As a field and a medium, opera is facing a systemic reckoning. Concepts like equity, representation, and access are being questioned by producers, artists, and audiences alike. At the heart of this effort lies a fundamental question: In 2022, what stories is opera trying to tell? By whom? And – perhaps most importantly – for whom?
re:Naissance Opera confronts these questions each day. Since taking flight in 2017 under the founding artistic leadership of interdisciplinary performance artist Debi Wong, the Vancouver-based professional company has been driven by a commitment to racial equity, intersectionality, and artistic innovation. The company stewards local artists, and prioritizes the perspectives and lived experiences of Deaf, Queer, and IBPOC creators.
Poet and librettist J.D. McClatchy (1945 – 2018) once famously stated that, “The only thing more expensive than opera is war.” Thanks to a 2022 investment from Amplify BC’s Career Development program, the composer behind one of re:Naissance Opera’s most recent works is overcoming this hurdle: building new musical skills, refining her abilities, and finding a broader audience for her work than before.
Vancouver-based musician Katerina (Kat) Gimon is the composer behind Did I Just Say That?, a comedic chamber operetta with libretto by Vancouver-based multi-disciplinary artist Valerie Sing Turner. Inspired by actual events, the 20-minute piece delves into the story of a friendship being tested between Cecilia, a white composer, and Gabriella, a writer of colour, as they battle over the merits of entering a new opera competition together. The sung-through work interrogates themes of feminism, racial intersectionality, and what it means to embody artistic risk in a patriarchal society in which women must diminish or silence themselves to advance. The project was co-commissioned with Visceral Visions in 2020, workshopped in the summer of 2021, and saw a successful public performance during IndieFest Vancouver (an annual industry showcase event for indie and chamber opera producers, presenters, and other stakeholders). Vancouver-based répétiteur Perri Lo served as Music Director.
Career Development funding from Amplify BC is supporting the sound recording activities related to the production of Did I Just Say That?, allowing Kat the opportunity to grow her professional skills and abilities as a composer and orchestrator. In the coming months, she will expand the opera’s existing piano-vocal score to a 12-piece chamber ensemble encompassing five string parts and five wind parts, alongside piano and percussion. The expanded score will be recorded with local singers, and released in two formats: as a standalone digital album, and as the soundtrack for an upcoming animated film adaptation of the piece, slated for release in 2023.
As a classical composer who has enjoyed success in choral settings, but who is relatively new to opera as an idiom, Kat is excited at the opportunity to gain new skills and reach new audiences via this foray into the multi-disciplinary compositional world that the medium affords.
“What’s exciting to me about operatic composition is that it offers a unique and satisfying challenge of storytelling in close collaboration with a writer,” she says. “Valerie and I have developed a great collaborative working relationship: each taking the lead at times, playing off each other’s ideas, and challenging one another.”
Did I Just Say That? is only the latest in a series of innovations from re:Naissance Opera. Past projects have included Jesse: An ASL Opera (presented in 2019, Deaf-led, making creative use of ASL in its libretto and dramatic structure, and exploring how languages are experienced and expressed), and Acis & Galatea (presented in 2018 as an unapologetically-subversive ‘gender liberation’ of the pastoral standard by Handel). The company’s prior projects have also made disruptive, forward-looking use of technology (as but one example, 2019’s OrpheusVR: A Virtual Reality Opera, which was among the first successful professional forays of its kind in Canada).
When asked to comment on re:Naissance Opera’s approach to the creation methodology behind genre-pushing and boundary-challenging projects like Did I Just Say That?, Debi asserts that, ultimately, these efforts are devised to sustainably develop and equip artists to thrive in a rapidly-shifting landscape.
“re:Naissance Opera creates everything from contemporary opera on proscenium stages to virtual reality video games to science fiction podcasts. At a high level, it looks like we can’t make up our minds on an artistic form, but what we really do is develop artists,” she says.
Debi elaborates, “We invite in amazing creators, and instead of asking them to adhere to our idea of an artistic form, we ask them how they want to break the boundaries of musical storytelling – and, what kinds of worlds they can imagine for future generations. Then, we find the tools, people, technology, and artistic forms that will empower them to tell their stories and bring their new worlds to life.”
Debi concludes, “To me, engaging with Western European opera – or, any art form, really – represents an invitation to connect and converse with historical practices, and the artists that have come before us. Opera has a long lineage of innovation that intrigues me. So, when you come to see a re:Naissance Opera project, whether it is in a concert hall or via a VR headset, you are essentially experiencing one of our many responses to a question that was asked 450 years ago: what might be possible when we bring music and drama together to immerse audiences in imaginary worlds?”
When asked to comment on the personal and creative inspirations that drive these kinds of collaborative outputs, Debi is quick to offer, “My first answer to this question is Valerie Sing Turner. Seriously! She is such an incredible artist, advocate, and arts leader. For me, as a woman of colour, and [as] an arts leader that is still finding my own leadership style and path, I feel lucky to be in community with Valerie. She is truly a bright light.”
Debi continues, “On a completely nerdy level, I am [also] obsessed with sci-fi, and new mythology. This past year, I have read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, N.K Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy, and James Marlon’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Moon Witch Spider King. These are stories and worlds that I know will always live with me. I have higher aspirations after being immersed in these stories.”
When asked about her inspirations for the thoughtful and incisive libretto at the heart of Did I Just Say That?, Valerie says, “I’m more comfortable writing prose. So the idea of writing in verse and making text rhyme kinda terrified me! To challenge myself, I had two inspirations: Tim Rice, the lyricist for iconic musicals such as Chess, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and hip-hop. Both [examples] constantly amaze me with their wittiness, political sharpness, and ability to shape words and rhymes with a fresh take that delights the wordy nerd in me!”
Through this project Kat, Valerie, and Debi – and, re:Naissance Opera, as a company – are enabling opera to cast away any stubborn notions of artifice and engage the audiences of the future. As Debi notes, “Opera isn’t a historical artifact, and it doesn’t have to be stuck in time. It can still be driven and shaped by interdisciplinary artists who want to find innovative and artistic ways to engage with the crucial conversations of our time.”
Building on this, Valerie notes, “I think there’s a perception that opera and musical theatre are just expensive pageantry about people and stories that are largely irrelevant to contemporary audiences, particularly racialized communities – and, rightly so! What I loved about creating my first opera was the freedom to use the form to heighten the visceral impact of stories that matter to me in the here and now, as a racialized woman who cares about injustice and inequality. And as a playwright, witnessing the strong emotional impact on audience members of my words set to music has made me realize that there are just some things better expressed through song.”
As an artist committed to equity in all elements of the art-making process, Debi is also candid about the sectoral and systemic blind spots that must be challenged to support this momentum. She offers, “At re:Naissance Opera, and in my own work, I feel called to build new structures and systems. I am tired of conversations about broken systems and imaginary glass ceilings, and of power structures that cannot be reformed to include people who look like me. I am ready to create new ways of lifting up community. I am excited to empower [those] artists, whose voices are consistently ignored and erased, to tell their stories. And, I am excited to use artistic expression to strengthen our interconnected communities.”
Debi, Kat, and Valerie remain appreciative of what Amplify BC’s funding has made possible for Did I Just Say That?, coupled with other re:Naissance Opera activities in recent years.
Debi notes, “Like all grant applications, the process can be ornery and frustrating, but at the end of the day, when we need someone to fund a big idea, we always think of Creative BC first. If you have time and capacity, it’s worth a shot!”
Beyond their ability to influence contemporary minds, hearts, and conversations, timely projects like Did I Just Say That? enable opera to exist and thrive alongside any other contemporary medium that upholds the human experience at its core. As the form continues to respond to quickly-shifting social, demographic, and technological currents, it is artists like Kat, Debi, and Valerie who continue to revolutionize its accessibility and relevance as a vital and vibrant 21st-century force.
Valerie Sing Turner:
Website | CultureBrew.Art | “Dare to Dream” (centerpiece aria from Did I Just Say That?)
Photos courtesy of re:Naissance Opera.