I witnessed a clinic on how to create buzz. Let’s review.
Social media spread the word about L’Homme et le Ciel, an opera in progress from Fawn Opera. This past week, the performers did a workshop, and then opened it up to the public for a single performance. As a result it was standing room only. Overheard furtively in the lobby: “are there going to be any more performances”?
The creators spoke briefly, explaining that this is a fragment of a larger work, to be completed and hopefully taken to our hearts. They admitted it was a bit of a tease, partly for the purpose of fund-raising and to build interest for next time.
They succeeded I believe. Amanda Smith, Fawn Opera’s Artistic Director, who directed and designed the performance, would seem to be the chief architect & instigator, and has reason to be excited by what we saw and felt tonight. Having recently seen lots of new opera this year, I have to say Fawn stands up very well in comparison. This is the most operatic new work I have seen in a long time. Don’t make me name names, as I’d rather not laud Fawn by denigrating anyone else. Instead let me unpack that thought.
By setting the work in French we were pushed into a more symbolic place than if we were in English. I’m not saying I don’t like opera in English –although it’s the exceptional production in English that works for me whereas I always love opera in a foreign language with surtitles– but by creating this distance, we have less of a hurdle to accept music and singing.
By getting a story pertaining to spirituality and times verging on biblical we’re again in a place apt for opera. No they don’t proselytize or push God into your face. Quite the opposite. In fact l’Homme et le Ciel challenges or at least problematizes faith and religion. To put this in reverse, the text wouldn’t work nearly so well were it spoken, especially in English. By putting it into French, and especially by setting it to music, this text can become something much greater.
Composer Adam Scime explained how he came to collaborate with librettist Ian Koiter, on a story originating in the first centuries AD.
It’s a wonderful time to invoke; I am reminded of Giasone, the opera I saw last weekend. Just as Cavalli, composing in the first century of opera avoids being trapped by the conventions bordering on dogma that we see in later composers, so too with a story that addresses spiritual thoughts from before religion was etched into stone. The critique that’s front and centre in this text feels perfectly natural and not fraught the way it becomes in later periods (thinking for example of Brecht’s Life of Galileo). Koiter’s version of this old story feels very fluid and unencumbered by the weight of doctrine.
A man’s passion is central to the story, so we’re in a natural place for singers to be delivering emotional lines accompanied by colorful orchestration. I believe that expressions of passion have been the thing opera has done best –usually in the mouth of women rather than men–where you have a perfect vehicle for song and music.
There were three scenes, each substantially different musically from the other. The first scene was very busy musically, at times overflowing with colour & dense with information. The style felt somewhat modernist in its brazen dissonances (not sure if it was 12 tone or not), sometimes more expressionist in the powerful commitment to emotion and bursts of colour from the small ensemble playing beside the stage. The dramaturgy reminds me of Salome (or Acteon) in the audience’s complicit voeurism, watching the protagonist Hermas watching and being moved by a beautiful woman, the small orchestra at times overpowering us with the intensity of the moment.
The second scene sounded much quieter, more reflective, more subjective, and that makes sense considering that the protagonist Hermas is asleep, having a vision that’s enacted before us. I had the impression (unsure because we didn’t have surtitles at this point) that Hermas seemed unwilling to accept the standard –religious– judgment for his very human responses. And of course we the viewers are again complicit, drawn in and taken along on his journey. Smith’s design employed huge vinyl sheets resembling shower curtains: making it all very intimate.
The third scene, I confess, mystified me, but let me add that this didn’t stop me one iota. The surtitles stopped functioning partway through, yet this isn’t a bad thing. I recall that the opening of Svadba had a similar problem, a performance also received rapturously. I daresay that maybe some of us are tired of knowing what everything means, and enjoy being in a mysterious and problematic place: which is precisely where we were. The synopsis tells me that Hermas sees another figure during his sleep who speaks to him about temptations & family. I only got that Hermas was again struggling with the discrepancy between what he saw and felt, between spirit & body. At times in this scene –where the words (not fully heard, without surtitles) were the barest guideline– I was still carried away by the combination of the mysterious images before me, the singers and Scime’s composition.
At times the music included electronic elements, possibly via digital delay or some sort of processing of the performance, or maybe music originating from other performers. There were people sitting behind us –in addition to the six-member ensemble of acoustic instrumentalists–who may have been playing other instruments. I couldn’t tell, only that there were sounds coming from speakers, and I don’t claim to know how they were created. I like electro-acoustic hybrids and combinations, and only wish I knew a bit better how these sounds originated.
I liked the sound of the vocalists even if I am hesitant about saying too much, when I was out to sea for much of the performance due to the absence of titling. That only means I don’t know precisely what they were singing at a given moment, but still was moved by them. Hermas was very effectively sung and enacted by Giovanni Maria Spanu. Rhoda, the woman bathing in the river who inspires Hermas’ responses, was sung by Larissa Koniuk. Adanya Dunn was the Messenger, also a strong presence.
Fawn Opera return May 3rd with Synesthesia III, at which time several short films will be presented with new scores performed live for the occasion. L’Homme et le Ciel will be presented in a more finished form at the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener in June.