Upon arriving at the derelict warehouse that plays host to The Children’s Crusade, audience members are shepherded into a curtained-off area that functions as a makeshift lobby. You stand, and as showtime nears and the crowd swells, so does the excitement. You begin to feel as all performers must, waiting in the wings of the “theatre,” full of anticipation.
A new opera by renowned Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer with direction by Tim Albery, The Children’s Crusade receives its world premiere in a six-show run as part of Luminato. Inspired by medieval legend, it chronicles the travels and travails of a young “holy child” (boy soprano Jacob Abrahamse) on a mission from God to unite Christians, Jews and Muslims through love, where force has previously failed. To this end, Schafer’s libretto embraces the ideas of childhood innocence, purity and passion, and asks how they are able to withstand the cruelty and cynicism of the older, allegedly wiser world.
Staged in a “found” space—a vast warehouse in downtown Toronto’s west end—this crusade involves more than 100 performers, including the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, musicians from the Toronto Consort playing an array of period instruments, and well-known theatre actor Diego Matamoros. The ranks grow much larger when one considers that each member of the audience is also, in essence, a player in this epic show. The crowd becomes a part of the holy child’s entourage, joining his trek to Jerusalem, moving around the warehouse space and bearing witness as he convinces other orphans and street urchins of his quest, endures the comic scorn of the French king, is enticed by the sins of the flesh and finally reaches the sea, which, he hopes, will bear him to the Holy Land. Audience members are encouraged to wear comfortable shoes, to make the 90-minute journey less taxing. (If your legs are worn out by the end of the performance, consider it a further layer of the performance. You can now empathize further with those children who walked across a continent, tired and hungry, but spurred by their belief in the goodness of humanity.)
Schafer’s score is somewhat minimalist–recitative-heavy vocal performances punctuated by burst of brass, sinuous arpeggios from the zither, and even the occasional eerie melody played on a saw–and surprisingly populist, encompassing everything madrigals to burlesque-style music and shored up by identifiable motifs. But it’s the staging that is truly the star of this show. The warehouse space is huge, yet almost every corner of it is utilized. By this writer’s count there are eight major movements engaged in by the performers and audience; the amount of coordination necessary to pull them off is extremely high. That it is so successful is a testament to the scope of director Albery’s vision and talent. It also means that, even in a festival packed with works that could be described as “unique,” “innovative” and “ambitious,” The Children’s Crusade stands out.June 5, 6, 8 to 11. 153 Dufferin St., 8 p.m., $40. Visit Ticketmaster or the T.O. Tix booth at Yonge-Dundas Square to purchase tickets.