Magazine article Opera Canada

Iron Road & Serinette: Zheng Zhou (Manli) and Zhu Ge Zeng (Lai) in the Tapestry Hew Opera Works Production of Iron Road. (TORONTO)

Magazine article Opera Canada

Iron Road & Serinette: Zheng Zhou (Manli) and Zhu Ge Zeng (Lai) in the Tapestry Hew Opera Works Production of Iron Road. (TORONTO)

Article excerpt

Operatic reflections of Canadian history are few and far between, so it was a pleasure to encounter two in the space of a few weeks this spring. Soundstreams Canada revived Harry Somers' Serinette in a semi-staged production just weeks after Tapestry New Opera Works gave the premiere of Cha Ka Nin's Iron Road. In the event, only the inventive and marvellously theatrical work of stage director Tom Diamond was a common link between the two. In every other respect, they were as diverse as Canada's multicultural history.

Iron Road is a treatment of early Chinese immigration, when laborers were imported to help complete the railroad that united the fledgling country. Racism and a governing mentality that counted their lives as cheaply as their wages dashed the laborers' visions of prosperity. Subsequently, the Chinese were subject to head taxes and every inducement not to stay, though the opera does not deal with this period directly. To some extent, though, as reflected in the climactic final scene, the work is a kind of laying to rest of the spirits of those early immigrants. It's a picaresque plot that starts in a Chinese village, and tells the story of a girl who comes to Canada to find her father, who has attained dubious status as a broker of the laborers for the railroad. Along the way, the girl falls in love with a young, white foreman. This gives rise to a reverse Madama Butterfly sub-plot, which ends with the death of the foreman in a mining accident. In the end, father and daughter, reconciled, pay homage to the lab orers.

This hardly does justice to the intricacies of the plot, which is the work's biggest problem. The libretto, by Mark Brownell, with translations and Cantonese lyrics by George Wong, is underwrought. Individual scenes work extremely well, but the whole is mitigated by weak linkages (the father-daughter recognition scene, for example, which seemed inexplicable). It's a pity, but the book limits the opera's ambitious reach.

However, there was much engaging music. Perhaps the greatest achievement lies in Cha Ka Nm's orchestral score, which melds Western and Chinese musical traditions. He makes skillful use of Chinese and Western instruments-kudos here to the erhu playing of George Gao--and of Cantonese opera's percussive and theatrical conventions in the Western operatic tradition (with decisive veers to Broadway). …

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