Opera telling story of HMHS Llandovery Castle premieres in Waterloo

Opera Laurier is staging a new opera about the HMHS Llandovery Castle, a Canadian hospital ship that was torpedoed in the First World War.

Three performances in Waterloo this weekend

Opera Laurier will be performing the 'Llandovery Castle,' an opera about a Canadian hospital ship by that name that was torpedoed in the First World War. (Kaela Bosch/@kaelaboschcaptures)

An often-forgotten story of nurses who were killed when their ship was torpedoed by the Germans in the First World War gets its world premiere as a fully staged operatic production in Waterloo this weekend.

The Llandovery Castle was composed by Stephanie Martin, a York University associate professor who received her bachelor of music from Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo.

Opera Laurier will be the first to perform a fully staged version of the new opera.

The HMHS Llandovery Castle was a Canadian military hospital ship in the First World War. It was hit by a torpedo from the German submarine U-86 off the coast of Ireland, the Canadian War Museum's website says. The sub also rammed the ship's lifeboats and gunned down survivors in the water.

Of the 234 people who died, 14 were Canadian nurses. Only 24 people survived.

Martin worked with librettist Paul Ciufo to create the opera.

"I always wanted to write an opera," Martin said. "I was actively seeking for a story to base an opera on. And I didn't necessarily want to go back to some of the traditional themes of opera, like mythology or the woman who dies at the end, although my opera does involve that."

She says the story of the Llandovery Castle "is a fantastic dramatic story that needs to be told. And since it involves a woman's perspective on that conflict, that really captured my attention."

The sinking of the Llandovery Castle was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of the First World War. (NS Archives)

Full sets, costumes and lighting

Glen Carruthers, the dean of the faculty of music at Laurier, said in a release they were honoured that Martin chose Opera Laurier to perform this work.

"We are especially excited this year that we are not only premiering a new opera by an important composer, but that the composer is a Laurier alumna," Carruthers said.

The opera has been preformed before; in Toronto in 2018 for the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. Those were workshop performances, Martin says, which looked more like a concert.

This weekend's performances in Waterloo will have full sets, costumes and lighting.

Martin hasn't been involved in this production, but plans to be in the audience for all three performances this weekend and she's excited to see what Opera Laurier does with her work.

"We place our creation in the hands of skilled people," she said. "They recreate it every time it's performed, so the composer really has to release their creation into the world and one of the rewarding things is that you can see a dramatic work like an opera reinterpreted in many different ways."

Three performances

The Llandovery Castle is directed by Liza Balkan and conducted by associate professor Kira Omelchenko. It will feature nine singers and a chamber orchestra, all Laurier students.

There are three performances: Friday and Saturday evening at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. All three performances will be in the school's theatre auditorium in the John Aird Centre. Tickets can be purchased online.

Listen to an extended interview with composer Stephanie Martin:


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