Allison Nicholas (left) and Kathleen Allan, the wonderful co-creators of the title role of Ann Harvey, take instruction in boat-rowing from the disembodied hand of director Jillian Keiley.

Ann (Kathleen Allan) and Séamus (Andrew Dale)
see each other for the first time.

The images on this page are courtesy of Rink Rat Productions
and Cine Metu from the documentary, "To Think Like A Composer."

It Takes The Sea All Day To Wave Goodbye

Our planet is a lung. Trees, tides, fish and fishermen breathe in and out; our galaxy and universe expand and contract, so the first and last vocal sound you hear in Ann and Séamus is human breath, the source of life, language and song. The first pitched tones you hear are from the lungs of the accordion, whose bellows suggests the rise and fall of breath and sea. Opera and ocean grow out of the miniature wave of those first accordion notes - A-B-A, or in the European tradition, A-H-A: A for Ann, H for Harvey. These three notes, which create a movement away from and then back to a starting point, foreshadow the decision Ann must make: whether or not to leave the tiny island that is both her cherished home and her prison.

The “Ann Harvey wave” expands into the first scene of the opera, a reverie where Ann and Séamus, separated by the Atlantic Ocean, dream of meeting. The key signature says “A minor” for our melancholy Ann, and Ann herself floats into the opera on a sustained high A, as if to proclaim her identity to audience and ocean. But when Séamus adds his voice, the gentle sadness of A minor becomes something stranger and much more unsettled. In the European tradition, E flat is spelled “Es”, which reads like “S”, so E flat signifies Séamus just as A signifies Ann. Put together, A and E flat create an unstable chemical reaction for the ear. They cannot co-exist in any of the scales or chords that are the building blocks of western harmony, which suggests the obstacles faced by lovers with different backgrounds and uncertain futures. The entire opera moves like a wave, modulating upwards from A to E flat (the key in which the lovers meet) and then back again, so that one breathing wave-form unites the lovers, then divides them.

Director Jillian Keiley used the costume colours to suggest the landscape and seascape of Isle aux Morts.

The children's faces made the rough Atlantic crossing
one of the dramatic high points of the opera.

The seeds of Ann and Séamus can be found in Kevin Major’s one-volume history of Newfoundland, As Near To Heaven By Sea (2001). In three pages Major recounts the singular gallantry of the Harvey family, sole inhabitants of Isle aux Morts, who, with seventeen year old Ann at the oars of a four-metre fishing skiff, accomplished the daring sea-rescue of over one hundred and sixty people, found clinging to treacherous reefs in high seas after their ship had smashed on the rocks.

Major has often said he was struck by how so heroic a tale should be so obscure, even in Newfoundland itself. (When I visited the present town of Isle aux Morts I found that nobody at a local shipyard could identify Ann Harvey, even though signs for the Ann Harvey trail are posted on the only main road.) Major returned to the subject with Ann and Seamus (2003), where he expanded Ann Harvey’s story into a narrative poem that blended careful research with the fictitious element of a love interest between Ann and one of the young men she helps rescue: a love interest which – and as an opera composer I had to love this – does not end happily. (Note that Major’s poem is called Ann and Seamus, whereas my opera adds the Gaelic fada to the hero’s name: Ann and Séamus.)

Axel Meisen, president of Memorial University at St. John’s, Newfoundland, read Major’s poem in manuscript and realized the potential for a youth opera, one tailored for St. John’s own “Shallaway: Newfoundland and Labrador Youth In Chorus.” (For more on the choir, such as the meaning of their name, see In the summer of 2003 the artistic director of the chorus, Susan Knight, asked me to look at the manuscript of Major’s poem with an ear to turning it into an opera the choir could take on tour. “I see the children as the place,” she said.

I locked myself into my hotel room (well, actually, I always lock myself into my hotel room) and found myself thrilled and impressed with the idea. I had already written several pieces for Shallaway that explored traditional Newfoundland music in a variety of ways, including pieces that used the essential instruments of accordion, fiddle, flute and bodhrán (BOR-ran), the Irish frame drum on which such virtuosity is possible. Here was the perfect opportunity to expand on past collaborations.

I was also very pleased with the direction suggested by Knight’s comment, “I see the children as the place.” I have some professional theatre background, and both as performer and director I liked more than anything to create a sense of reality out of the actor’s bodies, with little or no setting or props. When I remembered how much fun it was to stage a helicopter rescue on stage (I was the back propeller), I felt very inspired by the thought of what could be done with an ocean rescue where the boat and the waves would be created by the actors, especially knowing that all these effects would have to “fit in a trunk” when the opera went on tour. The desire for a mobile opera contributed to my decision to have only five musicians in the orchestra, with nothing bigger than a string bass to pack onto the bus. Although it was clear from the start that the score would feature the four essentials mentioned earlier (accordion, fiddle, bodhrán, and a combination of flute and tin whistle), I initially thought that I would require a keyboard, or an extended string section, or a second percussionist – something to expand the timbres at my disposal. It was not until I had orchestrated the opening scene two or three different ways that I became confident that a string bass was all the extra support I needed.

Let me take a moment to thank the original orchestra: Alison Black (violin), who immeasurably improved my bowings; Grace Dunsmore (flute and whistle) who put up with whistle keys that no upright citizen should have to tolerate; Frank Fusari (accordion), whose advice on both accordion technique and bass bowing was a lamp unto my feet; Rob Power (bodhrán), who proved that the bodhrán can be a melody instrument, and who created much beauty out of the sketch I gave him; and Patricia Beretti Reid (double bass), whose instincts concerning when to bow and when to pluck made all the difference in several passages.

Based on the many successful collaborations I have enjoyed with Knight in the past, it was no surprise that when we met I found that my sketch of the overall aesthetic of the opera was on the same page as her own. It was my stipulation that I write my own libretto based on Major’s book, rather than using his language directly. Certainly you could make an opera libretto by quoting from the poem (check out, for example, how Major handles Ann’s first kiss), but for me it is often necessary to have complete control over the words, especially because I usually write the music first and then the words afterwards: sometimes moments afterwards, sometimes days, weeks, months. It does not make for a libretto that reads gracefully on its own, since the language depends on the music to create its pacing and rhythm, but it does make for words that fit the music closer than skin fits to bone. That’s the goal, anyway.

At first I was disappointed to learn that plans for the opera had fallen through in the fall of 2003, but this meant that when Knight re-approached me in the spring of 2005, I had lived with the story and the characters long enough for them to part of my internal muscle memory, and that’s a very good thing when your challenge is to turn a story told through printed words into one told primarily through wordless sound.

The children rehearse what many said was
their favourite song in the opera:
Ann, Ann, unforgettable Ann
No Sampson could do what our rescuer can.

The children inspect the coloured grids that chart the position of each character.
The colours of the grid correspond to the colours of their costumes.

The composition process was enhanced by four members of Shallaway, known as “the shadowers”, who came several times to my house, sometimes with Knight, and were taken through whatever part of the opera I had just finished, or was thinking of starting. This mentoring process was not only incentive to keep me writing, but the act of putting half-formed thoughts into words helped me arrive at some good decisions. It was in the shadowers’ company that I finally, absolutely decided to keep the orchestra to five members, and it was in their company that I first used the term “chamber opera”, which proved a better definition of the work than some of the other terms we had kicked around. My thanks to the shadowers, all of whom also performed in the opera: Charlotte Genge, Catherine Trainor, Erin Eaton and Kathleen Allan, who created the role of Ann Harvey along with Allison Nicholas. How many composers of operas whose romantic heroine is a teenaged girl actually get to have a teenaged girl do the part? Kathleen and Allison were both seventeen when, carefully watching each other and trading ideas throughout rehearsals, they helped each other create the part of seventeen-year-old Ann Harvey. They were superb.

The part of Séamus had always been written for native Newfoundlander Andrew Dale, even though I did not think he was in the running for the role, as Shallaway had planned at first to have choir alumni in the male leads. It was a dream come unexpectedly true when the man who inspired the part also created the part on stage. In addition, Andrew’s energizing and encouraging influence in rehearsals was continually acknowledged by the younger performers.

A large amount of the opera was already written when Knight decided that the entire opera would be double cast. Director Jillian Keiley deserves some sort of medal for managing to teach her very creative, very precise, very involved blocking to two different sets of kids, each set with its own internal dynamic and rehearsal rhythms. I will always be grateful that Knight introduced me to Keiley, along with the fine and funky staff of her production company, Artistic Fraud. An award-winning Warrior Princess of creative staging, Keiley was the perfect choice. Our creative meetings were quick and easy because when we started talking about how things would look, or how the family dog would be portrayed, we practically finished each other’s sentences. Anyone who has composed for the theatre knows how much time and sweat is saved when you have a director whose vision and ingenuity you utterly trust. The way Keiley created everything from the walls to the waves to the lifeline to the Irish shawls out of the coloured cowls of the children’s costume defies description. A good thing it was filmed.

For those interested in the genesis and creation of the opera from the composer’s perspective, Michael Ostroff’s hour-long documentary To Think Like A Composer (2006) is essential viewing, and conveniently for sale on the home page of this website. Since footage for the movie was to be shot at Isle aux Morts, I had the great good fortune to visit the Harvey’s island, now uninhabited, when my musical ideas were still forming and I could respond to the landscape with an uncluttered mind. Even though I knew from the start that the island and the ocean would not be portrayed realistically on stage, still, to have boated to the island, to have explored its tiny, hidden harbours, and to have seen the two toppled gravestones that are the island’s only sign of ever having been inhabited – in ways that I will never know, I am sure I would have written the opera differently if I hadn’t actually been there.

Susan Knight, producer and musical director of the opera, rehearses the orchestra at one of the final rehearsals. Knight also commissioned "The Best In The House", "Full Circle", "One Drop", "The Ballad Of Skipper Knight", "The Green Shores Of Fogo", and "On the Rooms."

Director and designer Jillian Keiley patiently
walks the singers through a scene change.

I attended rehearsals for the opera mostly as an onlooker and rehearsal pianist. There were three rehearsals where I was able to talk to the choir, but after that the musical director cited pedagogical reasons why she preferred that I no longer be in direct contact with either the singers or the director, although I was permitted to talk to the orchestra. I then had no verbal contact with the choir (and almost none with the director) until the cast party after the opera’s initial four-night run.

Keiley and her fabulous staff ensured that not only did the opera look wonderful, it sounded wonderful. How often does an otherwise worthy performance get ruined by a sound system that turns everything into boom and echo and buried vocals? Thanks, soundman Don Ellis and stage manager Mark Denine.

It is difficult to find the right way to thank the choir, who rose to the challenge as only they know how to do, and whom I expect will surpass themselves when they take the opera on tour. We have a long history of enjoying each other.

People often ask me what other operas influenced me the most, and often assume it must be other works inspired by folk music, such as The Bartered Bride. For me, Dido and Aeneas is the closest, not least because it too was written for young voices. From the start my inner ambition was to write something that might possibly some day be compared to it. The Beggars’ Opera was something of a role model as well in how it used the folk music of its day. Originally I had planned to incorporate the folk song “Willie Taylor” into the otherwise original score, and had a scene where Ann and Séamus first establish a bond when they realize that, though from opposite sides of the ocean, they both knew the same song about the pursuit of love on the rolling sea. I eventually decided that, as I say in the documentary, the opera would be “more of a piece” if actual folk tunes did not make an appearance, but my separate choral arrangement of “Willie Taylor”, rethought in SATB for Kokopelli of Edmonton, is available from Boosey & Hawkes.

© Stephen Hatfield 2006

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