Friday, February 3, 2023

New Contemporary Opera Premieres in Hamilton For One Night Only

It’s the mid-eighties. The height of the AIDS epidemic. What would you do if you were diagnosed with the disease?

In 1986, artist, filmmaker and gay activist Derek Jarman found himself faced with this question. His response was to purchase a small fisherman’s shack house dubbed Prospect Cottage in southern England and create a garden.

As the public response grew increasingly panicked, and political voices lacked support, Jarman’s activism made him a leading voice with a perspective that was not often heard at the time. And through it, he maintained a memoir of his experiences. His writings explored it all- the solace he found in nature and growing plants that created beauty; surviving and coping with his illness and reflections on his relationships, art and activism. The memoir was published in 1991 under the title “Modern Nature.” Jarman would continue to live in the cottage until his death in 1994, with a subsequent memoir published shortly thereafter. 

The first memoir, “Modern Nature” is the inspiration for a new song-cycle, which will be premiered in Hamilton on Thursday, January 26 at 7:30pm. The one-night only performance, entitled Unruly Sun, is approximately one hour in length, and features eighteen original songs.

Inspiration is a key word to describe the cycle, as the story is not biographical. Instead, the protagonist of Unruly Sun learns about Jarman’s activism, art and life at Prospect Cottage before becoming engulfed by it. 

The piece is a collaborative effort- both in terms of creativity and presentation. Contemporary Canadian composer Matthew Ricketts wrote the music for Unruly Sun, while Pulitzer and Grammy-winning librettist Mark Campbell wrote the lyrics. Grammy-award winning Tenor Karim Sulayman plays the role of the protagonist- the only voice in the cycle. A string quartet and pianist accompany the singer.

“Unruly Sun is a dream project,” says Ricketts in a statement. “Mark’s text- by turns poetic, political, lyrical, pastoral, surreal- presents myriad opportunities for musical illumination and enchantment. Drawing on the dramatic vocabulary of opera, musical theatre and song, Unruly Sun pulls together influences from all aspects of my musical life, from Baroque opera to Bernstein, Schubert to Joanna Newsom. Working on this project with Mark over the last two years has taken my music to new, surprising and sometimes exhilarating places, and is one of my proudest projects.”

The music is written and sung in English- like Jarman’s memoir. And like much contemporary music, Unruly Sun combines several facets of music in its form and style. It’s not entirely opera, nor is it musical theatre or song-storytelling; rather, the three are combined and utilized as appropriate and as needed to tell the story. 

The work is also a co-commission between three Canadian organizations; Orchestre Classique de Montreal (OCM), the Brott Opera, and the Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21C Music Festival. The OCM and Brott Festival are deeply rooted together via their artistic leadership; Boris Brott served as artistic leader of both organizations until his death last year. 

Unruly Sun had its world premiere with the OCM, held at the intimate headquarters of Cirque Eloize on December 1- timed specifically in honour of World AIDS Day. Hamilton will receive the next performance, with the Brott Opera presenting the work at McMaster University’s 350-seat LR Wilson Concert Hall. Tickets are available through Brott Opera for $25.

The final premiere will take place as part of Toronto’s 21C Music Festival on Sunday evening, where Unruly Sun will be performed at Mazzoleni Concert Hall at the Royal Conservatory of Music. In both Toronto and Montreal, the performances are presented in association with the local Pride organizations.

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