Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Introducing the Lillian Alling Avatar

When I was approached by Vancouver Opera to write a series of travel blogs in the voice of Lillian Alling, my first task was to learn as much as I could about the “Mystery Woman” of the Telegraph Trail. Like many before me, I was intrigued by the enigma of this legendary young woman who – for reasons that continue to mystify – traveled across North America from Manhattan to Dawson City largely on foot, by some reports reaching Siberia.

It turns out that very little, in fact, is known about Lillian. What is known is full of hearsay and contradictions. I read Cassandra Pybus’ book, The Woman Who Walked to Russia, an account of the author’s pilgrimage retracing Lillian’s steps through the British Columbian wilderness. I enjoyed the creative license Amy Bloom took with Lillian’s story in her novel, Away. But my assignment was to get inside the head of one particular Lillian, the Lillian imagined by John Estacio and John Murrell in creating the music and libretto for their opera, Lillian Alling.

This Lillian is feisty, obsessive and fiercely independent, driven by a purpose that at first seems girlishly romantic, but is gradually revealed to be anything but. This Lillian is multi-layered and full of secrets, unsophisticated in some respects, but astute, intelligent and fearless as she encounters individuals and challenges along her route that both help and hinder her quest. This Lillian’s personality and perspective are informed equally by the traumas she left behind in Europe and the surprises, good and bad, in store for her in the New World.

In writing Lillian’s travel blogs, it was my turn to imagine what she experienced journeying from New York City to Telegraph Creek, from the United States into Canada, from the suffocating crush of steerage as she crossed the Atlantic, to the startling ruggedness of the BC wilderness – and every point in between.

Nowhere are those experiences more compelling – and better documented – than along British Columbia’s Telegraph Trail. I was fascinated to learn the history of the trail and about the linemen stationed in nine cabins along the telegraph line, between Hazelton and Telegraph Creek. It was these linemen who first brought the real Lillian Alling’s story to light as she stumbled out of the woods one day, exhausted and her clothing in tatters, at Cabin One. In real life, the linemen assisted Lillian on her northward path, telegraphing ahead to alert the next man to watch out for her, and sometimes even escorting her on part of her journey. This is where the legend of Lillian was born.

However obscure the reasons for real Lillian’s trek might be, our Lillian’s reasons are as dramatic and gripping as they come. Putting myself in our Lillian’s well-worn shoes, I tried to feel her blisters and her weariness, to experience her fear and urgency, to imagine her exhilarating rush of freedom as a young woman walking, hitch-hiking and hopping boxcars across a continent, and to share her wonder at the breadth and variety of the landscapes she travels through.

I look forward with great pleasure to experiencing Lillian’s odyssey once again, on stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

~ Elizabeth Stewart