An opera rehearsal is about to begin. On stage at Toronto's Four Seasons Centre, an enormous wall is painted to look like a Mark Rothko canvas, swaths of colours intersecting with one another. About 20 rows into the hall, a large table sits over the seats, where director Christopher Alden, his assistant director, his stage manager, his choreographer and several others wait, in quiet anticipation. Conductor Johannes Debus is in the pit, with the COC Orchestra busily tuning up. Canadian Opera Company general-director Alexander Neef has interrupted his Saturday evening to be in the hall. Also there, sitting alone, is Canadian composer Barbara Monk Feldman. It is her opera that's being staged.
At precisely 7:30 p.m., baritone Phillip Addis, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabo and tenor Owen McCausland appear on stage, in their civilian clothes. The COC Chorus will soon follow them. The hall darkens, and the rehearsal process known as Orch 2, the first time the show will have been performed with orchestra on the Four Seasons Centre stage, begins. It's an important milestone in the production's genesis. In just a matter of days, Monk Feldman's Pyramus and Thisbe will make history – it will be the first Canadian work produced at the COC in almost 20 years.
Productions of Canadian operas are rare, especially at this level and on this scale. Everyone knows this is a special undertaking. But it is also an opportunity for a team of professionals to do what they do – to bring an idea into a reality, to allow a work of art to emerge from the collective efforts of singers, designers, director, conductor and the teams that support them. It is an artistic Mont Saint-Michel, arising from the sea, starting from nothing, ending in beauty. Or that's the hope.
This production of Pyramus and Thisbe has many beginnings. It began in 1983 when the Quebec-born Monk Feldman came across a painting by French baroque artist Nicolas Poussin in Frankfurt, Germany, Stormy Landscape with Pyramus and Thisbe, sparking the inspiration that eventually became the opera in 2009. It began again when Monk Feldman's score showed up on Neef's desk about three years ago. Neef liked what he saw and heard, liked the spareness of the work and its transcendent, mythic quality and, relatively spontaneously, decided to "go for it" and produce the work.
Pyramus and Thisbe is an unusual opera, not just because it is a Canadian work, and a world premiere. It is only about 50 minutes long, so has been paired, cleverly, with two early baroque short works by Claudio Monteverdi, to make a triptych spanning 400 years of opera history. More important for director, conductor and performers, Monk Feldman has created in the work a contemplative, spare, almost hypnotic score, full of quiet moments and outright silences. It doesn't so much tell the story of Pyramus and Thisbe as use the mythological tale from Ovid as a symbol to encapsulate the ambiguities and doubts of the modern condition. All of this is far removed from the normal busy, dramatic, hyper-emotional world of the operatic stage – a challenge for the production's creators.
"Barbara wrote this piece which is very contemplative and very still," Alden says. "It's not about action – it's about the opposite of action. My job is to somehow play that out in theatrical terms. I think a number of my initial ideas just felt like too much activity – too many events. It has to be stripped down as far as possible. And that's scary, because you have to let go a lot of your feelings about what's going to be exciting for an audience. We have to find different solutions."
Helping Alden and Debus find those solutions has been Monk Feldman herself. In an opera world where the creators of the original works are almost all conveniently dead, it's quite a novelty for conductors, directors and performers to come up against one who is actually alive. And although Monk Feldman was careful to let her interpreters have their creative space, attending but a few rehearsals, her spirit is in the rehearsal room at all times. And the fact that her team is working on a brand-new work, never before performed, is exhilarating for them.
"With any new production, there's a feeling of walking on eggshells at the beginning," Debus says. "Slowly, you get a grasp of what you're dealing with. And, in this case, you have no preconceptions whatsoever; you have nothing to relate to. It's actually liberating. In our world, we are often captured by this whole catalogue of recordings and interpretations and traditions. With Pyramus, we get to create something brand new."
Alden agrees. "I can count on the fingers of less than two hands the number of brand-new pieces I've done in my long career," he says. "Everybody is a little bit more vulnerable when you're doing a new show. We don't have a fallback position – the standard way to perform the piece. We're on our own. There's a different kind of responsibility in a new show, when we're telling this story to an audience for the first time."
After the first run-through, everyone – Monk Feldman, Debus, Alden – agreed that they might have gone too far in reducing the dramatic elements of the staging, that they needed to expand the dramatic ambit of the presentation to ensure that everyone in the enormous Four Seasons Centre can feel the hypnotic power of the piece. And that includes the opera's actual performers. But there's a strange inversion in the world of opera. Although Addis and Szabo are on the front lines of this work – their voices and bodies are what we are going to see and hear on stage – they actually have less of a sense than anybody else here exactly how the piece is coming across. The opposite of the exhilaration a new work creates is an anxiety about its reception. That anxiety is not overwhelming here, but it runs like a quiet continuo in the background of the rehearsal process.
"When I saw the score, I wasn't sure how the piece would come together," Addis says. "I have a better sense now. But it required a lot of trust. In a traditional opera, you know where you stand. Here, it's like floating in space – every nuance is more powerful. It's a delicate thing, like a soufflé. You can overcook it very easily."
"Okay, everyone," Debus says. "A 15-minute break, and then notes on Pyramus." Orch 2 has just ended. It has been a remarkably powerful performance. You can tell that Addis wasn't the only person wondering how the entire evening would work together. A pleased Monk Feldman shakes hands with Neef, gives Alden a hug. There's more work to be done, but the principals have just seen that their labour of love is actually taking beautiful shape. It's going to work its magic as hoped.
Neef, in many ways the driving force behind the whole enterprise, is clear about what he's trying to achieve with this production. "You can look at the entire evening as zooming into the inner life of a human being, to go to the core of what it is to be human. It's a challenging piece in many ways for our audiences. It's a risk. But I just felt this was the right time and the right piece and the right project to put out there and say, 'This is also what opera can be.'"
The Canadian Opera Company performs Pyramus and Thisbe in Toronto from Oct. 20 to Nov. 7 (coc.ca).