The first piece of music to emerge from the Canadian Forces Artist Program (CFAP) was presented on Nov. 12 at the Diefenbunker Museum to an audience of over 40. The culmination of over two years of research and composing, the oratorio, opera in concert, With Respect was inspired by the resilience of military families.
With Respect was composed by Joseph Amato, saxophone player and currently a PhD candidate in composition. The project was the brainchild of Amato who was inspired by a speech he heard several Remembrance Days ago at a Rotatory luncheon. At this event, Amato heard an acquaintance, Lt. Chris Brown, speak about his tour in Afghanistan, the friends he lost there and most of all the impact it had on their families. The event left a significant mark on Amato.
“Chris’ discussion stuck with me. It really stuck with me. I couldn’t shake it. For a year I was carrying this around with me thinking about what he was saying thinking about the pictures he was showing. Typically when something affects me like that and I’m unable to shake it, that means I have to do something to release it from me and that typically for me is some creative output in the form of a composition,” explained Amato.
As a composer not tied to any one style of music, Amato decided to create one of the longest and most challenging pieces of music of his career. As he began brainstorming ideas for the oratorio, he realized the best person to write the story was a former acquaintance, actor and writer Alicia Payne. The two had been in a workshop for the Ontario Arts Council several months prior but had not been in contact since.
As if Amato’s idea was meant to be, he ran into Payne one day by chance. After sharing his idea with her she immediately decided to come on board.
The pair reached out to the Toronto MFRC and their research led them to the CFAP, a program that connects artists from all backgrounds with the CAF for research purposes. Wanting to reach out to military families as well as personnel, the two decided to visit CFB Kingston and CFB Selfkant in Germany once accepted in to the program.
“It’s important for me, for a project like this, to speak with the community we are hoping to represent, and you can’t meet everyone from the community, but it’s important to get some perspective on the people who are living in these situations,” said Payne.
They met with family members of all ages, from children to grandparents and spoke with military personnel and the padres on base. Amato recalls that for all the research he had done nothing prepared him for the stories he would hear.
“There was a seldom a time that I would sit with someone and wasn’t surprised. Some stories are remarkably sad, some are remarkably impressive… to think about what people went through, the lifestyle people went through,” said Amato.
The conversations with the padres, Amato recalls, were some of the most insightful conversations about the life of military personnel and their families.
But the experience that moved the artists more than anything was their visit to Vimy Ridge while they were visiting Selfkant, Germany.
“What an emotional and overwhelming experience. That monument is unlike anything I’ve witnessed, the cemetery is unlike anything I’ve witnessed. You could see black crosses as far your eyes could see and then you realize there’s four names on each cross and I was like ‘oh my goodness.’ It was bleak and dark. It reinforced for me the importance of understanding our history and the sacrifices that have been made for the lifestyle we have today,” recalled Amato about the Germany military cemetery.
Payne was also touched saying it was an “extraordinarily moving experience,” and it inspired her writing.
Having visited the two bases, now the artists had to take their experiences and turn them into a narrative form both through music and song. Both Payne and Amato say they weaved common experiences they heard to tell the narrative. Musically, Amato says this translates to making music one of the characters. He relates this to cinematic writing that provides distinct character themes. Following this pattern, the characters in the oratorio could have their own specific themes.
The oratorio is not yet complete. The performance at the Diefenbunker only gave audiences a taste of what the entire composition would be while giving the artists crucial feedback. The music piece was played on the piano, but Amato plans to have the final piece written for a chamber orchestra, full choir, and soloists.
“I think it was a very positive evening for many reasons. This was a libretto reading. It is part of the creative process that provides on opportunity for the creative team to experience the work in its current form in front of an audience and to receive feedback. Receiving this direct audience feedback proved highly valuable. As a composer, it provides me the opportunity to examine the pieces selected and setting of the text to music…There were some emotional moments for some audience members, particularly during the Aria How Do You Tell a Child,” said Amato.
Now both Amato and Payne will take the feedback they’ve received and continue working on completing the oratorio. The pair is hoping for a 2016 premier.