Tuesday, August 15th those of us in the Tuckamore Festival audience in St. John's were given the opportunity to hear composer Alice Ping Yee Ho in a Q&A session with Bekah Simms, which was followed by the world premier of Ho's Your Daughter Fanny and Christopher Hall's "updated" version of Saint Saens' Carnival of the Animals. Aptly named, "The Great War, Words and Whimsy" the evening was an introduction to the composer's juggling act of the commissioning process. Interviewer Bekah Simms systematically took us through the composer's inspiration and her key relationships with our province and the talents of Duo Concertante, soprano Caroline Schiller, who commissioned the operatic work, and the original letters of Great War nurse Fanny that are the basis for Lisa Moore's libretto. Ho's accessible answers were further enriched by the participation of archivist Burt Riggs from the audience, who co-authored with Bill Rompkey a published collection of Fanny Cluett's wartime letters. Jackpot!
The intimacy of Fanny's letters and the epic historical events that they span could have easily warranted a full-blown opera. Instead, Ho's version is a 45-minute word drama that maximizes the strengths of Schiller as a soloist who alternately acts and sings, richly supported by Nancy Dahn on violin and Timothy Steeves on piano. All three were in historically appropriate costume and there was a minimum of props against a backdrop of projected photographs and letters. It is a lean production that would lend itself to touring.
Fortunately for me, I had a direct line of vision with the screen and found myself often following along with the lyrics that mirrored the flowing cursive text of the letters. Ho's musical manipulations brought out the poetry of the text as well as its frankness. A simple phrase like "blood and mud" took on a haunting quality in Schiller's soaring soprano. Some audience members who did not have the advantage of a clear view of the screen commented that projected sub or super titles, as is the convention in some opera houses, would have been useful while others would have preferred to have the text in their programs.
Saint Saens composed Carnival of the Animals in 1886, Ogden Nash wrote the humorous verses in 1949 and comedian, clarinetist and narrator Christopher Hall presented his 2017 updated version– infused with irreverent local content that likened Councillor Danny Breen to a creeping turtle and transformed contender Andy Wells from hairy man to hare. The audience ate it up. Hall's light spirits were infectious and the ten string, wind and percussion musicians on stage turned the Carnival into an all-out musical romp.
From the heart felt insights into the Great War to the lighthearted animal antics of the Carnival, it was evening where text and music married.