The Music Critics Association of North America
bestows its Sixth Annual Award for
BEST NEW OPERA
Composer NICOLE LIZÉE
Librettist NICOLAS BILLON
R.U.R. A TORRENT OF LIGHT
A timely exploration of the relationship between humanity and artificial intelligence
This marks the first Canadian opera honored by MCANA
Heidi Waleson, co-chair
George Loomis, co-chair
R.U.R. A Torrent of Light’s composer & librettist to be honored
during the MCANA annual meeting June 22 at the University Club of Chicago
Statement from the MCANA Awards Committee
“Set in the near future, R.U.R. A Torrent of Light concerns an international technology company whose founders differ on how to respond to the growing independence of the androids that serve them. The timeliness of this theme in a world challenged by advances in artificial intelligence is obvious.
R.U.R. A Torrent of Light is accomplished on many levels, but we were impressed particularly by the freshness and vitality of Nicole Lizée’s score. While rooted in the minimalist tradition, the music is inventive, expressive and expertly written for the voice. Nicolas Billon’s libretto cleverly employs repetition to represent the efforts of machines to express themselves. A figure of particular interest is the android Alex. It is unusual for a non-human character to invite deep sympathy. The dilemma of Alex scans as authentically operatic.”
The Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) is pleased to announce that its 2023 Award for BEST NEW OPERA—a major recognition for an opera introduced in North America during the previous calendar year—goes to composer Nicole Lizée and librettist Nicolas Billon for R.U.R. A TORRENT OF LIGHT. This compelling work was given its premiere by the Toronto-based Tapestry Opera, which created the production in collaboration with OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) University. The first performance took place in Toronto on May 28, 2022 at the Great Hall at OCAD.
The Best New Opera Award is determined by an Awards Committee of distinguished music critics. It reflects the overarching mission of MCANA to recognize distinctive achievements and, through its web publication Classical Voice North America, to communicate the richness of musical life in the U.S. and Canada at a time when classical music coverage in traditional print media is shrinking.
R.U.R. A Torrent of Light prevailed over a strong field including major productions delayed by the pandemic. The opera is an immersive experience that addresses the complex relationship between humans and technology in a futuristic setting where artificial intelligence is ubiquitous. Inspired by the 1920 play R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots by Karel Čapek, which introduced the word “robot” to the English language, R.U.R. A Torrent of Light follows two tech company founders whose androids dominate the AI market. The opera traces the struggle that arises between the two founders as they disagree about how to deal with their creations.
The site-specific piece combines dance, multimedia design, and technology created with OCAD University’s Social Body Lab, whose aim is to explore the relationship between humans and technology. The instruments OCAD created include a cello bow that makes bird sounds, wearable speakers, and wearable Wifi-activated LED lights. Eight skilled players under the direction of conductor Gregory Oh utilized dozens of instruments—including a typewriter—to portray a detailed and evocative soundscape distinguished by a mixture of electronic and acoustic elements.
Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori told OCAD: “Opera was historically a launchpad for all kinds of applied design technologies. Having the opportunity to collaborate with OCAD U faculty is an invigorating way to reconnect to that tradition and foster connections between art, music, and design.”
The creative team comprised more than 20 artists working across mediums. Mori directed the production, which also included choreographer Jaime Martino and several collaborators from OCAD. In its citation, the MCANA Committee notes that “the striking set by Cameron Anderson and costumes by Joanna Yu incorporated retro elements that made the setting seem both futuristic and universal.”
After its Toronto premiere, Opera Canada described R.U.R. A Torrent of Light as “a musically brilliant and thought provoking theatre piece.” Lights Out Toronto lauded Lizée’s score, calling it “a revelation” that “create[s] a robotic soundscape that is at once beautiful and terrifying—just like A.I. itself.” Broadway World deemed it “a visually and aurally compelling production that successfully marries opera and automation, and encourages us to look into the eyes of our creations to try to find the best in ourselves.”
In response to winning the award, composer Nicole Lizée said:
“For R.U.R. A Torrent of Light to be recognized with this prestigious award from MCANA is truly an honour. When Nicolas and I began our collaboration those many years ago, I never in my wildest dreams thought it would be awarded North America’s best new opera. Nic and I would like to extend our deepest thanks and gratitude to Michael Mori, Tapestry Opera, and the incredible performers and creative team we had the pleasure of working with.”
Librettist Nicolas Billon said:
“R.U.R. A Torrent of Light has been a labour of love for Nicky and myself, and we are deeply honored to have our opera recognized by MCANA with this award. We also want to acknowledge the production’s creative team for their wonderful and awe-inspiring work in bringing R.U.R. to life.”
The Best New Opera award plaques will be presented to the opera’s creators on June 22, opening night of the MCANA Annual Meeting, held this year in Chicago. R.U.R. A Torrent of Light is slated for further performances at Vancouver Opera in January 2025.
Watch: R.U.R. A Torrent of Light Highlight Reel
MCANA’s Best New Opera Award
The year 2023 marks the sixth MCANA Award for Best New Opera. It honors musical and theatrical excellence in a fully staged opera that received its world premiere in North America during the preceding calendar year. The award is one of the few in the world that simultaneously recognize both composer and librettist.
After MCANA members submit nominations, the finalists are chosen by an Awards Committee co-chaired by Heidi Waleson, opera critic of The Wall Street Journal, and George Loomis, longtime contributor to the Financial Times and Musical America—alongside committee members Arthur Kaptainis, contributor to Ludwig van Toronto and former music critic of the Montreal Gazette; John Rockwell, former critic and arts editor of The New York Times and a regular correspondent for Opera (UK) and Musical America; and Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker.
MCANA’s Best New Opera Award has an illustrious track record. The 2017 inaugural award went to Missy Mazzoli (composer) and Royce Vavrek (librettist) for BREAKING THE WAVES; the 2018 Award went to composer-librettist David Hertzberg for THE WAKE WORLD; the 2019 Award went to Ellen Reid (composer) and Roxy Perkins (librettist) for P R I S M; the 2020 Award went to Jeanine Tesori (composer) and Tazewell Thompson (librettist) for BLUE; the 2021 Award went to Raven Chacon (composer), Du Yun (composer), Aja Couchois Duncan (librettist), and Douglas Kearney (librettist) for SWEET LAND. (Due to the pandemic, no award was given in 2022.)
Described as “a brilliant musical scientist” (CBC), and “breathtakingly inventive” (Sydney Times Herald), JUNO-nominated composer Nicole Lizée’s commission list of over 60 works is varied and distinguished and includes the Kronos Quartet, the BBC Proms, the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony, and the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Her work draws from influences including MTV videos, turntablism, rave culture, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Alexander McQueen, thrash metal, early video game culture, 1960s psychedelia, and 1960s modernism. Lizée was awarded the prestigious 2019 Prix Opus for Composer of the Year, the 2017 SOCAN Jan. V. Matejcek Award, and the 2013 Canada Council for the Arts Jules Léger Prize for Chamber Music.
Nicolas Billon writes for theatre, film, and television. His work has been produced worldwide and won over a dozen awards, including a Governor-General’s Award for Drama, a Canadian Screen Award, and a Writers Guild of Canada Screenwriting Award. Credits include writing for CBC’s WWII spy series X Company and adapting the play The Elephant Song.
Tapestry Opera is an award-winning Toronto-based company that is dedicated to creating, developing, and performing original Canadian opera. Tapestry is passionate about uniquely Canadian stories, told in innovative settings, unforgettably interpreted by world class artists. Tapestry supports emerging artists, develops new audiences and brings Canadian opera to the world stage. Founded in 1979, Tapestry is the voice of original contemporary Canadian opera.
MCANA is the only North American organization for professional classical music critics. The association was incorporated in 1957, and early members included leading critics such as Miles Kastendieck of the New York Herald Tribune, Harold C. Schonberg of the New York Times, Paul Hume of the Washington Post, and Irving Lowens of the Washington Star. Current members include critics at the New Yorker, New York Times, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, San Francisco Chronicle, Wall Street Journal; regular contributors to the Chicago Sun-Times, Financial Times, Gramophone, Los Angeles Times, Ludwig van Toronto, Musicalamerica.com, Opera, Opera News, and Philadelphia Inquirer; and program annotators and broadcast journalists. The organization is a member of the National Music Council. In 2013, MCANA launched Classical Voice North America, a web publication for reviews, features, and commentary with readers in 120 countries.