Opera Nova Scotia and I will fly like a bird

5/28/20153 min read

In July of last year I received a most welcome phone call from Dr. Walter Kemp: Opera Nova Scotia was planning to stage 'I will fly like a bird', my opera about the Robert Dziekanski tragedy, composed to Andy Wainwright's poignant libretto. And nine months later, on Tuesday, May 5, the rehearsals began! From May 9 we rehearsed every day, with a last-minute break on Victoria Day; staging rehearsals, music rehearsals, first separately, then together. The intensity which everyone brought to this enterprise was staggering, exhilarating, profoundly rewarding - splendid singing actors Clayton Kennedy and Marcia Swanston, the amazing Blue Engine String Quartet; the adventurous, irrepressible clarinettist Dominic Desautels; stage director David Overton, who brilliantly vindicated the operatic quality of our work; and myself in the triple role of composer, rehearsal pianist, and ensemble member. Andy Wainwright was a vital presence at many of the staging rehearsals. Both of us were profoundly gratified by David's penetrating, visionary insight into our work, and by his openness and receptivity to whatever we had to say as the process unfolded.

We rehearsed mostly in the bowels of the Dalhousie Arts Centre, two floors underground, in windowless rooms of varying sizes, shapes, acoustic attributes, and pianos. The music rehearsals - some with the singers, others with the instruments alone - evolved in a curious, fascinating parallel with the staging rehearsals, in which I tried to be all the instruments at once. But in both cases it was thrilling to sense the shared passionate determination to master the work's complexities and to navigate its emotional currents, without a conductor, relying utterly on each other to create the texture, tempo and mood implicit in the score.

Lots of driving - two and a half hours per day, back and forth from West Jeddore. My ipod shuffle received an excellent workout: I had loaded it up with Boris Christoff singing Musorgsky songs, Boulez conducting Webern, a tasty blues anthology, Maria Callas, some favourite Motown, historic recordings from La Scala, Stravinsky, Janacek, wonderful new music by Lisa Bielawa and Thierry Pécou, scattered little bits of Rautavaara's Vigilia - o that basso profondo! - the amazing treble Peter Jelosits from Harnoncourt's Bach cantata recordings - Mozart's C minor mass and his uncompleted operas, vintage James Brown and Aretha Franklin ... and of course lots of Verdi. This chaotic jumble of music perhaps acted as a counterweight to the singleminded intensity of rehearsals, over 60 hours of rehearsal for just under one hour of music. Oh, to see that hour of music emerge over the space of three weeks! - as initial uncertainties and confusions slowly but surely vanished, bringing the music and drama into keener and keener focus. It seemed to me that the rehearsal time could not have been more precisely calibrated: we reached a state where we could perform with confidence, but without the faintest shadow of routine, always with the necessary, exhilarating sense of risk.

We had two dress rehearsals, the second one being public - with an audience of high school students, who sat spellbound and attentive. As for the performances on May 22 and 23, they could not have been more gratifying. Many people who had seen the 2012 Scotia Festival concert performances remarked on how much more powerful, gripping and convincing the work became in David Overton's staging. Opera directors who are so deeply sensitive to the musical contours of a work are rare, but David is certainly among them. But it was not until I saw a video that I could grasp the coherence and poignance of his vision, aided and abetted by the beautiful, haunting and apt videographic projections of Garrett Barker, the stark, spare set design of Katrin Whitehead, the subtle atmospheric lighting of Matthew Downey.

My friend the poet Lawrence Raab liked to quote Robert Frost on the role of education: "you know, it lifts sorrow and trouble to a higher plane of regard." And Larry goes on to say, in his beautiful essay 'Poetry and Consolation' : 'the education that art can provide is keener sight. Great art simply makes its subject more visible.' I wrote to Andy Wainwright that I felt we had achieved something like that. Our opera cannot bring Robert Dziekanski back, or repair the immense injustice of his death. But perhaps we've lifted his story to that higher 'plane of regard', and that's something.

I am eternally grateful to Dr. Walter Kemp for presenting our opera, within a surprising but strongly effective context, between Monica Pearse's eloquent tribute to Helen Creighton, and Pergolesi's delightful and timeless farce La serva padrona. I would like to salute the excellent performers of the other operas: soprano Maureen Batt incarnating two diametrically opposed 'aspects of woman', with Lynette Wahlstrom as her sensitive, subtle pianist in Aunt Helen; bass-baritone Jon-Paul Decosse as the put-upon 'padrone', and the inimitable mime Bill Wood as the servant.

And I feel blessed and incredibly lucky to have such inspired and committed collaborators: Andy Wainwright, whose libretto took me into directions I would never have foreseen; Clayton and Marcia, singers burning with sustained intensity, vocal beauty and dramatic insight; and an ensemble of world-class musicians, illuminating every detail of the score, seismographically and poignantly sensitive to each nuance. My heartfelt thanks to you all!post content