THE BEAR by William Walton, directed by Ashlie Corcoran, conducted by Steven Philcox, and SWOON by James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, directed by Michael Albano, conducted by Richard Bradshaw and Derek Bate, with Andrew Stewart, Lauren Segal, Jon-Paul Décosse, Virginia Hatfield, Lawrence J. Wiliford, Betty Waynne Allison and Justin Welsh. Presented by the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre (227 Front East). December 6-7 and 9 at 7:30 pm, December 10 at 2 pm. $60. 416-363-8231. Rating: NNNNN
Playwright Anna Chatterton understands the power of having her words sung as well as spoken.
Best known as part of the Independent Aunties, she and collaborators Evalyn Parry and Karin Randoja have created such hits as Clean Irene & Dirty Maxine and Frances, Mathilda And Tea.
Chatterton's still working with the company, but she's also devoting time to opera these days as librettist for the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio's Swoon. The one-act piece, with music by James Rolfe, premieres on a double bill with William Walton's adaptation of Chekhov's The Bear.
"I met James in a Nightswimming workshop that explored the territory between speaking and singing," recalls Chatterton, a skilled performer as well as a writer. "We liked each other's work, and when he was asked to compose a piece for the COC, he asked me to write the libretto."
Both halves of the double bill deal with sexual politics, the Walton set in czarist Russia and Swoon in contemporary upscale Toronto.
In the latter, Leah, a young maid hired by the Holt Renfrew-ish Mona, has to juggle an attempted seduction by her employer's bored husband and her own boyfriend's jealousy.
"In some way, it's a modern look at Mozart operas like Cosí Fan Tutte and The Marriage Of Figaro," explains Chatterton, who co-wrote Knotty Together with composer Njo Kong Kie.
"The male-female struggles in those Mozart pieces are inherently funny but also heartfelt. James and I talked about how Mozart's works move back and forth between lightness and grab-your-heart intensity.
"We're both romantic artists, so it's important for us to capture that passion properly but also make it fun. In this contemporary piece, considerations of age and class are as important as sex, and both couples have to deal with the confusions around attraction and fidelity."
Chatterton's writing always teases as it entertains, even here, where it has musical accompaniment. Swoon's text relies on internal rhymes, wordplay and rhythmic eccentricities.
"And I've learned that the music can say things that I don't have to. At first I fought when James suggested that I cut a line, but he showed me that the music could make the same point as the words. The biggest learning curve for me in this project is what music can and can't say.
"In the theatre, you have to be careful about being too poetic, but in opera you have more freedom," adds the writer, who next works with Rolfe on a gender-reversed, updated version of Cyrano De Bergerac. "The words work differently, I've discovered, in the mouth of a singer.
"Still, a libretto is the same as a play in its need to be active, precise, real and layered."