Mishka Lavigne: Librettist to Tim Brady’s Information

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On the heels of Backstage at Carnegie Hall, composer Tim Brady pursues his journey into the world of opera with Information, the second instalment in a cycle of four entitled Hope. The composer has partnered with a new librettist, Franco-Ontarian playwright Mishka Lavigne, who makes her debut in this capacity. What follows are some personal insights from a woman dedicated to the world of theatre, who is interested in contemporary music.

Tim Brady (Photo provided)

Winner of a Governor General’s prize for literature, and the 2021 Prix littéraire Jacques-Poirier for her play Copeaux (to name but two of her many awards), Lavigne remembers her first encounter with the composer. It was on a snowy winter day in 2018—at the time, there were no strong indications that the project would go beyond those initial stages. Paul Lefebvre, another member of the Centre des auteurs dramatiques (CEAD), served as the intermediary.

“Tim did not want to have a translator for the libretto, he wanted to have a person fluent enough to write in both languages,” Lavigne recalls. “Paul gave him my name because of my experience of writing plays in French and English, and my ability to translate one way or the other. I thought I would be suited to the task.”

First Trials

By the fall of 2020, Brady had received a draft with which to start writing his score. Most of the libretto had been written throughout that year. Lavigne admits there were plenty of adjustments made along the way, with rewrites in script and score alike, including deletions of complete sentences, and repetitions of others to stress certain passages. Hiring Anne-Marie Donovan as stage director was the next step taken in the creative process, a move that resulted in a test run of the production in 2021. It was all but 12 minutes long. “I really did not know what to expect,” Lavigne admits. “All the participants wore masks, which gave it the look of a rather strange lab, but I was ready to be surprised. It’s contemporary opera, with sounds audiences are not used to, like that of an electric guitar accompanying operatic singing. Honestly, I was not taken aback by it, I was pleased. At that point, I began looking forward to seeing how it would all come together.”

Baritone Pierre Rancourt and mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau in conversation (Photo provided)

At the time, Brady was writing a concerto for 100 guitars. “That was so fascinating to me,” says Lavigne. “Then, in February of last year, I attended the première of his violin concerto at the Maison symphonique, played by the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. That drew me into the world of contemporary music. It’s not my area of expertise at all, so it was like discovering something for the first time. I very much enjoyed the experience of writing the libretto—not only the writing, but the whole process involved—and would surely do it again, if asked.”

Lavigne draws a parallel here between the work of a librettist and that of a playwright: “The process is similar when working with actors in a workshop situation, where you sit around a table with them and talk about the script, rewrite certain things to develop the story and raise questions, working to improve the quality of the lines. This can take a few months of work before a production is ready to go, as is the case with a musical work. There were many changes made after the initial run. These weren’t major changes, but they were significant enough between that time and the actual rehearsals that took place last December.”

Of the five singers present at the 2021 workshop, two will participate in the two-night run on April 27 and 28 at the Espace Orange of the Wilder Building. Soprano Jacqueline Woodley and mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau will share the bill with tenor David Menzies and baritones Pierre Rancourt and Clayton Kennedy.

Director Anne-Marie Donovan with the five soloists in the production. From left to right: Pierre Rancourt, Marie-Annick Béliveau, David Menzies, Clayton Kennedy, Jacqueline Woodley (Photo provided)


Some characters are anglophone, others francophone, but all of them understand each other despite their linguistic differences. “The story takes place in an imaginary newsroom,” says Lavigne. “Two French and two English dailies share a floor in an office building, where employees of both meet and talk to each other.”

The story unfolds during the October Crisis of 1970, marred by violence, bombings and the kidnapping of prominent officials. Lavigne did her research on the turmoil of the era by combing through newspapers in both languages and noticing the different slants of the coverage. The French media, for its part, had the Front de Libération du Québec front and centre, delving into its organization and political agenda; the English press, in contrast, was more preoccupied by the booby-trapped mailboxes, especially those in Westmount. “My father’s family lived in the Eastern Townships,” says Lavigne, “and my mother’s in the Ottawa-Gatineau area, so the story was not as present in the news as it was in Montreal. I had a general understanding of the whole thing, but it became more interesting to me when I was reading daily reports that revealed unknown facts to me, or I had simply not noticed.”

Monteal, ca. 1967

These events serve as a backdrop for the story of the opera, which revolves around a man and woman dealing with their own existential crises. “The human factor is always at the heart of my writing,” says Lavigne, “and I told Tim that right from the start. He gave me the freedom to pursue those kind of themes. On the one hand, you have Mary, an anglophone journalist setting foot into a newsroom for the first time. Being young, she wants to prove herself. She confidently takes on new responsibilities, but is met by disapproval from others, simply because of who she is and the attitudes prevailing at the time.”

Sylvain, a French newspaperman, is the opposite of his counterpart according to the librettist: “He’s close to retirement, thinking he’s done his time, and that he’ll have to make way for others. He realizes that he may have missed out on something in life for having invested so much of his time into his work over the years. He talks of not having seen his daughters really grow up just because he was always so busy chasing one news story after the other. As different as they are, Mary and Sylvain are both deeply committed to their job, which they believe to be a necessary quality of contemporary social and economic life.”

The third character of the plot is the time traveller, present in Backstage and due to return in the final instalment of the cycle. “In that first opera,” says Lavigne, “a mystical being accompanied Charlie Christian to different places, both past and present. The same happens here. Mary meets the traveller, who tells her that something is going to happen. She wonders if the mysterious woman can prevent the death of the former deputy premier, Pierre Laporte, maybe even others in the future, but at once worries it may be futile to think this way.”

Mishka Lavigne (Photo provided)

The 1970s Cold War era saw public opinion closely monitored. Censorship loomed over artists in the USSR. The librettist wanted to draw attention to that reality by writing the time-traveller character as an escaping Russian ballerina. “The defections of Soviet artists was a fact of life in the West,” recalls Lavigne. “Think of Mikhaïl Baryshnikov, an important figure in the world of ballet: he jumped ship to Canada, and was not the only one to do so.”

Police raids on Dr. Henry Morgenthaler’s abortion clinic also cast a shadow during that decade. “That was the beginning of the movement toward its legalization.” This, she says, is “the crux of the matter for the two main characters, when Mary, upon meeting the time traveller, asks herself whether it would be a mistake for her to keep her child, or if she should terminate her pregnancy. Of course, there is no definitive answer to offer here; one must forge ahead and see where the chips fall.”

New Possibilities

The issues Lavigne deals with in her plays have now found a wholly new outlet. “That’s the nature of opera–even smaller-scale chamber operas,” the librettist says. “ The issues they deal with become larger than life; they take on epic proportions. It’s interesting to be able to allow these forces to play out. My previous works have dealt with similar themes,” acknowledges Lavigne, “but in a completely different manner, with no musical backdrop. I find this way of diving deeper into such gripping subject matter very appealing.”

Musical Connections

In school, Lavigne sang in choirs, and took voice lessons, but music has never been part of her DNA. If she recalls correctly, The Barber of Seville was her first operatic experience. She was a 20- or 21 year-old undergraduate student, and went to see it at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, at least remembering that it was an Italian opera. Today, she tries to listen to orchestral repertoire, as her busy schedule permits. She likes some composers more than others, and is developing a sense of her musical preferences.

Group photo of the rehearsal gang (Photo provided)

Listening to music has long been part of her working habits. “One day, while working on an idea, I gave up writing about it because I couldn’t find the right music for the mood I was in,” Lavigne says. “Since then, I have realized that I write more easily without music in the background. I hope to bring it back into my working routine, but songs with lyrics can be a source of distraction. Take my play Copeaux—I wrote it while listening to the Icelandic rock band Sigur Rós. Nowadays, I’m more into instrumental stuff, pianist Ludovico Einaudi, for example.”

Back to the Theatre

At this writing, Lavigne is working on a stage trilogy–a boreal gothic cycle set in Northern Ontario. Each of the parts will be performed nationwide over the course of three years.  “That’s my big undertaking,” she says. “I’m also currently co-writing a play with Pascale St-Onge, called Girlboss, about the relationship between capitalism and the patriarchy. Finally, I’m adapting a novel by Christiane Vadnais to the stage, in a production called Faune. It’s an off-the-wall multidisciplinary collaboration involving a cartoonist (Christian Quesnel) and a stage director (Éric Jean), which incorporates plenty of video and digital elements.” Translation by Marc Chénard

Information. Tim Brady, composer; Mishka Lavigne, librettist; Anne-Marie Donovan, stage director.
Cast: Jacqueline Woodley, soprano; Marie-Annick Béliveau, mezzo-soprano; David Menzies, tenor; Pierre Rancourt and Clayton Kennedy, baritones. Pascal Germain Berardi, conductor. April 27-28, Espace Orange, Wilder Building, Montreal.


This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)


About Author

Justin Bernard est détenteur d’un doctorat en musique de l’Université de Montréal. Ses recherches portent sur la vulgarisation musicale, notamment par le biais des nouveaux outils numériques, ainsi que sur la relation entre opéra et cinéma. En tant que membre de l’Observatoire interdisciplinaire de création et de recherche en musique (OICRM), il a réalisé une série de capsules vidéo éducatives pour l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Justin Bernard est également l’auteur de notes de programme pour le compte de la salle Bourgie du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal et du Festival de Lanaudière. Récemment, il a écrit les notices discographiques pour l'album "Paris Memories" du pianiste Alain Lefèvre (Warner Classics, 2023) et collaboré à la révision d'une édition critique sur l’œuvre du compositeur Camille Saint-Saëns (Bärenreiter, 2022). Ses autres contrats de recherche et de rédaction ont été signés avec des institutions de premier plan telles que l'Université de Montréal, l'Opéra de Montréal, le Domaine Forget et Orford Musique. Par ailleurs, il anime une émission d’opéra et une chronique musicale à Radio VM (91,3 FM).

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