By Dana Lacey
I’ve never been to an opera. I have, however, seen plenty in movies and Bugs Bunny cartoons, so I figured I knew what I was in for when I went to check out La Señorita Mundo – an operatic allegory.
That was my first mistake. The second was sitting in the front row.
Playing in the SummerWorks Festival (Toronto’s indie theatre and arts festival) La Señorita Mundo bills itself as an “operatic allegory”, which means the playwright has something to say beyond the basic storyline (aging modern-day Cassanova meets his match.)
This opera did nothing to satisfy my cartoon-based stereotypes: it was in English, there were no viking horns and no fat lady did any singing.
I loved it.
The opera is the latest collaboration of Vancouver playwright and director Kico Gonzalez-Risso and Toronto musician Njo Kong Kie.
When the houselights dim, Julius steps onstage humming confidently. He’s surrounded by mirrors, which he constantly checks as he prepares for his birthday party, all the while trying to convince himself that he really doesn’t look 40 at all. It works pretty well. Actor Keith Klassen exudes ego, shaking his hips suggestively as he wonders which lucky lady will stay after the party’s over. Did I mention it’s a masquerade?
Suddenly, the house lights brighten and Klassen does what I dread: he interacts with the audience. Seems we’re the guests at his party.He gestures at me, suggesting I’d be a willing orgy partner, along with the guy across the aisle. I smile, praying that my face isn’t turning TOO crimson. It’s going to be one of those shows, I think to myself.
Enter Vilma Vitols as a nameless woman, wearing an extravagant mask that hides her face. The rest of her outfit doesn’t leave much to the imagination, with Julius appreciates. They banter in song, trading insults and flirting.
A quick lesson in opera jargon: I don’t think I’m actually suppposed to call the performers “actors.” Klassen is a tenor, which means “high male voice.” Vitols is a mezzo, which is a female voice that settles somewhere between contralto (the lowest voice) and soprano, the glass-shattering voice. But with all the inneuendo and subtle back-and-worth between them, they were more than pretty voices (especially Vitols, who was left with only her smile to show facial expressions.)
The two play off each other well, and I love how Vitols picked unlikely words to emphasize: instead of going for the obvious high note at the end of a sentence, she choose ones sprinkled throughout the songs, usually ones with lots of “r”s, which she carried in a long, almost stutter-like voice that really impacted my eardrums.
At first, the opera is lighthearted and funny, with some great turns of phrase (which only sound better when sung with just the right cadence, which both actors capture beautifully.) It seems like its all about sex. The music dances around, mixing in different genres that compliment both the party mood and the surreal tone of the woman’s songs.
Then suddenly I was faced with a bit of personal horror. I knew something was up when Klassen looked at me while singing wistfully about dancing—then he grabbed my hands, pulled me up and attemped a ballroom-style dance. We both tried to lead, and several failed attempts later I admitted I didn’t know how to dance. Without stopping his song, he threw in a “me neither” and I decided to make the dance a ho-down instead.
Very slowly, very subtly, you get the sense that there’s something important about this mystery woman. Even as she takes off her clothes, the show becomes less about sex. While it may be obvious that this is a play about aging gracefully and beauty and identify and blah blah blah, it takes a surprising metaphysical turn as Julius takes off the woman’s mask and is faced with….well, you’ll have to see it for yourself. I love how seamlessly the playwright moved from comedy to mystery to horror.
Check out the hilarious and unexpectedly tragic La Señorita Mundo for yourself. Even if you’ve never seen an opera–or maybe especially?
Photo courtesy of SummerWorks