A national theatre company is set to make history with its first-ever all-Black Canadian opera.
The world premiere of OF THE SEA is on Saturday, Mar. 25 at the Bluma Appel Theatre. Obsidian Theatre and Tapestry Opera collaborated to offer the limited-time production, which marks the first-ever Black Canadian opera in Obsidian’s history.
“I’ve been interested in opera for a very long time from a young age, but never knew that there was space to create it as a Black Canadian person. Once I found out that I could do it, it was no holds barred for me,” playwright Kanika Ambrose told Now Toronto.
“I feel that Black stories are perfect for opera and that kind of scale and size is like the correct and perfect medium for our stories, especially something with such a depth of emotion,” she added.
Ambrose is a Black playwright and opera artist who grew up in Scarborough. She has previously written her critically acclaimed play Our Place and children’s opera Anansi and the Great Light.
She says the concept of OF THE SEA came to be while she was working in an opera workshop with Métis and French-Canadian musician Ian Cusson, who previously composed Fantasma.
“Our challenge was to create an immersive virtual reality piece. So we thought about what it would feel like to be in the air…or underwater. And so because Ian is indigenous, Ian’s Métis, and I’m of Caribbean descent, we were both like, ‘Wow, there’s lots of folklore mythology around both of those, air and water stories, in both of our cultures,’” Ambrose said.
OF THE SEA follows the story of Maduka, his daughter Binyelum, and fellow Africans thrown overboard during the Middle Passage who now populate mythical underwater kingdoms. Throughout the story, “fiery plans for revenge are made, a parent is blinded by love for their child, and a fight against fate begins,” according to a press release.
“There’s no literature about, obviously because they died, about the people who didn’t make it. And so I wanted to give life and give a story to those people,” Ambrose said.
She added that the play is also a story about the love between a parent and their child.
“It’s about a father who is on a quest to bring his daughter back to life. So for me, and I think for all of us, the story is truly about the love that a parent has for their child.”
The play features an all-Black ensemble, a first in a large-scale Canadian opera, and stars Jorell Williams, Chantale Nurse, Suzanne Taffot, Justin Welsh, and Paul Williamson.
OF THE SEA is composed by Cusson, directed by award-winning Black cultural leader and actor Philip Akin, and the music is directed by Chinese Canadian conductor Jennifer Tung.
Although OF THE SEA is an opera, Ambrose says everyone will enjoy it because “it’s a piece of theatre.”
“I’m a playwright first. And so for me the story and the drama comes first. And I think that it’s a strong enough, potent enough story that even people who aren’t necessarily engaged with opera will enjoy it. People have this stereotype or expectation that operas are really long, and you know, they might lose interest, but it’s 90 minutes and it’s full of action,” she said.
OF THE SEA runs from March 25 to April 1 with performances Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Bluma Appel Theatre. Tickets start at $39 and are available now online.