Opera 5 is a relatively new non-profit opera organization that’s all about having fun. Their sets, music direction, and staging are all meant capture the audience’s attention and pull them in. What better way to do that than with a Halloween themed performance? This Sunday, Wednesday, and Thursday, Opera 5 will be performing three short operas all based on Edgar Allen Poe stories. The Cask of Amontiallado by American composer Daniel Pinkham, La Chute de la Maison Usher (The Fall of the House of Usher) by Claude Debussy (an unfinished opera), and a world premier, written by Toronto composer Cecilia Livingston: The Masque of the Red Death.
I interviewed Opera 5’s Stage Director, Aria Umezawa, General Director, Rachel Krehm, and composer Cecilia Livingston earlier this week, and we discussed their reasons behind this production, as well as some of the challenges and perks of producing horror opera. Here are some snippets from that interview:
P: You’ve obviously got a spooky theme going on for this concert set. Why did you choose opera based on stories by Edgar Allen Poe?
R: Actually yes. We had a fundraising event of March 17th and it was at the Arts and Letters Club, and we were sitting, while the show was going on, at the bar, and Aria and I were like: “This would be the best haunted house!”, and then we came up with the idea of: “Well, there’s got to be Poe opera out there. Let’s look around.” and Mai Nash, our music director, knew about the Debussy, and he said it was really cool music, so we thought we could build something around that. And then Aria got really excited about it, and then I came into the conversation, so we found a couple of opera that we were interested in, and then we decided that one of them was really awful, so we thought ‘well, what about hiring a composer for a new piece?’, and that’s where Cecilia came in. So with two months, or two and a half months until rehearsals started, my Mai e-mailed Cecilia, frantically asking if she wouldn’t mind composing a thirty minute opera in less than two months. It was two and half months before rehearsal started, but to get it done….Cecilia basically wrote the opera in a little over a month.
C: I took a couple of weeks off for the Tapestry Opera LibLab, but yes. It was very intense.
R: And you worked really well under pressure, which was amazing.
C: I do work really well under pressure.
P: I myself am a big Poe fan, so I know his stories are very well written, and very atmospheric, and I know that they give you this sense of creeping horror that many stories and movies don’t give you today. So because of that, I think that the horror set you have created is going to be very effective.
A: It was something different. Different from your typical spooky opera. For instance, you think about Don Giovanni, or Turn of the Screw, or you think of any of the typical horror operas, and we just thought we could think outside the box and find something that would be intensely intriguing and equally horrifying as the classic horror operas.
P: Obviously the commissioning thing is something a lot of composers would like to do, but they often get hired through knowing other musicians. How do you know Cecilia, or, how did you first get introduced to her?
R: Mai, our music director, played in one of Cecilia’s recitals.
C: Yes, he actually played in my Doctoral recital last spring.
R: he really enjoyed the music. So when we were going around the idea of ‘what do we do about the third piece?’, because we really didn’t like what we had, and we needed something, Mai said he knew this really great composer whose work he’s been involved with before and he really liked her music, so we thought we’d see if she was interested. And we were very lucky she was interested.
P: So then, in this case, because you had so little time, who chose the story The Masque of the Red Death? Was it Cecilia? Or was it you guys?
A: We had some discussion, but we pretty much left it up to Cecilia which opera she wanted to compose, because we were giving her such a short time frame that we just needed the inspiration to come. SO I think I had thrown in Ligeia as a suggestion.
C: Yes, you suggested Ligeia and The Telltale Heart. And you said obviously not to do the other ones you were already planning on doing.
A: Masque was on the table from the beginning as well, but I was envisioning an onstage costume chance for Ligeia which was really the only reason I thought that might be fun too, but I’m so thrilled with Masque. It’s definitely the right choice for this.
R: The way that we managed to do the story with Masque works so well, I can’t imagine anything else with it now.
C: It seems very organic now. Having seen all three pieces together now, as a show, it really flows. And the other thing I liked about Masque is that it hadn’t been treated operatically as much as the other stories so I felt I could stake out a little bit of new territory that way.
R: Were you able to find any Masque works?
C: I wasn’t able to find any in a relatively cursory search on my part, but I did find other works for Telltale Heart, and Ligeia.
P: Was there a period where you looking at other short stories? The Pit and the Pendulum is one of those classics.
C: That period lasted really only about 24 hours.
A: We did say that we didn’t want the Raven.
C: Yes, you did, I could do anything, but not the Raven. But I had to make a decision very quickly, so as Aria says, I was looking for the one that kind of fit me.
P: So Cecilia, you wrote opera in, really, under six weeks. Were there any other factors that you were thinking of adding to, and maybe writing something involving dance, because this is a story that takes place at a party.
C: Yes, I liked the party idea right away. I think there’s something very sinister about having a party going on and having Death stalk from room to room. But I wanted to leave open opportunities for onstage excitement, but I knew Aria would have all the best ideas for that. I didn’t want to shove anything in the piece that she might feel differently about.
A: We ended up with a zombie dance party.
C: Which is not what I envisioned but it totally works! It was great.
P: Cecilia, I’ve heard your previous vocal work, and it’s quite beautiful, and very organic. Was writing a horror/mystery a departure? was it difficult?
C: No, not at all. I wrote the main theme of it, and then I wondered what I would do for the party itself…to achieve that party atmosphere. Then as soon as I hit on this burlesque…kind of Gilbert and Sullivan, show tune..thing, I thought, well at least I have some music, so I went from there. And it’s not a departure, stylistically, for me. I’ve done a lot of creepy music earlier. It was a nice chance to do some fun stuff again, and vocally, I think it’s actually very lyrical.
R: What I appreciate about the piece, and the production too is that they [the pieces] are in very different styles, but it feels like one piece. I’ve done a couple of modern operas like this as well, and sometimes everyone does something different, and it becomes very choppy, but Cecilia managed to pack in a bunch of different things, and keeping it lyrical throughout the whole thing, which is great. It does feel like one piece, which is what you want as an opera.
P: Aria, you did the work on the set, and the costumes, and all those things, so did you decide to make the costumes faithful to the Poe era? Or did you go modern?
A: It’s sort of…outside of time. It was very important to me that all three stories live in the same world, so we don’t get this feeling of starting and stopping. They are three operas, but together. So talking to Matthew Vale, our production designer, this was one of the things I came to the table with: These three operas are in the same world, so we need to work backwards from Cecilia’s piece. So Cecilia’s piece was driving the drama for the other pieces. We started discussing the elements of the show. Elements of budget, elements of what we wanted to see on stage. So we decided to go outside of time and have a sort of punk rock theme to feel very gritty, very dirty, very spooky, but have elements of peoples costumes that would relate back to Poe’s era. So people would be wearing neckerchiefs or Poe-style jackets, over top of printed band t-shirts. Our soprano is wearing a huge cage skirt which she is wearing over a very modern slip, and she’s sporting a very punk Goth outfit. So there are elements of the era woven into it, but it’s very much outside the time.
Opera 5’s new show: In Pace Requiescat begins tonight. 7:30 PM at the Toronto Arts & Letter’s Club (14 Elm Street Toronto, ON M5G 1G7). Arrive early and check out their haunted house and Halloween themed treats. Tickets are $30 and $25 for students.
– Paolo Griffin