After seeing the Old Trouts’ latest show, Ghost Opera, part of me wondered — what on earth took them so long to create an opera? Their previous shows (among them The Ice King and The Unlikely Birth of Istvan) are operatic in theme and scale, and in retrospect were crying out for a barrel-chested tenor. In typical Trouts fashion, this show throws the form into a cocktail mixer and shakes it up until it’s barely recognizable, but make no mistake — this is serious opera.
From the first discordant, ominous opening notes (not really an overture), it is clear that the tone of this opera is as dark and twisty as any of their previous work, but the small orchestra to the side of the stage (Timepoint Ensemble) indicates immediately that this is a Trouts show you’ve never seen before. All but one of the puppets are life-sized representations of humans (and a dog), and they are reminiscent of Classical Greek statuary, albeit a bit more tortured. A fitting choice, given the theme of the show, which is drawn from one of the first ghost stories ever written down, as described by Pliny the Younger in the first century AD.
In Act One, a silly young man kills his elderly aunt Philippa for her money and throws her body down a well to hide his crime. This means that she can’t be buried properly with two coins for the ferryman (described at one point as “a merciless cosmic economy”), so her soul is bound to Earth and she haunts her house, which the nephew has sold to a young family to pay his debts. The family soon encounters their unwelcome guest, and attempts unsuccessfully to exorcise the ghost.
Act Two is an almost completely separate opera, in which, after failing to evict their ghost, the now more cynical couple sells their unwanted dream home to Athenodorus, a stoic philosopher. Aunt Philippa proceeds to haunt him in his turn, but finds him less prone to panic.
Given the unlikelihood of finding expert singers who are also puppeteers, the creative team arrived at a concept in which the life-sized puppets — which often require two puppeteers — are shadowed by a singer who stands nearby. This crowd takes some getting used to, and initially the split focus takes you out of the action, but director Judd Palmer is confident and consistent with the execution of it, and eventually it becomes something of a comment on the separation between body and spirit that forms the basis of the text.
Palmer’s staging overall is open and expansive, in contrast to previous shows that existed on a somewhat more miniature scale. However, from intimate moments of character development to an incongruous dancing chorus of gravediggers to the show’s supernatural climax in the second act, there is a clear directorial voice which will be familiar to the company’s fans (and may create some new fans among the traditional opera audience). The other Trouts (Pete Balkwill and Pityu Kenderes) are listed as co-directors, and as usual for this team, the technical aspects of puppet design and construction, costuming, and set design are flawless.
The libretto by Giller Prize-winning author Andre Alexis walks a successful line between traditional operatic melodrama and contemporary sensibilities — in a way, it’s a gentle parody of opera, sending up some of the traditions of the form. Its humour often relies on anachronism: as the exasperated couple is selling their haunted dream home where the skeleton of the cranky Aunt Philippa resides, they point out that “it needs some work, but it’s got great bones.” Perhaps unsurprisingly from the author of Fifteen Dogs, one of the crowd favourites in Act One is Barrington, the family’s spectre-unfriendly dog, whom Philippa causes to float around the room to menace the family. The wife, anxious to keep their new dream home, tries to convince her husband that levitating Pomeranians are “not uncommon” and blames it on “a Paraclete wind.”
The music by composer Veronika Krausas is appropriately haunting and combines tonal and atonal components, like much contemporary opera. Philippa’s reflection on “brittle white bones and black water” where her body resides is a musical high point in the first act, where otherwise there is a repetitive pattern of falling phrasing that becomes a bit predictable. There are more musical surprises in Act Two, when the characters also become more engaging. There are few opportunities to identify with any of the characters in the first act, but as Philippa establishes a relationship with Athenodorus, you begin to hope for a happy ending for both of them. She tries to convince him to kill himself where his bones won’t be found, so that “we will live forever,” and their duet here is perhaps the best moment of the production.
The singers are drawn from Calgary Opera’s Emerging Artist Program, and Mel Kirby’s band of young artists have an opportunity to distinguish themselves here in a way they haven’t in past showcases. Athenodorus is sung by baritone Jonah Spungin, who has a warm tone and gravity that belies his age. He benefits from the most interesting text and music, but does his part to create the most engaging character in the production. Philippa is sung by Yujene Oh, and is the most demanding of the roles, requiring a large range and a variety of vocal styles. Oh is up to the challenge, and her expressive delivery creates the narrative line that connects two disparate stories in the first and second acts.
The production is a multidisciplinary collaboration on a scale that is dizzying in retrospect — it includes not just singers and puppeteers, but sculptors, stilt-walkers, and an aerial acrobat. But in the moment, it all flows together seamlessly, and none of it feels forced. While it isn’t an unqualified home run, it does seem to prove that there really isn’t anything the Trouts can’t do.
Ghost Opera, a collaboration between the Old Trout Puppet Workshop, Calgary Opera, and the Banff Centre, runs at the Grand Theatre until June 8.
Lori Montgomery is a former FFWD theatre critic who practices medicine to support her writing habit.