When you think about operas, certain things come to mind, such as stunning arias, foreign languages, and a grand orchestra supplying wonderful music. What about nuclear physics and a five-piece band? Not so much, unless you’re talking about Shelter, presented by Tapestry in co-production with Edmonton Opera. Shelter is an amazingly unique and completely original Canadian opera, ten years in the making. It follows the paths of physicist Lise Meitner (Andrea Ludwig) as she strives to unfurl the mysteries of nuclear energy, as well as Thomas (Andrew Love) and Claire (Christine Duncan), a newly married couple with a shocking secret, a radioactive, glowing baby, Hope (Teiya Kasahara).
These two divergent stories come together as Meitner flees Germany when World War II begins, landing in Hope’s home as her tutor. The plot thickens when the Pilot (Keith Klassen) discovers Hope and wrestles with the orders that he has been given by his commanding officer. These eccentric storylines are highlighted by a rather clever operatic style, well delivered by all the actors and well written by composers Juliet Palmer and librettist Julie Salverson.
The set, designed by Sue LePage, manages to be both magical and quaint simultaneously. A giant, glorious, star-filled circle above the stage greets the audience before the start of the opera, shifting to physics formulas, clouds, and rain throughout the night. All the while, rows of two-foot high paper houses fill the sides of the stage, giving Thomas, Claire, and Hope a neighbourhood in which to live.
The story, while wildly original and peppered with both amusing and serious moments, feels somewhat empty and incomplete. The characters are slightly undeveloped, and coupled with a deliberately slower paced opera style throughout the entire show, the pacing does seem to drag at times. The ensemble is remarkably engaged in each and every scene and a real connection is made between each character and between the characters and the audience. The entire opera feels at times like it is on the cusp of breaking out and truly coming to life, but the absence of a tight story works to counteract that.
Shelter is certainly a unique kind of opera experience. There is terrific work by both cast and crew in bringing such an unorthodox idea to life. It is a show that defies the conventions of what an opera is considered to be, and does so in a brave and brash fashion.
photo credit: Michael Mori