The frogs say “Enid”

Continuing my exploration of the sonic world of my in-progress opera Wild Dogs, I give you a chorus of frogs that say Enid…Enid…Enid……Enid…Enid……..Enid.

This opera, with a libretto by Val Brandt, is based on Helen Humphrey’s novel Wild Dogs and will be produced by black bachx opera lab in collaboration with Standing Wave and Music on Main in Vancouver, BC.

Spirit of the pack

I am currently in the thick of a new chamber opera based on Helen Humphrey’s novel Wild Dogs. Set in a small town with crumbling industry and high unemployment, it features a ragtag group of individuals who lost their beloved dog. The novel explores the relationship, harmonious or opposing, between wilderness and domestication in the wider world and in our own psyche.

What made this opera project appealing to me was the opportunity to explore the sounds of animals, birds and the forest environment as a whole. As part of my research, I recently spent afternoon in the studio imitating wolf and dog howls, really exploring my voice to see how close I could get to the sound of a howling pack.

Wild Dogs Project

I am super pleased to finally announce that for the past year I have been involved in the development of a brand new chamber opera based on Helen Humphrey‘s novel Wild Dogs. The project is being produced in Vancouver by Robert Carey and his black bachx opera lab. The opera is set in a small Ontario town plagued by unemployment and a pack of feral dogs made up of former pets, which have either escaped or been thrown out by their struggling owners.

I recently participated in a three-day libretto workshop with librettist Val Brandt, dramaturg Ann Hodges, producer Robert Carey and a crew of six fantastic actors (Kyle Jespersen, Heather Pawsey, Julia Arkos, David Adams, Shawn Macdonald and Kayla Dunbar). Ann led the workshop in a beautifully smooth and professional manner getting all of us to articulate our interpretation of the novel and our vision for the opera. She expertly mined the actors for feedback using them as a kind of “consumer testing” group. These super talented performers truly inhabited the world of the libretto and gave remarkably insightful comments. Val pulled some all-nighters to make significant revisions, which could be workshopped yet again the next day. She’s a superhero! The libretto has a solid dramatic arc and is well on the way to completion. It was a remarkably productive and inspiring process, and I’m grateful to have been involved.


From top left: me, Kyle Jespersen, Heather Pawsey, Julia Arkos, David Adams, Ann Hodges, Val Brandt, Robert Carey; Bottom left: Shawn Macdonald, Kayla Dunbar

In the evening of the final day, we held a reading and information sessions for some invited guests. The actors were fabulous, the atmosphere buzzing with excitement. The workshop and reading session were held in the East Studio at the Post at 750, the new downtown Vancouver venue inhabited by PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, Touchstone Theatre, Music on Main, and the DOXA Documentary Film Festival. Our time in the studio was generously donated by Music on Main.

In the next few months, Val will turn the currently more play-like libretto into a form more suitable for opera. I will start working on the music at the end of this year in preparation for the first music workshop scheduled for June 2016.

I would like to thank the Shevchenko Foundation and our private donors for sponsoring this project. I can’t wait to begin the music!

SF logo NS OCT 2013

Mirror developing

Work is progressing on what is turning out to be quite a monster score for the mini opera Mirror, mirror. I have finished carving the first two and a half sheets of linoleum and did some test prints. Here’s me painting on various red accents with watercolour. Stay tuned for photos of the complete score in the next week or so.

Photo by M. Teresa Simao
Photo by M. Teresa Simao

Thank you to M. Teresa Simao for the photos. And thank you to Princeton University and the Lewis Centre for the Arts for giving me these wonderful resources.

Laces and stays

Last year, I transformed my part-time work as heritage wood-restorer into Through closed doors, a piece for two violins notated on an antique door. Now I’m working on a new illustrated and hand-printed score, which combines my love of lace, luxurious yarns, fancy paper and dark fairy tales. The project is a reworking of my mini-opera Mirror, mirror, which explores the story of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” The original version was premiered by Janice Jackson in 2012. Stay tuned for more pictures in the coming weeks.

Materials: 100% merino wool from Uruguay, papers from Nepal and Japan, linoleum printing
Mirror, mirrorMirror, mirrorMirror, mirror

I am eternally grateful to Princeton University for giving me the space, time and resources to pursue this project.

P.S. – The only other composer I know who has managed to combine composition with knitting was Jocelyn Morlock, when she offered blue hand-knitted wear as rewards for the crowdfunding campaign for her album “Cobalt” (which is beautiful, by the way).

“Ivan Kupalo” wins award

I am ecstatic to announce that my chamber opera On the Eve of Ivan Kupalo has been awarded the BMO Mainstage Award by the Boston Metro Opera Company. I have no information yet beyond what is available on the website above, but it seems that the opera will receive a fully staged performance in Boston! I will post most details as they become available.

Ivan Kupalo shared the first prize in the Godfrey Rideout category of the SOCAN Foundation Awards for Young Composers in the summer of 2013.

On the Eve of Ivan Kupalo

I am very happy to announce that my chamber opera, which has been gestating on and off for almost three and a half years, is finally complete! The score is almost two inches thick. And even more exciting is the fact that it will be premiered in concert form at Calgary’s Happening Festival on January 24 at the Rozsa Centre. You can hear a very short excerpt from an earlier workshop session in the Listen section. 

On the Eve of Ivan Kupalo, a one-act chamber opera steeped in Ukrainian folklore, tells the story of three young women who find themselves involved with one man. With emotions raised to a feverish pitch, the women take their revenge on the devious Taras, thereby enacting the ancient rites of the pagan god Ivan Kupalo. The music draws heavily on folk singing styles with the singers stomping, yelling and gliding their way through a chromatic and modal soundworld.

The opera will be sung in English and will feature vocalists Michelle Minke, Edith Pritchard, Jennifer Sproule, Dana Sharp, Stephanie Plummer, Bethany Routledge and Irina Popescu, as well as the German accordionist Olivia Steimel, percussionist Kyle Eustace and pianist Michael Coburn. The ensemble will be directed by Tim Korthuis.

The rehearsals are sounding amazing already and I am super excited about hearing it next week. The singers will be wearing various items of traditional Ukrainian garb,  including some very old hand-made embroidered shirts, that I picked up during my travels in Ukraine last fall.

This performance is funded by the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Calgary 2012 and the University of Calgary Music Department.

Art Music in Kiev

Upon arriving in Kiev, Maria and I discovered to our great joy that one can see an opera here for as little as $1.25 or as much as $25. Without losing any time, we booked superb tickets to see several Ukrainian works, which are very hard to find in Canada.

The highlight of our three-day cultural weekend was the ballet Night before Christmas (Ніч перед різдвом, 1990) by Yevhen Stankovych (or Stankovich), which took place at the Kiev Opera House. The music explored a lot of folk material and was a little Stravinskyesque at times. The whole first scene was a very clever layering of what is known as the “Carol of the bells”. It even makes an appearance in the tom-toms. The sets and costumes were gorgeous, and so was the hall itself. It’s obvious that this is the place you are meant to bring your foreign business partners – everything is beautifully restored and the programs have English translation. The following night we saw a Ukrainian classic, the opera Natalka Poltavka (1889) by Mykola Lysenko. The music was nothing special and was sadly overshadowed by the glamourous costumes and sets.

I was particularly looking forward to Monday night, though it ended up being a rather frustrating event in terms of local bureaucracy. But more on that some other time. The event was a state-funded celebration of Stankovych’s 70th birthday, with a concert presentation of his folk opera When the fern blooms (Коли цвіте папороть, 1979) at the Ukrainian National Philharmonic. I read about this work some months ago and had little hope of every finding it. And lo and behold! It turns out that it was being performed in Kiev, now, for free! I call it fate.

The event was full of speeches by various government and cultural officials and the gifting of countless grotesquely large bouquets. I hope the composer had a bucket or two in front of him. There was even a letter from President Yanukovych, the reading of which was greeted by dissatisfied murmurs and quiet booing. The music in this so-called folk “opera” was extremely loud and full-bodied, with a whole lot of choir. It sounded more like an oratorio. I will have to do some thorough listening to the CD, which I quite literally found in the hall, before I decide what I really think of it.

For those of you itching to check out some contemporary Ukrainian piano music, find something by Alexander Shchetynsky (or Shchetinsky). Maria and I got to see a full concert of his solo piano works performed at the Archive Museum on the grounds of the St. Sophia Cathedral in central Kiev. Most of the pieces were serial, each with a very unique soundworld. My favorite were the Four Preludes (1977-78). They had lots of character. Glorify the name of the Lord (Хваліте імя Господнє,1987) was radically different from the other works. It was largely made up of long, simple, chant-like melodies, which very slowly built up into a dense polyphonic texture over the course of 25 minutes. The flowing lines were frequently interrupted by a repeating bell-like chord. The work was very meditative.

Tomorrow we are off to our first village with a large bag of candy, a bunch of chocolate bars and several bottles of sweet wine (the old ladies have a sweet tooth). Check back for updates, and in the meantime check out Maria’s photo tour featuring the Kiev suburbs.

Ukraine: first days

Achievements to date: learning how to use a cell phone with Russian menus and making a whole THREE phone calls to strangers (1 in Russian, 2 in Ukrainian).

My sister and I left Canada last Friday. Two days and several long layovers later, we have finally arrived in Kiev. I was disappointed to discover that the Chopin Airport in Warsaw did NOT have pianos OR Chopin impersonators playing mazurkas at every gate, as I hoped, but there was quite a bit of Chopin-related merchandize in the duty-free shops.

I was born in Ukraine, but I’ve been living in Canada long enough that my visits to the Motherland are always a bit of a culture shock. There is an insane contrast between the restored, shiny and super expensive centre with its luxury cars and fashionable, stilettoed women, and the slummy suburbs made up of endless blocks of Soviet-era concrete apartments*. The transit system also gets increasingly questionable the further you travel from the central areas. The neighbourhood I’m saying in boasts rickety 50-year-old trams featuring razor-sharp ticket validators (two of my fingers were bloody before I felt any pain) and old ladies in babushkas squeezing themselves through the dense crowd to collect transit payment.

To my great joy, I’ve discovered that one can see an opera for $1.20 at the National Opera House. That’s cheaper than a bag of chips in Canada. The most expensive ticket is about $25. The season also features several works by Ukrainian composers, which I read about but could not find back in Canada. I’m pretty thrilled. Next weekend should be a triple hit consisting of one ballet and two operas.

While searching for the opera house, we stumbled upon two street performers who could have made a perfect postcard of Ukrainian stereotypes. They were twin sisters – blonde, modelesque and dressed to the nines – playing banduras and singing Ukrainian folksongs in harmony. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, but there was a creepy older man filming them quite closely on his iPhone so maybe you can find that video on the internet (here’s one with no sound, who needs sound with women like that?).

See my sister’s take on the situation here.

* Granted, there are lots of stilettoed women in the slummy suburbs too, hopping over puddles and weaving stealthy through streets dug up for plumbing repairs some years ago.