With opera struggling to survive in the COVID-driven desperation of socially distanced pop-up concerts in Europe and countless at-home offerings on the World Wide Web, Toronto indie incubator, Tapestry Opera, has launched something of a novel rescue attempt, a brave one-of-a-kind experiment in live programming. Box Concerts, an entirely original initiative to bring opera, however modest, to communities citywide via a mobile outdoor stage, promises to deliver a welcome curbside package of rewarding musical delights.
In a spirited telephone interview earlier this week, Tapestry Artistic Director Michael Mori described the moment of inspiration, an epiphany of sorts encountered at the height of the pandemic last April.
“I was jogging through my neighbourhood on a really nice day — I was getting so out shape with the quarantine — and I looked around on the street. Everyone was out just kind of taking a break from working and I realized, people weren’t associating their computers and their screens with where to go for relief and connection. And that got me thinking. If people are on their porches and in their front yards and if we start with just one performer, why couldn’t we drive up right in front of their house and perform for them and their neighbours, then drive on and perform for another 10 or 15 people? So long as people are on their own property, they’re controlling their own venue.”
An early roll-out of a stirring all-vocal pilot program sung by gifted tenor soloist Asitha Tennekoon proved intensely heartening when presented outdoors to a carefully spaced group of residents at a local care home. Observing from the sidelines, Mori readily admits to being in tears.
“Watching people being moved by music — I guess I’m used to it. But it’s been so long since I’ve seen it in action. Jaime (Jaime Martino, Tapestry Opera Executive Director) came and we were both there wearing masks and we looked looked at each other and said, ‘We have to do this.’”
Designer Rachel Forbes’ trailer stage, with its simulated giant cardboard shipping box unfolding to reveal a comfortingly kitschy playing area, addressed many of the practical issues of how to deliver what has evolved into two different proposed concert experiences — Opera/Musical Theatre and a Cello set — each about 30 minutes in length.
“I’ve seen where people go out and perform from the sidewalk but I think — look. Opera is our business. We work with designers. We work with directors. It’s our responsibility to give it as much magic as we can. This just feels like the kind of thing we want to be doing — going to communities where it’s needed. Making it free for front line workers. Grocery clerks at the end of the day. Care homes. And making it available for people who’ve been deprived of live performance. It may not be two hours at Roy Thomson Hall but it has its own charm. You can invite your neighbours to come out on their porch and split the cost between them. For 10 people it only costs 15 bucks each. Or one person or a company can sponsor a concert.”
As Mori sees it, the coveted goal for every opera producer of building new audience may very well prove something more than an elusive objective given the potential reach of Tapestry’s travelling enterprise.
“What I like about this is you’re going to encounter people who haven’t heard about you before. You and I may happen to be super fans of opera and classical music and there are lots of other people who could be. But they just lack the exposure to a good entry level piece. Something that gets them intrigued. We’re going to start with mostly crowd pleasers then a couple of tidbits from the contemporary catalogue. I think it’s nice to hear a mix of things like Bohème and something from Les Mis and some Mozart and then if we throw in something from Rocking Horse Winner — it’s a nice introduction. We’ll make sure to curate beautiful programming.”
And continue to diversify it, Mori promises.
With build work on the custom wheeled stage currently underway courtesy Soulpepper Theatre’s generously donated workshop facility and plans to launch charity concerts beginning later this month (neighbourhood Box Concerts hopefully to follow in August), Tapestry’s hugely encouraging plans for summer and fall are already in motion.
“If we’re successful,” Mori ventures, “There’s nothing stopping us from building a couple of more trailers and hiring as many artists as we can employ. I think we’d like to offer this regardless of quarantine provisions in the future.”
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To list for a future Tapestry Opera Box Concert or to donate to the project, visit tapestryopera.com/performances/box-concerts.