On operas new and less new

Remembrance Day 2016 was an important date for me. I completed the orchestration of a 20-year old opera, Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock, set to a Stephen Leacock short story that is 100 years old. I wanted to celebrate, and texted my longtime friend (and opera-writing partner) Michael Cavanagh, who directs Verdi’s opera Falstaff for Manitoba Opera. We decided to watch the Jets game together after his rehearsal, and so I asked if I could see some of the rehearsal that evening before the game. He replied, “of course.” I’m so glad I went.

As luck would have it, I arrived at the rehearsal hall just as they were about to run the second act. I greeted the conductor, Ty Paterson, and the rehearsal pianist Tad Biernacki, as they are also friends and colleagues, and met the cast. I was invited to sit directly behind Mike as he was directing, just to the left of Ty the conductor.

Even though I’m an opera buff, I had not done any research into the plot of this opera, sung entirely in Italian. (Manitoba Opera uses surtitles, English translations of the sung text projected above the stage in performances, but that setup is not present in the rehearsal hall). So with the Italian I had learned during my days as a vocal coach and from an Italian-Canadian girlfriend long ago, I hunkered down to take in the proceedings.

I was immediately overwhelmed by so many things as once. Firstly, here were some of the finest operatic voices on the continent, mere feet from me, in all their glorious, high-decibel glory. Todd Thomas plays Falstaff, Greg Dahl is Ford, Monica Huisman plays his wife Alice Ford,  Fenton is portrayed by Kevin Myers, Nannetta is Sasha Djihanian, Lauren Segal plays Meg Page, Lynne McMurtry is Dame Quickly, James McLennan is Bardolfo,Tyler Putnam is Pistola and Chris Mayell is Dr. Caius.
You can see a synopsis of the plot to the opera here

Cavanagh’s intricate staging, (or “gags”, depending on your point of view) is the result of his creative take on the clever adaptation of the libretto (script) from three Shakespeare plays by the Italian writer (and composer!) Arrigio Boito. This staging resulted in some seriously slapstick comedic moments. It’s amazing how funny it was, when I had only a passing idea of what was actually going on, which is a tribute both to the composer and to Cavanagh’s clever staging. Tad the pianist was playing ferociously fast 16th notes, some of the fastest notes available to a Romantic composer, for pages and pages on end, seemingly effortlessly, while Ty the conductor kept singers in far-away corners of the room exactly in time with the music. In the “offstage” part of the rehearsal space, three stage managers kept a close eye on the stage area, bringing in or removing props and benches as needed, and also standing in for chorus members (who were not called that night). The stage managers also had their music scores mounted on music stands with wheels, so they can give cues to the singers when it’s their time to enter the stage area, as the singers are doing their singing and staging entirely from memory.

Finishing orchestrating my own opera, Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock, was a fascinating and highly satisfying experience, but also exhausting and intense, a seemingly never-ending process of finer and finer detail work. How nice to walk into a run-through of one of the cornerstones of the operatic literature, so amazingly sung and acted, in the rawness of a rehearsal hall with no costumes, sets, lighting or makeup. And it was still overwhelming! To try and listen to the amazing vocal prowess of the principals, or to watch Ty’s highly complex and seemingly mysterious (to the layperson) arm-wavings, to hearing Tad play the amazingly difficult score, to watching all the slapstick antics the singers were getting up to – what a sensory overload feast!

A bit of history about Falstaff: Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (upon which the librettist Boito based Verdi’s Falstaff) was previously set by:

Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (1796 – what a great composer name)
Antonio Salieri (1799, nobody had heard of him before the film Amadeus,  after which everyone hated the poor guy)
Adolphe Adam (1856 – most famous composition is the Christmas song O Holy Night – the closest thing to a Christmas aria)

Verdi first received the draft libretto by Boito in early July 1889. He wrote to Boito in August 1889 telling him that he was writing a fugue: “Yes, Sir! A fugue … and a buffa fugue.” The first act was completed by March 1890. The rest of the opera was not composed in chronological order, as had been Verdi’s usual practice. La Scala in Milan, Italy (one of the most renowned opera houses in the world) could present the premiere during the 1892–93 season, but Verdi would retain control over every aspect of the production. The premiere performance took place on 9 February 1893

There are some interesting (if tenuous) parallels between the source material of my opera, Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock, and that of Falstaff, namely Mr. Shakespeare. As I was researching Leacock’s life and reading his biography, I came across a stunning fact: in the early part of the 20th century, Stephen Leacock was the most widely-read English-language writer in the world. Yes, even more popular than Shakespeare, apparently, was our humble Canuck humourist (even though he was born in England). This got me thinking, so here’s some Opera by the Numbers (with my apologies to Harper’s Magazine)

Opera by the Numbers
Number of years since Leacock
wrote his short story Merry Christmas                              almost 100

Number of years since Verdi’s Falstaff
premiered at Milan’s La Scala                                                  113

Age of my grandfather, Napoleon Miron,
when Falstaff was premiered                                                    9

Number of years the literary character
Sir John Falstaff has existed                                                      414 (approx.)

Number of principal singers in
Manitoba Opera’s Falstaff                                                           10

Number of singers in my opera
Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock                                           3

Number of notes in my opera
Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock                                            34, 316

Number of notes in Verdi’s
Falstaff                                                                                   > 151, 580

Number of string players in Falstaff                                        25

Number of string players in Leacock opera                            5

Number of plays written by
Shakespeare                                                                                      37

Number of operas written by Verdi                                           26

Number of operas written by Verdi
based on Shakespeare plays                                                         3

Number of operas written by Weisensel                                  7

Number of of opera written by Weisensel
based on Shakespeare plays                                                          0

Total number of Shakespeare plays
turned into operas                                                                           >300

Total number of Stephen Leacock
works turned into operas                                                                 1

In closing, let me apologize for the extreme tardiness of this preview. I had a concert the same day as Falstaff opened, and as a result could not get this onto my blog any earlier. There are two performances of Falstaff remain gin – Tuesday Nov. 22nd at 7 p.m. and Friday. Nov. 25th at 7:30 p.m. I strongly encourage you to see this hilarious, extremely well-sung and deftly directed production that Manitoba Opera is presenting – you’ll be glad you did. You can find out about tickets here or call the MOA box office at 204-957-7842.

Merry Christmas Stephen Leacock opens Dec. 1st at the Laudamus Auditorium at Canadian Mennonite University, Grant at Shaftesbury. More more information go to www.littleopera.ca

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