High Performance Rodeo production This Little Piggie goes a long way to get to its dusty folk opera home

From Robert Pickton to the Dust Bowl to the Trans Mountain pipeline.

It’s an incredibly great and bizarre series of leaps that eventually arrive at what is This Little Piggie — a dusty folk opera from artistic collective CZAPNO Ensemble.

The show, which was originally staged four years ago as a co-production between the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Calgary Folk Music Festival, came from the mind of Peter Balkwill and the talents of some of this area’s finest musicians, and has become something that is a heady mix of musical theatre, cabaret and a straight-up roots and blues concert.

The launching off point?

“It’s got a long arc in its history,” says Balkwill, Old Trouts’ co-artistic director. 

“It initially started as a response to a challenge to address the situation out in B.C. with Robert Pickton and the pig farms,” he says of the notorious Canadian serial killer, who admitted to murdering 49 women, many of them Indigenous or on the fringes of society.

“There was a challenge to address that in a theatrical way and my response was really that you couldn’t tell that story because it didn’t belong to anybody but the survivors and the victims.

“But the implications of how it could happen in a social context were the things that could be explored and identified by external artists. Like, ‘What kind of society created the opportunity for something like that to happen?’ ”

Interestingly enough, at the time he was reading the John Steinbeck Great Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath.

It struck him how the family in it was fleeing the Dust Bowl, which was the drought and dust storms that devastated the agricultural landscape of North America in the ’30s, and which was, essentially, a “manmade event.”

“We look at is as an environmental event, but it was assisted in no uncertain terms by human intervention,” he says of the ambition and lack of foresight that allowed for the loss of lives.

The parallel struck him, so he set out to tell the story of a man and his pregnant wife emerging from a dust storm, arriving at a hobo camp at the base of a giant dam, where there is no water because the corporations are using it for their own purposes.

“It’s just their little world and how they’re trying to get ahead in it,” he says of the couple.

And while it began as a script, “a more conventional musical” — one that was fleshed out musically when he involved a group of likeminded singer-songwriters to bring it into a “sonic world” during a two-week residency in the Rockies with the thought of then taking it to actors — that seemed counterintuitive.

“It’s a band, we’re a band,” Balkwill says of the collective, which also features such musicians as Kris Demeanor, Little Miss Higgins and, for this remount, Tim Williams.

Together they all tell the story, bring to life the characters, including This Little Piggie’s “protagonist — or maybe he’s the antagonist.”  

“He acts in quick and brash ways, makes very quick decisions with the promise of creating work,” Balkwill says, returning to the underlying question of the piece.

“What is the cost of human ambition where we try to forward ourselves through technology and the use of resource to drive economy to make our lives better, and oftentimes the cost to the environment is a hindsight or a secondary thought?” he says pointing to the current battle over Trans Mountain

“I think the pipeline is a great example of how there is always two sides to every desire or to every argument. I’ve been fascinated with how this issue is being dealt with because it’s relatively clear that we do need a way to get this resource to the tidewater so that can enter the market at a competitive price, but there are a lot of people who have stakes in which it’s being asked to travel across.

“I’m hopeful that we are affording that voice weight enough to be cautious about how we go forward.”

As to whether or not he hopes audiences will also get that from the production, see it as a cautionary tale, that’s something he’ll leave to them.

In fact, Balkwill admits he thinks that like with any opera, audiences will take from it what they will, hopefully appreciating the music and performances of the “band” that is This Little Piggie’s cast and perhaps following the narrative.

That said, like any opera, those in need of subtitles to keep the story straight, they will be provided but in a more modern, tactile and artistic way. 

“We decided as a group to let the strength lie on the music, but still there’s always someone there, and if you’ve got somebody scratching their head and that’s slightly confused, that energy will affect other members of the audience. So we created a small, eight-page comic which contains the stronger thrust of the narrative storyline,” he says of the booklet illustrated by local artist Nick Johnson and provided at each show. 

“And the comic is really lovely because the format of the comic allows you to be cinematic in some way but also poetic, so it becomes a lovely step towards the narrative without really saying, ‘This is totally exactly what happens’ — so it’s still left for interpretation.

“The idea is that you take the comic and the music and it gives you a little bit more of a gentle push towards the idea of understanding that there’s a story implied.”

Performances of This Little Piggie take place Friday, Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., and Saturday, Jan. 12 at 8 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion No. 1 as part of One Yellow Rabbit’s High Performance Rodeo. For tickets and more information please go to