Kathleen performing the role of Musetta in La Boheme

From Merville to the international stage

International opera star comes 'home' for performance of Rattenbury

  • Mar. 30, 2016 2:00 p.m.

Terry Farrell

Record staff


It’s not often the opera comes to the Comox Valley.

It’s even rarer when it features a homegrown international star.

Add to that the fact that this opera is the story of a West Coast architect, written by a local artist, and Rattenbury becomes a true Vancouver Island sensation.

Rattenbury follows the life story of Franic Rattenbury, an architect well known in Victoria, B.C. for his grand design of the capital city’s Inner Harbour, including the parliament buildings, The Empress, the CPR terminal and the Crystal Gardens.

The opera was composed by Powell River artist Tobin Stokes, and stars internationally renowned soprano Kathleen Brett, who was raised in Merville and graduated from Vanier in the 1980s.

Her opera career began immediately following graduation from post-secondary studies at Wilfred Laurier University, in Ontario.

“It all started right out of university, when I became an apprentice at the Canadian Opera Company, in Toronto,” said Brett. “The program at Laurier was pivotal.

“The apprenticeship was two years, and then I began to sing professionally.”

Her portfolio reads like a travel map of the Americas and Europe. She has performed in all the major opera houses in Canada – Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver – as well as those States-side, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. She has performed in Brazil, at Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, and at numerous European opera houses, including the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Ghent and Rotterdam, at the Kulturherbst Festival in Jennersdorf, Austria, with the Vienna Volksoper Orchestra and with L’Opera de Monte Carlo.

Brett credited Vanier teachers Tom Pagdin and Al Wedel with introducing her to the world of music.

“They were the fantastic leaders of stage band and choir,” she said.

It’s been many years since Brett last appeared on a local stage, and despite having performed around the world, this will mark her professional debut in the Comox Valley.

“I have performed with the Vancouver Opera, Vancouver Symphony many times, the Victoria Opera… but I haven’t sung in the Comox Valley, professionally,” she said.

For her parents, who both still live in Merville, it will be a chance to see their daughter sing, without having to make any travel plans, aside from a 20-minute drive.

The April 6 performance at the Native Sons Hall will be particularly special for her father. April 6 will mark his 92nd birthday.

Rattenbury is Brett’s first collaboration with Maestro Arthur Arnold, although it has been a process four years in the making.

“Our first workshop was in 2012, and that was the first time I met Arthur, but it has been revised since then … we just did a new workshop in December,” she said, adding that every conductor has his own intricacies. “That’s one of the most amazing things about the great collaborative art form that is opera. The wonderful collaboration of different people makes every single production unique, every single time. And because this is a new work, it makes it even more unique. We aren’t picking up a score that was written 100 years ago.”

It is also Brett’s first experience working with Stokes, and said working with the composer is a pleasant departure from the norm, when it comes to opera.

“It’s amazing to actually have the living, breathing composer right there in the room, where you can ask him questions; you can have a conversation with him, and that’s very, very special. You can’t do that very often.”

She said although her professional relationship with Stokes began in 2012, she met him, by chance, one year earlier.

“I actually was at a performance at the Victoria Opera… I was outside and I decided to buy a ticket to see (a performance) and Tobin was there as well. We ended up sitting next to each other, and he said ‘Oh, I am a composer.’ I replied ‘Oh, I’m a singer.’ So it was a bit of an auspicious meeting.”

Even the story itself, based on the true story of the famous Victoria architect, is a departure for Brett. Rather than recreating a 450-year-old Shakespeare play, or a Mozart masterpiece from the 18th century, Rattenbury recounts Canadian history.

His tumultuous life story is rather custom-made for opera. Based on the true story of the architect’s fast rise to fame and subsequent free fall, culminating in his murder, the opera exposes Rattenbury’s incredible ambition, his huge misfortunes through World War I, his failed land speculations and the sinking of the Titanic, his role in the Klondike Gold Rush, and his dramatic and sordid fall from grace.

“It has all the ingredients for a compelling (opera); murder mystery, intriguing love triangle, strangle murder suicide tragedy,” said Brett. “They say opera is larger than life, but this is about real people and events that really happened.

“It’s not surprising that people are still captivated with this story.”

Brett plays the role of Franic’s wife, Alma, who was charged and tried for the murder of Franic Rattenbury, and eventually committed suicide.

The April 6 production of Rattenbury will serve as a fundraiser for the Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA). Tickets ($25) are available at Blue Heron Books in Comox and at Laughing Oyster Book Shop in Courtenay, or online at orchestra-academy.ca/rattenbury

Courtenay attendees have the option to join an exclusive pre-concert wine and cheese reception for an additional $75 per ticket, which also includes one ticket to PRISMA’s Symphony Cruise matinée concert on June 18.

Joining Brett on stage will be acclaimed Canadian tenor Richard Margison. Rattenbury will also feature mezzo soprano Emma Parkinson and baritone David Diston.

For more information on the fundraiser and the PRISMA festival, visit the aforementioned website.




–With submitted files, and files from The Victoria Conservatory of Music


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