Marilyn forever

By Michael Elcock, September 2013

While it involves a host of international talent, this opera is rooted firmly in Victoria.

If Marilyn Monroe were still with us, she would have turned 87 in June. Idolized, misunderstood and often misrepresented, she will be the subject of an opera that will have its world premiere in Victoria on September 13. Produced by Victoria-based Aventa—with a musical score by the well-known English (and new Canadian) composer Gavin Bryars, and libretto by Marilyn Bowering—the work has generated serious interest in New York, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The genesis for Marilyn Bowering’s original work on Marilyn Monroe came from a meeting in Edinburgh some 25 years ago. BBC radio producer Marilyn Imrie and Victoria writer Marilyn Bowering were cooking up their next project. They were stumped until one of them, they forget now which, said something like: “Well, both of us are called Marilyn; let’s do something on the other Marilyn.”

Roll the clock on a few more years and the play (for BBC Radio and for stage) and the book that came out of that collaboration tweaked Gavin Bryars’ interest. His thoughts about an opera—a semi-classical work inspired by Bowering’s radio play—excited Aventa’s Bill Linwood. The result will be performed at the MacPherson Playhouse for two nights.

Linwood, an instructor of music at UVic, came to Victoria in the early 1980s. When he is not teaching or producing events with Aventa he is timpanist with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra.

“Gavin and I were talking in 2005 about doing a chamber opera,” he says, “and one thing that came up was an idea about a ‘locked-room’ murder mystery. But then Gavin also said that he would like to work with Marilyn Bowering, and mentioned her radio play about Marilyn Monroe—Anyone Can See I Love You.”

“The opera evolved very differently from Bowering’s earlier work,” explains Bryars. “Of her three marriages, Monroe’s most interesting relationship was with Arthur Miller. That was the one that unleashed her intellectual capacity. The opera pays more attention to that—and to her death—than anything else.”

Bryars’ roots may be in England, but he has been coming to Canada since the 1990s and has spent the last 15 summers on southern Vancouver Island. He has worked with a number of extraordinary artists—Tom Waits, Holly Cole, Steven Page, Julian Lloyd Webber and others—in many countries and on several continents. Atom Egoyan—another Victoria connection—staged Bryar’s last opera, Dr Ox’s Experiment, with the English National Opera at the Coliseum in London. 

“I have set some of Marilyn [Bowering]’s poetry to music over the last ten years,” says Bryars. “I think she’s a wonderful writer. Her BBC radio play about Monroe has a lot of musical substance.” 

Marilyn Forever is Bryars’ fourth opera. The musical score, he is quick to point out, is faithful to its subject, its context and to its times. “It is not ‘new music’ in any difficult sense. Think more of Philip Glass or John Adams, who have achieved considerable success in the world of opera by writing in a much more approachable musical language.

“Marilyn Monroe was an intelligent person who had a striking life. She was a figure from popular culture; a product of a popular medium, film, and of popular music—and I have full respect for those cultures. The opera places her in an environment which relates to the music of her time.”

“I like the way Gavin has gone with this,” says Linwood. “One act, with eight scenes. The opera will last about 80 minutes and there won’t be an interval. I now have the finished score, and the music is terrific. The quote it brings to my mind is something like ‘the best music you’ve never heard before’.”

Bowering is excited by what she sees. “The production brings together a group of extraordinary performers, creators and producers who are absolutely at the peak of their careers,” she says. “I have worked with music before but this is the first time I’ve written a libretto for an opera. What I love about it is the way that the language can range from real speech to actual songs, and Gavin has written beautiful music for it.”

This multi-national production is rooted firmly in Victoria, but it is very much a collaboration of international talent. The lead will be played by the Faroese singer, musician and composer Eivør Pálsdóttir. Well-known in the Nordic countries, Eivør is a treat in store for North American audiences.

“We brought Eivør into the production in 2009, when we workshopped sketches of two scenes from the opera at the Banff Fine Arts Centre,” says Linwood. “Her voice has an extraordinary range; an ability to reveal other dimensions. It’s hard to explain."

“Eivør is a very quick study,” says Bryars. “In Banff she performed it all from memory, without a script, and with virtually no time to work on it. She has a pure voice and rare agility; an ability to suddenly hit very high notes and produce an ethereal sound. She is a soprano with something extra. She is most unusual.”

“Gavin was still writing the music when we were in Banff,” says Bowering, “and it was really exciting to see how quickly everything gelled—the way the musicians were able to work from the score minutes after it had been produced; the way the singers paid attention to the meanings in the words. I was able to work with Eivør on her interpretation and I quickly understood that this was a very intelligent performer who was deeply concerned with all the levels of the experience she would be conveying. At the same time, I fell in love with the music that Gavin was writing.”

The male lead will be played by Thomas Sandberg—“a hugely talented performer from Copenhagen with a kind of ‘Peter Gabriel’ voice,” says Linwood. “Thomas is also a wonderful musician. Aside from his artistic pursuits he has developed some interesting integrations of live electronics and music, and a remarkable one-man show called Sandberg Explorer.”

Bill Linwood will conduct the Aventa Chamber Orchestra—and the opera also has an on-stage jazz trio, with Bryars himself on bass, plus Vancouver Island pianist Tony Genge, and Phil Dwyer on tenor sax. Toronto-based Joel Ivany will direct. Ivany has worked extensively in Europe and North America with—among others—the Canadian Opera Company, the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and the Norwegian National Opera. Kevin Lamotte, director of lighting design for the Shaw Festival at Stratford, will handle that aspect of the production. Camellia Koo, also with the Shaw Festival, is set and costume designer.

“Monroe is tragic and immortal—and much loved,” says Bowering. “I think people will be interested in going through a journey with her, and because the style of music is so accessible, so energetic and moving, I think the opera should appeal to a wide range of people. The combination of play and seriousness, deep emotion and accessibility is unusual and really attractive. I think it will be beautiful.”


Tickets for the Sept 13 and 14 productions of “Marilyn Forever” are available at the MacPherson Box Office. 250-386-6121,

Michael Elcock is the author of  the novel The Gate, as well as two non-fiction books and numerous articles. He was athletic director at UVic for ten years, and then CEO of Tourism Victoria for five. He is married to writer Marilyn Bowering.