In Canada, Black opera singers have historically not been afforded the same opportunities as their white counterparts. But that tide is turning, as opera companies across Canada mount productions that put Black creatives at the helm.
Just last month, La Flambeau, an opera by Haitian-Canadian composer David Bontemps, premiered in Montreal to much acclaim. Winnipeg’s Little Opera Company will soon mark 30 years of programming under the auspices of Spencer Duncanson, one of the only Black artistic directors in Canadian opera. And in Toronto alone, three major operas are in production that not only champion Black artists, but put Blackness front and centre: Of the Sea, Aportia Chryptych and Treemonisha.
Created through a partnership between Obsidian Theatre and Tapestry Opera, Of The Sea (opening March 25) is the story of an enslaved African man and his family who are thrown overboard during their passage across the Atlantic, and who then inhabit a mythical realm on the ocean floor.
In creating the work, librettist Kanika Ambrose want to take a different approach to telling Black stories: “I’d had my fill of traumatic slavery narratives as a child. When I became an adult and a storyteller, I said that I would not tell slave narratives and I still don’t believe that I have. For me, it gives hope that these ancestors were not lost but instead, transformed.”
Ian Cusson, who is of Métis and French Canadian descent, was brought on as composer, and so Of The Sea became an opportunity to explore both Black history and Indigenous consciousness. Reflecting on his collaboration with Ambrose, Cusson applauds how, “Kanika’s willingness to bring me into the world of her imagination, and into the complexity and nuance of Black history and Black experience, was both an act of generosity and trust.”
Of The Sea is relevant to both Black and Indigenous heritage in that it is a reflection on what Cusson describes as “forced displacement, being removed from the land, the culture, the community, and the gods that you know. Resilience, surviving and thriving when every exterior force is set upon your eradication, is at the centre of this opera.”
Philip Akin, Of The Sea’s director, presents yet another perspective on how projects like this are overcoming obstacles facing Black opera in Canada. “Frankly, with most plays that cram Black people into them, they’re just nothing more than stereotypes, and portraying the white writer’s guilt. If you want to change opera in Canada and have more Black opera in Canada,” he says, “then you need to develop the people. You have to develop the stories, you have to put the money behind it. You have to invest, invest, invest and not expect instant results.”
That is the kind of thinking that went into the Canadian Opera Company’s coming production of Aportia Chryptych, an opera featuring Black singers, which itself is about a Black Canadian opera legend: Portia White. For composer and conductor Sean Mayes, the urgency of telling White’s story was self-evident.
“The more I learned about her,” Mayes says, “and how she existed as a Black artist in her time while still being virtually unknown in Canadian musical consciousness, the more I realized I wanted to offer myself as a conduit of recentering, reclaiming and reimagining her story.”
Aportia Chryptych’s librettist and director, who goes by the moniker HAUI, makes a small but crucial distinction that informed his approach to telling White’s story: “This is not a white opera about a Black subject. This is a Black opera.”
HAUI continues: “If opera is to live up to its reputation as a platform that seamlessly blends different art forms into a unified expression, it must showcase the entire range of queer, male, and female Black voices that synthesize our creative team.”
For Perryn Leech, General Director of the COC, it was a no-brainer to get behind Treemonisha and Aportia Chryptych. Treemonisha – a collaborative effort between the COC, Volcano, Soulpepper and Moveable Beast – exemplifies a goal-directed approach to staging Black operas. The project, premiering this June, boasts a list of impressive firsts, including the first all-Black orchestra in Canadian opera history, helmed by the first Black woman conductor in Canadian opera history (Kalena Bovell).
It will take multiorganizational efforts such as this to begin to rectify the historical neglect of Black contribution to opera in Canada and abroad. “No one can say they’re not aware of the issue anymore,” Leech says, “We’re feeding the pipeline from within with young artists, we’re trying to put more diversity on stage, and we’re doing programming that will actually tell the stories of people who haven’t had their stories told before.”
Gone are the days where a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality was a viable strategy for diverse representation in audiences. As Leech puts it, “If you just say, ‘Come to this predominantly white art form, you should like it,’ that’s a connection of some sort, but it’s a light touch.”
And those who do show up need to be made to feel welcomed, says Michael Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera. “We need to make the lobby, and all audience experiences, be less exclusionary, less ‘you-need-to-know-the-secret-rules’ in order to enact that sense of broader collective belonging.”
A more intuitive perspective on diversity may be achieved when Black leaders are at the helm of opera and other arts organizations. For Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu – artistic director of Obsidian Theatre – while her approach to developing works begins with placing herself as “the first audience for the piece,” her priority with projects such as Of The Sea is to use the Black stories as a doorway into the relatability of the Black experience, adding that “it’s really about inviting audiences into the humanity of the characters they are seeing on stage.”