Toronto, April 14, 2003. The entrance to the large factory space at Cherry Beach Sound in Toronto’s docklands has been renovated with various vintage items of Arctic travel and resembles a museum of exploration as much as an alternative opera venue. The audience (slightly frigid as a result of an unseasonably cold April) passes through the long atrium and arrives at the starkly lit entrance to the performance space as if entering into another carefully constructed reality. The occasion is the premiere of Linda C. Smith’s Facing South, an opera (based on a libretto by Don Hannah) that looks at Robert Peary’s quest for the North Pole, and has been commissioned, workshopped, and produced by Tapestry New Opera Works, an opera company whose mission is to create new works for the operatic stage.
After having just arrived in Toronto in the summer of 2002 with absolutely no work lined up, the first engagement that I was hired for was as a pianist for the 2002 Composer-Librettist Laboratory at Tapestry New Opera Works. For this workshop (held every August in the cavernous Rosedale United Church), 4 composers and 4 librettists pair up with each of the others of the opposite discipline to create 16 operatic scenes in just over one week. On the first day of the workshop, writers, composers, pianists, and singers met for an initial meet and greet, followed by a mini-performance where each singer performed a few arias that showcased their voice. The discussion that followed dealt with the particulars of register, range, tessitura, timbre, passaggio, falsetto, as well as which vowels each singer preferred to sing for their highest notes. After this, singers and pianists were dismissed and the first round of composer-librettist writing began.
The Composer-Librettist Laboratory was unlike any other previous engagement I had played at because on every subsequent day that the singers and pianists were called, we arrived with nothing. When we showed up for each rehearsal and performance session, we sight-read what the writers and composers had just written (most often overnight), rehearsed each scene for only an hour, and then performed each scene for the group. Following seat-of-our-pants performances, dramaturge Michael Albano and musical dramaturge Wayne Strongman (also the Artistic Director of the company) would talk about their initial perceptions of text and music, the drawing of characters, the suitability of musical style, and dramatic trajectory. This was one of the most rewarding moments of the discussion, and we could perceive in the resulting dialogue which writer/composer pairings just might be willing to take the next step and work toward the eventual commissioning of a larger operatic work, either through Tapestry or another company.
Montreal, September 21, 2005. In a renovated industrial space, artistic director Wayne Strongman, composer Darren Fung, librettist Colleen Murphy, mezzo soprano Jessica Lloyd, tenor Keith Klassen, and I arrive for the annual convention of Aeroplan, a publicly traded company that specializes in airline reward plans. Aeroplan supports the arts, and desires to learn from the companies that they donate to. As part of the afternoon’s proceedings, Fung and Murphy have just created an operatic scene (overnight, no less) based on submissions the day before from convention-goers on themes from the life of their company. The resulting five-minute operatic short tells the story of how a office worker (played by Keith Klassen) in his first day on the job ends up comforting a senior manager (played by Jessica Lloyd) who has just heard the terrible news that one of her most beloved colleagues in the company has suddenly passed away.
The workshop process of an operatic work-in-progress isn’t like any other activity you’ll find in the opera world. Unlike more established operas in the repertoire whose every single note will be set in stone for one’s entire professional life, the ground is never solid beneath one’s feet when a new operatic work is in the workshop process. The aria that seemed to slow down a scene in today’s rehearsal might be chopped down to a few lines of text, and that transition that never seemed to give enough emotional time between scenes might be expanded into a much larger interlude by tomorrow’s rehearsal.
Having an openness of mind is what composers and writers need so that they can develop their toolkit of techniques while in the operatic sandbox. Singers that excel in this field are able to utilize their voice, acting skill, and physicality to literally create characters out of nothing, allowing composers and writers to fine-tune what they have written and chip away at the marble in order to create a more detailed operatic sculpture.
Sault Ste. Marie, October 17, 2004. On this evening, Tapestry is producing the first opera ever presented in the industrial northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie as part of the Algoma Fall Festival.
The sold-out performance takes place in a hardwood lumber factory.
The owners of the mill have graciously donated one of their factory buildings to the Algoma Festival for the remounting of Opera To Go 2004, a series of six one-act operas that had premiered in Toronto six months previously. The audience enters the large factory space redolent with the scent of high-quality hardwoods, and finds their seats in two open areas of the factory floor, one for the first half and another for the second. Octobers in northern Ontario can be rather cold and the factory has none of the amenities of more traditional, heated opera houses. But what nobody counted on was that the acoustics of the space, consisting of equal parts concrete and hardwood inventory, would be this resonant.
The survival of a Canadian niche opera company such as Tapestry depends on its ability to apply for and receive funding from the three levels of government (municipal, provincial, and federal), as well as being able to raise funding from numerous private sources. Part of Tapestry’s success story has been its ability to effectively manage its finances (it is now debt-free and runs in the black), as well as constantly expand its pool of engaged audience members, creative artists, and donors.
The most recent step in Tapestry’s path has consisted of the formation of the Tapestry New Works Studio Company, an ensemble funded by the Metcalf Foundation consisting of directors, singers, repetiteurs, led by Resident Director Tom Diamond. The members of the studio company (I am honored to be one of its two coach/repetiteurs) form the core of Tapestry’s artistic undertakings and make a multi-year commitment to the company’s activities, no matter where other performing and teaching engagements may lead them.
Toronto, September 28, 2007. The audience in the Ernest Balmer Studio in Toronto’s Distillery District arrives with plenty of time to spare—they want good seats. The short run of Opera Briefs 7 has sold out faster than anyone anticipated. Since many of the performers, writers, and composers in the production are active Facebook members, the online event listing circulated for the event has gone viral, with nearly all tickets being sold prior to opening night. In fact, ticket sales were cut off nearly a week before opening so that there would be a dozen or so seats available for any walkups lucky enough to arrive early enough on performance days.
The audience for Opera Briefs 7 is also younger than usual, with an average age that looks to be closer to 30 than 50. After performances of 12 mini-operas culled from the 2007 Composer/Librettist Laboratory, most of the audience stays, and for a good while too. After Tapestry performances in the Ernest Balmer Studio, it has become a tradition to hold receptions for audiences, performers, and creative staff to mingle, since many of the best discussions about the fledgeling operatic works take place before the paint is dry. What audiences leave with is priceless: an inside look at the beginnings of what may just become the future of opera and the chance to exchange ideas with those that participate in the creative process.