light the night

a symphonic graphic novel by Catherine Varvaro

Projected images accompany a live performance of Mahler 5 and two lieder by Alma Mahler.

As an experienced orchestral timpanist and percussionist, Catherine has played with a variety of ensembles throughout Canada. Her most cherished performances have been in the orchestra pit where she feels much like a storyteller.

It was the discord between her undying love of Mahler’s music and a dire need to change the narrative around standard orchestral repertoire that inspired Catherine to create Light the Night.


All Alma has ever wanted is to be a composer, one of the greats. Passionate and prolific, she sees magic in every corner of the world. While she hopes her marriage to a famous composer 20 years her senior will be a partnership of equals, he has a different idea. Gustav scoffs at the idea of husband and wife composers and forbids her from writing more. She stuffs her compositions into a cherished briefcase that belonged to her father.

After the birth of her daughter, alone and scared, Alma notices a curious light beckoning to her from the briefcase. Desperate to evade the alien duties of motherhood, she opens it. To her amazement, a meadow bursts forth, transforming her stark room into a paradise that recalls her fantastical relationship with her father. But when a swift and fatal illness later takes her daughter, a shadow emerges from the briefcase, consuming Alma. Suddenly she is rent in two; and so is the screen. Half of her seems to revel in domesticity while the other half, heartbroken, searches for her lost daughter in a murky alternate reality. Stripped of wonder and ambition, Alma navigates grief and disappointment in a quest to reconcile her two selves and find a new way to write the masterpieces she has always dreamed of.

Based on historical publications about Alma including her own private diaries, Light the Night tells the story of Alma’s contributions to the works of her husband Gustav, shedding light on the invisible labour behind great masterpieces.


Light the Night is a concert-ready work created through multidisciplinary collaboration of Canadian women artists.

  • Pauline Stive, illustrator

What does Pauline enjoy the most about working as an illustrator? Collaborating with other imaginative artists, being challenged by new projects, finding inspiration with each new work and exploring multiple facets of her craft.

Pauline worked with Catherine to illustrate each musical phrase and create a narrative that follows the existing emotional landscape of the symphony.

  • Kelly-Marie Murphy, composer

With music described as “breathtaking”, “imaginative and expressive”, “a pulse-pounding barrage on the senses”, and “Bartok on steroids”, Kelly-Marie Murphy’s voice is well known on the Canadian music scene.

Kelly-Marie made arrangements of the lieder in the same instrumentation as the symphony, creating transitions into and out of the symphony, enveloping its five chapters like a prologue and an epilogue in order to create a single musical work.


Full orchestration : 4333-6431-timp+perc(3), hp, str + mezzo-soprano

Reduced orchestration  (Universal Editions, arr. Klaus Simon): 1121-2100-timp+perc(2), hp, harm(or acc), pno, str (11111, max. 65432) + mezzo-soprano

Duration: 75 minutes, no intermission

Requires a projector and screen above the orchestra, stand lights.
Images (approx. 800) to be controlled manually with QLab from the tech booth.

reviews and audience reactions

“It was a magnificent concert… and the images accompanied by the music was quite a powerful experience!”

“I have never cried so much at a concert. It was incredibly beautiful and touching.”

“The attentiveness (of the audience) was striking. 75 minutes of non-stop music, and not the easiest of scores, without a single cough in the hall. Sniffles, sure, when emotions swelled. And the performance received a heartfelt standing ovation. While spectators may have learned about Mahler and his wife, Alma, they also discovered a new way of listening to music. Every person was inextricably engaged in the story.”

Review of the premiere

performances dates

  • March 16, 2023 (reduced orchestration), Orchestre symphonique de Drummondville
  • March 9 & 10, 2024 (reduced orchestration), Kamloops Symphony Orchestra