COMUS Music Theatre of Canada

COMUS Music Theatre of Canada. Organization operating 1975-87 in Toronto (its name derived from Milton's Masque of Comus). COMUS was founded by Michael Bawtree, Gabriel Charpentier, and Maureen Forrester, whose aim was to develop and present music theatre works of all kinds in all media.

COMUS Music Theatre of Canada

COMUS Music Theatre of Canada. Organization operating 1975-87 in Toronto (its name derived from Milton's Masque of Comus). COMUS was founded by Michael Bawtree, Gabriel Charpentier, and Maureen Forrester, whose aim was to develop and present music theatre works of all kinds in all media. To achieve this, COMUS undertook a diverse series of programs and activities. Its first production, Harry's Back in Town, developed and directed by Bawtree with librettist Tony Thomas and music director Peter Mann, was based on the music of US songwriter Harry Warren, and ran for 14 weeks in the fall of 1976. Its second, in June 1977, Menotti's The Medium with Forrester in the title role, was later broadcast (November 1978) on CBC-TV.

COMUS initiated an important aspect of its activities in 1979: a series of classes, workshops and seminars in the basics of music theatre production, performance and dance, given at its Trinity Street studios. A MusiCabaret series in 1980 at Harbourfront showcased young performers in seven new small-cast revues, and in 1981 the Comus Studio Ensemble appeared in a commissioned work - Wine, Women and War, by Jim Betts.

The COMUS Opera Reading series allowed composers and librettists an opportunity to hear performances of their works. This series included Milton Barnes's scenic cantata Thespis (1980), Maurice Blackburn's Silent Measures (1980), Paul McIntyre's Death of a Hired Man (1979), Charles Wilson's Kamouraska (1980), and Harry Somers'The Fool (1979). In January 1981 A King for Corsica by Graham George was given a premiere concert performance (later broadcast by CBC) at Queen's University, then at Hart House. COMUS also presented more experimental works: The Eye of the Beholder: an electronic journey by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble (1980); The Devil's Constructs (1980), and Harlequins (1986) by David Keane; Catalysis (1981) by Bentley Jarvis, James Montgomery and Cameron Tingley; Pitch (1982) by John Oswald and Marvin Green; Chroma (1982) by Bentley Jarvis and Robert Mulder (also given at the 1984 International Society for Contemporary Music's World Music Days); and Space Opera (1985) by Howard Gerhard and bp Nichol. COMUS also gave workshop premieres of Ghost Dance (1985) by Gregory Levin and Mavor Moore, and of Silver City (1986) by Quenten Doolittle.

COMUS mounted full productions of Ben McPeek's The Bargain (coupled with Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona) in 1978; John Beckwith's The Shivaree in 1982 (which had been given a reading and a workshop performance in 1979); R. Murray Schafer's Ra in 1983 (a Dora Mavor Moore Awards winner) which was presented by COMUS at the Holland Festival in Amsterdam in 1985; Nightbloom by the Canadian Electronic Ensemble and Sean Mulcahy in 1984; and The Secret Garden by Stephen McNeff and Joan McLeod in 1985. The Secret Garden won two Dora Awards. To celebrate its tenth anniversary, COMUS staged the Joseph Quesnel-Godfrey RidoutColas et Colinette and the Arne-Applebaum-Reaney Masque of Comus in June 1986 at Toronto's Guild Inn outdoor amphitheatre.

Although its major aim was the development and production of contemporary Canadian music theatre, COMUS also presented in workshop the Canadian premiere of Viktor Ullman's The Emperor of Atlantis (1979), staged Kurt Weill's Seven Deadly Sins and Little Mahagonny as part of a Weill symposium held in 1979, and gave a staged performance of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire in 1981; the COMUS Studio Ensemble also gave ten performances of Canterbury Tales by Richard Hill and John Hawkins in 1981.

The artistic directors of COMUS included Bawtree, Giulio Kukurugya, Billie Bridgman, and Steven McNeff.

In November 1987 the board of COMUS announced the cessation of active operations and the closing of its studio due to the uncertain nature of its finances. Although criticized at times for the scope of its aims and activities in the face of continuous financial constraints, COMUS managed to serve the country's creative community by presenting over 30 new Canadian works. At the 1984 World Music Days, it was credited with producing more than half of all the premieres of contemporary music theatre in North America.

See also: Musical Theatre


Further Reading

  • Mercer, Ruby. 'Toronto: COMUS Music Theatre,' Opera Canada, vol 23, Summer 1982

    - 'COMUS to the rescue,' ibid, vol 25, Fall 1984

    Bawtree, Michael. 'The future is now,' ibid, vol 26, Summer 1985

    Schafer, D. Paul and Watson, Cheryl. 'The COMUS experiment,' ibid, vol 27, Summer 1986

    Littler, William. 'New composers mourn the loss of Comus theatre,' Toronto Star, 5 Dec 1987