On Sunday, January 21, the University of Toronto opened their New Music Festival with two events. First, a colloquium that discussed opera’s state and asked about its future after Canada’s 150. This was then followed by the premiere of a newly composed opera by their Opera Student Composer Collective called Vengeance. It seems like Vengeance was meant to be part of the answer to the question “Where do we go from here?” However, I think the Colloquium suggested much more radical and interesting solutions than what was performed on stage.
An Opera Composed by Five Composers
What may seem rather unorthodox, Vengeance is composed by five student composers: Curtis Wright, Paulo do Nascimento Brito, Felipe Téllez, Hanna Kim, and Colin McMahon. To do so, one libretto was divided among these five composers, each section meant as an exercise in operatic composition. The product is an opera with a cohesive narrative, and five distinct musical styles, and although the transitions between them were somewhat sudden, it wasn’t this that made Vengeance slightly difficult to watch.
Vengeance’s problems start with the libretto written by Michael Patrick Albano. It was inspired by Fredrich Dürrenmatt’s play The Visit (or Der Besuch der alten Dame in German), which has already been adapted into several mediums and even set to music on Broadway. Albano focuses on the tragic, almost horror story, of Claire Zachanassian, a wealthy woman who seeks revenge on her past lover, Anton Schill, for abandoning her while she was pregnant with their now deceased child. Returning to her impoverished hometown where Schill lives, she offers two billion to the town and its residents in return for his life. As the opera unfolds, we see the townspeople turn against him, despite their moral beliefs.
The story is a good one that makes everyone on stage a villain by circumstances of greed, cowardice, and self-intrigue, possibly provoking us to question some untold #metoo stories. However, this only a speculation.
A Noble Goal with Troublesome Execution
To the detriment on the work, Albano’s reduction of the play leaves very few private or intimate scenes with solos and duets, and so the student composers are left with the daunting challenge of drawing us into the inner pathos of the protagonists through public scenes. What we are left with are a series of choruses, trios, and quartets clearly arranged to accommodate a large cast of learning singers. Although it is noble give as many singers as possible a chance to perform, this attempt to create an opera specifically for the resources offered at UofT seems to erode the efficacy of the work.
Despite the libretto, there were common issues when it came to setting music for the voice. At times, Wright did not scale back his large (Straussian/Bergian) orchestral writing such that the singers could be heard over the orchestra. Moreover, at some orchestral climaxes, the singer’s line was set in the low part of their range, making them indistinguishable in the texture. Luckily, there were surtitles to clarify the plot.
Many of the composers, such as Téllez, composed beautiful orchestral interludes, yet when it came to vocal music, what they composed sounded to me more like dissonant recitative.
That said, there were some moments of truly inspired operatic composition. Hanna Kim, for example, accentuated the intense drama of a struggle using percussive instrumentation, much like the 20th-century composer George Antheil. Kim also created some beautiful melodic themes that developed in the orchestra to be passed to the voices, thereby giving the scene musical coherency. Although McMahon also had very interesting material developed in orchestra, when he passed these musical themes to the voices their contour became much less inspired.
Complex Music for UofT’s Singers to Deliver
Despite some very moving orchestral composition, the vocal lines ranged from being too plain to overly complex, which didn’t give the singers much opportunity to exhibit their abilities. Of course, one has to acknowledge that given the limited rehearsal time available for this performance, as well as the difficulty of performing in five different styles in one opera, it is hard to evaluate the true potential of these performers.
Although it was not the most musical portrait of Anton Schill I could imagine given the difficulty of the music, baritone Joel Allison gave the most vocally assured performance. Soprano Leanne Kaufman also gave a committed performance as Claire, but I would have liked to hear her give more vocal variation in the overwhelming amount of recitative-like music she had. Soprano Rebecca Gray’s singing brought a humanity to the character of Mathilde, Schill’s wife, but at moments her voice lacked steadiness. Brendan Friesen, the chief of police, showed off his rich bass voice in the part’s limited range. I wish I could have heard more of Centre Stage Winner Simona Genga, who unfortunately played the small role of the School Mistress. The rest of the large cast included Andrew Adridge, Joshua Clemenger, Daniel Thielmann, Tatianna Stanishich, Jamie Groote, Emma Bergin, Sarah Amelard, Emma Greve, Georgia Burashko, Alex Halliday, Alyssa Durnie, and Matthew Cairns.
Sandra Horst led the orchestra with precision, as could be seen by her strict beating of the tempos. However, the performance lacked musical conviction and vision. It sounded like her, and the orchestra were struggling to play all the notes in what was a very complex score, rather than shaping the music. As Don McLean pointed out before the opera began, UofT is privileged to offer an orchestra and a fully staged production for a new work. However, one almost wishes these resources were used on a more thoroughly conceived opera.
The Colloquium Explored Difficult Questions about Opera’s Future
The colloquium offered more promising answers as to what opera might look like in the future. The first panel focused singers including sopranos Mary Morrison, Rebecca Gray, and Leanne Kaufman. To make opera relevant to today’s audiences, Gray thought that opera needs to grapple with current issues such as feminism, rather than resurrecting outdated interpretations of suppressed women.
Similarly, in the composer panel, which included Cecilia Livingstone, Felipe Téllez, and Kevin Law (all who study or have studied at UofT at one point), Livingstone noted that opera has the power to unsettle its audiences. She referred to the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung and Bluebeard’s Castle as an inspiration. She went to observe that without these unsettling new productions and works, we will never know if there is something new that could be just as interesting as the operas we continue to revive.
Finally, the last panel called “The Fortune Tellers,” included two scholars who have published extensively on opera, Linda Hutcheon and Michael Hutcheon, and Tapestry Theatre’s artistic director Michael Mori. Linda Hutcheon expanded Gray’s observations when she described the future of opera reflecting the diversity of our culture with what she described as CCN (Dr. Atomic) and star operas (Anna Nicole, Jackie O). She also cited operas here in Toronto including Tapestry’s Oksana G, AtG’s Bound, and Canada such as Pacific Opera’s Missing.
Partly because Tapestry performs newly composed works while focussing on current events and incorporating new technologies like augmented and virtual reality, Mori claimed that Tapestry is the most traditional opera company in Toronto. Based on the history of opera it is hard to deny this fact. As UofT musicologist Caryl Clark noted, when operas such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni were composed they were made to appeal to audiences of the time by using new instrumentation or making cultural references. Similarly, Tapestry creates newly composed opera using technology that is relevant because it uses the ways musicians make music today (such as a turntable in TapX).
Although composing new opera in this way is controversial, Clark suggested something even more radical. She would like to see modern productions of old operas unsettle the staging, and the music. And I completely agree.
To use the example of Don Giovanni again, Mozart used well-known music at the time the opera was composed to engage his contemporary audiences. When companies restage operas like Don Giovanni in the early 20th century, like the UofT’s production, they could replace the popular music of Mozart’s time with something like jazz that is more appropriate to the time period the opera is set in. The only company that has found notoriety in Toronto changing the text and music of old works is AtG. Maybe post 151 we might see more of these.
By doing this, I think old operas could become flexible and alive again, rather than museum pieces that we preserve as if they were behind glass. Although we don’t want to tamper with things that were once great, in doing so we also lose what once made opera a vital living breathing art form. One solution is creating new works, but maybe there are multiple solutions, such as musically re-appropriating older ones. However, if critics dislike toward the COC’s Regietheatre production of Rigoletto is a sign, it seems we have a long way to go before we see the band music at the beginning of Rigoletto performed as anything but what Verdi wrote.