Musician, composer, and singer Allison Cociani’s apartment, a laneway house off of Commercial Drive, is just about bursting at the seams. Piles of costumes, music stands, instruments, and assorted footwear are spread out across a skateboard ramp that takes up most of the floor.
Seating is limited–and nothing is what it seems. An ornate park bench might look like a comfortable spot, but upon closer inspection, the handwritten sign taped across it reads, “Please do not sit! This is a prop for my opera.”
Cociani is in the final stage of rehearsals for Alma, an original opera she’s taken three years to write.
Set to play Vancouver’s Metro theatre from June 22 to 25, Alma brings together five singers, five dancers, and twelve orchestra players in a sci-fi-fantasy saga that melds elements of ballet, burlesque, and English-language opera.
It wasn’t easy getting to this point. As is the case with many of history’s great artistic works, the story behind Cociani’s first original opera is one of personal tragedy.
“It started with my father passing away,” Cociani told the Straight at her East Vancouver home. “It was horrible. I was really destroyed over it. I needed to do something to take that away. It was always something I wanted to do, write an opera, so I decided to do it.”
She started with a piano and vocal score. Then, when she was trying to come up with a story for the music, she came across a handwritten fairy-tale she had written for her nieces, about a young woman with the supernatural ability to glow who is kidnapped by people who want to mine her power.
“I found it a few years later and it was just crayon on paper. And I was like ‘Oh, that’s it, that’s the story,’” says Cociani.
Cociani, a trained pianist who studied in the Royal Conservatory system as a young adult, is self-taught in composition. She decided to orchestrate her piece, and sought the help of composer Roger Leon Parton to help her with the piano score, and musical director Ian Dives to help edit the orchestration.
Despite help from heavyweights in the opera world, Cociani had doubts that anyone would be willing to take a chance on an opera written by an unknown composer. So she took matters into her own hands and started her own production company, East Van Opera. Through word of mouth, a cast and crew of about 30 people have been assembled to put on East Van Opera’s inaugural performance, with Cociani in the starring role as Alma.
While the story has its roots as a children’s fairy tale, Cociani cautions that because of the burlesque elements, the show’s child-friendly rating depends on the parents. But the story is for everyone, and East Van Opera is hoping to bring opera fans and newcomers of all ages out to the theatre.
“People who are new to opera, people who are into burlesque and like the idea of combining the two, people who are into ballet, straight up opera fans–I think we have a lot to offer,” says Cociani. “So it could be for anyone depending on your comfort levels with a bit of female semi-nudity.”
The burlesque routine makes up just one scene of the show–though a climactic one. The rest of the production promises anthropomorphic dancers, magic powers, a modern, melodic score, and a lot of glow-in-the-dark body paint.
The team has been rehearsing wherever it can find space, from East Vancouver to Burnaby and back.
Even though the production has been largely self-financed, Cociani has committed to compensating participants.
“I want everyone to get money,” she says. “I’ve been in performances when you don’t get anything and it’s fine, but it’s also nice to be appreciated. I want to start that from the beginning.”
The decision to root the company in East Vancouver seemed natural to the life-long resident. Cociani sees many of the company’s values reflected from the neighbourhood.
“We just do what we can,” says Cociani. “We’re putting on an opera, which is a crazy huge feat, we’re doing it with what we have, we’re very open-minded. The heart of East Van is the heart of our company: we’re not snooty, don’t have noses in the air, we just want to make new music, that’s our goal.”
Another one of East Van Opera’s mission statements is to produce new music from female composers.
As a lyric coloratura, Cociani has played her fair share of roles that failed to inspire her. She felt a compulsion to write a character who defies the old tropes.
“I always have to play the role of the love-struck young lady who’s silly and flouncy, and it’s a little tiresome,” says Cociani. “That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to write my own music and write my own part, because I want a strong female character with that voice type doing amazing things. I put a lot strength into that character and a lot of myself into it, and I think we need that.”
Cociani has dreams to eventually tour the production to interior B.C., Eastern Canada, and of course, Italy. But right now, the goal is to fill the seats of the Metro theatre, and put on a great show.
Spreading the word to audiences can be challenging–East Van Opera has started a GoFundMe in the last few weeks before the premiere to help advertise the show. But Cociani is confident that it’s possible to get a community excited about opera in 2017.
“I think if you tell a story the right way and if you do something that’s current, and do something that’s different, you can have that effect,” says Cociani. “I’ve sung for people who have never experienced opera before, and they generally love it. They just need to know that it’s there.”
Tickets, showtimes, and more information on East Van Opera can be found here.