Opera to have and to hold

The triple-espresso of operas // John Lauener

The great operas in history may not have been written in Serbian, but this Balkan country's rich heritage of folk music lends itself peculiarly well to the operatic form. Edmonton Opera's upcoming production of Svadba-Wedding is a contemporary opera written by Serbian-Canadian Ana Sokolovi, on a commission in 2011 from Toronto's Queen of Puddings Music Theatre.
“Some people are a little bit shocked, and say, 'Why would I want to go see something in Serbian?' And that's a very legitimate question,” says John Hess, artistic director of Queen of Puddings. “My answer to that would be, well [Sokolovic] wrote it in Serbian because that was the language of the source material, but in fact, so much of the opera is more ritualistic and more like chanting than narrative, so the fact that it's in a foreign language is rarely the issue, especially given that there's English surtitles.”

Svadba is a one-hour opera for six female voices, in unaccompanied, a cappella style. Sokolovic used Balkan folk stories and songs as her inspiration for the piece. “Basically what we have here is kind of a working out of Balkan folk material,” Hess explains. “It is the rite of passage of a young woman who is going from being a single woman to being a married woman, and this is the night before the wedding.”

Hess notes that while Svadba could be described as an opera, it's very unconventional—and not just because it's in Serbian. “We call it opera because they're singing the entire time,” he states. “But there's a lot of really crunchy music, so pitches and rhythms are super complicated. There's a lot of Balkan dance rhythms and those are in very unorthodox meters, so it's always kind of shifting; instead of a regular waltz form or march form, it's these disjointed rhythmic figures that are kind of electrifying, but super complicated.

“Not that you're going to necessarily hear that when you're out there,” he continues. “Because hopefully they make it all sound completely easy.”

The one-hour runtime is also very unusual for opera, which is known for extended productions several hours long.

“It's really visceral,” Hess states. “We give the audience this super intense shock and then we let them go. It's kind of like going into a café and ordering a triple espresso instead of a large latte. You have this intense burst of experience, and then that's it.”

Sat, Jan 12 – Sun, Jan 13;  Wed, Jan 16; Fri, Jan 18 – Sat, Jan 19
C103 (formerly Catalyst Theatre), $55 – $60

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