NACO’s Canada 150 Tour: Robert Chafe and the rhythms of writing

Robert Chafe

Robert Chafe is a name familiar to patrons of the National Arts Centre.

His script, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams was staged at the NAC last season under the direction of his long-time friend and colleague, Jillian Keiley, the artistic director of the NAC’s ‘s English Theatre department.

But he’s dabbling in the music department these days.

Chafe has written a libretto for a performance of the new work commissioned by the NAC for the opening concert of its Canada 150 tour of Atlantic Canada. The piece, Heirloom, with music by the Toronto composer Larysa Kuzmenko, is a choral adaptation of Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2. It will be sung by the Shallaway Youth Choir with the NAC Orchestra in St. John’s on April 27.

Chafe has worked with music before. He wrote the libretto for a two-act opera for Opera on the Avalon called Ours, music by John Estacio, which commemorated the 100th anniversary of the First World War battle of Beaumont-Hamel which devastated the Newfoundland regiment.

He found working on that opera an appealing process. It is also one that fit with his writing style.

“My first crack at writing a libretto was an opera that premiered last summer with John Estacio called Ours. I loved the process. Heirloom came along around the time that I wanted to do more storytelling in lyric and libretto. That was running around in my head and I got this phone call from NACO asking me to do this project.

The appeal of writing to accompany music for Chafe is all in the rhythm.

“It goes back to my beginnings as a playwright. Most of my work has been developed and written in collaboration with Jillian Keiley. We grew up together artistically. Her work has often been musical and as I was developing my skills as a writer music was a part of that.

“Some playwrights focus on imagery and metaphor. I obsess about rhythm. My first drafts are littered with beats and pauses. Punctuation is really important to me. That’s just the kind of writer that I am.”

Funnily enough Chafe has never been a poet. “Poetry feels quite mysterious to me.”

Chafe has found that working with a musical score has imposed discipline on him.

“I have a tendency to go towards the point of being really obscure. That’s something I have to really work through.

“Lyric writing is constrained in terms of time, you can’t afford to be obscure. You can declare things. There is an honesty to it that I really loved. I had to write text that was rhythmic, poetic and direct.”

Chafe has also found out over time that he is naturally drawn to telling the story of his home province.

“When I first started I wasn’t, but it has become most of the focus of my work for the last 15 years.”

He realized he was influenced by his home province when he was working with a director in Calgary.

“She said you have a real sense of place about your work. I didn’t know what she was talking about. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that the place she was talking about was Newfoundland and it was sort of in me.”

Newfoundland culture is built on storytelling and music. Seemingly whether you want it to or not that sensibility seeps into your being if you are an artist.

And so he has, for example, tackled The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, based on Wayne Johnston’s novel on the life of Joey Smallwood. And, in Ours, he took on the story of Beaumont-Hamel which a bloody tragedy in which the Newfoundland Regiment was almost wiped out during the First World War.

“Most artists struggle early in their career with the question, ‘What do I have to offer? What do I have to say? I kept coming back to my perspective on Newfoundland and how it was viewed when I was coming of age in the 1970s.”

That is when the seal hunt protests were ramping up and the culture was under fire. And Newfoundlanders were the butt of jokes in the rest of Canada.

“As I started to write about the place, there was an impulse to explain the beauty and love and understanding that I have for it that wasn’t necessarily out there in the rest of the world.”

He was equally fascinated by the scar left on society by Beaumont-Hamel.

For Heirloom, he and the composer were approached to write a choral piece around a Brahms intermezzo.

“The context of the performance would be the NAC Orchestra tour and it was to be played around I Lost of My Talk, (another NAC work, this one done with music by John Estacio set to a poem by the Mi’kmaq poet Rita Joe).

He started thinking about that juxtaposition and thinking about Canada at 15o and the idea of the Truth and Reconciliation process.

“I started thinking about Newfoundland’s own relationship with indigenous peoples over time.” There is a dark history on the island starting with the extinction of the island’s original inhabitants, the Beothuks.

Chafe was also addressing the fact that Newfoundland in 2017 is predominantly white. And his words would be spoken and sung by a choir of 80 to 100 young people.

“What words could I put in the voices of these children about that. There is a fair bit of responsibility in imparting words to children abut reconciliation with indigenous people.”

And there was even more pressure because he’s white. In the end Chafe felt that the only valid thing he could do was write an acknowledgement of what happened, an apology for the past and a pledge to do better.

“Acknowledgement is really important. It’s a complicated thing because I wasn’t around nor was my grandfather around when the Beothuk went extinct.

“But I can offer acknowledgement and an apology in a Canada where those racial divides are still hot.”

He believes it’s important for the indigenous community to hear “our community say, ‘We hear you. We acknowledge it and we are a link in the chain of change’. We have to accept responsibility.”

He says he was challenged by the children in the Shallaway choir when he met with them in an early rehearsal. The choir is 25 years old and its first performance was in September 1992 at a gala marking the 125th anniversary of Confederation. The choir’s mission is the development of community through music.

Chafe and Kuzmenko worked long distance on the piece. He wrote the words and sent them to her. It was a challenging process for Chafe.

“A word might have three syllables but strangely it didn’t fit into a triplet,” for example. But it has all come together in the end.

Kuzmenko says in a comment supplied by the NAC that she “was quite excited when the National Arts Centre Orchestra commissioned me to write an arrangement of Brahms’ Intermezzo Op.118 no.2. …

“I have always admired the works of Brahms, and I have worked extensively with children’s choir.  In 2011, I wrote a work for children’s choir with orchestra titled Behold the Night. This work is one of my favourite pieces for piano, and is one of the works I learned while a student.  … It was a little challenging to write the chorus part first and then later add the text to the music, as it is usually done the other way around. I tried to keep the very warm and welcoming quality of the music in my orchestration, featuring solos from the horn, the flute, and solo violin.”

At the time of this interview Chafe says he hadn’t heard the orchestrated version, “but I have heard the piano score. It’s a beautiful marriage. For people who don’t know the Brahms it will sound as if it has always existed that way.”

The National Arts Centre Orchestra in concert

Where: The Arts and Culture Centre, St. John’s NL.

When: Thursday April 27 at 8 p.m.



Larysa Kuzmenko: Heirloom for Children’s Choir and Orchestra, after Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118, No. 2. Text by Robert Chafe

Antonin Dvorak: Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95, From the New World

Erich Korngold: Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, for Violin and Orchestra. James Ehnes, violin

John Estacio: I Lost My Talk. Monique Mojica, narrator

Here is Robert Chafe’s text for Heirloom.

You were here

Before time

Shadows on the ground

Wood smoke on the wind


Earth below

Sky above

Heaven in between

You sang your own song


This island

Your island

Its heart and its blood

Green valley

Blue coastline

The long walk between


Yours to care for and keep

Forever in peace

Every season your own


But as all

leaves must fall

In each end there’s always a beginning

So summer

So winter

No change without warning

This island

Your island

So it should have been


Now, so long ago

Stories in a book

People time mistook for spirits fleeting

Children gone for good

Where once they stood

Where once they stood

We stand ourselves in song

Your voices strong behind us

All we didn’t know

Our chance to grow now

Past is present here

Daring us to look

Everything we took from you

Our link in a chain of blame

They plundered your name

And we let darkness almost take the rest of you


You were here

From the start

Like the trees and ocean you will remain

You are here

In the heart

the nations that survive you


This island

Your island

Heirloom that kept growing

A country

Wide borders

Mistakes of its own

So your sisters stand

History in hand

Crying into the wind

And as all

Leaves must fall

With your end there must be a beginning

Some goodness

This promise

Our future together

This country

Your country

We vow to do better


You are here

You are here


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Written by

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.