Image: Allyson McGrane.

Rudolf Komorous' The Mute Canary

The SCA's Owen Underhill and the Turning Point Ensemble, for which Underhill is both conductor and artistic director, recently presented the North American premiere of The Mute Canary, a new chamber opera based on a 1919 text by the French Dadaist Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, composed by former Director of the School for the Contemporary Arts, Rudolf Komorous. Now retired in Victoria, BC, Komorous is an influential figure in Candian music, having taught several generations of composers at the School of Music at the University of Victoria, including Martin Arnold, Christopher Butterfield, Allison Cameron, the SCA's David MacIntyre, Rodney Sharman, Linda C. Smith, Rita Ueda, and Owen Underhill.

The Mute Canary was a co-production with the New Opera Days Ostrava Festival (NODO) in the Czech Republic, where the opera had it's world premiere on June 28, 2018. In advance of the premiere in Ostrava production, Underhill sat down for an interview with Barbora Skálová, the coordinator of NODO, for a magazine published by National Moravian-Silesian Theatre. The interview is reproduced below.

The local premiere of The Mute Canary  also coincided with a CD launch party to celebrate the release of a 'Curio Box,' a new recording of the Turning Point Ensemble on Orlando Records. The CD features a new Cello Concerto by Underhill performed by Ariel Barnes (cello) and the Turning Point Ensemble. Also on the disc are performances of Paul Hindemith's Kammermusik Nr. #3 (Ariel Barnes soloist) and Luciano Berio’s Folksongs (vocalist Fides Krucker).


I have always admired French modernity, especially the Dadaists and Surrealists. I am fascinated by their general attitude toward art and the world, and their search for and definition of new values through creative experiments, greatly diverging from the often-limiting freedoms of science. For me, one of the most important Dadaists was Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes. When I was in Prague, I received the translation of one of his plays, which was staged at the Liberated Theater. It fascinated me. After my arrival in Canada, I asked my friend and then-pupil Christopher Butterfield if he would translate the play into English for me so I could stage it. He was excited about this French author and eventually translated and released three of his plays in the United States. I did not know the play The Mute Canary, which was part of that release, but I immediately realized that it fits into my concept of chamber opera: there are few characters and it’s not too long. Renáta Spisarová, executive director of NODO/New Opera Days Ostrava, supported me in my determination to write an opera on this motif, with the result that The Mute Canary was given its world premiere in Ostrava, Czech republic in June this year.

Rudolf Komorous, September 2018

Owen Underhill Interview

Barbora: Who is Rudolf Komorous to you, both personally and professionally? You are his former pupil - what was he like as a teacher and to which extent did his teaching influence younger composers in Canada?

Owen: Rudolf Komorous is my first and most influential composition teacher. The first year he came to the University of Victoria was 1971 and that is the year I started there as a 17-year old composer and flutist. For the past several decades, he has been a friend and colleague. I have commissioned, recorded, performed and conducted his extraordinary music regularly, and therefore he is without a doubt the deepest and most lasting collaborator in my musical career.  

Barbora: Despite his origin, Komorous’ work is known to a Czech listener almost exclusively thanks to Ostrava Center for New Music. Komorous himself never returns to the Czech Republic and some describe him as a “most overlooked Czech opera composer”. However, he built a whole “school” in Canada and he was composing all the time. How is he perceived in your country as a composer in the context of other “Canadian” contemporary music?

Owen: Rudolf Komorous is in my view one of the most original and brilliant composers of his generation worldwide. In Canada, his influence has spread from the west coast of Canada to the east in especially Toronto and Montreal due to the championing of his music by his many students. As the main goal of his teaching was to have his students find their true personal voice, there is no one 'school' in a stylistic sense but more in the philosophy of the connection of music to life.  

The music of Rudolf Komorous has transformed periodically over the years as he constantly has been seeking new expressions and the way forward. This has meant he has found new interests in melody and harmony, as well as in the continued use of surprising and enlightening combinations of instruments. His music really transcends nationality and often even time itself as his interests encompass the art of many cultures over different time periods. Without a doubt his music was in the first instance shaped by his experience in the Czechoslovakia of the fifties and sixties (including his career as principal bassoonist in the Prague opera, the art group Smidra of which he was the only musical member, performing Alto saxophone in jazz bands, the leading avant-garde ensemble Musica Viva Pragensis, and the peril of performing avant-garde music in the Communist era).  As a student I had many conversations about his pre-1968 life to such an extent that I feel I know this world as well. His music of course is also shaped by his almost five decades on the west coast of Canada with its rich and eclectic influences, and his ongoing interests in Tang dynasty poetry, Japanese Noh theatre, jazz including Thelonious Monk and much else besides.   That being said, his compositions, while never predictable, have a distinctive and personal expression that does not sound like any other composer I have ever heard. Finally it should be noted that Rudolf has always looked beyond music including to the visual arts, poetry and theatre, and the complex connections between art and life.   His students tend to share this interest in a wider view of art and the transformative power of composition in the world at large.  

Barbora: When I talked to Mr. Komorous about his new opera “The Mute Canary”, he told me that the choice of a subject was based on his lifelong fascination with French modern art, especially dadaism and surrealism. How would you describe your own attitude to this peculiar esthetics? Does it appeal to you?

Owen: Yes, I am also interested in the same things. In my first-year composition class with Rudolf Komorous, we read Baudelaire and followed the experiments of Satie. I have since done original productions of Satie's last collaboration from 1924, Relâche, including the original surrealist film and dance.  As well, I have done a number of performances that have linked dada music from the 1920's to music of today.  My favourite artist has always been Kurt Schwitters with his extraordinary collages and sound poetry, and this I also discovered as a student with Rudolf.  

Barbora: You are at the birth of Komorous’ new opera from the very beginning.  To which extent do you collaborate with him (what do you do exactly) and what does it mean to you - as a composer and a conductor - to work with a new piece?

Owen: Well, firstly, I am amazed that Rudolf Komorous, now 86 and in fragile health, has completed this opera. I must congratulate NODO on your inspiration and ongoing dedication to his music. This has helped give him the energy to keep working. As ever, his mind is clear and his invention surprising. It is a privilege to continue to work together to bring The Mute Canary to its exciting premiere in Ostrava. As for my process, I have been in touch with him throughout the writing of the piece and have worked on the casting of three Canadian singers, and am now engraving the score for him on to computer program. Other developments have included the switch of the part of the character 'Ochre' from contralto to countertenor and ongoing discussion of the direction.  We will with my ensemble in Vancouver, the Turning Point Ensemble, present the Canadian premiere in September 2018.