By Karen Bradley
Far down West Jeddore Road, the composer John Plant works away on the next operas to emanate from his love of story, music, and text. His view of Jeddore Harbour is full, and his reasons for living here are simple: “There’s a wonderful community of musicians and artists here, with significant government support via Arts Nova Scotia. People are open to new things here. And it’s an inspiring place to be, geographically and artistically.”
Born in Yonkers, New York, Plant studied Classics at Middlebury, where he also began formal composition training, followed by studies in comparative literature at Harvard. He first came to Canada during the Vietnam War, and promptly fell in love with Montreal, where he advanced his studies in composition at McGill. He began to compose for dance, including ‘operas for dancers.’ Eventually his interests in text and music led him to compose several full-fledged operas and other text-based works.
His most recent opera, “I will fly like a bird,” was staged to near perfection by the Thompson Street Opera Company in Chicago, Illinois, receiving its U.S. premiere on September 12, 2019. John and his wife, the singer Jocelyne Fleury, were in attendance.
Thompson Street solicits operas by living composers with a social justice theme, and “I will fly like a bird” was the unanimous choice of the artistic team. It was the first Canadian opera presented by the company.
The story comes from a 2007 incident at the Vancouver Airport, in which a new immigrant, Robert Dziekanski, was tasered by police and died. The libretto was developed by J.A. Wainwright, emeritus professor of English at Dalhousie, who brought the project to John.
“This is an immigration story that resonated with me,” John told me. “My own immigration story was simple and relatively easy, despite the fact that I was emigrating in response to the draft. For Robert, it could have been a different ending.”
The opera focuses on the hopes and joy that Robert had, anticipating his move to Canada from Poland, and the relationship with his mother, who had already moved here. After a long overnight flight, Robert became highly distressed, unable to navigate past customs to find his mother, who was waiting for him. Seven hours passed in which his mother was told he was not on the plane and in which Robert became increasingly distraught and frustrated.
Unable to speak English, Robert drew the attention of the RCMP, who tasered him within seconds, killing him within minutes. Robert’s mother had left the airport, unable to find him or to know what was happening to him, only to be told of his death afterward.
The staging of the work maintains the separation between the two, their love for each other apparent throughout, making the tragic end to his journey deeply felt.
The production in Chicago was the third rendering of the opera; the previous two were a concert version at Scotia Festival in 2012 and a production by Opera Nova Scotia in 2015. Reviews of the Chicago production were glowing, and John and Jocelyne are still beaming. Next up is another premiere: “Three Echoes of the Odyssey" for piano and percussion will debut February 16, 2020 at the Conservatoire de musique in Montreal.