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Gimme shelter

Toronto’s operatic It Girl stars in Tapestry Opera’s latest production

Hot pink Doc Martens? Check. A Tina-Turner-meets-Kiss wig? Check. A nuclear family to rebel against? Check. Not your typical soprano role, but the rebel with a cause named Hope is Teiya Kasahara’s next operatic incarnation.

Shelter, a chamber opera composed by Juliet Palmer to the text by Julie Salverson, a meditation on nuclear energy as much as the nuclear family, opens at the Berkeley Street Theatre this summer. Kasahara plays the daughter of the family representative of the hopes and anxieties of 1950s America. Lise Meitner also appears, a scientist who was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, as does the character based on the pilot who may have dropped the bomb over Hiroshima.

The young Vancouver-born soprano who moved to Toronto seven years ago is already an indie opera darling. Last season, she was a key character in what turned out to be an indie blockbuster: Against the Grain Theatre’s adapted Figaro’s Wedding, based on Mozart-Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro, which was performed in an actual for-rent wedding hall in the Burroughes Building on Queen West. A character of indeterminate sex that could be Cupid himself, Cherubino is usually performed by a woman in drag, but the Against the Grain team recreated her as an urban baby dyke. Kasahara’s talent for comedy got some proper exercise in the production. “The role was so natural, it felt like I just got to hang out and be myself and work with my colleagues, who also happen to be my really good friends.”

Vancouver gave Kasahara her first breaks: she got her first professional job at the age of 20 as an understudy for the Vancouver Opera school tour in Naomi’s Road, based on Joy Kogawa’s novel about the deportation and internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War (Kasahara herself is half-Japanese, half-German). Last season, she was back for the Vancouver Queer Arts Festival and what was billed as the very first Canadian lesbian opera, When the Sun Comes Out. Toronto will see the remount of the piece during WorldPride, with an almost all-queer cast list.

In 2007, she joined the COC’s Ensemble Studio and moved to Toronto. After completing the three-year program, she continued understudying at the COC (Lucia, Madame Mao, The Nightingale) and doing small roles. She is a regular in many regional houses across the country now: she was Queen of the Night in Vancouver Opera’s The Magic Flute recently and will perform again everybody’s favourite Mozart baddie with Edmonton Opera next year.

Kasahara belongs to the small but growing number of opera singers who are out from the beginning of their careers. “I can’t be putting on a mask for work and coming home and taking off the mask . . . It just doesn’t make sense,” she says. From the beginning of her career, she felt free to be who she was. This also means strategically not being too alert or sensitive to the heteronormativity and the occasional homophobia that queer people working in culture still might encounter. “I save my energy for other things; I don’t make myself vulnerable to it.”  

It’s a winning combination for a young singer on the rise, with a possible move to Europe in the cards (her German is solid — those German family connections have a way of paying off). She describes her voice as straddling lyric coloratura and dramatic coloratura. “Dramatic coloratura — that’s the big Donizetti roles and Konstanze, from Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and Queen of the Night, of course. But I can still do Offenbach’s Olympia, which I did in Edmonton a season ago, and also Verdi’s Gilda and girls like that. It depends on the house and the cast.” She recently switched to a new voice teacher, always a big deal for an opera singer. “I’m learning the bel canto the old-school way — the golden-age technique.”