Wednesday, June 12, 2013

In a Word... Aria Umezawa on La voix humaine (Fringe: Ottawa)

The Question of Perception 
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Aria Umezawa is a Toronto-Born, Half-Japanese, comic book-loving opera director, who believes in the unlimited potential of opera. She most recently directed the North American premiere of Cavalli’s Artemisia with Helios Opera in Boston, as well as Hindemith’s Hin und Zurück and Milton Granger’s Talk Opera as part of Opera 5’s Opera Eats. She also writes and directs the increasingly popular webseries Opera Cheats, which explains opera conventions, and deconstructs operatic plots for the uninitiated.

CHARPO: Why La voix humaine? It's not exactly light Fringe fun!

UMEZAWA: It's true that many of the shows that appear in Fringes across the world are light, and fun, but it certainly isn't true of all the productions. Last year at the Toronto Fringe Festival, for example, one of the Best of Fringe selections was Judith Thompson's Rare, which was a very moving piece written and performed by actors born with Down's Syndrome. I think seeing something unexpected and out of the ordinary is what makes Fringes so much fun! 

The challenge for us was picking a piece that would speak to a theatre audience but still showcase opera in all its glory. La voix humaine was originally conceived as a one-act play by Jean Cocteau, and then set to music by Francis Poulenc. Because its roots are in theatre, it fits the time limit, and the music is brilliant. It seemed like a perfect match.

CHARPO: There is the play and the opera - have you used both as sources or stuck with the opera?

UMEZAWA: Conveniently, the libretto for the piece is the play. The text is virtually unaltered. So audiences will get to experience the awesome synergy of Cocteau and Poulenc. However in researching the piece, I watched stagings of both. Ingrid Bergman's version is absolutely heartbreaking.

CHARPO: Are you travelling with musicians?

UMEZAWA: Our pianist, Patrick Hansen, has graciously offered to travel all the way from Montreal to play the run in Ottawa. He is the current Director of Opera Studies at McGill University. The man does it all - he coaches, conducts, directs, and on top of it all he's an accomplished pianist. We really lucked out! 

If this Fringe experiment goes well, you might see us back with a chamber ensemble of some sort! 

CHARPO: The opera, even in a large house, always skirts the line of being Over the Top - in a small space, how do you address that danger?

UMEZAWA: Having a piano instead of a full orchestra will certainly make the opera more palatable in a small space. However, part of opera's cross to bear is that it is over the top - even a mundane picnic scene adopts an absurd element when set to music. So rather than fight opera's nature, we embrace it. The plot follows a woman having a phone conversation with an ex-lover who is about to marry another woman. Things deteriorate and she commits suicide. The circumstances of the show are heightened to begin with, so there's no point trying to work against the material. Finding what makes a story worth telling is a challenge in any medium. The key to making this opera work when the audience is so close, and the space is so small, is to really establish who this woman is and why we should care about her. Poulenc's harmonies set the mood, Cocteau's words give us the motivation, and all our magnificent soprano, Rachel Krehm, has to do is be genuine and authentic (as if that's the easiest thing in the world to do).

CHARPO:  This opera strikes me as still incredibly relevant - what relevance would you signal?

UMEZAWA: Beyond the fact that the ending of a relationship still sucks no matter what time period it happens in, there is a mental health element to this opera that really resonates with me. The question of perception is a theme that runs through the entire show. How does the woman's understanding of the current state of her life affect the decisions she makes over the course of the phone conversation? We watch a very desperate woman convince herself that there is no reason to live in just under an hour, and that is deeply troubling. 

We're very fortunate that our society is beginning to understand that mental wellness plays as much of a role in our overall well being as physical health. Mental illness manifests itself in many different ways. It isn't always obvious to spot, and it doesn't have to mean a person is stark raving mad. Anxiety and depression are serious disorders that many people deal with undiagnosed, and that is what makes the woman in this opera so believable. My hope is that audiences will leave with a deeper appreciation of how these things can impact our lives, and that we might contribute to the ongoing conversation about how we can embrace our own mental health.

Ottawa Fringe details

(from the company website)
Walk into any opera house and look around. In one word, what do you see? Old? Money? Snobs? Intellect? Elite? When you think of opera as an art form, do you think of Bugs Bunny in bull horns, or a guy in a speedo selling gum? Maybe you’re thinking of Italian food. At Opera Five we believe that opera is all these things, but that it can be so much more. It’s an art form that has unlimited potential, that has inspired artists for centuries, an art form we love and most importantly one that can move any audience, period. When opera was developed it was meant to combine all art forms and we intend to push that to the limit by combining opera with any and every distinct art form such as dance, photography, visual art, performance art, creative writing, and even culinary arts by showcasing new talent in each medium. Above everything else, the most important element of our vision is you. We want to create the kinds of opera you want to see. We want you to forget everything you think you know about opera and show you something that is pure entertainment in a venue that you feel comfortable in. 

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