When Michael Mori, Tapestry Opera’s artistic director, called Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi in for an audition for the world premiere of Aaron Gervais & Colleen Murphy’s opera Oksana G. less than two months before the show’s opening, Ms. Gennadi never dreamed she could be auditioning for the title role.
Soprano Ambur Braid, an established rising star in Canadian opera, had previously been announced as the choice to portray Oksana, a victim of human trafficking. But when Ms. Braid had to withdraw from the commitment to pursue an opportunity overseas, Michael Mori started making calls.
“I was convinced my audition was to be an understudy,” Ms. Gennadi told Musical Toronto over the phone. “It was quite a shock.”
It’s hard to imagine a role more tailor-made for Natalya Gennadi, a lyric soprano who immigrated to Canada from Ukraine eleven years ago, than Oksana G. The opera is sung in various languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, Italian and English – realistically depicting Europe’s multilingual make-up. Ms. Gennadi grew up speaking Russian, Ukrainian and English, and has witnessed first-hand the consequences of human trafficking in the 1990s, when the opera takes place.
“Thank god I never experienced anything like what happens in the piece,” she explains, “but growing up I heard stories. You have to think of the economic situation [in Ukraine at that time]. We were coming from state-organized economics into free fall. People were lost; they were trained to survive. When somebody came by and offered you a legitimate job as a nanny or a maid in a hotel, you took it.”
Ms. Gennadi has experience portraying leading ladies, such as the title role in Suor Angelica, Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana), Amelia (Un ballo in maschera), Contessa (Le nozze di Figaro) and Donna Anna (Don Giovanni). Yet, she admits that none of these women compare to portraying Oksana, calling her the most “realistic” character she’s portrayed, which has been made even more challenging because of the limited time frame with which she has had to prepare her.
“Normally you have time to prepare and detach yourself emotionally [from a role],” she explains. “For example, when I work on Suor Angelica, I’m a mother — it’s very hard. You go through tears, but then you practice it. Here I had limited time and the piece is emotionally very draining. I am trying to be a professional where I can convey the message so my audience cries and I don’t.”
And as for vocally?
“This is extreme music,” she laughs.“It’s like Tosca and Traviata in one opera.” Natalya Gennadi/Oksana G Click To Tweet
When asked what Toronto audiences can expect from Oksana G., Ms. Gennadi gets right to the point.
“It is a heavy piece,” she admits. “It is graphic. It is realistic, like a movie. But, it has lots of love in it, and lots of real, human interaction and hope. There are humorous moments because it’s life, not Greek drama. There is colour.”
Ms. Gennadi also believes this opera holds relevance to Toronto audiences in 2017.
“The problem still exists,” she states. “It doesn’t only exist in struggling countries, but here as well. We still have human trafficking. People approach young women or girls in high schools and universities and they are being lured.
“These women were regular women,” she continues. “Sisters, mothers, daughters. Oksana is a loved child from a good solid family, preparing to go to university. We can’t just think of our most vulnerable people. It can happen to anybody.”
Oksana G. runs from May 24th-May 30th at the Canadian Opera Company’s Imperial Oil Theatre. It is directed by Tom Diamond and music directed by Jordan D’Souza, and co-stars Kristina Szabo, Adam Fisher and Keith Klassen.
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