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High Cs meet high sticks in hockey opera Add to ...

It has been seven years since a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup and nearly as long since a Canadian-born player won the scoring title. Teams have packed up and moved away. Others are going broke. The old shrines have been shuttered and now the game's most beloved star, Maurice (Rocket) Richard, is dead.

If the game of hockey were an opera, this is the point at which the tenor, his world crumbling around him, would step forward and sing a heartbreaking lament for all that has been lost.

Well, unlikely as it seems, hockey is an opera. Or rather, it will star in one this summer, when high Cs meet high sticks in the world premiere of Game Misconduct, a new one-act opera by Vancouver composer Leslie Uyeda and librettist Tom Cone. The opera takes place during the seventh game of a playoff series, in the stands of an arena that will be torn down when the Canadian team is eliminated. It charts the changes in the lives of a group of fans who have gathered to cheer on their hometown heroes.

Ms. Uyeda acknowledges that her decision to set her opera at a hockey game raised some eyebrows. But as someone who grew up a fan of the Montreal Canadiens -- and remains one to this day, much to the chagrin of the Vancouver Canucks supporters who make up the chorus she directs at Vancouver Opera -- the idea of arias in arenas seemed to make perfect sense.

"Hockey is such a big-time emotion inside of me that it seemed like a natural fit with opera," she said of the piece, which will premiere Aug. 11 as part of Festival Vancouver, a new $3-million music festival. "The opera is not about a game, specifically -- we never see the game, except through the eyes of the fans -- but about how these people's lives are affected by hockey and how what's going on on the ice reverberates in their lives."

Game Misconduct didn't begin as a hockey opera. The pair, who got to know each other when Ms. Uyeda conducted the Vancouver Opera's production of The Architect, an opera Mr. Cone wrote with composer David McIntyre, were approached by Vancouver Playhouse artistic director Glynis Leyshon to write an opera on any subject. While scouting out possible venues, they found themselves at a small theatre in which the audience was seated right next to the action. They began talking about the relationship between audience and performers, which led them to think about the nature of being a fan.

"I had been going to see the Canucks with a friend who had tickets very close to the ice," Mr. Cone said. "We'd sit with a group of people who only knew each other through the game and who had made great sacrifices in other parts of their lives so they could have great hockey seats. And I noticed that, while we were watching we would go from elation to blood-thirstiness in a space of 20 seconds. To me, that read opera."

Mr. Cone's own connection to hockey was tenuous. He was born and raised in Florida, where his father owned a minor-league baseball team. While his father had worked with Eddie Shore, the former Boston Bruins' tough guy and notoriously skinflint owner of the Springfield Indians of the American Hockey League, his own childhood memories are of baseball and boxing.

"But when Leslie started talking about her relationship to the game and her concerns about the game changing, I understood," he said. "We talked about ourselves in relationship to games and the role games play in our identity."

What emerged was an 80-minute opera that followed the course of the game through the eyes of eight characters, including a couple from the suburbs whose marriage is falling apart, a visitor from Anaheim and a neophyte fan.

Mr. Cone's libretto cuts back and forth between the drama on ice, as seen by the fans, and the personal turmoil in those fans' lives. Ms. Uyeda's score, performed by new music group Standing Wave, similarly moves from music that subtly echoes the organ flourishes used to pump up the crowd at the Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens to more complex styles that reflect the inner lives of the fans.

The main character in Game Misconduct is Larry, a former goalie whose dreams of a pro career and relationship with his father went south when he let in a soft goal in a big game. Now he's a vendor, selling drinks and hot dogs in the stands in order to be close to the game he loves.

Originally conceived as a Zamboni driver -- his profession was changed when George Laverock, the producer of the festival, pointed out the difficulty of getting a Zamboni on to the stage of the Vancouver Playhouse -- Larry emerges as the tragic figure of Game Misconduct. John MacMaster, the Canadian tenor who will sing the role in August, sees parallels between Larry and Peter Grimes, the doomed fisherman of Benjamin Britten's opera.

"Like Grimes, Larry is a victim of his circumstances," said Mr. MacMaster, who is making his debut as Grimes in Detroit this weekend. "Grimes is crushed between the ocean and the town, Larry is crushed between his dream -- and his dad's dream -- and the reality of the game. He's still connected to this idea of hockey being a great and noble pursuit, but every night he's faced with the NBA-ing of the game and the reality that hockey has become just another form of entertainment."

If there is a sign that, at least in Canada, hockey remains more than just another form of entertainment, it came with the overwhelming reaction to the passing of Rocket Richard. As the tributes flooded in from across the country, the idea of an opera about hockey suddenly didn't seem quite so odd.

"I think it was evidence we made a good choice," Ms. Uyeda said. "It brought hockey into the public eye in a different way than simply who's going to win the [Stanley]Cup. It was a reminder of the game's mythos, about how much it permeates our society. And if something is mythic, then there will be expression to describe our relationship with that mythic element in our lives."

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