A Northern Lights Dream is a new operetta by Michael Rose which premiered this last week at Toronto Operetta Theatre in a production directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin. A new operetta is a very rare thing. It;’s just not a form that contemporary composers seem to take to. There’s far too much spoken dialogue for an opera but the musical language; mostly tonal, often quite beautiful but not afraid to get more abrasive when appropriate, is much closer to that of contemporary opera than musical theatre. So an operetta it is.
It’s also a very Canadian homage to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream. It’s set at midsummer in the small town of Shakespeare, Ontario (six blocks long and two storeys high). The characters riff of the play. There’s Nick; the donkey headed mascot of Donkey Donuts, Helen; proprietor of a struggling bridal wear shop, Taylor; her couturier, Holly Duke; the disgruntled wife of a local worthy and, of course, Robin; a gender fluid sprite with a hockey obsession (hockey… puck… geddit??). There are also three ladies who serve the goddess Aurora Borealis who are, of course, immortal.
The plot turns on Robin’s 400 year old obsession with Aurora added to his ability to make and break other people’s relationships, usually with unintended consequences. So Robin is trying to ditch Tanya; a concession stand employee at the hockey rink, by hooking her up with Nick who is obsessed with her. He’s also trying to reconcile Helen with her (probably gay) cop husband Demetrius. Meanwhile Mrs. Duke and Taylor are trying to reconcile the Duke daughter and her fiancé; on whose wedding the financial future of Helen’s business depends. At the same time the ladies are trying to keep Robin at arms length. It all comes to a head when, for various reasons, everyone finds him, her or their self on Arden Hill to watch the Northern Lights (Actually this seems to be what everyone in Shakespeare does when they aren’t at the hockey rink. Small town Ontario eh!).
It’s cleverly constructed. The three estates; Robin, the ladies and the mortals, get distinct poetic and musical languages. Robin, for instance, speaks in a sort of cod Shakespeare which is often very funny. There’s lots of dialogue and the musical numbers are just that. There are proper arias and even a sextet and an octet. The three ladies waft gracefully in and out of the action, often functioning as rather ethereal stage hands. The Duke daughter and her bloke are musicians (no hopers in small town Ontario terms) and actually play in the band, interrupting the music occasionally to rargue to the discomfiture of stage management. There’s no conventional resolution on the lines of AMSND but under the influence of the Northern Lights the characters come to terms with their natures and fates.
There are some notable performances. Lauren Pearl is unsurprisingly excellent as Robin. She adeptly manages the rather weird, but appropriate mix of “Shakespearian” and rural Ontarian demotic that makes up her considerable amount of dialogue. If the bard had written about hockey and donuts it might have come out like this. She’s also a very fine singer. Christina Haldane as Helen gets the most operatic music and nails it. Greg Finney plays a world weary gay couturier and works really well with Karen Bojti’s equally world weary Mrs. Duke. Ian Backstrom is effective as a sort of hyperkinetic Nick; with or without his donkey’s head. Lillian Brooks, Amy Moodie and Daniela Agostino do the graceful wafting and are really quite funny when they get the chance. And, if Helen, gets the most operatic solos there’s plenty of singing for the rest of the cast to do and they do it very well.
There’s an eight piece band which provides plenty of colour besides two of them having to act. It’s all directed from the piano by Kate Carver who keeps it all on track even in the complicated ensemble numbers.
I really enjoyed this piece and it deserves more than the three performances it got in this run. It should play pretty well anywhere in Canada. How well it would work for an international audience i don’t know. In its way, Shakespeare is as weirdly Ontarian as, say, Royston Vasey is weirdly English. But maybe the more universal themes can transcend hockey and donuts.