By Lori Bosworth
Sex trafficking and female disempowerment are the themes of Tapestry Opera’s new contemporary opera, Oksana G., which is making its world premiere at Toronto’s Imperial Oil Opera Theatre. Torontonicity was invited to attend the performance on May 28, 2017. With music by Aaron Gervais and libretto by Colleen Murphy, the contemporary opera tells the story of the titular character, who is eager to escape an unpromising future. It is 1997 Ukraine where the country has been experiencing a six-year recession due to a weak market economy as a result of its independence. Crimes including sex trafficking have spiked.
Konstantin, a stranger visiting their farming village, promises salaries of US$500 per week if Oksana and her friend, Natalia, agree to work as cleaning staff in a hotel in Greece. After persuading her parents that he is making a legitimate offer, Konstantin takes Oksana and Natalia with him ostensibly to work in Greece, but ends up putting the girls up for auction.
Oksana G. contains very disturbing material. Although most is not graphically displayed on stage, the horrific experience of Oksana and her friends is shocking. Act 1 does not let up: each subsequent scene presents mounting abuses against Oksana and the other girls. The explanation for this is Gervais and Murphy have strived to make their plight relatable. They indicate in the production notes that knowing intellectually about sex trafficking is not enough to make people “step up and make a difference in the lives of others.” Thankfully, Act 2 contains a few lighter scenes to give reprieve to the emotional tension of Act 1.
Aaron Gervais’s music accentuates what is taking place on stage in a dominant way. The music plays with our emotions with dramatic minor chord progressions indicating there is more terror to come. There was also an effective mashup of pre-recorded club music playing at the bar in Greece while the orchestra continued with the score. The outstanding orchestra, located to the right of the stage and fully visible to the audience, was led by music director Jordan de Souza.
Natalya Gennadi’s portrayal of Oksana is strong, while showcasing a nuanced blend of the character’s optimism and resilience. Gennadi displays dazzling vocals. Adam Fisher as Father Alexander displays strong acting and singing skills as the kind, generous yet passionate Canadian priest. Fisher brings a warm charm and vulnerability to the role of Father Alexander: his conflict over self-forgiveness is palpable. Fisher’s tenor fuses beautifully with Gennadi’s soaring vocals in the final scene. Keith Klassen as the despicable Konstantin demonstrates a powerhouse tenor that underscores Konstantin’s dominant control of Oksana. Never has a character incited more anger from an audience.
The Imperial Oil Opera Theatre is a glorious venue with wide open spaces. Teresa Przybylski’s modern stage took advantage of the space with ten pillars that change colour to effectively create a bar, a refugee shelter and home of the village Tarot reader.
Sex trafficking is an ugly reality with no global restrictions. Incredibly, major news outlets have recently reported about teen girls in Ontario being lured on social media and blackmailed into performing sexual acts. Oksana G., thus, is an unnervingly relevant experience that is troubling and moving. This opera will linger in the mind long after the last bows are taken.
Oksana G. is being performed at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto from May 24-30, 2017. Purchase tickets online.