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The cast of the Canadian Opera Company’s world premiere production of Pomegranate perform a scene.Michael Cooper/Handout

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  • Title: Pomegranate
  • Written by: Kye Marshall and Amanda Hale
  • Director: Jennifer Tarver
  • Actors: Adanya Dunn, Danielle Buonaiuto, Catherine Daniel, Peter Barrett and Teiya Kasahara
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company co-production with Vancouver Opera
  • Venue: Canadian Opera Company Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: June 2-4

With June’s Pride Month comes celebration and recognition of how much has changed since the country’s first Pride marches in 1979 in Vancouver and Montreal. But with many current headlines comes a reminder of an uncomfortable truth: The homophobia that fuelled the raid by Toronto Police on four gay bathhouses in 1981 isn’t ancient history after all.

Ancient history, and its connection with 20th century gay history, are precisely the elements that interest composer Kye Marshall and librettist Amanda Hale. Their new opera aims to remind audiences of the ways in which history can, and does, painfully repeat – but also how it might be changed. Pomegranate, a Canadian Opera Company co-production with Vancouver Opera that will tour to Vancouver in August, 2024, is inspired by Hale’s 2007 poetry collection, Pomegranate: A Tale of Remembering. The opera initially came to life as a 10-minute song cycle at Toronto’s Heliconian Club in 2014, and from there a chamber opera presented at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2019. The current version, with expanded orchestration and a six-member chorus, is an ambitious work at just over two hours that underlines themes of identity, acceptance and the role of community.

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Adanya Dunn as Suzie, centre, in a scene from Pomegranate.Michael Cooper/Handout

A brief opening scene of a gritty 1977 Toronto soon shifts to the ancient setting of Pompei in 79AD, with the looming threat of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Cassia (Danielle Buonaiuto) and Suli (Adanya Dunn) are smitten with one another, even as their love is also threatened – less by nature than by man, in this case Roman Centurion Marcus (Peter Barrett) who desires Suli for himself.

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Danielle Buonaiuto, as Cassia, left, and Dunn in Pomegranate.Michael Cooper/Handout

Both the set and acoustics highlight the paradox of separation and connection. Set designer Lorenzo Savoini’s simple but elegant visuals – two immense stone blocks, seeming to reference both ancient Rome and the Gardiner Expressway – frame the performance space. The orchestra’s old-world classical elements (strings, horns, harp) are on one side, and contemporary ones (including a synthesizer and drum kit) are on the other. Such acoustic division might have presented a challenge in the open space of the Canadian Opera Company Theatre, located in the same building as the company’s headquarters, but the striking visual configuration serves as a powerful symbol.

The venue, with its exposed brick and shuttered windows, is a dramatic change from the company’s usual digs, the opulent Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But director Jennifer Tarver takes full advantage of the space’s intimacy. Her staging of seemingly simple moments – the blocking of the chorus, for instance, into ever-shifting couples – are poetically attuned to the sweeping sounds of Marshall’s score, which is led with gusto by conductor Rosemary Thomson. The entrance of Roman Centurion Marcus, which could be staged (and scored) with pageantry, is instead heralded with a single, eerie trumpet line. The act ends with loud percussion implying the eruption of Vesuvius, and a tableaux of Cassia and Suli locked in a loving embrace.

Pomegranate’s second act shifts the action to 1981 Toronto. Cass (formerly Cassia) is attempting to reconcile with on-and-off lover Suzie (Suli), only to find their reunion prevented by the latter’s Uncle Salvatore (Peter Barrett) and mother (Catherine Daniel). Hale has wisely set the act in famed Toronto lesbian bar The Fly By Night, whose real-life manager (and gay rights activist) Pat Murphy is acknowledged via the character of Jules, performed by opera artist Teiya Kasahara, who also sings the role of the Priestess in the first act. Kasahara offers a stellar and powerfully engaging performance; they are a magnetic force, cleverly contextualizing the youthful passion between the two lead characters in smart, simple gestures. As Cass sits and mourns Suzie’s decision to leave with her family, Jules places a pomegranate-like votive before her with a sympathetic but fiery expression, a look that ultimately inspires Cass to join the community around her to fight for their rights as gay people.

Along with Kasahara is a uniformly strong cast led by Buonaiuto, who channels claustrophobic rage into a bell-like soprano sound, and Dunn, whose sweet tones and expressive gestures convey the difficult navigation of identity within society. Has the world really changed so much since 1981? The opera ends on a powerful, hopeful note.

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