I don’t use that word lightly, and it’s not an insult.
Some operas are oxymoronic, rife with contradiction, asymptotic in their fascination with impossibilities. Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande is the creation of a playwright who cringed in the presence of live performance, who said “something of Hamlet dies” in the theatre. Maeterlinck’s ideal was plays that you read rather than see enacted live; he also wrote marionette plays. And so it’s no wonder that Debussy’s setting is reticent to the point of self-effacement, without arias or any ostentation, the players standing like puppets in a series of short scenes. And in that contradiction –an anti-theatricality –we discover its beauty & Debussy’s achievement.
Or perhaps we can consider the various operas about Orpheus as he seeks to get back to his deceased love Euridice. Does anyone ever tell the tale from her perspective? Aha, that’s what this one does.
Because tonight I saw the penultimate performance of Tapestry Opera’s latest version of their Tap EX series, flirting with the notion of virtual reality, an evening brimming with great ideas. As is so often the case with new work, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea on paper was better than what we experienced, perhaps because it’s not ready for prime-time, a series of parts needing a bit more work before it will be finished. There’s lots to admire, but it’s not quite there, yet.
What better way to experience something new than in a new place?
We came into Sidewalk Labs, located at the corner of Parliament & Lakeshore Blvd. The piece we were to see has a science fiction aspect to it, and so what could be better than to come to the edge of the world.
Did you know that’s a genre, stories about ”the edge of the world”? The corner of Parliament & Lakeshore definitely FEELS like the edge of the world, and is a brilliantly conceived location for the projects happening at Sidewalk Labs: a space investigating the socially conscious change & transformation of our city. Dare I say it, they knew that they were building this brilliant showcase of reinvention on the brink of all that’s wrong with Toronto. We’re under the Gardiner Expressway, a crumbling monstrosity that consumes many of the dollars we could use to redevelop our city.
Speaking of oxymorons, isn’t it remarkably funny that Sidewalk Labs sits in a place where one is almost afraid to walk on the sidewalk: with the cars whizzing by on Lakeshore Blvd? The Gardiner Expressway provides the lovely canopy overhead, in some ways the epitome of how we’ve messed up this city.
And isn’t it bizarre to note in passing that Toronto is becoming too expensive for artists at the beginning of their career. If you drive or take a cab, Sidewalk Labs is a great place to go to. I parked by the Distillery District, to see just how hard it is to walk there. It wasn’t bad other than my near-death experience with a cyclist. His idea of a horn was to twice say “whoops whoops” in that soft nerdy voice that signals a millennial; someone of my generation would scream a four letter word. But we didn’t die so perhaps I shouldn’t complain.
Someone had a brilliant idea. The opera begins and ends a bit like a dog and pony show, like a TED talk or one of those 30 minute ads you see on TV. Before the opera we had a presentation from Sidewalk Labs to tell us about the venue. But more subtly, it served to frame the show as a dog n pony show within a dog n pony show.
The music by Benton Roark was quite lovely in that noodly minimalist way we’ve heard since the time of Philip Glass (who’s on my mind because I’m seeing the broadcast of Akhnaten tomorrow).
Early on in the show we were advised that we might want to put on a mask to simulate the virtual reality of the opera: which was a clever idea. Would you call it a coup de theatre, or just a gimmick? I found it sensational in the way it made me listen to Roark’s creation and the words in the libretto (whereas a friend of mine thought it’s more of a radio play than an opera, because it was too static in his opinion). Forgive me I’m not sure whose words they sang, although perhaps it’s Tapestry Opera’s artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori and co-director Debi Wong, who are credited with the idea.
Partway through we were encouraged to remove our masks. I liked it much better before I took off the mask. Yes the piece is static, not just because of the minimalist noodling (and please note Roark was setting the text pretty well as written, reflecting the lyricism in the words). It’s very poetic, more of a long lyrical song than an opera without much in the way of conflict or action. I wonder if that’s intentional? If you leave your mask on for the entire show chances are you won’t be as troubled by that. The text talks a lot about what is happening, rather than directly making something happen; so in other words, there’s little or no action, just words about things. Given that we’re in the realm of subjective experience that might be justifiable, but this didn’t work for me, as a depiction of what we were promised, which was a big luscious idea.
Imagine that we’re talking about the afterlife as a business proposition, where you create a virtual reality for eternity. Atheists could suddenly have a heaven. I’m reminded of Walt Disney’s version of immortality, where he was cryogenically preserved, hoping to be revived later (and there’s even an opera about it: whoops there’s that Glass fellow again). Such a reality is a plum of an idea for a composer & a librettist.
Except I didn’t think the libretto (at this point in its creation) lives up to this fabulous idea, as Roark did his best with what he was given. Perhaps it will be better in its next revision, as it’s a work in progress. Just as I’m inclined to credit Roark with the loveliness of his creation, so too the performances by Lauren Segal, mezzo-soprano, Vanessa Oude-Reimerink, soprano, and Lyndsay Promane, mezzo-soprano. The voices blended beautifully at times hauntingly lyrical. Whether or not you want to call it opera it’s a splendid hour of music.
But the story is in some ways about impossibilities & frustration, as Euridice (the main character) longs for something that she can’t have. I couldn’t decide if her frustration was with what she was shown in the virtual reality, or simply the normal dissatisfaction that seems to be fundamental to her character. She is after all the one who refuses to trust Orpheus and gets him to turn around and look, which kills her in those other versions of the story. So she’s never a happy camper in those operas either.
The show concludes Saturday at Sidewalk Labs.