Review: Tap Ex: Forbidden (Tapestry Opera)

Toronto’s Tapestry Opera fuses opera with Persian music for a new experimental opera

“You’ve probably never seen anything like this before,” says Tapestry Opera‘s general director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, also the director of Tap Ex: Forbidden, the latest in the company’s series of new, experimental operas. Although it’s uncommon for a director to appear on stage prior to a performance to explain their creative rationale, it’s an unusual show, and a little bit of encouragement makes it more accessible and rewarding.

Tapestry Opera specializes in using a traditional art form to tackle the “here and now”. Their experimental series – called “Tap Ex” for short – incorporates topical subject matter and musical styles that don’t typically “go” with opera. In the case Forbidden, a new opera with music by Afarin Mansouri with libretto by Donna-Michelle St. Bernard; a fusion of operatic vocals, Persian classical music and hip-hop is served up. It provides an enthralling, unorthodox sound fitting of the production’s rule-breaking vision.

The story is straightforward, which is for the best because the experimental nature of the show does somewhat apply to the narrative. A young girl being disciplined is visited by Lucifer, who sets about tempting her into rebellion. To make the case for anarchy, he conjures images of current events that show us how society’s rules exploit those it should protect.

The structure is somewhat episodic, switching between Lucifer and his prey to these scenes of social unrest. Although it felt stop-and-go, it never dragged. Each vignette tells us all we need to know without overselling the drama. However, some of the scenes felt more moving than others – in a scene where a rape victim tries to report the incident, the officer’s sarcastic attitude tips the tone into satire, which feels misplaced and doesn’t do real-life victims of sexual assault any favours.

The most powerful scene by far comes near the end of the first act, where a woman sings a tribute to burned and banned books. The vocal power and charm of mezzo-soprano Shirin Eskandi here perfectly capture the empowerment and thrill that so many of us find in reading. She is well-complimented by subtle but stunning costume design by Erin Gerofsky, which draws a parallel between literacy and women’s sexual liberation.

The scenes between Lucifer and the unnamed girl generally felt more compelling than the vignettes, though. Soprano Neema Bickersteth’s acting stuns as much as her voice does – she really feels like an eager, curious kid, and it makes for a more exciting opera. I felt captivated by the girl’s predicament and found myself actually wondering what her ultimate choice would be. Baritone Alexander Hajek’s Lucifer plays off her with so much swagger and charisma it should be illegal. He feels like someone who truly could charm and manipulate you into sinning, and he is clearly having a lot of fun doing it. Attractive antagonists are the best at what they do, after all.

Rounding out the cast is Iranian rap artist Säye Skye, playing various roles in scenes. His presence represents an internal voice for the other characters, regarding the conflict in wanting to act out but fearing punishment. I wished that he’d had more opportunities to take centre stage, though – his spoken-word verses are just as riveting as the singing of his operatic co-stars, but felt more like an accessory. If people are already through the door and sitting down for an experimental fusion opera, it couldn’t hurt to turn up the risk factor and give an artist like Skye more time to shine.

Forbidden is a great example of how to let opera evolve and be made less “scary” to an average audience member. Fans of traditional opera can see beauty in the unconventional, and those who normally don’t have opera on their radar have the chance to discover a new world.

Details:

  • Tap Ex: Forbidden is playing until February 11 at the Ernest Balmer Studio (9 Trinity St)
  • Showtimes is 8pm, with 4pm matinees on Saturday & Sunday
  • Tickets are $45.00 for general admission, and $25.00 for secondary and post-secondary students with valid student ID
  • Tickets are available online, or at the door. However, as space is limited, booking in advance is advised.
  • Show length is approximately 2 hours with intermission.
  • This production uses a fog effect.

Photo of Neema Bickersteth as the Girl and Alexander Hajek as Lucifer by Dahlia Katz.

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