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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Oksana G. Opera An Emotionally Devastating Ride Into Darkness

By Brian Chang on May 27, 2017

Soprano Natalya Gennadi in Tapestry Opera's Oksana G. (Photo: Heather Kilner)
Soprano Natalya Gennadi in Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G. (Photo: Heather Kilner)

Tapestry Opera: Oksana G. Aaron Gervais (music), Colleen Murphy (libretto), Tom Diamond (director), Jordan de Souza (music director). At the Imperial Oil Theatre. Through May 30.

If watching Oksana G. made you uncomfortable, that’s fine — it was meant to. But, if it made you uncomfortable because you’ve never encountered the subject matter before, then you are right where you need to be. The sexual exploitation of women should come as no surprise to audiences, and the discomfort, visible and audible around me in the theatre demonstrated just how little the average opera-goer thinks on the matter. This isn’t a story unique to 1997, 1907 or 2017. Cheers to Artistic Director Michael Mori for programming this work at the close of Tapestry Opera’s season and creating the space for conversations that most people would rather never have.

The music was created by Aaron Gervais with a libretto by Colleen Murphy. Jordan de Souza was music director. Jason Hand’s lighting was transformative in the space, taking us to all the necessary environments envisioned by Director Tom Diamond and brought to life by costume and set designer Teresa Przybylski. Diamond’s direction ensured that flow and story moved along through the heavy material.

This opera definitely lacks for lightness and humour, finding very few moments of joy and respite. It’s challenging to sit through, especially the first half with its increasingly dark path. The second half lacks the same jarring effect as the first, but there is only so much discomfort you can throw at an audience before they fold into a heap of despair.

The strength of this production was its cast. A remarkably difficult subject to delve into; I can’t imagine the artistic preparation and self-care necessary to hold through rehearsals and performances.

The stern mother, Sofiya, at the beginning is a stereotype, but a relatable one that allows us to see the depth of her sadness as the opera progresses. You see Krisztina Szabó’s pain in this role, viscerally evident in her striking delivery as a mother in limbo, unable to move on. The scenes returning to Kostychany, the Ukrainian hometown, centre around Sofiya very clearly; all the other villagers take secondary importance. Szabó’s measured portrayal — not overly dramatic, not detached — makes Oksana’s scenes so much more poignant because of the separation. The flow of the opera works in a way to remind you that the story is not just Oksana, but of her mother as well.

Musically, Aaron Gervais has managed to assemble 2 hours of forgettable music. Nothing stands out which is not necessarily a negative criticism. His music actually emphasises the text and the singers, with their action always first and foremost above the orchestra. However, you could almost take any instrumental part in the piece and swap it with another without noticing. It is all very consistent and uses many of the same approaches, a held violin note here, a bass sustained note there, some extended flute notes, a lot of held notes throughout.

And then there’s the percussion. I have no idea how player Timothy Francom managed to stay on point for the performance. The percussion parts seemed truly bizarre throughout almost the entire opera both by rhythm and choice of instrument. Top of the second half, for example, Oksana has a broken leg: cue woodblock. The priest is comforting the sad Oksana: cue cymbal scratch. Elsewhere, there’s odd bell cues, an occasional chime. An oddly placed gong hit. And then the most bizarre pseudo-drum-kit-attempting-to-be-rock bit as Konstantin is dragged away after trying to buy Oksana from the priest. I found the playing very strange-sounding, as it was not done on a drum kit, and it didn’t evoke any particular emotion other than confusion. With the wind and strings being so consistent throughout, the percussion was often jarring in its randomness.

Performances aside, there are issues with the story itself and the overall artistic message. I found myself grappling with a few key themes, none of which seemed to stand out above the others: the victimised female as hero? The recurring “one human cannot own another human” phrase? The injustice of law enforcement? The manipulative nature of all men? That God is a comfort to the afflicted? That handsome men always have to be the saviour on stage? “The wind will carry our voices across the sea?”

Oksana G. screams for a strong female lead. We get the performance from Natalya Gennadi, a powerful interpretation, youthful, expressive, dramatic, and inviting. We want her to succeed and flee, but we know she can’t. We also have a remarkable performance from Andrea Ludwig, as Lubya. In the Greek bar, Lubya mouthing off is the first bit of defiance that shapes our need to see the women fight back. She represents thematic resistance. We think inside our minds, “if I were in this situation, I would fight back as hard as I could to defend myself”. Lubya’s character is there to remind us the depth of the depravity that subjugates these women into complete servitude. And that fighting back means violence or worse.

With such a fine performance and the value of the role made so abundant in the first act, it made no sense that Lubya in Act II was all but non-existent. Her defiance and heroism was replaced with the Priest, played by Adam Fisher. This is ultimately where the opera fails in its attempt to be truly different. With heroic Adam Fisher, his lovely tenor rising into the theatre, we lose Oksana and the other women as the heroines. The power he has over her as her saviour becomes another manipulation of a man used against Oksana’s self-determination. The only difference is that the priest is a much more attractive, less unsavoury manipulator, so the audience reads him as a hero.

The easy way out in a tragic opera is always to kill off your character. With the heaviness of this subject matter, the ending really doesn’t provide anything more dramatic. With the subject being women kidnapped and treated as objects for pleasure and money; it is ultimately upsetting that Oksana G. never gets its heroine.

Finally, it should go without saying that there is a definitive difference between sex work and sex trafficking. Oksana G. is an opera about women forced into sex trafficking and sex work against their choice. Sex work does not mean victimisation. But I don’t need to tell you that right?

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