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Opera to Go

Enwave Theatre
02/15/2008 -  and 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23 February
Kevin Morse: The Shaman's Tale, The Colony
Craig Galbraith: She sees her lover in the light of morning
David Ogborn: The Translator, Peace of My Heart
Anthony Young: The Perfect Match
Andrew Staniland: See Saw

Carla Huhtanen (Soprano), Jessica Lloyd (Mezzo-soprano), Keith Klassen (Tenor), Calvin Powell (Baritone)

Tom Diamond (Director), Julia Tribe (Set and Costume Designer), Elizabeth Asseltine (Lighting Designer), David Anderson (Puppet Artist), Jarek Obsadny (Video Artist)

Wayne Strongman (Music Director), Christopher Foley (Piano), Rebecca van der Post (Violin), Amber Ghent (Cello), Mark Duggan (Percussion), Robert W. Stevenson (Clarinet), David Ogborn (Laptop Performer)

Toronto’s Tapestry was founded in 1979 as a group of singers who commissioned new works for concert performances which also contained staged scenes or mini-operas. In recent years it has focused on the creation of new operas and has several productions to its credit. Composers and librettists go through a workshop process and numerous five-minute works are presented in an evening called Opera Briefs. Some of those are selected to be expanded to fifteen or so minutes in length and seven of them make up this fourth edition of Opera to Go.

The first work presented is The Shaman’s Tale (libretto by Krista Dalby) which presents a simple fable about a man and woman who are unable to conceive a child. Following the shaman’s advice they discover the means - but then the woman declines to proceed once she perceives the environmental damage of doing so. It acts as a kind of riposte to Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, in which the hero(ine) gives birth to 40,000 children in a single day. The staging involves the use of large manipulated puppets and shadow puppets. The music serves the content well.

She sees her lover in the light of morning (libretto by Leanna Brodie) is one of the two most successful pieces of the evening. A tipsy young woman whose inhibitions are released by alcohol attempts to seduce an intellectual older woman who seems to have decided a solitary life is best for her. It ends happily however. Craig Galbraith’s clangorous music fits the piece well, and it give Carla Huhtanen a role in which she truly shines. In this and other pieces mezzo Jessica Lloyd’s voice is sometimes covered by the instruments.

Leanna Brodie also wrote the libretto for the longest piece of the evening, The Translator. The central figure (Jessica Lloyd) works for the US military and must translate the responses of those undergoing torture. As if that isn’t harrowing enough, the libretto widens its subject matter to include yet more daunting socio-economic plights and it soon becomes a repetitious angst-wallow. (The Toronto theatre scene has a lot of this “Theatre of Grievance” and frankly it becomes wearying.)

One interesting feature of the libretto is the use of material by Rahman Baba, a 17th-century Pashto poet. David Ogborn is an electronic composer and his soundscape follows the piece well, especially with atmospheric contributions by the two-person chorus (soprano and tenor). When the libretto slides into its slough of despond the score goes right along with it. This piece would probably have been better had it kept to fifteen minutes.

Kevin Morse, composer of The Shaman’s Tale, also composed The Colony (libretto by Lisa Codrington). The first work was an earnest fable but this one is a send-up. The Queen of the Amazon Ants (Lloyd) finds herself and colony under attack by an exterminator - a male (of course) with a wild west attitude. At one point she tries to seduce the invader to the strains of a habanera. The amusing set features a gigantic piece of cake. One of the evening’s three scherzi.

The Perfect Match turns out to be a film. She sees her lover told of a happy lesbian romance and The Perfect Match focuses on two gay men. The story (Krista Dalby again) is very slight: boy meets boy and they go to bed. The twist is that the characters are sock puppets, so the mood is that of an upbeat children’s TV show, but with adult content (much like the Broadway musical Avenue Q). It will be shown on the Canadian arts channel Bravo! Up until now the shortest opera I had ever seen was Hindemith’s seven-minute Hin und Zuruck but I think this one is even shorter.

See Saw is the other success of the evening and much credit goes to Anna Chatterton’s playful libretto. The plot: a woman (Huhtanen) has broken up with her boyfriend and is going through withdrawal, with the aid of an exasperated friend (Lloyd). The boyfriend (Klassen) reappears and so does the conflicted relationship. Andrew Staniland’s music works extremely well with the twisty words. It could be that a full two ours or so of Chatterton’s lively approach might be too much to take. We will find out in a few years time as the Canadian Opera Company plans to present a full-evening work by her and composer James Rolfe. The success of their one-act opera Swoon last season led to the COC commission, a sure sign that all this workshopping can lead to bigger things.

The final work is Peace of My Heart, described as “twisted” and a “black comedy”, but really another burlesque like The Colony. Librettist David Carley underwent heart surgery and this is supposedly a tribute to his medical team (who are named in the program). However the work depicts a self-aggrandizing surgeon who swaggers on stage (much like Conrad in Bye-Bye Birdie) wearing a T-shirt proclaiming “I Love Me”, and is rightfully mocked by his nursing team. It comes across as an improvisational skit by Second City.

There is much to admire - and be intrigued by - in this evening of aspiring opera creators. It moves along at a brisk pace, necessitating many quick changes of costume and persona for the cast. The staging and designs are just fine. I question the use of surtitles in a venue that seats no more than 200; it is a shame when they are needed, and when the words come across clearly they are a distraction. (It was valuable, of course, to get the translation of the Pashto lines.)

Tenor Keith Klassen appears frequently on local stages and gives further evidence of his reputation as a reliable and versatile performer (upcoming he will be the Duke in a concert performance of Rigoletto). Carla Huhtanen’s career blossoms apace. Baritone Calvin Powell is new to the scene, having just recently completed training programs and he participates with gusto and certainly shows promise. As mentioned above, Jessica Lloyd’s voice was frequently covered by the instruments and this could be a weakness in compositional calculations. Tapestry director Wayne Strongman presides with seasoned expertise.

Toronto is replete with new works this winter seasons. Back in January another workshop group presented a number of short operas in a pub. Recently also Soundstreams Canada presented Pimooteewin (The Journey), the first opera composed in the Cree language. Also upcoming is a work claiming to be Canada’s first new operetta in a hundred years. The creators of these works know that the odds are against the long-term survival of any of these pieces but it is heartening to see ambitious musicians and writers with the urge to make their mark regardless.

Michael Johnson



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