There have been a lot of discussions lately about diversity in opera and how, particularly, race and gender are represented in very limited and problematic ways, especially in the canonical operas of the long 19th century. The latest to come my way is a very good panel discussion hosted by the COC (on their Youtube channel) and moderated by Aria Umezawa. This one tackled gender issues but, inevitably broader questions came up and that’s what I want to explore here. You might want to watch it either before or after reading the rest of this piece.
The only revolution to ever start in an opera house….
There’s an interesting new project on Youtube from Natalya Gennadi and Catherine Carew. It’s called HBD! Project and the idea is to produce a short themed video each month featuring composers whose birthdays fall in that month. The February pilot is online and it’s a bit different from other “shows” in similar vein that I’ve come across. This one features a song by Alban Berg sung by Natalya with a fluffy puppy, music for cello and piano by Jean Coulthard played by Alice Kim and Hye Won Cecilia Lee and Rodney Sharman’s Tobacco Road sung by Catherine. So what’s new you ask (apart from the puppy)? It’s the graphics with Mozart in a party hat, animated Emily Carr paintings and a look for the Sharman that could double as the witches’ scene in Macbeth. Yes it’s a bit weird but oddly compelling.
There was a really interesting announcement from the COC earlier today. To cut a long story short it announced that the four principals of Amplified Opera; Teiya Kasahara, Marion Newman, Asitha Tennekoon and Aria Umezawa, would become “Disruptors in Residence”. I think this is a very positive move. Many of us have been following the various conversations about evolving opera beyond being the preserve of (almost) dead white people to being an art form that more fully reflects the diversity of our communities. I have to admit to being somewhat sceptical about how much of the energy and goodwill that has been generated will survive the return to some sort of post-covid normality. It.’s surprisingly hard to make change in large, hierarchical organisations go viral.
Amplified Opera was created by Teiya Kasahara and Aria Umezawa to promote the values of equity, diversity and inclusion in and through opera. They have produced shows like The Way I See It, showcasing blind soprano Laurie Rubin and visually impaired pianist Liz Upchurch in a show about visual impairment and its challenges in the opera world (and anyone who nows me will realise how near the bone that cut). They’ve also produced Teiya’s The Queen in Me (which I missed but which was based on the earlier show Queer of the Night); both shows exploring the pressures placed on a gay diva by the opera world.
The first of Amplified Opera’s series of three shows in the Ernest Balmer Studio took place last night. The series explores the idea of “otherness” in opera. The Way I See It , directed by Aria Umezawa, explores how the opera and wider world treat the visually impaired and how we (in the broadest sense) can not just accommodate but incorporate their insights and perspectives into our performance practice.
I met with Laurie Rubin today to talk about her upcoming show with Liz Upchurch and Amplified Opera; The Way I See It. Laurie is a mezzo-soprano and she’s been blind since birth. All she can perceive visually is dark and light. We talked about her life growing up and as a professional singer and the upcoming show.
The bio is interesting going from a fairly toxic high school environment in Los Angeles where music was pretty much her salvation, to Oberlin where she first appeared on stage in actual opera to Yale Opera, which took her on the strength of her voice and then didn’t cast her in anything in her two years there (which clearly still hurts), and on to a professional career based in New York. She’s done a lot of new music including creating the role of the voice/witch in Lisa Bielawa’s episodic opera, Vireo, written for broadcast which aired in June 2017 on KCET Los Angeles and creating, with her wife Jenny Taira, an arts program in Hawaii; Ohana Arts, which in turn led to the creation of a musical Peace on Your Wings, about the life of a young Japanese girl who suffered from the Hiroshima bomb, which toured the Hawaiian islands and the US west coast. If all this, and performances too numerous to list, weren’t enough she wrote a book, Do You Dream in Color? Insights From a Girl Without Sight, which in turn became a one woman show. She has also recently become a mother.
The dynamic duo of Teija Kasahara and Aria Umezawa have a new project; Amplified Opera. They are kicking off with a series of three concerts called Amplify! and it takes place Ocober 10th to 12th at the Ernest Balmer Studio. The theme is diversity and equity.
October 10th, 2019: The Way I See It – American mezzo-soprano and author Laurie Rubin (Do You Dream in Color: Insights from a Girl Without Sight), and pianist Liz Upchurch will speak to their unique experiences as individuals with blindness and vision loss navigating the world of opera, and how this element of their identity has informed their creative process. The concert will be directed by Aria Umezawa. As you can imagine this particularly resonates with me.
October 11th, 2019: The Queen in Me – An exploration of the ways in which the classical music world tries to control and limit queerness, gender expressions, and identities. This one-person show features soprano Teiya Kasahara as the Queen of the Night who, after 228 years, has finally decided to reclaim their narrative and challenge the patriarchy. The show is accompanied by Trevor Chartrand, and directed by Andrea Donaldson.
October 12th, 2019: What’s Known to Me is Endless – A look at the African diaspora, and how experiences of Black identity differ in Canada and the United States. African American baritone Kenneth Overton is joined by Canadian pianist Rich Coburn to speak to how their understanding of Black identity was challenged while working on both sides of the Canadian-US border. Canadian American, Michael Mohammed, will direct the show.
Tickets are $25 for each show at the door or from the website.
Last night, at the Ernest Balmer Studio, we got to see somewhat more developed versions of the works presented earlier in the week in the RBA but this time in staged format. I’m not sure my opinions changed much as a result though I think I’m even more convinced that here we have five pieces of substance that deserve to be seen in fully realised form. So, some brief thoughts on each. Note that, except for Book of Faces we only saw extracts from pieces that are still WIP. Continue reading →
Here are a few more February items of interest in addition to those mentioned here. Tapestry’s new piece Hook Up opens on January 30th at Theatre Passe Muraille and runs for most of February. Then on Sunday 3rd February at 2.30 pm VOICEBOX have a performance of Schubert’s rather rare opera Fierrebras. Kevin Mallon conducts the Aradia Ensemble for this one. Also there’s Opera Pub as usual on Thursday 7th February.
On February 16th at Gallery 345 at 8pm there will be an Against the Grain presentation of Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. The “twist” here is that Elle becomes Lui and will be sung by tenor Jacques Arsenault. Topher Mokrzewski at the piano. Aria Umezawa directs the first in what is planned as a series of “twisted” concerts.
In free concert news there’s the Quilico Prize competition on February 11th at 5.30pm in the RBA. Once again the members of theEnsemble Studio compete for cash. At the nnon hour there’s Susan Bullock and Liz Upchurch on the 19th with a programme of Wagner, Strauss and Duparc and on the 20th there’s Samuel Chan and Stéphane Mayer with an all Schubert programme. Then on the 21st there’s Lauren Eberwein and Rachel Kerr with a Messiaen and Ravel show. Given that it’s the Jessye Norman Gala on the 20th as well I think I’ll just schlep my sleeping bag over to the Four Seasons Centre.
Also at the COC of course Elektra continues until February 22nd with Così fan tutte opening on February 5th and running until the 23rd.
Aria with Maika’i Nash and Rachel Krehm. Photo – Denise Grant
Last time I spoke to Opera 5’s Aria Umezawa she was about to head off to San Francisco to join SFO’s Merola program. Now she’s been named as an Adler Fellow for 2017; the first stage director since 2002 to be named to the program. She’ll be joined by pianist/coach Jennifer Szeto, also of this parish, and another Canadian; Vancouver soprano Sarah Cambridge. I have greatly enjoyed Aria’s work with Opera 5 and hope that this is a step on the road to a major career as an opera director. The full story on this year’s Adlers is here.