by Richard Ouzounian
Bruce Zinger photo: Opera Atelier's Marshall Pynkoski at the gates of the Palace of Versailles
VERSAILLES, FRANCE—They clapped, they cheered, then they clapped in rhythm. And when all of that hadn’t exhausted the enthusiasm of the opening night audience for the Opera Atelier production of Armide at the Royal Opera House in Versailles, they stamped their feet on the antique wooden floors.
The sophisticated Parisian crowd that filled the house to capacity continued doing just that for more than five minutes, so great was their emotion over what they had just seen on the 242-year-old stage.
It’s a moment that Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg have been dreaming of since they created Opera Atelier in 1985.
But getting here took the kindness of strangers, the generosity of friends and a pair of artists willing to mortgage their home to see that it actually happened.
“We are going to be part of the history of this theatre. It’s all that matters.”
So said Pynkoski, standing outside the gates of the palace, just before dawn, not noticing the grey skies and morning mist. In his mind, the image of Louis XIV, the Sun King, blazed far more brightly.
The monarch who moved the French court here from Paris in 1682 was a man who dreamed big.
So is Pynkoski.
“I want our singers to be reverberating through those walls. I want our dancers dancing on that stage. Nothing can take that away from us.”
But, as usual, it’s Zingg, his partner in production as well as life, who puts the historical framework around her husband’s vaulting visions.
“We are at the spiritual home of Baroque opera. This is why it’s so thrilling.” She offers one of her Mona Lisa smiles. “And, as far as anyone has been able to research, this is the first full production of Armide ever performed at Versailles.”
It’s an almost surreal moment, sitting with this duo in the royal box of the opera house, in the same spot, as Pynkoski delights in pointing out, “where the 14 year-old Marie Antoinette went right after her wedding to Louis XVI to see the first performance of Lully’s Persée.”
There is, indeed, a sense of history enveloping this serene, yet impressive space, covered with gilt and lit by dozens of chandeliers. And it’s a feeling that has communicated itself to the company.
“When Peggy (Kriha Dye, who plays Armide) first stepped onto the stage the other day, her hands flew to her face in amazement and then she broke down into tears,” Pynkoski recalls.
“I know that when I began to dance here for the first time, I could feel the energy of the all the dancers who had been here before me,” adds Zingg and the two of them glance at each other as they say, in unison, “It’s like a dream.”
But dreams don’t come true on their own.
It all began just a year ago, when Pynkoski received an email from the director of spectacles at Versailles saying, “We hear you are doing an Armide. Would you like to bring it to the Royal Opera House here?”
“Of course I was interested!” explodes Pynkoski. “This was one of the theatres Jeannette and I had studied the most closely when creating our vision for Opera Atelier. We agreed that to play here would be beyond wonderful.
“But from a financial point of view, we were dead in the water. There was no money available from the federal government for touring and our board of directors told us, understandably, that we could not cannibalize on any of their fundraising for the normal season.”
Normally Pynkoski is the Don Quixote of Opera Atelier, who tilts at the financial windmills, but this time it was Zingg who stepped forward.
“It was an opportunity we couldn’t miss,” she insists. “We’d find a way to get the money. Why are we just sitting in the house that we inherited from my parents, when it could be the collateral for our journey?”
And having made the kind of bravura gesture that the Muslim warrior princess Armide does in the opera, Zingg and Pynkoski found their bravery rewarded.
“The Canada Council suddenly came through with a generous grant, so did the Ontario Arts Council,” marvels Pynkoski. “But it still wasn’t enough.”
So Pynkoski sat down over lunch with one of Opera Atelier’s most generous, but unexpected benefactors, Bay Street super trader Mike Wekerle.
“I love Mike. He’s so crazy and so tough. He had already given us $250,000 for one of next year’s productions when I told him about Armide at Versailles,” recalls Pynkoski. “He asked me how much I still needed, wrote me a cheque and here we are.
“I’m happy to tell you that he’s flying in today on his private jet with this mother and will be sitting here in the royal box tonight. Nobody else deserves it more.”
Pynkoski and Zingg smile at each other like they’ve been smiling for many years now, ever since they first met at a dance class.
“They looked at me and said, ‘You’ll be perfect for Jeannette!’ but I had no idea how they knew until I realized it’s because we were both so tall,” laughs Pynkoski.
But they found out “we liked all the same movies, books and music as well.” So, the son of a Markham dry cleaner and the daughter of an established Swiss family eventually tied the knot.
A year spent dancing at the famed Moulin Rouge in Paris paid a lot of bills, with Pynkoski remembering how “we lived on Jeannette’s salary and sent mine home to save. We’d wind up using it to create Opera Atelier.”
Devoted to performing Baroque opera in the authentic manner, they began in 1985 at the Royal Ontario Museum, moving like gypsies through venues that included the AGO, the MacMillan Theatre and even the Sutton Place Hotel, until they discovered their true home at the Elgin Theatre in 1991, where they’ve been ever since.
They’re both grateful, if still somewhat surprised, by the widespread acceptance their work has gotten, although Pynkoski reasons that “the people who created Baroque opera understood the same things that the people who created musical theatre have always understood: a work must be united in all of its parts, it must dazzle the eye as well as the ear and it must move us with what it says.”
Opera Atelier is playing to bigger houses now than it ever has. This summer, with the Versailles tour of Armide being followed by a presentation at the Glimmerglass Festival in New York state, is likely to spread their brand even further.
Pynkoski looks into the empty opera house and wonders what the night will bring, although he’s just been told the entire three-performance run is already sold out and the company is negotiating a return in 2014.
“The word gets out. It’s in the air. You just go with it . . .”