Tonight was the world premiere of Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G¸ a new full-length opera with music by Aaron Gervais and libretto by Colleen Murphy, stage direction by Tom Diamond and music direction by Jordan de Souza.
As an event promoted by the Indie Opera Network of eleven companies, it’s worth noting that this is the most genuinely operatic production yet seen from the network. There were none of the usual shortcuts such as presenting a song-cycle as though it were an opera, presenting an opera in concert or with piano or semi-staged. Oksana G is a substantial work, over two hours in length not including the intermission, a work with a small orchestra and chorus.
And Gervais & Murphy answered the most blunt challenges Tapestry artistic director Michael Mori might have posed with flying colours. Is it opera, and does the music really add anything to the story? Yes and yes.
I was braced for something unpleasant when I read that Oksana G would be an opera about human trafficking. I wondered if the opera might exploit its topic, and so I cringed a bit in anticipation. But I was wrong to worry. Murphy’s libretto gets inside the lives of the protagonists. Yes we see lurid scenes. But we’re given a compassionate exploration of this seedy world, never losing touch with their humanity, their desperation to escape, and their shame, even as they fear the judgment of their parents. And we listen to the parents missing their children. If nothing else it’s an excellent opportunity to lose your preconceptions.
Natalya Gennadi is Oksana, a young Ukrainian lured into a nasty world from which she struggles to escape. If there’s an operatic prototype, think of Gilda who is abducted by the Duke’s courtiers in Rigoletto, but unable to escape from the shameful life into which she has been pressed. I am mindful of Gilda because she too is essentially a victim, unable to break free of the role imposed upon her. One of the huge challenges in this sort of story is the lack of agency of the heroine, making the story very much like a classic melodrama, where everything seems to be beyond her control, and an antagonist like this one inevitably becomes a villain in our eyes. In La traviata, too, there is some of the same melodrama, so this is familiar territory in opera. Her part was originally announced for Ambur Braid, leaving me to wonder what the opera would have been like with her instead of Gennadi. But even with the short notice – the casting change only having been announced in the winter—this part that calls for singing in Ukrainian, Russian as well as English fits Gennadi remarkably well, a Ukrainian speaker who also coaches singers in Russian.
Keith Klassen is Oksana’s chief antagonist, Konstantin, whom Murphy seeks to sketch as a complex character, an obsessive human trafficker who sometimes seems to believe his own sleazy pickup lines, a Slavic cross between Don Giovanni, and Sparafucile (the hit man in Rigoletto). I can’t decide if I’m missing something, in seeing the story as ultimately formulaic, especially in the way the last scenes unfold (which I won’t spoil for you), captive of that melodramatic impulse. But Klassen was a powerful presence, using his voice and physique to great advantage. I think this is the best thing I’ve ever seen him do.
Jacqueline Woodley’s powerful voice made a huge impression in the role of Natalia, a friend of Oksana’s. Similarly Kristina Szábo as Sofiya – Oksana’s mother—anchors every scene in which she appears, the most authentic person onstage musically and dramatically. Adam Fisher is very sympathetic as Father Alexander.
Jordan de Souza ran a tightly organized show, at least as far as I could tell. With a new score one wants to reconcile the input of the creators, with the interpretation of the performers. In a score such as this one – largely tonal, and only rarely so virtuosic as to push singers out of their comfort zone—I think I can say with confidence that the performance does justice to the opera, that the composer & librettist were well served by the singers, orchestra and chorus. Gervais’ arioso reminded me at times of Leos Janacek, employing a broadly melodic style full of repeating patterns in the orchestra. There was one scene that was for me the most magical part of the score, when we found ourselves in a bar, where there seemed to be background music coming from a diegetic band onstage playing a sort of Eurotrash disco. The arioso of the characters onstage emerged from that rock-ish texture. I wish more composers would attempt this! Christos Hatzis does something like this in a bar-scene in Going Home Star¸his Juno award-winning ballet. Modern music needs to connect to the musical vernacular, aka the music most people listen to in their normal lives. For a few minutes Gervais made a brilliant connection, and you could feel the electricity in the room.
Oksana G continues at the Imperial Oil Opera theatre until May 30th.