“How did everyone sleep last night?” the artistic administrator of the opera company began as my cast gathered for an emergency meeting.
We knew why they’d called us. Major league sports were cancelled, the prime minister’s wife was infected, and Canada’s cases were rapidly climbing. We knew our show’s days were numbered.
Halfway through a four-month tour of British Columbia, performing for 120 schools and 60,000 children, my cast and I were exhausted but invigorated from sharing an important story through song and movement.
Before I’d accepted the contract, friends and family had expressed hesitancy.
“It will be gruelling,” they’d warned, worried for my physical and emotional strength during the tour’s demanding schedule.
But I knew I had grit.
Half a lifetime earlier, I’d taken a similarly challenging voyage. I’d paddled seven hundred kilometres along the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River in Northern Ontario. My experiences on that river had taught me just how resilient I could be; resilience which had only increased in my years navigating a career as an opera singer.
Before my canoe trip on the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat, my fifteen-year-old brain had swirled with anxieties and quiet dreads. Would my trip mates like me? How would I withstand the long days of paddling and portaging? Could we overcome the river’s isolated, unforgiving terrain?
As my cast mates and I practised loading our opera set into the tour’s van over a decade later, a feat we would repeat multiple times daily between demanding shows, I was reminded of those pre-canoe trip fears. My fifteen-year-old self showed up again as I worried about cast dynamics and the physical and psychological demands of performing so many repeated shows.
On both trips, my fears quickly proved groundless.
Between spirited renditions of Radiohead’s “Creep” in our tents and discussions of existentialism under a waning late-summer moon, quiet bliss descended upon us along the shores of the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat. Resting my head on my friend Cecily’s mosquito-jacketed shoulder, I’d gaze mistily at the river’s ripples through a haze of campfire smoke, wondering what it meant to experience so much on this hushed, unpopulated stretch of earth.
(photo taken on the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat river in August, 2005)
Fifteen years later a similar comfort emerged as we settled into a steady rhythm of performances and van pack-ups. As my friend Perri did up my costume before performances, we’d discuss books by Ocean Vuong, Maggie Nelson, and Jenny Odell. On breaks, I’d sing as she’d play through excerpts of La traviata, brushing away our tender-hearted tears before quickly running to places as we heard students filing into the schools’ gyms.
Whether gazing out the tour van’s window or in the bow of a friend’s canoe, I found calm in both journeys’ kinetic ostinatos of trees, sky, water, and human experience gradually passing me by.
(photo taken on Vancouver Island, February 2020)
Finally arriving in James Bay’s salty water in 2005, bobs of seals excitedly there to greet us, my friends and I threw gleeful handfuls of clay at one another from the river’s banks. In a coffee shop at our final destination, we laughed as we looked in the mirror for the first time in a month. Our bodies were taut, hair matted, and faces tanned and freckled beyond recognition. On the plane ride out of Attawapiskat, we pitied the olfactory passages of the people wedged in beside us, forced to share an enclosed space with our unbathed teenage bodies.
Instead of the triumphant heralding of a bob of seals, my opera tour’s finale began on March 12th, 2020 with an email inviting my cast into the company’s Victoria office. Covid-19 had won out. We were out of work until further notice.
In between tears, rejected much-needed hugs, and hushed descriptions of termination clauses, the meeting’s conversation focused mostly on how we’d each make our way home. That evening on my masked plane ride over the islands we’d recently performed on, my heart sank as I wondered where home even was, having spent years as a freelancing nomad.
(photo taken on plane ride above Vancouver Island, March 13th 2020)
Months later, the expressions of moved audiences and joys of live performance fade gradually into memory. Musical collaborations have shifted to carefully curated iPhone interactions, received by handfuls of likes on social media’s frenzied platforms. Post-show beers and debriefs consist of glimpses of blue light-infused faces on 13-inch screens. Career discussions revolve around what we will do in the months until we’re allowed to sing for people once more, or how we can engage audiences online. My cast-mates and I check on each other’s mental health as we navigate lives without the spiritual and financial rewards of performing.
Listening to the polyphonic and ever-changing birdsong decorating Toronto’s unusual silence, I often sit on my balcony to meditate. I feel the pandemic’s days repeat with the same ostinato I’d found along the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River, or mountain-watching out the window of my tour van in B.C.
(photo taken on the Otoskwin-Attawapiskat River, August 2020)
On the way home from my canoe trip all those years ago, my trip mates and I were treated to a performance of Aurora Borealis’ fluorescence in Moosonee’s night sky. We marvelled as the changing hues of green and blue danced behind telephone wires and above train tracks.
(photo taken in Moosonee, Ontario in 2005)
During this pandemic, I’m waiting for the days when I can tell stories with my voice to marvelling listeners in gyms, opera houses, concert halls, and living rooms again. I’m waiting to once again use my voice to explore and touch corners of space, from the concert halls of Europe to the shores of James Bay to the quiet islands of British Columbia, hovering with the acoustic mystery only the human voice can share.
(photo taken on Vancouver Island, February 2020)