In review: Sweat
In mid-July, the Bicycle Opera Project began its touring production of Sweat, the a cappella opera for 9 singers by composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton. In this production directed by Banuta Rubess, BOP is giving Sweat its Canadian premiere, bringing to Ontario audiences the bleak story of the lives of women who work in the garment industry's sweat shops. Happily, Schmopera got to watch a technical run in their current space, the Aki Studio at Toronto's Daniels Spectrum.
It's a story that confirms one's hunches about where their $12 tank tops come from, and one that addresses the unresolved truths that are sadly outweighed by the temptations of corporate profit and customer convenience ("If I don't buy it, someone else will."). The opera itself is a cross between an ensemble piece and a vaguely heroic story of one factory worker who fights for fair treatment.
We meet a cross-section of sweat shop workers, a nameless group of women who reveal themselves as individuals with wants and needs; we also follow a union organizer (sung sympathetically by mezzo Stephanie Tritchew) and her ambition - naïve as it may be - to gain fair pay and humane treatment for her and the other women working 16-hour days in dangerous conditions. She meets hurdles in the unsympathetic factory owner (sung hatefully by baritone Keith Lam), and in fellow workers who refuse to risk the job they have (frustratingly embodied by Larissa Koniuk), dangerous and underpaid as it may be. Mezzo Catherine Daniel gave a memorable performance as the Overseer, where she straddled a line between cracking the figurative whip around her workers, and showing moments of sympathy for their daily lives.
Palmer's music is imaginative, evoking the world of a sweat shop factory in detail - an impressive feat, considering how few of Sweat's audiences would have stepped foot in such a workplace. The cast of singers wavers between a unified voice and a horde of individuals; under music direction by Geoffrey Sirett, they mastered Palmer's claustrophobic harmonies and machine-like minimalism. Chatterton's libretto stands out as particularly evocative, never quite creating puns, but reminding us of the world with lines like, "pin your mouths".
The movement by choreographer Jennifer Nichols was a gorgeous complement to the Sweat score. In the same way that the style of singing was an organically heightened version of speech, Nichols' movement aesthetic felt rooted in something naturalistic, but with an organized beauty about it. The whole effect was seamless and fantastically done.
Bike Opera at the end of a ~600km tour done by bike, rain or shine. The company has made a name for itself not only with its consistently high-quality work, but by offering annual examples of touring productions which are successfully lean. No drama is lost in their minimalism; instead, each piece of set and prop seems to hold more significance.
Go and see Sweat; it's onstage at the Aki Studio unfil August 6, so click here for full details and tickets.