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Bisexuality, love triangles and hipsters: This is Handel?

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Soprano Tracy Smith Bessette is lying on a bed at the Gladstone Hotel, caressing a whip, a gag and a dildo. To be sure, she's preparing to play a lover in a hotel-room tryst, but she is also about to start singing a song that Handel originally wrote for gamboling shepherds and shepherdesses.

That's George Frideric Handel, the Baroque composer more associated with tinkling harpsichords and powdered wigs than sex toys and hipster hang-outs. Early in his career, before he moved to England, the German-born Handel worked in Italy, where he composed a cantata for three voices entitled Clori, Tirsi e Fileno. The little-known and rarely performed work is getting a bold staging and new English-language libretto thanks to the collaboration of two experimental Toronto arts groups, Classical Music Consort and Volcano Theatre.

Fascinated by the early Handel and determined to bring new audiences to old music, Consort music director Ashiq Aziz is insisting on a faithful interpretation with a live orchestra of 14 period-instrument musicians. Intrigued by the dramatic possibilities of site-specific, promenade theatre, Volcano director Ross Manson is reinventing the opera as a contemporary bisexual love triangle and asking audiences to pick a character to follow about the Gladstone's ballroom and lobbies. Renamed A Synonym for Love, theirs is a project made in some kind of crossover heaven.

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"I love the fact it's completely different from what we normally expect from Handel," Aziz said this week during a break in rehearsals. "We are breaking all sorts of rules," Manson added. "Handel purists will not be happy."

The project was initially Aziz's idea: When not running a Handel festival, his company specializes in experimental opera staging. He picked Clori, Tirsi e Fileno merely because, as a cantata for three voices, it was accessibly small, but the 1707 piece has barely been performed before. It was known only in fragments – and as a source Handel cannibalized for later arias – until a full score was discovered in a German music archive in 1960. The cantata only had its world premiere in 2000 in the U.K.; this marks its Canadian premiere as a staged work. Aziz, however, is more moved by the music than by the romantic story of the lost score.

"You can really get a taste of Handel's mature style and see where it came from," he explained. "It's elementary but it is extremely well crafted … He was an exquisite tune writer, the John Lennon of the 18th-century."

Seeking to stage the piece, he looked around for experimental directors on the Internet and quickly found Manson, one of Toronto's leading directors of contemporary work (The Africa Trilogy). His timing was perfect, because Manson had become increasingly interested in opera as the ultimate multimedia experience: "The power of the operatically trained voice, it's a superpower to get audiences engaged," said Manson, contrasting good and bad opera productions he had recently seen. "I was really intrigued to see if I could use this superpower for good rather than for evil."

Manson figured Clori, Tirsi e Fileno, a love triangle between a shepherdess and two shepherds, was the perfect opportunity to engage audiences through opera because of what he saw as Handel's modernity.

"The thing I find really modern about it – or true maybe – is that Handel wrote this love triangle that has no happy ending. There is just this agreement among the characters that love is impossible."

Furthermore, one of the two shepherds originally would have been a "pants role" for a soprano disguised as a man. Manson's first idea was to update the story to the present, and cast that character as a lesbian who will be betrayed by a bisexual female lover (originally the shepherdess) who also loves a heterosexual man (the other shepherd.) He handed over that idea to Deborah Pearson, a Canadian theatre artist who is gaining a reputation for her experimental work in London, and commissioned her to write an English libretto for Handel's music.

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"Handel took the Italian he received and applied his music to what the text required," Aziz explained. "Deborah Pearson is doing the opposite. It's very challenging. We can't ask what Handel would have done differently [with a different text.] It's an extraordinary accomplishment."

Aziz and Manson were also committed to staging their libretto in an unconventional way to draw new audiences to the opera. Manson, intrigued by various pieces of interactive theatre such as Tamara, the 2003 Toronto revival of John Krizanc's influential foray into audience interactivity, realized that the triangle was the perfect structure for a small-scale experiment in audience choice: Spectators would choose which character to follow.

"It automatically dissolves the formality of the proscenium relationship," he explained of these shows in which audiences watch actors from close quarters in public spaces rather than from theatre seats. "To do it with an opera really amps it up. When you are two feet away, rather than in a 2,000 seat hall, it's an almost physical experience."

And so the Gladstone, a hub for both visual art shows and performances, cheerfully welcomed an opera into its ballroom, its bar, its second floor lobby, a third floor lobby, a stairwell and a fire escape.

Audiences will choose – or be assigned to – one character and then follow that character's "track," with the help of "guides," actors playing the role of hotel staff. They won't see the other characters' scenes but they will get the whole story, which Pearson has set in the Gladstone Hotel itself. Meanwhile, the orchestra will at times be broken into small ensembles that can be spirited about the hotel along with the characters.

Manson keeps on his laptop his playbook for the show, a long, horizontal scroll of multiple Venn diagrams that would give a logician headaches, while his two assistant directors are timing every move on stop watches. The team was amazed this week when the orchestra showed up to play and the timing actually clicked.

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"Months of theory and it worked!" Manson exclaimed.

Yet in the end it is not the organization, but the themes that will matter.

"Love and anguish … I am trying to draw a line from Handel's era to our own: Love hasn't changed in 300 years to the present; it's just as complicated."

A Synonym for Love plays Aug. 20-31 at the Gladstone Hotel, 1214 Queen St. W. See for more information, and wear comfortable shoes if you attend.

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