On the occasion of World Pride in Toronto, Queer Innovative Theatre has brought Leslie Uyeda’s recent opera When The Sun Comes Out to Toronto for two performances at the intimate Ernest Balmer Studio.
If you’ve read about it you’ve probably heard about it’s gay-themed libretto by Rachel Rose. It’s conventionally operatic in making a love triangle the reason for passionate singing.
What they couldn’t really tell you was what it sounds like. I’ve seen many of the recent operas presented in the GTA. Many seem to get caught in the same predicament that music seemed to find itself in for much of the 20th Century, exploring various procedures for making interesting sounds, ways to be new & original, all the while forgetting how to give singers something singable and/ or tuneful.
Ah but Uyeda doesn’t have this problem: the one that made some 20th Century composers the equivalent of box office poison. No, Uyeda writes in an attractive idiom highly conducive to voices accompanied by piano, a language reminding me of a loud Debussy, often employing glissandi, occasional clusters, open fifths, and pentatonic harmonies. While I like Pelléas et Mélisande (and it’s on my mind because I heard it just last week), it’s a rarefied story in an artificial atmosphere. Uyeda’s voices are big and unambiguously committed to their feelings. At times there are pounding ostinato and big lush climaxes, at other moments something more spare & ambiguous, especially at the end, when we’re not offered an easy resolution to the plot.
I need to say, too, that there are a few places that are so beautiful I didn’t want them to end, fabulous moments when I was overwhelmed by passionate female voices. Imagine the Flower Duet from Lakme but naked in a hot tub. Got that image? It doesn’t really give you what you need, because to really grasp it you’d have to hear Teiya Kasahara and Stephanie Yelovich singing forte at the top of their range in a small room. Kasahara’s singing is among the most impressive vocalism I’ve heard in a great long while, the first 15 minutes or so being a ferocious bit of dramatic coloratura. The role is a huge sing, yet I saw no evidence of fatigue, possibly because of her commitment to the portrayal.
When Keith Lam appeared my first impression was that his role was a kind of arbitrary cog in the machinery of the plot, an abstraction rather than a real person; but that’s because he was forced into the heat of the love triangle with almost nothing as a transition. He arrives like the angel of death, every bit as welcome. Yet he accomplishes a miracle in short order, clearly winning our sympathy, after having scared the pants off of most of us.
I didn’t see where it was going to go, didn’t expect the openness of the ending, both dramatically and musically. While there are those who demand that music be part of the historical unfolding of the next big musicological thing, that’s not relevant. Uyeda gives us the right music for the story. It’s a tight little melodrama –a word I use affectionately meaning no disrespect—requiring very specialized music. There’s also a little room for reflection, moments for each character to pull back from their ferocious account of the story, to truly get inside their feelings. But whenever there are two or three singers singing the story is urgent with a sense that the characters have no escape from their world.
I believe Music Director Maika’i Nash gave a fabulous account of the score, feeling solidly in control, and making me like the music without hesitation. When I think of opera composers, the best of them –Mozart, Rossini, Verdi or Puccini—never lose sight of their mission to create a singable melody, something Uyeda often gives us. The story—especially the moments of physical passion– is told through the music. It’s some of the sexiest music I’ve ever heard.
I hope there will be a recording available.