A concert is not a litmus test but even so today’s free noon-hour concert at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre is an unmistakable sign of health in the community of women creating opera in this country, and apt in the home of the Canadian Opera Company. We saw prize winners of the Inaugural Mécénat Musica Prix 3 Femmes: “a new $25,000 award in Canada supporting the creation of operas by emerging female and female-identifying composers and librettists.”
And how wonderful that today we heard some of the great things that they’re creating, a preview of the Next Wave Workshop that’s to be presented Saturday night March 23rd by Musique 3 Femmes with the support of Tapestry Opera at Ernest Balmer Studio. The basic template is the same for today as for March 23rd: five teams of librettist, composer & director working on an operatic idea, sung by one or more of Suzanne Rigden, soprano, Kristin Hoff, mezzo-soprano, Lindsay Connolly, mezzo-soprano, and played by Jennifer Szeto at the piano. Where today’s examples were sung from music stands, Saturday night we’ll get staged excerpts. In addition to the music we also heard different perspectives of composer, librettist and director weighing in on an aspect of their project. Today’s sampler left me wanting to hear & see more.
Here’s how they describe the prize-winning projects, including their projected future productions.
L’HIVER ATTEND BEAUCOUP DE MOI
Composer: Laurence Jobidon (QC)
Librettist: Pascale St-Onge (QC)
Director: Aria Umezawa
Amidst the harsh and cold weather of northern Quebec, Léa tries to reach a safe-house in order to protect herself and her unborn child. She meets Madeleine, a tormented woman who promises to lead her to the end of a road where no one else goes. L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi is a chamber opera that pays tribute to feminine solidarity and resilience, as well as to the strength of the Quebecois territory. The work is led in Toronto by director and former San Francisco Opera Adler fellow Aria Umezawa and will see its full premiere in Montreal in March 2020.
BOOK OF FACES
Composer: Kendra Harder (SK)
Librettist: Michelle Telford (SK)
Director: Jessica Derventzis
“Nothing on Earth has prepared me for life like the Internet…” Book of Faces is a comic opera exploring the world of social media and two millennials for whom the struggle is just too real. The second collaboration between Saskatoon composer Kendra Harder and librettist Michelle Telford, Book of Faces sees a world premiere at Next Wave Workshop led by director and Artistic Director of Opera 5 Jessica Derventzis, and later performances as part of Highlands Opera Studio’s 2019 summer season.
SINGING ONLY SOFTLY
Composer: Cecilia Livingston (TO)
Librettist: Monica Pearce (PEI)
Director: Alaina Viau
Singing Only Softly is a song-cycle opera by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston, featuring an original libretto by Monica Pearce inspired by redacted texts from Anne Frank’s famous diary. The work explores Anne’s complex adolescence, her growing maturity, and her tumultuous relationship with her mother, Edith. Singing Only Softly is led here by Loose Tea Music Theatre founder and Artistic Director, stage director Alaina Viau, and features guest artist soprano Gillian Grossman. Singing Only Softly sees a full production by Loose Tea Music Theatre in May 2019.
SUITES D’UNE VILLE MORTE
Composer: Margareta Jeric (QC)
Librettist: Naima Kristel Phillips (QC)
Director: Amanda Smith
A woman returns to a place where she fell in love. She finds a piano on a heap of rubble. An exploration of the anatomy of a piano, this work examines the interplay of loss and connection in a world where everything can change in an instant. Based on the play Ghost Town Suites by Naima Kristel Phillips, Suites d’une ville morte is the first collaboration by Phillips with Croatian-Canadian composer Margareta Jeric. The work is in development for Toronto’s FAWN Chamber Creative, and is led here by FAWN founder and stage director Amanda Smith.
Composer: Maria Atallah (ON)
Librettist: Alice Abracen (QC)
Director: Anna Theodosakis
“You didn’t even know her name. You don’t even know my name.” With an original libretto by Alice Abracen on a short story by composer Maria Atallah, The Chair explores grief, loss, and friendship through the eyes of a teenager. Melanie loses her best friend in a tragic accident and returns to school to face throng of well-wishers and a mysterious new classmate. For the Next Wave Workshop, the piece is led by COC Ensemble dramatic coach and founder of Toronto’s Muse 9 Productions, stage director Anna Theodosakis.
The sequence for today’s presentation was different.
We began with a little bit of (1) Singing Only Softly, from the team of Livingston, Pearce & Viau, based on redacted texts that didn’t appear in Anne Frank’s diary. It’s described as a “song cycle opera”, a concept I can’t pretend to unpack on the basis of what we heard so far. It’s an interesting challenge to adapt something that is so well-known (the character at least) yet brand new (the text). Livingston’s vocal writing & Pearce’s libretto also with Viau’s direction successfully conveyed the right impression of a girl. I’m not sure if I’d call it an illusion or simply that they did not transgress the bounds of what I expected from such a well-known character.
Jeric, Phillips & Smith took us 180 degrees in the other direction musically even if we were in some respects in similar territory, with another story involving war, (2) Suites d’une ville morte. But where Livingston’s music was gently tonal, Jeric gave us a wildly playful adventure. We’re to imagine that a woman returns to a war-torn city finding a piano on top of a heap of rubble (broken? Perhaps the last vestige and the last remnant of life & culture?). While this might be wonderful staged, what we saw in the concert performance was an invitation to our poetic imaginations. Szeto was playing on and in a prepared piano, at times strumming and making this instrument –that we could imagine as a virtual character in this opera– sing, while the singers tapped their chests and produced all manner of sounds, before they did finally begin to sing too. I found it wonderfully problematic that one could ask who is the instrument and who is the singer. The concept is pregnant with possibilities.
(3) The Chair from Attalah, Abracen & Theodosakis showed us something different again, and had me admiring the jaw-dropping contrasts, in the way they curated this concert. We went from…
1-something straight-forward in its innocent portrayal of childhood to…
2-something wilder & more dissonant, and now …
3-in this the third item the first glimpse of irony & layers between the surface and the interior, all in a brief presentation. So much of our lives is a performance, and here it was wonderful to see the distance between what was being said and what was being felt, shown with such clarity and edge by this team.
For the next one, from Jobidon, St-Onge & Umezawa, we went in a new direction that was in some respects very conventionally operatic –a woman’s suffering—but shown in a whole new way. (4) L’hiver attend beaucoup de moi shows us emotion and pain, in a very beautiful and tuneful package, the piano writing also very powerful. While I understand that the story concerns “solidarity & resilience” (as stated above), I don’t think we were hearing that in the passage heard today. This was for me the most conventionally operatic sounding of the first four excerpts, and given the politics of the occasion I hope that’s okay to say..(?).
The team from furthest away were present to talk a bit about their work. Harder & Telford are from Saskatchewan, and worked with Derventis on a comic opera about social media. Facebook begat (5) Book of Faces. As composer Kendra Harder explained she envisaged oratorio when she composed; the result is somewhat parodic, reminding me of the irony we get in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera or perhaps what we hear in Gilbert & Sullivan, in the collision between the stiffness of a style and the wackiness of Telford’s text. All that was missing was the voice-over “and now for something completely different”. Our finale –an aria titled “Take it to Tumblr”—was the most recognizably operatic display of the day, pushing soprano Suzanne Rigden to the top of her range & her most agile coloratura. It was deliciously silly.
If you want to hear more of any & all of these, you need to get a ticket to Saturday’s “Musique 3 Femmes: The Next Wave”.
Here’s the link for more info & tickets.