Nfld. & Labrador

Opera on the Avalon honours Beaumont-Hamel and the man who helped bury the dead

It's five years in the making but Opera on the Avalon's Ours will make its premiere on July 1.

Ours, the story of Father Thomas Nangle comes to life, after five years in the making

The two-act opera will run for two nights only in St. John's. (Jeremy Eaton )

It has been five years in the making and has needed more than 250 people to get it on stage, but Opera on the Avalon's Ours will make its premiere on July 1.

"It features some of most renowned opera singers in Canada," Opera on the Avalon's artistic director Cheryl Hickman says.

"I think it's really important that we get it right for every Newfoundlander and Labradorian," says Opera on the Avalon's Cheryl Hickman. (Meghan McCabe)

"It's an opera written by John Estacio, who is probably our most famous living composer in Canada, as well as our own Robert Chafe, who wrote the story."

Father Nangle's story is an incredible one, but so few of us knew it.- Robert Chafe

Ours tells the story of Catholic priest Thomas Nangle and his roll in helping locate and bury those who died in Beaumont-Hamel.

"He exhumed the bodies. He's the one who wrote to all the loved ones and families about where their loved ones were, where they were buried," Hickman said.

Opera on the Avalon hopes Ours will revive the story and work of Father Thomas Nangle. (CBC )

"He really gave the families comfort and peace, but sadly he left Newfoundland. The trauma of dealing with everything he had dealt with in the war was too and he never returned."

Five years ago, Opera on the Avalon reached out to award-winning playwright Chafe to help them write a story for their 100th Anniversary of Beaumont-Hamel show.

After reading Gary Browne and Darrin McGrath's Soldier Priest: In the Killing Fields of Europe, Chafe knew that he found a story fitting of the opera.

Playwright Robert Chafe wrote the story for Ours. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

"As soon as I read it, I said this is the story Newfoundland needs to know," Chafe said.

"Father Nangle's story is an incredible one, but so few of us knew it."

Chafe travelled to Beaumont-Hamel for inspiration and later met with Nangle's son Hugh to help put together the story for Ours.

Hugh Nangle is now planning to be in St. John's for the commemoration ceremonies and to watch Ours.

Along with locating, burying and contacting the loved ones of the fallen, Nangle's work continued with his efforts focused on making sure Newfoundlanders and Labradorians never forget what happened during the First World War.

"He established, almost single-handedly, the five memorial parks — including Beaumont-Hamel," said Chafe.

Opera on the Avalon's Ours debuts July 1 at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John's. (Jeremy Eaton )

"He negotiated with over 250 French farmers to secure that land, secure the political and financial ability to buy that land and to establish the park."

With his work in Europe done, Nangle returned home but didn't stay long. Chafe hopes this play will revive his contribution to the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

"I'm very, very proud of what we have come up with. It honours the Regiment, it honours Father Nangle's incredible accomplishment and I'm hoping it's going to be a very valuable piece to the people that see it."

Ours opens on Friday, July 1 and will run for for just two nights. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jeremy Eaton is a reporter and videojournalist with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador.

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