Puppets and performers: Roddy Ellias pushes his own limits with new opera Sleeping Rough

Roddy Ellias has written a modern day opera with puppets.

Roddy Ellias is certainly well-known in Ottawa as a versatile musician and composer. But opera?

Yep, opera. With a twist.

The creation, called Sleeping Rough, will debut at the Music and Beyond festival in the Arts Court Theatre on July 10. It’s about a homeless man named Ted and his journey from dysfunctional childhood to the street.

The composer/producer has drawn in some of his friends to help him realize a vision. The libretto has been written by Ellias’ partner, the award winning poet Sandra Nicholls.

It features singer-songwriter Ian Tamblyn as Ted, sopranos Hélène Brunet, Felicity Williams as Ted’s wife and daughter and the effervescent Kellylee Evans as a sort of one woman Greek chorus.

The score, like Ellias’s musical background generally, is a blend of classical, jazz and pop music.

And then there are the puppets. Yep puppets.

Several full-body puppets, designed by the well-known puppeteer and TV personality, Noreen Young, with accompanying puppeteers, will represent the main characters onstage while the singers, except for Evans, will be in the wings.

This is Noreen Young’s puppet version of Ted, the homeless man.

In the live band that accompanies is a string quartet and jazz musicians including, to name some, bassist John Geggie, reedman Petr Cancura and Raphael Weinroth Browne on cello.

It is a who’s who of  Ottawa talent all handpicked by Ellias.

As he said in an interview, this project has been percolating in his brain for some time.

“Homelessness is in our faces all the time. When I was a student at the University of Ottawa U in the 1980s, I lived across the street from the Ottawa Mission for four years. I saw these guys. I talked to them. I watched them.

“They were part of the fabric of my neighbourhood. I did talk to some of them at length about their life stories … those stayed with me for a long time.”

The issue, of course, has only become more prevalent.

“It’s not always because of mental illness; it’s somebody who just had a run of bad luck. Anybody can end up on the street.”

That makes for a compelling story, of course. But why an opera?

“I have always liked writing to text and setting it to music. I find it  really nice way to write music. My wife Sandra, who is a poet and novelist and short story writer, has written a lot of text that I have set to music and she has also put words to some music I have written. We are a good team in that way. We have worked on lots of projects over the years.”

He said he wanted to do something that dealt with the issue and felt that the operatic form was the best way to tell a story musically.

The idea of using puppets comes from another thread in Ellias’ musical life.

“I took some musicology courses from Jocelyne Guilbault at (uOttawa) that opened me up to other cultures. One of the things that I really liked was learning about how puppets are used with music such as with Japanese bunraku puppets, or Balinese shadow puppets. I found it really expressive and something that I didn’t see much of in our culture. If you do, it’s usually for kids.”

The catalyst for this production though was a phone call from Music and Beyond’s Julian Armour a couple of years ago.

He wanted to know is Ellias had a project that he wanted to bring to the festival and, “I said I’d like to write an opera.”

“He said ‘Go for it’. And for the past two years it was a lot of applying for grants to get funding and working on it.”

He managed to raise enough funding to perform his work three times at Music and Beyond.

Ellias has classical roots but in this project “like a lot of the things I do, I have drawn on different forms … classical training and classical experience, my jazz background, life experiences and all kinds of music that I have played.

“I’ve played folk music. I have played pop and R&B. All that goes into the mix. That’s why I chose the voices I have chosen for the opera.

It’s not an European opera, he says, because “I’m not European. We are not living there. I wanted an opera that reflected how I have learned how to express things over the years. So some of it comes from jazz, some from classical and some from world music.”

That kind of mixing and matching helped determine the singers he chose to work with.

There is only one true opera singer and that’s Hélène Brunet.

Kellylee (Evans) is a jazz singer and Felicity Williams is a jazz singer but with a different style and then there is Ian (Tamblyn) who is the perfect person to play Ted.”

Everyone is working outside their individual comfort zones, Ellias said. “But we’re going for it.”

Ted’s story, as Ellias describes it is all to typical. He comes from a dysfunctional family. His father abused his mother and Ted used to hide in the closet to get away from the danger.

“We are not trying to say all homeless come from dysfunctional families, just that this is the case with Ted. It does happen. But we have been careful not to stereotype anyone or anything,” Ellias said.

Eventually young Ted ends up on the street. In his 20s, he meets a social worker who helps him out. She crosses the line and they develop a relationship and finally marry. When his wife gets pregnant Ted panics and heads to the street again.

This back story is revealed through flashbacks, Ellias said. The opera actually starts with Ted in middle age and homeless. He’s rescued by a young woman named Emily who tries to help him. Eventually she takes him for a meal and to meet her mother. Yes you guessed it, it’s Ted’s wife and Emily is his daughter. Tragedy ensues. It’s all very Boheme.

All the while kellylee Evans walks the stage with Noreen Young’s puppets, serving as Ted’s conscience.

Ellias says he has enjoyed some operas naming Wozzeck by Alban Berg and La Boheme, but he hasn’t studied the form  extensively.

“For me that has worked to my advantage because I had no baggage. And I don’t care if I break any rules. In a way, my ignorance is bliss.”

These days Ellias says he too busy finishing the arrangements to be stressed out.

“I feel fantastic about it, to tell you the truth and I’m not usually one to blow my own horn. It is a teamwork thing and the team is fantastic.”

Sleeping Rough, an opera by Roddy Ellias
Music and Beyond Festival
Where: Arts Court Theatre, 2 Daly Ave.
When: July 10, 11 and 12 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: musicandbeyond.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.