COLUMN: Arias, librettos, and voices memorialize sinking of hospital ship

Phil Egan

Is it possible to love an opera you’ve never heard?

If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then you’ll have some idea of how I feel about an opera that premiered June 26 in Toronto at Calvin Presbyterian Church.

A plaque in a Toronto church Toronto honouring nurse Mary Agnes ‘Nan’ MacKenzie sparked composer Stephanie Martin’s interest in the Llandovery Castle.
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It was called the Llandovery Castle Opera and, as you might expect, there’s a story behind it – a story that 100 years ago left Canadian riveted in shock and anger.

It’s a story that’s been mostly lost behind the curtain of time – forgotten among the Great War anniversaries of Ypres, the Somme, Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele. But June 27, 1918, is a date in our history that should be remembered.

On that day, the Canadian Hospital Ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed and sunk off the southern coast of Ireland by a German U-boat commander who had convinced himself the vessel was carrying troops.

As he watched the ship’s medical personnel rush to escape the sinking ship, Captain Helmut Brummer-Patzig realized the scope of his error. He brought the submarine to the surface, strafed the survivors with machine-gun fire and rammed their lifeboats, hoping to erase the record of his war crime.

Alexina Dussault drown when the Canadian hospital ship was torpedoed.
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That day 234 were killed, including 14 Canadian nursing sisters and a 25-year-old private from Sarnia named David Radcliffe Smuck. Only 24 survived.

I’ve been obsessed with the tragedy of the Llandovery Castle ever since I heard the story several years ago. The nurses, who each carried the rank of lieutenant, represented the ultimate combination of compassion and ambition – a driving desire to serve the nation.

A similar obsession gripped composer Stephanie Martin, the organist at Calvin Presbyterian Church, after she noticed a forgotten plaque in the church dedicated to one of the lost nursing sisters.

She couldn’t get the atrocity out of her mind, and had nightmares about the sinking ship. When she met playwright Paul Ciufo at a Canada 150 concert, they decided to collaborate on an opera to memorialize the event.

Ciufo’s mother, Anne Kuch, who lives in Sarnia, was kind enough to send me a copy of the program. It is captivating, with images of four of the lost nurses and a photo of HMCHS Llandovery Castle.

Martin and Ciufo began their collaboration with the libretto – the “little book,” or dialogue that tells the story to be sung. Ciufo tells the story through the words, and ultimately the song, of four of the nursing sisters and two of the soldiers. Together with the chorus, they relate the harrowing tale of tragedy and heroism.

Whether the story is told in story or in song – and now even as an opera – it helps to ensure it won’t be forgotten.