Thread of melancholy runs through Marilyn Monroe opera

Marilyn Forever

When: Sept. 13 and 14
Where: McPherson Playhouse

Gavin Bryars is an internationally celebrated British composer who happens to live part of each year in Metchosin. Over the years, classical-music life in Victoria has benefited greatly from this connection, never more conspicuously than on Friday evening, with the première, at the McPherson Playhouse, of Bryars’ opera Marilyn Forever.

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The opera, which was scheduled to have a second performance Saturday night, was produced under the auspices of the Aventa Ensemble.

This local new-music chamber orchestra, founded in 2003, is already admired across Canada and internationally, and a major new theatrical venture with a composer of Bryars’ stature should certainly cement its reputation. (Aventa has a two-year monopoly on Marilyn Forever, which is already piquing the interest of companies overseas.)

Running about 80 minutes without an intermission, divided into a prologue and eight scenes, Marilyn Forever has a libretto by the Sooke-based writer Marilyn Bowering, adapted from Anyone Can See I Love You, her 1987 collection of short poems about Marilyn Monroe. (Bowering previously adapted the collection for the stage and for radio.) The poems are written in the first person, and in the opera Monroe herself is front and centre, supported by one male lead (representing various men in her life) and a sort of two-man chorus.

The music is scored for 15 performers — 12 in the pit (strings, winds, percussion, piano) plus a separate jazz trio on the stage, which this weekend comprised three noteworthy musicians: saxophonist Phil Dwyer, pianist Anthony Genge and Bryars himself on double bass. The conductor was Bill Linwood, Aventa’s artistic director.

Bryars’ music in Marilyn Forever draws on various styles, which are sometimes juxtaposed, sometimes combined; one hears jazz and popular music of Monroe’s era, passages with modernist edge and bite, quasi-minimalist noodling, genuinely romantic effusions — usually with seamless transitions — and Bryars draws both lean and rich textures from his chamber orchestra.

A thread of melancholy runs through the score; the music is often downright solemn, in fact, certainly never up-tempo. Perhaps that is no surprise: Marilyn Forever does not tell a story, but rather offers a cycle of meditations in which Monroe, in a posthumous netherworld, reflects on her life, career and relationships.

It is not an opera that demands or would even necessarily benefit from conventional operatic voices.

In this weekend’s production, the role of “The Men” was taken by Thomas Sandberg, a Danish actor and musician, while the title role was played by Eivør Pálsdóttir, an unclassifiable singer-songwriter native to the Faroe Islands who performs all sorts of music — classical, folk, jazz, rock, pop.

Eivør (as she is usually known) was costumed and made up in familiar Monroe style, but was not concerned about imitating Monroe either physically or vocally; in fact, both libretto and music seem quite insistently to avoid offering a forum for mimicry of either Monroe’s real personality or her screen persona, preferring a more “abstract” exploration of her thoughts. Eivør’s facial expressions and gestures conveyed only fleetingly the Monroe we know, and her voice, impressively intense and full of feeling and personality, was high and clear, not low and breathy like Monroe’s.

(All four singers were miked, incidentally.)

This weekend’s production of Marilyn Forever, directed by Joel Ivany and with stage and costume designs by Camellia Koo, was effectively mounted on a stage meant to convey a period sound-recording studio, with appropriate paraphernalia — microphones, spotlights and such.

The McPherson’s back wall and wings were left visible, and the whole area was used at various times, though a large expanse of white fabric defined the main playing area in the middle of the stage, and scenes were set with only minimal use of furnishings and props.

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