Keynotes

The Garden of Alice

Explore The Garden of Alice

Welcome to a curated selection of content about Pacific Opera Victoria’s upcoming opera for film, The Garden of Alice by Elizabeth Raum. Get excited for the film, coming fall 2021, with these articles from our Keynotes Newsletter!


The Opera's Adventures in Wonderland

In spring 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic surged round the world and public gatherings shrank or were forbidden altogether, opera production screeched to a halt. Like every performing arts organization, Pacific Opera grappled with how to keep making art – how to give our community its fix of opera and how to deliver a creative high for audiences and artists alike.

Charged with finding options for our suddenly reduced circumstances, Artistic Director Timothy Vernon devised a list of 36 tiny perfect projects suitable for performance by small forces for small audiences. Meanwhile, we upped our game when it came to online and outdoor programming. We churned out videos, podcasts, and live popup performances. But, inspiring and entertaining though these were, they weren’t quite in the same ballpark as a real opera.

Timothy wanted to do more than simply film a staged performance along the lines of a Met HD broadcast. The question was how to get the secret sauce that makes live opera so compelling, so … alive.

As Timothy explains, How do we get the intimacy, how do we get the immediacy? How do we bring the audience right to the performers so that it isn’t the way we make archivals from the back of the theatre.… That’s why I thought of a movie – a let’s-get-in-the-studio movie.

Little did I know what I was asking for!

 

Tracy Dahl. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 

Making an opera for film was ambitious, beyond anything we’d ever done. Making an opera for film in a time of COVID was nuts. But down the rabbit hole we went…

The first requirement was to pick an opera – something colourful, cheery, family friendly, but edgy enough to provoke thought, to get the synapses firing.

The Garden of Alice, by Canadian composer Elizabeth Raum, fit the bill. A riff on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it had premiered in 1985, starring a young Tracy Dahl, who within a couple of years would burst onto the international stage and be recognized as Canada’s premier coloratura soprano.

Dramatically and vocally, Tracy is brilliant. Could we possibly lure her back to reprise one of her earliest roles? Happily, yes!

The next step was for Timothy and Director Glynis Leyshon to work with the composer to adapt The Garden of Alice for film and frame it around a mature Alice. The new concept, befitting the world we find ourselves in today, places Alice in a hospital where, bored, isolated, perhaps afraid, she relives the book that she loved in childhood.

 

Every aspect of the production had to revolve around COVID protocols. Pacific Opera engaged a professional COVID-19 safety officer with experience in the film industry and drew up exhaustive safety plans. Everyone – cast, creative team, musicians, stagecraft artisans, stage management – was subject to layer upon layer of precautions.

Rehearsals began in November 2020. As with our “normal” productions, the singers flew in from far-flung locales – from Saskatchewan to Switzerland. A few came over from Vancouver, and some already lived in Victoria. All had to be tested and quarantined; one had to be re-tested and re-quarantined when a case of COVID-19 was reported on his flight.

The cast stayed at our Host Hotel, the Chateau Victoria, and committed to becoming a household bubble. By socializing only with one another, they could safely remove their masks and perform normally. Everyone else had to keep their distance.

We relied on an arsenal of plexiglass barriers, face shields, masks, sanitizer, ventilation, cleaning, daily health checks, Zoom meetings, physical distancing, and enormous, noisy fans that cleaned the air after rehearsals.

As with most productions, we rehearsed for three weeks in the Baumann Centre, while our stagecraft team turned their ingenuity to building sets and fashioning a wacky array of costumes and props.

 

Creating the finished product was nothing at all like putting on live performances, which are a glorious amalgam of music, visual setting, and acting, all coalescing in one fell swoop at the moment the curtain goes up. Instead, we had to isolate each element for the film.

In early December, a little over a week before filming was scheduled to start, the singers and musicians recorded the music separately. It was an intricate process of repeating, fixing, and editing.

Filming took place before a giant green screen, which would allow us to create the universe of Wonderland by superimposing whimsical backgrounds during post-production, using the same technique that lies behind the special effects in your favourite action flick.

For the singers, filming was an intense, stop-and-start process, requiring them to work in short bursts, out of sequence, while still trying to find the dramatic heart of each moment. At the same time, camera close-ups gave them opportunities for greater subtlety in acting – something not possible in a thousand-seat theatre.

As each sequence was filmed, the matching audio track was played. The singers were under strict orders to sing out in full voice to their own recording – for, as Timothy insisted, singing out requires visible physical effort, and opera audiences are smart enough to notice if the singers are lip synching. Timothy, along with Associate Conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia and Principal Coach Kim Bartczak, scrutinized every syllable and note to ensure that the sound and action were synchronized.

During the two and a half days of filming, the creative and production teams took over Pacific Opera’s offices while staff worked entirely from home. Offices became change rooms and makeup studios; bewigged mannequin heads stared out from the tops of file cabinets, while rolling racks of costumes were stashed wherever there was space.

 

Our guide through the strange new Wonderland of film was Video Producer and Director of Photography David Malysheff, whose expertise, enthusiasm, and love of opera were invaluable. But even for David, it was a strange and complex new world – definitely his first shot at opera on film!

For the first weeks of 2021, Alice WAS in post-production, with Glynis and David mixing together the music and action, reassembling the pieces into their proper sequence, polishing transitions, and replacing the green screen with magical Wonderland backgrounds.

Glynis Leyshon commented on the experience of directing an opera for film: It was a process I’m used to and adore and love in live theatre, but … with the challenges and demands of a very new medium.… It would have been a huge project for this company to make a film anyway, but to do it in the time of COVID was… It just became a Wonderland – more like the trial sequence than the garden, I think!


 

Peter McGillivray, Simran Claire, Nolan Kehler. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 

Kaden Forsberg. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 

Tracy Dahl. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

The Story

The Garden of Alice brings to life many of the quixotic episodes and characters found in Lewis Carroll’s book.

When she chases a white rabbit down a rabbit hole, Alice discovers a lovely garden that she cannot enter because she keeps changing sizes. She encounters and argues with a succession of illogical and often rude characters – a hookah-smoking caterpillar, a Cheshire cat, a Duchess whose baby turns into a pig. Alice then crashes a tea party where she meets the rather inhospitable Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse.

When Alice finally makes her way into the garden, she discovers it is ruled by the Queen of Hearts, who resembles nothing so much as an autocratic toddler – her mantra, I am the Queen; her go-to solution to every annoyance, Off with his head!

All the characters live in terror of the Queen’s rage. Three of them, known as Cards Two, Five, and Seven, desperately cover white roses with red paint to hide the fact they’ve planted rose trees of the wrong colour.

When the Queen decrees a croquet game, Alice is appalled at her shameless cheating. Even more shocking is the trial of the Knave of Hearts, who, before any evidence is heard, is declared guilty of stealing the Queen’s tarts and condemned to have his head chopped off.

Horrified, Alice calls for a stop to this outrageous nonsense – and suddenly realizes that she need merely wake from her dream to save the Knave – and herself.

The film version of the opera frames the action in a hospital: Alice wakes from her dream to find the Wonderland characters are her (much kinder) caregivers … and the garden is as real and lovely as she had hoped.


 
 
 

Nolan Kehler. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 

The Composer: Elizabeth Raum

Already an accomplished professional oboist, Elizabeth Raum stumbled into composing when she was 35 and didn’t even realize that writing music was something women did! All the composers I had ever heard of were men! … the going theory was that women didn’t have the depth of soul to be composers or jazz musicians.

Her very first composition was an opera, The Final Bid, for which she wrote the libretto. When her collaborator, composer Tom Schudel, couldn’t find the time, he suggested that Elizabeth switch hats and write the music herself. She gave it a try and found she was a natural.

I sensed composing would take over my life and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it on but that feeling was overpowered by the sense of fulfillment I felt. Every day I couldn’t wait to get back to the opera.

The Final Bid was produced by the University of Regina and recorded by CBC. Elizabeth soon started on The Garden of Alice, and has subsequently written more than 80 chamber pieces, including a wide-ranging output for brass instruments, along with choral works, ballets, and two more operas.

She has garnered multiple awards, received commissions from ensembles and festivals across Canada, and had her music played all over the world.


 
 

Elizabeth Raum

 

Transforming Alice

Alice: I knew who I was when I got up this morning, but I’ve changed sev’ral times since then.

Like Alice herself, the opera The Garden of Alice has grown and shrunk to fit its circumstances. It was first presented in 1984 as a svelte little concert piece with four singers, a narrator, piano, and percussion. In the audience was Ken Kramer, artistic director of Regina’s Globe Theatre. Within minutes, Ken was thinking how the opera could be staged. Thought quickly became reality, and in 1985 the full opera, with Tracy Dahl as Alice, premiered in Regina, toured to Moosejaw and Yorkton, and was recorded by CBC. Since then, the concert version has been seen in school performances, but the full opera has not been staged.

Over the years, composer Elizabeth Raum considered rescoring Alice for more instruments. In August 2018, she was contacted by a producer about staging Alice in New York City. That was the impetus she needed to rescore the opera for a small chamber orchestra – a sextet comprising piano, violin, cello, clarinet, bassoon, and a battery of percussion instruments.

Before the New York performance could be organized, COVID-19 struck. Meanwhile, Timothy Vernon was in search of a pandemic project. He and Glynis Leyshon were soon in discussions with Elizabeth about adapting Alice for film. This meant extending a few transitions and tightening and reshaping the dramatic arc in order to reframe it as a memory piece with an adult Alice, to be played by Tracy Dahl.

It also meant changing the ending yet again. When Elizabeth first composed the opera, she intended it as a work for schools, but it soon transformed itself into an adult opera with a Kafkaesque ending, in which the irrational and dangerous creatures of Wonderland took a distraught Alice away in a straitjacket. When Tracy found this ending too depressing to sing every night, Elizabeth changed it.

In the second version, Alice was still threatened by the other characters. But as she tried to escape the nightmare, Jack, the Knave of Hearts, intervened and allowed her to run away.

Elizabeth explains that in the third version – the film adaptation for Pacific Opera – Alice is actually dreaming, and when she wakes up, all the characters become the characters in the hospital … I don’t know if she has COVID or not … then she looks out the window and into the garden, and that represents hope.

Timothy notes that reframing the opera with Alice as an adult looking back in some ways enriches the piece – adding a layer of drama and meaning that has gone through the rigorous mill of Glynis Leyshon’s dramaturgy. Glynis has a very strong sense of what’s going to work in a theatre – and she also is very aware that she’s going to have to make it work.

As for the score, Timothy speaks of its charm, and its grateful vocal writing – there is nothing in it that doesn’t suit the voice – which is not always the case in opera! He perceives a certain wide-eyed straightforwardness in the way Alice has been composed. He finds it particularly wonderful that moving from the piano/percussion version to the orchestra score opens up new dimensions of charm: The minute we went into rehearsal with this small ensemble, the music developed a whole other range of colours and a sense of depth that I almost didn’t anticipate.

As for the production design, it’s offbeat and beautiful. Timothy finds in it a slightly Wes Anderson vibe – a merging of the adult and child worlds that is both mesmerizing and kaleidoscopic.


 
 

Sara Schabas. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography.

 
 
 
 

Filming The Garden of Alice. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 

The Creative Team for The Garden of Alice

Artistic Director Timothy Vernon led an intrepid team of artists for The Garden of Alice. As they made art in new ways, they also adapted to new health precautions that, to cite a moment from Alice, were not unlike trying to swim in a molasses well.

Glynis Leyshon, one of Canada’s most respected theatre and opera directors, has directed more than 30 productions for Pacific Opera, most recently Il trittico and The Flight of the Hummingbird. This season she directs both The Garden of Alice and the Lee Hoiby double-bill of Bon Appétit and The Italian Lesson. With Alice she took on a new role as a film director. We have it on good authority that she quickly mastered the jargon: Cameras ready! Cameras rolling! Cut! … and, most satisfying of all, That’s a wrap! (Sadly, as we were still mid-pandemic, no wrap party was allowed.)

Pam Johnson has designed some of Pacific Opera’s most breathtaking productions, often in partnership with Glynis. Their most recent collaborations were 2018’s exuberant, magical Rinaldo, and 2019’s ingenious and beautiful Il trittico. Pam’s fantastical designs for Wonderland challenged our production team to come up with out-sized flowers, bendy prison bars, an uber-magical mushroom, a wickedly cool caterpillar, and all manner of cheekily extravagant clothing and beguiling curios.

Emily Cooper has been the photographer for several Pacific Opera productions, most recently Fidelio and Missing (2019). She is also an illustrator, and her evocative backdrops for Wonderland will slip into the final cut, replacing the (to be honest) garish green screen.

The intricacies of merging visuals, sound, and film have been handled by Lighting Designer Jeff Harrison, Video Lighting Consultant Vance Beaupre, Sound Engineer Kirk McNally, and Video Producer and Director of Photography David Malysheff.

The stage management team is always at the heart of an opera production. This time round, stage managers Christopher Sibbald, Becca Jorgensen, and Claire Friedrich were required not only to work closely with the director, wrangle the artists and crew, and keep every aspect of the process humming along, but also to communicate and enforce a complex assortment of COVID protocols.


 

Filming The Garden of Alice. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 
 

Glynis Leyshon, Christopher Sibbald. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

The Cast for The Garden of Alice

Soprano Tracy Dahl created the role of Alice in its staged première, at the very start of her career. She thrilled Pacific Opera audiences with her performances in the title roles of Maria Stuarda (2012) and Lucia di Lammermoor (2015). She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, and across North America. Tracy also played the Cheshire Cat in the US première of Unsuk Chin’s opera Alice in Wonderland.

Baritone Justin Welsh (the White Rabbit) debuted with Pacific Opera as the dog Lapak in The Cunning Little Vixen. His other Pacific Opera credits include the title role in The Marriage of Figaro, Papageno in The Magic Flute, and the Immigration Officer in Flight. Since the pandemic started, Justin has assumed a new identity as the Canadian Singing Postie.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Latham was a triple threat in 2019, performing three roles in Pacific Opera’s Il trittico – the warm-hearted La Frugola in Il tabarro, the cold-hearted Princess in Suor Angelica, and the greedy Zita in Gianni Schicchi. This season she takes on the over-the-top role of the Queen of Hearts, plus the madcap chef in Bon Appétit and the Dante-obsessed socialite in The Italian Lesson.

Bass-baritone Peter Monaghan plays two of the most captivating of Wonderland’s characters: the hookah-smoking Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, as well as Card #Five. Peter debuted with Pacific Opera in 2018 as a last-minute replacement for Colline in La bohème, flying in from Vancouver during a snowstorm, finagling a ride from a stranger and arriving at the Royal Theatre just before curtain!

Soprano Sara Schabas debuted with Pacific Opera as Dukdukdiya, the Hummingbird, in The Flight of the Hummingbird. She returns as another tiny, adorable creature – the Dormouse who, between naps, sings a mellifluous little ditty about three sisters living at the bottom of a molasses well. A 2019 Regional Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Sara was nominated for a 2020 Dora Award for her performance as Anne Frank in the world première of Cecilia Livingston’s Singing Only Softly.

Tenor Asitha Tennekoon (the Knave of Hearts) grew up in Sri Lanka and is a co‑founder of Amplified Opera, an artist-led indie opera initiative. He won a 2017 Dora Award for his performance as Paul in Scottish Opera/Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner. Other recent credits include John Peyton in Shanawdithit (Tapestry Opera); Guovžža in Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit (Soundstreams); the Doctor and Manager in The Overcoat (CanStage, Tapestry Opera, Vancouver Opera).

Tenor Kaden Forsberg (the March Hare, Cook, and Card #Two) sang Charlie in Pacific Opera’s school tour production of Mary’s Wedding, then returned for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Magic Flute, and the role of Devon in the world première production of Missing. This year he is participating in Pacific Opera’s Citizen Artist program.

Baritone Peter McGillivray (the Mad Hatter, Frog Footman, and Card #Seven) has previously performed a half dozen roles with Pacific Opera, including Dr. Bartolo in The Barber of Seville and Pizarro in Fidelio. He was nominated for a 2018 Dora Award for his performance in the world première of The Overcoat with Vancouver Opera, Tapestry New Opera Works and Canadian Stage.

Punjabi-Canadian mezzo soprano Simran Claire (the Duchess) understudied the role of Bunny in the world première of The Flight of the Hummingbird. During 2020/21 she is participating in Pacific Opera’s Citizen Artist program. Simran was a Young Artist at the 2019 Glimmerglass Festival, where she performed in La traviata and The Ghosts of Versailles, a co-production with Opéra Royal du Château de Versailles.

Tenor Nolan Kehler (Pat the Gardener and the Fish Doorman) has performed with the Pacific Opera Chorus. He sang the herald in Rinaldo and Berko in Countess Maritza and participated in the workshop process for the development of The Flight of the Hummingbird. He moonlights as a drummer and radio host in Manitoba.

The Garden of Alice also includes a choral ensemble, featuring Kyla Fradette, Grady Forsberg, and Cassidy Stahr, as well as the instrumental ensemble, comprising Christi Meyers (violin), Brian Yoon (cello), Keith MacLeod (clarinet), Jennifer Gunter (bassoon), Rob Pearce (percussion), and Kimberley-Ann Bartczak (piano).


 
 

Peter Monaghan. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography

 
 
 

Justin Welsh. Mackenzie Lawrence Photography