There's a fire inside of me... Scene One excerpt


Shock Opera - Globe and Mail

   Rap beats, profanity and a scratch DJ as an integral part of the orchestration. The Glenn Gould School's latest world premiere is not your grandmother's opus, writes James Bradshaw

  It's Pandora myth meets Degrassi High on an operatic stage, complete with swearing, sex, violence and a didactic twist.

  Toronto composer Dean Burry's newest creation, Pandora's Locker, is a provocative one-act opera aimed at teenage audiences and commissioned by the Royal Conservatory of Music's Glenn Gould School.

The goal is to create great art that will resonate with young adults and a production that advances the conservatory's educational mandate by taking on topical social issues.

  Tomorrow night's world premiere in the conservatory's Mazzoleni Hall will be lavish. Conductor and composer Brian Current will lead a 13-member orchestra through Burry's work, which is scored for piano, a string quartet and two turntables. The production, directed by Jennifer Parr, features elements of Greek drama and mythology such as a chorus and masques and has been cast with conservatory students of all ages. The story's characters contain elements of archetypal Greek figures from Zeus to Prometheus.

  Burry, 36, has wanted to work with the Pandora myth for many years, but had to wrench it into the present. He disposed of what he saw as misogynistic elements in the story, replacing them with a tale of a woman's struggle to find her voice against the social backdrop of her high school. Conscious of the fact that it had to resonate with a teenage audience, Burry frankly addresses issues of gun violence, broken families, peer alienation and anger.

  His libretto contains liberal use of expletives and he consulted a younger crowd to get a handle on slang. But he tried not to go overboard, hoping to avoid using language that would sound dated in a matter of years.

"I want it to get down, I want it to be gritty, I want it to really speak with an authentic voice. This is the way kids talk to each other in the hallways," said David Visentin, associate dean of the Glenn Gould School, who had been discussing the commission with Burry since 2006.

  To get the point across to potential audiences, the conservatory enlisted the University of Toronto's department of social work to help write a suitable disclaimer to attach to the piece. "It's about finding solutions to contemporary problems using art," Visentin said. "Pandora is about dealing with that which blocks potential: anger, violence, this type of thing."

  Burry, who teaches at the conservatory and has carved out a niche composing for younger audiences, said the educational element is crucial but secondary. "The ultimate goal here is to create a viable, integral, exciting work of art that appeals to younger audiences," he said.

  That also meant exploring the musical tastes of a new generation. "A lot of the rhythm and cadence that you find in rap is used directly in the opera," Burry said, admitting he was no expert in the genre.

To enhance the rhythmic feel, he incorporated a turntable scratch artist, a delicate task which Burry has managed brilliantly, according to Visentin.

  "I didn't want it to be, 'Let's tack on the scratch guy so it looks hip.' He's become an integral part of the orchestration," Visentin said.

  As Burry points out, some phrases were directly inspired by the sounds and rhythms of the DJ scratch: "Pandora-dora-dora, whatcha gonna say, whatcha gonne be, whatcha gonna do?"

Visentin worked hard to fund the new opera, especially when original cost estimates ballooned to between $25,000 and $30,000. He had to "beat bushes" to find new sources of funding, no small task given that the conservatory was in the midst of a major renovation of its Bloor Street home in Toronto, driven by a $110-million fundraising campaign.

  But Visentin found the funds and hopes to commission more projects in the future. It is the conservatory's first operatic commission on this scale, but a model exists in a similarly themed touring production of The Brothers Grimm Burry composed for the Canadian Opera Company from 1998 to 2001.

About 100,000 schoolchildren have seen that production, which is believed to be the most viewed Canadian opera in history. Pandora's Locker could have a similar run, having been designed to pack easily into the back of a van and mount virtually anywhere there is a piano.

-James Bradshaw, December 4, 2008

Pandora's Locker - Composer/Librettist Notes

The contemporary youth opera Pandora's Locker is inspired by the Greek myth of Pandora's Box, in which a young woman's curiosity leads to the unleashing of all the world's evils. It is a simple, archetypal myth, which reflects our own hunt for knowledge and the potential for disaster upon its discovery. This search for information - keys to the future and past - is never more tangible than in the "up-and-down" lives of the average high school teenager. Pandora's curiosity is timeless.

For years, I had imagined setting that most ancient of Greek myths, operatically. The very earliest Western operas, created in Florence, Italy at the beginning of the seventeenth-century, sought to recreate Classical Greek drama, and therefore used Greek and Roman mythology as subject matter almost exclusively for decades. I found myself at the end of a long and venerable tradition of myth as opera so why isn't this piece just called "Pandora's Box"? Why isn't the stage littered with marble columns, a chorus of toga'd singers waiting in the wings? Greek myth is essentially shorthand for the human experience - an experience, which, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, really hasn't changed that much over thousands or millions of years. We all want to know where we came from. We all want to know where we are going. We all want to feel like we belong where we are. Pandora 2008 AD is not so different from Pandora 2008 BC.

That's certainly not to say that myths are the unquestionable shorthand of the human experience. Pandora 2008 BC's world certainly had a different view towards women and there is no denying that this myth is a condemnation of "female curiosity" and "lack of willpower". In fact, the story goes so far as to blame all the evils of the world on Pandora's weakness. Women have suffered, sometimes horribly, under these stereotypes for centuries, and I strongly felt the need to air out this androcentric tale and cast Pandora in her true light: the caretaker of her own fate. Myths can teach us a lot. They answer many questions, but no answer is sacred.

Ask every question.
Question every answer.

Pandora is who Pandora wants to be.

-Dean Burry