Photo By Dahlia Katz
This article originally appeared on Noisey Canada.
When I first heard about Tapestry Opera's Tap:EX Tables Turned), I wasn't very optimistic. A show that proudly touts in its headline “opera singer meets DJ” and that it will define the future of opera sounds more like an embarrassing “let’s make opera hip for the kids” shtick—like the time Megadeth’s Dave Mustaine wanked on guitar alongside the San Diego Symphony Orchestra. However, after sitting in an art studio while watching a kimono clad opera singer do beta blockers and sing over remixed versions of classic films, I realized I had probably spoke too soon.
During the first of two acts, featured soprano Carla Huhtanen sat awkwardly on stage while singing and mimicking actors from the The Sound of Music and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, like a lonely fangirl in her bedroom. Meanwhile, Montreal-based composer, Nicole Lizée was behind the boards taking well-known scenes from each film and chopping them up into new but oddly recognizable pieces. For instance, she did a five minute loop of Maria von Trapp tuning her guitar and singing “let’s start at the very beginning,” which made for a very creepy version of the Sound of Music classic “Do-Re-Mi”. Or when she turned Tippi Hedren’s upbeat piano performance in The Birds into a slow trip-hop dirge that would make even Geoff Barrow proud. As the show reached its climax, Huhtanen obsessively watched scenes of opera diva, Maria Callas, at one point taking pills in reference to Callas’ famous beta blockers, which the late singer took to calm herself from anxiety attacks before shows. It was a vivid if uncomfortably honest portrayal of an artist overcoming their fears and chasing the longtail of fame. The show would end with Huhtanen confidently standing up and assuming the role of the diva with her voice washing over the room. Fitting, as the night was all about reimagining pop culture icons while creating huge and unique spectacles, something of which, opera, since its very inception, has always strived to do. And that’’s what makes Tapestry Opera and Tap:EX Tables Turned great, because they give a glimpse as to what opera can offer us in our multimedia savvy world, and what we’re missing out when we ignored it. Impressed by the showing, I followed up with Tapestry Opera’s creative director, Michael Mori, to find out more.
Photo By Dahlia Katz
Noisey: Given how much opera has changed over the centuries, do you see yourself as radically breaking traditions or returning to old ones?
Michael Mori: We are radically breaking from the 20th century tradition of “the opera experience” by rejecting conventions upheld for almost a hundred years. In the very first operas, as in Tap:Ex Tables Turned, artists of various disciplines came together in the name of drama and music. Works drew upon familiar subjects and themes. With its growth in popularity, more politically relevant ideas were brought to the forefront and opera was used as an instrument of social commentary and even revolution. We're bringing that intention and relevance back.
Is there anything you think is lost or lacking in mainstream opera culture that TAP:EX reclaims?
Definitely, it reclaims an acknowledgment of the time and culture we live in. At one time, all educated people were familiar with classic cultural references: Greek mythology, classical English, German, and French poets and playwrights, and so on. That generation is now a minority and Canada and the US no longer identify as an extension of Europe. Instead, we are an independent multicultural society that is far more connected to classic films than classic literature and mythology. It is only logical to use this rich source of contemporary nostalgia as something that belongs to our generation in the same way that classical references belonged to previous generations.
Can you tell me a little more about the performance process behind Tables Turned? I was really wondering whether the video editing and mixing were performed live.
Some of these things are trade secrets, but I’ll let you in on a few. Nicole Lizée notates her soundtracks and some of her spinning - and has done this for years - which makes her one of the leading composers for turntable and integrated media in the world. It reads approximately as it sounds, so that any soundtrack noises in the video or LP would also be on the singer’s score as notes. There was additionally improvised mixing and live spinning done by the composer/turntablist as such the challenges of this unconventional orchestration required some exceptionally virtuosic interpretation by Carla Huhtanen, our soprano.
Speaking of Carla, the opera's two acts seemed to show her exploring themes of hero worship, isolated media consumption, and insecurity, often through invoking heavy anxiety and drug use. Was this a reference to your own experiences, or experiences you see among current artists?
Absolutely. Identity, in a world over-saturated with trained artists, free ubiquitous media, and concurrently fragmented artistic trends, is one of the hardest things to find. It just seems like there used to be far more heroes or iconic artists in the early- to mid-20th century than there are now. And so the artist’s challenge to have something unique and/or meaningful to say is somehow greater - thus the insecurity, anxiety, and obsessive isolated media consumption. As for artists and drugs, there are Aldous Huxelys and John Donnes and everything in between. Exploration for the artist can include anything, and drugs are less and less stigmatized it seems, perhaps in light of their glorification in movies. Callas was known for her beta-blockers and Carla was emulating her hero in that moment of reference.
Does it say anything about how we consume media today?
It does. The 21st century has set media expectations that we cannot uninstall.
Tapestry Opera’s next performance, M’dea Undone, which reimagines the blood-soaked Greek mythological character Medea as the lover of a modern war hero and politician, runs May 26-29.
Greg Bouchard will never hear “Do-Re-Mi” the same way again. - @gregorybouchard