Calgary Opera breaks the mould

By McKinley Wiens

Calgary Opera’s new production, What Brought Us Here: A New Community Opera, will attempt to break the mould of traditional operas. A contemporary take on the artform, What Brought Us Here explores the experiences of local Calgarians who have immigrated to Canada.

Clem Martini, an award winning playwright, head of the university’s drama department and the author of Bitter Medicine — this year’s book for the University of Calgary’s Common Reading Program — interviewed people who have immigrated to Calgary and wrote their experiences into the opera.

Martini believes that the opera canon tends to be Eurocentric. Developed in previous centuries, opera typically portrays stories based on traditional European concepts of society. The Calgary Opera wanted to challenge opera’s Eurocentrism by commissioning a contemporary piece that celebrates the diversity of the city.

“They wanted to change the expectations of opera by seeing if they could invite in stories from other cultures,” says Martini.

To do this, Martini set out to interview about 30 Calgarian immigrants from various countries, including Nigeria, Ghana, Vietnam and China. Martini narrowed it down to three stories that he included in the opera.

When deciding which accounts to use in the libretto, Martini looked for stories that would be able to complement each other without being too similar. He also wanted the stories to come from around the world, to show universality.

“There are different levels of selection,” says Martini. “For instance, some of the stories are too similar. Some of them were too separate. All of the stories were really compelling though. Lots of emotion. Lots of adventure.”

In the end, three stories were chosen from Bosnia, Sudan and Iran. Once chosen, they were transformed into the libretto, which is the text for the opera. That’s when Martini began working with composer Arthur Bachmann and stage director Onalea Gilbertson to really put the performances together. Martini described his experiences working with the other members of the opera as a privilege that was both “challenging and fun.” 

When asked what difficulties were present in the conversion of text to opera, Martini says, “You can’t overwrite, because then there is no room for the music to breathe. The music must bring it to a new place. We wanted to take the audience to a new place, and we also wanted to bring in a new audience.” 

What really separates What Brought Us Here from other operas is that it highlights how diverse Calgary is. Martini believes that it is important to reflect the diversity the city represents, and to let the audience know that they are all invited. 

“My favourite part was just the freshness of it,” says Martini. “As an artist you’re always looking for something that takes you to a new place, and exposes you to new things, and this certainly did.”