The latest piece of work to join the repertoire of Naomi Woo, North Vancouver-born conductor, pianist and musicologist, is a baptism of fire on all fronts.
A storyline designed to generate conversation and awareness about sexual exploitation and human trafficking, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angel’s Bone navigates a tale of two children who are seeking safety and stability, but instead are lured and trapped by traffickers, Mr. and Mrs. XE.
It is an audacious work by Chinese-American composer Du Yun and Canadian librettist Royce Vavrek that has been reworked by Re:Naissance Opera – one that Woo, despite her ever-growing range, said is unlike anything she has worked on before.
“This is a really unusual opera, and I’ve certainly never been a part of something where the collaboration is this extensive,” said the Deep Cove-raised musician, who now lives and works in Winnipeg as assistant conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.
Part of the preparation has been convening what Woo calls a "social context committee," a meeting led by Brenda Lochhead, an advocate for victims of human trafficking, and Terrieas Harris, a victim of trafficking herself, to discuss the text of the opera and think critically and carefully about how it should be presented on stage. The meetings, which Woo has only been a party to in recent months, have been a major part of production for over 18 months.
“We get together to discuss how it can be presented in a way that is honest to victims’ experiences, and in a way that genuinely raises awareness without sensationalizing an issue that affects real people and real lives.”
The searing piece might be a work of fiction – a fantasy subgenre even, the children being fallen angels whose wings have been clipped by the treacherous Mr. and Mrs. XE – but the tale is one that harnesses hundreds of harrowing true accounts.
So how does one approach a topic so sensitive, to deliver a piece that is thought-provoking without shock factor, and understanding without being all-knowing? “Honestly,” says Woo, “by making mistakes along the way.”
The opera conductor and music director, who was mentioned in 2019 in CBC’s ‘Top 30 Classical Musicians under 30’, says she is sure the cast and crew “won’t be perfect,” but with aides like Lochhead and Harris at its helm, the end production should deliver a correct amount of awareness and education.
Prior to each performance, a half-hour discussion will highlight a different theme addressed in the piece, whether that be the lasting effects of trafficking and exploitation, or the root causes of it. Afterwards, there will be plenty of support available for those who need it.
Yet Woo stresses she doesn’t want the audience leaving the theatre feeling perturbed or dispirited. Rather, she hopes they will come away affected but empowered, feeling like they too can be advocates for social change.
“What we don’t want is for people to come away thinking, ‘Wow, that’s really sad that that happens, but it is not connected to me, it doesn’t affect me, and I don’t know what I can do,’” she explains.
“We want the crowd to feel as though they can advocate for youth in our communities.”
To the theatre uninitiated, the prospect of sitting down for an opera, not least an opera with oppressive themes, is intimidating. If you don’t know your baritone from your brass, and soprano is more reminiscent of a New Jersey mob boss than a songstress, will the production be tolerable?
“One thing about Du Yun’s writing is that she writes in a wide variety of musical styles,” assures Woo. “A lot of this music incorporates electronics, and a lot of it will feel familiar from genres very far outside of opera.”
Woo says the directors have worked hard to situate the show in the contemporary moment: there are video games played on stage. There are characters seen texting on stage. This is not 19th century ballgowns and corsets and never-ending song belted in Italian.
“A lot of what’s happening will feel contemporary and present, and familiar,” she says. “It is surprisingly modern, and that makes the show so much more accessible, and it emphasizes the bigger picture that the show is trying to tell a story about what really happens in our world today.”
The production premieres on Friday as part of IndieFest, an 11-day festival dedicated to genre-defying arts, and will run for three days. Tickets can be purchased via the Re:Naissance Opera website.
Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News' Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.