Jonah Falco (left) and Mike Haliechuk (right) of Fucked Up rehearsing TAP:EX Metallurgy. Photo by: Dahlia Katz
What do punk and opera have in common?
"There are people out there who think both genres are dead," says Fucked Up drummer Jonah Falco over the phone, as a melodious mezzo-soprano lilts in the background. "So this might be the ultimate Frankenstein experiment, stitching two corpses together. But I don't think so."
He's speaking from rehearsals for his new opera, TAP:EX Metallurgy, which premieres tonight in Toronto. Metallurgy is a collaboration between two members of the ambitious Toronto hardcore band (Falco, along with guitarist Mike Haliechuk, and Absolutely Free's Moshe Fisher-Rozenberg on synths), composer Ivan Barbotin, librettist David James Brock, plus virtuosic opera singers Krisztina Szabó and David Pomeroy.
It's the latest TAP:EX experiment from Tapestry Opera, the third annual series that aims to find the next step in the evolution of opera and art music and, in the words of director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, "lift the stereotype [of opera] as some untouchable, historical lecture hall thing."
Mori sees the similarities between punk and opera — "both use a wall of sound to influence how you feel at times," he jokes, "and both also have moments when you have no idea what they’re saying but you just feel the power" — but there's more to this than "punk meets opera." It's more of an argument that both those genre tags are, essentially, constructs. "I don’t think that the boundaries we think exist between genres actually are there," he says. "I think it’s more a continuum of music and that’s why it’s exciting to push down the fence."
Falco agrees: "There's so much coding that goes on when you say 'I'm going to The Opera or I'm going to a Punk Show.' It creates an economy of experience and it can be really damaging to just experiencing something interesting and unexpected."
[Opera is always] the 'it's good for you' thing. Eat your vegetables because they're good for you, go to the dentist because it's good for you. It's never because it's something that you really want to do.
Though "underground" and "opera" aren't two words you'd typically put together, Mori is careful not to frame this as an attempt to be hip and youthful ("It's not like putting a backwards baseball cap on your math teacher," quips Falco). As many big opera institutions like Ottawa's Opera Lyra close, hampered by an ageing audience and fluctuating arts funding, many have posited that classical and art music need to get younger. But Mori disagrees. He says, instead, it needs to get more interesting.
"The big establishment companies often say 'how do we bring in younger audiences' but the truth is they should be creating something interesting that people will want to go to regardless of their age, regardless of whether or not they're opera going audiences. My goal is not to bring out young people, my goal is to provide really, really great art and entertainment with an eye on what people enjoy today."
"It's sort of like the 'it's good for you' thing. Eat your vegetables because they're good for you, go to the dentist because it's good for you. It's never because it's something that you really want to do."
The team behind TAP:EX Metallurgy. Photo by: Dahlia Katz
Falco says he tires of labelling everything "punk," but this fits in line with Fucked Up's ongoing evolution in relation to their genre and band name. If punk was a challenge to all music that came before it, FU then challenge punk and hardcore. The "coding" that he speaks to earlier envelops all sorts of attitudes about education and class, and by composing opera without any formal training, finding a shared language with their collaborators, they're smashing through those usual barriers. They're still a few white guys with relatively comfortable Toronto upbringings, but they're a hardcore band with a swear in their name entering a perceived high art arena, and that's something.
"The idea that you can’t communicate with somebody because they know something you don’t is this really outdated, monstrous kind of evil thing," he says, hinting at the class-informed history of literacy rates. "It’s akin to only one book existing and the only people who can read are the people who also can hit you with a hammer."Both sides of the collaboration are almost giddy at the process of meeting on each other's turf. What exactly that will translate into will be somewhat of a surprise (the one clip released in advance offers a glimpse of intermingling operatic vocals and crunchy, distorted guitars, but only a glimpse). "It’s about the shadow of a melody and a shadow of a person coming together to sort of form a very beautiful shape," Falco explains, purposely enigmatically.
Punk fans are often as conservative about what does and doesn't "belong" as anyone on the other side, and opera seems like a fitting sacred cow to make profane.
"If I found out the drummer and the guitar player of a band I liked wrote an opera, I don't know if I would go," Falco admits. "But I'm sure someone will be curious. It's kind of a cool act of betrayal to go to say. ‘I know you guys like those two minute songs and even the 10 minute ones, and you know what, you’ve been with us for the 20 minute songs. And now we're really going to push you to the limit. How much more can you take?'"
Sign me up, at least.