It's an Aladdin story for modern times – a bottle with a genie inside, ready to grant wishes and fulfill infinite desire. But with a catch. Die in possession of this treasure and you are damned straight to hell. And to get rid of it in time, you have to sell it for less than you paid for it. Such is the conceit of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Bottle Imp, turned into a new opera called The Devil Inside, co-commissioned by Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales but presented in Toronto by Tapestry Opera. It opens Thursday.
The Devil Inside, written by Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae, garnered rave reviews in Scotland when it opened in January. And it's here as part of Tapestry's commitment to expanding its presence in this city. Although Tapestry has had a long-standing, multiyear relationship with Scottish Opera that has resulted in several co-commissions, this is one of the few times in Tapestry's history that it has presented a work it has not actively created.
It's all part of Tapestry artistic director Michael Mori's continuing plan to create an energetic, relevant and expanding role for one of Toronto's oldest new-music ventures, 36 years old this year.
Tapestry began in the heady days of the 1980s, as Tapestry New Opera, when "new" opera was a delicate hothouse flower in the arts, needing careful husbanding and cultivation. That's less the case today, although Tapestry's efforts to find a place for itself in the 21st century present all sorts of challenges, and demand a combination of savvy marketing, messianic dedication and a pioneering commitment to an artistic excellence.
Mori is just the man for the job. The singer turned artistic director took over Tapestry two years ago, replacing the irreplaceable Wayne Strongman, who had led the organization since its inception. Mori is trying to give his organization a more consistent profile in his tenure, while keeping Tapestry's developmental ideal alive.
Tapestry's two shows this season have both been beautiful musical experiences. Krisztina Szabo and David Pomeroy mesmerized their audiences in November in their collaboration with the punk group, Fucked Up. Recently, Wallis Giunta and Jordan de Souza led a fine ensemble of new singers and pianists in a series of songs all taken from Tapestry's catalogue of Canadian art songs. Later this year, another full-length opera, Rocking Horse Winner, based on a D.H. Lawrence short story, will be directed by Mori.
Tapestry is beginning to raise its profile in a crowded alternative, avant-garde Toronto music scene.
Mori has a clear idea of what he's trying to do with his company. "I want to make opportunities for interesting and bold things to happen here," he says. "I love this city. I see interesting and interested people everywhere I look. The challenge is always getting them to come.
"The traditional boundaries that separated artistic genres and audiences are becoming more irrelevant – not to all generations, but to the 30- and 40-year-olds who are starting to come into their own. People are interested in being challenged and seeing things that are different."
And one of Mori's chief inspirations as he attempts to build a company, a profile, an artistic endeavour and an audience all at the same time? Quebec's modern circus troupe, Cirque du Soleil.
"Cirque took something that was like opera," Mori says, "a tired, old art form that only hardcore fans would go to – maybe the rest of us would go once in your life – and changed the rules. Not just for the audience, but for the performers themselves, for the practitioners. Still kept a lot of the spirit of the original but expanded the experience."
And for Mori, that emphasis on his performers is part of what he hopes will rejuvenate his form of high-class circus as well. He offers his singers experiences denied to them in bigger houses, because of the exigencies of modern opera production.
"I think the opera performer is one of the least understood keys to the next phase of growth of opera. At companies that are changing the definition of what a performer is, the artists are a lot more involved, a lot more bought in, and the sky's the limit in what you can try. I'm hoping that all of our shows challenge our performers to do more than they're expected to do. We're trying to set a new standard of what's possible."
And as that risk-taking behind the scenes translates into new and exciting experiences for audiences in the hall, Mori is hoping Tapestry can build its place in the city, and beyond.
"The entire opera industry recognizes that things need to develop," Mori says. "There's no one that has proven how to get it exactly right. So everyone is striking out and trying to do something – trying for relevance, of hitting something that's in the currency of our culture. That's where I see our experimentation developing – not that I'm setting out on a path that I think will end us in the promised land, but we're going to try as many ways as possible until we find the route that responds the best."
The Devil Inside runs until March 13 in Toronto (tapestryopera.com).