Tapestry Opera mines punk for third instalment of annual Tap:Ex series
Electric guitars. A drum kit. A punk band with a swearword name. Depending on who’s being asked, these are not the makings of a grandiose opera production. But for three nights in November, Toronto opera company Tapestry Opera is challenging that received wisdom by partnering with Fucked Up for a production of a new opera called Metallurgy.
The production won’t be without its opera pedigree – Fucked Up members Jonah Falco, Mike Haliechuk, and Josh Zucker’s instrumentation will be coupled with contemporary opera talent like mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó (Opera Atelier, Vancouver Opera) as well as other Canadian Opera Company alumni like tenor David Pomeroy (Oper Frankfurt, Royal Danish Opera) and Tapestry conductor-in-residence Jordan de Souza (Saskatoon Opera, Scottish Opera) on keys for the show – but this will be no Magic Flute, either.
Conceived and directed by Tapestry Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, the collaboration will reveal a common ground between two seemingly incongruent brain trusts. Fucked Up and Tapestry have DNA that unites them in content and ethos, showing the worlds they work from are not as mutually exclusive as they appear.
Fucked Up comes from a storied past of high concept, drama-influenced projects. In a move unprecedented in punk history they released a rock opera in 2011; last year they wrote a miniature opera proper in collaboration with the Canadian Opera Company for an Arts & Crafts/Globe & Mail concept compilation called Broadsheet Music: A Year in Review; and their experimentation with genre and format outside of those releases has been well documented.
The band’s connection with the COC helped Tapestry flag Fucked Up as potential collaborative partners, but Mori insists, “They’re also not just turned on by the idea of attaching the word opera to something that they do,” pointing to a deeper aesthetic connection instead.
“We got into some great philosophical discussions, and for me, that sort of cemented the idea that, whatever we explore, it would have its own artistic integrity.”
The band has its roots in elemental passion, but it’s been channelling that energy through a theatrical, intellectual literacy for years, and Tapestry gets that.
“What we started talking about was the whole concept of art and this idea of creating music in 21st-century Toronto and what that means and how people perceive this idea of glory when you’re an artist, when you’re a rocker, or certainly when you’re an opera singer, but the truth is there’s actually this incredible struggle to actually just get to that point that nobody ever sees. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
For an opera company, Tapestry is pretty punk itself. Now in its 36th season, the company has built a reputation on advancing the genre through trailblazing professional productions of new opera works, foregoing the hallmarks and expectations contemporary opera programming so often perpetuates along the way. Metallurgy, for example, is the third instalment of Tapestry Explorations (Tap:Ex), the company’s series for avant-garde productions. Last year’s event involved collaborations with turntablists.
With Tapestry, Michael Mori is actively working to develop new interest in the opera world while keeping the form a sustainable, exciting platform of entertainment. With a master’s degree in opera performance from the University of British Columbia and diplomas from Vienna’s Die Wiener Meisterkurse and Salzburg’s Die Universitat Mozarteum, the artistic director has experience working in traditional, repertory opera contexts (just last year Mori directed a production of The Marriage of Figaro in Columbus, Ohio), but is wary and critical of the lenses contemporary companies often mediate the genre through.
“Whereas every other art form seems to evolve on a more decade basis, opera still sort of sits in this orchestral, symphonic European sound,” Mori explains. “All of the big opera companies in Canada are still doing Italian and German rep. from 100, 200, 300 years ago. [Opera Lyra Ottawa], one of the biggest companies in Canada just closed, and there’s a correlation, you know?”
Tapestry’s advantage over those institutions, Mori says, is in its mandate.
“The bigger companies, they’re supposed to do another [La] bohème or another [Die] Fledermaus or something like that because that’s somebody who’s on the board’s favourite, but our board is like, ‘We wanna see the next best new thing.’”
Rep. companies have responded by adapting and updating works long embedded within the canon, but Mori says that’s not enough.
“They take old pieces and then they’ll tell a new story with them. It’ll be the same music, the same words, still in Italian, but they’ll have some crazy director come in and be like, ‘Well this scene where he’s reading his watch, in this one is going to be a rape scene and I’m going to comment on Afghanistan with it and the role of women who wear headscarves.’ Which is kind of a really weird solution to being relevant.”
Mori wants to see productions people can relate to, and that means creating new works that aren’t just reflective of the cultures they are produced in, but active in them, too.
In part, that means putting an end to a norm that sees opera companies presenting shows to audiences in foreign languages in an attempt at authenticity.
“It’s just another stereotype, that opera’s always in Italian or… but why? It’s in Italian because it was written in Italy at that time. At that time also, all of the operas that were performed in Germany from those Italian composers were performed in German, because, why would you go and not understand something?” Mori offers. “It’s like dating someone with a lot of baggage. You can’t ever convince your friends that it’s gonna be fun. But really it’s just a big idea of theatre and music and vocal power coming together.”
It also means making opera events more financially accessible – a hurdle
Tapestry has navigated by including pay-what-you-can nights in its regular program runs.
“If there’s no existing fan base for something, it’s got to go on the strength of the idea and getting people in to taste it for the first time, because once you have word-of-mouth, then it’s a different kind of venture.”
If nothing else, “it’s exciting to see what’s possible when you mess around with it.”
Tap:Ex Metallurgy is in production for a limited, four-performance run at Ernest Balmer Studio Nov. 19-21 in Toronto’s Distillery District. The performance on Nov. 20 is a pay-what-you-can event.
Read our full Q&A with Michael Hidetoshi Mori, below. Above photo courtesy of Tapestry Opera.
Long Winter: What are people going to be getting out of Metallurgy?
Michael Hidetoshi Mori: It’s going to be a mix of theatre, rock, and opera on the very basic level – the elemental level. But what we’ve kind of done is thrown down the challenge to Mike and Jonah and Josh to create one set, and then we’re going to take on creating one set and basically we’re all playing with the same pieces. So there’s going to be a cello, a couple electric guitars, a drum kit, and two singers that are very experienced opera singers, as well as our conductor-in-residence will be playing keys. It’s kind of like you come into a room and say, “These are the toys you can play with.” They’re going to be creating something from their point of view, and then we’re going to be creating something from our point of view. There’s definitely a relationship with the bigger idea exploring what’s possible when two art forms or musical forms that people would say seem to be quite different come together.
This is my experimental show. I do one experimental show a year. Jonah came to our one last year that was cut film, turntables, a four-piece percussion set, marimba… and I think we kind of planted the seed. That show was also not as… in Jonah’s words, he said, “I walked out and I didn’t know what it was, and I still couldn’t describe it after seeing it, but it was cool. And I could tell it was good.” And he came with a guitarist from S.H.I.T. and he was like, “We were both like, ‘This is going to be a really, really lame show because it looks like a mash-up of turntables and opera,’” and I think because we’re not just making it a gimmick, I think we’re kind of more interested in exploring how can you tell stories better with more tools and for me the interest in this program is that the orchestration or the musical world that opera lives in has been kind of tied to an aesthetic from about a hundred years ago. Whereas every other art form seems to evolve on a more decade basis, opera still sort of sits in this orchestral, symphonic European sound, and it’s exciting to see what’s possible when you mess around with it.
So was that your first connection with Fucked Up – through Jonah at Tap:Ex?
Mike ended up DJ-ing our 35th anniversary party last year and last year was kind of my first full season as artistic director, so it was a big thing for a number of reasons. So we connected with Mike, and then we invited the whole band to check it out, partly because we knew that they’d already been testing the waters to see what was possible when they collaborated with the COC, and I’m looking for people who are kind of open-minded creative people as opposed to purists or loyalists to one thing. So probably the connection to Mike and then Jonah actually coming and seeing and liking was the next step that opened up the conversation. We started a bit of an email chain and then we had them in, we talked through what was possible, and they said, “we’re interested in playing.”
When I think about people thinking about this project, I imagine their impressions fit into categories like "Oh, a punk band doing opera" or "Oh, opera with a band that has a swearword name." Do you think of this project as a particularly subversive one?
Yeah. I mean it’s not dissimilar to last year by juxtaposing two things that people wouldn’t normally see as congress. Like turntables, film, and opera. I think what kind of got me was that Fucked Up has done a lot of exploration already. On the flipside, they’re not just turned on by the idea of attaching the word opera to something that they do. What we started talking about was the whole concept of art and this idea of creating music in 21st-century Toronto and what that means and how people perceive this idea of glory when you’re an artist, when you’re a rocker, or certainly when you’re an opera singer, but the truth is there’s actually this incredible struggle to actually just get to that point that nobody ever sees. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.
We got into some great philosophical discussions, and for me, that sort of cemented the idea that, whatever we explore, it would have its own artistic integrity. The playing around and the idea of having a band called Fucked Up or punk in opera… it’s certainly another hook to bring people in, but my thing is, I think opera’s awesome, and that if people actually came in the room and experienced it with great artists, they would love it, regardless of whether there’s a band or not. I think it needs to improve and evolve, but mostly people stay away because there’s no familiarity. There’s no connection. So by making partnerships, it’s a great way to open up the eyes of a lot of classical people who snub their noses at rock – or certainly at punk or metal – and open the eyes of a lot of people who are either interested in the experimental nature of Fucked Up or just love the band to what the possibilities are in art music and opera and more narrative-based musical works.
Before getting into your role at Tapestry you accumulated more than 20 years working the arts – do you remember what originally attracted you to new opera?
I was a boy soprano in a choir when I was a kid. I lived in New York, and so our group would actually just go and audition for shows in New York, and they would tell us to go – it wasn’t anything that I ever did – and then I got a role when I was 11 in New York City. And then I ended up working as a child actor-singer-performer in theatre, musical theatre, and opera in New York City for the next four years, until my voice changed. So it’s always sort of been there, but more through the lens of music. I played instruments in jazz and classical orchestra and lots of stuff like that, and sang in lots of choirs and then musical theatre – just sort of this world poly-performer-esque. I did sing in a rock band when I was campaigning for school president in high school and we actually sang a couple Green Day songs in the open square where one of the corners was the smoking pit in our school, and during the course of two songs, two fights broke out, and so the principal came out and was like, “Michael, I know that you’re a musician, but I don’t think we can let you keep playing.” So that was my only brief touch with – a lot of my friends from jazz were playing in rock bands, too – with anything like that.
How did I get to new opera? Just through being in the world. It’s a sort of subgenre of a subgenre. Opera is this weird subgenre of classical music, and most people don’t even know that new operas exist. But you would never say that painting was just Rembrandt – right? So for me it’s like, how did opera become this thing that ended in 1920 and we just repeat them? So I’m super excited by the idea that it’s a living art form and that you can bring in people from anywhere to create it so long as you play by a couple rules: that it’s really great drama and great music coming together.
How did you get involved with Tapestry?
By weird chance. I was a stage director and I was trying to pick up more work as a stage director, but at the time I was singing with a group in Vancouver that was nominated for a Juno and the Junos were in Toronto, so I had a free ticket to Toronto and so I just came and passed out a couple of letters, and I was like, “This is cool.” No other city in Canada has a company like this. It’s really the only one that has a reputation – it’s been around for 35, 36 years, and has worked with a bunch of composers that I knew from Vancouver and from across the country. So this would kind of be like a dream job and I said, “Can I come and assistant direct?” I got an interview, I got offered a job the next day… it was not an intentional thing so much as an opportunity that I saw and happened to come. The timing was really good for the company as well. And then one thing lead to another.
What’s your vision for Tapestry?
I think to debunk the word opera or the stodginess of the word opera and the idea that it’s something that doesn’t belong to our generation and to have a lot of fun doing it. My biggest goal would be to bring together as many people from as many places as possible to make art that surprises and inspires people.
I know we have the best singers in the country here. This is one of the only places you can live and actually make a living as an opera singer, and they’re not surprisingly incredibly inspired by doing stuff in English that’s written by their contemporaries. It’s just another stereotype, that opera’s always in Italian or… but why? It’s in Italian because it was written in Italy at that time. At that time also, all of the operas that were performed in Germany from those Italian composers were performed in German, because, why would you go and not understand something? Again, it’s like dating someone with a lot of baggage. You can’t ever convince your friends that it’s gonna be fun. But really it’s just a big idea of theatre and music and vocal power coming together.
The crazy thing is nobody else is doing it. All of the big opera companies in Canada are still doing Italian and German rep from 100, 200, 300 years ago. [Opera Lyra Ottawa], one of the biggest companies in Canada just closed, and there’s a correlation, you know? If you’re not bringing people in, if you’re not tapped into the pulse of the culture that you sit in the city of, then it’s like change or die. Evolve or die is Darwin’s theory, and I believe in that.
So for me, the vision is exciting because nobody else is doing it and because at the moment, nobody’s told me I can’t. And that’s the thing – the bigger companies, they’re supposed to do another [La] bohème or another [Die] Fledermaus or something like that because that’s somebody who’s on the board’s favourite, but our board is like, “We wanna see the next best new thing.” And that’s where the relationship with Fucked Up – they’ve been innovating on their own within punk for a long time, they’ve got experience doing it, they’re exploring dramatic ideas already – and us is interesting, because if we can say the sound world of opera can include really anything from the popular or alternate popular music cultures, then that’s great. We’re tapping into then a lot more inspiration, a lot more possibilities, colours, audiences.
And you’ve worked in that more traditional opera world.
Both as a singer and a director. Last year I directed The Marriage of Figaro in Columbus, Ohio.
Is there pressure from places like the repertory companies to avoid choices that might serve to make the form more accessible?
It’s not an intentional thing. I know all of those guys now (and they’re all guys), but for them, it’s “I love this stuff so much, I’m sure that when we do it better everyone is gonna love it, too,” for which there’s a little bit of truth, as in anything, but that’s kind of like the museum approach. Like, “Gosh, I love this exhibit on Pompeii.” It’s a matter of taste, but it’s also something that is… to me it’s more of a curiosity than a currency. Currency has its roots in current, which is interesting. So I think of what’s cultural currency? It’s something that’s flowing right now. It’s something that’s alive right now. So the pressure that exists is A) they think that anything new will fail and lose money, B) they think that the inherent value of the repertoire – the existing megalithic operas – is such that if done perfectly and if marketed perfectly, should fill halls, and C) they’re all kind of tied to their halls, and their halls are 2,000-seat places, usually. Like anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000. So if Fucked Up was just starting, would they be able to fill a stadium with selling tickets? They wouldn’t. And opera started in smaller places, like places for 50, 60 people in large courtrooms and ballrooms and things like that, and then moved on to occupy the same space as theatres, so 100- to 300-seat places, so with the immediacy, the intimacy, you could take bigger risks because you don’t have to sell that many tickets. So it’s a little bit of a broken model, but the pressure is on those companies also to bring those people in. So there’s this weird thing that happens. They take old pieces and then they’ll tell a new story with them. It’ll be the same music, the same words, still in Italian, but they’ll have some crazy director come in and be like, “Well this scene where he’s reading his watch, in this one is going to be a rape scene and I’m going to comment on Afghanistan with it and the role of women who wear headscarves.” Which is kind of a really weird solution to being relevant.
But accessible is a good word. I like it.
In English it’s a hell of a lot more accessible than if it’s in anything else, because Toronto people generally don’t speak German, Italian, French, if it’s not as expensive it’s more accessible. So that’s the problem with the big hall. It’s not like this is a conscious effort to stop anything from happening, but they’re not helping by not encouraging it.
How did you realize that pay-what-you-can events could be a possibility for opera?
If there’s no existing fan base for something, it’s got to go on the strength of the idea and getting people in to taste it for the first time, because once you have word-of-mouth, then it’s a different kind of venture. Plus, we’ve done pay-what-you-can before, and I know that Long Winter is pay-what-you-can, and that’s kind of like a… I was researching Fucked Up online and I was impressed with this idea that tickets should not be a barrier to anyone trying to experience art, rock, metal, whatever, so why not? We don’t need the same people coming, we need new people coming, and it’s actually going to be more powerful for new people. Whether they hate it or they love it, because it’s a new world, it’s like… stepping off the plane into Tokyo for the first time is nuts – Russia, Brazil – and that’s what I think this is like. You’re going out of somewhere that you know into a place where you don’t know stuff. And that’s really exciting to me, and I think it should be for other people.