Inside the Lisl Wirth Unboxed Festival — Part 2

Find out what makes the Unboxed Festival something to sing about!

In a school year marked with distance, challenges, and a list of things we weren’t able to do, it brings extra joy to see the culmination of work brought to life with brio and tenacity.  
It is remarkable to witness the creativity, perseverance, and can-do spirit of our professors, coaches, directors, and conductors. And it should come as no surprise that the folks at Opera McGill found ways to deliver on the promise of high-level education and unique performance opportunities. To our faculty, it has always been a question of how. How to thrive. How to share. How to connect. 

This year marks the very first Lisl Wirth Unboxed Festival: two weekends of performances by Opera McGill. Works by Handel, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Verdi, and Bologne are sure to captivate and delight.  

We caught up with some of the artistic staff to learn a bit about the productions and what they’ve uncovered, discovered, and can't wait to share! 


Verdi's Un Giorno di Regno with Opera McGill and Jennifer Szeto on piano will be webcast from Pollack Hall on
Saturday, April 10 at 7:00 pm

Joseph Bologne's L'amant anonyme with Opera McGill and the McGill Symphony Orchestra will be webcast on
Sunday, April 11 at 7:00 pm

Stephen HargreavesStephen Hargreaves
conducts students from the McGill Symphony Orchestra and Opera McGill in L'amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

How did the selection of Joseph Bologne’s opera L’amant anonyme come about?

One preamble, Joseph Bologne represented himself in all of his publications and concerts as Chevalier de Saint-Georges; as this is the name he chose, I’ve referred to him as such in these responses.

Portrait of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Portrait of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
This past summer, Patrick Hansen and I were collaborating on how to plan Opera McGill’s 2020-2021 season given the reality of our new existence brought on directly by Covid-19 coupled with a need to address pre-existing inequalities that were further magnified by the virus. While we were listening to hours of video auditions, contemplating ways we could engage our singers in a career that was suddenly turned on its head, we also began looking for ways to spotlight the BIPOC voices that have been routinely ignored. I came across an article which listed a number of operas by black composers — amongst them was L’amant anonyme by Chevalier de Saint-Georges; it had not even been recorded. I found a pdf copy of his manuscript through the Bibliothèque Nationale and, after perusing the details of the score, felt we had the singers to produce the opera. It should come as no surprise that, despite being a contemporary of Mozart and achieving significant renown during his lifetime, most of the Chevalier’s works are simply not well known. It is believed that much of his music was lost during and after the French revolution; he wrote 6 operas, but this is the only one known to have survived in its entirety. I felt like it was important that this opera was heard again — it’s a musically beautiful work and deserves a place in the repertoire.

I understand you had a hand in writing the score — could you tell me about that? How long did it take?

Ha! I did not write the score — that’s all the musical composition of M. Saint-Georges — but I created individual instrument parts and a new edition including the detailed markings contained in the Bilbiothèque Nationale manuscript. Developing a new edition by means of transcribing the music is interesting — many times there are interpretations to be made that attempt to achieve the desire of the composer which becomes especially difficult when that person has been dead for hundreds of years. I think any two transcribers/editors would come up with quite different versions of the piece. My goal was to fairly represent the intention of Saint-Georges to the best of my ability by viewing each detail within the context of the whole. I began the process in July 2020, distributed musical numbers as they were finished to the cast throughout the fall. The current version was finished around the end of December, orchestra parts were finished not long after. The score is not done though! Many of the discoveries from the rehearsal process will make their way back into the edition afterwards. 

photo of the new edition of the opera L'amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
The new edition of the opera

What surprised or delighted you when putting the score together?

Musically, Saint-Georges’ syntax fits within the period he lived — there is wit, effervescence, lyricism, and a transparency to the scoring that is both economical and compelling. Yet one of the elements that caught me most off-guard was his unexpected setting of the “love” music: he consistently chose F minor, most often with lots of chromaticism. Most people would not associate a minor key with love which got me thinking about something I had read in Gabriel Banat’s, The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. Just prior to the composition of L’amant, it is thought that Saint-Georges was in a relationship with a married woman, Mme. Montalembert, and had a child. The husband, when he discovered the child was not his own, sent a squad of assassins including police officers to kill Saint-Georges. He survived the attack, but the assassins were released from jail less than a day later. For Saint-Georges, love may have well been cloaked in a minor key — perhaps the story of the anonymous lover who is reluctant to reveal his identity is based upon his own undoubtedly complex experiences.

Can you talk about the moment when you heard the music played for the first time? Was it as you imagined?

Live music is never quite how one imagines. I played through every bit of every orchestral and vocal line in my head and at the keyboard but the moment you add another person in the form of a singer, instrumentalist, or dramatic collaborator it all changes and evolves. I have always enjoyed this process — which is why I chose and continue to choose opera as one of the main vehicles of my musicianship.

Handwritten musical notation of the ornaments for the singers by Stephen Hargreaves for the opera L'amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
Handwritten ornaments for the singers by Stephen
Music is a living thing, but when you look at what you’ve written, do you ever think: maybe I should stop tweaking now?


Music is definitely a living thing but unlike when I compose myself, my transcription choices and resulting tweaking has more to do with whether I’ve made choices true to the markings (intention) Saint-Georges included in his manuscript. For example, one surprising moment was in the supporting soprano’s aria in Act I — I kept Saint-George’s slur markings in the first and second violin parts. The slurs not only did not match but almost always conflicted! I thought when we first rehearsed the number, I would have to make them align, but, in actuality, the difference of textures between the violins significantly adds to the interest of the accompaniment. Throughout the process, some elements have continued to change — in the dances, even a key signature changed as it was unclear whether it was intended to be in major or minor. And, of course, we keep finding errata — wrong notes, either from my transcription or from the manuscript. The latter poses a particularly challenging problem as we want to correct mistakes that would have been addressed in rehearsals without removing the individual choices of Chevalier de Saint-Georges as an artist.

What’s the most out-of-the-box thing you had to do for this production? 

The final chorus for L’amant anonyme in the manuscript is missing text — it is fully orchestrated, around vocal lines which are completely blank. I searched fruitlessly through a plethora of sources to find anything which might have functioned as the chorus text. Over reading week, I gave up and decided to attempt a text based loosely on Alexandrine verse (the poetic style of the time) which was not a success and pretty amusing — I asked my colleague, Olivier Godin, to weigh in and what we came up with hopefully functions until some historian hopefully rediscovers the original text.

Is there anything you’ve learned in the putting together of this production that you’ll box up and take with you?

The importance of a purpose… Patrick Hansen, the students of Opera McGill, and the orchestra have been so enthusiastic and supportive of this project because this is a work that needs to be heard and explored. In a time when we are all wondering “when will performance return?”, we can and should be re-envisioning and redesigning what it looks and sounds like when it does.

What’s one thing everyone should know about this performance?

At his time, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was widely regarded as one of the finest violinists, musicians, and fencers in Europe. Haydn’s Paris Symphonies were written for Saint-Georges’ orchestra due to its outstanding virtuosity. His musical voice harkens from a time period in Paris with which current audiences have little acquaintance. Prior to the composition of L’amant, Saint-Georges was being considered to be the music director of the Paris Opera. He was the top candidate until a trio of singers sullied his chances. Who knows what he might have accomplished if he had larger scale support for his operatic pursuits?

The musical score of the new edition of the opera L'amant anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges
A peek inside the new edition of L'amant anonyme

Watch them all on the Schulich YouTube channel

Verdi's Un Giorno di Regno with Opera McGill and Jennifer Szeto on piano will be webcast from Pollack Hall on
Saturday, April 10 at 7:00 pm

Joseph Bologne's L'amant anonyme with Opera McGill and the McGill Symphony Orchestra will be webcast on
Sunday, April 11 at 7:00 pm

If you missed Week 1 ...
Check out Part 1 of our look inside the Festival with Partenope conductor Dorian Bandy and Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella director Jonathan Patterson

Catch up on Burning Questions with a video featuring Rodgers + Hammerstein's Cinderella artistic team Jonathan Patterson and Chris Barillaro

Both performances of Partenope with Opera McGill and the McGill Baroque Orchestra can still be found for the next little while on our YouTube page!

Keep discovering

BIPOC VOICES: a library of music for voice and instruments by BIPOC composers
A new online database, BIPOC Voices is place to learn about works for voice and instruments by diverse composers.




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