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Danielle MacMillan and the ensemble of Kopernikus at the Banff Centre in 2017.Supplied

  • Title: Kopernikus
  • Written by: Claude Vivier
  • Performed by: Against the Grain Theatre
  • Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille
  • City: Toronto

It’s hard to describe an opera without any hard answers to the most basic of questions: Where are we? When are we? Who are these people onstage? And what on earth are they doing? Claude Vivier, the Canadian composer who is as imaginative as he is exasperating, named his opera Kopernikus, after the famed astronomer; and before you settle too comfortably into the idea that this is a biographical story of Nicolaus and his contemporaries, note the work’s subtitle: Opéra-Rituel de Mort (Ritual Opera for the Dead).

Mr. Vivier comes with his own bit of personal mythology – he never knew his parents, he lived openly as a gay man and he was famously found murdered in 1983, the victim of a male sex worker he had invited to his Paris hotel room. And so it follows that his opera Kopernikus would tell of a mysterious transformation, filled with made-up languages and cameos by historical figures.

“The central character is Agni; around her gravitate mythical beings taken from history,” Mr. Vivier writes, in a fair attempt at explaining his work. “There is no actual story, but rather a series of scenes which carry Agni along towards total purification and the attainment of a state of pure spirit.”

Even if pressed, Against the Grain Theatre artistic director Joel Ivany is unlikely to offer anything more concrete than Mr. Vivier does about Kopernikus. It’s certainly a nonsensical demand, to ask for plot points in a story that is non-linear, even non-narrative. There are certainly clues in AtG’s production, rooted in the set and lighting design by Jason Hand. Mr. Hand gives us two levels of bare scaffolding, raw metal and wood that “should” be the foundation for something more “complete.”

In the design there’s a large nod to the theatre itself, with exposed spotlights, catwalks and the far corners of stage left and right littered with the general debris that usually stays hidden from sight. We are on the other side of something, the backstage of the main event, a dimension that exists alongside our usual reality, imperceptible and mysterious. We are in the afterlife, in the dark matter, in opera’s upside-down.

Here, there are people – but they don’t act like people. They move slowly and oddly, in the thoroughly unique aesthetic of co-director and choreographer Matjash Mrozewski. These people sing and play instruments, but they also shriek, chant, growl, ululate and speak through their trombones. They behave en masse, but not in perfect unison, like an obedient church congregation. There are flashes of science fiction, sketch show and Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase.

Kopernikus is an astonishing product. The seven singers, two dancers and seven instrumentalists all perform from memory, an enormous feat with Mr. Vivier’s thoroughly difficult score. With no sense of white-knuckled control, music director Topher Mokrzewski calmly directs the ensemble through the score’s waves, trusting its fine lines and its walls of sound. Perhaps it’s because the ear settles into Mr. Vivier’s confounding musical style, but as Agni (mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan) learns to exist in her new world, the music seems to move toward cohesion, even moments of harmony. There is a climactic moment as the ensemble finally says the words we’ve been expecting for just over an hour: “Ko! Per! Ni! Kus!” As everyone makes a slow retreat toward the exit sign way upstage right, one gets the acute sensation that what we just saw was one circuit of an ongoing ritual that repeats; each time, there will be a new Agni.

Kopernikus is so thoroughly mysterious that it’s a paradox: It’s as impenetrable as it is a blank slate, either full of questions, or full of options. There are some – such as the team at Against the Grain Theatre – who find Mr. Vivier’s work to be underrated genius, a cornerstone of Canadian opera that does not get its due accolades. I know this piece well, and I am still impatient with it; not by its evocative nature or the sheer originality of its sound palette, but by its extraordinary difficulty. Clearly, it’s not an impossible piece to perform, and Mr. Vivier is not to be singled out unfairly; he is among the 20th-century composers such as Olivier Messiaen and Karlheinz Stockhausen who are responsible not only for masterpieces, but also for so terribly tarnishing the reputation of so-called “contemporary” music that it still scares us off today. It’s not exactly “weird” for its own sake, but it sometimes feels difficult for difficulty’s sake.

Indeed, any attempts I make to explain why I’m not among the fanatical Mr. Vivier adorers will likely place me on the wrong side of history; deeming something unnecessarily difficult or finicky is a moot judgment on a piece’s ability to say something. AtG’s production of Kopernikus certainly rises above what’s challenging about it, and the effect is an ensemble of people free to use their voices and instruments to conduct a true operatic ritual.

Kopernikus continues through April 13 at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille .

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