In May, Opéra de Montréal will premiere Les Feluettes (Lilies), written by Michel Marc Bouchard in an adaptation of his own 1987 play Les Feluettes ou la répétition d’un drame romantique. It is composed by Kevin March.
American-born March moved to Australia in 2004, and that’s where I reached him to talk about the project. This new French-titled work is not his first: others include Une petite sonate (2012), Ouvre-moi la porte (2011), and Catalogue de papillons (2004).
As March says, “Actually there are several explanations for my francophilia: firstly, one of my great-grandfathers was a French soldier in Canada, hence the French origin of my last name. But there’s also the big influence of French music on American music. For example, we know that Philip Glass and Aaron Copland, among others, studied in France under Nadia Boulanger. As for my two main teachers, William Albright studied under Messiaen and William Bolcom under Milhaud! And even aside from that, when I started being interested in classical music, the first work I listened to was Debussy’s Sonata for Cello and Piano. Today it’s still one of my biggest influences. I don’t speak French very well, but this project is sort of a return to my sources. The libretto is in French, but I’ve developed what’s called ‘singer’s French’, so that’s a good basis on which to work. Also, every phrase was examined in detail for its rhythmic coherence and to check that the stresses are in the right place.”
March has composed many vocal pieces before, including three chamber operas: www.love: A 21st Century Romance (2000-1), Leading Lady (2003-4) and Razing Hypatia (2010). However, this is the first time he has tackled full-scale opera.
“It’s just bigger,” he explains. “Well, quite a lot bigger! I’m used to working as part of a team, but with opera, it’s a big team, with a librettist, a director, an artistic director, a conductor, etc. But it’s just fantastic working with a team like the one for this project.”
It might seem strange that Opéra de Montréal went looking for a composer in Australia to create a new production based on a play that was a success in Quebec, but that’s not really how it happened. Kevin March is indeed the composer, and it is entirely his own inspiration. “It was when I was a student at the University of Michigan,” he recalls, “probably in 2003, and I went to a screening of a movie by John Greyson called Lilies (a 1996 film written by Michel Marc Bouchard in an adaptation of his own play), and the whole time I kept saying to myself, ‘It’s not a movie, it’s an opera!’ Right away I started looking for someone to contact to do the project, and finally I wrote to the author. Over the ensuing years, I produced an English libretto, and work began with Michel Marc. In 2011, I got an email from Michel Marc, who was delighted because Michel Beaulac of Opéra de Montréal wanted to meet him to talk about a project. He asked me to send him everything we’d already prepared. When Beaulac suggested a production of Feluettes, Michel Marc showed him that work had already begun, and that was that!”
This story of doomed teenage love seems to have reached its apogee by being turned into an opera, but what can we expect from March’s contribution?
“My mentor, William Bolcom, one day gave me the best artistic advice ever. He said, ‘Kevin, anything goes, and do whatever it takes!’ And that has remained my basic approach. Right from the start, we chose what the overall feel of the opera should be – something very personal, very sentimental. The music is pretty simple; I don’t mean it’s harmonically or rhythmically simple, but when there’s a love duet, it really is a loveduet! Besides, the piece already contains a lot of musical information. For example, right at the start there’s a rehearsal of a scene from Le martyre de saint Sébastien with the text by D’Annunzio, and Michel Marc specified in his stage directions that we should hear music by Debussy in the background. So Debussy is subtly present throughout the opera. There’s also a dinner in a grand hotel, and the action is set in 1912, at the end of the Edwardian era, so of course the music reflects that, with references to ragtime and even Québécois folklore. The different styles merge in a work that’s pretty eclectic, but also very direct.”
One feature of the opera is that all the parts are for male performers. However, the composer did not see that as particularly difficult: “It’s no harder than writing just for strings, for example. That said, there still are female characters, so the real challenge was finding the right sorts of voice for those parts. I mean we didn’t want all the women to be played by counter-tenors.”
Serge Denoncourt will direct, Timothy Vernon will conduct, and the main parts will be played by two singers who trained at the Atelier lyrique de l’OdM: Baritone Étienne Dupuis and tenor Jean-Michel Richer. Baritone Gino Quilico will play old Simon.
Translation: Cecilia Grayson
May 21, 24, 26 and 28, 7:30 pm, salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. www.operademontreal.com