Isis and the Seven Scorpions - The Process


  The Zellers Ensemble Studio School Tour hits the road again making over 60 stops across the province and reaching more than 20,000 young people. This year Isis and the Seven Scorpions, a new opera composed by Dean Burry, is one of the featured works. It is based on an ancient Egyptian myth and Burry feels it is perfect to grab the attention of students. He is working with director Graham Cozzubbo and designer Brent Krysa and they discuss the collaborative process necessary in developing this new work for young people.

  "I first discovered this story about eight years ago for the COC's After School Opera Program," Burry says. "We did a little 10-minute version of Isis with the children performing and then I realized the greater potential for expanding it for the adult performers in the COC Ensemble Studio. What is a theme that really grabs kids? 'Dinosaurs' is a big one and 'ancient Egypt' is certainly way up there. Graham and I have talked about the fact that myths and fairytales [like those used in The Brothers Grimm, which Burry also composed for previous school tours] translate well into operas because they travel across borders, nationalities, and time periods. Even though these myths were written thousands of years ago, they illuminate emotions and feelings that are universal to the human experience. It is why a story from 4,000 years ago can be relevant."

  Burry feels that children are often not given enough credit for what they can absorb and that works written for them tend to be one-dimensional and happy-go-lucky. Also, you definitely need the all-important "cool" factor to keep them engaged. He says, "They get it all the time from movies, video games, and mass media presentations but they can also get it from a sincere, honest, live presentation that is happening right in front of them in their school gym."

  Cozzubbo adds that since last October, when he and Brent Krysa came on board, there have been many phases in the creation of this new work. On the day of this interview, the team had had an earlier rehearsal and spoke about the different layers in the design process that are gradually being added.

  Cozzubbo says, "I really believe in theatre for young audiences. Children may not have the vocabulary and they may not have the social experiences, but they have emotional information. They are sophisticated human beings so we need to perform high quality pieces for young audiences. I worked on The Brothers Grimm, which was not a show that I created but one I inherited, in a sense, and really grew to love. With Isis, we have been working since October - imaging, storytelling, creating, and generating ideas and designs. In the first workshop in October we looked at the music primarily. Now [February] we are looking at the text. The session today served a two-fold function - we wanted to hear it again to make further refinements, and also add the next members of the company to the creative process - the singers. We did not want to simply feed them information, tell them what to do, or tell them what is right or wrong - we wanted to engage them. We have had several explorations verbally of character, and ideas, so now they can start building the basis they can work from."

  Cozzubbo continues, "One of the challenges in the piece, as it comes to be realized, is that you have a world that is epic that we all have imaginative responses to. Egypt - the pyramids, the Nile, movies like The Mummy - so how do you deliver that? Dean has put in the piece structurally a world of magic that takes over the stage. We know that we aren't Cecil B. DeMille and we can't produce cinematic reality, so the approach we are taking deals with the magic of perspective change and puppetry - a theatrical way of getting across this sense of epic transformation."

  Due to the fact that the show tours, it has to be easy to mount and strike, has to fit into a van, and accommodate a playing space of 20x20 feet. Krysa says, "The tricky thing is that it is not entirely set in ancient Egypt - it's set in modern times with modern university students who are on an expedition. Through a crisis they come across the lost temple of Isis. This a real design challenge because we are constantly flipping between the realities. We are flipping between modern dress and a modern look, and then within a page we are immediately in ancient Egypt with the mythological characters, and then back again to modern dress. The real challenge was to find modern costumes - modern wear - that could be simply and quickly transformed into ancient Egyptian costumes."

  Krysa continues, "We also have an ancient and modern idea to the set. The temple represents ancient Egypt yet it is just a ruin in modern times. We also play with the scale of the piece - we move from full-size people and full-size props to a puppet world, which takes place above the action. So we are challenged by ancient and modern; large and small scale; and action taking place above and below - in every kind of combination."

Burry says, "We are really trying to push the boundaries of this medium and what this 45-minute school tour opera can be. Right off the bat it's an epic story. And, as far as challenges go, the very first stage direction is 'a vicious sand storm in the middle of the Egyptian desert.' But with this kind of work it's the challenges and the ways that we find to meet those challenges that really make the magic happen. So instead of saying we only have this budget and it all has to fit into a van, we have to be that much more creative and thoughtful and innovative to bring that epic story to life. And it can be done! Epic struggles happen between 100,000 soldiers on a battlefield, and epic struggles happen within your own head."

  Burry feels that in terms of new opera compositions things are looking up in Canada. He says, "The process of creating a new work is so important and sometimes delicate. Whether it's a mainstage opera or a school tour production, the stakes are high with every new opera that goes out there - whether the question is financial or whether it's a question of turning a gym full of kids off opera for life! It's the big reason that we have this collaboration - to make it a solid, engaging and evocative piece. So much goes on before the curtain goes up. Once again, it's what I teach the kids - opera is not just singing and acting, it is design and collaboration and so many other things. A lot has to be considered. As well as this may work in my own mind sitting at home in my studio in front of my piano, this has to work on a gym floor or on a stage."

  Cozzubbo adds, "Sometimes I think people feel that educational work in opera and theatre is strictly to build the audience of the future. Of course, there is truth in that, but regardless, it's not a marketing tool solely for that purpose - it is to engage young people. I remember things I saw as a kid and they stayed with me the rest of my life."

  Burry concludes, "It's great for people to see what is being produced for education, but involvement and love of opera is not secondary - it's the most important thing. Yes, this is part of the COC educational school tour and falls within the education department, but our goal here is to not only educate but to create a work of art and the best way to get young people interested in opera is to have operas specifically created for them."

-Suzanne Vanstone

COC Press Release for Isis and the Seven Scorpions

For immediate release:
April 26, 2005


Toronto, Ontario - The Canadian Opera Company is pleased to announce the commission of an exciting new opera specifically written for young people, entitled Isis and the Seven Scorpions, to be performed in elementary schools across Ontario. The score and libretto for Isis and the Seven Scorpions will be written by composer Dean Burry, one of Canada's most innovative emerging composers. The premiere of Isis and the Seven Scorpions is currently scheduled for the Zellers Ensemble Studio School Tour in May 2006.

Based on ancient Egyptian mythology, the story of Isis and the Seven Scorpions is sure to intrigue and inspire elementary school age children. Set in the present day Egyptian desert, the opera follows a group of archaeology students and their professor, searching for the Lost Temple of Isis. Calamity strikes when the professor is stung by a scorpion and left near death with his students desperate to save him. Their only hope is to call upon Isis, the Goddess of Magical Healing. In doing so, the students learn of Isis' own story of survival, fraught with deception and betrayal as well as hope and charity.

Born in Newfoundland, Dean Burry has worked on many projects with the COC since 1997 and leads the company's very popular After School Opera Program. Isis and the Seven Scorpions is the second opera created by Burry for the COC. In 1999, the company commissioned Burry to write an opera for young people, entitled The Brothers Grimm, which premiered in 2001 and is currently touring to elementary schools across Ontario with the 2005 Zellers Ensemble Studio School Tour. On May 6, 2005, Burry's The Brothers Grimm reaches a significant milestone in Canadian music history when it celebrates its 100th performance.

"My goal for Isis is to create a meaningful work of art that educates and entertains not only children, but families and other audiences about opera and 21st-century music," says Burry. "When composing my first opera for the COC, The Brothers Grimm, I realized the true potential of this type of work and am really looking forward to building on that experience. A work like this can show children, from a very early age, that opera is for them. I look forward to bringing Isis and the Seven Scorpions to as many young people as possible."

"One cannot over-stress the importance of introducing young people to the world of opera. The rewards are immeasurable," says General Director, Richard Bradshaw. "Music education is absolutely vital to the growth of opera in Canada, and Dean Burry is an original voice whose expertise as an educator makes him extremely well-suited to understanding the unique requirements of creating an opera for young people. I am thrilled to count another Dean Burry creation among the COC's repertoire and eagerly anticipate the many more to come."

Dean Burry also created the opera The Hobbit, inspired by J.R.R Tolkien, for the Canadian Children's Opera Chorus, which had its world premiere in May 2004. Burry's future work includes The Vinland Traveller, an opera that will tour Newfoundland and Labrador in 2006, and Children of the Moon, an opera for young people with a libretto by Canadian author Robertson Davies.

Isis and the Seven Scorpions will be 45-minutes long and sung in English. The opera will have parts for four singers and will be performed with piano accompaniment.

The COC's school tour has travelled to elementary schools across Ontario since 1980 and showcases the talents of the young professional opera artists from the COC Ensemble Studio program while simultaneously introducing young people to the dramatic world of opera. In recent years, the Zellers Ensemble Studio School Tour has reached an annual audience of over 20,000 young people from Kindergarten to Grade 6. Zellers Inc. has been the exclusive Title Sponsor of the tour since 2002.

The COC Ensemble Studio is Canada's premier training program for young opera professionals and provides advanced instruction, hands-on experience, and career development opportunities. The Ensemble Studio is generously supported by the Government of Canada through the Department of Canadian Heritage, The John A. Cook Young Artist Development Fund, Harris Steel Group, The Audrey S. Hellyer Charitable Foundation, The Henry N.R. Jackman Foundation, Ruby Mercer Fund, George Cedric Metcalf Charitable Foundation, Roger D. Moore Ensemble Studio Endowment Fund, RBC Financial Group, and an anonymous donor.