What does it mean to appreciate the little things? It seems we often focus so much on the tangible reality that we forget the intangible, the meaning behind our actions, and the inner power within ourselves and our environment.
In Stravinsky’s short opera “The Nightingale,” the Fisherman opens the story by singing about the divine manifestation in nature. He has come to fish, but is now waiting to hear the nightingale whose beautiful night-time song makes him forget his sorrows.
As the story unfolds, the Fisherman returns to comment on the deeper meanings behind the action onstage. In the final scene, he is there to remind us to pay attention to nature: “The birds in the forest are singing loudly. Listen to them. The heavenly spirit speaks through their voice.”
This season, Canadian tenor Owen McCausland is singing the role of the Fisherman in “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables” with the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
For McCausland, “The Nightingale’s” message is to remember to appreciate the simple things in life.
“We must strive to always appreciate them and not lose track of what it all means for us,” he says.
The Story of the Nightingale
In ancient China, there was much greater focus on the inner realm. People would often meditate before starting their work. Many were cultivators in search of the divine, committed to an inner goal of spiritual perfection.
When writing “The Nightingale” in 19th-century Europe, Danish author Hans Christian Andersen evoked ancient China to tell the story of his own search for truth through music and nature.
In the fairy tale, the Chinese emperor lives in a wondrous porcelain palace, surrounded by a magnificent garden where the flowers have silver bells around their stems. One day he is reading books written by travellers to his kingdom when he is amazed to discover that his country’s most treasured possession is none other than the nightingale, a little bird he never knew existed.
Keen to discover this unexpected treasure, he sends out his courtiers to bring him the bird. The little singer arrives, and its melody touches the emperor so much that it brings tears to his eyes. He decides to keep the nightingale in the palace, but soon a beautiful bejewelled mechanical nightingale, a gift from the emperor of Japan, replaces the real bird as the emperor’s favourite. The nightingale, now ignored, takes the opportunity to fly back to the forest. Upset at the bird’s apparent ungratefulness, the emperor banishes it from his kingdom.
Five years pass, the mechanical bird breaks down, and the emperor falls seriously ill. Death is at his bedside and ready to take his life when the sick man desperately calls out for music. (Interestingly, in ancient Chinese culture, music was associated with medicine.) No one can hear him, however, except for the nightingale who comes back, having heard of the emperor’s illness. Her song is so beautiful that death itself is enchanted and is eventually driven away by its charm. The emperor recovers and the nightingale promises to come back every evening to bring him joy and along with that, insight into his kingdom.
“The Nightingale” is one of Andersen’s most popular fairy tales and continues to remain in our consciousness through its call for appreciation of nature, goodness, and simplicity.
Magical Tale Comes to Life
The Canadian Opera Company’s production “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables” is directed by Robert Lepage, known for his creative direction, including for theatre, opera, and ballet. Indeed, Lepage does more than bring Stravinsky’s 1914 Russian-language opera to the stage. For the “Nightingale,” the main tale featured in the 2018 production, he has extended the opera experience by drawing inspiration from East Asia through Vietnamese water puppetry and bunraku (traditional Japanese puppet theatre) among others.
The orchestra has been moved onstage in this production (since the pit has been filled with water for the puppets) behind a large group of chorus members who are each holding an intricately designed puppet by award-winning American designer Michael Curry (The Lion King, Cirque du Soleil).
The lead singers also manipulate the puppets to deliver the story. In fact, the puppets are the main characters—the artists are there to bring them to life through their voice and movements.
“This is a big spectacle as well as being an opera,” says McCausland. “It’s very inviting for young people and people who haven’t been to an opera before to come see what else can be done [with the art form]. … It creates a whole other new way of interpreting it and that’s really special. ”
‘The Fox’ and Other Short Fables
In addition to “The Nightingale,” this production, which was first performed in Toronto in 2009, also consists of other short Russian pieces by Stravinsky, all themed around the idea of animals.
McCausland also sings as part of the burlesque piece “The Fox,” based on traditional tales of Renard, a mischievous character who is always trying to deceive others for his own self-interest.
“It’s really silly, but it’s so much fun,” says McCausland, noting that while he and his fellow artists are singing, the acrobats are doing shadow puppetry—dancing behind a lit screen and using special props to make them look like animals.
Despite the fun, it is a challenge for the singer.
“The Renard is some of the hardest music Stravinsky wrote,” he says. “We have to be laser sharp in our precision and in watching Johannes [Debus, the conductor]. If one person screws up, the whole thing can go awry.”
Born in Saint John, New Brunswick, McCausland joined the COC’s Ensemble Studio Program in 2011 and since graduation has sung with the company in several lead roles. He says that for a young singer, the challenge is to learn the craft and work in a team, while also managing to stay true to his own voice.
With opera, as with any art form, the audience is looking for authenticity. In that sense, one finds parallels to the nightingale’s story.
“They don’t want to hear the fake one, they want to hear the real one,” says McCausland, who is happy to be part of this journey.
“The Nightingale and Other Short Fables” runs until May 19 at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Arts. For more information, visit: www.coc.ca