Transit of Venus

Manitoba Opera is excited to present Transit of Venus by librettist Maureen Hunter and composer Victor Davies in November 2007 in celebration of its 35th season, 2007/08. 

This full-length, three-act opera with full orchestra will be the first opera commissioned for main-stage production in the history of the company. It will be sung in English with surtitles.  There are three performances at the Manitoba Centennial Concert Hall scheduled for Saturday, November 24, Tuesday, November 27 and Friday, November 30.

Transit of Venus is based on the real-life expeditions of the 18th-century French astronomer, Guillaume le Gentil de la Galaisière, who twice tried, unsuccessfully, to chart the transit of the planet Venus across the sun. As early as the 17th century, the transit was believed to be a way of determining accurately the distance between the earth and the sun.

The opera explores the question of achieving your potential or being with the people you love. It follows the play’s storyline and tells of Le Gentil’s passion for what he believes is his destiny (astronomy) and Celeste’s unconsummated love for him. He and Celeste are engaged, but  his quest to chart the transit of Venus takes him far from home, first for six years and then for another five years. Believing Le Gentil to be dead, Celeste turns to his assistant, Demarais for comfort and ultimately the love she so longs for. When Le Gentil finally returns, he tries to explain that he realizes his destiny to be with her, but she has moved on with her life. In the end, Le Gentil has failed in both tracking his heavenly love (Venus) and his love here on Earth.

Transit of Venus Synopsis
Music by Victor Davies Libretto by Maureen Hunter
Sung in English
Based on the play, Transit of Venus, by Maureen Hunter
PREMIERE PERFORMANCE: Centennial Concert Hall,Winnipeg, Canada
November 24, 27, 30, 2007
PLACE: An estate in France TIME: Between 1760 and 1771

Le Gentil – age 35, astronomer - Baritone
Celeste – age 15, his fiancée - Soprano
Margot – age 36, his mother’s companion - Mezzo-soprano
Demarais – age 18, his assistant - Tenor
Madame Sylvie – age 65, his mother - Mezzo-soprano
Servants - Male and female chorus

The story begins in 1760, just before Le Gentil’s departure from France to India to measure the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun. His voyage was part of a major international scientific endeavour, designed to determine the distance between the Earth and the Sun and, ultimately, the size of the universe.

The prospect of Le Gentil’s departure excites the male servants in his household, especially his assistant Demarais, who will make the voyage with him. But it upsets the women: his mother,Madame Sylvie; his mother’s companion, Margot; and Margot’s daughter, Celeste, whom Le Gentil loves and intends to marry one day. Madame Sylvie insists that, before departing, Le Gentil clarify his intentions toward Celeste, both to Celeste herself and to Margot, with whom he once had an affair. He does so, and in a final scene with Celeste explains to her that astronomy is his chosen way of serving God. He convinces her to wait for him.

Six years later,Margot and Madame Sylvie anxiously await Le Gentil’s return. Their anxiety sparks a rare quarrel.When Celeste enters the room, she realizes something is wrong and seeks out Demarais, who arrived home early because of illness. Demarais tries to prepare Celeste for a change in Le Gentil, but cannot bring himself to be specific. Shortly afterwards, Celeste enters the observatory to discover that Le Gentil has been there for some time. Although their attempts to reconnect are initially tentative, it soon becomes clear that they still love one another. As Le Gentil describes the beauty of the world and how that beauty has moved and changed him, he realizes that she has developed an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Delighted with this discovery, he asks her to marry him. She joyfully agrees, but when he says he plans to return to the Tropics to chart the second transit of Venus, his initial attempt having failed, she changes her mind. He tries to make her understand that he still has not served God as he was meant to do, and begs her not to make him choose between his work and her. Celeste finally agrees to wait for him again, but insists that he return immediately after the transit.

Four years later, the servants gather to say their last farewells to Le Gentil’s home and to one another. Margot implores them to pray for Le Gentil, who has been lost at sea.

A year later, Margot returns to the house to find Le Gentil sitting alone. Having determined that Celeste is still unmarried and on her way to see him, he tries to explain why he has been so long getting home. He has been very ill and is obviously a broken man, ashamed of his previous actions and anxious to restore his household and make amends. Having learned that his mother is senile and living with relatives, he asks Margot to go and fetch her. Margot tries to prepare him for still more disappointments.

When Celeste arrives, Le Gentil is struck once again by her beauty but senses that she is not the person he left. He tries to explain why he broke his promise to her. She refuses to listen, finally announcing that she is going to have a child and intends to emigrate with Margot to New France. A quarrel erupts over who has fathered the child but, on learning that the father is dead, Le Gentil asks Celeste to marry him assuring her he still loves her. Celeste explains that, while grieving for him, she turned to the person who knew him best. In time, her grief for Le Gentil was replaced by love for Demarais. She no longer loves Le Gentil and cannot stay with him out of pity. She leaves.

Le Gentil is stunned. He tells Margot that even at the worst of times, even after failing to chart the second transit he never thought he would lose Celeste. The knowledge that he missed the second transit is shocking to Margot; everyone assumed he had succeeded. Le Gentil recounts the circumstances of the second transit: how an unseasonable storm blew in and obscured his view of the heavens. Unable to find the words to console him, Margot leaves him alone in his empty house.

By Rory Runnells

In a great French manor in 1760, and over the next 11 years, the inexorable, yet unexpected will occur to a world ensconced in the domestic closed world of the proper gentry, but on the edge of the vastness of space and relentless scientific pursuit. The world is divided uneasily into masters and servants, men and women, those seeking a sign of God in the universe and those seeking a sign of love in the drawing room.

Like many operas, Transit of Venus opens with a storm, which reflects the storm of impatient desire and even more impatient need throughout the story. The scientist, Le Gentil, needs love, but he desires to solve the last great astronomical problem of the age: measuring the transit of Venus across the Sun. His fiancée, Celeste, young in years, but old (and sophisticated) in knowledge, desires him, but finally finds her need to love in another simpler, more humane, and younger man, Demarais, Le Gentil’s assistant. Her mother, once Le Gentil’s mistress, is witness to his failure and her daughter’s mature triumph; his mother understands that when, as Le Gentil believes, God calls,(the God about which she has grave doubts) her son must go and engage the scientific with the religious, as he tries to do.

Transit of Venus is an astronomical term, but the opera, transformed from the spoken word of Maureen Hunter’s play to the sung word of the opera, is about how love, symbolized by Venus, makes its transit in the characters. Le Gentil loves Celeste, but it is a formal love, almost chaste; we see that his real love is to please God. His desire to chart the transit of the planet, Venus, is frustrated, not once, but twice, when clouds roll in and block the event. Please God, if you can, but His creation, Nature, is indifferent. Le Gentil was in the wrong place to observe, and in a sense just as clouds cover what he desperately wishes to witness, he has allowed himself to be ‘clouded’ and not to see clearly the Venus which is really important, the true love of Celeste. As the opera proceeds, she makes her transit away from him forever: from the older ‘important’ man to the young doomed assistant. The transit of love is a mystery which we can’t contain or manipulate.

Composer Victor Davies and librettist Maureen Hunter have taken the opera conventions, especially 19th century Romantic opera, seriously.Well, shouldn’t they? For many, these conventions (drinking songs, set arias, choruses expressing emotion and information) seem tired, and probably became so. But Davies and Hunter seek to reinvigorate the form in many ways. Further, perhaps without consciously working at it, the French subject, and the form of the play which Hunter wrote, may impose a certain style. Peter Conrad in his brilliant study of opera, A Song of Love and Death, has noted that French opera often tones down the ‘grand’ aspect of opera, the high intensity of Italian or German work, to the level of musing and conversations. Transit of Venus is a series of conversations, confessions, and pleas, conducted in spacious rooms or cluttered scientific workshops.

The question of ‘what makes a Canadian opera’ is answered in one way by Davies and Hunter with their re-imagining or transforming of an 18th century French story into a contemporary Romantic opera. This new work is ‘classical’ in the best sense, an attempt to transform modern sensibility and language into a vanished world which still speaks to us.

Davies and Hunter: in opera the composer is noted first, and that won’t change. Still, when the first extant opera we know, Orfeo, was performed in 1607, the author of the text, Alessandro Striggio, was as important as the composer, Monteverdi. Now we know only the genius of Monterverdi. Of course, many librettists have achieved recognition with their composers: Da Ponte with Mozart, Boito with Verdi, Hofmannsthal with Richard Strauss, and some have been underrated and need a word of praise, Piave with Verdi, for example.

But opera is finally about the word in song; when the spoken word must become music, that abstraction which is the most immediate and intimate of emotional states. However, that word must be perfect, and here the librettist must be servant to the music, yet master of expression without which music won’t flow. Ms. Hunter finds herself, furthermore, in a rare field: the author of the original source become librettist to the operatic adaptation.

Not so rare, although at first glance it might seem so, is her sex.Women composers’ struggle for recognition is a story worth recounting, but the recognition of women as librettists is a long one, though not so well documented. Ms. Hunter is in the company of Colette and Gertrude Stein, Margaret Atwood and Alice Hoffman, and the list ranges from Weber’s Euryanthe (words by a certain Mme. Helmine von Chezy), to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (text by his sister, Adehilde) to Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice, and Owen Wingrave (text to all three by Myfanwy Piper). This is in addition to the adaptations from novels and plays by women (Janacek’s Jenufa, and Wagner’s Rienzi, to mention a few).

And where do the composer and librettist fit into the history of Canadian opera? There is a history extending from The Colas and Colinette by Joseph Quesnell in the 1790’s until this evening’s performance. Earlier I noted the question of what makes a Canadian opera and that Transit of Venus might be one answer in its transformation of style and story into our contemporary thinking. The history of Canadian opera is a story worth telling, but not for now.

At this moment, it is enough that you, the audience, are a part of the story, the final ensemble, so to speak. Time, so important in the story of Transit of Venus, will tell of its success or not as a work, but right now you, dear audience, join audiences over the centuries from the room in which Orfeo was presented in 1607 to the next splashy premiere anywhere in the world. You are the first to witness Transit of Venus become part of a long, complicated, life-enhancing, maddening, expensive creature: opera. In Transit of Venus the words came first with the play of Maureen Hunter, but the music was there, it seemed, ready to be born with Victor Davies. All of you here tonight are midwives to the art.

Rory Runnells is Coordinator of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and Drama Editor of Prairie Fire magazine.

Transits of Venus

Transits of Venus are rare occurrences that occur when the planet Venus crosses between the Sun and Earth, causing the planet to look like a small dot moving across the sun.

For nearly four centuries astronomers have chased Venus to the ends of the Earth to record a transit and until June 8, 2004, no one alive had seen a transit. Only five such transits have been viewed before (in 1639, 1761, 1769, 1874, and 1882).

Transits of Venus offered astronomers an opportunity to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun (called the astronomical unit or AU). The astronomical unit once provided the fundamental means to map the positions of heavenly bodies and determine the size of the universe. The measurement was so central to those tasks that the British Astronomer Royal in the mid-19th century called it "the noblest problem in astronomy."

"At one time it was the most important thing in astronomy," says Jay M. Pasachoff, a professor of astronomy at Williams College. Nations spent the equivalent of millions of dollars mounting transit expeditions that prefigured the Apollo missions and the robotic rovers now driving across the surface of Mars.

Just as significantly, transit expeditions marked the first large-scale international scientific collaborations. Hounded by bad weather, missed opportunities, and even wars, astronomers doggedly pursued these natural events in the name of science.

"In the 19th century it was really analogous to the space race," says Steven J. Dick, chief historian at NASA. "Any country that had a scientific reputation sent out [transit] expeditions. It was a race to see who could come up with the best technique and final answer."

Prior to 2004, this celestial event last took place in 1882 and created such a stir that spectators jammed Wall Street, and global powers provided funding in fits of patriotic frenzy to see which nation could best observe the phenomenon from remote spots on Earth.

The Earth only crosses the plane of Venus’s orbit twice a year, in June and December, due to the angle between the two planets’ orbits. A transit doesn’t occur every six months because both planets need to be lined up exactly, and Venus’s orbit around the Sun (its year) is shorter than the Earth’s (224.7 days compared to 365.3). Venus transits occur in pairs with an intervening gap of eight years and intervals of 121.5 and 105.5 years between the pairs of transits.

The Planet Venus

The planet Venus, the second planet from the sun, is named after the Roman goddess of love and beauty. After the Sun and Moon, Venus is the brightest object in the sky and often is called the morning star and the evening star.

The Story of Astronomer:
Guillaume Le Gentil de la Galaisière

French astronomer Guillaume Joseph Hyacinthe Jean-Baptiste Le Gentil de la Galaisière (September 12, 1725 – October 22, 1792) was born in Coutances and initially intended to enter the church before turning to astronomy. He discovered what are now known as the Messier objects M32, M36, and M38, as well as the nebulosity in M8, and he was the first to catalogue the dark nebula sometimes known as Le Gentil 3 (in the constellation Cygnus).

However, he is chiefly remembered today for the unfortunate fate that befell him when he set out to observe the transit of Venus in 1761 at Pondicherry, a French colony in India, a journey that stretched almost as long as his name.

Le Gentil, as he has come to be known, planned to observe the June 6, 1761, transit from Pondicherry, a French-controlled city on the east coast of India. He left France in March 1760 and arrived at the island of Mauritius, in the southern Indian Ocean, that July. Although he had plenty of time to reach Pondicherry, ill winds and British forces conspired to keep him away. Had he stayed put on Mauritius, he could have observed the transit there. But by bad luck, Le Gentil was at sea trying to reach Pondicherry during the transit and could make no meaningful observations.

Determined not to miss the next one, he decided to remain in the Indian Ocean for several years, studying Madagascar and nearby islands. In 1766 he sailed to Manila to prepare for observing the 1769 transit from there. He tried to circumvent any political problems by requesting letters of recommendation from the Spanish royal court to give to the Spanish governor of Manila. After 14 months the letters arrived, but the governor declared that they must be forgeries because he could not conceive of a response from Europe arriving so quickly.

Le Gentil worried that he might land in prison or suffer a worse fate if he stayed in Manila, so he decided to head back to India. In March 1768, he finally reached Pondicherry, built an observatory, and prepared for the morning of June 4, 1769, when all his years of effort would reach a climax.

The whole month of May brought beautiful weather, and the night of June 3 was clear enough for the astronomer to see a moon of Jupiter. But at 2 a.m., when he awoke to check the conditions, "I saw with the greatest astonishment that the sky was covered everywhere. ... From that moment on, I felt doomed, I threw myself on my bed, without being able to close my eyes," he said in his published account, translated by the late Helen Sawyer Hogg.

The blanket of clouds blocked out the Sun until after the transit ended -- and then the sky cleared for the rest of the day. Le Gentil had missed his last chance, while conditions in Manila that day had remained perfectly clear.

"That is the fate which often awaits astronomers," he wrote. "I had gone more than ten thousand leagues; it seemed that I had crossed such a great expanse of seas, exiling myself from my native lands, only to be the spectator of a fatal cloud which came to place itself before the Sun at the precise moment of my observation, to carry off from me the fruits of my pains and my fatigues."

Le Gentil's luck turned no better when he tried to head home. He made several attempts, only to be blocked by a hurricane on one voyage and by a petulant French captain, who refused him passage, on another. When the wayward astronomer finally returned to France, after an absence of 11 years, he found his estate in a shambles and his spot occupied in the Academy of Sciences -- an outrage considering that the academy had sent him on his trip in the first place. He eventually regained his position, married, had a daughter, and lived until the age of 67.

As with many other transit expeditions, Le Gentil left a legacy that went beyond astronomy. The two volumes he published upon his eventual return contain a wealth of geographical, botanical, zoological, archaeological, and ethnographic information, maps, and illustrations.


Victor Davies – Composer

Victor DaviesBorn in Winnipeg, Victor Davies attended the University of Manitoba, Indiana University, and studied conducting with Pierre Boulez. During his career as a composer, pianist and conductor, he has created works  for MTC, the WSO, Contemporary Dancers and RWB, and has written film scores for dramas and documentaries for CBC, CTV, the NFB and many independent producers.

He has composed and performed with his own jazz group and wrote the first major score for a planetarium production, The Beginning and End of the World, recorded with Skitch Henderson. Davies’ best known work, The Mennonite Piano Concerto, commissioned by Winnipeg's Fast Foundation, was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra with pianist Irmgard Baerg and conductor Boris Brott.

His music ranges from children’s songs - he wrote music and lyrics for over 500 songs for the CTV (CKY) series Let’s Go! and The Rockets  - to  his major oratorio  Revelation for soloists, large chorus and orchestra.

His theatre works include Beowulf (a rock opera), staged in New York;  the musical Especially Babe for the Toronto Theatre Festival; The Musical Circus, performed at the Zagreb Biennial; The Big Top, commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet (with 50 performances and TV special seen world wide); the theme song Colours in the Dark, for Famous People Player’s Broadway show and American tours; and scores for the international award-winning films The Last Winter (Fox Video), The Nutcracker Prince (Warner Bros), and For the Moment (20th Century Fox).

Davies has conducted the Winnipeg, Edmonton and Kitchener-Waterloo symphony orchestras and has been the conductor of his own film and television scores. He was musical director and composer for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1999 Pan American Games.

Davies’ music, aimed at a wide audience, is melodic, brilliantly orchestrated and has a sense of drama. Equally at home in the concert hall, theatre or recording studio, his music is heard around the world, live, via recordings, film and television (he won a Gemini Award for best documentary score in 2002), and is sought after by artists such as Wayne Marshall, Bramwell Tovey, The Boss Brass, Ofra Harnoy and the Canadian Trio.

This past year he completed a comic opera based on The Importance of Being Earnest which was performed at Stratford Summer Music, and his piano trio, Silhouettes was performed at Carnegie Hall with players of the Philadelphia Orchestra.  A CD of The Big Top (A Circus Ballet) with the WSO has just been released. He is currently working on two musicals, an overture for orchestra, and a tuba concerto.

Victor Davies can be found on the web at

Maureen Hunter – Librettist

Maureen HunterManitoba-based, Saskatchewan-born Maureen Hunter is one of Canada’s most accomplished playwrights.  Her work has been produced extensively on Canada’s major stages, as well as in Britain and the U.S. and has been nominated for two Governor General’s Awards, two Dora Mavor Moore Awards (Outstanding New Play), and for the Lou Siminovitch Prize in Theatre. 

Her plays include Vinci, premiered by the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, in co-production with Manitoba Theatre Centre in 2002; Atlantis, premiered in English by MTC/Theatre Calgary in 1996 and in French by Theatre de la Manufacture, Montreal, in 1999; Transit of Venus, which received its Canadian premiere at MTC in 1992 and a year later became the first Canadian play ever staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company of Britain. It received its U.S. premiere in 1998 at the Berkshire Theatre in Stockbridge, Mass. 

Other plays include Footprints on the Moon, Beautiful Lake Winnipeg and I Met a Bully on the Hill (co-written with Martha Brooks). Hunter’s plays have been published individually and in a number of anthologies. 

In addition to the libretto of Transit of Venus for Manitoba Opera, she is currently at work on a new stage play, Wild Mouth, for the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto.

Larry Desrochers – Director

Larry DesrocherLarry Desrochers is one of Manitoba’s most respected theatre directors and arts administrators.  His 22-year career spans work in the theatre, festivals, film, events and opera. 

As the General Director and CEO of Manitoba Opera, he is leading the company through an extensive rebuilding process resulting in significant growth in budget size, audience and fundraising. He is currently dramaturging a new play by Rick Chafe based on an adaptation of Leon Rook’s novel Shakespeare’s Dog. In April 2007, he will direct the Manitoba Opera/Opera Lyra Ottawa co-production of Verdi’s Otello.

He is the Founding Executive Producer for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and served as the Associate Artistic Director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre where he directed numerous plays including the world premiere of Transit of Venus and the Canadian premiere of M Butterfly. In 2001, he directed his first opera, Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

Prior to his position with Manitoba Opera, Desrochers served as Marketing Director for Prairie Theatre Exchange for two seasons before becoming Executive Director of the Winnipeg Film Group for five years. During that time he also continued to free-lance direct productions including Vigil for Prairie Theatre Exchange and Cherry Docs for the MTC warehouse. Desrochers has also directed fourth-year acting students at the University of Winnipeg, as well as being a guest lecturer. 

In 1997, Desrochers served as Artistic Director for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1997 Canada Summer Games in Brandon. In 1999, he was Producer and Director for Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1999 Pan American Games featuring over 5000 performers, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, Evelyn Hart, the WSO, Tracy Dahl, and The Guess Who. He also served as an Artistic Advisor for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2002 North American Aboriginal Games.

In 2003, the University of Winnipeg made Desrochers a Distinguished Alumni in recognition of his contribution to the arts community in Manitoba.

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