Morris Panych and James Rolfe tailor a new Overcoat for Vancouver Opera Festival

The team of librettist and composer find the music in a hit play

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      For the record, there is a new overcoat. When you are reimagining one of the country’s most beloved theatre works as an opera, it’s only fitting to reinvent its central costume piece—the flowing garment that drives the action and leads to one man’s downfall.

      “We thought, symbolically, that we should build a new coat,” reveals Morris Panych, the director and cocreator of the original, wordless movement play, The Overcoat, and now the librettist for The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring. Speaking to the Straight from Toronto, where the celebrated playwright now lives with his partner in life and art, set designer Ken MacDonald, he explains it’s only right to treat the opera as its own entity—a fact that came into focus as the piece premiered at the Canadian Stage’s Bluma Appel Theatre this month.

      “A lot of the original Toronto cast came to see it and they loved it,” the former Vancouverite says. “What existed existed; you can’t make that go away. If people don’t like it, I hope they don’t like it for its own sake and not because it didn’t come up to the old one’s standards. I have a vision for this opera that goes beyond this country, and a lot of people beyond Canada didn’t see the original.”

      Panych likens adapting The Overcoat, itself adapted from Nikolai Gogol’s 1842 short story, to “turning it inside out” to become an opera. Out of the wordless silent-movie-like play come lyrics; out of a stylized movement piece once set to a recorded Dmitri Shostakovich soundtrack comes an opera set to an original score by Canadian composer James Rolfe.

      For his part, Panych, well-known for works like Vigil and 7 Stories, says he thought The Overcoat was long done. After premiering here at the Vancouver Playhouse in 1998, it had toured Canada and seen several mountings, eventually becoming a 2001 TV movie.

      “To put it together with that group of people was a very personal thing,” he recalls of the work that he created with physical-theatre expert Wendy Gorling, and that starred Peter Anderson as the antihero. “And Peter was really integral to that process. So I kind of put it on the back burner.”

      But during a 2014 workshop at Toronto’s Tapestry Opera that paired librettists with a rotating group of composers, he started to seriously consider The Overcoat’s possibilities for the sung-through form. “It has all the elements: comedy, tragedy, drama, a great main character,” he says.

      Panych says this even though he openly admits to reservations about opera. The acerbic but good-humoured artist says he’s seen some good opera and “so much shitty opera”. Even at the Tapestry workshop, he describes himself as the odd man out: “I didn’t get opera, I didn’t get new music, I didn’t get atonal sounds. I kept challenging the composers to come up with a song,” he says with a mordant laugh. (Don’t be entirely fooled: Panych is well-acquainted with opera; he directed a smashing Barber of Seville at Pacific Opera Victoria in 2016, for instance.)

      To create the musical rendering of The Overcoat, Morris Panych adapted his own play of the same name.

      For this workshop, Panych went back to the Russian source material and came up with a libretto for Rolfe to put to music. As they developed it further, Panych drew on Gogol’s story to alter some of the play’s scenes to better suit an operatic cast reduced to 11 from the original’s 22; a grand ball became a card game, for example.

      In a separate phone interview, the Toronto-based composer explains that the physicality of The Overcoat’s language provided immediate inspiration. “Music loves to move. Anything that has a dance impulse to it is fun to write,” says Rolfe, who has penned the music for other operatic projects, like the Nova Scotia–set Beatrice Chancy and the fado-spiked Inês. “When he came up with the original libretto, he was sure to build in a strong driving rhythm to the words as well.…He wants people to hear the words.”

      Rolfe had long heard about Panych and Gorling’s original Overcoat, but never saw it—something that turned out to be a boon.

      The physical momentum that runs through the story’s multiple scenes means The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring doesn’t have traditional, extended arias, he explains. “The most operatic thing about it would be the opera singers, but there aren’t that many moments where you would say ‘Ah! That’s opera!’ ”

      Fittingly, the production will be taking place in a more intimate venue than the art form’s usual 2,000-plus seaters—a scale, Rolfe hints, that might offer new possibilities for the performing arts’ priciest discipline. “In some respects I’ve much preferred working in these smaller spaces, and having an opera performed a few feet away from you. Something like this, the Playhouse, at 800 seats, is a good way to show contemporary opera to Canadian audiences.”

      For all the departures, including a new lead (baritone Geoffrey Sirett), there are some clear ties to the old Overcoat. While Panych directs, Gorling is overseeing the choreography, and two of the original’s most physical actors, Colin Heath and Courtenay Stevens (who have since worked for Cirque du Soleil), will join the ensemble. “They’ve really brought a certain muscle to the show,” Panych says of a production that will clearly not be park-and-bark opera.

      Even though The Overcoat has taken a radically new form, Panych, who has staged many other works in the intervening years, still carries a fondness for the original play he created from scratch with his friends. It speaks to an era when Vancouver artists seemed able to make something magical out of thin air, a time long before Panych and MacDonald, and others, followed work to the Shaw and Stratford festivals.

      “My fondest memory of The Overcoat, and this is only in retrospect, was the day we started rehearsal and I came in and I played all the [Shostakovich] music, and I said, ‘Okay, we’re starting. We have nothing,’ ” he says. “And everyone turned white. I said, ‘We got three weeks!’ And it was the most intense moment.”

      Returning here for the second annual Vancouver Opera Festival, which cocommissioned it to showcase its Russian White Nights theme this year, is bringing all his longing for the West Coast back to the surface. “All of the associations are there, and all of our development,” says Panych, who will return here again with his play The Shoplifters next February at the Arts Club. “And it couldn’t be more perfect being in the Playhouse.”

      Vancouver Opera Festival presents The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring at the Vancouver Playhouse on April 28 and 29 and May 2, 4 to 6, and 9 to 12.