'I feel the weight of historic significance,” Juliet Palmer says with a laugh. Her tone is light, but that and her chuckle don't lessen the truth of her statement: Shelter, the opera she's crafted with librettist Julie Salverson, will become the first world opera to ever happen in Edmonton when it makes its upcoming premiere.
Between the joint efforts of Edmonton Opera and Toronto's Tapestry New Opera company, it's arriving in town as part of the Festival of Ideas (paired with another work, Svadba–Wedding). In a genre where “revival” is essentially par for the classical course, Shelter's story takes a more allegorical approach, setting out a fable of a nuclear family in the atomic age. This particular pair gives birth to a child with glowing skin and atomic, explosive tendencies. Physicist Lise Meitner shows up, too—definitely not the opera we're used to.
“For both the writer, Julie, and I, we're both drawn to the absurdity and the significance of, we live in the atomic age, and what does that mean to us,” Palmer says. “It seems like a huge turning point in history, when the bombs were dropped in 1945, and you can think of it as a historical event, but it's an event that's thrown this huge shadow on history ever since. I know we both grew up feeling like nuclear war was imminent—it could happen any day now [laugh], and I don't think my daughter feels like that at all. She's more concerned about climate change. But that possibility's still there.
“Coming up with this goofy nuclear family that actually gives birth to a child that's the atomic bomb seems like the obvious solution,” she kids about exploring the idea as a fable rather than adhering to history. “[It] took us a while to get there, but what I like about it is it allowed for a lot of comedy, absurdity, for making mistakes, characters are fallible, and I think we can connect to them more readily than if it's, Dr Atomic and it's about Oppenheimer. I don't relate to that in a personal such a way: it just seems like another historical epic. So we wanted to make it something that people could connect to in a personal way.”
Palmer notes that developing contemporary operas like Shelter is rare because of the level of risk inherent: each idea needs a lot of money, skill and time to be poured into its development, and the resulting work doesn't carry the same guaranteed audiences as putting on, say, Madame Butterfly or a Gilbert and Sullivan.
Still, Palmer admires Tapestry's dedication to helping develop such works and allowing the show to find its shape organically: Shelter's early workshops had the luxury of playing around in improvisation alongside research, truly letting exploration, rather than constraints, dictate its development.
For her part, Palmer was intrigued by the musical connections she found surrounding the A-bomb: while working in the lab, she notes, Meitner and her collaborator Otto Hahn would sing Brahms and Beethoven. The composition she developed didn't just reheat pre-existing ideas, but also used them as a way of understanding the characters and pulling inspiration from those ideas. An example would be Hope, the atom-bomb baby, who has a musical style a little more explosive, attuned to the birth of the rock 'n' roll that came around the same time as nuclear capability.
And, on a simpler level, Palmer simply found herself intrigued by the parallel horror and beauty of atomic power.
“There's something very beautiful about an atomic explosion when you watch it,” she says. “Watching a mushroom cloud, I mean, it's amazing. It's mesmerizing, but it's obviously deadly. So it's that kind of balance between beauty and awfulness.”
Thu, Nov 15 – Sun, Nov 18, 2012 (8 pm)
Matinees Sat, Nov 17 & Sun, Nov 18 (2 pm)
La Cité Francophone, $55