This year, William Rowson returns to the What Next Festival of New Music as a featured composer and Conductor-in-Residence. We caught up with Bill to discuss his dual role and the inspiration behind his opera, The Virgin Charlie.

When did you start composing, and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I started composing when I was 11. My brother, sister, father and I played chamber music together and I would write “serious” pieces for us to play. I was very inspired by great composers, and the classical and romantic masterpieces I heard on my father’s records. As I started learning more advanced repertoire on the violin and playing in the youth orchestra, I got inspired by those pieces too. In high school it was all about Wagner, Mahler and Stravinsky.

Is it rare for a composer to also be a conductor?
At one point in the history of music, all composers were conductors. In the 20th century it became exceptionally rare (except Bernstein and Boulez). I think that in the future we will again see more composers conducting. For me, my interest in conducting came later. It was pragmatic before it became a passion.

Why did you want to write an opera?
I have loved opera for a long time so I began to seek out opportunities to work with singers to tell stories through music. I did decide when I was 12 that if I couldn’t be a composer then I would be a playwright.

How did you choose this comedic subject for your story?
This opera came about as a call for teams through Tapestry New Opera. The librettist Taylor Marie Graham approached me about an idea she had. She devised a narrative in which our two characters (Charlie and the Virgin Mary) could coexist. We found that many situations, both touching and comedic, could come from this narrative, which would give me the opportunity to write a lot of different kinds of music.

How do you see the relationship between the words and the story?
I tie my music right to the words. I view it as trying to create a musical structure that could carry the narrative on its own while also highlighting all of the emotions, desires and actions of the characters.

What are your memories from the 2009 premiere of The Virgin Charlie?
My fondest memory was just going into the dress rehearsal and seeing my piece with the brilliant costumes, fabulous direction and professional lighting design in a real theatre. It was my first time seeing a staged work of mine in full production and, as you might imagine, it was a very
exciting experience.

What’s your next opera going to be?
My next opera is just a bunch of ideas sketched on papers. One idea is a triptych of short operas about isolation and its effect on people in various parts of Canada.

Moving onto this year’s What Next Festival of New Music:

What is it like to conduct your own composition? How does this differ from conducting other composer’s works?
Well, first of all, I don’t have to practice my own works as much. I also pretend that I am dead, so I interpret the work objectively, working with what is written, to get the best result. I submit my scores to the same clock, the same rehearsal restrictions as I would any other score. That said, I do sometimes get excited hearing my music performed by such great musicians.

What can audiences expect from The Virgin Charlie at this year’s What Next Festival?
Unlike the original performance, this one will be in a cabaret setting, not staged, though it will still be highly theatrical. The opera was actually designed to work perfectly in a cabaret setting, no extra sets required.

Your HPO goes late night with a cabaret-style evening of contemporary opera. Don’t miss Bill’s charming but twisted tale The Virgin Charlie alongside The Perfect Screw by Composer-in- Residence Abigail Richardson-Schulte. Enjoy a cocktail or two and these hilariously risqué one-act operas Friday, May 27 at 9pm at The Gasworks.

All What Next Festival events are admission by donation (pay what you can) at the door. Click here for full festival details.