Bringing the snake pit to the opera

I’m in Canada, about to begin rehearsals for the first chamber opera by Matthew Ricketts, No Masque for Good Measure. The opera has been commissioned by Cluster New Music and Integrated Arts Festival, where I’m a Resident Artist this year. At around an hour of continuous music, this is the most substantial of my three festival appearances, and there’s a lot of production liaison as I’m devising and directing the staged components as well as conducting. We’ll be performing it in the Eckhardt Hall of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, which I viewed today with my production team.

The opera is written to a text by Lauren Rogener, a writer and scholar based in New York. It’s a story of three drag queens and their costumier, a typically complex opera plot with a love triangle at its centre. Consistent with drag culture, the names and genders of the three queens are continually interchanged. A large part of the opera finds them in rehearsal for a drag show, so to add to the confusion, they often play characters within their characters, and jump between those characters in turn. The show they’re rehearsing is a masque, built on a sequence of Shakespeare’s dirty double entendres. Classic drag banter is fed through the weird and wonderful filter of historical language, the strangeness of the masque made even more so by the characters unravelling within it. Stranger yet, the opera ends before the masque and its accompanying scandal are even performed.

The costumier, or as he’s called in the score, Wardrobe Mist(e)r/ess, is a character with supernatural and sinister qualities. He appears in different forms and at different levels of consciousness to serve his own agenda. He’s the most developed and powerful of the four characters, and his manipulation brings the downfall of his lover, one of the queens. In my interpretation, the most important of the costumier’s guises is as a serpent in the central dream scene of Act 2. My research has led me to footage of the Narcisse Snake Pit in the nearby town of Narcisse, Manitoba. Beyond being a genuinely disturbing visual phenomenon, I’m particularly taken with the link to Narcissus, and the idea of self-reflection in a writhing snake mass. This scene is the turning point of the opera, when the seed for revenge is planted. I’m definitely planning to incorporate the Narcisse pits into my staging.

Over the next two weeks, these four colourful characters who have filled my mind for months will come alive for the first time. I’ll be posting rehearsal clips and production images as we get closer to our performance on 9 March. Ticketing info is available at the festival website.

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