On November 10, urbanvessel gave the world premiere of Voice-Box, the latest opera by Juliet Palmer. If the name of the company or composer rings a bell it’s because both created Stitch in 2008, an a-cappella opera for three women and three sewing machines. How often is a new Canadian opera brought back for a second run by popular demand? In Toronto, except for Nic Gotham’s Nigredo Hotel (1992), the answer is “Not often.” Yet, that kind fate is likely to befall Voice-Box. The work is so physical, so energetic and so clever in conception and execution that it should have wide appeal.

Like Stitch, Voice-Box is structured as variations on a theme and uses as its primary source of music the found sounds of the activity depicted. Stitch used three sewing machines from different periods to show how the machine was both liberating and enslaving for women. The sounds of the machines provided the only accompaniment. Voice-Box takes the subject of women's boxing (a sport not sanctioned until 1991). Its 75 minutes are organized as six rounds of a fight with comedian and boxer Savoy Howe progressing through each round to a new opponent. The first is a hilarious battle between Howe and pumpkin on a stool with only the rhythmic thuds of the punches and grunts of exertion as background. In the second bout, Vilma Vitols – whose real-life involvement in both opera and boxing inspired the show – is the opponent. Here the slow-motion fight with fierce hisses signaling each punch gradually speeds up to real time.

While Palmer is amazingly adept at finding the music in everyday sounds, Voice-Box, unlike Stitch, also includes formal composition. The entrance of each fighter is heralded by a pre-recorded, portentous Soviet-style march played on a synthesizer. One of the bouts is styled as a sensuous tango between Howe and Christine Duncan that Palmer herself accompanied on a melodica. Julia Aplin’s choreography humorously reveals the homoerotic side of battle. The work also includes ballet, most notably in a ferocious solo for Aplin who bursts blood capsules against herself in a depiction of the sport’s undeniable pain and violence all to Palmer’s frightening score written in the style of Swedish “death metal.”

In one of the interludes between bouts, Vitols, with a painted black-eye is given a forceful aria to the words “I’m not a victim. My ugly face can stop a punch.” This sums up the intent of the work in celebrating women’s power both vocally and physically. We assume a black eye means male versus female aggression. Voice-Box shows that women feel aggression too, and that sport serves as an outlet for it. The work concludes with Duncan throat-singing an ominous, wordless chant that evolves, when she is joined by four other singers arms outstretched, into the word “Durga.” Durga, as some may know, is the ten-armed, demon-slaying embodiment of Shakti or feminine energy in Hinduism. In the context of the opera this is the apotheosis of the woman-as-fighter. Palmer, Aplin and librettist Anna Chatterton thus strip away the carnivalesque atmosphere that has characterized the piece to reveal a truth about female power underrepresented in the West. It may be an eye-blackening experience for the cast but Voice-Box is an eye-opening piece of highly enjoyable music theatre for the audience.

Voice-Box runs in the Brigantine Room of York Quay Centre at Harbourfront to November 14 as part of World Stage 2010:11. For tickets or more information, phone 416-973-4000 or visit www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

Christopher Hoile

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