Opera-ChairInLove.jpgThanks to the burgeoning interest in opera rarities and especially in new opera, opera performances in the summer months in Ontario are no longer the exception but the rule. Ontario does not as yet have a summer opera festival like the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, but so much operatic activity is occurring that Ontario residents need not feel deprived. 

June got off to an unusual start with the innovative Against the Grain Theatre’s presentation of two fully-staged song cycles on June 2 to 5 under the title “Death & Desire.” The two are Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (1824) sung by Stephen Hegedus and Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi (1945) sung by Krisztina Szabó, most recently seen as The Woman in the COC production of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. AtG’s double bill, performed at the Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, is directed by the company’s artistic director Joel Ivany, designed by Michael Gianfrancesco and lit by Jason Hand. Christopher Mokrzewski is the piano accompanist.

In an email, Ivany wrote: “During my time at the University of Toronto while obtaining my diploma in Opera Directing, I was able to act as production manager for the Aldeburgh Connection. Seeing such beautiful concerts put on by Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Ralls exposed me to a wealth of vocal music outside of opera. Many of these works received some ‘light’ staging during performance and I was always intrigued and challenged myself eventually to explore them further by using the tools that I was skilled in.”

By staging the Schubert and Messiaen cycles, Ivany is thus extending the implicit idea of song cycles as parlour operas. The 20 songs of Schubert’s cycle follow a clear narrative. A journeyman miller falls in love with the miller’s daughter, but when he sees that she favours another, he despairs and drowns himself. Messiaen’s 12-song cycle in French and Quechua is more abstract, although the title refers to a genre of Peruvian musical narrative that often ends in the death of young lovers. As Ivany says: “In discussion with Topher [Mokrzewski], we both decided that these two song cycles would complement each other quite well and indeed presented two very unique characters. Our core of the project is the Schubert, which naturally is more narrative driven and then we’ve interspersed it with the Messiaen to give voice to the female character, die schöne müllerin … What this has caused is more of a dialogue between these two characters and a jarring, but equally fitting auditory experience – something new.”

Opera-Obeah.jpgLuminato: In past years the Luminato Festival has included opera. This year it nominally does not, although it should be noted that R. Murray Schafer’s massive oratorio-cum-pageant Apocalypsis running from June 26 to 28 lists among its creative team the famed Samoan stage director Lemi Ponifasio. The piece already demands such a degree of theatricality that it may be difficult to distinguish from opera.

The text for Part One is based on the Biblical Psalm 148, the Book of Revelation and on contemporary poetry. The text for Part Two is an adaptation of one of the Dialogues (1584-85) of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who was burned for his heresies which included his belief that there were other suns surrounded by other planets that could support life. Part One of the work requires six choruses, four instrumental groups, five singers and three sound poets, plus dancers and mime artists. Part Two uses 12 choirs placed in a circle around the audience. Among the 1,000 performers will be performance artist Laurie Anderson (on video), actor Brent Carver and throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Semi-Staged Chair: On a much more intimate scale, Opera by Request presents a semi-staged performance of the absurdist opera A Chair in Love (2005) by Welsh-Canadian composer John Metcalf to an English libretto by Quebecois playwright Larry Tremblay. The story concerns an avant-garde filmmaker who falls in love with a chair, thereby making his dog jealous. The performance will take place on July 17 at Arraymusic with Michael Robert-Broder as the filmmaker, Abigail Freeman as the Chair, Gregory Finney as the Dog and Kim Sartor as the Doctor. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Lyrical Summer: In late July and early August, Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has regularly been a favourite refuge for operagoers in Toronto. This year, two of the three offerings are rarities from the German Romantic period. On July 31 and August 2, 5 and 8, SOLT presents a major rarity in the form of Der Vampyr (1821) by Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), a composer who was a major influence on Wagner, who conducted the work in 1833. After the rise of Wagner’s operas, Marschner’s fell into obscurity. Now Der Vampyr is recognized as the link between Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (1843).

Additionally, the present-day preoccupation with vampires in popular culture has helped to focus more interest on Marschner’s opera, which is based on a story by Lord Byron’s doctor, John Polidori (1795-1821). Polidori wrote his tale “The Vampyre” in 1814, when he along with Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley all decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley “won” since the work she wrote was her novel Frankenstein, first published in 1818. Polidori’s story, however, is famous in a different way as the first published modern vampire story, anticipating by decades Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Maria Hwa Yeong Jung will be the pianist and music director.

As a contrast, on August 1, 5, 7 and 9, SOLT presents the comic German Romantic opera Martha (1847) by Friedrich von Flotow (1812-83). The work was such an international hit in its first 100 years that its two most famous arias are best known in versions not in the original German. The instantly recognizable tenor aria “Ach! so fromm” is best known in Italian translation as “M’apparì” and the main soprano aria, the folksong-inspired “Letzte Rose,” is best known as “The Last Rose of Summer.” Natasha Fransblow will be the pianist and music director.

The third opera, presented August 1, 4, 6 and 8, is Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), an opera that famously stages a comic and a tragic plot simultaneously. Narmina Afandiyeva will be the pianist and music director.

Panamania, the cultural sidebar to the Pan American Games in Toronto in July and August, will include a new production of Nicole Brooks’ opera, Obeah Opera (2012), running August 4 to 8. The opera, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Culchahworks Arts Collective, is sung entirely a cappella by an all-female cast and focusses on the young Caribbean slave Tituba, the first to be accused of witchcraft in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953) about the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Tituba has merely been practising her native healing craft, known as obeah, that the Puritans in their hysteria interpreted as witchcraft. Andrew Craig conducts and Kim Weild directs.

Stratford to Haliburton: In Stratford, Stratford Summer Music will present a dinner-opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute on August 14 to 16 at the Revival House (formerly The Church Restaurant). Peter Tiefenbach is the music director and Brent Krysa is the adaptor and stage director, with sets and costumes in the style of Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

In Haliburton the Highlands Opera Studio, whose artistic director is tenor Richard Margison, will present two operas. One is a fully-staged production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on August 30 and September 1, 2 and 3. The other will be the Ontario premiere of the Canadian opera The Vinedressers (2001) by B.C. composer Tobin Stokes on August 19 and 21. The story, based on a First Nations myth, takes place on the first winery on Pelee Island. Margison is the stage director and Andrea Grant the pianist. Stokes’ best-known opera is perhaps Pauline (2014), written to a libretto by Margaret Atwood about the life of B.C. First Nations poet and performer Pauline Johnson (1861-1913).

Opera-Bicycle.jpgBicycle Opera: This summer marks the fourth anniversary of the innovative Bicycle Opera Project, which 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 they aim to demythologize old ideas of what opera is, where opera can take place and what opera singers are like.

Their Ontario itinerary for this summer from August 14 to September 6 has not yet been announced but last year BOP made stops in Kingston, Prince Edward County, Belleville, Hamilton, Bayfield, London, Brantford, Waterloo and Guelph.

BOP’s 2015 repertoire features short operas and opera excerpts. These include The Auction – Prologue by John Burge; What time is it now? by Anna Höstman; The Blind Woman by James Rolfe; The Yellow Wallpaper by Cecilia Livingston; “Dreaming Duet” from The Bells of Baddeck by Dean Burry and Submission, also by Burry; Our Lady of Esquimalt Road by Leila Lustig; and, back by popular demand, Bianchi: A Bicycle Opera by Tobin Stokes which has become something of a BOP classic.

The company includes Liza Balkan, stage director; Wesley Shen, music director; Geoffrey Sirett, baritone; Chris Enns, tenor; Stephanie Tritchew, mezzo; Larissa Koniuk, artistic director and soprano; and Sonja Rainey, projection artist.

Have an enjoyable summer! 

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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2008_-_Opera_-_John_Relyea.jpgFor several years April has been the one month in the year with the single highest concentration of opera presentations. This year, for unknown reasons, May claims that distinction with presentations of music drama from the Middle Ages right up to the present with a particular emphasis on new works.

c.1227 – Ludus Danielis by Anonymous on May 22, 23 and 24. The Toronto Consort has previous presented a series of highly successful concert productions of early operatic masterpieces from the 17th century. With Ludus Danielis (or The Play of Daniel), the Consort gives us an example of a sung drama written before the official invention of opera in the late 16th century. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne from 1598, most of the music now lost, is considered the earliest known opera. Yet there are examples in the Middle Ages of sung drama. One of the most notable of these is the Ordo Virtutem (c.1151) by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). The Ludus Danielis was written by students at the school of Beauvais Cathedral in France and recounts the story of Daniel at the court of Belshazzar. What will make this performance unusual is that it will be fully staged. Kevin Skelton in the role of Daniel joins the Consort Medieval players conducted by David Fallis and the Viva! Youth Singers of Toronto. Alex Fallis is the stage director with costumes by Nina Okens and set and lighting by Glenn Davidson.  

1781 – Idomeneo by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on May 23.
Skipping forward 500 years from the Ludus Danielis, we come to Opera by Request’s presentation of Mozart’s opera seria about the King of Crete who prays to Neptune to save him from shipwreck vowing to sacrifice the first living being he meets on land. Unfortunately, that being is his son Idamante. Avery Krisman sings Idomeneo, Stephanie Code is Idamante and Hannah Coleman is Idomeneo’s daughter Ilia.  Annex Singers are conducted by Maria Case and the music director and pianist is William Shookhoff.

1816 – The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini from April 7 to May 22.  The COC production of Barber opened in April and was discussed in this column last month, but with 12 performances it runs deep into May. As Figaro, Canadian Joshua Hopkins, who has made a name for himself elsewhere, sings his first major role with the COC. American Alek Shrader is Count Almaviva, Italian Serena Malfi is his beloved Rosina, Italian Renato Girolami is her jealous guardian and Canadian Robert Gleadow is Bartolo’s friend Don Basilio. In May other singers assume the last four roles on May 9, 19 and 21. On May 15 members of the COC Ensemble Studio take over all the singing parts for a performance with discounted tickets. Scotsman Rory Macdonald conducts and Catalonian Joan Font directs. 

2008_-_Opera_-_COC_-_Erwartung.jpg1849 – Luisa Miller by Giuseppe Verdi on May 15. Opera by Request presents one of Verdi’s four operas based on plays by German playwright Friedrich Schiller. In the opera as in its source, Kabale und Liebe (Intrigue and Love) of 1784, Luisa is in love with a young man whom she does not know is really Rodolfo, the son of Count Walter in disguise. Walter’s steward, the appropriately named Wurm, is secretly in love with Luisa and vows to do everything he can to ruin her relationship with Rodolfo. Naomi Eberhard sings Luisa, Paul Williamson is Rodolfo, Andrew Tees is Count Walter and Steven Hendrikson is Wurm. William Shookhoff conducts from the piano.

1868 – Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas on May 9. Opera by Request’s third opera of the month is one that used to be popular until World War I. The main difficulty in English-speaking countries is that the opera has a happy ending in which Hamlet kills Claudius, is absolved of guilt and is finally proclaimed king. The highpoint of the work is a vocally spectacular mad scene for Ophélie before she drowns herself. Simon Chaussé sings Hamlet, Vania Chan is Ophélie, Domenico Sanfilippo is Claudius and Erica Iris Huang is Gertrude. As usual, the tireless William Shookhoff conducts from the piano.

1909 – Erwartung by Arnold Schoenberg.

1918 - Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók, from May 6 to May 23.
This is the double bill directed by Robert Lepage that made COC known around the world. It premiered in 1993 and has been revived in 1995 and 2001. This will be the first time the operas will have been presented in the Four Seasons Centre. Bluebeard’s Castle, performed first, is a symbolist version of the Bluebeard legend where Bluebeard’s new wife Judith comes to realize that her husband is Death itself. Erwartung means “expectation” but emphasizes the aspect of waiting more than does the English word. Written in 1909 but not performed until 1924, Erwartung is one of the few monodramas aside from Poulenc’s La Voix humaine (1959) in the operatic repertory. It follows the crazed thoughts of a woman searching for her lover. But is he dead? Could she have killed him? John Relyea sings Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova is Judith. In Erwartung, Krisztina Szabó is the unnamed Woman. Johannes Debus conducts.

2008 – Earnest, The Importance of Being by Victor Davies from April 29 to May 3. Toronto Operetta Theatre revives its well-received production, first seen in 2008, of an operetta based on Oscar Wilde’s famous comedy. As discussed in this column last month, the production stars Jean Stilwell as Lady Bracknell with Cameron McPhail as John, Thomas Macleay as Algernon, Charlotte Knight as Cecily and Michelle Garlough as Gwendolen. Larry Beckwith conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

2015 – Alice in Wonderland by Errol Gay from May 7 to 10. The Canadian Children’s Opera Company presents a new children’s opera with a libretto by Michael Patrick Albano based on the classic novel by Lewis Carroll. Tenor Benoit Boutet will sing the role of the White Rabbit while all the other roles are sung by the CCOC. Ann Cooper Gay conducts the CCOC Chamber Orchestra.

2015 – Führerbunker: An Opera by Andrew Ager on May 1 and 2.
The COSI Connection presents the world premiere of what will likely be the most controversial opera of the month. The hour-long work examines the last ten days of Adolf Hitler and his associates inside his bunker before the Russians occupied Berlin in 1945. In this it covers the same territory as Oliver Hirschbiegel’s 2004 film Der Untergang (Downfall) in trying to capture the surreal atmosphere of once-powerful political leaders confronting their doom. As Ager told Musical Toronto in 2014, “People need to know we are treating it as a narration of the individuals involved, and not a glorification ... and at the same time, not a morality play.”  Jonathan MacArthur will sing the role of Hitler, Sydney Baedke will be Eva Braun with others singing the roles of Goebbels and his wife, Albert Speer and various guards. Ager, whose opera Frankenstein premiered in Toronto in 2010, will conduct a chamber ensemble and Michael Patrick Albano will direct. 

2008_-_Opera_-_Tapestry_Founder_with_AD.jpg2015 – M’dea Undone by John Harris from May 26 to 29. Tapestry Opera will present the world premiere of a new version of the Medea story in collaboration with Scottish Opera. In collaboration with Scottish composer John Harris, librettist Marjorie Chan has updated the action to the present changing Creon, King of Corinth, to an anonymous President, Creon’s daughter Glauce to Dahlia and giving Medea only one son with Jason instead of two. In Chan’s version Jason (Peter Barrett) is a war hero who becomes the running mate of the President (James McLean). When Jason announces his engagement to the President’s daughter Dahlia (Jacqueline Woodley), M’dea (Lauren Segal), Jason’s former lover and mother of his son, seeks revenge. Jordan de Souza will conduct a chamber ensemble and Tim Albery will direct. 

2015 – 21C Music Festival: After Hours #1 on May 21.  As part of the RCM’s 21C Music Festival, Bicycle Opera presents several new mini-operas that it will tour throughout Ontario. These will include The Dancer by James Rolfe, The Yellow Wallpaper by Cecilia Livingston, (What rhymes with) Azimuth? by Ivan Barbotin, Bianchi by Tobin Stokes and an excerpt from Dean Burry’s The Bells of Baddeck. The singers are soprano Larissa Koniuk, mezzo Stephanie Tritchew, tenor Graham Thomson and baritone Alexander Dobson. The musicians are violinist Ilana Waniuk, cellist Erika Nielsen Smith and Wesley Shen, music director and piano. Liza Balkan directs.

To be able to sample works of lyric theatre from a period of nearly 800 years in just one month is a luxury available in very few cities in the world. Be sure to make the most of it.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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In previous years April has been the month in the year with the single highest concentration of opera presentations. This year that is not the case. The change may be because Easter falls between April 3 and April 5 pushing some presentations into March and delaying others. Or it may simply be that opera companies have tried to spread their offerings out more evenly over March through May. Even so, the Canadian Opera Company, Opera Atelier and Toronto Operetta Theatre all have productions this month, with TOT offering a rare revival and Opera Atelier a 19th-century revision of an 18th-century masterpiece.

2007-Opera-Barber.jpgCOC’s Barber: The first opera to arrive will be the COC’s new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville playing 13 performances from April 17 through May 22. This is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia directed by the group known as by its Catalan name of Els Comediants. If the name of the group sounds vaguely familiar it is because the group was responsible for the staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in 2012, a production most people remember for its inclusion of stylized mice as onlookers. This will be the 11th time the COC has presented Barber, the last time in 2008 directed by Michael Patrick Albano. The production by Els Comediants debuted in Houston in October 2011, later to be seen in Bordeaux in September 2012.

The opera is based on the first of three plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-99) featuring the barber Figaro as a central character. An eternal confusion for operagoers is that the most famous setting of Beaumarchais’ second Figaro play, Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), was set first by Mozart in 1786, while the most famous version of the first play in the series, Le Barbier de Séville (1775) was set second by Rossini in 1816. (The third Figaro play, La Mère coupable (1797) did not become an opera until Darius Milhaud set it in 1966 and John Corigliano used it as subplot in his The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991.)

Based in Barcelona, Els Comediants, made up of director Joan Font, set and costume designer Joan Guillén and lighting designer Albert Faura, have created a Cubist-inspired set, painted in Day-Glo colours, that plays with scale and proportion. Xevi Dorca, who worked with Els Comediants on La Cenerentola, also choreographs Barber. On the podium will be Scotsman Rory Macdonald, last seen here as the conductor of Carmen in 2010

Singing the title role is Canadian Joshua Hopkins, chosen by Opera News as one of 25 artists poised to become a major force in the next decade. For most performances, American tenor Alek Shrader is the young Count Almaviva, with Romanian tenor Bogdan Mihai taking over on May 9, 19 and 21. Almaviva’s beloved Rosina is sung in most performances by Italian soprano Serena Malfi with American Cecelia Hall taking over on May 7, 9, 19, 21 and 22. Bartolo, Rosina’s jealous guardian is sung by Renato Girolami for most performances with Russian bass Nikolay Didenko taking over on May 9, 19 and 21. Don Basilio, Rosina’s music teacher in league with Bartolo, is sung for most performances by Canadian Robert Gleadow with Turkish bass Burak Bilgili taking over May 9, 19 and 21.

May 15 will be the date of the Ensemble Studio performance of the opera with tickets priced at only $25 and $55.

2007-Opera-Attelier.jpgAtelier’s Orfeo: The second major production of the month is Opera Atelier’s second ever foray into 19th-century opera after its highly successful production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) in 2012. This is the version by Hector Berlioz (1803-69) of Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice (1762). Gluck himself wrote two versions of Orfeo. The original of 1762 was written to an Italian libretto and was the first of Gluck’s operas that proposed to simplify the opera seria, then in vogue, by stripping away the complexities of music and plot that had gradually accrued to it. Gluck’s goals were a return to clarity of music and of storytelling. Twelve years later, in 1774, Gluck revised the opera to a French libretto, now called Orphée et Eurydice, to suit the tastes of the French public. This involved changing the role of Orphée from a castrato in the Italian version to a high male tenor, or haute-contre, in the French version. It also necessitated expanding the ballet sequences.

Because of Opera Atelier, Toronto audiences have had the privilege of seeing both versions: the Italian version in 1997 and the French version in 2007. Now OA will put Torontonians in a very special class by giving us the Berlioz version of 1859. When the Paris Opera considered reviving Orphée et Eurydice in 1859 it was noted that the role of Orphée was too high for an haute-contre. What had happened, as period instrument enthusiasts will know, is that concert pitch had gradually risen over the previous 75 years.The reason for this “pitch inflation” was the rise of independent orchestral music (as opposed to accompanying orchestral music) where instrumentalists felt that a higher pitch gave works a more brilliant sound. 

When Giacomo Meyerbeer suggested that French contralto Pauline Viardot (1821-1910), a composer in her own right, should sing Orphée, Berlioz agreed to revise the score with Viardot’s voice in mind. He was France’s greatest expert in Gluck, whose works he had championed since 1825. In 1856 he wrote: “There are two supreme gods in the art of music: Beethoven and Gluck.” In his revision Berlioz used the key scheme of the Italian version but most of the music of the French version, returning to the Italian version only when he thought it superior in terms of music or drama. This new version proved to be a major success and became the principal version played in opera houses until the advent of the early music revival of the 1970s.

Although Berlioz’s Orphée is based on 18th-century music, his 1859 revision marks the furthest into the 19th century that Tafelmusik or Opera Atelier have travelled. The production will star Canadian mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel as Orphée and feature OA favourite Peggy Kriha Dye as Eurydice and Meghan Lindsay as Amour. David Fallis will conduct and Marshall Pynkoski direct. The opera plays April 9, 11, 12, 14, 17 and 18.

TOT’s Earnest: The third major production of the month is the revival by Toronto Operetta Theatre of Earnest, the Importance of Being by Victor Davies to a libretto by Eugene Benson. The operetta was a TOT commission and first performed in February 2008. Now TOT gives the work that rarity among new Canadian operas – a second production. Davies is perhaps most famous for his popular Mennonite Piano Concerto (1975) and his oratorio Revelation (1996). His best known opera is Transit of Venus (2007) based on the play by Maureen Hunter.  He is currently writing an opera The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, based on the play by George Ryga of the same name.

Benson, among his prodigious scholarly and creative work, has written, among others, the librettos to Héloise and Abélard (1973) by Charles Wilson, commissioned by the Canadian Opera Company to mark its 25th anniversary, and to The Summoning of Everyman (1973) revived by Toronto’s Opera in Concert in 2004. 2012 saw the premiere of The Auction: A Folk Opera, for which he wrote the libretto set to music by John Burge. Benson, who believes, as does operetta expert Richard Traubner, that the differences between various types of music theatre are overstated, sees no difficulty in writing an “operetta” for the 21st century. As he says, “After all, Shakespeare’s plays have inspired successful works in all genres. Why not Wilde’s?”

The work’s premiere received very positive notices. Writing in the Globe and Mail, Ken Winters called the piece “..first rate… It left its audience … both startled and delighted. ... It is good entertainment of considerable charm … quite a lively, exhilarating affair.” You can listen to excerpts of the operetta in the opera section of Davies’ own website victordavies.com.  

Renowned mezzo Jean Stilwell heads the cast as the indomitable Lady Bracknell. Michelle Garlough will sing her daughter Gwendolen, Cameron McPhail will be Jack Worthing, Thomas Macleay will be Algernon Moncreif and Charlotte Knight will be Cecily. Other cast members include Gregory Finney as Reverend Chasuble, Roz McArthur as Miss Prism and Sean Curran as Lane. Davies has written a new scene especially for Stilwell in a score filled with lively tangos, marches, waltzes and ballads. Larry Beckwith conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. Earnest, The Importance of Being runs April 29 and May 1, 2 and 3.

Small company diversity: Productions from smaller companies lend diversity to the month. On April 16 and 18 Opera Belcanto of York performs Puccini’s La Bohème at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. Stanislas Vitort is Rodolfo and Gayané Mangassarian is Mimi. David Varjabed conducts the OBC Orchestra and Chorus and Edward Franko directs.

On April 18, Opera by Request presents Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (1957) in concert at the College St. United Church. Caroline Dery sings Blanche de la Force, Maude Paradis the Prioress and Lindsay McIntyre Sister Constance. William Shookhoff is the music director and pianist.

From April 24 to 26, Metro Youth Opera presents Berlioz’ Béatrice et Bénédict (1862) at Daniels Spectrum. Simone McIntosh and Asitha Tennekoon play the warring couple while Lindsay McIntyre and Janaka Welihinda sing their friends Héro and Claudio. Natasha Fransblow is the music director and Alison Wong the stage director.

This April may not be quite as superabundant in opera as Aprils past, but even with these six varied operas on offer Torontonians are spoiled for choice.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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2006-On_Opera_1-Leslie_Ann_Bradley.jpgOn March 29, Voicebox: Opera in Concert will give Torontonians a chance to hear Louise (1900), the most famous opera by Gustave Charpentier (1860-1956). A staple of opera houses around the world for about 50 years, it is an example of the French version of verismo that we encounter more often in Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884) and Werther (1892). The opera, with a libretto by the composer, is a portrait of working-class life in Paris with its focus on the title character, a seamstress in love with her neighbour Julien, a young artist. Charpentier portrays Louise’s life with her family as stifling and her father’s possessiveness as bordering on pathological. When Louise’s parents oppose her marriage to Julien, she runs away with him, and Charpentier also makes clear that Julien may offer Louise love but no material comforts. When Louise’s father becomes unwell, her mother blackmails her into returning home. Once he regains his health, her father’s old opposition to Julien revives and Louise flees again, never to return.

The opera was revolutionary for its time in portraying with equal pessimism the grimness of family life and the naiveté of Bohemian life. The opera’s most famous aria, “Depuis le jour,” is now best known through recitals rather than performances. Two issues have blocked the opera’s continued success. First, it is similar to Puccini’s La Bohème (1895), even though Louise is a healthy Mimi and has parents. Second, the opera features 35 named roles versus only 10 in La Bohème. The opera has had important revivals in London (1981) and in Paris (2008) but the work is still seldom seen. In fact, the only other scheduled performance of Louise this year is in July at the Buxton Festival in England, where it will also be performed in concert, albeit with orchestra instead of piano.

Louise is therefore a rarity and Voicebox is providing it with a starry cast. Soprano Leslie Ann Bradley sings the title role, mezzo Michèle Bodganowicz is the Mother and baritone Dion Mazerolle is the Father. At press time, the tenor playing Julien was still to be announced, so stay tuned!  Peter Tiefenbach is conductor and pianist and Guillermo Silva-Marin the artistic advisor. The work will be performed in French with English surtitles.  

2006-On_Opera_2-Joel_Ivany.jpgFully staged: For a fully staged student production with full orchestra, one need look no further than Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène (1864) at the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Glenn Gould School of Opera. Performances are on March 18 and 20 at Koerner Hall with Uri Mayer conducting. Of particular interest to those who have been following the alternative opera scene in Toronto will be the fact that Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre, will be directing. Ivany and Against theGrain have gained a following for their inventive stagings of opera in unconventional locations – La Bohème in a pub, for example, or Pelléas et Mélisande outdoors in a courtyard.

In La Belle Hélène, Offenbach’s satiric portrait of ancient Greece and Helen of Troy, we should expect more of Ivany’s inventiveness. Via email he told me that the production would take the operetta’s setting, time of composition and period of performance into account: “What we’re attempting to do is to bring our 21st-century sensibilities to this classical operetta (which was originally called an opera buffa) by mixing elements of today into the traditional context of the piece. What people will see is a show set in antiquity, written in the 19th century, with a 21st-century dialogue (written by Michael Albano) and staging.”

When asked what he hopes the student performers will learn from his direction, Ivany says: “I hope that these students will take away a greater sense of speaking text. Half of the operetta is spoken dialogue. For opera singers  this is great training, as often you don’t get the opportunity to act spoken text. I also hope that students will be able to take away a sense of developing a character and having that influence choice, intention and interaction. Through this project I also hope that the students will take away a sense of their body through movement; how the body interacts with singing on stage and how they aren’t separate but in fact, work together. They’re fortunate to work with choreographer and dancer Jennifer Nichols who is taking them through dance warm-ups and is choreographing set numbers for these singers to dance in.”

2006-On_Opera_3-Nicole_Lizee.jpgTapestry’s Tables Turned: For something completely different, Tapestry Opera is presenting Tap:Ex Tables Turned on March 20 and 21. Tap:Ex (Tapestry Explorations) is Tapestry Opera’s annual experimental production that looks to define the future of opera. This year’s installment, Tables Turned, is a boundary-breaking multimedia concert where opera meets a DJ and turntables. Soprano Carla Huhtanen, well known from her performances with Tapestry and with Opera Atelier, joins with pioneering composer Nicole Lizée in reconfigured iconic moments from film and opera.

Remixed clips from Alfred Hitchcock films, The Sound of Music and video recordings of Maria Callas will be projected alongside the performers, whose turntables and vocals compete and fuse in a live duet. According to Tapestry, “Tap:Ex, now in its second year, is committed to evolution through innovation, exploring modes where the traditional genre of opera can assume a living, current form.”

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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2005_-_Beat_-_On_Opera_-_Luca_Pisaroni.pngOn January 14 Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef unveiled the COC’s 2015/16 season including the first mainstage world premiere of a Canadian opera since 1999 and plans for other productions of Canadian operas in the future. Unlike the present season, the COC’s 65th season includes two evenings of works the company has never before presented and is a mixture of opera rarities and masterpieces.

The 2015/16 season will open with a new production of Verdi’s La Traviata, replacing the generally disliked production by Dmitri Bertman that played in 1999 and 2007. The new COC production is a coproduction with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera directed by Arin Arbus and was well received at its Chicago premiere in 2013. Russian Ekaterina Siurina and Canadian Joyce El-Khoury alternate in the role of Violetta. American Charles Castronovo and Canadian tenor Andrew Haji alternate as Violetta’s lover Alfredo. And American Quinn Kelsey and Canadian James Westman alternate as Alfredo’s father Germont. Italian conductor Marco Guidarini leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus for 11 performances from October 8 to November 6, 2015.

In repertory with Traviata is the world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe, written in 2010 by Canadian Barbara Monk Feldman. For those who may wonder, Monk Feldman is the widow of renowned American composer Morton Feldman (1926-87), was formerly his student and married him shortly before his death. The story, as students of Shakespeare will know, is the subject of the play the Mechanicals present to the court at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595). Though the subject is serious, Shakespeare’s amateur troupe performs it so badly it is the comic highpoint of the play. As a tragedy of misunderstandings, Pyramus and Thisbe also served as the model for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet written in the same year as Dream.

To complement Monk Feldman’s one-act opera are two works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) from the very beginnings of opera. The Lamento d’Arianna (1608) is the only fragment of music that survives from Monteverdi’s second opera Arianna about Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, later the subject of Richard Strauss’s Adriadne auf Naxos (1916). The second work is Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624), which is not really an opera at all but a section of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) set to music. Toronto last saw it in a production by Toronto Masque Theatre in 2008. The major role is that of the Narrator who describes the encounter during the Crusades of the Christian knight Tancredi with his beloved Clorinda, who, unbeknownst to him, has disguised herself as an enemy Saracen knight.

Krisztina Szabó, who sings Erwartung later this season, will sing Monteverdi’s Arianna and Clorinda and Monk Feldman’s Thisbe. Phillip Addis returns as Pyramus and Owen McCausland is Testo in Il combattimento. Some COC regulars will be unhappy to learn that Christopher Alden, who gave us such unlovely productions as the Nazi Fledermaus in 2012 and the ruthless Clemenza di Tito in 2013, has been hired to direct. Johannes Debus, however, will conduct the seven performances from October 20 to November 7.

The winter season pairs Wagner’s Siegfried (in François Girard’s now familiar production) with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in a production formerly owned by the Salzburg Festival. American soprano Christine Goerke, who will be making her role debut as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre this season, will return in that role in Siegfried. German tenor Stefan Vinke sings the title character. Austrian Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke sings the wily dwarf Mime, who raises Siegfried, and Alan Held sings the head Nordic god Wotan, here known only as The Wanderer. Johannes Debus conducts the seven performances from January 23 to February 14. 

The Marriage of Figaro is directed by acclaimed German director Claus Guth in a production popular at the Salzburg Festival since it first premiered in 2006. The cast includes Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner as Figaro, Canadian Jane Archibald as Susanna, Canadian Erin Wall as the Countess, Russell Braun, who sings the title role in Don Giovanni this season, as the Count and American Emily Fons as Cherubino. Johannes Debus leads the opera through 11 performances from February 4 to 27.

For its spring season of 2016, the COC revives its Carmen seen last only in 2010, this time directed by Toronto’s own Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre which recently presented its own inventive version of Don Giovanni as #UncleJohn last year. Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili and French mezzo Clémentine Margaine alternate in the title role. American tenor Russell Thomas and Canadian David Pomeroy alternate as Don José. Canadian sopranos Simone Osborne and Karine Boucher alternate as Micaëla. And Americans Christian Van Horn and Zachary Nelson alternate as the toreador Escamillo. Italian conductor Paolo Carignani leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus in 13 performances from April 12 to May 15.

Closing the 15/16 season is the COC premiere of Rossini’s rarely performed grand bel canto opera Maometto II (1820), featuring star Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni in his COC debut. The libretto is based on the historical Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (1432-81), who set out to conquer the Holy Roman Empire. The production from Santa Fe Opera’s successful 2012 revival is directed by Christopher Alden’s identical twin brother David, who gave us Rigoletto in a men’s club in 2011. Joining Pisaroni are American mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as the Venetian noble Calbo, American soprano Leah Crocetto as Maometto’s forbidden love Anna and American Bruce Sledge as the Venetian governor Erisso. Baroque and classical specialist Harry Bicket conducts the seven performances from April 29 to May 14.  

It’s odd that Neef would rehire both Alden brothers after the loud disapproval their work has received here over the past several years (especially in light of a decline of 4924 subscription tickets from 2013 to 2014). Nevertheless, there is very good news in Neef’s reaffirmation of the COC’s commitment to new Canadian operas. Donna, previously  commissioned from composer John Rolfe and librettist Anna Chatterton, will have a workshop production at Banff this summer.  Hadrian, commissioned from pop composer Rufus Wainwright and playwright Daniel MacIvor, is moving ahead – a first draft of the libretto is at hand. New this year is the announcement of a commission of The Girl King, by Ana Soloković, composer of such hits for the much-missed Queen of Puddings as The Midnight Court in 2005 and Svadba – Wedding in 2011. The libretto will be by Quebecois playwright Michel Marc Bouchard based on his play of the same name about Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89) that played last year at the Stratford Festival. And also in the works is a revival of Louis Riel (1967) by Harry Somers to star Russell Braun.

2005_-_Beat_-_On_Opera_-_Whisper_Opera_2.pngSoundstreams: It’s important when Canada’s largest producer of opera commits to producing so many new operas over the coming years. Yet, we should not forget that many of Toronto’s smaller companies have always had a commitment to producing new work. One such is Soundstreams. From February 26 to March 1 Soundstreams hosts the Canadian premiere of the whisper opera (2013) by Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer David Lang. Lang’s libretto is compiled from search-engine responses to such prompts as “When I think of you, I think of …” to explore the tension between our private and online selves. Soprano Tony Arnold and New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) have already received acclaim for the piece at Lincoln Center and at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

The opera is so quiet and so delicate that it can be experienced by only 52 people at a time. For this reason Soundstreams will present it at The Theatre Centre at 1115 Queen Street West, in a configuration never before used there. In order to maximize the closeness of the audience to the performers the playing area consists of four squares around a central hub, with the audience, seated in twos, forming the dividing lines between the squares.

In the midst of an overabundance of recorded music, Lang is composing various works that can only be heard live. As he has written, “With the whisper opera I had another of these ideas – what if a piece were so quiet and so intimate and so personal to the performers that you needed to be right next to them or you would hear almost nothing? A piece like this would have to be experienced live. In honour of this, the score to the whisper opera states clearly that it can never be recorded, or filmed, or amplified. The only way this piece can be received is if you are there, listening very very closely.” Listening very closely is, of course, something we all should do at any performance, but at the whisper opera, Lang makes this a virtue one hopes we carry over into other experiences of music.

Christopher Hoile is a Toronto-based writer on opera and theatre. He can be contacted at opera@thewholenote.com.

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