RTC-34: 1967 Opera: The Brideship

Libretto: George Woodcock
Commission: Composition Grant – Canada Council Senior Arts Fellowship (1966-67)
Performance Commission – CBC for 1967 Centennial Year
Length: 55 min.
Completion: 21 July (Florence) – 24 December 1966 (Rome)
Premiere: 1967-12-12 (Radio Broadcast), CBC Vancouver Chamber Orch., Hugh McLean (cond.)

  • 1981-10-21, Tape Presentation, Eva Clare Hall, University of Manitoba,
  • 1984-11-14/16, Tape Presentation, Eva Clare Hall, University of Manitoba,
  • 1999-02-23, Tape Presentation and Lecture/Discussion with Robert Turner, Green College,University of British Columbia

Publication: CMC

CBC Times, December 9-15, 1967, 6-7:

“At the peak of the Cariboo Gold Rush,” says west coast writer George Woodcock, “a group of English churchmen and charitable Victorian ladies embarked on a scheme to save the miners from the clutches of the ‘wrong kind’ of women. They recruited about 100 respectable, or apparently respectable English girls, mainly from orphanages, and sent them out to Victoria, B.C., – with matrimony in view – on two ships, the first of which, the Tynemouth, arrived in the autumn of 1862. Needless to say, in Victoria the demand exceeded the supply as the silent crowds of miners lined the gangway to see the girls disembark, and almost all of the potential brides entered into what were, to say the least, rather hasty marriages.

“An imaginary reconstruction of the complications that might well have happened in such a situation, is the subject of The Brideship, a short ‘lyric drama’ inthree scenes, commissioned by the CBC for Centennial Year from librettist George Woodcock and composer Robert Turner. It will have its première on CBC Tuesday Night. December 12th [1967], at 9:00, in a broadcast from Vancouver, with Hugh McLean conducting. The cast features Sheila Marks as Rose Johnson, a girl from the brideship; Garnet Brooks as John Atkins, a soldier in the Royal Engineers who meets and falls in love with her on the ship; Phyllis Mailing and Patricia Rideout as her friends, Daisy and Violet; Martin Chambers as the Reverend Mr. Scott, a missionary who, with the matron, Mrs. Robb, played by Audrey Farnell, is escorting the girls to Canada; Steve Henrikson as Jim Wilson, a miner determined to marry Rose; and David Kendall as Judge Begbie.

“George Woodcock won the Governor General’s 1967 Award for Non-Fiction for his biography of George Orwell, The crystal Spirit, and is a well-known radio writer and broadcaster. Robert Turner, the DBD’s senior music producer in Vancouver, returned recently from a year’s study in Italy on a Canada Council Arts Fellowship. While there he wrote The Brideship (in Florence and Rome) and one other new work, a chamber piece, Diversities, commissioned by the Centennial Commission.

“He tells is that “The entire opera is based on one 12-tone row and its various forms, but treated as tonally as possible, being grouped around several tonal centres (Scene 1 in D, Scene II in E, and Scene III in D). Although the three scenes are laid in different settings (a stateroom on board ship, a fort at Victoria, and a miner’s cabin in the Cariboo), the music concentrates on evoking the emotions and delineating the personalities of the characters involved – thus making the work more psychological than historical in nature. Specific themes and textures are associated with certain characters and situations and recur in the course of the opera. For example, the chaplain and the matron, with their Victorian rectitude, are represented by a 12-tone theme developed contrapuntally, the miner by a heavy, hammer-like motive, and the phrase ‘a stone on the window, a flash in the jewel’, symbolizing the coming of love (repeated several times) by the same characteristic instrumental sonority. While the work is written in a contemporary musical idiom, there are inserted several stylized forms of the period – the heroine’s two companions sing to the rhythms of a waltz and a two-step, the heroin sings a nostalgic ballad (off-stage, to the accompaniment of a harmonium), and the judge is accompanied by a pompous march. The musical flow is unbroken in each scene, although the scenes are made up of solos, duets, and larger ensembles, and the vocal lines draw on recitative, arioso, and various types of delivery. The only purely instrumental parts are the short preludes and the postludes to each scene and the music accompanying the fight between the soldier and the miner. While the events of the opera are essentially tragic and unresolved, the music ends on a note of optimism and hope.”