Toronto composer James Rolfe has been commissioned and performed by ensembles, orchestras, choirs and opera companies in Canada, the USA, Europe and New Zealand. James’ music returns to the What Next Festival following a performance of his chamber work raW last season. This year, the HPO is thrilled to present Swoon, his comedic, one act opera at the 2016 What Next Festival of New Music.

Premiered in December 2006 by the Canadian Opera Company (COC), Swoon, with text by Hamilton’s Anna Chatterton, is a brisk, contemporary comedy that tells the story of two disillusioned couples who work out their jealousies through flirtatious exchanges with each other’s partners. Below, James discusses the writing of Swoon, its characters and Canadian opera.

Swoon was commissioned in January 2006 by the COC for a production in December of that year. For a 45-minute opera, it was a very tight timeline, but the librettist Anna Chatterton and myself were inspired by the great Mozart-Da Ponte comic operas such as Cosi fan Tutte and Marriage
of Figaro, so we set to work to create something contemporary in their spirit. We knew the director, Michael Albano, had a light touch with comedy and that the singer, from the COC’s ensemble training program, would be a good fit for our young characters. With his characteristic mix of great enthusiasm and brutal honesty, the COC’s director Richard Bradshaw helped to guide the creation and production. Richard was especially fond of its elegiac final quartet. Sadly, it proved to be a swan song of sorts when he died unexpectedly the next year.

“In the writing of Swoon, words came first. Anna and I collaborated closely to make sure the characters were lively and the story well-paced. It’s a very kinetic opera, each section with its own step, its own groove, as if the four singers are locked into a close-stepping tango. The rhythm also connects more directly to a contemporary audience. The characters are mostly based on real people and life experiences, mixed with a little creative license. Each character suffers from jealousy and tries to manipulate the others in their own style: Mona by cleaning obsessively, Roy by spying and swaggering, and Ari by playing the victim, while Leah desperately tries to stay true to herself. They inhabit their own musical worlds and bring them into battle, clashing with each other’s music. Once the conflict comes to a head, there is a resolution of sorts in the final quartet, where their voices at last weave in harmony.

“I believe that opera, far from being an elite art form, is absolutely natural and universally appealing. Humans have sung, danced, dressed up and told stories forever. Opera does all of these and when it works, magic happens. We are blessed in Canada with an abundance of talented singers, composers, librettists and producers who are telling their stories – our stories – on the operatic stage, as you will see from the snapshot of Canadian operas that this festival offers.”

Catch James Rolfe’s comedic opera Swoon, as your HPO presents Legend and Jealousy May 25 at 7:30pm at Christ’s Church Cathedral.