Beatrice Chancy
an opera in four acts

James Rolfe
James Rolfe
Composition Date: 1997
Duration: 01:40:00
Genre: Staged Vocal Works, Operas, Complete Vocal Score


Instrumentation Set Number 1:
  • 1 x Percussion
  • 1 x Piano
  • 2 x Soprano
  • 1 x Mezzo Soprano
  • 1 x Baritone
  • 1 x Bass
  • 1 x String orchestra
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Programme Note:
Music in Nova Scotia, ca. 1801 Playing music and singing were everyday parts of nineteenth-century Nova Scotian life. Hymns were sung in church; at home, there were folk songs, work songs, and lullabies. Young people attended singing schools to sing the religious “pop” music of their day, and also to mingle with the opposite sex. Dances on Saturday nights were eagerly awaited; the music was usually made by a solo fiddler, often one of African descent. There was a diversity of musical cultures in Nova Scotia that is hard for us to imagine: English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, French, Acadian, American, German, Miqmaq, and African-Canadian musics existed side by side, often freely mixing with each other. What did these musics actually sound like? Little is known: of the European music, some fiddle tunes and religious songbooks survive, but accounts of the early music of African-Canadians are scant. I studied field recordings and accounts of African-American music from isolated parts of the deep South--coastal islands, rural areas, and prisons--which may be the best clues we have. Here I encountered the ring shout, one of the most “purely” African forms of self-expression to flourish in the North American diaspora. (Many others, particularly drumming, language, and religion, were feared and suppressed by slaveholders.) The participants form a circle, moving counterclockwise, clapping their hands and stomping their feet, creating a driving, polyrhythmic groove, which accelerates gradually. A leader sings out short phrases, often improvised, and the others reply with a fixed response (e.g. “Hallelujah!”). Ring shouts often tell Biblical stories about freedom, or about overcoming a powerful oppressor (e.g. “Daniel in the Lion’s Den”). The spiritual, one of the best-known forms of African-American music, was also popular in Canada. The spirituals familiar to us today became refined and standardized during U. S. Reconstruction and the early days of recorded sound, but there are compelling older styles--very slow, with irregular phrases and much rougher harmonies--which can be heard in such forms as the field holler, early blues, and the “moans” and Dr. Watts hymns still sung in some African-American churches. Spirituals and ring shouts are both used in the opera, sometimes as direct quotations, sometimes as original “reconstructions”. The Making of Beatrice Chancy: Notes on a Collaboration I first read the poems of George Elliott Clarke in 1990, while searching for material suitable for song lyrics. His words seemed to leap off the page, as if possessed: alive, argumentative, by turns violent and blissful, never at rest. So I wrote to him blindly, sending a cassette of my music, proposing that we collaborate on an opera; his reply was “Yes! Yes! Yes!” Then what? Neither of us knew anything about writing an opera. We cast about for ideas, settling after a few false starts on the story of the Cenci family. It goes like this: in Rome, ca. 1600, Francesco Cenci, the Pope’s treasurer, is rich, powerful, and very bitter. Not wishing his children to inherit his wealth, he has two sons murdered, and rapes two daughters to reduce their dowries. The first daughter escapes and marries; he imprisons the second, Beatrice, to prevent her from doing the same. She hires assassins who kill her father, but the job is bungled. Confessions are extracted under brutal torture; Beatrice, her stepmother Lustra, and another brother are executed on orders of the Pope (who then inherits their fortune, the Cenci family now being defunct). Murder, incest, torture, execution--we had found our opera. But George then transposed the action to early 19th-century Nova Scotia, giving the classic tragedy new dimensions of racism, slavery, and liberation. Over the next five years, he wrote draft after draft of the story, drafts which I would then edit to suit my musical and dramatic instincts. These edited versions evolved into the libretto of Beatrice Chancy, while the longer drafts grew into a dramatic poem of the same name, recently published by Polestar Press. During this time, we had two sojourns at The Banff Centre’s Composer-Librettist Workshop, where Music Director John Hess kept an interested eye on our progress. He later founded The Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company in Toronto, with Dáirine Ní Mheadhra; they workshopped the First Act in June 1996, and the first draft of the entire piece in December 1997. These workshops were crucial to the opera’s birth; we could immediately hear what worked, and what didn’t. Most important, it was encouraging to hear at last the fruit of our years of imaginative labour. The Queen of Puddings were also encouraged, and premiered the opera in June 1998 at The Music Gallery in Toronto. Some thoughts on the music of Beatrice Chancy In composing this opera, I have tried to use the simplest possible means of expression, to let the characters tell their own stories, and to let George’s eloquent words be heard. Simple, direct vocal lines also keep the singers closer to the viscerality of their art. Body and soul are intimately bound together in opera: the singers bathe the audience with their sweat and blood, their voices and their souls. Perhaps that’s why people either love or loathe opera, without much middle ground. My favourite dramatists (I think of Shakespeare and Mozart) give life to complex and utterly alive characters, with all the contradictions, joys, pain, and conflicts that we humans live through. They know that the answers are never revealed to us, that the decisions we struggle to make are as likely to be bad ones as good. What seemed right to Canadians in 1801--slavery, the superiority of Europeans over Africans and native peoples, of men over women--now seems arrogant and oppressive. But 200 years from now, how will we be judged? One of the “mottoes” George chose for the opera seems more true now than in 1991, when it was penned by Hardial Bains: “The old enslavement was to nature, and the new one is of one individual to another, beginning with chattel slavery and proceeding to the modern kind, where enslavement has assumed the most grotesque form--not only wage-slavery, but also bondage to the financial institutions which, in the present period, hold the entire world in their grasp.”

Premiere Information:
18 June 1998, The Music Gallery, Toronto, Ontario
Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company; Daîrine Nî Mheadhra, consuctor.


  • Call Number:
  • MV 7110 R746bea
  • Genre:
  • Staged Vocal Works, Operas, Complete Vocal Score
  • Date of Acquisition:
  • June 11, 2015
  • Type:
  • Print-music, Published by CMC
  • Physical Description:
  • 1 score (194 p.); 23 x 30
    194 Pages
    Height: 30 cm
    Width: 23 cm
  • Language Information
  • Language of libretto: English
  • Additional Information:
  • Libretto by George Elliott Clarke
    Commissioned by: Queen of Puddings Music Theatre Company
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