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SCRUTINY | COC Season Ends With An Emotionally Powerful World Premiere Of Aportia Chryptych

By Joseph So on June 17, 2024

Scenes from the Canadian Opera Company’s Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Scenes from the Canadian Opera Company’s Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Neema Bickersteth (Portia Body), Adrienne Danrich (Portia Spirit), SATE (Portia Soul), Henos Girma (Jimmy); Sean Mayes with HAUI, Composer; HAUI, Director/Librettist; Sheree Spencer, Assistant Director; Neema Bickersteth, Dramaturg; Laura Warren, Set & Projection; Bonnie Beecher, Lighting; Diséiye Thompson, Costume Design; Members of the COC Orchestra; Sean Mayes, Conductor. Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Centre, June 14, 2024.

What a way to end the season! From the opening Fidelio last October to Cherubini’s Medea which brought the mainstage season to a close in May, Toronto opera lovers witnessed a truly memorable season of many musical and dramatic highlights.

But, that’s not all. There was an additional delight, a world premiere that took place this past weekend: Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White. This work marks the 10th world premiere in COC history, and the first since Rufus Wainwright’s striking opera Hadrian back in October 2018.

Aportia Chryptych is the story of contralto Portia White. A native of Truro, Nova Scotia, White was the first Black Canadian classical singer to have a significant career in the middle of the 20th Century. Despite having a great voice and deemed important enough by the Canadian government to have her immortalised on a Canadian stamp in 1999, she is sadly forgotten today by Canadian music lovers.

If I may allow myself a small personal anecdote — some 25 years ago, I was invited by the Canadian Encyclopedia to write a bibliographic entry on White. I really didn’t know much about her, but as a university academic and a music lover, I was eager to take on the challenge. I did the research and wrote the article. It was telling that her name never came up in any musical discussions that I was involved in.

Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out that an opera has been composed on Portia White, with a world premiere to take place right here in Toronto! I attended opening night on Friday, June 14 at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Theatre, the home of the Canadian Opera Company on Front Street.

This theatre is normally a rehearsal space, fitted with about 300 seats for the occasion. It was jampacked on Friday, with a mix of regulars, — the die-hard opera fans — and those who were there for the special occasion. This intimate space, while not designed as a working theatre, is ideal for smaller-scale productions such this one. At the end of the nearly three hour show, the receptive audience gave it a well deserved ovation.

Aportia Chryptych begins at the moment of death of the singer, on February 13, 1968. She crosses over into Bardo, which according to Tibetan Buddhism is the liminal state between death and rebirth. Portia at this point is represented by three aspects of her being: the Portia Spirit, the Portia Body, and the Portia Soul, sung by Adrienne Danrich, Neema Bickersteth, and SATE respectively.

Scenes from the Canadian Opera Company’s Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White (Photo: Michael Cooper)
Scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s Aportia Chryptych: A Black Opera for Portia White (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Throughout the opera, Portia relives pivotal moments of her life: her growing up, her early setbacks, grieving over the loss of loved ones, her pursuing the dream of music versus traditional motherhood, her encounters with racism, her meeting important figures along the way, among them her teacher Dr. Ernesto Vinci at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, the great American contralto Marian Anderson — even singing for Queen Elizabeth II.

Given that there are so many characters in the non-linear storytelling, however fascinating, it does give the opera an episodic feel. With only three singers (not counting the boy treble as Portia’s son Jimmy), each singer takes on multiple characters, which takes some getting-used-to. Kudos to all three principals for their fine vocalism and dramatic acuity, with a special shoutout to Adrienne Danrich as Portia Spirit. Her excellent top and fearless vocalism were a real highlight of the evening.

I find the score very different from what one has come to expect in “new music.” It is stylistically closer to musical theatre than a contemporary opera as we know it — tonal, accessible, even with arias. There were jazzy and R&B moments, plus lots of direct or indirect quotations of well-known pieces, from Spirituals to the folksongs like “I Wonder as I Wander.” At one point, there were the words “…fatal gift, cruel gift…” that made me think of Eboli in Don Carlo!

Is the stylistically derivative nature of Aportia Chryptych a criticism? No. If anything, keeping to a more traditional musical idiom is ideal, because it remains stylistically true to the music in Portia White’s time and her culture. “Think On Me,” her signature song at the end of the opera packs an emotional wallop, something that would be hard to achieve with a more contemporary musical aesthetic.

Production-wise, the projections by Laura Warren and the lighting by Bonnie Beecher were very evocative. The limited staging space and the lack of an orchestral pit posed no problems when it came to audience enjoyment. Perhaps separating the orchestra to the sides of the theatre was not ideal, but if it posed a problem for conductor Sean Mayes, it didn’t show.

Final thoughts. This new work is helping to bring an important Canadian musical — and I dare say cultural — figure back into the consciousness of the Canadian public. It’s a musically and emotionally powerful piece for the audience.

For that alone, Aportia Chryptych is a significant addition to the annals of Canadian opera.

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Joseph So
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