The Lucky Librettist
The composer, Stephanie Martin, stood chatting with audience members post-concert and I weighed whether to speak to her. I had no idea how significant the decision would prove to be. She looked kind and approachable, so I stepped forward and gushed to Stephanie about her beautiful song “Be the River” which had just received its premiere. She thanked me, then caught me off guard.
“Tell me about you!”
I replied that I love music, and although I’m neither a musician nor a composer I’m quite creative. When I revealed I’m a playwright, Stephanie’s eyes lit up.
“I always need words!!” she exclaimed.
She began to pitch me on possibly co-creating an opera with her. I would write the libretto — the words — and she would compose the music.
An opera!? What did I know about opera? I’d seen the extravagant “Aida” beneath the stars in an ancient Roman amphitheatre in Nimes in the south of France. I’d gone to the odd, moody “Bluebeard’s Castle” in Toronto. I had a soft spot for the scene in “Moonstruck” in which Cher’s character is moved to tears by La Boheme.
Stephanie assured me that an opera is just a play in which everything is sung. Since I’d written plays surely, I could write a libretto. Then she launched into the compelling true story she had in mind as the basis for the opera. June 1918. World War I raging. Fourteen Canadian nurses aboard a hospital ship called The Llandovery Castle. A torpedo from a German U-boat strikes. A forgotten atrocity. A story about women, their contributions during the Great War.
Everything Stephanie told me struck a chord. I love history and several of my plays have been period pieces. The first stage play I wrote, On Convoy, is set in wartime (W.W. II) and involves a ship that gets torpedoed by a German U-boat. The prospect of doing research and learning more about W.W. I was appealing. In Canada we had been marking the centennial of the Great War, but I hadn’t noticed much emphasis on the efforts of women. Untold or forgotten stories, and tales about heroic and altruistic individuals like healers fascinate me.
There was also urgency in Stephanie’s words. It was July 2017 and the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the hospital ship would occur in only 11 months. Ideally, we would strive to have all or part of the opera ready in time to mark the centennial. We agreed to meet again soon. The next day I sent Stephanie several of my plays to read, including Reverend Jonah.
A few weeks later during a trip to Ottawa with my family I spotted The Nursing Sisters Memorial in the Hall of Honour in the Parliament Buildings. Part of the marble sculpture depicts two nurses in uniform caring for a wounded soldier and the inscription reads “erected by the nurses of Canada in remembrance of their sisters who gave their lives in the Great War, nineteen fourteen-eighteen…” Full of excitement I took a photo and sent it to Stephanie.
While in Ottawa I also drew confidence from memories of a past journey there to receive a Governor General’s History Award. The honour was for a play I wrote called Narcisse which is non-fiction and set in the past, like the opera project I was considering. You’ve done this sort of thing before and had success, I told myself, attempting to counter-balance the trepidation I felt at attempting to write my first libretto on a short timeline.
Stephanie and I reconvened and discussed how our collaboration would work. Essentially, I would create the words, then she would create the music, and we would resist the urge to meddle in each other’s sphere. I was such an opera neophyte it was a revelation that the words would come first, and then get set to music. Also, I would have even less time than I’d imagined. I would need to be done by Christmas to give Stephanie enough time to compose the music. We agreed to proceed, and Stephanie handed over a binder full of research she had been collecting plus a stack of books.
A slim, anonymous volume, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, called to me. I started reading and couldn’t stop, urgently scrawling in my notebook the nurse’s searing, tragic observations: “their wounds septic, full of straw & dirt”; “some awful mouth, jaw, head, leg, and spine cases, who can’t recover, or will only be crippled wrecks. You can’t realise that it all has been done on purpose”; “you boarded a cattle truck, armed with a tray of dressings and a pail… all shrapnel shell wounds – more ghastly than anything I have ever seen or smelt”; “got a spout feeder for a boy in the Grenadier Guards, with a gaping hole through his mouth to his chin, who can’t eat, and cannot otherwise drink”; “a very bad load this time… going to go septic… swelling under the bandages” . I admired this brave, eloquent, selfless woman who faced unspeakable horrors and strove to do some good. It bothered me that the book was anonymous, and it struck me as emblematic: all nurses from the war were anonymous, their names and remarkable deeds forgotten.
As I did more research I not only gained a better appreciation for what the nurses had endured, I realised the historical significance of the story Stephanie and I wanted to tell. There was worldwide outrage at the sinking of The Llandovery Castle. In 1921 the first war crimes trials in history were held at Leipzig, Germany and the sinking of The Llandovery Castle was one of the few incidents addressed. I wondered how the event had fallen out of collective memory.
I also learned about the nurses who served aboard The Llandovery Castle on its final, doomed voyage. As details of their lives and personalities emerged, I was drawn to certain individuals who might serve as major characters in the opera. Rena “Bird” McLean was described as a “fun-loving woman, kind and caring”. She had a sense of humour, referring to a suitor who got cold feet as “Eddie the cad”. Bird had lost her two sisters, one in infancy due to illness, and the other had drowned. Her poor parents ultimately lost all three of their daughters. As a father of two children, both girls, I found this incredibly heart-rending.
My interest was also piqued by two nurses who were close friends: Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser, the ranking nurse aboard the ship, and Minnie “Kate” Gallaher. It turned out that a hospital ship was considered a relatively safe, easy post. Often nurses who had suffered physical or mental breakdowns during more harrowing assignments were relegated to the ships. A story idea came to me and I scrawled it in my notebook: “something I could hang the whole plot on… Matron Pearl must assess the nurses on The Llandovery Castle, see if they are capable of returning to the Front… in the process of probing their readiness Pearl triggers re-telling of their war experiences… Pearl torn -> those sent back to the Front face grave danger”.
The idea was important since I’d realised there was a lack of drama in the true story leading up to the moment the torpedo hits. I was excited about the idea of getting the audience invested in Pearl’s inquisition and the implications for her subordinate nurses like Bird and Kate. I decided that Bird would want desperately to get back to the Front, whereas Kate would hate the idea of returning to the action and in fact yearn for the war to end and to never nurse again.
The first scene I wrote was a nightmare scene. Aboard the ship Bird wakes up screaming from a dream of being back near the Front, struggling to help wounded soldiers as shells crash down, explode nearby. I wrote most of it as an aria, Bird recounting her nightmare and pouring out her feelings. After years of writing stage plays with realistic dialogue, it felt terrific to write poetically, playing with rhyme, rhythm, alliteration, assonance.
I read up on opera and went to see productions to become more knowledgeable and to garner ideas. Tapestry Opera’s production of “Bandits in the Valley” (composer Benton Roark / librettist Julie Tepperman) featured hilarious writing and performances, showing me that opera doesn’t have to be stuffy and completely serious. At the Canadian Opera Company’s production of “Arabella” (composer Richard Strauss / librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal) among other things I observed that a duet could thoroughly illuminate the relationship between two characters.
We were also in need of a producer. Arts administrator extraordinaire Jennifer Collins, Stephanie and I approached opera companies hoping to drum up interest. Fortunately, the young, happening, uber talented Larissa Koniuk and Geoff Sirett at Bicycle Opera Project were keen. In the fall of 2017 they ambitiously agreed to help us to develop the opera and aim for a workshop involving public performances on or around June 27, 2018 to commemorate the centennial of the sinking.
As word spread about our project the story seemed to capture people’s imagination. Alisa Siegel, a CBC Radio producer, approached us about making a radio documentary on the creation of the opera as a window into the story of The Llandovery Castle. Just before Remembrance Day, Cassandra Szklarski of the Canadian Press wrote an article which ran in the National Post and across the country. Doctors Without Borders endorsed the project. “As medical humanitarians working in contemporary conflict settings, the story of The Llandovery Castle strongly resonates with our cause. It was then (in 1918), as it is now outrageous and profoundly wrong that men and women healing the war-wounded should themselves be shot at,” said Joe Belliveau, Canada’s Executive Director.
The extensive press helped Stephanie and me to connect with relatives of the nurses who had served on The Llandovery Castle. We were over the moon when we received a digital copy of Pearl’s war diary. Bird’s relatives filled in important blanks in our knowledge about her life.
One of Bird’s great nephews inquired protectively about why she was deemed worthy of being the main character of the opera. I explained that if he came to the opera he would not see a depiction of his great aunt; he would see a character based on Bird given the little I knew, with deliberate changes to serve the story. The intention was not to honour Bird per se, but through her to give the audience a sense of what all nurses went through in the war, and to honour all of them.
I also corresponded with the grandson of one of the major male characters in the opera, Sergeant Arthur Knight. Arthur was aboard a lifeboat with the nurses and survived to tell the tale. His recount was crucial to depicting the nurses’ final moments, and words spoken by him and Pearl would end up in the opera verbatim. Arthur was one of the few survivors of the sinking, and according to his medical records he was haunted by the tragedy, plagued by insomnia and nightmares about the sea. It comforted me to learn from his grandson that Arthur had gone on to lead a full, happy life. Arthur’s grandson informed me that he and his wife would be flying to Toronto all the way from their home in Vancouver for the opera.
Thanks to these connections the people who served on The Llandovery Castle became more and more real to me; these people had loved and were loved, and those who died were deeply mourned. The people who cared most about their legacy would be present at the opera; this heightened my sense of responsibility to serve the story well. Every time I imagined words uttered aboard the nurses’ lifeboat being repeated, brought to life exactly 100 years later to the night, lightning bolts of emotion coursed through me.
Despite our growing knowledge we still had so many questions. Stephanie, Jennifer, and I met with Jonathan Scotland and Julia Armstrong from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography to deepen our understanding of the story. A historian doing research about The Llandovery Castle and the aftermath of its sinking, Jonathan offered excellent information. However, I was frustrated as I realised it was impossible to say exactly what had happened that night so long ago. It was against the laws of war to shoot at a hospital ship, but it seemed that Patzig, the U-boat captain, attacked because he suspected The Llandovery Castle was secretly transporting soldiers and munitions.
“So, either the U-boat Captain had bad intelligence, or The Llandovery Castle truly was transporting soldiers and fighting supplies,” I surmised.
“Not necessarily,” Jonathan replied. “Maybe his intelligence was about another hospital ship and he shot at The Llandovery Castle by mistake. Maybe it was a foggy night. Maybe….”
The phrase “the fog of war” came to mind.
Thankfully Jonathan provided one definitive take on Patzig’s actions.
“He shot at people in the lifeboats. There is never a justification for shooting at people in lifeboats.”
“Okay, now I feel okay about making him the villain of the opera!” I said.
As I sent the early scenes of the libretto to Stephanie I felt more and more appreciative of the collaborative aspect of creating an opera. We bounced ideas around about the characters, the plot, the themes. Stephanie began to compose the music and share it with me; I was floored by its beauty. We gave each other feedback and encouragement. After I wrote the heart-breaking final scenes of the opera, I called Stephanie and we commiserated.
“I want to change the ending. I don’t want the nurses to die. I want them to make it through, and live long and happy lives,” I told her.
Fortunately, the story offered more than darkness and despair. I found a way to insert a delightful true story about a dog from Algiers that jumped off a wharf and swam after his master’s troop ship; the dog was taken aboard and ultimately to the Front and ended up saving his master’s life. Stephanie had great fun setting that scene to a lilting jig.
Crucially I realised that the nurses had not died in vain. World War I was a horrific conflict. Eighteen million people were killed, and 23 million people wounded. Human beings used poison gas on each other. Trench warfare was inhuman. Looking at that war it would be easy to lose one’s faith in humanity. But then your eyes fall on the healers. While many were trying to kill, they were striving to save lives. While many were full of hate, the healers exuded compassion. Thank God for the healers; they offered a sliver of hope, a dram of redemption to humanity.
As Stephanie and I continued to work diligently on the opera, I felt that it was one of the most fulfilling creative projects I’d ever been involved with. I was very, very thankful that I’d decided to step forward and give Stephanie that compliment.