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Tobin Stokes opera raises funds for PRISMA

Composer credits opportunities growing up for shaping career
Tobin Stokes
PITCH PERFECT: Starting with themes from TV shows, opera composer Tobin Stokes says he could sit at the piano and play music by ear from early childhood. Contributed photo

Growing up in Powell River, everyone called him Toby. To the opera world, he is Tobin Stokes, composer of, among other works, Rattenbury, which will be performed this week as a gala fundraiser for this summers’ Pacific Region International Summer Music Academy (PRISMA).

Almost 50 years ago, right after Tobin was born, the Stokes family moved to Powell River. Tobin was the baby, with sister Kim in the middle and their brother Rob the oldest.

“They kind of left me alone until they chained me to the piano for most of my childhood,” joked Tobin.

Unlike a lot of children who were similarly chained, he said he loved it. “My parents used to sit me up at the piano at their parties and have me play what they played or play television themes that I’d heard,” said Stokes. “There was this nature show called Klahanie that was one of the first things I ever played.”

When Tobin was seven years old, Don James founded Powell River Boys Choir. Tobin was one of the original members.

“He was a talented little guy with a really good sense of pitch,” said James. “He came into the choir and was a leader. He had perfect pitch and could play by ear without music.”

Tobin’s sister Kim, who is married to conductor, cellist and PRISMA music director Arthur Arnold, remembers when all three siblings practiced piano pieces for recitals at Dwight Hall.

“Every year the boys would come home with armloads of trophies, and every year I would always get second or third place. I never won a trophy in my entire life,” said Kim, laughing.

Kim also remembers her and Rob playing a musical game with Tobin when he was four years old.

“We would make him go stand around a corner and we would say, ‘What note is this?’ We’d plunk a note on the piano and he’d say ‘G’; he was right, of course,” said Kim. “And then we’d say, ‘What note is this?’ He’d say, ‘D,’ and then we’d say, ‘What note is this?’ and he’d say, ‘That’s not fair, that’s a black note.’”

In high school, Stokes broke free from being chained to the piano and started playing drums. It was here he first found composing through computer programs that came decades before modern-day cell phone and tablet apps, said James.

“I introduced him to the composition program in high school, using the very first synthesizers and electronic tape,” said James. “He became very interested and mastered it.”

Stokes discovered jazz while playing the drums. When he attended University of Victoria, he started playing the vibraphone and went on the study with world-famous jazz drummer, pianist and vibraphonist Don Thompson, who is also from Powell River.

“He immediately said, ‘You sure know how to play the vibes, but you don’t know much about jazz, so let’s work on jazz at the piano,’” recalled Stokes, whose first opera was The Vine Dresser. His second was Pauline, with the libretto written by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

For International Choral Kathaumixw, James has commissioned pieces from his former student; Stokes has reworked one for opening night of this year’s festival.

In 2008, Powell River Academy of Music, founded by James, commissioned and performed Stokes’ opera Scenes from Nootka. Most recently, his opera entitled Fallujah received rave reviews when it was staged at Long Beach Opera in California.

Rattenbury is not fully finished, as operas can take years to develop, but it will be given a professional performance, said Stokes. The version played at the PRISMA gala will be a concert with piano, and is at the collaborative stage, which Stokes said he enjoys. His brother-in-law Arnold is one of the artists he is working with.

The opera is about the rise and fall of Francis Rattenbury, architect of iconic buildings such as the Empress Hotel, Vancouver Courthouse (now Vancouver Art Gallery), BC Parliament buildings and many others.

Stokes is among many musicians who have said growing up in Powell River has shaped their character and careers.

“It’s a very musical town; there are lots of opportunities,” said Tobin. “When I was in high school, I was in every possible musical thing happening in town; every choir, every band. It was outrageous, actually.”

As for Tobin’s success, sister Kim said it couldn’t have happened to someone more deserving.

“He’s gracious and he’s humble and he’s nice,” said Kim. “He’s always been just one of the good guys.”

Rattenbury takes place at 7:30 pm Thursday, April 7, in Evergreen Theatre at Powell River Recreation Complex. Tickets are still available at the door, which opens at 6:30 pm. For more information, go to