Query #3: What’s the music like?

How can I describe the music for our new opera?

It’s helpful to talk about influences, so I’ll compare my music with styles, genres and composers which will hopefully strike a familiar chord with you.

Here’s a scene-by-scene snapshot of what you’ll hear on June 26 and 27, 2018 at Calvin Church in Toronto.

Scene One: The chorus sets the scene: a ship, plying the Atlantic, June 1918. Unison violins paint the ebb and flow of the sea. The music is modal: think Celtic sea shanty, like Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’ The nurses aboard this Canadian hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, are optimistic, anticipating docking in Halifax to discharge their wounded soldiers.

Scene 2: We meet Patzig, the bad guy, in his WW1 German U-boat somewhere on the other side of the ocean. He hones in on a Norwegian merchant ship, which he blows up. He sings of his zeal for his homeland, his self-destructive pride, his thrill at achieving his deadly goal. His music is driving jazz, something out of a 1970’s spy-thriller, or the movie ‘Jaws.’ He receives his next assignment, to seek and destroy the Llandovery Castle hospital ship, that according to false intelligence, is illegally transporting American aviators and munitions.

Scene 3: The Llandovery Castle on the return voyage to Liverpool. On deck, good friends Matron ‘Pearl’ Fraser and ‘Kate’ Gallaher reminisce about the early days of the war when they were filled with excitement. Now, fours years later, those memories have faded into weariness and despair. The music weaves national anthems, bugle calls and the Gregorian chant Requiem mass. A lifeboat drill is called, a nice excuse for the nurses to interact with the men of the crew. ‘Bird’ MacLean and Sergeant Arthur Knight trade stories of the loved ones they miss.

Scene 4: Bird dreams she is back at the Front, recalling the horror of dealing with sudden waves of wounded. Matron comforts her, and describes her own calling to heal others: a luminous, religious allegory. Matron’s music is bathed in mystical, Wagnerian light, with a set of variations on a ground, in the fashion of Henry Purcell.

Scene 5: Sunday morning. Everyone joins in a church service topside. The music is a ‘quodlibet’ combining 4 different hymns at the same time. Arthur Knight sings an engaging tale about the ‘Dog from Algiers’, inspired by Irish folk song and Cape Breton fiddling. Everyone is enjoying the diversion, except Kate.

Scene 6: In her quarters, Kate describes her desperation and hopelessness to Bird. Her music is agitated, a Benjamin Britten, JS Bach mash up. Bird reassures Kate that nurses have a truly important purpose. Her music is a modern lament accompanied by the well-known WW1 song “It’s a long way to Tipperary.” Matron, who has been listening unnoticed, resolves that Bird is now ready to return to service at the Front.

Scene 7: Matron Pearl and Major Tom Lyon meet on deck and reassure each other that doctors and nurses are the one bright light in the war – they have treated German prisoners and Allied soldiers with equal compassion: a full-blown Romantic, Rachmaninoffian homage to healers.

Scene 8: Patzig returns and torpedoes the Llandovery Castle. He manages to haul Major Lyon out of his lifeboat for questioning, then throws him back in his lifeboat. Realizing his terrible mistake, that in targeting a hospital ship he has committed a war crime, Patzig begins to shoot at the survivors in the water. The music turns violent and disturbing: cue horror film music, Stravinsky, Alban Berg.

Scene 9: The nurses’ lifeboat is sucked into the vortex of the sinking ship. Sergeant Knight survives to tell the tale. The opera ends with the return of the chorus who sing in Palestrina or Duruflé style counterpoint. They reveal the regrettable legacy of the Llandovery Castle – that her name will be used as a rallying cry to goad Canadian troops into murdering surrendering German soldiers at the battle of Amiens – an abomination to the memory of the nurses whose mission was only to save lives. They reveal the only moral we can possibly wring out of this tragedy – that there were some good people who showed compassion in that horrible war.

See you there.

Read more about Stephanie Martin's process on her blog. 

Kate PeerComment