A musical mixture based on a romantic and tragic story. That is how Jim Leonard describes his first opera Maria Chapdelaine, which opens the 4th annual Vernon Proms Classical Music Festival on June 29.
The organist began writing the opera when he was living and working in Barrie, Ont., in 2003, and a friend in the Simcoe County music scene contacted him.
The friend, a seasoned opera singer, suggested Leonard write an English opera based on Louis Hémon’s coming-of-age novel of the same name, set in 1920s rural Quebec.
“His confidence in me enabled me to go forward with it,” Leonard said, adding that the opera in Barrie also commissioned him to write it.
Due to budget constrictions, he only wrote the first two of four acts at the time.
“It was written in a fairly short time and it was all handwritten in pencil,” he said, adding that it is still a “cornucopia of styles.”
“When I wrote it in Barrie I was the member of an ensemble at a community choir and I was a church organist and I taught school and I played in various groups. All those influences came into the style of the music.”
By 2009, he finished the four acts in rough pencil form with only piano accompaniment.
Between 2009 and 2012, he added string orchestration and percussion.
The end result, with the help of music director Cvetozar Vutev, stage director and set designer Lana O’Brian, producer Natalia Polchenko and concertmaster Susan Schaffer, is a fully-staged opera performance.
“There is no dialogue,” Leonard said. “And there’s action, too.”
The opera actually opens with a dance scene.
“Then there’s a rumble,” he said. “And the next day they’re all in church and the priest, who was at the party, is giving them the what for, for their behaviour.
“They’re saying listen to him he was there, that pious hypocrite. However, the priest gains ground as the opera progresses, because he has to preside over the requiem for…Maria’s lover, and not the one her parents chose.”
Ultimately it is “a wonderful love story,” he said.
“A lot of the music is romantic in style.”
The chorus and musicians come from across the region, with some local favourites.
Leonard said the leads are all university-level singers who are “proving to be just excellent” and there are also a few local people from Melina Schein’s Valley Vocal Arts.
“There’s a couple of young men and they found time to be in Spamalot, which is their production, and the opera,” he said.
Tickets for the Maria Chapdelaine, which goes at 7 p.m. at the Vernon and District Performing Arts Centre, are $40 for an adult, $35 for a senior and $16.75 for a student. The Vernon Proms Classical Festival runs until Aug. 4 with 27 concerts workshops and free events in Vernon and Kelowna. Visit www.vernonproms.ca for the complete festival line-up, event details and venue information and tickets information.