The seeds of Ann and Séamus
can be found in Kevin Major’s one-volume history of
Newfoundland, As Near To Heaven By Sea
(2001). In three pages Major recounts the singular gallantry of the Harvey family, sole inhabitants of Isle aux Morts, who, with seventeen year old Ann at the oars of a four-metre fishing skiff, accomplished the daring sea-rescue of over one hundred and sixty people, found clinging to treacherous reefs in high seas after their ship had smashed on the rocks.
Major has often said he was struck by how so heroic a tale should be so obscure, even in
Newfoundland itself. (When I visited the present town of Isle aux Morts I found that nobody
at a local shipyard could identify Ann Harvey, even though signs for the Ann Harvey trail
are posted on the only main road.) Major returned to the subject with Ann and Seamus
(2003), where he expanded Ann Harvey’s story into a narrative poem that blended careful
research with the fictitious element of a love interest between Ann and one of the young men
she helps rescue: a love interest which – and as an opera composer I had to love this – does
not end happily. (Note that Major’s poem is called Ann and Seamus
, whereas my opera
adds the Gaelic fada to the hero’s name: Ann and Séamus
Axel Meisen, president of Memorial University at St. John’s, Newfoundland, read Major’s poem
in manuscript and realized the potential for a youth opera, one tailored for St. John’s own
“Shallaway: Newfoundland and Labrador Youth In Chorus.” (For more on the choir, such as the
meaning of their name, see www.shallaway.ca
In the summer of 2003 the artistic director of the chorus, Susan Knight, asked me to look at the
manuscript of Major’s poem with an ear to turning it into an opera the choir could take on tour. “I see the children as the place,” she said.
I locked myself into my hotel room (well, actually, I always lock myself into my hotel room) and found myself thrilled and impressed with the idea. I had already written several pieces for Shallaway that explored traditional Newfoundland music in a variety of ways, including pieces that used the essential instruments of accordion, fiddle, flute and bodhrán (BOR-ran), the Irish frame drum on which such virtuosity is possible. Here was the perfect opportunity to expand on past collaborations.
I was also very pleased with the direction suggested by Knight’s comment, “I see the children as the place.” I have some professional theatre background, and both as performer and director I liked more than anything to create a sense of reality out of the actor’s bodies, with little or no setting or props. When I remembered how much fun it was to stage a helicopter rescue on stage (I was the back propeller), I felt very inspired by the thought of what could be done with an ocean rescue where the boat and the waves would be created by the actors, especially knowing that all these effects would have to “fit in a trunk” when the opera went on tour. The desire for a mobile opera contributed to my decision to have only five musicians in the orchestra, with nothing bigger than a string bass to pack onto the bus. Although it was clear from the start that the score would feature the four essentials mentioned earlier (accordion, fiddle, bodhrán, and a combination of flute and tin whistle), I initially thought that I would require a keyboard, or an extended string section, or a second percussionist – something to expand the timbres at my disposal. It was not until I had orchestrated the opening scene two or three different ways that I became confident that a string bass was all the extra support I needed.
Let me take a moment to thank the original orchestra: Alison Black (violin), who immeasurably improved my bowings; Grace Dunsmore (flute and whistle) who put up with whistle keys that no upright citizen should have to tolerate; Frank Fusari (accordion), whose advice on both accordion technique and bass bowing was a lamp unto my feet; Rob Power (bodhrán), who proved that the bodhrán can be a melody instrument, and who created much beauty out of the sketch I gave him; and Patricia Beretti Reid (double bass), whose instincts concerning when to bow and when to pluck made all the difference in several passages.
Based on the many successful collaborations I have enjoyed with Knight in the past, it was no surprise that when we met I found that my sketch of the overall aesthetic of the opera was on the same page as her own. It was my stipulation that I write my own libretto based on Major’s book, rather than using his language directly. Certainly you could make an opera libretto by quoting from the poem (check out, for example, how Major handles Ann’s first kiss), but for me it is often necessary to have complete control over the words, especially because I usually write the music first and then the words afterwards: sometimes moments afterwards, sometimes days, weeks, months. It does not make for a libretto that reads gracefully on its own, since the language depends on the music to create its pacing and rhythm, but it does make for words that fit the music closer than skin fits to bone. That’s the goal, anyway.
At first I was disappointed to learn that plans for the opera had fallen through in the fall of 2003, but this meant that when Knight re-approached me in the spring of 2005, I had lived with the story and the characters long enough for them to part of my internal muscle memory, and that’s a very good thing when your challenge is to turn a story told through printed words into one told primarily through wordless sound.