Victoria composer Tobin Stokes has been fielding a question most composers are never asked. “My friends keep phoning to find out what I’m going to do with a quarter of a million dollars!” laughs Stokes, referring to the $250,000 commission that City Opera Vancouver (COV) just received from the Annenberg Foundation to create a new opera based on the story of U.S. Marine veteran Christian Ellis. It’s believed to be the largest single commissioning grant in Canadian history.
Stokes will split the kitty, of course. The grant funds the librettist as well – American-Iraqi playwright Heather Raffo, known for her award-winning play, 9 Parts of Desire. It also covers consultations with Ellis, a first reading of the libretto with hired actors, and workshops with piano and singers.
The commission is unusual for more than its size. The part of the Annenberg Foundation responsible for the grant is the philanthropic multimedia organization Explore, whose director, filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten, wants the opera to contribute to the psychological healing process for veterans.
“They asked us to base the work on the actual experiences of Ellis, who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder in consequence of his engagement at the Battle of Fallujah in 2004,” says City Opera Vancouver’s director, Charles Barber. “Annenberg sent Christian to meet with us, twice, in the fall of 2010. Over the course of several days, we came to an agreement about the particulars of his story and the prospect of broadening it to stand for many vets and – in a deeply compassionate way – many Iraqis.”
Accessibility and flexibility are among COV’s priorities for the commission. Stokes has both.
“Tobin is able to write in numerous styles and traditions,” says Barber. “The work is in a tonal, 21st Century idiom and requires some degree of allusion to the music of Iraq.”
Stokes, who was composer-in-residence for the Victoria Symphony from 2005 to 2008, had his first full-length chamber opera, Vinedressers, produced at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in 2001. Another opera, Nootka, based on early encounters between the First Nations people of Vancouver Island and European explorers, is partly finished. He’s also working on a third, based on the life of Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury.
He hasn’t seen a word of the new libretto yet, so he’s not sure how cross-cultural his music will be. “I want to be true to Raffo’s setting, and to my own voice,” says Stokes, who believes vocal lines should follow the words and never “interfere” with them. “But I’ve been trying to open my vocabulary to the longer lines and the ornamentation in Middle Eastern music.
“There will probably be around ten characters.” he adds, “Four in the chorus and five or six leads. One plan is to design the chorus roles so that we could incorporate veterans into the opera.”
Barber says, “It will be written in such a way as to make it possible for vets to be deeply and individually involved. If we get it right, it will serve both the professional agenda of our company and the human agenda of Annenberg.”