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Local artisans peddle wares at the opera

New program provides unique crafts to opera patrons

By: Anna Borowiecki

  |  Posted: Saturday, Oct 06, 2012 06:00 am

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  • FINE FIBRES – St. Albert fibre artist Valerie Baber shows some of her original works that will be available for sale during Edmonton Opera’s upcoming season. The opera company is partnering with the Alberta Craft Council to offer hand-made, one-of-a-kind items to opera patrons.
    FINE FIBRES – St. Albert fibre artist Valerie Baber shows some of her original works that will be available for sale during Edmonton Opera’s upcoming season. The opera company is partnering with the Alberta Craft Council to offer hand-made, one-of-a-kind items to opera patrons.
    CHRIS COLBOURNE/St. Albert Gazette
  • WOODEN INTERPRETATION – Woodworker Chris Kubash of Edmonton has created a series of six memento boxes. Five of the boxes represent a character from the opera Aida, while the fifth represents Egypt itself.
    WOODEN INTERPRETATION – Woodworker Chris Kubash of Edmonton has created a series of six memento boxes. Five of the boxes represent a character from the opera Aida, while the fifth represents Egypt itself.
  • VOICE BOX – This collection by Edmonton’s Meghan Wagg represents an anatomical larynx, or voice box. Each piece is hand-crafted and applied with a coloured epoxy resin.
    VOICE BOX – This collection by Edmonton’s Meghan Wagg represents an anatomical larynx, or voice box. Each piece is hand-crafted and applied with a coloured epoxy resin.
  • CHARACTER STUDY – A character study scarf entitled Amneris Scarf by Valerie Baber of St. Albert. It's based on the stunning bold purple and gold costume worn by Amneris in the Edmonton Opera production Aida.
    CHARACTER STUDY – A character study scarf entitled Amneris Scarf by Valerie Baber of St. Albert. It's based on the stunning bold purple and gold costume worn by Amneris in the Edmonton Opera production Aida.
  • BOLD TRANSLATION – This hieroglyphic scarf by Edmonton’s Margie Davidson is block printed natural or osage dyed cotton. The hieroglyphics on the scarf provide an interpretation of the opera.
    BOLD TRANSLATION – This hieroglyphic scarf by Edmonton’s Margie Davidson is block printed natural or osage dyed cotton. The hieroglyphics on the scarf provide an interpretation of the opera.
  • Sandra Gajic is Edmonton Opera's CEO.
    Sandra Gajic is Edmonton Opera's CEO.

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In its bid to stay current, Edmonton Opera is borrowing a marketing technique from rock stars. As part of an experimental pilot project, the opera will offer boutique merchandise during the run of each opera this season.

The Opera Art Project, a triptych between Edmonton Opera, the Alberta Craft Council and a dozen provincial artisans, is already generating shoppers’ buzz as it prepares to launch the pop-up boutique at the Jubilee Auditorium with Aida on Friday, Oct. 19.

Contrasting mass-produced factory souvenirs, the opera boutique will tempt patrons with one-of-a-kind art. The commissioned merchandise ranges from fashionable hand-painted silk scarves and layered metal pictures to dramatic fused glass plates and opera action figures. There will be no T-shirts here.

The decision to stay away from mass-produced items shipped from overseas was made early in the process of conceiving the project, said Edmonton Opera CEO Sandra Gajic.

“By employing local artists we all gain. Artists can display and sell. It’s a great way to promote Alberta in a different way and it gives our patrons a broader experience,” Gajic said.

While the opera company has consistently searched for ways to expand its patron and sponsorship base, the project’s top priority is to reduce the financial struggle for artists, said Tom McFall, executive director of the Alberta Craft Council.

“This is definitely a more commercial venture that will give the artists more exposure,” McFall said. “It’s also an investment in something more sustainable than writing a cheque.”

At its core, opera is beautiful, elegant and romantic. The season opener, Verdi’s Aida is one of the catalogue’s traditional warhorses. Set in Egypt, Aida is a captured Ethiopian princess brought to the Pharaoh as a slave. She falls in love with Radames, a military commander and he returns her affection. But he faces a struggle between choosing love and loyalty to the Pharaoh. A complicated triangle forms when Amneris, the Pharaoh’s daughter falls in love with Radames.

For St. Albert fibre artist Valerie Baber, the triumphant score, dramatic plot, rich characters and colourful costumes were key inspirations for blending traditional concepts with modern stylings.

In describing her fellow artisans works, Baber said, “You really have to see the work to appreciate the creativity. Doing something like this excites your creative juices and you can’t help but develop new skills. It’s an exciting challenge for any artist.”

Baber designs, knits and crotchets scarves, neck warmers and wrist warmers using high-end merino wool and royal alpaca that lasts for years.

“It’s soft, soft, soft like silk, but stronger than silk,” she said.

Her goal for this project was to bring out the personality of Amneris and Aida, creating bold purple and gold scarves crocheted with lotus chevrons and circles referencing Egyptian dress.

While researching Egyptian history, Baber discovered the lotus flower was often depicted in temples and tombs.

“It’s a flower that opens in the morning and closes at night and was closely linked to the sun god and the union of upper and lower Egypt. You can’t help but be inspired. There was so much to learn and grab your attention.”

Another fibre and textile artist, Margie Davidson, has left a true Egyptian imprint on her scarves. The Edmonton artist uses hieroglyphics to write two words on her silk scarves – “Aida” and “Opera.”

Making a pattern of hieroglyphics, Davidson traced them onto blocks. Using a natural copper dye, she printed the hieroglyphics on golden silk, a tint she discovered was important in ancient Egyptian culture.

For this project, the environmentally-conscious artist switched from chemical dyes to natural ones.

“It’s more work, but the water usage is a fraction. I have concerns about chemicals in the water system. With natural products, although it still requires water to clean them, you could put the water on your plants,” she said.

Other artisans took their innovation in other directions. Meghan Wagg, a silversmithing teacher at Edmonton’s City Arts Centre, has fashioned sterling silver necklaces, earrings and cufflinks. Her clean designs focus around smooth, geometric shapes using ideas of function and tension.

Instead of focusing on a specific opera, Wagg went with an image of the larynx. Starting with a square, muscular shape, she layered sheets to create a graphic look. The larynx was embedded into the jewelry and a bronze resin was injected into certain spaces in the silver to colour the larynx.

Chris Kubash, an opera patron, took a completely different tack. The Edmonton woodworker constructed decorative wooden boxes to hold opera programs. The lidded boxes are built from different woods and finished with different veneers. Most of the woods used are from South America and Africa, including walnut, beech, ipe, holly, sycamore and timborana.

“The boxes are all identical. The top and the trim on the edge is where the variation occurs,” Kubash said.

Kubash, who normally receives special commissions and builds big pieces of furniture, has a special stake in this project. His wife is opera singer Elizabeth Turnbull.

“I’m excited to see this project and be involved in a more meaningful way,” he said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for artists and for customers to see how things are changing.”

Most of the objects will be priced in the $50 to $500 range, a slightly higher price point than mugs and basic hoodies. Despite the higher cost per item, McFall is certain opera patrons will support local artisans.

“Opera goers are fairly sophisticated people. They are values-oriented people. They tend to pay more to support the fine arts. They are not consumer oriented and they tend to like to know the artists,” he noted.

The first batch of artisan work is available during Aida on Oct. 19, 21, 23 and 25. After Aida, any unsold product will be available at the boutique store at Tix On the Square on Sir Winston Churchill Square.


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