Questions for Victor Davies: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

Victor Davies is a Canadian composer whose work I have previously encountered in Toronto productions. His adaptation of Wilde’s comedy (in partnership with librettist Eugene Benson), called Earnest, The Importance of Being came to Toronto Operetta Theatre in 2015 (originally premiered in 2008). Another team effort with Benson gave us A Tale of Two Cities in 2016 at Summer Opera Lyric Theatre. I don’t pretend to know all his compositional activities (for instance he wrote Transit of Venus, an opera I never saw).  But I do know that he has a very accessible and crowd-pleasing style, as you can tell from the over 200,000 hits for the youtube video of this movement from his organ concerto. Hot Pipes indeed!

And now Davies is preparing to premiere his adaptation of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe¸ an opera for which he did both the music and the libretto. Like me you may recall reading George Ryga’s play in high-school English class, one of my first encounters with the complexities of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Premiered in 1967 –the same year as Louis Riel—the world has changed since then. Its language still uses epithets we rarely hear anymore except perhaps in movies, as Davies explains in the introduction to the score:

ABOUT THE WORD “INDIAN” George Ryga has called Indigenous/Aboriginal/First Nations people this in the dialogue of his play which we continue in the opera. Note that the opera is set, as was the play in 1967, a different era from our own. As “Indian Friendship Centre” was widely used in this period we continue this here although of course many “Centre” names have changed to “Aboriginal Friendship Centre” etc.

I sent Davies a series of questions to find out more about him, and about the upcoming production of the opera, premiering here in Toronto March 24th & 25th.

Are you more like your father or your mother?


Composer Victor Davies in 1995 (photo: Francois Martin)

A mixture! My father was a classical music lover, and my mother was the one who brought the piano into the house (for my brother who wanted to play the guitar!) But the piano stayed and my sister and I started lessons. Actually I started on violin which I hated! I loved the big machine! Easier to play and lots more noise! I never knew til my mother was in her 90s that she actually played the piano as a girl. She was creative and artistic particularly with needlework. As my father was away during WWII my brother was my surrogate father and there was always lots of pop/big band music on the record player and the radio. He introduced me to Rhapsody in Blue which hit me like a lightning bolt! Besides my mother and father I had an uncle and aunt who played and sang. Going to their house with the baby grand (covered by a brocade cloth with tassels!) records of rag time music, et al it was like visiting Paris or New York in the 20s to me!

So music was a constant growing up and I was wedged between rag time (see above) church music (also the aunts and uncles sang in the choir) Beethoven at home, and pop music from my brother and sister. A rich diet! Then of course the legion band came once a year to play at the Anglican church right behind our house. Follow that parade! Real drums! You could FEEL that bass drum! I guess too my career as a performer (yes singing and dancing, high school, G &S, Broadway at university) was growing along with all the rest my life. (My father said rather derisively that I didn’t play football, I performed it!) When composition (I had a dance band by this time) emerged in university it came all together rather organically, but I was headed for a career in medicine. So it was a cross roads. My father who had a wonderful Welsh voice, grew up with some hard drinking mates and music was wine of the poor (he become a lawyer) so music was off the list. I was also very adept at dissecting things in zoology so I thought my path was surgery.

But one fateful year at the University of Manitoba, so many shows to be in, so many dance band gigs, and all that improvising songs at parties, months rolled by with no classes being attended. And came the glorious day with my visit with the Dean and my being thrown out of university, and my bondage of legitimacy was over, and I was free to fly on the wings of music! (As thin and cheap as they were at that point!)

Let my Victor go!

Yes Broadway beckoned! Yikes but I didn’t know much! So off to Montreal, Boston (Berklee School of Music) and New York to explore. Scary places. But finally Indiana U (a place entirely unknown to me said join us) And I began the climb up the musical mountain with the promises of grand vistas ahead. (But for years though I wasn’t sure if I should have been an actor or a composer. I guess this is why such an affinity to musical theatre)

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The best is when you hear your music come to life in the hands and voices of wonderful singers and musicians. Nothing quite like it.


Victor Davies in 2007 (photo by encourager Lori Davies)

Being a free lance composer the worst (or the least creative thing) is the huge amount of administration and marketing which you have to do to keep performances and commissions coming. Very fortunately my wife Lori (an ex cardiac intensive care nurse, and Executive Director) is quite brilliant at these things and she loves music and theatre and the people around it. (Someone once remarked the intensive care part was perfect for a harried composer!) I should also mention that Lori plays many roles in my/our lives and has been a constant companion on all these musical journeys since university days. She reminded me that she introduced me to opera (it was Porgy and Bess!) and was the greatest encourager when I started composing: “You wrote that!” she said. Instant bonding! She was hooked and so was I! I remind her of this when the music is coming slowly that she was the cause of this life path and so she has to be patient!

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I’ve been engaged with just about every kind of music in my career, from country, jazz, rock, classical, world music (listening, performing, arranging and composing). However when you are busy composing all the time the last thing you want to do is to listen to music! So we have a huge collection of LP’s/CDs (neatly stored in Ikea shelves in the living room!) but they never get played. However I/we try to go to lots of live music. Now mostly opera! Also there is tons of music on Youtube old and new! So I listen there too. But you can’t beat live. Watching: news (CCN, CBC), and PBS costume drama!

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

The ability to quickly write down the music I hear in my head. Never had the proper musical training growing up although I did hear lots of original music starting around 8 years old. However no immediate person knew what to do about it. I can imagine tremendous things but they fly away greeted by trying to make them real on paper. So it is a lot of work to get things written down (now always via computer, no paper anymore!) (I tell myself I’m more like Beethoven than Mozart. It helps!)

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

Travel, TV (now media I guess, the internet) talking to family and friends on the phone!

Oh a voice from the other room…what?….yes walking and this means exploring places by foot here and abroad.


More questions about The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?


At the Transit of Venus premiere in 2007 (photo: Tony Nardella)

I actually started composing when my piano teacher of the moment (I was about 14) introduced me to Gershwin and Bach! Wow!! The major work which emerged from this however was ”The Battle”. Ghostly sounds of the battle field at dawn (sounds of birds!), the marches of opposing armies arriving, the battle (don’t remember how that went!) and the eerie calm of the battle field as the victor marches away. It was mostly for memory I don’t know if any of it got written down. Had never heard of Charles Ives then……. But I started composing in earnest later because of my love of musical theatre, Broadway, and pop music. There is a directness of utterance and connectedness to the audience that is inherent in this music. This is true for Mozart too. It goes straight to the heart.

I went through a phase of contemporary music, Webern (had the collected works!) Elliot Carter et al. (both great composers actually) I took a conducting course from Boulez. This course drove me completely back to my roots. I had been doing a CBC TV show which had opera, country, jazz and folk music, world music (Ravi Shankar was on one show!) which I left to go to the Boulez course. From this I realized that reaching the heart not the mind was where I wanted to be. Melody, rhythm was where the magic lay and discovering how to make it your own was the challenge I should grasp not reaching for new intellectual esoteric solutions. What is the identifiable/quantifiable magic from an intellectual/theoretical point of view in The Marriage of Figaro? All we know is this music continues to enchant us with no analysis necessary. So my challenge as I see it is to somehow find the musical magic in simplicity and directness.

What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in your new opera?

Like Mr Gilbert, I always say to the style question: “let the punishment fit the crime!”

So the opera is wide ranging musically. There is humour, a murder, two rapes, a fight at a dance, romance, a Father who tells wonderful stories, and some beautiful heart warming moments, and at the end a funeral. All these moments have to be clothed with music in the appropriate emotional and dramatic language. This ranges from the country music (ca. ’67) at the dance, to the murder, to the stories the Father tells. So there is an abundance of various kinds of melody (many of which I hope will be embedded in your brain so they can’t be removed!) to very dissonant music for the murder, fight et al. This is not 12 tone or serial but just very dense and nasty harmonic stuff which speaks of the threat, action, and emotional level of the events. The vocal writing is all about the characters, their emotions and the story they are living on the stage. There is no display of vocal fireworks for its own sake. Also as it is in English, I am a stickler with myself that every word be set so if properly executed, it can be clearly understood without surtitles. So the music is deceptively simple to hear but still challenging for the singers. And melody, melody, melody……the vocal line….

Pondering this question more, I’m sometimes asked by people about various kinds of chords, techniques etc When I compose I work something like a sculptor or a painter in the sense I have certain musical shapes or structures that I can hear, feel or sense, and I dip into the tonal, rhythmic musical universe inside myself to try to find the building materials which match what I am feeling. Kind of spreading tonal paint on the musical canvas…

Please tell me a bit about the story of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

I’ve included a Synopsis.

The Ecstasy of Rita Joe is the story of two young First Nations people in love who venture to the city in search of new lives off the reserve. Ill equipped, they struggle to make their way, torn between the heritage of the world they grew up with on the reserve of close family and community ties and a dependence on nature to survive, and the future they hope for themselves in the new alien impersonal urban world. Forces attempting to draw them back to the reserve in the form of Rita Joe’s father, the reserve priest, and reserve opinion about the implicit evil of the city, along with their rootedness in family, conflict with their desire to embrace a new future in the complex, exciting and foreign world of the city. They are unprepared as the city is full of pitfalls: the structure of the white legal system, paternalistic social institutions (the Indian Friendship Centre) and finally the violent and predatory world of the street which ultimately destroys them.

There is a story in the play, but it is told through an expressionistic lens in Act 1 and a more conventional form of play in Act 2. I decided that my job as the librettist was to uncover a clear story path for the audience to follow, making it happen in chronological time, not the time shifting which happens in the play.

The chronological approach means that the listener can more easily pick up the developing emotional baggage of the characters and go on the story journey and landscape of the character. There are a number of musical ideas that accompany the characters in their journey. It is not leit-motif, but as Puccini does, the recurrence of a theme in a new context has real emotional power reminding us what the character has invested through this theme. However now that the score is done and I am looking at it, I see all kinds of recurring motives that I was not aware were emerging at the time, even though there were many that I was consciously using.

It took many drafts (20?) to unravel the brilliant tapestry George Ryga wove in and around the story in his play, to what I arrived at. However the story of the play is the story of the opera. (I had a friend who I gave the libretto to, and she said “it’s exactly like the play!”) A word too about Ryga’s language. It is a combination of brilliant play-writing and poetry. Every word counts, and the relationships between each word in each line counts, and the exact rhythm of each sentence has its own coherence. So you have to approach each line in terms of changing it (cutting, moving, making shorter, inserting) with great care to ensure the inherent power in the play and its language is not diminished. His biography speaks of his talent as a poet but also his high powered TV script writer career which he gave up to write plays, poetry and novels.

Please put Ecstasy of Rita Joe in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century. How radical or conservative is this opera?

Hm….. In terms of contemporary operatic musical language it is conservative I guess. It’s not serial, minimalist, or any of the isms. Is La Boheme conservative or radical? I guess Rita Joe is radical in the sense it is meant to be immediately impactful and entirely popular and direct. It is full of melodies as I say above but also very eclectic. “To let the punishment fit the crime, the punishment fit the….” I can’t actually name something that it is like. Maybe Dead Man Walking, West Side Story, Peter Grimes?? (these are all from the 20th century!?) ( A 21st century opera that I have liked was Written On Skin (which I learned means parchment) because of the simplicity and directness of the vocal lines, placed in front of a vast rich harmonic tapestry of a huge and largely subdued orchestra.)

Please speak about the issue with portraying Indigenous characters, both as far as the appropriation of their cultural images and their music.

There is no Indigenous music, language, or traditional Indigenous story in the opera, thus there is no appropriation of this kind.

Dakota Sioux Artist Maxine Noel has graciously and enthusiastically allowed her beautiful painting “Not Forgotten” which speaks of the missing and murdered Indigenous women, to be used as the graphic identity of the production. When Lori and I saw this image we knew immediately it would be an appropriate and powerful one for the opera.


Not Forgotten, by Maxine Noel

The opera first developed by way of Manitoba Opera (Larry Desrochers) who I took the play to and he didn’t think there was an opera there. I said ”let’s go and talk to Rebecca Chartrand” (the Indigenous, singer and educator we worked with on the Opening Ceremonies of the Pan Am Games). Her response was “You HAVE to do it!” She said it spoke directly to the question of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Thus the journey started. Guillermo Silva Marin was intrigued when we brought the project to him which resulted in a workshop reading of the libretto by OIC (with singers reading, dramaturged by our talented theatre director daughter Heather) three years ago and Guillermo has been eagerly encouraging and pushing its progress forward since.

In Winnipeg and in Toronto both Larry and Guillermo have worked to engage the Indigenous community to bring them into the circle. Winnipeg is easier as it is a more homogenous Indigenous population. In Toronto there is massive diversity with people from every First Nation in Canada making it harder to speak to a coherent community.
However, because we were reaching out to the community to engage them in some way in the productions and process, we have had very positive responses.

In the first draft of the libretto I said something like “at this time there are not any Indigenous opera singers etc etc and in the future etc etc.” But now that we have arrived at this moment we have five wonderful Indigenous soloists!

Back to appropriation for a moment. Every Indigenous person we spoke to was happy to hear what we were planning and that we had reached out to include them if possible in the process.

Ryga was very critical of Canadian society and many of the issues in the play are still with us, so the dramatic content is unfortunately not out of date after 50 years. In any event, the kernel story of two young people in love leaving the reserve/country and encountering the big city and things ending badly is a universal and timeless one. Mix in the pull to come back to the reserve/farm/old home town and the generational conflicts inherent there with “a fish out of water” story and it is a story applicable to every time and place.

The play is well known in the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community and was a theatrical landmark, dealing as it did in 1967 with issues between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society. The play has been done all over Canada and beyond with Indigenous and non-Indigenous actors playing all or none of the roles and has been accepted by all communities. Thus the opera is not breaking new ground other than the fact it is being transformed into a musical theatre work. (And also that we actually have Indigenous opera singers!)

What direction do you see yourself going after this?

A rest! Time to regroup and clean up the various works which are in need of tidying up, and piled all around me as I type in my office. Although I do have an idea for a comic opera (!)…..Hm…. And I do have requests for some new works I had to put off in this intensive year of writing Rita Joe. But first The Beach!!!

Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

That could be a long list! (Influences?) OK I have two scores I go back to regularly –
Peter Grimes and Porgy and Bess. But there’s also The Band’s brown album (Up On Cripple Creek) Oh Messiah, Hm Paul Simon…. The Duke….Beethoven’s 3rd symphony….

Two mentors I will always be indebted to were Bob McMullin the wonderful conductor and arranger for the U of Manitoba shows who encouraged me to follow a musical path, and my composition teacher Thomas Beversdorf at Indiana University who was a calm and steady captain on the turbulent composition ship at that time.

But of course I owe the largest debit to my muse, patron, partner, and the person who said “You wrote that!”, like I must be Beethoven, Bach and Bernstein all rolled into one, at that critical moment in my life, which pushed me onwards with musical creation, my wife Lori. That’s the person who was so happy that the score of Rita Joe got emailed to Guillermo Silva Marin at Opera In Concert just a few hours ago, and who can’t wait to hear what it will sound like!!

That’s it!

Oh, PS. A few years ago I got a call from the President of the University of Manitoba asking if I would accept an honorary Doctorate. I said did she know anything about my history with the university. She laughed and said “that she was sure I would have some interesting stories to tell the students in my acceptance speech” ……..!!!

[Here’s the first part of that address.]

When President Szathmary asked me if I would accept this degree, I asked her if she was aware that I had been thrown out of the U of M.

YES, today is actually my second graduation from the U of M.

My first being when Dean Broderson asked me to leave. I was in pre-med, but I was spending all my time composing and performing music.  And on that day when I admitted to the dean that I hadn’t been to class for three months, he freed me to become a composer.

On that, my first graduation day, Dean Broderson sent me forth, with the following invocation –

Actually what he really said was “DAVIES, YOU’RE OUT!”
But I knew what he really meant.

[…cut to the end of the speech]

NOW GRADUANDS (or anyone else who’d like to) repeat after me –
“Follow your own dream, listen to your own melody, speak with your own voice”…..
Just like the Dean told me to do, on my FIRST graduation day!

Graduands Good Luck!! Thank You!


The original caption for this photo: “Who really writes the music? Victor with Mr Red Ears”


Victor Davies new opera The Ecstasy of Rita Joe based on George Ryga’s play of the same name, is to receive its world premiere through Voicebox – Opera In Concert the night of Saturday March 24th and the afternoon of Sunday March 25th. For further information click here.

This entry was posted in Interviews, Opera, Politics, University life. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Questions for Victor Davies: The Ecstasy of Rita Joe

  1. Pingback: Davies’ Ecstasy of Rita Joe | barczablog

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