Librettist Eugene Benson, Toronto Opertta Theatre.
Eugene Benson

“We have Jean Stilwell. What can you write for her?”

That was the call last year from Guillermo Silva-Marin, director of the Toronto Operetta Theatre (TOT), to Eugene Benson, U of G University professor emeritus.

The Toronto company had arranged for Canadian mezzo-soprano Stilwell to appear in this spring’s restaging of the drawing room comedy Earnest, The Importance of Being, written by Benson.

Looking for a way to highlight Stilwell’s voice, Silva-Marin went to the operetta’s source. Benson wrote the libretto (the text for the musical work) for the 2008 Toronto premiere of Earnest, based on Oscar Wilde’s play The Important of Being Earnest.

Seated in the living room of his downtown heritage home — built in 1887 for then Guelph mayor J.H. MacDonald — Benson says, “I wrote a new scene for her. This is the new big number of Act Two. I think it will become known as a big number for her.”

This restaging of his work along with music by acclaimed Canadian composer Victor Davies will close out the TOT’s 30th season when it runs April 29 and May 1-3.

The production in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts will feature Stilwell as Lady Bracknell. Benson guarantees her new scene will garner laughter and applause: “She combines theatricality with voice. We know opera singers for their voices, but she’s an actor, too.”

Long retired from U of G’s School of English and Theatre Studies (SETS), the novelist, playwright and librettist appears to be as much in demand in the Toronto theatre world as ever.

Earnest is his fifth operatic libretto, following works including Heloise and Abelard performed in 1973 by the Canadian Opera Company; Everyman at the Stratford Festival; and Psycho Red at the Guelph Spring Festival. The CBC broadcasted the latter two operas.

In 2012, the Westben Arts Festival Theatre premiered The Auction: A Folk Opera with music by Canadian composer John Burge.

Benson has written two novels and several plays, and has edited and written scholarly volumes, including the Oxford Companion to Canadian Theatre and the Routledge Encyclopedia of Post-Colonial Literatures in English.

At home in the second-floor office he shares with his wife, retired U of G Prof. Renate Benson, School of Languages and Literatures, he’s now writing three more libretti. Referring to his writing, he says: “I can’t not do it.”

One of those projects is called Pride and Prejudice: A Musical adapted from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which is “probably my favourite novel,” he says.

For Earnest, he worked from the original text of what he calls “undoubtedly Wilde’s best play.” Benson says the words and music in the Toronto production remain true to the playwright’s “genius” — no small feat for an academic librettist-composer.

“Not every work can reach out to the audience.”

Referring to light opera, he says, “The art is to get the spirit and sense of the story line so that people are not uncomfortable. They’re getting the play they know and love so well.”

Benson joined U of G in 1965. Born in Northern Ireland, he came to Canada in 1954. He completed his master’s degree at Western University and his PhD at the University of Toronto.

He was president of the Guelph Spring Festival, chaired the Writers Union of Canada and was founding co-president — with Margaret Atwood — of PEN Canada.