Creators of Black opera 'Of The Sea' on inspiring alternatives to Eurocentric works

·6 min read

TORONTO — A new Black Canadian opera brings to life a story of resilience, amplified by hopeful arias and performers drawing from their own experiences in facing obstacles.

The Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre co-production titled "Of The Sea" is written by Kanika Ambrose and composed by Ian Cusson. It is a story of Black fatherhood and the lengths a parent would go for their child.

Ambrose, a Toronto-based librettist, playwright and screenwriter, says prior to writing "Of The Sea" she didn’t know any operas that were in English.

“Everything I’d seen at the Canadian Opera Company was in some European language,” she said.

She began writing the 90-minute production with Cusson in 2018 as a part of a Tapestry Opera program that pairs composers and librettists to collaborate on projects that can become full commissions of new operas.

Ambrose decided to create something based on the mythological narratives she's heard since childhood about oceanic waters.

“I thought about the water and our African ancestors and how if hundreds of thousands or millions of them were thrown to the bottom of the sea, that means that the sea has forever changed,” Ambrose, who is of Caribbean background, said. “So, how does that transform the sea forever?”

“Of The Sea,” which includes the orchestra of the Canadian Opera Company for music, premieres March 25 and runs until April 1 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. It details the story of Maduka, his daughter Binyelum and fellow Africans thrown overboard during the Middle Passage stage of the Atlantic slave trade. In the opera, those individuals, portrayed by Black performers, populate mythical underwater kingdoms that span the ocean floor.

Ambrose, whose previous works have premiered at Opera Philadelphia and the Curtis Institute of Music, says collaborating with Cusson helped bring out both their strengths.

“Ian was able to pull lightness, colour and create this water world that I couldn’t come up with through my texts alone,” she said of his music. “It was magical seeing how the fruits of that pairing evolved.”

Ambrose says audiences can expect powerful storytelling heightened by the composition, orchestration and vocalization.

“I think there’s an expectation that opera can be dry or boring for some people who aren’t into it or familiar with it,” she said. “I think people will be surprised with the fact that they can connect with this dramatic piece of storytelling.”

Cusson says audiences will experience a piece that has the music and words working in tandem.

“It really celebrates the human voice and the incredible artistry that the singers bring,” he said.

With the opera being set in a mythological world and drawing from Black lived experiences, Cusson, who is of Métis and French-Canadian descent, acknowledges the responsibility of telling this story and considers it an honour, despite not having the same background.

Cusson says his point of entry for the composition was finding emotional parallels between Indigenous and Black experiences. Despite those being different in many ways, he says he found commonalities on the subject of displacement and resilience.

“This is a story of incredible power in the face of overwhelming oppression and the attempt to snuff out people,” he said. “That for sure is something that runs parallel in Indigenous communities and history.”

Cusson, who has held posts as composer-in-residence with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company, says “Of The Sea” is “groundbreaking" and will help set the tone for the future of Canadian opera.

However, he says there is a problem with diversity in the industry.

“The stories that have been told often come from a particular Eurocentric perspective,” he said.

He says opera companies should be finding ways to allow different communities to create works inspired by their own experiences.

Canadian actor and director Philip Akin says he was drawn to direct "Of The Sea" after seeing a 10-minute version showcased as part of an opera shorts program called Tapestry Briefs.

He says he’s known Ambrose since he was Obsidian Theatre's artistic director. At the time, she was in the theatre’s playwrights unit and they worked together on the 2019 play “Actually."

After leaving Obsidian Theatre in 2020, Akin, whose directing credits include "Trouble in Mind" and "Gatsby Jazz, Sonny’s Blues" at Shaw Festival, said he heard that Ambrose was going to be doing the opera and he wanted to be a part of it.

“It’s important to me to have people who I’ve been able to help support and develop,” he said. “If they ask for my help, then I’m going to do it.”

Akin says he cherished the rare opportunity to be in a room with other Black performers. He also loved being able to bring Black characters to life.

“You’re not just fulfilling a stereotype or a quota," he said. "You are a fully formed human being,” he said.

Akin hopes “Of The Sea” encourages more Black artists to get involved with opera.

“It’s less about changing opera in Canada. It’s more about changing Black artists in Canada who can dream to maybe write an opera,” he said. “That’s how the change comes.”

Michael Mori, artistic director at Tapestry Opera, says putting on “Of The Sea” helps spark the conversation that opera can deviate from the European repertoire that it's commonly known for.

“We’re in the most multicultural city in the world and we still have a predominantly European mythology, predominately European literature and music in terms of influences,” he said.

Mori says there has been interest in a theatrical run outside of Toronto, but nothing has been confirmed yet. Since the opera is rooted in Caribbean mythology, he notes "it would be interesting to explore a run along the East Coast of the United States where there are first, second and third-generation Caribbean immigrants."

On March 28, Tapestry Opera will host a Black celebration night, which will dedicate a night to Black audiences.

When it comes to the number of resident artists that identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of colour (BIPOC), the Canadian Opera Company says this year five out of 58 members of the COC chorus identify as BIPOC. Among their teaching artists with their community partnerships and programs team, four out of 13 teaching artists identify as BIPOC.

They note that much of their programming is performed by artists on contract, which includes BIPOC vocalists featured prominently this year.

Ambrose says she hopes people watch “Of The Sea” and decide to try opera out for themselves and see that there’s space for Black artists to explore it.

“Hopefully this kind of opens that up for them.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.

Christian Collington, The Canadian Press