April (2015) – multimedia opera/musical theater piece, pre-recorded chamber ensemble mixed with electronics and video

This piece was written jointly with Franky Rousseau

April is an experimental multimedia theater piece that fluidly merges a few discrete artistic forms: opera, musical theater, and film. Composed by Dominic Mekky and Franky Rousseau, adapted from a stage play by Samuel Bronowski, the story tells of a singer who receives news that she will lose her hearing, and the subsequent dynamic changes in her two close but unhealthy relationships. The piece is scored for three singers and a small chamber ensemble (which has been pre-recorded and mixed with electronic sound design). The narrative is told in fragmented scenes of varying lengths; some of these scenes are musical, others are not. They occur in either of two forms: live (if musical), or filmed (if non-musical); and they are sewn together by an abstract connective tissue of music, sound, and film, emulating the way time is perceived (and contorted) through memory. The video — shot and designed by Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard — is a constant presence, connecting different scenes and periods of time, and allowing for a fluid theatrical experience wherein one mode of drama (a live operatic scene, for instance) can smoothly transition into another (a filmed scene of non-musical acting, a live song, a short musical interlude, etc.)

Written over the course of nearly four years, this piece has taken on many iterations. In January of 2012, we decided that we wanted to write a piece of music drama, a decision born of our love for stories told through music. We wanted to create something that was stylistically and formally in between opera and musical theater, two forms we loved and respected. Additionally, we wanted to make something small and restrained in its staging, the opposite of what one thinks when they hear “musical theater” or “opera”. We enlisted our friend Samuel Bronowski to come up with a story that we felt we could dramatize musically. He suggested writing the story of a singer who’s given the news that she is losing her hearing. Samuel’s idea was inspired by (but not based on) Douglas Sirk’s “Magnificent Obsession” from 1954 (a film adaption of the novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, written in 1929), in which a woman loses her sight after being involved in a car crash. All of a sudden, we were presented with the responsibility of merging three discrete musical forms in the writing: opera, musical, and now song (April is a songwriter, and we had to write “her” songs).

Samuel created an early draft of the piece that called for alternating scenes of spoken drama and sung material, much in the way of a traditional book musical. As we began setting scenes to music (and throwing out trial material), a stylistic pattern began to emerge in the setting of the text, as well as a musical palette which we felt had become fertile (the music in the piece was composed by both of us, equally, sometimes even simultaneously, the nature of which joint composition is quite rare and hard to describe). The play and the music drama began to take different paths in the Fall of 2013, and a whole new libretto was fashioned to fit the emerging new aesthetic: the stage play as written by Samuel (which could stand alone, without music) was adapted into a different form, with certain variations in plot and structure, which is how the piece now stands.

The idea to record an acoustic ensemble and merge it fluidly with sound design came out of our desire to create an enveloping, immersive sonic world that could very intimately reflect April’s story. For example: a pizzicato string note played quietly could be paired with a horn note played loudly, and incorporated with the sound of wind or tinnitus (ear-ringing), then all of this could be mixed in such a way so that everything would be heard at the same volume. The result is a disorienting aural environment that could represent the imagined experience of hearing loss. The musicians were recorded in pairs throughout the first months of 2014, combined in layers, and the recording was ultimately completed with the addition of the sound design in 2015. All of this was produced and overseen by Brian Chan, in different chapters of the formation of the piece, in Montreal, New York, and Vancouver.

The fragmented nature of the show allowed us to be more true to the way time is “felt” through memory: how details can be altered, emotional associations exploded, etc. The film work of Pier-Louis Dagenais-Savard is a constant, symbolic temporal “navigator”, always spinning and moving, connecting different periods of time and allowing us to see memory. We see the characters as they were and are, remembered and imagined.