Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Origin of Lillian

When you watch the world premiere of Lillian Alling in October, 2010, you will experience a complete story, told through words, music, drama, and theatre design. You will learn a lot about Lillian, her family, and the people she meets on her epic trek across North America into the wilds of Northwestern B.C. I think you’ll be enthralled with the opera and intrigued by the idea that Lillian’s story may be “true”.

Yes, Lillian Alling is based on an historical figure. There was a woman, claiming to be from Russia, who apparently walked and rode the rails across North American in the 1920s. She was arrested for vagrancy and spent time in Oakalla Prison Farm, near Vancouver. But there are very few known facts about her life, let alone her character. No one knows for certain where she came from, how she arrived in North America, and whether she completed her journey across the Bering Strait to Russia.

Lillian has inspired novelists, playwrights, filmmakers and historians. Australian writer Cassandra Pybus’s The Woman Who Walked To Russia, describes the author’s largely fruitless search for information about Lillian. American novelist Amy Bloom’s Away follows ‘Lillian Leyb’ from the Yiddish Theatre in New York to Seattle and Alaska. The play All the Way to Russia With Love by Susan M. Flemming was performed at the 2002 Ottawa Fringe festival. A Canadian feature film is currently in development.

Susan Smith, a writer who lives in Quesnel, B.C., is writing a “non-fiction history book” about Lillian. She heard the story about two years ago and initially thought it was just another Cariboo tall tale. She did some digging in the library and became deeply fascinated. “Even once I've finished the book, I know I'll always be looking for Lillian,” she says. I feel that many parts of Lillian's story will remain a mystery.”

Librettist John Murrell met Lillian about ten years ago, hidden in a few pages of an anthology called Wild West Women, which he bought at a book store in Banff. Intrigued, he pursued her story and, after much searching, discovered how little there is to find. “So,” says Murrell, “at some point, one has to begin to invent, with compassion and a sense of Lillian's time and place, the parts of the story which do not exist factually, and which will probably never be known to us…. In my libretto, I have conjectured a set of possible answers to all the questions we have about Lillian Alling.”

The mystery surrounding Lillian is what attracted Murrell and composer John Estacio and kept them working on the opera. “What drove her, what pulled and pushed her across an entire continent? Why was she so keen to keep these matters secret? What happened to her, why and where, for the rest of her life?” asks Murrell.

You will have to see the opera to learn the answers that Murrell and Estacio have imagined. Susan Smith will be there. “It will be the first time I ‘allow’ myself to see, read, or view a fictional treatment of Lillian. It will be a real treat for me to be able to relax after my book is finished, and to see how other people who love and admire Lillian have interpreted her story.”

~ Doug Tuck, Director of Marketing & Community Programs