From Under the Umbrella Tree to Sleeping Rough — Valley Puppeteers Return to Music and Beyond
Last July, the opera Sleeping Rough premiered at Ottawa’s Music and Beyond festival to standing ovations and critical acclaim. Composed by jazz guitarist Roddy Ellias and with a libretto by poet/author Sandra Nicholls, it features four singers, an 11-piece orchestra, and a quintet of puppeteers bringing the main characters to life.
Their job is to convey the gritty reality of Ted — a man whose troubled past leads to tragic consequences for himself and his family — while opening the hearts of the audience to the plight of the homeless and disenfranchised. Having sold out every show in 2018, Sleeping Rough is scheduled for two more performances at this year’s festival, July 9 and 10 at the GCTC in Ottawa.
Under the baton of conductor Matthew Larkin, three singers give voice to the characters, while Juno Award winner Kellylee Evans (in a role reminiscent of a Greek chorus) conveys Ted’s conscience by coming centre-stage and acting as a fervent conduit between Ted and the audience. This year Kellylee will be joined by soprano Hélène Brunet, baritone Gary Dahl, and Juno Award-winning jazz vocalist Sienna Dahlen. But the focal point of the show is the characters themselves — full-body puppets created by Almonte’s Noreen Young (Order of Canada member) and brought to life by Noreen, Bob Stutt, Stephen Brathwaite, Sarah Argue and Allan Martin.
Noreen, Bob and Stephen have been partners in puppeteering since their days on the set of the TV show Under the Umbrella Tree (1986-1993). As Noreen puts it: “For the three of us to be back together again is like a family reunion. It’s wonderful!” Bob adds: “Performing in an opera with Bunraku style puppets requires a much different technique than the Muppet comedy style I’m used to after forty years working in TV and film, and I’m very excited about the challenge. It’s also been wonderful working with the professional musicians and singers, watching how they approach their art, and seeing their process. It really is a unique show and I’m grateful to be a part.” And the chemistry among the three of them infuses the difficult subject matter with tenderness, humanity and occasional moments of levity. Stephen conveys this poignantly when he muses: “Years under the set at close quarters with those two led me to a profound appreciation for deodorant. Seriously though, in all those years together it was the stuff that didn’t make it on air that made me laugh the hardest!”
Sarah Argue and Allan Martin have also worked with Noreen Young over the years. Sarah brought her Rock the Arts troupe to the Puppets Up! Festival, and Allan wrote and performed in several Almonte puppet shows and was also on the board of Puppets Up.
The skill and compassion with which these five artists animate their characters — described as “exquisitely expressive” by La Scena Musicale — is crucial to the emotional impact of the show. In describing a 2018 performance of Sleeping Rough, Peter Robb wrote in Arts File: “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.”
The brilliant puppeteering, combined with haunting vocals and a rich and moving score, creates a mesmerizing experience for the audience. Sleeping Rough will be performed on July 9 and 10 at the GCTC in Ottawa. For tickets and more details, visit <sleepingrough.ca> or <musicandbeyond.ca>.