Sleeping Rough – the puppet opera

Peter Robb of Artsfile reviewed the puppet opera Sleeping Rough for which local resident Noreen Young created all 10 puppets

There are times when you witness something so new and different that you are sort of taken aback.

That was the case with the premiere of the new opera by Roddy Ellias and Sandra Nicholls(libretto) Sleeping Rough in the first of three powerful performances in the Arts Court Theatre as part of the Music and Beyond festival.

The piece tackles a difficult subject: homelessness. Life on the street is not easy but as those who introduced the show said, it is a social issue that many of us walk by every day, often going out of our way to avoid the person sitting on a flat piece of cardboard asking for some change.

And yet we should understand what has happened there and what will continue to happen as housing becomes more and more costly. There is always a human story behind the painful and troubled souls we see on the street.

This is where Sleeping Rough takes us. We discover the life of a man named Ted, who fled an abusive home for the streets. There he is befriended by Anna, who is a social worker. They fall in love and conceive a child. Ted can’t handle the truth of that and runs away again.

The opera opens with a young girl named Emily who tries to help a much older and much more street-hardened Ted. Emily, is in fact, Ted’s daughter, the one he abandoned so long ago. But neither knows of the relationship. She convinces him to clean up his act and eventually brings him home to meet her mother and sit down for a meal. You can guess the rest. It doesn’t end well.

The story is a classic opera plot but the libretto is not over-burdened by syrupy emotion. It is, however, almost unrelentingly dark. There are flickers  of hope that are dashed. It risks being too bleak, to be honest, but something saves that. Or should I say some things save it and us from utter despair.

These are the puppets created by Almonte’s Noreen Young. There are about 10 and they are frankly spectacular. She uses a technique that accentuates an aspect of each face and because of the flexibility of the rubber used, the faces move, channeling the wonderful singing of Helene Brunet (Anna), Felicity Williams (Emily) and Gary Dahl (Ted). Dahl replaced Ian Tamblyn who was forced to bow out because of scheduling pressures.

The full-body puppets were handled by a team of five skilled puppeteers dressed in black hoodies and looking like a street gang. The puppeteers deftly manipulated their charges but their faces, ringed by the black hoods, reminded me of dark angels surrounding a sort of medieval tableau. They created a surprising and almost ethereal image.

In particular the interactions between the talented Ottawa jazz and pop singer Kellylee Evans and Ted provided some of the best moments in the piece. Evans was the one singer to move to centre stage as she was Ted’s conscience and a sort of Greek Chorus advancing the story along.

The other vocalists were in fine form, particularly Brunet in her mother’s lament near the end of the evening. Her powerful classically trained soprano filled the black box theatre. The contrast between Williams’ jazz fluidity and Brunet was an interesting element of the music.

Ellias was working right up until rehearsals this past week on the arrangements for the piece and he has produced an fascinating blend of jazz, blues and classical sounds that carry the melancholic story to its inevitable conclusion. The score was played by an equally talented mix of 12 musicians drawn from all disciplines under the steady and confident baton of Matthew Larkin. The use of a harp, deftly played by Michelle Gott, in the performance was especially enjoyable.

Sleeping Rough should be seen for the message it delivers and for the creativity of the performance. Even more so because almost all of the artists live and work in our community or in the area. Together they have done something truly unique.

Sleeping Rough continues tonight and Thursday at the Arts Court Theatre. Information: musicandbeyond.ca