Opera stripped to its essentials
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
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.