New opera commemorates the lives and service of 14 WWI Canadian nurses on torpedoed hospital ship

TORONTO – February 14, 2018 – The lives of 14 WWI Canadian Nursing Sisters who died June 27, 1918 when their hospital ship was torpedoed are honoured in a new opera to debut on the centenary of their loss.
The opera, The Llandovery Castle, to premiere in Toronto, bears the name of the hospital ship infamously destroyed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic.
It focusses on the 14 nurses from eight Canadian provinces* who served in harrowing circumstances throughout the war, their care and compassion contrasting with the chaos and violence surrounding them. Of the 258 people on board, only 24 men survived to tell the women’s story.
The sinking of the ship and subsequent murder of many of those in lifeboats sparked outrage in Canada and internationally, and the incident was one of six British cases presented at the war crimes trials post-WWI in Leipzig, Germany.
Rena “Bird” McLean was the daughter of PEI Senator John McLean
With music by Stephanie Martin and libretto by Paul Ciufo, the opera spotlights in particular the lives of Minnie “Kate” Gallaher and Rena “Bird” McLean, the latter traumatized by earlier battlefield-area nursing, and her quest on the hospital ship to prove herself ready to return to the Front.
Bird seeks to prove to her superior, Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser, that she is strong enough to serve close to the action once more, little imagining the fatal turn their assignment would take.
Nurses needing to recover from frontline trauma were often assigned to such ships, considered a safer assignment.
“The sinking of the Llandovery Castle has been inexplicably all but forgotten by everyone except historians, and the incredible contributions and bravery of nurses throughout the war have also largely been overlooked. It is a privilege to help shine a light on this significant story and these remarkable women,” said Ciufo.
Composer Stephanie Martin’s interest in the Llandovery Castle story began in 2015 at a rehearsal for another project. Although she had worked as organist at Toronto’s Calvin Presbyterian Church for over a decade, she had never noticed a plaque on the church wall and its dedication to one of the Llandovery Castle nurses, Mary Agnes McKenzie. The June performances will take place at this same church, just meters from the plaque.
Martin was particularly inspired by her research into the important role Canadian Nursing Sisters played in the development of women’s rights in Canada.
Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser was the daughter of Nova Scotia Lt. Governor Duncan Cameron Fraser

“The Nursing Sisters represent the beginning of a profound change for women in Canada because of the gains they made within the hierarchical world of men. They received pay equal to their male counterparts. They were the only women in the war to have military rank as officers, and, consequently, could vote in federal elections. No other Canadian women had these privileges at the time,” said Martin.

The efforts of women during the war helped pave the way for rights for all women. When women’s suffrage was achieved in Canada in the spring of 1918, the major argument advanced to support the change was women’s contributions to the war effort.
The medical non-profit Doctors Without Borders / Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) welcomes the opera. Said Joe Belliveau, MSF-Canada’s Executive Director: “As medical humanitarians working in contemporary conflict settings, the story of the Llandlovery Castle strongly resonates with our cause. It was then (in 1918), as it is now, outrageous and profoundly wrong that men and women healing the war-wounded should themselves be shot at.”

The Llandovery Castle Creative Team

Stephanie Martin

The music of Llandovery Castle skirts boundaries of genre and style. Scored for a sonorous classical chamber orchestra and nine singers, it has been described as “a modern flirtation between baroque, classical, traditional and popular genres.” Martin describes this operatic style as “21st-century bel canto”, focused on the narrative and expressive power of the human voice.

Martin, a distinguished composer and conductor, is associate professor of music at York University’s School of the Arts, Media, Performance, and Design. She is director of Schola Magdalena, conductor emeritus of Pax Christi Chorale, and past director of music at the historic church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Toronto.
Paul Ciufo

Ciufo, a noted Canadian playwright, was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Awards for his  play Reverend Jonah, which premiered at Blyth Festival in 2007.  Ciufo’s historical drama Narcisse garnered a Governor General’s History Award, and his radio drama On Convoy was produced and broadcast  nationally and internationally by CBC Radio.

The new opera’s story and its characters will be brought to life by the singers of The Bicycle Opera Project, Music Director Kimberly-Ann Bartczak, and Director Tom Diamond.

The Bicycle Opera Project performs new Canadian works and has been met with tremendous praise from audiences, media, and critics alike. The company is known for tackling difficult subject matter with innovative charm, humour, and accessibility for newcomers to opera. Their last premiere, Sweat, dove into the heart of a contemporary sweat shop, exploring the lives of the women who sew our clothing.

Bicycle Opera cycles from town to town, towing props, instruments and costumes by bike trailer. Designed to bring contemporary Canadian music to smaller communities where there is little opportunity to hear it, our company closes the gap between audiences and singers by performing in intimate spaces.
Kimberly-Ann Bartczak is currently conductor in residence at the Calgary Opera. Bartczak is a conductor, pianist, and vocal coach with extensive experience in choral conduction and accompaniment.
Director Tom Diamond‘s critically acclaimed productions include premieres of Chan Ka Nin’s Iron Road (Dora Award) and Timothy Sullivan’s Florence The Lady With The Lamp (Chalmers Award), and Oksana G.
The talented cast will be led by soprano Larissa Koniuk as Bird. Matron Fraser will be sung by mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel and Minnie “Kate” Gallaher will be portrayed by soprano Allison Angelo.

Tenor Owen McCausland and baritone Keith Lam will play Sergeant Arthur “Art” Knight and Major Tom Lyon, two of the 24 men who survived the sinking and were left to tell the story of the 14 Nursing Sisters. Baritone Geoff Sirett will perform as German U-boat commander Helmut Patzig.

Two performances:
Tuesday, June 26, 7:30 P.M.
Wednesday, June 27, 7:30 P.M.
Calvin Presbyterian Church
Tickets are $40 in advance, $45 at the door, and $20 for patrons under 30.
or on the opera website
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Note to editors:
Nursing casualties, Llandovery Castle:
*Matron Margaret Marjory (Pearl) Fraser, New Glasgow, NS / Moose Jaw SK
Carola Josephine Douglas, Toronto, ON
Alexina Dussault, St. Hyacinthe, QB
Minnie Aenath Follette, Port Greville, NS
Margaret Jane Fortescue, York Factory, MN
Minnie Katherine Gallaher, Kingston, ON
Jessie Mabel McDiarmid, Ashton, ON
Mary Agnes McKenzie, Toronto, ON
Christina Campbell, Victoria, BC
Rena McLean, Souris, P.E.I.
Mary Belle Sampson, Simcoe, ON
Gladys Irene Sare, Montreal QB
Anna Irene Stamers, St. John, NB
Jean Templeman, Ottawa, ON

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