I met with Adam Scime and Amanda Smith of FAWN Chamber Creative today to talk about chamber opera in general and their upcoming show L’Homme et le Ciel in particular. There are several questions that are exercising the minds of many people in the opera community as they try to create in and for the space that lies between the COC and an out of tune piano in a pub and that has value beyond providing performance opportunities for the participants.
There’s probably a rough consensus that the answer lies in “chamber opera” but less unanimity on what that means either in terms of forces employed or repertoire. Equally, there are differing views on where the potential audience is to be found. So where does FAWN sit on these issues?
FAWN is mainly focussed on contemporary work though they have ambitions to mine the considerable seam of 20th and 21st century works on a chamber scale. (I remain slightly bemused by how little non-Canadian contemporary work makes it to Canadian stages though this season is a bit of an exception with both Soundstreams/Canstage and Tapestry offering European works). Economics do come into play here. Grant money is easier to come by for a new Canadian piece than for existing, non Canadian repertoire but hopefully there is room for both. Neither Adam nor Amanda exhibited much interest in going down the other locally popular route; the updating of classic repertoire pieces. As to scale, it’s what I might call “Britten space”. Significantly more than piano but less than an orchestra. L’Homme et le Ciel is scored for flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and electronics.
We talked a lot about what’s makes a piece successful as an opera. Adam talked about needing to immerse himself in opera to create an opera. I think I understand. I’ve seen quite a few new works that had interesting stories and decent music but which just weren’t compelling as opera; usually because the composer seemed compelled to rush through the story as if it were a movie rather than giving the music time and space to work. There’s also the problem of writing compelling music for the characters. Too often almost all the musical interest is in the orchestra. Adam has tried to create a distinct musical language for each of his three characters, as well as leaving space to explore emotions. There is also the need to offer music of sufficient interest and complexity. Opera isn’t Broadway or a movie soundtrack. This is a really tricky area where balancing the composer’s distinctive voice, comprehension and being appropriately challenging all come into play. I couldn’t begin to summarise this part of our conversation which ranged over composers from Current to Birtwistle to Maxwell Davies to Puccini to Rihm to Reimann (at least those are the ones I recall).
The audience question is one that continues to intrigue me. It’s clear that among the core opera audience there are a lot of people who are very reluctant to move out of the 18th/19th century comfort zone but they are not all like that. What about the younger audience that the COC is cultivating through events like Operanation and it’s under 30s programs? Is this creating a more adventurous audience for opera or just a new generation of Young Fogies? There’s also an audience for contemporary and electronic music that doesn’t show much interest in the operatic form. FAWN wants to tap both these groups as well as aficionados of other art forms. One aspect of their approach here is to try and create a total experience from the moment an audience member enters the building. The traditional opera performance has its conventions; conductor to the pit, overture, curtain and so on. L’Homme et le Ciel will offer its own, different experience. We also talked about the potential of touring shows to places that don’t see as much opera as downtown Toronto. The show has been designed to travel and fit in just about any church (it premiers at The Music Gallery; a converted church). Future ambitions include performances in both Canadian and US locations.
Above all, what I took away from our conversation was that Adam and Amanda were intensely committed to making L’Homme et le Ciel an extremely high quality and total experience. An experience that would cause people from different musical and artistic backgrounds to leave the performance space wanting more.
I have deliberately not written much about L’Homme et le Ciel itself. There’s a good description here. There’s also a very interesting discussion between Amanda and Lydia Perovic about why anyone would bother to write an opera based on a 2nd century Christian text here.
L’Homme et le Ciel plays at The Music Gallery on December 3rd and 4th at 8pm. Music is by Adam Scime to a libretto by Ian Koiter. The cast is Alex Dobson as Hermas, Larissa Koniuk as Rhoda, and Adanya Dunn as The Messenger. Amanda Smith directs. Tickets are available here.