Last week the Canadian Opera Company announced their 2022/23 Season. Kye Marshall and I are absolutely thrilled with the news! Our opera Pomegranate is in the lineup, scheduled for production June 2-4, 2023 in Toronto, followed by a tour to Vancouver and possibly Victoria, pending Pacific Opera’s decision.

The story began with my visit to the ruins of Pompeii in year 2000, where I was inspired by the murals in the Villa of Mysteries. Seven years later I published a chapbook of poems – Pomegranate, a tale of remembering – based on the inspiration of that visit. Six years later cellist and composer Kye Marshall asked if she could set some of the poems to music. In 2014 the first 10 minutes of what was to become Pomegranate Opera was presented at Toronto’s Heliconian Club by two young singers accompanied by a student harpist, as part of an evening of new compositions by women to honor International Women’s Day.

Elizabeth Rose Morriss, Natalie Hoffman, Gaby Sundarsingh

Now, almost a decade later, Pomegranate is scheduled for production by Canada’s largest opera company, in a co-production with Vancouver Opera. Unbelievable! We have known about this since June 2019 when the COC’s Director of Artistic Productions, Roberto Mauro, attended the premiere of Pomegranate at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times theatre. He loved the show and made a commitment to us, contingent on many factors, one of them being that the COC was in transition, seeking a new General Manager. Eventually Perryn Leech stepped up for the position, and everything began to move forward. The Covid situation also held us hostage for a couple of years, deeply affecting arts communities worldwide. Strangely, it is only now, seeing Pomegranate championed in print, on social media, and on Classical FM radio, that it becomes REAL! This in itself is interesting – the power of media and our response to it.

These years have been my entry into a new creative world. When I moved to Toronto in 1981, I resolved to learn about opera; I queued for $10 tickets and sat rapt through Tosca, Madam Butterfly, Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, the Ring Cycle – all the Greats. As a passionate feminist I was angered by the many outcomes similar to the Victorian novel, where women suffer (usually for love), and then die. But I persisted, listening to Maria Callas tapes in my rooming house on Spadina, reading books about opera – a crash course without context.

I’m still a newbie, but what I’ve learned in these Pomegranate years is that a libretto (opera text, literally ‘little book’) is written in broad strokes. You don’t have to spell it out, language is limited, it is the music that carries the audience. People will leave the theatre humming a melody, not reciting text. Opera is a powerful emotional medium that goes way beyond words.

Colleen Murphy, librettist for Tapestry’s Oksana Gsays, “Opera is about emotional communication; nothing makes an audience relate with a character the way opera does.”

It is the music that carries people from one situation to another, firing the sparks between brain and heart to awaken an audience to its full humanity – able to identify with a character compassionately – closing the distance that permits us to objectify or judge a character – to become instead subject to the story we witness.

It has been challenging to create a 2-Act opera libretto, though my training as playwright and screenwriter equipped me well in adapting to this genre, and I had an excellent coach in Marjorie Chan, herself an award-winning librettist.

Opera is intensely collaborative, particularly new opera, which insists on diversity and gender inclusion to tell the stories that have been sidelined throughout history. Many people have contributed to the development of Pomegranate, each in their own unique way, during several workshops.

After the Heliconian presentation of March 2014 we were encouraged to develop the piece as a chamber opera. That is when we took the leap from 79AD Pompeii to 1981Toronto.

What followed was two years of intense writing on my part, for both the libretto and grant applications, and Kye’s composition of an accompanying score – all in tandem with our ongoing creative commitments.

You could say that Act 1 belongs to me, a romantic, inspired by murals to imagine the lives of young women being initiated into the Dionysian Mysteries; Act 2 belongs to Kye, with her strong and insistent political voice. Act 2 begins on the night after the infamous Bathhouse Raids; set in the Fly By Night, a grungy downtown lesbian bar, a refuge from homophobic exclusion and potential violence.

Kye and I both lived in Toronto during the 1980s as part of the lesbian community and were politically active in that ferment of feminism, multiculturalism, solidarity with refugee communities, and the Arts – we bring to Pomegranate this experience in an apparently simplified form, beneath which bubbles the richness of memory and the benefit of hindsight.

We held our first developmental workshop in May 2016, with Marjorie Chan as director and Wayne Strongman as musical director, culminating in a performance in a church basement for an invited audience of friends and supporters who offered valuable critiques.

After significant rewrites we raised funds for a second workshop in July 2017 with Tapestry Opera – Michael Mori directing, Evan Mitchell as musical director – again with a public performance of invited guests. There’s nothing like a workshop to highlight the flaws, giving the opportunity to do further work on both libretto and musical score.

By June of 2019 we had received a significant Canada Council grant, and were ready for a professional run of Pomegranate. We were fortunate to book Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as our preferred venue during Toronto’s Pride Week.

Camille Rogers and Rebecca Gray

Pomegranate played five performances to packed houses, and received excellent reviews. Roberto Mauro attended and immediately saw an opportunity for the COC to give operatic voice to a lesbian love story, following on the 2018 production of the Rufus Wainwright/Daniel McIvor opera, Hadrian – a homosexual love story set in ancient Rome. With Roberto’s promise of a larger orchestra and an expanded cast, we began another bout of intense work – now in collaboration with director Jennifer Tarver and musical director Rosemary Thomson. The result is a re-visioned story with important structural changes that clarify the plotline; and there will be a new team of designers and technicians, as well as new cast members. The COC is giving us an August 2022 workshop to try out the new score with our singers.

We must reassure those of you who’ve seen previous renditions of Pomegranate that Teiya Kasahara will continue in the crucial roles of Priestess (Act 1) and Bartender (Act 2) – portraying women who hold the energy in the Temple of Isis, and the Fly By Night.

Teiya Kasahara

As producers, we have relied on the generosity of patrons as well as funding from federal, provincial and municipal Arts Councils. It is an enormous relief to now have the luxury of being produced by the Canadian Opera Company with their massive resource team.

Kye and I would like to thank each of you who has helped on this long journey, with your creative energy, with critiques, suggestions, donations, and with the good-heartedness of gathering as a community of souls to support us in launching Pomegranate into the world. If I gave a list of your names, it would fill too many pages! We are deeply grateful.

We look forward to seeing you at a performance in Toronto or Vancouver, and wherever else Pomegranate may travel in what promises to be a long life for this operatic story.

Link to COC news:
Scroll down for more details on Pomegranate. Embedded video: Perryn Leech talks about Pomegranate at 3.25 mins.