Mouvance, the Opera

A chance encounter late summer 2018 in Sackville, New Brunswick led me to participate in something I never imagined doing. Inspired by my work, Suzie LeBlanc, soprano and director of Le Nouvel opera asked me to design and make the set and costume for a new opera she was preparing with composer Jérôme Blais. I hesitated, not sure how I could integrate this into my already full-time work as the artist-in-residence at Mount Allison University. Erik Edson, the director of the art department convinced me that this would be a great opportunity for my student interns, Bre Darlison and Madeleine Hanson.

I had no idea of the complexity and the amount of time and travel the project would demand. I knew it would be a tight fit as I was busy preparing a solo exhibition for April 2019 and the opera would premiere in Halifax in January 2019. To complicate matters, we would be working from three different locations with Jérôme in Halifax, Suzie and stage director, François Racine in Montreal and me in Sackville. I was asked to work long-distance with students from Dalhousie University. Samantha Baljet, a second-year student in costume design at Dalhousie became an indispensable part of the team, as well as James Woodhouse, also a student there in stage design.

The opera, Mouvance is a reflection on the 1755 expulsion of the Acadians, presented through the poetry of contemporary Acadian authors. Nine poems are set to music by Jérôme Blais, performed by Suzie LeBlanc and accompanied by Norman Adams on cello, Jeff Torbert on guitar, Eileen Walsh on clarinet, and D’Arcy Gray on percussion. My sculpture, Inside Passage a boat made of dictionary covers had already been requested as an anchor point in the design. I would need to integrate it with a backdrop for video projections by Phil Commeau and Jonah Haché as well as a screen for the musicians.

Working in consultation with the stage director, I made preliminary sketches of the stage. Madeleine and I worked through some ideas for Suzie’s costume and Samantha started sourcing fabric in Halifax. I knew I wanted to hang fishing nets as screens for the musicians and I had hoped that my paper-thread net would make an interesting screen for the videos, but it became apparent that a more opaque and uniform surface would be necessary. After many phone calls, dead ends and trips to several fishers willing to sell or donate fishing nets, I found a variety of nets.

Mid-October, everyone involved in the production came together over a weekend at Dalhousie University, Halifax to meet, share, fit Suzie for her dress, choose the fabrics and especially for Suzie and the musicians to rehearse. Mid-November, I headed home to Montreal for my birthday and a short break. Samantha had sent me a cotton mock-up of the dress and I met with Suzie in Montreal for a fitting. I sent it back to Samantha so she could proceed with the making of the dress. It was then in Montreal that it became obvious that getting the boat sculpture to Halifax from Montreal was proving to be expensive and was ultimately made impossibly complicated by a freight elevator under renovation in the building where the sculpture was stored. I tried taking it apart and putting it in my car. It just would not fit. I drove back to New Brunswick without the boat. I had to find another solution.

I decided that with the help of my interns, Bre and Madeleine, we would remake the boat using whatever books we could find in the give-away box in the library and combine them with photocopied dictionary covers pasted onto heavy cardboard.

Making art is always a one-off experiment and this one was suddenly feeling like a very long shot in the dark for me. There was no possibility of testing anything before hand. A strange mix of dread and curiosity was starting to build inside me. We were doing something none of us had done before. Early one Monday morning, with the deadline looming, Bre said something about the difficulty ahead that suddenly and completely undid me. She instantly read the fear and fragility in my face and was silent. For her this was new. Until now, she had laughingly said, “KT says no fear.” It took me several minutes, but at last I came back, “It’s okay, we’ll figure it out.” And we did. The boat needed a wooden structure that would be built on-location in Halifax by James. I needed to be able to send him plans. I rarely work this way. My usual strategy of starting in the middle and just adding and subtracting until I am satisfied was not an option. We drew out a plan for the boat. The library had a great collection of all sorts of dictionaries and lots of colourful books to give away. Also everything had to be made to come apart so that it and the three of us would all fit in my car. That moment of shared doubt was illuminating for both of us. I reminded myself that fear is normal, what’s important is what you do with it. “Go with the fear”.

It always amazes me how things just come together. Mid-December, we all met again in Halifax for the final installation and rehearsal. The dress looked fantastic –Samantha did an amazing job adding her own special touch. She definitely has a future in costume design. James helped us put the boat together and we hung the fishing nets. Luckily for the production, the theatre at Dalhousie was closed over Christmas and nothing was scheduled until Mouvance in early January. We were able to install everything, and leave it in place. I would never have managed without the unwavering help of my interns, Bre Darlison and Madeleine Hansen as well as the amazing technical assistance of Samantha Baljet and James Woodhouse.

Mouvance has been presented three times : Sir James Dunn Theatre in Halifax, Studio-Théâtre Alfred-Laliberté in Montreal and Salle Julie-Pothier in  St-Jacques, QC. The music is absolutely beautiful, Suzie’s voice clear and captivating, the poetry leads us all the way back and forward.

Two videos, one in English, one in French are also available on Youtube. Scroll down to find the links.