Playwright John Murrell was leafing through an old paperback called Wild West Women when he came across an astonishing story: A woman arrived in New York from Russia in the early 1920s and proceeded to walk - yes, walk - to British Columbia. What, Murrell wondered, could have possibly motivated her?
It was a short entry - three or four pages, he recalls - but it was accompanied by an unforgettable photograph. "It was a fascinating image of her clearly dressed for travel and with the most amazing determination in her gaze," he said in Vancouver last week.
He eventually talked it over with his collaborator John Estacio, and they knew instinctively that they had the subject for their next opera.
The Vancouver Opera's Lillian Alling has its world premiere on Saturday at Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
Only bits and pieces about the real Lillian Alling are known: She arrived at New York's Ellis Island from Eastern Europe; she was reported to be searching for someone; she crossed the continent on foot alone. She was imprisoned for a time in B.C. for vagrancy; some said it was for her own protection. She ultimately disappeared into the north.
For Murrell and Estacio, the unanswered questions were part of the story's attraction. "We spent a lot of time not just digging for research, but digging into our imaginations, trying to come up with a cohesive storyline that preserved her heroism and her mystery and her determination, but also in some ways solved the mystery," says Murrell. "We became convinced that perhaps there was a reason that she cloaked herself in mystery. So that of course made her more frustrating and more interesting."
Alling has also inspired other artists; most notably the U.S. novelist Amy Bloom's Away.
Murrell and Estacio (who have collaborated on two previous operas, Filumena and Frobisher) came up with a story set partly in contemporary Vancouver and partly in the past. The tale of Lillian ((Frédérique Vézina) is told in the present day by an older woman, Irene (Judith Forst), to her son Jimmy (Roger Honeywell).
Almost five years in the making, and with a budget of $1.6-million, the creation of Lillian Alling has been as epic as the journey the opera depicts. It's Vancouver Opera's first main-stage commission, and for the company it is unquestionably a gamble.
"The financial equation is not very optimistic," says James Wright, VO's executive director. "New work by definition is expensive ... and the audience return is questionable because it's new work. So the gap between income and expense is huge compared to Traviata or Bohème or even Aida. So you have to feel that the organization could withstand a problem."
The Vancouver Opera has a strong donor base and has recorded nine operating surpluses in 11 years, leaving the company in a stable position. But Wright says commissioning a new work is an artistic gamble too.
"It's stepping off a cliff, even with a very respected team like John and John [Murrell and Estacio]who have a couple of really good pieces under their belt. It may work, it may not. Everything Verdi did didn't work."
As stage director and dramaturge, Kelly Robinson has been responsible for making the multi-setting story (Estacio calls it a "road opera") work on the stage. There's a heavy reliance on video projection, but Robinson and production designer Sue LePage have been careful with the technology.
"A key part of the design process for us is how to use a very powerful medium to be in a supportive and not a leading role," says Robinson. "Because imagery is compelling, it's large, it's present and it might be easy to swamp the individual performer. So it's been very much a watchword of ours to support, extend, richen, deepen and so on, but not overwhelm the performer."
With the work deep into rehearsals, Robinson says there's "a real growing sense that there's something very special in the piece."
Wright heard the orchestration for the first time last week and he was thrilled. "When I heard it, I thought the only thing I've got to worry about now is bums in seats."
Ticket sales, he says, are "on track." The company is using social media in a big way to try to get the word out, with a Lillian Alling blog, Twitter account and pixilated QR codes on "Where is Lillian?" posters around town that people can scan with their smart phones for access to behind-the-scenes footage.
The Vancouver Opera is also trying to sell other opera companies on the work. Wright has invited about 25 general directors to see the show; a handful have confirmed they'll attend.
He believes a story about immigration - about a quest and journey and bravery - will appeal to a broad audience anywhere.
"Even though a large part of its setting is B.C., this is universal, like all great operas," he says. " Tosca's set in a specific place too, but you don't have to be in Rome to get it."
Lillian Alling will be performed at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on Saturday and on Oct. 19, 21 and 23 ( vancouveropera.ca).