A murder mystery that captivated 1935 England and has been the subject of books, plays and much conjecture over the past 81 years is coming to Powell River this spring as a chamber opera.
Canadian composer Tobin Stokes’ opera Rattenbury will be performed as part of the annual spring fundraiser for Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA) on April 7 at Evergreen Theatre in Powell River Recreation Complex. The opera, which also takes place in Courtenay on April 6, has a uniquely British Columbian angle.
“It’s a great story and opera in every sense of the word,” said Arthur Arnold, music director for the summer music academy.
Trained architect Francis Rattenbury, who immigrated to Vancouver from England in 1891, is famous for having designed several prominent buildings in the province. Some of those include the BC Parliament buildings, Vancouver Art Gallery (formerly the provincial courthouse), Fairmont Empress and Chateau Lake Louise hotels and Canadian Pacific Steamship Terminal in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Many homes in Oak Bay are also his work.
The 68-year-old accomplished architect, who had made his fortune by his mid-20s, was murdered in 1935 from several blows to the head from a carpenter’s mallet. His wife Alma’s much younger lover, 18-year-old George Stoner, was convicted of the crime and she later committed suicide.
The murder and suicide took place in the English seaside town on Bournemouth, where the Rattenbury family had moved to, but the story begins inside the Empress’ Crystal Ballroom.
Stoner, who admitted to the murder, was sentenced to hang and Alma, convinced Stoner was about to die, stabbed herself in the heart six times near her home.
“The end of the opera is literally Alma’s suicide note,” said Arnold.
Stoner’s life was spared and his plight captured the English public’s interest. A petition signed by 300,000 was circulated to beg for leniency.
Public opinion at the time was that Alma had led the young Stoner astray. Stoner went to prison for seven years, but was released to serve in World War II. He died in 2000 and took to his grave the truth of who actually killed Francis.
“It’s such a compelling story when you hear it,” said Arnold.
Arnold decided to see if he could bring the chamber opera to the stages of the PRISMA fundraiser because Stokes had already done a masterful job in taking the 100-minute full production down to a 12-minute version with all the story’s highlights, he said. A 75-minute version of the full opera will be performed at the fundraisers.
Stokes’ opera was originally performed inside the Empress Hotel’s Crystal Ballroom in 2012 with the Other Guys Theatre Company, but went on to rework it for an English opera competition.
The scaled-down production for PRISMA will showcase the talent of Canadian tenor Richard Margison, soprano Kathleen Brett, mezzo soprano Emma Parkinson and baritone David Diston, who performed in the 2012 production. It will be conducted by Arnold.
PRISMA’s annual fundraiser will help raise money for the two-week summer orchestral music academy that attracts students interested in pursuing international musical careers.