PARZIVAL & FIEREFIZ, A Contemporary Re-telling of the Grail Myth to Have World Premiere Performance in Toronto
Canadian violinist Emmanuel Vukovich has been fascinated by Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival story for over twenty years. This 13th-Century medieval poem about the search for the Holy Grail was the inspiration for Richard Wagner's final opera Parsifal. Wagner, however, chose to omit a critical element in Eschenbach's story - the encounter between Parzival and an unknown dark-skinned knight who reveals himself to be Parzival's half-brother and whose name - Fierefiz - means 'he of many colours.' This "hidden" brother of a mixed race opens the grail myth to a wide range of narratives and symbolic interpretations.
Inspired by Eschenbach, Vukovich began working on a new musical narrative of the grail story with award-winning American composer John McDowell who also introduced him to the music of West Africa. During his studies at The Juilliard School, Vukovich travelled to The Gambia, West Africa to study with McDowell's teacher, Karamo Sabally. Almost two decades later, they have now gathered an extraordinary group of collaborators - including Governor General Award-winning African Canadian-Métis poet George Elliott Clarke, Ghanaian Canadian drummer Kwasi Dunyo, the TorQ percussion quartet, and renowned Canadian baritone Philippe Sly - to explore a more complete musical narrative of Eschenbach's tale.
"This story could not be timelier in describing the individual's search for identity as a collaborative process" comments Vukovich. "Eschenbach's tale is about a 'brave soul, yet slow to wise' who initially fails to ask a critical question - a question that has the power to heal an ancient wound. Only after the reconciliation between apparent strangers has taken place can the reunited brothers return to the Grail together and redeem the question that Parzival had failed to ask alone."
"Parzival & Fierefiz" is an original composition for strings and percussion ensemble with solo voice, African drum, and violin currently being co-created by McDowell and Vukovich in collaboration with Clarke. Clarke has explored the intersection of race theory and opera composition for the past 25 years, including his ground-breaking 1998 opera Beatrice Chancy. The new libretto will "challenge the Darwin-derived, white-supremacist views that poisoned the era in which Wagner composed and which have even seeped down as 'acceptable' xenophobia today," comments Clarke.
In honouring Eschenbach's original story, Parzival & Fierefiz strives to transform the Grail narrative from the individual-centred quest of Wagner's Parsifal into a contemporary journey of collaboration, community, and a return to wholeness. Parzival's transformation from ignorance to understanding occurs not only through the power of the intellect, but more importantly, through an awakening to the other.
Along with Ghanaian drummer Kwasi Dunyo, Canadian percussion quartet TorQ, and recently JUNO-nominated baritone Philippe Sly (who contributes both vocal narration and sung text in the medieval troubadour tradition), the musicians of this project also include a number of recipients of the prestigious Canada Council for the Arts Musical Instrument Bank. Through an open score and space for improvisation, a cooperative development of story, and a creative process of collaborative leadership, Parzival & Fierefiz proposes to demonstrate its vision of reconciliation and collaboration through its content as well as form.
The official world premiere performance of Parzival & Fierefiz will take place in November 2020 in Toronto, in conjunction with the Canadian Opera Company's production of Wagner's Parsifal and the University of Toronto's "Opera Exchange" Conference. To date, excerpts of the work have been heard at New Music for Strings Iceland, at the Consulate General of Canada in New York City for the 100th anniversary of Canadian presence in New York City, and will be heard in Chicago in June 2020 for the 100th anniversary of Waldorf education around the world.
Parzival & Fierefiz is a creation of The Parcival Project an international performance collaborative and Canadian charitable organization founded in 2012 by Emmanuel Vukovich and Canadian clarinetist Dominic Desautels. The Parcival Project Board Chair is Don McLean, Dean of The University of Toronto Faculty of Music.