Q-and-A with composer reveals how and why she transformed a First World War tragedy into song

Where does a composer look for inspiration? For York University Professor Stephanie Martin, an accomplished composer and conductor in the Department of Music, history provides fertile ground. Captivated by the true story of a Canadian hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, torpedoed by a German U-boat in the Celtic Sea on June 27, 1918, she chose to write an opera, with librettist Paul Ciufo, to commemorate the nurses of the ill-fated ship.

Stephanie Martin
Stephanie Martin

One hundred years after the June 1918 tragedy, and with funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, Martin’s opera premiered in two workshop performances in Toronto. It was met by enthusiastic audiences and critical praise. Clearly, Martin’s love of history shines through this production, making a forgotten event from the past all the more accessible, vivid and emotionally charged.

A composer and musician with recordings on the Naxos, Marquis and Dorian labels, Martin sits down with Brainstorm to discuss the opera.

Q: What was the genesis of The Llandovery Castle?

A: I visited France and Belgium in 2014 to help friends research family history from the First World War. We visited many Commonwealth cemeteries. Being in Europe, seeing those Canadian graves, and witnessing how those villages still remember us was an epiphany. I returned home with a new awareness of the impact of that terrible war.

In 2015, in Toronto’s Calvin Church, I noticed a plaque dedicated to the memory of a woman – Mary Agnes McKenzie – inscribed with a story of the Llandovery Castle hospital ship. I thought: This is an important Canadian story, one dramatic enough for an opera.

HMHS Llandovery Castle (image: Wikipedia)
HMHS Llandovery Castle (image: Wikipedia)

Q: The story centres around three strong female characters – Margaret “Pearl” Fraser; the matron of the ship, Minnie “Kate” Gallagher; and Rena “Bird” McLean. Tell us about them.

A: As the daughter of the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, Pearl was in charge. She drives the drama, since she must determine who’s mentally stable enough to return to the front. The hospital ship was a relatively easy assignment because the return trip to Europe had no wounded on board. The nurses could recuperate somewhat from the PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) they suffered.

Many of them had served together in Salonika – a horrible experience, treating the wounded without proper facilities, medicine or sufficient water. Many were assigned to hospital ships to recover from that constant trauma.

Q: You connected with these characters, and even visited their hometowns.

A: Yes. I visited New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Pearl’s hometown, for a commemorative presentation to the mayor and the town council.

I also visited Prince Edward Island – Bird’s hometown of Souris. I joined a gathering of the McLean clan, visiting Bird’s memorials, her family home and the site of a former hospital named after her in Charlottetown. Bird’s relatives travelled from all corners of Canada, from the Yukon to the East Coast, to attend the opera and to pay tribute to her.

The nurses on the ill-fated ship. Left to right: ‘Pearl’ Fraser, ‘Kate’ Gallagher and Rena ‘Bird’
The nurses on the ill-fated ship. Left to right: “Pearl” Fraser, “Kate” Gallagher and “Bird” McLean (image: © Imperial War Museums)

Q: Can you describe the process of writing this nine-character opera?

A: This project was not an ideal model for writing a major work. We had an impossible deadline. I met Paul Ciufo in July 2017, and the commemoration of the event was June 2018. That’s really not enough time to write an opera! Usually it’s more methodical – the research is undertaken and the libretto is developed, and only then one starts writing music. But we were so motivated, totally charged up and devoted to getting some kind of public airing on the very day of the 100th commemoration.

Paul would write a scene, and then I would grab it and set it to music. Some of the scenes were composed before the ending was written. But, though our method was unconventional, I think there was a freshness and vigour to our process that comes through in the final product.

Q: What’s next?

A: There will be performances of Llandovery Castle on Feb. 28, 29 and March 1, 2020, at Wilfrid Laurier University.

Paul and I have teamed up again to write a new piece for the 100-voice Pax Christi Chorale. It will premiere on Nov. 2 in Toronto. It’s based on Aesop’s fable The Sun, the Wind, and the Man with the Cloak.

Paul and I are also working on our third and fourth venture. It has turned out to be a very fruitful partnership. We aspire to become the Gilbert and Sullivan of Ontario!

Q: How has York University supported your work?

A: This opera wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t had a sabbatical year to compose, to travel, and meet the families and look at primary sources. I’m indebted to York for supporting my creative work.

To be recognized at the research leaders event, hosted in April 2019 by the President’s Office and the Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, was wonderful. It’s a great privilege to know that York University acknowledges that what I’m doing is meaningful.

To learn more about the opera, visit the Martin’s blog or the opera’s website. To learn more about Martin, visit her faculty profile page.

To learn more about Research & Innovation at York, follow us at @YUResearch; watch our new animated video, profiling current research strengths and areas of opportunity such as artificial intelligence and Indigenous futurities; and see the snapshot infographic, a glimpse of the year’s successes.

By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca