In a small town (population 10,000) nestled in the mountains, two old friends start talking about writing an opera together. Word spreads, and a retired foreign-aid worker/opera enthusiast offers to raise money for a proper commission.
When he's rejected for Olympic-related funding, he hits up locals with means and puts on fundraising dinners (he and his wife do the cooking), raising enough for the commission and staging of a new opera. The story will have an environmental bent and will feature an all-local cast, including the composer's talented wife and an international opera star who has just returned from Europe wanting to settle down in his hometown.
It may sound like the premise for a Christopher Guest mockumentary, but there is some serious opera being created in Nelson, B.C. The waiting for Khaos ended Thursday night, with the opera's world premiere.
"People who attend this show will be astonished at the production values and the vocal values," says Charles Barber, artistic director with City Opera Vancouver, who was a volunteer outside adviser to the project. "It really is a magnificent community enterprise done to a very high standard."
The full-length opera is a first for composer Don Macdonald, who does a lot of film work (recent projects include the Val Kilmer vehicle The Steam Experiment) and for librettist Nicola Harwood, a playwright who collaborated with Macdonald four years ago on a musical, Loco Phantasmo. They liked working together, they live a few blocks apart, and in early 2009, they started talking about writing an opera together.
It wasn't long before Marty Horswill, a retired field director for CUSO who would become the project's producer and chief fundraiser, caught wind of it. Soon after, Horswill bumped into Harwood on a street corner (it really is a small town) and offered to get on-board, in his capacity as chair of the Amy Ferguson Institute's opera commission committee.
Harwood, 51, and Macdonald, 45, settled on the story together: a retelling of the Greek fertility myth of Demeter and Persephone, with a contemporary context: climate change.
In the ancient season-explaining feminist myth, Persephone is abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. Demeter, her mother, feels such profound grief that she refuses to nourish the Earth. Nothing grows. When a compromise is reached where Persephone is released for half the year, Demeter agrees to contain her grieving to the other six months, and restore the balance of the Earth.
But what if, the opera asks, society's greed prevented Persephone from returning to Earth to console her grieving mother? Would the Earth's very existence be at risk?
"We chose a story that we knew would have a resonance for the people of Nelson but also a resonance for people beyond the borders of this city," says Macdonald. "We weren't interested in telling a story that would be so overtly about climate change that people would see only that subject matter. We wanted a story about love and redemption and conflict."
Meanwhile, Horswill, 68, got busy writing an exhaustive grant application to Arts Partners in Creative Development, which funded B.C. organizations' projects in the run-up to the 2010 Olympics. In March, 2009, he applied for $60,000 for the commission. In August, he got the rejection letter.
Between the world economic crisis and the slashing of grants that come from provincial gambling revenues for arts and other groups in British Columbia, it was a bad time to be seeking funding for a new opera. But Horswill wasn't ready to give up.
"As it happened, the very first person I went to, expecting to get $5,000 or $6,000, said, 'Sure, and I'll give you $10,000.' " The response, from a retired surgeon and his wife, also a retired doctor, was encouraging, but Horswill still had $50,000 to go.
"I had a serious conversation with myself.... Do I approach 5,000 people for $10 each or do I approach 10 people for $5,000? And I realized it's as much work to convince one person to give you $10 or $100 as it is to convince the right person to give you $5,000. So I took the $5,000 route," says Horswill.
"He's got this great moxie," says Harwood, who also directs the production. "He'll just ask people for significant amounts of money. He pretty singlehandedly raised the money."
In the end, the company raised more than $52,000 from private individuals – about a third of the total budget (the rest coming from government grants and some corporate donations).
"If you divide that by the population of Nelson, that's $5.10 for every man, woman and child," says Horswill. "So multiply that by 2.5 million in Toronto, and if the Canadian Opera Company did the same thing for a commission, they would raise $12.75 million from private citizens."
Local money is one thing. Pulling off a Kootenays-only cast – Nelson Community Opera's mandate – was something else, even in a place like Nelson, where it's not going out on a limb to say that artistic types are overrepresented in the population. The production includes seven principal singers, one principal dancer and a chorus of 20 (along with a 16-member orchestra).
"I definitely had misgivings about whether we were going to be able to get the right singers," says Macdonald. "I married one of the right singers, which is handy." (Soprano Allison Girvan, who sings Persephone.)
For the bad-guy role of Cerberus, gatekeeper of Hades, a strong baritone with acting chops was required. "We weren't sure who was going to be able to pull it off," says Macdonald.
What luck: Kevin Armstrong, who grew up in Nelson, was moving back, following about a decade studying and singing opera in Europe. Armstrong was a natural for the role – "a Mac truck combined with a Mercedes-type voice," is how Macdonald describes him.
Armstrong was back in Nelson last June, for the opera's workshop. Barber, as adviser, drove out from Vancouver.
"My initial response was – to my embarrassment – the condescending and patronizing thought: Wow, this is awfully good for such a small town," says Barber. "That lasted for about an hour, and then I began to hear in the voices and see in the faces and witness in the interaction how very serious and very capable by any measure these people were and are."
There were extensive notes – and revisions followed, but not because the opera isn't strong. On the contrary, says Barber.
"The work is so worthy, the people are so good and the difficulties of creating new opera are so immense that you need to be as risk-averse as you can. And that means outside critical opinion."
There's more than an environmental moral to this whole Khaos tale. At a time when it's easy for opera companies to play it safe, to produce Carmen and La Bohème because the tickets will sell, a little town in the Kootenays has stepped up with an idea, money, determination – and a brand new opera.
Even if he wasn't blown away – and he was – by the workshop, Barber gives a standing ovation to the effort. "Our job [in opera] in my view, is to honour the tradition and to extend the tradition," he says. "Our job is not to run a musical mausoleum."
Khaos ended its Nelson, B.C., run on Saturday, but soon tours to the B.C. communities of Cranbrook (March 17), Grand Forks (May 11), Trail (May 12) and Creston (May 13).