Much of John Oliver's new opera, Alternate Visions, takes place in cyberspace–and that's how it will make its Vancouver debut too, thanks to the wonders of digital technology. The local composer's collaboration with librettist Genni Gunn was commissioned by Montreal's Chants Libres company, which is staging the work in that city's Usine C performance space. But in an innovative example of cross-country programming, the producers have also arranged for a live simulcast of the final show to be screened at the Western Front at 5 p.m. on Saturday (May 5).
Initially, the event was to include live musical "commentary" from Vancouver improvisers; now that's not going to happen. As well, the Montreal production's 3-D computer graphics, multiple TV monitors, and immersive performance environment will be compressed into the 2-D world of a single cinema-style screen. However, on the line from Montreal, Oliver promises that Alternate Visions will still offer a radical take on operatic conventions–and a story of lasting human impact.
"The whole concept is about trying to find yourself in this society," he says. "It's all about identity, what identifies you as a person. And so what I wanted to do was create a piece that's about our culture and about our collective memory–all those things that are in our heads about, say, music."
Gunn's text looks at a couple of typical urban sophisticates. Richard and Valérie (played by Rinde Eckert and Jacinthe Thibault, respectively) have been flirting on-line, and they're both comfortable in the virtual realm. But eventually there comes a time when they're hungry for physical interaction, and so they arrange to meet. That's the plan, anyway, but there are complications. To avoid giving away too much, let's just say that while technologies have advanced since William Shakespeare's time, the mistaken-identity capers of Elizabethan theatre still have a place on the modern-day stage.
Oliver also plays with some relatively conventional forms: Alternate Visions opens, for example, with Valérie singing a blues song in a high-tech karaoke bar. But as written for the Bradyworks ensemble of electric guitar, electric bass, two saxophones, and two keyboards, this funky number is just a little bit unsettling; right away, things are not quite what they seem.
"I wasn't auditioning for any of the styles that I was throwing out," says the composer, laughing. "So the score goes from one style of music to the next in a way that's just very, very fluid. It reflects our culture of switching the channel or putting on a different CD or having random shuffle on your iPod–it's a continuous morphing of styles to bring the story forward. And on top of that I also take the sound of the band and morph that or treat it in such a way that it also takes on a different life."
All told, Alternate Visions sounds like it will be an effectively kaleidoscopic look at life and love in the digital age. But what if the Western Front simulcast only whets our appetite for the full production? Will Oliver's new opera ever find a stage in its creator's hometown?
"We'd love that to happen," he says, noting that Vancouver Opera general director James Wright has been invited to the Montreal premiere. "What it needs is the will in Vancouver to do that–and, of course, a sponsoring organization."