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.
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.