Thursday, February 23, 2012

Review: (Toronto) Obeah Opera

l-r Bemnet Tekleyohannes, Joni NehRita, Nicole Brooks, Macomere Fifi and Saidah Baba Talibah (Photographer: Nation Cheong)

Both Thought and Entertainment
The magical Obeah Opera
by Axel Van Chee

There is nothing like an accidental education, especially one that is delivered via beautiful music. The world premiere of the powerful Obeah Opera produced by b current & Theatre Archipelago proves to be just such a thing: it is both thought provoking and entertaining. The opera is sung entirely a cappella, using only female voices. For two hours starting with the very first chord, it is as if you are transported to a lush, distant Caribbean Island, and serenaded by the Islanders with their oral history. It is like Obeah, it is magical.

Being both the composer and the librettist is also clearly an advantage for Brooks...

The creator/composer/librettist Nicole Brooks, who also sings the formidable role of Candy, sets the opera during the infamous 1692 Salem witch trial, from the point of view of the slave girls Tituba, Candy, Sarah, Mary and the Elder. This provides ample opportunities for Brooks to explore the relationships between the slaves themselves and that of the slaves and the villagers. These characters built by Brooks based on real people through her research are not mere caricatures, but fully realized human beings with a clear sense of personal histories and journeys. And here lies one major difference between Arthur Miller’s Salem and Nicole Brooks’s Salem: while Miller’s characters only exist through the extent of The Crucible, Brooks’s characters live beyond the life of the opera.

Being both the composer and the librettist is also clearly an advantage for Brooks who seamlessly weaves the influences of classical, jazz, blues, gospel, and other Black cultural musical traditions into the opera. In Act 1, she cleverly gives the slaves the music rich in Black history, and the villagers a more traditional, classical-folky sound. The piece Salem Salem Salem is essentially a rondo fugue. The contrast is striking, humourous, and registers immediately. The choral music is gloriously rich in harmonics with many shifting colours. It is so effectively composed and magnificently sung by the chorus that I wonder why there aren't more musical works without orchestras. Music Director Tova Kardonne has done an astonishing work in preparing these singers. And where else can you hear syncopated sick noises, on pitch?

The four slave girls are exquisitely portrayed and sung by Nicole Brooks (Candy), Saphire Demitro (Sarah), Joni NehRita (Tituba), and Saidah Baba Talibah (Mary), each a fantastic singer in their own right. Macomere Fifi’s Elder is nothing short of sensational in her iridescent patchwork rag with a 10-foot train designed by Julia Tribe. Together, they have enough melisma to give Beyonce and Mariah Carey a run for their money.

Director Ahdri Zina Mandiela uses the limited theater space with ingenuity and elegance, and her gifted singers/actors and great production/designer team are certainly a boon to her operation. From the airy drapery all over the theatre to the simple wooden stage to the lanterns and the blue under-the-stage lighting, it is evident that they have stretched every single dollar they have to its maximum potential. Together, they’ve created a mystical place for some bewitching stage voodoo. Be dazzled, and learn something new too. 

Obeah Opera runs to March 4

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