Andrew Paul MacDonald
I started composing Mary's Wedding almost three years ago. I received a call from Timothy Vernon inviting me to write an opera for Pacific Opera Victoria and to think about a subject. Busy working away at another piece, I had barely enough time to consider his proposal before he called back asking me what I thought of Stephen Massicotte's Mary's Wedding. I told him that although I wasn't familiar with it I was intrigued by his enthusiasm and that I'd like to see the script right away. I read the play, over and over, and just fell in love with Mary, Charlie and Flowers. Then a funny thing happened. Lines from the play suddenly popped into my head as tunes and the music just started flowing onto my page. Couldn't stop it. I think maybe it was the simple, poetic nature of Stephen's lines – the rhythms, the unforced quality of the sounds – that lent themselves so perfectly to my melodies. It was the ideas themselves, too. Sentiments which were worth setting to music.
It wasn't the kind of story that I was at first considering for an opera, but I soon discovered that it was a perfect story for my musical imagination. I wanted something surreal where it would seem normal that people sing to each other. What better setting for that than Mary's dream world? Often I've experienced dreams where all the inhabitants converse in song. Perfectly normal! A dream can be a chaotic place, too, but one in which profound things may come to the surface. Transforming this non-linear dream story into an opera was a challenging undertaking that couldn't have been achieved without the remarkable vision of Michael Shamata who acted as dramaturge throughout the workshop process.
I decided on three distinct musical voices for the character triangle that Stephen had originally created with two actors. He had cleverly combined Mary and Flowers into the female lead and infused each with a similar affection for Charlie. I decided to explore this further by separating this dual role into a soprano and bass for reasons of musical variety and to connect them through shared musical material. What resulted were two distinct personalities who each care deeply for Charlie and make him more real in the process. All three sing real arias – I think some of the tunes may stick with you. Remember the words, too. They're important. I also wanted to expand the vocal forces so as to include a chorus that would function as characters that are mentioned in the play, but could now have a voice. So the townspeople, workmen, mothers and children, tea party guests and, of course, the soldiers all come to life through the chorus, which also functions omnisciently as in Greek tragedy.
The arias, duets and choral numbers are embedded in a large-scale musical landscape divided into two acts. Both acts are formed of continuous music where one scene leads directly into the next, similar to the dream-like way the play itself unfolds. Although many musical themes wind their way through the opera, it is the love theme, a never-ending pentatonic melody rising through all the keys, that predominates. Occurring at a number of key moments, it also forms the foundation for a set of variations that accompany the dream wedding processional that concludes the work.
Although Mary's Wedding is a tale of love and war, it is also about dealing with sadness. Coping with grief through acceptance, a theme of my first symphony, The Red Guru, is also what makes Stephen's story so important. Mary cannot rest from her recurrent dream until she accepts that Charlie is dead. She must do this if she is to move on and marry someone else. Only then will the words "Wake up, Mary, wake up" have their true meaning.
Many workshops later and after many long hours at my desk you have the opera before you. Thanks to all who have contributed to make this a reality – Stephen, Timothy, Michael, Ian, Jackie, David, Patrick, Robert, Teresa, Kim, Giuseppe, Sandy and all the singers who participated in the workshops: the POV chorus, in particular Tamara and Sam, and especially our soloists Betty, Tom and Alain. Special thanks to my wife Eleanor who copied out my scores and parts from the manuscript, then copied my corrections after what seemed like endless proofreading – a gargantuan task! And to my mom and dad who gave me the inspiration to be a composer; always encouraging, no matter how strange my music sounded. And finally to all those whose families and relationships have been shattered by war, then and now. I hope this work helps to bring some peace.
The 2011-12 season will bring the 10th anniversary production of Mary's Wedding at the premiering company, Alberta Theatre Projects. It was in the theatre during a break that Gina Wilkinson, the play's first director, told me that this play was going to change my life. I didn't really know what she meant, and I still try to understand how it did just what she said it would.
Mary's Wedding allowed me to concentrate on writing full time, i.e., I didn't have to work at the coffee shop anymore. It has never been out of production for more than a few months since its première. There are nights when I'm at home that I look at the time and think, Mary and Charlie are going on stage right now in Seattle or Nova Scotia or somewhere. It's an honour to know that people love and remember this play and that it goes out to places I've never been and moves them. The play launched my professional writing career and has brought me into contact with many wonderful cities, theatres, artists and projects. In some way, everything in my present life can be traced back to this play.
In that first season after Mary's Wedding premiered it played wonderfully at the Belfry and the Vancouver Playhouse. That production was fondly remembered by Pacific Opera Victoria which brought it onto your stage in its present form. It's been a wonderful and exciting challenge for me to bring my play to you – through the amazing medium of opera. Thankfully, I had wonderful guides – Andrew MacDonald, Timothy Vernon, Michael Shamata and everyone at Pacific Opera. I feel I did far less than these geniuses.
Of the many memories that Mary's Wedding has given me, a highlight was playing hooky from a screenwriting job I had in London. I jumped a ferry over to France and took a train to Amiens to visit Moreuil Wood and Flowerdew's grave. I listened to the bees buzz over the white gravestones and, somewhere in the little French village, a dog barking. I remembered just how much art and life are tied to history and long-lost lives and how much they should be. We are living out histories and plays of our own – operas – of our own. I reminded myself to make mine a good one.
It's a privilege to be able to bring that little reminder to you . . . with Mary's Wedding. Love and life go on, the struggle for peace and goodness goes on. Hope goes on. It was going on before you arrived and will be going on after you leave. Add a few good lines to that play. Or if you're musically inclined . . . add a bar or two.
Being involved in new work brings its own special excitement, and its own special rewards. I feel incredibly honoured to have been a part of this journey, and I applaud Timothy and David Shefsiek for the far-sightedness and thoughtful intelligence they have displayed from the outset of Mary's Wedding, qualities that Patrick has continued to provide.
When Pacific Opera Victoria decided to commission a new opera, they wisely chose Stephen Massicotte's play Mary's Wedding as a powerful story on which to build. Stephen's play is beautiful in its own right. It is romantic, has a strong emotional journey, and is proudly Canadian in setting and feeling. Andrew's music is equally romantic and emotional, and has been composed with great respect for the original, while displaying its own remarkable dramatic sense.
As Mary's Wedding has transformed from a play with two actors to an opera with three principal singers and a chorus of 20, I have considered it my challenge and my task to preserve some of the intimacy of the play within the epic scope of the opera. I am greatly assisted in this by the beautiful designs that Ian Rye has created. The set provides us with the opportunity to fill the stage with people, while still isolating our beloved Mary and Charlie. The costumes allow us to move seamlessly between Saskatchewan and the Western Front.
Every step of the way, POV has handled the development of this new work with wisdom and consideration. They have nurtured this project with care and love. Everyone involved in the evolution of this opera deserves to be very proud of their accomplishments, including this audience that has supported this opera company as it has offered a healthy amount of challenge and risk.
Bravo to all!! And may this be the beginning of a long production history for Mary's Wedding, the opera.
Timothy Vernon, CM
Despite a recent flurry of funded projects, the première of a new Canadian opera is almost as rare as the blooming of agave americana, and too often, like the 'century plant', its first flowering is also its last. To suggest in explanation that the creators of great opera must grow with and into a strong tradition is too easy: Benjamin Britten is far more than the rule-proving exception. Nor is it simply that production expectations are not less for new than for standard repertoire, where box office receipts are within limits predictable, so that new opera is perceived to entail enhanced risk.
The key to successful opera is in its essence fairly simple: a gifted composer decides he wants to – and finds that he can – tell a specific story, resonant with general human experience, in a way that is emotionally compelling. There are of course pages of footnotes to be added to every word in that sentence, but in my view it offers an irreducible point of departure for any serious discussion.
But the very history of Western 'art music' has thrown up what I think of as the supreme challenge: that of idiom. Minimalism may have brought tonality as we knew it for four hundred years in through the back door, as it were, but can one write as though the great achievements in opera of Janácek, of Prokofiev, of Berg had never happened? That way lies the sad pale limbo of the epigone.
Mary's Wedding is not our attempt to respond to Aïda, let alone replace it. Modest in scale, with a Canadian frame around a universal experience of love and loss, the piece enabled Andrew and Stephen to bring their very substantial creativity and true technical maturity into a single focus. One hears the voice of each: Stephen's delicate, rich delineation of character and mood in a text brimming with incipient poetry, Andrew's varied yet always personal realization in music, by turns atmospheric and moving, of the dream-set story.
POV thanks these wonderful artists for sharing with us their extraordinary gifts; we hope to have done them justice in our production, and hope too that Mary's Wedding the opera, just as the play has done, will find its way to other stages and become a touchstone for Canadian achievement in the art we love.
In 2008 Pacific Opera Victoria commissioned composer Andrew MacDonald and playwright Stephen Massicotte to develop an opera from Stephen's award-winning play, Mary's Wedding.
Three years later, this new Canadian opera is about to make its world première, and we at POV are proud and exhilarated to share it with our community, for Mary's Wedding is very much an opera about us – about our history, our landscape, and our memories.
In the decade since its première at Alberta Theatre Projects playRites Festival, the play Mary's Wedding has seen many performances across North America and in the UK, including a 2002 co-production between Victoria's Belfry Theatre and the Vancouver Playhouse. One of the most successful Canadian plays of the 21st century, it has a strongly Canadian setting, yet the story is universal.
Stephen Massicotte has now transformed his play into an opera libretto, in collaboration with composer Andrew MacDonald, who has built on the poetry of the play and its non-linear structure to create a world where reality and dream merge into a singular musical landscape.
The final work is astonishingly operatic. Words and music conspire to create an experience that is compelling, dramatic, and very moving.
At every step over the opera's three-year gestation, Stephen and Andrew have been supported by a committed team from POV, beginning with Executive Directors David Shefsiek and Patrick Corrigan, who coordinated artistic and financial aspects of the project.
POV's artistic and production team shepherded the new opera through a series of workshops in Victoria, Banff, and Toronto, that let the creators hear excerpts performed by piano, by orchestra, and by soloists and a small chorus. Last June, a final staging workshop allowed additional fine tuning of details of timing and staging.
The workshops helped the creators to refine the opera, aided by the astute observations of the creative team – POV Artistic Director and Conductor Timothy Vernon; Michael Shamata, dramaturge for the project and director of the production; and Ian Rye, POV's Director of Artistic Administration, and designer of the sets and costumes.
A happy outcome of the workshop process was the fact that the three soloists engaged to perform during the workshops made an immediate impact. Their voices, their suitability to the roles, and their emotional intensity left us in no doubt: we were thrilled to engage all three for the world première production: Betty Waynne Allison as Mary; Thomas Macleay as Charlie, and Alain Coulombe as Sgt. Flowerdew.
A singer who performs the world première of a role is often said to have created the role. Certainly this can be said of Betty, Thomas, and Alain, whose involvement throughout the creation process allowed them not only to learn the opera in depth, but to contribute in very real ways to its final shape and sound.
Also important to the success of the workshops were soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen, who filled in beautifully for Betty at some sessions; coaches Robert Holliston and Teresa Turgeon; conductor Joey Pietraroia; pianist Kim Cousineau, the Victoria Symphony, and a host of POV choristers, including Kristy Gislason, Tamara Rusque, and Sam Marcaccini, who have sung the chorus for virtually every workshop.
At first blush, opera creation in the 21st century, with its long, carefully planned trajectory, and workshops and review at every stage, is quite unlike the way it worked in the first 400 or so years of opera. Yet in some ways it is very similar.
While we don't hear of Mozart or Verdi workshopping their operas, they did write with specific singers in mind. And if you aren't churning out opera after opera (full-time opera composers being an endangered species these days), the next best way to grasp the subtleties and colours of a singer's voice and to learn how your finished work will sound is through the workshop process.
The three years spent on Mary's Wedding may seem a prolonged labour when we remember that Rossini dashed off The Barber of Seville in around three weeks and repeated the feat with Cinderella. However, most opera composers held to a more sedate pace than Rossini: Madama Butterfly, La Bohème, and Manon Lescaut each took Puccini about three years from pen to production (and writing Manon Lescaut burned through some seven librettists and uncounted tantrums).
Mary's Wedding – as with many operas today – has come out of a collaborative process. There's no composer browbeating a succession of librettists à la Puccini or autocratically writing the whole shebang – music, words, and exhaustive stage directions – as Wagner did.
Operas often used to be cranked out like episodes of a television series. They were creatures of fashion and weren't expected to have a life into the next year or the next century. While many have lasted, many more are long forgotten.
We want this one to last. As with most operas, the process of creating Mary's Wedding has had its own rhythm and challenges. It represents a major – and, we believe, rewarding – investment of time, talent, and care.
Funding a new opera, like most performing arts activities today, requires a complex process of grant writing and engaging supportive donors in the project. POV is particularly grateful to the organizations and individuals who have shown their faith in this new opera through their generous financial commitments.
And we are deeply thankful to our patrons and audience, who have supported our growth and made possible the artistic vibrancy that is the foundation of every opera we present.Maureen Woodall
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