Trekking through a bold new opera

In 'The Children's Crusade,' the audience will take its own voyage in a desolate landscape

Trekking through a bold new operaAccording to medieval chroniclers, in 1212 a shepherd boy named Stephen led thousands of children on an ill-fated goodwill crusade to the Holy Land, armed with a letter he said he’d received directly from Jesus Christ. Marching to Marseille, Stephen preached that the Mediterranean would part, like the Red Sea for Moses, and his flock would simply walk to Jerusalem. When the sea failed to comply, merchants arranged to transport the children on seven ships. Later it was reported that two of them were shipwrecked, drowning everyone on board, while the children on the other five vessels were sold into Saracen slavery. This tale of tragic folly, which occupies that grey zone between history and legend, is now the basis for The Children’s Crusade, a bold new Canadian opera that sounds as quixotic as the crusade itself.

Created by veteran Canadian composer R. Murray Shafer, The Children’s Crusade will be staged in a derelict warehouse in downtown Toronto, with an expected audience of some 400 spectators trailing a troupe of over 100 singers, dancers and musicians as they move through the building, which covers an area larger than a football field. The performers include the 44-member Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus. And the whole shebang rests on the shoulders of a golden-haired boy named Jacob Abrahamse—a 12-year-old soprano from Peterborough, Ont., with no professional experience. He stars as Stephen, “the Holy Child,” and figures in every scene.

Co-produced by Soundstreams and Toronto’s Luminato festival, The Children’s Crusade is directed by Tim Albery, a lanky 57-year-old Brit now based in Toronto. He has staged acclaimed productions for the Canadian Opera Co., New York’s Metropolitian Opera, and Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House—but he’s never worked on a stage as large as the industrial ruin that will house Crusade.

One afternoon, Albery offers a guided tour. Roaming the dusty floor of this former light-bulb factory, he vividly acts out every scene of Shafer’s opera to the whine of power saws as workers erect plywood boxes and runways for the performers. The warehouse, which is owned by an Italian family, is mostly empty, but for a crumbling collection of vintage cars and a vast clutter of rusting gym machines. Paint is peeling from the brick walls, and in one area shreds of tarpaper hang down through a gaping hole in the roof.

“It’s getting bigger every day,” says Albery, casting a rueful glance overhead. “We’ll have some scaffolding holding it up or it will be a bit scary.” Still, the director relishes the notion of incorporating the industrial decay into his vision of the Children’s Crusade as a horde of homeless kids—“feral children.” He points to a jumble of wooden crates where the street urchins will beat up the Holy Child until an angelic chorus persuades them to join his crusade. The angels are versatile. Later they change into cocktail dresses and strut down a long runway as ladies of the king’s court as the boy seeks royal support for his crusade.

Striding over to a bare platform at another end of the cavernous space, Albery describes a scene that he seems especially fond of. An old hag lures in the Holy Child and washes his feet. Shades of Mary Magdalene. She introduces him to the devil, who ushers the boy into “a nightclub from hell,” where the angels have been recast as hookers in red vinyl skirts. And the devil pimps the boy to a lewd version of the Virgin Mary—her blue robes conceal a bustier. “He is the Holy Child,” Albery explains, “so on some level it’s very perverse, like Jesus making love with his mother.”

Although the Children’s Crusade was a Christian mission, clearly the opera is not. “There won’t be any crosses,” says Albery, adding that the music runs the gamut from angelic to pagan. And forget Lord of the Flies. Here boyhood innocence is all about tolerance, as the Holy Child is drawn to the Middle East by the apparition of a Muslim woman and a Jewish boy—there’s a utopian vision of them breaking bread around a campfire before the children drown at sea.

For the opera’s young star, the show will be “stressful,” says Albery. “It will be interesting to see how he’ll bear up under the strain.” And the audience, traipsing through the warehouse for 90 minutes, will have its own challenge. Albery shrugs. Yes, there will be places for the older folks to sit, he concedes. But in 1982, he served as production manager for a show with a cast of 80 that went on for 24 hours. Compared to that, this crusade should be child’s play.

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