Composer Ian Cusson Talks About His Craft And Premiering His Opera ‘Fantasma’

Ian Cusson (Photo: John Arano)
Ian Cusson (Photo: John Arano)

Composer Ian Cusson is known for his operas, along with art songs and orchestral works. The Métis and French Canadian artist creates intriguing works which have been widely recognized and heard by audiences across the country. He was the inaugural Carrefour Composer-in-Residence with the National Arts Center Orchestra from 2017-2019, and the Composer-in-Residence for the Canadian Opera Company from 2019-2021.

His opera for young people, Ghost, composed with librettist Colleen Murphy, premiered in March 2022. It was the first COC production to take the stage before a live audience after the long pandemic. Delving into classic themes like death, courage, and compassion, the story follows two best friends who stumble onto a sinister secret at a carnival.

Congratulations on the premiere of ‘Fantasma’. How did you approach writing an opera for young people? Was it any different for you than writing for adult audiences?

Thanks so much! One of the goals Colleen Murphy (Ghost‘s librettist) and I set when beginning to work on Ghost was to make an artistic offer to young audiences that neither patronized nor infantilized their emotions.

We are both strongly aligned that a work of art is not primarily a vehicle for a moral message, no matter who is in the audience. Great art, of course, can carry resonances that speak across time and peoples, but it is never didactic. We created a story that is incredibly dark – it deals with violence, the murder of a child, and has an inevitable and painful ending. We made the offer of this story to young audiences, knowing that young people have an incredible capacity to process and feel complex human emotion. They are, after-all, citizens of the world we all live in.

If anything, the process of writing for young audiences raised my sensitivity to the audience’s reception of the work. Opera is an incredible vehicle for communicating emotion and even ideas, especially when those ideas are shown through character and framed within the context of human emotion. But opera is also entertainment, and a bored or disengaged audience is the death of a work. There is quite possibly nothing worse or more frightening than an audience of bored young people who aren’t afraid to show their disinterest. I live with four young people, so I should know.

A goal in all my operatic work is to create taut dramas that engage the viewer / listener, regardless of the intended audience. It’s something I hope we will see more of in contemporary opera in general. We can all agree that nobody wants to see a boring opera. I hope never to write one. I’d much rather you hate my work than be bored by it. At least that way, you will have felt something.

A scene from Ian Cusson's Fantasma (Photo: Gaetz Photography)
A scene from Ian Cusson’s Fantasma (Photo: Gaetz Photography)

What was it like to work in uncertain times over the last two years? Did it make composing ‘Fantasma’ and other recent works more challenging?

My work as a composer was not as deeply affected by the global pandemic, especially when I consider my performer colleagues whose work vanished overnight. The virtue of many of the projects I work on is that they extend over several years and in spite of shutdowns and cancellations, I was still able to write music.

Ghost, which was supposed to have been presented in late 2020, was postponed like many other projects. However, that delay turned out to be an advantage for the piece. We were able to let it go. We came back to it with fresh eyes. We tweaked sections. And the work is all the stronger for it.

We made one hilariously Herculean attempt to workshop the piece remotely. It went like this: a pianist would create a piano track and email it to a singer, who would overlay a vocal part and then email this cobbled together recording to the next singer who would add their vocal parts, etc.

All of this was done from makeshift home studios and without the real-time benefit of being in the same as the other musicians. We ended up with a recording that resembled Doctor Frankenstein’s monster, but it gave us enough of a sense of the opera we were creating during a season when we couldn’t gather to take the next step forward in the project. It certainly wasn’t a perfect process, but one that I won’t soon forget.

How does your Métis / French Canadian background influence your work?

Being of mixed background has always felt like living at the intersection of different worlds. For years, I saw this as incompleteness – a lacking. But I have since come to think differently. Living at the intersection of identities, cultures, communities, really means living in a place of abundance and creative potential. Sometimes I feel like I can better navigate through the intermediate spaces of the world because of who I come from.

One benefit is that this has helped increase my empathy for people. The most important quality in an opera composer is representing a wide range of human emotions. In order to do that successfully, a creator needs to be able to feel deeply for the characters they create – even the ones that are most unlike ourselves. Even the ones who make terrible decisions and harm the people around them.

I also come from serious storyteller stock, which is helpful when you tell stories all day. Storytelling is at the center of everything I do as a composer, and is very likely the reason I’ve found such a happy home in opera.

As a composer, you often do not have absolute control over the productions and performances of your work. How involved were you in bringing Ghost to the stage?

Most people think composers are hallowed beings who have a say in every creative decision affecting their work. The truth could not be further from this. And that’s a fantastic thing.

The act of creating an opera is a collaborative effort between dozens of professionals who are experts in their fields, including directors, designers, performers, musicians, and administrators. The act of making a work requires the convergence of these areas of expertise, and that means having multiple sources of creative input.

With Ghost, I was lucky to be invited into this complex ecosystem and given space to voice my perspective on the work’s presentation. Much of this is thanks to the incredible director Julie McIsaac, who created a collaborative and stimulating environment where each person involved in the project was valued and understood as critical to the work’s success.

What is your favorite thing about the performances?

The best part of making opera is being present in a room where live opera is happening. Going to the theater is a communal experience where the audience journeys together. Even having spent years with my own work, each performance is an opportunity for me to discover the work anew. And, with every performance, the work changes – performers make different artistic choices, audiences engage with the material differently.

The piece lives and breathes each night because, after all, opera is a living art form. Every time I see my work, I discover something new about it, and that is the greatest part of doing what I get to do.


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Latest posts by Anya Wassenberg (see all)
Latest posts by Anya Wassenberg (see all)

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