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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

FEATURE INTERVIEW | A Cape Breton Summer: The Bells Of Baddeck

By Joseph So on June 28, 2016

Soprano/Voice Teacher/Librettist/Producer Lorna MacDonald talks about her labour of love.

Performance venue: Bells of Baddeck.
Performance venue: Bells of Baddeck.

The Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell Story — A Music-Drama; July 2 — August 2, 2016. Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site, Baddeck, Nova Scotia. www.bellsofbaddeck.com

One of the happiest occasions for residents and visitors of Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island this summer is the return of the quintessentially Canadian opera, The Bells of Baddeck. With music composed by Dean Burry and a libretto by soprano/Cape Breton native Lorna MacDonald, it premiered last summer to critical and audience acclaim.  Now it’s back for a second season, with the same creative team and roster of artists.  It opens on July 2 for a total of 21 performances, to take place on the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. The revival is extra special, as MacDonald has arranged “Bell Chats,” a pre-curtain feature on some of the performance dates, to be given by descendants of the Bells, including their great-grandson and great-grand daughter.

Another important event is a special benefit performance on July 8th where the entire proceeds of the evening will be donated to the United Way of Cape Breton towards its program to end child poverty in the region. “Thirty percent of children on the Island live in poverty, and that’s a conservative number. If I can be part of a group that gives back to children of my home island, I’d want to do that. Mabel and Alec were motivators for social change, so this is very much in keeping with their spirit.”  Earlier this month, The Bells of Baddeck received the Parks Canada CEO Award of Excellence (Visitor Experience Category), in recognition of its contribution to the region, in a ceremony held in Gatineau, Quebec.  This opera attracted music fans and history buffs near and far to Cape Breton Island last summer. The Island was front and centre, showcased to the world this beautiful part of Canada, the warmth of its people, its natural beauty, and its rich cultural history.

Bells of Baddeck receives Parks Canada Award 2016.
Bells of Baddeck receives Parks Canada Award 2016.

This project is the brainchild of Canadian soprano Lorna MacDonald, Professor of Voice and Lois Marshall Chair at the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.  MacDonald hails from Port Morien, Cape Breton Island, not far from Beinn Bhreagh (“Beautiful Mountain” in Gaelic) the estate where the Bells lived – “Bell chose this area because it reminded him of Scotland.”  MacDonald’s interest in the Bell story has spanned over a decade. In 2012, she took a sabbatical from the University to work on the project, armed with a SSHRC grant, the largest amount ever awarded to the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto.  She wrote the libretto for the work and commissioned Canadian composer Dean Burry to write the score. Burry is a very well known and successful Canadian composer, mostly (though not exclusively) of children’s operas.

When I contacted him for his thoughts on The Bells of Baddeck, he was deep in rehearsals for his opera The Hobbit with the Canadian Children’s Opera Company in Toronto.  A native of Newfoundland, Burry had not been to Baddeck before he was approached by MacDonald. “It was my own first visit to Baddeck and the Bell Museum that provided all the inspiration I needed to create the “sound” of the show,” Burry says. “As a Newfoundlander, this part of the world holds a very special place in my heart.  To see the way Alec and Mabel connected this small maritime town to the greater international community was nothing short of miraculous.  Musically, the place, its history and Alec’s own love of the piano all play into the score of The Bells of Baddeck, offering a wonderful opportunity to incorporate the language of Scottish fiddling, barbershop, Victorian parlour music, operetta, Music Hall and ragtime.  The natural beauty of Baddeck: the lake, the hills, the fields and the forests are reflected in the music and are as potent a draw as they were for Alec and Mabel so many years ago.”

Last month I interviewed Lorna MacDonald — quite appropriately by telephone! — to her home in Port Morien, Cape Breton, where she grew up.  Opera Canada reviewer Daphna Levit called the show last summer a “tour de force” and an “exuberant musical tribute” to the life and times of Alexander Graham and Mabel Bell.  The run of performances last summer was extremely well received.  The hope is, with a successful second summer season, The Bells of Baddeck may go on the road in the future to other parts of Canada, or even the United States.  In our hour long conversation, I asked Professor MacDonald for her thoughts on the genesis of this project, and her vision for its future:

JS: You call The Bells of Baddeck a music drama instead of an opera. Is there a reason for this?  Perhaps the term “opera” may be a bit intimidating for people of Cape Breton where there isn’t any live opera?

LM:  A couple of reasons. It has a lot of spoken dialogue, so I didn’t feel I could label it completely as an opera.  It has Dean’s music, but also pieces that Graham Bell loved in his lifetime. These are arranged by Lydia Adams and (the conductor) Stuart Calvert for the show.  You’re right that opera’s not a form that people here are familiar with, although it’s an operatic life here (gentle laughter)!

JS: Tell us a little about the genesis of The Bells of Baddeck. How did you come up with the original idea?

LM: I’m from Cape Breton – I’m talking to you from the house I grew up in Port Morien. I’m an hour and a half from Baddeck. Growing up here, you get to know the Graham Bell story. They spent 38 years in Cape Breton and did much of their work here. Parks Canada has built a museum, on the Alexander Graham Bell Historic Site. The Bell Museum is just a gem — it chronicles their lives both here and before they came here.  Everyone knows Bell as the inventor of the telephone, but most don’t realise how many other things he influenced. People don’t know much about his wife Mabel, who was deaf.  She could lip read in several languages. They were an extraordinary couple. I had thought about this for a very long time. When I came home, I’d go to the museum. I’ve always thought there’s a performance project in this. My first idea was a three person show — Mabel, Alec and their secretary. Then as I delved more into it, it’s just too big a story to condense into only three people. When I really got serious about this, I went to the Parks Canada manager of the museum at the time and asked if they might be interested in hosting a performance project. He pretty much said yes right away.

JS: This sounds like an ambitious project! How did you get your funding for it?

LM: I successfully applied for a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant. It’s been a project on my mind easily a decade. But as you know, life is busy, and I was doing all sort of other things. The application was in 2012, and I wrote the libretto on my sabbatical and arranged the commissioning.  I’ve written several smaller shows previously, but nothing like this. I’ve always enjoyed programming. In the big Mozart year (2006) I wrote a show called Marrying Mozart, based on a book (by Stephanie Cowell) of Mozart and the Weber sisters. I contacted the author and asked if I could set it to music, and she came up for it. In 2008 I wrote a show to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Lois Marshall and her Russian Tour.  I went to Moscow and recreated a fair bit of her Moscow performances. That was about 10 years after her death.

JS: How did you do the research on the Bell story?

LM: The Bell Museum in Baddeck has a terrific archive and so I just went there every day and devoured the information. I also went to the Library of Congress in Washington DC – the Bells also lived in Washington, Boston, and Brantford, Ontario. When the family immigrated from Scotland, they settled in Brantford; the homestead is still there. Then Alec moved to Boston to teach in a school for the deaf, where he met Mabel.

JS: What brought them to Cape Breton?

LM: They had read about Baddeck and Cape Breton in a travel book that prompted them to come. The show chronicles Mabel and Alec as young people before they met, then their meeting as teacher and student, their romance, their coming to Cape Breton and their life here, ending with them in old age, with grandchildren.

JS: I’m curious – if he taught her, is there a big difference in their ages?   

LM: Mabel was 10 years younger. She was born into a well-to-do family. In fact, both families valued the arts and education. As a young man, one of Graham Bell’s first jobs was teaching piano in a private school in the UK.  In his early life, he wanted to be a concert pianist – music was an important part of his life. At the estate in Cape Breton, I found original plays the kids wrote, piano music Bell composed – all this stuff was in the piano bench in the house!  I offered to catalogue it for them and likely will. I found pieces in Washington that Bell had begun to compose…a little violin concerto. One of the pieces in the show was written by his father. I found a song he wrote and gave that to Lydia Adams, who arranged it for a theme in the show. We also had the father’s piece arranged by Lydia (Adams), who’s my childhood friend and also from Cape Breton.

JS: What is the musical language of The Bells of Baddeck? Is it melodic?

LM: Yes, it is.  Dean and I talked about this. He has a good sense of what people would like to come and hear in the summer, what would bring people back.  Bell loved to play the piano and sing at night time, and he loved the songs of Robbie Burns.  His favourite was “Annie Laurie,” so I asked Stuart to arrange it. Geoffrey Sirett, who plays Bell, sits and plays the piano and sings Annie Laurie to Mabel. We were sold out a lot of the time last year. People who would ordinarily not go to a concert of this type of music loved it. I had one gentleman said to me at intermission – “I came kicking and screaming because my wife wanted to come…” He then went on to say that he has never heard singing and music like this! That was a very large part of my goal – I want to get back to the beauty of the human voice, to tell a very human story. I think it was very successful.

JS: What kind of theatre do you perform in? Is there an auditorium in the Museum?  

LM: That’s an interesting question!  A very large room in the museum which we converted acoustically for the show. Parks Canada and the people in the Bell Museum have embraced the project a hundred percent. I cannot tell you how helpful they have been and what strong collaborators they are!  We are true partners in this. I came up with the idea and commissioned Dean – that’s a big partnership, but the really next big partnership is between the show and the Bell Museum people.  You know, at 5 o’clock their offices become dressing rooms.

JS: How many people can the space accommodate?  How many performances are you giving?

LM: Two hundred each night – it’s very intimate. We had 19 performances last year and 21 this year. We were 86% attendance last year.  It’s a very large room that houses two hydrofoils and a large plane!  The Silver Dart made its historic flight in Baddeck in 1909. Next to the Wright brothers, the Graham Bell team brought flight to British North America. The hydrofoil was the fastest moving marine vessel developed by the engineers.

JS: Are all the characters in the show historical?

LM: Yes, they are all real – I didn’t make up anybody. The descendants have been involved in this project. Some of them are giving pre-performance talks this summer. I was very respectful of writing about someone’s family. I want to be as truthful as I can, condensing a story that is truthful as well as artistically and theatrically convincing.

JS: Are the descendants still living there?

LM: One great grandson still lives in Baddeck, and many family members still come home to the estate in the summer. Last year we had almost 20 of them. Most were born in the US.

JS: If I were a tourist and wanted to come to the show, where do I stay? 

LM: Oh, there are beautiful hotels in Baddeck. If you go to < http://www.bellsofbaddeck.com/ >, you’ll see information on accommodation.

JS: What is the population of Baddeck?

LM: As they like to say, it’s 900 in the winter and 3600 in the summer! Baddeck Bay is very beautiful. Cape Breton is a real tourist destination in the summer…there’s so much history here. One of the first landing places from Europe. My little village has the first commercial coal mine in North America – it supplied coal for the Fortress of Louisbourg. The coal mines are closed now. The air in the place is so fresh.

JS: Any plans to do this on an ongoing basis in the future?  In one of your previous interviews, you mentioned possibly taking this on the road…

LM: That has been discussed. We are seeing how this summer will go. When I started this, there wasn’t a whole lot happening here in the summer. Now there’s a real resurgence of musical theatre type events in Cape Breton. Tourism and Arts and Culture are the two big industries in this region. We are extremely grateful for the success last summer, and this summer we are anticipating the same. At the end of the season, we’ll sit down and think about the future.  We had an invitation to Washington last summer and had very preliminary talks for 2017. We’ll continue that conversation this summer. It’s a large show, with 21 people in the cast.  If it seems viable, we’ll take it on the road.

JS: Lorna, as I was researching the material to get a better understanding of the project, I was struck by how the Bell story somehow resonates with your career. You’re a singer, an artist, but you’re also an academic, interested in vocal pedagogy, in evidence-based voice science, voice health, etc.  Alexander Graham Bell was a scientist and an inventor, but he was also interested in the arts – he was a pianist and a composer.  I find this parallel fascinating. Is this why you’re interested in his story?   

LM: You are right that there’s very much a connection between music and the arts with the science. But there’s an even deeper connection. I did a research project at Sick Kids on cochlear implants. I have an interest in the ear and voice connection. Mabel being deaf, Bell and his father created a system of “Visible Speech” which is another way of teaching the deaf. I’ve spoken to a few of the descendants about this, and they feel that if Bell had lived, cochlear implants would have been something he would have wanted. He was a huge believer in speaking aloud and developing speech and articulation.  My interest in hearing and voice sort of crystallised in the process, but that’s not why I wrote the piece. I wrote it because I loved the story.

#LUDWIGVAN

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Joseph So

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