The word “Nigredo” was originally used by ancient alchemists to describe the long, laborious process of cooking substances until they became putrefied and uniformly black. The alchemists believed it was the first step in creating the philosopher’s stone, a mythical object which grants eternal life and transforms metal into gold. Carl Jung later recognized that the process of alchemy was symbolic of man’s inner journey toward self knowledge and self fulfillment. For Jung, “Nigredo” described the daunting and painful first step an individual must take toward achieving such enlightenment—confronting the darkness within. He called such confrontations a “dark night of the soul.”
In City Opera Vancouver’s newest production, Nigredo Hotel, a surgeon named Raymond, played by baritone Tyler Duncan, finds himself confronting his soul’s own daunting and painful dark night. Following a traumatic car crash involving the probable death of a child, Raymond takes refuge in a decrepit hotel run by a beautiful and seemingly crazed woman named Sophia, played by soprano Sarah Vardy. As Raymond’s increasingly manic mental state is probed and provoked by the mysterious and surprisingly knowledgeable hotelier, it soon becomes evident that Sophia is more than she appears. And perhaps Raymond is too.
What follows is a thrilling, surprising, intellectually provocative, and spiritually invigorating piece of musical theatre. With a libretto written by renowned Canadian novelist and playwright Ann-Marie Macdonald and a jazz-infused operatic score by Nic Gotham, the Alan Corbishley-directed production seizes upon its darkly comedic and macabre trappings to tell the story of a seemingly well-put-together man confronting his innermost self and, in doing so, becoming who he is meant to be.
“Raymond—he’s lost that side of what he used to know and who he used to be when he was a child,” says Sarah Vardy, “all adults can speak to that... something changes and you start becoming an adult, and you start losing those childlike qualities that Sophia has never lost—she’s always had, they’ve always been there and she’s just waiting for him to come back… When you first meet (Sophia) you’re like “something’s not right about her.” And then by the end of the opera, you realize she’s the one pulling the strings, and bringing the other character along, and allowing Raymond to become who he’s meant to be.”
“I think the stereotype of opera is that it’s in a language that you don’t understand, it’s music that you don’t understand, and it’s people that are standing on stage that are not relatable,” says Vardy, “[but] I always equate opera to being like a real life soap opera. It’s real life stories that are done in different languages [but] it’s often quite relatable.” In offering this rebuttal to the common stereotypes of traditional opera, Vardy also makes a case for the contemporary ‘operatic-jazz’ musical style of Nigredo Hotel: “This opera in particular is a unique challenge for me because most of the opera I’ve done before is dramatic—I always say death and destruction…In this particular Opera it’s completely different. I’m singing jazz, I’m singing musical theatre with some opera elements in it. It’s in English, it has some interesting elements- some jazz elements that might make people go, ‘wow, I wasn’t expecting that!’ And it’s a really small band. But the percussionist, as an example, plays 24 different instruments throughout the whole opera, which is mind blowing.”
While Vardy’s insight into the unique characters and music of Nigredo Hotel offers ample evidence that it is an operatic piece worth visiting, she is further prepared to help audiences understand and appreciate the production: “When you’re doing intimate opera like this it’s really accessible. And if people have questions about it I’m always happy, at the end of the show to explain things…I’ll be more than happy if someone who doesn’t like opera comes, then we can have a conversation and I will find out why; Then I will convert them.”
“I always think ‘magical’ when I think of alchemy,” says Vardy, speaking of the title’s main conceit. Perhaps then, in the alchemy of Nigredo Hotel’s compelling story and unique musical style, audiences might find some magic in what promises to be a wondrously dark night at the opera.
Nigredo Hotel runs September 20-22nd at the Cultch. Tickets and showtimes can be found here: thecultch.com/events/nigredo-hotel/