10 Questions for Cecilia Livingston

Known across Canada and the US for her vocal music, Cecilia Livingston is deeply involved in Toronto’s choral and opera communities, with a special focus on writing music for women’s voices. She looks forward to projects in 2014-2015 in collaboration with Opera 5, FAWN (Toronto), Young Voices Toronto, and the Hamilton Children’s Choir. She received Honourable Mention in the 2013 Karen Kieser Prize in Canadian Music, and is a prizewinner in the 2013 Toronto Harp Society Composition Competition. Her music has been heard at Eastman’s Women In Music Festival, the Vancouver International Song Institute, the Scotia Festival of Music, the ACDA’s Summer Choral Composers Forum, Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory, and the Canadian Contemporary Music Workshop. She also has a keen interest in composing for percussion, and is (very slowly) learning to play the marimba.

In addition to her music, she is also known for her teaching and writing: her articles have appeared in Tempo and in Canadian Music Educator. Her creative and research work was funded by a CGS scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, and the Theodoros Mirkopoulos Fellowship in Composition at the University of Toronto, where her graduate work is supervised by Christos Hatzis.

October 27th Opera 5 present In Pace Requiescat, a program of three short operas, including the world premiere of The Masque of the Red Death by Cecilia Livingston.  With that in mind I ask Livingston 10 questions: five about her and five more  about creating the new work for Opera 5.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Composer Cecilia Livingston

Composer Cecilia Livingston

With both my parents very much alive, this may require some diplomacy! I think I can say that I’m a fairly good mix of their better and worse traits. I’ve a great deal of respect for their values: joy in hard intellectual work, a ferocious attention to detail, and endless curiosity about how anything works. They are both quiet people who think and feel very deeply: quite a beautiful worldview for a composer who is interested in things we used to give capital letters to (Truth, Beauty, the Sublime, etc.). I’m told I’m a fundamentally serious person, which isn’t a surprising result. Mind you, I’m quite serious about being silly, quite a lot of the time.

2- What is the best thing & worst thing about being a composer?

The best: connecting with other people through music, in a way that words (talking, writing, what have you) simply cannot achieve. It’s a profound, and very scary experience – and a very beautiful one. Music goes where words fall short, and those are the places that interest me. I also just love the social element of music making – working with performers is such a joy. I learn so much from them, and musicians are some of the most fun people around. I enjoy being a music nerd with other music nerds.

The worst: the hours at the computer. No musician’s life is 9-5 and so much of a composer’s life is spent at a computer. With a big project, those hours alone really add up, and many of them are spent on tech hassles rather than music.

3- Who do you like to listen to or watch?

Cecilia Livingston (click for another interview)

I love opera, although I find I usually don’t listen to whatever area I’m working in, so lately I haven’t been listening to much opera! I tend towards music that has a certain quality – perhaps “stark” is the right word. Non-classically, I love Radiohead and have a surprising collection of bad pop and good hip hop. I respect excellent craft regardless of genre. The deeper I am into a piece I’m writing, the “lighter” all my other activities become: lots of Michael Connelly novels, and large doses of embarrassing TV shows. I may or may not watch a certain Real Housewives franchise with religious devotion.

4- What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

I wish I were a better pianist, one who could really improvise. I injured myself during my undergrad, after fighting through my ARCT, and have never really recovered the technical facility I lost at that time, which is limiting. I’m teaching myself to improvise, but I will always run up against the old pain. But I can’t rue that entirely – that silencing pushed me towards composition, and that’s where I belong.

I’d also like to better at fixing my car. I’m sure my father wishes this too.

5- When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

I’m something of a workaholic, but when I’m not working I’m a true homebody: I like to get all the people I love in one place and hang out with them. My husband is an amazing cook, so I always look forward to the end of the day. A good meal, a glass of wine, a little Downton Abbey perhaps…


Five more about composition & premiere of The Masque of the Red Death with Opera 5

1- Please talk about the challenges in creating your adaptation of the story, and getting it produced.

Follow link for the Edgar Allan Poe society (including texts)

It’s been a very intense process: really three months from first note to last draft, with a chunk of time “off” for Tapestry’s LibLab. My husband and I wrote the libretto, I wrote the main theme, and then basically chained myself to my desk for the next weeks. Opera 5 trusted me with a lot of compositional and dramatic freedom, which I find very liberating: I love getting an idea and just running with it: nothing makes me happier than the extreme concentration of composing when it is going well.

The principal challenge in adapting Poe’s Masque to the requirements of drama, and opera specifically, is that Poe’s work typically has very little dialogue or ready-made mise en scene. There’s a great deal of narrative description, but what really struck me was the world implied beyond the story. It’s easy to imagine Poe’s Prince Prospero as the ruler of one of the smaller principalities that used to dot Italy’s political landscape. And so the story becomes one of narrowing and separation: the little fiefdoms recede from one another as they begin to die; then Prospero seals himself inside the castle, and the story narrows even further; the population of his little nation-state begin to collect outside the walls; then we see him moving room by room, until the whole story condenses down into the final confrontation in a single room: as our Prospero says, paraphrasing another prominent Italian (and an Italian-Canadian no less), “The world’s a little smaller every day.” In that sense, it’s a very contemporary story: we have something of a current obsession with apocalyptic narrative, and in particular with the dissolution and recession of society and civility in the wake of catastrophe.

The Prospero of the story is a sort of hubristic peacock, strutting around his quarantine. The immediate question for us was why someone would behave this way. If a ruler has the presence of mind to institute a quarantine – and this was a brand-new civil technology in the 14th century – and in particular, a very modern inverse quarantine that attempts to preserve the leadership while leaving the population to fend for themselves, would he really be this callow? The only plausible answer, I think, is that Prospero is attempting to distract his courtiers from the realities of the plague. His bizarre performance in Poe’s story is exactly that: a performance, designed to keep everyone’s mind on the party and off what is happening outside the walls.

2-What do you love about Poe and especially his story The Masque of the Red Death?

Composer Daniel Pinkham

I have mixed feelings about Poe as a writer, but as a provider of dramatic material with operatic potential, he has left a great legacy. When Opera 5 told me that they wanted a new Poe-based opera to go along with Debussy’s Fall of the House of Usher and Daniel Pinkham’s Cask of Amontillado, I immediately started looking for parallels in his other stories. What struck us particularly about Masque was the way it echoes those two. Like Usher, it’s about the demise of a dynasty; like Cask, it’s fundamentally about imprisonment and the fear of it. Yet in Usher, what kills the family legacy is time and neglect, and in Cask, the imprisonment is a punishment; and so Masque is an interesting microcosm of some of Poe’s most powerful themes, done in a rather unusual way for him.

3- Do you have a favourite moment in the opera?

Now that I’ve heard it in rehearsal, I love it all! There’s a moment early in the second act when Prospero turns away from the party and his true desperation, fear, and guilt are revealed: I love the music here. It’s a moment of sublime despair, and David Tinervia does a remarkable job with it: he has made a great study of the character.

4- How do you relate to Poe as a modern reader, adapter & composer?

There are two major concerns with Poe: his diction, which takes place in a register of language that we’ve more or less abandoned; and his sense of humour, which is very odd and very tightly bound up with his language. Poe started out writing absolutely straightforward satires of Gothic horror-romances; it was only later, maybe with Ligeia, that he realised he could move satire to a new kind of modern horror. But he never really lost sight of the fact that horror and humour, like the grotesque and the sublime, are ideal if uneasy partners. Much of Poe is like the Porter in Macbeth: a narrator joking before a scene of unimaginable brutality. So this operatic Masque blends the burlesque and the Baroque (it parodies Baroque opera in several ways) to intensify the agony of fear these characters endure, and their hideous end.

Composer Christos Hatzis

5- Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?

Operatically I’m in awe of Adams, Britten, and Glass. But closer to home, I’ve a huge respect for my teacher, Christos Hatzis. His enthusiasm and energy are astonishing – he lives a true musical life. More generally, I really admire singers. I find what they do nothing short of miraculous – it requires such skill, courage, and honesty. Singing is something all of us understand with such immediacy, and yet the work required to be a truly remarkable singer is beyond understanding. I’m fascinated by the voice, and I’m so happy to see my vocal writing deepen and mature as I move into opera.


Opera Five present “In Pace Requiescat”, a program of short operas October 27,  30 and 31 each night at 7:30 at the Arts & Letters Club, 14 Elm St (ring bell for entry):

  • Cask of the Amontiallado by Daniel Pinkham
  • La chute de la Maison d’Usher by Claude Debussy
  • The Masque of the Red Death by Cecilia Livingston (a world premiere)
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2 Responses to 10 Questions for Cecilia Livingston

  1. Pingback: (Q + A) x 300: questions and conversations | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Questions for Cecilia Livingston: Balancing the Score | barczablog

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