The old industrial school at Abbotsford Convent is a large hall leading into a somewhat smaller one where the opera was performed. The audience was seated on two sides of a central stage with the small but excellent chamber-sized orchestra of eight seated at the rear on one side, and the six singers using stairs to the stage to make their entrances and exits as the opera progressed. This proved to be an effective setting for this short work in which composer Evan J Lawson and librettist Nicole Butcher “explored the notions of power, corruption and trauma” in abusive relationships (Lawson’s program note). In his spoken introduction, Lawson warned the audience that the piece portrayed physical and psychological abuse, and that anyone was welcome to leave the venue if they found it too confronting. Given the intensity of the subject matter, and its graphic portrayal in both music and acting, it was almost a relief that the piece finished in under an hour.
Even as we entered the space we were faced with an “ideal housewife” vision in the first hall. Here, on a floral tablecloth, were arranged flowers and neatly piled books whose titles were enough to make one apprehensive: The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, Perfect Behaviour, How to Win Friends and Influence People. All gave us a premonition, as did the floor itself, strewn with pages torn from 1950s articles and books about how a woman should behave/be submissive/smile a lot/have his slippers ready etc.
The first part, The Tyrannical Sea, began with an orchestral prelude that was most sea-like and reminiscent of the washing of waves and the tide coming in. The opening ostinato chords on the keyboard led into lyrical passages from the winds, then trombone and bass, finally joined by the men of the chorus from the outer hall. They circuited the outer hall so that the sound direction was constantly changing, with phrases repeated but each slightly different, again evoking the feeling of in-coming waves. The men came together to sing behind the audience from the opposite end of the hall from the orchestra, the acoustic in the industrial shed enhancing and foreshadowing their dominance when they came on stage to become the abusers. Opening Part Two, The magnetism of the ocean. Ocean masquerading as an equal, the central protagonist (Amanda Windred) came onto the stage with a companion (Aleise Bright) who, we were initially led to believe, is a support to the young woman, but later becomes complicit in the abuse. Their voices were well-matched, Windred’s lovely soprano and Bright’s rich mezzo engaging us in an expressive duet sung with excellent diction.
In the three remaining parts and two interludes, I found it somewhat difficult to tell where one ended and the next began, so rather than identifying the balance of the work according to this structure, we will just follow the plot!
After the women’s duet, the four men made an ominous appearance on stage, their heads covered by a single long red scarf. The young girl removed the red scarf while the men sang through hands covering their mouths, as though with a mute. The girl undressed down to her underwear, with each male in turn attempting to woo her – lecherously kissing her, coolly even dancing with her, newly white in her virginal petticoat. Up until the end of this section, it was performed as choreographed movement with no singing, but with a mocking accompaniment from the orchestra and an especially lovely flute passage. Finally, the men’s voices joined together (with an excellent blend), surprisingly rich and resonant for only four singers (Archie Rumsam, Henry Shaw, SodaWater and Daniel Szesiong Todd).
The companion (Bright) returned to the stage with a bucket of black goopy stuff, and after subliminally violent overtures, the physical and psychological abuse became actual, and our poor girl was smeared with the oily black grease. As so often happens, she returned nevertheless to the abusers with hope, which of course was betrayed. The frightening action on stage was mirrored by incessant and vengeful music, with hugely loud and frightening stabs from the small but powerful orchestra, a feeling of never-ending but under-the-surface violence.
The enigmatic companion returned to the stage to clean the walls and mop the floor, but complicit in the put-downs, a sort of Mrs Danvers gone rogue – also bringing to mind Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid’s Tale, cooperating with the male-dominant paradigm.
In the last section, The voice of the sea seduces her and she metamorphoses into water, the girl lay on her back, defeated and powerless as the abusers sang terrifyingly over her, concluding with the line “I am vast breathe her in”. The men sang splendidly together and alone, and the stunning voice of SodaWater, the super-charged counter tenor, singing “I am vast” on the floor just metres away nearly blew us into the next room. The sound was all-enveloping.
The instrumentalists, conducted with good clear direction from Lawson, worked hard to bring us the shaded and changing moods – the foreboding, the violent and the occasional gentle moods. The singers were universally excellent. This slightly scary old industrial laundry building where so many women were suppressed and badly treated provided an intense matching acoustic for the music and voices. The perfect venue really, for a story of oppression. A wonderful experience, not just for the audience, but also for the performers.
In his program note, Lawson expressed the hope that “the music washes and flows over you, reminiscent of the waves and foam you battle during a blustery winter swim”, and this was indeed reflected with great success in his scoring. However, to end with a small quibble, we must confess that we found the relationship between the text of Butcher’s The Sea Libretto and the opera’s themes and action a little elusive.
Photo credit: Andrew Signor
Kristina and Bruce Macrae reviewed “The Sea”, composed by Evan J Lawson with libretto by Nicole Butcher and direction by Kate Millett. “The Sea” was presented by Forest Collective and BK Opera at The Industrial School, Abbotsford Convent on December 8, 2023.