Burry was driving home from the cottage in the summer of 2007 when he heard about the discovery of a mummified baby wrapped in a Sept. 15, 1925 newspaper, a mystery that was originally solved on CBC's Metro Morning.
It inspired him to write a radio opera, which aired on CBC's Saturday Afternoon at the Opera. And today, 89 years after that newspaper was delivered to a home on Kintyre Avenue in east Toronto, the radio opera will be released on Canadian Music Centre’s Centrediscs label.
“For someone who makes a living writing opera, everything is opera,” says Burry, who is also an opera educator with the Canadian Opera Company.
The story began on the humid night of July 24, 2007 when home renovator Bob Kinghornfound a bundle wrapped in a newspaper as he was fishing for old electrical wires under the floorboards of the third-storey attic at 29 Kintyre Avenue. A new father himself, Kinghorn was horrified as he cut the strings around the bundle, and discovered the tiny body inside.
It created a media sensation at the time, as reporters scrambled in vain for evidence of whose baby it could be, on an event that likely took place 82 years before.
CBC investigative producer John Nicol, with the help of CBC librarians as well as librarians and genealogists around the province, managed to find an elderly woman who was living in that house in 1925.
Rita Rich, then 92, was sleeping in that attic bedroom in 1925. When she began talking to CBC News, she gave vivid details of the home of her aunt and uncle, Della and Wesley Russell—who were childless—as well as her father and other itinerants who lived there.
As a composer, Burry says that’s what captivated him as he listened.
“It wasn’t just the discovery of the baby’s body," Burry told CBC. "But the way the documentary told the story of the people who lived in the house.
"The characters are so interesting and mysteriously drawn.”
What every opera needs, says Burry, is clear emotion. In this story, he says, it was there from beginning to end.
“We meet the contractor who found the baby, who was so moved by the discovery,” says Burry. And then there were all the other people who lived in the house. “There’s Uncle Wesley, this charming man, who had an affair going on with another woman. His wife, Rita’s Aunt Della, loving but with mental issues, and then Alla Mae (the little girl’s other aunt), “this wonderful dramatic character too. It was like an Agatha Christie novel.”
The major revelation from Rich, who died two years later, was a sudden flicker of a memory of her Aunt Alla Mae, who was visiting from New York City.
"She was at the house and moving furniture. I could hear my Aunt Della say: 'Don't do that, or you will lose this baby,'" recalled Rich at the time. Alla Mae responded by saying she didn't care.
"It was a quick blink of an eye that crossed my mind," continued Rich. "Where did that come from? How did I remember that? This thing that crossed my mind. It was as if Alla Mae didn't want the baby."
Dean Burry emailed Nicol to say that story sounded like an opera to him. Nicol forwarded the email to reporter Mary Wiens with a note, “Wanna go to the opera?”.
Wiens contacted David Jaeger, a veteran CBC music producer considered one of the champions of new music in Canada, whose program, “Two New Hours” was heard for nearly thirty years on the CBC Radio Two network.
Jaeger helped Burry land a commission with CBC Radio and worked with him to assemble a Canadian cast, including singers Shannon Mercer, KrisztinaSzabo and Giles Tomkins and Eileen Nash of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, an 11-year-old, to play the role of ten-year-old Rita Rich.
For Burry, it was a chance to introduce opera to people who might otherwise not listen to opera, by creating it as an opera for radio, written in five- and six-minute segments, “bite-sized operas,” as Burry calls them, to be played over the course of several days or weeks, as a serialized story.
That series is being released tonight by at Canadian Music Centre on Joseph Street under the Centrediscs label, owned by Naxos. The Baby Kintyre CD includes not only the opera, but also the CBC documentary voiced by Wiens.
Burry hopes that people who listen to the opera will listen to the documentary and then want to listen to the opera again.
“Some people still find opera difficult,” says Burry. “They think of traditional operas by Puccini and Mozart and expect to hear about aristocracy, kings and queens.” But for Burry, “opera is not about singing in German or Italian. It's the everyday. It's storytelling, using every single art form. I’m hoping this might be the perfect way to introduce new audience to opera.”
And as the biggest classical music label in the world, Naxos can give the new opera an international reach. Burry hopes that “as a real story, it has a sensational quality as well as a universal appeal,” that can help change the way people think about contemporary opera.