New opera by Haitian-Canadian composer puts Black performers, stories in spotlight
Composer David Bontemps poses during a break in rehearsal for his new opera La Flambeau in Montreal, Monday, January 30, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes.
Marisela Amador , The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, February 2, 2023 6:02AM EST
When the opera "La Flambeau" premieres next week in Montreal, Black performers will be front and centre in an artistic medium where they have historically been under-represented.
The work by Haitian-Canadian composer and pianist David Bontemps explores topical themes such as women's rights and the need for social justice and compassion, while criticizing corruption, misogyny and the abuse of power.
Taras Kulish, the executive director of the Orchestre classique de Montréal, said he specifically chose the project because the chamber orchestra is on a mission to prove that the world of classical music consists of more than just "white male composers."
"We are very proud of this world premiere," Kulish said in an interview. "We really want artists from different backgrounds, whether it be from the LGBTQ community, or the Black community or Indigenous communities, to shine."
Bontemps, who was born in Port-au-Prince and moved to Montreal in 2002, composed the chamber opera in 2020 at the start of the pandemic.
"For me, it is the story that shines because the text has strong historical references to what the Haitian culture has retained of its African ancestry and its concept of being Creole," he said in an interview. "It's both historical and artistic, which is the link to (Black History Month)."
The opera tells the story of a dysfunctional couple, Monsieur and Madame. Monsieur is an intellectual with political ambitions, and Madame appears to have gone mad as she continues conversing with her deceased mother and uncle. The couple hires Mademoiselle, a young working-class woman from a small village, as their maid.
Monsieur becomes infatuated with Mademoiselle's beauty and betrays his own principles by abusing her psychologically and physically. Mademoiselle flees the home in search of help. Finally, in the middle of the night, Monsieur is visited by a stranger who condemns him to live as a zombie who must serve Mademoiselle and the community.
"I love the story because it touches on language in Haiti with French and Creole, class, education, justice and belief systems and also the idea that a society or a country without respect, love and harmony is in total chaos," Bontemps said.
"La Flambeau" features four prominent Black opera performers: Cameroonian-born soprano Suzanne Taffot, Canadian mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel, Jamaican-Canadian tenor Paul Williamson and Canadian bass Korin Thomas‑Smith.
"This project was really marvellous and perfect for us. And the music is interesting and powerful," Kulish said. "With these types of projects, we want to align ourselves with what is happening within the community, and we knew that February is Black History Month, so it was obvious that this needed to be presented then."
Williamson, who plays the part of Monsieur, has been an opera performer for the past 30 years. During a break from a recent rehearsal, he recounted that throughout his career, he has faced discrimination because of the colour of his skin.
"I had to deal with racism. Colleagues not knowing how to relate to me. I had to deal with people calling me all sorts of derogatory names," he said. "My hope is that projects like this will show people that it is more than just what somebody looks like and that we can be part of a blend of art. That you can be any race or colour and that you can still play the part because you have the skills to do it."
Taffot, who interprets the character of Mademoiselle, noted that operas today need to reflect their audience and the public.
"To have a company like Orchestre classique de Montréal that really wants to do its part is really important and really admirable," she said. "Representation in the arts, and specifically in opera, is essential, and not just during Black History Month but every day."
The opera is based on a play by Haitian poet and playwright Faubert Bolivar, whom Bontemps befriended when they attended law school together in Haiti.
"The themes of justice and respect for others are universal themes that we will never stop addressing," Bontemps said. "We can never stop reflecting on these themes. We have been speaking about justice since the beginning of time in many forms."
"La Flambeau" will make its debut Tuesday at Salle Pierre-Mercure in downtown Montreal.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 2, 2023.
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