Fons in the title role of Faramondo at the Göttingen International Handel Festival (Germany, 2014). Photo by Theodora da Silva.

Probably the most melancholy production of The Marriage of Figaro around, the Claus Guth-conceived Salzburg production first seen in Toronto in 2016, is back at the Canadian Opera Company for another run from January 27 - February 18, with a different set of principals, other than its Cherubino, Emily Fons, an American mezzo-soprano best known for Handel and Mozart trouser roles.

Read more: Mezzo Emily Fons - Globetrotting, Managing Your Money, and those Sweet, Sweet Trouser Roles

Marek Norman by David CooperStratford: On April 29, 1875, a fire in Ballycroy, Ontario took three young lives. Several buildings went down in this probable arson, but the only human casualties were the three women trapped in their second floor room of the Small’s Hotel. Recent immigrants from Ireland, Mary Fanning, Bridget Burke and Margaret Daley had just started working in the millinery trade. They belonged to a Catholic parish in Colgan, one town over. Nothing else is known about them. Reasons for the arson, if indeed it was, remain unknown. The once vibrant all-Irish town, Ballycroy itself is now a ghost town.  

Something about this story deeply touched composer and writer Marek Norman who, upon coming across an article about it in a local paper, felt called to imagine and write these women’s lives. The result is Ballycroy, his two-act play with music in which the three women come back as ghosts to recount their lives. Stratford-based INNERChamber Ensemble with its artistic director Andrew Chung on violin and Norman conducting from the piano will perform a condensed concert version of the play on November 5 in Avondale United Church in Stratford. The piece is scored for three voices, piano, violin, viola, cello, flute, oboe, clarinet and percussion. Directing the production: one of Canada’s theatre legends, Marti Maraden. 

Read more: Ballycroy and Beyond

The only way to stay at the cutting edge of anything for 40 years, as Tapestry Opera has done, is to zigzag with the changing times – to go big when opportunity knocks, to hunker down when danger threatens, and, most important, to be able to recognize the difference between the two scenarios. 

TAP:EX is Tapestry Opera’s instrument for just that – figuring out when to go for broke and when to duck and cover. The name is short for Tapestry Explorations and TAP:EX Augmented Opera, presented this past November 20 to 23 at Sidewalk Labs, was its fifth iteration since its founding in 2014 by Michael Hidetoshi Mori, Tapestry’s artistic director. 

TAP:EX’s stated goal is to redefine the “elemental bounds of opera by challenging its notions of tradition, legacy, and purity, emphasizing emotional and artistic power over rules and norms.” Each of the four iterations so far has been different from the ones that preceded it: exploring the limits of the voice’s resistance to extreme physical exertion; probing the intersections between turntablism, film, soundscape and opera; inviting “local hard-core heroes F*cked Up to help frame a work that asked punk to look at opera and opera to look at punk”; and most recently, in 2018, bringing together Iranian composer Afarin Mansouri with emcee, playright, librettist, agitator Donna-Michelle St. Bernard “in a conversation with the devil.”

Read more: Tapestry Explores Augmented Opera

With the Canadian Opera Company sleeping off the effects of Turandot and Rusalka, its two wildly contrasting fall main stage blockbusters, top spot in the operatic food chain this month goes to Opera Atelier’s remount of their convention-bucking, commedia-based Don Giovanni, in their new digs at the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Pantages) on Yonge Street, a big block north of OA’s longtime regular venue at the Elgin Theatre (now hosting an indefinite, and presumably lucratively lengthy, run of Come From Away)

Opera Atelier’s Don Giovanni. Photo by Bruce ZingerDon Giovanni opens October 31, one day before this issue hits the streets, but if you’re fast out of the blocks, you can still catch it November 2, 3, 8 and 9. And catch it you should, especially if you’re allergic to the heavy-handed Bergmanesque moralizing gloom that all too often accrues to this work. Mozart would have recognized the style of this production far more readily (and I dare say delightedly) than some of the other gloomily lit treatments it has received.

“Fast out of the blocks” will also need to be the operative phrase if you want to take advantage of the period covered in this issue to drill down into five other strata of activity that are the bedrock of opera as a lively art in our region: our universities and conservatories; our regional opera companies; a vibrant indie opera scene, constantly reinventing itself; a rich tradition of community-based performance – participation in opera for the sheer love of it; and a decades-long tradition of opera-in-concert presentation of works we might otherwise, for various reasons, never have the opportunity to see and hear.

Universities and conservatories: Nov 1 and 2, at Mazzoleni Concert Hall, the Royal Conservatory’s Glenn Gould School gets things rolling with its fall chamber opera: a production of English composer Jonathan Dove’s Siren Song (libretto by Nick Dear). It’s a 70-minute work for five singers, one actor, and an orchestra of ten players (here conducted by Peter Tiefenbach), based on “a bizarre, true story of a young sailor who exchanges letters with a beautiful and successful model. Over time, a romantic and passionate relationship develops, but a meeting proves increasingly difficult to arrange.”

Later in the month, a short stroll down Philosopher’s Walk from the Royal Conservatory, the University of Toronto Faculty of Music gets into the act, twice. Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24, in the MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building, the Opera School presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, with two casts getting two shows each, and an “Opera Talk” lecture half an hour before each concert. And then, Dec 5, the U of T Symphony Orchestra gets into the act with a program titled Operatic Showpieces, featuring U of T Opera and the MacMillan Singers, conducted by COC chorus master Sandra Horst and Uri Meyer.

And if that’s not enough, or you live westwards, head down the 401 to the Don Wright Faculty of Music in London, where, on the same dates (Nov 21, 22, 23, and 24) Opera at Western presents Mozart’s The Secret Gardener (La Finta Giardiniera), penned at the ripe old age of 18! Stage direction by renowned baritone Theodore Baerg.

Natalya GennadiRegional and community opera: Nov 1 and 3 also offer an opportunity to observe Opera York in action, in Verdi’s La Traviata, at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts, one of two fully staged operas they will present this season. (The other will be Lehar’s Merry Widow, Feb 28 and Mar 1.) This tenacious company’s mission is “to provide professional opera that is accessible financially, geographically and comprehensibly to the communities of York Region and surrounding communities, to encourage the development of the art form through educational and outreach activities and provide a platform for emerging and established Canadian artists” and they stick to it, as reflected in the quality of their casts. An example from this show: Natalya Gennadi (Violetta), whose Dora-nominated title role in Tapestry Opera’s Oksana G. in 2017 was widely praised. NOW Magazine called it “stunning... piercing in its openness and vulnerability.”

Jennifer TungLater in the month, and proudly rooted at the community opera end of things for 73 years, on Nov 21 and 23, Toronto City Opera, formerly known as Toronto Opera Repertoire, presents Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann, at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina. Founded in 1946, by an optimistic James Rosselino, as an “Opera Workshop” at Central Technical School, in collaboration with the Toronto School Board, and now under the artistic direction of the multi-talented Jennifer Tung (singer, vocal coach, collaborative pianist, conductor), they present at least two fully staged operas each year with early-career paid-professional soloists selected after open auditions, and an amateur non-auditioned community chorus that remains open to all. The result is a wonderful sense of community engagement that extends through the chorus to the audience, many of whom are often having their first opera experience. Their mission statement – passionately committed to opera for everyone – says it all.

Indie opera: With the recent buzz around Tapestry Opera’s 40th anniversary and the tenth anniversary tour of Against the Grain’s pub-based La Bohème, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that independent opera in this town is fertile soil for much more. Just one example: Nov 2, 3 and 4, at Heliconian Hall, Loose Tea Music Theatre, under the always searching and provocative direction of Alaina Viau presents Singing Only Softly/The Diary of Anne Frank - Operas from the Secret Annex which pairs two separate works: Singing Only Softly, (composed by Cecilia Livingston with libretto by Monica Pearce); and The Diary of Anne Frank composed by Grigory Frid. Singing Only Softly Is based on the original, unredacted texts of the diary, “voicing Anne Frank as a fully formed young woman describing her experiences while discovering herself. Freshly interpreted in a current female context, it explores Anne’s complex self-awareness and self-representation.” Anne Frank is variously portrayed by sopranos Sara Schabas and Gillian Grossman, with music direction by Cheryl Duvall.

Opera in Concert: From the scope and scale of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s “Grand Opera in Concert” performances of Jules Massenet and Louis Gallet’s Thaïs, on Nov 7 and 9 at Roy Thomson Hall, to the intimate informality of Opera by Request’s Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Nov 15 at College St. United Church, opera in concert is alive and well as an art form in these parts. So it’s a fitting close to this exercise to give a special nod to a production by the company, now in its fifth decade, that pretty much single-handedly made the genre a natural and necessary part of the fabric of all things operatic around here: VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert’s presentation on Dec 1 of Leoš Janáček’s 1921 opera, Katya Kabanová.

Sung in English, the performance, in the company’s customary Jane Mallet Theatre surrounds, will feature Lynn Isnar, soprano; Emilia Boteva, mezzo; and tenors Michael Barrett and Cian Horrobin; with Jo Greenaway, music director/piano, and, as always, Robert Cooper, as chorus director. It’s not the opera that the brilliant 20th-century composer of Jenufa, The Cunning Little Vixen, and The Makropulos Affair is best known for. But that is the whole point. Opera in concert allows presenters, as play readings sometimes do, to bring to the eyes, and more importantly ears, of audiences, works that, for a range of reasons that have nothing to do with artistic quality, might otherwise be consigned to archival oblivion. And we would all be the poorer for it.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Against the Grain's 2017 production of La BohèmeQuick now. What do Bob’s Burger Bar in Kenora, the Red Lion Smokehouse in Thunder Bay and the SRO Nightclub in Sudbury have in common? Answer: they are the last three stops, October 5, 6 and 8 on an 11-city cross-Western Canada tenth anniversary tour of Against the Grain Theatre’s groundbreaking production of La Bohème, before, fittingly, settling in for a further 11 performances at the Tranzac Club in Toronto. The Tranzac was where, in 2011, Against the Grain burst onto the Toronto opera scene with their interpretation of the classic Puccini love story updated from 19th-century Paris to the uncompromisingly unglamorous environs of this iconic Brunswick Ave watering hole. If you’ve missed the show so far (or just missed it while it was gone) you get 11 opportunities to make amends, between October 11 and 25, and they’ve put together an anniversary season that reflects both the company’s past and ongoing creative flair. Take a look. They are at againstthegraintheatre.com

Turning 40 in style

Take the streetcar almost as far south as you can down Bathurst Street from the Tranzac, and you come to Stackt Market, at 28 Bathurst, built entirely of shipping containers and home to more than 30 retailers, service providers, event spaces and, yes, a brewery. As unlike the Tranzac as one might imagine, if you make it down there October 10 at 6pm (and have $225 to spare) you can join a select group of opera aficionados in raising at least one glass to Tapestry Opera, celebrating 40 groundbreaking years on the Toronto and North American new opera scene. Originally the brainchild of artistic director Wayne Strongman and Claire Hopkinson, now heading the Toronto Arts Council, Tapestry has successfully weathered the proverbial succession storm, and in the capable hands of artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori, continues to break new ground, carrying the essential storytelling power of the operatic art form into territories and media that were unimagined when the company was formed, intersecting in the past with punk rock, film, Persian classical music, physical theatre, turntablism and hip-hop. Next month, November 20 to 23, the ongoing program/project/series they call TAP:EX will take their operatic explorations into Sidewalk Labs experimental workspace at 307 Lakeshore E. for a night of “experiential opera.” (They will also be reviving Chan Ka Nin and Mark Brownell’s monumental 2001 mainstage opera, Iron Road, in an opera-in-concert remount next July 15 at Koerner Hall. But that will definitely be another story!) Go to tapestry.com for details of everything they have in store.

Erin Wall. Photo by Kristin HoebermannOpera in Concert

Tapestry’s Iron Road next July would be a very long time to wait for fans of opera in concert as an art form. But there’s never a dearth of the art form here. At one end of the spectrum, Opera by Request hits the ground running, October 4 and 5, at their intimate College St. United home base, with an OperOttawa presentation of Bizet’s Pearl Fishers, with Cristina Pisani, soprano (Leila); Robert Martin, tenor (Nadir); Norman Brown, baritone (Zurga); and John Holland, bass (Nourabad). And at the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of size of undertaking – November 7 and November 9 – the Toronto Symphony Orchestra presents an opera-in-concert rendition of Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, with Erin Wall, soprano; Joshua Hopkins, baritone; Andrew Staples, tenor; Nathan Berg, bass-baritone; Liv Redpath, soprano; and others; along with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, and the inimitable Sir Andrew Davis conducting.

Opera Atelier

Back in 1996, as a fledgling opera company, Opera Atelier took a Mozartian sacred cow by the horns, mounting what was not only the first period production of Don Giovanni in North America, but one which stood the Bergmanesque gloom of standard treatments of the opera on its head, by exploring with savage glee the darkness of the comedy inherent in the plot. Remounted in 2004 and again in 2011, this year’s iteration boasts a cast that as always, is a blend of familiar faces – performers for whom Atelier’s commedia-based, stylized gestural vocabulary is comfortable second nature – and newcomers who more often than not, once they get past the learning curve, understand and revel in the freedom of not having to worry about what their bodies are doing while their voices soar. This production features Colin Ainsworth, Gustav Andreassen, Mireille Asselin, Stephen Hegedus, Carla Huhtanen, Olivier Laquerre, Meghan Lindsay and Douglas Williams in the singing cast; Marshall Pynkoski, stage director; Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, choreographer; Artists of Atelier Ballet; Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra; and David Fallis, conductor. It opens October 31 and continues November 2, 3, 8 and 9. operaatelier.com

Canadian Opera Company

I talked a bit about the COC’s Turandot in the previous column, but the run, about to open as we go to press, continues to October 27, by which time, I predict, lovers and haters of Robert Wilson’s uncompromising staging will have lined up on opposite sides of the Four Seasons lobby to do battle. As I said then, having seen Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, it’s a production I would not miss.

At risk of getting lost in the fog of operatic audience wars is the second of the two fall COC productions, opening Oct 12 and running till October 26, Dvořák’s Rusalka with Sondra Radvanovsky, soprano (Rusalka); Pavel Černoch, tenor (The Prince); Ŝtefan Kocán, bass (Vodnik); Elena Manistina, mezzo (Jezibaba); Keri Alkema, soprano (The Foreign Princess); Johannes Debus, conductor; and Sir David McVicar, stage director. MacVicar’s new production, for the Lyric Opera of Chicago has been getting rave reviews, and if the chemistry that Kerri Alkema (as Giovanna Seymour) and Radvanovsky generated in Anna Bolena here in May 2018 is anything to go by, we are in for a treat. coc.ca 

And there’s always more

Check out the Music Theatre listings in this issue of the magazine (or go to “Just Ask” under the listings tab on our website) for details on all the following:

OCT 8, 12 noon: Canadian Opera Company/U of T Opera. Vocal Series: Parlami d’Amore - Speak to Me of Love. Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

OCT 19, 2:00: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Early Music Concerts: Acis and Galatea. Handel: Acis and Galatea. Heliconian Hall.

OCT 31, 12:10: University of Toronto Faculty of Music. Thursdays at Noon: Opera Spotlight - The Marriage of Figaro Preview. Walter Hall, Edward Johnson Building, University of Toronto.

NOV 1, 7:30: Royal Conservatory of Music. The Glenn Gould School Fall Opera: Siren Song. Music by Jonathan Dove, libretto by Nick Dear. Mazzoleni Concert Hall, Telus Centre.

NOV 1 and 3, 7:30: Opera York. La Traviata. Music by Giuseppe Verdi, libretto by Francesco Maria Piave. Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts.

David Perlman can be reached at publisher@thewholenote.com. Opera-related leads and news should be directed to opera@thewholenote.com.

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