Canadian soprano Sara Schabas is the founder of the Electric Bond Opera Ensemble, a group that aims to present classical and operatic works that tell untold stories, reminding audiences and performers of the “electric bond of being” (Thomas Huxley) by which we are united.
In the 2017/2018 season, Ms. Schabas debuted with Tapestry Opera as Henri in Bandits in the Valley, receiving Broadway World Toronto nominations for Best Leading Actress (Musical-Equity). She will sing Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Remembrance, a solo recital with Geoffrey Conquer, piano at noon April 11th at the Richard Bradshaw Auditorium.
But first she performs Krystyna in the Canadian premieres of Jake Heggie’s chamber operas, Another Sunrise, and Farewell, Auschwitz to be staged by the Electric Bond Opera Ensemble at Beth Tzedec with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, February 10th & 11th. Because I wanted to know more about her involvement in the Heggie operas I asked her some questions.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’m lucky to have inherited traits from both my parents. While I certainly look like my mum and share many of her mannerisms, personality traits, habits (including her love of reading) and artistic sensibilities, I also like to think I take many qualities from my father: his jovialness, work ethic and musicality (he was originally a french horn player). Music, art and social justice stretch throughout my family tree, and many of my aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins are either artists or work in the arts or are engaged in human rights in some way.
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
The best thing about what I do is I have the opportunity to make an immediate connection and impact on other people. Whether it’s five minutes of joy or a life-changing performance (though of course those are rare!), I get to share something intimate with people I’ve never met before. It’s also a huge privilege to constantly engage with an art form that awakens and inspires all aspects of the human condition. The classical music tradition is so rich and varied that every day I get to learn and discover something new.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
In my adolescence and during University, I was completely consumed with classical music and happy to listen to classical music and opera all day long! Now that I‘m a professional singer and spend so much time thinking about my craft, I often find that I need a break at the end of the day. I really enjoy listening to podcasts while I’m commuting or at the gym, such as The Daily, Canadaland, On Being and the New York Times’ Modern Love. I also have a soft spot for folk music, such as the Toronto-based band, The Weather Station. I still love listening to classical music – particularly French music (loving Barbara Hannigan singing Satie these days) – and the Met’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera broadcasts with which I grew up. Oh, and I’m a total CBC Radio junkie.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I absolutely love to watch dance, and in another (more coordinated) life I would love to have been a ballet dancer! I love watching modern works, like the National Ballet’s recent triumph, Nijinsky, and following the New York City Ballet on social media and taking inspiration from the innovative, gorgeous new works they are always putting on. Luckily I can pretend to be a (very clumsy) ballerina every week in my Allegro ballet fitness class at Toronto’s Extension Room.
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
I really love to bake. There’s something so meditative about listening to a podcast while measuring cups of flour and separating eggs. I also love being outdoors – I developed a great love for hiking during the two summers I spent at the Aspen Music Festival, and I’ve always loved biking and canoeing.
More questions about Electric Bond Opera Ensemble’s Canadian premiere presentations of Another Sunrise & Farewell Auschwitz, two one-act operas by Jake Heggie.
Why do you want to present these two operas?
I’ve been a fan of Jake Heggie’s music since I first began studying classical voice. I became even more passionate about his works after performing in his opera, Dead Man Walking, two years ago with the Dayton Opera, as well as doing a concert of his works which he both coached and narrated. Heggie has such a gift for communicating genuine human conflict and emotion, which I think is why his work is so impactful, even on fraught issues like the death penalty in the U.S. (I had a colleague remark to me after our production that the opera had changed his opinion on capital punishment.)
Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz similarly communicate complicated, deeply human stories around the Holocaust. The protagonist of Another Sunrise is a survivor of the Holocaust who not only clearly struggles with P.T.S.D., but with her identity, her past, and what it means to be a survivor. I’m hoping that our presentations of these works help people to identify more personally with victims of the Holocaust and the implications of genocide and hate worldwide.
What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in these operas?
In these operas, one can expect to hear music that is both familiar and new. Heggie looks to the classical and operatic tradition when composing, and the pieces are full of allusions to Chopin, Jewish folk melodies, moments that feel reminiscent of Puccini and moments that may remind audience members of music theatre. The five-part ensemble of piano, clarinet, violin, cello and bass is almost Klezmer-esque. One can expect impassioned, refined singing and playing, as well as moments of humour amidst the pathos. There are times when the singers vulgarly imitate instruments playing in the style of Kurt Weill cabaret and times where they sing Freedom marches based off of Soviet Nationalist Hymns. Basically, in these operas, you get the gamut!
Please tell me the stories of Another Sunrise & Farewell, Auschwitz
Another Sunrise tells the story of Krystyna Zywulska, a Jewish woman (originally named Sonia Landau) who hid her Jewish identity during World War II. She was arrested as a political prisoner and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was given a position in the Effektenkammer, sorting peoples’ belongings while they were sent to be gassed in the room next door. Krystyna Zywulska survived partly because the Nazis enjoyed reading her poetry and the songs she wrote while in the camps. In Another Sunrise, Krystyna looks back on her experiences in Auschwitz, trying to make sense of what it means to be a survivor, as well as her guilt and sorrow, reconciling the past with the present.
In Farewell, Auschwitz, three singers perform settings of poetry by Krystyna Zywulska (in new poetic translations by Gene Scheer), which were originally written and performed in Auschwitz for the S.S, in cabaret-like style. The poems alternate between humour, sadness, irony, pathos and defiance in character.
Please put Another Sunrise & Farewell, Auschwitz in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century. How radical or conservative are these operas?
Heggie’s music is quite tonal and full of lush, wide-ranging melodies and harmonies. There are some moments of dissonance but overall, Heggie’s works are so entrenched in the classical and music theatre traditions of the last two hundred years, I don’t think audience members will be shocked by any of his language.
Please tell us about who’s involved with the project
First of all, this project came to life because Yacov Fruchter and the staff of Beth Tzedec Congregation believed in it so strongly. Many members of the crew are new to me, and it’s been a joy getting to know them and share in their creative energy. Michael Shannon and I knew each other from our work on Tapestry Opera’s Bandits in the Valley, so I knew his enthusiasm, musicality, leadership and talent would put our musical ensemble in the right hands.
Aaron Willis, our director, was introduced to me through his wife, Julie Tepperman – librettist for Bandits in the Valley. Aaron and Julie are the co-artistic directors of Convergence Theatre, and Aaron has directed for numerous esteemed companies around Toronto including Soulpepper and Theatre Passe Muraille. He’s also involved in the Toronto Jewish community, and he and Julie wrote and starred in a comedy called Yichud about an Orthodox Jewish couple a few years ago, which received wide-ranging praise. We also have the award-winning set, costume and lighting designer Jennifer Goodman transforming Beth Tzedec’s Herman Hall and creating brand new sets and costumes for this production. The other two singers, Georgia Burashko and Sean Watson, are extremely talented Toronto-based singers who connect to the material on multiple levels. Georgia and I have the connection of both being Canadian Children’s Opera Company, Earl Haig Secondary School and University of Toronto Faculty of Music alumni, although this will be our first time singing together (!), while Sean Watson and I have sung together in the Beth Sholom Synagogue choir. The instrumental ensemble is made up of Toronto Symphony Orchestra musicians who all connected to the material and made time to perform in this work despite their very busy schedules!
Tell us about Electric Bond Opera Ensemble
The name for the Electric Bond Opera Ensemble came to me during a lecture Adrienne Clarkson gave at the Six Degrees Festival in Toronto. She quoted the 19th century biologist Thomas Huxley, who said that we are all connected by an “electric bond of being.” This quotation struck a chord with me, as it taps into the essence of why I think music is important and has the power to unite people. Music reminds us of our common humanity. Through the shared experience of listening to a performance or making music together, we are united, despite our differences in cultures and backgrounds. Over the past few years, I have become more and more aware of the opportunity musicians have to make a difference in people’s lives. While I lived in the United States, I was involved in the charities Sharing Notes and Songs by Heart, where I performed in hospitals and for people with Alzheimer’s, work I continued at Baycrest Hospital after returning to Toronto. I also helped organize and performed in three Syrian refugee fundraising recitals over the past couple of years. Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz fit well into my theme of performing untold stories that remind us of our common humanity.
Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I have been lucky enough to be surrounded by role models, in both my industry and my personal life. My husband works in non-profit and constantly inspires me with his work around poverty and social justice. I’m extremely inspired by the many incredible women in Toronto who have started their own opera companies, such as Aria Umezawa (another Earl Haig alumna) and Rachel Krehm, Larissa Koniuk, Alaina Viau, Stephanie and Kate Applin, Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua and others, and by my friend Allegra Montanari, who started the non-profit Sharing Notes in Chicago that first inspired me to give back through music.
Electric Bond Opera Ensemble present the Canadian premieres of two Holocaust-themed operas by Jake Heggie, Another Sunrise and Farewell, Auschwitz, February 10th at 8:00 pm and 11th at 2:00 pm, at Beth Tzedec. For more information or for tickets, please visit: www.anothersunrise.ca or call 416-781-3511.