CBC Digital Archives

'The Golden Ass' - a Canadian opera

Since the Canadian Opera Company's inaugural eight-day season in 1950, the company has introduced some of the world's greatest singers, commissioned works by Canadian composers and librettists and devised innovative ways of attracting audiences. From that very first performance to the long-awaited opening of a new home at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, CBC Digital Archives goes backstage with the Canadian Opera Company.

It was the last thing Canadian novelist Robertson Davies wrote before his death in 1995: the libretto, or words, for an opera called The Golden Ass. On the day of the premier of the opera four years later, composer Randolph Peters and conductor Richard Bradshaw sit down with CBC Radio's Eleanor Wachtel to talk about how Davies became involved, and the intricate relationship between libretto and music in an opera. 
• Randolph Peters was already a great fan of Robertson Davies when he was approached about composing the opera. He loved the libretto written by Davies, saying in this interview that "Good text is not intimidating; it actually fosters creativity." In their only meeting to discuss the opera before the death of Davies, Peters was able to ask questions whose answers guided him in the years to come. He even asked Davies how the donkey should sound and Davies obliged by braying for him.
  • Davies had been hoping to have Leonard Bernstein compose the music. Bernstein was not available, and Davies selected Randolph on the basis of a "blind tasting" in which he listened to musical settings of selections from the libretto by various unidentified composers.

• The Canadian Opera Company production of the Golden Ass included dancers from the Cirque du Soleil.

• The first Canadian work in the COC's repertoire was produced in 1966. It was Deirdre of the Sorrows, composed by Healey Willan with libretto by John Coulter. Deirdre was originally commissioned by the CBC and was first performed on CBC Radio in 1946.

• For Canada's Centennial year, the COC commissioned two operas from Canadian composers and librettists on Canadian themes. Harry Somers (music) and Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand (libretto) created Louis Riel based on the Métis rebellions of the late 19th century. Raymond Pannell and Ronald Hambelton created an opera based on novelist Brian Moore's The Luck of Ginger Coffey, set in Montreal. Both operas premiered at the O'Keefe Centre in Toronto in September of 1967.

• The Canadian Opera Company Composers-in-Residence program was established in 1987 with the goal of fostering young Canadian composers. The program has resulted in the production of several full Canadian operas including The Brothers Grimm by Dean Burry, Heloise and Abelard (1973, Wilson/Benson), The Golden Ass (1999, Peters/Davies) and Swoon (2006, Rolfe/Chatterton).

• On the question of writing a libretto, Margaret Atwood said in a CBC-TV interview: "The librettist is only just a kind of a coat hanger on which everything else is applied. Librettists write the bare bones of something and the real stuff is the music; the music and the stage presentation." Atwood has herself been commissioned by the Vancouver City Opera to write a libretto on the life of 19th-century Canadian poet and performer Pauline Johnson (music by Christos Hatzis). Atwood's novel The Handmaid's Tale was the basis of an opera by Danish composer Paul Ruders. It was commissioned by the Danish Royal Opera and premiered in Copenhagen on Mar. 6, 2000. The Canadian Opera Company presented it to wide acclaim in 2004.

Medium: Radio
Program: The Arts Today
Broadcast Date: April 13, 1994
Guest(s): Richard Bradshaw, Randolph Peters
Host: Eleanor Wachtel
Duration: 13:40

Last updated: June 26, 2013

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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