Opera can arguably be considered one of the grandest, most expressive forms of musical thought, bringing together the voice, orchestra, theatre and visual art. It arouses passion and excitement through the comedy and tragedy of the human condition.
As an art form, opera was first developed around the year 1600 by Italian composer and singer Jacopo Peri. It grew out of the tradition of liturgical music dramas and mystery plays of the Renaissance time. Over the past 400 years, millions of fans and spectators have flocked to opera houses all over the world to experience the great works of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. Opera buffs spend thousands of dollars to get on waiting lists to hear Wagner operas in his home turf at the Bayreuth Festival. An appreciation of and interest in opera is a global phenomenon, but seen especially in opera houses across Europe. So how is this European reflected in Canadian culture? What does opera in Canada mean today? How are today’s composers going to tell their stories, in the 21st century? Well, it seems that in many cases, you get the most Canadian of stories.
Opera by Canadian composers today has taken on numerous forms, ranging from the grand styles of the past to smaller and more intimate works. And subject matter inspiring Canadian opera composers has ranged from stories of lonesome circus elephants (like Abigail Richardson-Schulte’s Sanctuary Song) to fabled tales known throughout history (like Dean Burry’s children’s opera The Brothers Grimm) to historical Canadian figures (like Errol Gay’s 2012 children’s opera Laura’s Cow: The Legend of Laura Secord). The most famous and grand Canadian opera was written in 1967 for Canada’s centennial anniversary. Composer Harry Somers premiered Louis Riel at the Canadian Opera Company, and brought to light the story of the controversial Metis leader who was executed in 1885. Canada’s nation-builders were also explored in Chan Ka Nin opera Iron Road (2001), which told the story of the exploitation of Chinese workers during the construction of the Trans-Canada Railroad and even incorporated Chinese musical traditions. Even our nation’s most prolific authors and filmmakers have taken their hand at the operatic form. For example, director Atom Egoyan has directed works for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, while author Margaret Atwood has written text for the opera Pauline. Her novel A Handmaid’s Tale was also the inspiration for Danish composer Poul Ruders, and premiered in Copenhagen in 2000.
It’s clear from this short list that Canadian opera is alive and well, and contributes to our national historical dialogue, bringing together the most human of elements and emotions. Today some of our most active opera composers are transforming the grandiose style of the art form and distilling it into its purest forms—music, emotion, story— for audiences to experience the visceral, engaging elements of these stories by Canadians. In this year’s What Next Festival, we’re taking this grand art form, and boiling it down to the most intimate and engaging of experiences in local venues around downtown Hamilton. After experiencing the works in this year’s festival line-up, we hope you can be proud of Canadian composers and their zest for storytelling through music and the human voice.