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You can hear a band at Massey Hall with a drink in your hand, but opera is usually a dry gig. Tapestry New Opera changed that order of things on Thursday, with its first performance of five short operas based on real and imagined lore from Sloans Bar and Restaurant, a historic watering hole and banqueting place in Glasgow.

Sloans, a rather grand establishment on three floors, traces its origins to a coffee house that opened in 1797. A lot can happen in a bar in 200 years, or even in the 90 minutes it took Tapestry conductor Wayne Strongman and stage director Sue Miner to get through the Canadian premiere of this varied program.

Tapestry dressed up its stark Balmer Studio to resemble a drinking lounge, with chandeliers and a bar and last calls before the music began. Irish composer Gareth Williams and Toronto poet David Brock had four singers and six players to animate their brief tales of love, disappointment and revenge, some of which were done at Sloans last summer by New Opera In Scotland Events (NOISE).

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Mad With It depicted a young engaged couple (soprano Xin Wang and baritone Benjamin Covey), fresh from the jewellery shops that stand near Sloans, running into an old soak (tenor James McLean), who roughly warns them of the path of thorns awaiting in married life. McLean was very effective both in his bitterness and in the lyrical set piece he sang with toy-piano accompaniment. Much of the piece relied on a chugging pattern-music idiom that turned out to be Williams's default option for the evening.

Chopin's Ghosts imagined the consequences of a visit to Sloans by the famous composer. Mezzo-soprano Heather Jewson strolled about in designer Jung-Hye Kim's enormous pink dress, burdened with many strands of pearls and far too much narrative for one singer to disgorge effectively. The reminiscent tone of both text and music, and Jewson's rather stolid way of performing them, made it hard for me to care very much about the character's complaints.

In Country Song, McLean and Covey carried in their dead friend for a final pint and a favourite song on the jukebox, winningly sung by Wang in cowgirl costume. This was the tightest piece dramatically, with music that closely fit the anecdote while following its own rondo form, and a perfect blackout ending.

Charm chillingly presented Covey as a genial serial killer, recalling his crimes and anticipating more, before a friendly but vengeful stranger (McLean) offers him a drink. McLean again excelled as a man whose grief and rage shook his entire being, though he tended to sag below pitch in this piece and others. Brock's text worked a surprising and quite moving transition near its end, as the men engaged in a child-parent dialogue, from two different angles whose intersection was death. Williams's music framed the encounter in waltz time, with seething rhythm patterns that wracked the ensemble as the pair moved towards their fatal duet.

Young Love revisited the couple of the opening piece on the day of their wedding, to briskly set up a beautiful situation for farce. Having set that stage, however, poet and composer abruptly veered into a sentimental reverie for all four singers. That seemed to please the game first-night audience, though I thought it a wasted opportunity.

The small ensemble (violinist Rebecca van der Post, cellist Amber Ghent, accordionist Tiina Kiik, harpist Erica Goodman and pianist James Bourne) gave a brightly coloured performance of all these pieces. It would have been fun to see them in a real pub, and possibly to follow them to different rooms, as was done at the NOISE production at Sloans.

Pub Operas

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  • Tapestry New Opera
  • Ernest Balmer Studio, Distillery District
  • In Toronto on Thursday

Tapestry's Pub Operas continue at the Ernest Balmer Studio through Nov. 12.

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