New opera has soprano scaling the heights — literally
Lauren Pearl is giving new meaning to the term high-flying soprano.
Sure, her latest venture calls for her to sing up to a high C, but plenty of operatic heroines have to do that. What’s different in Pearl’s case is that she is singing while scaling a 60-foot brick wall.
Pearl is currently performing the role of Louise in “Gould’s Wall,” a work that is receiving its world premiere at Toronto’s adventuresome Tapestry Opera.
The opera is the brainchild of composer Brian Current, who regularly passes the wall on his way to work with students at the Glenn Gould School, which is housed in Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music. The brick facade is a remnant of a building that dates back to 1881, and it was preserved when the conservatory got a new, modern facility.
“That vertical space was just crying out for something to happen,” Current said. “With singers climbing on the walls, and the audience in the atrium looking up.”
He enlisted Liza Balkan, a performer, director and writer, who created a libretto that, as she said, tells “the story of a young artist, a woman, climbing the wall as a journey toward finding her own voice, the readiness to fly and soar.”
Along the way, she encounters numerous characters who are harnessed to windows on the wall. Singing from below is Gould himself — the legendary pianist known for perfectionism who remains one of Canada’s most revered classical music figures nearly 40 years after his death.
“He is a presence in the building always,” Balkan said, and in the opera “he is there to support and also interrogate” the artist on her journey.
To play Louise, the company engaged Pearl, who was not a climber but had been training as an aerialist after, as she explained, “I fell in love with a circus performer.”
“I felt the story was very resonant and uplifting and inspiring,” Pearl said. “I thought immediately, ‘I want to do that.’ But yeah, it’s daunting. It’s a high space.”
She has been practicing on the wall with the help of DangerBoy, a company whose website says it specializes in “stunts, rigging and special effects.” For the performances, Pearl will be securely fastened to a harness with a carabiner for extra protection.
Pearl said she found that singing while suspended from ropes and scaling a wall requires some adjustment in her vocal technique. “There needs to be a line of energy through my entire body,” she said. “A greater awareness of tension and support.”
Current’s score, which runs about an hour, is played by an orchestra consisting of five pianos along with an ensemble of brass, winds, strings and percussion.
The audience of just over 100 is divided into sections, with prime seating on the atrium floor in reclining chairs angled to provide an easy view of the ascent.
“We thought at first of having people lie on mats,” Current said. “But our audience is largely people who aren’t 20.”
Other spectators are on a balcony of the new building across from the wall. “Then you’re almost at the same level of the singers and also looking down and you can see the orchestra down below,” Current said.
Tom Comet, head rigger for DangerBoy, said the technical aspect of supporting Pearl’s climb is “pretty simple stuff. We’re pulling on a rope, we’re pulling some ropes through some pulleys, we’re redirecting that line.
“That said,” Comet added, “anytime we have human life in our hands … we need to be 100,000% sure that everything’s going to work as we anticipate.
“For me,” Comet said, “the coolest thing is that Lauren is actually belting out opera fearlessly while she’s suspended in the air, 40-50 feet up. It’s ... pretty incredible to experience.”