Riders to the Sea and Le Flambeau de la nuit: A Crossing of the High Seas
Mode de vie
By Marie-Pier Perron
June 23, 2021
Text: Véronique Gauthier
Photos : Brent Calis
The sea, shipwreck, and the unleashing of the elements await audiences at this collaborative production of the Opéra de Montréal, BOP, and I Musici next September. The program features two short operas: Riders to the Sea by Ralph Vaughan Williams and the world premiere of Le Flambeau de la nuit, libretto by Olivier Kemeid and music by Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse.
FROM THE AENEID TO LE Flambeau de la nuit
As the co-directors of BOP Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse and Alexis Raynault were developing their project, Vaughan Williams’ opera quickly came to mind. “It’s a work we like very much, and we wanted to combine it with a new work that would address the same themes,” explains Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse. After reading Olivier Kemeid’s own re-reading of The Aeneid, they approached the author about a collaboration. “My relationship with the sea is present in several of my works. It is a subject that nourishes me and challenges me a lot. They had the right intuition that my world would fit in well with Riders to the Sea,” quipped the playwright.
A Fortunate Introduction to the Creation of an Opera
As this was the playwright’s first acquaintance with the art of opera, his confidence and experience came to him through the guidance of Hubert and Alexis. But far from holding him back, the constraints of the operatic world inspired him in his writing: “I have no problem reworking my texts and refining them. In opera, it’s the music that dominates. What matters is that the text can be put into the singer’s mouth, and at no time did I feel that I had to distort my language to make that work.” His main challenge? Time limits. “I tend to write short plays, so writing a 40-minute opera is a super interesting exercise for me! ”
This is also Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse’s first experience composing an opera, and his choices, such as instrumentation emulating the movement of the sea and a highly present choir succeed in creating the right, evocative atmosphere. “I find it easier to write for the voice than for any other instrument, as the text already gives indications of what directions to take. It should be said, however, that Olivier’s words were easy to set to music, from the outset.”
Migration: A Timeless Story
In Le Flambeau de la nuit, we follow refugees fleeing their country—in this case, a mother and son—, from their departure to their crossing’s tragic outcome. Emphasizing the theme’s timelessness, the opera avoids setting a specific place or time. It has a symbolic, mythological element inspired by thousands of stories of shipwreck and migration that have marked history, literature, and the author’s life. “There was the migration of my father’s family, who left Egypt in 1952, that of Virgil, the Syrians, the Senegalese.” And the Boat People who crossed his path in the Bahamas when, at the age of 10, young Olivier spent a year on a sailboat with his family. These Boat People were lost off the coast of Florida, and Olivier and his family were the last to see them alive.
“We aren’t giving lessons in morality by telling this story. We are trying to be one with the characters, and I believe our aim is more about touching people and paying tribute to these sacrificed lives, about recognizing their deep humanity.
Tackling a Delicate Subject With Sensitivity
What are the issues that need to be pondered when staging a sensitive and highly mediatized topic such as migration? To come close to doing justice to this theme, you must truly engage and put your heart and soul into it,” affirms Olivier Kemeid. “Even if the libretto is not set in a specific era, people will still find links with recent events,” adds Hubert Tanguay-Labrosse. To make the production inclusive at all stages of development, the design team worked with people who had experienced migration in real life. Le Flambeau de la nuit is also enriched by the Kurdish Iranian musician Showan Kavakol, who plays a traditional Central Asian instrument, the kamancheh, bringing a special colour to the project without being stereotypical. “I also have the impression that in my life and writing, and in the fact that I have dealt with exile several times in my plays, allows me not to feel that I am exploiting others’ experience,” affirms Olivier Kemeid.
Without any doubt, this is a work that will leave no one unmoved. This fall, it will be the public’s turn to experience Le Flambeau de la nuit, which its creators are very much looking forward to!