A century after her execution, Mata Hari remains an intriguing character and is the focus of an upcoming production created by Queen’s University’s John Burge and Craig Walker.
One Last Night With Mata Hari presents the final night of the exotic dancer before she is to be executed by French authorities on charges of spying for Germany during the First World War.
The production offers a rare collaboration between two Royal Society of Canada fellows who are leaders in their fields: Dr. Burge in music and Dr. Walker in drama.
As Dr. Burge explains, the idea got its start after he had completed the chamber opera The Auction and was looking for a similar theatrical project that was a little less time consuming.
“I was incredibly excited about the whole experience of writing music with a more theatrical bent but it can take years – if not decades – to see an opera through from inception to the stage and I was a bit more impatient than that,” he says. “It seemed much more doable in the short term to work on a one-person show with piano and I had mentioned this idea to Craig Walker as a collaboration.”
He says that with Dr. Walker’s skill set as a dramatist, lyricist, actor and director, he knew that whatever his collaborator came up with would be inspiring.
The result is a musical piece with Mata Hari and her final supporter, Dr. Bizard, telling her story from a cell in Paris’ Saint Lazare Prison.
“One of the sources of inspiration was that John and I both admire Billy Bishop Goes to War,” Dr. Walker says, referring to the award-winning musical about the Canadian war hero that follows a similar format. “But we wanted to write a show for a female performer, and I first thought of Mata Hari simply because she was a historical female performer. I also knew that when the records of her secret trial had been released there were serious questions raised about her guilt. So suddenly her life became more intriguing; it seemed that a little research might be repaid with an interesting story.”
Finding the right actor for the role proved a bit easier as Patricia O’Callaghan jumped on board early in the process and participated in all of the creative workshops.
It was an exciting bit of recruitment for the team. The award-winning singer also suggested Gregory Oh, a collaborator on a number of projects, for the role of Dr. Bizard.
“We both owned many of Patricia’s CDs prior to this project and she was the first singer we thought could pull off what we had in mind. All the songs have been crafted to her extraordinarily expressive voice,” Dr. Burge says. “She has performed her own cabaret-style shows for years and in many ways, having Mata Hari telling her life through song on the night before she is to be executed, is a cabaret of intimate proportions that is often quite funny, despite the impending doom.”
One Last Night With Mata Hari is being staged at the Power Corp Studio Theatre of the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts, with shows set for Thursday, Jan. 12 to Saturday, Jan. 14, and Tuesday, Jan. 17 to Saturday, Jan. 21, at 8 pm. Matinees are scheduled Sunday, Jan. 15 and 22 at 2 pm. Tickets can be purchased online at theisabel.ca. A special ‘pay what you can’ preview performance will be held Wednesday, Jan. 11 at 8 pm.
The show marks the first time that Drs. Walker and Burge have worked together creatively and both are eager to work on another project. The collaboration, Dr. Burge explains, mirrors the synergy created through the creation of the Dan School of Drama and Music last year.
“I had gotten to know Craig quite well when we were both heads of our respective programs at Queen’s and worked together with the architectural team that designed the Isabel,” he says. “Now all these years later, it seems to me that this show is really quite indicative of the many ways that music and drama intersect at Queen’s and a tangible example of why the merger and renaming of the Dan School of Drama and Music has been so exciting for students, faculty and staff.”