Composer David MacIntyre reimagines Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famed sonnets as an opera cabaret
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous love poems to her husband, Robert Browning, were published over 150 years ago. Even so, composer David MacIntyre calls them “the first blog.”
MacIntyre, who has set Barrett Browning’s 44 Sonnets from the Portuguese as an “opera cabaret,” Love in Public, premiering April 19 to 29 at the Fei and Milton Wong Expiermental Theatre at SFU Woodwards, explains over a telephone chat with the Straight: “When she published them, she was putting them out in public for everyone to see,” he notes. Having written the first draft of the music over 10 years ago, in 2001, the composer witnessed the rise of the internet confessional while he workshopped the piece in the following years.
“People were pouring their innermost private thoughts out in blogs. So I saw this as the first blog,” he observes. “So these [poems] are completely, totally relevant. People will understand exactly what they are, and what they mean, and why they’re here.”
For Love in Public, MacIntyre has cast four singers—soprano Robyn Driedger-Klassen; mezzo-soprano Megan Morrison; tenor Frederik Robert; and baritone Warren Kimmel—who appear as a number of different couples, singing the sonnets to a piano accompaniment provided by David Boothroyd.
“What I’ve done is…used only the text of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and sort of fused highbrow meets lowbrow,” MacIntyre explains. “It’s all sung, but there is a kind of presentational style that comes into play. So we have three or four love affairs going on onstage at any given time. The idea is to have all of these actors take on various parts of Elizabeth’s way of thinking.”
And, true to the ways of love in the oversharing time of Facebook, MacIntyre insists the audience is as much a participant in the action as the performers. “What we have is various people playing different characters, and we don’t have to know who they are,” he notes. “They’re just people, couples, and we’re all implicated in this discussion of love in public, because we’re in a three-quarter round [theatre]… We’re all implicated in this because you have audience members across the way looking at the same thing you’re looking at. You’re seeing them, they’re seeing us, and we’re all talking about this same thing, which is love in public.”
If he comes across as a bit of a romantic, MacIntyre is the first to admit it. “I’m a happily married man for 20 years, so my wife was very much an inspiration,” he says, endearingly. “You’ve got to experience this stuff to do it. I don’t think I could do it with any authenticity if I hadn’t experienced it myself. So I think just about anybody who’s been in love will understand what this is about.”
And if your relationship status currently reads, “It’s complicated,” MacIntyre insists the performance will still strike a nerve. “This show isn’t just about perfect love. It’s about beautiful love, but also the fact that our hearts get broken in love.”