Travelogue, or Bicycle Opera take Toy Piano Composers for a ride

If you can judge a book by its cover – or a small performing arts company by its poetic name – then it’s a match made in heaven, this idea for Travelogue: a collaboration between Bicycle Opera Project (opera with bicycles?) and Toy Piano Composers (what would Schroeder say?). Each company’s oxymoronic name flies in the face of norms & expectations, to signal a playful & non-typical attitude.

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Soprano Larissa Koniuk– founder & artistic director of Bicycle Opera Project– is often seen in the vicinity of a bicycle (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Tonight was the second of two presentations of Travelogue, to begin Toy Composers’ Curiosity Festival, running until next week, but the only one of the three that also involves BOP. The other two programs are

  • Playback April 6 & 7 at the Canadian Music Centre
  • Metal April 9 at the Heliconian Hall

It may be that the notion of the travelogue as the structuring concept behind this brief anthology of short works was inspired by BOP’s nomadic habits, riding around with their entire show attached to their bicycles.

  • April by Monica Pearce
  • Road Trip by Elisha Denburg
  • My Mouth on Your Heart by August Murphy-King, libretto by Colleen Murphy
  • Waterfront by Tobin Stokes

Travelogue used the first floor space of the Arts & Letters Club, a wonderful showcase venue for voice (for example, this is where the Toronto Wagner Society usually introduce their scholarship winner), with rather rudimentary stage facilities. Each of the operas received a fair hearing, in collaboration with the delicate playing of Wesley Chen, Piano and Music Director, Anthony Thompson, clarinet / bass clarinet, and Ilana Waniuk, Violin.

April makes a great beginning to the anthology, a curious piece of meta-opera that suggests layers upon layers including a reflection back upon the cycling opera company. “Lucy is riding her bike up the Don Valley trail”, and there we are with an opera putting a bicycle onto the stage, and doubly self-reflexive. When the story begins to repeat, the ambiguities multiply, as we wonder what’s in the present, what’s merely in Lucy’s head, as she seems to watch herself meeting someone again and again. I would have wished it to continue a bit longer, as we didn’t seem to have nearly exhausted the possibilities. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s enough in this one scene to fill a whole evening, especially given the subtleties of Monica Pearce’s score.  I was thoroughly sucked into this world of images by soprano Larissa Koniuk, tenor Chris Enns and especially BOP newcomer mezzo-soprano Marjorie Maltais.

Each of our operas is given a preamble from the composer, a part of the evening that was somewhat uneven, given that at least one of these was a witty performance, another a charming talk resembling stand-up comedy. But in fairness this is experimental, the preambles representing something introductory. I hope I don’t seem like a churl for wishing that the same degree of commitment and rigour had been shown by all four.

Road Trip was the beginning of something that could be much more substantial. As with the output of the Tapestry Opera libretto laboratory, your mileage may vary, as some of these pieces seem more finished, while others represent the beginning of something that could eventually bear fruit, especially after more workshopping.

The title and description had me cringing as I read about it in the program, as I wondered how My Mouth On Your Heart could possibly work, especially given this synopsis:

Liam travels to the side of the highway where his girlfriend, Anna, died when a drunk driver smashed into her car. Anna’s pointless death has left Liam in anguish. Standing alone on the highway, clutching a flower, he finds himself travelling back and forth between Life and Death, trying to make a decision about where to go with his own grief.

I was won over, as this turned out to be the highlight of my evening, the score, libretto & especially the performances, breaking down my resistance. Enns, Maltais (as the death-figure) and Koniuk (the life-figure) engage in a spectacularly passionate bit of singing. This is surely the most operatic part of the program, where we justify the process. For the other three, charming as they are in places, I’m not persuaded that those pieces really needed to be set to music, that the music is an essential element. In this case –where the subject is daunting to any actor let alone to a composer—August Murphy-King’s composition justifies the effort, and redeems everything else in the evening. We’re into a completely irrational realm of passion, where it doesn’t matter that one occasionally couldn’t hear a word, when the music was so sublimely articulate. The concluding lines of the opera utter the title, something that’s redeemed both by the way it’s composed & the manner in which it’s sung by Chris Enns, who usually does the heavy-lifting for BOP on the dramatic side.

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L-R Larissa Koniuk, Chris Enns and Marjorie Maltais (photo: Dahlia Katz)

The final work followed the BOP practice of ending on a lighter note, this time the comedy of Waterfront, a fun bit of science-fiction fluff in an operatic vein. Geoffrey Sirett was again defying audience members to keep a straight face (I couldn’t manage it), alongside Koniuk and Maltais.

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