It took about 10 years due to the vagaries of opera funding, but Aaron Gervais’s first full-length opera finally has its world premiere this spring. He met librettist Colleen Murphy in one of Toronto-based Tapestry Opera’s LibLab collaborations and immediately knew they wanted to work together on a story of a woman caught in a web of international sex trafficking. Fast forward through workshopping, fundraising, planning, a change of leadership at Tapestry and a casting change or two, and Oksana G, scored for an orchestra of 18, three principal singers and a dozen secondary roles, will bring Tapestry’s season to a resounding close in May.
From early days Gervais developed an “in-depth dramaturgic back-and-forth” with Murphy that made it easier for him to understand the characters and write them in music. “The relationship with the librettist is extremely important and I think that’s something a lot of composers don’t take seriously enough,” he says. “But I’ve learned so much, and the piece is so much better from Colleen’s contribution.” A lot of the librettist-composer collaboration happens on the deeply technical side of things—what kinds of vowels and consonants can be used on the key words: “If you’re going to land on a specific note, it has to come through, both in terms of text and emotions.”
Additional challenges comes from using four languages. Oksana G is in English, Russian, Ukrainian and Italian—more complicated, but more authentic to the story than an all-English libretto. Each language, Gervais realized, comes with its own musicality. “This changed the kind of lines I wrote for the singers. Even in Russian and Ukrainian, which are similar, the placement of the vowels is somewhat different and a line that worked well in Ukrainian may seem awkward in Russian, so you’d have to change.”
Earlier in his career, as a young composer eager to expand his horizons, Gervais took singing lessons for a year. One session he remembers as paradigm-changing: he came well prepared and sang everything correctly, yet the teacher interrupted him and told him it wasn’t good. “‘But I did everything correctly,’ I protested. ‘None of that stuff matters,’ she said. ‘It’s about the emotion of the character, and the phrasing.’ This opened my eyes to how different singing is, and how dynamic it can be.” Ever since, he’s enjoyed working with singers precisely because they make the music so thoroughly their own and personal. “I think a lot of composers don’t realize that that’s possible, so they write in a way that straitjackets the singers a little bit. I try very hard to write vocal lines that singers are going to enjoy and be able to make their own.”
Gervais has called San Francisco home since 2009, and still occasionally works on Canadian commissions. Asked if it’s harder to make a living as a composer under the American arts-funding regime, he offers a nuanced view. Different models of arts funding result in different default strategies. “In Canada, it usually goes like this: ‘I’m going to apply for this grant, and if we get it, we’ll do the project.’ In the U.S., it’s more like: ‘I’m going to network and find all these philanthropists, and, hopefully, by building this team over the next couple of years, I’ll be able to get enough funding to make this project work.’” Opera, however, significantly more complex and expensive, is funded that way in Canada, too. Besides, no two composers make a living the same way. “Art is a reflection of your lived experiences, so the kind of art that makes sense in the place where you live will be different from the kind of art that makes sense somewhere else.”
His next big U.S. premiere is Prescription Drug Nation, a piece that recently became even more topical due to the opioid crisis in the U.S. His original intent was to probe some of the meaning attached to prescription drugs in American society as the low-class relatives to more glamourous controlled substances. Six of the drugs get a musical portrait each—aided by a choreographer and a guitar trio. Also in San Francisco, Gervais recently premiered Louis C.K. am Spinnrade, a piece in which the standup comic Louis C.K.’s musings on why we text and drive get mashed up with Schubert’s “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” then recomposed for cello and soprano. It’s all about filling in the empty time of waiting and distracting oneself from the existential dread. What did the audience make of it? “It went well. Laughter was heard, as I was hoping it would be.”