Sweat

Yesterday I finally managed to do something bike related in conjunction with Bicycle Opera Project’s current tour of Sweat.  I got an early train out to Aldershot, biked to Hamilton and joined up with the bike tour of historic Hamilton organised by the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre to complement the opera, before seeing the afternoon performance of Sweat at WAHC.  I’ll add some bikey/historical observations at the end but since this is an opera blog let’s cut to the chase.

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Sweat is an a cappella piece for nine voices by Juliet Palmer and Anna Chatterton about workers in a garment factory sweatshop somewhere in those places we don’t think about much that produce the clothes we wear.  It’s politically engaged, at times bordering on the didactic, and if that bothers you, you likely will have a hard time with it.  Needless to say it suited the audience at WAHC.  It’s not a one dimensional propaganda piece though.  The libretto presents the workers as fully human with hopes and aspirations, jealousies and fears, but always against the background of unrelenting, poorly paid, repetitive work and a constant search to increase the intensity of exploitation (in the interests of full disclosure I confess to having done my work study training in a factory making lingerie).  Beyond that, I don’t want to do plot spoilers but I do think director Banuta Rubess did a fine job of translating it to the stage with minimal use of resources.

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Musically it’s interesting.  There are eight female voices and the male factory owner.  There are conventional arias and duets but the main interest lies in the ensemble numbers.  There’s some serious polyphony going on here and any suggestion that the “workers” are just a kind of chorus for the four main characters is quickly dispelled.  Besides the difficult, unsupported polyphony, solo parts of some difficulty, for all the singers, just kind of grow out of the ensembles and then fold back into them.  It’s very intriguing.

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There are sets and costumes and they support the action well enough but they are necessarily minimal.  The real support to the music is in the movement of the singers who get involved and effective choreography by Jen Nichols.  There’s a real sense at times of the machine like nature of factory work where music and movement are really well integrated.

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The cast is a mix of BOP veterans and singers mostly new to me.  The battling duo of the union organizer and the boss’ squeeze are sung by Larissa Koniuk and Stephanie Tritchew.  Both are excellent.  In particular I was really struck by the quality of desperation almost exuded by Stephanie as things start to go pear shaped.  Catherine Daniel as the overseer was new to me and a welcome discovery.  She’s definitely in that tradition of African heritaged singers with a rich, deep contralto.  I believe she sang Klytemnestra in Edmonton recently.  I would have loved to hear that.  Really nice to listen to. Keith Lam does his thing as the sleazy factory owner and feeler up of all things feelable.  Another highly competent performance by him.

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The Workers; Caitlin Wood, Justine Owen, Emma Char, Alex Beley and Cindy Won, made an excellent team.  Make no mistake this is hard music to sing and every one of these ladies displayed solo singer chops.  Cleverly some parts of the libretto were set in non English languages to suggest the dispersed, multinational, nature of the garment trade.  The different ethnic backgrounds of the singers allowed this to be done with some sense of authenticity.

Geoff Sirett conducted.  He did really well.  I was sitting right by him and I got the strong sense that there were places where solo singers were allowed to set the pace but he knew when to take over for the very complex ensembles.

Sweat is on tour now to Waterloo, Ottawa, Almonte, Kingston, Prince Edward County and Cobourg before closing out with four performances at the Aki Studio in Toronto on August 3rd to 6th.  Catch it if you can.

And so, the rest of my day.  The ride from Aldershot to WAHC is a lesson in contrasts; the contrasts being Burlington and Hamilton.,  Burlington’s cycling infrastructure is desperate.  There’s an apology for a bike lane along the fast and busy Plains Road but it’s barely thirty inches wide and separated from the traffic by a line of paint.  In most places too it’s not even properly paved.  I wouldn’t use it in weekday traffic and it wasn’t much fun on my rather wet return ride.  At the Hamilton border things improve dramatically.  There’s an adequate bike lane with a painted buffer zone and it all feels much more secure.  In the city itself there are plenty of bike lanes and a physically separated cycle track across down town.  There’s also a bike share program with more bikes and stations per capita than Toronto’s.  Car obsessed pointless suburb vs. city with imagination and ambition?

The tour organised by WAHC was fascinating.  It took us through the two industrial/working class areas of Hamilton.  The north end, older of the two, has now been almost entirely redeveloped but the east end; home to Stelco etc, still has a lot of Victorian era industrial and residential buildings.  I hadn’t realised before that besides metals and engineering Hamilton was once a major textile centre.  I guess an industry with a predominantly female workforce doesn’t get the same attention as dark, satanic blast furnaces.  We visited the sites of the big labour agitation in the 30s and of the famous 1946 strike and various ethnic neighbourhoods; some still redolent of the immigrant communities that first lived there. some not so much.  Above all, I got the sense of Hamilton as a real city rather than just an arbitrary chunk of urban sprawl like so much of the GTA.

Ironically too WAHC is right beside the white elephant West Harbour GO Station.  It was built for the Pan-Am games with the promise (and justification for the huge amount of money involved) of providing regular direct train service from Toronto to Hamilton.  Of course once the votes were in and the games over it dissolved into the usual bureaucratic  nonsense between Metrolinx and CN over who got to use the tracks.  The net result is that there are two trains in each direction per weekday to West Harbour.  The rest of the time it’s the bus connection to Aldershot.  Ontario transit planning at its finest!

Photo credits: Tara Bursey, WAHC

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