Newfoundland and Labrador’s Opera on the Avalon proudly presents the world premiere of Ours, a new opera by Juno-nominated Canadian composer John Estacio with a libretto by Governor General Award-winning playwright Robert Chafe. Opera on the Avalon, led by Artistic Director Cheryl Hickman and based in St. John’s, is Atlantic Canada’s only professional opera company. Opera on the Avalon commissioned Ours to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Beaumont Hamel, a WWI battle which devastated the ranks of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on July 1, 1916. Internationally-acclaimed baritone Brett Polegato leads an all-Canadian cast of twelve, with full chorus, in the role of Thomas Nangle, chaplain to the Regiment. The singers and orchestra are conducted by Judith Yan with stage direction by Glynis Leyshon and design by Patrick Clark. Ours will be presented in two performances, on July 1 and 2 at 8pm, at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s.
For Hickman, who was born and raised in St. John’s, Ours resonates far beyond the province’s borders, “Our vision is to create a work that will be a legacy for all Canadians, to help us honour the memories of the past and to serve as an inspiration for our future. Newfoundland and Labrador is steeped in history and Opera on the Avalon is dedicated to transforming that history into art.”
Ours was one of only four new Canadian operas invited to present a showcase at this year’s Opera America conference. To hear an excerpt from the beautiful, moving score please click here (begin 35:40).
“Ours” is how the people of the province referred to the Newfoundland Regiment. During the Battle of the Somme, the Regiment’s tragic advance near the French town of Beaumont Hamel on the morning of July 1, 1916 became an enduring symbol of valour and wartime sacrifice – and a cultural memory seared into the hearts of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. In a single morning, the Regiment was almost wiped out. When roll call was taken, only 68 men answered – 324 were killed, or missing and presumed dead, and 386 were wounded. “I am honoured to have the opportunity to tell a story that is of great significance to Newfoundland’s rich history,” comments composer John Estacio, “Ours will be an intimate and personal opera about individuals whose lives were indelibly affected by this battle. Through music and storytelling, I hope to honour the sacrifices made by thousands and celebrate the land they loved and called home.”
This is first opera libretto for St. John’s-based playwright Robert Chafe: “Ours is an attempt to speak to patriotism and nationhood, faith, and family. I think it has resonance beyond any specific discussion of war … it goes to places that examine our human need for meaning, our need to commemorate, and to make sense of those things that are difficult to remember – but can’t be forgotten.”
Ours tracks the social, political, and emotional aftermath of the battle of Beaumont Hamel through the story of Thomas Nangle, whose dedication, sacrifice, and renewal is the human embodiment of Newfoundland’s journey through the war, its horrific aftermath, and its re-emergence as a province of Canada. Nangle was posted as chaplain to the Newfoundland Regiment shortly after Beaumont Hamel and served out the rest of the war with “Ours.” Following the war, he lead efforts to exhume, identify, and properly bury the remains of much of the lost regiment across Europe, then almost single-handedly established the existing five war memorial sites across Europe, as well as the Newfoundland National War Memorial in St. John’s. His hard work didn’t come without personal cost, however, and Nangle, disillusioned, left the priesthood and Newfoundland. Though his legacy stands in stone on two continents, his name – of unparalleled importance in the history of Newfoundland – has all but been lost to popular knowledge. In addition to baritone Brett Polegato as Thomas Nangle, the cast features tenor Roger Honeywell as Archbishop Roche, head of the church in Newfoundland; with mezzo soprano Elizabeth Turnbull as the mother of an underage soldier; and soprano Lara Ciekiewicz as May, the fiancé of a troubled soldier who meets a tragic end.
Today, July 1 remains an official day of remembrance in Newfoundland and Labrador. Coinciding with the world premiere of Ours, Jim Maunder’s art installation “Garden of Tears” will fill the lawns of the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s with over 1,500 forget-me-not flowers.
Founded in 2009 by opera singer Cheryl Hickman, Opera on the Avalon has become an undisputed leader in the cultural life of Newfoundland and Labrador, with a diverse and innovative repertoire that pushes the boundaries of opera. The company offers emerging artists the opportunity to explore new and established repertoire alongside distinguished artists. This season, Opera on the Avalon also presents Sondheim’s Sweeny Todd on June 17 and 18.
The commission of Ours is generously sponsored by the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, The Canada Council for the Arts, Commemorate Canada, Telus, the Patten Family Foundation, Cox & Palmer, and Marco.