Emily Lukasik as Mindy in Hook Up. Photo by Dahlia Katz Michael Mori, artistic director of Tapestry Opera has said that his goal for the company is to present one new Canadian opera per year. This year Tapestry is presenting two. The first is Hook Up with music by Chris Thornborrow to a libretto by Julie Tepperman running January 29 to February 9. The second is Shanawdithit with music by Dean Burry to a libretto by Yvette Nolan running May 16 to 25. Since Hook Up will be playing through almost a third of February, I spoke with its creators about how the project came to be and what it concerns.

Tepperman points out that when Hook Up officially opens on January 30, it will mark five and a half years that she and Thornborrow have been working on it. Thornborrow and Tepperman met at Tapestry’s renowned LibLab (Composer-Librettist Laboratory) that brings eight composers and eight playwrights together to create ten-minute operas. These sometimes become the seeds of full-length works.

That is exactly what happened when Tepperman and Thornborrow met. As Thornborrow says, “The seed scene was about online bullying and slut-shaming at the time we were looking to tell a story that involves young people and women and a topic that was in the news quite a lot.” 

Tepperman says that “At LibLab we bonded over our both having worked with youth in schools and communities. Young women on both sides of Canada had recently committed suicide due to online bullying because of a sexual assault becoming public. Initially we were thinking of maybe a grade 7, 8, 9 audience and Tapestry was looking for an opera to tour schools. The seed scene was mostly filled with humour with the potential to go darker, which is where we eventually went with it.”

The final result is very serious in intent. Tepperman explains: “This is an opera that explores sexual assault and consent in the context of rape culture in a university setting, and though we are focusing on a university setting we realize today that these issues are widespread throughout society far beyond the university campus.”

“The opera follows three young people who enter university and have the chance to explore their sexuality but for them these are uncharted waters, and they are not prepared for the pressures of partying, drinking and having sex, or for the consequences.”

I ask whether there is a paradox here: a hook-up culture on campus where students have sex with no strings attached; and a culture of consent and shaming where sex turns out to have all kinds of strings attached. Both replied. “Within the context of our story we explore this in different ways,” Thornborrow says. “Two of the young people are already in a monogamous relationship, but being in university away from the guardianship of their parents they are free to have sex whenever they want – except that the woman begins to question whether that is all there is. She wonders if they are just turning into their parents. The problem comes with the pressure to drink and how that affects a person’s moral compass and the ability to make informed decisions. So we are questioning hook-up culture and the pressures on teens at university campuses.”

Julie TeppermanTepperman continues: “At the same time we’ve been very careful that this opera does not become simply a lesson or a brochure; we intentionally end in a place where there are more questions than answers. Hopefully that will spur further conversation. So from the very beginning Tapestry has been interested in engaging professionals who deal with these issues and will be present for talkbacks after performances. This is not about victims and perpetrators but whether any piece of art can contribute to a larger conversation.”

Why choose opera as the medium to tell this story? I ask. Thornborrow answers: “For me as a composer it is just the impulse to tell stories through music, and I feel opera is a really powerful medium to tell stories of high stakes. At the same time the aesthetic of this opera is not according to traditional opera. We’re doing this in a small theatre; we’re using microphones; the instrumentation is a drum set and piano; and it moves at a fast clip. People sing usually at the same speed that people would speak, although there are moments that call for full voice. You’re getting dialogue at real-time speed with the explosive power of music, with a fluidity between the sung dialogue and the moments of intense emotion. I think that the music amplifies the stories and the emotions from those stories.”

“Opera suits the new emotional environment that these 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds find themselves in” Tepperman adds. “And the gravity of the libretto really supports the world of the characters. Richard Greenblatt, who has been our dramaturge for the last two and a half years, has kept reminding us ‘Story, story, story’ and ‘clarity of intention.’”

Thornborrow also points to the presence of Greenblatt as dramaturge – he will also direct the opera – as a factor that made composing this opera a unique experience: “For me it’s been rewarding because the composing has happened in such close proximity to the writing. We [Tepperman and I] would get together every couple of weeks and work on a few more minutes of music and another scene of dialogue. I would play what I had written for Richard and was totally open to questions of speed and timing and whether the music was driving the story forward.

So often when you are composing you are all alone, he says. “With Richard, he would ask, ‘Why did you make this choice?’ and it was something I was open to and that I am so grateful for. It was such a different experience than writing a symphony or chamber music or even art songs. It was just extraordinary to get that feedback.”

Chris ThornborrowAbout the five-member cast, Thornborrow says, “We have a mix of musical theatre people and opera singers to achieve the authentic voice and aesthetic of this world. For me the show is a hybrid of opera and music theatre, but people can decide whatever they want to decide.”

Tepperman and Thornborrow are very curious about how Hook Up will be received. Theatregoers will be seeing an opera. Operagoers will be seeing an unconventional opera in an unconventional space for opera. And the two student matinees will allow students of the same age range as the characters to see themselves represented onstage. 

Tepperman says: “We had an almost endless audition process but once we chose our cast we made adjustments so that every singer would have moments when their voice could really soar.”

In the cast, soprano Emily Lukasik, who has recently been at the Shaw Festival, plays the main character Mindy. Alicia Ault, who is part of a jazz trio, plays Mindy’s best friend Cindy. In the story, the two friends had hoped to room together, but that was prevented by a mix-up in dorm assignments. Nathan Carroll, best known from musical theatre, plays Tyler, Cindy’s one-and-only boyfriend since Grade 11. Alexis Gordon, best known from musicals at Stratford, and Jeff Lillico, best known from acting for Soulpepper and for musicals with the Musical Stage Company, play all the other characters including professors, Mindy’s parents and various partygoers at a climactic party.

When asked why it took so long for the project to come to fruition, Tepperman answers: “It took five and a half years because the project kept evolving. We had written two separate 90-minutes pieces but after various workshops, we decided to throw them out. Under Richard’s guidance we finally decided exactly the story that we wanted to tell. In fact, we worked four or five months just on the story, so when we started to write we were really clear about what the story was.”

Thornborrow sums up: “Music heightens the emotion of every moment. Whether it is a pedestrian comedic dispute or a devastating revelation, all these moments are heightened by music. These kinds of stories need to be told again and again – first perhaps by theatre companies and now by opera.”

Hook Up had a preview on January 29, opened on January 30 and runs until February 9 at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. Richard Greenblatt directs and Jennifer Tung conducts. 

ON OPERA QUICK PICKS

CONTINUING TO FEB 9: Hook Up, Theatre Passe Muraille, 16 Ryerson Ave. Tapestry Opera presents the world premiere of this opera/music-theatre hybrid about three teenagers’ different experiences of sex and alcohol in their first year at university. The opera explores the issues of consent amidst the pressures to join university hook-up culture.

FEB 3, 2:30PM: VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert presents Fierabras, Jane Mallett Theatre, 27 Front St. E. This is an exceedingly rare chance not only to hear Franz Schubert’s opera written in 1823 (but not staged until 1897), but to hear it with an orchestra of period instruments played by the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon. The Moorish knight Fierabras, son of the King of Spain, fights against Charlemagne but is in love with his daughter who loves someone else, while in a subplot Fierabras’ sister falls in love with one of Charlemagne’s knights. Sung in German with English surtitles.

jacques arsenault against the grainFEB 16, 8PM: Against the Grain Theatre presents (La) voix humaine, Gallery 345, 345 Soraunen Ave. AtG usually presents its operas with a twist and in this case it’s Francis Poulenc’s monodrama for soprano, La voix humaine (1959), with a tenor, Jacques Arsenault as Lui instead of Poulenc’s Elle, confronting his ex-lover over the phone. Topher Mokrzewski is the pianist and Aria Umezawa directs.

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

The end of the old year and beginning of the new features a mix of old and new operas and old operas rejigged to be like new. There never used to be so much variety at this time of year, but it’s a challenge operagoers will gladly have to get used to.

(from left) Betty Allison as the Trainbearer, Susan Bullock as Elektra and Ewa Podleś as Klytämnestra in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Elektra, 2007. Photo Michael CooperElektra: The production on the largest scale in these two months is the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of Richard Strauss’ Elektra running for seven performances from January 26 to February 22. This will be the second revival of the imaginative production directed by James Robinson since its debut in 1996. It is especially noteworthy that this productions stars two former COC Brünnhildes. Christine Goerke, the COC’s most recent Brünnhilde, sings the title role and Susan Bullock, the Brünnhilde for the COC’s first ever Ring Cycle in 2006, sings Elektra’s hated mother Klytämnestra. Bullock previously sang the role of Elektra when the COC last presented the opera in 2007. Soprano Erin Wall sings Elektra’s sister Chrysothemis, baritone William Schwinghammer sings Elektra’s avenging brother Orest and COC favourite, tenor Michael Schade, sings Klytämnestra’s lover Aegisth. Johannes Debus conducts the score of this opera that inhabits the same rich, violent sound world as its immediate predecessor by Strauss, Salome, and is a real showpiece for the orchestra.

WOW Factor: Though they are largely unseen by the general public, the COC has steadily been developing a repertory of operas for children that it tours to schools all around the province. Lately, the COC has taken to giving the public a look at these charming works. Its newest is WOW Factor - A Cinderella Story with music by Gioacchino Rossini from his Cinderella opera La Cenerentola (1817) adapted by Stéphane Mayer with a new English libretto by Joel Ivany, artistic director of Against the Grain Theatre. Ivany is well-known for his ability to write new libretti to existing music as he has done for AtG’s Mozart series of Figaro’s Wedding (2013), Uncle John (2014) and A Little Too Cosy (2015). One can tell that La Cenerentola has undergone quite a lot of musical adaptation since the original runs about 148 minutes whereas WOW Factor runs only 50 minutes.

Rossini’s opera has no Fairy Godmother and neither does Ivany’s adaptation. In his updated version the hit singing show WOW Factor arrives at Cindy’s school. Students jump at the chance to compete for the top prize – especially with pop sensation Lil’ Charm rumoured to be there. Shy Cindy dreams of sharing her talents with the world but friends become mean girls when she steps into the spotlight. The question is can Cindy, driven by her desire to sing, and with a bit of help from a reluctant pop star and his sidekick, overcome her fears to find her own unique voice? The roles are sung by members of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio and before each performance, young audience members can take part in interactive activities related to the opera. The recommended age is from 5 to 12 years old.

Performances at 11am and 2pm take place on both December 1 and 2 in the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre and tickets are free for children under 12. The 11am performance on December 2 is designated as a relaxed performance and people of all abilities are welcome.    

TOT’s Fledermaus: Meanwhile, as it has done for more than 30 years, Toronto Operetta Theatre continues its service of helping Torontonians bridge the old and new years with operetta as it has done for more than 30 years. This year it revives its production of Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus for five performances from December 28, 2018, to January 2, 2019. Die Fledermaus, the peak of the Golden Age operetta, which has become over time intimately associated with New Year’s Eve in Europe and abroad, stars Lara Ciekiewicz, who previous was a stunning Sylva Varescu in Kálmán’s The Gypsy Princess in 2011. Also in the cast are tenor Adam Fisher, who sang Paris in TOT’s La Belle Hélène earlier this year, Caitlin Wood as Adele and TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler as Prince Orlovsky. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin not only directs but plays the role of Frosch, the jailer.

Silva-Marin’s re-imagination of the role of Frosch is one his best ideas in this Die Fledermaus, last seen in 2010. Typically, the role is played by a comedian who does a long spoken routine in Act 3 before the singing recommences. Silva-Marin avoids this general slump in the action by making Frosch a would-be opera singer who gets into a competition with the tenor he has locked up in the cells. This not only keeps the music going but is far funnier than any spoken-word routine I’ve seen.

Lucia Cervoni. CREDIT Tom WolfHamilton and Kitchener: Since the demise of Opera Ontario in 2014, symphonies in the two cities served, Hamilton and Kitchener, have begun including opera in their programming. In Hamilton the Brott Festival Orchestra has mounted a fully staged opera for several years during the Festival’s summer run. The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony has also begun adding opera to its schedule due to popular demand. On January 11 and 12 it will perform Bizet’s Carmen in concert with mezzo soprano Lucia Cervoni in the title role and tenor Ernesto Ramirez as Don José. The cast will also feature baritone Alexander Dobson; sopranos Midori Marsh, Claire de Sévigné and Autumn Wascher; baritone Chad Louwerse; the Opera Laurier Chorus, Laurier Singers and Alumni Choir; and the Grand Philharmonic Children’s Choir. Daniel Isengart is the director and Andrei Feher is the conductor.

Hosokawa’s Raven and Maiden from the Sea: Those interested in contemporary opera should know that renowned Japanese composer Toshio Hosokawa is in residence at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music this season. The faculty is staging several concerts to celebrate Hosokawa’s work, one of which is devoted to two of the seven operas he has written. The program is made up of Hosokawa’s setting of The Raven as a monodrama from 2012 and Futari Shizuka (The Maiden from the Sea) from 2017.

Hosokawa wrote The Raven, based on Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 poem, for Swedish mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant after he had heard her sing in his opera Matsukaze (2011). Hosokawa has noted the similarities in theme between The Raven and Japanese Noh drama in which creatures of nature play an important part. While all the roles in Noh are traditionally played by men, Hosokawa has said that having a mezzo-soprano interpret the part of the Narrator who mourns her lost love purposely reverses the tradition in order to broaden the theme to feelings of loss in general.  

Futari Shizuka (which literally means “The Two Shizukas”) was conceived as a companion to The Raven. It is based on a Noh drama attributed to Zeami Motokiyo (1363-1443) about the departed spirit of Shizuka Gozen, or Lady Shizuka, who possesses the body and soul of a young beautiful girl. Hosokawa’s librettist Oriza Hirata has updated the action to the present by making the girl a refugee who has made it to the Mediterranean Sea, and sings of her sorrow for wars and hateful disputes. Soprano Xin Wang will sing the role of the young girl. Ryoko Aoki, a Noh singer and dancer, will be the spirit of Lady Shizuka, the role she created in 2017. The double bill takes place in Walter Hall of the Edward Johnson Building at the University of Toronto on January 17 only. clip_image001.png

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

Joel IvanyWhen Canada’s largest opera company commissions a new opera like Hadrian from Rufus Wainwright and Daniel MacIvor, it will necessarily be seen as the major event of the season. Yet we should not forget that Toronto’s smaller opera companies have been creating new operas and new interpretations of opera all along. One of the most exciting of these is Against the Grain Theatre which will be presenting two important operas this season. The first is BOUND v. 2 by composer Kevin Lau to a libretto by AtG artistic director Joel Ivany. The second is a major revival of Kopernikus, the only opera by Québecois composer Claude Vivier (1948-83). I spoke with Ivany in October about BOUND v. 2, which plays for only three performances in November, about its background and intent.

BOUND v. 2 is the second stage in AtG’s experiment with a three-year, concept-to-realization production. The first stage, simply titled BOUND, premiered in December 2017 and presented the basic concept of artists choosing various arias and ensembles by George Frideric Handel to which Ivany would write new lyrics. The premise was that seven citizens were detained by a government and held against their will in a waiting room. The audience watched and heard about their struggles, hopes and fears. Composer Lau introduced new sound ideas and arrangements to place the arias in a modern sound world.

BOUND v. 2 takes BOUND a significant step further. BOUND v. 2 is no longer a collection of reimagined, repurposed Handel arias that Lau has arranged. Rather it is now a fully fledged opera by Lau inspired by Handel. As Ivany says: “Kevin Lau received a commission for this project between last year and this year. What he’s written will be used in our third and final version. In the last month or six weeks he’s really immersed himself in the world of Handel to essentially write a brand new opera which, especially for us, is kind of unreal. Typically we’ve taken a Mozart or Puccini opera and written a new story on top of that which is familiar and exciting. But for this, Lau has done more than arranging. He is adding his own composition so that this is truly a new piece inspired by Handel about the humanity crises which we, unfortunately, are still reading about in the news. We’re still hearing these stories about persecuted people both in North America and abroad.”

The first version of BOUND was written for seven soloists and piano. BOUND v. 2 is written for four soloists and a ten-piece chamber orchestra with electronics. Of BOUND v. 2, Ivany says: “It is further fleshed-out musically in that Kevin has taken melodies and scenes but written them brand new. The opera is by Kevin Lau but you will definitely say this sounds like Handel.”

Why do this? Ivany explains: “Many people around the first version were saying why not just write a brand new piece, but Kevin very intellectually says this is a unique challenge to take these stories [by Handel] which were written in a specific context and to start with them. But then to move them somewhere else is compositionally an unusually interesting creative challenge. For the company, this is a further step after our Orphée where we take these tunes and melodies that have stood the test of time and ask what they could sound like to an ear of today.”

The obvious question is that if BOUND v. 2 will eventually be the basis for a new opera, why retain the link to Handel? Ivany responds to this in several ways: “At one point we were talking to [COC general director] Alexander Neef, who was talking about the party atmosphere of Handel and how people would go to socialize at the opera. He was curious about what a Handel mashup with AtG could look like. We took that idea and instead of going the party route we were charged by the fuel of the political nature of what was going on in the world. We looked back at who Handel was and how he gave a performance of his Messiah at the Foundling Hospital in London in 1750 where all the proceeds went to keeping the hospital going. We saw he had an intention behind his genius to do good as well.” Indeed, a BBC documentary states that the 1750 performance of Messiah was “the first ever secular charity benefit concert in which art and philanthropy came together to raise money from the haves for the have-nots.”

Ivany continues: “We saw that Handel was a composer who had social responsibility in his heart that obviously comes across through his music, whether it was his Messiah, or Jephtha or Alcina. He wrote these very complex characters of people who were being persecuted and what they would sing about their plight. And so Handel seems in some ways a very fitting composer for our subject. Last year we sat the singers just around a table and asked what arias speak to you and why and what contemporary stories do you find that speak to you. And then we married those two together and tested it in version 1 and saw what worked.”

Ivany has lots of experience in past AtG shows of writing a new libretto to pre-existing music as AtG’s version of Puccini’s La Bohème (2011) and Mozart’s Figaro’s Wedding (2013),Uncle John (2014) and A Little Too Cosy (2015). Ivany explains how this process works when now he has to add substantially different content to an aria as well as translating it: “With BOUND v. 2 and working with the previous version and with Kevin as well, a lot of the music has come first. He’s found this beautiful melody and we can tweak it as we find the text, but it’s not the traditional way that this is done and so he’s been inspired by themes. For example, he told me, ‘Here is a portion where Miriam [Khalil]’s character sympathizes with the refugee crisis and I don’t know how you can make that work.’ But I’m able to find the arc in what he’s written and match that story with it. I think this only makes the music much more powerful. Obviously in opera traditionally the text comes first, but in opera it’s the music more than the text which moves you.”

Of the production in general, Ivany says: “I’m really curious to know how this opera will resonate with people knowing that it was primarily driven by the music. In the third version I intend not to act as stage director, which will be a big leap of faith for me because I’m used to uber-controlling everything. It’s a big step for our company. It was a test and it’s becoming more of a turning point. I think that’s healthy for the company and for these types of unique shows that are a mashup of old and new, old stories and new stories, old music and new text.”

The third and final version of BOUND will be AtG’s feature production in 2020 and the world premiere of this opera, Ivany explains. “We have intentionally been taking a step-by-step process to culminate in what we anticipate as an immersive experience for both the audience and performers. It’s hard to push repeat on certain things and it turns our hair grey in terms of each time we do a new thing, but it keeps us creative.”

As one might guess from AtG’s past projects, Ivany is keen to demolish the notion that opera is an elitist genre: “I don’t consider myself elite. In fact I consider myself very un-elite. So I think that opera is for everyone who is willing to be open to it and not just a specific group of people. We hope that we can show that in our works.”

BOUND v. 2 is performed as a workshop concert and runs November 19, 20 and 21 at the Great Hall, 1087 Queen St. W. The singers are soprano Miriam Khalil, countertenor David Trudgen, tenor Andrew Haji and baritone Justin Welsh as the cast of detainees with actor Martha Burns as the voice of the State. The music includes stylings by modular electronic artist Acote. AtG founding member and music director, Topher Mokrzewksi, conducts. 

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

The most important operatic event of the current season happens right at its beginning. It is the Canadian Opera Company’s presentation of the world premiere of Hadrian composed by singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright to a libretto by multi-award-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor. Hadrian is important as the first COC commission for the main stage since The Golden Ass in 1999 composed by Randolph Peters to a libretto by Robertson Davies.

Hadrian librettist Daniel MacIvor. Credit Jim RyceHadrian stars renowned baritone Thomas Hampson making his COC debut in the title role, equally renowned soprano Karita Mattila as Plotina also making her COC debut and tenor Isaiah Bell as Hadrian’s lover Antinous, last seen in Toronto earlier this year as Eurimaco in Opera Atelier’s production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Hadrian opens October 13 and runs to October 27; it is directed by Peter Hinton and conducted by Johannes Debus. 

The plot involves the Roman Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138 AD), whom historian Edward Gibbon counted among the “five good emperors” of Rome, despite Hadrian’s habit of having his opponents executed and despite his bloody suppression of the Third Jewish Revolt (132-136). Hadrian was married for political reasons to his predecessor Trajan’s grand-niece Sabina, likely at Trajan’s wife Plotina’s behest, and spent more than half of his reign travelling about the empire. 

In Bithynia he met the youth Antinous, who became the love of his life. Antinous accompanied Hadrian on the rest of his travels for the next six years until Antinous’ mysterious death by drowning in the Nile in 130 at the age of about 20. Hadrian’s grief was so great he spent the rest of his life memorializing Antinous. He had the city Antinopolis built near where the youth died; he deified him, inaugurated games to honour him and established a religious cult to worship him which spread and continued for centuries after Hadrian’s death. The cult was condemned by some pagans of Hadrian’s time and by the early Christian Fathers. Historians, especially in the 19th century, suppressed mention of Hadrian and Antinous’ amorous relationship and it was not brought fully to the general public’s attention until the publication of French author Marguerite Yourcenar’s celebrated novel Mémoires d’Hadrien in 1951.

(from left) Assistant conductor Derek Bate, composer Rufus Wainwright, and COC Music Director Johannes Debus at the first read-through of Hadrian’s score, May 2018. Courtesy COCIn September just as rehearsals for Hadrian were starting, I spoke to Daniel MacIvor about the genesis and development of writing the opera. (Wainwright, in fact, had begun working on an opera about Hadrian after reading Yourcenar’s novel long before he wrote his first produced opera, Prima Donna, that played in Toronto as part of the Luminato Festival in 2010.) 

When asked how he became involved with Hadrian, MacIvor replied, “They [at the COC] were looking for someone to come on board with this; Atom Egoyan is a friend of mine and he recommended me to Alexander [Neef] who got in touch with me. Initially, I said no because I didn’t know anything about Hadrian or Antinous, and I knew very little about opera. But Alexander suggested that I look at the material about Hadrian and Antinous and as soon as I started to read about them I was floored that I had never heard of them because it seemed so incredibly important. How could I, as a gay man, never have known about it? So I became extremely interested in it. The story deals with grief which is an important theme of mine, so then I took a meeting with Rufus and we determined that we could work together.”

Though Wainwright was inspired by Yourcenar’s novel, MacIvor felt the story needed a different perspective: “We did talk about Yourcenar’s book, but I rejected reading it because I prefer not to read fiction when I’m writing fiction. Besides that, from what I had read about the novel and from what Rufus said, it seemed that the novel positioned Antinous as more an object of love, whereas I was very interested at looking at what it was that kept the couple together for six years, a relationship ended only by Antinous’ untimely death. I felt the story needed to be about a relationship that was physical, spiritual, intellectual and emotional – that they were equals in the relationship and that that equality was frowned upon by people of the time.”

(MacIvor is correct. Though sexual relationships between older men and younger men were accepted in Ancient Rome, it was expected that the older man would be dominant in all aspects of the relationship.)

As it turned out, the late playwright Linda Griffith made an important contribution: “So when I was debating doing the job I went to visit Linda Griffiths and when she learned of the topic she gave me her copy of Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome (2009) by historian Anthony Everitt that she had just finished reading and that became my source book. One of the things Everitt talks about are the various theories of Antinous’ demise. Did he sacrifice himself in an effort to improve Hadrian’s health, was it an accident or was he murdered? Everitt offered a potential for drama there so I grabbed it. Treachery and duplicitousness are richly operatic. And then there’s also the question of Judea and Hadrian’s relationship to Jewry which is also historically known and I also created drama around that.”

(from left) Composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor at the first read-through of Hadrian’s score, May 2018. Courtesy COCMacIvor knew from the start what style of opera Wainwright intended and that affected how he approached the libretto: “I knew from the beginning that we were writing opera in the grand tradition – that I would be writing recits and arias and duets and I just went for it. I wanted the language to be formal, not casual as in [Benjamin Britten’s] Peter Grimes or in [John Adams’s] The Death of Klinghoffer

“I think that one of the things that drew Alexander to me in the first place was that if you look at my plays there’s a lot of white space on the page, so I think that might have been an early indication that I might be able to write a scene by using a minimum of words. And I love the challenge of that. It takes longer to sing a line than speak it and then there is the option that those words can be repeated over and over again.”  

MacIvor discussed the negotiations involved in collaboration: “I think structurally we landed well on the first draft, and then shifted quite a lot after that about where an aria lands or where a trio appears. Rufus and I met many times and it was a question of throwing axes and hammers with both of us feeling very passionate about the story. Opera is probably Rufus’ first musical love so he is deeply invested in it. He would speak in references to other operas for what he wanted and I would reject going there because I didn’t want to be influenced by other works. So we ended up bringing in a dramaturge, Cori Ellison, who works at Juilliard, to help bridge the very different ways we work in and I think now we are both very pleased with where we’ve landed.

“If Rufus said ‘we really need to have an aria here in this scene,’ then I would move things around and adjust what I needed to adjust. And there are adjustments in tone where a character needs to show their weakness here or their strength there, and he’d ask me to do that. There was lots of music he had written before I came on – like how he wanted to begin Act 3 which is just after the intermission and I made space for that. There is also an aria that he adapted from a pop song of his that he elevated and wanted included, so the libretto I presented four years ago has changed considerably. Yet, the four-act structure, where the main arias occur and what the story basically is, have not really changed radically.”

When asked how much of the opera he considers his, MacIvor replied: “The idea that Hadrian has the chance to relive two nights again with Antinous was something that I brought to the story. But Rufus agreed with it and the fact that he did agree also makes it his don’t you think? If you look at my other work you see that I’m obsessed with certain kinds of structures and themes and looking at the libretto you will see it’s all there, like You Are Here (2001), A Beautiful View (2006), Here Lies Henry (1995). There so much of the work that I’ve done about a person being forced to perform their life again, I think an audience who knows my work will see that in the opera.”

MacIvor has been strongly inspired by how important the story is: “Peter Hinton talks about this story really beautifully in saying that this is one of a trio of great love affairs upon which empires rose and fell. He talks about Dido and Aeneas, Antony and Cleopatra and Hadrian and Antinous. It’s all about Rome but it seems to feel weirdly relevant somehow. I think that the story of Hadrian and Antinous is an important one and I think that in giving it attention that something is served. There was a kind of homophobia surrounding it in that prevented people being able to address their story. And that fuels my passion to get this story out.” 

ON OPERA QUICK PICKS

SEP 30 TO NOV 3, VARIOUS TIMES: Eugene Onegin, Four Seasons Centre. This the COC’s first production of Tchaikovsky’s great opera since 2008.  This time it will be staged in the acclaimed production Robert Carsen created for the Metropolitan Opera.  Gordon Bintner sings Onegin, Joyce El-Khoury is Tatyana, Joseph Kaiser is Lensky and Johannes Debus conducts.

OCT 13 TO 27, VARIOUS TIMES: Hadrian, Four Seasons Centre. This the COC’s first commission for the main stage since The Golden Ass in 1999. Composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor bring to the stage one of history’s great gay love stories – that of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinous. The production stars the renowned Thomas Hampson as Hadrian and Karita Mattila, both making their COC debuts, with Isaiah Bell as Antinous. Peter Hinton directed and Johannes Debus conducts.

OCT 25 TO NOV 3, VARIOUS TIMES: Actéon & Pygmalion, Elgin Theatre. This is the first time Opera Atelier has presented Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s Actéon (1683) and Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Pygmalion (1748) as a double bill – two operas based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses.  Colin Ainsworth stars as both title characters with Mireille Asselin and Allyson McHardy.  The production travels later to Chicago and Versailles.

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

Judging from the playbills that opera companies have announced so far, the 2018/19 season looks to be an exciting one. Nearly every company, large or small, has a rarity or world premiere on offer to spice up the year.

Rufus Wainwright, composer of Hadrian. Photo by Matthew WelchHadrian: The most anticipated of these is the world premiere of Hadrian by Rufus Wainwright to a libretto by Daniel MacIvor. This is the first new opera that the Canadian Opera Company (COC) has commissioned for the main stage since The Golden Ass in 1999 by Randolph Peters to a libretto by Robertson Davies. Strangely enough, Hadrian also has a Roman theme, in that it focuses on how the grief of the Emperor Hadrian (reigned 117-138AD) for his lover Antinous begins to distract him from affairs of state. For the premiere, the COC has assembled a starry cast that includes Thomas Hampson as Hadrian, Isaiah Bell as Antinous, Karita Mattila as Plotina, the widow of Hadrian’s predecessor, and Ben Heppner as Dinarchus. Johannes Debus conducts and Peter Hinton directs. The opera runs from October 13 to 27.

Daniel MacIvor, librettist of Hadrian. Photo by Guntar KravisThe COC fall season begins with the Canadian debut of Robert Carsen’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Gordon Bintner sings the title role and Joyce El-Khoury the role of Tatyana, the young woman infatuated with Onegin. Johannes Debus conducts the opera, which runs from September 30 to November 3.

The COC’s remaining operas are standard repertory but with some spicy casting – Richard Strauss’ Elektra running January 26 to February 22, Mozart’s Così fan tutte running February 5 to 23, Puccini’s La Bohème running April 17 to May 22 and Verdi’s Otello running April 27 to May 21. Elektra will be of special interest since it stars two former COC Brünnhildes – Christine Goerke as the vengeful Elektra and Susan Bullock as her hated mother Klytämnestra. Otello should also be exciting with Russell Thomas in the title role and with Gerald Finley as Iago.

Measha Brueggergosman in Opera Atelier’s 2008 production of Idomeneo. Photo by Bruce ZingerOpera Atelier begins its season with two one-act operas it has never paired before. The first is Actéon (1683) by Marc-Antoine Charpentier and the second is Pygmalion (1748) by Jean-Philippe Rameau. Colin Ainsworth sings both title roles, Mireille Asselin sings Diana in the first and Amour in the second and Allyson McHardy sings Juno in the first and Céphise in the second. The double bill runs from October 25 to November 3 in Toronto and will later tour to Chicago and Versailles.

OA’s spring opera is Mozart’s Idomeneo (1781), but the draw for many people will be the return of soprano Measha Brueggergosman to the Toronto stage after a ten-year absence to sing the role of Elettra as she did when OA premiered this production in 2008. The rest of the cast is just as noteworthy. Colin Ainsworth sings Idomeneo, Wallis Giunta is Idamante, Meghan Lindsay is Ilia and Douglas Williams is Neptune. As usual Marshall Pynkoski directs and David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. The opera runs from April 4 to 13, 2019.

Tapestry Opera has much in store. From September 13 to 16 it presents Tapestry Briefs, in which four singers present short operas by four composers and four librettists. On March 29 and 30 it presents Songbook IX, a collection of highlights from Tapestry’s 39 years of opera creation.

Tapestry also will present two new full-length operas. The first is Hook Up by Chris Thornborrow to a libretto by Julie Tepperman, running from January 29 to February 9. The opera looks at the difficulties encountered by three friends when they discover sexual freedom at university, along with questions of shame and consent. The opera features three singers best known for work in musicals rather than opera – Alicia Ault, Nathan Caroll and Jeff Lillico. The second is Shanawdithit by Dean Burry to a libretto by Yvette Nolan. The opera tells of Shanawdithit (1801-1829), who was the last recorded surviving member of the Beothuk Nation in Newfoundland. In the last months of her life she created a series of drawings that expressed the loneliness of survival and her lost history. Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish mezzo-soprano Marion Newman sings the title role, with the rest of the cast and the performance dates in May 2019 to be determined.

Ivor NovelloToronto Operetta Theatre presents two of operetta’s greatest hits with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus running from December 28, 2018, to January 2, 2019, and Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow running from April 23 to 28, 2019. In between these blockbusters, however, on March 3, TOT presents a major rarity in the form of Ivor Novello’s operetta Perchance to Dream (1945), the only work for which he wrote both the music and the libretto. The operetta tells the usual story of the inhabitants of the same house, Huntersmoon, in three different historical periods – the Regency, the Victorian age and in 1945. Though a huge success in Novello’s day, it has seldom been revived, though many will know its most famous song, We’ll Gather Lilacs.

Vera Causa: While we have focused so far on opera in Toronto, it’s worth noting that recently small opera companies have been sprouting up across Ontario. One of these is Vera Causa Opera, based in Cambridge and serving what has become known as the Golden Triangle, Ontario’s answer to California’s Silicon Valley. For VCO the 2018/19 season is its most ambitious since it was founded by artistic director Dylan Langan in 2015. It begins with the 1884 rarity Le Villi (The Fairies), Puccini’s very first opera, which happens to be based on the same story that provided the scenario for Adolphe Adam’s ballet Giselle (1841). The opera will have three performances in Waterloo from November 16 to 18.

VCO’s second production is the world premiere of Langan’s own opera Dracula, to be performed in Cambridge on February 15, Waterloo on February 16 and Guelph on February 17. The company’s third production is Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, to be performed in the same three cities in the same order from April 5 to 7. VCO’s season concludes with its Canadian Opera Fest, which will include two brand new operas performed in the same three cities from June 14 to 16.

Busy September: In addition to the 2018/19 seasons above, September itself is very busy for local opera. Opera by Request, the concert opera company where the singers choose the repertory, is presenting an encore of its successful performance of Donizetti’s Anna Bolena on September 7, with Antonina Ermolenko as Anna and John Holland as Enrico VIII. On September 28, OBR presents Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer, with Peter Bass as the Dutchman and Brigitte Bogar as Senta. On September 14 it presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with Norman E. Brown as the reprobate and John Holland as Leporello. Then OBR takes the opera on tour – first to Ottawa on September 16, then to London on September 22 and finally to Windsor on September 30. This is a great way to serve cities that once had or never had professional opera available.

Opera has returned sporadically to the Hamilton area because of the Brott Music Festival. But a new company, SOLO, or the Southern Ontario Lyric Opera, is presenting its second fully-staged opera in the area, with Verdi’s Rigoletto on September 16 in Burlington. Jeffrey Carl sings Rigoletto, Allison Cecilia Arends is his daughter Gilda and Romulo Delgado is the lecherous Duke of Mantua. SOLO founder and artistic director Sabatino Vacca conducts.

Paper Canoe and Cahoots: Also in September, running from September 9 to 30, is a play from Paper Canoe and Cahoots Theatre that ought be of interest to those curious about early North American opera. The play is I Call myself Princess by Jani Lauzon, about a modern-day Métis student who encounters the opera Shanewis: The Robin Woman, which was written for Creek/Cherokee mezzo-soprano Tsianina Redfeather (1882-1985). The opera premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1918 and was later performed in Denver and Los Angeles. Lauzon’s play features music from Shanewis composed by Redfeather’s creative partner Charles Wakefield Cadman (1881-1946), an American composer in the early 1900s who was part of a musical movement which sought to use Indigenous music to create a distinct North American musical identity.

The question the play raises is similar to some of the issues encountered in the recent COC production of Harry Somers’ 1967 opera Louis Riel –namely, “How can we engage with tensions between representation, inspiration and cultural appropriation?” Mezzo-soprano Marion Newman sings the role of Tsianina, Richard Greenblatt plays Cadman, Marjorie Chan directs and Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate conducts. 

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

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