Creative Forces; Tapestry New Opera Works Has a Mission: To Push the Boundaries of Music Theatre

By Eatock, Colin | Opera Canada, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

Creative Forces; Tapestry New Opera Works Has a Mission: To Push the Boundaries of Music Theatre


Eatock, Colin, Opera Canada


"WE have to take risks, and we don't always have the luxury of a safety net," announced Claire Hopkinson, General Manager and Producer of Tapestry New Opera Works. "But the show must go on." The show in question was Opera to Go, Tapestry's April debut of five 15-minute operatic scenes by Canadian composers and librettists. It soon became apparent that Hopkinson's statement about risk referred to an incident a few days earlier, when tenor Martin Houtman dislocated his shoulder in a rehearsal. Undaunted by his injury, he appeared on cue, singing with his arm in a sling. While such a mishap might well have stopped another company in its tracks, it didn't stop Tapestry.

There are many reasons for opera companies not to produce new works: they're costly to develop, require lots of rehearsal time, are big box-office gambles and are prone to unexpected contingencies, like Houtman's accident. These are just some of the challenges inherent in premiering an opera--and if you multiply these challenges by five, you'll have some idea of what Tapestry undertook in mounting five brand-new operas in one program.

Fortunately, this plucky little Toronto-based organization has a history of thriving on risks, adapting to new conditions and even reinventing itself. Founded 25 years ago by Artistic Director Wayne Strongman as a madrigal ensemble called the Tapestry Singers, the group's repertoire soon expanded in many directions, encompassing everything from Franz Schubert to the Beach Boys. In 1986, Strongman's growing interest in theatrical music led to the group's rechristening as Tapestry Music Theatre. Again, the programming was varied: there was some Broadway, some Gilbert and Sullivan, and a staging of Anne of Green Gables. In 1991, Hopkinson, a music-theatre producer, teamed up with Strongman, and the following year, Tapestry scored a surprise hit with the opera Nigredo Hotel, by Toronto composer Nic Gotham. The company had found a new niche: contemporary opera. To clarify its priorities, in 1999 the organization changed its name once again, to Tapestry New Opera Works.

Since then, Strongman and Hopkinson have premiered such Canadian operas as Elsewhereless by Rodney Sharman, Iron Road by Chan Ka Nin and, most recently, Facing South by Linda Caitlin Smith. These were full-length operas, and it's for such productions as these that Tapestry is probably best known. However, through its Opera to Go program, initiated two years ago, the company has taken a leading role in the creative process itself.

The company is housed in Toronto's newest arts enclave: the historic Gooderham and Worts buildings, formerly a distillery. And it was here that this year's crop of composers and librettists first met, in Tapestry's Composer-Librettist Laboratories (affectionately known as "Lib-Labs"), which the company has held for aspiring opera creators since 1995. "Initially, when we started the Lib-Labs," Strongman recalls, "The purpose was to give an idea of what collaboration meant, because many composer-librettist teams were falling apart. Little did we know what we were starting--somehow, everything has morphed into something larger than we expected. Now we're getting inquiries from composers and writers all over the world."

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The new 15-minute operas were workshopped during a week in January--the composers' and writers' first chance to hear their work and get feedback from Tapestry's artistic staff. "Composers tend to work in a fairly solitary way, and the same is true of writers and playwrights," Hopkinson points out. "Sharing power is not something they're used to doing." In many cases, extensive revisions were made. "Composers often know a lot about operatic history," continues Strongman. "But playwrights understand dramatic structure in ways composers may not. I think the first thing composers learn is how flexible writers can be: for a writer, a story idea can go in any number of directions. …

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