"Of the Sea" director Philip Akin (right) in rehearsal with Jorell Williams as Maduka, who refuses to eat a bowl of gruel infested with weevils. Suzanne Taffot, as Dfiza, looks on. Photo by Dahlia Katz.I have been feeling a very strong sense of déjà vu this penultimate week of March, as I go back into rehearsal (as fight director with Opera Atelier) for Handel’s Resurrection which was shut down mid-rehearsal almost exactly three years ago when the pandemic began. Of course, this is a rather nice feeling as, fingers crossed, all will be well for the show to be performed live, at Koerner Hall this April, with the female dancers of the Atelier Ballet at last being given the chance to wield swords along with their male counterparts!


Another show igniting my memory, although in an entirely different way, is Tapestry Opera and Obsidian Theatre’s world premiere Of the Sea, opening on March 25 and playing through April 1 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto. As readers of my column know, I am a great champion of Tapestry’s constantly courageous pushing of the opera envelope, via their decades-old, hugely productive LibLab development program and Opera Briefs, their showcases of new works.

Of  the Sea began as a LibLab (composer-librettist laboratory) experiment in creating an immersive virtual reality experience anchored in the mythology of the Caribbean and the tragic history of the slave trade. It was then showcased in the 2018 Tasting Shorts. Now a large-scale opera with a groundbreaking all-Black cast and full orchestral accompaniment by the COC orchestra, this new work is creating waves of excitement in the performance community.

Chantale Nurse. Photo by Matthew Perrin.For me, this excitement is enhanced by the presence in the cast of Chantale Nurse, a talented soprano who just happened to play the leading role of Fiordiligi (in one of the two casts) in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte which I directed for the Glenn Gould School/Royal Conservatory of Music back in 2009. Even though the run will be well under way by the time this magazine comes out, reaching out to Chantale to catch up and ask about her experience being part of this premiere was an opportunity too good to miss. 

“I had heard, even before I auditioned for it, that Ian Cusson was composing the score and was intrigued by the combination of this proudly French-Canadian and Métis composer with (new to me) Black Canadian librettist Kanika Ambrose,” she told me. “I thought ‘wow, this is probably going to be something really interesting’, especially during the pandemic when I had a growing desire to be able to do something or say something through my art.”  

She had recently created a recital program of all Black Canadian composers, for example, and when this new opportunity came up, she told me, “I felt I needed to be part of it. Once I got the score and libretto, and then did the workshop (last fall) I was blown away. It was beyond what I could have imagined and very very exciting.” 

In an inspired amalgam of history and imagined mythology, Of the Sea follows the story of Maduka, his daughter Binyelum, and fellow Africans thrown overboard during the Middle Passage of the infamous Atlantic slave trade route, and who now populate underwater kingdoms that span the ocean floor. While some of the kingdoms make fiery plans for revenge, one man, Maduka, is blindly focused only on finding a way to give his daughter life once more. 

With the opera world finally opening doors to new  and non-Eurocentric creators, this premiere feels almost political in its storytelling ambitions, but as Chantale made clear to me, what is much more important is the humanity of the story. “At the heart of it, it is people dealing with being in a situation born out of trauma, and what they are willing to do to either live in a different better way, or to get revenge, or to try and save their children. While it is culturally specific, it is also universal and audiences will be drawn to sympathize and empathize with their story.” 

With a career that has ranged from classical opera and concert repertoire to burlesque, experimental techno opera, and even rock, Chantale has always enjoyed using her classical training and art form in different ways, and is “beyond overjoyed” to be playing the role of Serwa, the Queen of the Enweghi people who are plotting revenge on the slave ships. The music of Of the Sea, she says, is more classical than experimental, but “easy to listen to, and very beautiful. We are also telling a different story that hasn’t been told in this form before,” she continued,  “I think people who come to the show will see something of themselves reflected in the story, and it will speak to them in a way that a Mozart opera might not.” 

Acclaimed director, and former artistic director of Obsidian, Philip Akin, directs, and Jennifer Tung (who conducted Of the Sea as a short in 2018) is the music director. See www.tapestryopera.com for more information.

Dharma Bizier (Maggie) and Wlliam Lincoln (Tommy). Photo by John Jones / Sheridan College.


It seems this spring that in whatever direction I turn there is a new opera or musical opening or, to paraphrase the lyric from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, “new musicals are busting out all over.” 

In Hamilton, for example, Theatre Aquarius is presenting the world premiere of Maggie, a new musical inspired by the life of the composer’s grandmother, a Scottish single mother who raised three boys in a small mining town between 1954 and 1976. Award-winning Canadian country music star Johnny Reid has joined forces with well-known librettist Matt Murray to write the book and lyrics and, with Murray and music director Bob Foster, also to create the score. Maggie began its development process at Sheridan College’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project under the aegis of Michael Rubinoff who is also associate producer of this new production. Like Rubinoff’s most famous hit from the CMTP crucible, Come From Away, Maggie aims to celebrate the joy and healing power of  community, including, as quoted in the press release, “not just (Johnny Reid’s) Gran but also an entire generation of women who fought through some tough times by keeping faith, hope, love, family friendship and humour close to heart.” Aquarius Artistic Director Mary Francis Moore is both dramaturg and director with Maggie playing in Hamilton from April 9 to May 6, then in Charlottetown from June 21 to September 2. www.theatreaquarius.org.

Britta Johnson


Another long-awaited world premiere that had much of its early development at Sheridan’s CMTP is Kelly vs Kelly which was originally scheduled to premiere back in the late spring of 2020. Nurtured through the CMTP (which sadly no longer exists), this is also the third of acclaimed composer Britta Johnson’s (Life After) musicals to be developed through the Crescendo program of the Musical Stage Company. The book this time, is by Sara Farb – perhaps better known to audiences as the exciting actor who originated the role of Princess Mary in Kate Hennig’s Last Wife trilogy, and is currently playing the devilish character of Delphi in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child at the Mirvish Theatre. Judging by an early showcase of excerpts before the pandemic, Johnson and Farb are a powerful team with a great instinct for exciting theatrical storytelling. Like Maggie, Kelly vs Kelly is inspired by true events, in this case from  New York in 1915. When a 19-year-old heiress becomes tangled in an affair with a seductive tango dancer, her distraught mother has her arrested and charged with incorrigibility, sparking a court case that scandalizes the nation. 

The tango dancing at the heart of the story is fully embodied in the staging which will be in the hands of director and choreographer Tracey Flye. May 26 to June 18. www.musicalstagecompany.com.


Not only are more and more new musicals and operas being created in Canada but more new creators are popping up all the time including 16-year-old composer Laura Nobili who reached out to The WholeNote as I was preparing to write this column to alert us to the premiere of her musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s famous tragedy. The title says “opera” but listening to an excerpt (which you can listen to here: https://youtu.be/X_vLqPSkrZg) it sounds more like a sung-through musical but still ambitious in reach and scope. I like the sound of what I heard and am impressed by Laura’s chutzpah in reaching out to get coverage for her creation. 

Not only the composer but also the director and producer of her show, Laura has gathered a company of young actors, singers and musicians from York Region to join her. There is one performance only on May 17 at the City Playhouse Theatre in Vaughan. Get your tickets for Macbeth: The Musical!.

"Music Theatre" Quick Picks

Apr 14 and 15: As is often now the case, there isn’t room to cover all the wonderful shows opening over the next two months. Dance highlights for me include the world premiere of Homelands, a multimedia dance creation from Toronto’s own Kaha:wi dance theatre as part of Harbourfront’s contemporary dance series Torque.

Apr 8 to 16: Theatre Passe Muraille continues their championship of experimental music theatre with Never the Last, which weaves together text and violin solos composed by Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté to explore the composer’s love affair and marriage with expressionist painter Walter Gramatté.

May 24 to 27: The return of Junior, the international children’s festival taking place at Harbourfront. A wonderful multidisciplinary festival including many immersive events as well as more traditional staged performances, Junior has been reinvented post-pandemic with a new more participatory approach to creating theatrical works for young audiences, and all outdoor events will be free.

May 26 to 28: Following the huge success of Follies in the fall of 2021, Richard Ouzounian is directing a staged concert of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at Koerner Hall with a starry cast including Eric McCormack, Cynthia Dale, Dan Chameroy, and Chilina Kennedy

May 10 to Oct 7: May will also see the opening of Gypsy at the Shaw Festival starring Kate Hennig in the iconic role of Mama Rose. Luckily Gypsy will run into the fall season so there will be many chances to see it. 

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

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