Far Over the Misty Mountains
Canadian Children's Opera Company
Ann Cooper-Gay, conductor CBC Hobbit Interview

Study Guide Composer/Librettist Notes from the CCOC production of The Hobbit

  The first time I was handed a faded, dog-eared copy of The Hobbit I was ten. As a young lad I was absorbed in all things fantastical: dragons and giants, Greek and Egyptian mythology, medieval weapons and warfare. These things are still on the minds of ten years old lads and lasses, just as they were on the minds of children a thousand years ago. Some things never change but something about The Hobbit was different. It spoke so convincingly of this 'made-up' world, that it seemed real. It almost seemed more like a history book that just a fantasy novel. Well, I believed.

  There was something odd in those pages, however. Little italicized stanzas. Poetry in a novel about vicious goblin wars? While reading, I soon discovered it was not poetry but song lyrics and they were very important. In the tradition of the medieval minstrels and troubadours, Tolkien was constantly commenting on the story through song. Well, I took piano lessons with the church organist. I was in the recorder ensemble at seven in the morning. I sang "Crawdad Hole" with the grade-six choir at the Kiwanis Festival in Gander, Newfoundland. The Hobbit was full of music. Music and a dragon - my ten-year old idea of heaven.

  Being asked to create an opera of The Hobbit has been a chance to fully realize that dream. Of course the book is full of lyrics, but the music must be supplied by the imagination. The music of my opera was inspired by the many races found in the book. Of course, the music must reflect the epic plot, but it must also portray the simple quaintness of the Hobbits, the earthy fortitude of the dwarves, the pastoral lightness of the elves, the mischievous wickedness of the goblins and the arrogance of Smaug the Magnificent.

One of the reasons why Middle Earth is so compelling, is that J.R.R. Tolkien, a language professor at Oxford University in England, was intimately aware of human civilization throughout history. His races behave like real cultures in our own world. Various world musical styles have also flavoured the composition of The Hobbit opera. The Dwarvish anthem "Far Over the Misty Mountains" has an undeniable Russian folk-song quality. The Elves of Rivendell sing a song inspired by Renaissance French Madrigals. The Goblins' harsh and dissonant "Fifteen birds in five fir trees" recalls German expressionism and the fiddle tunes of Hobbiton evoke my own home of Newfoundland. Fantasy grounded in reality means fantasy which feels real. It is something foreign and familiar all at the same time and a great starting point for an engaging piece of theatre.

-Dean Burry

Tolkien's Munchkins: The National Post article by Tamara Bernstein

May 13, 2004

Canadian Composer Dean Burry has created the world's first operatic adaptation of Tolkien. And who will play the dwarves, elves and hobbits?

"Everyone, please listen! If you're a Frodo Ruby, do not go by the Dwarves. Baggins Rubies: you need to line up here." It's late on a Saturday afternoon, and 80-odd children, aged five to 16, have been rehearsing all day. But there's a palpable excitement in the room. And when director Duncan McIntosh issues these incomprehensible (to a visitor) instructions, a dozen five- and six-year olds immediately separate their adorable selves from the older children, and form two groups of - what else? - hobbits. The youngsters are all members of the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus. The ensemble's "day job" is to supply any children required in Canadian Opera Company's productions. But the CCOC, under artistic director Ann Cooper Gay, is one of only a handful of choirs in the world that regularly commissions and performs operas written for children's voices.

At this rehearsal, the children are putting the final touches on what promises to be the most exciting project in the CCOC's 36-year history: a new opera by Canadian composer Dean Burry based on Tolkien's novel The Hobbit.

The prequel to Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit recounts how the comfort-loving Bilbo Baggins, unwillingly dragged into a heroic quest, accidentally acquires the ring of power over which the entire population of Tolkien's fantasy world will get their knickers into a twist for 1300 pages, in LOTR.

Burry's Hobbit- he wrote the libretto as well as the music -- is the world's first operatic adaptation of Tolkien. There's only one adult role in the piece: a baritone plays the wizard Gandalf and gives voice to Smaug the dragon. The Hobbit [is also the first CCOC production to involve all the choristers - not just the senior ensemble. "The Hobbit, and Tolkien, are just too far-reaching [not to involve everyone]," said Cooper Gay. "Every kid is fascinated by it." Hence the participation of the "Ruby" choristers - the CCOC's munchkin division, named after founder Ruby Mercer - in the opening scene. It took years for the CCOC to wrest permission to adapt The Hobbit from the California-based company that owns the literary rights to Tolkien's works. Yet the timing of the opera couldn't be better, thanks to the blockbuster LOTR movies. The opera also dovetails nicely with the COC's Ring Cycle: Tolkien and Wagner dipped into many of the same Old Norse and German sources for their respective tales of Rings of Power. And though he denied it, Tolkien was undoubtedly influenced by Wagner.

Within moments of Saturday's run-through you could see why The Hobbit was a superb choice. With its band of dwarves, troupes of elves, and armies of goblins, the opera is chock-full of fantastic roles, literally and figuratively.

"You need a huge cast for a children's opera," Burry confirmed. "If there are only three leads, a lot of kids are going to be playing spear-carriers, or be nameless chorus members." The Hobbit also offers plenty of opportunities for choral singing - the principal strength of a children's choir. "The soloists are great," Burry said, accurately. "But children can't maintain long arias the way adults can."

The Hobbit is cosier, and more manageable in scope than the epic LOTR. But the earlier book has a moral message too. "Tolkien wrote The Hobbit in 1937," McIntosh said after the rehearsal. "And he was warning about the terrors of another World War. Thorin, the Dwarf King, sings it at the end: 'If people cared more for music, food and joy, and less for hoarded gold, the world would be a happier place.' We think of the book as a plea for peace, and we talk seriously about that with the kids."

"The movies of Lord of the Rings are very action-based," said Burry. "They left out most of the songs [in Tolkien's books]. We're the opposite: there are no huge special effects, and the songs are the pillars. I think it's a more emotionally connected, deeper reading." Burry's score is highly appealing without being ingratiating or Broadway-ish. To reflect the richness of Tolkien's fantasy world, the composer has drawn on a variety of musical styles: traditional English folk song for the hobbits; Renaissance madrigal with a splash of Debussy for the sophisticated and exotic Elves; more than a hint of Kurt Weill for the Goblins; habanera-tango for the dragon.

"I love that the music was just created, and that it was created just for us," said Stephanie Domingues, who plays the Wood Elf King. Fourteen-year-old Kristina Bijelic, who has just written a string quartet herself, concurred.

"It's so special that the composer is alive, and in the room, so you can ask him all these questions," she said. "You can't go and ask Beethoven what he wants you to do in his music!"

Many of the choristers sound and behave like seasoned stage veterans - which they are. "I might get nervous offstage," explained 13-year-old Matthew Galloway, who plays Thorin in one cast. "But as soon as I get on stage, I am the character. And that character has nothing to be nervous about -- unless of course in that scene they are nervous."

The one drawback to Tolkien is that there are virtually no females in The Hobbit, while girls outnumber boys by almost three to one in the CCOC principal chorus.

So Burry, who otherwise stuck closely to Tolkien's book in his libretto, created six new female roles. "They're our counterpart to Wagner's Valkyries," Cooper Gay said, only half-joking. The six young women share the voice of Gollum, magnifying the creature's already fragmented psyche. Elsewhere, they play Elf-Maidens, who function as a kind of Greek chorus.

All three adults agreed that children bring unique strengths to an opera. "They have a kind of innocence," McIntosh said. "There are a lot of short cuts [in interpretation and characterization] that people develop in musical theatre and opera. These kids don't have that. Instead, you get a plain canvas to paint on, with a certain honesty and integrity." "Children have an inherent sense of musical pulse," Cooper Gay added. "Sometimes they're like a bunch of young colts charging home to the corral: you have to try to lasso them. But at least there's something to lasso: you don't have to inject energy into them all the time!" Cooper Gay's respect for those high spirits is what sets her apart from many children's conductors. Indeed, she is the real Gandalf of this production, presiding over the often chaotic energy of 130 children with benevolent wisdom.

"This is not a stand-and-sing choir," Cooper Gay said. "The kind of kid who comes to the CCOC is a kind of stage animal. You need to discipline that in rehearsal. But you have to walk a fine line. Because when they get on stage that's exactly the energy you want."

The Hobbit premieres at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre Saturday and Sunday, with shows at 2:00 pm & 7:30 pm both days. All are sold out. The show tours the Maritimes next month, playing June 25 at the University of PEI in Charlottetown; June 27 at the Capitol Theatre in Moncton, New Brunswick, and June 29 at the Alderney Landing in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

-Tamara Bernstein, 2004
Reprinted with permission.


Intersection: Small Heroes, Big Voices

SRQ Magazine (Sarasota) March, 2008

Dean Burry’s adolescent days of Dungeons and Dragons are far from over. “I love playing video games and Star Wars is still probably my favorite movie,” admits the 36-year-old Canadian composer. Burry’s boyish enthusiasm betrays any notions of a stuffy, graying “maestro.” The husband and father doesn’t understand why people give up these simple pleasures as they get older. “I’m going to get corny for a moment,” he laughs, “but as adults, we grow up and we completely ignore the wonder that is in front of ours eyes everyday. My two-year-old daughter Blythe has taught me that.” As creator of the Canadian Opera Company’s Esso Kids After-school Opera program, Burry brings wonder to work everyday. And this May, Burry’s band of hobbits, elves and one noble wizard will make the journey far over the misty, snow-capped mountains of Canada to the Sarasota Youth Opera stage, marking the U.S. premier of his hit opera adaptation, the first ever, of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit.

Once upon a time, with his first dog-eared copy of  Tolkein’s The Hobbit, Burry’s dreams of mythical journeys in far-away lands began. His move to Toronto from Gander, a tiny, seaside town in Newfoundland, was not unlike your conventional hero’s quest. “When I finished my master’s degree, I started working in a dive coffee shop because, of course, a master’s in music qualifies you to do just that,” he laughs. But Burry coveted a career at the Canadian Opera Company and soon secured a box office position in the basement of the company’s behemoth red brick building. Since, the self-described “fantasy freak” has triumphed over moratoriums (“sometimes being a nobody works to your advantage”), he’s survived the death of a mentor and his hero’s boon—The Brothers Grimm, a work he was commissioned to write in 1998 and the first work to put him on a national stage, is believed to be the most performed Canadian opera of all-time. We interviewed Burry on an overcast Toronto day about his operatic take on Tolkein’s Hobbit, the untimely death of opera company director Richard Bradshaw—Burry’s “Gandalf”—and his work with wee folks (children, not hobbits).

Maestro Richard Bradshaw, one of your mentors, recently passed away. How was he an influence on your career?  

Richard was a very imposing personality, one of these caricatures with a big, booming British accent and a wild, white mane of hair. I distinctly remember stepping into the elevator one day and—boom—there’s Richard. I thought, okay, here goes, so I gave him some of my opera scores and about two weeks later, he called me into his office. It was shortly after that meeting that he commissioned me to write The Brothers Grimm. Richard gave me my first big break. You always wanted a glance or a smile from Richard, but sometimes, of course, you just hated him. I didn’t always agree with Richard’s choices, but he was somebody I always wanted to make proud.

It was about the time that The Brothers Grimm was getting a bit of buzz when you received the commission from the Canadian Children’s Opera. Of all the popular children’s stories to adapt, why did you chose The Hobbit?

 I spent the summer of 2000 reading just about every children’s work and racking my brains of everything I’d come across in my years on this earth to find the perfect piece. The fourth Harry Potter was out around the same time but there would have been too many challenges in securing the performance rights for that. I looked at traditional pieces that had been done like Treasure Island, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz—of course there have been countless operas written based on that story but I couldn’t imagine one without music from the MGM film. Then I remembered reading The Hobbit and all of Tolkein’s work—I’m a big fantasy freak.

At first I thought, it’s too sprawling, too epic. But the more I looked at it, the more I thought the text was perfect. Most of characters in The Hobbit are supposed to be little people. If I had a tall adult playing Gandalf, suddenly the rest of the characters are going to look like hobbits, dwarves and goblins. And, as anyone who’s read through Tolkein knows, there are tons of song lyrics already in the book. It kind of begged to be changed into an opera. It had these big operatic elements in it and I also wanted something that suited a chorus.

The fact that you were writing for children made adapting the work advantageous, too.  Absolutely. There are tons of characters in groups. When you’re writing for children, you don’t want to give them too much solo material or it can be a bit of a burden until they get more mature voices. The demands of writing material for children are not necessarily to make the work easier, lighter or more childish. The demands are: "I need 80 roles because there are 80 kids in this chorus.” I didn’t want to write a piece that had one or two stars and everyone else would get to be “Lamb 4” or “Sailor 17.” 

What makes your version of The Hobbit an “opera” rather than a “musical?” Is there a distinction?  

That's the million-dollar question, isn’t it?! It’s not always very clear-cut as musicals and operas are obviously on the same spectrum. It’d be very easy to say that operas are sung all the way through and musicals have songs interrupted by speaking; but Phantom of the Opera, a musical, is sung the whole way through and Mozart's Magic Flute, an opera, contains speaking parts. I would say musicals generally have a popular style, more influence by jazz and pop music. When you go to  a Broadway musical they use microphones whereas in a mainstage opera like Madame Butterfly or Carmen the singers don’t use microphones. It's different, of course, when you’re working with children because they don’t oftentimes have the same power as adults and microphones are used. 

What makes this more of an opera is that the most significant part of the story is told through music. There are songs like “Far Over the Misty Mountains” when the dwarves sing about going over the mountain to claim their gold. It’s believable that the song is actually a folk song that they passed down through generations. The goblins sing “15 Birds in Five Fir Trees” when the dwarves are trapped in the trees, a song that they make up on the spot. It’s when the music becomes the emotion that people feel, that’s when it becomes more operatic. Most of the music represents the feelings of the characters as the story progresses. 

Were there influences from your childhood in Newfoundland on the song “Far Over the Misty Mountains?”

 Clearly the hobbits’ way of life is similar to Newfoundlanders’ way of life. Traditionally, they’re hearty, salt of the earth people. Newfoundland is a very rugged place. We have a very rocky coastline and that was certainly reflected in the music. That song has a very Celtic quality. But I also drew a lot on civilization, in general, for the opera. The music of the elves of Rivendell draws from French Renaissance music, the French madrigals, for example. The goblins are German Expressionists and then there are the Slavic qualities of the dwarves—I tried to draw on a lot of cultures, which is what Tolkein tried to do with his different “invented” races. He certainly echoed the qualities of humanity, which is probably why the story has deeper meaning than just a simple adventure story.

This story has been adapted many times for stage and screen but never as an opera. You even went a step further to make it structurally different. What have you added to the telling?  

My take on the story is that it’s an opera within an opera. Elron has asked Bilbo to create a musical drama to illustrate his involvement with the ring. The idea is that everybody in the opera is actually an Elvin performer playing a goblin or some other character. Gollum, for example, was a puppet that was being manipulated which, if you look at the psychology of the book, he was being played by these two different personalities. So we have six maiden elves that speak the voice of Gollum that, hopefully, highlights something about Tolkein’s shattered character, something we haven't seen before. 

Most of your current projects are written for children. Do you consider yourself a children’s composer?  

Not necessarily, I’ve written adult works as well. But when I’m writing for young people, I don’t approach the work that differently. For kids it needs to be a good strong story with evocative music. The pacing needs to keep you engaged but, really, doesn’t everybody want that? I think the way to have successful writing for young people is to write well—they’re the most honest audience. 

The Sarasota Youth Opera performs The Hobbit on May 9 at 7:30pm and May 10 at 1:30pm at the Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave., Sarasota, 941-366-8450.

—By Gregory Locklear