Sunday, September 26, 2010

Tapestry: Opera Briefs 10

Last night, I volunteered for the first time at a Tapestry New Opera event. I'm not going to act like this is a huge discovery, because the company has been presenting work for longer than I've been alive, but for me the discovery certainly was a welcome one.

I first saw a Tapestry-style show at the Toronto Fringe Festival a couple of years ago. (Ed. note - It was actually not a Tapestry show, but was created by alumni of the Tapestry LibLab in Tapestry style) It was a piece after my heart, because it was site-specific (and perhaps equally after an artist's heart, it was in a pub). I was delighted by the short vignettes of opera, all accessible and mostly quite witty pieces focusing on situations as mundane as two friends meeting for Friday drinks, or as dramatic as two lovers discovering they were completely incompatible due to a tragic Leafs vs. Habs hockey alliance. It was eye-opening to me that opera could be so relaxed, could be something that wasn't capital-O Opera. And then I left the city for New York again, as my friend proceeded to volunteer for them for the next two years. And now I'm coming along.

The show, entitled "Opera Briefs," is an evening of bite-sized opera; a series of approximately five-minute-long pieces developed in a ten-day "LibLab" unit that pairs lyricists with composers in 48-hour bursts, and adds dramaturgs and performers to the mix. I was so pleased to see that a workshop like this exists consistently in Toronto. If there is something I feel Toronto lacks right now, it is the kind of BMI Musical Theatre Workshop that matches up musical theatre book writers, lyricists and composers in New York. It's possible that we have one and I just don't know about it, but the ability to meet and try out different writing partners in forms that often require more than one creative power makes such good sense to me. Advertising on Craigslist can really only go so far; a time-sensitive creative square dance is really appealing. In any case, here we have one for contemporary opera, and that's terrific.

I have always been more enamoured by musical theatre than opera. There, I said it. Part of the reason is, obviously, the cleverness and beauty of musical theatre are generally packaged in a more accessible form. When you make opera contemporary, the lines between it and musical theatre blur, particularly if your school of musical theatre is decidedly the Sondheim school. In many cases, Sondheim is considered closer to opera than standard music theatre. So, how does contemporary opera (or operetta for the comic pieces, which are closer to English comic opera than, say, French risque/grotesque operetta) distinguish itself from musical theatre?

Musical theatre runs the gamut of musical style, and yes, one of these is classical. Musical theatre grew out of opera, but now the two art forms exist simultaneously and, at this point, influence each other. Mostly, there is a stylistic vocal difference in that opera has a narrower definition; opera's classically trained singers sing more than they speak, with more recitative, and sing classical music without the musical theatre belt, tone, or characterization. On the other hand, Tapestry's evening closed with a marriage between opera and country music, interweaving the stories of two men (Keith Klassen and Peter MacGillivray) mourning their drinking buddy (they've broken into the pub after-hours with the corpse) and the you-done-me-wrong vocals of the "jukebox" country singer (Carla Huhtanen) in "Country Song" by librettist David Brock and composer Gareth Williams.

Tapestry recognizes that there is some degree of malleability and ambiguity in opera, and lines can be crossed, and that's okay and even exciting. It occasionally skirts the edge of musical theatre, but never loses its contemporary classical edge. Tapestry embraces the recognizable operatic form without heavy restrictions, and that's why it's so likable. Of course, it's also likable because it's willing to have a lot of fun; it features five-minute operas on subjects such as a Prime Ministerial Arctic photo-op gone wrong, as the ice floe floats away towards Russia and starts melting and the PM fends off the advances of a large male seal. ("Harper's Floe," by librettist Charles Hayter and composer Norbert Palej.) The "dominion at all costs" satire is pointed, obvious but hilarious, and both PM (Klassen) and seal (Huhtanen) sing beautifully amidst the hysteria.

It's not all fun and games, however. Some pieces are fascinating five-minute meditations on life, and some are achingly sad. A female doctor (Kimberly Barber, with male nurse McGillivray, in a nice subversion of gender stereotypes), agonizes about having to remove the cancerous eye from the face of the man she loves ("Enucleation," by Hayter and composer Anna Höstman). Auschwitz (Barber), in the body of a woman, muses about whether she should be restored as a historically important site or left to crumble away ("Restoration," by librettist Michael Pollard and composer WIlliams). A homeless young woman (Huhtanen) and an important businessman (Klassen) share a tiny moment on the street that unfolds into a meaningful connection ("Where You Live," by Pollard and composer Iman Habibi).

The performers are all first-rate. Baritone Klassen is wildly charismatic with a wicked twinkle in his eye during the comedic scenes. Soprano Huhtanen has an effortless-sounding buoyancy in her soaring vocal lines, and makes a terrifically funny seal. Baritone McGillivray sings with deep power and is slightly under-used, but he gets his chance in the spotlight as a man contemplating his last moments of life under an avalanche. Mezzo Kimberly Barber has a lovely voice and a clear train of thought behind her words; her line of argument is natural and easy to follow.

The music is challenging but accessible, and the ideas in the libretti are thought-provoking, each the germ of a possibly-longer piece but a complete scene in their own. Possibly the most arresting piece in topic and voice is "The Waterfall," by librettist Maja Ardal and composer Palej. Running away from people who wish them dead, Kimberly Barber's Woman needs to choose between her husband and her baby. Palej arranges a chorus of singing waterfalls that beg to take the child in a manner that is both calming and chilling. Palej and Ardal capture the power of water in all its beauty and destruction, and it's absolutely haunting.

Tapestry's goal lies in "using opera to tell the stories that need to be told," and its greatest strength lies in the stories and ideas it presents. The new pieces only fail when they diverge from story, instead focusing on treating contemporary opera as a novelty or joke. Hotel Lobby (Ardal and Williams) is a promising take on Noel Coward's Private Lives, but would clearly benefit from more time and space; hearing characters curse each other out operatically in contemporary language is funny but the joke feels a bit cheap. The closing moment of emotional connection saves the piece. Ashes, by Hayter and Habibi, goes the other direction and gives the weight of an overwrought five-hour opera to its five-minute vignette, an adaptation of a moment in Hamlet. It's a little too heavy for its time and space, and it feels like it's trying to be old-fashioned opera in contemporary opera's clothing. It seemed almost like satire, but the intent was serious. These missteps are few and far between, however, and after all, this is a learning experience for everyone involved.

I have always been more enamoured of musical theatre than opera, but Tapestry is going a long way to change my mind. With the triple threat of relevance, beauty, and wit in their arsenal, perhaps it's time to shelve images of hats with horns and viking shields, and settle in to watch an opera about missing the bus. I know I'll certainly be volunteering again, because I don't want to miss anything this vital company has to offer.



  1. If there is something I feel Toronto lacks right now, it is the kind of BMI Musical Theatre Workshop that matches up musical theatre book writers, lyricists and composers in New York. It's possible that we have one and I just don't know about it

    You don't. In the 70s, Lehman Engel ran a satellite workshop in Toronto--whence came nobody of any particular note, other than the librettist I worked with in First Year--but it eventually shut down.

    I'm aware of one or two Toronto-based writers who commute to the Theater Building Chicago workshop, which is a (devolved?) descendant of the Chicago workshop that Lehman ran, but again, nobody of particular note.

    The handful of Canadian musical theatre writers whose work I've gotten to know at all have not been Workshop participants, to my knowledge.

  2. Very thoughtful post about the company and the art form as it continues to develop. Thanks Ilana! Small correction about the Fringe piece you refer to from a couple of years ago: It was actually produced by the artist collective "Opera on the Rocks", not Tapestry, but that is an easy mistake as all of the artists involved met in the Tapestry LibLab.

  3. Good catch, Tapestry. I must have misremembered from two years ago. Will fix in the post.