In Review: Essential Opera's Triple Bill

In Review: Essential Opera's Triple Bill

Jenna Simeonov

This past weekend, Essential Opera achieved a true feat in the Canadian opera scene: they presented a triple bill of Canadian works, all brand new. It was really exciting to see an event like this in Toronto; to hear Canadian opera, you most likely need to attend something involving Tapestry New Opera Works. But Essential Opera has put themselves on the map in its new contributions to Canada’s operatic repertoire, and I give them a bravo for that. The triple bill featured premieres of Etiquette, (music by Monica Pearce and libretto by John TeraudsRegina (music by Elisha Denburg and libretto by Maya Rabinovitch) and Heather: Cindy + Mindy = BFFs 4EVR (music by Chris Thornborrow and libretto by Julie Tepperman). I was able to stay for the first two pieces, and for info about Heather, you can watch this interview, or check out composer Chris Thornborrow’s website.

Essential Opera founders Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua showed their vocal chops as the lead roles in these premieres; it was my first EO show, and I found them both sweet and expressive singers. I especially liked Maureen as New Yorker critic Dorothy Parker in Etiquette, with her prickly typewriter aria. I thought Erin was stoic and magnetic in Regina, as Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi. I liked the rest of the cast, which included mezzo-soprano Julia Morgan and baritones Keith O’Brien and Jesse Clark. The  orchestra sounded great under music director and pianist Cheryl Duvall.

Here’s the thing: I think I saw two Canadian operas that I enjoyed, but a few things got in my way from saying I really enjoyed the evening. I’m always slightly put off by preambled announcements at concerts (turn off your phone and all that), but I understand the importance of public thanks to the right people. Throughout the night, though, the show kept getting stopped by speech that wasn’t really that interesting and was at times redundant for anyone who had picked up a program.

Before each opera there was a brief interview with each respective work’s composer and librettist; I know this was meant to act as a listening guide for the audience, setting up the piece for its debut performance. It was something that should really have its own medium, like a pre-show chat, aside from the presentation of the works themselves. Simply put, I was excited to hear some new music, and the preamble seemed unnecessary and ever so slightly pretentious.

Etiquette began the night, and it was a clever, interesting story that piqued my attention right away. Dorothy Parker (Maureen Batt), critic at theThe New Yorker, writes her opinions on the latest edition of “Etiquette”, by Emily Post. Amid the defiant review, Emily Post herself has tea with Lady Nancy Astor (Julia Morgan), the first woman in Parliament, natch. They converse about social mores in print and in practicum. The libretto by John Terauds and music by Monica Pearce worked beautifully together, telling us specifics about each character. I particularly liked Terauds’ verbal aesthetic for Etiquette; he successfully captured the mindful, calculated opinions made publicly by women in the early 20th century.

_Regina_ is based on the true story of Regina Jonas, the first woman to be ordained as a rabbi. Elisha Denburg’s score was beautiful and flexible, and the music succeeded in keeping the libretto’s parallel stories separated or intertwined as necessary. Maya Rabinovitch’s libretto was a little vague at times, but some of the text was obscured by a few too many people speaking at once in some ensemble sections.

One issue that took away from my experience of both Regina and Etiquette was the fact that the text just wasn’t clear. It’s true that in both pieces, there were instances of some tricky writing by the composers, making it difficult for the singer to deliver lines naturally. I’m sympathetic to how hard it is for a singer to balance healthy singing with clear text, but I know it’s possible. Most of the singers (with the exception of mezzo Julia Morgan) just needed to enunciate more clearly. These operas were in English, and we were in a fairly small space, and I don’t think it’s a big step to get to a point where no subtitles (these were side-titles, actually) would be needed at all.  With some help from the composers, I think these pieces could have stood more strongly on their own with a more detailed delivery from the cast.

So, my personal irritations aside, I really have to give that nod to Essential Opera for their success with this triple bill. It’s a big deal for three (three!) new Canadian operas to have their premiere in a night. I was really impressed with the music I heard, and I suggest listening to more of Elisha Denburg, and some of Monica Pearce’s projects.

Did you catch the Essential Opera’s Triple Bill? Let us know what you thought in the comments below!

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