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Québecité: A Promising Failure

By Paul Serralheiro / January 16, 2004

The jazz opera Québecité, by D.D. Jackson and George Elliot Clarke, may well be the jazz event of the year, if not for its accomplishment, at least for its daring.

Commissioned by Ajay Heble, artistic director of the Guelph Jazz festival where it premiered in September 2003, Québecité was subsequently staged at the Vancouver East Cultural Center in October. Although involving a small cast, by opera standards, Quebecite is a gargantuan undertaking when one considers the number of themes and musical styles it encompasses. Indeed, musical breadth is characteristic of the work of pianist and composer D.D. Jackson, just as poetic range is a prominent feature of the work of the librettist, the Governor General-award winning writer George Elliott Clarke. What we get, then, is an ambitious project that can best be described as a promising failure.

The most interesting part is the wide musical palette. This is D.D. Jackson at his best, accompanied by well-chosen musicians with established careers in their own right. At the Vancouver performance that I attended) the instrumentalists were elite members of the Canadian jazz scene: Mark Dresser on bass, Peggy Lee and Finn Manniche on cello, Jean Martin on drums, and Brad Turner on Trumpet. The singers were equally prominent in their own fields: Kiran Ahluwalie, a performer and composer of ghazals and Punjabi folk songs, played architecture student Laxami Bharati; Haydain Neale, Juno award-winning lead singer with the R ‘n’B band JackSOUL, played Ovide Rimbaud, the practicing architect Laxami falls for; Dean Bowman, the powerful singer of The Screaming Headless Torsos, played a jazz saxophonist/singer who falls in love with Collette Chan, the daughter of jazz club owners, played by Yoon Sun Choi, a New York-based performer, composer and educator.

The music was energetic, with convincing performances by all, although Kiran Ahluwalie’s presence and stylings were under-exploited by comparison with the others. Jackson, a veritable musical polyglot, composed compelling pieces with solid grooves, tight segues, contrasting interludes, effective balance of tempos and "in" and "out" elements. Except for the Punjabi style, disparate elements were intelligently exploited and successfully integrated into a coherent musical adventure, which included Gospel, blues, jazz, and, free improvisation.

In terms of language and literary style, Clarke’s text was equally eclectic, conjugating crisp colloquialisms with sharp poetic metaphors and puns in an unpretentious fashion; the text breathed Canadian speech.

The visual concept had some attractive features, such as a video screen that provided motivic parallels to the intrigues of the characters’ imbroglios, and the stage design (rather minimalist at the Vancouver performance), costumes and lighting were functional and adequate. What didn’t work were the dramatic pacing and the heavy overlay of contemporary Canadiana themes.

Imagine as many issues surrounding Canadian identity as you can (multiculturalism, racial intolerance, the Francophone "flavour," etc.) and present them within a simplistic love story with a wooden setting and voila, you have the crux of the problem with this opera. The story seemed like the result of a lab experiment, the testing of a thesis, rather than something arising from a convincing and engaging concern for characters. Ideas predominated, but were presented in an irritatingly two-dimensional manner. The trouble was in the rather superficial cultural representations, the underdeveloped characters, the rushed plot pacing, and scenes that did not build, resulting in a serious lack of dramatic tension. It was like a synopsis of an opera with polished musical numbers thrown in, an opera which Clarke, himself summarized in the playbill as "a simple love story: four people meet, pair off, ‘divorce’, and wed."

Most irritating of all, however, was the trivial use of setting. Used essentially to bring in the Francophone element of Canadian multiculturalism, Quebec City was represented in two clichés: its tourist appeal and a café named La Revolution Tranquille. Represented via a backdrop of the Chateau Frontenac, the essence of Quebec was grossly misrepresented. Chateau Frontenac is not synonymous with Quebec culture–in fact, as a CP hotel, it is in many ways antithetical to what Quebec is really all about, standing as it does right by the Plaines D’Abraham like a postcolonial reminder of the conquest. While the "negres blanc d’amerique" ("white niggers of America") issue was raised, it was not developed. The Francophone/ Anglophone tension was brought into the picture in an obvious attempt to bring in everything that is typically "Canadian," but it lacked depth. I would have preferred a focus on developing character and plot rather than on attempts to present an all-inclusive thesis of Canadian identity.

Despite these problems, the theme Clarke wishes to emphasis is an important one: i.e., in the debates of national identity "non-whites have often been silenced". Clarke adds in his program notes that Québecité "affirms our persistent presence and, therefore, our insistent interest in inclusion." These are ideas that need to be voiced, but one cannot flatten them into a cardboard representation and call it done. Hopefully this opera will undergo development and become the more moving and engaging work that it should be.

Along with the artists mentioned above, also involved in the Vancouver staging were digital artist Magda Wojtyra, production manager Lawrence Anthony and stage manager Barb Chirinos, while the Guelph production was directed by Colin Taylor, designed by Allan Watts, with technical direction by Paul Ord.

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