Beatrice Chancy

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.


Press excerpts

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”.