Deirdre, B30. Opera in three acts, for nine soloists, chorus, and full orchestra. The music, composed 1943-5, is by Healey Willan, the text by John Coulter. The first full-length opera commissioned by the CBC, it was premiered 20 Apr 1946 on radio as Deirdre of the Sorrows, conducted by Ettore Mazzoleni and with Frances James as Deirdre. A preliminary version, Conochar's Queen, had been written by Willan as incidental music for a radio play by Coulter in 1941. A shortened version of the opera was performed on CBC Radio by the CBC Opera Company in 1951, conducted by Geoffrey Waddington and with James as Deirdre. A revision for stage was given 2 Apr 1965 by the Royal Conservatory Opera School (University of Toronto Opera Division) at the MacMillan Theatre with Jeannette Zarou and Lillian Sukis alternating in the title role, and in 1966 it became the first Canadian opera produced by the Canadian Opera Company (COC), with Zarou as Deirdre. A production for the 1972 Banff Festival of the Arts was staged by Andrew Downie and conducted by Alfred Strombergs, with Ann Looman in the title role. Opera in Concert gave two performances in Toronto in October 1997, with Ingrid Attrot and Adele Kozak sharing the title role.
Drawn from an Irish saga of the Red Branch Knights of Ulster in the druidic era, the story tells of the doom of the ruthless Conochar, King of Ullah (Ulster), and the tragic death of Naisi and his brothers, the Princes of Ullah, as a result of the rivalry between Conochar and Naisi for the love of the foundling Deirdre. Since much of the original text was devoted to the description of action required by radio, revisions for stage trimmed the material extensively. Willan wrote in his customary late 19th-century harmonic idiom, creating a rich polyphonic texture that is effective on radio though problematic in the theatre, where it can overwhelm the singers. Dramatically and musically Deirdre is a Wagnerian opera, yet with a character distinctively its own. The libretto (Toronto 1944, revised 1965) and a vocal score (Berandol 1972) have been published.