Just before its world première in Montreal last May, the creators of the opera Les Feluettes were edgy.
A tale of forbidden love between two Quebec men, the two-hour work was created by librettist Michel Marc Bouchard and composer Kevin March. Although neither is a novice (Bouchard is an internationally known playwright), it was their first attempt at a full-scale opera.
“Both of them were really, really nervous at opening … I had to tell them to stop being so nervous,” said Serge Denoncourt, the opera’s stage director.
They needn’t have worried.
Denoncourt said: “On opening night, I said: ‘Well, we’ll see.’ And we saw. It was pretty amazing for a new opera.”
Les Feluettes was heralded as a bona-fide success, with audiences jumping to their feet and critics pointing to its power and beauty and the universality of the love story. Co-commissioned by Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera de Montreal, the opera has its Western Canadian première at the Royal Theatre tonight.
Denoncourt, an ebullient fellow who is one of Quebec’s best-known directors, believes Les Feluettes will work even better in Victoria than in Montreal.
It’s all about scale. In Quebec, the opera played the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier theatre at Place des Arts, which holds 3,000 people.
The Royal Theatre is about half that size — giving Les Feluettes greater intimacy.
“I think here, the experience will be stronger,” Denoncourt said. “I think what I want to achieve, I’ll achieve here in Victoria.”
Sung in French with English surtitles, Les Feluettes retains most of the all-male cast from the original production. Ten singers will be joined by the Victoria Symphony and the Pacific Opera Victoria Chorus.
The opera is based on Bouchard’s play of the same name, his most celebrated work. Considered a classic of Canadian theatre, the 1987 drama has been translated into multiple languages and performed in Italy, France, Holland and Mexico, as well as throughout Canada.
Les Feluettes was also made into an English-language film in 1996. That’s when March, the opera’s composer, saw it. He recalls being attracted by a poster advertising the film. It showed a scene in which young men re-enact the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
March was already a fan of Debussy’s music for Gabrielle D’Annunzio’s play Le Martyre de saint Sebastien. So on a whim, he saw the movie. He immediately realized that the romance and power of the plot, with its emphasis on visuals, made it perfect for opera.
March then contacted Bouchard, who also liked the idea. The pair spent years “tinkering” together, crafting bits of the opera, typically collaborating via email (March, an American, lives in Australia). Things got serious four years ago when Pacific Opera Victoria and Opera de Montreal — who by coincidence had each mulled such a project separately — teamed up to co-commission a full-length work.
The Les Feluettes is about a gang of boys who stage D’Annuzio’s Le Martyre de saint Sebastien at a Quebec college in 1912.
A love triangle emerges. One dies, another goes to prison and the other becomes a bishop.
Forty years later, the bishop is forced to watch a re-enactment of the 1912 performance, including a re-creation of events that led to one of the boys being incarcerated.
Les Feluettes is replete with sensational operatic moments: stolen kisses, beatings, alcoholism, madness, murder, pyromania — even the grand arrival of a Parisian woman in a hot-air balloon.
Operas about gay romance are not unknown. There’s an operatic version of Brokeback Mountain, for example. The opera Oscar is about gay icon Oscar Wilde; Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice is based on Thomas Mann’s novella, a gay love story.
Despite precedents, Les Feluettes triggered a frisson of eyebrow-raising when it debuted in Montreal last year. Forty-six subscribers to Opera de Montreal cancelled their tickets to Les Feluettes — in part because of its same-sex love story, the company said.
March recalls that there was some discussion in Montreal about how Les Feluettes should be marketed. With certain demographics, such as the LGBTQ community, you “could say it was a gay love story and that would resonate, people would be on board.”
However, Opera de Montreal’s mass-marketing campaign emphasized a “universal” love story.
In its press release, Pacific Opera Victoria makes mention of a “devastating love triangle” of three boys. The company’s key advertising image is a photograph of a young man — torso bare, eyes closed — collapsing into the embrace of another. POV marketing director Janet Lewis said she’s not aware of any subscriber cancelling due to the subject matter.
For 15 years, Denoncourt has directed Bouchard’s plays, which often examine the issue of sexual orientation.
“Les Feluettes is a love story,” he said. “For us, in Quebec, it’s our Romeo and Juliet.”
When the opera played Montreal, Denoncourt noticed audience members of all ages were affected by the performance.
“To see grandfathers and grandsons crying when [the character of ] Vallier dies, it was touching for me. It means 20 years later, it’s not any longer a gay opera. It’s an important story,” he said.
Timothy Vernon, Pacific Opera Victoria’s artistic director, conducted the Montreal performances and will take the podium in Victoria as well. He said March’s score is notable for its eclecticism. It’s “almost like a musical in places,” with waltzes, emotionally turbulent passages and depictions of quietude.
March agrees his music is eclectic. There are quotes from Debussy, Scott Joplin and traditional Quebec folk music. Elsewhere, he’s written music in the style of French cabaret from a century ago.
Recordings from Les Feluettes suggest a melodic, almost cinematic score. March bristles at the term “accessible” (a term viewed as derogatory in some new-music circles). He said his aim was to compose music that would be instantly appealing, yet reveal layers of depth with repeated listening.
“Even though the music is new, there are aspects of the music that do have a familiarity to them,” he added.
Both March and Bouchard are visiting Victoria for the second run of Les Feluettes. One might assume that on opening night, they’ll be more relaxed than at the world première.
Denoncourt, grinning, said: “Michel Marc is always happy when people other than I say it’s good. He doesn’t believe us; he believes the audience. But he was really happy 30 seconds after the end of the [first] show, when he heard the applause.”
What: Les Feluettes (Lilies)
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Opens 8 tonight, continues April 22, 28 and 30
Tickets: $25 to $135 (250-386-6121 or www.rmts.bc.ca