Sometimes the writer recognizes that words are limited, that in the end “you had to be there” especially for something that’s more of an event or happening, than merely a conventional performance. It was never truer than this morning as I took in Program A of this year’s Bicycle Opera Project, at Revel Caffè in Stratford.
It’s been an amazing 24 hours, what with Crazy For You Thursday @ 2 pm, Mother Courage and Her Children @ 8 pm, and now BOP at 9 am Friday. It’s only just past 10:30 as I write this up. (although adding the photos etc has pushed me to 11:30). But as I said: for something like this it’s not enough to write. So I took a zillion pictures –with the performers’ permission I must add—to try to give you some idea of the experience.
There’s no FLASH permitted, which means that many pictures aren’t terribly usable. I’ll look them over later (I have paintshop pro at home, but not here with me as I do my usual ASAP publishing). With the exception of the images that I am linking to on the BOP website, any picture you see here is one I took, which I offer with apologies. The cast & musicians are much more beautiful than what you see here.
Let me repeat that, they are seriously a beautiful group. I’m a little sad that the photos don’t do them justice. BOP is not just a company but a kind of political statement, transporting themselves from gig to gig on bicycle. The piano is supplied by the host, but otherwise, they pull hundred pound trailers behind the cycles. So in other words, if they look fit, it’s not just from their excellent breath control. But please God let no one speak of fat opera singers. Opera is a physical discipline, even if in other eras the social consensus permitted big performers alongside thin ones (and there have always been thin singers, no matter what Bugs Bunny told you).
Never forget: that live theatre is magic. Live music, live singing, live dancing, or live bodies simply standing delivering lines, represent something very different from what you see in film or TV. Don’t believe me? Go see a live performance in your own town, or (even better) come see BOP.
Program A consists of four works to be presented again on BOP’s tour of the province. They’ll do Program B later today (5:30 pm) in Stratford’s Revel Caffé, then reverse themselves tomorrow (Program B in the morning, Program A at 5 pm) with another pair of performances Sunday in the same sequence as today’s.
After a brief introduction from the ensemble—pianist & music director Wesley Shen; Chelsea Shanoff, saxophone(s) and Tristan Durie, flute—we begin with an excerpt from Dean Burry’s The Brothers Grimm.
Note: we’re deep in Revel Caffé. My friend and I sit at the communal table, right beside two very young children brought by well-meaning relatives. How young? They’re younger than the age at which I took my daughter to see Magic Flute in English, as her first opera, and hello, these aren’t meant for children (as they found out in short order: vacating their seats…or maybe their auntie finished her latté?). At one point a wacky cat carrier went by, and the whole time –just outside the door that was used for several entrances by the singers—a well-behaved German Shepherd [NOTE: i am fixing this later, having realized i made a mistake in my haste…he’s not a shepherd. SORRY] cocked his head appreciatively throughout (and he shows up in some of the photos….plus THIS PORTRAIT that his owner graciously permitted).
Patrons came and went, lugging lattés and cappucini, mostly very quiet. I was the most disruptive person there, between my loud guffaws (yes I laugh a lot) and my incessant iphone. I told myself this might be fun for the performers, even as I recalled how irritating I usually find it when someone shoots a picture of me with my mouth wide open. But while the space is phenomenally live –exposed brick and wood floors—I was never uncomfortable about the levels. The voices soar wonderfully, and like good baristas filling but never overflowing their containing space.
In this coffee house, we begin with the Brothers at a table as if with writers’ block. But in short order a table is piled on another, and there’s Rapunzel letting down her hair, as if in a tower. The story is sufficiently self-referential –with the brothers who create the story front and centre in their portrayal of the story—to give it a witty edge. Chris Enns and Geoffrey Sirett are two familiar young singers, enjoyable delivering lines in this super-intimate setting. I was right on top of them (or vice versa?) the whole time.
The second work is an excerpt from Adam Scime’s L’Homme et le Ciel. I’m thrilled to have a second listen even if the work is arranged for the different group of instruments. Sirett’s big physical presence changes the effect substantially from what I saw in the spring. At that time the big powerful female voices went with a different physical dynamic. I can’t help remembering (perhaps in context with seeing Mother Courage last night & thinking of feminist readings) that opera has been traditionally a medium where women are violated and killed in front of a voyeuristic audience. That’s not what we get here –in any of the operas—as one can sense composers & librettists seeking to move the medium into a new direction (please God I hope so!) away from the misogyny & violence of the past. And so while we’re still in heavily gendered territory, the male is a physical body onstage, while the female is an aetherial spirit creature, an angel who could be any size I suppose. Sirett is a towering figure, yet he’s crumpled up with the spiritual doubts of L’Homme, in this story. The Angel figure played by Larissa Koniuk? Here is one place I was really sad about how poorly the photos captured what I’d felt. I can still feel Scime’s score pulsing through my head, as if pulling me towards Koniuk’s magical presence. Her gestures are very simple and eloquent, a more minimal response to the score than what we saw in the more elaborate staging by FAWN opera in the spring.
This piece is in French. While we did not have the projected titles (which BOP usually provide in other venues, but couldn’t in this space), I’m lucky that I could understand the text, had heard the excerpt before, AND seen a synopsis. But if there were ever an opera that could work without comprehension purely on the basis of the beauty of the images and the people onstage, this is it. The brilliant light coming from outside –confounding my photography—is in some respects a perfect model for the spiritual experience of the work, which seems to invite us to surrender to pure sensation, to allow the piece to move us whether we really understand what’s happening or not. My God (excuse the pun) I know that sounds pretentious, but that’s one of the things that sometimes happens in opera, particularly when it’s in another language. I—again—was taken back to my experience of opera before surtitles, when we had to listen and try to understand what we heard: not unlike childhood itself.
The third item presented was A Little Rain Must Fall, libretto by David Yee, music by Chris Thornborrow –I think I saw previously?—created not long ago in Tapestry’s LibLab, again re-arranged for the BOP ensemble. A different staging with a new cast can make something seem so different from what you saw previously. Sirett and mezzo soprano Stephanie Tritchew sang the piece full-out and dead-pan which only make the laughs even more explosive in the tight little space.
To close we were figuratively put onto bicycles. If I understand correctly, the BOP invites proposals from composers, but this time someone wrote about being on bikes. While the presentation was done by two men and a woman running –and falling—in the space, one could imagine the piece on cycles, or perhaps filmed while riding. It’s a five minute piece called Bianchi: A Five Minute Bicycle Opera, with libretto & music by Tobin Stokes that could be subtitled “every bike pun you could imagine”. As a man who likes puns I was in heaven.
The Bicycle Opera Project (whom I’ve been calling BOP) continue their cycling ways, touring through Ontario into August, eventually coming to Toronto Summer Music Festival August 7 & 8. Their schedule is here. But in the meantime if I can make it to program B (here in Stratford) I’ll write about that too.