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THE WARD MUSICAL: Songs and Sounds of a Lost Toronto Neighbourhood

If you try to imagine your way back into the early 20th century streets and laneways of The Ward — the dense immigrant enclave razed to make way for Toronto’s City Hall — you might pick up the sounds of newsies and peddlers hawking their wares, the clanging of the area’s junk and lumber yards, and shrieking children playing on the Elizabeth Street playground north of Dundas.

Those streets would also reverberate day and night with a jumble of languages — Italian, Yiddish, Chinese. The dialects and accents of these newcomers were considered to be not only “foreign,” but also proof (to the keepers of Toronto’s Anglo-Saxon morality) of the area’s worrisome social and physical failings.

But despite the fact that many mainstream Torontonians saw The Ward as an impoverished blight on the face of the city, the neighbourhood resonated with energy and culture and music — evidence of the resilience of the stigmatized newcomers who settled there in waves from the late 19th century onward.

Photographers recorded fiddle players and organ grinders with their hurdy gurdies, playing as mesmerized children listened. After their shifts ended, one 1914 account noted, labourers whiled away their free times playing mandolins or concertinas as they sang rags and the Neapolitan songs so popular at the time.

“When sleep in crowded rooms seems all but impossible,” journalist Emily Weaver observed in The Globe and Mail in 1910, “the people of ‘The Ward’ are astir till all hours, and the Italians amuse themselves by singing in their rich sweet voices the songs of their far-away homelands or dancing their native dances to the music of a mandolin or guitar in the open roadway beneath the stars.”

Some residents brought music into their homes. In a 1955 memoir about growing up in The Ward in the 1910s, Marjorie Johnston recalled the day her father brought home a new gramophone and three records – all British dance hall standards. Years later, she wrote, “I have a nostalgic memory of a cozy little parlour with fashionable red paper on the wall, a hanging lamp of ruby glass, and a little girl on her father’s knee listening to that record pouring forth from the brass horn.”

The Ward’s sound was sacred as well as profane. Celebratory music could be heard at weddings, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, and confirmations. On days of worship, the area’s synagogues and black churches (the Agnes Street Bapist and the British Methodist Episcopal) resonated with liturgical music – gospels, hymns, cantorial songs: a medley performed in religious buildings located scarcely metres apart.

In a telling example of The Ward’s social dynamism, several Jewish businessmen in 1909 bought the black church at the north-east corner of Dundas and Bay and turned it into the Lyric Theatre, which performed Yiddish plays and concerts. (After the Lyric let out, the theatre-goers would head over to Altman’s, a Yiddish bakery at Elizabeth and Louisa, for a late-night snack; the City Hall parking permit office is located at that spot today.)

The location of Altman’s

Music could also be heard in factories. Joseph Shlisky, a young Polish Jew forcibly brought to Toronto to perform in a cantorial choir, was singing at his sewing machine in the Eaton’s factory one day when Lady Eaton overheard him. Enchanted, she offered to pay for his musical education. Shlisky later made his way to New York, where he went on to be one of the great cantors of his generation (A socialist choir of Eaton’s factory workers formed to perform Yiddish folk songs with political inflections).

Meanwhile, at Central Neighbourhood House, an immigrant settlement agency on Gerard St. near Bay, the staff in 1915 set up a community music school for children as a means of improving their civic education and social development. The school produced concerts featuring the sort of Western classical music considered, at the time, to be crucial to the Canadianization of foreign-born children.

By the 1920s, the Chinese residents who had settled in The Ward began to establish community organizations, such as Gee Tung Tong Club and the Ship Toy Yuen Dramatic Society, specifically to perform highly ritualized Cantonese operas in halls on Elizabeth and Dundas streets, as well as the burlesque theatres on Queen Street, which weren’t allowed to mount peeler shows on Sundays.

Besides these informal street-level sounds, The Ward was ringed by major commercial performance venues (e.g., Massey Hall, Shea’s Hippodrome, the Pantages and Victory theatres, etc.) that played a critical role in connecting Torontonians to international musical trends, everything from dance hall and vaudeville to opera and Klezmer. The performers walking those boards were locals, too. One Chinese dramatic society rented the burlesque theatre at Queen and Bay for operas on Sundays, when the strip tease dancers weren’t peeling.

Come the 1940s and 1950s, the locus of performed music in The Ward shifted north to the cafes and clubs of the Gerrard Street Village, where young people congregated at intimate venues featuring the folk and jazz musicians who later came to be associated with the Yorkville hippie scene.

This sustained urban symphony eventually drew to a close as municipal officials in the post-war period began expropriating and redeveloping The Ward to make way for hospitals, offices, and Toronto’s new city hall.

By that point, the area’s dominant sounds emanated from that quintessential instrument of post-war progress: the bulldozer.

“The Ward: The Songs and Sounds of a Lost Toronto Neighbourhood” will be performed at Lula Lounge on April 26. Co-presented by ERA Architects, The Metcalf Foundation, Coach House Books and Spacing, the show will feature a band led by David Buchbinder, Michael Occhipinti and Andrew Craig, playing music linked to The Ward and the period when it was Toronto’s most visible immigrant neighbourhood.

The line-up includes selections from a sheath of klezmer sheet music given to Buchbinder by Stella Barsh 20 years ago. Barsh’s grandfather had a band that performed in Toronto a century ago. Many were standards, but a good number of them seem to be original songs written and perhaps played in that lost neighbourhood. Stella Barsh attended the first workshop of the show at Soulpepper last spring.

The tickets are $20, and available at the Spacing Store (401 Richmond St. W.) or on EventBrite.

Interview with Countertenor Scott Belluz

Scott Belluz and Subiksha Rangarajan (as The Woman)   Photo courtesy of Domoney Artists. Used with permission.

In March, countertenor Scott Belluz starred in The Man Who Married Himself, a production by Toronto Masque Theatre in their penultimate season, which the Crow’s Nest website described thus: “Unwilling to marry a woman, a man fashions a lover from his own left side. He’s enraptured by her perfect beauty—a mirror of his own—until he discovers that this new woman longs for freedom and wildly desires another. South Asian and Baroque music and performance traditions meet in a stunning new masque based on a traditional Indian folk-tale. Powerful and timely, The Man Who Married Himself is an allegory of the female and male warring within as told by 2 dancers, 3 singers and 6 musicians.” The show was very engaging, with lots of gestural and sensual stimuli, as well as unexpected humour. As someone in the talkback said, unlike most folk-tales, which in general have a moral, the ending in this one is more fluid and open-ended.

Scott was good enough to spend some time answering my questions about his part in this event. (To read my first interview with him, please click here.)

VW: Why did you move to LA?

SB: I’m currently living out my dream of working in music supervision/licensing for the TV and film industry in Los Angeles. I took classes at UCLA to understand the legalities of music copyright, publishing and licensing and ended up landing a job with a music licensing company called Lip Sync. We represent a diverse roster of bands and solo artists whose music we pitch for placement in TV shows, films and commercials. As a self-diagnosed music junkie with catholic tastes, this job allows me to do what I love best: discover amazing new artists and align them with opportunities that will get their music heard. I’m really enjoying pursuing this work alongside my singing career.

VW: Wow, you are versatile!

I think TMWMH hinges on themes surrounding duality: LGBTQ identity comes to mind; also two-spirited Native views re: gender; Janus facing both the past and future; our fascination with amphisbaena (animals born with two faces) and with conjoined twins (I think the earliest record is from 1100 AD in England); even our language around deceitful people being “two-faced”: we are fascinated with the dual nature of humanity. My view of The Prince was as Alex Samaras said in the post-show talkback: that the newborn woman wasn’t really separate from him but still a part of him. How did you approach the role of The Prince?

SB: I try to approach the rehearsal process with few preconceptions regarding the character.  Gradually, during rehearsals, I make discoveries with the creative team and in relation to my fellow cast members which shape the character.  I’m not concerned with psychologizing the character as part of my preparation; my focus is on learning the music and text. While [composer] Juliet [Palmer]’s score took full advantage of my vocal range, I wasn’t preoccupied with duality or whether I was using my baritone chest voice vs. countertenor falsetto—for me it’s all MY voice, not two different voices.

VW: Did your portrayal change as you worked on the piece?

SB: It  evolved. The Prince often narrates his own story in the third person before jumping into the first person. While it’s a common trope in Indian music dramas, it was my first time encountering this device as a singing actor. The ambiguity of voice imposed by this device within the densely metaphorical text was an interesting challenge. Once I embraced the fluidity, it was liberating to move rapidly between points of view. Acting, for me, is just playing situations (not characters) and stringing together states of mind or being. My performance in this piece was underlined by that philosophy. By the time the show opened,
I was more concerned with showing universality than any specificity or minutiae which often defines a character. For me, The Prince transcends duality in [librettist] Anna [Chatterton] and Juliet’s treatment of the folk-tale, “The Prince Who Married His Own Left Side.” I began to think of him as post-gender and post-sexual, which allowed me to credibly traverse the story’s arc, and the wide vocal range as well!

VW: I think it’s also about greed/desire/need for control in our sexual relationships and, more broadly, in our lives; fashioning another to be an “improved” or desirable self/ partner: like Dorian Gray’s desire to avoid aging, the creation of a perfect beauty in Pygmalion, and the drunkenness of creating life in Frankenstein. Am I reading too much into this, or did you note these rattling around in your mind when you were moulding(!) your performance?

SB: Upon first reading the libretto, I was of course struck by the sheer number of familiar thematic references it evoked: Adam’s rib meets Pygmalion meets Narcissus. It’s difficult to say to what degree any associations with these stories may have filtered subconsciously into my performance. From the original folk-tale, Juliet and Anna fashioned something truly unique, layered with with meaning and metaphor, and resonant for today.

VW: I sort of felt, looking back on the other interview, that things haven’t changed as much as I’d thought or hoped. Eight+ years ago, we talked about internet dating etc., and it’s interesting how unsavoury aspects of love and marriage are present in TMWMH too, but now there are more expansive applications if we consider how things have changed, such as with Tinder and the mainstreaming of porn: there still remains this sense of men being unsatisfied with real women (and women still feeling like that, perhaps exacerbated by social media). We also talked about a sense of discomfiture around gender issues and male/female ascriptions to the countertenor voice. I thought it was interesting that someone else also brought up  social unease with the countertenor voice because of it straddling (our ideas of) the two sexes.

SB: In regards to discomfiture around gender issues, I agree that things have not changed as much as I would have hoped in the last eight years.  As a gay man who was bullied and harassed in my youth because I played piano not baseball and worshipped figure skaters not hockey players, I am deeply concerned by the number of people who daily live with undue “minority stress” as members of any marginalized group. 
It feels good to be making art which is contributing to this discussion and perhaps encouraging the eventual eradication of discrimination and inequality. If the countertenor voice challenges people to confront their unease and re-examine their notions of gender, so be it.

VW: I love Indian food, aesthetics, Bollywood and Bhangra, but my myth education never included any Indian stories. What’s something interesting you learned about Indian culture?

SB: I learned that the traditional Dhoti pants worn as my costume are still worn by men today in the villages of India. I never would have imagined that 4.5 metres of unstitched fabric wrapped around the waist, passed through the legs and tucked at the back could be so comfortable!

VW: Thanks so much for your time, Scott. I was pleased to be going to TMWMH, but I wasn’t expecting to be as moved as I was: this production was entirely charming and your performance was integral to that.

What’s up next for you?

SB: Next is Unsuk Chin’s Cantatrix Sopranica with Soundstreams Canada as part of this year’s 21C Music Festival! See you there!

More information about that event can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Scott Belluz.  Used with permission.