“Surprise me, amuse me, shake me,” croons a jaded-looking Alessandro Juliani as a chorus circles around him, literally singing his praises with lines like “he’s fucking gorgeous” and “catch of the century”. They carry in a couch, and an uncle, played by Andrew Wheeler, lies down on it just in time to expire. Upstage, Juliani looks unmoved as he tosses out the line “I take care of my health,” before raising a flask in a toast to the dead man and taking a swig.
The song, “3 Horses”, introduces us to the title character in Onegin, a new musical by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille. Russian audiences were so familiar with the eponymous hero of Aleksandr Pushkin’s early-19th-century verse novel that no introduction was needed in Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s 1879 opera adaptation. For Vancouver audiences, the song serves as a melodic and colourful calling card for a man who has everything but doesn’t give a damn about much.
This source material is a big departure for Gladstone and Hille, whose last collaboration, Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, was based on the text of online personal ads. It’s a welcome change in direction that has challenged them as artists.
“Craigslist was so much about the search for connection, but it doesn’t ever get consummated,” observes Gladstone, as he and Hille take a break from rehearsal at the new BMO Theatre Centre. This time, he says, “we wanted something where we could see the next step in love.” Gladstone had assisted on a Vancouver Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin in 2008 and recalled thinking that the text could use an update. “We’ve been living in fear for three years that someone else was going to do it,” says Hille, who notes that the character seems always to have a life somewhere—even on Twitter.
While some of Hille’s songs subtly reference Tchaikovsky, audiences don’t need to know the sources to relate to the play’s themes, romantic love foremost among them. Says Gladstone, “The poem is about the Russian character, about a sense of self, and about so many things that we can’t necessarily deal with in the same way, so we just really concentrated on the characters and the love stories.”
The central love stories in the play, which is performed by a cast of seven, are intertwined. Onegin’s friend Lensky is engaged to Olga. When he invites Onegin to meet her, Olga’s sister, Tatyana, is immediately smitten, and pours her heart out to Onegin in a letter. He gently rejects her, insisting that he’s not the type to settle down, then flirts publicly with Olga, which prompts Lensky to challenge him to a duel. Things go downhill from there.
The story’s Big Feelings pose a challenge for the creators, both minimalists who eschew sentimentality. “We were pushing ourselves a bit,” says Gladstone. “I feel like, because of our own sensibilities, we often get afraid when it feels too grand and overdone.”
Hille concurs: “I feel like I’ve been drying my aesthetic,” she notes. “I like it to be really simple. So to go the other way felt really great, to just write songs that are over-the-top, big, big songs.”
One of those is “The Letter Song”, in which Tatyana reveals her love for Onegin. Hille found it hard, at first, to access Tatyana’s feelings. “In my first pass, I was judging her. I was like, ‘Oh, you fool,’ and I wrote it like that,” Hille remembers. “And that was no good, right? So I had to get in there and believe it was possible again.
“I’ve been married for 17 years now, and love is a different thing at this stage in my life,” she continues. “So I had to go back to when love was that hit-you-over-the-head thing and feel those feelings.” In doing so, she made some surprising discoveries. “I realized that this story parallels one of my own great love experiences. It was actually a love story from my past that I had considered writing an opera about, and I guess this is it.”
Gladstone relates to the themes from a different angle. “As someone in my 40s who’s not married, I feel like I understand that search for meaning and excitement,” he says. “I love travelling, but at a certain point, I’m in the city for about four weeks and then I wish the scenery outside the windows was moving—so there’s a restlessness that I understand.”
“So you’re Evgeny [Onegin] and I’m Tatyana,” Hille observes.
Fortunately, their creative relationship is less doomed than Onegin and Tatyana’s romantic one. The pair have an obvious ease in working together, often filling in each other’s thoughts during our conversation, and they plan to collaborate again. Still, Hille was initially reluctant to commit to Onegin when Gladstone pitched the idea in 2013. But that summer, shortly after arriving in Berlin for a writer’s residency, she got a sign from the universe: “I’m just sort of feeling out the neighbourhood,” she recalls, “and I go out of the studio and around the corner and there’s a restaurant called Onegin. I just thought, ‘Shit, I’m doing it!’ ”
Onegin takes the Goldcorp Stage at the BMO Theatre Centre from Thursday (March 17) to April 10.