Pacific Opera Victoria has spent the last three years planning the perfect dream wedding, bringing local and national talents together in the marriage of theatre and music for its first commissioned opera.
Adapted from librettist Stephen Massicotte’s award winning play, Mary’s Wedding was just a gleam in conductor Timothy Vernon’s eye a few years ago, but, fittingly, on the eve of Remembrance Day, it will make its world premiere at the McPherson Playhouse.
The story follows Mary Chalmers (played by Betty Waynne Allison), a young woman from Saskatchewan on the eve of her wedding as she dreams of her first love, Charlie Edwards (played by Thomas Macleay), who joined the Lord Strathcona’s Horse regiment of the Canadian Army and was sent overseas to fight in the First World War. It is as much a love story as it is a look at a defining time in our history.
Mary’s dreams take her to the front lines as she remembers the letters Charlie wrote to her recounting tales of meeting kings and epic moments on the battlefield with his sergeant Gordon Muriel Flowerdew (played by Alain Coulombe), whose character is based on a real-life Victoria Cross winner who led his squadron against German machine-guns in the battle of Moreuil Wood.
Planning a dream wedding
Director and dramaturge Michael Shamata is no stranger to new works. With a wealth of experience with new plays, he was a great fit for the project even though at the time he had never directed an opera before (He made his directorial debut with POV with La Bohème in Feb 2010).
As dramaturge, he worked with Massicotte and composer Andrew P. MacDonald to keep the project on track and dig out the important parts of the play to help them shine in the opera.
“With opera, certainly it’s the first time for me, it’s a bit different. You’re dealing with not only the text, but with the music as well. So early on, the three of us talked about the use of the chorus and how the piece was going to be opened up, where it was possible to accomplish things with music only and not with text, and how to take a step, or a number of steps away from a play and into a piece of music theatre,” says Shamata.
This is also the first opera for Massicotte and the first full-length opera for Juno award-winning composer Andrew Paul MacDonald.
“I think we were all exploring the territory for the first time really. I think we found a good way of communicating and moving the piece forward in increments. POV allowed the process to have a good healthy birthing period. It may seem like a long time, but isn’t really considering the amount of music that needed to be composed.”
“Timothy Vernon had invited me to write an opera for the company and asked me to consider a subject matter,” says MacDonald. “Less than a week later he called back and asked about Mary’s Wedding. I didn’t know the play, but I was intrigued by his enthusiasm, so I looked over the script and thought it was a great piece. I fell in love with the characters and started hearing music coming out of the lines right away. That was three years ago and now we have an opera.”
MacDonald might be known for his avante-garde music, but he decided to go another direction for Mary’s Wedding.
“It’s not what you’d hear in Puccini or other composers of that time, it’s definitely MacDonald, but it’s not my really way-out-there kind of music because it would just sound wrong for this subject, and yet it still sounds like my music,” he says.
“That’s the challenge in taking a subject that’s 100 years old and coming up with something that’s contemporary. I had to find something that sounded right for the period without being actual period music. I’m not trying to write music that would have been commonly heard at that time. I think I’ve captured the essence of that music, but this music is firmly rooted in 2011.”
MacDonald says he and Massicotte had their work cut out for them in adapting the play into opera.
“One of the big things was cutting back on a lot of the text and coming up with the essential material that preserves the story and lets me take care of the emotional stuff that happens underneath with the music,” he says. “It’s not only background music. That’s what opera is, the music, and of course we have a great story with wonderful words. It’s like poetry, that’s why it was so easy for me to set it.”
Through Mary’s Eyes
As the only company in Canada to build its operas from scratch, POV hired Ian Rye, director of artistic administration, to design the set and costumes. Rye has been working on this project for half of his six years with the company.
“I saw the play at the Belfry and it remains one of the most memorable theatrical experiences of my life,” says Rye.
Set design started about 18 months ago after a series of workshops where the team had been exploring the scenes of the piece as it was being written.
“It’s a love story set on the prairies even though three quarters of the opera takes place on the front lines overseas. For our production, we’ve elected to set the piece squarely and firmly on the prairies in an environment of beauty, a place for that love story to thrive. The world of World War One, instead of it existing in a setting of trenches, the soldiers arrive into Mary’s backyard as they would in a dream and they appear as would the farmhands, as would the neighbours and the cousins and brothers in the small prairie town,” says Rye.
“Ultimately, it was the biggest challenge we set upon ourselves. Often the play is produced in a neutral theatrical setting that is a little dark and more conducive to scenes at the trenches on the front lines where we instead decided to put it in a challenging setting so we could see it through Mary’s eyes. The play is a dream, it’s seen through her perspective and she spends the whole play in her nightdress in bare feet and we often see her on her bed with soldiers arriving into her space. For us the challenge, but also the thrill of it was that it really heightened the dream-like aspect of the piece.”
More than an opera company
“When you create a piece of art, a piece of literature, a piece of music as we have in Mary’s Wedding, it’s no small feat,” says Rye. ‘It’s a homegrown opportunity; it’s a Victoria-made opera. New operas are not created on a regular basis by any opera company in the country. For mainstage opera companies this is a rare and special event. We wanted the experience to extend beyond the walls of the theatre.”
POV partnered with UVic Archives and Special Collections to present The World of Mary’s Wedding: Reminiscences of WW1, a collection of exhibits and memorabilia on display both at the university and at the McPherson until Nov. 20.
Four currently serving members of Lord Strathcona’s Horse will be in town from Winnipeg for opening week performances and veterans week programming at the Royal B.C. Museum.
“We’re trying to be a little more than just an opera company on this project,” says Rye.
This is an amazing opportunity to connect the opera to real-life events that exist in part in the archives in our very own institutions in Victoria.”
POV also created the Mary’s Wedding Memory Project — a dedicated online forum where anyone can share their memories, photos or stories about the First World War. http://maryswedding.websitetoolbox.com.
“We’re telling a story that is not based in antiquity or in fantasy entirely, it tells of real-life events and real-life characters and a story of lost love and great sacrifice that is true to the Canadian experience.”M
Thurs, Nov. 10 at 8pm
Also showing Nov. 12, 14, 16, 18 at 8pm, Nov. 20 at 2:30 pm
In English with English surtitles
Tickets starting at $37.50 to $135
call 250-385-0222 or rmts.bc.ca