Calgary Opera's "Filumena"

A YOUNG IMMIGRANT WOMAN is forced into a loveless arranged marriage with a much older man. She is later lured into the employ of another man, a dashing bootlegger and, according to community gossip, becomes romantically involved with either him or his son.

Calgary Opera's "Filumena"

A YOUNG IMMIGRANT WOMAN is forced into a loveless arranged marriage with a much older man. She is later lured into the employ of another man, a dashing bootlegger and, according to community gossip, becomes romantically involved with either him or his son. The woman and the booze smuggler are implicated in the murder of a police constable. During a sensational trial, the defendants' own lawyer appears to put most of the blame on her. But in the end, both are found guilty and sentenced to hang.

The stuff of fiction? Nope, it all happened in a remote corner of the Alberta Rockies during Prohibition some eight decades ago. The stuff of OPERA? Definitely.

On Feb. 1, the Calgary Opera stages the first of three performances of Filumena, an original, two-act creation based on the life and untimely death of Florence (Filumena) Losandro, who was sent to the gallows in 1923 at the age of 22, one of the few women to be hanged in Canada. The ambitious, $1.2-million production, mounted in conjunction with the Banff Centre (where a second set of performances will be staged in August), is one of only a handful of grand operas to be written and produced in Canada in the past 30 years. The brainchild of Calgary Opera composer-in-residence John Estacio and Alberta playwright John Murrell, Filumena is generating the kind of buzz that would be the envy of any arts organization, let alone a regional opera company that, until recently, was struggling to survive. "People are coming out of the woodwork for this one," says Calgary Opera general director and CEO Bob McPhee, who is anticipating a sellout opening night at Calgary's 2,700-seat Jubilee Auditorium. "Beyond its artistic significance, what we're witnessing right now is a real event."

Filumena took root about three years ago when Murrell and Estacio met to discuss a possible collaboration. Estacio had recently been hired by Calgary Opera and charged, among other things, with developing original works as part of the company's successful effort to attract new audiences and wipe out its accumulated debt. The son of Portuguese immigrants, Estacio wanted an opera based on a Canadian story that somehow told an immigrant tale. If it had regional resonance for an Alberta audience, so much the better. And, oh yes, one other thing. "I wanted to make sure," says Estacio, 36, "that there was some soap in this opera." By that, he meant a basic human story with audience appeal beyond your stereotypical stuffed-shirt opera buff.

Murrell, artistic director of theatre arts at the Banff Centre and one of Canada's most frequently produced playwrights, had just the ticket. Several years earlier, he picked up a slim volume, The Rum Runners, which included stories about the illicit liquor trade that flourished in the Crowsnest Pass region of the Rockies near the Canada-U.S. border during Prohibition. By far the most intriguing tale concerned Emilio Picariello (also known as "Emperor Pic"), a charismatic Italian who ran a thriving booze-smuggling operation stretching from Nelson, B.C., to Regina, while carving out a respectable parallel career as a hotel and restaurant owner and town councillor.

Picariello took under his wing Filumena Costanzo, who had immigrated from Italy as a child and then, at age 15, wed the much older Carlo Losandro, one of Picariello's cronies. Filumena's job was to pose, along with Picariello's son, Steve, as part of a young couple who could move freely across the border without arousing suspicion. On a solo bootlegging run, Steve was shot, though not killed, by Const. Stephen O. Lawson. Picariello and Filumena subsequently accosted Lawson, who was killed. It was unclear who pulled the trigger, and both Picariello and Filumena were charged with murder. Neither testified at the trial, but their lawyer reportedly steered most of the blame toward Filumena, in the belief that the jurors would never sentence a woman to death - or, if they did, that the sentence would be commuted. It didn't work out that way.

The trial - held, as it happened, in a tiny opera house in Coleman, Alta. - drew national media attention and sparked no end of salacious gossip. Some speculated Picariello and Filumena were lovers. Others contended that Filumena and Steve were having an affair, which might explain why she wanted to avenge his shooting. All of this remains unknowable. But Murrell, who has pored over the transcripts of the trial, is convinced of one thing: if the case were heard today, Picariello and Filumena would never have been sent to their deaths. "There is just too much contradictory testimony," says the 57-year-old playwright. "Either a mistrial would be declared or they would be given lesser sentences."

In their opera, Murrell and Estacio do depict Filumena and Steve (known here as Stefano) as lovers. But the connection between her and Picariello is more complex. They imagine that what Filumena and Picariello shared was a burning desire to rise above their humble origins. Picariello, in their view, saw bootlegging as a way to buy influence, authority and respect in his adopted homeland. Filumena went along for the ride - all the way to its tragic conclusion.

Working with Murrell's libretto, Estacio composed an original score consisting of nine distinctive scenes building to a dramatic climax. In addition to the usual arias and ensemble pieces, he incorporates music from the period, including a ragtime piano riff and a sombre bagpipes-and-drums interlude at the policeman's funeral. The final scene of the opera focuses on Filumena and Picariello in their separate prison cells during their last hours. Both are contemplating what they will miss about life, but otherwise they are a study in contrasts. Filumena is calm and collected; she has accepted responsibility for her actions, atoned for them, and is looking forward to redemption in the next life. Picariello is angry, feeling fate has unjustly plucked him away from his lucrative pursuits. In reality, Picariello was so agitated he was literally drugged (given sedatives) and dragged to the gallows.

The producers of Filumena were determined to use an all-Canadian cast. A key challenge was finding the right soprano to play Filumena. It had to be someone who combined youthful exuberance with the strong technical skills needed for such a demanding role (Filumena is on stage for the entire 130-minute opera). After a long search, they settled on a relative newcomer, 32-year-old Fort McMurray native Laura Whalen. She is paired with Gaétan Laperrière, one of Canada's most highly regarded baritones, as Picariello.

Few modern grand operas get produced; even fewer have a long shelf life. Mindful of the bottom line, opera companies constantly return to such tried-and-true crowd-pleasers as Madame Butterfly and Carmen. Estacio and Murrell recognize that most opera organizations would view Filumena as a risky proposition. But they believe the production has legs. "The fact this takes place in the Crowsnest Pass is no different than the fact Carmen takes place in Seville," says Estacio. "It has universal characters and universal themes. Above all, it's just a great story." The stuff of opera, indeed.

Maclean's January 27, 2003