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.