Now in his ninth season as The Shaw Festival’s music director, Paul Sportelli, along with co-writer Jay Turvey, is set to bring a new work to the stage. Tristan, based on Thomas Mann’s 1903 short story, will be a full-length musical. Its world première (a first for The Shaw in music theatre) is July 28, 2007 in the Courthouse Theatre. JWR had a conversation with the busy composer/conductor just as rehearsals were about to begin.
JWR: First off, let’s step back. How did Tristan come to be?
PS: After the success of Little Mercy’s First Murder (2003, Tarragon Theatre, co-production with The Shaw, winner of seven Dora awards), which I also wrote with Jay, we were idiotically happy and enthusiastic and decided to do another right away. I’d read the Mann story already and made a note to self: “This could be a musical.” Jay agreed immediately. Mann writes the story so beautifully, we thought “Why not complete it in a different genre?” A couple of weeks later (June 2003), we began. By August 1st we had a first draft and were aiming for a workshop in October.
JWR: That’s an incredibly quick gestation for a first draft. How do you and Jay work together?
PS: We both do both (music and lyrics). We work as much apart as together. Fortunately, we have the same goal: there must be a really good reason for each song and every scene. The character must take us somewhere by its end. We want to know why we’re doing it. No trunk songs allowed! [Ed. A trunk song adds little to the plot but often much to the performer’s ego!]
JWR: What a marvellous opportunity for you to have the Shaw’s talented actors to bring the show to first life. How did the workshop go?
PS: Despite the fact the only time we could do it was on a Saturday morning—Neil Munro grumbled “this better be good!”—it was great! That was the very first time we’d been able to run the whole thing. Jackie (Maxwell, Shaw Festival artistic director, cross-reference below) said “I’d like to develop it.” Since then we’ve had more workshops and have just now finally signed off on the book. [Ed. The book is the script from which all of the cast learn their lines, including lyrics to the songs. Nevertheless, during rehearsals changes to both the music and the lines/lyrics may be made, but the “sign off” signals the formal end of the creative process or some works would never be “completed.”]
JWR: With both Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and references to Chopin’s Nocturnes in the story, how did you approach the style and tone of the music?
PS: Once the [Wagner] piano scene has happened it’s in the air. So I quote some of the best bits and as the music progressed allowed myself a few liberties. Jackie’s advice was a great help: “You have to make it our own,” and we have. It’s scored for piano and string quartet so I’ll be practising harder than I might have for our more traditional shows like Mack and Mabel.
JWR: So many composers/writers have to create their works only imagining where they might be staged and who might play the parts. You’ve not had to worry about that aspect.
PS: It’s been a huge plus for us to know the venue inside and out. Its intimacy is ideal. Many cast members have already participated in the workshops, so we’ve been able to develop the roles collaboratively. We’d also hoped that Jackie would direct, but, in the end, the schedule didn’t work out (Maxwell remains as dramaturge). In a way, having Eda Holmes direct is a bonus. She’ll add even more ideas and insights into the production—can’t wait for the rehearsals to begin.
JWR: Serious theme, two Titans of art—aren’t musicals supposed to be fun?
PS: We’ve tried hard to build on Mann’s humour of character. If the audience is expecting serious theatre, they’ll be wrong. More than anything else, we hope to reawaken the love of music.
JWR: We’ll be watching and listening with great expectations.