A SYNONYM FOR LOVE, music by George Frideric Handel, libretto by Deborah Pearson, directed by Ross Manson, musical direction by Ashiq Aziz, with Emily Atkinson, Scott Belluz and Tracy Smith-Bessette. An Underground/Opera production by Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort at the Gladstone Hotel (1214 Queen West). Previews Sunday (August 19), opens Monday (August 20) and runs through August 31, nightly (except August 25) at 7 pm. $42, preview $20, under 30 and seniors $30. 416-800-838-3006 or volcano.ca
As soon as Deborah Pearson finishes her job at SummerWorks, she throws herself into a love triangle at the Gladstone Hotel.
Associate artistic producer of SummerWorks, where she programmed the Live Art Series, Pearson's also the librettist of A Synonym For Love, a radically reconceived version of a Handel vocal work opening Monday (August 20) at the Gladstone.
Don't think of the production as an opera just to listen to; instead, it's a site-specific performance that will take the audience journeying through several floors of the hotel.
The original 1707 piece, written by the young Handel, is about a shepherdess and the two shepherds in love with her; she toys with them both until they confront her about her affections. It's known as Clori, Tirsi E Fileno - the names of the characters - and also as Cor Fedele (Faithful Heart), an ironic title given the nature of the action.
In Pearson's take on the material - an Underground/Opera production presented by Volcano Theatre and Classical Music Consort - the threesome are a female couple and a straight man. Bisexual Clori and lesbian Theresa are involved in a relationship in Calgary; Clori's met Torontonian Phil and comes to visit him to continue their affair, with the suspicious Theresa trailing her to find out what's going on.
Sopranos Emily Atkinson and Tracy Smith-Bessette sing the couple, while high-voiced countertenor Scott Belluz plays Phil, under the direction of Ross Manson and the musical direction of Ashiq Aziz.
"It's my first libretto," admits Pearson, taking a break from her SummerWorks duties, "but I've worked with Ross before and he knows that I can write quickly.
"And while it was daunting to take on, I keep in mind a quote by composer John Cage: ‘I breathe better when I do something I don't know how to do.'"
It was Manson's idea to make the characters a female couple and one's male lover. Pearson said the concept gave her a lot to consider.
"There seems to be a major ideological rift in North American culture about sexual relationships, between those dedicated to conventional monogamy and those who believe in open relationships.
"The fact is, neither side is necessarily right and both models are problematic. In love, you always have two tenets, sexuality and romance; people are both possessive and attracted to others. In the monogamous model, you're told to ignore your attraction to another and stay faithful; in the open model, you're told to eradicate any sense of possessiveness you feel.
"No matter which side you believe in, everyone involve has to be onboard and accept whatever ground rules are established."
In A Synonym For Love, the ground rules between the couple have been broken; Theresa's reluctantly accepted Clori's desire to sleep around. She's worried, though, that Clori's violated the rule that neither can fall in love with the third person, so she's come to the Gladstone to spy on Clori.
The complexity of the story's emotions are paralleled, feels Pearson, by the challenges of writing the new libretto.
She grew up in a family that listened to baroque music, but it's still been a stretch to write lyrics to the music. The melodies are the given here, and Pearson smiles ruefully that she's had to do many drafts of the libretto.
"At first I worked slowly, having to adjust to the rhythms and keep in mind the Italianate sounds, too; there aren't as many English words ending in ‘o' or ‘io' as there are in Italian. I used a rhyming dictionary in the beginning. At the first workshop, I discovered that the stresses in many of the lines were in the wrong places, so I had to do a major rewrite.
"It was like running a marathon at the beginning, but I realized by the end of the process that I'd gotten better and faster."
The show will be a discovery process for the audience, too. Everyone starts in the same room but then, by pre-assigned arrangement, the audience divides into three sections, each following one of the characters through the halls and rooms of the Gladstone; the final scene brings everyone together again. Unless you attend three times, you can't see every character's full storyline.
But it's not just the performers (the three singers and a trio of other actors who, as characters, guide their section of the audience) and viewers who have to do the travelling. The baroque orchestra accompanying the music also has to move to different floors, sometimes together, sometimes as smaller musical units. Remember that up to three scenes are being played simultaneously.
"There's something about doing math to get it right," laughs Pearson. "The logistics had us walking around, sorting out timings of an aria or dialogue so that the right people get to the right room at the right time.
"The spreadsheet programs we got into were a lot like trying to figure out algebraic equations."