When the Sun Comes Out – the Toronto Concert Premiere

Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara
Keith Lam, Stephanie Yelovich, Maika’i Nash and Teiya Kasahara. Photo credit: Avenue One.

Let’s hope that we will be able to see When the Sun Comes Out properly staged and orchestrated for at least a handful of instruments in the near future. (AtG, I’m looking at you?) Vancouver has seen the work staged (albeit minimalistically) and orchestrated for single violin, flute, clarinet cello and the piano and conducted by the composer Leslie Uyeda herself. All the thanks should go to Tapestry for bringing the concert version to Toronto.

It is a work that breaks new grounds, thematically, and opens up new ways of talking about love and the gendering within the couple. Leslie Uyeda’s music is consistently on edge and dissonant, without a single sentimental or sappy note. The only remotely post-Romantic sounding passage is when the two female protagonists kiss for the first time (I take it it’s much more than just kissing in the staged version), which sounds appropriately reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier. There are moments of romantic relief here and there, but Uyeda thankfully steered clear of ‘beautiful melodies’ (of the kind found, say, in Rufus Wainwright’s Primadonna and will likely be found in his future COC opera). Uyeda is a composer who doesn’t compose as if the twentieth century never happened—nor as if there’s a lurking harmony and a key resolution to two women loving each other. It’s always complicated, the music doesn’t cease to remind us, never easy. Notably, there are no duos between the lovers, no singing in thirds for the Monteverdi dykes in the audience like myself. There is no escaping the harsh realities.

Props to music director Maika’i Nash who had the task of conveying the complexities of the score with only the piano at his disposal.

The libretto itself, I felt, needs the staging to come into full effect. Also, the surtitles. Poet Rachel Rose probably wrestled over every word, and those words should be known even when the soprano hangs out in the top of the top of her register. If we look at it as the text for a full-blown operatic piece, the libretto is not particularly convincing. (Not many operatic librettos make sense, I know, but many do within their own unique parameters.) A wandering heroine from a freer territory falls in love with a citizen of an oppressive country where same-sex love is punishable by death. The local woman is married, has children and many more constraints upon her freedom. What works really well is that the story reads semi-mythic, semi-all-too-recognizable—there are long thoughtful monologues recollecting past actions and brooding over the impossible future that bring to mind Tristan und Isolde, but there are also moments of the easily recognizable present. So far, so good.

The emergence of the husband and his attempt at murder after having caught them in flagrante and the subsequent emotional dissolution into confessing his own past same-sex love and loss… I’m still not sure what to make of that. Perhaps the idea was to show that the heteronormative patriarchy punishes equally its daughters and its sons? And I get that. But his quick switch from a brute to a crying mess is a bit too convenient a solution.

But perhaps we shouldn’t look for a typical full-blown operatic libretto in Rose’s text—perhaps it is, as one reviewer suggested, a dramatic poem more than a drama; and perhaps it is closer, as I kept thinking while watching it, to the melodramatic one-acters like Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. In which case, with a lot of things abstracted out, a lot distilled to the one to three characters, and a touch of absurd here and there, it would be a good representative of the family.

Teiya Kasahara, for whom Uyeda wrote the character of Solana, displayed her usual stage charisma and sang (owned!) an extremely high role with great stamina. Solana is not a particularly complex character—she is angry, brave, wanderlust-y, reckless, never doubtful, always demanding, from the beginning till the end. Lilah, however, now there’s a novel in there somewhere. Stephanie Yelovich gave us a complex portrait of a human in an existential crisis, who can lose everything by loving who she loves. Her voice—and I am guessing the role tessitura–was a shade darker and lower than Solana’s and a respite next to Solana’s relentlessness and moral certitudes. (The Vancouver Lilah was a mezzo, NB.) The two women were good together, and what was also unique about this performance was that the kissing and the making out were devoid of the awkwardness between two straight singers that’s frequently seen on mainstream stage. If their music wasn’t easily harmonious, their bodies were, and very natural with one another.

A very special mention should go to Keith Lam who brilliantly acted and sang the character of the husband. The dude almost stole the show. (And he was tasked with inhabiting an implausible character, so imagine the degree of accomplishment.)

To sum up: WTSCO is an exciting new chamber opera-poem with great potential, deserving a serious staging or two.

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Kasahara, Yelovich, Lam. Photo by Avenue One.

4 thoughts on “When the Sun Comes Out – the Toronto Concert Premiere

  1. Thanks for the review of WTSCO’s Toronto concert premiere! I got to see the original Vancouver staging, and it’s really interesting to think about Uyeda’s score as a sonic metaphor for a complicated and often harsh reality! Also, looking at the text as having a poetic intention rather than a dramatic one is right on the money – and really articulates that experience well for me. I remember loving Rachel Rose’s words, and having a huge appreciation for a libretto that valued the aesthetic qualities of the text itself.

    Glad to hear the Toronto concert version went off so well!

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