Embroidered by blind nuns in Tuscany

Encounters was a one hour programme of short opera scenes by student composers to libretti by Michael Albano.  It’s the latest in a series of fully staged shows by student composers from the UoT Faculty of Music’s composition programme which has been running since 1997 and has included, for example Rob Ford, the opera.  It’s quite shocking that when that showed two years ago, as Dean Don McLean reminded us, the big Rob Ford story was about library closures.  Anyway, only one of yesterday’s five pieces featured Mr. Ford.

The first two pieces were by Robert Drisdelle.  Grief Encounter played with the very idea of opera featuring the orchestra and two silent characters whose thoughts were conveyed by the Surtitles™.  Basically it was the story of two young people, madly attracted to each other, but unable to bring themselves to open a conversation, set to a melodic soundtrack which was like 50s show tunes meet minimalism.  It was clever and funny. Cute performances from Zachary Read and Andrea Núñez.  The Proposal seemed like a conventional story about buying a wedding ring until it became apparent that the one obsessing over the ring was the bride-to-be’s mother.  This was well sung and acted by Dylan Wright and Lyndsay Promane.

Keyan Emami was responsible for the Ford themed piece.  In the Shadow of Rob Ford featured two obsessive protesters getting romantically involved while an increasingly drunk Ford, silhouetted in his office window, bemoaned the fact that he was being blamed for everything from Syria to the Keystone pipeline.  The slightly twisted humour turned largely on the fact that neither protesters nor Ford understood anything about the issues being protested.  William Ford played his near namesake with Adanya Dunn and Ryan Downey as the protesters.

Bekah Simms’ The Box Office also played with ideas about opera.  The encounter between a slightly loopy and rather sad potential patron and an OTT ticket seller provided one of the few opportunities for some high wire vocalism with a short parody of the Lucia mad scene and other histrionics.  I don’t recall whether Tristan was claimed to be twice as funny as Parsifal or vice versa.  Some excellent caricaturing, vocally and thespianically from Gwenna Fairchild-Taylor and Karine White.

The final piece was Say No to the Dress by Shelley Marwood.  In this piece an obnoxious Italian family are trying (very trying) to find a wedding dress for the younger daughter of the family.  It’s basically a parody of everything people think about certain kinds of Italian family and was notable for music in a rather more modernist idiom than the other pieces.  The largeish cast featured Kelsey Taylor as the bride-to-be, Stephanie Tritchew as her disgracefully unmarried elder sister.  Christina Bell, Jamilynn Gubbe and Alessia Naccarato as the obnoxious older females, Jonathan MacArthur and Ian Nato as the long suffering staff of the dress emporium and Charles Sy as a delivery boy.

Accompaniment for all the pieces was by the gamUT ensemble; a curious mix of instruments, heavy on winds and percussion and light on strings with an all soprano chorus.  It was excellently directed by Sandra Horst.

Musically I thought this was quite an interesting session with a fairly similar overall sound world from all four composers.  Clearly accessibility is in and minimalism also gets plenty of play.  Berio, one feels, must be gyrating in his crypt if this is typical of the music coming out of the Academy.  I’m in two minds.  I quite like this kind of music though I’m a fan of modernism too and I do sometimes wonder whether the current backlash against atonalism hasn’t gone too far in the direction of Hollywebberism.  Interestingly, Don McLean did mention film music as an important component of the UoT composition programme.  Ironically, of course, this trend will continue to be ignored by that section of the opera audience convinced that melody died with Puccini.

In any event the UoT is to be congratulated on providing a performance opportunity of this kind for its students.

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