Stage News

Canadian Opera Company goes hip-hop

TORONTO (Reuters) - The Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, best known for staging classical European operas for nearly 60 years, is breaking new ground with an original hip-hop-inspired production on Wednesday.

Soprano Teiya Kasahara, baritone Justin Welsh, pianist Liz Upchurch, plus local rap DJs lil Jaz and T.R.A.C.K.S. composed the work in hip-hop beat mode, rather than operatic orchestration and vocals.

Their new work, “Hip Hopera,” is a story about the challenges faced by an interracial couple.

“Because we had such a strong and clear focus of what we wanted to present in this piece, the creative work flowed quite smoothly and naturally,” Kasahara explained.

“Even the fusion of the two genres just seemed to fit as we wrote the words and music, blending them together -- so did the genres of hip-hop and opera.”

Hip-hop, consisting of rhythmic rapping over backing beats usually performed on a turntable by a DJ, may seem an unlikely style to combine with opera. But Nina Draganic, the opera company’s programming director, discovered that the two musical genres make a good match.

“We wanted to try to debunk some of the myths and challenge preconceptions around hip-hop music and rap,” which is seen in some circles as glorifying violence and misogyny, according to Draganic.

“If you look at any opera, it’s rife with murder, rape and misogyny and even incest,” she added. “The darker side is a part of life and all great art attempts to shine some light on that and deal with it.”

Although this is the first time a hip hopera has been produced by the Canadian Opera Company, the genre has been growing in recent years.

Two high-profile variations on the genre include “Carmen: A Hip Hopera,” a 2001 television movie starring Beyonce Knowles, and a 22-chapter music video “Trapped in the Closet” by R&B singer R. Kelly.

Britain’s English National Opera production of hip-hop fusion “Gaddafi: A Living Myth” in 2006, met mixed reviews.

Hip hopera is just another stage in the ongoing evolution of musical performance, said John Karastamatis, of Toronto-based Mirvish Productions.

“What we think of as opera right now is a historical piece of musical theater,” he said. “No such thing exists. What used to be called operas are now called musicals.”

Opera evolved into musicals and rock operas, he said.

“Hip Hopera” is genre defying,” Draganic said of the production, a collaboration with Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and part of a free urban music series at the Four Seasons Centre.

“You can’t say it’s an opera or a hip-hop piece,” she said. “It’s an entirely new fusion that attempts to really let the two art forms invigorate one another and create something new.”