“The Banff Centre – inspiring creativity.” Anyone who has visited Banff and experienced the sheer cliffs, crisp air and rushing blue-green glacial waters of the Bow River knows that accompanying feeling of exhilaration and inspiration. This stimulating environment has been masterfully captured by The Banff Centre and its performing arts programs. So when The Banff Centre offered us a two day mini-workshop for composer John Estacio and librettist John Murrell to work with stage director and dramaturge Kelly Robinson and students from the opera program on our new opera Lillian Alling, we leapt at the chance. The creative team was eager to look at the first large chorus scene when Lillian arrives at Ellis Island along with thousands of others seeking a new start.
Having 14 singers to work with gave John E. the chance to hear multiple voices while Kelly could begin to visualize the staging. Our first music workshop is not scheduled until mid-September so this was a sneak preview of what would follow – the first time John M. would hear the music to his words!
Over the next two days repetiteur Adam Burnette would work with the singers breaking down each section note by note and then, along with John E. and Kelly, rebuilding them into a nuanced whole.
Day 1. Fourteen of Canada's finest young voices gather to tackle Greek, Italian, Spanish and German as they enter the world of Ellis Island, New York in the 1920s – the same entrance made by Lillian Alling and the starting place of a journey that would lead her across the US mid-west and into Canada along the Telegraph Trail. Adam leads the singers first in their individual groups and then truly as a chorus. Once the singers have grasped their vocal roles, Kelly works on staging. By the end of the day there is a vocal and physical map but everyone is feeling a little shaky.
Day 2. Gathered around the piano the singers rehearse and record a working audio file for John E. to take back with him. To give the singers some context to this scene, Kelly has brought us a dvd of Golden Door by Emanuele Crialese. It's a series of 'ah hah moments' as we are visually transported to Ellis Island and the trepidation of arriving in a new country speaking a different language. Full of hope but also of fear – the fear of not being understood and not understanding.
When we stage and videotape the scene for reference, we are all slightly amazed at the singers: it is as though the music and movement has seeped into their bodies and brains overnight. John E. and Kelly are beaming at the recording we capture: from chaos to united optimism, the soprano singing ‘Lillian’ soars above the cacophony.
On break I ask John M. if there is any musical comparison to what we're hearing. He thinks a moment and then replies: Strauss' Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) – the underperformed masterpiece – but smiling, he adds he doesn't think there is a long list. Estacio's Ellis Island is as clear, crisp and exhilarating as a late summer's eve by the Bow Falls and we have only just begun.
~ Jennifer Lord, Special Projects Manager