Magazine article Opera Canada

Shallaway: Ann and Seamus

Magazine article Opera Canada

Shallaway: Ann and Seamus

Article excerpt

There's a lovely scene in To Think Like a Composer, the documentary about the birth of Stephen Hatfield's chamber opera, Ann and Seamus, in which the composer uses a retractable sphere toy to coach the young singers in Shallaway. When he opens up the sphere, there's a crescendo; when he retracts it, the sound falls. It echoes the pattern of the sound of a wave, or of a human breath, both of which feature prominently in the remarkable opera for young people that, in sound and subject matter, draws its inspiration and heart from Newfoundland and Labrador. It had its premiere at Newfoundland's Memorial University in June 2006, but this summer the choir (Shallaway is more formerly subtitled Newfoundland and Labrador Youth in Chorus) toured from St. John's through Ottawa, Toronto and St. Catharines and on to Washington, D.C. Next year, they take it to Copenhagen, and beyond that there are plans for Beijing.

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The piece is a visceral mix of traditional and modern Canadiana. The story is a celebrated one and true, most famously set out in a lengthy narrative poem by Kevin Major. It concerns Ann, a young girl of 17 who yearns to get off the gloomily named Isle aux morts where her family lives ("Is it wrong, dear God, to be sick of the cod?"). The chance comes in 1828, after she and her family (including, it must be added, their dog, Hairyman) heroically rescue dozens of shipwrecked Irish immigrants. One of them, Seamus, falls for Ann and urges her to follow him away. Though keen at first, Ann has second thoughts about leaving her home and her family behind. The place she lives may be brutal at times, but the ties that bind her there prove stronger than Seamus's charms. This traditional story has its modern counterpart in Newfoundland today. About 10% of the population has left since the collapse of the cod fishery, and the dilemma of young people--whether to stay or to go--is a contemporary counterpart to Ann's. …

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