Tapestry at Theatre Passe Muraille: Mangoes, cows, and other operatic arias fresh from the factory-floor

The brown-brick Theatre Passe Muraille is a far cry from the polished maple and clean-glass lines of the Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre. A historic brass plaque at the door informs you as you come in that the theatre just east of Queen and Bathurst streets was once a stable and bakery, and something of the Edwardian factory-like atmosphere remains. It seems appropriate, then, that this former factory should be the host this year of Tapestry’s “Opera Briefs”—short operatic scenes created by young composers and librettists and performed in Toronto at the Passe Muraille on September 23rd and 24th.
  Tapestry is a non-for-profit operatic company and one of the few supporters of new opera compositions in Canada. Every summer for the past sixteen years, young writers and composers apply to work closely with each other over ten days, crafting five-minute English operatic scenes every 48 hours in what Tapestry calls its “Composer-Librettist Laboratory”, affectionately known as “LibLab” (not to be confused, dramaturg Michael Albano warned the audience on Saturday night, with the proposed union of the British Liberal and Labour parties which the Guardian has also termed “LibLab”). Out of over forty applicants, four are usually chosen, though this year five librettists (Sharon Bajer, Nick Carpenter, Sheldon Rosen, Anusree Roy, Norman Yeung) and five composers (Elisabeth Mehl Greene, Katya Pine, Darren Russo, Jana Skarecky, Christiaan Venter) participated.
  What was the result of this intensive workshop? To the accompaniment of a grand piano on stage and with the voices and extraordinary versatile acting of soprano Xin Wang, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, tenor Keith Klassen, and baritone Benjamin Covey, an astounding variety of stories were told from the tragic to the comic to the absurd.
A playful tango-like rhythm set the tone for Sharon Bajer and Mehl Greene’s “Lost and Found” scene in which two travels flirtatiously attempt to communicate through their limiting “LonelyPlanet” phrasebooks. She (Krisztina Szabó) exclaims: “You have generous eyeballs!” He (Keith Klassen) suggests: “Would you like to back up in my place?” Joyous communication and sexual attraction is found in their mutual knowledge of the word “Mango!”.
In a similar comic vein, Sharon Bajer and Katya Pine’s “The Last Life” is possibly the first opera scene in the world to feature a cow as its heroine. Baritone Bejamin Covey, hilariously dressed in a brown bag and chewing his cud between plaintiff moos, laments his unrequited love for his farmer, who does not realize that in their past lives, “Mimi” was his human lover.
  Buoyant, light notes and dark shadows mingle to evocative effect in Christiaan Venter’s music for Sharon Bajer’s “All of the Sky”, a short scene based on the life of Iqbal Masih, a Pakistani boy sold into bonded labour in a carpet factory at the age of four, who escaped, managed to close down the carpet factory and advocate for the end of child labour, only to be murdered at the age of twelve. The short scene of Iqbal (Keith Klassen) telling his fellow child-weaver in their dark factory that you can see “all of the sky” if you chose beautifully balanced the happy imaginary world of the children with their grim reality, and suggested that they might find their salvation in the power to imagine better circumstances.
  The power of the art and the human imagination likewise formed the central theme of Sheldon Rosen and Christiaan Venter’s “The Drawing Class” which tells the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an art teacher at the “model” Theresienstadt concentration camp, who encouraged her students to find in art an escape from the horrors around them. Sombre, deep piano chords penetrated the children’s world as their teacher tried to keep the horror at bay punctuated with notes of pure delight.
  Staging was sparse and evocative— a cafe table here, an upside-down piano bench there, standing in for the loom of Iqbal’s carpet factory. The short piano compositions, while closely harmonizing with the stories being told, were also spare, leaving you wishing to hear a fuller, orchestral version of the pieces, a memorable melody to hum on your way home.
  Is there enough of an audience for full-length new operas in English? Dramaturg Michael Albano reminded his audience of a remark the late Richard Bradshaw once made while contemplating a new production of La Traviata: “There was a time when the paint was still wet”, when opera “classics” were just as new to audiences as the pieces workshopped this weekend in Toronto. “Opera Briefs” presented germs of stories, germs of music. All of them deserve the funding and the support to come to fruition from out of the factory and into the concert-hall.