One of my (many) secret shames is that I’ve never been to the east coast of Canada.
Finally life has brought me to this amazing part of Canada, more specifically Baddeck, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
It’s for a new piece that I’m working on, a world premiere in fact, about the life of Alexander Bell and his wife Mabel: The Bells of Baddeck.
So why Cape Breton? Well, I didn’t know this, but the Bells lived in Baddeck for a large portion of their lives, and thanks to him, a few friends and his experiments, Baddeck proudly boasts that it is the birthplace of Canadian aviation!
Not just the telephone guy…
The story of Alec Bell is a really interesting one (seriously, I just found out he figured out how to send sound… on a sunbeam #wizard), but something about being here makes it all the more real.
Right from day one it was clear that it’s so much more than just a story. Before rehearsals started we went, as a cast, to the estate of Beinn Bhreagh (the Bells 400+ acre estate right across the lake from Baddeck). There we were given a tour by the Bell family descendants, who still live on the estate.
And right there, a story out of the history books, a story that can easily feel as fictional as any opera, becomes so much more.
Introducing myself to one of Bell’s great grandsons, I told him I was playing Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge (one of the airmen that helped Mr. Bell with his experiments) and instantly his eyes turned glassy.
“He was Mrs Bell’s favourite”
This is so much more than a story. It is their history. It is who they are, and in a large part the story of the Bells, their experiments and contributions, are who Baddeck is.
In opera we spend most of our time telling fictional stories, or if they were once based in history, so much time has passed it’s easy to disconnect, to treat them as “less than real”. It’s a different kind of play, a different kind of creation when your character is a demigod vs someone’s grandfather.
And it’s even more than just the people, it’s the place itself.
I once had a director, on a production of Semele, who had insisted his production include an ancient Chinese temple which was hundreds of years old, be shipped along with the production. It’s an insane amount of work to disassemble, and reassemble this massive structure. But he insisted.
His arguement: Singers will sing differently in front of the actual Great Wall of China, rather than a replica of the wall.
There’s an intangible when you’re surrounded with a set seeped in history, you can’t help but react to it. It changes you.
I completely agree with him. Singing in that temple was different than any other set I’ve performed on, and being here… in Baddeck to sing the story of the Bell family, is far different than it would be if we were singing it in Toronto.
We’re not telling a new story here. We’re telling a story that is part of the rocks, the trees and air.
It’s an obligation, and one the I’m proud to be a part of.