“It’s based on Snow White but most definitely not the Disney version,” says Halifax soprano Maureen Batt of Anna Pidgorna’s mini-opera Mirror Mirror.
Instead, the piece gets inspiration from the less sanitized version of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale to explore how women’s relationships are affected by external pressure to be forever young and beautiful.
Just 15-minutes in length, Essential Opera released their version on video this past week featuring Batt with her Essential Opera co-founder, soprano Erin Bardua. It is part of the company’s celebration of its tenth anniversary.
Funded as part of the Canada Council for the Arts digital originals micro innovation grants, Batt says their attraction to the piece came from its ability to tell a complete story in such a short amount of time and in meeting one of their company’s tenets.
“Anything that Essential Opera programs are character-driven and Mirror Mirror is mega character-driven,” continues Batt.
Initially written for a single voice, Mirror Mirror first premiered in 2012 ago by another Halifax soprano, Janice Jackson.
“When Erin and I were thinking of programming it for another show in 2016, we started having this conversation about turning into a duet,” says Batt.
As happens, Batt and Bardua changed directions and cast two other sopranos singing the duet in 2016. It wasn’t until the Canada Council announced its digital grants program in response to COVID that the duo saw an opportunity to produce Mirror Mirror as a film and finally get to sing the duet themselves.
“It is a perfect COVID project,” says Batt. “Erin is in New Brunswick, and I’m here in Nova Scotia, and we knew we could practice our parts separately because it was written originally for one voice.”
After rehearsing online, the two came together in Amherst to record it with Halifax independent classical recording label Leaf Music.
“We were at least 30 or 40 people feet apart, and Leaf was in the back with their masks on in a different space,” says Batt. “It felt like a very safe process.”
For the film, Batt and Bardua shot their scenes separately with Batt in Nova Scotia and Bardua in New Brunswick.
“Flying by the seat of our pandemic pants,” says Batt with a laugh of their separate film shoots. “We didn’t have the benefit of a huge budget. Erin and I were the film producers and did all of the storyboarding and figured out all of our shots to tell the story we wanted to tell. And then our spouses used our phones to shoot the footage.”
As part of writing Mirror Mirror, composer Anna Pidgorna created a handcrafted illustrated manuscript to accompany her opera. Embellished with threads of woollen hand-dyed yarn, the five panels of the hand-coloured “score” are an adjunct to the score used by Batt and Bardua.
“When Anna created Mirror Mirror, it didn’t surprise me at all that it would lend itself to being an original piece of artwork as she is an artist, performer, composer and singer,” says Batt.
“But we also have a score that has musical notation on it that might be more familiar, but it’s still not your standard classical Western European canon piece of music with a music staff and key signature and time signature.”
As Batt goes onto explain, Pidgorna’s score allows additional freedom for interpretation by the artists.
“We have notations of where the sounds are, bamboo sounds, metallic hums, birds and distorted birds and breaking glass,” says Batt. “There is a ton of freedom to be responsive to what is happening.”
Part of that freedom comes in Essential Opera’s visual interpretation that some may find akin to a music video.
“We haven’t really talked about labels we wouldn’t like,” says Batt of how to describe their filmed version of the opera.
“It’s a short film, a short operatic film, a short opera, or it could be called a music video,” she continues. “Any of those terms could describe it.”
Regardless of the label viewers may want to put on it, Batt says it furthers their company’s mission.
“This is our path forward to be telling these stories by women,” she says. “Mirror Mirror is an incredible work by a female Canadian composer. It is not your old, tried, tested and believed-to-be-true classical canon style of work. It is new, it’s exciting, and it’s character-driven.”
Continuing its celebration of female Canadian composers, Essential Opera is already busy working on its next show, the world premiere of Monica Pearce’s short opera December. Dropping on December 1, 2020, the opera, written for three sopranos and string quartet, is about relationships, travel, and holiday chaos. Subscribe to the Essential Opera YouTube channel to be notified when December launches.
Editor’s Note (30 Oct 2020): This interview was edited to clarify details of the original production of Mirror Mirror in 2016 and details of its upcoming show, December.