Composer Nicole Lizée’s approach to opera is as classical as it gets

Composer Nicole Lizee.RICHMOND LAM/Handout

Don’t let the bots fool you. When it comes to writing her first long opera, composer Nicole Lizée’s approach is almost classic.

This month, Lizée, 49, will attend the world premiere of RUR A torrent of light, which marks an exciting milestone in the history of opera in Canada: a large-scale science fiction opera. Written with librettist Nicholas Billon and inspired by the 1920 play by Karel Capek, Rossum’s universal robots – who first introduced the word “robot” into the English language – A torrent of light asks big questions about humanity’s integration with technology.

Who better than Lizée to write the score for an opera on artificial intelligence set in 2042? The Saskatchewan-born composer and record player is famous for her mind-bending, mind-blowing multimedia works that blend acoustic and electronic sounds – and it’s hard to tell which is which. She is certainly not the first or the only composer to experiment with “non-traditional” instruments, but Lizée specializes in blurring the line between organic and robotic.

“What I wanted to do with this piece is really the integration of the two,” Lizée said in an interview between rehearsals. “The two somehow infiltrated each other’s lives.”

Michael Hidetoshi Mori and Katherine Semchuk test out wearable technology during rehearsals for A Torrent of Light.Martin Iskander/Handout

Lizée’s international recognition – including two Juno Award nominations for Composition of the Year and her 2019 Opus Award for Composer of the Year – arguably stems from her integration skills. A graduate of McGill University, her works are an exciting mix of pop culture influences from Metallica to Kate Bush to Alfred Hitchcock, and there’s a bit of cheeky joy in Lizée’s musical commentary on the world that surrounds it. His vision for A torrent of light it was about giving a sound to this futuristic, probably dystopian world.

“Part of it was imagining what the sound would be like in 2042,” she muses. “I really wanted to imagine a scenario where the space is completely alive. Everything has sonic potential.

At La Lizée, this imagination leads to an eclectic orchestra that mixes “traditional” instruments with, really, anything that could make sound and raise questions about technology. The percussionists play the typewriter; guitars are struck with mallets; the performers even sport wearable technology created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab. Everything is certainly neat and it makes for a fascinating orchestra pit; but the real job lies in Lizée’s ability to deceive our ears.

“When I listen to Nicky [Lizée]I feel like she looks like us,” says Michael Mori, Artistic Director and Director of Tapestry Opera for A torrent of light. “She sounds like a generation that’s integrated with [both] technology and the joy of living. Much like the omnivorous and curious people that we are, Nicky represents us all.

Lizée lives with the story of A torrent of light since 2015, when Mori invited her and Billon to participate in Tapestry’s intensive workshop, the Laboratoire Compositeur-Librettiste.

“He sent me his excerpt to mark, I was immediately moved and it was easy to write”, remembers Lizée of her first collaboration with Billon on RURa short Dora Award-winning prototype of what would become A torrent of light. “We knew from that moment that we absolutely had to find a way to go all out,” adds Lizée, “and we knew that we wanted to realize the full potential of such an opera.

“I love what Nicky came up with,” says Billon. “His score is beautiful, glorious and totally insane.”

Lizée has been living with the story of A torrent of light since 2015.Martin Iskander/Handout

No doubt Lizée fans will be curious to hear how she writes for singers in her first opera, given the composer’s penchant for musical sleight of hand. And today’s opera singers aren’t afraid to make their voices heard; in classical music circles, “extended techniques” can refer to musicians modifying their instruments to produce a sound ranging from unorthodox to downright surreal. In the hands of experts in extended techniques – like Lizée – a cello can sound digital, or a human voice can sound amplified.

“These are the ultimate sound effects,” says Lizée of the singers of A torrent of light. “Rather than just having a reverb effect on an instrument, chorus is there for the real reverb or the real echo or the real filter.”

Emulation technology, says Lizée, allows “a completely different experience. The human voice can do anything.

Now there’s the kind of thing opera fans love to hear from a composer – primacy the voice, or, the vocal rules. Although she probably means it in a slightly different way than Mozart or Rossini, Lizée has the opera composer’s gift for hearing the potential of the human voice.

“The human voice, I think – regardless of what happens in technology – will be here in 20 years,” she says, before summarizing 500 years of operatic history: “The human voice is the form of ultimate expression.”

Lizée shares a remarkable amount of creative DNA with the great opera composers of history. Like Britten with Dream of a summer night, she is a master orchestrator with a fierce curiosity for the sonic potential of an instrument; like Wagner with the ring cycle, she seeks a harmonious fusion of music and story into a single world; like Verdi with almost all his operas, Lizée has her say on the major social issues of her time.

Few topics have the scope of artificial intelligence and its potential to threaten the human race. “It’s even impossible to anticipate where we’re going,” says Lizée, as troubled as she is intrigued by the evolution of technology. “But it’s really, really a problem.”

A torrent of light promises a lot of big questions, but we’ll have to wait until opening night to find out if there are any big answers. Opera and science fiction haven’t often crossed paths, but maybe they should; the best works of both genres are those that tell great stories about the human experience.

On the contrary, Lizée’s opera will offer a new way of thinking about the future of humanity. As Mori puts it, “It’s the perfect space for an AI exploration.”

Register for The Globe Arts & Lifestyle Newsletters for more news, features and advice delivered to your inbox.

Comments are closed.