Original Opera “The Auction” Graces Westben Stage

Rural setting inspires “folk opera”

Performers rehearse a dance scene from "The Auction" (photo by Jill Keene)
Performers rehearse a dance scene from "The Auction" (photo by Jill Keene)

Westben’s world premiere presentation of “The Auction” is not a typical opera in its rural Canadian setting, yet it stays true to the essence of what opera is about. Opera is an art form often steeped in rich emotion, with each character expressing themselves fully through song. “The Auction” tells the story of how a family is impacted when farming proves to no longer be sustainable for them.

Juno-Award winning composer John Burge explains how it fits into such a setting. “In this day and age, operas are being set in every imaginable location. All that really matters is that the characters and the story resonate, and watching a family preparing for an auction prior to selling the farm is a situation already charged with emotion.”

The opera takes place on a farm where a grandfather explains to his grandson why things must change and in doing so brings to light his many hopes, dreams, and passions. The theatre at Westben is a beautiful wood barn that sits amongst rolling hills and peaceful fields (only three kilometers northwest of Campbellford) and is the perfect space for this tale of reflection and change in rural life.

The inspiration for the story originates from a children’s book called “The Auction” by Canadian author Jan Andrews, who was invited to the opening performance. Burge composed the music and adapted Andrews’ book for opera, while librettist Eugene Benson brought the music and the story to life with the lyrics. “He provided a wonderful text that contains many dramatic and comedic moments that were a pleasure to realize musically,” explains Burge.

That this opera will premiering at Westben is certainly no coincidence. Burge is a full professor in the School of Music at Queen’s University and was commissioned by Westben, with support from Ontario Arts Council, to write an opera for performance in the space. He naturally gravitated to writing a piece set on a farm because of its natural setting. “It seemed ideal to find a topic that would simply let the barn-like theatre function as a barn.

The setting also influenced him musically, as a country music instrument found its way into the composition. “I did actually include a banjo in one number which was difficult only in that there aren’t many classical music works that use banjo.” The banjo will join a more traditional chamber orchestra arrangement of violin, viola, and cello, which also featuring piano, guitar, and the musical saw.

Acclaimed conductor Philip Headlam directs the musical performers during rehearsal (photo by Jill Keene)
Acclaimed conductor Philip Headlam directs the musical performers during rehearsal (photo by Jill Keene)
The main character in the opera is being performed by Olivia Rapos. She plays Todd, grandson to the patriarch of the farm. Westben cofounder and soprano Donna Bennett explained with a huge smile that Olivia is “only 10 years old and will be singing classical opera, and she’s doing great!” The cast features an impressive amount of talent with seven professional performers, making “The Auction” a must-see event.

Tickets are still available but going fast for three performances.

There will be a preview on Friday, June 29 at 2 pm, which is essentially a full dress rehearsal. “The Auction” opens June 30 at 2 pm and closes on July 1 at 2 pm.

Westben Arts Festival Theatre is located at 6698 County Road 30 in Campbellford, Ontario. Phone: (705) 653-5508. Toll Free: 1-877-883-5777.