Interview with Michael Patrick Albano

 

In March the Opera Division of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its move to the Edward Johnson Building.  From March 20 to 23 the Opera Division will present Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring (1947), which was the first opera to be presented in the building’s MacMillan Theatre back on March 4,1964.  

This event provides an excellent occasion to look back on the past 50 years of the Opera Division.  Michael Patrick Albano has a fine perspective to offer since he came to Toronto in 1974 to study with Herman Geiger-Torel, who had been the Opera Division’s stage director since 1946 and was still the artistic director of  the Canadian Opera Company he had co-founded in 1950.  Albano is currently a senior lecturer and the resident stage director at the Opera Division, having directed over 40 operas for it including the Canadian premieres of Debussy’s L’Enfant Prodigue, Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Britten’s Paul Bunyan and Kulesha’s The Last Duel.

The Edward Johnson Building was built because the Faculty of Music’s old premises could no longer accommodate the expansion of music programs in the 1950s.  In a recent interview, Albano explained the importance of the MacMillan Theatre to the opera division: “It is essentially a fully equipped opera house.  It has its present design because Geiger-Torel was associated with both the school and the COC.  At the time the COC had nowhere to rehearse, so Geiger-Torel urged the construction of such a large stage to give the COC somewhere to rehearse.  It is due to the foresight of Geiger-Torel and the other founders of opera in Toronto that the school has such a unique space.  Its stage is comparable in size to that of the current Sony Centre with a pit for up to 60 musicians, but it has an intimate auditorium with only 815 seats.”  This is ideal for students, as Albano notes, because: “With developing voices it’s great that they’re in a space where they don’t feel that have to over produce.  In the current economic climate the MacMillan Theatre simply could not be built today.”     

The MacMillan Theatre and the opera programming at the opera division are the two chief areas of study at the Division.  Albano has asked former students, as he did recently with John Fanning, what that they found most beneficial at the Opera Division and all of them agree that it is “being able to sing a full-length role in costume in a real theatre with an orchestra in the pit.”  He adds: “Just giving them the experience of singing in a real opera house, which is rare in North American opera schools, is something you don’t want forced upon you when you first have a professional job.”

Changes have occurred over the past 50 years.  The Opera Division introduced the use of surtitles in its 1999 production of Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites, and, as Albano says, “has never looked back.”  Audience members have said they like surtitles even with English-language productions, and this will be the case with Albert Herring.  A partial effect of surtitles has been the gradual move away from the double and triple bills that the opera division used to perform to a concentration on full-length works. “The attraction for the students is doing a full-length role from beginning to end,” Albano says. The attraction for the Opera Division is the chance to present works on the edge of standard repertory like Chabrier’s L’Étoile or Britten’s Paul Bunyan that both complement the offerings of the COC and are ideal vehicles for developing voices.

 

As Albano notes, the Opera Division does its programming from the opposite point of view from a company like the COC.  “Unlike a professional opera company where they decide on the repertory and then engage the singers they want, we have to look at the roster of singers in our two-year program and decide what will work best for them.” 

Another change, begun in 1987, was the institution of programs for operatic répétiteurs and for student stage directors.  For Albano, this reflects the changing times since when he arrived and said he wanted to direct opera, no one knew what to do with him.  Now he is encouraged that the Division has so many applications for the stage direction program they can’t accept them all.  To him this is just a sign of how excited younger people are in opera as an art form.  Maria Lamont, the first graduate of the stage direction program, now has a career working for De Vlaamse Opera and is Robert Carsen’s choice for staging remounts of his work.  

In 1997 a student collective formed that was interested in writing operas.  Now opera writing has become a course.  Unique among other North American opera schools, the students at the Opera Division are able to see their work through from composition to a full staging.  The student-written Rob Ford the Opera was such a runaway success in 2012 that it proved there was a hunger among audiences for new opera in Toronto and a hunger for young singers to perform it.

The Opera Division has always offered acting classes for singers but over the years, as Albano notes: “They have become more codified and structured to give modern performers what they need to know.  The classes involve both practical instruction such as stage fighting and movement to role interpretation and the awareness of opera as theatre.  Gone is the era of ‘park and bark.’  Instruction has evolved with what the public now demands.”   

In summarizing what has changed, Albano says: “The huge difference to me in the evolution of the program is an effort at versatility, versatility, versatility.”  This means the introduction of works outside the 19th-century core repertoire to include the baroque as well as brand new operas.  This means training singers to be more versatile as performers.  This means offering the possibility of connecting with opera not just as a performer but as a composer and a stage director.  And this means exposing students to as many outside influences as possible through guest directors like Joel Ivany, who will direct Albert Herring, or guest conductors like Les Dala, who will conduct it.  As Albano says, “Versatility is important because the more versatile you are the more likely you are to be employed.”  All in all, Albano concludes, “I am very optimistic about the future.  The art form itself is in a healthy place.”

Albert Herring plays March 20, 21 and 22 at 7:30pm and March 23 at 2:30pm at the MacMillan Theatre.  For tickets call 416-408-0208 or visit performance.rcmusic.ca.


Who is April's Child?

Our Mystery Child’s name has appeared in every WholeNote since September 2006.

1906 musicalchild

Know our Mystery Child’s name? Send your guess to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by March 24 and WIN PRIZES!


EARLY MUSIC: Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie

It's a rare pleasure to hear Jean-Philippe Rameau played in North America, even though most music played today owes the man a heavier debt than is typically acknowledged. Rameau was a contemporary of J. S. Bach who began his career as a harpsichord virtuoso, composing three books of solo keyboard music, and his compositions for solo harpsichord rank as some of the most difficult and the most rewarding music composed for the instrument. Mid-career, Rameau became a music theorist and, along with Bach, an advocate of equal temperament. Rameau is probably most remembered today for his discovery that tonal music is made up of chord changes rather than intervals between notes, a tenet of music that still remains with us and is a guiding principle of classical, jazz and rock.

It's somewhat curious then, that after considerable success in two separate fields of music, he turned to writing opera at the age of 50, and stranger still that he would continue to do so after his first opera courted controversy and a fairly frosty critical reception.

The reasons some of the French public hated Rameau's operas hardly matter now. His first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie was performed over 130 times during the composer's lifetime, proving once again that there is really no point in listening to critics. But it was certainly a pleasure to hear Voicebox's Opera in Concert series reviving Hippolyte for Toronto audiences Sunday afternoon at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, in a staged production with the help of Toronto's Aradia Ensemble. Despite the fact that it was Super Bowl Sunday, Voicebox managed to draw an audience of over a hundred listeners. Clearly there are a few people in Toronto who either appreciate Rameau's status as the father of modern music or are aware that opera is less tedious, and involves less standing around waiting for something to happen, than professional football.

French opera is hard to do well, and Rameau is not kind to players. Aradia and Voicebox did a fine job of interpreting a difficult composer. Besides having a great band backing them up, Voicebox had a stellar lineup of soloists and a truly phenomenal choir to do justice to an under-appreciated composer. When this company puts on a fully orchestrated production, beautiful music happens. One wish though: the soloists had more than enough volume to dominate the orchestra. Could the band have been bigger? Or at the very least, louder?


Music and the Movies: A Story of Children and Film

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In A Story of Children and Film, Mark Cousins’ engaging and wide-ranging cine-essay, the writer/director gathers clips from 53 diverse films to take the audience on a treasure trove of images and ideas.

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Cousins is best-known for the mammoth The Story of Film: An Odyssey, a 15-hour, 15-episode compendium that was recently shown on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). In his latest rumination, an easy-to-digest 106-minute chamber piece, he begins by considering the view from Van Gogh’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy and the painting he made of it.

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“Art shows us again and again that if we look closely, openly at a small thing, we can see lots in it,” Cousins points out in his lilting, Belfast narrator’s voice. The “small thing” he looks at next is a scene of his niece and nephew playing together in a room in a house in the North of England. Out of their interaction he discerns several characteristics, like shyness (“wariness”), anger (“strop”), social class and showing off (theatricality).

Each observation sends his mind roving, through a myriad of cinematic images stored over years of moviegoing and note-taking, so that by the end of this fascinating journey we’ve glimpsed parts of 53 films.

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It’s a very musical construct, the way the content is assembled, diverse scenes made into a whole, in no small part sewn together by the sound of the filmmaker’s own melodic voiceover. And helped immeasurably by choice excerpts from the “Première communion de la Vierge” from Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jesus performed by pianist Hakon Austbo. The filmic excerpts, of course, are served up with their own distinctive, if not memorable soundtracks.

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Cousins’ supple transitions take us from a wary child in Chen Kaige’s Chinese masterpiece, Yellow Earth, through the cautious expressions early in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to the open shyness of Children in the Wind (Japan, 1937) to Jane Campion’s anxious protagonist in An Angel at My Table, to what Cousins calls “the glint of shyness” in Ghatashraddah (India, 1977), to an early, beautifully-lit Tarkovsky (The Steamroller and the Violin, 1961) and four more equally distinctive examples before we’re back in the room in England. Then it’s off to examine lives “railroaded by social class.”

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And more. Memorable in sum.

A Story of Children and Film is currently onscreen at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.


Visitors: A Collaborative Effort


feature 1 - visitors 2“You are the subject of this film.” – Godfrey Reggio

First came Koyaanisqatsi, on which filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Philip Glass began working in the late 1970s. (It was released in 1983; its “life out of balance” theme resonated with an audience eager for anything not Reagan or Thatcher). Glass’ idiosyncratic variegated arpeggios and rhythmic repetitions riveted a public for whom the musician was mostly unknown.

Two more qatsi films followed over the next two decades, neither reaching the popular heights of the first. Reggio stuck to his unique vision and Glass extended his reach beyond the opera house and the concert hall into the mainstream by scoring commercials and Hollywood movies.

Read more: Visitors: A Collaborative Effort

Scaramella - November 30, 2013

Charles I of England, finding himself strapped for cash and having no way of raising funds, decided to prorogue Parliament for eleven years and rule England by divine right. This proved to be something of a bad idea, as an increasingly outraged aristocracy rebelled against the Crown, plunged the country into civil war for nine years, and had Charles beheaded.

Against this violent and chaotic background, England's cultural life should have ground to a halt, and although the period can hardly be described as a Golden Age (the artists of the time were more worried about staying alive than their own artistic development) it is nevertheless one of the most exotic periods in English music history. The English of the early mid-17th Century developed the rules of Renaissance composition so far as to be barely recognizable as Renaissance music, and while in (say) Italy, the new Baroque style featured new musical genres like opera and new techniques of composition like monody, and an independent bassline, the English had an eccentric and completely unique style of music quite unlike anything else in Europe.

It's repertoire that I would argue deserves to be performed more often, and I was glad to have the chance to hear Scaramella introduce Toronto audiences to the music of the English 17th Century last Saturday night at Victoria College Chapel. The program featured some excellent, hitherto-unknown composers that ought to be performed more often, including John Hingeston, Simon Ives, John Walsh, and Godfrey Finger.

Also on display were some eccentric English forms of the period. Lyra viol, a style of viola da gamba where the instrument plays full chords and is tuned in scordatura, was particular to England, and Ives's compositions for solo lyra viol were a much-appreciated part of the program. Theme and Variations (“Divisions on a Ground”) were also a favourite of the English, as were trio sonatas with continuo. Other strange beasts on display were the sonata by Henry Butler, with solo violin and viola da gamba parts, and the Jenkins fantasia, which had a lyra viol part as part of a chamber ensemble playing chords along with the organ. I'm happy to hear a Toronto-based taking a chance on some repertoire that's not a guaranteed crowd-pleaser and shedding some light on a turbulent period in history.

Scaramella's next concert is Saturday February 1 at 8pm in Victoria College Chapel, and features music composed for Viennese double bass and natural horns.


AKA Doc Pomus and More

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AKA Doc Pomus, which opened November 29 at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas, is a befitting memorial for its subject, the legendary songwriter and genuine mensch, Doc Pomus. On braces and crutches after being stricken by polio at six in 1931, Jerome Felder (his birth name) loved listening to African-American music on the radio growing up in Brooklyn. His epiphany came around the age of 15, with Joe Turner’s record of “Piney Brown Blues.” Two years later he talked his way onto the stage of George’s in Greenwich Village. As he put it, “I was a white boy hooked on the blues – it was a midnight lady with a love lock on my soul.” After a handful of years, his recording career ended but by then Joe Turner himself had heard him and told Ahmet Ertegun to hire Pomus. Doc became a songwriter, one of the cornerstones of the legendary Brill Building writing for Turner and many more.

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AKA Doc Pomus is a straightforward biography told by ex-wives and lovers, sons and a daughter, musicians and writers (Peter Guralnick and Dave Marsh, most notably) and adding even more to the many candid moments of archival footage of the man, there is Lou Reed on the soundtrack reading from Doc’s journals.

The songs speak for themselves: “Lonely Avenue” (for Ray Charles); “Save the Last Dance for Me” (inspired by Pomus’ own wedding and immortalized by Ben. E. King); “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love” a piece of South Bronx blues encapsulated by Dion and the Belmonts (Bob Dylan said that everything you need to know is in that song). He wrote with Phil Spector and Mort Shuman, wrote big hits for Elvis (“Viva Las Vegas” and a host of movie vocals – when the King was under contract with MGM to make four musicals a year, each with ten songs) and Andy Williams (“Can’t Get Used to Losing You” taken from his own marriage breakdown). He worked with Dr. John, championed Lou Reed and little Jimmy Scott and taught Shawn Colvin and Joan Osbourne in his songwriting course. Dylan asked to write with him; John Lennon was a fan who became a friend. He was a denizen of midtown Manhattan hotels, the centre of revolving, seemingly never-ending musical evenings.

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Doc Pomus’ song ended in 1991; AKA Doc Pomus reminds us that the memory lingers on. His life was a work of art of his own creation.

Narco Cultura 3

When you’re lost in Juarez these days, you’re in the murder capital of the world (3622 in 2010, for example – El Paso, Texas across the Rio Grande had five that year). Shaul Schwarz’s Narco Cultura is a cinéma vérité look at the Mexican drug cartels’ pop culture influence on a narco corrido singer, Edgar Quintero, with stars in his eyes and bullets in his belt, set against a crime scene investigator who must mask his identity to protect his life in Juarez. The singer makes the brutal life of a cartel member glamorous; fans on both sides of the border eat this stuff up. One journalist puts it in perspective: “Narcos represent limitless power but they are a symptom of a dead society; 92 per cent of murders have not been investigated.” Quintero takes a trip to Culiacán, in the heart of the northwestern state of Sinaloa. Schwarz follows him into a beautiful cemetery with big tombs filled with young dead men. Schwarz’s camera indicts without prejudice making for compelling viewing.  Narco Cultura, which premiered in May at Hot Docs, returns to the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema for a brief run, November 29, 30, December 1 and 5.

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The Broken Circle Breakdown, a bluegrass musical and Belgium’s nominee for consideration as Best Foreign Language Academy Award, recently finished its brief engagement at TIFF Bell Lightbox. This lovely film tells the story of Didier, a banjo-playing farmer, Elise, his tattoo parlour worker wife, their six-year-old daughter Maybelle and her battle with cancer. The narrative begins by flashing back seven years to the couple’s first meeting and their intense love for each other, which never ebbs.

Didier is enamoured of the settlers of the Appalachian Mountains, the dirt-poor fortune hunters who lived there mining the slate that was so difficult to crack. To combat their hunger and misery -- he seduces Elise with this story actually – they sang about their dreams of a promised land, about their sorrow and their hunger and their misery, their fear of dying and their hope for a better life. As Didier tells it, each immigrant group brought a specific instrument to the mix: the Spaniard, a guitar; the Jew, a violin; the African, a banjo; and the Italian, a mandolin. It’s the essence of folk music according to Didier and Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, is the greatest musician in the world.

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As the movie moves forward (and backward with its many flashbacks) we realized that it’s a country song come to life. Several country songs, in fact, in which love, joy, grief and blame play major parts, but the music is always tunefully sweet. Didier plays banjo in a classic bluegrass quintet; Elise becomes the lead singer and their performances punctuate and comment on the narrative, none more appropriate than Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You.” Watch for The Broken Circle Breakdown at a rep theatre or  on video. It will take you to “the glory land.”

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Two other films now playing are worthy of attention. Philomena, the runner-up to 12 Years a Slave for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF 2013, benefits from an Oscar-worthy performance from Judy Dench, a rich screenplay by Jeff Pope and Steve Coogan (who co-stars), a sensitive score by Alexandre Desplats and the remarkable Stephen Frears, who directs without show or artifice but always in the service of the humanism of the film’s riveting, true story.

Dench plays the title character, a retired Irish Catholic nurse whose pangs of regret, guilt and curiosity well up on what would have been her son’s 50th birthday to push her to find the child who was taken from her when she was under the care of the Abbey Sisters of Sacred Heart in Roscrea, Ireland as a teenager in the 1950s. Her companion in this search is a high-profile Oxford-educated ex-BBC television journalist and political scapegoat (played to acerbic perfection by Coogan). As the plot thickens, Desplats’ music (performed with subtlety and warmth by the London Symphony Orchestra) intensifies but never oversteps its bounds. The late John Tavener’s “Mother of God Here I Stand” makes a moving appearance near the end of this first-rate film that sensitively explores the bonds of maternal love, and the many facets of faith. Philomena opened November 29 at the Varsity and other theatres.

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Short Term 12 follows foster children in a treatment facility being cared for by former foster children who have overcome the kind of problems that have led their patients into the bungalow they now call home. These are teenagers, mostly, who have been abused or who could not find comfort in their previous domestic life. Thoughtful and compassionate, it’s no docudrama, but a powerful story of parallel lives, propelled by a tour de force of realistic acting (Brie Larson, Best Actress, Locarno Film Festival 2013).

Larson plays Grace, a counsellor whose memories of an abusive childhood experience are unlocked by a new patient, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever). The staff’s regular modus operandi is to use empathy as a major tool of therapy, so it’s doubly intense when Grace makes it so personal with Jayden.

The movie begins and ends with anecdotes by Mason, Grace’s fellow counsellor and boyfriend, the second of which sends you walking out of the theatre on a high since it reveals a crucial piece of information about another patient who we’ve come to root for.

Joel P West’s instrumental soundtrack is minimal and serviceable but his songs and especially those rapped by Keith Stanfield (who has a key supporting role in the film) deepen the authenticity portrayed onscreen. Short Term 12 is playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox and the Carlton.

Who is November’s Child?

mysterychildBorn on St. Cecilia’s Day and named 25 times in this issue of The WholeNote.

Miss Ethel taught piano using the Seppings Music Method: “… taught to feel a great sense of key relationships, which is valuable even in these days of atonality.”

Know our Mystery Child’s name?

Send your best guess to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. by November 24.

At home in London, England, 1921.

Pockets of Time Suzie LeBlanc

You can view a video of this entire conversation, or listen to a podcast of it by clicking here.

pockets of time 1I got a sense of how far ahead Suzie LeBlanc dreams and plans very early in my conversation with her the morning of October 22, 2013. We were sitting in a book-lined seminar room at Massey College in the University of Toronto, talking about the reason for her 24-hour in-and-out flying visit — an event at Massey College that same evening to celebrate the launch of I Am in Need of Music, songs on poems by Elizabeth Bishop, a CentreDiscs CD that not only showcases LeBlanc’s soaring soprano but also testifies to her tenacity and vision as a questing collaborative artist with considerable staying power.

The poet Elizabeth Bishop of the CD’s title was born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1911; so 2011, her centenary, was the raison d’être for this particular project. But as LeBlanc explains, “It started even sooner than that with me finding out about Elizabeth Bishop in 2007 ... In 2007 I found this leaflet [about Bishop] in Great Village, and soon after I met Sandra Barry, an independent scholar who knows everything there is to know about Bishop ... She’d had a dream. Elizabeth Bishop was born in Massachusetts so she was American by birth. She spent a lot of time in Great Village, Nova Scotia as a child, and three of her grandparents were Canadian — were actually Maritimers — and she always wanted to be Canadian. She wrote, ‘I’m three quarters Canadian and one quarter New Englander.’ And she stuck to that story. She was very attached to this land, which was like her motherland.”

Read more: Pockets of Time Suzie LeBlanc

Brief Lives

tariq kieran-brieflives-1g9a2957-b compressedQueen Elizabeth the First thought farts were hilarious. I learned this, and many other scatalogical facts about England in the 17th century, from “Brief Lives: songs and stories of old London,” a co-production between Toronto Masque theatre and Soulpepper currently playing as part of the Global Cabaret Festival at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. William Webster, himself a founding member of Soulpepper, stars in Patrick Garland's one-man cabaret staging of John Aubrey's manuscript Schediasmata: Brief Lives. Aubrey is credited with founding the biography as a literary form, and should probably be lauded as the true father of the celebrity tell-all as well. Although he delights in lurid anecdotes involving famous people -- his text was never intended for publication, one should point out-- “Brief Lives” is a fascinating look at life in England from the Golden Age of Elizabeth I through the Civil War and Restoration, brought vividly to life by director Derek Boyes and featuring songs from the period by musicians Katherine Hill, Terry McKenna, and Larry Beckwith.

Read more: Brief Lives

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