The Horror: Andrew Ager’s Frankenstein the opera set to hit the stage on Hallowe’en

Constantine Meglis is the creature in Andrew Ager's opera Frankenstein. Photo: Chris Roussakis

As a four year old kid, Andrew Ager used to have bad dreams about monsters. His nightmares were prompted because he was exposed to horror stories by his mother and sister.

They were fascinated by Dracula and the Wolfman and the Mummy. Ager wasn’t tormented for long. Indeed he drank the Kool-Aid and became a fan of the genre.

Ager has another passion in his life. By profession, he is a composer of music. That’s a job that demands commitment because it isn’t always easy. But he perseveres. That is certainly case with his most recent project which is an opera based on the novel Frankenstein.

The creature created by the scientist Victor Frankenstein was one of the monsters that haunted Ager’s dreams years ago. The creature is present in his mind today too especially as two performances of the work loom closer and closer. Ager’s opera will take place on Hallowe’en and on Nov. 1 at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre.

The novel was written 200 years ago by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The book was also title The Modern Prometheus. The first edition was published in 1818 but Ager noted she was acknowledged as the author in 1819.

Andrew Ager. Photo: Chris Roussakis

Anniversaries always prompt productions, but actually Ager has been rolling this rock uphill since about 2002.

“I thought I’d like to write a horror opera. I started writing one that was proposed to me by a colleague a long time ago based on Carmilla the female vampire story but I put that aside.”

Ed Franko, who runs Triptych Opera, which was in Toronto then, suggested Frankenstein, Ager said.

“We had talked about doing some stuff together and I said I had been thinking about that for some time and wanted to do something well known.”

So with that “I got right to work on it.”

He wrote some early versions and scenes and “long story short after a number of versions we have the “final” version of the opera premiering in Ottawa on Hallowe’en.

An earlier iteration was actually performed in Toronto in 2010 by Triptych with a libretto written by a York University professor. The current edition features a new libretto adapted by Ager.

“We have tightened it up and have made the ending far more dramatic than it was originally. We have increased the drama at the end quite a bit.”

It is faithful to the story, he says.

“The monster is created by Victor Frankenstein. He rejects the monster. The monster takes revenge on Victor by threatening his loved ones. It ends with the death of the creature and Victor only not in the Arctic.

“It ends in the destruction of the laboratory.”

The novel, in many ways could have been written today with its examination of scientific over-reach and the ethics of genetic manipulation. Ager says his opera brings out the issues raised by the book of the Romantic sense of man and technology versus nature.

The opera has elements of horror, elements of science fiction, pathos and drama. It’s not just a monster story.

Pounding away at these moral and ethical dilemmas isn’t Ager’s intention in writing his opera.

“I agree with all that but I’m not writing some kind of moralistic opera. I’m writing the story. People can take it however they want.”

He said he wrote it “because I love monsters and I love drama.”

Even after this performance, Ager says there will a second score; one for a low bass monster and one for a baritone.

In this performance, the monster is played by Constantine Meglis, who is a low bass from Toronto “who is an extremely large man.” Victor is being sung by same tenor who played the role in 2010, Lenard Whiting. Victor’s young brother William is played by Elliott Mennier, the 12 year head chorister at Christ Church Cathedral. Also in the cast is soprano Carmen Harris.

It is interesting that the opera will be performed in Dominion-Chalmers. Ager says he was inspired to remount Frankenstein during a dark winter’s night in the building.

“I thought it was time to get Frankenstein out again and we’ll do it here.”

Opera in Ottawa is a rare beast. After the demise of Opera Lyra, it is a DIY adventure; this one is no different.

“We are doing this without any grants,” he said.

As for the future of opera in Ottawa?

“We are doing this and we’ll see how it goes. People who do see it will enjoy it,” Ager believes. “It’s thrilling, it’s frightening, it’s a powerful story.”

He does have another project in mind which would be set in the Montreal underworld in the 1970s.

There are eight singers in Frankenstein. and the music will be performed by a small ensemble of two pianos (played by Ager and by Matthew Larkin), organ played by Ian Bevell and percussion by Zac Pulak.

His wife Suzanne Barrett is director the performance and her daughter Clare Bassett is the stage manager.

“We are on the same page. We want to emphasize the drama of the story and we aren’t afraid to go in the direction of making it quite frightening and violent, which it is. I don’t know what people would expect otherwise from the story. It is a violent story.”

Ager notes that on Oct. 31, at 6 p.m., just before curtain on Frankenstein, Peter Coffman, who is an architectural historian at Carleton University, will talk about the city’s gothic architecture. The lecture is called God, Ghosts and Empire, the life, death and afterlives of Gothic Architecture.

Frankenstein the Opera
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: eventbrite.ca

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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.