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Theatre & Performance At 40, Tapestry is Canadian opera’s most reliable risk taker

Tapestry Opera tells Indigenous stories and #MeToo stories and has invited a Canadian hardcore band to write arias.

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You’ve likely walked past the studios of Tapestry Opera, unaware. They reside in Toronto’s Distillery District – a pedestrian-only few blocks of cobblestone packed with galleries and shops. Amid the famous shoe stores and pricey coffee, and only a five-minute walk from the Front Street studios of the Canadian Opera Company, Tapestry Opera is hardly visible – symbolic of their underdog status in Canada’s opera scene. Underdog though they may be, they’ve got staying power: This fall, Tapestry is celebrating 40 years in the business of creating new opera.

Since Wayne Strongman founded it in 1979, Tapestry’s history has been exclusively in the commissioning and production of contemporary Canadian opera. No small feat, that. And it’s particularly remarkable for Tapestry, where the focus on new opera is decidedly a niche of something already niche. Even under their company mandate, Tapestry Opera wears many hats. They tell Indigenous stories and #MeToo stories; they put up shows in Toronto’s Don Valley and they invite Fucked Up to write arias for the likes of David Pomeroy and Krisztina Szabo. Tapestry, with its compact size and operating budget, can afford the kind of creative risks that their larger companions cannot; and because they can take risks, they have become a hub for innovative projects and the artists who create them.

Tapestry’s big birthday isn’t just about celebrating their four-decade hustle. The company’s true legacy is in its standardization of new opera development: the Composer-Librettist Laboratory. Known colloquially as the LibLab, it took formal shape in 1995 after Strongman, who had seen too many pieces “just fall apart on the cutting room floor,” had learned how best to support the operas-in-progress under Tapestry’s watch.

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The LibLab is an environment that’s part workshop, part professional speed-dating for composers and librettists. It puts these would-be opera creators into the same room, and nudges them toward collaborative work. Composers and librettists partner up in several combinations, testing the chemistry in different pairings by working together on an operatic short or single scene. It’s a tactic meant to maximize the collaborative learning curve – or, as Alexander Neef, general director of the Canadian Opera Company, puts it, “you throw darts at the wall and see what sticks.”

Most of what comes out of the LibLab doesn’t stick, but that’s not the point. Rather, it’s about offering an incubating environment where new opera can be put to the test before too much hope or money are thrown in its direction. The LibLab participants produce their short pieces, which are then almost immediately subjected to external criticism from people such as Strongman, fellow conductors and dramaturgs, and select industry invitees. “Feedback was solicited. We heard what people had to say,” says Tom Diamond, Canadian stage director and dramaturg for Tapestry Opera’s LibLab. “That doesn’t really happen with other companies.”

Tapestry is looked on favourably by arts-funding organizations.

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And of course, there’s the formidable library of Canadian opera of which Tapestry can rightly boast. To date, the LibLab has produced 160 shorts, 20 chamber operas and 18 full-length works. The quantity of these fledgling operas eventually produces a few of lasting quality – such as the Dora Award-winning Rocking Horse Winner and The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring (both of which premiered in 2017), and the internationally acclaimed Nigredo Hotel (1992). After all, choosing a few out of many is how we now have our favourites from the oeuvres of Mozart and Verdi.

Would it not be a sure bet then, when other opera companies set out to commission a new opera, that they ask Tapestry for advice? Even after reaching the checkpoint of their first large-scale production, Iron Road (2001), Tapestry couldn’t seem to attract long-term partnership from Canada’s large companies.

“I’d been trying to woo them for years,” Strongman recalls. “Look, you need a developmental arm. Let Tapestry be that for you."

Since the years of Harry Somers and Claude Vivier – when, as Strongman puts it, composers “were kind of writing for each other” – contemporary opera has suffered from a long bout of bad public relations. Even as the dissonant 20th century gave way to the neo-lyricism of the 21st, the PR damage of contemporary opera seems to endure. And in a business as precarious as opera, bad press is synonymous with financial risk.

It should be said that Tapestry, in its modest size, can better shoulder those risks. Their promotion of new opera and Canadian careers means they’re looked on favourably by arts-funding organizations, and they’re small enough for ticket revenue to make a difference (by comparison, in 2018 the COC earned more from their bar and parking revenue than from ticket sales).

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Indeed, for most of Strongman’s time at Tapestry, the larger, more financially conservative companies had “little appetite” for new opera. Money worries aside, it’s easy to imagine that companies simply underestimate how hard it is to create a good opera; they’re not out to exclude Tapestry, they just don’t know to ask for help.

Diamond puts it simply: “When companies develop an opera, they believe they know how to do it. But most of these companies do traditional opera, so they don’t know how to do it.”

The COC’s Neef has his use for the LibLab, and it’s mostly in the area of vetting potential talent. “It would be very unlikely for us to commission [a composer] to write a mainstage opera if they’ve never written an opera before,” he says. “For someone to cut their teeth, places like Tapestry are really important.”

Important, maybe, but apparently still unappetizing. I can’t help but compare the LibLab system to the high-risk process that gave us Hadrian, the 2018 COC commission by Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor. It had ironic origins, with obvious grandeur in mind from the very start – Wainwright’s goal, he told me, was to “just, like, write the great American opera” – yet it was workshopped among a relatively closed group of ears, an echo chamber mostly limited to the core creative team. The result was something certainly large-scale, yet practically untested with the public.

Tapestry is the leader of the Canadian opera pack.

Gillian Mapp/Reuters

This is what often happens when Canada’s better-funded companies commission new opera: They skip the part about early feedback – a risky move that puts too much pressure on opening night, leaning precariously on a cocktail of famous names and crossed fingers.

“It’s been my experience,” Diamond says, “that other companies don’t want to know what other people have to say about their works, almost until it’s too late.”

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Neef, like most other opera bosses, isn’t opposed to new opera. In fact, “I’m a little bit concerned about the fact that we don’t have more contemporary work on our mainstage,” he says, “and that contemporary work is sort of branded as not for the mainstage.”

Thus spins the cycle of doom that has hung over new opera since the middle of the 20th century. Neef and his ilk want more new opera on his big stage, and consider the LibLab a useful tool – yet they seem to do little with that tool, instead defiantly hustling the likes of Wainwright past the composer queue.

It’s this gap that remains wide: the inability of composers, even those vetted in the LibLab, to earn the trust of Canada’s larger opera companies and see their works move from the studio to the big stage. I suspect that, amid the investment risks, there’s a bit of ego in the way. Perhaps it smarts a little that a company humble enough to prioritize process over product has got the new opera problem so thoroughly solved.

If these companies are ever going to cede that, if they can’t beat Tapestry, then they must join it, the time is now. The company itself isn’t dwelling much on its place in the larger Canadian scene. As it always has, Tapestry is busy looking forward; and in time for its big 4-0, it finds itself the leader of the Canadian opera pack.

With the groundwork thoroughly laid by Strongman, current artistic director Michael Mori is doing an enlightened job of making the Tapestry legacy mean something to its current audiences. Strongman likely had little inkling that Tapestry would be the ideal face of opera in 2019; that his company would have the stuff of a great startup: small and agile, responsive to its audience, with refreshingly few elderly white men leading the way. It’s a great story, a twist ending that only makes sense with 40 years of hindsight.

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