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27 April 2016

Insight: Les Feluettes, and the lessons learnt

Insight: Les Feluettes, and the lessons learnt

On 25 April rehearsals with Opéra de Montréal began for Les Feluettes, my first large-scale, full-length opera. The premiere will take place on 21 May in Montréal, Canada. It will be the culmination of five solid years of work and the realisation of a vision that began 14 years ago.

One of my composition students recently asked me what it's like to write a full-length opera. I replied, 'Imagine writing a 10-minute orchestral piece. Think about how long that might take: a couple of months? Three months? Think about how much time and attention to detail is involved, editing, extracting the parts. Now imagine doing that 12 times. And then think about how long it might take to write a 10-minute song cycle, and imagine doing that about 10 times with different voice types and different combinations of voices. And then, on top of all of that, throw in two or three choral works. Essentially, it's the largest, most demanding project you are ever likely to work on.'

The exchange prompted me to think back to my formative years, to things my composition teachers said to me. Useful and true lessons don't always come from a lecture or a subject guide or a reading assignment, or even from score study and analysis. Sometimes the true things are found in the off-hand comments, the quips uttered casually or even with joviality during a private lesson. Sometimes sentiments that seem the most insignificant are, ultimately, the most useful. Three of these returned to me again and again, and each time they returned, their truth was increasingly clear.

All you need is to be in the right place at the right time with a good idea. (William Albright)

March 2002. I was in the right place at the right time, an art house cinema in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I was living while doing my doctorate at the University of Michigan. Less than five minutes into the film Lilies, it occurred to me that what I was watching was not really a film but an opera.

Les Feluettes (Lilies), set in 1952, finds Simon, in prison for a murder he did not commit, summoning Bishop Jean Bilodeau to hear a last confession. Upon his arrival the Bishop is kidnapped and forced to watch a recreation of the events that resulted in Simon's imprisonment, events which took place 40 years earlier when Simon and Bilodeau were schoolmates and when Simon was in love with Vallier de Tilly, a young, French aristocrat exiled with his mother to Quebec. The Bishop discovers the confession to be heard is not Simon's, but his own.

As I watched the film, I could hear every line being sung. The words were lyrical, poetic, the characters had depth, and it was easy to imagine the settings staged. By the time the film had finished I was already making plans to adapt the film into an opera. I soon learned it wasn't a film I sought to adapt but, rather, a play by the renowned Quebec playwright Michel Marc Bouchard. By the end of the year he and I were discussing the adaptation.

From 2003 to 2011, Michel Marc and I worked on the opera via email in between other projects. We produced a working libretto, composed test scenes, and were looking for workshops, development programs, anything that might bring us a step closer to the stage. It wasn't until January 2006, almost four years after we began corresponding, that Michel Marc and I actually met for the first time face-to-face in Montréal. The meeting, though brief, was a delight. Michel Marc is a brilliant writer and a joy to work with, someone with a deeply trustworthy artistic intuition.

In March of 2011 Michel Beaulac, the Artistic Director of the Opéra de Montréal, met with Michel Marc to discuss a dream project. He wanted to commission an opera based on one of Michel Marc's plays - the play he wanted to adapt was Les Feluettes. As Michel Marc related to me in an email, 'It was a rather spectacular moment when I presented to him [the work we'd already done]. He couldn't believe his eyes…' Not long thereafter, Michel Beaulac was discussing the project with colleagues from Pacific Opera, Victoria (British Columbia, Canada). To his amazement, they, too, had been discussing amongst themselves the possibility of commissioning an opera, also based on the same play. Pacific Opera, Victoria became Opéra de Montréal's co-commissioning and co-production partner. After a few more test scenes were written, the contracts were signed in 2012, and the project that Michel Marc and I had been working on in between other projects became the project. I'd never before experienced that kind of serendipity before and may not again, but it was astonishing nonetheless that I and so many others all essentially had the same idea independent of one another.

Anything goes. Whatever it takes. (William Bolcom)

One of the fundamental challenges of Les Feluettes, and of any opera really, was determining what the opera would sound like. Because the play takes place in a men's prison and because all of the actors in Simon's re-enactment are male prisoners, all roles, including the female characters, are performed by men. It's a crucial element of both the story and the sound of the opera. Determining which male voice types best portrayed which female characters proved difficult. We didn't want to turn the characters into drag caricatures. Characters' voice types were changed repeatedly as the music was composed. Ultimately we settled on voice types that portrayed the characters' hearts rather than their sex.

The play on which the opera is based is rich with musical references and implications. Vallier's and Simon's love is framed by Gabriel D'Annunzio's infamous play Le Martyre de St. Sebastien for which Claude Debussy was commissioned to write incidental music. Michel Marc's stage directions in the first scene of Les Feluettes even call specifically for Debussy's incidental music to be used.

The events which Simon re-enacts for the Bishop are all set in 1912 when the music of the Belle Epoch and the exoticism of American ragtime would have appealed to a segment of Quebec society keen to demonstrate its sophistication. La musique traditionnelle québécoise (traditional folk music of Quebec) would also have been commonly heard, and it's even possible that a Quebec convict in 1952 might have been able to play one of the instruments common to the genre, a fiddle or wooden spoons. Québécoise folk music is itself an eclectic product of the Irish and French settlers (Irish fiddle mixed with French accordion and accompanied rhythmically by wooden spoons).

In creating the sound of Les Feluettes, it seemed necessary that all of these musical references be respected and represented. The result is an eclectic musical fabric containing quotes from or stylistic allusions to Debussy's incidental music to Le Martyre de St. Sebastien, American ragtime, French Belle Epoch-style cabaret, traditional Québécoise folk music, and even a 19th century Napoleonic anthem. Anything goes (as long as it adds meaning).

Beyond these concrete musical elements, perhaps one of the biggest musical influences happens also to be one of the most overlooked aspects of the original play, the subtitle: La Répétition d'un drame romantique - the Revival of a Romantic Drama. In French, the word répétition can mean both 'rehearsal' as in the rehearsal of a play (which is the first scene of the opera) or 'revival' as in to produce something again or bring something back. In the story the memories and events of 1912 are being brought back, revived, and part of that story involves the central characters' rehearsal of Le Martyre de St. Sebastien. Les Feluettes revisits the grand, tragic romantic drama in the tradition of a Tosca or a Romeo and Juliet or a La Traviata, and the music seeks to capture and portray those fragile, powerful sentiments of love, loss, desire, determination, and obsession.

The 'anything goes, whatever it takes' lesson doesn't apply only to aesthetic considerations though they are the 'front-line' considerations, so to speak. The lesson also applies to the labour.

Music composition is craftsmanship. It's a kind of craftsmanship akin to woodworking, or sculpture or architecture. I'd argue that good ideas are not the most difficult things to come by. Perhaps a good idea depends on a measure of creativity or vision to recognise it as such, to see the potential of something, but I don't know a single composer who does not have at least half a dozen good ideas waiting for an opportunity to be realised. Recognising the potential of something takes… well in the case of Les Feluettes as an opera, it took about five minutes for my head to be ringing with the possibility. The rest is simply work. Hours and hours of work.

George Benjamin composed his recently successful opera Written on Skin at the rate of approximately three seconds of music per day. In reality he probably wrote more than that, though of the material that comprised the score at the premiere, about three seconds were crafted or finalised per day, on average.

Sometimes the sheer volume of work that goes into the creation of an opera (not including the rehearsals and performances) approaches the absurd. For example, I and three of my colleagues just spent 250 hours proofing and correcting almost 2000 pages of parts. 2000 pages! If this job were being done by one person alone working a standard work week, they would spend more than 6 weeks doing nothing other than proofing parts. Whatever it takes.

The Opéra de Montréal generously provided for four workshops (three piano vocal workshops and a fourth full workshop with voices and orchestra) in which we scrutinised every aspect of the opera. This degree of investment in and commitment to the development of a new work is rare, and I'm grateful to them. The scrutiny wasn't limited to the words and the music. We even had discussions about what kind of experience we might wish for the audience to have on the night.

Overall the creation of Les Feluettes required tens of thousands of hours of work over five years, from multiple members of a creative team, supported by a small army of editors, part extractors, workshop musicians, and even partners (the value of having your partner cook meals or do laundry can not be overstated).

Forget the part about it being easy. (Michael Daugherty)

And now it's in the hands of the cast, and I am thrilled with the cast. I cherish the moment I put what I have written in the hands of the musicians who will premiere the work. Not because it means the work is finished, especially in the case of an opera, adjustments and revisions continue well into rehearsals, but rather because the point at which a performer picks up the work, it is one step closer to being realised.

Les Feluettes has been the most amazing, rewarding, rigorous, demanding project I've worked on to date and I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again.

After the premiere season by Opéra Montréal on 21-28 May 2016, Les Feluettes will be performed in 2017 by the co-commissioning Pacific Opera, Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) on 20, 22, 28 and 30 April, 2017.

> Read more 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented artists on our Scoop page.

Further links

Les Feluettes - performance details in the AMC Calendar: 21 May (premiere), 24 May; 26 May, 28 May

Les Feluettes - Opéra de Montréal (May 2016)

Les Feluettes - Pacific Opera, Victoria (April 2017)

Kevin March - AMC profile

Kevin March - homepage

Extracts from the music of Les Feluettes are available on Youtube: extraxts with piano accompaniment; an extract from orchestral workshop, including soloists and choir, in 2015.

Read also: 'Travelling the road between ancient and modern ' - an article by Kevin March on Resonate (21 March 2014)

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