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Mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson relishes multiple roles in George Benjamin opera on how society treats the “other”

Photo by Flick Harrison
Emma Parkinson sings the voice of the mayor in Into the Little Hill. Photo by Flick Harrison.

Opera has a long history of ‘trouser roles’. Also known as “pants roles”, the term applies to a female performer who appears in male clothing as a male character.

“I personally really love playing male characters,” Vancouver mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson tells Pancouver over Zoom. “I’ve done so quite a few times over my career because of being a mezzo.”

Parkinson will perform another pants role in the Astrolabe Musik Theatre’s upcoming performance of Into the Little Hill. It’s English composer George Benjamin’s modern retelling of the The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Martin Crimp’s libretto zeroes in on how people respond to the “other”.

In this Canadian premiere of Into the Little Hill, Parkinson will sing voices of the male minister, narrator, and the crowd. It’s directed and choreographed by Idan Cohen.

“I’m really looking forward to discovering all the layers of character and the layers of vocal excitement and textures—playing around with different colours in the voice—through all of this fascinating writing,” Parkinson says.

Parkinson has Chinese ancestry, making her a rarity among Canadian opera singers. Her dad is a theatre director and she grew up taking piano and dance lessons.

“My parents used to love playing CDs of opera in the house when I was a kid,” she says.

In those days, Parkinson hated opera, running from her room to avoid it. But in her teen years, she witnessed opera live and became hooked by the characters and the emotions.

“It was a whole different thing than hearing it through speakers,” Parkinson says.

From there, she studied opera at university.

Photo by Flick Harrisonn
In addition to being a soprano, Heather Pawsey (right) is founding artistic director and general manager of Astrolabe Musik Theatre. Photo by Flick Harrison.

Opera raises challenging issues

Parkinson has since performed in many productions, including City Opera Vancouver’s world premiere of Chinatown by Alice Ping Yee Ho and Madeleine Thien.

Meanwhile, veteran soprano Heather Pawsey will sing the stranger, minister’s wife, and minister’s child in Into the Little Hill.

Pawsey, also founding artistic director of Astrolabe Music Theatre, reveals that she’s wanted to produce this opera for nearly 10 years. She’s particularly impressed by the librettist’s use of Brechtian techniques of distancing to remind the audience that they’re not watching a re-creation of life.

“It takes away the focus from an individual character’s plight and actually focuses our attention more on what the opera itself is saying—what the situation is saying,” Pawsey says on the same Zoom call.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin is one of the most enduring stories in western folklore. When the mayor of the German town refuses to pay the piper for getting rid of rats, he uses his flute to lead the children away.

“I went into this just saying, ‘Who are we labelling as rats in our society?’ ” Pawsey says. “We still do this. Every society on this planet labels people as rats.”

She then questions why some get to decide to do this. “Who are the people doing the labelling? And what are we willing to do to get rid of that?”

It’s not lost on her that Into the Little Hill is being performed six weeks after Vancouver police took down a large homeless camp on East Hastings Street.

“This opera hits you in the gut from the first moment,” Pawsey says. “And by the end, you’re just in a very heightened emotional state.”

She hasn’t felt this way  about other any other opera apart from two others composed by Benjamin with Crimp librettos: Written on Skin and Lessons in Love and Violence.

Photo by Flick Harrison
Photo by Flick Harrison.

Pawsey’s vision for Into the Little Hill

Even though Into the Little Hill is written for two singers, Pawsey always imagined it with dancers. In 2018, she met Cohen, who had established his opera-dance company, Ne. Sans, the previous year.

“He was directing a one-woman opera that I was doing,” Pawsey recalls.

Immediately after their first rehearsal, she told him that he was the director-choreographer that she was seeking for another show. They’ve since worked together on other projects. Leslie Dala, who’s collaborated with Cohen and Pawsey in the past, is music director of Into the Little Hill.

According to Pawsey, Benjamin’s use of orchestration is very unusual.

“First violin doubles as mandolin and the second violin doubles as the banjo,” she says.

In addition, there are bass coronets and bass clarinets. The bass flute is always associated with the stranger’s character.

“It’s very crystalline,” Pawsey points out. “It’s very concentrated and intense; it’s very intentional.”

Photo by Flick Harrison
Photo by Flick Harrison.

Dancers get singers out of their heads

As for Parkinson, she has sung contemporary music in the past. However, she’s never encountered music quite like Benjamin’s.

“It’s been a great challenge and a really fun exercise for me to negotiate all these different registers,” Parkinson says. “I’m really excited about it.”

She’s also thrilled that there will be dancers on-stage.

“It gets you out of your head,” the mezzo-soprano states. “We can so easily, as singers, zero in on our technique, focusing so hard to execute this.”

To that, Pawsey says “100 percent”.

“When we have someone like Idan, who is intentionally choreographing both Emma and I, it’s…such a gift, and it’s so freeing,” Pawsey says. “And it’s fun.”

In partnership with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, Astrolabe Musik Theatre will present the Canadian premiere of Into the Little Hill at 7:30 p.m. on Friday (May 19) and Saturday (May 20) in the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. It’s in the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (149 West Hastings Street). For more information, visit AstrolabeMusikTheatre.com. Tickets are available at Eventbrite.ca. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.