Canadian opera lovers, especially those of Ukrainian background, are about to get treated to something truly special: a new opera based on a real contemporary issue. Moreover, the opera’s first act is sung in Ukrainian. For their opera, Oksana G., San Francisco-based and Canadian-born composer Aaron Gervais and Canadian playwright Colleen Murphy picked the theme of sex trafficking, the industry that has wreaked havoc on so many Ukrainian women’s lives.
And who could better personify a Ukrainian girl, who finds herself in the deadly midst of this industry, than a Ukrainian who herself witnessed the problem unfold in her home country in the 1990s. Ukrainian-born soprano Natalya Gennadi’s name even bears resemblance to the main character’s name. Although, as all the newcomers from Ukraine would know, Natalya’s stage surname is actually her abridged patronymic name (Gennadiivna), which was recorded as her “second” name by the immigration officer at the point of entry to Canada, but we digress.
Natalya said that she feels connection to Oksana G.: “I’m just about 4-5 years younger than Oksana would be. Plus, I know what life was like in Ukraine in the 90s, and the opera is surprisingly accurate and very realistic. Oksana is very close to me – she’s a nice girl, has a family who cares about her, she wants to go to university. And then a guy comes in and promises her a summer job in Romania. She goes with him because she just wants some money – we had no money back then. And we all heard stories about women who would go to, for example, Cyprus or Romania, and never come back.”
Natalya likes this role because “it is so human, Oksana is not one-dimensional, she has lots of colours to herself.” Natalya spoke about her character very passionately: “Oksana cares about her friends, she loves her family, and she hates this pervert who is tormenting her. He’s obsessed with her, he’s sick. But she’s so resistant and she keeps fighting.” Well, this is indeed a departure from the many “tragic female” roles in opera.
We noted that Oksana G. bears similarities with La traviata. Natalya made an interesting parallel: “After you watch Oksana G., you may start looking differently at La traviata, which may lose its glamour. You may start thinking, how did Violetta start, what was her history? Oksana G. shows you the real life, the reality of sex trafficking, all the ugliness of it.”
Natalya Gennadi is a young and aspiring lyrics soprano who came to Canada 11 years ago from Crimea, Ukraine. She studied at the University of Ottawa and finished graduate school at the University of Toronto three years ago. Natalya loves Mozart and sang the Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro last year. Currently, she is hoping to place her first operatic engagement soon and was recently accepted in the Ukrainian Art Song Project lead by Pavlo Hunka. Natalya also sings with the Toronto-based Vesnivka choir. Last Christmas, she featured in Vesnivka’s Christmas concert. She said, “I’m still discovering where my voice is taking me, I think that Oksana G. is very comfortable for me. My dream role would be anything Puccini.”
Colleen Murphy wrote the libretto for Oksana G. in English and then invited several experts who worked with her on translations. “It really sounds like Ukrainian, it’s not google-translated, it’s very well done,” said Natalya. Oksana G. promises to sound even more realistic considering that “The characters speak Ukrainian and then the villain guy comes in, and he speaks Russian. He’s Georgian and it’s very real, like a good movie.” Just another reason to see this novel opera which boldly takes on traditional operatic conventions. With
Oksana G., Tapestry Opera confirms its reputation as the country’s leading developer of new Canadian operas.
Creative Team and Cast: Written by composer Aaron Gervais and playwright Colleen Murphy. Directed by Tom Diamond (Iron Road, The Shadow) and music directed by Jordan de Souza (M’dea Undone, Rocking Horse Winner). Also stars: Krisztina Szabo (Oksana’s mother), Adam Fisher (the priest, “Father Alexander”) and Keith Klassen (the recruiter, “Konstantin”).