Parlando: The COC Blog

11/11/2010

Interview with Dean Burry, the Creator of Isis and the Seven Scorpions

The members of the Ensemble Studio are on tour this month in schools across Ontario (as well as much further afield), performing 45-minute operas in school gymnasiums for young audiences. One of the operas they're taking on tour is Isis and the Seven Scorpions, which presents the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris through the eyes of a group of modern-day university students who are in search of the Temple of Isis. I spoke last week to the composer and librettist, Dean Burry, about his creative approach to opera and about how Isis and the Seven Scorpions came to be. Burry is also the composer and librettist of The Brothers Grimm, an extremely successful short opera geared to young audiences that has become the most-performed Canadian opera in history. There will be a public performance of Isis and the Seven Scorpions this coming Saturday, Nov. 13. Detailed information about the production can be found on our Study Guides page.   

   

CC: What was your inspiration for Isis and the Seven Scorpions?

DB: The idea actually came from something that happened in the After School Opera Program, for which we have three sessions every year with kids aged seven to 12. For each 10-week session I try to bring in a different theme, and the themes can range anywhere from pirates to pets in an evil scientist's lab to the internet to art. One of the themes in the third year of the After School Program was Ancient Egypt. And we searched and I found this story, Isis and the Seven Scorpions. The tricky thing about a lot of Egyptian myths is that we're used to the Greek format of myths, and by the time the Greeks were writing their myths down, such as Plutarch's for example, they tended to be better stories, better reads. The stories made logical sense; they had a beginning, middle and end; characters were clear; but a lot of the Egyptian myths weren't told that way. They didn't necessarily suggest a great storyline for young people. So in searching more and more, what I found was Plutarch's adaptation of the Isis and Osiris story, which was still that Egyptian story, but told in a much more concise way. And so we did a little after-school 15-minute opera version of Isis and the Seven Scorpions, and it went very well. And so when the opportunity came up to write another school tour opera following The Brothers Grimm, Isis was right there.

CC: What is it about the Isis story that made it stand out?

DB: It's funny because I had had my first child right around the time that Isis was done, and certainly Isis is  the story of forgiveness and there's a moment in the story where she saves a baby who's been stung by a scorpion. Certainly something about the story resonated with me. But at the same time I was thinking, what's going to appeal to a young audience? What's a myth that I feel can have some modern relevance? And also, having worked so much in the school system, I knew that Ancient Egypt was a big part of the curriculum, so all those things kind of came together. There's so much evocative music that can suggest the time and the place. A lot of the texts that I used for the opera came from Egyptian texts. I used some recitations from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, and there's something kind of cool about that.

CC: What special considerations do you take into account when you write for young people?

DB: That's the classic question, and I almost think in a lot of cases writers that are writing for adults need to ask that question in the other direction. Really, what do you need to keep in mind when you're writing for young audiences? You need to have utmost clarity in the story and the message that you're trying to get across with the music. It needs to be well-paced, it needs to be exciting and engaging . . . but isn't that what you want from an adult work anyway? And so it's a funny question because I often feel that writers writing for adults should ask that same question of themselves. There's an assumption that you have to write "down" to kids, but I never felt that I had to compromise my art when writing for young people. In fact, young people are the kind of audience that I want to have at any of my works. I want that wonder, I want that unconditional engagement. When people get to a certain age, they become a lot more concerned about what their colleagues think, or what they're supposed to think, i.e. what a review has told them. And yes, I want my music to be interesting and sophisticated and deep and layered and challenging at times, but it always still comes from that emotional place as well. So I write for adults the same way that I write for children. And the experience that I've had writing for young people has really educated the adult writer in me as well.

CC: Are there any musical features you'd like us to be listening for?

DB: When you're writing music that has a cultural basis, something like Madama Butterfly or Turandot or that kind of thing, you still always have to stay yourself. So yes there are occasions in Isis where I use that, some might say clichéd Egyptian scale that immediately evokes the place and the time for a lot of people. But it's only used as a flavouring, as a seasoning, and the material still is the Ancient Egyptian worldview through my lens as the composer and librettist. But I would say to listen for musical representations of the action and the events that are happening on stage. For example, a musical representation of a sandstorm. The music in an opera is really meant to be a lot of things, and very rarely is it just accompaniment. It's accompaniment at times, and at times the music is the set; at times, the music is another character on stage. So in a really good opera, the music goes beyond just being accompaniment for the singers, and being really the framework of the whole piece.

CC: What are you hoping that an elementary school student seeing Isis and the Seven Scorpions will take away from the experience? Do you hope that they'll think "opera is fun?"

DB: I would hope that they come away thinking opera is for them. Because opera is fun but it goes deeper than that. Humour is a great way to connect with young people, but it's not the only way. And Isis I would say is not as funny a show as The Brothers Grimm was, but you've got to have that "cool factor," that danger or that mystery. So there aren't as many laughs in Isis, and it's definitely a more mature and a deeper story. But the factors are still there to bring people in. At the same time, it is a challenge writing for K-6. There's a pretty big intellectual divide between a kindergartner and someone in grade six, so you have to be clever about writing this kind of work and really try to include something for everybody. I have a kindergartner right now, and she's pretty excited about seeing the Princess, the Egyptian Queen. So you have to have something to engage, but then layers that go deeper and deeper, so that each different age can access something different from the piece. And hopefully I've achieved that. I would love for them to really enjoy the experience, but I think the most important thing is for them to feel "this is really for me. I haven't been put in front of something that's just meant to be an education." I'd like for them to feel that this really was given to them, in a sense.

Photo: Anand Maharaj © 2008

Posted by Cecily Carver / in Xstrata Ensemble Studio School Tour / comments (1) / permalink

(11/14/2010 6:19:00 PM)
Wonderful interview. A wise and wonderful teacher. I wish he'd come to my elementary school.

Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001