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Article about Opera Adaption and Book in Toronto Star

Killer opera: See Guelph and die

MAYBE you think it's easy these days to create and mount a brand-new opera.

Writer James Reaney and composer John Beckwith are here to tell you this: It's murder!

But the collaborators, whose 90-minute opus opens Thursday at the Guelph Spring Festival, can also tell you it's a lot of fun - especially if you pull, as they have, all the right strings.

Crazy To Kill marks the 12th time they've joined forces during a productive 40-year friendship, and this time they've taken once again an original route for their operatic journey.

Crazy To Kill is based on an intriguing detective novel of the same name, written in 1941 by a woman from Stratford, under the pseudonym Ann Cardwell. (Her real name, according to Reaney, was Jane Makins Pawley.)

The story, which follows the classic format of the detective genre, contains mysterious multiple murders that happen in a rest home for, uh … troubled people. The home is set in a town in southern Ontario - a region Reaney has always been fascinated with, and has had a great part in mythologizing during his extensive literary career.

The main character in Crazy To Kill is a demented woman named Agatha, who makes dolls as part of her occupational therapy.

Thus, all those strings Reaney and Beckwith have pulled: There are 15 marionettes that will be used on Crazy To Kill's opening night, and each represents a character involved in the unfolding gruesome mystery.

Manipulating these puppets are three singers - mezzo-soprano Jean Stillwell, baritone Paul Massel and soprano Sharon Crowther - and two actors, Cheryl Swarts and Jay Bowen. The real people in the opera also play characters.

Reaney, whose plays include Colours In The Dark and The Donnellys, remembers how excited he was as a boy, when he read in the local Stratford newspaper that somebody from his town had actually had her book published in New York, of all places.

"People knew her," Reaney told The Star. "She had great charm and beauty."

Local setting

Reaney's cousin reminded him decades later that the book was still in the Perth County archives, and he read it.

He was struck by its local setting, which made it "different from all the other detective novels.

"There's a feeling there of it all really mattering to the author. There's an underground current of there being something more to it."

Reaney was also excited by the "very dramatic things" that happen in the novel.

"People scream musically - it's a pocket opera and, since I had to choose a subject that would be over in 90 minutes, like a Hollywood film, it was suitable."

He thought John Beckwith would be interested because the characters and setting were almost Victorian, and "there's a gentility there that collides with the banalities of dementia."

Reaney is fascinated by puppetry, too, and has used puppets in other works. They fit well with Crazy To Kill's rest-home environment because the puppets "are like real people who have lost their characters" through insanity.

The rehearsals have been "going beautifully," Reaney said. "It took a little while for the actors to get used to puppets."

Beckwith said that, while he's not a detective novel addict, he's "quite fond" of them.

The composer read "30 to 40 detective novels" while he was working on Crazy To Kill.

"I can understand why they're so popular. There's a combination of life-and-death circumstances, along with entertainment. The trick of the genre is to touch the reader while at the same time not upsetting him. It's not tragedy, although some novels do come close, like Raymond Chandler's."

Beckwith has found the entire project very challenging. "Reaney has moved into a much more fluid type of theatre since the last opera we did. I was trying to catch up with him: I had to find a musical equivalent."

He was inspired by seeing a documentary of singer Lotte Lenya performing: "She did it so perfectly, without hardly moving at all.

"That's the quality we were trying to get."

—Bruce Blackadar, Toronto Star
(ENTERTAINMENT Saturday, May 6, 1989 F3)