Pacific Opera brings two completely unique operas about past and current chapters in the Canadian story.
IN NOVEMBER, Pacific Opera Victoria (POV) is presenting two brand-new Canadian operas: Rattenbury, by local composer/librettist Tobin Stokes, and Missing by Toronto composer Brian Current (with libretto by Vancouver playwright Marie Clements).
I was interested to hear what the artists involved in these projects had to say about how each one was developed, what some of the challenges were in bringing them to the stage, and what they hope audiences will take away from the experience. With the help of POV’s publicist Heather Jeliazkov, I was able to get emailed responses to my questions. Below is a constructed interview based on what I received from POV Artistic Director Timothy Vernon (TV), Tobin Stokes (TS), Brian Current (BC) and Marie Clements (MC). It would have been impossible to have had all these extremely busy people in the room at the same time. I am grateful to each of them for taking the time to send me their thoughts.
Left to right: Timothy Vernon, Marie Clements, Tobin Stokes, Brian Current
MP: Let’s begin with Rattenbury, about prominent British and Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury, who built both the Empress Hotel and our provincial Parliament Buildings. As most here will know, Rattenbury came to a scandalous end, killed by his wife Alma’s teenage lover, their chauffeur. Timothy, what can you tell us about the inception and development of this piece?
TV: POV has not been directly involved in this production, but functions as presenter. Rattenbury’s life could easily provide the fodder for a few opera projects, with varying emphases and points of view. Tobin has chosen, wisely I think, an episodic treatment. Before he began, I had dreamt of an opera with the Empress and Parliament buildings as singing characters, and the use of some of the songs Alma wrote for her club/cabaret appearances…also, of course, the bludgeoning on stage…
TS: I became interested in exploring Rattenbury’s story as an opera about ten years ago. An opportunity came when The Other Guys Theatre Company received a grant from the City as part of Victoria’s birthday celebration a few years ago. I began some of the libretto and music, and we presented that with Kathleen Brett and Richard Margison singing the lead roles as a concert event at the Empress Ballroom.
Then I entered a 12-minute teaser version, pared down to four singers, into a competition at the King’s Head Theatre in London. While we didn’t win the competition, the audience was very enthusiastic, and the theatre’s management urged me to carry on.
MP: Tobin, what have been one or two of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the creative process?
TS: I realized the story I could tell was less large-style about Rattenbury’s entire life, his grand facades, and failed business dealings, and more about how his ambition, left unchecked, got the best of him. I realized the intimacy offered by using just four singers: this puts the audience close, like they were a jury in a court case. The result is more visceral I think, while the themes I’m exploring have a universal relevance.
MP: What do you each hope audiences may take away from seeing the opera?
TV: I think a renewed interest in earlier Victoria history (we are still living in his buildings) could be forthcoming. Such treatments also tend to “classicize” artistic and civic achievements—a good thing in view of the City’s propensity for tearing down the past.
TS: While most of the audience probably knows the story of Rattenbury already, they may not be aware of many of the details and intrigue that unfolded. But the story isn’t just about an event that happened once upon a time, it’s about youth, love, and addiction. Opera communicates emotion, and there is a whole lot to get emotional about in this story. I enjoy giving great voices a chance to shine and I hope I’ve delivered that here. I’ve let the innocent popular music of the 1930s seep into the score, while digging deep into ambition, guilt, and legacy.
MP: Let’s turn our attention to Missing. Timothy, how did this project unfold?
TV: The initiative came from City Opera Vancouver, who commissioned the well-known Métis theatre and film artist and author Marie Clements to write a libretto treating the fate of women and girls who have disappeared, or been found murdered, on BC’s “Highway of Tears.” POV was then invited into a co-production arrangement, and participated actively in the choice of composer Brian Current, and in the casting, and exclusively in the choice of Timothy Long, the only Indigenous conductor in North America with serious and extensive opera experience.
MP: So Marie, your writing is the basis of this project. How did that come about?
MC: I was asked to submit a treatment, a synopsis of a proposed story line, and they accepted this and I began to write. I worked on a first draft, and then worked through it with dramaturge Paula Danckert and rewrote to second draft. We then went into a script workshop with actors, and I revised and wrote a third draft which was sent to composer Brian Current. He began his composition and we then had a workshop where the words and music were brought together with a room full of singers.
MP: And what about for you, Brian?
BC: Marie was recommended by Tomson Highway, which turned out to be a wonderful choice. Her text for the opera is extraordinary. Once the libretto was written, they commissioned four composers to anonymously submit a couple scenes, which were presented to a jury who did not know who they were listening to, and made a choice from there. So I was brought in relatively late in the process. It has been a remarkable process working with Marie, who I believe is a major talent.
MP: Given the subject material, what have some of the challenges been throughout the development phase of “Missing”?
TV: The libretto stipulates four native and four non-native singers. At a time when sensitivities are flaring around appropriate casting, we felt it important to find indigenous singers for the native characters, which added a layer to the usual challenges.
MC: I think we were very aware of the gravity of the story. Not just the creative challenge of bringing the story to life, but that this story does not live in the past. It is very relevant today.
BC: There is much text in the opera sung in Gitxsan (the beautiful language spoken by Indigenous groups up the BC coast and along the Highway of Tears), as well as the depiction of some drumming and a traditional wedding scene. These aspects had to be handled with absolute respect. From the beginning this has always been about “appreciating” Indigenous traditions and not “appropriating” them, which is surprisingly easy to do if we are not vigilant, and would be yet another example of the broader population taking from the Indigenous community. Being very mindful of this, we worked closely with native Gitxsan speakers in both Victoria and Vancouver. The real hero of this piece is Vince Gogag of Vancouver, who did the translation of the Gitxsan text and has been helping with pronunciation throughout. All the rhythms and nuances of the language are intact, so the piece also acts as an effort in language preservation.
For the drumming, we collaborated with our Indigenous collaborators to make sure that there were no traditional rules that we were unknowingly breaking as to who could hold the drums and how. Only Indigenous members of the cast will be drumming in the show.
Finally, for the wedding scene, the text was written by Vince and the music was constructed, with his permission, from recordings of his grandfather singing traditional songs. We wanted to just get out of the way and give Vince’s community the stage for that scene.
MP: What do each of you hope the audience for “Missing” takes home after seeing it?
TV: We hope, modestly, that the portrayal of the suffering endured by the Indigenous community will provide a cathartic moment, and help them feel that the settlers around them are beginning to understand. For the non-Indigenous audience, we hope that the deeply moving story of those who have suffered—as victims and survivors —will have a jolting effect, and help them to realize the terrible urgency of reconciliation and an attempt at reparation, however late and inadequate.
BC: The story of the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada must be told immediately. It is an unspeakable tragedy for our nation that is still largely, and unconscionably, invisible to the wider public. It’s getting lost in the wash of the 24-hour news cycle. 1250 women. Imagine if 1250 non-Aboriginal women disappeared all at once from Ottawa or Quebec City or Victoria. There would be an urgent and international outcry. Our goal in writing this piece is to humanize these women and their families and to show that each and every one of these missing women is deserving of our heartbroken attention. Each death is really one hundred deaths, as it affects all those who have loved and cherished the victim.
MC: I hope that audiences understand that the issue of missing and murdered women in this country is not an Indigenous issue. It is a human issue which we are all accountable to. I also hope the story of “Missing” can bring audiences together by unifying our voices.
Both operas will be performed in November at POV’s Baumann Centre. For more information, go to www.pov.bc.ca.
Monica Prendergast reviews theatre for CBC Radio Victoria’s On the Island. She will be appearing in Langham Court Theatre’s production of Les Belles Soeurs by Québécois playwright Michel Tremblay (Nov 15 to Dec 2).