Why I’m probably not going back to the Opéra de Montréal anytime soon

Late last November, a friend and I attended an Opéra de Montréal performance of a favourite work, Richard Strauss’s Elektra. Soon afterward, the OdeM sent me an email asking for feedback and including a link to a website for the purpose. After answering a short, multiple-choice questionnaire, I took advantage of the comment box to file a short review and explain why, in this age of Met Live in HD simulcasts (which certainly aren’t without their issues), Opéramania screenings and plentiful DVDs/Blu-rays/downloads of superb productions, I probably won’t be a repeat customer in the foreseeable future. Here’s what I wrote:

For the most part, the staging was uninspired but inoffensive. However, sitting in a loge on the left side of the hall meant the entrance and steps to the palace, located far stage right, were invisible to us, and the director stupidly had a lot of the action take place there. Even Stage Direction 101 students are taught not to do this. The singers were fair, sometimes better, though the Klytemestra is in no way an actor. All in all, it was Nézet-Séguin’s night – a very lyrical, fundamentally romantic and ultimately convincing reading of the score, well supported by the orchestra. Unfortunately, the hall’s horrible acoustics made the sound qua sound hard to appreciate. Our loge was as close to being over the pit as it’s possible to get and the sound was muffled, unbalanced and never overwhelming (and in Elektra, of all operas, it should be overwhelming). Until such time as Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier is gutted, rebuilt and given credible, opera-friendly acoustics, I’ll find it hard to justify spending another $100 on a ticket. In other words, that “maybe” above [in response to a question asking whether I would attend again] would more accurately be “probably not.”

Never heard back from them. Not surprising I guess.

If you’re interested in watching a worthwhile performance of this milestone work, look for the recent Aix-en-Provence production – the last opera staged by Patrice Chéreau – on DVD and Blu-ray (to be more or less reprised at the Met and simulcast in local cinemas on April 30) or the peerless Götz Friedrich film with an all-star cast,  including Leonie Rysanek, Astrid Varnay, a young Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Strauss disciple Karl Böhm (and with, it’s rumoured, an uncredited Leonard Bernstein occasionally filling in for the ailing Böhm, who died soon after the filming was completed).

Top tool: RSVP Precision-Perforated Stainless Steel Five-Quart Colander

A colander is an essential part of any kitchen arsenal. I use one several times a week, sometimes several times a day. Over the years, I’ve probably owned a half dozen of them and this is the best by far. Like many of my favourite tools, it does only one job but does it supremely well.

What makes it great?

  • The many holes mean the liquid drains instantly and there are no areas where it pools.
  • The holes are small enough that even spaghettini and angel hair don’t escape. Ditto rice and Israeli couscous. There is some loss with quinoa, however, which is best drained in a fine-mesh strainer.
  • The five-quart size is perfect. As the holes go right up to the rim, so can whatever you pour into it. Unless you make, say, pasta for more than 10 people at a seating, it’s big enough.
  • Construction is first rate. Good gauge of steel – lightweight but sturdy. Welds are numerous and solid.
  • Stainless steel, so no rusting.
  • Both sides have been been polished after drilling, making it easy on the hands and sponge safe (no cheese grater effect as with some drilled or punched colanders).
  • Clean-up is easy. To my surprise, the holes don’t get clogged.
  • It’s broader than it’s deep, a good thing (faster draining, less crushing of soft ingredients).
  • It’s good looking. It could even serve as a fruit bowl or as classy headgear at pastafairan meet-ups.
  • It’s solid enough to withstand forceful pressing (for example, when you want to extract as much juice as possible from the solids of the stock you’ve made).

Any nits to pick?

  • The base could be higher (the liquid drains faster than the sink drain can handle, so the food may end up sitting in potentially contaminated water – though it’s easy enough to pour half the pot, let the liquid drain from the sink and then pour the rest).
  • I’d prefer that the handles and base be riveted on, not welded (not that they’ve loosened in four years of use).
  • It ain’t cheap (I paid a little under C$40 for mine four years ago).

I bought mine at an kitchen supply store in Ottawa, at the time the only place in Canada that stocked it. These days, it’s more widely available, including via Amazon.ca, though I’ve not run across it in a Montreal store.

(Photo credit: cutleryandmore.com. Click to enlarge.)

rsvpcolander

Lannes & Pacifique

Located on Beaubien a few blocks east of St-Laurent and open for more than a year now, Lannes & Pacifique is the latest addition to the BYOB empirette that includes O’Thym in the Village and Le Smoking Vallée in Saint-Henri.

The dining space – open, squarish and well windowed – has a rustic feel. Op art wall coverings in orange, white and brown lend a ’60s mod vibe. A mix of low and high wooden tables line the walls while a couple of high circular numbers in the centre are meant for largish parties. As usual for Montreal restaurants these days, you won’t find many sound absorbing surfaces.

In contrast to L&P’s siblings, it feels like there’s a chef, not a line cook, in the kitchen. At its heart, the cuisine is market-driven Franco-Italian bistro fare, though British, Indian, Nordic and even Latin American influences abound. Flavours are bold. Ingredient combos are original and often work. The menu appears to change seasonally, with rather good risottos, a fish du jour and tartares (usually beef and salmon) being fixtures. Just about everything, including the bread, is made in house.

To its credit, the resto is tolerant of wine geekiness. The stemware is decent and plentiful. Ice buckets are readily provided (one for our white and one for our red on a sultry summer evening because, no, the place isn’t air-conditioned). The waiters even remark on some of the more unusual bottles they open.

While my three earlier experiences were generally positive, a late dinner on the last Friday in November was a disappointment. The $50 table d’hôte started well enough with sweet bay scallops, potato bread farl, bacon lardons, buttermilk and chives.

Served in a basket, the cake-like molasses bread would have been more appropriate for brunch, not that that stopped us from gobbling it up.

The table d’hôte includes a so-called trou normad. As at several other local BYOBs, it here takes the form of spirits-doused sherbet and it’s a gimmick I can do without (who wants dessert in the middle of the meal?). That said, L&P’s version – bracing and not very sweet – comes closer than most to working. In November, ours was a small ball of cranberry sherbet shivering in a generous shot of orange-infused vodka.

Cooked rare as ordered, the sliced “bavette” was beautifully plated, accompanied by savoy cabbage and smothered red onions with good skin-on Greek-style fries and a tasty pepper sauce on the side. Problem: the beef was some of the toughest I’ve encountered, a real chore to chew. What’s more, it didn’t look, feel or taste like bavette.

Our desserts went a way toward redeeming the experience: the buttermilk panna cotta with berries and the tartelette of dried fruits, nuts and brandy – a witty take on mincemeat pie – were first rate.

The noise levels were brutal. My companion and I were seated in what was possibly the least noisy spot in the resto, an alcove next to the entrance, and still had to yell to make ourselves heard. It wasn’t the soundtrack so much as the other patrons (the place was full) combined with the echo-chamber acoustic. The staff was apologetic and suggested that maybe a late dinner on one of the last Fridays before the holidays was not the best time to come. It’s true that several of the groups seemed to be inebriated office party types and that my quieter earlier visits were on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in the spring, summer and early fall.

Assuming that was a blip, L&P will remain on my BYOB rotation, especially as I prefer the food, atmosphere and staff to those at higher-profile places like Le Quartier Général, though not Christophe and Le P’tit Plateau.

How do you say mulligan in French?

Merriam-Webster defines mulligan as “a free shot sometimes given a golfer in informal play when the previous shot was poorly played” and claims, somewhat to my surprise, that its first recorded use in English was in or around 1949.

Even more surprising is the word’s purported Montreal connection.

According to a recent episode of Says You!, mulligan derives from the family name of David Mulligan, a prominent Montreal businessman and manager of several hotels, including the Windsor. In the 1920s, Mulligan would give the other members of his foursome a lift to The Country Club of Montreal, located in current day St. Lambert, in his Briscoe touring car. One day, complaining that his brain was addled and hands numb from driving over the Victoria Bridge and the bumpy roads to the course, he was granted a do-over for a flubbed first tee shot, which he initially called a correction shot but which he and his partners later dubbed a mulligan.

A slightly different account, proffered by Mulligan’s second cousin, claims the hotelier was so busy he barely had enough time to squeeze in a round. As a result, he would have his cousin drive him to the south shore while he changed clothes in the car and then would rush to the first tee without taking time to catch his breath and focus, leading to a frequently blown first shot.

Other theories exist, though none as well documented or with their roots in Quebec.

And to answer the titular question, it depends on who you ask. The federal government’s terminology database, Termium Plus, says mulligan. Predictably, even as it acknowledges that mulligan is the term most francophone duffers actually use, the Office québécois de la langue française favours coup de reprise. Because English or something.

My dinner with C

Sorry but I have this deadline looming.”

“If only you’d called half an hour earlier. I just accepted another invitation.”

“I think I feel a cold coming on.”

“Thanks but it’s been one of those through-the-wringer weeks and all I want to do is veg out at home.”

“I’d love to but I have this lamb steak in the fridge and if I don’t make it tonight, I’ll have to throw it out.”

“You know, I’m really in the mood to cook. Why don’t you come over here instead?”

I’d been avoiding it for months. Tonight C put her foot down: I was going to have dinner at her place, no ifs, ands or buts.

Ah, C. One of the first people I met on arriving in Montreal in ’73. An honours English classmate at McGill – her first paper, “Vaginal Versus Clitoral Orgasm in Women in Love,” was written before she had personal knowledge of the subject and earned her a private interview with the lecherous prof. Later, an ESL teacher who travelled the world – Greece, Japan, Egypt, China, France, Spain, Italy, Mexico, India. A chain smoker who’s tried quitting a total of two weeks in the last 30 years. These days something of a boulevardière, hanging out in the cafés and bistros on rue Bernard. A lover of beer and guzzler of cheap wine. Dismissive of wine appreciation (“Well, it tastes like wine to me,” she stated after sitting through my encomium to Juge’s 1990 Cornas “Cuvée C”). Appreciative of fine food, though. Appreciative of bad food, too.

Always begins eating as soon as the food is set before her. Always grunts softly as she wolfs it down. Doesn’t talk while there’s anything on her plate. Has to have a smoke the instant she finishes eating, even if getting one means cutting you off in mid-sentence.

Probably the worst cook I know. Her cookbook collection consists of a single unconsulted volume, Diet for a Small Planet, which was already gathering dust on top of her fridge when I first met her.

“Well, can I help with dinner?” I ask.

“No.”

“Let me bring a bottle at least.”

“You’re always opening wine for me. Just bring yourself. It’s my treat.”

I arrive at the appointed hour. As usual, C greets me like a long-lost friend. She dashes into the kitchen and returns with two Molson Dry Ices.

“Here,” she says, handing me a bottle. “I know you like that microbrewery stuff but this was on special.”

She lights a cigarette and we chat for a while.

“Let’s move into the kitchen,” she says. “I’m making a pasta dish of my own invention.”

“Anything I can do?”

“Don’t you lift a finger. Everything’s under control. I just have to boil some water for the spaghetti.”

She grabs a two-quart saucepan and fills it half full.

“You might want to use a bigger pan and more water,” I suggest.

“I don’t have one,” she says. “And if I put more water in, it’ll boil over.”

I go back to nursing my beer.

“Now for the sauce,” she says.

A practical person, C never refrigerates her margarine (“It’s so much easier to spread”). This evening, she takes a mighty spoonful from the orange oleaginous blob and plops it into a skillet. When it’s sizzling, she reaches in the fridge and pulls out a white plastic container.

“I got some of those lovely little Matane shrimps,” she says, adding them to the skillet. (Matane, a village on the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is known for its tiny crustaceans, sometimes called salad shrimp and always sold shelled and pre-cooked.) While the shrimp are frying, C checks the pasta water. “Well, you know what they say about watched pots. Really, I must get this stove fixed. Only two burners work and not very well at that.”

The shrimp continue to fry. After five minutes, C takes a container of whipping cream out of the fridge, pours it in the skillet and brings it to a simmer.

At last the water boils. C adds the spaghetti and salt and pours in some Crisco oil. The shrimp bubble away.

C sits down for a cig. And another. She goes to the stove, stirs the spaghetti, stirs the sauce, comes back for another smoke. The pasta has been cooking for 15 minutes, the pre-cooked shrimp for 25.

She stubs out her cigarette. “Well, back to work!” She opens the fridge, rummages around and emerges with three green canisters of Kraft Parmesan. “Don’t know how long these have been in here. Probably a couple of years. We’ll finish them off tonight though!”

She shakes the cheese into the sauce, stirs it and turns off the heat. She dumps the pasta in a mesh strainer, looks at it and says, “It always seems to stick together. Should I run some tap water over it?” She does so before I can reply.

The spaghetti goes in a bowl and is tossed with the sauce. She hands me a baguette and a knife.

“Here. Cut this, would you?”

The bread collapses under the blade.

“A bit mushy, isn’t it?” C says. “But if you go just before they close, you get two for the price of one. Care for some margarine?”

We sit at the table.

“I had a late lunch,” I say. “Don’t give me too big a serving. ‘Small firsts, happy seconds,’ har har.”

C stops talking and starts chowing. Suddenly she looks up. “Oh, the wine!”

She dashes into the kitchen and returns with a bottle of Chilean Cabernet from the corner store.

We eat and drink, the silence broken only by the occasional soft grunt.

The wake

Yesterday, December 6, 2014, was the 25th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre. Much has been written about that horrible event but much less about the memorial march on the day after. Below is a piece I penned on the second anniversary of the march, 23 years ago today. This is its first publication.

December 7, 1991

Two years ago this morning, I rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the window and raised the blinds. There on the ridge of the mountain stood the snow-covered, art deco pile of the Université de Montréal, its fleur de lisée at half staff.

The École Polytechnique massacre hit me – perhaps still hits me – harder and more immediately than it did many others. My apartment is a one-minute walk from the campus. I’ve taken courses at the UdeM. For years I played volleyball at the university sports centre. I know a number of students enroled at “Poly,” including two who were trapped in the building when Marc Lépine went on his rampage. The Monday before the shooting I had spent several hours in the engineering library doing research for a job and, in fact, I was headed back there at 5 p.m. on Thursday, December 6, when a policeman stopped me from going on campus. Something was happening at the engineering school, he explained.

I went to the grocery store instead, surprised and finally worried by the number of ambulance and police car sirens. “This is what it must’ve been like during the London Blitz,” I remember thinking. “I wonder if there’s been an accident in one of the labs.”

An hour later, back in my apartment, I could still see plenty of cars with flashing lights. I switched on the radio – As It Happens, ironically. Eventually an announcer broke in. Gunmen were on the loose at the Université de Montréal, he said. At least two people had been shot. Police were combing the campus.

When I’d moved into this flat, the in-your-face view of the UdeM’s main building was one of the things that delighted me about it. That evening, however, I lowered the blinds and felt like a sitting duck.

Friday morning, the news reports were clearer. Not the university but Polytechnique. Not gunmen but gunman. Not two dead but fifteen. And not random victims but women.

Late Friday afternoon, a couple of friends and I met and walked over to the Université de Montréal metro station for the memorial march. Night was falling and it was freezing cold and windy. At the station several hundred people huddled together. Before long the crowd grew to 2,000 by my reckoning – mostly university age, two-thirds French, one-third English, equal numbers of men and women. Someone passed out candles but they wouldn’t stay lit in the wind.

Oddly, the march organizers all seemed to be men. One of them, an engineering student with a megaphone, instructed us to start walking up the long, steep road to the engineering building. We passed a young couple standing near the metro, the guy wearing a perturbed expression as he patted his sobbing girlfriend’s head and repeated “c’est correct, c’est correct.”

As we climbed the hill, the lights of the city spread out before us, glittering in the cold crystalline air. The going wasn’t easy. Rivers of slush coursed down the road and occasionally over the tops of our boots. The wind was vicious. Still, I saw “grandmothers” determined to make it to the top and a man with cerebral palsy, struggling on crutches, who nearly toppled with every step and yet refused another marcher’s offer of assistance – he was going to do it on his own.

I can’t claim it’s a universal truth, but in my experience engineering faculties are the ugliest buildings on campus, places where aesthetics has no place. It’s true of the McConnell Engineering building at McGill and it’s certainly true of the École Polytechnique, a nearly windowless, hulking box, disregardful of the natural beauty and lay of its site high on the mountain. Inside is a confusing, jerry-rigged labyrinth of corridors, probably one reason why the police were so slow to enter the building the night of the killings.

My friends and I were in the middle of the procession, so about a thousand people were already crammed around the side entrance to the building when we arrived. Aside from a small platform that had been set up as a speaker’s podium, little had been done to receive the crowd. I found a foothold on top of a snow bank but my friends were forced to stand on the far side of the bank and could see nothing. After a cold eternity, a young man, an engineering student, mounted the platform and began speaking into a megaphone. What with the wind and the crush of people, the speaker was hard to understand. I did however hear him claim that Marc Lépine’s act was not a crime against women but against all mankind. This prompted howls from several people and the young man quickly stepped down. Next up was a young woman student who made a short impassioned speech. She then explained in French that since numerous contingents from universities in Canada and the States – as well as Canadian and U.S. media – were present, she was going to say a few words in English. She was about halfway through the first English sentence when a chorus – mostly male and, from my view, led by a college-age man sitting in a tree above and behind the platform – began chanting “En français, en français, en français, en français” until she, too, stepped down.

Nobody else seemed ready to speak. We stood around waiting for what should have been the point of the exercise: a communal outpouring of our grief. “Chantons, chantons!” a woman standing near us cried but only she and a few others sang, stopping after the third verse. Maybe we were too numbed by the killings. Or the cold. Or the male student’s denial of what the killings meant. Or the realization that, in today’s Quebec, language trumps community, even at a time like this.

There was a commotion to our right. A car driven by an RCMP officer with an out-of-my-way-buster sneer on his face pushed its way aggressively through the crowd, clearing a path for a black limo with dark tinted windows. The limo stopped at the school entrance and disgorged the prime minister and Mrs. Mulroney. “Gucci two shoes!” cried an older woman we had pulled up onto our snow bank so she wouldn’t get run over by the limo.

Finally, another person with a megaphone mounted the platform and told us to walk to St. Joseph’s Oratory for a memorial gathering. Many did. But I and many others wandered dejectedly down the hill, back to our homes.

The people I talked with who did go to the Oratory said it was as aimless as the march. One of them mentioned how he had seen Jean Doré repeatedly, exaggeratedly, photogenically wiping tears from his eyes. Sure enough, all the Saturday papers featured pictures of the mayor brushing away a tear. The Gazette also carried a report from, I believe, Albert Nerenberg who wrote that when he asked the prime minister if he had anything to say to the women of Canada, Mulroney answered “No.”

One of the astounding things about the days that followed was the denial by so many men that Marc Lépine’s act was an act against women.

My friend Karin was especially incensed. “If he had killed 14 Blacks or Chinese,” she said, “no one would question whether it was a racist act.” She also described how at the march the male organizers she heard had announced over their megaphones “S’il vous plaît, marchez en silence par respect pour ceux qui ont été abattus” [Please walk in silence out of respect for those who were killed, referring to the victims with the masculine ceux instead of the feminine celles].

Charles, a mild-mannered engineering student, scoffed at this last remark when I repeated it to him, pointing out that in French the masculine is also used for mixed groups of men and women. He also denied that the killings were an act against women. Charles was in his office in the École polytechnique when Marc Lépine walked through the door of the building. He and his office mates heard noises like shots but didn’t think twice about it until another student ran in, slammed the door behind him and screamed that a madman was in the building shooting people. They locked the door, turned out the lights and cowered for two and a half hours before taking a circuitous route out of the building via a fire escape. They didn’t see a single policeman until they were outside.

Last night, the second anniversary of the killings, I walked up to Poly. The school had decided not to hold a memorial service – the memory was still too painful they said – but there were a few people who, like me, brought flowers to place in the snow outside the door.

Standing there, more or less alone, I thought back. The march the day after the massacre was, for me, an epiphany. The dots connected, providing a sudden, awful glimpse at the nature of things. The uncomforting, male-controlled march converged with the baffling denial – mainly by men – that the killings had anything to do with sexism. With the massacre’s having taken place in an overwhelmingly male institution that trains students to work in an overwhelmingly male profession. With its happening in a soulless, unwelcoming building ignorant of its natural setting and the beauty around it, the most unfeminine building imaginable, that churns out so many graduates who can’t look at a river without seeing a dam, who lay waste to vast swaths of the earth in pursuit of power. With the photo-oping politicians, colluders and power brokers of another stripe, members of what Marc Lépine’s father might have called le pouvoir working in the interests of le pouvoir.

Could it be that Marc Lépine was their alter-ego, a protector of their dominion?