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Birthday Gift for Maine Bridge: An Opera

Karen Galella
Courtesy Stonington Opera House

STONINGTON, Maine - If you're going to celebrate the anniversary of a local landmark, why not write an opera? That was exactly the thinking that's given life to a production called "The Last Ferryman," which creators in the Downeast community of Stonington have dubbed a "popera." It features the music of a Grammy-award-winning pianist and composer, and professional singers from Boston and New York, as well as local talent. "The Last Ferryman" made its debut at the Stonington Opera House last night.

For the 75th birthday of the Deer Isle-Sedgewick bridge, locals might have planned a small ceremony, a few remarks from dignitaries, maybe taken up a collection for a commemorative plaque. But that wasn't enough for Linda Nelson.

"We see this as a big community milestone that really changed our community drastically," she says, "and a perfect opportunity to create a piece that would really take a look at that change, while celebrating the milestone that it is."

Credit Karen Galella / Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Mezzo soprano Emily Hecht, left, is featured as Lucia, along with acting intern Emma Grace Keenan, right, in Opera House Arts' original new musical The Last Ferryman

Nelson is executive director of Opera House Arts in Stonington. She and colleague Judith Jerome came up with the idea of commissioning an original musical. Nelson says the project was a team effort involving a number of volunteers, and included extensive historical research and collections of oral histories. The narrative includes portraits of influential local figures, and takes us back to a time when Deer Isle was a true island, accessible only by boat.

"And for part of its history that was fine," Nelson says. "What began to happen in the 20's and 30's is that the car became the predominant mode of transportation - everybody was in love with it, and everybody wanted to travel that way. It gave people a lot more individual freedom and personal flexibility in how they could get could around, and how they could connect to the rest of the world."

And how they could connect...to health care, which Nelson says is also part of the story. After Blue Hill Hospital opened on the mainland in 1923, it was literally a lifesaver for many in the region. But Nelson says some islanders, still dependent on boats, felt isolated.

Credit Karen Galella / Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Maine tenor Chris Candage, right, is featured as historical figure David Steinman, the engineer of the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge, with tenor Jason Martin as Charlie Scott, the historical last ferryman, and acting intern Marvin Merritt as his assistant Sammy, in Opera House Arts' original new musical The Last Ferryman.

"People who needed acute medical care and needed to get to that hospital, if there was storm, if the weather was bad, if the reach was frozen over, had zero access to that level of care, suddenly. And it began to make the islanders feel like second-class citizens, on some level."

Enter the Deer Isle Sedgewick bridge built in 1939, which reconnected Deer Isle to the world in this new age of the automobile.

Interesting history, perhaps, but not exactly the thematic mix of lust, vengeance and betrayal of which opera is made.

"I completely agree the idea of, 'Yeah a bridge is now 75 years old, let's write a musical about it,' is creative," says Paul Sullivan, who lives in nearby Brooklin, Maine. But the Grammy-winning pianist and composer was brought in to do just that.

Sullivan says he didn't know much about the history, but soon discovered that there were much larger themes to be explored.

Credit Karen Galella / Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Courtesy Stonington Opera House
Tenor Rich Howe is featured as historical figure Ray Small, the treasurer of the Deer Isle-Sedgwick Bridge District, in Opera House Arts' original new musical The Last Ferryman

"The meta-story is about change. It's about opposing points of view, the reconciliation of those points of view embodied by the physical bridge," Sullivan says. "But in the course of the drama, we look at a lot of those oppositions. We deal with 'local' and 'from away.' We deal with people with great money and people without money, and a lot of the differences that are alive today."

And while the production features local creators and performers, "The Last Ferryman" also calls upon the talents of four Actors Equity opera singers from Boston and New York.

"As far as bringing in the equity people, they inspire, they really do, everybody else to work harder, sing louder," Sullivan says. "And then they carry the parts that would just not be possible to be sung by amateur musicians. And yet the local folks participate in just about every song, and many of the songs are just the chorus."

Keith Shortall: "This is a lot of work. Do you have any plans to take it on the road or give it another life?"

Paul Sullivan: "Frankly, I see it sort of as one of those works where every puts out a Herculean effort for two weeks and we all say 'adios.' Maybe Linda has a different view."

Linda Nelson: "I agree with him about the ephemeral nature of it, but I also agree that the themes of this piece do speak widely beyond the region, which is the goal of regional theater to begin with. We see some of that in the U.S. now, but we tend to see less and less of people understanding how a particularly local story reflects the values and the struggles that we all have."

"The Last Ferryman," a "popera" by Maine composer Paul Sullivan, book by Linda Britt, and directed by Judith Jerome, runs through Aug. 24. at the Stongington Opera House.

Learn more about the production.