Michael Mori, Artistic Director of Tapestry Opera
"There's no joy greater than an unexpected joy."
Michael Mori is the Artistic Director of Tapestry Opera. According to its website, Tapestry celebrates its 40th anniversary this year with some landmark projects. This is his tenth year in his leadership role as Artistic Director.
One of those projects is the return of ‘The Rocking Horse Winner’ based on D. H. Lawrence’s short story. Tapestry’s production runs to November 12 at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre. In 2016, it was a five-time Dora Award winner in five categories. When I asked him if Michael and the cast were still riding high on that accomplishment, he said:
“You know, it was really funny because we were not expecting it. We were up against some terrific work...We were just going for the free party. There’s no joy greater than an unexpected joy. I remember just being thrilled at the time…what I’ve always loved about Tapestry Opera is the original work the company does in the same way that Mozart and Puccini did…this brings out extraordinary performances because everyone is invested in the creation together.”
He laughed and said it had been seven years since the Dora win. Everyone had moved on to other projects, so the ‘riding high’ has abated. This coup for Tapestry was in the early years of Mori’s artistic direction. This acknowledgment has helped the company be better known as much as a contemporary opera company in Toronto can be known now. The future looks bright for Tapestry as there are collaborations, co-productions, and commissions.
But as Mori concluded this part of our conversation:
“It’s onward to the next original thing that we think has something to say.”
Mori trained in many places as an artist. He started as a boy soprano in New York and was privileged to sing in an excellent church choir. Through that opportunity, he auditioned as a boy soprano, where his professional career began in opera and off-Broadway musicals. He attended the University of British Columbia and received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in performance and spent a few summers in Vienna and Salzburg refining his work.
Our conversation then steered toward the art of opera and why it continues to be essential and relevant for twenty-first-century audiences. Mori began by discussing the addiction to or the increasing reliance on screens for engaging with ‘art.’ As one of the most sophisticated, complex, and layered art forms, opera is like the perfect counterpart to a screen-obsessed culture. It’s not the fact that people desire screens; they’re just in our lives so much, and we can’t avoid them. The default to screens has made us hungry for something bigger and more attractive.
He continues further:
“If there’s an antidote to mindless screen time, opera can be that when it’s wonderful. In the set and spectacle design, you can see so much artistry on display in many layers, from the music to the performances. When they work together, it can be overwhelming in the best way, especially when you feel moved and you can’t put a name on it. We don’t have this in the screen world. That’s what I love about opera, including Tapestry, Atelier, and the COC.”
Tapestry Opera continues to build its company and artists as a viable twenty-first-century art form inspired by the techniques created over the last 500 years of proto-opera to post-Romantic and contemporary. Toronto is in a beautiful nexus of cultures where we have access to rock and roll, hip hop, Persian, and all kinds of classical music from all over the world that should be incorporated into opera. Some audience members may hear some opera and say: “That’s me.” And that’s what opera should be.
How does Mori feel about all these changes in the performing arts industry, as opera falls into this category?
“The statistics are that formerly loyal attendees are returning in 50% - 75% numbers, which is catastrophic for legacy companies. But also, we are seeing the highest number of new audiences in recent history, across the board, in theatre, symphony, and opera. The problem in opera is that people don’t donate as those who have been coming to theatre usually do, so there are questions on how to manage that.”
Mori sees the considerable opportunity of tying into what opera can offer. After being cooped away for three years, he believes people are looking to be stimulated again and are open to things they haven’t considered before. That’s an excellent opportunity for companies and artists to think about how to really relate to how people consume art now or would like to consume. How can companies and artists make the live experience more thrilling, more compelling, and more friendly for people to engage with and leave appreciative.
Our conversation then veered to ‘Rocking Horse Winner.’ I remember reading D. H. Lawrence’s short story many years ago in high school. The production was supposed to have been performed in 2020, but we all know what happened then. The cast recording of ‘Rocking Horse Winner’ has been played on CBC radio several times.
From Michael’s vision as production director, what about the story still speaking to a contemporary audience today?
He provided some historical context first. Lawrence lived during the First World War and wrote in the decade immediately after, which was a tumultuous time for Great Britain. There was a disillusionment of the class system at that time. Power had shifted so much back then. What’s relevant about this historical context now? Within the last twenty years, the same thing appeared today: the power holders have shifted so much from the ‘technocrats,’ technology controllers, and the multinational conglomerations of mega-corporations.
Change is happening in our world with the pandemic and the incredible sense of inflation. What ties all this together is money and how that relates to power and agency.
The real thing about Tapestry’s production of ‘Rocking Horse’ is someone obsessed with money and feels like she needs love; this is Ava from the opera. She is essentially a single mother raising a child with some challenges. She’s not connected to her child (Paul). She’s obsessed with money, being told what we’re meant to be, and staying in the upper class while not necessarily having the wherewithal to change her fortune or make that decision. Obsession with money is nothing new at all. ‘Rocking Horse Winner’ is a universal story about people whose parents have made so much money over the last twenty years, but they don’t have any questions about how money is made.
The opera/story is dark. There might not be any lessons learned, but it’s a great reminder that any of us can change the destiny of many, many people, and many things by doing generous acts instead of selfish acts. Just by choosing selfish acts, we have no idea what we’re condemning to a great misfortune. The libretto is structured so that any of the three adults in the room could have stopped the terrible end from happening.
The first time Michael directed ‘Winner’ he wasn’t a parent. Now that he is a parent, he recognizes that adults/parents have such influence over the trajectory of their children’s lives, how they think and what their value system is.
I’ve already reviewed the production. Here’s the link to my review:
Will the production tour to other Canadian cities once it finishes its run at Crow’s?
“There are people coming who would like to see what it’s all about, so it is our intention to do so, although nothing is confirmed yet. It’s in the cards, and it’s our hope that it will happen.”
Within this challenging economy of performing arts companies, ‘Rocking Horse Winner’ is not a bad show for opera companies to consider. It’s very lyrical. It’s neo-classical. For people who love opera and the theatre, ‘Winner’ is in that happy middle place for Mori. The production is an hour-packed dramatic piece without the challenges one might see at other companies. The pacing of the show is what one might see in theatres. The show has a good track record in the world.
What’s next for Michael once ‘Rocking Horse Winner’ has completed its run?
“Well, we’re in the midst of building a new venue just north of Yonge and Bloor. We’re building a two-venue rehearsal and performance space with an office facility. There’s been a massive venue crisis within the last ten years for the arts industry. Tapestry wants to be part of the solution. It wants to provide space for independent artists to come and use the facility so that it’s affordable for people who want to create new works eventually. I’ll be fundraising.”
Tapestry is also running a million-dollar fellowship for women conductors in partnership with the TSO and a partnership of about twenty-five orchestras and opera companies across Canada. Tapestry also has some fantastic shows planned for the spring. He will also direct some shows away from Tapestry down in the U.S.
‘Rocking Horse Winner’ continues at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, until November 12. Visit crowstheatre.com to purchase tickets.