I’ve had lots of questions about our upcoming opera project ‘Llandovery Castle’ so I’ll use the forum of my blog to attempt some answers.
I welcome your feedback and further inquiry!

Question #1. Why are there 3 male characters in an opera about 14 women?

It’s a great question. I’ll confess I was surprised when Paul Ciufo’s scenes began to emerge. I never really imagined that I would be compelled to write music for the bad guy! But I’ve come to trust my librettist’s dramatic instincts. He understands that opera needs contrast; good theatre requires dramatic ‘chiaroscuro’ and our objective is to shine a light on the un-told story of the healers in the Great War whose model of compassion and perseverance is a beacon in a desperate landscape.

The Nursing Sisters represent the beginning of a sea change for women in Canada because of the gains they made within the hierarchical world of men. They received equal pay as their male counterparts. They were the only women in the war to have military rank as officers, and as a consequence, could vote in federal elections. No other Canadian women had these privileges. But this happened, unfortunately, because they entered the ‘theatre of war’ as equals with men, and if we take men out of the story, it doesn’t make sense.

Even so, Cynthia Toman’s book ‘Sister Soldiers of the Great War’ cautions against falling back on stereotypical notions of nurses ‘as heroines or angels’ or our accepted understanding that the war was ‘a great equalizer of gender, class and imperial–colonial differences.’ Toman’s profoundly detailed research shows a much more diverse and varied experience of war. I was astonished to read that there were trained, female doctors who were turned away from the Canadian Army Medical Corps and had to re-train as nurses in order to serve abroad.

On that fateful night in June 1918, the Canadian hospital ship ‘Llandovery Castle’ sank in the Atlantic and all 14 Nursing Sisters on board died. There were also 80 other medical men on board, and the ship’s crew of 164 men. Out of 258 people on board only 24 men were saved when their life raft was intercepted 36 hours after the torpedo hit. Only these men were left to tell the women’s story.

In Toronto I essentially live in a benevolent fortress where war, inequality, hatred, sexism and suffering are not part of my daily experience. But I am, for whatever reason, the obsessed musical servant of the Llandovery Castle story, charged with illustrating things I abhor, things that grate on my pacifist Mennonite upbringing, and things I don’t understand. The trick will be to strike a balance between re-telling the tale as truthfully as we can, while creating a compelling theatre piece. When things work well, theatre can elevate truth to the status of myth.

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5 Responses to Writing Llandovery Castle (the opera) Question #1

  1. Emily says:

    Powerfully told Stephanie — as usually — you have a great gift of communication, not only in music but also in written word. Thanks for bringing us into this important story and sharing your personal response to that power it has to compel you to bring it forward to teach and challenge us 100 years later. Bless you!!

  2. Sheila Campbell says:

    hmmm – it does seem a bit archaic that men have to tell the tale of the women, but for historical accuracy I guess we have to swallow that. I hope they have good things to say, and that there are “flashbacks” where the women can speak for themselves.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      History is inconveniently archaic. 100 years in Canadian history is a veritable epoch. No one is alive today to guide us with the re-telling, so we rely on the nurses’ letters home and their diaries which are precious few. These women for whatever reason, seemed reluctant to share their own story in 1918. They were probably too busy saving lives, and were too traumatized to describe in words what they saw day to day. Our Opera is still very much a work in progress, and we are trying to do what we can (within budget) to increase the number of the cast to include more nurses.

  3. Cynthia Toman says:

    There are a number of first person accounts by FWW nursing sisters but they are scattered across Canada, typically in basements and attics. Third and fourth generation descendants are often discarding them when the ones who went before die, not understanding what the accounts are or how to “make sense” of them without a larger context that would provide context. It took me 12 years to search out sources from over 70 of these nurses in order to feel confident enough to write about them. Often the sources are more like “snippets” of a life but when put together with many, many other snippets, images begin to appear. Why didn’t they talk or write more? I suggest there were a number of reasons: nurses weren’t supposed to talk about patients; the Army warned them to keep silent lest the enemy gain information from their letters or diaries; they were supposed to go back to traditional roles after the war and “get on with life”. and as someone above said, there were few words to adequately express the tragedies of that war.

    • Stephanie Martin says:

      Cynthia – you honour my blog with your comments here. Your years and years of research have been so helpful to our creative team, trying to piece together characters that died one hundred years ago. Thanks for your dedication to bringing the story of the nursing sisters to light.

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