Canadian opera lesbians: Get used to them
Composer Leslie Uyeda was astonished when she realized there had never been an openly lesbian opera: "Two women falling in love," as she put it succinctly."
She was determined to write one, and make it one where the women don't die, that other trope of opera. In 2014, "When the Sun Comes Out", composed by Uyeda and with a libretto (words) by Rachel Rose, premiered in Canada at the Queer Arts Festival Vancouver (British Columbia).
The plot is all very "Handmaid's Tale": Same sex relationships are punishable by death in the fictional land of Fundamentalia. When straight-seeming Lilah reconnects with the rebellious wanderer Solana, love becomes a matter of life and death. Solana is tagged as a "gender outlaw," so there is more to this story than star-crossed lovers. There are pronouns to consider. If this seems ordinary in Portland in 2022, it was a bit edgier in Canada in 2014.
"This was before any of the big social movements that began in the United States, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and then, sadly, Orlando came along. So, the piece is, as some of my colleagues in Portland have been saying, more than relevant now, which is kind of a sad statement,"Uyeda said.
Add wealthy Lilah's husband Javan to the mix — he's hella angry — and you have a cocktail of authoritarianism, toxic patriarchy, misogyny, gender role fluidity and plain old romantic heartache, which has to be good for any opera.
Oh, and dude Javan has a big secret….
"Sorry, I don't think I will reveal it," said the composer on a call from Vancouver.
This a chamber opera, meaning it uses just a few voices and instruments.
"Chamber Opera, as opposed to Grand Opera, is an opera with all of the same elements and dilemmas and problems and plot twists, but on a much smaller scale," she explained. (It is being performed in Portland Opera's studio theater). Uyeda wrote for violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and piano. The Portland version uses dancers from Portland's Shaun Keylock Company and has original costumes by Christine A. Richardson.
It's difficult music — you won't be humming this like the Barbra Streisand song. And if you're used to doing your cultural homework on Spotify and YouTube, there's not much out there. There's a YouTube of Teiya Kasahara (they/them), a Nikkei-Canadian, queer, trans non-binary, multi and interdisciplinary creator/performer, opera singer and teacher, who sang Solana in Vancouver and in Toronto. You can hear Kasahara singing Solana's Song, and the big love duet between Solana and Lilah is available on SoundCloud.
Uyeda loves writing for singers, and her first love in music is opera. She has worked in opera as a conductor, chorus music director, pianist, coach, and musical dramaturge. She says she had already come out before 2011, when she started working on "When the Sun Comes Out," but this was her coming out in her favorite art form.
The Vancouver Queer Arts Festival was then a presenting company (it hired fully formed productions) rather than a producing company. The budget, which came from grants, was small. "So, I could have a total of five instrumentalists and three singers," she said. Uyeda said chamber operas are in vogue because they use less resources and small companies can be artistically daring. Both main female characters get long opening monologues. "Solana's Song" is 15 minutes long.
"The librettist Rachel Rose, and I had to start working on the piece before we actually knew whether it would go ahead or not, which is always a little hair raising. At the very beginning we thought there might be a chorus, but when the budget came in, we thought, okay, there won't be a chorus. It turns out we didn't need one anyway," she said.
Portland Opera's is a whole new production, from design to conductor to singers. "I'm really happy to not be conducting there. It's going to be fun for me to go just to be the composer. As soon as I put on my performing hat, the focus changes for me," Uyeda said.
Uyeda will be in Portland for a week. She's never been here before. First stop, Powell' Books. Pacific Northwest Canadians have had a hard time in the pandemic. Non-essential travel across the border didn't resume until November 2021. She flies home after opening night, as does the director Alison Moritz. Then it's all in the hands of the locals and the conductor Maria Sensi Sellner. All the top jobs at the Portland Opera are now held by women. Sue Dixon, general director, said, "We cannot forget that it has only been six years since same-sex marriage was legalized here in our own country. At a time when nearly 70 countries around the world still criminalize LGBTQA people, the story of this work continues to be incredibly relevant."
Portland Opera's "When the Sun Comes Out"
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28, 30 (2 p.m. matinee), Feb. 3, 5, 10, and 12.
Sung in English with English captions. 90 minutes.
WHERE: Gregory K. and Mary Chomenko Hinckley Studio Theatre at the Hampton Opera Center. Digital access available from Feb. 25.
Proof of full COVID vaccination or of negative test PCR results required.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.