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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

War and the Pity of War

2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the start of WW1. The Great War. The War To End All Wars.

There are a some operas about modern war, and a few about WW1. The most recent, and notable is Kevin Puts' Silent Night, which has had much success down in the states. This month, Fort Worth Opera is going to be producing it, with a great cast. Next year, L'Opera de Montreal will be producing it as part of their 14-15 Season. I think some of the piece is wonderful, although I haven't seen it all, only catching parts of it here and there on the web.

Last year, Fort Worth Opera produced the world premiere of Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied, again with a terrific cast (Michael Mayes, Caroline Worra, David Blalock, and Sydney Mancsola) conducted by Tyson Deaton. It's about a Vietnam vet. I can't think of another Vietnam opera, actually.

As well, there aren't too many operas about WW2, let alone the debacle of the U.S.'s latest war.

In the 20th century, we do have a few other pieces -- Wozzeck, and The Good Soldier Schweik -- which seek to look into the interior of a soldier, albeit two very different types of soldiers in two very different types of stories. There's also Owen Wingrave, by Britten, that looks at pacifism within a family bred on war. Am I missing something obvious? Stravinsky's Histoire isn't really an opera.

Yet, there are so very many operas about war written before the turn of the century. It's rather an operatic specialty. Lovers headed off to war (Cosi fan tutte), soldiers massing for battle Trovatore, Macbeth), celebrating a war hero (Giulio Cesare, Otello), even female warriors (Partenope). So when I decided to look at World War One, it became clear my options were limited (and Puts' opera was already taken by the professional opera company here in Montreal) so I looked outside the box.

One way of looking at war is to set pieces smack dab into the middle of war. Pieces that normally one doesn't associate with war, let alone world war one. Another way is to look at pieces written during the war -- interestingly enough, lots of cool composers were writing during 1914-1918: Lehar, Bartok, Stravinsky, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and that guy named Puccini.

Next year's Opera McGill season for 2014 - 2015 will be focused on WW1 entirely.

Starting the fall semester off will be another pastiche (like the "Shakespeare Serenade from September 2013) that I'm putting together of songs with settings of WW1 poetry. It may be an all male cast, not sure. There are such wonderful pieces written and I'm looking forward to doing this research over the next few weeks. I believe I will call it "War and the Pity of War".

The rest of the season will follow our regular schedule - baroque opera in the fall, the mainstage in January, and the Black Box Festival in March.  In November, we will collaborate with the Early Music program here at McGill to produce a double-bill of John Blow's Venus and Adonis and Rameau's Pygmallion. Both of these pieces are not at all about WW1, having been written way, way before the war. However, we are setting them against the backdrop of war. Venus and Adonis will be set in the trenches of WW1 (Adonis hears the call to battle instead of the call to hunt) and Pygmallion will be set in the aftermath of a world war. January 2015, in my 8th year here at McGill, we will produce my favorite opera: Le Nozze di Figaro. Again, not really anything to do with WW1 -- but I'm really looking forward to the director's concept of moving it forward through time to the second decade of the 20th century to see how the themes at play in the Beaumarchais mix with the revolutions that were trying to take place throughout Europe - from Spain to Russia. In March, the Lisl Wirth Black Box Festival will feature two productions: once again, a collaboration with the McGill Chamber Orchestra (Boris Brott, artistic director) in a production of a double-bill of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi and Suor Angelica.

Now hold on! What's up here? WW1 and a Puccini double-bill. Well, yes. That's the easy one. Puccini wrote these pieces during World War One.

And as part of the festival, we will present a scenes program that focuses on pieces either written about WW1 or written during WW1, or perhaps by composers/poets who were soldiers during the war. That's a huge amount of literature and composers to choose from, so I'm looking forward to putting that program together!

This summer I'll definitely be doing some reading in preparation for the year. This war that called so many young men to battle, that maimed a generation, and ripped apart the fabric of Europe is still with us. These battles are still being fought today, just look to Ukraine and see the muddle that still exists there. WW1 didn't end anything. But it did leave a legacy of art, poetry, music, and a new vision for the composers, writers, and artists who survived the war.

Perhaps looking at this war through the lens of works not really associated with it may illuminate War in a new or different way, or place a perspective not found before. We will see.