Ashley Wright (l) and Jamie Konchak in The Red Priest
The Red Priest evokes the power and discovery of musicality
Celebrated Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi spent most of his life in Venice but playwright Mieko Ouchi discovered in a historical footnote that he spent six weeks in France in 1740. It’s hard to say what may have happened during that time and so Ouchi invented a romantic story about Vivaldi and a French aristocrat to fill that gap in her play The Red Priest (Eight Ways to Say Goodbye) .
The first half of the title refers to Vivaldi himself so nicknamed for his red hair and the second half was the title of the original six-minute performance piece Ouchi created that eventually became her first full-length play. The Red Priest premièred at Alberta Theatre Projects’ playRites Festival in 2003 and now the company is producing the Governor General Award-nominated play again for a 10th anniversary show.
Set in a lush French garden that waxes from winter to spring the story follows a young noblewoman (Jamie Konchak) forced by her much older husband to take violin lessons; he even goes so far as to make a bet at court that his wife will be ready to play for King Louis XV in six weeks. Her violin teacher? None other than Vivaldi (Ashley Wright).
Curiously despite her central role the woman remains nameless throughout the play. “In many ways she doesn’t have very much of an identity of her own” says Ouchi explaining that considering the time period the character’s identity is almost exclusively based on her marriage to a wealthy older man — and that isn’t necessarily as secure as it might seem. “One of her great fears is that her husband does not love her and [that] he’s looking for excuses to eliminate her from his life and she’ll just disappear she’ll be rendered invisible” says Ouchi.
Taking music lessons from Vivaldi in a picturesque French garden certainly sounds romantic but let’s not forget how frustrating it is to learn any new instrument let alone violin. The woman starts out opposed to learning music at all but over the course of the play audiences follow her musical journey and watch her blossom. “She discovers that she is musical and that music touches her soul and that in a way her musicality and her ability to play is something that she can own that is her very own” says Ouchi.
In that way the story resonates across the centuries; on the other hand this production is by no means lacking in 18th-century splendour. Originally presented with a sparser set in 2003 this year’s production will immerse the audience in aristocratic France with a set and costumes by Gillian Gallow. “I think people are going to be stunned by the beauty of it” says Ouchi. The play would not be complete with the passionate and finely articulated music of Vivaldi played live by Allison Lynch.
Ouchi admits that she still gets caught up in the story of The Red Priest despite having performed in it herself about 160 times. Looking back she says “I think I’ve written a lot about the journey of the artist and I think that this play was the beginning of that examination for me of that issue.” While that will likely resonate with professional artists in the audience Ouchi says the play speaks to anyone with art in their lives. “It can also touch you as an amateur as someone who loves something as a hobby who loves to paint who loves to play music who loves to dance — whatever that is for you — and I hope that the play shows the value of that for all of us.”