The work, called The Inventor, will be based on the activities of "dynamite fiend" Alexander "Sandy" Keith Jr., a member of a prominent Nova Scotia family that owned the well-known Alexander Keith's Brewery.
"Sandy" Keith was thought to have been a spy for the Confederacy during the American Civil War, but he is best remembered for an attempted insurance scam that led to the deaths of almost 100 people in 1875 in Bremerhaven, Germany. He intended to sink a cargo ship to claim insurance money, but the dynamite he planted blew the ship up on the docks instead of at sea.
"It is sociopathic evil that was associated with Keith alongside this extraordinary warmth he had as a human being," Tovey said in an interview with CBC Radio.
The libretto for the opera, which will be premiered in Calgary in January 2011, will be written by playwright John Murrell. He has already written the librettos for two works for Calgary Opera: Filumena and Frobisher, both based on figures from Canadian history and both with music by John Estacio.
Best known as a conductor, Tovey has been music director of the Vancouver Symphony since 2000; from 2002 to 2006 he served as chief conductor and music director of the Luxembourg Philharmonic Orchestra. He also leads the New York Philharmonic's Summertime Classics series.
Tovey is also a composer: recent works include a Cello Concerto (premiered in January 2001 at the Winnipeg Symphony's annual new music festival) and a score for a large choir and brass band called Requiem for a Charred Skull.