The US premiere of chamber opera ‘When the Sun Comes Out’ finally hits the Portland Opera studio stage
Composer Leslie Uyeda was amazed when she realized there had never been an openly lesbian opera: “Two women falling in love,” as she put it succinctly.” She decided to write some one, and to make it one where women don’t die, that other opera trope. premiered in Canada at the Queer Arts Festival Vancouver.
The plot is very Handmaid’s Tale: same-sex relationships are punishable by death in the fictional country of Fundamentalia. When straight-looking Lilah reconnects with rebellious drifter Solana, love becomes a matter of life and death. Solana is labeled as a “gender outlaw,” so there’s more to this story than star-crossed lovers. There are pronouns to consider. If that sounds ordinary in Portland in 2022, it was a little more edgy in Canada in 2014.
“It was before one of the great social movements that started in the United States, Black Lives Matter, #Metoo, and then unfortunately Orlando came along. So the piece is, like some of my colleagues from Portland the said, more than relevant now, which is kind of a sad statement.” Add Lilah’s wealthy husband, Javan, to the mix – he’s damn angry – and you have a cocktail of authoritarianism, toxic patriarchy, misogyny, gender role fluidity and romantic heartache, which must be good for any opera.
Oh, and man Javan has a big secret….
“Sorry, I don’t think I’m going to reveal it,” the composer says on a call from Vancouver.
It is a chamber opera, which means that it uses only a few voices and instruments.
“Chamber Opera, as opposed to Grand Opera, is an opera with all the same elements, dilemmas, issues and twists, but on a much smaller scale,” she explains. (It is performed in the studio theater of the Portland Opera.) Uyeda has written for violin, cello, flute, clarinet and piano. The Portland version uses dancers from the Shaun Keylock Company of Portland and has original costumes by Christine A. Richardson.
It’s hard music – you won’t hum like Barbra Streisand’s song. And if you’re used to doing your cultural homework on Spotify and YouTube, there’s not much there. There is a YouTube of Teiya Kasahara (they/them) a Nikkei-Canadian, queer, non-binary trans, multi and interdisciplinary creator/performer, opera singer and teacher, who has sung Solana in Vancouver and Toronto. You can hear Kasahara sing Solana’s Song, and the great love duet between Solana and Lilah is available on SoundCloud.
Uyeda enjoys writing for singers and her first love in music is opera. She has worked in opera as a conductor, choirmaster, pianist, rehearsalist and musical dramaturge. She says she was already out before 2011, when she started working on “When the Sun Comes Out,” but that was her coming out in her favorite art form.
The Vancouver Queer Arts Festival was then a presentation company (it engaged fully constituted productions) rather than a production company. The budget, which came from grants, was modest. “So I could have a total of five instrumentalists and three singers.” She says chamber operas are popular because they use fewer resources and smaller companies can be artistically bold. The two main female characters receive long opening monologues. Solana’s song is 15 minutes long.
“Librettist Rachel Rose and I had to start working on the piece before we really knew whether it would go ahead or not, which is always a bit hair-raising. At the very beginning, we thought there might be a chorus, but when the budget came around, we thought, okay, there won’t be a chorus. Turns out, we didn’t need one anyway.
Portland Opera’s is a brand new production, from concept to conductor to singers. “I’m really glad I’m not conducting there. It’s going to be fun for me to go there just to be the songwriter. As soon as I put my performer hat on, the focus changes for me.”
Uyeda will be in Portland for a week. She never came here. First stop, Powell’ Books. Canadians in the Pacific Northwest have struggled with the pandemic. Non-essential travel across the border did not resume until November 2021. She returns home after opening night, as does director Alison Moritz. Then it’s all in the hands of locals and conductor Maria Sensi Sellner. All leadership positions at the Portland Opera are now held by women. Sue Dixon, Chief Executive, said: “We can’t forget that it’s only been six years since same-sex marriage was legalized here in our own country. At a time when nearly 70 countries around the world still criminalize LGBTQA people, the story of this work continues to be incredibly relevant.”
“When the Sun Comes Out” from the Portland Opera
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. on January 28 and 30 (morning at 2 p.m.), February 3, 5, 10 and 12.
Sung in English with English subtitles. 90 minutes.
OR: Gregory K. and Mary Chomenko Hinckley Studio Theater at Hampton Opera Center. Digital access available from February 25.
Proof of full COVID vaccination or negative PCR test results required.
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