Manitoba Underground Opera The Mansplaining Division “Alissa Watson’s spot-on stage direction allows each character to shine”

by | Jun 9, 2023 | Featured, Reviews

Manitoba Underground Opera surfaced this spring with its ambitious new 2023 festival titled “Odyssey”, setting sail with Laura Gow’s The Mansplaining Division as the first of three mainstage shows presented May 24-26.

This year also marks a radical departure for the now 15-year old company founded in 2008, that typically stages an entire season of operas and recitals repertory style throughout several weeks each summer.

The 90 minute (including intermission) production also notably boasted its own bouncer at the door, held downtown at Winnipeg’s Pyramid Cabaret complete with Egyptian iconography carved into the walls and disco-style mirror ball looming above the dance floor.

The nightclub setting worked surprisingly well, including a built-in raised stage providing effective sight lines during May 24th’s opening night performance, as well as an offside bar incorporated into Karen Remoto’s witty libretto (with spoken dialogue by Brenna Corner). Music Director and pianist Shannon Hiebert skillfully led a chamber ensemble comprised of cellist Alyssa Ramsay, electric guitarist Nolan Powell and percussionist Caroline Boucher through Gow’s gritty score—a melting pot of punk, grunge, classical and folk influences—despite several balance issues in the intimate space that marred the overall performance.

The comic opera tells the tale of protagonist Joe Woe is me, a.k.a. “Case 48910,” who is “re-educated” as to the error of his mansplaining ways. A trio of Furies as “agents of the Underworld’s Ministry of Hadeon Defense,” are in turn assigned by Hades to lead Joe through a series of five training modules, in which he re-lives various encounters with women in his life to ultimately come to terms with his misogynistic-steeped past.

The denouement, in which Joe “proudly” earns a passing grade on his test, is darkly tongue-in-cheek. His congratulatory message projected onto two large screens flanking the stage, praising Joe for “only doing the bare minimum,” infuses the narrative with insightful sub-text regarding ingrained habits and learned behaviours, including the perils of rampant toxic masculinity.

The opera—fearlessly laced with liberal “F-bombs” and other profanities throughout—also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Copious sight gags are included, as well as a hilarious send-up of Leonard Cohen’s iconic ballad “Hallelujah” with tenor Andrew Derynck’s Joe belting out its self-pitying revised lyrics for all he’s worth, including its repeated refrain, “I’m a loser.”

 

Alissa Watson’s spot-on stage direction allows each character to shine, while including plenty of stage business to further flesh out the various roles. Deliciously devilish make-up also made this show pop theatrically, with each performer holding nothing back during their portrayals.

Soprano Sydney Clarke crafts a compelling Tish, who serves as the Furies’ ringleader helped by her strong vocals, that nonetheless were at times obfuscated by the band – a note for all cast members.

Her sidekicks, the pyromaniac Meg sung by colouratura soprano Alice Macgregor, and Alex, “working through anger issues,” is performed by soprano Carmen Harris. The trio proved well matched vocally, with each singer also doubling as Joe’s women: Beatrice, Eisha, and Lillian that further showcased their versatile characterization.

Bass-baritone Max Fingerote appears as the generically titled “Assistant,” serving triple duty in his roles as: Dameon, “the Amazon delivery guy,” bartender Samuel, as well as TV host, Judge Hairy, presiding over his “infernal courtroom.”

One of the strongest performances belonged to tenor Adam Sperry as Hades, obsessed with playing video games in his god-cave. Rebecca Oliviera as his wife Persephone creates an effective counterbalance to Hades’ edgy volatility, her soprano voice flowing through her more lyrical passages.

Mansplaining is designed as a comic opera, however like all good comedy—think Chaplin—walks a tightrope between side-splitting humour and heartrending pathos.

When Joe reveals the root of his “toxic masculinity issues,” i.e. a negligent father who abandons his mother, only to bond with Hades suffering a similar fate, it quickly becomes a real-life reflection on inter-generational trauma, fuelled by deep, familial wounds, as well as potent lessons on how humans learn to cope with adversity.

The fact that Gow and Remoto handle these issues so compassionately is a testament to their simpatico artistry. The ending that admittedly feels rushed at the end—and even somewhat saccharine—is mitigated by Persephone’s sage advice to Joe, newly revealed as “Jason:” “Hope you’ll remember who you ought to be”—wise counsel for us all.

The season continues with Rameau’s Castor et Pollux (August 22 – 25) performed al fresco at Winnipeg’s St. Boniface Cathedral, followed by Verdi’s The Corsair (Sept 20 -23), with the latter staged on deck of the historic Nonsuch ship housed at the Manitoba Museum. Odyssey also includes an inter-provincial tour of children’s opera The Bremen Town Musicians (music by J. Offenbach, G. Rossini, G. Donizetti, A. Sullivan and G. Verdi) throughout July and August.

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MANITOBA UNDERGROUND OPERA
MAY 24-26
GOW / REMOTO THE MANSPLAINING DIVISION
LIBRETTIST
Karen Remoto
COMPOSER
Laura Gow
STAGE DIRECTOR
Alissa Watson
MUSIC DIRECTOR/PIANIST
Shannon Hiebert
PROJECTION MANAGER
Amanda Smith
STAGE MANAGER
Samantha Desiree

Tish and Beatrice Sydney Clarke
Meg and Eisha Alice Macgregor
Alex and Lillian Carmen Harris
John Woe Is Me Andrew Derynck

Dameon/Hank the Bartender/
Judge Hairy Max Fingerote
Persephone Rebeca Oliveira
Hades Adam Sperry

Caroline Bucher Percussion
Shannon Hiebert Keyboard
Nolan Powell Guitar/Electric Guitar
Alyssa Ramsay Cello

SPRING ISSUE ON NEWSSTANDS
VERY SOON


CANADIANS NEXT ON STAGE

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