Newfoundland opera

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Accessible productions promote future provincial work

A patchwork collection of green, yellow, pink and blue fabric acts as the backdrop for Opera on the Avalon's production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring." The patchwork is meant to represent Newfoundland and Labrador sea, land and sky.

Director Robert Herriot said the textile work was done in Edmonton by production designer Robert Shannon and was meant to help place the show in the province. The story of the opera will actually be in Cupids, as opposed to Locksford, England, the fictional town it was originally set in by the author.

Opera on the Avalon will produce two Benjamin Britten works in St. John's this weekend, "The Rape of Lucretia" on Friday and Sunday and "Albert Herring" (above) Saturday, all at 8 p.m. on the Holy Heart auditorium stage. - Submitted photo

A patchwork collection of green, yellow, pink and blue fabric acts as the backdrop for Opera on the Avalon's production of Benjamin Britten's "Albert Herring." The patchwork is meant to represent Newfoundland and Labrador sea, land and sky.

Director Robert Herriot said the textile work was done in Edmonton by production designer Robert Shannon and was meant to help place the show in the province. The story of the opera will actually be in Cupids, as opposed to Locksford, England, the fictional town it was originally set in by the author.

"We are transplanting this to the town of Cupids. ... The purpose was to show the story can happen anywhere," Herriot said, speaking to The Telegram before a dress rehearsal at Holy Heart theatre in St. John's this week.

"(The story) is about people in a town who get together and every year they elect a May Queen. And she's the most virtuous girl in the town and it's been a tradition that goes on as long as Halloween. And Lady Billows, she's the town's matriarch - wealthy, long-winded sort, wind bag - gets the important people in the town, the mayor, the superintendent the police, the schoolteacher and they have this little election (for May Queen)."

Unfortunately, the country girls who would be queen are not as virtuous as the committee would like. The moral code is relatively strict compared to today, Herriot explains. The opera was originally set in Edwardian times, but has been brought up to the 1950s - also a time with a strong sense of morals.

"(The committee) bring forth the names and every one of them has had a sin. ... Stupid things like going to answer their door in their nightie," Herriot said.

The suggestion is made to have a May King instead. Eyes fall to grocery shop owner Albert Herring. Herring is stuck under the thumb of his mother and having a hard time socially. He does not want to be May King, but is pushed forward. Later in the opera, he gets drunk at the community celebrations (the result of Screech dumped into his drink by friends). It becomes an embarrassing incident. Herring goes missing, is presumed dead ... but don't worry, the director says, it all turns out OK in the end.

Between start and finish, the musical production breaks away from the stage boundaries and makes use of whole theatre space. There are also many comic moments and local references, adding to the backdrop to ground the play on the island.

"At the banquet it's all things like cod tongues and scruncheons. We've gotten rid of most of the English references and made them local references. It really doesn't have that huge of an impact on the piece. It's really just a playful thing for me to say people from St. John's are going to come see it and it's kind of fun to have your own environment transplanted up there," Herriot said.

Another highlight is having statements like "bloody little fool" and "let's steal some smokes" sung in full operatic voice by Opera on the Avalon's 2010 students.

Educational experience

Opera on the Avalon - founded by Cheryl Hickman, Joan Woodrow and Jennifer Matthews - offers young singers and pianists the opportunity to workshop with top instructors and, within their training program (June 28 to July 18 this year), perform with a full orchestra. The 75 positions for students in the program were filled by audition.

The faculty working with this year's performers are Cynthia Hoffman, Judith Forst, Carrie-Ann Matheson, John Fanning, James Marvel, Peter Strummer, Judith Yan, Tyrone Paterson, Steven Philcox, Benjamin Butterfield, Elizabeth Turnbull, Robert Herriot, Cheryl Hickman, Meredith Hall, Leslee Heys and Paul Transue.

The names have significant professional experience behind them. Forst, for example, is a mezzo-soprano and member of the Order of Canada. She has performed throughout North America and as a regular member of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In addition to her instruction, Forst is also the honourary patron for Opera on the Avalon 2010.

Another name to note is musical director and principal conductor Judith Yan (www.judithyan.com). Yan has been a staff conductor for the San Francisco Opera, the National Ballet of Canada, and the Canadian Opera Company.

Head of music staff Matheson is an assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera. She has performed with members of the New York Philharmonic and Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

Opera on the Avalon is meant to provide experience for students, but also promote the performance of fully staged operas in the province.

Opera on the Avalon is also presenting "The Rape of Lucretia" this weekend, in a more classic setting with a Roman prince and generals. Another work by Britten, it is being directed by James Marvel and conducted by Tyrone Paterson.

Inquiries into the Opera on The Avalon program can be made to operaavalon@ gmail.com. Tickets for upcoming performances of "Albert Herring" and "The Rape of Lucretia" are available through the Holy Heart Theatre Box Office at (709) 579-4424.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Opera on The Avalon, Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera National Ballet of Canada Canadian Opera Company New York Philharmonic and Montreal Symphony Orchestra Holy Heart Theatre Box Office

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Cupids, St. John's Edmonton England Canada North America New York

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  • Politically Incorrect
    July 20, 2010 - 13:02

    This is a refreshing addition to the cultural scene in Newfoundland. I wish you a successful season and look forward to attending some of your performances.