Having immensely enjoyed our partnership at Tapestry Opera's unique breeding ground for new opera, the Composer-Librettist Laboratory (fondly known as the "Liblab"), composer Anthony Young and I were determined to work together again.
There were a few obstacles.
One: he's a busy composer and I'm a busy whatever the hell I am, and neither of us has the wherewithal to self-produce in this art form. I mean, Canadian opera singers – highly trained thoroughbreds that they are – don't even fall out of bed for less than a grand a week (as I discovered when producing Opera on the Rocks with a group of the most generous opera singers ever, a wonderful experience that was – for many reasons – completely unrepeatable).
Two: unless you are John Cage and Margaret frigging Atwood, virtually no one wants to take a chance on your opera.
Three: Anthony lives in New Zealand. I live in Canada.
Despite the odds, and thanks to the miracles of Dropbox and Skype, we collaborated on two new works in New Zealand, and developed Ulla's Odyssey – a new, full-length, family-friendly opera – through a delightful workshop production of a shortened version by Auckland's Opera Factory, and through the staunch support of Lynda Hill and Toronto's Theatre Direct. But then we hit a dead end. Nobody wanted to pull the trigger and programme our little show.
In order to create a new opera, you must find a company (in a classically-oriented art form) that is not afraid of new rep. You need to tantalize them with the appeal of your partnership and/or your specific project. Furthermore, it is imperative to approach them when you are at the exact right stage of development. Too early (unless you are an international star on whom people are willing to roll the dice) and they can't clearly see the potential of the piece; too late, and they feel artistically uninvolved because you have left them out of key creative decisions... no one in the arts likes to feel that they are simply there to cut you a cheque. You also need to consider the company's production cycle. We thought that an exciting opera for children would be a shoo-in, but the companies we approached either didn't truly value new work for young people, or had something else on the boards or in the pipeline that they were already committed to (and at the major companies, there is only ever one slot for child-friendly work). Meanwhile's the children's theatre companies didn't feel able or willing to tackle the form of opera.
So there we were in 2014, an experienced international composer-librettist team with a full-length score developed in Canada from an award-winning short opera produced in New Zealand... and no takers. But we'd come too far to let it drop. We scoured the Web for possibilities... and found the Flourish New Opera Competition.
We entered; we waited; and on Labour Day weekend, we heard from the organizers: Ulla's Odyssey has been selected for the finals of our competition. First prize means a full production by the renowned OperaUpClose. Please present a 12-minute selection from your score to our panel of senior artists from the opera community, at our public showing on September 21, in the King's Head Theatre Pub.
In London, England.
Anthony was in despair – "We can't afford to go over there! How do we pull off a 12-minute showcase on another continent in less than 3 weeks?" – but I said, wait a sec. You know lots of classical music people; I know lots of musical theatre folk. Let's see what we can do.
In short order, Anthony had assembled three Kiwis in London, including pianist Terence Penk who generously offered to rehearse the company at his flat. Musical theatre dynamos Barb Tomasic (Vancouver) and George Masswohl (Toronto) had helped me hunt down some other prospects. However, we were still missing our Goddess of the Sea. Then Lynda Hill told me about an online casting resource for opera in London. We thought no one of substance would bother with our crap little one-off gig, but decided to take a chance and pop a notice up anyway.
Seventeen seconds later, we had our first response. Then another one five seconds after that. Then... holy shit, the resumés kept rolling in, and they were extraordinary. It made Anthony and I want to write a whole other opera just so we could work with all these incredible artists. Grainne Gillis, whom we eventually cast, told us later: "It was a chance to sing for some very important people in the opera community, so it was a showcase for us, too. Also, a lot of us are hungry for this kind of new work. And you were offering to pay for it. You keep apologising for it not being a lot, but not everyone even makes the gesture."
That was the other thing. Anthony and I decided there was no way we could ask strangers to work for us for free, so we dug into our own pockets to give people at least a token payment for their extremely specialized services. This involved finding out about international transfers: fortunately Terence (whom Anthony knew a little, at least) agreed to be our paymaster to save on fees. It was, like everything else in this process, a running leap of faith, but Anthony and I decided: if we don't bet on ourselves, who else will?
In one week, we had four singers and a pianist, and it was time to rehearse. We could get everyone together for exactly two rehearsals. So, we gathered at Terence's home. Anthony served as musical director, and I directed the performances.... by Skype. (If you are ever tempted to repeat this experiment, you should know that there are now more reliable platforms for teleconferencing with multiple parties: but that was what we could figure out in the time we had.) Rehearsals went as well as one could hope: we had, incredibly, assembled a crack team, and they clearly got (and dug) the material. And so we sent them off, with a few coins in their pocket, to the King's Head Pub for the final adjudication. "Good luck! Tell us how it went!"
That weekend, I was at a little resort in the Okanagan region of BC with my husband. We were recuperating from a gruelling period of work, and we were supposed to be untethering from all electronics, but I had to make an exception for my cell phone: "I'm stage managing this workshop in London, darling..." And thank god, because I got a panicked text: "____ hasn't turned up yet, what do we do?" We figured it out. Then (given the eight-hour time difference) I went to bed. When I woke up, the photo at the head of this article had appeared on my cell phone, with a two-word text: "WE WON!"
I'm so proud of our beautiful production. I'm thrilled with the upcoming UK tour. But this photo, taken two years ago today, is officially now my favourite work photo of all time. Because it reminds me that the round-the-world journey of getting this opera produced was much like that of Ulla herself. Firstly it required someone at the tiller (or, in the case of Anthony and me, two someones) with a big idea, resourcefulness, a dollop of luck, and an ocean of dogged, pig-headed, mulish tenacity. Secondly, it needed many generous and unseen hands working together to float our boat.
Award-winning and successfully produced in both the UK and New Zealand, Ulla's Odyssey is still waiting for its North American début...