Soprano Carla Huhtanen is pacing a low temporary stage in a metal storage shed, with a trouble light in one hand and a musical score in the other. Behind her, countertenor Scott Belluz sits at the top of a step ladder, with an enormous ruff on his arm that looks like one of the more exotic offerings at a sushi bar. Huhtanen is rehearsing a piece by Arnold Schoenberg; Belluz, when his turn comes, sings from an opera by Handel. Anyone walking in might think that rehearsal space is super-tight in Toronto, but the two performers are actually working on the same show: Orlando / Lunaire, a 90-minute "mash-up" of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and Handel's Orlando.
That's right: an Italian opera seria about a hero's conflicting appetites for love and glory, fused with an atonal German cycle of half-sung, half-spoken songs about a clown-like protagonist who may be insane. Mashing up the Beatles and Jay-Z, as hip-hop producer Danger Mouse famously did a few years ago, looks simple by comparison.
"We call it a mash-up opera, but it's really a mix-tape opera," says stage director Patrick Eakin Young, one of two co-directors of Opera Erratica (the other is conductor Ashiq Aziz). "It was put together as an iTunes playlist." The company also calls it a "video cabaret opera," playing on Schoenberg's many ironic riffs, in Pierrot, on the Germanic cabaret tradition.
Young and Aziz got the idea for the piece after Aziz attended performances of the two works during a visit to London. He was struck by a few thematic similarities, including Orlando's bout of madness, and figured that a new piece fashioned from two old ones might be a good next project for a small company determined to give opera a fresh appearance (the company's last outing was a video-heavy production of Purcell's Dido and Aeneas last summer).
Young listened to the music without paying much attention to the texts, and selected excerpts that seemed to him to provide material for a new drama. He puzzled out an "emotional narrative" that draws on features of both pieces, and on the fact that Schoenberg's wife briefly left him for another man a few years before Pierrot's premiere in 1912.
"The fundamental thing tying the two together is a love triangle," Young says. It took a little deduction to find that in Pierrot Lunaire, which lacks an overt continuous narrative and includes only a single mention of another character: Columbina, who in the commedia dell'arte tradition constantly disappoints Pierrot by running off with Arlecchino. Young concluded that Arlecchino's absence was a classic, Freudian instance of the composer repressing the most obvious symbol of his marital trauma.
"We've taken Orlando and suffused it through the Pierrot archetypes, so that the Orlando elements come out as a subtext, bubbling up to the surface," Young says. The singers take on different roles as the piece alternates between the two scores. "The Schoenberg is still so brash, so alien, even though it's 100 years old," says Aziz. "To hear the Handel brings us back to a world we're more familiar with," even though, he adds, some of Orlando's music is exceptionally dark and strange by the standards of its time.
Ironically, Pierrot was a far bigger success when it was new, selling out all of its initial Berlin performances and providing Schoenberg with a lucrative touring show for years afterward. Orlando, which is now reckoned one of Handel's greatest operas, disappeared after its first all-star London production in 1733, and didn't re-emerge for almost 200 years.
As in last summer's Dido, projections are a big part of the Orlando / Lunaire. Young wants to raise people's awareness of different layers of textual experience, he says, by alternating between projections of the original texts, translations, and supporting texts drawn from other sources.
The costumes, including Belluz's huge arm ruff, are by Toronto designer Heidi Ackerman, known for her outfits' architectural shoulder-lines and ambitious knits. Young says that Ackerman's forward-looking style suits the company, and hopes her involvement may attract people in the fashion community who might not normally see this kind of performance.
The shows take place in a bare metal shed behind 128 Sterling Road, in an industrial part of Toronto's west end. Aziz and Young are betting that the gritty venue will also help attract a non-standard audience, and they really hope it doesn't rain during the performances. The metal roof is secure against leaks, they say, but makes a huge racket in a downpour.
Opera Erratica's production of Orlando / Lunaire runs Aug. 22 - 28 in a shed behind 128 Sterling Road in Toronto.