Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Toronto-based baritone Geoffrey Sirett is preoccupied by thoughts of an overcoat. Not due to any lingering winter doldrums but because, 20 years after its debut and sold-out international run, Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling’s award-winning theatrical movement piece The Overcoat is being reimagined as an opera. And Mr Sirett will don the titular overcoat as Akakiy Akakiyevich in the world-premiere production opening in Toronto.
The genesis of this musical production is a bit like a serendipitous blind date at Tapestry Opera’s Composers Librettists Laboratory (or LibLab) in the summer of 2014. “The LibLab pairs composers and librettists together to produce short operatic scenes (or excerpts),” explains Mr Sirett. “Morris Panych and James Rolfe were paired together and decided to create a short scene from the Gogol story. It was clear that there was something special about this excerpt, and the team quickly decided that a full musical adaptation should be undertaken.” It underwent three workshops, and Mr Sirett became involved with the project at the final one.
The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring features an original neoclassical score by Rolfe, a prolific, Juno-nominated composer with 10 operas to his credit and more compositions than can be listed here. This production also reunites the original creative team: playwright-director Panych, who, in addition to writing the libretto, directs this production; Gorling (movement direction); Ken MacDonald (set design); Alan Brodie (lighting design); and Nancy Bryant (costume design). The musical production’s highly-anticipated world premiere is March 29 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, followed by the Vancouver premiere on April 28 at the Vancouver Playhouse, as part of the Vancouver Opera Festival, where it will be conducted by Vancouver Opera Resident Conductor, Leslie Dala.
The source story “The Overcoat”, by 19th Century Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol, has enjoyed multiple interpretations since its publication in 1842. It relates the tale of ill-fated government clerk Akakiy Akakiyevich, whose hard work is underappreciated by his colleagues. They taunt him, often targeting his worn coat as the butt of their jeers. In his desire for peer acceptance and belonging, Akakiyevich orders a tailor-made overcoat beyond his means, creating the social sensation that he hoped for. Though his star rises by association, his popularity is short-lived . . . because he loses his coat.
Though the story is almost two hundred years old, the theme of our universal need for social acceptance, compassion and inclusion still rings true. Designers and brand names prey on such rampant insecurity, so contemporary audiences will find it immediately relatable. “Pardon the Madonna reference,” Mr Sirett smiles, “but we are living in a material world, even beyond that of Gogol’s time.” The story’s protagonist becomes consumed by the fantasy that a coat will change his life. “We can all relate to this theme: ‘If I only I had that, everything would be better.’ The great ‘if’s’ of life can be the source of our imagination and inspiration, but also our obsessions and demise. Perhaps that makes this piece more relevant than ever.”
Given that this is a brand-new – and inventive – production, Mr Sirett is excited by the simple prospect of sharing it with live audiences: “I am proud of the work, honoured to be a part of it,” he beams, “and I hope that audiences will love it as much as I do.” Panych has described this reimagining as different from conventional opera, musical theatre and spoken theatre, but with elements of each put together in an innovative way. “It is true,” Mr Sirett nods, “this work straddles the territory of many styles, creating its own unique theatrical form. In addition to singing, the role requires a fair bit of stylized movement, choreography, and a level of dramatic work that I didn’t have a lot of experience with.”
While Mr Sirett describes this as a challenge, there is no doubt about his ability to interweave the necessary skills. His early music education began under the tutelage of his father in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Kingston has a strong choral tradition, and his father is a prominent figure in Canadian choral music. “Singing has always been an important part of my life,” Mr Sirett acknowledges. “I’m not sure how opera really came about. I don’t remember choosing it, so I suppose it chose me. And as I continued my training as a soloist, it became an inevitable fit.” That fit resulted in a Master’s degree in music from the University of Toronto’s Opera Division, followed by a thriving career performing in operas, in recitals, and with symphonies across North America. This season, he made his debut on the Four Seasons Centre stage in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Arabella in the role of Welko and the role of Captain Corcoran in the Edmonton Opera’s H.M.S Pinafore. He has also released his first solo album, a collaboration with pianist Stephen Ralls devoted to the works of Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, and Britten; as well as Canadian composers Ivan Barbotin and Jocelyn Morlock. Finally, he has married this passion for art to his environmental activism, as co-producer at The Bicycle Opera Project, a cycle-touring opera company that has introduced Canadian audiences to contemporary Canadian opera since 2012.
For now, his overcoat awaits him for a lengthy show run. Its “fit” is just fine: both the challenges that accompany the performance of this new work and the simultaneous “great opportunities”: “With traditional opera works, you have the advantage of decades (or centuries!) of traditions and precedents, dramatically and vocally, that you have a responsibility to uphold. New works, by their nature, have no precedent; so you have more creative freedom to explore and create something unique.” With the honour of premiering the role of Akakiy, he will be the one to set the precedent – a prospect that is at once “daunting” and “inspiring”.
Asked for any final thoughts, he demurs. Instead, he offers a simple, warm invitation to experience The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring. “There is something for everyone in this show,” he points out. “If you have $35-$99 to spend on a fantastic, fun, and unique experience, I encourage you to see this show!”
So though warmer temperatures are imminent, Mr Sirett will be keeping his overcoat on. This “musical tailoring”, it seems, has him dressed for success.
News You Can Use
What: The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring by Morris Panych and James Rolfe; co-produced by Tapestry Opera, and Canadian Stage; commissioned by Tapestry Opera and Vancouver Opera
When and Where: March 29 – April 14, 2018: Bluma Appel Theatre, 27 Front Street East, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets (Toronto): CanadianStage.com and 416.368.3110
When and Where (Vancouver): April 28-29; May 2, 4-6 & 9-12: Vancouver Playhouse, 600 Hamilton St, Vancouver, BC
Info and Tickets: VancouverOpera.ca and (604) 665-3050
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya