Turning True Stories of Sex Trafficking into an Opera
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Turning True Stories of Sex Trafficking into an Opera

From Toronto's Tapestry Opera comes the wrenching story of a young Ukrainian woman lured into the dark world of human trafficking.

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Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi in the title role of Oksana G. Photo by Heather Kilner courtesy of Tapestry Opera.

A gripping story about sex trafficking—perhaps not what you might expect from a night at the opera. But when two-time Governor General Award-winning playwright Colleen Murphy decided that opera was the best genre to tell the story of this global epidemic, she had a clear idea why.

The sung human voice supported by powerful music can trigger an emotional connection in a way that news stories, documentaries, and films can’t. This is a story with consequences that needs to hit hard.

Traditional opera hasn’t changed much over the centuries, and is often mocked as silly and out of touch. Storylines that romanticize women and exoticize and lampoon race and otherness through ignorance are common, but they remain part of the canon because the music is undeniably sublime. Many opera companies effectively manage this conundrum by making deft directorial and concept choices that reinterpret the story, creating layers of deeper meaning that give audiences a bit more to chew on.

Tapestry Opera is Canada’s only professional opera company devoted entirely to new works, and we do everything possible to create the masterpieces of this era and discover the Mozarts and Puccinis of our time. Contemporary opera can’t fall back on the same old stories or rely on re-interpretations of them; rather, we need to use this powerful medium to tell stories relevant to the 21st century.

Tapestry’s upcoming production of Oksana G, composed by Aaron Gervais with libretto (text) by Murphy, follows the story of the titular character, a bright young woman living in impoverished rural Ukraine after the fall of the USSR. When a handsome man comes to town looking to hire staff for a hotel in the West (enough to fund years of university education), Oksana is tricked into the sex-slave trade and trafficked away from her home. The story follows her terrible journey of slavery, escape, and, finally, redemption. The lead role is brought to life by Natalya Gennadi, a Ukrainian-Canadian soprano who lived in Ukraine in the 1990s, witnessing first-hand the shocking regularity of these situations.

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Artistic director Michael Mori. Photo by Dahlia Katz courtesy of Tapestry Opera.

Fifty-five artists—cast, chorus, and orchestra—will perform this world premiere in the industrial atmosphere of a repurposed warehouse. This is one of Toronto’s largest world premieres to date, and it has taken 10 years to get here.

Oksana G tells the story behind the headlines. Sex trafficking is a growing epidemic, both here in Toronto and internationally. Yes, Toronto—and not just its seedy underbelly. According to an undercover member of the Toronto Police sex crimes unit, there is a trafficker operating in most high schools across the GTA, and that trafficking in Ontario generally is on the rise.

In researching sex trafficking to prepare for the production, I went down a predictable and sadly illuminating rabbit hole. We read numerous first-hand accounts by survivors, articles, books, and conducted our own with interviews with survivors.

From the women of Benin and orphans in Ukraine to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada, this is a societal sickness that spans countries and cultures. The traffickers themselves are symptoms; like most illicit trades, the market drives the crime. Human trafficking now rivals the drug industry as the world’s most lucrative trade. To combat it we need to think hard about raising a generation that values female life as equal to male life, and end the commodification of women across the world.

Opera can’t force legislation or save lives, and we’d be delusional to think any art form can bring about change on its own. But art can be a powerful influencer. It can be a memorable dramatic experience that takes you into the psyche of a unique human being, facing a challenging world. According to Toronto-based trafficking survivor and activist Timea Nagy, helping victims is not enough. The profile of the trafficking epidemic must be raised in order for public opinion to force broad change. 

Is Oksana G activist art? For me, it stands alone as a work of dramatic genius and great musical beauty…but it is of our time and has a message to tell. I hope that it will provoke critical thinking and a vital conversation.

Michael Mori is the Artistic Director of Tapestry Opera, Canada’s pioneering contemporary opera company.

Oksana G runs from May 24-30 at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, 227 Front St. E. Tickets and more information are available here.