It started, as these things do, by chance. Toronto poet Sharon Singer was a writer with an opera libretto on her hard drive looking for a composer. At a party, she met mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig. They got talking, and as they spoke, Ludwig had a brainwave. "You should get in touch with my friend Peter-Anthony Togni," she told Singer. "I think he may be just the person you're looking for."
Four years or so after that chance meeting, Togni and Singer's Isis and Osiris will be making its world premiere Friday in a semi-staged production, directed by Guillermo Silva-Marin, as part of his Voicebox: Opera in Concert series, with a cast featuring Lucia Cesaroni, Michael Barrett, Julie Nesrallah and Michael Nyby in the four lead roles, all conducted by Robert Cooper.
Halifax-based Togni remembers that first call with Singer. "From the very first encounter, we were best friends. I was never that interested in ancient Egypt. But I fell in love with Sharon's work, with her libretto. It's so beautiful. I'm also inspired by Sharon's passion for the work. I knew it was going to be a long haul, a lot of effort. But what's kept me going is constantly returning to her texts."
Isis and Osiris is a story on a grand scale. It tells of one of the first great love stories in mythological history, between Isis and Osiris, King and Queen of Egypt, and two of four siblings born of the gods of earth and sky. It's a story of incest, lust, murder, intrigue and undying love. It's got "opera" written all over it.
Given its theme and story, I wondered if Togni had changed his quite accessible musical style to pay homage to the Egyptian-ness of the opera. "Yes and no," he says. "I'm not trying to faithfully recreate what ancient Egyptian music sounded like. It's more that I'm imagining what it might have sounded like. But I'm also referencing in the piece the music that I love, some of it 19th-century Russian music, some Handel – there's a harpsichord in the ensemble. But I also have Coldplay influences in there because I love the harmonic sequencing in Coldplay. I do use Arabic modes a little bit, but it's through my own harmonic language. Guillermo said we've got to make this opera dance so there's a lot of Arabic rhythms in there – the percussion is really, really important."
And although he's been writing for voice for quite a while, and on a large scale, this is the first opera for the former CBC Radio 2 host (in case the name sounded familiar). "I'm learning – it's Opera 101 for me, I've never done this before, so there's a lot I didn't know. I think that sometimes composers think that everything's in the music and I'm learning it's not. It's about the drama. It's like a film score in many ways. So the score goes from being very melodic to times when it's really quite ugly. But the music must be supportive of the drama and the text."
Togni has been in Toronto for a week or so observing the rehearsals for Isis and Osiris, and the experience has been a revelation for him. "Without seeing the actions, I realize there was something missing. And so to watch them all of a sudden blocking it, and it's coming alive with the music – that's incredible. The libretto's great – it's all coming together."
Speaking to Togni, and realizing just how much work has gone into the production of just the music for this work ("three years altogether, hard for a year, 18 hours a day, seven days a week for the last six months" is what he tells me), it's easy to understand the precarious nature of new Canadian opera. Because apart from the music, a libretto had to be written for this piece, a company willing to mount it identified, funding found, a cast assembled. It's a tribute to the dedication and perseverance not just of Singer and Togni, but of Silva-Marin and Cooper, and everyone else associated with this project that it exists at all. One way or another, Friday evening's premiere will be a remarkable night for them all.
Editor's note: Michael Barnett is part of the Isis and Osiris cast. Guillermo Silva-Marin is the general director. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.