Opera Composition

Opera composition. Until well into the 20th century, composition of opera in Canada was sporadic, a series of events rather than the continuous development of repertoire.

Until well into the 20th century, composition of opera in Canada was sporadic, a series of events rather than the continuous development of repertoire. The absence of permanent opera companies precluded any regular production of native opera, so that new works usually had independent productions with little prospect of repetition or revival. Conditions began to change after the middle of the 20th century with the greater involvement of the CBC/Radio-Canada and the financial support provided by the Canada Council, and with the gradual establishment of large opera companies, as well as many small companies that produced opera regularly (eg, Tapestry New Opera Works, Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, Chants libres) or occasionally (Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, and various university opera departments). Such companies increasingly provided composers with the realistic possibility of professional performances of their work. Nevertheless, the huge cost of full-scale production by major companies has limited the number of new works that they are likely to give, with the result that many operas have been composed for more modest resources, although not necessarily of more limited ambition in musical expression and dramatic impact.

Early Canadian Opera
Joseph Quesnel was the first resident Canadian - and with some justification may be regarded as the first North American - opera composer. His Colas et Colinette was premiered in Montreal in 1790, performed in Quebec City in 1805, and has had modern revivals, the first in 1963. Quesnel's other opera, Lucas et Cécile, was slated in 1809 for a performance that was never realized. The opera was reconstructed and performed in 1994 (Tafelmusik, Toronto; stage premiere Montreal 2000). Both works are in the style of the 18th-century French comédie mêlée d'ariettes of Duni, Grétry, Monsigny, and Philidor.

By the middle of the 19th century opera had become an accepted art form among the urban residents of Canada, and by the end of the century performances were fairly common. Touring companies presented the standard 19th-century European repertoire, and amateur groups often staged works by Canadian composers. As the resources of such groups were limited, only works requiring modest forces could be undertaken. Calixa Lavallée 's three light operas, Lou-Lou (1872), The Widow (1882), and TIQ (The Indian Question Settled at Last) (published 1883, though possibly written 1865-6), all were written, and the latter two were premiered, in the US. Lou-Lou's scheduled New York premiere was cancelled at the last minute. Two scenes of a projected grand opera - Le Jugement de Salomon - are thought to have been performed in Boston in 1886. No opera by Clarence Lucas is known to have been presented in Canada, but Charles A.E. Harriss's quasi-opera Torquil (1896) had concert performances 22 May 1900 at Massey Hall, Toronto, and 25 May 1900 at the Montreal Arena. Other late 19th-century operas included Roberta Geddes-Harvey's La Terre Bonne, or, The Land of the Maple Leaf, performed in 1903, Susie Frances Harrison's three-act Pipandor (late 1880s, based on French-Canadian folksongs), Jules Hone's The Grandee, performed (probably in concert) in Montreal in 1899, and Frank Stone's Sardianapolis, performed in Sherbrooke about the turn of the century.

Admittedly it is difficult to distinguish an opera from an operetta when only its title and a newspaper announcement survive. For a more complete record see also Musical Theatre.

Canadian Operas of the Early 20th Century

Early 20th-century light operas include Le Roman de Suzon (1914) by Henri Miro, and Gisèle (1924) by Alphonse Lavallée-Smith. The 20th century witnessed a gradual increase in operas composed by Canadians, and after 1940 there was an outburst of activity, owing in some measure to the patronage of the burgeoning CBC. Alfred La Liberté's Soeur Béatrice was never staged, though excerpts were sung in concert. Émiliano Renaud's three-act comic opera Djymko probably was not performed. J. Ulric Voyer's L'Intendant Bigot, a three-act grand opera, was premiered in Montreal in February 1929 by the Société canadienne d'opérette and was presented also in Quebec City. Ballad operas by Healey Willan and Oscar O'Brien were staged at the CPR Festivals (1927-31), and Willan's Transit through Fire (the first Canadian opera conceived for radio) was broadcast by CBC Toronto in March 1942. Eugène Lapierre's opéra-comique Le Père des amours (1942, based on the life of Joseph Quesnel) was staged at Montreal's Monument national in December 1942, and his Le Vagabond de la gloire (Aimé Plamondon), based on the life of Calixa Lavallée, was produced at St-Alphonse Hall, Montreal, in November 1947. Graham George's Evangeline was staged in Kingston 1 December 1948.

The Role of the CBC

During the 1950s and 1960s, too, most of the operas written were short works (usually one act); most were commissioned by the CBC and some by the Jeunesses musicales of Canada (JMC). Maurice Blackburn's comic opera Silent Measures (Une Mesure de silence) (Marthe Morisset-Blackburn) was telecast by the CBC Montreal 21 April 1956 (stage premiere Toronto 1956); his chamber opera Pirouette had its premiere 21 April 1956 and was performed 30 July 1960 at the JMC Orford Arts Centre. Both operas toured eastern Canada for the JMC in 1960. Jean Vallerand's chamber opera Le Magicien also was presented first at the JMC centre, 2 September 1961, and toured the country the following year. Healey Willan's full-scale grand opera Deirdre (John Coulter), premiered on CBC radio 20 April 1946, was revised for a stage premiere at the University of Toronto in 1965 and was repeated by the Canadian Opera Company in 1966. Barbara Pentland's chamber opera The Lake was produced at the CBC Vancouver studios 3 March 1954, while John Beckwith's Night Blooming Cereus (James Reaney) (1953-8) was premiered on CBC radio in 1959 and staged later at Hart House Theatre, McGill University, and the University of Western Ontario. Arthur Poynter's two religious operas, The Triumph of Our Lord and The Birth of Our Lord, were premiered in 1950 and 1969 respectively in Toronto. Harry Somers's The Fool (Michael Fram) (1953, premiered 1956) received CBC radio broadcasts on several occasions, and Trevor Morgan Jones's The Broken Ring (Donald Wetmore) (premiered 1953) was telecast on CBC TV 29 February 1956, although neither work was written for the CBC.

Operas Composed for Centennial Year, 1967

Canada's centenary in 1967 prompted several operas on Canadian themes. Although a few earlier works in the genre - Pentland's The Lake and Willan's Transit through Fire - had been based on Canadian subjects, many had had foreign settings. Somers's Louis Riel was the most significant of the new works that attempted to say something specific and serious about the Canadian heritage. Composed to a Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand libretto (in English, French, and Cree) that treated the Métis rebellions of 1869-70 and 1884-5 and their political consequences, the imposing, eclectic score incorporated traditional or pseudo-traditional tunes, dodecaphony, and electronics. It was commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company with funds from the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation and premiered 23 September 1967 at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto. Raymond Pannell's The Luck of Ginger Coffey (Ronald Hambleton) was premiered by the Canadian Opera Company 15 September 1967 at the O'Keefe Centre. Also composed for centennial year were Murray Adaskin's Grant, Warden of the Plains (Mary Elizabeth Bayer), premiered at the CBC Winnipeg studios 18 July 1967; Kelsey Jones's Sam Slick (Rosabelle Jones), premiered at the CBC Halifax studios 5 September 1967; and Robert Turner's The Brideship (George Woodcock), premiered at the CBC Vancouver studios 12 December 1967. Douglas Major's The Loyalists, yet another centennial opera, was performed in 1967 at Saint John, NB.

Opera Composition 1960s-80s

The upsurge of opera composition continued throughout the late 1960s, the 1970s, and the 1980s, though most of the products were short or medium-length works for small or relatively small forces. Gabriel Charpentier's Orphée, a 70-minute piece for chorus, dancers, and a small instrumental group including the ondes Martenot, had its premiere 10 June 1969 at the inauguration of the National Arts Centre. Several of the mini-operas within his Clara 91 (10 comic operas, each no more than 15 minutes long) have been performed. Raymond Pannell's Exiles was commissioned and premiered in 1973 by the Stratford Festival's Third Stage, and his Souvenirs (chamber opera for one singer, 1978) and Refugees (1979) were staged in Toronto. Charles Wilson's The Summoning of Everyman (Eugene Benson) (commissioned by the Music Department of Dalhousie University in 1972 and premiered there in 1973) was repeated at Stratford's Third Stage in 1974. Tibor Polgar's The Glove (George Jonas), a one-act opera written in 1973 for Prologue to the Performing Arts and produced for touring by the Canadian Opera Company, had over 100 performances by 1980, including a 1975 telecast by the CBC. Violet Archer's one-act comic opera Sganarelle (Samuel A. Eliot) had its premiere 5 February 1974 at the opera workshop of the University of Alberta. The one-act operas Death of Enkidu (Martin Kinch) by Harry Somers and Lady in the Night (Harant Alianak) by Norman Symonds were produced in Toronto in 1977 by Co-Opera Theatre. Paul McIntyre's Death of the Hired Man (1966) (Robert Frost) had a reading by COMUS Music Theatre, Toronto, in 1979. Among several short operas for children are those based on Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant by Barrie Cabena (1970) and Charles Wilson (1972) and John Rea's The Prisoners Play, commissioned by the University of Toronto Opera Department and premiered by it 12 May 1973. Jean Coulthard's The Return of the Native (Edna Baxter) was composed in 1956 and revised in 1979.

Operas for Children

A number of operas have been composed for children, either as entertainment or with a pedagogical aspect. The former group includes those based on Oscar Wilde's The Selfish Giant, by Barry Cabena (1970) and Charles Wilson (1972), and John Rea's The Prisoners Play (Paul Woodruf), commissioned by the University of Toronto Opera Department and premiered by it 12 May 1973. The Canadian Children's Opera Chorus has generated a number of works for and performed by children: Derek Holman's Dr. Canon's Cure (Robertson Davies) (1982), Harry Somers's A Midwinter Night's Dream (Tim Wynne-Jones), John Greer's The Star Child (Ned Dickens) (2000), and Dean Burry's The Hobbit (Burry) (2004). Some operas have been composed specifically for the outreach programs of companies, such as Burry's The Brothers Grimm (Burry) (2001) for the Canadian Opera Company, or Ramona Luengen's Naomi's Road (Ann Hodges) for the Vancouver Opera in 2005.

Operas Written for Television

Among operas written specifically for television were Ben McPeek's The Bargain (1963), telecast from CBC Montreal in 1966 and staged by COMUS Music Theatre at the Toronto Spring Festival in 1978; Godfrey Ridout's Christmas opera The Lost Child (John Reid), telecast from CBC Toronto in 1976; and Raymond Pannell's Aberfan, which won the Salzburg International TV Opera Prize in 1977. R. Murray Schafer's Loving was commissioned by the CBC French network and was given a partial performance on CBC TV in 1966. An unusual work is Alexina Louie's Burnt Toast: 8 Mini Comic Operas About Love (Dan Redican), which was composed specifically for DVD and broadcast by CBC TV in 2006.

Large-scale Operas

Despite the increasingly daunting economics of opera production, a few large operas have continued to appear. Wilson's Heloise and Abelard (Eugene Benson), a full-length grand opera commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company, was premiered by the company 8 September 1973. Among other large-scale operas is Nelligan (Michel Tremblay), composed by André Gagnon and produced by the Montreal Opera in 1990. The Canadian Opera Company presented Harry Somers's Mario and the Magician (Rodney J. Anderson) in 1992 and Randolph Peters's The Golden Ass (Robertson Davies) in 1999. Pacific Opera Victoria produced Louis Applebaum's Erewon (Mavor Moore) in 2000. In 2001 Tapestry Music Theatre in Toronto gave Chan Ka Nin's The Iron Road (Mark Brownell), an opera about Chinese labourers on the western railway. Filumena (John Murrell) with music by John Estacio, which relates the story of an Italian immigrant to Alberta who was one of the last women in Canada to be hanged, was given at Banff and Calgary in 2003.

Some Smaller Operas

There have been substantial works for smaller forces, such as Wilson's Psycho Red (Benson), commissioned by the Guelph Spring Festival and premiered there in 1978. Wilson adapted the Anne Hébert novel for his fourth opera, Kamouraska, which had a public reading in 1979 in Toronto. Derek Healey's Seabird Island, its libretto based on a west-coast Indian legend, was premiered in May 1977 at the Guelph Spring Festival and toured Canada the following season. Claude Vivier's Kopernikus (Vivier) (1979) has been widely performed. Nic Gotham's Nigredo Hotel (Ann-Marie MacDonald) has had many performances following its premiere in 1992, as has James Rolfe's Beatrice Chancy (George Elliott Clarke) (1998, Queen of Puddings, Toronto) about Maritime Blacks in the 19th century. The Canadian Opera Company produced Red Emma (Carol Bolt) (1995), composed by Gary Kulesha, about the American radical Emma Goldman. Elsewhereless (Atom Egoyan) by Rodney Sharman was premiered in 1998. Christos Hatzis's Constantinople (Banff 2004) is abstract, almost impressionistic in its portrayal of the city.

Canadian Opera Company Program
In 1987 a composer-in-residence program was established by the Canadian Opera Company. This program resulted in the creation of full-length and one-act operas by Canadian composers, among them Michel-Georges Brégent, Richard Désilets, Denis Gougeon, Peter Paul Koprowski, Andrew MacDonald, John Oliver, and Timothy Sullivan.

Patria
A unique set of theatrical compositions that defies easy categorization is called cumulatively Patria, by R. Murray Schafer. Performances of works in the on-going cycle of 12 have been given in such widely varying locations as a conventional theatre space, Toronto's Union Station and a wilderness lake. Productions began in 1972 with Patria 2: Requiems for the Party Girl at the Stratford Festival and continue in 2006.

More Canadian Operas
The following is a selective list of some other Canadian operas (with librettist's name in brackets) with the date of composition or the place and date of the first performance, up to 2005:

István Anhalt La Tourangelle (Anhalt), Toronto 1975

- Winthrop (Anhalt)

- Traces (Tikkun) (Anhalt), Toronto 1995

- Millennial Mall (Lady Diotima's Walk) (Anhalt), Winnipeg 2000

Violet Archer Sganarelle (Samuel A. Eliot), premiere Edmonton 1974

- The Meal (Rowland Holt Wilson), 1983, premiere Edmonton 1985

John Beckwith The Shivaree (James Reaney), Toronto 1982

- Crazy to Kill (James Reaney), Guelph 1989

- Taptoo! (James Reaney), McGill University 1999 (piano), University of Toronto 2003

Alan Bell Turtle Wakes (Rick McNair), Calgary 2001

Lorne Betts Riders to the Sea (J.M. Synge), 1955

Michel-Georges BrégentRéalitillusion (Brégent), premiere COC 1988

Walter Buczynski From the Book of the Living, CBC 1975

Clifford Crawley Barnardo Boy (David Helwig), Kingston 1982

- Angel Square (Janet Irwin), Ottawa 1996

Marcelle DeschênesOPéRAaaAH!, premiere Société de musique contemporaine du Québec 1983

Richard Désilets Zoé (Kim Élaine Gosselin), premiere COC 1988

Quenten DoolittleCharlie the Chicken (Jonathan Leavey), premiere Toronto Free Theatre 1975

- Silver City (Jan Truss), premiere COMUS Music Theatre, Toronto 1986

- Boiler Room Suite (Rex Deverell), premiere Banff 1989

Joseph Nevin Doyle The Golden Age (Doyle), Belleville 1914

Laurie Duncan La belle et la bête (Duncan), 2004

José Evangelista Manuscrit trouvé à Saragosse (Alexis Nous), Société de musique contemporaine du Québec 2001

Dennis FarrellThe Birthday of the Infanta (Farrell), premiere Dalhousie University 1979

Harry FreedmanAbracadabra (Mavor Moore), 1979

Claude FrenetteLes Étrivières (Nicole Desrosiers), premiere Montreal 1985

Marc GagnéMenaud (Gagné) premiere Laval University 1987

- Évangéline et Gabriel (Gagné), 1990

- Les Verdi (Gagné), 2001

Graham George A King for Corsica (George), 1975, premiere COMUS Music Theatre 1981

Denis Gougeon An Expensive Embarrassment (Timothy Anderson), premiere COC 1989

Bengt HambraeusL'Oui dire, (Hambraeus) 1986

Peter Hannan The Gang (Tom Cone), Vancouver 1997

- 120 Songs for the Marquis de Sade (Peter Hinton), Vancouver 2002

Jacques Hétu Le prix (Yves Beauchemin), 1992

Sydney Hodkinson Saint Carmen of the Main (Michel Tremblay, adapted by Lee Devin)

David JaegerNightbloom (James Joyce, adapted by Sean Mulcahy and Billie Bridgman), collaborative work with Larry Lake and James Montgomery, 1984

D. D. Jackson, Québécité (George Elliott Clarke), Guelph 2003

David KeaneThe Devil's Constructs (David Fanstone), premiere Kingston 1978

- Carmina Tenebrarum (Keane), premiere Montreal 1985

J. Davenport Kerrison, Oreads, Toronto 1870

- The Curfew, Toronto 1879

Rudolf KomorousNo No Miya (Komorous), premiere Vancouver New Music Society 1988

Peter Paul Koprowski Dulcitius (Rodney J. Anderson), premiere COC 1989

Gary Kulesha, The Last Duel (Michael Albano), 1999

Larry Lake 'Tis Pity, 1980

- Nightbloom, see under David Jaeger

André LamarcheMira, 1981

Gregory Levin Rebel and Empire (Dan Levin), 1978

Alexina Louie The Scarlet Princess (David Henry Hwang), COC 2002 (concert)

Andrew MacDonald The Unbelievable Glory of Mr. Sharp (Ken Koebke), premiere COC 1989

Bruce Mather La princesse blanche (Renald Tremblay), Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, Montreal 1994

Michael MillerAround Alline (Miller), 1989, premiere Mount Allison University 1990

James Montgomery Nightbloom, see under David Jaeger

John Oliver Guacamayo's Old Song and Dance (Melissa Cameron), premiere COC 1991

Gilbert PatenaudePour ces quelques arpents de neige (Thérèse Tousignant), premiere Laval, 1989

- Chevalier de Lorimier, 1995

Randolph Peters Nosferatu (Marilyn Gronsdale Powell), COC 1993

Serge ProvostPhaedra, 1987

- Le vampire et la nymphomane (Claude Gauvreau), Chants libres, Quebec City 1996

Elizabeth RaumThe Final Bid, premiere University of Regina l980

- The Garden of Alice (Raum), premiere Regina 1985

- Eos: The Dream of Nicholas Flood Davin (Raum), Regina 1991

George Ryan The Ghost in the Turret (Phyllis Grant Lavelle), UBC 2003 (for children)

Micheline Coulombe Saint-MarcouxTransit (France Théoret), premiere Montreal 1984

Harry Somers Serinette (James Reaney), Sharon, Ont., 1990

Alain Thibault Ne blâmez jamais les bédouins (René-Daniel Dubois), Chants libres, 1991

Timothy Sullivan Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Sullivan), New York 1987

- Dream Play (Sullivan), premiere COC 1988

- Florence, the Lady with the Lamp (Anne McPherson), Elora, Ont., 1991

Oscar Telgman Leo, The Royal Cadet (George F. Cameron), Kingston 1889

Leslie Uyeda Game Misconduct (Tom Cone), Vancouver 2000

Claude Vivier's Kopernikus (Vivier)

See also Children's concerts; Composition for ensemble teaching; Librettos; Musical theatre; Opera performance; Patria.


Further Reading

  • MacMillan, Rick. 'Yes! There IS Canadian opera,' OpCan, vol 17, May 1976

    Everett-Green, Robert. 'A breath of fresh airs,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 13 Jun 1987

    - 'New operas tackle a poet, a god and Emma Goldman,' ibid, 13 Jan 1990

    - 'Stage set for new operas,' ibid, 11 Aug 1990

    Miles, Colin, ed. Canadian operas: An Annotated Catalogue of Operas and Staged Vocal Works by Canadian Composers in the Canadian Music Centre (Vancouver 1999)

    'Opera in Montreal and Toronto'

    Domville, Eric. "Canadian Themes and Variations," Opera Canada, March 2003

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