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Exclusive: An Interview with Director and Librettist HAUI about the World Premiere of APORTIA CHRYPTYCH at the Canadian Opera Company

BWW speaks with HAUI about this Passion Project 5 Years in the Making

By: Aug. 27, 2023
Exclusive: An Interview with Director and Librettist HAUI about the World Premiere of APORTIA CHRYPTYCH at the Canadian Opera Company  Image
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Later in the 23/24 season, audiences of the Canadian Opera Company will have the opportunity to experience both Opera, and a Canadian story like they have never experienced it before. HAUI and Sean MayesAPORTIA CHRYPTYCH: A BLACK OPERA FOR PORTIA WHITE will have its world premiere next June. Tickets are now on sale.

Exclusive: An Interview with Director and Librettist HAUI about the World Premiere of APORTIA CHRYPTYCH at the Canadian Opera Company  Image

The production is described on the COC website as follows:

Nova Scotian contralto Portia White was the first Black Canadian concert performer to achieve international fame in the mid- 20th century, touring North America and performing in Europe while being hailed as the best classical voice of her generation. Yet despite such artistic accomplishments, her story has been erased from Canadians’ collective memory.

Working against this history, Aportia Chryptych is a bold, new Black opera that sets out to reclaim Portia White’s story, evoking memories of the past as a form of political resistance. Spoken word, rap, folk songs, hip-hop, R&B, and classic opera repertoire collide in an explosive score that seeks to break down musical silos and unite artistic and cultural communities.

The creative team for this exciting new project consists of Director and Librettist HAUI and Composer, Sean Mayes. BroadwayWorld had the opportunity to speak with HAUI earlier this year about the genesis of this passion project and why it feels so important to be sharing this story.

To hear HAUI tell it, in many ways, this project found them. They were familiar with Portia White and her story, and then in 2018 while doing research for a show centering WWI stories, they "went down a bit of a rabbit hole of Black and Indigenous forgotten histories and histories that had not been centralized as much." Some of that research led to the No. 2 Construction Battalion – an all Black Battalion that fought in WWI. The Chaplin of that Battalion was Portia White's father! This was the first of many serendipitous moments that would continue to draw HAUI to Portia and her story. From meeting (and eventually getting the blessing of) Portia’s niece Sheila, to beginning to discuss this project with Mayes while working in Portia’s hometown of Halifax, to personally relating to Portia in meaningful ways as they continued to delve deeper into her story -“This is the story that I felt in many ways I’d been gifted to share. I truly believe that the stories we are gifted to share, choose us” they explain.

As talented and boundary-breaking as Portia White was, there were certain spaces and venues that she did not have access to as a Black woman in the 1940’s. As HAUI describes it “She could be a voice, but she couldn’t be fully embodied in an art form.” HAUI’s vision for this opera expands on that and follows Portia into the spiritual realm, exploring the idea of her being fractured into a musical triptych of sorts.

“The opening begins at the end of her life. She is thrust into the spirit realm and she is fractured into her body, her voice, and her spirit and they are what are navigating this intermediate realm in the hopes of ascension.” There will still be a biographical element to the piece as moments from Portia’s life will be revisited in as the character “transverses the spirit realm.”

The very title of the opera, APORTIA CHRYPTYCH provides a glimpse into the complex nature Portia’s “feminine trinity” while “acknowledging the cryptic and coded memories of her past.” HAUI adds “I think the title is a bit of a puzzle. It acknowledges this woman who no one knows, alongside the many identities that she embodied – as a mother, a daughter, what is Portia White the myth? What is Portia the legend? Who is Portia in secret? There are all of these forms that she is wrestling with as she lets go of her earthly bonds to what we understand in this realm – she has to contend with that.”

HAUI excitedly speaks to how the piece is continuing to evolve and reveal itself to them: “I tend to work on very granular levels – not dissimilar to someone playing in the sand. The bucket presents itself a lot later…That makes my sand castles very unconventional.” For example, at the start of this process, they were not pursuing an opera. “The form presented itself when I realized how ironic it was to share her story in this art form that did not accept her for her Blackness.”

Another key player in the development of this production is acclaimed soprano Neema Bickersteth taking on the role of Dramaturg. HAUI shares that they thought of Neema early in the process but were initially afraid to reach out to her. “I realized I wasn’t ready.” After working with Mayes and beginning to see a clearer image of the work they were creating, HAUI took the leap and reached out.

Right away, Bickersteth described her interpretation of dramaturgy as being “like a chalice – holding space” and HAUI was in complete agreement. They add that this experience very much started out as many questions – and once they became comfortable with the fact that they did not immediately need to answer them all, the creative juices really got flowing. “We’ll eventually have to answer them, but at the beginning of this process, it was all questions and inquiry and excitement about who this woman is.”

As for working with Mayes, HAUI shares that it has been a very positive and collaborative experience – to the point where they often don’t remember from which of them the genesis of certain ideas came. “We’re trying to break down the siloed nature of Opera.” With regards to the score, there is a lot of variety in terms of style of music – which seems fitting as Portia White’s repertoire was eclectic as well. “I don’t know if people will know what to expect” HAUI teases.

Exclusive: An Interview with Director and Librettist HAUI about the World Premiere of APORTIA CHRYPTYCH at the Canadian Opera Company  Image

There are some elements of this ever-evolving production that are still being kept under wraps, but what is clear is that it is an ambitious undertaking about a fascinating person exploring impossible questions - and it is in the hands of someone for whom it has become a deeply personal passion project. In other words, this is exciting stuff.

APORTIA CHRYPTYCH: A BLACK OPERA FOR PORTIA WHITE will have its world premiere at the Canadian Opera Company Theatre on June 14th, 2024 with additional performances on June 15th and 16th. Tickets are available at the link below.

PHOTO CREDITS: Rebel Howl Studios (Marla Warner)


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