canadians, and their culture – similar to the use of the word Metis.  Historically, Metis was used to describe anybody of First Nations and European heritage.  These people were not fully accepted in either culture, and thus created their own.  And today Hapa is doing the same.

I looked around the room, and saw many Hapa Canadians that I knew, didn't know, and some who were my friends.  Rema Tavares, founder of had flown out from Toronto to excitedly attend this festival.  Brandy Lien Worrall was holding her new 4 month old Hapa baby, born of Hapa-Vietnamese-Chinese-Pensylanvian Duth, and Hapa-Filipino parents.  Ricepaper Magazine (published by ACWW) was there with our managing editor Patricia Lim, and intern Cara Kuhane – who is a Hawaiian born Hapa.

And I saw my cousin Tracey.  We are both descended from Rev, Chan Yu Tan, our great-great-grandfather who came to Canada in 1896.  Her father is Anglo-Canadian.  When she graduated from high school, as a present, I took her to see the play Mixie and the Half-Breeds, written by my Hapa friends Adrienne Wong and Julie Tamiko Manning.  Tracey enjoyed it tremendously, as it addressed issues of mixed race identity.  Afterwards we went out to eat with Julie and Adrienne.  It was one of the first times Tracey got to meet Hapa artists who actively developing Hapa culture!  Tonight, my little cousin Tracey, is in 3rd year university, and embracing her Hapa-ness by volunteering as a photographer for the festival. 

I introduced Tracey to poet Fred Wah, then in the audience we said hello to poets Roy Miki and Daphne Marlatt.  I introduced her to the co-founders of the Hapa-Palooza, my Hapa friends Jeff Chiba Stearns, Zarah Martz and Anna Kaye Ling.  This is my community, which recognized and embraced her as Hapa.  They commented how wonderful it was that Gung Haggis Fat Choy was one of the inspirations for Hapa-Palooza, and how my Hapa cousin was possibly one of the inspirations for me creating Gung Haggis Fat Choy, as I had wanted to create an event that was inclusive for my family members who were Scottish and Chinese and Hapa.

If more families had members who were of diverse ethnic ancestry, and had more Hapa children – then hopefully there would be less racism.  Because if everybody is related and inclusive to every other race, then it would be harder for politicians to pass laws and legislation such as the Chinese head tax, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Potlatch Law, the internment of Japanese Canadians, and excluding First Nations from voting until 1960… as Canada did in the 19th and 20th Centuries – because you're gonna hear it from your in-laws!

Vancouver Opera: La Clemenza di Tito – Leadership or culture bending subtlety?

Vancouver Opera: La Clemenza di Tito – Leadership or culture bending subtlety?

Women playing male roles create some interesting cultural questions.  Photo credit: Tim Matheson – courtesy of Vancouver Opera

Expect an evening of subtlety and sublime beautiful music.  No big action scenes or over the top drama of people taking 10 minutes to die.  It's a salon-style opera with beautiful and exquisite Mozart music.  Do pay attention to the costume changes, and the spiritual metaphor of the Greek-style chorus.  Also keep your eyes open for gender bending roles, as castrato singers are now non-existent, but replaced by female sopranos.. The story is about the “clemency” or “mercy” of Emperor Tito.  As he strives to be a leader for all of the empire, valuing forgiveness and belief in the goodness of others, he faces the ultimate challenge – the betrayal of a loyal friend, and a chosen consort.

An All-Canadian cast give strong lead performances as Toronto's Krisztina Szabo as “Sesto”, carries out the wicked revenge plot of New Brunswick's Wendy Nielsen as Vitellia against Edmonton's John Tessier as Emperor Tito. The roles of Sesto and also Servilia (Campbell River's Kathleen Brett) were originally written for castrati males, but now played by female mezzo-soprano and soprano, made for some interesting gender bending romance.  As in traditional Chinese opera, female roles were traditionally played by males, because “only men knew how women should act”, according to the line in the David Henry Hwang play and movie “M. Butterfly.  Technically, the roles are male, but it's interesting to play with a female + female context.  And of course we go to opera for the music!  But in a town such as Vancouver with a large GLBT population, this is a good market for such a piece.

Vitellia has her eye on the crown of the empress, and has been passed over by Tito several times, in favor of other women such as  Servilia.  She takes advantage of Sesto's “love” for her, and asks Sesto to murder Titus.  But before this can happen, Servilia admits to Tito that she is actually in love with Vitellia's brother Annio (Calgary's Norine Burgess – in the 2nd castrato role). This is all acted and sung out in lovely tension-filled arias, as the plot unravels up to the intermission.

Titus preaches forgiveness as a leader – like Mandela preaches forgiveness in the movie Vindictus, as he struggled to move South Africa beyond Apartheid – so suggested Michael Byers @ Opera Speaks panel discussion at Vancouver Public Library

Taking a bow by VancouverOpera

Picture of the Chorus costumes, while taking bows, from the Vancouver Opera flickr stream.

The chorus is presented in the style of a editorializing Greek Chorus, that comments on the actions and thoughts of the lead characters as if they are the gods, that these Romans blame or pray to.  Interestingly, they are dressed in toga-like robes of saffron, orange and reds that would seem to be more commonly found on an ashram in India.  A gold dot also adorns the forehead of each chorus member.

The background of this rarely performed Mozart opera is very interesting.  Not as bombastic as Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute, or as full of musical flurries such as Cosi Fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito is a delight in its subtlety.  Supposedly written in three weeks while Mozart was ill, and while he was still working on the Magic Flute.  It was a rush job, for the coronation of Emperor Leopold II as the new king of Bohemia.

The libretto was adapted from a fifty
year old work by the Viennese court poet Metastasio (Pietro
Antonio Domenico Trapassi) that had already been used many times by
other composers – but as I sat in the theatre, all I could hear was Mozart.  From the opening bars of the overture, it reminded me of how much Mozart has meant to both my musical education and pleasure.  It recalled the days of my youth when I played Mozart's Titus Overture in an accordion ensemble, and in my college days, when I performed the Sallieri soliloquy from the Peter Shaffer play “Amadeus.”  And like so many of the audience, I became lost in the beauty of the music, as the orchestra dissolved to the simplicity of a solo piano forte performed by Conductor and musical director Jonathan Darlington, accentuated by solo cello, clarinet or basset horn. We were very pleased to see the soloists from the orchestra, Ari Barnes, Mary Backun and Caroline Gauthier brought up on stage for bows along with Chorus Director Leslie Dala.

Check out the wonderful videos from the Vancouver Opera website

Clips from VO's La Clemenza di Tito

La Clemenza di Tito

Watch scenes from VO's La Clemenza di Tito

Interesting tidbits….

Last week CBC Radio One was discussing the opera audience as white-haired and caucasian (which I don't fit into – okay maybe the age demographic since I turned 50 last May).  The Vancouver opera is very aware of trying to reach a more culturally diverse audience.  While some of the bloggers commented that it was a very mixed ethnic crowd on opening night Saturday on Feb 5th, the audience that I saw on Tuesday Feb 8th, was very white haired and caucasian.  But I did see a number of gay and lesbian couples. 

Cultural diversity can take many forms.  If the opera does want a more ethnic mix in the audience, the best route to go is to feature more ethnic leads in key roles, not just in Madame Butterfly and Turandot, or Nixon in China – but in all productions.  Afterall opera in Hong Kong, and Japan feature Asian singers in many roles.  The costumes in La Clemenza di Tito were 18th Century, while the opera is set in Ancient Rome.  In the first half, the principles are wearing black, in the second half they are wearing white.  The chorus appears to be wearing South Asian style religious robes, all in the name of artistic merit – not historical accuracy.  Female singers have replaced male in the original castrato roles.  A few singers of colour in lead roles would not look out of place in this production.

2011 Gung Haggis Fat Choy is a big success… or was it Gung HAPA Fat Choy?


We celebrated the 14th Annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy Robbie Burns Chinese New Year Dinner on January 30th, 2011.
Our 2011 theme featured so many performers of Asian-Celtic-Gaelic heritage that we could have called it
Gung HAPA Fat Choy!

Co-hosts were actor Patrick Gallagher (Glee, Men of a Certain Age, Night at the Museum), Jenna Choy (CBC Radio), writer/comedian Tetsuro Shigematsu, and creator of the event Todd Wong aka “Toddish McWong”Featured performers were: Jocelyn Pettit and her band – Siew & Joel Pettit + Bob Collins
Joe McDonald on pipes, accordion, Address to the Haggis, and Highland Fling.
Jay MacDonald, performing Loch Lomand and “Ring of Burns”
Jaime Foster singing Ae Fond Kiss
Vancouver Poet Laureate: Brad Cran
Dr. Leith Davis: Immortal Memory
Gung Haggis Pipes & Drums: led by Pipe Major Bob Wilkins with: Allan McMordie, Trish McMoride, Brenda McNair, Don Scobie, Danny Graham, drummers were: Casandra Lihn, Bill Burr and Tracey Morris

All photos below from our official photographer Lydia Nagai.

Creator and co-host Todd Wong aka Toddish McWong with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson, try out the haggis won ton with chop sticks. – photo Lydia Nagai
Fiddler Jocelyn Pettit with her French-Celtic-Canadian father and the Chinese-Canadian mother – the Jocelyn Pettit Band! – photo Lydia Nagai

CNN reporter Percy Von Lipinski and his cameraman film Jocelyn Pettit as she performs! – photo Lydia Nagai

Actor Patrick Gallagher was our co-host, while our Bearded Scottish Lady roamed, and all posed for a picture with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and host and Gung Haggis creator Todd Wong – photo Lydia Nagai


Co-hosts 3 =  2 1/2 Asians…. Todd Wong, writer/comedian Tetsuro Shigematsu and Jenna Chow (CBC Radio). – photo Lydia Nagai


Todd Wong and Jenna Chow read the poem “Recipe For Tea”, written by Jim Wong-Chu, which describes how tea first traveled from China to the UK, via Scottish traders. – photo Lydia Nagai

Floata manager Antonio Hung carries the haggis during the Piping of the Haggis – photo Lydia Nagai

Dr. Leith Davis, director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University, cuts the haggis, as she read the 3rd verse of Robert Burns immortal poem “Address To A Haggis” as CNN reporter Percy Von Lipinski, films Leith close up. – photo Lydia Nagai


Film maker Jeff Chiba Stearns explains the meaning of “Hapa” as a word to describe people of Mixed ancestry with Asian heritage.  His film “One Big Hapa Family” was featured at the 2011 Gung Haggis Fat Choy Dinner.  Co-host Patrick Gallagher, of Irish and Chinese Ancestry, looks on. – photo Lydia Nagai

The Head Table with MLA Shane Simpson, co-host Jenna Chow and friend Mattias, Meeka, Bahareh (partner of co-host Tetsuro Shigematsu),  co-host and founder Todd Wong, Jeff Chiba Stearns and partner Jen Kato. – photo Lydia Nagai

Musician Joe McDonald, sans bagpipes, flute or accordion – dances a jig, with bagpiper Don Scobie. – photo Lydia Nagai


Dr. Leith Davis, gives the Immortal Memory – talking about the “Life of Robbie Burns” and the connections of Todd Wong – photo Lydia Nagai


Trish & Allan McMordie, with guitarists Jay MacDonald and Bob Collins, join in the singing of “I Went to a Robbie Burns Dinner” – Burns lyrics set to the tune of Johnny Cash’s famous song – “Ring of Fire” – photo Lydia Nagai

During the singing of Auld Lang Syne, people joined hands to sing…. as the Chinese Dragon weaved through the crowd. – photo Lydia Nagai


Members of the audience joined performers on stage to sing Auld Lang Syne for the closing song.
(l-r Siew Pettit, Jocelyn Pettit, Todd Wong, Trish McMordie, Allan McMordie + 3 members of the audience) – photo Lydia Nagai

After the singing was over, a posed picture of kilts and legs, was taken!
(l-r: bearded Scots Lady, Bruce Clark, Todd Wong, Adam Todd, Don Harder and Allan McMordie – photo Lydia Nagai

Arts Club Theatre adds a new play to Vancouver's Holiday Theatre repertoire with Patron Saint of Stanley Park

Patron Saint of Stanley Park, written by
Hiro Kanagawa, is welcome addition to Arts Club Theatre's Vancouver's Holiday Theatre repertoire

The Patron Saint of Stanley Park
Arts Club Revue Theatre
written by Hiro Kanagawa
Starring Jillian Fargey, Brian
Linds, Derek Metz, introducing
Valsy Bergeron and Joseph Gustafson
Director Stephen Drover

Think of Christmas in Stanley Park, and we normally think Bright Lights Christmas Train… but if it was December 2006, there was an ice storm that destroyed many trees in Stanley Park.

Now imagine that a teen-aged girl and her techno-geek younger brother are going to Stanley Park to lay some flowers in memory of their father who mysteriously disappeared on Christmas Eve last year, while flying his seaplane to Vancouver Island while dressed in a Santa suit.  They are supposed to be taking the bus to their Uncle's Christmas Dinner on the North Shore.  But their mother is pre-occupied working two jobs.  They are each working out their grief in different ways, acknowledgement, denial and false hope.

We are introduced to Skookum Pete, a homeless man in Stanley Park, who speaks to the audience, breaking down the fourth wall.  Pete talks about the park, the weather, and about the voices he hears – through his fillings!  Brian Linds does a wonderful job playing Pete.  He is friendly and the audience quickly builds trust, while laughing with Pete at his distorted yet perceptive view of society.  Pete pushes a shopping cart and carries a torch with a cheese grater to protect his lantern.

Valsy Bergeron wonderfully plays the older sister Jennifer, on the brink of womanhood, looking out for her brother Josh, played by a young Joseph Gustafson.  They easily capture the family dynamics of push and pull, caught between Jennifer's rebellion against her mother, and her wish to memorialize her father.  Meanwhile Josh continually asserts that he believes that their father will turn up somehow, while recognizing that their mother is spending lots of her time at work.

The Arts Club has really developed a Christmas theatre repertoire for Vancouver.  “It's a Wonderful Life” and “White Christmas” are currently playing at the Granville Island Stage and the Stanley Industrial Arts Alliance Stage.  They have also brought original theatre to Vancouver for Christmas with Nicola Cavendish's “It's Snowing on Saltspring” and Ann Mortifee's “Reflections of Crooked Walking”, as well as “Beauty and the Beast” in past years.  

“The Patron Saint of Stanley Park” was commissioned to Vancouver area playwright/actor Hiro Kanagawa as part of the Silver Commission, helping to develop new work.  Kanagawa is probably more familiar to Vancouver television audiences on many Vancouver filmed shows such as Caprica, X-Files, Highlander,  Smallville (as Principal Kwan), and Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet In Heaven.  Kanagawa often appears on stage, and was recently in “After the Quake” at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre.   His past work has also included “White Balance” and he wrote “Tiger of Malaya.”

This family Christmas tale fantastically integrates Science Fiction, mythology and Stanley Park icons.  It is amazing to think there once really was a signal tower and bunker on Prospect Point, as there houses along Brockton Point.  Kangawa wanted to incorporate elements of Vancouver such as seaplanes into the play, to help build Vancouver's own theatrical references and recognizability.  And the audience loves it!  People can relate to the huge trees in Stanley Park and imagine the trees crashing down during the infamous 2006 windstorm that dramatically re-arranged the landscape of the park.

The multi-leveled stage is plain, covered with grays.  At first it appears boring.  But it soon comes to life, full of surprises as “trees” drop from the ceiling, darkness envelopes the theatre during the storm sequence, and bright lights appear in unexpected places.  Stage direction is clever and inventive, making good use of the levels, and the projections into the audience.  I am also pleased to note that music is by Noah Drew, whom I've known since he was a child 24 years ago.  Drew has matured into one of the city's finest theatre sound composers.  His work is subtle and unobtrusive, while being ambient and enhancing to the action on stage.

The play development is good.  At the end of the first act, the children have been rescued during the storm by Skookum Pete, meanwhile their mother is frantic and trying to reach her children by phone.  This perfectly sets up the second act for revelations for each of the characters, as well as resolutions to their issues.  There are some wonderful surprises in the second act which I won't reveal.  This play is definitely suitable for families, as the young characters carry the play along with Skookum Pete.  But as expected of a Christmas play, we are encouraged to empathetically share emotions with the characters, and discover what makes Christmas meaningful for each of us, while recognizing what is also meaningful for others.

Poetry + Christmas at Kogawa House with George McWhirter, Christine Lowther and Joy Kogawa

Poets George McWhirter, Christine Lowther
and Joy Kogawa give a special reading
at Kogawa House

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Joy Kogawa with Beth and Christine Lowther… old friends reunited. – photo Todd Wong

It was a special Christmas present for supporters of Kogawa House, when author/poet Joy Kogawa spoke to Christine and Beth, the daughters of her long deceased friend and fellow poet, Pat Lowther.  Joy spoke of light and dark, ugliness and beauty, of carrying things in our lives that won't go away, and how we become stronger through our transitions.

The atmosphere sparkled with anticipation and friendly greetings.  Kogawa House board members came early to set up food and drinks.  Supporters of Kogawa House came to witness a special event, and to come see a rare appearance of the house by Joy Kogawa.  Friends of Christine Lowther came as she launched her new book MY NATURE, and read poems from the book for the first time in Vancouver.  George McWhirter and his wife came because they love Kogawa House, and we love them.

Greetings and introductions were made by Todd Wong, president of Historic Kogawa House Society, he introduced the board members and thanked them for helping to create this special event, especially Ann-Marie Metten, the executive director, and chief volunteer.  Todd explained that this was a special one-of-a-kind event, because reunions were happening, new friendships were being made and first time events were going to happen.

Tamsin Baker, the Vancouver Area Manager for The Land Conservancy of BC spoke about the next stage for the house restorations.  She explained that heritage assessments had been done by Donald Luxton and Associates, and we were ready to move towards a restoration of the main floor.  The idea is to re-create and restore features of the house to what it was like when a 6 year old Joy Kogawa lived in the house with her older brother and parents, before they were sent off to internment camps in the BC Interior during WW2.  Tamsin also shared with the audience that City of Vancouver has agreed to a grant for $25,000 if we can secure matching funds.  2011 will be exciting, as we have waited four years since the purchase of Kogawa House, to be able to take out the added bathroom to restore the size of the living room, and to return the French doors to the Music Room, also to help enhance event space, and to restore the house, prior to renovations by the last owner.

George McWhirter was the first poet to read.  Todd and George spoke about the first time they met, right after George had been named Poet Laureate of Vancouver in 2007, and Todd had invited him to speak at the 2007 Gung Haggis Fat Choy Robbie Burns Dinner, that Todd organizes each year as a shared fundraiser for Kogawa House.

George read two poems from The Anachronicles, a collection that moves backwards and forwards through time. reimagining the West Coast, from the view of the Spanish explorers as they explore and see the future simultaneously.   McWhirter prefaced his reading by talking about the magnificent sockeye salmon that happened in the fall, and how life must have been like for the First Nations with such bounty.  The poem is also cheeky, because it imagines that the Spaniards comment on the the beach where the movie 10 was filmed, and also about Bo Derek.

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Christine Lowther reads at Kogawa House, while Angela Mairead and George McWhirter look on – photo Todd Wong

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Christine Lowther explained that she lives outside of Tofino, on a float home, and so she writes about Nature a lot.  She described the beauty of the last unpaved road in Tofino, and the sealife and beaches.

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Joy speaks about light and dark, and how it's important to acknowledge the ugliness sometimes.  It was a very thoughtful and emotional moment as she channeled the role of sage, as she spoke with the audience.  The subtext is the internment of the Japanese Canadians, and the untimely death of Pat Lowther.  Joy made the transition seemlessly to say “Now we are in this house.  And it's saved.  And we are happy.  And our joy has come through our tears.”

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Joy read a poem from the anthology Verse Map of Vancouver, edited by George McWhirter.  George explained that after the house had been saved.  Joy sent out an email expressing her happiness.  McWhirter saw the poetic potential of the words… and arranged it by lines.  This was the first time that Joy had read this poem in public.  A magic moment.  Happy Birthday House!

VAFF closes out with a Big Hapa feeling!

Jeff Chiba Stearns (far right) gives fist bumps to Todd Wong, Jason Karman and Julia Kwan.  Jeff's film “One Big Hapa Family” closed out the 14th Annual Vancouver Asian Film Festival

Film maker Angelina Cantado (centre) attended the screening of her film Sikat on Friday Night's program “Promised Lands“, which featured Phillipine-North American films. “Sikat” is a tender story about a Filipina domestic worker, who looks after the two children and does the laundry of a middle class Canadian family.  It is

Chinese Canadian WW2 veterans came on Sunday afternoon for the screening of Redress Remixed.  Left to right: Frank Wong, Tommy Wong, ??, Lesley Chan, Alec Louie, Todd Wong.  Frank Wong is interviewed in the movie, directed by Lesley Chan


Lt. Watada is a film about an US soldier who refused to go to deploy to Iraq, because he felt that
the war is illegal and a violation of his constitutional oath. “Watada described the war as illegal
and immoral and founded on deception. and offered twice to go to Afghanistan – a war he considered
legitimate – but his commanders said that granting such a request would
mean there was something wrong with the war in Iraq.” – This film screened on Saturday.

The buzz was big for the fully-packed theatre closing night screening of One Big Hapa Family, preceded by a short film titled
Ode to a Post-It Note, celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the 3M invention.

VAFF 2010: Ode To A Post-It NoteFollowing One Big