Prison scenes figure in several well-established operas, from Tosca and Fidelio to Janacek's From the House of the Dead. This week in Montreal, two new operas take off from prison stories, one imagined and the other very real.
Les Feluettes (Lilies), at Opéra de Montréal, is an adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard's 1987 play about a love between two men that ends in death and imprisonment. The Trials of Patricia Isasa, at Chants Libres, is based on an Argentinian woman's captivity during her country's "Dirty War" of the 1970s, and her determination to bring her torturers to justice. Both works are being staged during Opera America, a major annual conference for North American opera companies taking place this week in Montreal.
Patricia Isasa was 16 when she was seized by security forces who beat and raped her, and held her prisoner without charge for two and a half years. For the first six months, she was kept in a six-by-six-metre cell with 35 other women, who never saw daylight or darkness – their cell was brightly lit day and night.
"Half an hour after they kidnapped me and put a hood over my head, I decided three things," Isasa said, during an interview in Montreal. "I decided that I would survive, that I would tell the story, and that I would remain the same person. They could do things to my body, but they couldn't touch my soul."
She was never tried for any crime, and was released at the age of 19 without apology or explanation. The trials of the opera's title relate to the two processes she launched against her tormentors, first in Spain and later in Argentina, where six men – including a chief of police, a federal judge and a mayor – were found guilty and given heavy sentences in 2009.
One of Isasa's witnesses was killed before the trial, and another was murdered after the convictions. At one point, she fled to the United States because of death threats, before returning to Buenos Aires, where she now lives.
At 55, Isasa still has the brio and warmth of the buoyant teenager she must have been. American librettist Naomi Wallace and Norwegian-American composer Kristin Norderval actually begin their opera with a scene featuring the young and older Isasa confronting each other, comparing ideals and challenging each other's assumptions.
Isasa said she had one musical request, which was that the opera contain elements of tango and a bandoneon. Norderval, who also performs the soprano role of the adult Isasa, wrote the score for an expanded tango ensemble of seven players, plus an electronic tape part made from the sounds of detuned pianos.
"The ending is hopeful," Norderval said – though she noted that the infamous School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., where many Dirty War torturers were trained, is still turning out graduates. Isasa has been active in protests against the school, which she says disseminates techniques for controlling civilian populations through state terror.
But Pauline Vaillancourt, Chants Libres's artistic director, says that The Trials of Patricia Isasa is not a political opera as such. "It's an opera about courage," she said.
Isasa said that when her captors were convicted, "I received a reparation and a healing. I felt everything was ending, and my question was, 'What do I do with this now?'"
One of the answers came in an approach from Norderval, who had heard her story and wanted to adapt parts of it for the stage. For Isasa, the transformation of her suffering into a work of art was an unexpected hopeful ending.
"Beauty softens everything, even horrible things," she said. "The tragedy is changed into something you can more or less touch. I have good memories of so many people [who did not survive]. We lose the person, but we don't lose the message or the stories. You could find love and beauty even in these kinds of places, because human beings are about resistance."
Michel Marc Bouchard has seen several transformations of his landmark play Les Feluettes, through eight translations for the stage and in John Greyson's film adaptation Lilies, released in 1996. Writing the libretto for the opera version meant cutting at least half of the play, the playwright said in an interview between rehearsals, and reshaping the rest to fit a musical setting.
"We had to make room for the music, and especially for the two leading parts," Bouchard said. He also wrote brand new text for several arias.
Even so, "I find it easier and more gratifying to write for opera than for film," he said, "because there is a closer proximity between opera and theatre. There's the same unity of time, action and place, which you absolutely don't find in cinema."
He was contacted by the American composer Kevin March after March saw the Greyson film in 2002. They were talking about a possible collaboration when Opéra de Montréal and Pacific Opera Victoria each contacted Bouchard independently, about making an opera version of Les Feluettes. The work became a co-commission that will be seen in Victoria in April, 2017.
The opera, like the play, is set in a prison where a less-than-saintly bishop is forced to watch a re-enactment of events in which he played a part years before.
The 50-piece orchestra is in prison too, visible on stage throughout the piece, wearing costumes made using only what could be found in a jail. There are nine solo roles in the piece and a chorus of 20 – all male.
The play contains an overt operatic cue, in the form of an amateur theatrical scene from a Gabriele D'Annunzio play, Le Martyre de saint Sébastien, for which Claude Debussy wrote incidental music. March's eclectic tonal score includes crucial references to Debussy, as well as scenes set to Quebec folkloric music and ragtime. March said he has also associated certain motifs and themes with particular characters, giving himself room to allude to things even when they're not seen or spoken about on stage.
The stylistic diversity matches the range of different kinds of French used in the play, Bouchard said, though he had to eliminate Québécois speech from the libretto. "If the whole opera were in Québécois, that would work. But to have a French character and a Québécois character singing together, the Quebecker sounds grotesque and funny."
It was also hard to preserve the play's humour, Bouchard said, because operatic timing is more rigid. In terms of the interplay between performer and audience, he said, theatre is a hot medium, while opera is cold.
But the playwright also said he feels proud to be putting this story on the opera stage, which hasn't seen many same-sex love stories. "This is about two men in love, and not as accessories, but in front, as the main characters," he said.
The Trials of Patricia Isasa plays at Montreal's Monument National, May 19-21. Les Feluettes plays Place des Arts' Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, May 21-28.