Vancouver City Opera (VCO) artistic director Charles Barber says opera has endured thousands of years because of its power to tell authentic, vivid and memorable stories. For the same reasons, he believes it is a compelling medium to tell the story of missing and murdered women in B.C.
The Vancouver Foundation last month announced it would provide a $127,000 grant to the VCO to develop its chamber opera entitled Missing Women.
The production will be set between Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTE) and Highway 16, also known as the Highway of Tears, where at least 18 women have vanished or been murdered since 1969.
Barber said the VCO was inspired to make the opera by its experiences working with residents of the DTE, where it spent several years trying to save the historic Pantages Theatre building.
The neighbourhood is notorious as a place ravaged by poverty and drug use, and where sex work is widespread.
Among the most harrowing of the DTE’s tragedies is its long history of vanishing women. Dozens of women are believed to have disappeared from the neighbourhood, including some of the victims of jailed serial killer Robert “Willie” Pickton.
Although the building was demolished in 2008, Barber said members of the VCO were deeply affected by their experiences with residents of the DTE.
“In the course of those years trying to save the Pantages as lead company and the years since, we have met the mothers and daughters and families and husbands and brothers and sisters of women who have been killed or who have disappeared and no trace has ever been heard,” he said.
Barber said it became clear that residents of the DTE wanted the story of missing women in B.C. to be heard.
Eight years later, the company has hired First Nations playwright Marie Clements to write a libretto based on a scenario prepared by the VCO.
Although the story is still being developed, it is expected to follow two women, one in the DTE and another in a cabin along Highway 16, whose stories become intertwined.
Barber believes opera is an overwhelmingly powerful way to tell the story.
“Opera is an art form that, presented properly, can appeal to people across many dimensions of experience,” he said.
“It’s not necessary to read music to be moved by opera, it is not necessary to be an actor to understand opera.”
Missing Women is still in the early stages of production. When the VCO receives Clements’ libretto, which will be completed by January, 2016, it will start workshopping the show to get feedback from the public.
The company is also working with consultants to research the story, which will be inspired by real events but not based on individual stories.
Barber said the VCO did not have any political aspirations for the production, although he does hope it will be performed to an audience of politicians at Rideau Hall in Ottawa.
“If we are able to move them to be open to what this story is about and the agony and the uncertainty that still exists in the lives of thousands and thousands of Canadians and millions of empathetic Canadians, then you don’t need to do any more than receive an invitation and then you will come and you will decide for yourself,” he said.
Barber also hopes the show can tour communities along the Highway of Tears after it premieres in Vancouver on Nov. 1, 2017.
If that happens, the two elements of the story, in Vancouver and along Highway 16, will meet not only on stage but in real life.