Strange things done
Duo creating opera piece inspired by Robert Service's The Cremation of Sam McGee poem
Dec 02 2022
By Amy Kenny
It’s time Sam McGee had a song to sing—specifically an aria. That’s what librettist Royce Vavrek thinks, and that’s why he and classical composer, Matthew Ricketts, are writing one for the Yukon’s famously frozen dog musher.
The pair, both Brooklyn-based Canadian composers, are in Dawson City this month for a joint residency between The Yukon Arts Centre and the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture.
It will be the first time Vavrek has given Robert Service the operatic treatment, but not the first time he’s filtered another medium through opera to gain a different understanding of it.
In the past, Vavrek has adapted George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo for The Metropolitan Opera, and Karen Russell’s short story “Proving Up,” to be presented by the Washington National Opera. In addition to “Sam McGee,” he’s also currently working on an interpretation of the Lars von Trier film, Melancholia with Swedish composer, Mikael Karlsson.
For this particular piece, he connected with Ricketts. Living in the same U.S. city and working in the same sphere, the two were familiar with (and fans of) each other’s work, though they’d never collaborated until now.
“One day I was contacted by Royce on Facebook,” says Ricketts of the invitation to work together on the project, for which they received a development grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in 2021. “I picked up the phone and immediately started reciting the ballad from memory since it was a favourite poem of mine from childhood.”
Vavrek says that exact experience was part of what made him want to investigate the poem further.
“I’m constantly surprised at how many Canadians I talk to who are able to recite the poem from memory,” he says. “I think this poem is a remarkably important work of western Canadian folklore that means so much to so many Canadians.”
The pair will build on the work they’ve done thus far when they’re in Dawson City for the residency from December 5 to 11. The adaptation in its current form is meant for a core cast of four singers (including bass-baritone, Peter Monaghan; baritone Micah Schroeder; tenor Elias Theocharidis; and countertenor Sean Haid), though Vavrek and Ricketts are leaving space for it to include more.
Within the world of their experimental re-telling, the poem evolves out of a gathering of men working in the winter bush, enjoying beers around a bonfire. Each of the four singers plays a number of characters telling stories, inspired by Service, about the lives of men working in the Canadian Northwest.
Vavrek says he loves adapting source material this way because it allows him to crack open his own language. It encourages him into new ways of thinking about character. Being able to do that about the North, from the North, adds a whole other dimension to it for the pair.
Ricketts says he and Vavrek both feel that opera is at its best when magical and supernatural elements are involved somehow.
“Robert Service’s poem is the epitome of magic realism,” he says. “Full of gritty and realistic details about the harshness of the Northern climate and the gold mining industry, combined with utterly unbelievable and fantastical twists and turns.”
It’s also full of what opera scholars refer to as “tinta” or “local colour.” There is a specific sense of place, with its own unique feel, mood and world of sound. The richness of the physical landscape, from huskies howling around a fire, to the creak of abandoned boats on a frozen lake, allows for a vivid dramatic treatment and soundscape.
“It is so important to commune with the ghosts of the operatic worlds that we inhabit,” he says. “I think that it is vital to consider how we render the cultural landscape of the Yukon Territory both at the time the poem was written, and also in the contemporary framework we are constructing. Being in Dawson City, especially in the winter, feels so spiritually right for the first opportunity to truly dig into the entirety of the material written thus far.”