Sweat is the name of the opera produced this summer by The Bicycle Opera Project.
The name seems like a natural for a company who pull opera around the country behind their cycles, even if tonight was an unseasonably cool night, allowing me to wear a long-sleeved shirt to the Aki Studio Theatre at Daniels Spectrum. Little did I realize that I was making a political statement when I wore my shirt from Envelop (thanks Jim!), a shirt-maker whose ethical manufacturing is all done in Canada employing well-paid workers.
The title of this opera means “sweat” as in sweat-shops, as in the horrific fire in Bangla Desh that killed over 200 workers. Even as I google the incident now, google –another huge company –offers me an advertisement promoting a toddler’s long-sleeve sleep set for $14 from the infamous manufacturer whom I won’t dignify by mentioning.
As I sat in the theatre awaiting the beginning I wondered about the possible authenticity of what we’d be seeing and hearing:
- artistic exercise or genuine?
- would the singers seem like real working people?
- could it be dramatic while being operatic?
- And how wold it work when it’s entirely sung a capella, without any instrumental assistance?
These were the questions in my head before we began.
While the summer season for Bicycle Opera is all but over, with their final performance here Sunday afternoon, I feel certain that the participants in Sweat know that they created something rare & genuine.
For much of the night we were watching singers making simple repetitive vocal patterns on the boundary between singing & speech, while moving with clockwork precision. As the workers sing of their work as though enacting their tasks, their hands and arms and bodies became like a big complex machine. We were watching something between dance and a kind of installation as though the bodies had become mechanical. Jennifer Nichols choreographed them into a sewing phalanx ready for battle. There is so much organized physicality in Sweat that it resembles a dance piece.
Opera has often struggled to reconcile itself to competing impulses, on the one hand lured by virtuosity for its own sake, but confronted with the necessities of drama and ensemble work. Between Nichols, music director Geoffrey Sirett and stage director Banuta Rubess, the diva impulse was effectively throttled, in the service of compelling storytelling. You get sucked into this story.
But the text of Sweat sits astride the boundary between fantasy and realism, between something like hip hop or rap poetry on the one side and a story torn from the headlines. Anna Chatterton’s libretto is a compelling mix of genuine phrases and fanciful sounds and constructions that are already music before one looks to the composer, Juliet Palmer. Or perhaps it needs to be said that the symbiosis between the words and music is so elegant & smooth that we have to simply credit the team, the words sounding beautiful in so many ways, a superb musical-dramatic text that works.
As I sat there watching the show, I recalled my ongoing hunger for something political, particularly in the wake of the American election. Where is the Frank Capra or the Bertolt Brecht, who will champion the worker at a time when the class struggle has renewed: but not as Marx might have expected. No this is a class struggle where the 1% aren’t satisfied with the lion’s share and want more: or that’s what it seems, for example in the GOP’s drive to take medical coverage away from over 20 million Americans.
While the opera’s ending may have been somewhat obvious –the story going to its inevitable cataclysmic tableau—it was still beautiful to watch and to hear it unfold. I did not expect to be persuaded. The choice to make it unaccompanied made it much more irresistible, placing a bigger burden upon our imaginations. As a result I was ready to buy into the opera’s central propositions. We began not in the workplace but with a horse-race, a focus on gambling, $ and dreams of something better. And then I remembered that the people I supervise at the U of T buy a lottery ticket every week. For me it felt close to home.
I was very impressed by the work of the workers chorus, Caitlin Wood, Justine Owen, Emma Char, Alexandrea Beley, Cindy Won, plus their co-workers Stephanie Tritchew and Larissa Koniuk. Catherine Daniel as the Overseer and Keith Lam as the Owner and thug (two different characters) made strong impressions.
And going off on the political tangent for a moment, what can one do? Shop ethically. Or opt to make your own clothes, being careful in the procurement of fabrics, notions and designs.
It’s worth noting that Bicycle Opera shop Canadian, presenting their works with 100% Canadian talent.