Composer Gary Kulesha isn’t afraid of Virginia Woolf

Gary Kulesha has written a new piece of the NAC about the British writer Virginia Woolf.

The Toronto-based composer Gary Kulesha first discovered the writing of Virginia Woolf when he was a teenager with a taste for good writing.

Picking up that first book he found what he calls “for me maybe the best writer in the English language and if not the best, certainly one of the best. Her novels, particularly The Waves, which for me is such an incredible piece. I’ve set text from The Waves in another work before. I just find her writing profound.”

As a composer and librettist in his adult life, Kulesha has never forgotten Woolf. He has even contemplated the possibility of basing an opera on her life and works.

That hasn’t happened (no one has stepped forward to foot the bill), but the spark of that idea is behind his composition that will be performed for the first time by the National Arts Centre Orchestra on March 29 and 30 in Southam Hall at 8 p.m. Kulesha’s piece From the Diary of Virginia Woolf will be sung by the striking mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, who makes her NAC debut. Also on the bill is a performance of Busoni’s Lustspiel Overture and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2. (Tickets and information: nac-cna.ca.)

The NAC offered the commission to Kulesha and he began work on the project about two years ago.

“They asked me if I was considering an opera project. I said one of the things that I would like to do is an opera on the life of Virginia Woolf. They said, ‘Could this piece be like something from that’.” And so began his exploration.

“If you read her diaries, which this work is based upon, the portrait that comes through is of an incredibly complex person, who, despite her intelligence and observational power and success, iswvacked with all these doubts.

“You read that the slightest bad review sends her into a bad mood for a week. She comes across as a such complex smart and vulnerable human being.”

This photograph Virginia Woolf was taken in 1902 by George Charles Beresford.

Kulesha isn’t using his piece to talk about the depression that led to Woolf’s suicide.

“Interestingly enough she does not talk about it in the diaries,” he said. “But clearly that was going on however that it was an on-going and serious situation.

“I steered clear of that in the libretto I chose. I do use her final diary entry which is very profound and very dark. I debated the ending of this piece over and over. It would be the easiest thing in the world to go out with a whimper.

“I made the decision that after Kristina sings that final entry the ending becomes quite dynamic without the voice.The piece ends loud. I wanted it to be more affirmative rather than negative.” He also said that, for him, the big ending signifies that her work, her writing, lives on.

Kulesha said he did work consult Szabó during the writing of the piece.

“I do think it’s important to work with the abilities of the artist.”

The libretto reflects both sides of Woolf’s personality, Kulesha says. There are dark moments but there are funny ones too.

Kulesha says that when he returned to Woolf as an adult reader he has found layers that he did not seen as a teenager, something that one experiences with all great writers, he says.

Kulesha’s piece runs about 20 minutes. When it came to finding the right words to set to the music, it took a year to get it done, he said.

“I decided that I wanted to go with the fifth volume of the diaries only. It painted a more compressed picture. I basically re-read it slowly over the course of the year and marked things that I liked.

“Then when the time came to work on the piece, I culled it, (but) I kept in mind that I had to make a musical structure out of it. It was a tricky process I have to say.”

In the end, he says, the work is melodically driven. It is fundamentally a very lyrical piece, he added.

And, “for me, it is almost a new direction. In the process of writing this piece I started to do things that I have never done before.”

As well there is the burden of responsibility to Woolf’s words that Kulesha carried with him  in the writing process. “Somebody once said, I think it was Lukas Foss, ‘The moment you set a text, you pollute it. … You do have to be cautious about approaching any text.”

While he says he can’t anticipate how the piece will be received at the premiere, he is “very pleased with the work. I think it’s something very fresh for me.”

He hasn’t heard the orchestra play the piece and he’s quite looking forward to that experience.

Outside this composition, Kulesha has a busy career. He has a longstanding relationship with the Toronto Symphony where he is the composer advisor. He is also a conductor and a teacher of composition at the University of Toronto.

His position as a teacher gives him pause to reflect about the life his students are trying to lead.

“I worry about them. When you look, very few people are managing to have a career as a composer in this country. Almost all of them supplement with teaching.

“And if you can have a career, can you sustain it. Frankly it’s comparatively easy to be a young composer. But when you hit 60 and you don’t have a teaching job and you become ‘Oh him again.’ You have to manage things very carefully not to become that guy.

“This country has a bad record of supporting senior artists.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.