Opera in a new place, with an old sound

Jacqueline Woodley, Carla Huhtanen, and Laura Albino in the world premiere of "Svadba."
Jacqueline Woodley, Carla Huhtanen, and Laura Albino in the world premiere of "Svadba." (JOHN LAUENER)
Posted: October 28, 2013

The opera rehearsal could be mistaken for a meditation circle.

That's because the six women who make up the cast of Svadba (Wedding), standing quietly with arms crossed over their chests, need all the centering they can get in an hour-long opera full of tight Balkan harmonies and physical movement - with virtually no accompanying instruments to help them out.

Vocalization starts with seemingly no music at all, just organized Serbian-language chatter that, before you know it, evolves into an arrestingly exotic, fully sung chord that suddenly starts morphing before your very ears.

"The harmonies make your cranium buzz," says Dairine Ni Mheadhra, who is conducting the opera, with the voices suddenly sounding more numerous than they actually are.

Chosen because it's far from typical, Svadba is the inaugural presentation - running Saturday, next Sunday, and Nov. 6 and 7 - in Opera Philadelphia's Opera in the City series, which is intended to showcase less-than-grand opera in unusual places. In this case, the venue is the newly opened FringeArts headquarters, a former pumping station at Race Street and Columbus Boulevard repurposed into a 230-seat theater for a relatively modest $8 million.

The building's original industrial look is still evident in what appears to be a 26-foot ceiling with promising but still-unproven acoustics. But the Toronto-imported Svadba cast is used to adjusting to everything: Though its final scene has an impressive coup de theatre, the opera has always had minimal scenery since its successful 2011 premiere and, with a certain built-in staging flexibility, it has since toured Europe.

Audiences familiar with the Bulgarian Women's Choir (a.k.a. Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares), whose dizzying harmonies and penetrating voices acquired a hip, youthful following in the 1990s, won't have much of a stretch to make contact with this music. But the convergence of elements - in this alternately playful and tearful all-night bridesmaid party - makes it unlike anything in the opera repertoire.

"It would be a disaster," Mheadhra said at a recent rehearsal, "if you had the wrong singer."

The Philadelphia presentation has five of the six singers from the 2011 premiere, even though the company that commissioned it - Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Co. in Toronto - dissolved in August, mainly because the founders wanted to move on to other artistic endeavors. They are making an exception for Svadba, which Opera Philadelphia's general director, David Devan, heard in a pre-premiere rehearsal and immediately began planning to bring to Philadelphia.

His specifically Philadelphian contribution to the piece is an after-party. Since the opera is only an hour long, he completes the pre-wedding opera with a Balkan-style post-wedding feast including the ethnic band the West Philadelphia Orchestra.

The composer, Belgrade-born, Montreal-based Ana Sokolovic, had written a 10-minute vocal work for Queen of Puddings years ago and was prevailed upon to compose a full opera in a similar style - vaguely inspired by Stravinsky's Les Noces, which depicts a Russian wedding. Is it any accident that Sokolovic had her biggest success by going deep into ethnic roots?

"Dostoyevsky once said that if you want to be universal, talk to us about your own village," she said by phone from Canada, where she teaches at the University of Montreal.

The a cappella element was conceived partly to ensure portability: "It was a small company that wanted to tour more. And it's much easier to tour without instruments," Sokolovic said. "The reason was to be able to put everything in your suitcase."

But the opera's admirers often remark on the directness of the piece, which is highly compact, with no dialogue or story per se but a series of scenes that run into one another. The seven sections have titles such as "Girlfriends sing," "Coloring hair" and "Dressing" - all with an extra something that the Toronto Globe & Mail critic Colin Eatock attributed to Sokolovic's "theatrical instincts [that] are daring and sure-footed at the same time."

Though the production has surtitles, Sokolovic isn't that concerned about whether audiences take in the words. If she's done her job, all the necessary feelings will be conveyed by the music.

The folk-based musical language - which includes occasional contributions from ocarinas, a glockenspiel, a gong, and assorted rain sticks - is a product of geography. With lots of mountains and not much population in some sections of Serbia, people needed to be heard from long distances, and music in dissonant intervals (such as seconds and sevenths) carries farther.

"That why the church bells in the regions are tuned in seconds," she said.

Finding appropriate texts for the pre-wedding scenario required a field trip to Serbia - "Google could not help me much" - in a piece that ultimately doesn't borrow folk music, but sounds like it could have.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that the opera could be cast with non-Serbian singers who can handle the language and sing while in near-constant motion. Director/choreographer Marie Josee Chartier can now afford to be nonchalant about those challenges. "They [the singers] are game. They're open to it. And that's all you really need," she said one day at rehearsal.

Sokolovic is more effusive: "They're superheroes. I don't know how they memorized it."

The biggest surprise is the vocal quality: How do these Canadian singers manage to sound so Serbian? "It's more of a nasal head sound," Mheadhra says. "They said, OK, we can do that."


Svadba (The Wedding)

7 p.m. Nov. 2-7 at FringeArts, Race Street and Columbus Boulevard.

Tickets: $69

Information: www.operaphila.org or www.fringearts.com


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