Friday, June 6, 2014

Opera: Airline Icarus

Airline Icarus (Music: Brian Current; Libretto: Anton Piatigorsky. Director: Tim Albery; Music Director: Brian Current; Set & Costume Design: Teresa Przybylski)

Ada Slaight Hall, Daniels Spectrum. June 5, 2014.

"We are all so afraid, we are all so alone, we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist."

– Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier

I know very little about opera, but in my experience it's a form that takes Big Emotions and projects them onto an epic canvas. Airline Icarus does the same with our smallest, most internal feelings.

There's no matricidal lust or pretenders to the throne in this production, which instead features more quotidian feelings like desire, depression, fear of flying, and the need for some Absolut right now to deal with all of the above. It's the world we live in, of random almost-connections and our desperate desire to encounter an other's spark.

Set on a flight bound for Cleveland — and lasting the same hour that such a flight from Toronto would take — the story novelistically zooms in on three passengers crammed in next to each other, cutting back and forth from their public gestures to their inner monologues. A Flight Attendant (Krisztina Szabó) likes the cut of a Business Man's suit and gives him a free drink. The businessman (Geoffrey Sirett) is smitten with the Ad Executive (Vania Chan) next to him, but she seems to prefer conversation with the timid Scholar (Graham Thomson) — who is scared of flying and, quite ironically, en route to present his first professional paper on the subject of Icarus' doomed flight. [All parts (including Alexander Dobson, who rounds out the cast as the Pilot) are engaging well-sung, but I don't have much to say about the technical side of the performances.]

All of this unfolds within Teresa Przybylski wonderful set design, which takes the gorgeous auditorium at Daniels Spectrum and flips the room around: the audience sits where the stage usually is, and the seats become the plane's interior. A pair of minimalist "wings" rise behind them, and the musical ensemble is lined up single file behind that, against the room's back wall. That gives the passengers room to move closer and further apart as the performance cuts from public dialogue to inner monologue. A six-member chorus acts as the voice of the unconsciousness in the latter situations, gathering around each of the passengers to reflect their thoughts and fears. This simple staging manages to accomplish quite a lot, accenting distance, closeness, and (in a striking sequence) transcendence.

Brian Current's music has to perform the tough task of supporting the libretto without calling attention to itself, and at some points the mark of its success is that disappears behind the sing-speaking, taking something whose affected unnaturalness can be awkward in English-language opera (and often a deal-breaker to the non-opera lover) and giving it an unforced flow. And then, when required — such as in a percussion-heavy "turbulence" theme — the nine-member ensemble adds the necessary propulsion.

In this place and time, committing the resources to mount a new opera is itself something of an Icarus-like act of hubris, so cheers to Soundstreams for taking this on. The product of a long artistic gestation, hopefully this work will find legs after this première run.

"Technology’s success / (Either simple or complex) / Is nothing by itself. / People’s passions, their hubris / Sink Titanics, crash trains and / Computers, or planes," the Scholar sings, getting to the nub of the matter. Always trapped too much within ourselves, we can barely manage the fundamentals of social interaction, and we can never show our hand, emotionally speaking — how could it be anything but hubris to think we could be the masters of such awesome forces as Flight itself? But eventually, out hubris will have to lift us toward the sun, if only to try and tear us away from our essential loneliness. We flap our flimsy wings, crash, and try to fly again.

N.B. there are three performances left in this run (Friday, June 6, 8:00 pm; Saturday, June 7, 4:00 pm; Sunday, June 8, 3:00 pm) so you should take the time to check it out!

Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

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