Manitoba Opera’s Werther

A friend who had also lost people in his life to suicide once told me, even one death to suicide is one too many. If one is too much, by now the number of people I’ve seen touched by suicide in one way or another is much too much. You might think spending a night at an opera where an amorous young man takes his life would romanticize suicide, yet it did not. The Manitoba Opera treated suicide as a tragedy with compassion and sensitivity and as a very real problem in our society, using art as a form of awareness. Bob MacLaren alluded to this in his inspired pre-show chat, when he expressed his empathy for Charlotte’s grief, the object of Werther’s love and the reason for his torment. Perhaps it transcends words, but, as Werther lies dying, absorbing the words he had for years longed to hear, his death and the wound it opens in the family who had loved him does not seem romantic but instead filled with ironic tragedy. He had been a man with a future, with talent and prospects. A man who had in prior years been filled with joy and optimism. Who can forget John Tessier as Werther and his mellifluous opening aria where he fills the concert hall with the reflective light of new beginnings and hopeful joy in the first act? And yes, the Manitoba Opera sensitively addressed the issue of mental illness, more so than I’ve seen at other events to promote suicide awareness, definitely without romanticizing it as is often done in popular culture. The opera also collaborated with the Mood Disorders Association of Manitoba and provided the orange and yellow ribbons of suicide awareness for all to wear.

Werther is based on the Goethe German novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther). It is sung in French written by the librettists Edouard Blau, Paul Milliet, and Georges Hartmann and composed by Jules Massenet. And beyond the door of the set are what look like the prairie grasses of Manitoba I love so much. German, French, and Manitoba all represented in union to present universal themes.

Looming in the opera’s ambiance is the idea of home. There is Werther who comes to a new home, Tessier equally believable as a young optimist and as an obsessive depressive. Then there is Albert, sung in a rich, clear voice by Keith Phares, who comes and goes from home for periods at a time. The family of sisters, Charlotte, the older sister, sung by Lauren Segal, and Sophie, the younger, sung by Lara Secord-Haid, and their siblings remain at home throughout the opera. Secord-Haid is convincing as a light-hearted young sister with a sweet and innocent voice to match her character. Lauren Segal’s voice is equally sonorous and powerful at the lower and upper registers, and she was also very well suited to the role, not sacrificing the music for drama or the drama for music but sustaining both throughout the opera. As the acts progress, the balance between the singers and the orchestra synchronize into a seamless partnership.

The opera addresses many provocative themes and dichotomies, playing with the idea of light and dark (such as the colour of Werther’s suit versus Albert’s suit in the first act), joy and sorrow (the angelic voices of the children singing Christmas songs and languishing suffering, death, and the ghost of the dead mother and her dying wish for Charlotte to wed Albert never forgotten), duty and passionate abandon, hope and despair (the mood in the first act versus the last act), life and death, young and old. The opera begins with the death of Charlotte and Sophie’s mother and ends with Werther’s death. And as Bob MacLaren pointed out in the pre-show chat, it also begins and ends with the children singing and spiritual symbolism.  As Bob noted, the last word, sung by Werther, is the word, blessed. The music alternates between joyful and brooding, and, if I’m not mistaken, even the language changes, as in the earlier acts Charlotte and Werther address each other in the formal French, vous, and later fall into the language of intimate friends, tu.

Werther addresses other themes such as forgiveness, duty, and innocence. There is a point when Werther and Charlotte (I believe) sing about forgetting everything that has passed. Can you imagine if you could forget the past? Our memories both define us yet also confine us to our own narrative, and the line in the libretto has an almost renewing effect. I was also inspired by Charlotte’s declaration of fearlessness at the end. I’m probably misunderstanding her message, but I wonder about the quality our lives would obtain if we would all approach life and death with fearlessness and honesty. Also in the opera is a discussion of shame, and an obsessiveness that transforms Werther into, as in the words of the opera, a madman.

Werther is a poet in the opera, as opposed to a painter as in the Goethe novel, and the power, pleasure, and despair books and words produce abound in the opera. There is the romantic novel passed around in the beginning. Werther scribbles down notes when inspiration touches him. He and Charlotte reminisce over an Ossian poem he had been translating. A giant bookcase adorns Charlotte and Albert’s house. Werther sends Charlotte letters in his absence over which she languishes. The choice of an overarching theme of the hero as a poet is compatible with the visceral and romantic language of the libretto and music. The opera is extremely engaging and fast-paced, economical like a poem without any extraneous moments.

As is sung in the opera, life is fleeting. Each moment is a fertile opportunity to make some poetry in life, or as in the case of an evening at the opera, to savour the experience of a poetic musical experience, appealing to both the mind and the heart.

And to quote my husband, if you feel like Werther, there are resources available to get help.  As Larry Desrochers introduced the opera, “There’s always hope; you’re not alone.”

Lost and Found…in Canada

I have been increasingly finding myself out of place recently, unable to locate a sense of belonging, connectedness, and even a tangible grasp of home. As I luxuriate in the elegantly crafted stories in Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and read Susanna Kaysen’s inviting Cambridge, I experience a nostalgic attachment toward New England where I passed through some formative years. Memories of spinach and cheese pastries and coffees at Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square revive a longing across the separation in years, no less palpable than from an estranged loved one.

After a recent email newsletter from UCLA featuring iconic landmarks preserved in films, my heart skipped a beat for those years spent climbing toward Kerckhoff to drink a coffee and eating vegetarian San Francisco burgers (the kind with mushrooms and soy sauce) in Ackerman Union or studying in Northern Lights.

Then of course my mind never drifts far from McGill’s physics department’s workshops where I’d meet new and old friends in a stimulating research environment. I also remember fondly eating nachos in the graduate house’s pub, Thomson House. My sense of place in Montreal was definitive where I passed between the McGill Ghetto and the Rutherford building and the Schulich School of Music for my music lessons. And yet, people say you are always an outsider to Montreal if you are not born there. I experienced this first hand on a trip to Paris where I felt more at home surrounded by the Parisian French language I had learned as a teenager than by the dialect spoken in Montreal.

And now I live in Winnipeg. There isn’t a large influx of people outside of Winnipeg into this city, it seems, and people don’t often migrate away. And so in many ways I feel myself still to be an outsider. Some of my friends have had social groups since high school and nearby family members, whereas I have none except my husband and cat. I no longer feel as though I belong to a certain community of people with whom I interact frequently, as you would if you worked at a company or institution of sorts. And so I grope for my place here, feeling a bit dislocated. In all other chapters of my life, I’ve bonded with a clear identity as a physics student or post-doc or instructor at a specific institution. Now I free fall, struggling to build a routine into the immense scattered hours of the day and striving to legitimize myself (to myself) perhaps in my new profession as a writer (which I can hardly utter without feeling as though I’m an impostor).

There are many ways to form attachments to people and places. Early in my life I wrote an essay after my first trip to Canada where I professed an eternal loyalty to this country and found in it a place of home, rebirth, and freedom, especially from fear, and I experienced a measure of safety I had never experienced in the US. The multicultural Canadians embraced me, and these friendly people seemed special. My essay from the early nineties serves as one of my first love letters to Canada.

As a child, I spent hours upon hours watching and rewatching Kevin Sullivan’s beloved adaptation of Anne of Green Gables and even wrote letters to an imaginary Anne. During a break today, it occurred to me to crack open the DVD of Anne of Avonlea. With the beginning strains of music evoking an expansive landscape and Anne’s devotion to writing, I grew to realize that home is not located in a coffee shop or in the facade of a familiar building or in a group of people sharing lunch, but in our ethos and values, in the languages we speak, in the memories we carry with us of people and places. Home does not lie in a single institution or a job title but in a broader identity including our dreams and aspirations, the music we listen to and make, our actions, the stories we write, our passing connections to other people and places, and the brief footprints we leave.

I pass through many cities and through many people’s lives as a wanderer and a nomad. I don’t know if I’ll ever really feel at home in Winnipeg. I’ve lived here longer than any other city since I was seventeen, and yet I still feel the pangs of an outsider. Yet with the enormous welcoming embrace I felt from Canada and Canadians and my early attachment to the country’s values, culture, and even cultural institutions, including icon Glenn Gould, whose recordings I’ve owned all my life, and L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series, I see that Canada has served as a compass to me to locate a sense of my dreams, my home, and my core since childhood.

Is a sense of home and to a greater extent, identity, elusive for those whose lives have been peripatetic? Perhaps. The people and places that populate our lives might change as through a revolving door. But even we can find a compass to locate and ground us as a starting point in discovering where we belong and who we are. And for me my sense of home and identity starts with Canada, including the history, values, heritage, land, people, and cultural institutions of this country. My home and native land, as is expressed in the lyrics of O Canada.