In Review: Baby KintyreReview
Canadian composer Dean Burry’s opera Baby Kintyre is the coolest thing I’ve heard in a long time. The opera, with the libretto also by Dean, had its first performance in 2009 on six consecutive broadcasts of the CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. Baby Kintyre is written in the style of a radio serial in five episodes, based on the true story of a mummified baby found in the wall of 29 Kintyre (near Queen and Broadview) in Toronto. The baby’s body was found by a contractor in 2007, wrapped in a newspaper dated September 15, 1925. The baby’s parents are still unknown, but upon its discovery, Rita Rich gave insight into the family who lived at 29 Kintyre.
Dean Burry (The Brothers Grimm, Isis and the Seven Scorpions) saw the operatic potential of the story, including “a cast of characters straight from a mystery novel: the glamourous vamp, the mysterious houseguest, the prudish and suicidal wife, the adulterous husband and the simple little girl whose bedroom ceiling became the resting place of a horrible secret.” The opera-as-radio-serial is totally engrossing right from the start. We initially meet Bob (sung by James McLennan), the contractor who discovers the baby while on the phone with his wife, Jill (Laura Albino). The story is bookended by the present day, with most of the action set in 29 Kintyre in 1925. Interspersed are clips from Mary Wiens’ and John Nicol’s coverage of the story on CBC’s Metro Morning in 2007 (the recording includes the full broadcast).
I was struck first by the immediacy of the recording; I suppose our ears get used to working a bit to understand the singers, but the production by David Jaeger kept the voices very present and easy to place. I immediately felt a sense of nostalgia with the radio serial genre, including the added sound effects of creaking floorboards and telephone-effects; it really is a fantastic feat in real storytelling. The orchestra (which features my graduate teacher, Dr. John Hess, on the piano) plays like a chameleon, with music that goes in and out of the foreground, acting almost like going from diegetic to non-diegetic music in film. Dean’s music cedes to the story all the time, often turning on a dime with a dramatic shift; it reminded me of how Britten writes, with transparency and spontaneity that are hard to covey. At one point, Dean uses two characters at the piano to juxtapose against a marital spat happening in the other room (song-within-the-song style); it’s incredibly clear, even without visual help.
The music didn’t sound easy to sing, but the singers were clear and specific, and found a way to move organically between singing and speech. Young soprano Eileen Nash sang the role of Rita Rich (at 10 years old); she’s a strong performer with just enough of that eeriness that comes when kids sing opera. As Rita’s Uncle Wesley and Aunt Della, Giles Tomkins and Shannon Mercer impressively give us the multiple layers of communication that exist within a troubled marriage. Baritone Benjamin Covey is energetic and tragic as their houseguest, George, singing some of my favourite music of the show. My favourite has to be the fantastic Krisztina Szabó as Aunt Ella Mae, the “glamourous vamp” who seems to be the most sensible choice for the mysterious baby’s mother. Her music is full of growling saxophones and a yapping dog, right out of a 50s gangster movie. It made me imagine that Krisztina had red hair when they recorded Baby Kintyre.
I think the most appealing thing about this recording is that it’s an organic piece of art. Listening to recordings of operas is often like reading a play; it’s not quite what you’re after. But in the case of Baby Kintyre, the genre lends itself beautifully to a recording; it’s a complete piece of art that the listener really can take with them. The episodes are musically autonomous, but they all lead ominously into the next (often with a telling thunk from the piano); there’s a larger musical continuity that remains familiar throughout the whole opera. I think it’s my favourite piece of Dean Burry’s, and this recording by Centrediscs is an important addition to the Canadian Music Centre’s canon.