Lillian Alling's epic trek

It’s a long journey to put a new Canadian opera on-stage, and it’s rare to premiere one this large-scale—or this shrouded in mystery

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      Canadian soprano Frédérique Vézina knew that taking on the role of Lillian Alling in the world premiere of a large-scale opera would bring some challenges. What she didn’t predict was that it would be such a gruelling physical workout.

      Then again, Lillian Alling is no typical opera. It’s based around the true story of a Russian immigrant who arrives at New York City’s Ellis Island in the 1920s, and then, for reasons that are unclear today, crosses the continent on foot in an attempt to get back to her home country. By the time she reaches the late stages of her 4,000-kilometre-plus journey, she’s traversing B.C., with a stint in Oakalla Prison Farm and a trek through the treacherous wilds of Telegraph Trail between Quesnel and Hazelton.

      “Lillian is very driven and she never stops, so I’m in every scene. I think I’m going to lose a few pounds,” says the Québécois singer with a smile, speaking to the Straight over a latte at a downtown café before morning rehearsals start at nearby Holy Rosary Cathedral. “It’s much more physical than other roles. Lillian Alling is a woman on a mission. We have a set with all these levels that I have to climb. I call it my StairMaster set.”

      Alling’s seemingly impossible, brutally arduous journey is a perfect metaphor for the process of getting this production about her trip staged. The Vancouver Opera commissioned it three years ago from the Alberta-based writing team of librettist and respected playwright John Murrell and composer John Estacio, and the company finally premieres it this Saturday (October 16) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, with subsequent performances October 19, 21, and 23. New, full-scale Canadian operas are few and far between, and speaking to the players in this project, you get the sense that everyone is keenly focused on an epic task—one that’s shrouded in the same mystery as the woman at the centre of the story.

      Vézina, a rising star who earned raves as Mimi in Vancouver Opera’s La Bohème two seasons ago, admits the occasion is such a rarity that, as a young vocal student in Montreal, she never even considered the possibility that composers would write new operas—or that she might eventually star in one. Actually, she’s gone on to star in a few, including The Handmaid’s Tale at the Canadian Opera Company, and Murrell and Estacio’s own Filumena at the National Arts Centre.

      “With traditional roles, there’s a lot to live up to—you’re kind of compared to others. But with something new, there’s even more pressure, because you really want to do your best to fulfill the vision that the librettist and composer had,” says Vézina, who admits she’s a “woman on a mission” herself, taking on this role while she has a nine-month-old baby. “You realize all of the passion that went into it. And then there’s the determination of the company and the producers, all these people for three years, probably even longer, and to finally see the result—it’s this huge path.”

      Lillian Alling had its genesis about four years ago, when Murrell and Estacio saw all the elements of great opera in the story. They had collected bits of history on Alling and wanted to find more.

      “As anyone does who looks into the life of Lillian Alling, we hit a brick wall—well, I guess two,” explains Murrell, speaking to the Straight in a phone call from his Vancouver hotel suite. “One, we only know what she told people, and that’s not a lot and sometimes contradictory. And two, less than two years of her life are historically documented at all—her time in B.C. and the Yukon.

      “So we figured out quite early on that we were going to have to discover what happened in her early life and later life—or invent it.”

      This much was known: in the early 1920s, Alling arrived at Ellis Island, but for whatever reason, the penniless immigrant decided to hike back to her home country, with sightings in places like North Dakota and Atlin, B.C., over the next three years. For the winter of 1927 she was jailed at Oakalla, either for vagrancy or to keep her from trekking on in the cold; when spring came, she headed up through the Telegraph Trail en route to the Yukon. She was said to tote a small backpack and carry an iron pipe for protection. No one knows what happened to her or what drove her on her obsessive quest.

      Still, Murrell, who has written the operas Filumena and Frobisher with Estacio, saw all the potential of a new classic.

      “For opera, there has to be something exotic in the story that seems larger than life and calls for music to enlarge our emotional understanding of a character’s adventure,” Murrell explains. “And it can’t just be told with words. At the same time, it has to be universally recognizable and has to have accessible human things about the story.”

      Murrell and Estacio found all the exoticism that they could want in Alling’s journey. In the opera, she arrives in New York looking for a man she loved named Jozèf, then decides to track him, by foot, across the continent.

      Murrell sees the fact that she’s betrothed to a man, and follows him to no avail, as a true immigrant’s story. “It’s about being a stranger in a strange land,” he says. “But I also feel her determination to take that journey on her own terms, and alone, is probably something we can all relate to.”

      Murrell decided to frame the story in flashback, from the 1980s, as a man named Jimmy drives his mother, Irene, from her cabin in B.C.’s Interior to a care facility in Vancouver. Irene met Alling once, in the ’20s, and begins recounting her story to her son. “With Irene and her son, there’s her struggle to hang on to what her life has been, moving from the B.C. forest into the city,” Murrell says. “When things are taken away from us, how much of us is left?”

      Vezina feels the resulting opera has no gaps in the story; it provides her character all the motivation she needs to trek across the continent. The details of the dark secret Murrell has written, however, are purposely being left mysterious, so that the audience can discover them during the opera.

      “There’s one scene, especially, in this opera that rips your heart out,” Vézina offers tantalizingly.

      Vancouver Opera has upped the spectacle of the production by layering images—both photographic and video-based—over a jaggedy-stepped set. The projections depict everything from rocky rivers seemingly gushing over the stage to the narrow brick streets of old Brooklyn (see story below). The score flows with sweeping, multilayered orchestrations and choral crescendos that almost cinematically evoke the old West. “There’s a lot of emotion to the music and a lot of the landscape,” Vézina says.

      The result will be a multisensory feast, with 60 orchestra members and 40 chorus singers. Opera companies in this country frequently experiment with smaller-scale chamber operas, but few dare to mount something this ambitious.

      “It’s to create a national profile for our opera,” Murrell says. “We need operas that are comparable with a lot of the historical existing operas that get produced all the time.”

      The question that remains is: will audiences enjoy Lillian Alling as much as they do the large-scale traditional operas? Can Canada come up with its own Madama Butterfly?

      “How often do you get to see a Canadian opera?” Vézina asks. “They can expect to see a real opera with blood and tears.”