Tapestry Opera presents Naomi’s Road at St. David’s Anglican Church, Nov.15-20th
Art happens to be one of the best ways to express tragedy, whether it be true or fictitious. Naomi’s Road is in the former, on the internment camps for Japanese-Canadian citizens during the second world war. Told from a child’s perspective, there is certainly a powerful narrative about overcoming hardship, the separation of the family in the face of state-sponsored segregation and delocation. This is a story that is fit for the operatic stage and should rightfully be told as it is, now more than ever, incredibly relevant in lieu of certain current events.
The tragedy then is that the music fails to reflect the tragedy and of the subject matter.
Ann Hodges libretto, based on the novel by celebrated author Joy Kogawa, is done no justice by Ramona Luengen’s music. Luengen’s approach is ultra conservative which in of itself is fine. The goal of this opera is to be toured nationally, on a budget, and reach the broadest possible audience, whether that be non-opera goers, children, or the enthusiast. The score does not successfully reconcile all of these audiences. It is not interesting enough to enthrall the enthusiast crowd looking for something new, and the medium is still not welcoming enough to newcomers. We have to keep in mind that opera is essentially a niche’ audience to begin with.
Her simplistic vocal lines, while preserving clarity of text, provide minimal emotion. Even moments of high drama fall embarrassingly flat and devolve into melodrama. The line “AT WAR WITH CANADA” come off as particularly hackneyed. Moments of comic relief similarly fail to hit their marks, eliciting little to no reaction from the audience.
But her instrumental accompaniment, a solo piano, perhaps shoulders most of the blame. It is a reasonable expectation for the score to integrate with the stage drama as well as the vocal performance. This has been a standard since Wagner. The piano writing sounds at best like a piano reduction — highlighting nothing and coming in at a dull mezzo forte. Musically, it constantly churns and drones on monotonously. There is no time given for retrospection of any kind when the music is constantly on the move shuttling us along from scene to scene. It’s an uneasy effect and gives the impression of community theatre — and not in the way that it is fun to see family and friends performing on stage but in the awkwardness of execution.
As stated, I cannot shake the feeling that all of this is by design in order to preserve clarity of text. This sentiment I can empathize with. However, if clarity was the primary goal then why write an opera instead of musical theatre? Any obscurities of text in opera are supposed to be denoted or expressed in the music. We’re not always supposed to hear every word, sometimes it’s both good and expected to extrapolate a bit. Opera is inherently about the artistry of the music. If the music is both dull and containing no virtuosity to speak of then what is the point? Again, clarity is for musical theatre — and even musical theatre is capable of being immensely powerful and virtuosic. Personally, I believe this opera is talking down to a casual audience implying that they are unable to handle any degree of complexity.
This is not saying there weren’t other problems with the production. Of the performers, only Hiather Darnel-Kadonaga, who sang the title role, is worth praise. Then again as she spent the most time onstage and performing so perhaps more time was given for her to develop the role. The rest of the ensemble was middling to, quite frankly, non-present. The small chorale section, in which the piano is tacet, were the most problematic as the pitch became gradually less definite, devolving into a semi-tonal mush.
I don’t want to give the impression that there was nothing positive to speak of. I found the set very effective, displaying what can be done with modest means. The production had a singular backdrop that is folded and moved to encompass five different settings. Stage movement and the way the scenes transition is in of itself spectacle to watch. There was one stage hand, but the rest of the sets were moved (without a break in the action) by the actors themselves. It does feel a bit like a community theater, but the cleanness of the transitions is a sign of great direction by Michael Hidetoshi Mori. In this regard, when it comes to Mori’s direction, there is a definite glimmer of both talent and cohesion.
But as I have expressed, this was a mediocre attempt at serious subject matter. Considering the pedigree of the author and composer, or at least as expressed by the program, there should be an expectation regarding a “par of quality” which this failed to meet. Particularly for a company such as Tapestry, this comes across as an incredible disappointment for an otherwise stellar company.
Editor’s Note: It appears our review is the only one that didn’t completely appreciate Tapestry Opera’s latest production, so before you take our word for it, here are some other takes worth considering:
- Catherine Kustanczy in the Toronto Star — here
- Robert Harris in the Globe & Mail — here
- Leslie Barcza in Barczablog — here
- John Gilks in Opera Ramblings — here