100 years ago tonight: The Llandovery Castle

Composer Stephanie Martin & playwright Paul Ciufo are collaborating on their first opera, The Llandovery Castle.  They’re telling the story of the sinking of an unarmed hospital vessel of that name exactly 100 years ago. On the night of June 27th 1918 it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Martin and Ciufo worked with the Bicycle Opera Project team to present a workshop performance of the piece with a small ensemble of musicians using Calvin Presbyterian Church.  The location works for a piece ending with these final words:

You must bear witness 
In the darkest of times 
There were those who chose 
To walk in the light

Do operas about war help us AVOID war or GLORIFY war?

Just in the last few days, I confess I have listened to the following compositions that valorize sacrifice & battle:

  • Some of William Walton’s music from Henry V at last night’s TSO concert with Christopher Plummer
  • A new CD of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (new to me, as it was recorded in 1960), that I listen to, over and over, in the car
  • And I keep watching Scorsese’s  Hugo including Sacha Baron Cohen as a WW I war veteran whose disability humanizes him

Do we even KNOW what war is anymore, or have we forgotten? Our films, like our operas before, invite us to repeat the same errors over and over, sensationalizing, commemorating, celebrating the ultimate horror.

Do we EVER learn? Perhaps this opera can help.

Martin composes with a very accessible style that’s a reminder if not an admonition to composers insisting on more challenging approaches to music-making. If opera is to be a piece of theatre, especially if it’s to move the audience, it can’t turn its back upon melody & diatonic composition.  The lesson is clear enough if you look at the most successful composers of the past century such as Puccini or Richard Strauss, composers employing a style of music sometimes seen as sentimental verging on kitsch, but in the process moving you to tears.

One might well ask how one could tell a story like this one without sentiment?

The Bicycle Opera production was completely successful in my view, given that we were watching a work in progress.  Director Tom Diamond had a fascinating conceit that framed the workshop presentation, by offering the performance as though we were watching a live presentation of a radio play.

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Singing into the “microphone” of the radio broadcast. (photo: Will Ford)

That sets up the possibility of anachronism, as well as giving us a context that forgives any shortcomings in the staging, because of course in a radio play it’s all hand-made and improvised before us, into the “broadcast microphone” (which is a prop of course).  We were invited to use our imaginations, while we heard elements in the music to suggest the rhythms of the sea, the various anthems of countries, hymn tunes, and yes, desperate music when the torpedo hits.

Conductor Kimberley-Ann Bartczak gave a tidy account of the score, leading an ensemble of nine players, and nine singers, often all singing or playing at once, supplying plenty of sound for the church’s acoustic.

I can’t tell whether composer & librettist believe their piece is finished or not; while the current version felt complete yet they may see things in this workshop that leads them to change the work.  You may wish to explore the piece further by looking at their website that includes the program including a synopsis,  libretto and a link should you wish to contribute to the project.  (choose “Bicycle Opera Project” in the drop-down)

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