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Tragedy, intense emotion, and larger-than-life stories: this is the stuff of opera. The combination of soaring voices, orchestral music, and elaborate staging make opera the ideal art form to retell humanity’s most elemental and enduring stories.

The world’s first great opera, L’Orfeo by Monteverdi, is based on the Greek myth about love and death in which the hero, Orpheus, descends into the underworld to retrieve his bride, Eurydice, who died on their wedding day.

These elements are also the stuff of February, Lisa Moore’s 2009 novel. It’s the fictional story of the impacts on a spouse, a family, and a community, decades after the oil rig Ocean Ranger sank on Valentine’s Day 1982 off Newfoundland, a real event that killed all 84 crew on board. L’Orfeo and February are tragedies that share the universal themes of love, death, and longing.

When Cheryl Hickman read February, she knew Moore’s novel about the aftermath of the Ocean Ranger tragedy was an opera in waiting. Like L’Orfeo, it plumbs the depths of Helen O’Mara’s grief when her husband, Cal tragically dies when the Ocean Ranger sinks. As artistic and general director of Opera on the Avalon (OOTA), Hickman gained Moore’s approval for the novel’s adaptation, then commissioned her to co-write the libretto with American composer Laura Kaminsky. February, the opera, will have its world premier on October 13 at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s.

A soprano is born

Cheryl Hickman’s mom says she was singing before she could talk, and Cheryl agrees. “It’s not something you develop as much as you just have in you,” says Hickman. “You can train it, and you have to because it is a very dedicated art form that takes at least 15 years of intense training.”

After graduating high school in Newfoundland, Hickman headed to the University of Toronto to study performance, singing, and opera. Then she took a huge leap, studying at the world-renowned Juilliard School in New York City from 1995-97, graduating with a master’s in music. The soprano performed with the New York City Opera, the Vancouver Opera, the Calgary Opera, and the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, among others, before returning to Newfoundland in 2005.

After 15 years in New York, including through the tragedy and trauma of 9/11, Hickman yearned for home. “I just thought, I don’t want to be away from my family anymore.” At the same time, she was sensing something missing in her career. “You’re always searching to make the voice the most beautiful and express every gamut of the human experience. Singing in front of thousands of people is an amazing, very seductive experience, but the world doesn’t need another performance of me singing The Marriage of Figaro. I just didn’t need the personal recognition anymore.”

Hickman became attracted to the idea of creating her own works in and about her home. “This is, I think, where my creative brain was nurtured. To me, what was missing was our own contemporary repertoire. We need to start telling our own stories through this vehicle of classical music. That became much more important to me and more interesting.”

After returning home, she and her late friend, Jennifer Matthews, were bemoaning the lack of opera in Newfoundland one day when they conceived of a summer music festival. “It came out of an idea at lunch that we wrote on a napkin,” says Hickman.

That first year, they got by on a budget of just $20,000. But, she says, it quickly mushroomed, morphing in 2009 into Opera on the Avalon. By 2016, OOTA was commissioning original works; February is its third. Now in its fifteenth year, the company has five full-time employees and up to 200 cultural workers for a particular show. OOTA continues to produce classical and original operas, working with an annual budget of $800,000.

“We’ve always run this organization as a business first,” says Hickman. With a strong board of community leaders, as well as solid government support and corporate sponsorship, OOTA has become a major cultural force in Newfoundland. Hickman herself is recognized for her organizational talents, named as one of Atlantic Canada’s top 50 CEOs by Atlantic Business Magazine four of the past six years. “Those accolades are lovely,” she says. “Great, if it brings recognition to OOTA, but it’s really recognition of the work that we do as a team.”

From novel to opera

“Lisa’s book has always been one of my favourites,” says Hickman.

Judges longlisted February for the prestigious Man Booker Prize in 2010 and it won CBC Radio’s Canada Reads in 2013. When it comes to creating original opera, Hickman says Moore’s novel came to mind for at least a couple of reasons. The story speaks volumes about where we live and gives voice to Atlantic Canadians. As a work of art, it tells a local story brimming with powerful, universal emotions. It touches on the most urgent of global issues like corporate power, the costs of oil production and climate change. At the same time, when it comes to translating a work from another genre into opera, the narrative revolves around just a few characters.

For Moore, she’s grateful to Hickman for proposing February as the next big OOTA project and is pleased to be invited to write the libretto. “I’m interested in the way works change in different forms,” she says. Before it became an opera, February was adapted into a stage play, so Moore was keen to see how operatic voices, music and staging would change it yet again. “Making the opera felt like making a different work.”

Turning a 320-page novel into a 50-page libretto was no mean feat, especially for Moore who has no experience in the genre. In fact, she had to look up what a librettist does. “It definitely was intimidating,” says Moore, “but working with Cheryl and Laura, I was quickly more inspired than intimidated. They really knew what they were doing, and I knew they had my back. I knew I could trust them, and that they were willing to mentor me through the process.”

The true test of the success of that process came at the first workshop with the performers. “Then I saw or heard everything Laura had been saying about how the music carries the story,” says Moore. “The powerful voices of the singers hit you in the chest, makes the hair stand up on your arms. It’s a very physical, visceral reaction, how the words work with the music.”

Moore’s reaction suggests that operatic voice and music are the right vehicles for carrying the tragedy of the Ocean Ranger. “There’s something about what the human voice does to the soul of another that is so unique,” Hickman says.

Just getting started

Hickman says there’s a whole lot more she and the company want to do. For one, OOTA doesn’t have a home. She says the sweet spot for venue size in Newfoundland when it comes to opera is a hall that holds about 500. None of the halls that OOTA uses fit that description. The main Arts and Culture Centre in St. John’s, (one of several in the province) where February will have its world premiere, holds 1,000. Another OOTA venue, the LSPU Hall, holds just 200.

“We consider ourselves an innovative company,” says Hickman. “Opera to me means the best of all artistic endeavours. In other words, it’s the best of dance. It’s the best of singing. It’s large scale in its emotions, but it doesn’t have to be bombastic and large scale to be impactful.”

That spirit of innovation is necessary for a company that’s relatively small and has no home venue in a sparsely populated place like Newfoundland. Hickman is convinced that the best way for OOTA to guarantee a future for opera in Newfoundland is to produce local stories for local audiences in local venues. She’s also convinced that many more East Coast stories are operas in waiting.

As the company prepares February for the stage, it’s also working on a show that marks a Newfoundland milestone. On March 31, 1949, the former dominion entered Canadian Confederation as the tenth province. 75 On 75 is a multidisciplinary project consisting of interviews and performances featuring 75 writers, artists, actors, dancers, musicians, activists, and historians commenting on and interpreting the significance of that event, 75 years ago next year.

“I didn’t realize how special this community was until I was out of it,” says Hickman. “I think we’re particularly rich with stories. We’re really invested in place in the Atlantic region, and in telling stories that matter to us, that resonate with people on the East Coast, but that are universal.”

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