Sarah Vardy and Tyler Duncan in the City Opera Vancouver production of Nigredo Hotel. Photo by Michelle Koebke.
Sarah Vardy and Tyler Duncan in the City Opera Vancouver production of Nigredo Hotel. Photo by Michelle Koebke.

Have you ever wanted a small taste of live opera, without committing to the full bite? City Opera Vancouver is giving Vancouver audiences the opportunity to whet their opera palates with Nigredo Hotel, a 60-minute, jazz-influenced, Hitchcock-resembling operatic thriller.

The Canadian chamber opera, with libretto by Ann-Marie MacDonald and music by Nick Gotham, follows the fictional story of Raymond, a neurosurgeon who gets into a car accident in the middle of the night, and retreats to a nearby hotel looking for help. There, he meets Sophie, the hotel proprietor resembling a madwoman. As the plot twists and turns, Raymond comes to recognize the truth about Sophie’s identity, and the vital role she plays in his life.

Audiences will find Nigredo Hotel to be unique, primarily due to Gotham’s incorporation of jazz influences into the score. The idea of a traditional chamber orchestra is replaced by a combo of instrumentalists on the piano, bass, percussion and clarinet. The score weaves in and out of varying musical styles, with hints of jazz and musical theatre at the beginning, swelling into lush, operatic lines near the end.

A frequent performer at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Tyler Duncan, who will play Raymond, first studied jazz at Vancouver Community College before transferring to UBC to pursue opera. He claims his training in jazz has been extremely valuable in helping him prepare for the role.

“Having studied jazz voice at Vancouver Community College, it’s really fun to come back to where I started,” he says. “The jazz background has prepared me greatly for this whole career, mostly because of having an independent sense of rhythm. Also, changing [my] vocal production at various stages in the opera to fit the mood of the piece requires some extended technique, jazz technique.”

Duncan goes on to say the instrumental combo, as opposed to a full orchestra, provides more flexibility for the singers to play around with the notes and rhythms in the score. There is also an aspect of improvisation to their performance.

“There’s always an element of bringing something of yourself; bringing something new; bringing some character into the music,” he says. “But Nick Gotham and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s text ask you to go further; they want you to bring out more.”

For soprano Sarah Vardy, the role of Sophie checks off another box on her performance bucket-list.

“Luckily, my two favourite authors in all of Canada are Ann-Marie MacDonald and Margaret Atwood, so I feel like I’m fulfilling a little bit of a literary dream right now,” she says.

Vardy’s first role with City Opera Vancouver was in the premiere of Margaret Atwood and Tobin Stokes’ chamber opera Pauline in 2014. A frequent performer of Wagner and Verdi, she is looking forward to tackling her portrayal of Sophie’s contrasting, multi-layered personality.

“This is a big departure from other characters that I’ve played before, so it’s a challenge, vocally and acting-wise, but it’s really rewarding,” she says.

Vardy also recognizes the need to celebrate our country’s music in all its forms.

“I really feel the importance and the need to do more Canadian works, and to be able to show Canadians that there’s a wealth of music here in Canada.”

A strong believer that opera can be accessible to anyone, Vardy notes that the English text, diverse musical influences, and relatable characters and storyline are key to making Nigredo Hotel an opera that will be enjoyable for all.

It is also one that will instigate some interesting conversations. What remains when things can no longer be explained by critical thinking? What parts of ourselves, covered up and pressed down over time, do our souls seek to reignite?

Nigredo Hotel holds the key to these questions, but you’ll need to turn the knob and step into the room, or The Cultch in this case, to find them.

Nigredo Hotel plays the Historic Theatre at The Cultch September 20 – 22. Visit cityoperavancouver.com for tickets and information.