Night Blooming Cereus, a chamber opera in one act, is one of several musical collaborations between poet and playwright James Reaney, who wrote the libretto, and composer John Beckwith. In his autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer, John Beckwith had this to say about his first opera:
“Furthering my ambition to compose an opera, I had the great good luck to find a librettist — a writer who understood music. James Reaney shared my love of opera, and early in our friendship in student days we spoke of perhaps collaborating on an original work. In early 1953 I received from him a draft of Night Blooming Cereus. The one-act opera he imagined taking shape as a sort of southern Ontario miracle play. It turned out to be the first of four operatic works we produced together over succeeding decades…” [Unheard Of, page 246]
Night Blooming Cereus calls for eight singers and an instrumental ensemble of fourteen players, and lasts about sixty minutes.[…] The image of a flower that blooms once a year — or by poetic licence once a century — stands for human hope and renewal…” [Unheard Of, page 247]
John Beckwith completed the music and orchestration in the summer of 1958, and CBC Radio commissioned a broadcast for the “Wednesday Night” program in April 1959 and again in 1960. The first stage production of Night Blooming Cereus was at the Hart House Theatre in Toronto on April 5, 1960 with the following cast:
ALICE: Anne Stephenson
FIRST GIRL: Shelia Piercey
SECOND GIRL: Ruth Ann Morse
MRS. BROWN: Patricia Rideout
MRS. WOOL: Irene Byatt
BEN: Alexander Gray
BARBARA: Patricia Snell
MR. ORCHARD: Bernard Johnson
Settings and costumes were by Louis de Niverville, musical direction by Ettore Mazzoleni and stage direction by Pamela Terry.
The play blends the real world of the Brontë family with a creation from their literary juvenilia, Branwell’s fantasy world of Zamorna. On April 17, 1999, James Reaney attended a performance of the play at George Brown College. Afterwards, he and David Ferry, the play’s director, participated in a discussion with members of the audience.
FromScene 4, 1831 Heatherbell:
BRANWELL Well, you see, girls… I’m a poet.
EMILY(with a book) There’s an old Welsh law, Branwell, that says—