Summer Harvest

1909 OnOperaWe think of opera season ending with the end of May, but this is by no means the case this year. Three important opera productions take place in June and operatic events occur throughout Ontario in July and August.

First up June 3 to 8 is the world premiere of Airline Icarus by Brian Current to a libretto by Anton Piatigorsky. Icarus is one of the figures in Greek mythology whose story is an example of humanity’s overweening pride. His father Daedalus fashioned waxen wings for himself and his son to escape the labyrinth Daedalus designed. While Daedalus took the moderate path halfway between the sun and the sea, Icarus attempted to fly as high as he could; the sun melted his wings and he plunged into the sea.

In referencing the story, Piatigorsky means to “impart a mythic dimension to the mundane experience of contemporary air travel.” The action is set on board a plane bound for Cleveland and explores the inner thoughts of the passengers and crew on their journey. The cast includes Dawn Bailey, Vania Chan, Sean Clark, Alexander Dobson, Larissa Koniuk, David Roth, Zorana Sadiq, Geoffrey Sirett, Krisztina Szabó, Jennifer Taverner and Graham Thomson. The composer conducts and Tim Albery, best known for his staging of the COC’s Götterdämmerung, directs. The opera runs from June 3 to 8 at Daniels Spectrum. See soundstreams.ca for more information.

From June 12 to 15 is the Toronto premiere of another new opera, Shelter by Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Julie Salverson. A coproduction between Tapestry Opera and Edmonton Opera, Shelter had been scheduled to open last year in Toronto after its world premiere in Edmonton in November 2012. Of the opera, a depiction of a nuclear family in the Atomic Age, Salverson says, “I’ve always been attracted to catastrophic events. Joseph Campbell says to ‘follow your bliss,’ and while most people go after love or fulfillment, I’m drawn to tragedy and the fault lines in the psyche of a culture – the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually, sometimes, explode. Such is the story of Shelter.” Toronto audiences will remember New Zealand-born Palmer as the composer of the a cappella sewing-machine opera Stitch in 2008 and the women’s boxing opera Voice-Box in 2010. Palmer’s music for Shelter is described as combining the influences of Brahms, big band, funk and the post-apocalyptic sounds of 1990s Japanese punk. The cast includes Christine Duncan, Teiya Kasahara, Andrea Ludwig, Keith Klassen and Peter McGillivray. Leslie Dala conducts and Keith Turnbull directs.

June gives us not only new operas but older operas presented in new ways. That is what the inventive company Against the Grain Theatre intends with its production of Debussy’s 1902 masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande. Continuing its mission of performing opera in unconventional places – La Bohème in a pub, The Marriage of Figaro at the AGO – AtG plans to stage Pelléas outdoors in the Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Gardens of the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre at 227 Front St. E. on June 19, 21, 23 and 25. 

Sung in French with English surtitles, Pelléas et Mélisande features an outstanding Canadian cast comprising baritone Étienne Dupuis making his role debut as Pelléas, soprano Miriam Khalil as Mélisande, baritone Gregory Dahl as Golaud, bass Alain Coulombe as Arkel, mezzo-soprano Megan Latham as Geneviève and soprano Andrea Núñez as Yniold. Guest music director Julien LeBlanc provides piano accompaniment, and the same creative team that created AtG’s much lauded 2012 production of The Turn of the Screw is reunited with direction by Joel Ivany, set design by Camellia Koo and lighting design by Jason Hand. 

On June 15, the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener is presenting an opera marathon. First on the bill is the one-person opera Love Songs by Ana Sokolović sung by Kristin Hoff. Next is a series of contemporary opera excerpts from the Bicycle Opera Project (see below). And last is a triple bill of new Canadian operas presented by Essential Opera. Premiered just in April this year, the three are Etiquette by Monica Pearce, Regina by Elisha Denburg and Heather by Chris Thornborrow. Also at Open Ears on June 11 and 12 is the multimedia chamber opera Mirror for soprano and visual artist from Inter Arts Matrix and on June 12 L’Homme et le cielfrom Fawn Opera. 

July: Those with a taste for old operas done in period style should head over to the Westben Arts Festival in Campbellford, a town about midway between Toronto and Ottawa on the Trent-Severn Waterway. There from July 4 to 6, Toronto Masque Theatre will perform Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Toronto Masque Theatre Chamber Orchestra and Chorus and members of the Westben Festival Chorus under the direction of Larry Beckwith.

1909 OnOpera2Late July and early August: Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has been a favourite refuge for operagoers in Toronto. This year all of SOLT’s performances fall in August. First to open is The Magic Flute playing on August 1, 3, 6 and 9 with Nicole Bellamy as pianist and music director. Next is Madame Butterfly playing on August 2, 5, 7 and 9 with Narmina Afadiyeva as pianist and music director. And last is a rare chance to see Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958) playing on August 2, 6, 8 and 10 with Raisa Nakhmanovich as pianist and music director. The operas are performed by singers who have joined SOLT to hone their skills and develop their careers. This year’s stellar faculty includes Derek Bate, Kevin Mallon, Marshall Pynkoski, Wayne Gooding, Kathy Domoney, Henry Ingram, Stuart Hamilton, Catherine Robbin, Diane Loeb and Guillermo Silva-Marin.

Farther afield in Haliburton there are performances of the Highlands Opera Studio run by Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka. On August 13 and 15 HOS presents a double bill of two comic rarities, Donizetti’s Rita (1841) and William Walton’s The Bear (1967). On August 22, 24, 26 and 28 it presents Puccini’s Tosca. One reason Rita is obscure is that the Opéra Comique for whom he wrote it rejected it and plans for performances in Naples fell through. Rita finally received its posthumous premiere in 1860, ironically at the Opéra Comique. It was only in 2009 that a new critical edition of the score was published.

This summer marks the third anniversary of the innovative Bicycle Opera Project that aims to bring contemporary Canadian opera to communities across Ontario that might otherwise not have the opportunity to hear it. According to its website, “The project focuses on operatic repertoire that deals with contemporary issues relevant to all audiences.” The singers and musicians travel from place to place by bicycle along with two trailers full of props, costumes and instruments. In so doing BOP aims to demythologize old ideas of what opera and what opera singers are like.

Their itinerary for this summer includes a stop on June 15 at the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener; July 12 and 13 at the Westben Arts Festival; July 25 to 27 at Stratford Summer Music; August 7 and 8 at the Toronto Summer Music Festival; and stops in between in Kingston, Prince Edward County, Belleville, Hamilton, Bayfield, London, Brantford, Waterloo and Guelph.

BOP’s 2014 repertory features short operas A little rain must fall by Chris Thornborrow, Bianchi: A Five Minute Bicycle Opera by Tobin Stokes written especially for the company, (What rhymes with) Azimuth? by Ivan Barbotin and Rosa by James Rolfe as well as opera excerpts from The Brothers Grimm by Dean Burry, Airline Icarus by Brian Current (see above) and L’Homme et le ciel by Adam Scime. The company includes Liza Balkan, stage director; Wesley Shen, music director; Geoffrey Sirett, baritone; Chris Enns, tenor; Stephanie Tritchew, mezzo; and Larissa Koniuk, Artistic Director and soprano.

Have an enjoyable summer!

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


From Nowhere to East of the Sun

1908-OperaThis May opera companies are presenting several works new to Toronto audiences.  One of the operas, East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, is a world premiere, but the others are works from the early part of the 20th century making a very belated first appearance.

The first work of note is The Cousin from Nowhere by Eduard Künneke (1885-1953) receiving its Canadian premiere from May 1 to 4 by Toronto Operetta Theatre. The curious title is one of two English versions of the original German title Der Vetter aus Dingsda.  After the operetta’s great success first in Berlin in 1921, then Vienna, and then all over German-speaking Europe, it opened in London in 1923 under the title The Cousin from Nowhere.  In 2000 when the Ohio Light Opera revived it and later recorded it, the company used the title The Cousin from Batavia.  The problem is that the word “Dingsda” just can’t be translated compactly into English.  Just as we say “whatshisname” when we can’t think of a the name of a person, Germans say “Dingsda” when they can’t think of the name of a place. 

What is certain is that The Cousin from Nowhere is one of the most delightful works from the Silver Age of operetta.  You need only listen to the excerpts on iTunes from the recording with the Kölner Rundfunkorchester to understand why the operetta was such a big hit.  Try the operetta standard for tenor “Ich bin nur ein armer Wandergesell” or the operetta standard for soprano “Strahlender Mond” to have a sense of Künneke’s gentle romantic side.  Then try “Sieben Jahr lebt’ ich in Batavia” for an idea of his clever satirical side.

The action is set in a small castle in Holland.  Julia (Lucia Cesaroni), heir to the castle but who has not yet come of age, is chafing under the rule of her aunt (Elizabeth Beeler) and uncle (Michael Nyby) who are her guardians.  She still dreams of her beloved cousin Roderich de Weert, who has been away in the Dutch colony of Batavia (in what is now Indonesia) for seven years.  Although she has sworn to be true to him, her aunt and uncle say she can’t wait any longer for Roderich.  Her uncle wants her to marry his nephew and a family friend wants her to marry his son.  One evening a mysterious traveller (Christopher Mayell) turns up looking for a place to stay.

Eventually, Julia begins to wonder if this traveller may actually be Roderich who has returned quite changed from the time spent in the Far East.  The traveller, however, denies it.  The next day, Julia’s best friend Hannchen (Charlotte Knight) arrives with a man who tells her that he is Roderich de Weert.  Who is the real Roderich and who is the impostor?  And what about Julia’s vow now that she has fallen in love with the traveller?  Those are the mysteries that the operetta poses and quite skilfully sorts out.

In Europe there have been five new productions of Der Vetter aus Dingsda since 2012.  The TOT production will be the first new production in North America since the revival of the extremely popular Ohio Light Opera staging in 2002.  As someone who has seen this charming work twice before, I urge operetta-lovers and anyone who loves the kind of 1920s dance music made popular by Max Raabe and his Palastorchester definitely not to miss it.  With Cousin, Jurgen Petrenko makes his TOT conducting debut and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Bat-ta-clan postponed: In On Opera for April, I mentioned that from May 1 to 3 Opera 5 intended to present a pair of French operetta rarities in the form of Ba-ta-clan (1855) by Jacques Offenbach and L’Île du rêve (1898) by Reynaldo Hahn.  The performances were to inaugurate the new Alliance Française de Toronto Centre Culturel at 24 Spadina Road.  Unfortunately, the performance hall will not be ready in time, so Opera 5 has postponed the production until September.  Still on May 3 it will provide a preview of this unusual double bill at a party it is holding at Alliance Française at 8pm.  Teiya Kasahara and Adrian Kramer will sing accompanied by Maika’i Nash.

Bass Showcase: In its seventh and final opera of the 2013/14 season – and its last seven-opera season, for now – the COC is presenting Don Quichotte (1910) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) for the first time.  The COC has staged only two of Massenet’s 28 extant operas – Manon in 1952 and Werther in 1981 and 1992.  Massenet wrote the opera with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in mind for the title role.  The work has since become a showcase role for a bass with Ferruccio Furlanetto, who will sing it in Toronto, as one of the opera’s premier proponents.  Quinn Kelsey, who won praise here in 2011 for his Rigoletto, will sing the aged knight’s trusty companion Sancho Panza and Anita Rachvelishvili will sing the role of Dulcinée, the lusty wench whom the knight imagines to be a fair damsel.  The colourfully whimsical production, set among gigantic books, comes from Seattle Opera and will be directed by Linda Brovsky, who directed it there.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts.

East of The Sun: May concludes with the world premiere of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, a new children’s opera commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. Based on the Norwegian folktale, the 70-minute-long opera is composed by Norbert Palej to a libretto by K.T. Bryski and has public performances May 30 to June 1.  Palej, originally from Cracow, Poland, is currently an associate professor of composition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.  K.T. Bryski is a fantasy novelist living in Toronto, best known for her novel Hapax (2012).  

The folk tale was one of those collected by the Brothers Grimm of Norway, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published their collections of Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales between 1841 and 1871.  English speakers will likely best know the story from its translation by Sir George Webbe Dasent who gave its title to his 1910 translation of tales by Asbjørnsen and Moe.  

The plot, a variation on Beauty and the Beast, concerns a young farm girl who saves her starving family by befriending a mysterious white bear, who promises to make her father rich if he gives him his daughter.  The girl knows the bear changes his form at night but it is too dark to see him.  One night she brings a candle and discovers that he is really a young prince condemned to take on animal form during the day.  Unfortunately, the girl’s lack of trust in him means he must now go to his wicked stepmother, the evil queen of the trolls who cursed him in the first place, and marry her daughter, a troll princess.  The young girl now must seek the palace of the queen of the trolls that lies “east of the sun and west of the moon” to rescue the prince.  CCOC artistic director Ann Cooper Gay will conduct a chamber orchestra and Joel Ivany, founder of Against the Grain Theatre, will direct.

 

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

365 Years In One Operatic Month

April has become the month in the year with the single highest concentration of opera presentations. The past few years Torontonians have been so spoiled that they have had examples from every period of opera available in April alone. And this April is no exception. What makes this April unusual is the unusual number of baroque operas and brand new works on offer.  Here, by year of first public performance, are this April’s offerings.

oa-persee1649: Giasone by Francesco Cavalli on April 4, 5 and 6. The Toronto Consort continues its successful series of concert productions of early operatic masterpieces with Giasone, which holds the record as the most popular opera of the 17th century. Of the 41 operas Cavalli (1602-76) wrote, 27 still survive. Written for the Carnival season in Venice, they are characterized by their irreverent take on classical subjects. Thus, this version of the story of Jason and Medea has a happy ending and is more concerned with Giasone’s lover Isifile’s attempts to woo him away from his wife Medea than it is with Medea’s vengeance on her husband. Laura Pudwell sings the title role with Vicki St. Pierre as Delfa, Kevin Skelton as Aegeus, Bud Roach as Demo and Consort members Michelle DeBoer as Medea, Katherine Hill as Isifile and John Pepper as Besso. Artistic Director David Fallis conducts a period orchestra including strings, recorders, theorbo, baroque harp, organ, harpsichord and viola da gamba.      

1682: Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully from April 26 to May 3. Opera Atelier remounts Lully’s masterpiece for the second time. It was first seen in 2000, then again in 2004. Chris Enns, in his first haute-contre role sings Persée, Mireille Asselin is his beloved Andromède, Peggy Kriha Dye is Mérope, Olivier Laquerre sings both Céphée and Méduse, Carla Huhtanen is Cassiope and Vasil Garvanliev is Phinée. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs. From May 23 to 25 the production travels to Versailles where it has not been staged since it inaugurated the Royal Opera House on May 16, 1770, during the wedding celebrations of the future King Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette.

1726: Alessandro by George Frideric Handel. On April 9, 10, 12 and 13, Isabel Bayrakdarian gives a recital with the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra called “The Rival Queens” where she explores the rivalry between the two superstars of the age, Faustina Bordoni and Francesca Cuzzoni. Bayrakdarian will sing arias associated with the two sopranos from Handel’s Alessandro as well as arias from Giovanni Bononcini’s Astianatte (1727) and Johann Adolf Hasse’s Cajo Fabrizio (1732).

1745:  Hercules by George Frideric Handel from April 5 to 30. The COC’s first staging of Handel’s oratorio is a co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago directed by Peter Sellars. When Hercules first appeared, Handel was accused of writing an opera disguised as an oratorio, so it is not a great leap for the work to be presented as an opera. Sellars updates the mythological tale of Hercules and others returning home from war to the present. Eric Owens sings the title role, Alice Coote is Hercules’ jealous wife Dejanira, David Daniels is Hercules’ servant Lichas, Lucy Crowe is Hercules’ captive Iole and Richard Croft is Hercules’ son Hyllus. Baroque music expert Harry Bickett conducts.

onopera graphics1837: Roberto Devereux by Gaetano Donizetti from April 25 to May 21. In 2010 the COC gave us Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda in a production from Dallas Opera. This year it gives us another helping of what some call Donizetti’s “Three Queens” trilogy with the story of Elizabeth I and Robert Devereux, the second earl of Essex (1565-1601), an ambitious favourite of Elizabeth’s who led a coup d’état against her. Giuseppe Filianoti sings the title role, Sondra Radvanovsky makes her role debut as Elisabetta, Russell Braun is the Duke of Nottingham and Allyson McHardy is the Duchess of Nottingham. Corrado Rovaris conducts and Stephen Lawless, as with Maria Stuarda, is again the stage director.

1853: Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi on April 26. Opera by Request presents Verdi’s classic about love and fate in concert with Paul Williamson as Manrico, Olga Tylman as Leonora, Wayne Line as the Count di Luna, Julia Clarke as Azucena and Domenico Sanfilippo as Ferrando. William Shookhoff conducts from the piano.

1855: Ba-ta-clan by Jacques Offenbach on May 1 to 3. Opera 5 presents a double bill of French rarities at Alliance Française, 24 Spadina Rd. The first is Ba-ta-clan, the one-act operetta set in China, that was Offenbach’s first major success. In this fanciful tale, two Chinese conspirators against the Chinese Emperor realize they are both French. Aria Umezawa and Jasmine Chen direct and Maika’i Nash conducts.  

1875: Carmen by Georges Bizet on April 17 and 19. Now in its ninth season, Opera Belcanto of York (rhcentre.ca) will present a fully staged production of Bizet’s opera at the Richmond Hill Centre about a seductive gypsy and the hapless soldier who falls in love with her. Nariné Ananikyan, soloist for the National Opera of Armenia, is Carmen, Gayané Mangassarian is Micaëla while Stanislas Vitort and James Ciantar alternate in the role of Don José.

1876: Siegfried by Richard Wagner on April 5. Opera by Request takes on the heroic task of presenting Wagner’s mythological opera in concert with Lenard Whiting as Siegfried, Oliver Dawson as Mime, Andrew Tees as Wotan, Margarete von Vaight as Brünnhilde and John Holland as Alberich. The tireless William Shookhoff conducts from the piano.

1893:Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck from April 25 to 27. Metro Youth Opera was founded by Kate Applin in 2010 to give Toronto’s young opera singers the chance to perform complete roles. The company’s fourth production is Humperdinck’s beloved fairy-tale opera first conducted by Richard Strauss. Kate Applin and Lyndsay Promane sing Gretel and her brother Hänsel, Kelsey Vicary and Peter Bass are their Mother and Father and Stephanie Trichew is the Witch. Director Alison Wong has relocated the setting to a dangerous urban world. Blair Salter is the music director. The opera is sung in German with English surtitles.

1898: L’Île du rêve by Reynaldo Hahn from May 1 to 3. This three-act opera is the second half of the double bill by Opera 5 above. This, the first opera of Hahn (1874-1947), a Venezuelan-born French composer best known for his songs, is subtitled an “idylle polynésienne” and is based on Pierre Loti’s account of his romantic liaison with a native woman in Tahiti in 1880.    

1921: Der Vetter aus Dingsda by Eduard Künneke on May 1 to 4. The final offering of the season from Toronto Operetta Theatre is the Canadian premiere of an operetta by the Berlin composer Eduard Künneke (1885-1953), who studied with Max Bruch and wrote four operas, 12 operettas and two musicals. The TOT is translating the title as The Cousin from Nowhere, but when the Ohio Light Opera presented it, it chose the title The Cousin from Batavia. Just as we say “whatshisname” when we can’t think of the name of a person, Germans say “Dingsda” when they can’t think of the name of a place. The action takes place in Holland where Julia has been waiting for the return of her beloved from his travel to Batavia, as the Dutch colony in Indonesia was known. A stranger appears who introduces himself as the nephew of Julia’s guardians, but Julia can’t tell whether he is or is not her beloved Roderich. The operetta is packed with one memorable tune after another, the most famous being the stranger’s song “Ich bin nur ein armer Wandergesell.” While some over here may not have heard of it, the operetta is so popular in Europe that there have been five new productions of it in Germany and Switzerland since 2012. In fact, when the Ohio Light Opera presented it in 2000, the demand for tickets was so strong the show was brought back in 2002. The TOT production features Lucia Cesaroni, Elizabeth Beeler, Christopher Mayell, Stefan Fehr and Keenan Viau. Jurgen Petrenko makes his TOT conducting debut and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

1932: Pedro Malazarte by Camargo Guarneri on April 2 by University of Toronto Opera Division. Pedro Malazarte is the first presentation in a new initiative at the Opera Division called “Opera Rara.” The aim is to bring to light unfamiliar or unjustly neglected works from the past. In this case conducting student Rafael Luz from Brazil wanted to stage this one-act comic opera from his native country in what will be its North American premiere. Guarneri (1907-1993), whose parents burdened him with the first name “Mozart,” wrote two operas, the other being the one-act tragedy Um Homem Só (1960). His comic opera concerns the Brazilian folk hero Malazarte, who is hoping to have an affair with the fair Baiana. When her husband Alamão unexpectedly returns home, Malazarte manages a clever turnabout. Rafael Luz conducts and Amanda Smith directs at the Lula Lounge. Admission is free.     

2014: Etiquette by Monica Pearce / Regina by Elisha Denburg / Heather by Christopher Thornborrow on April 5. Essential Opera presents a triple bill of brand new operas. Etiquette, composed to a libretto by John Terauds, former music critic for the Toronto Star, looks at life through the eyes of Dorothy Parker, Emily Post and Nancy Astor. Regina, composed to a libretto by Maya Rabinovitch, tells the story of Regina Jonas, who in 1935 Berlin became the first woman to be ordained a rabbi. Heather, composed to a libretto by Julie Tepperman, explores the phenomenon of online bullying between girls and young women. This varied program is conducted by David Passmore with musical director Cheryl Duvall at the piano and a cast that includes Erin Bardua, Maureen Batt, Julia Morgan, Keith O’Brien and Jesse Clark. Visit the website to contribute to the Indiegogo campaign to support these premieres.  

2014: Europa and the White Bull by James Rolfe on April 25 and 26. Toronto Masque Theatre explores the myth of Zeus’ rape of the maiden Europa in a program called “The Myth of Europa: Desire, Transformation and Possession.” First it presents the cantata L’Europe by Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737). Second is a new work Europa and the White Bull by composer James Rolfe to a libretto by Steven Heighton that looks at the darker themes of the story. The evening features soprano Suzie LeBlanc, actor Martin Julien, dancer Stéphanie Brochard with Larry Beckwith conducting the TMT Ensemble from the violin. Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière is the choreographer and stage director.

2014: L’Homme et le ciel by Adam Scime on April 11 only. FAWN Opera presents the world premiere of Scime’s electro-acoustic chamber opera in a workshop production. Ian Koiter’s libretto, based on text “The Shepherd of Hermas” from the second century concerns one man’s struggle to live righteously. The soloists are baritone Giovanni Spanu and sopranos Larissa Koniuk and Adanya Dunn. Patrick Murray conducts the Thin Edge New Music Collective and Amanda Smith directs.

2014: Tap: Ex Revolutions by Tapestry New Opera on April 4 and 5. “Tap:Ex” (short for Tapestry Explorations) is a new project by Tapestry to explore the relationship between physical and musical expression. The performance will involve singers Neema Bickersteth, Andrea Ludwig, Adrian Kramer and Andrew Love, choreographer Marie-Josée Chartier and director Michael Mori using music from Bach, Rachmaninov, Meredith Monk, Andrew Staniland and Ivan Barbotin. 

As usual, there is more than enough on offer in the 365 years encompassed by these listings to create your own opera festival.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

January’s News, March’s Bounty

January 2014 was so full of opera news it was impossible to cover all of it in a single column. As reported last issue, the Canadian Opera Company announced its 2014/15 season on January 15; on January 7 it had announced the launch of the Canadian Opera Orchestra Academy.  Developed in collaboration with the Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, the COC Orchestra Academy is a mentorship program led by COC Music Director Johannes Debus to offer student musicians professional insight and experience in their pursuit of a career in an opera orchestra. As Debus puts it, “What we’re creating with the COC Orchestra Academy is an opportunity to pass on the wealth of experience that the members of the COC Orchestra possess to the next generation of musicians coming up through the ranks. The students selected for the launch of the program represent some promising talent and I’m very interested to see how they will blend in with our players and the perspective they’ll gain on the world of the orchestra pit.”

Against the Grain: On January 16, the COC announced that it would partner with the upstart Toronto company Against the Grain, best known for presenting operas like La Bohème in pubs. The point of the new training program organized by the Banff Centre is to take opera off the stage and into the community. Following auditions in Toronto and Vancouver, eight emerging professional opera singers will be invited to the intensive. They will workshop skills that challenge the conventions of opera performance, production and design, and develop a modern interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni for presentation at venues throughout the Banff community. 

1906 onoperaOpera Atelier: The COC was not the only company to announce its 2014/15 season. On January 21, so did Opera Atelier. It will present two new productions – the first fully staged production of Handel’s Alcina in Canada from October 23 to November 1, 2014 and the Berlioz 1859 version of Gluck’s Orphée et Euridyce from April 9 to 18, 2015. The latter will mark the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra’s furthest foray into the 19th century.

Tapestry changes guard: On January 28, Tapestry Opera announced Michael Mori as its new artistic director. Mori has been working alongside Tapestry founder Wayne Strongman for the past two years to deepen his understanding of opera creation and the challenges facing the company and the sector. Strongman has said, “It is very satisfying to hand over the artistic reins of Tapestry to Michael Mori, who is a colleague of like aesthetic and human values. You can imagine the pride as I watch the achievements of Tapestry being celebrated and continued with fresh energy and insight.” 

Opera Hamilton sad end Amid all this positive news, the announcement that sent a shudder through the Ontario opera world came on January 8. On that date Opera Hamilton announced that it would be ceasing operations and that it would cancel its upcoming performances of Popera on January 11 to 18 and Carmen from April 19 to 26. Co-chair and treasure Peter Uffelmann stated: “We simply do not have the financial resources to continue.” He added, “We had hoped a large donation from an individual would arrive in time, but regrettably it did not materialize, and in the absence of any other funding, the Board had no choice but to cancel the rest of the season and cease operations.”

Readers will recall that between 1992 and 1994 Opera Hamilton expanded to become Opera Ontario to include performances in Kitchener. That expansion, however, did not prove economically viable and Opera Ontario went bankrupt. In 2008 Opera Hamilton re-emerged from the ruins of Opera Ontario and switched its performance venue from Hamilton Place to the more congenial Dofasco Centre, where Theatre Aquarius performs. It still had a large accumulated deficit and was unable to pay the orchestra for what would prove its final production, Verdi’s Falstaff in 2013.

In The Hamilton Spectator, Leonard Turnevicius stated what many were feeling when he wrote, “It’s a sad end to an organization that over the years has featured some of this country’s finest singers, established artists plus the up-and-comers as well as a number of international imports, but also conductors, directors and designers, the names of whom would fill an entire page of this newspaper.”

From its inception in 1980 to its last production in 2013, Opera Hamilton provided not only live opera for the residents of the Niagara peninsula, but a way for Toronto inhabitants to augment the offerings of the COC. The company presented several productions of operas the COC has so far never staged – like Verdi’s I due Foscari in 1989 and 1994, Verdi’s Nabucco in 1992, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in 2000, Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs des perles in 2002 and 2013 and Delibes Lakmé in 2003 – and some it is likely never to stage like the unusual double bill of Poulenc’s La Voix humaine and Massenet’s Le Portrait de Manon in 2004. Opera Hamilton provided a way to hear a number of Canadian singers just before their careers took off and incidentally hired a number of established opera singers from Quebec who seldom or never appear at the COC. In January Opera Hamilton co-chair Dennis Darby said, “We’re hopeful that maybe something will emerge in the next few months and we’ll re-emerge.” We can only hope that just as Opera Hamilton survived its near-death experience in 2008 it can do so again, otherwise Ontario audiences and emerging artists will have lost an invaluable cultural asset.

GGS Vixen: On a more positive note, March is unusually filled with opera productions, most of them in concert, yet still a means of offering audiences a way to hear a wider range of works and for singers to display their skill. The only fully staged opera on offer in March is the Glenn Gould School’s production of Leoš Janáček’s comic opera The Cunning Little Vixen (1924) on March 19 and 21 at Koerner Hall.Toronto has not seen this beautiful work since the COC presented it in 1998. The opera is conducted by Uri Mayer and directed by Ruth Madoc-Jones and will be performed in English with English surtitles.    

Voicebox Stiffelio: For those still celebrating the bicentennial of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Voicebox: Opera in Concert is the perfect choice. It is presenting the unjustly neglected opera Stiffelio (1850) that Verdi wrote in tandem with Rigoletto. The contemporaneous subject matter about a Protestant minister with an adulterous wife, so scandalized the political and religious powers of the day that Verdi eventually withdrew the work and his autograph copy went missing. In 1992 the Carrara family gave access to their collection of Verdi’s papers to scholar Philip Gossett, who discovered the autograph copy among them. This led to the first complete performance of the score by the Metropolitan Opera in 1993, and it will be this version that Voicebox will perform on March 23. The title role will be sung by Ernesto Ramirez, his wayward wife by Laura Albino and her lover by Geoffrey Sirett. The cast will be led from the piano by Michael Rose.  

Opera by Request has an especially busy March with performances of Don Giovanni on March 7, La Bohème on March 8 and Massenet’s Werther on March 29. All three will take place at the College St. United Church in Toronto and all three will be accompanied on the piano by the indefatigable William Shookhoff.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

And Then There Were Six

On January 15 the Canadian Opera Company announced its 2014/15 season. In contrast to the current season that features three company premieres, the 2014/15 season revives three famous productions from the past – Madama ButterflyDie Walküre and Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung – and has no company premieres. Instead, there will be three new productions of standard repertory – FalstaffDon Giovanni and The Barber of Seville. Patrons who have been happy to see the company exploring new repertoire are bound to be disappointed. Even more disappointing is the fact that the COC is presenting only six productions, not the seven it has presented ever since it moved into the Four Seasons Centre in 2006.

At first glance one fewer production might not seem important. Yet, anyone who attended the late Richard Bradshaw’s press conferences leading up to the opening of the new opera house will know that it is. Bradshaw always mentioned to the press that it was impossible for the COC to present a balanced season with only six productions. He said he therefore had to program operas with a view to achieving balance over several seasons. The reason why the COC added a seventh production once it moved into the Four Seasons Centre was part of a larger plan to increase that number eventually to at least eight in order to match the number of productions presented by the most important American opera houses after the Met – like the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Houston Grand Opera and San Francisco Opera. To return to six productions looks like the postponement of that dream.

In fact, the last time the COC presented only six productions was in the 2000/01 season and before that in the 1994/95 season. It presented six or fewer from its founding to the 1982/83 season, then somehow managed eight operas from the 1983/84 season to 1992/93.

Before the 2009/10 season, the COC gave the Ensemble Studio its own production which made six operas into seven. Granted, these were on a smaller scale, but this allowed the COC to delve into smaller works outside the standard repertory with rarities by Gazzaniga, Walton, Sartorio, Cavalli and Ullmann. This slot also allowed the COC to present new Canadian works such as Swoon (2006) by James Rolfe or Red Emma (1995) by Gary Kulesha without the expense and risk of a mainstage production. If the company must move back to six operas, perhaps it should give the Ensemble Studio its own production again to offer more variety in programming and give cause once more for the Studio members’ work to be reviewed in a context less contrained than the one-night Ensemble production of a current mainstage production such as the current production of Cosí.

bbb - on opera 1Frankly, the retreat to six productions might be less troubling if it were not so clearly dictated by financial considerations. In his entry on June 18, 2013, in his blog Musical Toronto (musicaltoronto.org), music critic John Terauds remarked that the COC was trying to put a positive spin on bad fiscal news. He noted that “Since the 2009/10 season, the Canadian Opera Company’s net ticket revenues have fallen by 23.5 percent, while overall attendance has dropped by 16.7 percent.” He concluded that “Our city’s musical bounty sits perched on a knife’s edge.”  On June 17, 2013, Arthur Kaptainis of the National Post  after reviewing the same information went further and ventured an outright prediction, which now has come to pass. He said, “The downward turn at the COC is troubling. My crystal ball says the 2014/15 season will contract from seven productions to six. I believe you read it here first.”

Both Terauds and Kaptainis note that the COC gave 67 performances in the 2011/12 season but only 61 in the 2012/13 season. In the present season there are only 58 performances. While the administration touts the fact that attendance at the COC has been 90 percent or above since it moved into the new opera house, that figure is meaningless if the number of performances is reduced every year. For 2011/12 attendance reached 125,238, but for 2012/13 it was 114,133 – a drop of 11,105 in one year. It should be obvious that in shrinking from 67 performances to 58, the company has lost the equivalent of nine performances which equal one full opera production. It should therefore not be surprising that the company has decided to drop one production.

What has caused such a precipitous drop in such a short time? Kaptainis mentions that L’Opéra de Montréal, experiencing a similar decline, puts the blame on the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD cinema broadcasts whose original goal was to increase attendance at the Met. Kaptainis however points the finger on COC general director Alexander Neef’s penchant for Regietheater.

Now Regietheater, or opera productions guided by a directorial concept, can be either good or bad. The three famous COC productions to be revived in 2014/15 are all examples of Regietheater at its best, where a directorial concept illuminates an opera. Unfortunately, the COC has recently presented several examples, in my opinion, of Regietheater at its worst. One thinks of Christopher Alden’s Die Fledermaus and La Clemenza di Tito in the 2012/13 season or Zhang Huan’s Semele in 2011/12. Here the directors rather than illuminating the operas deliberately subverted their stories.

The plan to move back to a six-opera season was known before January 15. Neef first revealed it in the Fall 2013 edition of the COC’s magazine, Prelude, citing the burden that seven operas places on the company without ever mentioning declining attendance. He stated, “Since 2007 we’ve forced the seven-opera model to function, but at a cost of too many compromises – artistically, financially, and from a patron and staffing perspective.” With the six-opera season, he said, “We’ll have more financial flexibility to produce more grand operas, and contemplate some new productions.” Speaking of the 2014/15 season, he predicted, “Starting next season, you’ll see more varied repertoire, including the potential for one grand and/or new opera per season.”

Unfortunately, the announced 2014/15 season contradicts this prediction. Not only has Bradshaw’s goal been set aside but so, it seems, have goals of Neef’s. In 2010 when Neef announced the first season solely chosen by him, he said that he wanted to fill in gaps in standard repertory that the COC had never done, such as Parsifal and Nabucco. He also pledged to present one contemporary opera per season. Following this, he gave us Nixon in China in 2010/11 and L’Amour de loin in 2011/12. Neither of these goals is evident in the 2014/15 season. Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) and Erwartung (written 1909) can hardly be considered “contemporary” and the three new productions are of operas the COC has often done before.  

Looking at the figures, the problem does not seem to lie with the seven-opera model per se, as Neef claims, but with a decline in attendance that makes seven operas impracticable. Ultimately, the COC needs to be more open about these difficulties. If a company is having problems, people will help. If it claims that all is well, people will not. Why is attendance now lower than the 117,700 at the Hummingbird Centre in 2004/05? The COC needs to identify why it is losing patrons – especially now that Toronto finally has one of the finest opera houses in the world and can attract the finest talent in the world.

The most positive side to the 2014/15 announcement (and there is a positive side!) is that COC audiences will indeed be seeing so much of opera’s finest talent next season. Appearing will be such stars as Christine Goerke, Patricia Racette, Jane Archibald, Russell Braun, Gerald Finley, Clifton Forbis, Ekaterina Gubanova, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, John Relyea, Michael Schade, Lauren Segal and Krisztina Szabó. Let’s hope that next season represents a period of adjustment while the COC finds out how to win back those it lost. To inquire about subscriptions, visit coc.ca.  

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


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