As a writer and a visual artist with a background in theatre, Amanda Hale had no intention of ever writing an opera.
The artist, who splits her time between Hornby Island and Toronto, has taught creative writing, was a founding member of a Toronto feminist theatre group, has written screenplays and travelled and worked in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean.
But it was a trip to Pompeii in the early 2000s with her niece that served as the catalyst for Pomegranate – which she believes is the first full-length lesbian opera in Canada.
“I was struck by the frescos – they seemed to document a ritual,” she says, and began writing a book of poetry (published in 2007) following the trip.
She imagined two young girls as the inspiration behind the poetry book, which she self-published.
Her cellist friend Kye Marshall read the poems and asked Hale if she could set them to music, which she did for five of the pieces.
In 2014 on International Women’s Day, she had the opportunity to present the pieces for 10 minutes on stage in Toronto. Hale rounded up some student singers along with a harpist, and “the audience absolutely loved it. People said we should make it into an opera.
“A friend also said the same thing, so naively we did.”
When Hale first moved to Toronto in the early 1980s, she decided to learn a bit about opera. She attended a few performances, but admits “I can’t say I know a lot about classical opera.”
She had a bit of musical training playing piano, but she admits writing a libretto is significantly different than writing a novel.
“When you’re writing a novel, you have a lot of freedom. Short stories are a bit more challenging, and screenplay [adaptations] are even more different. With a libretto, you do just the bare bones, and the music will carry the story from one scene to another.”
Hale describes Pomegranate as a circular story about the endurance of love over time, set as a lesbian chamber opera.
Two characters – Suli and Cassia – fall in love during their initiation into the Dionysian Mysteries in ancient Pompeii, 79 AD. When Vesuvius erupts, they are held in time until the couple meets again in 1984 at the Fly by Night, a downtown Toronto lesbian bar.
The lovers face the challenge of Suzie (Suli) coming out to her conservative refugee family, and they are separated as the story circles back to Pompii, now in ruins. The power of memory endures with a final duet as they measure out their years of love in pomegranate seeds.
Hale says audience reaction to the opera – which ran in June at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto – was amazing, with packed houses for the six performances.
“People loved it. We were targeting the queer audience, especially at the start of Pride Month. For lesbians to see their lives on stage, it happens so rarely, especially in opera. The way it was done was not in your face, but very sweet and very irresistible.”
Although its run is over, Hale notes the production may continue, thanks to a connection made with the Canadian Opera Company.
She is hoping the COC may be able to produce the opera; she is also inquiring to see if the Vancouver Opera may be interested in co-producing.
“We want to keep it very modest … we would like to see it maybe out in 2021. This is all beyond our hopes to have the COC on board.
For more information about Pomegranate, visit pomegranateopera.com.