When the mezzo-soprano Vilma Vitols took up boxing and started training at the Savoy “Kapow” Howe’s all-women gym, it occurred to her that the world of boxing was not so distant from the world of opera. She had an idea for a performance which would include singing and boxing, and talked to the librettist Anna Chatterton and the composer Juliet Palmer about it. The choreographer Julia Aplin added the vocabulary of dance, and the Voice-Box was born. The work opened tonight at the Harbourfront Centre, where it will be on until November 14.
Voice-Box is an opera only tongue-in-cheek, the way each of the women on stage is in character only somewhat (mostly they’re Juliet Palmer, Anna Chatterton, Neema Bickersteth, Christine Duncan etc. or some girly or manly version of themselves). There’s very little music, and what does make an appearance is pre-recorded and electronic. The music that’s live is of the sound art kind – the customary Palmer/Chatterton exploration of resonances of sound, of musicality of phonemes, etc. This is a Prima le parole work, but you won’t mind or even notice. Until in one segment Vilma Vitols puts on a lower-belly shield and gets pummeled on it while singing the mezzo blockbuster, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Carmen. Oh yes, this was supposed to be an opera. And we know how Carmen ended. But this one’s holding her own, in spite adversity.
Do women do aggression differently? Are we sneakily aggressive and shy away from open conflict – backstabbers rather than front-stabbers? Or is that a misogynist proposition? Or is it that we become stealthily aggressive because female aggression is nipped in the bud in the existing societies? Or are we truly the less aggressive, more peace-loving and consensus-seeking sex, and if we ruled the world, it would be a different place? This is what the play is about, without a shred of didacticism. One important decision was to remove the issue of the male violence against women from the centre-stage and try to see how we behave with each other. There are two scenes (sorry – ‘bouts’ they’re called) which brilliantly illustrate the intimacies and the devastation of the woman-to-woman friendship and of the woman-to-woman relationship. They’re mostly silent scenes (only two words get exchanged later in the tea ritual) but they burst with meaning. Julia Aplin’s choreography and dancing are essential here and guide you through.
In fact, the only ‘bout’ with a bloodied, beaten body is Julia Aplin’s almost-solo, in which she shows up in baby whites, dances the choreography of a body taking a beating, and keeps coming back for more of her own blood. (Literally. You’ll see how that works, with Savoy in the corner as an observer and attendant). Again, it’s a scene of silent devastation, but artful, and multi-layered.
You’ll also hear about the history of women in boxing, the early boxing pioneers. There is also some pretty cool real boxing at the end. Now, you’re allowed to wonder why on earth should we be so eager to reclaim boxing of all things that need reclaiming. It’s a reasonable question. I, for instance, like my nose. But boxing here is a stand-in for physical courage, something we often lack (a taught attitude, of course). It doesn’t have to be boxing, it can be circus arts, cycling on the Russian-roulette streets of Toronto, rock climbing, whatever. Because as every coach worth their salt will tell you, and the Voice-Box will agree, the physical courage in the ring/rink/gym just might result in more courage in other areas of life.
Voice-Box is created by urbanvessel for the Harbourfront Centre’s commissioning program Fresh Ground and is part of the World Stage 2010:11. More info and tickets