Nelson’s reputation as a strong arts community is a point of pride for the city, but it’s rare that one event manages to rally the talent of acclaimed singers, actors, writers and composers.
“I think it should be a point of pride for everyone,” says Don Macdonald, the musical director, conductor and composer of KHAOS. “It certainly is for me. These kind of crazy and amazing things tend to happen in Nelson often enough. Is this moment different than any other? There are crazy, wonderful things that seem impossible yet they are getting off the ground. To me the fact that we were able to get this many great singers and actors, to amass a team like this is amazing. That’s a point of pride.”
It’s been two and a half years since Macdonald and Nicola Harwood — who is the librettist and stage director for KHAOS — jokingly said: “We should write an opera.”
Since the seed was planted for the project, the community has built up around it and opening night is days away.
“I think in a small community it’s kind of a miracle that we have such a concentration of artists of a certain calibre to be able to do this to the quality we hope it will be next week,” said Harwood. “It’s also a reason why a lot of people love Nelson: there is such a strong sense of community spirit here. We are very integrated and loving as a community.”
The soloists in KHAOS include some of the city’s most talented vocalists and actors.
Audrey Bissett, Allison Girvan, Roger Ley, Kevin Armstrong, Kathleen Neudorf, Bessie Wapp and Christoph Martens are some of the names that make up the cast list of the unique opera.
“People have invested in this opera much like they have invested in Nelson as a community. There is a sense of ‘this is ours and we love it.’ It’s not just about pride, it’s about love,” said Harwood.
Both Harwood and Macdonald feel that the creative roots of Nelson are born out of an investment in cultural education.
“It’s that attention to generations of educating youth, and I think of our audience. There are so many graduates of our music program and of other artistic programs,” said Macdonald.
Girvan — one of the opera’s soloists and Macdonald’s wife — is the director of Nelson’s Corazon Choir, which has gained international popularity.
“That it’s a hip thing for teenagers in this town to join a youth choir is testament to how cool Allison is and what she creates to those kids is meaningful to them,” said Harwood. “These kids voluntarily want to be a part of this because they see it as such a fun, meaningful thing.”
A project is born
Harwood had been working on another opera for Nelson Community Opera two and a half years ago, when the idea for KHAOS emerged.
Harwood had worked with Macdonald on creative projects in the past.
The pair said the idea of the opera was somewhat a joke, but now with opening night on the horizon, both laughed “where’s the punch line?”
“The joke became reality,” said Macdonald.
When Marty Horswill — of Nelson Community Opera — heard what Harwood and Macdonald had come up with, he decided to help get the finances to move the project along.
“Marty got on board and said ‘yeah let’s make this happen, I will try to find funding and commission you guys,’ and he did. He found a whole bunch of local funding and a bit of provincial money and managed to commission us, so we wrote and wrote,” said Harwood.
Macdonald compares the journey to date with getting on an escalator.
“We got on at the bottom and as we move along more people keep piling on, until we reach the end of the escalator next week,” he said. “The escalator is running at full steam ahead and it’s still in good repair. There have been moments when it’s trying, just because it’s so big and so vast. It’s such a big form that it’s quite a wrestling match.”
Both Macdonald and Harwood said the personalities that have joined the project from the beginning have helped the opera have its own spirit.
“The cast is just so fully on board that it’s a pleasure to come down here,” said Macdonald. “That’s not always the case in big productions. Together we’ve been in some small productions where one person can be the fly in the ointment, but in this project there are no flies.”
While the project may be ambitious, everyone involved has worked hard to make it come to life.
“The spirit around it has been really great,” said Harwood. “People have been so excited to be involved and we’ve been kind of picky and choosey about who we want onboard. We’ve been so lucky and so blessed. So the show ends up having its own energy that makes it attractive because people are loving it.”
A myth reborn
KHAOS is a Nelson focused story built around the ancient Greek fertility myth of Persephone and Demeter.
“We wanted to tell a story about something that was impacting us, and everyone really,” said Macdonald. “We wanted it to have significance beyond the borders of Nelson and even
beyond British Columbia and Canada in a way.”
Harwood and Macdonald decided to tackle the topic of climate change.
“The theme of climate change is buried beneath the surface of the Persephone and Demeter myth,” said Macdonald.
Demeter is a goddess of fertility, grain and earth and her daughter Persephone is abducted by Demeter’s brother Hedes and taken to the underworld because he wants a wife.
“Demeter is so upset that she refuses to bring the rain, so her world dies,” said Harwood. “So there is basically drought and famine.”
Eventually the gods tell Hedes to bring Persephone back.
“But Hedes feeds her pomegranate seeds,” said Harwood. “The rule according to the myth is that if you eat the food of the underworld you have to return to the underworld, so she comes back up but she has to go back down.”
The myth was already so rich in its metaphor for the seasons that Harwood and Macdonald decided to extend it to say what if Persephone can’t return?
“We did the original myth and then we just extended the myth beyond that,” said Harwood. “It was challenging, but I think we got something out of it. It is really good stuff for opera because it is a big and dramatic form, it is not subtle or understated in any sense.”
The pair also felt the myth worked well to parallel the issues around climate change.
“It really holds well in terms of our human capacity to understand what we’re mucking with when we mess with these grand forces of nature and how shortsightedness and desire can lead to much more catastrophic ends than we are aware of,” said Harwood.
The opera is sung in English in a style described by Harwood as a musical theatre and opera hybrid.
“There is a style of writing called opera verismo and that’s the style that I chose early on. For every phrase, emotion and action that you see, there will be an accompanying musical character that goes with it,” said Macdonald.
He also drew on his extensive experience writing soundtracks for film, where Harwood said he writes well for drama.
“In a way it helps to tell the story,” he said. “If people don’t understand what’s going on through the language they will be able to tell through the tone of the music. It will even bring out some of the subtleties.”
Despite being a community project, KHAOS will bring a grand production to the Capitol Theatre beginning on March 8 with shows running at 8 p.m. until March 10. There will also be a special matinee on Saturday.
Tickets are available through the Capitol Theatre box office.