All families, they say, have secrets. Few perhaps are as lurid as what came to light at 29 Kintyre Avenue, Toronto (about 2km from here) in the summer of 2007 when a contractor renovating the house discovered the mummified body of an infant wrapped in a 1925 newspaper. Incredibly, the CBC was able to track down the last surviving member of the household from that era, a 92 year old woman living in a retirement home in up-state New York. Her recollections, which formed the subject of a short two part radio documentary, provided a lot of context and background but few hard facts. Who the baby was and how it came to be under the floorboards remains very much a mystery.
The story intrigued Toronto based composer Dean Burry who turned it into a radio serial opera, with his own interpretation/reconstruction of the story. Structurally it’s intriguing. There are five eight minute or so episodes; each with a “cliff hanger” ending so, besides telling the story (or at least Dean’s version of it) it pays homage to the classic radio thriller serial. It’s very interesting how it works out.
The first episode tells the story of how Bob (James McLennan) discovers the child and, in shock, phones his wife Jill (Laura Albino). Then we get into serious flashback territory as the story of the young girl (our only witness) Rita, played with great poise by young Eileen Nash, her aunt Della (Shannon Mercer) and uncle Wesley (Giles Tomkins) comes to life. All is not as it seems in this household and things just get more complicated with the introduction of the lodger George (Benjamin Covey) and Della’s louche sister Alla Mae (Krisztina Szabó). A one night stand between George and Alla results in the baby though no-one knows about it until Alla comes to visit a year later, when by some not entirely clear process the baby has recently died. George conceals the baby in the attic where it will remain for the next 82 years. The piece finishes with a really creepy passage in which past and present blend into a version of Amazing Grace.
Musically it’s quite interesting. The episodic format doesn’t leave much room for vocal acrobatics but the word setting is atmospheric and has the merit that every word is clearly audible. There’s some playful pastiche with various 20s idioms from parlour song to jazz. The characterisations are clear and distinct (all the singers have excellent diction) and the instrumental music, featuring John Hess on piano and a chamber ensemble is crisply executed. Throughout, sound effects and CBC news clips are mixed into the music as appropriate which amplifies the sense that this is both an opera and a radio show.
The disc was recorded at the CBC and it sounds like a top quality radio broadcast. The original two part CBC documentary is included as a kind of appendix and there is a full libretto (with French translation). It’s an unusual and rewarding recording.