UofT Opera | In conversation with Cecilia Livingston
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In conversation with Cecilia Livingston

In conversation with Cecilia Livingston

In conversation with Cecilia Livingston

By Alex Hetherington

January has arrived and that can only mean one thing at UofT Opera – it’s time to prepare for the Student Composers’ Opera! Escape Room is right around the corner and our singers are all busily preparing the music. Due to the changing COVID-19 landscape, Escape Room will be filmed in its entirety from the singer’s homes- remotely- and edited together in a compelling manner.

For the members of this year’s Opera Student Composer Collective, the work is all but done. They added the finishing touches to their scenes last December, and it is fantastic music! When the show premieres later this month, they will join the ranks of the Opera Student Composer Collective Alumni.

Many alumni of the Opera Student Composer’s Collective have gone on to distinguished careers in opera composition. One such composer, Cecilia Livingston, participated in the OSCC in 2010, and has since become a highly sought- after operatic composer in Canada and abroad. She was kind enough to speak with us today about how the OSCC program impacted her career, and what her work looks like in the age of COVID-19.

“With music described as “haunting” and “eerily beautiful” (Tapestry Opera), composer Cecilia Livingston specializes in music for voice. She is composer-in-residence at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where her work is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and builds on her 2015-17 Fellowship at The American Opera Project in New York, and she is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in Music at King’s College London.”

For her full biography, visit her website.


Could you tell us about the opera you wrote when you were in the Student Composers Collective?

The show was an adaptation of ‘Hamlet’, with a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano. I got the ‘get thee to a nunnery’ scene. Claire de Sévigné was Ophelia, and James Baldwin was Hamlet. I was so in awe of them! I remember the aria I wrote for Ophelia; I can still sing the opening of it!

Was this your first time writing for opera? What was it like to work with Michael and the team while writing the music?

This was my first time writing an opera. Maybe only my second or third time writing for singers, too. (Little did I know where that would go!) I remember a meeting in Michael’s office where he was talking about text, and building dramatic momentum. That definitely stuck with me. And I remember Sandra [Horst] giving us very tactful, very kind, very firm feedback on our score preparation. It was such a great chance to learn at every step of the process.

Did you have the opportunity to workshop the music with the singers? Had you worked with singers before, were there any surprises?

We did a workshop, but before we started composing, the singers did a demo about their fachs. Claire sang ‘Be Kind and Courteous’ from Britten’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: I remember her showing us what happens to vowels in the upper register! I think that was the first time I started to understand the skill of this kind of singing, and the physical work of it, and how composers play into that process by the choices we make. The singers’ professionalism also made a big impression on me: opera people work hard, and that really meshes with my own workaholic tendencies.

One surprise was that when it came time to stage the show, the toughest part was recruiting the student instrumentalists, who just were way less interested in new music than the opera students were!

Did your work in the OSCC have an impact on your career?

Michael [Albano] encouraged me to apply to Tapestry Opera’s LIBLAB in 2013. I got to work with him again there, and I was so happy that he got to see the opera lightbulb go on for me that summer. I’d enjoyed the OSCC process, but I wasn’t yet secure in my own voice; I’d only been composing for a couple of years. The OSCC let me discover that I liked working with singers, and collaborative creation, and hearing an audience watch a show that I was a part of making. I think that really seeped into my bones, and then in 2013 – when my own musical language was maturing – I had some skills to bring to the LIBLAB. That summer I also wrote my first opera commission, for Opera 5. I think both of those experiences went well because I came in with the OSCC experience. I knew a little of what to expect behind the curtain. Opera’s been my thing ever since.

Could you tell us a bit about your current projects? Any new operas in the works? 

I’m working on an opera for Glyndebourne, which I can’t say much about. And I’m finishing the score for ‘Terror & Erebus’, about the last days of the Franklin Expedition, for Opera 5 and TorQ Percussion Quartet. That’s 90 minutes, so it’s a really big project, and one I’m very excited to share.

Yesterday I was at the recording session for my chamber opera ‘Singing Only Softly’, inspired by Anne Frank, which was nominated for a Dora for Outstanding New Opera. Loose Tea Music Theatre is now making a film version, which is such a wonderful thing to come out of the pandemic.

I think of all my music as dramatic storytelling, so while it’s not an opera per se, I should mention that I just finished ‘Breath Alone’, a song cycle with Anne Michaels, for Women on the Verge – go U of T! [Women on the Verge’s Elizabeth McDonald and Kathryn Tremills are U of T faculty members.] It gave me the chance to approach material related to the Holocaust from a very different perspective. That history surrounds ‘Singing Only Softly’, but it’s outside this very hopeful, joyful core that comes from Anne herself. ‘Breath Alone’ is much darker, though the piece finds its way to a place of great warmth and shelter. ‘Breath Alone’ will premiere in Toronto… more details soon!

Has COVID-19 affected your work at all? What does composition look like in a pandemic?

Well, many things have been postponed. To be honest, a lot of composing looks the same in a pandemic, at least for me: many meetings; many, many hours sitting by myself at my desk. I’ve been overseas so much in the last years that I’m used to Zoom and Skype. But I miss the rehearsal room terribly. Working with performers is the great privilege of my life.

You know, opera’s such an odd thing to make: it really takes a lot of ego to create, and yet it’s so big – dramatically – and so collaborative that it only really works if that ego is also set aside. I have to ‘dissolve’ into this work, which takes me to a place of profound quiet. I treasure that, now more than ever. But most of my projects are about really big, difficult subjects: navigating these without emotional exhaustion, and in a pandemic, is tricky, and requires regular doses of Netflix and Bravo. I’ve promised myself I’m writing a comedy next. 

Click here to visit Cecilia’s website, where you can learn more about her work, listen to her music, and find out about upcoming performances.

See you on January 17th for Pre-Escape Room! More information here.