Opera stripped to its es­sen­tials

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - LUISA D’AMATO ldam­ato@there­cord.com

Opera has a rep­u­ta­tion.

Peo­ple think of it as be­ing old-fash­ioned, slow, and hard to un­der­stand, given that most works aren’t writ­ten in English. And it is tra­di­tion­ally very ex­pen­sive to pro­duce, with huge sets, in­tri­cate cos­tumes and many per­form­ers in a large hall.

But what if opera were stripped right down to its es­sen­tials? Could we re­dis­cover it?

That’s what the Bi­cy­cle Opera Project is all about.

It’s a trav­el­ling opera, in which ev­ery­thing needed for the pro­duc­tion can fit on a few bi­cy­cles and bike trail­ers, rid­den by the per­form­ers and pro­duc­ers as they tour from one com­mu­nity to the next.

In­stead of the epic myths of Wag­ner or the tragic love sto­ries of Puc­cini, the Bi­cy­cle Opera Project of­fers min­i­mal­ist pro­duc­tion and pow­er­ful con­tem­po­rary themes.

It de­lib­er­ately per­forms in small, in­ti­mate spa­ces as a way of clos­ing the gap be­tween au­di­ence and singers.

This year’s pro­duc­tion, which comes to Hamil­ton on the week­end, is “Sweat,” by Juliet Palmer and Anna Chat­ter­ton. The work brings the lives and imag­i­na­tions of mod­ern sweat­shop work­ers to life.

“’Sweat’ is about the women who make our clothes,” said Larissa Ko­niuk, founder and artis­tic di­rec­tor of Bi­cy­cle Opera Project.

The mu­sic and text evoke the repet­i­tive, per­cus­sive en­vi­ron­ment of the assem­bly line while con­trast­ing it with the hopes and dreams of the women who work there.

Gar­ment work­ers are of­ten lo­cated far from us — South­east Asia, China, Mex­ico.

Yet in an­other way, they’re close, said Ko­niuk. “Their hands touch the gar­ments that touch our skin, and yet we never know who they are.”

This pro­duc­tion tries to give these work­ers a hu­man face. Nine of Canada’s most promis­ing young opera singers play the women as they dream of home, and face the dilemma of whether to risk their jobs by de­mand­ing bet­ter

work­ing con­di­tions.

The 70-minute per­for­mance uses only the nine voices, with­out any other in­stru­ments.

“That choice is de­lib­er­ate in cap­tur­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence of these women,” said Ge­of­frey Sirett, the con­duc­tor of this per­for­mance and a singer who has per­formed be­fore in these pro­duc­tions.

“They’re sit­ting on very shaky ground. They feel ex­posed when they try to con­nect their fears and fan­tasies and de­sires.”

The mu­sic has mo­ments of si­lence too. “You can feel the still­ness, the ten­sion,” Sirett said.

“The mo­ments that are the most pow­er­ful are when there is al­most noth­ing go­ing on.”

The “Sweat” tour be­gins Satur­day and Sun­day at Hamil­ton’s Work­ers Art and Her­itage Mu­seum and then stops in Water­loo, Ot­tawa, Kingston, Prince Ed­ward County and Cobourg be­fore fin­ish­ing in Toronto Aug. 7.


The Bi­cy­cle Opera, with per­for­mances in Water­loo and Hamil­ton, is about life in a sweat­shop in south­east Asia.

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