I took in Tapestry Opera’s latest experimental workshop “Tapestry Briefs: Booster Shots”.
The title plays on a few influences:
- Because Tapestry lives in the so-called “Distillery District” we’re in a realm of booze, so it makes sense to be thinking about whiskey
- Tapestry Briefs is understood to be a series of samplings of the short operatic experiments from the laboratory work combining librettists & composers, so it was a natural to take the metaphor a step further, offering samplings of delectables such as whiskey and ice cream and sake and herbal tea. Yes I know, that latter seems like an oddball, but for this Scarberian, it was welcome, as I can’t very well drink and then drive home.
- One of the operas in development –that was disproportionately represented with three rather than one taste—is even called “The Whisky Opera”. Was that one also influenced by being conceived in the Distillery District?
- I suppose a booster shot is only peripherally about alcohol (via a pun), and so the program cover showed both shot glasses & a hypodermic needle.
New opera is very much on my mind. Driving home to Scarborough means a right turn out of that Distillery District, right past the front door of The Extension Room, where I took in something experimental Thursday night. Last night I watched my new DVD of Boesmans’ Julie, and so I am thinking very positive thoughts about what opera can be. In the opera course I teach, the last class usually addresses the question “is opera dead?” While its health seems very precarious right now when done on the grand scale of the Metropolitan Opera or the COC, smaller companies using young talent keep bursting onto the scene. Tapestry are having their 35th anniversary season, although they’re a long-established incubator, and hardly an institution that feels old in any sense. They’re feeling especially vibrant with their new artistic director Michael Mori.
I had a brief chat with him after the show tonight, when I may have seemed to be complaining. In his pre-show talk Michael invited us to engage in social media, facebooking and tweeting merrily through the opera. I took him up on the invitation repeatedly. Sure, my tweets were pretty banal (dull little jibes about drink & distillery).
And so I was a bit disconcerted when one of his minions leaned close to me at one point and told me to stop.
After the show I told Michael about this without naming names, thinking that our smartphones (ha… an Orwellian phrase quite apt for a night in which we saw a small portion of 1984 adapted) are passionately hated by many in the theatre world. As I drove home I was thinking that Michael’s invitation might be a bit like the Emancipation Proclamation, a decree only as meaningful as the functionaries & bureaucrats who could make it real. All I can say –and I think Michael likely agrees with me—is that while most in the theatre probably still hate the smartphone, there are probably ways to make it work. I sat for part of the show in the very back row, so as to avoid upsetting anyone with my glowing screen.
And what of the operatic tasting, the samples of new work?
It’s as it always is. Some work better than others. And audiences aren’t monolithic, but contain all sorts of people with different responses. There was one piece –not the deepest thing I ever saw please note—that made me guffaw loudly in a theatre where I was the only person laughing. As a result I worked hard not to laugh even harder (which is inevitable when people turn around and stare at you as if you’re from Mars), but of course I was frustrated at what I saw as a conservative response, because surely the composer / librettist aimed for this kind of response. There were other pieces –at least 3—that were received with loud laughter from others in the audience, that didn’t make me laugh nearly so much. But overall, much hilarity ensued, much fun was had by all.
There were two pieces that stood head and shoulders above the rest of the program, and when I say this I know that my response wouldn’t necessarily correspond to that of the majority.
R.U.R., based on the Czech Karel Capek’s play from the early 20th century play (RUR =Rossum’s Universal Robots), has long struck me as an ideal vehicle for an opera. I gave it some thought awhile ago, although had no idea really how to adapt it. Imagine my delight that Nicolas Billon and Nicole Lizée not only took this on, but –in the short excerpt—showed a truly inspired idiom for their adaptation. They created the most impressive interaction between music & text, singers & performers that I’ve seen in any of the Tapestry Briefs exercises I have witnessed. As we watch the two scientists freaking out about their robot creations, we hear music that is on the boundary between electronic & acoustic, between human and mechanical, with repetition that is sometimes human-made and other times seems automated. At times the fade of the music resembles something asymptotic, as if the music and voices fade mathematically, as a function of something profound and inhuman. This interface between words & music, between performer and performance is very problematic and troubling: but in all the right ways.
Please Tapestry, have Billon & Lizée continue their work on this piece! The five minutes we heard are already masterful.
The other opera is really three, namely the triptych of excerpts from The Whisky Opera that with its prominence in the program clearly has the full attention of Tapestry’s braintrust. All three excerpts seem to enact one of the wet dreams of opera composers: to find a language that is relevant to context of the story (historically & culturally), especially if it can incorporate popular musical idioms. That the story is also darkly humourous, totally Canadian in its focus and almost irresistibly lurid makes this a project that seems to be a can’t-miss proposition. I am sure that Tapestry will hear a lot of voices in support of this project, and not just from those lured by the whisky they were offering us to taste. The Whisky Opera comes from Hannah Moscovitch and Benton Roark.
There were two others that I liked:
• 1984—“The Note” reminded me that Orwell’s novel never gets old even if the children born in 1984 do: amazingly they turned 30 years old this year. It wasn’t profound but it worked.
• Damnation was like a joke on the minimalist composers such as Glass or Reich, the repetition being like the torments of hell. I was reminded of that scene in the film Beetlejuice when we’re told that people who commit suicide end up as bureaucrats in the afterlife. And apparently they’re tormented by repeated patterns of notes.
As usual the performances were superb. Carla Huhtanen and Krisztina Szabo are two of the most important singers in Toronto, irreplaceable when it comes to contemporary rep. Alongside them, Alex Dobson & Keith Klassen are a very musical pair. The different operas employed varying constellations of the four throughout the evening. Christopher Foley & Jennifer Tung offered solid support from the piano (although there were other musical sources, for instance in RUR), and Mori’s direction was tight and transparent throughout.
It was great to see so many segments that were funny, although I don’t believe any of them (except the four I spoke of) are really sustainable beyond roughly five minutes in length; the fact that i am typing this up in the shadow of Saturday Night Live (which begins at 11:30 pm) might be in the back of my mind, another medium where nothing really deserves to be longer than about 5 minutes.
Tapestry are in their 35th anniversary season, and will be back in January for a party of sorts, although I suspect it will also be a benefit too. Click here for more information.