The Bicycle Opera Project are now in season four, cycling around from venue to venue, putting on opera. They carry their set, costumes & instruments along (except perhaps the piano…) in trailers pulled behind their cycles. I first encountered them last year (their third season) in two programs (A and B) in a coffee shop in Stratford rather than an opera house, dodging a live dog (well-behaved), children (not quite as well-behaved) and people in the aisles. Each place they take their caravan is a different configuration of venue, a new set of logistical & dramaturgical challenges.
Now as they finish their tour in Toronto there will be two performances in spaces that resemble theatres (tomorrow at Music Gallery, Sunday at Evergreen Brick Works), but I wanted instead to see them cope with an odd venue, this time a bicycle shop.
Tonight seemed oddly fitting when BOP brought their 2015 program –titled “shadow box” – to Curbside Cycle on Bloor St West in the Annex. While cycles are only part of two or perhaps three of the pieces on the program, there is also the small matter of subtext. We know that this company of nomads ride from place to place, building up their muscles & their lung capacity. It is no surprise that they are as attractive to look at as a ballet company but without the tutus or funny shoes. And I like it when the voices open up in the relatively small space, the extra resonance sucked up by merchandise (and by our bodies I suppose), leaving something brilliant but not overly reverberant.
Yet every venue is different, and BOP have to adjust, finding their props, their mark for a lighting cue, and yes, even occasionally wending their way up and down aisle-ways.
“Shadow box” is like an anthology, a series of short operatic vignettes linked by one unifying structural element. Where last year’s programs (two distinct ones) did not really aspire to unity, I think this time the bar has been set higher. The combination of works –some short operatic scenes, some instrumental compositions, plus some dialogue—hangs together very nicely. I don’t see an actual writing credit, so I have to wonder where some of the text comes from. Whoever did it –whether Artistic Director Larissa Koniuk, stage director Liza Balkan–the result is very smooth, as though we were watching one opera, which is quite an achievement when it is actually an amalgam of roughly 10 works from eight composers and as many librettists.
The unifying element I spoke of is really a single performer, who functions something like a narrator. Christopher Enns begins as the Auctioneer in The Auction, the first operatic work. If I understood what they were doing, parts of the Auction were used to get us to segue from short work to short work, the items being auctioned (wallpaper and a medal for example) being relevant to the works. Enns had other text though that wasn’t sung, which wasn’t identified in the program, but could be thought of as part of “shadow box” itself. The back and forth between his light-hearted interludes and heavier scenes gave the work a healthy balance, as there is a fair bit of gravitas to some of these brief stories.
Some of the short operas or excerpts from operas have been seen before. This was my second time encountering The Yellow Wallpaper and Submission, both having been created in Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory. But that doesn’t mean they were the same as before.
The Yellow Wallpaper benefited from the spare staging BOP employ, engaging our imaginations. While I found the Tapestry presentation absorbing –a short opera about a woman who sees things (ghosts perhaps? Or hallucinations?) that her husband does not see—the BOP presentation tonight seemed to push me to the edge of horror, as there were moments of wonderful ambiguity, as though we couldn’t tell where the sounds and images were coming from. Stephanie Tritchew’s expressions of terror were worthy of a Wes Craven movie (…and yes she made me jump). The score by Cecilia Livingston (libretto from Nicolas Billon) is constructed of some very soft, delicate textures encouraging you to pay closer and closer attention, as we sympathetically stare at the lights coming through the wallpaper.
Submission was highlighted by the most impressive acting of the night, in a short piece that moved me last time as well. Christopher Enns & Geoffrey Sirett are a couple discussing the ramifications of a draft notice received by one: a notice that forces a choice upon them, between exile or compliance. With a libretto by David Yee and music by Dean Burry, we’re in tuneful territory, fully intelligible, and watching performances that are complete commitment for every second of this work.
Our Lady of Esquimault Road (music by Leila Lustig and libretto from Geoff Hargreaves) the next vignette, is poised on the delicate interface between comedy and tragedy, as some laughed uproariously while others sat in silence, watching a depiction of madness that is ridiculed in the sharp remarks from her father, while her mother urges compassion. Lustig’s blues-infused score made it easy for me to see the story poised on the edge of comedy, although that may simply be my projection, coupled with Sirett’s deadpan delivery. I really love this score, especially the way the tension builds and the tone gradually shifts to something highly ambiguous, as the girl who might be called “our lady of Esquimault Road” assumes the role of a saint. The opera masterfully sits on the fence, never fully declaring to us whether she is truly having a vision or has lost her mind.
The other highlight for me was again from Jocelyn Morlock, namely her composition Asylum, serving as a kind of non-verbal epilogue to permit a space for reflection in our shadow box, something like the interludes in Wozzeck or Pelleas et Melisande.
All four performers are wonderful, each in their own way. I quite love the voices of both Larissa Koniuk and Stephanie Tritchew, and only wish we had been given more opportunities to hear them really sing loudly as their voices are fabulous, especially when they sing together. Geoffrey Sirett is the comic foil to the charisma of Chris Enns, the chemistry between these two men always a joy to behold. Enns might be Seinfeld to Sirett’s Kramer…? The final piece on the program was Tobin Stokes’ Bianchi, a piece even funnier this year than last, Sirett upping the melodramatic ante with his deadpan antics and romantically mellifluous singing.
I wonder if they’ll all be back next year. I know I will make sure to see and hear them. But in case you are wondering there are still two performances left this year.