Opera composers are seldom nice guys. Mozart wrote sophomoric smut to a female cousin. Wagner was an egocentric voluptuary who ran up unbelievable bills, which he had no intention of paying, to drape himself in silks and satins. Critic Hans Keller, citing work after work by Britten that deals with torture and grim death of children or blameless young men, has suggested that sublimated sadism is a prime motivation in Britten’s creative life.
And so it is with the operas themselves. Mozart’s Don Giovanni offers rape, murder and hellfire. Verdi’s Aida ends with the walling up alive of Aida and Radames. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly wrings our hearts with the heroine’s pitiful suicide by the knife. Berg’s Lulu offers a multiplicity of perversions and blood-drenched low doings. The Britten operas are strewn with horrors.
Indeed, the theatre of opera is removed only in fact, not in fancy, from the carnage of the Roman arena, from the bear pits and bull pits of early England. By far the most (and most successful) operas were written neither by nor for sensitive sophisticates.
With all this in mind, the man of the moment on the operatic scene in Canada looks, at first glance, like an unlikely prospect for inclusion in the operatic hall of fame. Charles Wilson, 41, Toronto-born citizen of Guelph, family man (elegant wife, three strapping children, two great danes, a basset hound, two goldfish), 23 years a choral conductor, onetime organ student of Charles Peaker, composition student of Godfrey Ridout: a portrait of a paragon of domesticity.
But look a little closer, first at the man, then at his actions and his works, and finally at some of his ideas.
Wilson is physically a Macbeth: stocky, powerful, black-haired, blackbearded and black-browed. His smile is pleasant when it comes, but a look of surly preoccupation is more usual,
and he has to make an effort to repress the flash of hostility that comes to his eyes when he is crossed in argument. He usually does repress it, or at least restrain it, but one never doubts the warrior instinct is there.
He has composed for years and has a list of some 27 large works to his name, including a symphony, an oratorio, a ballet, various chamber works and three operas. The operas, all recent, coincide more or less with a decision to cut his ties with conventional security and make his living as a composer. Most composers — especially the family men among them — would tell you there is no way a man can make his living in Canada merely by composing.
But Charles Wilson has thrown down the gauntlet, and settled himself to the task of backing his challenge with works. Of six major commissions completed in the 1972 season, three are operas. And of these three, the largest — a full-scale treatment of Yeats’ scholar Eugene Benson’s libretto on the 12th-century French love story Héloïse And Abelard — will be given a major production by the Canadian Opera Company at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre in September, with performances the eighth, fourteenth and twenty-sixth. Leon Major will direct the staging. Victor Feldbrill will be the conductor.
It is characteristic of Wilson that he wrote the opera to get the commission rather than the other way around. He had always wanted to do an opera — his earlier work, En Guise d’Orphée, for baritone and strings, is striking evidence of that—and when he had written the first act of Héloïse And Abelard he showed it to Ruby Mercer, editor of Opera Canada, who in turn persuaded COC director Herman GeigerTorel to look at it. Geiger-Torel was impressed. The libretto was a natural — in the grand tradition of operatic (and Yeatsean) illogic, but full of passion, intrigue and bloodshed (the hero, Abelard, is first castrated by the vengeful uncle of his inamorata Héloïse, and later sent to prison as a heretic). And the score (says Wilson, “I don’t know what Herman must have thought of my singing and playing, but that’s the way he heard it”) was sufficiently impressive that Geiger-Torel committed himself to producing it as a special event of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Canadian Opera Company.
Wilson’s decision to set himself economically adrift into the life of a professional composer grew on him irresistably. “When I was in high school, taking piano lessons, I remember thinking I’d never make anything
of that. But when I listened to music, to the way it was designed and put together, I thought, ‘I could do that; in fact, I think I might be able to do it a hell of a lot better than that.’ So I started composing, and I found I could do it. And the more I did of it, the more it took me over. By now I haven’t any choice. I didn’t choose to start making a living as a composer. I just couldn’t think of an alternative. Composing is what I do.
“At this point, I don’t doubt that I will make a living as a composer. But then, I’m confident at present. I’ve had a good year. Maybe I’ll have a bad year and lose the confidence. But I won’t stop composing. It’s what I do.”
The confidence is unmistakable in Wilson’s voice when he talks about the success of his one-act opera Everyman, commissioned last year by Dalhousie University. “That work poured out of me; it went down on paper without a hitch. It’s an absolutely complete work. I wouldn’t change a note of it.”
Whether Héloïse And Abelard will be the success that Everyman has been remains to be seen. A full-length opera and a one-acter are challenges of quite different sizes and kinds. But there can be little question that Wilson is emerging a potent new force in the opera field.
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