Complex and compelling opera takes to the Toronto stage
Rape, sexual exploitation, murder — I could be describing the salient event of Rigoletto (1851), but I am actually describing the world premiere of Oksana G. by Aaron Gervais. The centrepiece of Tapestry Opera’s 16/17 season, this opera features full orchestra, chorus, and a dozen roles. Tapestry Opera is a small, well established Toronto-based Company that produces new opera. They can take a bow and a vacation next week for acquitting themselves well with this ambitious undertaking.
Opera is a genre of extremes. The comedies are over-the-top nonsense and the tragedies feature the most sinister faces of humanity and abject, relentless suffering. While Oksana G. is set in the late 1990s, it was very much in keeping with archetypes of operatic tragedy.
The subject matter is as heavy as it gets: a young, naïve rural Ukrainian woman is lured into sex trafficking by a sadistic, misogynistic trader of human flesh. In a desperate situation, Oksana demonstrates resilience and ingenuity enough to rival that of Tosca or Fidelio, some of the greatest operatic heroines of all time. The plot stays consistent with this archetype and ends as tragedies do.
The beauty of new opera is that it has the power to tell timeless stories in a manner that we cannot just dismiss as something awful that happened long ago. Aaron Gervais’ emotionally evocative score, roiling with tonal and rhythmic innovation, united with Colleen Murphy’s straightforward and unapologetic libretto, make it impossible for us to ignore the atrocities that are perpetrated by everyday people.
Not only is forced sexual trafficking a highly emotionally charged topic, it is highly political. While the story is admirable in that it separates trafficking from voluntary, consensual sex work, it subtly reinforces the idea that empowered sex work is something to be ashamed of. Oksana’s shame is repudiated by distancing herself from “prostitution” and upholding the idea that is the “prostitute” who is truly worthy of scorn.
Despite this ideological chafe, I was still moved to care about our heroes. Natalya Gennadi committed to the role of Oksana heart and soul through every note. When she pleads in vain for help over the din of a nightclub where she and other women are being sold, it is devastatingly believable and painful to watch. Her voice is equipped with a powerful core surrounded by endearing sweetness that soared effortlessly through the vocal ups and downs that mirrored the turbulence taking place on stage.
Tapestry regular Keith Klassen found a whole new level of loathsome as psycho-pimp Konstantin. Klassen introduced much more bite to his timbre and much more menacing, angry body language than I have seen from him before. I nodded with satisfaction and audibly whispered “good” when he got his just desserts, although he could have been on the receiving end of more hardcore violence in my opinion.
Adam Fisher’s sweet, bright, and youthful tone was perfection in the role of kindhearted Father Alexander, who gets in way over his head in his efforts to restore Oksana’s faith in humanity and herself. He approached the role with unassuming candor and vulnerability, which was instrumental in making the story ring true.
The orchestra, under the direction of Jordan D’Souza, executed this rigorous and intricate score with musical precision, emotional complexity and range, which were integral to a compelling performance of this gritty work.
Oksana G. shines a light on a subject that we would much rather leave obscured. It also somehow manages to treat the issues with the gravity they deserve without leaving the listener drained. This work is an especially great introduction to new opera for lovers of old school melodramatic tragedy. Combined with superb singing and instrumentation, it is definitely worth seeing while it’s on stage.
- Oksana G. plays until May 30, 2017 at at Imperial Oil Opera Theatre (227 Front Street East, Toronto, Ontario)
- Showtimes are at 8:00 PM on May 26 & 30, and 3:00 PM on May 28, 2017
- Ticket prices for upcoming show range from $50-175.
- Tickets for upcoming show can be purchased by phone at 416-537-6066 x 243 or online.
Photo of Company by Dahlia Katz