And so it was on Sunday, when I went down to Toronto’s historic Distillery District’s Cannery Building to see a program called Booster Shots – the latest batch of 12 excerpts from Tapestry-developed operas, in various stages of completion.
It was an intriguing if less than entirely satisfying evening. Almost inevitably, an isolated scene from an unknown opera – an opera that isn’t even finished yet – tends to raise more questions than it answers.
That said, a few of the excerpts worked pretty well as stand-alone pieces. Most impressive in this way, I think, was Oubliette, by composer Ivan Barbotin and librettist Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. This short scene involved a distraught Woman (sung by Szabó), freshly escaped from some kind of gruesome confinement. The piece had a strong dramatic arc – and it made me wonder what direction the protagonist, and the opera, would take.
Another effective scene was from Submission, by composer Dean Burry and librettist David Yee. Here two gay Russian men (Klassen and Dobson) struggle with the idea of leaving a country where they aren’t welcome, or even safe. I was left with an ominous feeling that things wouldn’t end happily for them.
As well, The Blind Woman, by composer James Rolfe and librettist Yee had a strong and sophisticated musical integrity. In this scene, a dancer (Huhtanen) who has lost her sight talks to her own shadow (Szabó).
Tapestry underscored its commitment to The Whisky Opera – by composer Benton Roark and librettist Hannah Moscovitch – with three scenes from the piece. The opera is about the Brooks Bush Gang: outlaws in 1860’s Toronto, led by a tough woman named Jane Ward (sung by Szabó). The lurid exploits of Ward and her minions offer plenty of juicy operatic material. But I came away with mixed feelings about Roark’s musical approach, a shotgun wedding of period influences (ragtime, sentimental ballads, work songs) with Kurt Weill.
What else could be said about this evening of operatic hors d’oeuvres? Some scenes were hobbled by thin ideas, or didn’t seem to lead in any clear direction. And a few excerpts were simply too enigmatic to say much of anything about: maybe they would work well in the context of a larger work, but maybe they wouldn’t.
On a positive note, it was nice to see that the preachy moralizing that often raises its head in Canadian opera was largely absent from this show. (The Vancouver Opera’s recent world premiere of Stickboy was a tedious example of this sort of thing.) Indeed, there was a marked preference for bitter irony or earthy rawness, as if the creators of these pieces were taking direct aim at the idea that opera should be a genteel and uplifting art form.
This was all well and good, in my opinion. But, on the other hand, it was a little disheartening to hear several composers settling for a light, vampy style of piano writing. They could do better.
© Colin Eatock 2014