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Playwright Tom Walmsley received a liver transplant from playwright Michael Healey in 2004. (Della Rollins for the Globe and Mail)
Playwright Tom Walmsley received a liver transplant from playwright Michael Healey in 2004. (Della Rollins for the Globe and Mail)


Playwright, novelist and poet Tom Walmsley adds librettist to his job titles Add to ...

Given a new lease on life by a liver donation in 2004, playwright, novelist and poet Tom Walmsley is adding librettist to his job titles.

The 63-year-old Walmsley, an alcoholic and drug addict in his youth, is known for his brutal dramas about sex and addiction: his previous plays include Descent, in which a woman has a last fling with two drunks on the eve of her wedding, and Blood, a drama that includes drugs, prostitution and brother-sister incest.

His new work is the libretto for the electroacoustic chamber opera Julie Sits Waiting, which features a score by Quebec composer Louis Dufort and was produced by its star, Fides Krucker, a vocalist who specializes in singing new opera.

How did you come to be writing a libretto?

Fides and I had shows done at Theatre Passe Muraille at the same time. She wrote me and wanted to commission me to write an opera about incest. I told her I had already written a play about incest and the chances were almost nil that I would be interested in her project. She asked me if I wanted to meet and have a coffee. We had a coffee. Fides is quite brilliant. She talked about the whole fact of opera and what it did. I thought this is somebody I can learn from. I was smitten by her. So, I said opera here I come.

And …

I am loving it. With opera what exactly is over the top? You can have whatever you want. It’s like a Chinese movie. There’s tragedy, there’s comedy, there’s melodrama.

What happens in Julie Sits Waiting?

It’s an Anglican priest who gets involved with a police officer’s wife online. One things lead to another and they meet up. The opera begins with him walking into the house. It’s a house her husband is renovating. It’s in disarray.

How is writing a libretto different from writing a play?

When I am writing a play I am always thinking ahead to what the next character will say. My mind is running ahead of me. With a libretto, I only think about what they are singing. If someone sings an aria, even if you stop it right there, you have something. In a play, unless it’s some kind of Shakespearean soliloquy, it’s an interaction.

The opera I liked was [Bartok’s] Bluebeard’s Castle. I used that as a kind of model: he sings, she sings, he sings, she sings.

And you are writing another libretto?

For this one, I saw Don Giovanni and I realized it can be more fluid. (This is all basic stuff anyone in opera would know, but I don’t.) It involves a boxer who is involved with someone he shouldn’t be involved with. It’s got the mob in it. I am only half an hour into the thing.

My idea for the music is that it will be all percussive. I have gongs, castanets, rattles, tambourines. A percussive opera. Doesn’t that sound brilliant?

It sounds different. Will Fides sing it again?

No, no. I think she’s had it with my operas. This took years and cost thousands.

When I was a kid I wanted to write every single form before I died. So I thought this will fulfill that too. It’s just a trip to say, yes, my opera is opening tomorrow. Words you never think you will say in a lifetime.

Julie Sits Waiting plays at Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto until Sept. 23.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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