Librettist: Morris Panych
Commissioner: Tapestry Opera (Artistic Director Michael Hidetoshi Mori), with Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera
Premiere: April 2018, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto, ON; May 2018, Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Vancouver, BC
Performers: 11 voices (3 sopranos, 2 mezzi, 2 tenors, 3 baritones, 1 bass), 12 players (piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, percussion, keyboard, accordion (optional), 2 violins, viola, violoncello, bass)
Duration: 110 minutes (2 acts)
The Overcoat (based on the Gogol story of the same name) traces the rise and fall of the bumbling Akakiy Akakievich. At work, his colleagues mock him cruelly, and at the hovel he calls home, his landlady is lecherous and maternal by turn. Winter is approaching, and his old overcoat is threadbare and tattered, so Akakiy saves every last kopeck to commission a new coat from his neighbour, a drunken mercurial tailor. The coat turns out to be so fabulous that Akakiy makes a sensation at work. His boss admires him, his colleagues toast him, and he’s invited to a glamourous party, where he flirts, dances, gets very drunk, and staggers off. He gets lost in a bad part of town and is robbed of his coat. Back home, he hallucinates; a doctor is summoned, who sees no hope of recovery. Akakiy finishes his days in an insane asylum.
This is it, everyone. The Overcoat is without question a part of the operatic canon of the 21st century. It has all the moving parts of a show that entertains, and it has that perfect triumvirate – text, music, and production – that will stand up to future generations of critics, the way Mozart’s or Verdi’s work does today … I don’t think I’ve been to an opera in Canada – a world premiere, at that – with a more obviously enthusiastic audience response; the show was punctuated with laughter and spontaneous applause. Indeed, The Overcoat is so beautifully crafted from the inside out, that it seemed no piece of the puzzle – no phrase, no piece of design, no performer onstage – could be removed without the show losing its magic. – Jenna Simeonov, Globe and Mail, March 31, 2018
Pirate Song tells the true story of two 18th-century female pirates, Mary Read of England and Ann Bonny of Ireland. To go to sea, they disguised themselves as men, and mixed business with pleasure by becoming lovers in 1720 while aboard a pirate ship captained by Calico Jack Rackham. When attacked by the British crown later that year in Jamaica, the two women put up a fierce fight (unlike their male comrades who cowered in the hold), but were captured. Pirate Song begins at their trial: the judge finds pirates Mary Read and Ann Bonny guilty, and asks if they have anything to say in their defence. Mary tells of her brutal pirate mother; Ann tells of abuse and abandonment by her lover Calico Jack Rackham, and how she found solace in Mary. The judge sentences both women to hang. They respond with a desperate duet in which they “plead the belly”, claiming to be pregnant, which under English common law would postpone their hanging. Their request is granted, though their fate is merely suspended, as they are doomed to hang after their babies are born.
Pirate Song was commissioned by Janice Isabel Jackson, who premiered it in Halifax in 2017.
Welcome to this 21st century version of Don Juan. Our protagonist is now a woman, Donna, owner of a sex club, who pursues men and women alike. Accompanied by her faithful and long-suffering assistant Sam, she defends herself against Matt, an aggressive spurned lover (by murdering him), beds the innocent newlyweds Otto and Anna, and romances Matt’s young daughter Lola—all before the first intermission. The second half finds Donna on the run by night, still playing havoc with Otto and Anna, and frustrating Sam’s romantic pursuit of Otto. Matt’s ghost appears and tells Lola that Donna doesn’t love her, how Donna murdered him, and that they must seek vengeance together. Matt (in the form of a taxi driver) takes Donna and Sam to a lakeside beach party, which becomes a place of reckoning for Donna, as her past victims confront her. Defying them, she dives into the lake, whereupon Lola dives in after her and pulls her under. They both drown.
The Canadian Opera Company commissioned us in 2006 to create Swoon, a kind of contemporary version of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Following its success, we were drawn to Don Giovanni, and had the notion to change the hero into a woman. This really changed the story, aligning it more with contemporary and transgressive ideas about gender roles and sexual orientation. We also thought it important that the justice meted out against Donna is not about adultery, but about her cruelty and mockery of the people around her. It helps us to care for these people, in spite of their foibles; they carry the emotional weight of the opera. Crush took five years to write: two for the libretto, three to compose. We worked closely together on the storyline, with thoughtful dramaturgy by Guillaume Bernardi and Brendan Healy.
Crush was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, under the late Richard Bradshaw. It received a workshop production in August 2015 the Theatre Department of The Banff Centre, mounted by Against the Grain Theatre and director Joel Ivany in partnership with the COC.
Europa was a Phoenician princess who was seduced and borne off to Crete by Zeus. There she bore him three sons, who became the founding fathers of Europe. It’s telling that European civilization, which has been a mixed blessing for the rest of the world, was founded upon what could be seen as a kidnapping and rape. This piece explores the conflicted feelings of Europa—whose enslavement to Zeus brings her exhilaration, violation, and humiliation—and those of her former lover Hiram, who has searched all his life for her, and for whom their reunion brings ecstasy, frustration, and death.
Europa was commissioned by the Toronto Masque Theatre (Larry Beckwith, Artistic Director), with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council. My thanks go to the funders, for funding; to Larry, for asking; to all the cast and production team, for being excellent collaborators; and to Steven Heighton, for providing such eloquent and heartfelt words.
Europa was recorded on the 2017 disc, Breathe, featuring Suzie Leblanc and David Fallis.
Librettist: Paul Bentley
Commissioner: Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (Co-artistic Directors John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra)
Premiere: 25 February – 1 March 2009, Enwave Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 5 voices (soprano, mezzo, fado singer (contralto), baritone, bass baritone), 5 players (clarinet/bass clarinet, guitar, piano, violin, bass/bass guitar)
Duration: 85 minutes (11 scenes, one optional intermission)
Pedro Carmona, a young surgeon and son of a prominent Portuguese general, has escaped military service in Angola in 1968 by fleeing to Toronto with his upper-class wife Constanza. In order to survive, he has taken two jobs while he retrains to qualify as a doctor.
The opera begins as Constanza—sick of poverty, loneliness, and winter—explodes in frustration. She humiliates Pedro by threatening to get a job herself. Pedro storms out, and ends up at a Fado club, where he meets the Fadista Inês. He becomes a regular at the club, and love grows between him and Inês. In Lisbon, Pedro’s anxious parents haven’t heard from him for months. A telegram from the dictator Salazar informs them of Pedro’s desertion, ordering him to be captured and shot.
Pedro can resist Inês no longer: he goes to her apartment, and they consummate their love. Constanza, who has taken a job as a cleaner, discovers Pedro’s photograph in Inês’s dressing room, and confronts him. Inês arrives and tells them that she is carrying Pedro’s child. Constanza is crushed and begs for Pedro to come back, but he refuses, moving in with Inês instead. Summoned by Constanza, Pedro’s parents confront him, accuse him of harming the family’s name, and order him to return to his wife; again he refuses. Alone with his son, General Carmona tries some gentler persuasion, but to no avail. His wife decides that the only honourable solution is for the General to kill Inês; when he hesitates, she takes his gun, goes to the nightclub, and shoots Inês.
Constanza is appalled by the murder. The General hears from Pedro, who discovered Inês’s body while on duty at the morgue, and asks to meet his parents and wife at the cathedral, in order to repent his sins before them and before God. He does so, but then he takes the General’s gun and forces the others to drink Inês’s blood, a vessel of which he has saved from the morgue. He unveils her dead body, and forces the others to sing her praises. He shoots himself, whereupon Inês sings a final farewell.
Rolfe’s writing for his five-player ensemble is transparent enough that I could distinguish virtually all of the sung English at Sunday’s opening performance. Rolfe also gives the listener plenty to hold onto throughout the piece, through repetitions of material that familiarize the ear with the music and give extra dimension to the drama. Rolfe cleverly uses fuguing to illustrate the desire of each of these singers that Pedro quit fooling around. The whole score was put together at that level of skill and economy.
– Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 24 February 2009
The Story of Inês de Castro
In 14th-century Portugal, the heir to the throne, Prince Pedro, is married to Constanza. He falls in love with one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting, Inês de Castro, who is from Galicia, in Spain. She becomes his mistress, and they have three children. The court is scandalized; but above all, the king fears Inês will increase Spanish influence on the Portuguese throne. He orders Inês to be killed—according to legend, in front of her children, while Pedro is away hunting. Pedro is beside himself with grief and rage, and wages war against his father. After a number of years, his father passes on, and Pedro becomes king. His first act is to arrest Inês’s killers, torture them, and bite their hearts (just as they had bitten his own heart). He then has Inês taken from her grave, dressed in royal robes, and—seating her on the queen’s throne—he orders his courtiers to kiss her bony hand. He has an elaborate tomb built for them at Alcobaça, which remains there to this day, inscribed “Death will never part us / Until the end of the world”.
The true story of Inês de Castro is a national epic in Portugal, and the anniversary of the death of the writer who immortalized it, Camões (who died June 10, 1580), is now Portugal’s national holiday.
A note on the opera Inês
The Queen of Puddings first heard Fado in 2001, at a Mariza concert in Toronto. When they approached me about writing an opera involving Fado, I began a fascinating journey into that music, of which I knew almost nothing, in spite of the large Portuguese presence in Toronto. My ears were opened: Fado is very operatic, with its dramatic, heart-grabbing singers and stories. And I was delighted to get acquainted with Inês de Castro, a beautiful and passionate story ready-made for opera, as well as the Portuguese language, which is practically music itself, rolling like the waves of the ocean. These influences flowed into my own music to make an opera which is married to both countries, just as the Portuguese in Canada have created a new world from the roots of an ancient one.
One of opera’s great pleasures is working with great people. Early on, Joe Blackmore, Ricardo Sternberg, and Manuela Marujo (all of The University of Toronto) were very helpful in illuminating Portuguese history, literature, and culture. My librettist Paul Bentley threw himself into the fray with gusto, and bore with me patiently through many drafts and changes while I grappled with the music. The director Jennifer Tarver provided crucial insights in the later stages. And the co-directors of The Queen of Puddings, John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra, offered steadfast faith and encouragement from beginning to end. To all of you, my heartfelt thanks!
Commissioner: Toronto Masque Theatre (Artistic Director Larry Beckwith) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 25 – 28 April 2007, Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 5 voices (3 sopranos, mezzo, baritone), 7 early instruments A415 (recorder, oboe, lute/theorbo, harpsichord/organ, violin, viola, cello). May also be performed on early or modern instruments at A440.
Duration: 35 minutes (6 scenes)
Aeneas and Dido is featured on the 2017 disc Breathe.
Both Purcell’s and Virgil’s versions of Dido and Aeneas feature an Aeneas who is a man of action. He is what he does, in contrast to Dido, who is what she feels. Aeneas and Dido tries to imagine Aeneas’s interior life. What drives Aeneas to choose an uncertain quest for a new homeland over Dido’s offer of love and country? His heart has been turned to ashes by witnessing the violence visited upon his Troy. Dido’s heart still aches from her husband’s death, yet she plucks up the courage to confess her love to Aeneas, making his rejection unbearably painful. Immersed as they are in their own suffering, they cannot grasp each other’s.
And then there’s the score. Rolfe’s music is so easy to enjoy, it’s like the musical version of being articulate. It’s not at all spare or simplistic. In fact it often seems to skate towards dissonance and discord, but in a way that compels rather than challenges. There’s a visceral intelligence that pulls you along. And you’ll wonder how such insanely modern sounds are being pulled out of period instruments.
Aeneas and Dido is an impressive follow-up to Rolfe’s justly praised mini-opera Swoon, a class-comedy set in Rosedale that debuted at the Canadian Opera Company a few months ago. Another work, raW, recently won the Jules Leger Prize for New Chamber Music. Someone has to commission this guy to do a full-length work.
– Gord McLaughlin, Toronto Eye Weekly, 27 April 2007
Librettist: Anna Chatterton
Commissioner: Canadian Opera Company (Richard Bradshaw, Artistic Director) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 6 – 9 December 2006, Imperial Oil Opera Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 4 voices (2 sopranos, tenor, baritone), 13 players (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello, bass)
Duration: 45 minutes
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…” (Shakespeare)
Leah and Roy, a young couple, arrive at Mona and Ari’s immaculate home, where Leah has been hired as a maid. The jealous Roy tries to get Leah to skip her first day on the job, but Leah, a practical punctual poet, is having none of it. Mona whisks Leah off on a dizzying tour of her duties. Husband Ari is at home, feeling sick and neglected. Leah reminds him of an old flame from years ago, and he is smitten again. While telling her his tale of lost love, he lavishes Leah with coy compliments. Leah is shocked, yet intrigued by his attentions.
But Roy (who has been spying) is in a jealous fury, and when Mona discovers him, he tells her about Ari’s advances. Mona is despondent and coaxes Roy to comfort her, which he does with increasing warmth. An alarmed Leah stumbles upon them, whereupon Mona hatches a plan to use Roy to bring her husband to heel–a plan to which Leah reluctantly agrees. Mona whisks Roy off, and Leah is left on her own to worry and wonder. When Ari approaches, she challenges him to live up to his sweet words. Ari is aroused, but then he hears his wife giggling in the next room. Mona gleefully introduces Roy, who is “here to fix all that’s broken.” She hurries Leah out of the room, leaving the two men alone.
Ari tells his woes, but Roy is disdainful, and struts off to play lover with Mona. Ari and Leah eavesdrop until Leah can take no more and calls a halt. Everyone is betrayed and humiliated, and angry accusations are spit back and forth until it is Roy’s turn to call a halt. He woos Leah with surprising eloquence, and she is won over. Not to be outdone, Ari tries the same with Mona, who rises to the occasion. The day’s wrongs are righted, and love is found again all round.
Swoon, the new one-act comedy from James Rolfe and Anna Chatterton, tells the story of two disaffected couples from different classes who work out their differences, and their jealousies, through real or contrived flirtations with each other’s partner. Chatterton and Rolfe’s brisk, contemporary comedy has given it freshness and humour. Like a good joke, this story’s pleasures are mostly in the telling, and the two authors tell it very well.
Rolfe’s nimble score enhanced the script’s comic momentum from the opening bars and never let it lag, while giving the story’s more serious moments due time to unfold. His stripped-down settings always suited the text and advanced the drama. Odd as it seems, one common fault of contemporary opera composers is a failure to listen to the words and the imaginative space they reveal. Rolfe has listened with real skill and humility, and the result is an airy yet resonant score that made it easy to understand almost every word sung.
In some ways the collaboration of composer and librettist reached its peak in the opera’s least characteristic section. Leah’s erotically charged address to Ari in one of the later scenes seemed to billow up out of nowhere, and took the opera into a new zone, closer to the Song of Songs than to the wry, jazz-inflected dialogues of the work’s opening. But once it was made, this sudden shift felt right, because of the precision and poetic tone of Chatterton’s language, and the responsive cantabile temper of the music … Rolfe’s very singable vocal lines gave everyone a chance to shine.
– Robert Everett-Green, Toronto Globe and Mail, 9 December 2006
Swoon is worlds away from James Rolfe’s Beatrice Chancy, his 1998 tragic opera that became a critical and popular success. In Swoon, Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton set themselves the ambitious goal of writing a dramma giocosa on the model of Mozart’s Figaro but set in contemporary Toronto. Even if Swoon falls short of its lofty model, it succeeds so well it is sure to see future productions.
Chatterton’s libretto confronts a poor, young couple, Leah and Roy, with a wealthy, middle-aged couple, Mona and Ari. When Leah goes to work as a maid for Mona, she becomes the object of Ari’s attentions and Roy’s jealousy. Realism gives way to the artifice of eavesdropping, plots and counterplots and, unlike Figaro, we never feel any real sense of danger. Under Michael Albano’s insightful direction, the work ends ambiguously with each couple publicly reaffirming fidelity while privately anticipating future affairs.
Rolfe’s attractive music took three basic forms–quirky syncopation to accompany staccato scenes of plot development, Latin dance when characters reach some accord, and, for passages of reflection, slowly thickening build-ups of orchestral tension supporting beautifully soaring vocal lines.
Sopranos Virginia Hatfield as Leah and Melinda Delorme as Mona and tenor Lawrence Wiliford as Roy all displayed light, agile voices and a gift for comedy while the baritone of Justin Welsh as Ari stood out as impressively rich. Conductor Derek Bate led a thirteen-piece ensemble in deftly creating Rolfe’s precise degrees of sheen, spice and ecstasy.
– Christopher Hoile, Opera News 2007-3
Librettist: Camyar Chai
Commissioner: Tapestry New Opera (Artistic Director Wayne Strongman) and the Manhattan School of Music Opera School (Gordon Ostrovsky, director), with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts
Premiere: 6 April 2005, Manhattan School of Music, New York, NY
Other productions: Tapestry: school tour, New York, April 2005; school tour, Toronto, spring 2006; Rideau Hall, Ottawa, April 2006; school tour, Sault Ste. Marie and region, spring 2006. Pacific Opera Victoria: school tour, Victoria and Vancouver Island, 2007.
Performers: 5 voices (2 sopranos, mezzo, tenor, baritone) with an optional part for children’s chorus, and 3 instruments (percussion, electric bass, and keyboard)
Duration: 33 minutes (5 scenes)
At lunchtime, Miriam, the new kid at school, is taken in hand by friendly Keisha. They meet Elijah, a loner who eats sushi for lunch. He clutches his kite, which he dreams will fly one day, and carry him away from school. Keisha scoffs, but Miriam believes him. The school bully, Big Billy Brett, with his sidekick Nikki, mocks Elijah. He abuses Elijah’s kite and steals his lunch. When Billy finds out what sushi is, he is revolted, and delivers an enormous burp. Miriam isn’t impressed and lets Billy know it. They trade insults and Miriam easily trumps him. When an enraged Billy attacks her, she fells him with a neat martial arts move. Billy retreats, issuing threats, and Miriam is suddenly a school hero.
Now Miriam is hanging out with Nikki. They sing about how cool girls love to go shopping. But when Miriam speaks to Keisha and Elijah, Nikki scolds her. Elijah accuses Miriam of selling out her friends, which provokes Miriam to wreck Elijah’s kite. Now Miriam is shunned by all the kids for going too far. But Keisha is able to reassemble the kite, making it better than ever. Elijah approaches Miriam to make peace with her; when he sees his new kite, he is in awe. Suddenly, Big Billy enters, bent on revenge, but he stops short when he sees the new kite. They all work together to launch Elijah and his kite, including Billy, whose enormous burp provides the necessary lift-off power. They celebrate together as the lunch bell rings.
Librettist: André Alexis
Commissioner: Toronto Masque Theatre (Artistic Director Larry Beckwith) with the assistance of The Laidlaw Foundation and the Ontario Arts Council
Premiere: 13 – 14 May 2004, Jane Mallett Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Other productions: May 2011, Enwave Theatre, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 8 voices (3 sopranos, alto, 2 tenors, baritone, bass) and 9 early instruments A415 (2 recorders, 2 violins, 2 viola da gambas, harpsichord/chamber organ, theorbo/baroque guitar, cello). May also be performed on early or modern instruments at A440.
Duration: 35 minutes
Seeking his wife Eurydice in the underworld, Orpheus implores Hades to let him bring her back to life. Hades gives in reluctantly, on condition that Orpheus not look back at Eurydice while she is being led back to earth. The reunited couple begin their journey back. Hades praises the peacefulness of the underworld over the turbulence of life on earth, but is upbraided by his wife Proserpine, who sympathizes with the living.
The couple sing a love duet while they journey toward light, past the tortured souls of the underworld. They meet a shepherd and his flock who perished when the shepherd, dreaming of his girlfriend, walked off a cliff, followed by his sheep. The shepherd recognizes and praises Orpheus, then tells him his story, which his sheep mock bitterly. As the couple take their leave of the shepherd, the opera ends with a hopeful chorus.
[Orpheus and Eurydice] is one of the most beautiful new operas to be written recently, delivering inventive instrumentations and rhythms for recitatives while bowing to gorgeous tonal echoes of centuries past in arias and choruses. Rolfe’s final chorus and the duet between Eurydice and Orpheus deserve to be heard again and again.
– John Terauds, The Toronto Star, 14 May 2004
Librettist: Camyar Chai
Commissioner: Tapestry New Opera (Artistic Director Wayne Strongman)
Premiere: 1 – 5 April 2004, The Fermenting Cellar, The Distillery, Toronto, Ontario
Other productions: Tapestry: May 2009, The Fermenting Cellar, The Distillery, Toronto, Ontario; Bicycle Opera, July and September 2013, various venues, Ontario and Quebec
Performers: 2 voices (sopranos, tenor) and 5 instruments (clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, cello). Also arranged for 2 voices and 3 instruments (flute, violin, piano).
Duration: 12 minutes
After a long search, Hector finds his estranged wife Isabelle in a house of ill repute. She has run away to live her days in shame after a traumatic event. Hector pleads with her to come back home with him. She refuses, steadfast in the face of his sorrow, anger, and religion. At last he invokes their daughter, and she melts.
Other notes: Why opera?
We manage to get through most of our days without needing to sing, without needing the accompaniment of an orchestra. But opera isn’t about most days. It is drawn to extreme situations where a marriage, a reputation, a fortune, or life itself is at stake. Our voices rise with distress or excitement; we shout, we yell, we curse. In opera, we sing.
What made Rosa a natural opera subject? The characters are fighting to survive. They must plead, persuade, speak up for themselves, struggle with forces much larger than them, react to cruel and unpredictable turns of fate. Most of us will lead less eventful lives, and be the happier for it. Yet we also realize that pure chance can visit death or misfortune upon us, without warning, without rhyme or reason. Opera can bring alive the excitement of these extremes without their actual danger.
Opera music must have magical powers. The music snakes through every twist and turn of the plot, swings up and down with the mood, and brings to life each character: their desires and delusions, their pride, their grief. All these must be wrestled into an coherent piece of music that lasts two or more hours. And the audience, while being deluged with music, must still be able to hear enough words to understand what’s happening.
But there is one “must” before all others: there must be some tasty singing. People go to the opera to hear singing. Scenery, orchestration, acting, plot–all these are fine, but it’s singing by which an opera lives or dies. Our ears can distinguish the tiniest vocal inflections. We can hear immediately whether a voice rings true for us; for this reason, characters must be vocally true before they can become psychologically true. A composer enables singers to convince, to seduce the audience. And since singers are athletes as well as artists, the physical demands placed on them must be carefully chosen. Opera has a demanding nature. It demands that singers memorize and sing hours of music, that creators struggle for years to write it, that producers raise lots of money to stage it, and that audiences sit through it all, in the mandatory operatic state of suspended disbelief. And after all that effort, if the singing isn’t delicious, who would want to sing the opera, and who would bother to listen?
The music of Fire (1999) embodies the text’s unnerving union of sensuality and lynch-mob violence by weaving the voices tightly and inexorably together. Four voices move as one, reflecting a claustrophobic small-town setting and the text’s airless imagery of water, fire, and drowning. Rhythm and pitch are simple but obsessive, emphasizing the schism between the cool, soothing surface of the words and the horrifying ritual they portray. Fire was commissioned by the Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra, Co-artistic Directors) with the assistance of The Canada Council for the Arts.
Fire, by composer James Rolfe, was the dark centre of the show; it captured the troubling ambiguity of a poem by Andre Alexis about the murder of children and the lynching (or burning?) of the man who supposedly killed them. Rolfe’s deceptively simple, hymn-like setting had an undercurrent of anxiety that built into a climax of unbearable intensity.
– Tamara Bernstein, The National Post (Toronto), 20 June 2000
Once we get to Fire, however, with its text by André Alexis, set by James Rolfe (the composer of Beatrice Chancy), we have arrived not only at the performance’s most potent fusion of music and word, but its emotional core, a memorable journey into darkness.
– Urjo Kareda, Toronto Globe and Mail, 17 June 2000
FIRE by André Alexis
Woman 1: I am standing in unburning flame, like a moth in amber. Above me, the sky is blue as cobalt, and the clouds drift like steam from a warm room. It is morning and I am on the shore of a wide lake. I look down, and (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Woman 2: I don’t get out much since the house burned down. Not much more than a square of black ground. We lost everything. Even the letter I was writing you. What was it? I was saying (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Woman 3: I wake up every morning thinking of him. Some days I almost feel him in my arms, my hand on his chest. And then, to be near him all day long. I wonder if he knows that (I am standing in unburning flame . . . )
Women: We were by the lake, watching men and women bring kindling. Each with as much as they could carry. The night sky was cloudless, black, and filled with stars. The moon was white; our songs were still as the evening:
song: In my distress I called upon the Lord, and cried unto my God: he heard my voice, and my cry came before him, my cry came into his ears. Then the earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills moved and were shaken, because he was wroth. There went up a smoke, and fire out of his mouth devoured.
The night was black. The moon was white. The water rubbed against the canal. His arms around me; his breath warm . . . and the names of the dead children in our ears:
Jenny Wilson Helen Vendler
Heather Young Michael Carson
Miranda Andrews Michael Harris
Thomas Parsons Peter Allen
Peter Allen Thomas Parsons
Michael Harris Miranda Andrews
Michael Carson Heather Young
Helen Vendler Jenny Wilson
The torches moved on the water like fireflies . . .
And then, the hammers on wood, wood on wood, to build a pyre for the childkiller . . .
The lake a mirror from which the scaffold rose, on which the wood was heaped, on which he was left, hands bound, feet tied . . .
Woman: Our torches above us like moths . . .
Child: Like moths?
Woman: Like moths.
Child: Was there really a killer?
Woman: Yes, darling . . .
Child: How black was the night?
Woman: Black as a bible.
Child: How white was the moon?
Woman: White as salt.
Child: How many stars were there?
Woman: Three million million million million . . .
Child: And did he cry when you burned him?
Did his hair burn first?
Did his teeth burn?
How black was the night?
How red was the fire?
song: There once was a moth. White as ash.
And there was a candle flame. Yellow as lemons.
And what a friendship they had. Dance, dance, dance . . .
Text © 1994 by André Alexis
Abridged with author’s permission by James Rolfe, 1999
Librettist: George Elliott Clarke
Commissioner: Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company (Co-artistic Directors John Hess and Daírine Ní Mheadhra)
Premiere: June 18 – 22, 1998, The Music Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
Performers: 6 voices (2 sopr., mezzo, 2 bari., bass), 7 players (2 vln., vla., vlc., bass, pno., perc.)
Duration: 100 minutes (2 acts)
Other productions: Queen of Puddings: June 1999, DuMaurier Dance Theatre, Toronto, Ontario; August 1999, Alderney Landing Theatre, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia; February 2001, Winspear Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta
Beatrice Chancy is a historical drama based upon the true story of the Cenci family of Rome, circa 1600. The story is set on a plantation in Nova Scotia during the last days of slavery, circa 1800, with the heroine Beatrice as the half-caste daughter of her master, Francis Chancy. When her father responds to her romance with the slave Lead by beating him and then raping her, Beatrice takes justice into her own hands and murders him. For this, she is hanged, along with her lover Lead and her stepmother Lustra. It is a tale of love, but also of violence, slavery, incest, and revenge. Opera and classic tragedy are fused with the brutal reality of slavery in Nova Scotia, a little-known chapter of Canadian history.
Make no mistake: Beatrice Chancy is the triumphant event of the operatic season. James Rolfe’s music drama to a text by George Elliott Clarke, now revised and presented in a wholly inspired new production by the tiny Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company, is chamber-sized only in scale. Its imagination and depth of feeling are vast, even overwhelming. With Beatrice Chancy, I felt I was face to face with the future of opera — and its breath was hot.
Rolfe has understood, as few other composers of new opera have, that opera is emotion and melody is character. Clarke, the Nova Scotia-born, black Canadian poet, has provided him with a remarkably charged libretto; it’s loosely based on Shelley’s verse tragedy The Cenci, but its narrative of incestuous desire, rape and revenge has been shifted to the Annapolis Valley in 1801, when slavery was still legal in the British colony.
Beatrice is the daughter of a white landowner and a black slave. She is a cherished, even pampered child until, returning home after a convent education in Halifax, she openly declares her love for a fellow slave. Her father Francis Chancy’s buried lust cracks open both their lives. Clarke makes his bold transformation resound with the impulse toward freedom — from unmediated power, from patriarchal oppression, from colonial enslavement.
The music of Beatrice Chancy is astonishing. Sophisticated in its eclecticism, it hints at, or often quotes, black spirituals, ring shouts, freedom songs, blues, gospel, hymns, insistent percussion, as well as Nova Scotia fiddling. But this range of source material has been subtly shaped, and is deployed utterly for expressive effects. Each of the six characters has a distinct, complex musical profile. The music takes us intimately inside them, and thus when the big emotional moments come — and there are many — the impact is gigantic.
Measha Bruggergosman’s Beatrice proved unforgettable, her rich passionate soprano on fire, her emotional investment in this woman total. She carried the big burden of this music, but every singer made an impact: Nigel Smith, tender and then raging as Beatrice’s lover-slave; Gregory Dahl, terrifying and yet eerily recognizable as Francis Chancy; Lori Klassen, finding the ambiguity and pathos in Chancy’s wife Lustra; Marcus Nance, movingly self-doubting as the religious slave Moses; and Lisa Lindo as the child slave Deal.
In the finale, as the singers and musicians stood together on stage chanting the hymn O Freedom, a black woman just to my left in the audience fervently added her voice to the singing. She was right: An experience of the magnitude of Beatrice Chancy brought, for all of us, our hearts into our throats.
– Urjo Kareda, The Toronto Globe and Mail, 22 June 1999
Monumental. Mesmerizing. Breathtaking. These words are barely adequate in describing James Rolfe’s and George Elliott Clarke’s brilliant new opera Beatrice Chancy . . . a seamless, masterful combination of music and drama.
– Ron Foley MacDonald, Halifax Daily News, 14 August 1999
Finally. After sitting through a season’s worth of half-baked new operas, I can sit back, clap and sing the praises of George Elliott Clarke’s and James Rolfe’s brilliant, compelling Beatrice Chancy … James Rolfe’s music is gorgeous and smart—an informed hybrid of baroque, gospel, and East Coast idioms that never sounds cluttered or academic.
– R. M. Vaughan, Toronto Eye magazine, 24 June 1999
Rolfe’s score follows the ideals of earliest opera by giving precedence to the text. His deft intertwining of musical styles—Maritime fiddling, baroque counterpoint, spirituals even a Broadway love duet—in itself becomes a moving statement of the racial co-existence that remains but a dream at the play’s devastating close.
– Tamara Bernstein, The national Post, 15 June 1999
The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company has astonished and thrilled the Toronto opera-going public with a production of a new chamber opera, Beatrice Chancy. The economically charged libretto is set with impressive musical sophistication by James Rolfe in a manner which constantly supports and reinforces the text. I can’t recall attending such a gripping premiere in many years of opera-going.
– Peter Dyson, Opera Magazine (UK), November 1999
The Making of Beatrice Chancy: Notes on a Collaboration
I first read the poems of George Elliott Clarke in 1990, while searching for material suitable for song lyrics. His words seemed to leap off the page, as if possessed: alive, argumentative, by turns violent and blissful, never at rest. So I wrote to him blindly, sending a cassette of my music, proposing that we collaborate on an opera; his reply was “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
Then what? Neither of us knew anything about writing an opera. We cast about for ideas, settling after a few false starts on the story of the Cenci family. It goes like this: in Rome, ca. 1600, Francesco Cenci, the Pope’s treasurer, is rich, powerful, and very bitter. Not wishing his children to inherit his wealth, he has two sons murdered, and rapes two daughters to reduce their dowries. The first daughter escapes and marries; he imprisons the second, Beatrice, to prevent her from doing the same. She hires assassins who kill her father, but the job is bungled. Confessions are extracted under brutal torture; Beatrice, her stepmother Lustra, and another brother are executed on orders of the Pope (who then inherits their fortune, the Cenci family now being defunct).
Murder, incest, torture, execution–we had found our opera. But George then transposed the action to early 19th-century Nova Scotia, giving the classic tragedy new dimensions of racism, slavery, and liberation. Over the next five years, he wrote draft after draft of the story, drafts which I would then edit to suit my musical and dramatic instincts. These edited versions evolved into the libretto of Beatrice Chancy, while the longer drafts grew into a dramatic poem of the same name, recently published by Polestar Press.
During this time, we had two sojourns at The Banff Centre’s Composer-Librettist Workshop, where Music Director John Hess kept an interested eye on our progress. He later founded The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company in Toronto, with Dáirine Ní Mheadhra; they workshopped the First Act in June 1996, and the first draft of the entire piece in December 1997. These workshops were crucial to the opera’s birth; we could immediately hear what worked, and what didn’t. Most important, it was encouraging to hear at last the fruit of our years of imaginative labour. The Queen of Puddings were also encouraged, and premiered the opera in June 1998 at The Music Gallery in Toronto.
Some thoughts on the music of Beatrice Chancy
In composing this opera, I have tried to use the simplest possible means of expression, to let the characters tell their own stories, and to let George’s eloquent words be heard. Simple, direct vocal lines also keep the singers closer to the viscerality of their art. Body and soul are intimately bound together in opera: the singers bathe the audience with their sweat and blood, their voices and their souls. Perhaps that’s why people either love or loathe opera, without much middle ground.
My favourite dramatists (I think of Shakespeare and Mozart) give life to complex and utterly alive characters, with all the contradictions, joys, pain, and conflicts that we humans live through. They know that the answers are never revealed to us, that the decisions we struggle to make are as likely to be bad ones as good. What seemed right to Canadians in 1801–slavery, the superiority of Europeans over Africans and native peoples, of men over women–now seems arrogant and oppressive. But 200 years from now, how will we be judged? One of the “mottoes” George chose for the opera seems more true now than in 1991, when it was penned by Hardial Bains:
“The old enslavement was to nature, and the new one is of one individual to another, beginning with chattel slavery and proceeding to the modern kind, where enslavement has assumed the most grotesque form–not only wage-slavery, but also bondage to the financial institutions which, in the present period, hold the entire world in their grasp.”
Music in Nova Scotia, ca. 1801
Playing music and singing were everyday parts of nineteenth-century Nova Scotian life. Hymns were sung in church; at home, there were folk songs, work songs, and lullabies. Young people attended singing schools to sing the religious “pop” music of their day, and also to mingle with the opposite sex. Dances on Saturday nights were eagerly awaited; the music was usually made by a solo fiddler, often one of African descent. There was a diversity of musical cultures in Nova Scotia that is hard for us to imagine: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Acadian, American, German, Miqmaq, and African-Canadian musics existed side by side, often freely mixing with each other.
What did these musics actually sound like? Little is known: of the European music, some fiddle tunes and religious songbooks survive, but accounts of the early music of African-Canadians are scant. I studied field recordings and accounts of African-American music from isolated parts of the deep South–coastal islands, rural areas, and prisons–which may be the best clues we have. Here I encountered the ring shout, one of the most “purely” African forms of self-expression to flourish in the North American diaspora. (Many others, particularly drumming, language, and religion, were feared and suppressed by slaveholders.) The participants form a circle, moving counterclockwise, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, creating a driving, polyrhythmic groove, which accelerates gradually. A leader sings out short phrases, often improvised, and the others reply with a fixed response (e.g. “Hallelujah!”). Ring shouts often tell Biblical stories about freedom, or about overcoming a powerful oppressor (e.g. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”).
The spiritual, one of the best-known forms of African-American music, was also popular in Canada. The spirituals familiar to us today became refined and standardized during U. S. Reconstruction and the early days of recorded sound, but there are compelling older styles–very slow, with irregular phrases and much rougher harmonies–which can be heard in such forms as the field holler, early blues, and the “moans” and Dr. Watts hymns still sung in some African-American churches. Spirituals and ring shouts are both used in the opera, sometimes as direct quotations, sometimes as original “reconstructions”.