James Rolfe

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I’ve two composer profiles in the new issue of Opera Canada. Here’s James Rolfe; I’ll post Aaron Gervais interview tomorrow. Both have interesting things coming up.

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One of our most literary composers, James Rolfe is about to complete his biggest literary opera yet. Canadian Stage recently announced the premiere of The Overcoat in March 2018, an opera with libretto by Morris Panych based on one of Gogol’s best-known short stories. Based on more than one, in fact—most of The Overcoat is there, but the ending is from Diary of a Madman.

Akaky Akakievich, the low-ranking government copyist, therefore, does not die from a fever caught walking around St. Petersburg without the overcoat, but is confined in an asylum. New characters are added, too. “There’s a chorus of three women throughout the piece,” Rolfe says. “At the beginning, it’s ambiguous who they are. We accept right away that they are not visible. They are sort of adjunct to the action, but the characters don’t see them. It’s clear by the end”—spoiler alert—“that they’re inmates of the mental asylum where the protagonist ends up.”

Much of what Rolfe has composed for voice so far has strong literary ties. He enjoys working with award-winning author André Alexis (“There’s a great musical sense in is writing”) and is currently working on a piece based on poems by 2016 Governor General Award winner Steven Heighton. One gets the sense he is not only a serious reader, but someone who reads with the composing mind fully on. “I absolutely am. And poetry is already half way music anyway. There’s certain poetry I go back to again and again; Whitman, Rimbaud, and Archibald Lampman, a Canadian poet from the end of the 19th century. If something speaks to you, that’s the most important thing. You have to have strong feelings about a piece of writing to want to put music to it.”

The Overcoat as opera germinated at a LibLab librettist-composer sessions held by Toronto-based Tapestry Opera. (Tapestry is co-producer of the work, which goes on to the Vancouver Opera Festival after its CanStage premiere.) Panych had already adapted Gogol’s The Overcoat with Wendy Gorling into a nonverbal stage play that toured the world, but the Rolfe-Panych Overcoat was to be tailored out of very different cloth. Panych worked on the libretto for a time and submitted it to Rolfe completed. There followed a piano workshop in 2014 and a fuller workshop a year later. Early this March, Rolfe was in the final stages of composing and, in his words “tweaking the orchestration… There will be 11 singers—some will play more than one part—and 12 instrumentalists.” How would he describe the texture of the score? “Pretty clear and simple for the most part. I tried to keep it not overly musically complex or challenging for its own sake. I try to keep the musical imagery quite clear. I think it’s in the spirit of the libretto that Morris created.”

Composing something that is of our time is, in his view, probably the biggest challenge opera composers face today. “By that I mean something that’s relevant, dramatically and musically, because we live in an era with an embarrassment of riches, with so many possibilities and choices at every turn. Bringing out the tone and the style in opera for the people of today is the goal.” He has several projects on the go. Aeneas and Dido (with André Alexis) will be remounted by Toronto Masque Theatre in the company’s final season. Crush, his modern take on Don Giovanni (with Anna Chatterton), commissioned in 2007 by Richard Bradshaw, lived to see a workshop production at Banff last July with six emerging singers and a piano trio. “We’re still looking for a production partner and are talking to theatres in Toronto about it. Hopefully, we’ll get it off the ground.” In their version, the title character is a woman and Elvira and Zerlina are merged into one person, though the statue’s revenge and the fires of hell they decided to keep.

Rolfe lives in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood with his partner, composer Juliet Palmer, and their daughter. He runs every morning and bakes almost as frequently. “Food and running kind of go together—and balance each other out.” He teaches part-time, tries to get out to as many concerts as possible and is one of those composers who, no matter their own workload, remain interested in other people’s work. “I like to stay in touch. Best thing about teaching is that I get to listen to new things by younger people, and I listen to what they’re listening to as well.”

Opera Canada, Vol. 57, No. 4

JR

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