In the ambient cocktail lighting of the Fox Cabaret, we were contemplating the features of a good show over palomas on a Tuesday evening.
Where were you last Tuesday, if not at re:Naissance Opera’s IndieArtist Cabaret? At your real job that isn't arts reporting? Boooo.
The event was a showcase of home-grown projects in development from artists across the city — just one component of the 10-day long IndieFest currently in progress.
“It's called ‘the opera festival,’ but [the performances are] certainly different,” said UBC Opera alum and composer Roan Shankaruk. “There's a lot of very current relevant themes throughout all the different shows.”
One of these projects in the works is a libretto by Shankaruk, starkly titled “U-29.”
As a young composer who has already racked up her fair share of credits, Shankaruk is used to working alone, but having collaborators with their own areas of expertise brings fresh ideas to the table — this time with the help of fellow UBC Opera alum and singer Taryn Plater and pianist Perri Lo.
The opera is based on a short story by 20th century American writer H. P. Lovecraft, who had been inspired by a Dionysus-style Greek myth.
Shankaruk said she looked to literature to prepare a story that is hauntingly adjacent to real life.
“I wanted it to be very grounded in realism because that appeals to me. I think it's more interesting sometimes to be constrained a bit by realism. Then you have to be more creative.”
Make that 20th century realism for the modern age, because what is most impressive technically about the piece is that anyone can sing it.
"We wanted to remove gender as an element because it's truly not material to the story [we're] actually telling," said Plater. "We can also open it up to different voices and different artists, and find the people who are best for telling the story, regardless of gender expression."
The program kicked off with Forrest Mortifee’s performance of original work “Channel Like Water” in musical collaboration with Madeleine Elkins. Mortifee’s storytelling was immersed in West Coast Cali rolling guitar, layered atop angelic synthetic vocals, to shelter us from the storm outside.
As Mortifee’s voice faded to silence, they slowly backed away from the microphone, face frozen in a haunting smile, and arms raised and outstretched. They stopped in the centre of stage, ending the act by bringing their palms together as if in prayer.
While we were still trying to dissect what this meant, Rachel Ruecker’s standup comedy act persuaded us instead into considering that “it’s not that deep.” Dressed in Christian camp counselor core (her words, not ours — we’re all for gingham and chunky knits), Ruecker’s excerpt from a larger project was a nostalgic walk down memory lane that invited jokes to smother traumas.
“If my dad’s a punchline, it’s easier to forget that he’s gone,” was Ruecker’s jab at her daddy issues. Somehow, through it all, she believes in magic.
June Fukumura also wanted to make the audience laugh, but with an adroit satirical twist. She had us persuaded with her experimental theater excerpt “Gloria Fukomachi’s Keynote Address,” a “buffoon-inspired” dark comedy call to hyper-left rhetoric.
Fukumura’s character pitched a new internship program — “AZN PERSUAZN” — to all the “beautiful, white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, neurotypical, middle class, college educated, Euro-descendant” allies in attendance. She looked out into the crowd.
“Hey, you. Yeah, you — the AZN one,” Fukumura said as her eyes narrowed in on an audience member seated towards stage left. “I'm talking to you. Nice septum piercing. A little spectrummy? I thought so.” She grinned. “Well, this is your lucky day. Because we're looking for a candidate just like you.”
Next was a moving storytelling fugue wrapped in Spanish guitars and Canadian hardship. “Agridulce Bittersweet,” Carolina Silva’s original compositions with English and Spanish lyrics, considers migration and Queer identity. Performers Marco Esscer and Carla Alcántara translate the emotions that come with these experiences into stunning movement — using suitcases as props, they frantically dash across the stage and lift the cases into the air.
“My heart is created in a language that I can barely speak — but I can sing it,” Esscer proclaimed.
The No Sweet Carolines — a duelling piano duo consisting of D’arcy Han and Kristin Fung — took over from there with a fun early 2000s pop medley.
Then Plater welcomed the audience onboard U-29 on its “ill fated journey.”
She sang about a man who was found dead on the side of a sinking frater, pallid and still gripping to the side of the vessel. Dolphins circled the boat as if it was slain prey, as it gurgled, down, down, “like liquid lead in champagne.”
“Dying is hard work [in] a submarine,” the captain quavered. “The devil likes to keep you dangling.”
To end the night, Mermaid Li, Katria Phothong-Mckinnon and Shelby Tan staged a waacking battle — a style of dance that originated from Los Angeles gay clubs in the 1970s.
Artists rarely have the freedom to showcase work that is unfinished — typically everything must be polished, coherent and thoroughly rehearsed. This night proved that sometimes it’s important to break away from this mentality and find chances to play and experiment, because art always has the potential to be entertaining, even if it’s still a work in progress.