We opera-lovers sometimes lose sight of the fact that most of the “old masters” we revere (Verdi, Mozart, etc.) were writing opera for audiences who didn’t particularly care about “old masterworks,” the way many opera-goers do today. In fact, opera in Verdi’s time was more like movies are today: sure, there were some connoisseurs who would occasionally revive older operas, but 99 per cent of people wanted to see the latest hot new opera that had just come out.
So, last Wednesday, I found myself in Toronto at the offices of Tapestry New Opera Works — a Toronto opera company with whom we’ve co-produced the world premiere of one of the latest hot new Canadian operas, Julie Salverson and Juliet Palmer’s Shelter. I was there to get a sneak peek — a look at a “room run-through.” This is the point in the rehearsal process where we’re still in the rehearsal space, the singers are still in street clothes, we’re still using rehearsal props, but we’re finally beginning to run the show.
Shelter tells the story of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a distinctively Canadian point of view — the uranium used in that bomb came from Canadian mines, where the radioactivity killed many of the miners. It’s a show about the destructive power of science and war that begins in a Canadian uranium mining community and ends high above Japan.
Shelter engages these huge themes through an intimate story centred on a family torn apart by the forces of history: a Canadian couple named Thomas and Claire, and their daughter, Hope. There are two other characters: the Scientist, representing the promise of science to improve peoples’ lives, and the Pilot (who will drop the bomb) representing science’s more sinister aspects.
The show begins with simplicity itself: two people falling in love. In the scene where Thomas and Claire first meet at a garden party, Christine Duncan and Peter McGillivray communicated hilariously the dorky miscommunication of a first meeting. Later, as their daughter Hope (Maghan McPhee) falls in love with the Pilot (Keith Klassen), the music that accompanied it was really touching and romantic.
There’s also a powerful scene where the Scientist (Andrea Ludwig) confronts the Pilot as he is seducing Hope: the Scientist had always idealistically wished that science would be used to benefit humanity, and in the bomb he’s about to drop, she sees her work perverted into an instrument that will kill vast numbers of people.
We at Edmonton Opera are so excited about our new ATB Canadian Series, because through it we can reach out and create partnerships with companies like Tapestry who are creating new Canadian work. We can bring those works to our audiences in Edmonton — hot off the press, in English, in our own country, and speaking to our own themes.
Tapestry New Opera Works is a wonderful company: it’s the brainchild of music director Wayne Strongman, and what Wayne has created in Tapestry New Opera Works is something really special: an opera company devoted exclusively to new Canadian operas. And they don’t just present operas that have already been written — they nurture the creative process from the very beginning.
Their process begins with what’s called a LibLab (short for “composer-librettist laboratory”), where they invite a group of composers and librettists to Toronto, pair them off, and ask them to write short opera scenes, which are then performed by a group of singers and a pianist. This is a wonderful chance for librettist-composer collaborations to be born, as well as for composers and librettists to hone their craft.
Out of the LibLabs, Tapestry will identify a few artists who will receive commissions for a few works. Once the pieces are written, they’re performed in a “workshop” — a simple reading, with singers and a pianist, which gives the creators a chance to see the work on its feet in front of an audience, and iron out any kinks before the work hits the stage, but also to generate interest in producing the work — so that the work is the best it can be.