So, I have written an opera. A mini one, mind you, just under ten minutes in length. No big cast, just a single soprano and a piano. Maybe that is not what you are expecting when you hear “opera”, but it is one.
Opera is a fascinating art form. It has been dubbed the King of the Arts and is also ridiculed as being overblown and out of touch. The former is quite appropriate as it combines so many disciplines; music, theatre, set design, production and occasionally dance. When all of these elements are mixed together in proper quantities the end result is glorious. With the latter, these complaints can be quite accurate. If the aforementioned quantities are not balanced correctly it can come across as an aggrandizing mess. As for being out of touch, can still bear the mark of an activity for the wealthy. Its traditions can be impenetrable for those not used to them, and for much of its history it was an entertainment for the wealthy classes. A grand opera is notoriously expensive to mount, therefore the average ticket price would be out of touch for a typical middle to lower class individual. That being said, the great operas and their music has permeated the general culture. If you mention opera to anyone on the street I am certain that the first thing the majority will think of is a soprano belting out a warbling tune, or Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?”. The thing is, opera is many different things, especially nowadays. While the older notions of opera on a grand scale still exist at The Met, La Scalla and the COC, there seems to be a renaissance of small scale and adventurous opera happening. This is a personal anecdotal observation, but there seems to be an increased interest among fellow composers to write opera, and an increase in new opera being produced from the large companies to small start-up ensembles. What is happening? When I was grad school over twenty years ago I had a composition professor, who is a very prominent composer, say to me “why would anyone write and opera? It’s like pouring money into a hole?” That is a good point. I think it is something to do with the inherent interdisciplinary nature of the art form, and a comment on where art music and music in general sits in today’s culture. This is a tangent for another blog post.
I am still trying to figure out my relationship with opera. As a composer I have always had a fascination with vocal music and setting text to music. You would think that opera would be a natural extension of this, but it wasn’t. I have always enjoyed it, but it never caught my imagination like other genres did. It may have been the lack of exposure to contemporary operas as a student – I was quite single-minded in my new music approach back then. Seeing Robert Lepage’s production of Blue Beard’s Castle/Ewartung was pivotal to my musical education, and going to see Hans Werner Henze’s Venus and Adonis was simply amazing to see what could be done with movement. I can still see elements of each show in my mind. Also, the idea of writing, then trying to get an opera produced was pretty much a pipe dream for a young composer back then. Everyone was still interested in just doing Donizetti and Mozart. The prof was right, a lot of expense for no payoff.
I was still writing for voice though. Mind you, it was for small-scale interdisciplinary works; music, acting, dance etc. How is this different from opera? Good question! I have written three such pieces: Variations on Gestalt, Tilt!, and River Flow. The thing with each of them that, in my mind, differs from opera is the way the sung text is used. In each work the vocal part works alongside the spoken part, and in a couple of the pieces the sung text acts more as a commentary on the narrative instead of being its driving force. For some people this could be splitting hairs, but it is one of those times where “you know it when you see it.” Between River Flow and this opera, I wrote the song cycle Slagflower Songs. When I finished those pieces, I took a look back at all of this previous work and saw where I was at. I started to think that I could possibly handle an opera. As I have mentioned, the landscape for opera has changed. Opportunities have increased including the Opera From Scratch program of which I am taking part.
Opera From Scratch is a weeklong program in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It has been occurring for a number of years now and a number of the participants are names I recognize. A handful of composers and an equal number of singers are paired of to workshop a newly composed mini opera. The opera has to be on a Nova Scotia subject. The week is full of lessons and rehearsals. It will be awesome! It is now the end of June and I have completed my opera. I wrote it in just under two months. For those two months I thought of very little else. In that time, I had to wrap up my teaching with recitals, exam prep, and prepare a couple of special services for the church where I am music director. A busy time to say the least. So, what is my opera about?
My wife has deep family roots on her mother’s side in Nova Scotia. Some of her ancestors arrived in Nova Scotia as members of the “Foreign Protestants”. These were protestants, mostly Calvinists, leaving continental Europe at the invitation of England. Many were of French or German background. After a harrowing, months-long journey in 1752 they arrived in Halifax and were granted land in what became Lunenburg. I decided to base my opera around this journey, especially since two of her ancestors, the Boutiliers, died on the journey over and were buried at sea leaving their children orphans. I decided to do a bit more research into their story and I came a much more dramatic one.
In the spring of 1791, a trial was held in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Not just any trial but the first murder trial ever held in the village or county. The accused were brothers George and John Boutilier. They were on trial for the murder of Frederic Emondeau “and his family”. As you can tell by the last name, John and George are related to my wife’s family that crossed with the Foreign Protestants. The thing is they murdered three people, not just Frederic. They murdered his wife Elizabeth and their granddaughter Catherine. The only body found was Frederic’s. The farmhouse was burnt down and the two women’s remains were never found. Is this the reason the brothers were only charged with one murder, or is it due to the fact that the women were thought of as property? We can only speculate, but the fact remains that they are not mentioned by name in the court records.
How could I ignore such a juicy and dramatic story! Having a soprano as my partner I created a scene where she is Elizabeth watching the trial proceedings then bringing the audience with her on flashbacks to the events and background. The conceit being that she is in essence a ghost due to her murder, and invisible in death as well as life. The piece is divided into three different alternating sections: the present (trial), a transition, and the past. These sections are differentiated musically by vocal and compositional techniques. The trial is free-form, recitative style, the transition uses Sprechstimme and some extended vocal techniques, and the past is in a more song-like style of singing akin to an aria. Occasionally the lines between the sections blur as Elizabeth revisits that fateful evening and realizes her fate. All the information I have is from research done by Dr. Kenneth Paulson who is also a descendant of the Boutelliers as well as the Emondeus. He has written a book about it and there is a filmed lecture to the Nova Scotia Historical Society.
This has been a fantastic learning experience for me, especially working on my own libretto. When I was younger, I fancied myself a bit of a writer. It was my main creative outlet as a kid. I eventually dove into music and my true calling, but I have never really abandoned it. To all the writers I have worked with, Lawrie, Rae, Tom and others, I salute you and thank you. Your text is so easy to set. Many times I struggled with my own awkward turns of phrase. The workshop week in August will be the real test and I can’t wait for it. I’ll keep you all posted and up to date.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.