Of The Sea: a beautiful, overdue story that lingersReview
I was honoured and thrilled to be in attendance as history was made in Toronto. I have a few mixed feelings writing that sentence. On the one hand, it’s amazing that this is taking place and that it is receiving all the attention, pomp, and circumstance it deserves. On the other hand, it’s 2023; we as a society should not have made them wait this long.
Canada’s first ever Black opera Of The Sea had its highly anticipated opening night and it did not disappoint. Directed by Philip Akin with music direction by Jennifer Tung, this was a feast for the eyes as well as the ears.
With a libretto by Kanika Ambrose and a score by Ian Cusson, Of The Sea tells the story of Maduka (Jorell Williams) and his infant daughter Binyelum (Ruthie Nkut), whom we find at the bottom of the ccean. They soon encounter denizens of the deep who “wake” and transition Maduka and his daughter into a new life in a new world. Maduka is unwilling. His faith as a follower of the sun is strong. Too strong to allow him to become “of the sea” so he departs on a quest to return his daughter to the sun god Chukwu. The journey is tough, and he meets fellow “displeased” people who also wish to return to the Sun. Rachel Forbes’ set and costumes drew inspiration from both African history and the sea itself. Taking place among a multi-coloured kelp-forest, the use of blacklight in Steve Lucas’ design helped serve to highlight Forbes’ designs and conjure images and sensations of underwater bioluminescence. Movement director Hollywood Jade helped create a movement vocabulary that was unique to this piece.
The story is one of profound depth and beauty that spring forth from a place of simplicity and truth. Inspired by the countless lost African people who were either thrown or jumped from colonizer’s ships during the Middle Passage.
Ambrose’s words and Cusson’s music are match made in heaven - or under the sea in this case. The poetry is simple and clear while still loaded with layers of meanings and still managing to be beautifully descriptive without becoming flowery. Cusson’s score invokes the spirit of the currents and tides. It’s an intelligent, articulate score that is still very accessible and singable. Cusson’s settings of text have always been exquisite and it continues here.
Maduka has found a perfect home inside the body of Jorell Williams. His powerful, clear tone, ease and flexibility of dynamics, and a remarkable capability for intense physicality brought this Father’s heartbreaking yet inspiring story. I was particularly impressed as for the first possibly 30 minutes of the show (about one-third of the total running time), Williams sang his entire role until this point either lying down, kneeling, or writhing. All this in no way compromised the beauty of his tone or his immaculate diction. As someone who does a lot of physical movement in my work, this isn’t easy and Williams was spectacular.
As Dfiza, the queen of the Sea People, Suzanne Taffot sang with a lovely, bright, full soprano. She commanded the stage with grace and elegance, her movements always fluid, giving an almost undulating, underwater aspect to everything she did. She paired well with Williams and her characterization was very interesting. She nailed the sweet spot where while being sweet and welcoming, you could tell there was a power she wasn’t showing up front. You don’t psychologically reject her, nor do you implicitly trust her. It’s a difficult balance to maintain especially while singing such an intricate and challenging score.
As the queen of the displeased, Chantale Nurse was a revelation. I’ve heard Chantale many times but this was some of the best I’ve heard from her. Rightfully gaining the only mid-show applause break after her monolith of an aria, I was mesmerized by her innate groundedness. While Dfiza was all fluid and wave, she was solid and powerful - “Come Scoglio”, if you will. Also an excellent match with Williams, the trio of the two Queens and Maduka was a highlight of the show.
Ruthie Nkut shows up at the conclusion of the opera as Binye. She’s grown now, and in a beautiful “epilogue” we hear her effervescent and twinkly soprano for only a short time, but it’s worth the wait. The “epilogue” is stunning and creative and sung wonderfully by her and Williams.
Also giving some of the best singing I’ve ever heard from him, Justin Welsh appears in a touching scene with Williams. He and I have worked together several times in the past, so I know how hard this guy works. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of music for two baritones that isn’t a duel of some kind or Don Giovanni. This is a welcome change. The two voices - Williams with a brighter, almost metallic quality danced in a lovely way over Justin’s full and warmer tone.
As Yaakaar, Dfiza’s vizier, tenor Paul Williamson sang with his trademark full-yet-bright delivery and a delightful portrayal of the community elder character. The show also had a small but mighty ensemble that played the citizens of the sea - both pleased and displeased - and brought Cusson’s wonderful harmonies to life with great skill and execution.
Leading members of the COC Orchestra, conductor Jennifer Tung kept the piece together in a tightly knit blanket. It’s really nice to see the pit at the Bluma Appel actually being used again. There were a few balance issues, but the Bluma is kind of an unforgiving venue to sing in, so this is in no way a slight to anyone’s performance.
There are some shows that never leave you whether performing in them or experiencing them. _Of The Sea _is one of those. Not just musically and visually; this piece made an impact. We have so few expressions of Black excellence in this very Eurocentric artform. But this is a perfect example that we need it. The art needs it. Black people have always led us to the light musically, artistically, and culturally. I for one am beside myself with excitement at the prospect of them taking their rightful place on these stages.