Opera for a Sex Goddess – June 12, 2010

Opera for a sex goddess
by Kevin Bazzana, The Times Colonist, June 12, 2010

The creation of a new opera, a big deal even in a major musical centre, counts as a very big deal in a moderate-sized city like Victoria, especially when the stature of the artists involved, and the subject, guarantee it will attract international attention.

Such is the case with Anyone Can See I Love You, an opera in development here. The libretto is by Marilyn Bowering, who lives in Sooke. The music is by Gavin Bryars, who is based in his native England but has spent part of each year in Metchosin since meeting his wife here 12 years ago. And the subject is an imperishable icon of 20th-century popular culture: Marilyn Monroe.

The opera was commissioned by the Aventa Ensemble, a widely admired local chamber orchestra devoted to contemporary music, founded in 2003 (and still directed) by the percussionist and conductor Bill Linwood. Ambitious and adventurous, Aventa has premièred more than 50 works over the years, but Anyone Can See I Love You is its first operatic commission. Funding for the project, whose total cost could easily reach $250,000, is coming from various foundations and government sources.

The opera, according to Bowering, explores the tragic arc of Monroe’s life and her “intellectual and emotional relationship to death and love,” through the prism of her relationships with men, particularly her three husbands. Bowering, a much-honoured poet and novelist, has also written for radio, stage and film, but this is her first operatic venture (she says she is “a longtime lover of opera”). The libretto is based on a collection of poems of the same title, written in Monroe’s voice, that Bowering published in 1987 and that she has already used as the basis for a radio play and a theatre piece.

The Monroe poems immediately came up when Bryars and Linwood first began discussing the possibility of a new opera, about five years ago. (Bryars and Bowering are old friends, and he set a text of hers as a song in 2002.) Bryars admired the original poems as well as the “terrific” radio play, which included popular songs associated with Monroe — one of them being Anyone Can See I Love You, which she sang in the 1948 movie Ladies of the Chorus. Bryars says that his music for the opera will include references to such songs, and will be built around a “nucleus of jazz.”

Bryars enjoys contributing to interdisciplinary projects, and his omnivorousness and versatility as a composer make him open to collaborating with artists in many fields: classical, avant-garde, jazz, folk and pop musicians, symphony orchestras and early-music ensembles, theatre and dance companies, visual artists, filmmakers. He already has three operas to his credit: Medea, after Euripides; Doctor Ox’s Experiment, after Jules Verne’s novella; and G, about Johannes Gutenberg.

Anyone Can See I Love You will be an intimate chamber opera, with a female singer as Monroe, one or more male singers representing the men in her life, perhaps a chorus and about a dozen instrumentalists (including a jazz trio). But all this is still tentative, as the opera is in its infancy; the libretto is not finished, and Bryars has been working on the score only for a few weeks.

The project has just taken a big step forward, however. For more than a week, the opera has been the focus of a workshop at the Banff Centre, as part of the Banff Summer Arts Festival. More than 20 people have participated in it, including Bryars, Bowering, Linwood, members of the Aventa Ensemble, the young Canadian operatic director Joel Ivany, the English baritone Richard Morris and Eivør Pálsdóttir, a striking 26-year-old singer-songwriter from the Faroe Islands, for whom the lead role is being written. (Bryars worked with her in the Faroes in 2008.)

Rooted in traditional Faroese music but also classically trained, Eivør (she goes by her first name) is unclassifiable in the best sense — you can hear her on YouTube in everything from folk songs to works with orchestra to Stand by Your Man.

The Banff workshop will culminate this evening in An Evening With Gavin Bryars, a sold-out concert that will include staged performances of several scenes from the opera, with Bryars joining the orchestra on the double bass. (His initial renown, in the early 1960s, was as a jazz bassist.)

The première of Anyone Can See I Love You, tentatively scheduled for early 2012, will probably take place in Victoria (perhaps Vancouver), but the work will not remain a local phenomenon for long, given that Bryars is among the most celebrated and popular composers working today. (Recordings of his best-known works, like Jesus’s Blood Never Failed Me Yet, have sold in the hundreds of thousands ) Already generating interest from major musical organizations in North America and England, the new opera is sure to enjoy a long and widespread career.

Stay tuned.