Empress offers sneak peek at new Rattenbury opera

Story of notorious Victoria architect full of passion, ambition, tragedy


Selections from Rattenbury: The Opera

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When: Saturday and Sunday, 8 p.m.

Where: Crystal Ballroom, Fairmont Empress

Tickets: $50 at ticketrocket.org, 250-590-6291 or 1609 Blanshard St.

It's probably a good sign that tenor Richard Margison says he doesn't have much in common with the lead character he performs in Victoria's newest opera-inprogress. "On a personal level, no [I don't]," he said. "Other than the fact that we both love Victoria."

Francis Rattenbury, the real-life architect who designed the Fairmont Empress hotel and legislative buildings, had all the makings of an opera star.

Passionate, ambitious and tragic all at once, Rattenbury had an affair that he flaunted, was shunned by his community and later murdered by his new wife's even newer lover in London. He also profited from the Klondike gold rush, experienced misfortune through the First World War and lost an important colleague on the Titanic.

It's a true local story - staged by The Other Guys Theatre Company and written by acclaimed local composer and librettist Tobin Stokes - seemingly made for the stage. And although the full opera is still in progress, audiences can get a sneak peek when some of the show's stars, including Margison and Ken Lavigne (who plays a younger Rattenbury), perform selections this weekend at the Empress.

Though Margison is now based in Toronto, he said he was familiar with the story because of his roots in Victoria. "I was born and raised here, so a lot of buildings we used to frequent as kids were built by Rattenbury."

The international star and Order of Canada recipient has performed countless roles in his long career, including Florestan in Fidelio for the Metropolitan Opera, Calaf in Turandot for the Canadian Opera and most recently, Manrico in Il Trovatore for Opera Hamilton. But preparing for a brand-new role - one that hasn't been defined and redefined for decades or centuries - provides a new kind of creative challenge.

"I think given a new piece of any kind, it's always difficult," he said. "It's very different from just picking up a score of Verdi or Puccini, whom you've heard for years and you've been doing for years. Obviously, you bring your own bent to whatever you do, but in this case, there's no guideposts."

It means working more closely with Stokes and Arthur Arnold, principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony, he said, as well as doing his own research about Rattenbury as a historical figure. But in order to develop the emotional character, his routine typically begins with the music.

"There's moments of happiness, there's moments of depression, there's moments of rage - much of which is demonstrated through dynamics in the music and certain melody lines," he said.

And while Victoria is the main thing he has in common with Rattenbury, Margison said he draws from his own "palette of emotion."

"I guess in some ways, I can understand his sense of frustration with certain things. ... He always wanted to be number one, and sort of to see his popularity crumbling, if you will, is difficult.

We can all understand that."


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