The introduction of the atomic bomb is explored in Shelter, a modern opera playing in Toronto
Tapestry’s production of the 2014 opera Shelter, by librettist Julie Salverson and composer Juliet Palmer, made thoughtful and striking use of modern, interdisciplinary approaches to set design. Video was used as backdrop in a way that brought the themes of the piece to life with beauty and humour. The set consisted of a miniature white picket fence community and minimal other props used to change the location.
In Shelter, a family’s surreal drama is interwoven with historical facts and characters involved in the development of the atomic bomb to explore the intersection domestic life and the pressures of scientific advancement.
While the harmonies, melodies and meters of this chamber opera were innovative and new to the ear, the structure was largely traditional. The story is told in one act. Through-sung passages, akin to recitative, were used to advance plot and musical numbers (arias, duets, ensembles) were used to explore the emotional and philosophical themes of the piece.
I really enjoyed some of the duet and ensemble singing in this work, most notably Hope and Lise Meitner’s Scene 4 duet. Unfortunately, the duet and ensemble singing made it difficult to hear the dialogue at times, making it difficult to catch all of the nuances of the plot. Tapestry may want to consider doing what other opera production companies now do – use surtitles even when the production is in English.
My companion found he did not get very caught up in the story. While I think this is partly because of the issue with hearing all of the dialogue noted above, I think there is another reason. In order for singers to be fully emotionally immersed in the drama of the story, their internalisation of the music and how their part fits into the harmonic structure of the work must be total. It is easier to achieve this total internalisation when one is learning something from the standard repertoire that strongly resembles all the operas they have ever heard and everything they trained on. In this production, it felt as though the musicians still had to devote enough of their focus to accurately executing the music that creative expression was still somewhat hampered.
That being said, the cast still delivered some inspired performances. They were all asked to do things vocally that fall outside of the comfort zone of bel canto singing. Christine Duncan in the role of Claire, the mother, adopted a broad and slightly nasal timbre that was very reminiscent of musical theatre singing. Teiya Kasahara was completely committed to the role of Hope, the angst-ridden, isolated teen daughter. Her industrial punk aria is definitely one of the highlights of the piece.
I really enjoyed the opportunity to see a new Canadian work. I will continue to follow Juliet Palmer; she is manipulating the boundaries of tonality in a way that is still melodic and musically engaging. I also sincerely hope that Tapestry and other opera productions continue to use multimedia to its full advantage since the video installation was one of the highlights of this production.
- Shelter is playing until June 15 at Berkley Street Theatre (26 Berkley Street)
- Show times are 7:30 PM on June 14, with an additional matinee on June 15 at 2 PM
- Ticket prices range from $55 – $75. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $15 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416.368.3110