Review: Pub Operas (Tapestry New Opera Works)

Many people with whom I have discussed my love of opera have expressed surprise there are new operas currently being written, apparently believing that opera’s history stops abruptly at the end of the 19th century. This perception is especially tragic in light of the fact that Toronto is home to an opera company entirely devoted to new works. Tapestry New Opera Works current production, Pub Operas, was everything I hope to see in a new work. The work gently pushes the boundaries of musical and staging tradition, while still bringing richly textured, beautiful music to the listener’s ear.

The Opera consisted of five vignettes, all of which were set in Sloan’s Pub, Glasgow, in different time periods.  Established in 1797, Sloan’s is Glasgow’s oldest pub and has certainly seen quite a bit of history. The work was originally produced in July 2011 in Glasgow as the Sloan’s Project and some of the vignettes are based on actual events which took place there. The three interior vignettes contained no thematic relationship apart from location. The fifth vignette completed the story established in the first, bringing the whole show full circle and uniting the different scenes nicely.

The performance took place in Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District, which was of course set up to look like a pub. Alcoholic beverages and Scottish refreshments were available before the show and during the intermission. In keeping with the theme, audience members could continue to enjoy their drinks and treats during the show. Some audience members were seated at the pub tables, allowing them to become part of the performance. The space is intimate and completely dismantles the concept of the fourth wall; the performance took place at both ends and through the entire space.

If you are trying to find Ernest Balmer Studio, it is in Building 58, the Artscape building. Do not allow any of Distillery’s maps to deceive you into veering off from the main path into the District. The door you need to go through is just before Balzac’s Coffee Shop and is marked with a sign that says Yoga Studio.

One of the most interesting aspects of the music was the instrumentation. The singers were accompanied by a chamber orchestra comprised of harp, cello, violin, piano, accordion, and wine glasses.  Wine glasses, as you may remember from childhood, can be played by moistening the rim and then running a finger around the rim of the glass. Different pitches can be created by placing precise amounts of water in each glass. This device was used to excellent effect throughout the performance.

Scottish composer Gareth Williams has a superb grasp of the relationship between tonality, texture and mood. The music was at times lyrical and fluid and at times discordant and agitated; perfectly capturing the nuances of characters emotions and conflicts. He and Canadian librettist David Brock are an excellent duo. Mr. Brock successfully united thematic depth with light-hearted fun, very consistent with many people’s experience of the pub environment.

The singers gave masterful performances, both vocally and dramatically. Words cannot describe the hilarity of hearing operatic soprano, Xin Wang, whose voice is light and lovely; mimic a country singer’s tone, inflection and diction. Mezzo-Soprano Heather Jewson carried the entire second vignette, a sung monologue which concludes with an arietta – a short aria – of charming beauty. Ms. Jewson had no difficulty maintaining a captive audience during her solo scene. Tenor James McLean’s dramatic intensity and rage was awe-inspiring during his scene playing the role of a vengeful father. Baritone Benjamin Covey, in addition to having a rich, resonant and powerful voice, has quite a gift for comedy and carried much of the performance’s significant humour.

I thoroughly enjoyed this new work. The music is complex and varied. Some of the audience members, who were likely more accustomed to historical opera, appeared somewhat perplexed. Nevertheless, I still think this show would be an excellent introduction to new music for those wanting to hear some opera written this millennium.

– Pub Operas is playing at Ernest Balmer Studio
(55 Mill St. Bldg. 58, The Cannery, Studio 315) until November 12, 2011
– Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 8pm.
– Ticket prices are $30.
– Tickets are available at the Tapestry Office 416.537.6066 x 243

Photo of Benjamin Covey and James McLean by Michael Mori