Bramwell Tovey's The Inventor is larger than life
Truth, so the old saying goes, is stranger than fiction. Which explains why, when Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey was looking for inspiration for his first opera, he turned to a newspaper clipping rather than to the latest Margaret Atwood bestseller.
“We were on a break in rehearsals [at the VSO] and I wandered into Starbucks over the road, and there was a copy of the National Post sitting on the table,” recounts Tovey, in conversation at the VSO’s downtown offices. “You know how it is—you pick it up to pass the time for 10 minutes. And there was an excerpt of a book by Ann Larabee called The Dynamite Fiend. It was, basically, the story of Sandy Keith and his career.…By the time I’d got to the bottom of the page, the story was such a powerful hit with me that I was kind of staggered by it.”
Tovey tore the page from the newspaper and took it with him to Calgary a few weeks later, where he showed it to the folks at Calgary Opera, who had asked him about composing an opera for them. About five years on, Tovey, working with Lillian Alling librettist John Murrell, delivered The Inventor. The show premiered in Calgary in January 2011, and will be given a concert performance this weekend by the original principal soloists and the VSO.
It’s hard not to be astounded by the larger-than-life tale of Sandy Keith (sung by baritone James Westman), nephew of the great brewmaster Alexander Keith. In the mid-1800s, the younger Keith conned his way across four cities and two continents before taking his own life. Tovey’s opera traces Keith’s escapades, starting in Halifax, where he has shady dealings with Confederate sympathizers. After swindling one of his crime associates—Smoot (tenor Roger Honeywell)—Keith escapes to New York with his pregnant lover, Mary (soprano Laura Whalen), and reinvents himself as A.K. Thompson. But when Smoot shows up looking for him, he abandons Mary and runs off to the German immigrant community of Highland, Illinois, renaming himself Thomas William King. There, he marries Cecilia Paris (soprano Erin Wall), against the wishes of her mother, Louise (mezzo-soprano Judith Forst). Soon enough, Keith renames himself William King Thompson, living extravagantly with Cecilia in Dresden, Germany. He schemes to connect a clock to a bundle of dynamite and conceal it in a steamer trunk. But the trunk explodes on the docks of Bremerhaven, killing 80 people, and Keith kills himself.
It’s quite the story, but it also appeals as operatic material, says Tovey. “The fact that he shot himself and took five days to die was one of the things I found attractive about it,” he says with deadpan humour, “but also the fact that he was different people—the chorus kept changing nationalities. One minute they were Canadians, then southerners, then they were New Yorkers, then they were Germans.…There were a lot of things that attracted me from the point of view of colour.”
Tovey, who describes the music as postminimalist, says he used the orchestra as a kind of Greek chorus. “When, for example, he [Sandy Keith] says ‘I’m William King Thompson,’ the orchestra plays the Sandy Keith motive behind it,” he explains. “Sometimes the orchestra can also affirm when the characters are telling the truth. When the wronged woman says ‘Sandy Keith, father of my child’ and she curses him, she uses the same motif to curse him as his name.”
Tovey, who has never written an opera before, is quick to credit his collaborators for their roles in bringing his vision to life. Forst, in particular, he says, had some important suggestions—including the addition of an aria that tied the work together. “I wrote this aria, and as soon as she sang it for me, I knew it had to be in the opera,” he recalls. “Now, when Judy’s character enters the stage, the atmosphere changes, because her character is the only person who sees through him from the word go.”
Forst, who often appears in contemporary roles, says collaborating with composers like Tovey is a thrill. “The very idea of working with a composer is exciting to me,” she says by phone. “It’s taking something that nobody’s done before, and making it come alive.…The first time that you actually hear the orchestration, when it all comes together—oh, my gosh, it’s unbelievable,” she says.
While Tovey says he’s looking forward to conducting the work this weekend, he’s also hopeful that he’ll be able to see it performed by another company in the near future. “The conductor in me wants to assess how well the composer in me has done,” he remarks, smiling. “The composer knows that there’s a reasonable conductor. But the conductor almost doesn’t trust the composer.”
The Vancouver Symphony Orchestra will perform a concert version of Bramwell Tovey’s The Inventor on Saturday and Monday (June 9 and 11).