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Librettist John Murrell, left, and composer John Estacio have been working on the Vancouver Opera production of Lillian Alling.

A brightly lit church auditorium with a smattering of folding chairs and a single piano may not have felt like the ideal setting for John Estacio and John Murrell to first hear their new opera Lillian Alling , but the creative team wasn't concerned about atmosphere. This particular performance was all about testing their new opera in front of a live - if tiny - audience, and making sure those present were engaged enough to ignore their BlackBerrys.

Lillian Alling , the first full-length piece Vancouver Opera has ever commissioned for its main stage, will have its world premiere next fall, but about 50 VO donors, staff and colleagues got a preview earlier this month. The first run-through of the opera, by a dozen singers, followed an intensive two-year workshopping process.

The opera, written by Estacio and Murrell, is based on the real-life story of Lillian Alling, a Russian immigrant who arrived in New York in the 1920s and proceeded to walk across the continent to British Columbia. While some details are known about Alling, who has become a part of B.C. lore (and who was the subject of Amy Bloom's 2007 best-selling novel Away ), what isn't known is why she embarked on this journey. So Murrell, the librettist, and Estacio, the composer, had a lot of holes to fill. They built what they felt was an opera-worthy story around the character, with elements of passion, tragedy and surprise.

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Estacio, who lives in Edmonton, and Murrell, who lives in Calgary, have collaborated previously on two operas - Filumena and Frobisher- and have devised their own workshopping process. They start by storyboarding the opera, then hold libretto workshops, music workshops and ultimately a run-through in front of a select audience. It might seem unnecessarily protracted, Murrell says, but he feels it allows the creative team to get to know the story intimately.

"It's always a little scary when we're there and we're up in front of people," says Estacio. "We understand that it's a difficult setting for an audience because they're in the same room as the performers, they're in the exact same light as the performers. There is no light and there is no dark, everybody's in the light. There's no costumes, there's no orchestra, so it's a bit of leap of faith on behalf of the audience."

We have an obligation to keep refreshing the art form, keep refreshing the repertoire and bringing new pieces in. Vancouver Opera executive director James Wright

Estacio uses the run-through to gauge, as much as he can, audience reaction. He picks two or three people who seem particularly engaged and checks in with them throughout the performance. "You just sort of every now and then glance back and see if they're still engaged and if they are that's great," he says. "If they're looking at their wristwatch or checking their BlackBerry, then you've lost them."

Murrell is less focused on the audience. "I've always been a bit tentative and a bit shy about doing that because I can too easily read into what I imagine someone's [thinking]" he says. This hesitation comes, in part, from a bad experience years ago, during a workshop for a play of his at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Murrell was distracted by an audience member who seemed to not be enjoying himself. Murrell took this to mean that he hated the play - an assumption supported when he got up and left early. Murrell was crushed - until he learned later on that the man was having a heart attack (he survived). Since then, he has concentrated on the performers' interpretations of the characters.

In addition to being helpful for the creative team (including dramaturge and stage director Kelly Robinson), the run-through is also a milestone. After spending years creating and working on an opera, it can be quite something to hear it performed, finally, even in a room that feels more like a gym than an opera house.

"I surprised myself that I was a bit emotional, more than I expected to be," says VO's executive director James Wright. "Both for some really moving things in the story itself and also for where we are in this process and how proud I am that we're doing it."

It's expensive to mount a new opera. Wright figures the workshops cost about $150,000. That's on top of commissioning fees for the librettist and composer. "We don't pay Verdi, you know," Wright says. "So it ends up costing about 60 per cent more than our average opera costs."

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But for an opera company in relatively stable financial condition, Wright says, creating new works is a must. "We have an obligation to keep refreshing the art form, keep refreshing the repertoire and bringing new pieces in."

You just sort of every now and then glance back and see if they're still engaged and if they are that's great. If they're looking at their wristwatch or checking their BlackBerry, then you've lost them. Composer John Estacio

Originally, the opera, set partly in B.C., was to have its world premiere during the Olympics. That got pushed back to the fall of 2010 mainly because VO wasn't guaranteed a spot in the Cultural Olympiad, and didn't want the opera to get lost in a sea of other cultural projects.

Murrell and Estacio certainly don't mind having the extra time to work on it. They'll now be able to continue its development at the Banff Centre next summer, where the sets will also be built. Rehearsals will begin in Vancouver in September. But the run-through is a key part of the process, says Estacio.

"We don't have out-of-town tryouts. If this was a musical, we would put it up somewhere far away from Broadway and try things out and then make changes … but we don't have that luxury with opera. It's extremely expensive and we don't have the rehearsal time. We get on stage about a week before a paying audience sees it and that's barely enough time to get the show up and running, let alone make adjustments if things aren't working. So the run-through is really our big chance to make sure it's all tickety-boo."

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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