Putting on a new opera is a big risk. Arts presenters know this, as do patrons, which unless tested, tend to avoid them like the plague. It’s a shame because seeing something new brings an excitement to the table that an umpteenth COC production of Così fan tutte could only dream of.
Enter Soundstreams, one of the few brave Toronto-based music presenters that fear to tread where others falter and vacillate under the pressures of the dreaded “new opera”. There is no experimentation without headaches and they continue to push listeners outside of their comfort zone when so few in this city venture into the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
Sunday’s closing matinée show of the 6-day run of Airline Icarus, by composer Brian Current, had a good turnout at Ada Slaight Hall. It’s a contemporary space, with a traverse stage that served as an ideal setting for the small chamber opera that could.
The premise is clever. The myth of Icarus, and his waxen wings, who ignored his father’s good advice, and learned hubris the hard way. The libretto, by playwright Anton Piatigorsky, imparts a mythic dimension to a flight booked on Air Current, bound for Cleveland, and invites us into the minds of passengers and crew, revealing their relationships and their inmost thoughts.
It centres on three passengers: The alcoholic Business Man played by Geoffrey Sirett, an Ad Executive played by Vania Chan, and a Scholar played by Graham Thomson. Each of the three characters represents an archetype for the wayward traveler. We have the insouciant bravado of maleness wrapped in the loneliness of a career-climbing suit and tie. A stereotyped female missive with a somewhat standoffish demeanour and disdain for social interaction. And the phobic academic on his way to present a paper on Greek mythology, including Icarus. Stringing them together was Krisztina Szabó, who played an exemplary passive-aggressive Flight Attendant, and Alexander Dobson, pulling double-duty as a baggage handler at the beginning, and a pilot at the end. There was also an ill-defined chorus who gave heft to the opera, in terms of music and visual density.
The score featured lots of discordant, percussive sounds which succeed despite discomfort, the pain driving itself into memory until it becomes the soul food of a Sunday afternoon. The ensemble, which included Ryan Scott and Haruka Fujii on percussion played its metallic tones correctly as far as was possible to tell. At moments the score shifts to minimalistic textures, which seemed to function best as a backdrop to the humour and accessible nature of the story.
The set, by Teresa Przybylski, was equally crafty. It featured large metal wings that spanned the width of the theatre, and gradually inclined towards the ensemble near the rafters. The chorus and principles were seated down the centre rows of the seats opposite to the audience, evoking an interior plane cabin. Solving the problem of scene changes, the shifting materials were included in the blocking, such as the heart-pounding sequence of the plane going down where luggage was strewn about in the chaos of panic and disorder.
Tim Albery did a fine job of directing the well-casted flight passengers, chorus, pilot/baggage handler. It was an elegant effort, and an example of less is more. With the imagination brings a deeper, more internalised experience to chew over.
The lighting was a bit underwhelming and I would have liked to see more variation between the scenes. For example the flickering only lasted a minute or two, and I wondered why there weren’t lights running down the isles of the seats.
The sound design was also well done, especially the use of microphones, such as those found in the scene with the flight attendant speaking over the flight intercom, and the chorus singing while wearing Aircraft emergency oxygen masks, which one failed to drop.
At just 50 minutes, Airline Icarus may be on the short side, and I could easily see it as a larger work, with more fleshed out characters, and a score with more room to breath. But on the whole its success owes itself to the genius premise by Anton Piatigorsky.
[June 12 update: My apologies – I neglected to mentioned the composer Brian Current’s full name (!) and instead wrote “Air Current” – a cheeky nod. This has been fixed.]