Colleen Murphy: On LibLab and Living Opera

By Sharon Savunthararajah

Thirteen years ago, Colleen Murphy was coming out a period of frustration with theatre and film. She wanted something more, but did not know what. As if falling off the edge a cliff, grasping at air and luckily hanging onto a branch, she applied for LIBLAB, which turned out to be the hand that kept her from falling. In fact, this program inspired her to write and continue to write opera even today.

For a playwright like Murphy, who does not get to meet composers often, LIBLAB is an opportunity to do so in a close setting: it brings creators from different places in music and drama, and who see the world differently, together to create under the same conditions and with the same assignments. Despite the intimacy of the situation, no one is embarrassed to make a mistake, for it is all part of exploration. This exploration, and the ideas that this exploration produces, is what seems to bring her back to LIBLAB.

These reasons are also why Murphy believes LIBLAB is at the center of opera creation. LIBLAB is an idea-generating machine, she says. Sometimes the ideas are big and sometimes they are small; some of them are brought to Briefs onstage and have the potential to grow into a full-length opera. It was at this center where Oksana G was imagined. The opera, which tells a compelling story of sex trafficking in Ukraine, was conceived during her first time at LIBLAB and premiered during Tapestry’s 2016-2017 season.

She has returned, not only with a greater experience with opera, but a greater love for it. There are possibilities she desires to explore which she says are different from her first time.

To Murphy, ‘new opera’ has come to mean “no restraints and restrictions of how you tell a story through a voice”. And because of this, opera is able to express aspects of a character that are typically inexpressible. “…when a character cannot express what they feel by talking then they must sing a song. And when a character cannot express what they feel by singing a song then they must sing an opera. And when a character cannot express what they feel by singing an opera then they must scream. I believe that opera rubs up against the edge of primal out-of-control-ness.”

She expresses the unique potential of opera with eloquence:

“Opera is the past because it’s the closest form in western culture that most resembles the theatre of Ancient Greece. On the other hand, opera is, I believe the future because there are so many huge feelings in the world today – intimate, criminal, absurd, political, social, emotional – huge feelings that demand a primal form in which to be expressed and exploded… Living opera has the potential to insist people to revolt, to move people to topple the gods, and to cry and laugh and gasp. And when the form is freed of its constraints then opera will move out onto the street and become a kind of mid-21st-century thunder.”

New opera has the ability to explore and express the feelings we feel at present, without restraint, pulling opera into the future.

Sharon Savunthararajah is an undergraduate marketing student at Ryerson University at the Ted Rogers School of Management and studies Digital Media at OCAD University. She currently provides pro-bono marketing consulting services within her community and constantly looks for ways to experiment with media. 

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