In the spotlight...
Marsha Lederman in the Globe and Mail on The Inventor
Bramwell Tovey and John Murrell discussing The Inventor
Bramwell Tovey and John Murrell discussing The Inventor

January 24, 2011
The Inventor: the story behind the opera
By Marsha Lederman
Composer Bramwell Tovey came upon the idea by happenstance

Just as the creation of an opera requires the coming together of many artistic forces, the spark that leads to its conception can arise from a confluence of events.

A few years ago, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey had stopped by a Starbucks in downtown Vancouver for a latte (venti, non-fat). Finding himself with nothing to read, he picked up a discarded newspaper, which was sitting open to an excerpt from a book about Alexander Keith Jr. - not the famous Nova Scotia brewer, but his less-accomplished nephew. Keith, who went by the name Sandy, was an international con man and bigamist and was responsible for the deaths of nearly 100 people in a massive explosion in Germany.

"I knew the beer, of course, but I'd never heard of Sandy Keith Jr.," Tovey says. "This is a man whose life was a Greek tragedy."

At the time the came across the excerpt from Ann Larabee's The Dynamite Fiend, he was looking for a good story: He was days away from a meeting with librettist John Murrell and Calgary Opera general director Bob McPhee to discuss potential ideas for a commission.

After the meeting, the busy Grammy-winning conductor and composer kept returning to the Sandy Keith idea. "I allowed it to ferment for a few months and I looked at lots of different stories and I couldn't come up with anything that really I felt suited the kind of opera I wanted to write more than this saga of this con man."

Keith's story came to light after a transatlantic steamer blew up in the harbour at Bremerhaven in December, 1875. Saddled with crushing debt after living the high life on both sides of the Atlantic, he had concocted a scheme: He would insure the ship's cargo and collect on the policy by blowing up the vessel when it was essentially uninhabited, using a timing device. But when one of the barrels was dropped during loading, the dynamite exploded prematurely. With the dead and injured all around him, Keith, unhurt, went below deck, wrote a confession and shot himself in the head.

The story struck Tovey not just as an intriguing, largely unknown piece of history; it also had a personal resonance. Growing up in East London, he always looked forward to visits from the family insurance agent - a charismatic door-to-door salesman who usually showed up bearing sweets for young Bramwell and his sister. So it was a shock when the man was imprisoned for fraud and, shortly after being released, killed himself in disgrace.

"This boyhood experience of this man really stayed with me over the years," Tovey says. "And so when I saw the story of Sandy Keith, I realized that actually there was something dormant in me that had been awakened by the concept of the nice man who's a fraudster."

Tovey had his opera.

"Bramwell was very sold on it from the beginning and I have learned ... that it's the gleam in the eye of a composer when he obviously instinctively feels, 'I can make music of this,' " Murrell says. "So ... I stopped having arguments with myself about whether this was something I instantly felt was for me, and just thought, 'If it's for my composer, then away we go.' "

He read through historic newspaper coverage of the explosion and of Keith's astonishing life. Meanwhile, the Bernie Madoff scandal came to light: a fresh take on a con man, which helped to fuel the story.

Murrell, a prolific playwright as well as a librettist, felt it necessary to dream up a motivation for Keith's deplorable actions. "I'm interested not just in 'Oh what else did he do that was really terrible? Oh that's so dreadful, that's so dreadful.' You can stop at that level of kind of prurient interest in bad guys, or you can say how did this happen to them? How did they get that way? And what shared universal human elements do we have that could also have taken any of us to that place?"

Tovey, who writes by hand, completed the final notes of his composition the afternoon of New Year's Day, four weeks ahead of The Inventor's world premiere on Saturday. Directed by Kelly Robinson, it features an all-Canadian cast, including baritone James Westman as Sandy Keith, soprano Laura Whalen as his first wife, soprano Erin Wall as his second wife, and soprano Judith Forst as her disapproving mother. Tovey will conduct.

This is the fifth world premiere for Calgary Opera, for whom commissioning new works is a point of pride - and a priority. Contrast this, Tovey points out, to the remarks made recently by Alexander Neef, the Canadian Opera Company's general director.

The Globe and Mail's Robert Everett-Green reported that Neef seemed "somewhat exasperated" by a suggestion that the COC stage Canadian opera. "I find it very odd, actually, to have that discussion," he said. "In France, I never had this discussion, about "why don't you do operas of French composers?' Because we would do them if we believed in their value. I think that's what it needs to be about."

Tovey was not impressed. "I found Mr. Neef's comments to be immature. ... COC needs to have [a]creative agenda that will encourage Canadian composers to contribute to the repertoire and provide a Canadian component to what is otherwise a European-dominated tradition. This is part and parcel of the job of general director of the COC."

Calgary Opera's world premiere of The Inventor is at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary Jan. 29, Feb. 2 and Feb. 4 (

Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada.
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