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Creative forces; Tapestry New Opera Works has a mission: to push the boundaries of music theatre.

"WE have to take risks, and we don't always have the luxury of a safety net," announced Claire Hopkinson, General Manager and Producer of Tapestry New Opera Works. "But the show must go on." The show in question was Opera to Go, Tapestry's April debut of five 15-minute operatic scenes by Canadian composers and librettists. It soon became apparent that Hopkinson's statement about risk referred to an incident a few days earlier, when tenor Martin Houtman dislocated his shoulder in a rehearsal. Undaunted by his injury, he appeared on cue, singing with his arm in a sling. While such a mishap might well have stopped another company in its tracks, it didn't stop Tapestry.

There are many reasons for opera companies not to produce new works: they're costly to develop, require lots of rehearsal time, are big box-office gambles and are prone to unexpected contingencies, like Houtman's accident. These are just some of the challenges inherent in premiering an opera--and if you multiply these challenges by five, you'll have some idea of what Tapestry undertook in mounting five brand-new operas in one program.

Fortunately, this plucky little Toronto-based organization has a history of thriving on risks, adapting to new conditions and even reinventing itself. Founded 25 years ago by Artistic Director Wayne Strongman as a madrigal ensemble called the Tapestry Singers, the group's repertoire soon expanded in many directions, encompassing everything from Franz Schubert to the Beach Boys. In 1986, Strongman's growing interest in theatrical music led to the group's rechristening as Tapestry Music Theatre. Again, the programming was varied: there was some Broadway, some Gilbert and Sullivan, and a staging of Anne of Green Gables. In 1991, Hopkinson, a music-theatre producer, teamed up with Strongman, and the following year, Tapestry scored a surprise hit with the opera Nigredo Hotel, by Toronto composer Nic Gotham. The company had found a new niche: contemporary opera. To clarify its priorities, in 1999 the organization changed its name once again, to Tapestry New Opera Works.

Since then, Strongman and Hopkinson have premiered such Canadian operas as Elsewhereless by Rodney Sharman, Iron Road by Chan Ka Nin and, most recently, Facing South by Linda Caitlin Smith. These were full-length operas, and it's for such productions as these that Tapestry is probably best known. However, through its Opera to Go program, initiated two years ago, the company has taken a leading role in the creative process itself.

The company is housed in Toronto's newest arts enclave: the historic Gooderham and Worts buildings, formerly a distillery. And it was here that this year's crop of composers and librettists first met, in Tapestry's Composer-Librettist Laboratories (affectionately known as "Lib-Labs"), which the company has held for aspiring opera creators since 1995. "Initially, when we started the Lib-Labs," Strongman recalls, "The purpose was to give an idea of what collaboration meant, because many composer-librettist teams were falling apart. Little did we know what we were starting--somehow, everything has morphed into something larger than we expected. Now we're getting inquiries from composers and writers all over the world."

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The new 15-minute operas were workshopped during a week in January--the composers' and writers' first chance to hear their work and get feedback from Tapestry's artistic staff. "Composers tend to work in a fairly solitary way, and the same is true of writers and playwrights," Hopkinson points out. "Sharing power is not something they're used to doing." In many cases, extensive revisions were made. "Composers often know a lot about operatic history," continues Strongman. "But playwrights understand dramatic structure in ways composers may not. I think the first thing composers learn is how flexible writers can be: for a writer, a story idea can go in any number of directions. The other thing they learn is that writers are used to being critiqued. Composers are rarely used to having critiques during the creative process."

Composer Abigail Richardson and her librettist, Marjorie Chan, the co-creators of Mother Everest, one of this year's operas, were among the youngest participants in the program. Chan is an actor and writer whose first play, China Doll, was recently staged by Toronto's Nightwood Theatre, and it was her idea to set their opera on the summit of Mount Everest. However, she soon discovered that creating an opera libretto is unlike other kinds of writing. "Opera is different than writing for theatre or radio or film. It's almost like poetry--I have to choose my words carefully, and I don't get a lot of words. In that sense, it's a very different form for me."

Richardson, a Ph.D. student in music composition at the University of Toronto, found working with a librettist to be surprisingly devoid of creative tension. "Marjorie is always so accommodating!" she says with a laugh. "I was able to be involved in the way the story took shape, to have the music influence the text. I find opera the easiest thing to write, because the text is already there, the mood is there."

By March, the major revisions were complete and there was a new flurry of activity as singers, directors, designers and stage managers took to their appointed tasks, with Strongman wielding the conductor's baton in rehearsals. "Unlike Carmen and Rigoletto, there are no recordings of these operas," says Strongman, "so the singers, designers and directors couldn't listen to these pieces months in advance." Although the operas were small, Tapestry was determined to give them fully staged productions, with costumes, scenery and lighting. Yet despite the theatrical trappings, Tapestry also decided Opera to Go would not be performed in a theatre--at least, not a conventional one.

"This is the Fermenting Room," says Hopkinson as she pushes open the doors of a gray stone building on the Gooderham and Worts site, close by Tapestry's offices. "I love this space." The cavernous room--whose ancient walls and rafter-beams haven't been painted for decades--is big enough for an audience of about 250. "When you go into an ordinary auditorium, you have an expectation of what you're going to see," she explains, her voice reverberating in the bright acoustic. "But when you come into an unconventional environment, it shifts your expectations. That shift in expectations is important for contemporary opera." For Opera to Go, there will be several stages around the perimeter of the open space, with the audience moving from one stage to another as the show progresses.

Clearly, Tapestry was devoting vast amounts of time, energy and imagination to creating Opera to Go, but would the final product be worthy of so much effort? After all, how much can a composer and a librettist accomplish in a mere quarter-hour, with a cast of two singers and an orchestra of just five musicians? The answers had to wait until the first night.

The show opened with Ice Time, by composer Chan Ka Nin and librettist Mark Brownell, a charming story about a figure-skating coach and her daughter, who wants to quit skating and become an engineer. This was followed by Koji Nakano and Kico Gonzalez-Risso's Brush, a tale of intrigue and seduction played out in 19th-century Spain between the artist Francisco Goya and the King's mistress. Then there was Richardson and Chan's Mother Everest, a mystical, otherworldly scene at 29,000 feet, featuring a female mountain climber and a Sherpa guide. James Rolfe and Camyar Chai created Rosa, a kitchen-sink drama about a family's collapse after the death of a child. Finally, there was The Two Graces, a light-hearted encounter between Queen Elizabeth I and the legendary Irish chieftain, Grace O'Malley.

By the end of the performances, it was apparent that 15 minutes was long enough to do what an opera is supposed to do: there were moments of joy, anger and poignancy. There was also time for the composers to declare their musical allegiances, whether through minimalist ruminations, heartfelt arias or ironic references to operas from past centuries.

For Tapestry, Opera to Go didn't really end on closing night. Both Strongman and Hopkinson believe every project undertaken should inspire new projects, and every work presented is ideally a work-in-progress leading to some future endeavor. Tapestry's first Opera to Go has already borne fruit: The Laurels, by Jeffrey Ryan, has been performed at the Winnipeg New Music Festival and by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra; and composer Omar Daniel and librettist Alex PochGoldin, creators of the operatic scene Lisa, are now writing a new, full-length opera that Tapestry hopes to stage next May. And in Lib-Labs of past seasons, the seeds were planted for Caitlin Smith's Facing South and Alexina Louie's The Scarlet Princess, read by the Canadian Opera Company in 2002.

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Then there's Tapestry's budding relationship with the Manhattan School of Music. MSM has agreed to select one of the Opera to Go teams to write a new opera, to be staged in New York. Strongman is optimistic about the venture: "There's quite a tradition at the Manhattan School of doing new work. They train their singers to embrace new work, and many American companies are taking on the works Manhattan does."

In large part, it's Tapestry's unique methods--its emphasis on developing new operas from the ground up--that have generated interest in the company throughout North America. "We've discovered that development is different from production," says Hopkinson. "Many companies follow a production model, because they're production houses. They commission a composer and writer, they may have a reading and then they do the premiere. To me, that's like high-stakes poker. New work is a different animal than standard repertoire: it needs a different process to get to the stage. I think there's lots of opportunity for development companies to work with standard-rep companies to share expertise and resources."

It's an uphill battle, of course, but Hopkinson believes Tapestry is making a difference. "There aren't very many companies doing new work, but I think we are helping to change that. The more successful our productions are, the more we can create an environment of success. There are many things that the arts world proves can be successful, things that you wouldn't imagine."

Colin Eatock is a composer and freelance writer who lives in Toronto.
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Author:Eatock, Colin
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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