Interview: Caitlin Smith tries to balance personal and political in new opera about war in Afghanistan

Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, centre, Maj. Erik Liebert and diplomat Richard Colvin, right, in Afghanistan, in 2006 (Jim Farrell/Edmonton Journal photo).

Opera lives and dies by the force of conflict — most often on questions of love and fidelity that have nothing overtly to do with current events.

Toronto composer Caitlin Smith is merging the two in a timely take on love of truth and fidelity to the ideals of an open society in her first opera, When This War Ends (Or, Some Questions You May Have Regarding Our Recently-Concluded Engagement in the Graveyard of Empires), a journey into the dark heart of the decade-long war in Afghanistan.

Two scenes of Smith’s eight-scene opera, representing approximately 30 minutes of music, get their premiere on Thursday, May 31, at the Al Green Theatre, as part of a longer music programme that circles around our ambivalent relationship with murky issues in foreign lands. The evening is being presented by Spectrum, a collective of young Toronto musicians who cross boundaries in interesting ways.

Fellow Spectrum member, composer-performer Ben Dietschi contributes The Coming of Spring, a song setting on a text by Victoria Heatherington. Joining the Spectrumites is composer-performer Ben Mueller-Heaslip and his wife, soprano Kristin (both known best for their work with the Parkdale Revolutionary Orchestra), who present a song cycle called The Torture Memos.

The singing forces include three great young Canadian talents: tenor Christopher Mayell and baritones Jeremy Ludwig and Geoffrey Sirett. The orchestra/band consists of the Annex String Quartet, bassist Andrew Downing, Dietschi on woodwinds, guitarist Harley Card and Etienne Levesque and Dave MacDougall taking care of percussion.

Smith conducts. She also leads a pre-concert discussion with Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin, whose parliamentary testimony unleashed the detainee scandal four years ago, and Globe and Mail reporter Graeme Smith (Caitlin’s brother), who spent three years covering the war in Afghanistan for the newspaper and is currently finishing up a book about the experience.

The evening is meant to mix entertainment, art and a soul-searching confrontation with the truth.

Composer-conductor Caitlin Smith.

Caitlin, a serious, smart-spoken product of the excellent jazz programme at Humber College, has been galvanized by her project.

“I spent four months on a retreat in India, where I wrote a libretto consisting of eight scenes,” she explains. She followed this with a residency at the Banff Centre and spent two months at the century-old MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire this past spring.

“It was such an incredible opportunity to sit in a cabin in the woods thinking about what my opera would sound like,” Caitlin recalls. “I’m now about halfway through the first draft of the score.”

The composer-librettist-conductor has been working with experienced dramaturg Susan Bond to keep everything tightly focused.

There are four characters in the opera: Sister, “who speaks from my perspective,” Smith explains; Brother, a journalist in Afghanistan; Business, representing the Canadian government and other interested parties; and Richard the Diplomat, representing Colvin.

Thursday’s show features Scene 6, centred on Richard the Diplomat.

The scene arose out of a night in 2009 when Graeme invited his sister to join him for drinks with Colvin. “We ended up talking about the weather, which was so weird and so Canadian. It was such a contrast with the testimony that Richard had just given the parliamentary committee,” Caitlin recalls. That contrast is at the core of the scene, which is more focused on Colvin’s quiet, methodical exposition of how prisoners were being handled with the “empty rhetoric and soundbites” of parliamentarians in Ottawa.

Caitlin pulled all the empty clichés and combined them into her libretto, to further heighten the disconnect between Canadians’ perception and the reality of what was going on in Afghanistan.

“News reports and public opinion polls were the most fun texts to set,” Caitlin chuckles.

She says her score is melodic — “that’s very much a part of what I do” — but also heavily rhythmic, relying as well on the improvisatory nature of jazz performance.

The bar scene relies on a foundation of double-bass and sax, “to make it sound as if the characters are actually sitting in a bar,” Smith explains. “Then, to show the anger underlying the parliamentary testimony, the melody turns into a tone-row for the bass.”

The composer insists that she has kept the music and orchestration as spare as possible. “I think there’s value in simply showing words to the audience,” she adds.

The other movement being presented Thursday is Scene 5, which came out of Graeme’s experiences on the ground in Afghanistan, embedded with Canadian troops.

“He brought back a recording of a firefight in Kandahar, in 2008,” Caitlin recounts. The troops’ prolonged vigil was marked by extended silences interrupted by bursts of ammunition. “What struck me was a radio playing in the background, playing very very quietly,” says Caitlin. “There were also sounds of the soldiers quietly gossiping about things.”

Here, the contrast is all bout war versus quiet humanity.

The composer says she has long been in love with the larger-than-life sweep of grand opera and the extroversion of big-band jazz (she is the creative force behind the band Tiny Alligator Music). In recent years, though, she has been exploring a new creative outlet in contemporary art music, and can’t wait to finish the opera.

“Being able to take that risk is so important,” she says.

For more details, and for ticket information, click here.


This 43-second love song to Toronto author Sheila Heti, created and performed by Tiny Alligator Music, has nothing to do with the opera, but is a great window on Caitlin Smith’s sensibility:

John Terauds


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