Montreal is always ready to take a traditional genre of entertainment and reinvent it. Opera gets the Montreal treatment with Notre Damn, an original show by new company Opéra FOE (Free Opera Ensemble). Rachel Burman and the company are raising money right now on Kickstarter. Whether the campaign succeeds or fails, this show is happening. I spoke to artistic director and writer/composer Rachel Burman about what makes Notre Damn so unique in the world of opera. Burman explains that the opera has a backstory that takes place in an imagined land. “A group of nuns who left Victorian England in the 19th century founded a mission in a far-off land,” she says. “They abandon their religious vocation in favor of radical liberty. They eventually have children and these children live in the imaginary tropical land. A sense of religiosity remains but some of the children are refusing it totally.” The opera focuses on three characters of these later generations and the struggles they have.
“Many of the songs are about how these women deal with this kind of mini society that was put in place by their ancestors,” Burman explains. “There’s one woman who is incredibly attracted by the outside world, and her sexuality comes out in that. Another one is very lonely for a father figure. Men have been excluded from this society. There are questions of maternity and motherhood.” Unlike a plot driven opera, “the audience will not be able to follow it like a story,” Burman explains. “It’s a world that we’re building and we are trying to depict the emotional world of the characters.” Opera FOE. Notre Damn. Photo © Rolline Laporte Burman and the company wanted to get away from the traditional theatrical opera. Instead, they focus on the concept of gesture. “I call it the choreography of gesture. It’s inspired by contemporary dance,” Burman says. However, Burman says the singers aren’t dancers, but they are using “a more dreamlike, emotional, visceral way of communicating inspired by contemporary dance.” Burman opted to go with kickstarter because of its popularity. In addition to being surprised by the generosity of others, she discovered that the platform gave the newly established company a public boost. “The company is really new. We really don’t have a public profile yet. This is our first big production,” she explains. “While the performers have established reputations and careers, Kickstarter is a good way to get company known.” In fact the funding raised by Kickstarter only represents a small part of the overall budget. The rest will come from ticket sales and hopefully some government grants. The amount that comes in will determine the size of the budget available to the production. “Whatever happens it will go on,” says Burman. “We’re all committed.”
Burman’s overall goal with the company is to produce opera and bring it “to a different place.” “We’re working with different techniques and the choreography is very important,” she says. “It’s going to produce a totally different aesthetic from what opera usually is. I don’t mean to say that nobody is doing anything like this, but I think I am suggesting an alternative way of using these incredible operatic voices.” The music and lyrics were written by Burman herself, while the choreography is getting a boost from Sarah Williams. The music is composed for cello and a unique set of instruments created by Andre Pappathomas. Unlike traditional operas, the show makes use of the loop pedal in particular. “It’s pretty common in pop music, but for this kind of music it’s unusual,” she says. “It gives me a more orchestral sound, so it sound like there’s more than one cello playing at a time. There’s a musical range that I didn’t have before.” As for Pappathomas, who has pitched in with stage direction, he brings invented instruments. “They have this whole otherworldly sound,” Burman says. For the last ten years, Burman worked on Pappathomas’ projects. “Now we’re switching roles, so it’s fun,” she says. “He’s a huge musical inspiration.”
The Kickstarter campaign for Notre Damn can be found HERE. It ends on June 24. Notre Damn will play at Theatre La Chapelle From September 30 to October 4.