Sunday, 21 August 2011

Lillian again

The remounting of John Estacio and John Murrell's Lillian Alling at the Banff Centre last week is most remarkable not because it's a solid piece of musical art that deserved a new audience but because it shows once again just how vibrant Alberta is as a place where new opera is nurtured. The performance I saw on Saturday night at the Eric Harvie Theatre was done by the Banff Centre's Opera as Theatre participants, a group of well-trained singers whose work was as entertaining as the original professional production I saw in Vancouver last fall. Several of the singers are clearly ready for prime time.
Kelly Robinson wasn't doing anyone any favours in selecting Lillian Alling as one of the two operas for this summer's program, along with Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. Mozart and Estacio. That's got a nice ring to it, doesn't it? The issue isn't whether Estacio's name will be around as long as Mozart's. The issue is that Banff and Robinson, head of Banff's theatre program and director of the Vancouver production, aren't afraid to promote Canadian work that is substantial and unique. He gave his aspiring opera singers a worthy test. The ensemble delivered a result that clearly pleased the nearly 800 listeners in the theatre on Saturday. What other test is there?
Isn't that the main reason some companies avoid new Canadian work? What will the audience think? Will we lose our shirts? Valid concerns, for sure, but Estacio and Murrell have proven that Canadian audiences will come to hear them.The Vancouver run was a critical and popular success, and so has been the Banff production. Filumena, their first collaboration, started in Calgary and made it to Edmonton and Ottawa. The CBC even showed a film of it.
The intricate narrative Murrell has constructed in Lillian Alling, and the rich orchestral score, played brilliantly by the Banff student orchestra, that Estacio has written, stand up as opera worth producing on any stage, anywhere. I know serious music critics who can't stand Nixon in China. It garnered enough interest though to make it into the standard repertoire, not because it's great.
The title character of Lillian Alling moves westward on her quest for justice. The opera Lillian Alling is moving eastward. It has made it over the mountains now. Its goal should be to make it at least as far as Toronto, where the COC is venturing into contemporary Finnish opera, set in the Middle Ages next season. Contemporary opera is not the COC's usual domain. Risky business, even for an opera that has mustered promoters sufficient to give the Finnish composer's Life from Afar life after its premiere.
My guess is Toronto opera lovers could find some of the same tolerance the city's hockey fans have for their haplessly predictable Leafs to come to hear a made-in-Canada opera that was good enough for Vancouver.
Some operas don't make history. Most of Mozarts 22 haven't. Terrific that Kaija Saariaho’s has beaten the odds. But it would be doubly terrific if audiences in Canada's largest city had a chance to see something built right here at home. Lillian Alling is worth the gamble.