Manitoba Opera marks a triumphant return to the stage — without the pomp and pageantry usually associated with the art form, but with two intimate, one-act chamber operas inspired by the humble telephone, ringing as true now as when they were penned during the mid 20th century.

Manitoba Opera marks a triumphant return to the stage — without the pomp and pageantry usually associated with the art form, but with two intimate, one-act chamber operas inspired by the humble telephone, ringing as true now as when they were penned during the mid 20th century.

Opera preview

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The Telephone and La Voix Humaine

Centennial Concert Hall

Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m. 

All patrons must show proof of vaccination and remain masked. Tickets at mbopera.ca

In its first production with a live audience since the November 2019 staging of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, the 49-year old company is gradually dipping its toes into a "business as usual" season with Menotti’s comedic The Telephone, as well as its darker flipside, Poulenc’s monodrama La Voix humaine, or The Human Voice, based on a play by Jean Cocteau.

"This will be a special re-entry back into the opera world, and everyone’s excited," MO’s general director and CEO Larry Desrochers says during a telephone interview. "The silver lining of the pandemic is that we’re going to get to hear these two great pieces, and with orchestra, which is not typical in North America."

The 105-minute production (including intermission) also marks the Manitoba Opera debut of stage director Jacqueline Loewen, as well as conductor Naomi Woo, who leads the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, which will be positioned onstage to allow for more COVID-19-friendly spacing.

Soprano Lida Szkwarek and baritone Johnathon Kirby star in Manitoba Opera’s production of the Telephone. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

DANIEL CRUMP

Soprano Lida Szkwarek and baritone Johnathon Kirby star in Manitoba Opera’s production of the Telephone. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

The Manitoba première of Poulenc’s gripping masterpiece, sung in French, chronicles the emotional unravelling of a woman bidding a final farewell to her lover of five years over the telephone, on the eve of his own wedding to another.

Winnipeg-based singing-actress Lara Ciekiewicz, who appeared last in MO’s The Sopranos of Winnipeg livestream recital in November 2020, performs her role debut as the simply monikered Elle (She).

"I very much think she’s a woman who chose something in a relationship knowing that it might not be traditional but going, ‘I don’t care,’" says Ciekiewicz, who speaks French fluently. The soprano dutifully researched 1950s telephone culture, including its legacy of party lines, in helping to craft her character for the roughly 55-minute show.

"She made a choice and assumed that she can handle the consequences, and then the consequences come," she says ominously of her protagonist, who is on the brink of suicide, growing more desperate by the minute while speaking with her unseen/unheard lover on the phone.

Ciekiewicz, who next appears with Victoria Symphony Orchestra during its Viennese-flavoured New Year’s Day gala concert (followed by the role of Musetta in Edmonton Opera’s production of La Bohème in February), also recently performed in a series of outdoor recitals in the B.C. city this summer.

She describes her first time singing with others, as well as for live listeners, after the pandemic first hit in 2020 as a deeply moving experience.

Lara Ciekiewicz last appeared in Manitoba Opera's the Sopranos of Winnipeg livestream in November 2020. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

DANIEL CRUMP

Lara Ciekiewicz last appeared in Manitoba Opera's the Sopranos of Winnipeg livestream in November 2020. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

"I don’t think any of us will ever forget that feeling for the rest of our lives," she says. "It felt like a stepping back into your full self, with something coming back to life again."

The evening’s second offering, The Telephone, features Winnipeg soprano Lida Szkwarek — who made her official company debut during last year’s Sopranos recital" — performs Lucy opposite Toronto-based baritone Johnathon Kirby, who appears as her wannabe fiancé Ben.

As Lucy chirps and prattles away on the phone with her various callers, Ben attempts to propose to her in person, growing increasingly exasperated by her distraction until finally exiting to make the pitch via — you guessed it — the telephone.

Loewen has updated the setting of the opera, written in 1947, to contemporary life, with Lucy not tethered to an archaic, corded unit, but rather glued to her smartphone. The directorial choice speaks volumes about today’s societal norms, and particularly during these last 20 pandemic months, when life has largely been lived through pixelated screens as digital lifelines.

"Lucy is really a social butterfly with lots of energy," Szkwarek says of her character, describing her as a "young influencer."

"She loves gossiping and of course she loves her boyfriend Ben. But she’s also a little clueless when he wants to propose, and misses those bigger moments of life.

Johnathon Kirby's character Ben tries to propose to Lida Szkwarek's Lucy in the Telephone, but she won't stop yapping. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

DANIEL CRUMP

Johnathon Kirby's character Ben tries to propose to Lida Szkwarek's Lucy in the Telephone, but she won't stop yapping. (Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press)

"It really plays into my generation, and today’s younger generations when people are constantly on their phones, or videotaping something instead of experiencing the moment, which made it easy to make that transition into a more modern take," the singer says.

Kirby, who next appears as Guglielmo in Opera Nova Scotia’s May 2022 production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, can relate to his character’s plight, as art imitates life.

He’s been drawing on his own journey to the altar with his fiancée and high school sweetheart, Canadian soprano Lisa Faieta. His own meticulously orchestrated planning, which included a romantic surprise proposal beside a medieval castle in England, fell off the rails. Their wedding — like many — has been postponed twice because of COVID-19.

"We were originally hoping to get married in August 2020," he says. "When we got to England, it’s stormy and miserable and I couldn’t book the photographer. We couldn’t arrange a car rental so I thought OK, we’ll try an oyster restaurant.

"When that didn’t work out, I ended up proposing in Green Park, and found out later it’s actually a mass gravesite in England," he says with a booming laugh.

Kirby is more reflective when asked about performing onstage again after nearly two years of virtual performances, describing the experience as "surreal."

"Both these operas are about communication and human connection, and it is vitally important that we get people to return to live music. They need to feel safe and comfortable, but you lose something when you’re listening through a screen," he says. "There’s an energy that you pick up from a live performance, and people need to come back to that.

"We need to all remember and experience what it is to feel alive and this production offers something we have all been missing dearly."

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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