Opera’s one of the few art forms that seldom attracts younger audience members the way something like rock or pop music would. Its sophistication requires a more complex mind, which tends to accompany growing older. So when a company like Tapestry Opera continually seeks to push the boundaries of what opera is and where it can go, the appeal is more than tempting. They opened their 35th season on November 13 with “Tapestry Briefs: Booster Shots”, which was a sort-of crash course into the outer reaches of opera.
Taking place at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District (already gorgeously decorated in anticipation of Christmas), “Tapestry Briefs” consisted of 10 short opera performances taking place in four different locations, six composers, five playwrights, four singers and two pianists. In between some of the performances were the “booster shots” (Ontario Spring Water sake, maple whisky, Steam Whistle pilsner/ginger beer, cayenne mango ice cream — magnificently good — from Greg’s Ice Cream), aperitifs meant to enhance the spirit of the preceding or following snippets.
Unfortunately, not much good can be said about any part of the evening. The booster shots and singing were fine, although the former came in such skimpily small portions it was like licking flavouring off a spoon, and the latter was too inconsistent to really elevate the night into a different level. As well, each location for the performances took place in an acoustically unflattering space, with concrete walls, metal spiral staircases and space either too tight or expansive that ate up all the sound. Any sort of music or singing should take place in an environment that’s at least half wood to allow for more favourable reverberation, as the various spaces in the Ernest Balmer Studio acted as a black hole for sound.
Further, and although it’s not clear why, but it seems like Tapestry Opera either doesn’t have the budget or doesn’t want to spend the money on better costuming, design and props. One need look no further than the antepenultimate piece, “The Overcoat- Fitting”, a performance adapted from Gogol about two tailors (mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabò, baritone Alexander Dobson) strong-arming their customer (tenor Keith Klassen) into submission, Tapestry Opera couldn’t even be bothered to make sure the glass on the mirror had been wiped clean. Or, take the trio of stories in “The Whisky Opera”, a tale of 1800s Brooks Bush Gang members, with soprano Carla Huhtanen’s dress being shockingly baggy and ill-fitting.
Even something as intriguing as the first opera of the night, “1984- The Note”, which looked at the Orwellian characters Winston and Julia as she passes him a love note in the newspeak office. Dobson as Winston looked about as opposite from the “1984” character as one can imagine, more of a tanned South American with his long hair and goatee than an identity-less drone among the masses. Tapestry Opera musical director and pianist Dr. Christopher Foley, physically, would have made a much better Winston. His musicianship was one of the few strong points in “Tapestry Briefs”, although one of the pianos he was playing on had a woefully out-of-tune key that really should have been fixed beforehand.
The other bright spot of the evening was Szabò, who sang clearly and with strength, and played each of her characters with utmost believability. She was especially good in the ribald “The Whiskey Opera- Trio”, playing hardened criminal Jane Lewis as she trains a younger woman on how to make a quick buck. Her performance was captivating and full of charisma, and had “Tapestry Briefs” only featured her, it would have made the whole performance much better.
Some of the briefs were especially head-scratching for their inclusion, either because the material seemed overly cliche or too closely copied from other media. In terms of the former, “You and Meme”, an opera about two hipsters on a first date with nothing in common but a love of (goat) memes, has almost nothing original about it as though creators Nicolas Billon and Dean Burry simply rifled slapped together a bunch of memes and called it a day. And with reference to the latter, “the blind woman”, an opera about a blind dancer forced to the company of her shadow, seems to have been lifted directly from Bjork’s “Dancer in the Dark”, which, while not exactly stellar, was much better than what was shown at “Tapestry Briefs”.
Opera — or any art form, for that matter — doesn’t always need millions of dollars and world-class names to be honest, authentic and of truly good quality. But if Tapestry Opera is content to ride the wave in the direction of “Tapestry Briefs”, well, a bit more investment wouldn’t hurt at all.