CPO Viola Player Arthur Bachmann was asked by the Calgary Opera to tell the stories of recent immigrants to Calgary in opera form. Learn how his opera earned him a nomination for the Community Beacon Award. 

Congratulations on being nominated! Can you tell us what your opera is about?

Way back in April 2011, I was contacted by the Calgary Opera asking if I would like to be the composer in their latest project, a community opera project. This was to involve telling the stories of recent immigrants to Calgary and set them, in opera form, onto the stage. Clem Martini, an award winning playwright, had already been chosen to be the librettist and months before, he had began by interviewing and collecting stories from as many recent immigrants (to Calgary) as he could. Once Clem had enough stories to present, we chose three which we thought would work well and decided the best way to tell them all was to intertwine the three stories together like a braid.

The first story described the ten year  journey of a couple of young orphan children fleeing from war torn Sudan into Ethiopia, then back to Sudan on the way to Kenya and then finally Canada. The second story was from Bosnia, during the time that ethnic cleansing was terrorizing the country, and was the story of a couple of friends that had to exchange passports and identities and bribe their way out of the country. The third story took place in Iran and is the story of one woman who had to flee the country because she took part in the brutally suppressed movement “The Million Signatures Campaign”- a movement attempting to get equal rights for women from the government. The opera was to be called “What Brought Us Here”.

Despite the quite epic nature of these stories, this was going to be a smaller scale opera, a little chamber opera, with only six singers, no choir and a very small size orchestra. Each story would use one or two singers to tell the story and the other singers would become additional characters as needed or just be the backup choir – used at times like a Greek Chorus to comment on or move the story forward.

How long did it take you to write the Opera?

We began our first workshops with the completed libretto in October 2011 with actors only – no singers yet – to get a sense of the timing and drama of the words.  From that moment on, I was writing music for this full time. I began by researching the music from the different cultures, as I wanted to absorb and incorporate as much of their music into mine as possible, and to help, musically, to differentiate between the three stories. I then began to sketch out ideas and some beginnings of arias and choruses as well as ideas about the entire form. All this on top of buying and moving into a new house, selling our old house, doing extensive renovations and my full time position as a violist with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra! A second workshop with actors along with singers took place in November 2011 and then another in December 2011.

Part of this project’s mandate was to utilize and include as much of the cultural communities involved as possible, and so we put a call out to the communities to gather all who wished to be involved and began to find ways to include them in the production. This included a Bosnian accordionist in the orchestra, a young Sudanese flute player playing on stage as well as a number of Iranian dancers and and an Iranian singer.

In May 2012 there followed another workshop with singers and almost an hour of music completed. Yet I still hadn’t finished all the music. The opera, which was originally conceived to be a little over an hour in length, had taken on a life of it’s own, and would eventually become a two hour show with an intermission, and after a couple of weeks of rehearsals in mid September, was premiered to four sold out shows on September 27, 28, and 29, 2012 at the Calgary Opera Arrata Centre.

Have you been commissioned to write an opera, or other musical works before?

I have been writing music since I was in my teens, but didn’t seriously pursue it as a career until I was in my thirties, and since then I have written music for small ensembles all the way up to full orchestra works. What moved me towards opera, was getting involved with the Calgary Opera program called “Let’s Create an Opera”, which had me going out to schools and helping the students compose an hour long operetta which they then produced and preformed. It was great fun and taught me lots about bigger form music and vocal writing. It also prepared me tremendously when I was asked in 2007 to write “A Paintbrush for Piccolo”, an hour long children’s show for the Calgary Philharmonic. This just had a repeat performance this last May, 2013 and is scheduled to be mounted with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in 2015.

What were your first thoughts when you heard you were nominated for the Community Beacon Award?

When I first found out the Calgary Opera had nominated myself and Clem for the Community Beacon Award, I was completely taken by surprise. We were just doing our job – doing our best to get “What Brought Us Here” off the ground, to let it live and fly, and were completely absorbed in the whole creative process until the job was done. It certainly wasn’t only the two of us that contributed to the success of this show, as there were many, many others involved; from the actors, the singers, the musicians, the backstage personnel, all the visionaries at the Calgary Opera, the original story tellers and their communities, the tremendous support of friends and loved ones and of course all in the audience that attended as well.

Personally for me, to be nominated for this award is an immense honour, and more than a little overwhelming. I’ll keep my fingers crossed for both Clem and I.