Last night I attended the world premiere of Vancouver Opera’s Lillian Alling.
For those unfamiliar with Alling’s story, in 1927 a young Estonian émigré arrives in New York City, hates it, and decides to walk home, a trip that takes her to Chicago, Minneapolis, Winnipeg, northern BC, the Yukon, then finally the Bering Peninsula, where she is never heard from again (at least not in North America). There are sightings along the way, from telegraph operators and the occasional employer, but little else is known.
In 2007 Amy Bloom attempted to fill in the gaps with her novel Away, which imagines Alling in search of her lost child. John Murrell’s libretto takes a similar tack, though in this instance, it is a lost fiancé. The result, at least from the Murrell version, is a story so neatly sutured, so mawkish in its weaving of words and John Estacio's music, that you are left with little more than a wet hanky.
Stories like Alling’s are attractive, not for their (epic) scale but for that which is unknown. What happened along the way? What did Alling make of her experiences? What did others make of her? That is for us to imagine.
To dismiss the Vancouver Opera commission as “bad” is to miss an opportunity to talk about where it could have gone. Instead of a story within a story, one that begins with a middle-aged man taking his elderly mother from her wilderness home to an assisted living facility while she recounts the life of Lillian Alling (a recounting that predictably has the mother turning out to be Alling), why not approach the libretto along the lines of Agnes Varda’s Vagabond (1985), where the focus is not on the life of our hero but on those she meets along the way? For me, the projections of those on an unknowable subject are far more interesting than an author's imposition on that same (singular) subject. Especially when the imposition, in this case, is all about motive and sentiment.
An inversion like this might seem unfriendly to audiences eager to penetrate Alling’s inner world, those whose preference is to hang out with one person over those who come and go. But to argue that this is the life we aspire to is to deny art. What debt does art owe life? Why can’t I have an experience other than the one I am expected to have? Only when Gertrude Stein flew over North America did she understand cubism. Had Vancouver Opera made more of its Mondrian screen divisions and rustic platforms, they could have explored similar terrain. Instead we get Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.
Although I applaud Vancouver Opera’s ambitions (the budget for Lillian Alling is 1.6 million dollars), I cringe when I think of it touring. The depictions of Vancouver resort to the usual clichés of a rain-soaked people praying for sun. As for the prison scene, though it provides an effective “First Act” finale, it feels more like Oklahoma than Oakalla.