Leave your preconceived notions at the door because Obeah Opera debunks all notions of what we commonly understand opera to be. Forget highly stylized theatrical sets, ornate costumes, hyper dramatic narratives acted out in larger than life theatrics and those unforgettable arias. Now that you’ve erased all of that from your vocabulary insert: ensemble cast, pared down set and minimal theatrics and oh yeah it’s all a cappella. This last bit of information is actually the most impressive of all. The entire production is set to a background of voices rather than an instrumental score and it is extraordinary and rich and melodic, and different and powerful and hauntingly emotive. But Opera? Where the tipping point is located between being a straight up musical and a bonafide opera, is a question for more learned people than me to answer. What I do know is that I wanted to like this show more than I actually did. On paper Obeah Opera should have had all the hallmarks of a singularly spectacular show but instead I felt as though what it lacked was in fact the very “spectacle” of opera, the grandeur of place and the dramatic sucker-punches that have left audiences talking about the seminal stories of love, betrayal, loss, injustice and tragedy for centuries.
Yet, take note – Obeah Opera is an ambitious project both in its intended narrative scope and in its delivery. Nicole Brooks, librettist and musical arranger has created a textured mélange of harmonies that carry the story through its narrative journey and director Ahdri Zhina Mandiela along with producer Rhoma Spencer and others central to the production have enriched the show with nuance, grace and talent. Unfortunately, I learned more from the programme notes than I did from the actual show. The production’s pacing was a bit monotone save for some intermittent moments where the tension and desperation in the narrative rang authentically through; these moments reverberated down in places where probably only obeah’s healing arts would know. If you are looking for the cloak of secrecy surrounding obeah to be demystified during the show or if those who consider it taboo are searching to be enlightened about its oft misunderstood positive powers, you may have to do your own research. The story itself is based on the Salem Witch hunts but with the twist that the women are accused of practicing obeah. It’s a gender-empowerment story with the accused women eventually finding strength in the unity of their shared persecution. I’m drastically oversimplifying both the historical accounts and horror and paranoia of the Salem Witch hunts as well as the play’s story but a more fulsome understanding of all that can be read in the press material or the programme book or from any number of the historical data. What you can’t get from the programme book is what to expect from the show or how you might feel about it and that in my humble opinion is what I am focusing on, in the first person. My friend who accompanied me commented that he would have liked to have seen some subtitles and though the jury’s still out on that one for me, I do understand the spirit of what he was saying. The ensemble cast which performed for the most part as an ensemble with the exception of several stellar soloists who represented the accused female characters— made it sometimes difficult to follow the narrative or to be as moved as I might have wanted to be. The show had a spiritual feel to it, a ‘wade in the water’ kind of sensibility; the melodies and tone of the vocals conjured up feelings of ancestral connections, a chance to reclaim and re-deem our past.
I appreciate and understand the choice to have an all female cast but some part of me thinks the show might have actually benefited from a male voice: for contrast, to have a disparate voice that would enhance the sense of opposition, of otherness that the women grapple with throughout the show. If you’ve ever been to an opera or a Shakespearean play you will know that there is often a Greek ‘Chorus” who fill in the blanks, strings along parts of the story or reveal inner thoughts that the characters might be having etc. The Obeah Opera chorus played this role beautifully and the soloists did have some stand out moments. I know I wasn’t the only one feeling it as other audience members spontaneously rose to their feet, and clapped appreciatively after one memorably rousing moment towards the end of the show.
I’m conflicted about Obeah Opera and want to judge it on its own merits but my experience with other opera’s cannot be totally eviscerated from my memory. Yes, I could wax post colonial and critique the roots of my own opinion by dissecting it through a lens of cultural imperialism and the inherent difficulties in appreciating or validating our own Black stories. I could deconstruct the polarizing effect of “othering” , question our ability to accept voices of the disenfranchised in other locations, or the insidious hegemony of a dominant culture with its imposing standards of what opera and other “high art” should look, feel and sound like. But I know all this and still have some reservations…..So mea culpa.
And strange enough in this state of conflict I feel more in sync with the show’s character Tituba who admits to being a witch so that she can find freedom and escape from a certain death sentence. Does this make her a “Wise woman or Witch?” the programme notes ask….. go see the show and judge for yourself.
A Traveling Black Chick
Obeah Opera is playing to March 4th see flyer below for further details.