Obeah Opera (Theatre Archipelago and b current), music and libretto by Nicole Brooks, director ahdri zhina mandiela, musical director Tova Kardonne, artistic producer Rhoma Spencer. Full cast of 15 and ticket info HERE. Remaining performances tonight and tomorrow.
Nicole Brooks’s very first work is a great addition to the independent opera world of Toronto. The piece is unique — and its difference welcome and refreshing — in so many ways:
First of all, it’s an all-female cast and nearly all-female production team. On stage, the cast of 15 women of various voice and body types and ages who own up their power as individuals and a collective by itself shifts something, if temporarily, whether in our ways of seeing, ways of being-together, or perhaps gives a hint of possibilities of female solidarity and freedom to come.
Its musical texture is the result of a creator engaging with musical traditions African-American, Caribbean, African and American. It’s never obvious in the piece what of the music is set by an individual creator, what is her reinterpretation of a pre-existing material, and what, if anything, is incorporated and honoured whole as found. What becomes obvious is our anxious need to assign authorship (and authority) to an individual, a composer-demiurge, whereas Obeah urges us to relax about these things. A creator always works within a tradition or three, including when s/he creates something explicitly against it.
Whereas there is a fairly firm narrative base to the work, the story-telling is not linear by any means, occasionally very abstract, occasionally epic, and rather modern in its eschewing of realism. The drama takes place during the Salem witch trials in late 1600s. The four accused women at the centre of the work Brooks found on the margins of historical records, and gave them biographies and powers. Some of them practiced obeah, a medico-spiritual craft of Caribbean origin which its opponents of Puritan and Christian (and that also meant, male) persuasion considered black magic, others were simply older lumpen women living nomadic lives, but Brooks gives supernatural powers to all four characters in which she crystallizes this entire class of women pariahs (played by Brooks herself, Saphire Demitro, Joni NehRita and Saidah Baba Talibah). The other permanent character is the Elder (Macomere Fifi), who comes in at certain moments to protect or console or fire up the collective. The rest of singers form a shape-shifting chorus that stands for different crowds (from the Puritan judges to the downtrodden sisterhood). Some of the scenes are familiar or start in a recognizable way, but they quickly change into the more rule-less territory which keeps you thinking.
At the core of operatic — and possibly any theatrical — experience is a collective magic ritual of some sort. (Ian Bostridge is one of the recent writers I’ve read on this, but there’s a large body of historical, anthropological and philosophical scholarship on origins of performing art). It’s a collective madness, allowed and regulated and limited, but a madness none the less. The women behind Obeah know this well and embrace it. The collective madness they drawn us in is the liberation of women (what madder thing then women governing themselves?! What loonier than women loving their bodies, rather than abhorring them?).
The opera isn’t explicitly, discursively political. Nor will all of it make sense minute by minute. There are bits that you won’t understand, bits that lag with repetitive rhythms, and the occasional weeping will jar. But why it’s important and revolutionary in feeling (if not 100% in execution) is that it zooms in on the moment when fear stops and turns to anger — when victimhood transforms itself into something that makes political action possible.
The audience join in on the ritual / singing near the end, but many will be itching to join, vocally and physically, from much earlier in the proceedings. Some of the music is similar to Ella Andall (singer and priestess of the Yoruba) and her early recordings, and it gets even more intense and collective.
Catch this before it closes tomorrow. It plays, appropriately, in a once-church on 918 Bathurst.
Top photo: Nation Cheong