2208 On OperaThe focus of Toronto opera enthusiasts’ attention in April, self included, was the COC’s revival of the much heard of but seldom seen Canadian opera from 1967, Louis Riel, now running to May 13. The focus this month is on Tapestry Opera’s presentation of the world premiere of a new full-length Canadian opera, Oksana G., on May 24.

Since Oksana G. will be the largest production Tapestry has presented since Chan Ka Nin’s Iron Road in 2001, I spoke with Tapestry Opera artistic director Michael Mori in April about how the work came to be and how it was decided to expand it beyond chamber opera scale.

Mori said that composer Aaron Gervais and librettist Colleen Murphy met at a Tapestry LibLab in 2006: “In the LibLab, over the course of two weeks, four writers and four composers get to work with every one of their counterparts on a short ‘seed’ scene, in a kind of speed-dating fashion where the pressure and intensity of it are meant to encourage ideas that are free from the fetters of self-doubt. Sometimes the collaborations are just an experiment, but sometimes we strike on the kernel that shows the dynamic between the two creators that could be very exciting for something bigger.”

At the time, the subject of human trafficking was in the air. As Mori says, “Aaron and Colleen were talking about something that was more of an issue in 2006 than now, although it’s coming back with the war in Ukraine. With the fall of the Soviet Union came poverty in certain areas and with that came crime including human trafficking. This would be the world within which they wanted to explore the character of Oksana.” That collaboration led up to its performance as one of the “Tapestry Briefs” in 2006 where it had the title, The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G.

At that point Wayne Strongman, former A.D. of Tapestry, “felt it had the potential to develop into a fully grown opera. Even since the beginning Wayne and the creators had been thinking that this was one that needed a bit more time, a bit more breadth and scale, so that it wouldn’t be a two- or three-person piece in a chamber setting but would have both an epic-ness to the music and to the libretto, so the scalability of the staging would have to encompass that.”

Mori continues: “In those first years the Canadian Opera Creation Fund, an initiative of the Canada Council, was instrumental in first helping develop the work, as would later the COC and the Banff Centre. I came in 2012, a year before the first workshop of the second act. One of the reasons for the length of time between the Brief and and the workshop was that director Tom Diamond and Colleen felt that the characters should not sing everything in English but in the original languages the characters would be using. Colleen worked with a number of translators on giving this an element of realistic naturalism so that Ukrainian characters sing in Ukrainian among themselves and in Russian when communicating with a Russian or Italian with an Italian. Of course, this means the opera will be presented with surtitles.”

Canadian coloratura soprano Ambur Braid had originally been scheduled to sing the title role, but she had to pull out when an opportunity arose for her in Europe. Nevertheless, Mori is more than pleased with the replacement he found in Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi, who recently received her master’s degree in Operatic Performance from the University of Toronto. As Mori explains, “One reason why it is exciting to have Natalya Gennadi sing the role of Oksana is that she grew up in Ukraine at the time depicted in the opera. She has direct experience of poverty there, of hunger, of sharing shoes and of people in friends’ families who disappeared and reappeared five years later, and of some who never came back. So she will be able to sing with authority because it is her mother tongue and also because she has the greatest insight of any of us into what was happening at that time.”

Producing opera on a larger scale fits in with Mori’s overall plans for Tapestry’s future: “Oksana G. is a bigger project than we have done in about 15 years. Wayne and I wanted it to be special but we are a fiercely nimble company. I also wanted it to be within our ability to be flexible and to continue producing. One of the things I have tried to prioritize since I have become artistic director is that I want to present bigger shows in Toronto every year. So in the last four years we’ve had Shelter, M’dea Undone, The Devil Inside, Rocking Horse Winner and now Oksana. It was important to me also that this wouldn’t be so big that we would have to take a couple years off.”

Mori deliberately chose the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre on Front Street for the production because it is a non-traditional opera venue: “We want to embrace what it means to be an opera company in the 21st century in Toronto. So in creating our own theatre inside the space on Front Street, it’s going to have a much more industrial feel that won’t seem like you’re walking into one of those theatres that suggests a very prescriptive theatre experience.”

Mori emphasizes that “Oksana is a full-force opera. There will be over 40 people on stage, some as villagers, some as other trafficked women, and this lends to the breadth of her journey from a small town in Ukraine to a refugee shelter in Italy. The score was originally orchestrated for about 36 people, but since the space we’re using doesn’t have a pit, such forces would overwhelm the singers. Therefore, Aaron has reduced the orchestration to about 16. The future of the work will depend entirely on the openness of other producers in Canada and the States to this piece. This is not an opera about human trafficking but it is an opera that is framed by the challenge that that presents in the same way that Tosca [running at the COC until May 20] is framed by the politics of its time. It’s a story about survival and heroism and challenging the demons that you face and overcoming this idea that women in opera shouldn’t always be portrayed as victims.”

The key to the opera’s impact will be the empathy that we feel for Oksana: “One of the most important things is that the victims in human trafficking are dehumanized and we tend to dismiss the fact that they could be your sister, your friend; it could be anyone from any background. Just following Oksana’s story, her challenge to redemption, we take a human journey. We haven’t been given a lesson in anything but what we will always remember is that there are humans out there that this is happening to, and we do have an opportunity to know more, to help. It is an emotional journey that can help us to transcend that block that our culture has with looking at uncomfortable topics.”

To sum up, Mori is very excited about his cast and creatives and what they will do: “The team we have is really something. You never know how these things will go but I often find that if you put the right people in the room together, magic will happen.”

Oksana G. plays at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre May 24, 26, 28 and 30. Natalya Gennadi sings Oksana. Tenor Keith Klassen is Konstantin, the man who trafficks her to the West. Tenor Adam Fisher sings Father Alexander who runs the refugee camp where Oksana finds herself. And mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó is Sofiya, Oksana’s mother. Tom Diamond, associated with the work since the beginning, is the stage director and the increasingly in-demand Jordan de Souza conducts.

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

2207-OperaBanner.jpg2207 On Opera 1While there are several noteworthy operas on offer in April, one looms over them all. This is the COC’s first new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel since it premiered in 1967. Co-produced by the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre, the new production will give Canadians the rare opportunity to see what has often been called the greatest Canadian opera ever written.

Written and performed for Canada’s centennial in 1967, Louis Riel is being revived for the sesquicentennial this year. Reasons for the scarcity of productions of it are not hard to see. The opera is in three acts and 17 scenes, requires a chorus, a 67-member orchestra and has 39 named roles. Composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore wanted to create an epic opera on the model of French grand opera and one could say they succeeded only too well.

In an interview in March, director Peter Hinton threw light on how he plans to meet the many challenges that the opera poses. Speaking of his concept for the production, Hinton explained, “What we’ve tried to do is create a setting that can serve each of the locations of the opera but also create a sort of container of imagery that in some ways sets the entire opera at the trial of Louis Riel. So on the one hand the set resembles Fort Garry, an enclosure, the contrast of a colonized building against an incredible landscape of the land, and also a courtroom where the events of history are put on trial and we’re examining the motivations and intentions behind enormous ideas like governments, justice, confederation. So it was very challenging but very exciting because the ideas of the opera are really big, the history is very big, and not surprisingly it’s very contemporary. Yes, it’s a historical story, but it’s one that continues to speak to us today.”

Hinton said that Somers and Moore made an intriguing choice of subject for an opera meant to celebrate Canada’s centennial: “I thought it was very interesting that they chose the history of Louis Riel. And I think that’s a very key kind of distinction because when I first sat down to listen to it I suspected it might be a very pro-Canada, ‘we are one nation,’ idealized kind of history telling. But I was really taken with how critical it is, how it brought forward the problems of Confederation, that it exposed Sir John A. Macdonald and his political motivations for Confederation in a very critical way. And so it poses very contemporary questions about what are we commemorating, what are we celebrating, what, in addition to our history of achievement, [are] our losses, our injustices, what continues to be needed to be worked out and expressed and understood today.”

Thus, Hinton’s concept for the opera as a trial means more than Riel’s trial. Canada and how it was founded are also on trial. In addition, Hinton points out, he is re-examining the opera itself: “In another way we’re sort of putting the opera on trial. Clearly, if the COC were to take on creating a new opera today about Louis Riel, it would have more indigenous and Métis involvement in the creation of it. So even more than the challenges of staging the narrative of Louis Riel, the politics of it have been much more challenging and very, very difficult to reconcile oneself with because opera itself might be characterized as one of the most colonial art forms because its roots are so Eurocentric.”

2207 On Opera 2The solution, as he explains it, was to treat Harry Somers’ and Mavor Moore’s opera as an artifact of its time.

“It reflects very much the aesthetic sensibilities of contemporary music of the 1960s and it has great dramatic strength and power and beauty. It also has many colonial biases. So part of the job here is to do the opera and let its beauty be heard and soar and not be afraid to cast light on its biases; not to pretend the opera is an Indigenous creation – it is definitely created by two white settler guys – but to try to open up a more inclusive representation in the show.

“And I have to say honestly that [COC General Director] Alexander Neef knew exactly what I was talking about…it took me a long time to make a commitment to be involved because of issues about inclusion and appropriation especially in light of Truth and Reconciliation. I’m very aware of my privilege and my own cultural heritage as a director for the piece. So I really had to think a way through that I could contribute without continuing a legacy of misrepresentation.”

To achieve this, Hinton has re-envisioned the opera’s chorus: “In the original production there was one very large opera chorus who played a variety of roles from members of the Métis Assembly to demonstrators at an Orangemen’s protest in Toronto. And I decided to split up the chorus and identify them culturally. So we in fact have two choruses in this production – one which we are calling the Parliamentary Chorus. This chorus is in modern dress and sing the allocated choral parts in the score but they are removed from the action. They sit above in a gallery not unlike visitors to a house of parliament and comment on the opera, debate the opera, encourage characters within the narrative to act or not. But they do nothing. They have no physical impact on the story or its outcome. They comment.

“In contrast and in equal representation in the show is a 35-member Indigenous chorus who are a physical chorus and we’re calling them the Land Assembly. They physically embody the world in which the narrative Riel is enacted and are directly involved in all of the action but are not given a voice. So in many respects the opera is one about silence, about who speaks on behalf of whom, and who gets a voice and who doesn’t. And so what I’m very hopeful about is that our Land Assembly brings a very strong Indigenous representation of bodies on stage and has an impact of reminding the audience as they see this story enacted that land is also about people. And the opera is also very much people and groups and where does someone stand as an individual, what do they represent. That’s one aspect of the show that will be very different from the way it was done 50 years ago.”

The COC has cast Indigenous men and women to make up the Land Assembly. In addition new characters have been added to the opera to present a more informed history of the Métis and Indigenous people. The previously unattributed opening vocal line is now delivered by a character known as The Folksinger, to be sung by Jani Lauzon, a singer of Métis heritage. The new role of The Activist, to be played by Cole Alvis of Métis-Irish/English heritage, will deliver the Land Acknowledgement as the opera unfolds, setting the tone for interpreting the action playing out on stage. 

 A separate group of 30 artists will play the 39 named characters in the opera with baritone Russell Braun as the title character. Among these are Joanna Burt, a Métis/Saugeen Ojibway artist, who sings Sara Riel, Cree actor and playwright Billy Merasty as the Plains Cree chief Poundmaker and Cree bass-baritone Everett Morrison as Cree war chief Wandering Spirit.

Justin Many Fingers, a singer, actor and dancer from the Lavern Kainai Blackfoot Reserve in southern Alberta, will perform two dance sequences titled “Buffalo Hunt,” in the last scene of Act II, intended as a reenactment of a Métis buffalo hunt.

Asked if, despite the opera’s biases, it is still a work worth being revived, Hinton answered, “Definitely. I think it’s a magnificent work of art. And it’s really important that we revive it and examine it. It was the first opera written by Canadians with a Canadian story produced at the Canadian Opera Company and so it’s a very interesting thing to take a look at what was created 50 years ago, where we have come in that time and how this piece sits within the repertoire of the works the COC does. I think it’s a really important complement to that. And I think the work is very powerful and very strong, but it requires context.

“We have to look at Louis Riel as one of the first civil activists. He’s right up there to me with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the states. He was an incredibly progressive person for his time. So looking at the history again in operatic terms is incredible and the show has enormous, enormous power and range, from satire in the way that Macdonald and Cartier and their political manoeuvres are expressed, to deep tragedy of someone who gave his entire life for justice for the people and maybe expressed it best in losing it. There’s a tragedy in that. It’s a magnificent work in that regard, so all of the efforts of this production are to bring that genius to light in it and to see how we can see that with the knowledge we have today. Producing the work is not just a chance to look but but also to guide us forward.” 

Louis Riel runs for seven performances from April 20 to May 13 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto and on June 15 and 17 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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

2206- BBB - On Opera 1.jpgThis March offers a feast for opera lovers who fancy a taste of something other than the standard opera fare. There are several opera rarities and two world premieres on offer and they are so scheduled that an intrepid operagoer can see them all.

The month begins with the world premiere of Odditorium from Soundstreams running March 2 to 5, a theatrical presentation of excerpts from R. Murray Schafer’s 12-opera Patria cycle. Director Chris Abraham has taken four sections of the cycle to create a 75-minute theatre piece for two singers (Carla Huhtanen and Andrea Ludwig) and two dancers in which Ariadne, one of the cycle’s reappearing characters, goes deep into a labyrinth where she encounters sideshows, lovers, buskers and Tantric experts. Schafer’s music has been re-scored for harp, accordion and percussion. Since the company devoted to presenting Patria last produced part of the cycle in 2013, Odditorium will provide audiences with a rare chance to become acquainted with Schafer’s magnum opus.

Krása’s Brundibár: Overlapping with Odditorium, running from March 3 to 5, is the first-ever performance by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company of Brundibár by Czech composer Hans Krása (1899-1944). Brundibár is an important children’s opera since it was written by a Jewish composer in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and first premiered in a children’s orphanage in Prague in 1942. By the time of the performance, Krása had been transported to the concentration camp in Terezin (then known as Theresienstadt). By the next year almost all the chorus and staff had also been transported to Terezin. Terezin was set up as a model camp for propaganda purposes and the inmates were allowed to pursue the arts. From 1943 to 1944 Krása and his casts performed the opera 55 times. (According to new CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, the cast had to be constantly replaced as children were sent on to Auschwitz for extermination.)

One would not know the gruesome circumstances surrounding the opera from the work itself, though. It concerns a brother and a sister who try to earn money for milk for their ailing mother by singing in the town square. Brundibár, an evil organ-grinder with a moustache, chases them away, but with the help of three animals and the children of the town, the children chase him away.

I spoke with Burry, who was involved in the first production of the opera in Toronto in 1996. He said, “Since the opera is only about 35-minutes long, the CCOC received permission to use the film The Lady in Number 6 (2013) to frame the live performance. The film is about Alice Herz-Somers, who played the piano for Terezin performances and whose son was in the opera. We will also be using songs from the cantata For the Children (1996) by Canadian composer Robert Evans (1933-2005) that uses poetry written by the children of Terezin.” The CCOC’s production will mark the 75th anniversary of the work’s first performance in Prague. That the opera should have been performed in a concentration camp, Burry says is “a testament to the power of art.”

One question is how aware the young performers are of the historical context of the opera. As CCOC’s managing director Ken Hall wrote me, “As for the understanding of the kids, we have taken some pains to educate them on the circumstances of the opera. They have met John Freund, a Terezin survivor who attended the opera in the camp and had a lecture session with children’s novelist and holocaust educator Kathy Kacer. Some of children will be taking the production on tour this summer where they will actually visit the Terezin memorial.”

Concerning what it is like to work with children, director Joel Ivany wrote me, “What I enjoy about working with these younger performers is the expectation that they have for this experience. They know they are working with opera professionals and they’re trying their best to think about stagecraft, musicality, character and focus. Also, to see the sheer joy they get when you give them a prop to use is a great reminder of why we do this.”

2206- BBB - On Opera 2.jpgThe Masqued Man: The second world premiere of the month, running March 10 and 11, is Toronto Masque Theatre’s The Man Who Married Himself by composer Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Anna Chatterton with choreography by Hari Krishnan. The story derives from an Indian folktale about a man who, unwilling to marry a woman, creates a lover from his own left side. He is enchanted by her perfect beauty until he finds that this new woman longs for freedom and desires someone else.

Chatterton describes the background of her libretto: “While writing the libretto for The Man Who Married Himself, I was inspired by the work of contemporary Indian poet, scholar and translator A.K. Ramanujan. His renowned collection A Flowering Tree (1997) includes the original folktale which underpins our contemporary masque. Ramanujan’s work as a translator led me to the mid-17th-century Telugu poet Kshetrayya, whose erotic devotional songs [or padams] were written for, and in the voice of, the dancing courtesans who performed for both gods and kings. For me, these padams bring to life the sensual and intimate world of the original folktale The Man Who Married His Own Left Side.”

Palmer mentions that she began writing the opera while in India: “My earliest work on the piece was while I was in residence at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. This is a training school for girls and boys in the traditional vernacular music theatre form of Kattaikkuttu. I worked collaboratively with students exploring the original folk tale through vocal and movement-based improvisation…Members of the creative team (Anna, Hari and myself) express ourselves through our own creative voices, grounded in our respective traditions. The dramatic combination of song and dance is common to many Indian forms of music drama, but unlike the role of movement in Western opera, dance is an equal partner in the work.”

The opera will feature countertenor Scott Belluz, jazz vocalist Alex Samaras, improvisational Carnatic singer Susha and dancers Jelani Ade-Lam and Sze-Yang Ade-Lam. The piece is directed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. Larry Beckwith conducts a six-member period instrument ensemble. The percussionist’s set-up will include hurdy-gurdy, tom-tom, cymbal, rattle, woodblocks, triangle, cowbell and hand drum. Following TMT’s motto of presenting “performing arts in fusion,” The Man Who Married Himself will thus combine song, music and dance as well as East and West.

Two 18th-century rarities: Also noteworthy this month are two 18th-century rarities being presented by Toronto opera schools. On March 15 and 17 the Glenn Gould School presents La cecchina (1760) by Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800). It is a perfectly delightful comic opera that anticipates Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by focusing not on the deeds of historical or mythological characters but on the lives of ordinary people of the composer’s own time. Cecchina is conducted by Les Dala and directed by Marilyn Gronsdal, a frequent assistant director with the COC.

At the same time, March 16 to 19, University of Toronto Opera presents the seldom-performed Handel opera Imeneo (1740), a piece for only five soloists. The production is directed by Tim Albery, who directed the COC’s fantastic Götterdämmerung. This opera is on a much more intimate scale. As Albery describes it: “At an estate by the sea five young people struggle with increasing desperation to unravel a tangled, intractable web of love, gratitude, loyalty and friendship.” This will be the Toronto premiere of Imeneo and, according to U of T Opera Administrator Catherine Tait, likely “the Canadian premiere of the original (1740) version in which the title role is sung by a bass.” The work will be conducted by renowned countertenor and early music specialist Daniel Taylor.

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

2205 On OperaOn January 12 the Canadian Opera Company unveiled its 2017/18 season. The season will include the return of two recent COC productions, new productions of three operas not seen at the COC for 17 years or more and a company premiere of an opera by Richard Strauss. It is a well-rounded season that ought to have wide appeal.

One new feature in the evolution of the COC as a company was announced: the naming of its first artist-in-residence. For the coming season this will be renowned Canadian soprano Jane Archibald, who will appear in three of the six operas. In addition to her season-long residency, Archibald will perform in the COC’s Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre and work with the young artists of the COC Ensemble Studio and Orchestra Academy training programs in a mentorship capacity.

COC General Director Alexander Neef comments, “It’s exciting for the company and our audiences to have someone of Jane Archibald’s calibre choose to spend so much of her time with us… This kind of commitment from Jane is a testament to the international reputation of the COC, solidifying the company and our opera house as a showcase for the world-class talent working in opera today.”

Fall 2017: Opening the fall season from October 5 to 28 will be the company premiere of Richard Strauss’ Arabella (1933). Only the fifth opera by Strauss the COC has ever staged, Arabella is a co-production with Minnesota Opera and Santa Fe Opera and premiered with the latter company in 2012. The opera was Strauss’ final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who had written the libretti for Elektra (1909), Der Rosenkavalier (1911) and Ariadne auf Naxos (1912).

Arabella is a comedy set in Vienna in 1860 dealing with the financial crisis of the Waldner family. The family has two daughters, the beautiful Arabella, who needs to marry a wealthy man to save the family, and the younger Zdenka, whom they have brought up as a boy to save the expense of her coming out as a debutante.

Renowned Canadian soprano Erin Wall sings Arabella and Jane Archibald sings Zdenka. Mandryka, who woos Arabella, will be sung by Polish bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny. Canadian tenor David Pomeroy is Matteo, whom Zdenka loves; Canadian baritone John Fanning is Count Waldner, the sisters’ father; German mezzo-soprano Gundula Hintz is their mother. COC Ensemble Studio graduate coloratura soprano Claire de Sévigné is the belle of the ball, Fiakermilli and Canadian mezzo-soprano Megan Latham is the Fortune Teller. The production is directed by Tim Albery, best known for his powerful production of the COC’s Götterdämmerung, currently being re-mounted, and is conducted by German conductor Patrick Lange.

Running in repertory with Arabella from October 11 to November 4 is a new COC production of Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love (L’elisir d’amore) from 1832. Elixir has not been seen at the COC since 1999. The new production is based on the 2008 co-production from San Francisco Opera, Colorado Opera and Kansas City Opera. American director James Robinson has relocated the action to a small town in the period before World War I. In this gentle comedy, the poor and shy Nemorino has fallen in love with the wealthy Adina. Despairing that Adina will fall for the dashing Captain Belcore, Nemorino buys a love potion from the travelling charlatan Doctor Dulcamara consisting only of red wine.

Three recent graduates of the COC Ensemble Studio training program take major roles. Tenor Andrew Haji is the lovesick Nemorino; soprano Simone Osborne is Adina; and baritone Gordon Bintner is Belcore. English baritone Andrew Shore is the sly Doctor Dulcamara. Toronto-born Yves Abel makes his COC debut at the podium.

Winter 2018: Beginning the winter season in 2018, from January 20 to February 23, will be a revival of the COC’s production of Verdi’s Rigoletto directed by Christopher Alden and last seen in 2011. Audiences will recall this production as the one where the entire action is set inside the central room of a Victorian men’s club. English baritone Roland Wood sings the title role and American soprano Anna Christy is his daughter, Gilda. American tenor Stephen Costello shares the role of the vicious Duke of Mantua with American tenor Joshua Guerrero. Georgian bass Goderdzi Janelidze makes his Canadian debut as the assassin Sparafucile and Canadian mezzo-soprano Carolyn Sproule makes her COC debut as Sparafucile’s sister Maddalena. Stephen Lord conducts.

Running in repertory with Rigoletto from February 7 to 24 is Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio (Die Entführung von dem Serail), not seen at the COC since 1980. The opera concerns the efforts of the Europeans, Belmonte and his servant Pedrillo, to rescue their sweethearts Konstanze and Blonde from captivity by the Muslim Turk, Bassa Selim. In this co-production with Opéra de Lyon, Lebanese-Canadian playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad has added his own prologue and reworked some of the dialogue to avoid caricature of the Muslim characters.

Jane Archibald performs one of her most acclaimed roles as Konstanze. Swiss tenor Mauro Peter sings Belmonte; Ensemble Studio graduates Claire de Sévigné and Owen McCausland are Blonde and Pedrillo, respectively. Croatian bass Goran Jurić is Osmin, Pasha Selim’s overseer and German actor Peter Lohmeyer appears in the spoken role of the Pasha. COC music director Johannes Debus conducts.

Spring 2018: The COC spring starts with the season’s only nod to modernity, a revival of Robert Lepage’s spectacular production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables running from April 13 to May 19. Most notable as the production where the orchestra is on stage and the orchestra pit is filled with water, Nightingale, last seen in 2010, uses all forms of puppetry from East and West to illustrate songs by Stravinsky as well as the short operas Renard (1922) and The Nightingale (Le Rossignol, 1914).

Making her role debut as the Nightingale is Jane Archibald in her third opera of the season. Singing the Fisherman, who discovers the Nightingale, is Owen McCausland. The Emperor, whose life is saved by the Nightingale, is sung by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn and American contralto Meredith Arwardy sings the role of Death. Johannes Debus conducts.

Concluding the 2017/18 season is the third in Donizetti’s so-called Three Queens Trilogy – Anna Bolena from 1830. The last time Toronto heard this work was in 1984 with Joan Sutherland in the title role and Richard Bonynge conducting. This time COC favourite Sondra Radvanovsky sings the role of Henry VIII’s spurned queen, the third queen after her Maria Stuarda in 2010 and her Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux in 2014.

American bass-baritone Eric Owens is Enrico VIII, King of England; American soprano Keri Alkema is Giovanna Seymour; American Bruce Sledge is Lord Riccardo Percy; and Canadian mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy sings the role of Smeton, the musician secretly in love with the queen. Italian maestro Corrado Rovaris conducts and Stephen Lawless, who directed the other two works in the trilogy, directs.

Currently: While the 2017/18 season announcement presents the COC’s future plans, the present 2016/17 COC season continues. Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which opened in January, runs until February 24. It is joined from February 2 to 25 by Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the concluding opera of his epic four-opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen. American soprano Christine Goerke, who captivated audiences as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre and Siegfried, the second and third parts of the cycle, returns to sing her first Götterdämmerung Brünnhilde. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager sings the role of Brünnhilde’s beloved Siegfried and German baritone Martin Gantner is Gunther, Siegfried’s rival. Estonian Ain Anger is Gunther’s villainous half-brother, Hagen, and Ileana Montalbetti is Gunther’s sister, Gutrune.

Tim Albery returns to direct his acclaimed production and COC music director Johannes Debus takes the plunge by conducting the massive opera for the first time.

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

2204 On Opera 1The past two years have seen Toronto opera companies unveil exciting new works or new interpretations of older works in December and January. This season, both large and smaller companies are saving these kinds of productions for spring 2017. In April 2017, the Canadian Opera Company presents a new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (1967). In the same month, Opera Atelier revives Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Médée (1693), which it will then take to Versailles. Tapestry Opera will present its grandest new opera since Iron Road (2001) in the form of Aaron Gervais’s Oksana G. in May. And Toronto Masque Theatre will present the world premiere of The Man Who Married Himself by composer Juliet Palmer. The reason for all this activity in 2017 is that companies are pulling out all the stops in celebration of Canada’s sesquicentennial that year.

For this December and January, however, most companies are sticking to the tried and true, and, given the general sense of unease in the world, perhaps that is not a bad thing. For professional, fully staged productions, Toronto Operetta Theatre is first off the mark with Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance (1879), the work by the duo most often staged by professional opera companies and the only one to be staged regularly in non-English-speaking countries. Since 2014, there have been productions of Pirates in Münster, Luxembourg, Caen and Saarbrücken.

TOT’s Pirates

This year’s Pirates will give audiences a chance to hear two performers who are better known for their work with Opera Atelier, sing in a genre far removed from Baroque opera. Tenor Colin Ainsworth, who will sing Jason for Opera Atelier in next year’s Médée, sings the role of Frederic, the young lad mistakenly apprenticed to a pirate. Bass-baritone Curtis Sullivan, who has sung La Haine in Armide and Samiel in Der Freischütz, will take on the role of Major-General Stanley. TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler will sing Ruth, the “piratical maid of all work,” and Vania Chan will sing the Donizetti-like role of Mabel. Austin Larusson and Anthony Rodrigues will share the role of Sergeant of Police, and Nicholas Borg and Janaka Welihinda will share the role of the Pirate King. Derek Bate, resident conductor for the COC, will conduct and TOT artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin will direct. The operetta runs December 27, 30, 31, 2016, and January 6, 7 and 8, 2017.

Mozart’s Flute

2204 On Opera 2The winter season at the Canadian Opera Company begins January 19 with Mozart’s The Magic Flute. This will be the first revival of the COC’s own production, designed by Myung Hee Cho and directed by Diane Paulus, that had its premiere in January 2011. For the revival, Ashlie Corcoran will recreate Paulus’ direction.

Tenors Andrew Haji and Owen McCausland will alternate in the role of Tamino. Sopranos Elena Tsallagova and Kirsten MacKinnon will share the role of Tamino’s beloved Pamina. Baritones Joshua Hopkins and Phillip Addis will alternate as Tamino’s bird-selling sidekick Papageno. And bass-baritones Goran Juric and Matt Boehler will share the role of the magician Sarastro, accused of having kidnapped Pamina. Coloratura soprano Ambur Braid, recently seen as Dalinda in Handel’s Ariodante at the COC, will sing the demanding role of Pamina’s mother, the Queen of the Night, at all 12 performances. Tenor Michael Colvin is Pamina’s guard Monostatos. The conductor will be Bernard Labadie, best known as the founding conductor of the Montreal-based period instrument ensemble Les Violons du Roy. The opera runs from January 19 to February 24.

Street Scene by Request

If one is looking for more unusual fare, Kurt Weill’s American opera Street Scene (1947) is coming back to town for the first time since Voicebox/Opera In Concert mounted it Feb 1, 2015, at the Jane Mallett Theatre. This time, Opera by Request is taking the ambitious project on. With lyrics by the poet Langston Hughes and a book by the playwright Elmer Rice, based on his own play, the action takes place outside a multi-ethnic tenement on the East Side of Manhattan over two hot days in 1946. The opera has two plots involving the Maurrant family. One plot line follows young Rose Maurrant and her romance with a neighbour Sam Kaplan, though she is being harassed both by her boss and by another neighbour. The other follows Rose’s parents, Anna and Frank, and Anna’s affair with the milkman Steve Sankey. Subsidiary stories deal with a woman about to have a baby and the eviction of a couple who can’t pay the rent.

One impediment to the opera being produced is that it has 19 named singing roles, ten named speaking roles and other roles for children and dancers. The cast is headed by soprano Shannon Mills as Rose, soprano Kellie Masalas as Anna, baritone Austin Larusson as Frank and Avery Krisman as Sam.

Music director and pianist for the opera, William Shookhoff, provided me with some background to the production. “Street Scene came about as a project envisioned by Shannon Mills, who works with a number of the COC children, and Brandon White, whose specialty is collaborative theatre and design. It was their feeling that this piece was as relevant now as ever (perhaps more so since November 8) and that, to do it justice, it needed to be presented in a more descriptive format than the usual concert arrangement. The church will be transformed by use of backdrops, suggesting tenement apartment windows, and various minimal set pieces. Dress will indicate hot summer and there will be no music stands, with far more interaction than concert format allows.” Street Scene runs December 2 and 3 at the College Street United Church.

Opera by Request has two other concert performances slated for January. On January 14, it presents Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel (1891) with Kate Carver as the pianist; and on January 27, Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787) with William Shookhoff as the pianist.

St. Anne’s G&S Treat

For Gilbert and Sullivan fans there is a real treat coming up in January. The amateur company St. Anne’s Music and Drama Society (MADS) will present a fully staged production, with an 18-piece orchestra, of The Grand Duke (1896), the final comic opera written together by the famous duo. In its day, it was the partnership’s only financial failure, unlike the equally rare Utopia, Limited (1893) that preceded it. Like G&S’s first collaboration Thespis (1871), it concerns a theatrical troupe that takes on political power. The Central European setting allows Sullivan the chance to imitate Viennese music extensively for the first time. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company did revive Utopia, Limited once for the company’s centenary in 1974, but it never revived The Grand Duke, even though it recorded both. This neglect only helped reinforce the view elsewhere that these two were undeserving of revival.

Productions by other companies such as MADS, however, have found that with cuts mostly to Gilbert’s unusually extensive dialogue, The Grand Duke is eminently enjoyable. MADS, first launched in 1963 by pianist Clifford Poole, wife Margaret Parsons, and Roy Schatz, has placed The Grand Duke in its regular cycle of G&S operas, meaning it is performed every 11 or 12 years. It was previously staged in 1996 and 2007.

Roy Schatz’s daughter Laura, the stage director, informed me of the challenges and rewards of the piece: “I very much like The Grand Duke and think it deserves to be performed more often. One of the challenges for any group who wishes to perform it is the number of leads necessary – 14 to be precise. It should not have come up in our rotation for another couple of years, but our group recently had an influx of very talented singers and I wanted to be able to feature them as well as our regular wonderful leads. We have a cast of over 50 and they are enjoying the challenge of learning one of the G&S operas that is seldom performed.” The Grand Duke will be staged at the Parish Hall of St. Anne’s Anglican Church from January 27 to February 5 for four evening and four matinee performances.

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

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