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Rehearsal photo from R. Murray Schafer's opera The Children's Crusade: Tim Albery, right, is the director and Jacob Abrahamse, left, plays the lead, Stephen the Holy Child.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Children's Crusade of medieval lore faced hardship and famine, religious hope and unfulfilled miracles. But never did anyone count on the determination of a Toronto rainstorm.

Rain damage to the roof of a warehouse built in the 1930s has delayed the world premiere of the ambitious new opera, The Children's Crusade, by composer R. Murray Schafer, as crews scramble to repair the structure and rebuild sets. The unused and dilapidated warehouse is being used as an elaborate set in which audiences follow the characters, dancers and singers, including 44 members of the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, into nooks and crannies, around corners or into shining light.

As a result of the rain damage, which mainly affected a back section of the set, the premiere has been pushed back a day from Friday to Saturday.

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The dream-like opera, more concerned with portraying innocence and emotion than with medieval scholarship, is part of the Luminato multidisciplinary arts festival set to kick off in Toronto at the end of the week.

With scenes in four or five large sections of the warehouse, the audience will follow the action with only rudimentary guidance from characters. As the crusade story unfolds around them, some observers may not find themselves always in the best spot, forcing them to move as the action proceeds through the warehouse space.

"There are multiple viewpoints. It's basically chance. And of course, if you're like me, you'd move around. It's up to [viewers]really to make of it what they will," said opera director Tim Albery, who has been involved in the project since Christmas. Currently residing in Toronto, Albery has worked with the Canadian Opera Company, New York's Metropolitan Opera, the National Opera in England and others in his long career. Much of the appeal of this project was its unconventionality and the by-hook-or-by-crook way in which the piece and the refurbishing of the warehouse came together.

Schafer based the opera on the French Children's Crusade. Some background: Medieval lore has it that a shepherd boy, Stephen, from the town of Cloyes in France, arrives at the court of King Philip in Saint-Denis in the year 1212. He bears a letter from Christ, telling him to lead a crusade to the Holy Land. The king isn't interested. But Stephen preaches his vision and is able to rally 30,000 children of different social standings, backgrounds and regions of France to follow him. The children march to Marseilles, following the promise that the Mediterranean waters will part for them, allowing the pilgrimage to continue to Jerusalem. The waters do not part, and the resulting fate is tragic. Some children drown. Some are sold into slavery. Many die trying to find their way home.

Contemporary scholars have raised all sorts of questions about the veracity of this tale. It is commonly believed that there were two children's crusades, the other in Germany, which reached a similar fate, and that details of the two stories are mixed up. Some researchers say it may not even have been children involved, but a mass exodus of the poor seeking something better. The opera is less concerned with this historic precision and instead plays on the emotion and hope of salvation in such crusades.

"The piece is about the eternal re-flowering of that idealistic pursuit of the notion of the world being a better place," says Albery, who is perhaps the very definition of an opera director, excitedly trying to recreate operatic Sturm und Drang as he talks about the production.

"So when you say 'religious,' I would temper that by saying that the piece musically and dramatically plays with traditional Christian and indeed Muslim and Judaic imagery. But it isn't, for me, fundamentally about that.

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"It's about this other thing, this more generalized sense that humanity is always looking for the best in itself, whilst having to accept that, nearly always, the worst in itself prevails," Albery adds. "And the best in itself is always represented by the innocence of children. That's what I take from this piece."

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