Back i go to the laboratory.
A couple of nights ago I wrote about YouTopia and spoke of the virtues of experimentation.
The Tapestry Briefs are a dozen short works from a handful of collaborators who were paired off for one project, then –like speed dating—matched with a new partner on the next project. It’s hard to know whether the specimens in the experiment were the new creations or the members of the audience exposed to those creations. But we’re all given a chance to learn.
I’m possibly the wrong person to comment on such an exercise. I don’t believe there’s ever such a thing as bad theatre, because any piece can be salvaged or appreciated in some way. To be fair, these little pieces were handed to a phenomenally talented bunch, who surely helped shine a great deal of light on these brief fragments. No matter what you think of the pieces being performed, the interpretations were stunning.
While I’m a fan of Carla Huhtanen, Kristina Szabó, and Peter McGillivray, this was my first time seeing and hearing Keith Klassen, completing a splendid quartet of singers, all singing new music entirely from memory, often grabbing us with the drama of their portrayals. Jennifer Tung & Gregory Oh were their inspired music directors.
I will always defend the value of experimentation and happily validate the laboratory as a privileged place. One must suspend judgment with anything genuinely new, because one doesn’t always know what one has. Surely it takes a few hearings to know what one really has, and in each text there are many possible interpretations. No, I’m not saying I liked it all; quite the contrary. But—speaking for example of the single work that bothered me the most (which I shall not name) –there is still much to learn in such encounters between text and music. The one I liked the least, the one that leaves me saying “I would have set it differently” is, curiously, the strongest demonstration of the value of such an exercise. Perhaps the composer is still happy with what s/he made of that libretto, a scenario that had me thinking back to Steve Martin’s line in Roxanne: “did you lose a bet with God?” In other words wow what a difficult text to set, asking a singer to sing into the face of someone they are in the act of stabbing. Wow. And while I think I’d do it differently (why must it be so loud, at a moment of such stunning intimacy? Yes you’re killing him, but he’s not deaf, nor are we): again, that was such an impossibly challenging text to set, I would want to see it again before really passing judgment. (And isnt it amazing that one is taken to a place of insight where one second-guesses the comsposition and looks so closely at possibilities. However one feels about the results, this one shows what can be learned) All I can really say is, i’d do it differently, (perhaps the composer thinks so too, now that s/he’s seen it?), and how else would one find this out without someone daring to set this difficult text. It was arguably the most purely operatic moment of the evening, the most powerful five minutes of all, gripping and troubling. My reaction against it is surely evidence of a kind of success. This piece hits a nerve. How else do you find out whether your model plane will crash without attempting to make it fly? I submit that if five people see something, and while four hate it, and the fifth thinks the plane flew, you have a success. Opera is not usually a medium for mass appeal.
Some of the subjects seemed more operatic than others. There’s one for instance that had the audience screaming with laughter with its references to social media, that reminded me of an SNL sketch. But I felt SNL does this better and so I wonder what you gain by setting this to music, other than proving that opera can be written about this kind of subject. Yet again, we’re in a lab. Maybe someone else builds on this, taking that insight and writing something amazing, bring it to the next level. We were looking at building blocks, research for a future project.
I was most impressed with two of the pieces that undertook big themes, which is how I understand opera, by the way. Big themes are what opera does best. While they’re only five minutes they could easily be expanded to something much longer. In one—libretto by Morris Panych, music by Cecilia Livingston– we hear from a person in their last moments, then discover the darker perspective of the attendant who witnesses death on a daily basis. Livingston’s score differentiated their mental states & moods in a properly Wagnerian way, very subtly making magic in just a few short moments, the words & music effortlessly flowing. And it was over.
The other was from librettist Nicolas Billon & again scored by Livingston, where a woman’s sleep is disturbed by voices she’s hearing that her husband can’t hear; as with Joan of Arc we may wonder whether she’s hearing angelic messengers or is simply mad. And as with her other opera, Livingston creates two parallel dramaturgies, one in the fanciful sounds & textures of the woman & the accompaniment, the other in her husband’s banal voice of sanity.
There are at least two wonderfully funny works. There are a couple of very daring pieces, very original in their sonic landscape. None of these is boring, although –as I mentioned—there’s one that I quibbled with, a very powerful piece of music-theatre.
I have one last thought to put out there, and this shouldn’t for a moment be thought of as a rejection of the exercise. It’s the agnostic admonition I recall from someone in the educational world, commenting on IQ tests. People sometimes mistake IQ tests for intelligence tests, where what they really test is your ability to take IQ tests. In other words these collaborative exercises are wonderful for building skills in collaboration, musical scene building, problem solving (how do I set X to music? How do I organize this thought into text that might be singable?)… and how to write a five minute opera.
That’s not quite the same thing as writing an opera that can hold the stage for an evening. But I suppose it’s probably a good skill that can’t hurt.
Tapestry Briefs continues until September 22nd at the Ernest Balmer Studio at 9 Trinity Square in the Distillery District, a great deal of music and drama, a wonderful assortment of talent.