Victoria composer Tobin Stokes has been fielding a question most composers are never asked. “My friends keep phoning to find out what I’m going to do with a quarter of a million dollars!” laughs Stokes, referring to the $250,000 commission that City Opera Vancouver (COV) just received from the Annenberg Foundation to create a new opera based on the story of U.S. Marine veteran Christian Ellis. It’s believed to be the largest single commissioning grant in Canadian history.

Stokes will split the kitty, of course.  The grant funds the librettist as well – American-Iraqi playwright Heather Raffo, known for her award-winning play, 9 Parts of Desire. It also covers consultations with Ellis, a first reading of the libretto with hired actors, and workshops with piano and singers.

The commission is unusual for more than its size.  The part of the Annenberg Foundation responsible for the grant is the philanthropic multimedia organization Explore, whose director, filmmaker Charles Annenberg Weingarten, wants the opera to contribute to the psychological healing process for veterans.

“They asked us to base the work on the actual experiences of Ellis, who suffers post-traumatic stress disorder in consequence of his engagement at the Battle of Fallujah in 2004,” says City Opera Vancouver’s director, Charles Barber. “Annenberg sent Christian to meet with us, twice, in the fall of 2010. Over the course of several days, we came to an agreement about the particulars of his story and the prospect of broadening it to stand for many vets and  –  in a deeply compassionate way –  many Iraqis.”

Accessibility and flexibility are among COV’s priorities for the commission.  Stokes has both.

“Tobin is able to write in numerous styles and traditions,” says Barber. “The work is in a tonal, 21st Century idiom and requires some degree of allusion to the music of Iraq.”

Stokes, who was composer-in-residence for the Victoria Symphony from 2005 to 2008, had his first full-length chamber opera, Vinedressers, produced at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in 2001. Another opera, Nootka, based on early encounters between the First Nations people of Vancouver Island and European explorers, is partly finished. He’s also working on a third, based on the life of Victoria architect Francis Rattenbury.

He hasn’t seen a word of the new libretto yet, so he’s not sure how cross-cultural his music will be.  “I want to be true to Raffo’s setting, and to my own voice,” says Stokes, who believes vocal lines should follow the words and never “interfere” with them. “But I’ve been trying to open my vocabulary to the longer lines and the ornamentation in Middle Eastern music.

“There will probably be around ten characters.” he adds, “Four in the chorus and five or six leads. One plan is to design the chorus roles so that we could incorporate veterans into the opera.”

Barber says, “It will be written in such a way as to make it possible for vets to be deeply and individually involved. If we get it right, it will serve both the professional agenda of our company and the human agenda of Annenberg.”

In the ‘80s, Toronto’s Platinum Blonde was known for big hair — and even bigger hits. The group’s second album, Alien Shores, was produced by Brit Eddy Offord (Yes, ELP) and launched their biggest radio single, “Crying Over You,” featuring a cameo guitar solo from Rush’s Alex Lifeson. (The album also introduced new bandmember Kenny MacLean, who died suddenly in 2008.) The Blondes have been enjoying renewed attention of late: an induction into the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame in 2010, some selected reunion shows, and cover of their track “Not in Love” by Crystal Castles. Founder/vocalist Mark Holmes reflects on what it meant to score a hit in the era of mega-hits.

Alien Shores is a bit of a concept album. Was “Crying Over You” written to be part of a narrative?

No. It was on Side A, which was all radio-friendly tracks. Side B was the concept side. It wasn’t even supposed to be for my band. I loved Madonna at the time and I wanted to send her a song that she could use. … I played it to the guys at Sony and told them I was sending it off to Madonna. And one guy said, “That’s got a hook you can hang a winter coat on.” The next day, the label and management came in and said, “That song can’t go anywhere. You have to do it.”

What was the seed of the song?
I was dicking around at home with a guitar riff, then I came up with a sort of vocal line. I went into a studio owned by Bill Petrie, where I programmed the drums, put down the bass and guitar lead and sang it. Then Kenny [MacLean] came by and he started doing backing vocals. He would always come up with funny stuff at first, then the solid stuff.

How did Kenny joining the band change your songwriting?
Kenny was in a band called The Deserters. And I listened to both of their records every day. I loved them so much. They had a really cool reggae feel. I think I based part of the sound of Platinum Blonde on them. And then Kenny became available. He loved music, he didn’t care if he was playing bass, guitar, whatever. So at first I had him playing keyboards and backing vocals. One thing led to another and he started playing bass in the band, and it was great. In “Crying Over You,” the verse guitar bits, Kenny came up with that.

In what ways did the success of this song impact you?
When you come up with a big smash like that, it cuts two ways. It’s a lot of pressure to come up with something like it again. All of a sudden all these business people come in, and all your songs have to be like that. And you’re trying to write these massive hits, which is not the way to write an album. But in the 1980s everything had to be a massive smash. Rather than having four members of the band there were 60 members of the band. … I would have done anything to get away from that. And I did. I went back to England for a while, I couldn’t stand it.

Looking back, what do you think the song says about who you were at the time?
Fearless. We’d done our first record, I knew the second record was going to be better, the technology and the studio vibe was very exciting. So Mark Holmes at that time was full of optimism. I just believed. I never had doubt that the songs I was writing would not be massive. It’s easy to write a song when you don’t have doubt. If you’re writing a song that you really believe, that’s when it will mean something to someone else.

These days it’s not uncommon for a breakout band to have a string section, maybe some horns, even an accordion. But Vancouver’s Brasstronaut has set a new bar for musicians who are pushing the boundaries of pop instrumentation. Flugelhorn, glockenspiel, clarinet, strings, lap-steel and even the EWI (electric wind instrument—a type of synthesizer) combine to form a rich tapestry of pop perfection. Equal parts chamber pop, Balkan bouncing indie rock, blissful soundscapes and jazz-tinged, funky rhythms, Brasstronaut members Bryan Davies, John Walsh, Brennan Saul, Edo Van Breemen, Tariq Hussain and Sam Davidson blend finely honed playing skills and powerful songwriting. This year they were long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize, played smash showcases at festivals around the country and recently took home SOCAN’s 2010 ECHO Songwriting Prize for the song “Hearts Trompet.” The band’s debut full-length, Mt. Chimaera, was released in March. Visit