Enticing teasers: Winter Shorts Jacqueline Woodley in Pursuit, Tapestry Opera's Winter Shorts, 2017. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

Enticing teasers: Winter Shorts

Greg Finney

The Toronto Christmas Market in the Distillery District was in full swing on Wednesday night as we made our way to Tapestry’s latest instalment of Tapestry Briefs: Winter Shorts. The night was a presentation of some of the most promising works to come from the Compser-Librettists Laboratory, or LIBLAB. This program is responsible for some of Tapestry’s biggest hits including Oksana G. and the multiple Dora Award-winning Rocking Horse Winner.

Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori introduced the evening to a warm and receptive audience. This time we were in the Dancemakers Studio, a bigger venue with slightly raked audience seating which made for better viewing. The black marley floor and the white walls providing a stark, artistic backdrop for the minimalist sets that were changed a vista by the artists and some incognito running crew.

The night consisted of eleven selections from LIBLAB, touching on subjects ranging from the barista’s crush on the handsome regular (as a former barista myself, this one rang very true) to a piece inspired by the world-famous photo of the poor Syrian boy found dead in the sand on the beach. It was a range of topics only Tapestry could tackle and pull off successfully.

The night featured a stellar line-up of singers (and Tapestry favourites), soprano Jacqueline Woodley, mezzo-soprano Erica Iris, tenor Keith Klassen (#OGTripleswoonTimesInfinity), and baritone Alexander Dobson. When you have gifted musicians like this, teamed up with the wonderful pianist/coach/Music Director Michael Shannon as orchestra, you’re bound for an amazing night.

Erica Iris Huang and Alexander Dobson in Queen of Swords, Tapestry Opera’s Winter Shorts, 2017. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

The night opened with The Call of the Light by Iman Habibi and libretto by Bobby Theodore. Dobson played a lone gunman committing a mass shooting, the man’s inner thoughts and demons being echoed by the injured people lying on the ground around him. As the shooter, Dobson’s singing showed his prowess of both range and colour. Warm and dark in the low register and bright and “pingy” in the upper, Dobson’s voice is made for the kind of new music that’s hitting the boards these days.

Habibi also teamed up with Phoebe Tsang for Opposites Attract. This piece got my attention. In very short, surprisingly musical vignettes, all four singers portrayed two sides of a coin during interactions between people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives. Habibi’s last piece, teaming up with librettist Jessica Murphy Moo, was Pursuit; we saw Woodley’s lustful barista pining for an oblivious Klassen (girl… I have BEEN there).

Keith Klassen and Jacqueline Woodley in Pursuit, Tapestry Opera’s Winter Shorts, 2017. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

Kit Vaughan Soden and librettist Bobby Theodore brought us Galateo, a story of a man in a post-apocalyptic (year 2056) world, who has developed a terrorist-hunting robot (think the Sentinels in the 90s X-Men cartoon) and is struggling with the ethical decision to destroy it or let it loose on the world. This was a piece where Klassen really got to flex his impressive acting chops. His mental struggle was so intense it became physical. Klassen’s connection to the inventor was visceral and the result of the ensuing conflict was incredible. The piece was riveting and Klassen was the perfect fit.

In Playing Ball, Norbert Palej teams up with librettist Marcia Johnson to tell the story of a woman caring for a man in a semi-vegetative state. I wasn’t clear on the man’s actual condition, but the story was about the caregiver’s plight. Woodley sang with tender grace and passion. You could feel the love in her eyes for her ailing partner who would “play ball” by dropping a rubber ball to engage her. You could feel the nuanced journey of Woodley’s character from love, to pity, to frustration, to pity, to love. It was a remarkably moving scene.

In a completely different vein, Palej teamed with Bobby Theodore for Otherworld, which tells the story of the people in a small mining town presenting a play about the day their fellow townsfolk found two green children in a mine, claiming to be from a world lit only by twilight.

Palej’s third piece (which closed the whole night) with a libretto by Phoebe Tsang told the story of a journalist who was granted an interview with an infamous hotel owner, who had the building rigged so he could spy on his patrons in flagrante. He kept diligent notes about what he saw, and believed he was acting in the interest of science. He provided his records to journalists and this is what forms the libretto for the piece. It was interesting to say the least, almost like a Canadian answer to Sondheim’s Assassins, only with a decidedly less musical-theatre bent. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this piece fleshed out and explored more deeply as well.

I think my favourite works of the night were brought by Afarin Mansour and Jessica Murphy Moo. In Morning Prayers, we see the struggle of a Muslim man coming to terms with being a homosexual in a land where it is illegal for him to exist. Klassen brought forth the anguish and terror in a duly manic performance. Queen of Swords saw Erica Iris playing a wealthy divorcĂ©e who is getting her cards read by a tall, dark, stranger. Iris’ voice is so versatile and works so well in a space like this. Phoebe Tsang’s dialogue was peppy and laden with innuendo and gave the players a lot of great material to play with.

The most poignant piece of the night was titled Lullaby at the Shore. Mansouri and Johnson join forces to tell the story of Syrian immigrants trying to find safe harbour. The piece was inspired by and incorporates the image of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy found on the beach after drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. The piece was powerful, moving. The harmonies were close and tense and the textures oscillated between abrasive and mellifluous. Mansouri incorporated Eastern melodic material and styles to the score which mashed against a somewhat traditionally Western harmonic development. My only wish for this piece was to hear more from the Syrian voices. There’s a powerful moment where a cacophony of questions from less-than-welcoming Westerners is injected into the playing scene, giving us a glimpse of what the Syrians have heard and seen. I found this piece, though beautiful and haunting and important, left me with a few more questions than answers - and maybe that was the point.

All in all, Tapestry pulls off yet another brilliant feat of new and developing opera here in Canada. I can’t wait to see which of these pieces goes on to be the next Okasana G. or Rocking Horse Winner. If it IS Otherworld, I would like to submit my resume for the role of one of those townspeople/miners-come-actors.

Tapestry Briefs runs til December 3, with a couple of matinees if your holiday evenings are already getting booked up.

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