Chan Ka Nin writes about Iron road

Type:Press (text)

The ten-year journey Iron Road travelled to arrive on the stage.

Before I began working on my first opera, Iron Road, I thought the task was not so different from setting text to music – something that I had already done several times before. I anticipated that it would take longer just because of the sheer volume of the texts. Now that I have completed the opera – ten years later – I can tell you that I obviously underestimated the job.

Exactly how the opera was conceived is not crystal clear to me. It was one of those defining moments in life that I should know about, but I do not. The chain of events went something like this: In 1984 I was conductor of a community choir, the Council of Chinese Canadians Choir. The founding members of this choir belong to a human-rights organization with the same name. One member had told me that Chinese women were not permitted to immigrate to Canada in the old days. I was quite taken by the fact. When I was contemplating a story for my opera, my first thought for the main character was a woman dressed as a man. The background, “naturally,” would be the building of the railway. The photo that inspired me was that of the last spike. I saw this famous picture as a bridge to relate my fictional story to the Canadian public.

In the summer of 1990, I brought a one-page description of the opera to cbc producer David Jaeger, and his immediate approval was very encouraging. Eight months later, the Music Director of Tapestry New Opera Works, Wayne Strongman, agreed to develop and produce the project. Well, there must have been good reasons why a lot of operas were based on existing plays or stories because, as I found out soon enough, the story itself was half the battle.

My first and seemingly logical choice for the writer to develop the story was my younger brother Edmond, who had written a few screen plays after graduating from Ryerson College Film School. He had been an English major, played the piano, understood Chinese, and he was living in Toronto.

Edmond began by doing more research on the period. We were surprised that there were quite a few books on the subject; one of them was Chronicles of Canada. When I saw an article which mentioned that the “Norwegian ship Hebe has arrived here from Hong Kong with 265 Chinese immigrants – one a young female,” I was totally ecstatic. Edmond and I had been debating the probability of a woman coming to Canada alone. The woman’s journey to Canada looking for her father, the photograph of the Last Spike and a tragic love story became the basic ingredients of this opera.

Admittedly, my relationship with my brother had not been very close. We were eight years apart, and I was away studying at Indiana University during most of Edmond’s teenage years. Working on this project, I felt that we both wanted to get to know each other better. As we brainstormed the plot and theme of the opera, we covered a wide range of human emotions. We exchanged our many views on life and of our family. It was during one of these meetings that Edmond revealed to me that he had a difficult childhood.

It was such a shock to me – how could I have been so blind all these years! I felt like making up to him for not having been sensitive to his needs during his difficult years. At the same time, I was glad that we were involved in this project, as I thought that we would spend more time together. Unfortunately, that did not work out. In fact, what happened marked the beginning of the treacherous road of creating this operatic story.

Neither Edmond nor I had written an opera before. At that stage, Wayne Strongman of Tapestry was coaching our collaboration. For a year, Edmond was drafting the story and at the same time writing the libretto of the first few scenes. After several tries, we sensed that a believable love story was not coming through and Edmond was let go. It was quite a blow to me, as I had high hopes working with Edmond. I started to question my story outline: was my preoccupation with the love story hindering the project? What should be the next step? Who could help? For the next six years, I was asking the same questions. During this period, I learned a few things about life, interpersonal skills and the business side of operas.

The collaborative progress was a big adjustment on my part. In my pre-Iron Road years, I basically just closed the door and composed whatever was at hand. With the opera project, I constantly needed to explain, consult and try out what I intended to do. I used to be my own boss, and all of a sudden, I was working with several partners.

I discovered that there was no such thing as “a good idea”; in fact, with the many documented events, and the number of people involved, there were more than we could handle. The workable ideas were the ones that would make sense in the context. And communication was the key word.

It seemed the love interest in this fictional story posed the most problems for the writers. I had a hard time convincing the creative team that this was what I was aiming for musically. But if one was caught up with history, the emotional connectivity might be lost. Instead of composing, I found myself having to defend why the young Chinese woman had to dress up as a man, and why she fell in love with someone who helped her – I thought it was opera…

Searching for the right librettist turned out to be the most difficult task. Before I finally connected with playwright Mark Brownell in 1997, five other writers had wrestled with the story. Each contributed to the project in his or her unique way, but Mark was able to filter the rich history and arrived at a story that balanced between human relationships and historical events.

If you met Mark and me, you might wonder how the two of us ever teamed up and spent four years ironing out the opera. Mark is big, jolly, loud and easy-going while I am almost the opposite. His plays had been mostly satirical, funny, light and not so mainstream. But he did have a flare for writing for the underdog. We first met at the Composers-Librettists Laboratory organized by Tapestry in February of 1997. Four teams took turns writing a short scene. Mark’s poem was called Secret Society, a funny skit which described an organization so secret that no one could tell you what it was all about. How that led to Iron Road is still a mystery to me. But I liked Mark’s openness and simplicity in his writing and demeanour. Soon after that brief encounter, Iron Road came to a halt. After six years, five writers, several workshops and much money being spent, I sensed Tapestry was having reservations about the feasibility of the project. As a last resort, I proposed one final try; this time, I would approach a librettist myself without discussing the business arrangement first. My meeting with Mark three months later proved to be quite fruitful. I was much impressed by Mark’s focused treatment of the story. Initially, Tapestry preferred a Chinese writer, but in the end, we settled with the writer most suitable for the job. General Manager Claire Hopkinson and Wayne Strongman were satisfied and gave us their full support.

Our collaboration was not without obstacles. After the reading of the entire script in June 1998, we were still not completely satisfied with the ending. Four months later, director Tom Diamond joined the creative team, and his involvement marked the beginning of the final stage of Iron Road.

The collaborative process could be very inspiring as well. I gained a lot of respect for those who were specialists in their fields. The insights of Tom Diamond solidified the fundamentals of this work. He was responsible for incorporating more Chinese culture in the storyline: the five elements, the dragon-dance, the family traditions and the resulting larger use of the Cantonese texts. George Wong’s vivid translations offered a new challenge. In the process, I was rediscovering my musical journey and my Chinese heritage.

One process I found very useful was the workshop. The negative feedback from performers and audience prompted me to make improvements, while their positive feedback gave me the confidence to proceed. There was a good deal of music written between 1991 to 1997. I tried to salvage some of the music whenever possible. That brought up an interesting question: Did the music come first, or the text? In retrospect, it worked either way. So when someone pointed out, “Wow, your music fitted perfectly with the text,” I was dumbfounded because the music had originally been written to fit another line of text. For years, I had been imagining the characters from Iron Road as I wrote the music. What would my beautiful tom-boyish Lai Gwan look like? Her father? Her lover? When my imagination failed, I asked my wife, Alice, to dress as a man to see how plausible it was to have a female disguised on stage. She was a good enough sport to actually try it. She looked manly enough; but as soon as she walked, it gave it all away, so we did not even attempt to conceal the disguise from the audience.

The few weeks leading up to the production were the most exciting time of the creation process, or even of my life. Every day, I saw close to a hundred people working on and off stage. All characters now had a face: here was Sir John A. MacDonald; there was James Nichol; they are real! As each scene was rehearsed, the action came to life. Ama was dying, of course Lai Gwan had to find her father… how moving to see that Lai Gwan was alone, and now she had a mission! Costumes and set designer Dany Lyne and lighting designer Bonnie Beecher transformed the Elgin Theatre stage into the Rocky Mountains with a touch of oriental ambiance … how magical!

I cannot take credit for the final production; the achievements of the team were reflected in the nine nominations for the Dora Mavor Moore awards. All my hardships and frustrations evaporated in the end. Throughout all these years, one person stood by me through all the ups and downs: it was my wife, Alice, to whom I owe a great deal. She is a composer in her own right, and had been my unconditional sounding board. I trusted her instinctive responses to all my questions and doubts. There was much guilt on my part whenever I sat down to compose at the expense of spending time with her and my two daughters. Once, I tried to combine work and play by going on a ride on a historic train in North Vancouver.

At the premiere of the production, Alice bought eight gowns, one for each show. Apparently she rewarded herself handsomely for her hard work. The same summer, our family took a three-week vacation in Europe. I did not know if that compensated for lost time together.

One rewarding outcome of this project is Tapestry’s education program, which was also supported by the government. School children were learning a page of Canadian history by writing their own stories and creating their own songs based on the story of Iron Road. I feel blessed that I had the opportunity to write this piece. My only regret was that my father, who passed away in 2000, was unable to see it. His sense of virtue and righteousness and his admiration of the Chinese culture had an influence on me that I realized only in recent years. This opera forced me to re-examine my role as a composer, teacher, husband, father and son. Iron Road is my own journey to find myself.

Chan Ka Nin is a professor of composition at the University of Toronto. He is the winner of international awards and Juno Awards for Best Classical Composition, and has received numerous international commissions. Plans are under way for an Iron Road tour to Asia (Hong Kong, Macao, Shenzen) in October 2002 and to Western Canada in 2004.

Credits:Chan Ka Nin, Canadian Theatre Review, Vol. 110
Subject:Chan Ka Nin | Iron road
Related People:Ka Nin ChanKa Nin Chan
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Created Date2002