Questions for Dean Burry: Shanawdithit

I hope you’ll forgive me if I pause to take a breath before I attempt to tell you who Dean Burry is, a man who wears so many hats one doesn’t always know how to address him.

Professor? Composer? Librettist? Maestro?

Across all those different disciplines (and even others I didn’t mention) Dean is always busy. He is arguably the most successful Canadian opera composer given that The Brothers Grimm is the most performed opera ever composed by a Canadian, over 600 performances & counting.

With someone so multi-faceted, you might enjoy reading his biographies, such as

  • here (Queen’s University)
  • or here (Tapestry Opera )
  • or here (Dean’s website)

Students wanting to build a career, impresarios or creators seeking the secret of success should look no further than Dean. In a nutshell: this is how it’s done.

Dean reminds me of an axiom in management. If you want something done quickly and have the choice between asking someone who’s sitting there available to work, and someone who’s busy the answer is counter-intuitive. Because if you want it done quickly you ask the busy person: as they know how to get things done quickly. Dean is a perfect illustration. Although I asked him more questions than usual yet his was one of the fastest responses I’ve ever had.

Dean’s so busy that there are several projects I could (should?) have asked about, except I *blush* didn’t know about all the others. I approached him on this occasion, fascinated by one project in particular, namely Shanawdithit, a co-production of Tapestry Opera & Opera on the Avalon, under development for months with librettist Yvette Nolan, workshopped last fall: and to be world-premiered May 16 here in Toronto, before being taken to Newfoundland in June.  I had so many questions.

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Composer Dean Burry

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

That’s usually not a clear cut question given the way genetics work. I certainly look a lot like my father…the spitting image in some photos. But I’d say temperament-wise I’m more like my mother. I’m honestly not a huge believer in astrology but we are both Pisces and from what I understand, our sentimentality, sensitivity and creativity (she enjoys writing poetry) all come from being a couple of fish.

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

I’m going to cheat and comment on TWO of the best things about what I do (and I do a lot of different things so let’s focus on writing opera). I want to do two because when you asked this question I immediately thought of two things that are polar opposites.

In no particular order…I LOVE the community of people that it takes to make an operatic production. I love hanging with stage managers, and set designers and singers and instrumentalists, conductors, directors, PR, marketing, education. You get the idea. It is a tremendous amount of collaboration and all of that interaction is nourishing.

On the other end of the spectrum, it is AMAZING to create an imaginary world that you get to live in for a period of time. So many of my projects involve stories and world-building. You really get to know these characters and these places in a very deep way. I get to the same moment in Shanawdithit – first while working on the vocal score and later while orchestrating – and I find myself crying. Honestly it’s a little escapist. I suppose one serves the extrovert in me, the other the introvert.

The WORST thing about what I do? It is damn hard to make a living as a composer. Hard to even find a way to claw through enough to make your art, let alone thrive. There have been lean years where I questioned if I had gone into the right field and those moments can be very low. I know many composers go through this but you are forced into putting on a brave face and pretending like everything is fine. It can be a real struggle. Composers and writers can have a massive impact on our world…it would just be nice if we could, as a society, find a way to acknowledge that.

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

This is one of those questions where I think “should I make something up to sound more sophisticated”? Honestly, I’m a big nerd. Bring on the Star Wars, Superheroes, Game of Thrones and Walking Dead. My wife Julia and I enjoy cooking shows as well. When it comes to concerts I’d say I’m pretty eclectic. Last night I saw a wonderful production called Seven Deadly Sins given here in Kingston (my new home) by Soundstreams. Very contemporary yet totally relatable. Julia is the principal second violinist with the fantastic Kingston Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Evan Mitchell, and this is the first time I have ever had a symphony subscription. It’s been years since I sat down for dedicated concerts including Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart alongside more contemporary work…so happy to be experiencing this repertoire again. As a composer in the new music scene I tend to always find myself, logically, at new music concerts. And going to the symphony every two weeks is all the more special because my daughters Blythe and Maeve are sitting with me. The older patrons sitting around us always say “Oh they are so good in the concert” and I give a smug little smile and say “thank you, they have seen a few concerts”. I held Blythe as a one-month old for the world-premiere of my opera Isis and the Seven Scorpions. They haven’t really had a choice.

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Dean Burry

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

You know, I wish I could play the violin. I can play a lot of instruments and I find one of the great joys of life is to pick up (or make) some (preferably weird) instrument and try to figure out how to make music with it. I don’t know if it’s my stubby fingers or what, but I just can’t get my paws around that thing. Julia, the girls and her family all play string instruments, so I guess I’ll just leave that to them.

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

I love nature and that only intensifies as I get older. As I mentioned we just moved to the country (a little town just outside Kingston called Elginburg) and I can’t tell you how much I love seeing the wide array of birds at the feeder in the morning. The wild turkeys that our dogs Felix and Annie love to bark at and the rabbits hopping around everywhere are wonderful. We even have a “House Toad” that shows up every night in the dog yard. So just being close to nature is a big thing for me.

In the last five years I’ve also found a new passion with a Renaissance ensemble I play with called The Gemsmen. We play recorder-like instruments made out of horn called gemshorns. They were made by a good friend, Hall Train (who also created the projections for my symphonic work Carnival of the Dinosaurs) and when I put two-and-two together and realized some of my best friends, Trevor Rines and Ken Hall were flute players, a quartet was born. We play a lot of period consort repertoire including a set of music from the court of King Henry VIII that we are currently working on, but it’s also a great chance to arrange a wide variety of music including pop music like the Beatles and sci-fi movie themes (we joke that we are the “Big Bang Theory” of the 16th century.)

I’ve also played in a Celtic band called Merasheen with a group of fellow Newfoundlanders for almost twenty years, so I guess the real answer is that when I’m not making music…I make music.

*******

More questions about Shanawdithit, being presented at Imperial Oil Theatre in Toronto from May 16-25, and then going to Newfoundland in June.

1. With a dozen operas listed on your website you’re an extraordinarily prolific artist including The Brothers Grimm, arguably the most performed opera ever composed by a Canadian, at over 600 performances & counting. As I write this question I’m anticipating seeing La boheme tomorrow. Can we talk about that dirty word “popularity”, dirty because critics & scholars haven’t fully reconciled the great music of a Berg or a Ligeti with the harsh reality of box office. Tuneful composers such as Puccini or Richard Strauss were the most successful opera composers of the first part of the 20th century. If you don’t mind me asking, how do you feel about popularity? What’s your secret?

I couldn’t be happier that my music is getting heard. The whole reason I do this is to connect with people…to communicate. Over a hundred-and-fifty thousand kids have seen The Brothers Grimm, usually as their first opera, and if I accomplish nothing else, that at least feels like I have had some impact. The other children’s opera I wrote for the COC, The Scorpions’ Sting (originally known as Isis and the Seven Scorpions) is also travelling pretty well at over 300 performances. I keep encouraging composers to consider writing children’s opera – and the 45-minute small cast with piano model is still really in demand. A main stage opera may get 5 or 6 performances, but companies that tour this type of opera tend to do between 20 and 40 (like the recent run of Scorpions’ with Lyric Opera of Chicago). It’s hard to imagine an artist that doesn’t want their art to be wanted, appreciated…and popular (the definition of that word could be debated). I think what you are getting at is the idea of “accessibility” in modern music. I think there is room for so many different styles of music in the world. And I love so much new and experimental music. But honestly, it really bugs me when people talk about accessibility in contemporary music as a bad thing. “Relevance” is another one some people seem to have a problem with. My question is what’s the alternative, “Inaccessible, irrelevant music”? I think it is vital to realize that you can be accessible without pandering and you can be relevant without being trendy.

My secret? Striving for clarity I suppose (my credo). And yes, trying to consider the effect a piece will have on an audience.

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Dean Burry

2. Let’s talk about being prolific again. Wagner & Verdi each wrote a few turkeys before they really hit their stride. Could you talk about the first pieces you wrote, what you learned that served you later and the process of getting comfortable as (dare I say it) an opera composer?

I really became serious about composing when I was 12. A piano teacher named Don Boland (in my hometown of Gander NL) saw that I was getting tired just playing the standard repertoire and that my dictation book was starting to fill up with little things I would write to keep interested. He fostered that as he was a songwriter and we worked on chords, bass-lines and “comping”. Billy Joel became a big influence at that time and I started writing pop music. That very process of music creation led me back to the world of classical music as I started to see the magic behind what Beethoven and Bach were doing. My first opera was a piece called Unto the Earth: Vignettes of a War. It was about the Royal Newfoundland Regiment in WWI and premiered during the third year of my Bachelor of Music degree at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. I had just come off premieres (an oratorio and a musical) in the previous two years that really taught me the skills of not only composing but producing. I remember enlisting a friend to go around to the businesses in Sackville and sell advertising in a program so we could buy costumes from the second-hand store Frenchy’s (Maritimers will know what I’m talking about). My time at Mount A taught me what I needed to know about making opera happen. At times you need to be the composer, at times you need to be the janitor who sweeps up after rehearsal so you don’t get yelled at by administration. As far as what I learned…that comes back to the idea of collaboration. Yes it is “Wagner’s” Tannhauser or “Verdi’s” Rigoletto but the number of people required to make something like that happen is staggering. It is such a team effort.

Hot tip – give everyone love but save a little extra for your stage managers and percussionists.

3. One of the most exciting things about Shanawdithit is how the story has been with you for so many years in different ways. Could you explain your history with the project?

People often ask me how I became interested in opera coming from Newfoundland. It’s not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of The Rock. NL is music…drama and stories. I’ve written a number of operas based on NL history but one story, rooted in central NL where I grew up, kept calling to me. The story of Shanawdithit – the so-called “Last of the Beothuk”. So about 20 years ago as I had always done, I dug into my research and started writing an opera about this indigenous woman. That’s what traditional European opera composers and librettists do after all, take stories and cast them in a new light. An opera called Shanawdithit was actually my Master’s thesis at the University of Toronto – a school that I have been very connected to having just finished my doctorate there in June. Back in 1996 Michael Albano, Head of the Opera Division offered his students to stage a concert version of the opera. I imagined that piece being the seed of a full grand opera.

But not all stories are free for the taking. I think that is a concept that is slowly dawning on many Canadians and something that I myself came to acknowledge over the ensuing decades while this opera refused to take flight, yet refused to stop calling to me. I was attempting to follow in the same colonial mentality of artists before me. And while my aspirations were in the right place, they were still from a perspective that stories belonged to everyone.

4. Please talk about your changing understanding of the story especially in your work with librettist Yvette Nolan.

Over the years, I began to realize that if this opera was going to happen, it needed to be driven by indigenous voices, with a core indigenous leader to shape and determine the story.

I immediately thought of Yvette Nolan, someone whose work I had long admired and approaching Michael and Tapestry (who then contacted Opera on the Avalon in St. John’s – a logical co-commissioner), a company who has worked with advancing equity in opera for many years. The process has been completely unlike anything I’ve done before. I have never written an opera inspired and enlightened by so many collaborators. The composer is usually the leading force in an opera, but in this case I feel like I have been guided by so much sharing and community it is unlike any other project with which I have been involved.

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Yvette Nolan

The tragedy of Shanawdithit’s story is the fact that the Beothuk as a cultural nation cease to exist. Normally in creating an opera like this, you would talk to elders of the nation, but in this case it isn’t possible. However, during the last six months of her life, the time period of our opera, Shanawdithit created a number of sketches to describe historical events and cultural elements of Beothuk life. These sketches are HER voice and an incredible insight into a vanished society. Yvette had the brilliant idea to ask various Canadian Indigenous artists to interpret these sketches and this collaboration has become a core of the opera and a vast inspiration for the score.

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Aria Evans

Visual artists Jordan Bennett, Meagan Musseau, Lori Blondeau, Jerry Evans, choreographer Michelle Olson, dancer Aria Evans and our Shanawdithit herself, Marion Newman have all been so open to this project. And I’m so grateful for what they have shared.

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Soprano Marion Newman

6. A big part of this project concerns the contact between cultures. I couldn’t help noticing that your understanding of the story has deepened over the years, in some ways like the learning of a settler culture in the conversation that might lead to reconciliation. Do you see yourself, in your conversation with librettist Yvette Nolan & the process of creating this opera to tell this story, as enacting a kind of cultural reconciliation?

I sincerely hope so. There are times when you want to tell a story. There are times when you want to entertain. But there are times when you know that the project that you are working on has the potential for a greater meaning….a greater impact. If nothing else, as a result of this project, many more people will know the story of Shanawdithit and the Beothuk, and because of an opera (considered by many to be the most colonial of art forms!) no less! Here we can again insert that word “relevant”. I haven’t met one person who has an easy time saying the name of this opera (there are variations, but the safe one is shaw-na-DITH-it) I grew up with this story all around me, yet told in such a sad and misinformed way. We did a workshop in Toronto in October and all I could think was “we have an amazing collection of professional artists from across the country in downtown Toronto discussing the life of this incredible yet ignored indigenous woman.” I think I counted it as a win right there and then. If reconciliation is truly going to happen, it is going to require a thoughtful coming together to reveal the right way to move forward…together.

7. In the opera Louis Riel a key feature of the story-telling is the ugly racism we sometimes see presented, for instance when the crowd cries out for Riel’s blood. How do you reconcile history with the sensitivities of audiences?

I really stand by the idea that “Art is a reflection of life”. If it isn’t then it loses all its power and magic. Again, if you are considering your audience, you realize that not “anything goes”. You want people to stay engaged to the end. There are aspects of this story which are brutal and trying to sanitize that story would be perpetuating exactly the same travesty which has happened in colonial re-tellings of indigenous history. But in opera we have many resources ( he smiles and winks). Music has an incredible ability to make you FEEL. Hopefully, with the score of Shanawdithit I have been able to portray both the horror and yes, beauty and life of her story. You have to be able to show everything because that’s life…but in opera “showing everything” can be accomplished in a number of ways.

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Aubrey Dan

8. I read in one of your bios that you have written musicals, including at least one when you were still in school. As a composer of both opera & musicals, how do you understand the difference between the two? And while this interview concerns Shanawdithit, knowing you’re at the Dan School (meaning in the vicinity of Aubrey Dan, producer & impresario): are you feeling any desire to write another musical?

Oh absolutely. Back when I was in university and starting a career I imagined I was going to be a Musical Theatre composer – this was the age of Les Miz and Phantom of the Opera. When I graduated from high school, I was just as likely to go to theatre school as music school. Musical theatre and later opera was the way for me to live in both worlds. I feel like I’m living in a dream right now as I have been appointed the Artistic Director of the Music Theatre Creation Program at the Dan School of Drama and Music at Queen’s University. It’s a program which really embraces the entire spectrum of music theatre including opera, broadway musicals, cabaret and everything in between. We’ve got too many labels and divisions in our community and I love what they have started here. When I was younger, I really approached musicals and operas differently. My hockey musical with Charlie Rhindress, Home and Away really riffs on the jock rock of bands like Queen and Meatloaf, while my one-woman musical Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story really digs into the music of Tin Pan Alley. But the older I get, the more I realize that stories told through music, drama, design and dance are all part of that spectrum I spoke of. As I write this, I think the bottom line is that I love so many different styles of music and if I have the opportunity to explore them all, I’m happy. I would say that in recent years, I’ve been more active in the opera world. But there’s no question I will be back to the musical world – it’s just a question of when.

9. You’ve served an apprenticeship or two along the way. Your time in the Education and Outreach Department of the Canadian Opera Company and as Artistic Director of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company remind us that you’re not just a composer but also an accomplished practitioner. Do you think composers should be practitioners, and could you give an example or two of what you’ve learned as a practitioner?

To each their own, I suppose. There are brilliant composers out there who are destined to just be composers. Thankfully there are all sort of people in the arts community to cover the other jobs- there are people who love doing public relations, there are people who love designing costumes, there are people who love finding donors and people who love BEING donors (like the incomparable Roger Moore who we just lost – incredible supporters who always say “well I’m no singer or composer” but are so vital to the process, not just financially but for their thoughtful and committed support. I’m sad that I won’t be able to share a conversation with Roger in the lobby after a performance of Shanawdithit). But there is no denying that composers need to find creative ways to get their music out there. Unfortunately, a lot of the new music scene is still curated by a select group of people and if those few people don’t “get” your music, you have a choice to make – accept their judgment and find a new career/passion or fight to MAKE an audience for your music. There are so many examples of this even in Toronto, from older established groups like Arraymusic and Continuum to new organizations like the Toy Piano Composers, Caution Tape Sound Collective, Thin Edge New Music Collective, Fawn Opera and so many others – all started by hungry artists determined to make a place for their art.

10. What advice might you have for a young composer, considering writing their first opera or musical…?

That’s a big question, but I will go back to something that I mentioned early. Opera is theatre. Opera is collaboration. The more a composer understands about every element involved in creating an opera the stronger and more integrated the score will be. Opera is not just a concert and is so much more than the stereotypes we are shown in pop-culture. It isn’t a genre to be approached lightly but it can be a wild ride.

11. First: 
what’s your favorite opera (meaning the one that makes you smile & feel good inside) what’s your ideal opera (the one you admire for its structure / dramaturgy etc)?
So:
having said that when you compose which, if either, do you think you aim for?

Ha. When you usually ask that question people coyly say “well I couldn’t possibly pick just one” (there’s something to be said for that – there are so many wonderful and varied examples). But I think I can pinpoint two, and I think both satisfy your two questions above. The first is a warhorse of the traditional canon – La boheme. I know many consider it overdone but it so accurately reflects the experience of those starving young artists ( maybe I can relate). It’s playful, deep and devastating and Puccini achieves that most elusive of aspirations – perfect pacing. The second opera I’d mention here is Britten’s Peter Grimes. I have always identified with Britten…I’m sure our mutual connection to the ocean has something to do with it, but I also really admire his efforts to write fresh new music while still providing that all important clarity. I find his music strikingly original and evocative yet amazingly accessible (oops, there’s that word) all at the same time. Perfectly paced, evocative, accessible, fresh, clear…yes I aim for these at all times.

*******

The new opera Shanawdithit with music by Dean Burry and words by Yvette Nolan premieres May 16th at The Imperial Oil Theatre.   Tickets | Performances:

  • Thursday, May 16, 8:00 pm
  • Saturday, May 18 4:00 pm
  • Tuesday, May 21, 8:00 pm
  • Wednesday, May 22, 8:00 pm
  • Thursday, May 23, 8:00 pm
  • Saturday, May 25, 8:00 pm

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This entry was posted in Interviews, Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations & essays, Theatre & musicals, University life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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