Banff Centre stages Alberta premiere of new Murrell/Estacio opera

Opera available in Banff

Jill Sawyer,

Media & Communications Officer, The Banff Centre


After arriving among the teeming masses of immigrants at New York’s Ellis Island in 1927, a mysterious young Russian woman immediately set out to return home – on foot. Known only by a given name, Lillian Alling, she walked across the continent, spotted occasionally in the most remote places in the American Midwest, eventually making her way through the wilderness of British Columbia, where she dropped off the map.

Lillian’s story, discovered by Alberta-based playwright and librettist John Murrell in a book about adventurous women of western Canada, is retold in an original opera, Lillian Alling, staged this month at The Banff Centre as part of the 2011 Banff Summer Arts Festival.

Though only the most sparing details of Lillian’s life are known, Murrell has filled out the story, populating it with a huge cast of characters, found in a Norwegian farming community, along the lonely stretches of the telegraph trail, and in British Columbia’s Oakalla Prison Farm. Lillian is looking for a man named Jozef, tracking him across 4,000 kilometres over three years, and Murrell has added a twist ending, a moment the audience won’t be expecting.

Co-produced by The Banff Centre and Vancouver Opera, Lillian Alling had its world premiere in Vancouver in October 2010, and soprano Judith Forst is in Banff to reprise her role from that production.

Other roles are filled by young professional singers from The Banff Centre’s Opera as Theatre program, under the direction of Kelly Robinson, who also directed in Vancouver. The set, designed by Sue LePage (also costume designer) and built at Banff, comes alive with massive visual projections. In Banff, the Banff Festival Orchestra will be conducted by Leslie Dala.

Well-known to Banff audiences, Estacio and Murrell created the popular original operas Filumena (2003) and Frobisher (2007), co-productions of The Banff Centre and Calgary Opera. Juno-nominated composer John Estacio has been composer-in-residence for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, Calgary Opera, and Pro Coro Canada. He recently received the National Arts Centre Award for Composers, which will lead to three commissions for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. His music has been heard most recently in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Wonderland, and in the Carnegie Hall premiere of Frenergy by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Formerly executive artistic director for Performing Arts at The Banff Centre, John Murrell is one of Canada’s most frequently produced playwrights, author of Memoir, Waiting for the Parade, and The Faraway Nearby, as well as a noted translator, librettist on four original operas, including The Inventor for Calgary Opera, and a collaborator on works of dance and musical theatre. In 2002, Murrell was awarded the Walter Carsen Prize for Excellence in the Performing Arts, and in 2008 he won the Governor General’s Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement.