Tapestry Opera’s Briefs: Winter Shorts. Iman Habibi, Afarin Mansouri, Norbert Palej, Kit Soden (composers) Bobby Theodore, Marcia Johnson, Phoebe Tsang, Jessica Murphy Moo (librettists). At the Dancemakers Studio, Nov. 30 – Dec. 3, 2017.
Although one had to fight to get through the throng of people taking selfies at the Christmas market, it was worth the risk of accidentally photobombing to see Tapestry Opera’s Briefs: Winter Shorts. From November 30 to December 3, Tapestry opera showed off the fruits of their most important initiative, the LIBLAB (Composer-Librettist Laboratory) in minimally staged productions with four singers and piano.
What general manager Jamie Martino described as speed dating, in 2016 Tapestry united four writers, four composers, four singers, and two pianists and gave them less than two weeks to create raw and unfiltered snippets of potential operas. This process has inspired works like Oksana G which tells a powerful story of human trafficking in the Ukraine. It was conceived in the 2006 LIBLAB and premiered at the end of last season.
A Glimpse at the Future of Opera
In short, (forgive the pun) this performance presents several glimpses of what the future of opera might look like. However, Tapestry goes a step further. In each spectator’s program is a comment card that she or he can submit at the end of the show, and possibly influence what might be the next Oksana G. Since I did not submit my card, I will let this review serve as my comments.
The show literally began with a bang. Based on the 1984 shooting in the Quebec National Assembly by a Canadian Forces Corporal, the first piece, “The Call of the Light” composed by Iman Habibi and text by Bobby Theodore, started with recorded gunshots as each of the three performers, soprano Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo-soprano Erica Iris, and tenor Keith Klassen, ran in and fell to the ground. Baritone, Alexander Dobson walked in playing the shooter. The music composed for four voices and piano was mostly stagnant, for example, two alternating dissonant chords on the piano, effectively illustrating the shock of the event. The piano was layered by the voices of the injured bystanders, and their repeated text represented their shock and desperation.
Despite the spine-tingling contrasts of the three injured singers’ voices, Dobson’s singing sounded laboured and his intonation left something to be desired (possibly because the cast sang an earlier performance that day). It seemed as if he were belting musical theatre rather than singing like an opera singer
Michael Mori’s choreography in this piece, as well as the others that evening, was dynamic and took advantage of the intimate studio to get up close and personal with the audience.
Bringing Opera to Everyday Life
The next set of pieces took everyday moments of life and brought a new perspective to them by making them operatic. The first called “Pursuit,” again composed by Habibi to a text by Jessica Murphy, is a reversal of the musical number “Taylor the Latte Boy.” Woodley not only acts but also sensitively sings the role of a barista obsessed with one of her customers. Habibi composes the barista’s fantasy of love operatically, but the reality that she is too shy to speak to the object of her affection, appropriately falls from opera to spoken theatre.
As testified to by several audience members, one of the most moving pieces of the evening was Nobert Palej’s “Playing Ball” composed to a text by Marcia Johnson. This piece illustrates the challenging relationship between a father who has suffered a stroke, mimed by Klassen, and his daughter played by Woodley. Most of the music consists of simple unaccompanied melody hummed by Woodley that stops each time Klassen unintentionally releases the ball in his hands. The diegetic music’s (meaning that her humming is heard by the characters in the opera as music, unlike when they sing the text) simplicity is haunting; an effective foil to the silence that portrays Klassen’s inability to speak. As Palej explained in the Q&A after the show, he sees silence as a metaphor for everything that lies between the lines. As several spectators agreed after the show, it is the space where the emotions and tensions happen.
How Can the Mundane be Operatic?
Although these everyday scenes were charming in their mundanity, as one audience member voiced during the Q&A, one can’t help but wonder how Habibi could turn his brief encounters into a full-length opera. Echoing her opinion, this critic found the level of brevity and plainness in these pieces lacked distinction against the others in the program. However, after seeing his pieces performed, Habibi explained that he would certainly like to expand and connect them using a single narrative thread which might change my criticism. He gave the hypothetical example of a piece of trash in the subway. When each person sees it, they remember a different moment in their own lives that they would then recount through narration. Doing so would offer the characters more time for musical elaboration possibly making the music more memorable. Habini described it as opera in which nothing happens on stage, rather the events occur through what is recalled, evoking a neo-Wagnerian concept of opera.
Although Briefs was a performance of new operas, more important to this writer, it was a chance to hear how living composers think about their works and how they might change them. As small opera company, Tapestry is lucky to have the flexibility to open a dialogue between creators and spectators, the like of which I have never had the pleasure to see before. Audiences could see that opera is still alive and open to change, and given the Q&A and comment cards, they are a part of this change.
Opera vs. Musical Theatre
As I have implied here, performances such as Tapestry’s Briefs make us ask ourselves: what do I want from a new opera? According to Palej as we saw before, now more than ever opera needs silence to focus us because the loudness of opera only competes with the busy world we live in. Even the singers presented vastly different interpretations of how they thought this music should be performed. For example, Dobson and Klassen seemed to sing their phrases more like musical theatre, while Woodley and Iris sang it more operatically.
It begs another, more specific, question: what makes modern opera different from musical theatre? There are no easy answers to these questions, but Tapestry’s next newly composed opera might give us at least one.