Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Librettist John Murrell on Lillian Alling

Lillian Alling – the mysterious historical figure who is the title character of our new opera – told reporters with whom she spoke in the 1920s, in the B.C. interior – that she had traveled across the width of North America, and that she had done it on her own, with neither assistance nor interference from anybody else.

In many ways, creating a new opera requires this same sense of absolute, obsessive privacy. Each individual or entity involved in the enterprise – the producer, the composer, the director, the librettist, etc. – must believe that he or she is following an idiosyncratic personal vision with relentless focus – refusing to allow anyone or anything else to interfere or assist.

As librettist of this expansive new work, I have frequently said to myself that my work must precede and pre-empt all other points of view – that my imaginative ear and eye must create Lillian Alling’s world from scratch, that I must single-handedly pull her world out of the void, and that no one else can help in this gigantic task.

Of course, this is patently ridiculous. In reality, I am only one particular part of the process, only one cog in a set of complicated, interlocking wheels. And I am surrounded by colleagues who are every bit as obsessively committed to the work as I am.

John Estacio is, quite simply, one of the best of today’s generation of composers, whether one considers him alongside his Canadian contemporaries, or his contemporaries in the whole world. Kelly Robinson is a director/dramaturgical advisor whose experience in lyric theatre far exceeds that of most others in the field, equal to the very best and busiest.

Then there is Jim Wright and his team of associates at the Vancouver Opera, who have ably aided and abetted us from the start of Lillian’s exhilarating journey – and without whom none of us would ever have taken the first step. How exceptional it is, in these days of cultural and financial instability that an organization would have the foresight and the courage to launch brave new operas. It is, as they say, a big job, but somebody has to do it – otherwise, opera will live only in the past. Of course, opera’s past is a fine and seductive thing – but, without a future, it is still a well-kept and fascinating museum, rather than the living, changing, surprising, challenging creature that we currently seek to pursue and embrace, both individually and collectively.

In spite of these wonderful collaborators, though – which will ultimately, in October 2010, include our first audiences – I continue to be personally and privately obsessed by Lillian Alling’s story – her bravery, her terrors, her exoticism and her universality. I continue to evoke her poetry and passion out of myself. I take her to bed with me at night, and I wake up with her in the morning – and, for hours and hours on end, I feel she belongs to no one but me – that nobody can understand her as I do.

Then, how much I learn, and how quickly I realize the limitations of my words, when I go to work again with John E., Kelly, Jim, Tom, Kinza, Jennifer – and all the splendid actors and singers who show us new facets of Lillian and her friends and foes – during the 3 intensive developmental workshops we have had so far – and who will continue to illuminate and instruct us as we move toward completion of this compelling new dramma per musica.

I am so fortunate to have Lillian and the other characters in our opera as intimate friends, and Lillian and I are so fortunate to have Kelly, John, Jim, and the Vancouver Opera, to inspire and encourage us. Together we will find the right way to tell this story, which belongs to each one of us privately, and to all of us universally.

John Murrell,librettist
November 2008

John Murrell on Workshop #3

In September 2008, Vancouver Opera hosted the 3rd intensive workshop for Lillian Alling. Probably by now most of you have read the fascinating but sparse historical facts about Lillian’s journey across the breadth of North America, which set our creative imaginations to work.

The first 2 workshops focused on the story, the dramatic structure, and the words for Lillian Alling – that’s my department, as the librettist. With the assistance of several gifted Vancouver actors, Kelly Robinson (our director), John Estacio (our composer), and I endeavoured to shape the incidents, both real and imagined, of Lillian’s saga, and to find the true “folk poetry” of her adventures and her dreams. We remain very excited about what we’ve already discovered – and enormously grateful to the Vancouver opera for commissioning this work, giving us a chance to live in and explore Lillian’s world.

But the 3rd workshop was the most thrilling for me – because we had a chance to hear nearly 40 minutes’ worth of Estacio’s passionately eloquent musical score – eloquent and varied: everything from “pop songs” of the 1920s (the period of our story) to a nobly arching aria for our title character, from a Norwegian barn dance on the prairies to a quartet played on telegraph keys, as well as sung, by young linesman on the Telegraph Trail in northern British Columbia. John has a wondrous ability to blend contrasting musical styles into a unified musical feast, and this opera is clearly evoking his most intricate and heartfelt music.

And, because the music is beginning to be there, so beautifully, Kelly was able to help the five superb singers we had for Workshop 3 to investigate the diverse levels and colours of meaning and human experience which the different characters of the opera share with us – through my words and, especially, through John E.’s complex yet immediately accessible music.

What an adventure we are having. So much lies ahead, yet to be discovered, lived and struggled with, shaped, refined, and ultimately revealed to our first audiences in October 2010. Already, though, there are rich veins of emotion and history, of both the individual and the universal, to be mined from Lillian’s history. I trust and believe that we will reveal her great heart – and, thereby, reveal our own – and those of our audiences.

John Murrell, librettist
November 2008