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On Friday night at the Ernest Balmer Studio in the Distillery District, FAWN Opera premiered excerpts of Adam Scime’s L’Homme et le Ciel, which has been intensively developed overly a one-week workshop. The venue, sponsored by Tapestry New Opera Works, accommodated a standing-room-only audience for this electro-acoustic chamber opera.

The music in Scime’s L’Homme et le Ciel features use of electronics alongside a chamber ensemble of piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet, and percussion and extended techniques. The text draws on the text from a 2nd century early-Christian myth entitled “The Shepherd of Hermas”, which was suggested by his friend Ian Koiter, who is currently a doctoral candidate studying early Christianity.

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According to the program notes, the tale was popular among Christian communities during the second and third century. A Roman slave named Hermas is the central figure of the text. A pious and righteous man, his master is a beautiful woman named Rhoda, who begins to plague him in dream-like visions, and cause him to fear that he is developing impure thoughts.

Hermas’ struggle is one that all of us can relate to on some level. The desire to do the right thing is constantly tempered by the urges and impulses that demand satisfaction regardless of consequences. The combination of electronic sounds and a chamber ensemble employing extended performance techniques to create unusual sounds was an equally delicate balancing act that achieved moments of great effects.

Smith characterizes Hermas’s experience as an “aggressive internal struggle” that leads up to a catharsis that is “almost like a psychotic break” as he recognizes the inevitable truths about himself and the world. The stage direction is still being developed, but echoes the eerie beauty in Scime’s music.

While I would describe most of what I heard as eerie and foreboding, there are distinctive musical ideas and phrases that were recognizable throughout. Even the more tonal sections contained unusual elements that offered audiences a reflective turn.

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Amanda Smith, founding artistic director of FAWN New Music and New Opera Collective, has a vision to produce new musical works that intersect other artistic disciplines that have distinct followings of their own.

Developing audiences and making new music accessible is at the top of mind for everyone at FAWN, but they are also actively experimenting with the musical elements and connecting with audiences who are creative types at heart, and open to hearing new music for the very first time.

These audiences are not regulars in Toronto’s vibrant new music circuit, and FAWN’s musical and operatic offerings are not only drawing new patrons into the new music scene, they are also introducing new music into other artistic contexts.

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This performance featured baritone Giovanni Maria Spanu as Hermas, soprano Larissa Koniuk (artistic director of Bicycle Opera) as Rhoda, and soprano Adanya Dunn (also FAWN’s producer) as a heavenly vision. Most of the opera was sung from memory, an impressive show of commitment to do justice to Scime’s piece after only a few day’s rehearsal.

Music Director Patrick Murray performed piano reduction of parts of the score and conducted the talented members of the Thin Edge New Music Collective featuring co-artistic directors Cheryl Duvall and Ilana Waniuk on piano and violin respectively, Terry Lim on flute and piccolo, Anthony Thompson on clarinet and bass clarinet, Andrew Ascenzo on cello, and Eric Woolston on percussion.

This is the second and most ambitious operatic project FAWN has taken on to date, and we will have a chance to see the fully developed opera as part of the Open Ears festival in Waterloo this June.

If you’re curious about FAWN, don’t miss the third installment of their series of multi-disciplinary events featuring artistic themes that have relevance to their operatic work. “Synesthesia III: Music and Film” on May 3 will feature new works by Toronto composers performed live during the screening of new Canadian short films, produced in partnership with The Seventh Art Film Magazine.

More details coming soon on their website and BeMused Network.