BY PAUL GESSELL
Ottawa author Mark Frutkin returned home from vacation two years ago this past August to be confronted by a surprising email. A professor of music and lyric theatre, James McKeel, from a liberal arts school, St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, was asking Frutkin’s permission to turn his 2006 fable-like novel Fabrizio’s Return into an opera.
Fabrizio’s Return won the Trillium Award, as the best fiction book in Ontario the year it was published. The story is a magical tale of a remarkable violin, religion, alchemy, forbidden love, and a troupe of commedia dell’arte actors in 17th and 18th century Italy. And now Fabrizio has returned in a most unexpected way after Frutkin consented to McKeel’s request.
“Of course I agreed,” says Frutkin. “He (McKeel) worked on it for over two years, including through his sabbatical year. I was officially co-librettist but the work is really his. He would send me music clips (electronic facsimiles) and portions of the libretto as he finished them and I would comment and suggest. So he adapted the novel, scripted it, and wrote all the music for orchestra and voice, and directed. A real Renaissance man!”
The result was Fabrizio’s Comet, an operetta, performed Oct. 16-18 at St. Olaf College. Now Fabrizio is about to hit the road. Fourteen cast members, along with their costumes, masks, props, set pieces and pianist will perform excerpts at some schools in the Northfield area, including Sibley Elementary Nov. 6 and Prairie Creek Nov. 13.
But that is not the end of Fabrizio. McKeel has even bigger plans than school performances.
“This one feels special and I’d like to work with Mark to improve it and promote it to other colleges and professional companies,” says McKeel. “Seeing it done with our limited resources gave me a taste for the possibilities with a bigger budget for set, costumes, lighting, effects etc.”
McKeel is no amateur. A baritone, he has sung more than 70 roles with opera companies and festivals in the U.S. and England. Performances range from The Magic Flute and The Marriage of Figaro, to La Boheme and Carmen. His list of artistic collaborators include Philip Glass and David Hockney. An avid composer, McKeel has written more than 60 operas, operettas, musicals, choral works, arts songs and song cycles, which have received commissions, grants, and premieres from such organizations as the Kennedy Center and Minnesota Opera.
Frutkin and his wife, Faith Seltzer, attended all three performances of the operetta in Northfield.
“The music is absolutely first-rate, the acting was pretty good for student actors, the singing was generally excellent,” says Frutkin. “A live orchestra makes for a fabulous sound. Access to the streaming is up now on the St Olaf home page.”
The tunes are “extremely catching and lovely,” says Frutkin. “They’re still running through my head.”
Frutkin was astounded that McKeel had even learned of the novel Fabrizio’s Return because the book was not published in the United States. McKeel can’t remember how he came to buy the book.
“It was either online or at a local bookstore,” McKeel said in an interview. “And I just happened to read the synopsis, and the characters, plot, and commedia troupe screamed for some sort of musical treatment. Mark is such a poetic and sensitive and engaging writer that tunes and lyrics kept springing to mind as I read the book. I then took a chance and emailed Mark about the possibility of setting his novel and he said that he loved music and opera and was enthused to have it set to music. Off we went!”