Into the Little Hill runs May 19 and 20 at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. (photo by Flick Harrison)
“Into the Little Hill is a powerfully emotional opera,” soprano Heather Pawsey told the Independent.
Pawsey is the artistic director of Astrolabe Musik Theatre, which, with Simon Fraser University Woodward’s Cultural Programs, is presenting the opera’s Canadian première May 19-20. A multidisciplinary, modern take on the medieval story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, Into the Hill features two singers, three dancers and live music. Written by English composer George Benjamin with libretto by Martin Crimp, Jewish community member Idan Cohen of Ne.Sans Opera and Dance is the local production’s director and choreographer.
“From the moment I first heard Into the Little Hill, I knew I had to have dancers in the production,” said Pawsey. “My company, Astrolabe Musik Theatre, has been experimenting with dance and movement in classical music, in varying degrees, for over 10 years now. Dance and movement are such normal, natural, innately human ways of expression, yet we see it so rarely in opera and classical music.”
When she heard Into the Little Hill, she said, “I literally saw the dancers in my mind … and knew that this was the perfect opera to intentionally incorporate them as amplifications of the characters, as commentators on the story, and as true partners with the singers (who are also precisely choreographed).”
After that, she was just “waiting for the perfect person with whom to work.” And she found that person in Cohen – his company, Ne.Sans, exists to reimagine and reconnect opera and dance.
“When Idan and I met in Amsterdam in 2018 on an opera I was singing and he was directing, I knew at the first rehearsal that he was the person I’d been waiting for: someone who knows music, who knows dance, who can work with professional dance artists and with singers who may have little or no dance training, and whose knowledge and experience come together in a profound understanding of the possibilities of singing and dance.”
“We’ve connected on so many levels,” said Cohen of Pawsey, who introduced him to Into the Little Hill. “Since then,” he said, “we’ve enjoyed many long conversations about this wonderful opera that is so close to both our hearts. I am so excited to finally be able to share our version of this brilliant work.”
“As far as I know,” said Pawsey, “l’Opéra de Montréal is the only other company in Canada to have produced one of George Benjamin’s operas (Written on Skin, his second). In 2014, I watched Written on Skin on MediciTV and literally got goosebumps. Singing contemporary music is a huge part of my career, yet I had never heard of this composer nor heard music anything like his: crystalline, precise, profound, spare, yet filled with emotion, colour, shadow, passion and power. I looked him up immediately and discovered that Into the Little Hill was (at that time) the only other opera he’d written…. I knew then that I had to produce (and sing!) it; that it would have dancers; and, voilà! A decade later, here we are. This opera speaks so profoundly against ‘othering.’ I know that people will come away having experienced something powerful, intense and beautiful.”
Pawsey and mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson sing all six of the opera’s characters.
“One of the things I love the most about Into the Little Hill is its exquisite precision,” said Pawsey. “Vocally, orchestrally, dramatically, dramaturgically there are no extraneous notes, no extraneous words, and the power of this concentration is intensified by having only two singers portray all the roles. We aren’t distracted by multiple singers coming on and off the stage, nor by the differing ranges and timbres of their voices – we have focus.
“We also have gender-neutrality, something that is difficult to achieve in traditional opera, where characters’ genders have historically been determined by voice-type (ie. tenor, soprano, etc.). Having only two singers sing all the roles makes gender, sexual orientation or how one presents to the world irrelevant, and leaves the make-up of the characters to each individual audience member’s imagination. As an artist, it frees me from having to imagine or recreate assumptions about how ‘men’ or ‘women’ move, behave and speak (sing), and allows me to enter fully into what that character is actually expressing. My hope is that this also helps audiences to identify more freely with the characters.”
The opera speaks to Cohen on many levels.
“As a queer artist, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, coming to Canada from Israel/Palestine, I have always valued the importance of raising voices of underserved communities and to acknowledge our troubled past, learn from it, and aspire to do better,” he said. “I chose to leave my country in search of a better future and, as I arrived in Canada in 2017, I was amazed to find how relevant the history of Canada is to my own, from multiple angles, both as the oppressed and the oppressor, often against my will.
“My work is embedded in this life experience and perspective, and I am passionate in telling classical stories through alternative lens,” he continued. “Into the Little Hill is such a powerful opera that speaks of the human condition in a very creative way. There are different ways to speak of the tragic history of Western culture, and one of the reasons I chose to be an artist is because I see the importance of speaking of the violence and hurt, and to fight against discrimination.
“This opera is such a great, complex example of the fact that there is no one source of harm, and not one source of knowledge and perspective,” he said.
Critics have generally lauded Into the Little Hill, though some have expressed concern over the way in which the story is told.
“The narrative style of this opera imposes a certain detachment or distancing,” Pawsey said. “Traditionally, opera is all about emotion – big, huge, dare I say OPERATIC emotion! Here, Martin Crimp’s libretto uses Brechtian techniques (such as the Narrator directly addressing the audience, breaking the fourth wall, etc.) to discourage the audience from becoming too emotionally involved. Brecht used these techniques to encourage a deeper focus on the socially significant aspects of the story. This is particularly relevant in this opera’s tale of ‘who are we labeling as the “rats” in our society, what are we willing to do to get rid of them and what happens when we refuse to “pay the piper,” ie. take responsibility for the consequences of our actions?’
“Detachment, distancing – this is what we, as humans, do when we label, when we ‘other,’ when we divide into ‘us’ and ‘them.’ It’s a part of the de-humanizing process, which allows us to plan or to undertake horrific acts. But this is not to say that audiences will feel emotionless at the end of Into the Little Hill,” she stressed. “Fascinatingly, the muting of emotion evoked for individual characters and their stories makes us feel even more deeply and keenly the emotion of the story overall and how its outcome affects all the characters – and, by extension, us.”
Into the Little Hill takes place at SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. Conductor Leslie Dala is music director for the production, whose orchestration includes bass flute, basset horns, mandolin and banjo. Lighting design is by Victoria Bell, with costume design by Elena Razlog. The dancers are Juolin Lee, Daria Mikhalyluk and Hana Rutka.
For tickets and more information, visit littlehill.eventbrite.ca.