Marco Polo Project Saint John New Brunswick

Practising for the Marco Polo - Sept. 26/02
Marco Polo Opera
Photo by David Nickerson/Telegraph-Journal

   Gordon Bok, left, from Camden, Me., talks with composer-producer Jim Stewart on the set of the M<arco Polo opera during a rehearsal at the Imperial Theatre on Wednesday.
   The opera is based on the famous Saint John built 19th century sailing vessel. Mr. Stewart wrote and released the Marco Polo Suite on cassette in 1992. The Opera Neww brunswick production will have its world premiere in Saint John at the Imperial Theatre on Friday. It will run until Sunday. The opera will also be performed in Moscow in 2004.

Marco Polo sets course for hearts of Russians
MUSIC: Folk opera's world premiere goes next month at Imperial Theatre


   AIthough the Marco Polo story is deeply embedded in the minds of Saint Johners, its universal themes will carry the story into the hearts of Russians.
   That's the hope of Opera New Brunswick, anyway. Opera New Brunswick past president Eileen Travis was buzzing with anticipation of the grass-roots operation going international in 2004 when it brings The Marco Polo opera to the stage in Moscow.
   The former librarian used an analogy from a well-known children's book to hammer her point home at a Thursday press conference in the New Brunswick Museum.
   "You know the story of The Little Engine That Could? This is the story of the little opera company that did," she said, forcefully emphasizing that last word.
   The trip to Russia is a joint effort between Opera New Brunswick and the MusicaRussia Canada Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting artistic collaborations between Russia and Canada.
MARCO: Father-son team to translate work
   The chairman of the latter organization is Saint John native Fawn Wilson White who has international connections in the classical music world. Mrs. White is also president of the MusicaRussia Foundation, based in Moscow and New York.
   The international MusicaRussia Foundation was founded in 1995 as Kirov Opera International in New York and has ties to the famous Bolshoi Theatre. Its honorary chairman is Sir Peter Ustinov.
   Mrs. White is also on Opera New Brunswick's board of directors. The Moscow staging of The Marco Polo folk opera is the two-year-old Canada-Russia foundation's first initiative. The Marco Polo opera, Opera New Brunswick's first folk opera, will have its world premiere next, month at the Imperial Theatre.
   "Music is universal. Russia, like Canada, is a huge country with 11 times zones and a strong maritime tradition," Mrs. White said. "We think it will speak to the Russian people. We wouldn't be interested unless we were sure it would be successful."
   The Marco Polo, after all, isn't just the story of a ship but the many, people who travelled on her from 1851 to 1883, says its composer Jim Stewart.
   "Essentially it's not only a story about a ship but a drama about human beings facing unknown destinations," he said.
   Dennis Furlong, the minister of Education responsible for Culture and Sport, sent a letter congratulating Opera N.B. on its "extraordinary project. "This is a first for New Brunswick," he wrote.
   Details of how the folk opera will be mounted in Russia are sketchy, however. Dates have not been set, nor has a theatre been chosen. A Russian production company will be handling those details, Mrs. White said.
   Although the opera's folk songs will remain in English for its Moscow stint, its narrative will be translated into Russian by a respected father-son team, Arkadi and Vasiliy Arkanov. The former is a prominent author and commentator and his son, Vasiliy, is the North American bureau chief for the Russian national television station, NTV.
   The Arkanovs translation of the musical hit 42nd Street opens in Moscow this fall.
   Opera N. B. president Erminie Cohen said it's too soon to tell how much the Russian production will cost.
   "It's much too soon. I can't even guess," she said.
   The next big step is to go to the business community for sponsorship and the provincial and federal government for grants. The local production will cost nearly $100,000 to mount at the Imperial Theatre from Sept. 27 to 29. Jim Stewart, the Rothesay composer who wrote The Marco Polo Suite in 1992 on which the opera is based, is producing the spectacle, along with musician Gary Chase.
   Award-winning actor R. H. Thomson will narrate the Saint John production, although a Russian narrator will be employed for the Moscow version. Mr. Thomson has won Genie, Gemini and Dora awards for his work on Canadian movies, television and stage, respectively. Best known for his work on The Road to Avonlea television series, Mr. Thomson has appeared in dozens of TV shows, movies and stage productions over 25 years.
   The celebrated Saint John String Quartet will perform in the Canadian version of The Marco Polo with a Russian group employed for the Moscow version. Otherwise, the cast of 20 singers and musicians will be the same in both productions and will consist largely of new Brunswickers.
   Tickets for next month's Marco Polo opera are on sale at the Imperial Theatre and regular outlets. Award-winning actor R.H. Thomson, best known for his work on the Road to Avonlea TV series, will narrate the Saint John production.