Behind every great opera lurks a great libretto. Sometimes wonderful music can mask a weak story and weak libretto (script) but, in my opinion, for an opera to achieve greatness and universal, on-going acceptance, the libretto must also be of the first rank. The poet/playwright must not only supply inspiration to the composer but also deliver to the audience a moving and literate script.
For Lillian Alling we have such a libretto – and such a librettist. I am so honoured and thrilled to be working with the esteemed Canadian playwright John Murrell, who has supplied us with a stirring, mysterious, and moving libretto for our world premiere.
John is one of Canada’s most distinguished and most frequently produced playwrights (as well as a highly regarded arts advocate, mentor, and consultant). His plays have been translated into 15 languages and performed in more than 30 countries.
His best-known plays include Memoir, Waiting for the Parade, Democracy, The Faraway Nearby, Farther West, and New World. He is also a successful translator of classic theatre texts, including works by Chekhov, Sophocles, Ibsen, and Racine. He has adapted Homer’s Odyssey for young audiences, written scenarios for new works by Ballet British Columbia and The National Ballet of Canada, and the screenplay for a recent award-winning film, The Secret of the Nutcracker, produced by CBC in collaboration with Alberta Ballet.
But let’s talk about opera! “The two Johns” – Murrell and Estacio – have developed into a wonderful operatic team. Their first opera was the celebrated Filumena (2003) produced first by Calgary Opera then the Banff Centre; it was the centrepiece of The Alberta Scene at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Presented by the Edmonton Opera in November 2005, Filumena was filmed for CBC-TV’s Opening Night series and has twice been nationally telecast. Filumena was followed by Frobisher (2007), also produced by Calgary Opera and The Banff Centre.
I believe that allowing a creative team to develop over the creation of more than work is very important. Think of the great opera-writing teams: Mozart and da Ponte (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte), Verdi and Piave (Rigoletto, Macbeth, La Forza del Destino), Strauss and Hofmannsthal (Ariadne auf Naxos, Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra). They were able to work together over the course of years, learning from one another, bending to accommodate one another’s strengths, developing a cohesiveness that comes only from experience.
The team of John Murrell and John Estacio has done this, thanks to Calgary Opera, The Banff Centre and Vancouver Opera, who have given them the opportunity – the freedom – to explore this art form together. Of course, the ultimate beneficiary of this luxury is the audience. I know when we hear this opera in October we will realize that this is a team that is seasoned and in its prime. Here are two samples of John’s text for Lillian Alling, with accompanying piano/vocals from our most recent workshop.
Lillian strikes out across the country, all alone, searching for the man who went before her. She is awed by the land, its stark beauty, and its promise of freedom:
The land is large and smooth and green.
I hear many birds, I hear no war.
Such quiet I have not heard before…
A place of questions, not answers,
Of mistakes they do not call sins.
Nothing is ending.
The land is large and smooth and green,
A quiet never heard before.
Its windows are open, so is its door…
A place of prairies, not gardens,
Not ghettos and cities, but farms.
Not shadows, but sunlight.
I walk and the land comes out to meet me.
I rest and the land lies down for a while.
The land stretches out its hand to greet me,
Mile after mile after mile after mile…!
The land is large by day or night.
A music never heard before…
I hear its clear voice
In the telegraph lines:
“You are welcome,” it says,
“Go where you will.
Later in Act One, the young farmer Kristian falls quickly and rather hard for Lillian as she passes through looking for her betrothed. He cannot convince her to stay with him awhile, and shares his frustration and loneliness:
I cannot leave my father,
Though I dream of it all the time.
You have traveled.
Please let me ask you:
Does it feel lonely,
Or does it feel free?
Does every new day fill you with strength,
Or does it fill you with fear?
I know everything about North Dakota,
I know everything about here…
The here and the now.
But I would love to learn about what’s out there…
What the future might look like…somehow.
Will you stay and teach me, just a few days?
When I saw you, I could see
That you are traveling
To find a brand-new life.
I cannot believe that is with Jozéf.
I cannot believe it is being his wife!
(He looks at her longingly.)
What is your name?
I think you can tell from these two brief selections that these are beautiful and descriptive words and music. The opera is filled with such moments – moments brought to us by Canada’s foremost operatic team.
~ James W. Wright, General Director
Allison Angelo, soprano
Colin Ainsworth, tenor
Kinza Tyrrell, piano
Recorded January 3, 2010 at the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto
Used with permission