Michael Mori, the artistic director of Tapestry Opera, is waxing enthusiastic about the indie opera scene in Toronto, if you can imagine there is such a thing. And there certainly is. Quite apart from the gold-plated extravaganzas that glide across the stage of the Canadian Opera Company's Four Seasons stage, there is a vital collection of smaller companies in the city finding natural life in the supposedly ossified realms of one of Western civilization's most highly developed art forms.
"The scene is cool," the boyish and enthusiastic Mori says. "People in the scene are riffing off each other and challenging each other. In this year alone, Against the Grain just finished their biggest show ever [A Little Too Cozy], Opera 5 is doing their biggest show ever [an updated production of Die Fledermaus that opens June 8], Opera Peep Show brought in a bunch of companies to produce something exciting, and we're doing two major shows, which is a big deal for us. There's a lot going on."
The two shows that Mori is referring to are The Devil Inside, a co-production of Tapestry and Scottish Opera that was big hit in March, and Rocking Horse Winner, an adaptation of a spooky D.H. Lawrence short story that opens on Saturday night. However, unlike The Devil Inside, which had already been produced in Scotland before it arrived here, Rocking Horse Winner, with a score by Irish-Scottish composer Gareth Williams and a libretto by Canadian playwright Anna Chatterton, is a world premiere. Mori is directing. The newness of the work excites him.
"New works are so messy because we're dealing with so many things at the same time. It's not like a perfectly printed score you can go to the library and take out, with a vast history behind it. That's the cool thing. Everything's moving at once. There's no fixed point, no background against which your production will be judged. There are no expectations for this work. Nobody's ever seen it. Wayne used to say that he loved to do the originating production of a work, so that his could be the foundation on which other productions could be based."
The Wayne that Michael Mori is referring to is Wayne Strongman, who founded Tapestry Opera more than 30 years ago, and from whom Mori took over the artistic directorship of the company in 2014. It's extraordinary how far-seeing that original founding of Tapestry was, when the indie opera scene in Toronto wasn't cool – it hardly existed. That's one of the main things that separates Tapestry from its indie opera colleagues – they all count their existence in years; Tapestry charts its in decades. The other difference is that Tapestry doesn't rework opera gems from the past – the company is devoted to new work, mainly new Canadian work. It can be a daunting challenge.
"Trying to do new work is not a tough sell, but a good sell," Mori says. "We have people in this country as capable of writing great scores as composers from the past. But instead of being able to do three operas a year, as they did in the 19th century, they do three operas in 10 years. I would love to find that unicorn that is a modern masterpiece, but that's not how it works. You give people opportunities to grow; they become masters; they write masterpieces."
And while Mori isn't completely touting Rocking Horse Winner as a masterpiece, he's very excited about it, and hopes audiences will feel the same. "Gareth's score is very beautiful and lyrical, really gorgeous. I was excited by it the first time I heard it. And Anna's reworking of the Lawrence story, to bring it into the present day, and expand on its themes, should make it very real for a contemporary audience." That reworking sounds quite imaginative, although Mori tells me that it has alarmed a few Lawrence purists. The original tale is full of mystery and the supernatural – a story of a young boy who rides his rocking horse to a hysterical frenzy at which point the names of racehorse winners are revealed to him. In the Tapestry production, the magic of the original is placed on another spectrum and becomes a disquisition on the nature of imagination and mental illness – 21st, rather than 20th-century themes.
And that's Tapestry's goal – to provide fresh energy and brio in an ancient, or relatively ancient, art form. But one that, at its best, has had universal appeal. "I don't want Tapestry to be a niche company," Mori says, "but a trend-setting company. That's where we need to try and live. We don't want to just cater to the people who like, or know, new music. Our goal is to provide something that will appeal to everyone."
Rocking Horse Winner runs May 28 to June 4 at Toronto's Berkeley Street Theatre (tapestryopera.com).