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.

Regular WholeNote opera columnist Christopher Hoile embarked on a year that includes an enviable amount of travel. Consequently, with all the world as his stage, his attention to the local stages that comprise our opera beat is going to be significantly compromised. So during his agreed semi-sabbatical, the opera patrol here at The WholeNote is going to be something of a team effort. So away we go, with what promises to be a season of operatic proportions, both onstage and off.

September Start at the COC

The first of the COC’s two fall operas, Puccini’s Turandot, gets under way September 28, with the second, Rusalka, a couple of weeks behind, usually an indication that the first of the two shows requires all hands on deck, more often than not because it is a new production. Under other circumstances, the cast that has been assembled for this production would be the story, but the name that jumps off the page for me is Robert Wilson, 77-year-old, Waco, Texas-born theatre artist extraordinaire.

robert wilson hsu ping high resThose of you who saw the Philip Glass/Robert Wilson Einstein on the Beach at Luminato 2012 will be aware of the extent to which Wilson, while no slouch at deploying scenic machinery on the grandest scale, is also capable of achieving the subtlest of effects, minimalist visual moments of excruciating beauty and power. So, given the split personality of opera-going audiences in Toronto we’re almost guaranteed a hung jury, with fans of the grand gesture and lots of moving parts feeling cheated, and others, count me in, who can’t wait to see what Wilson makes of little things. “If I go to the opera,” Wilson himself said recently, “I really want to hear the music. I close my eyes. So the challenge is to find how I can keep my eyes open? How what I see can help me to hear music better.”

The quote in question is from an interview Wilson did this past February, with OperaWire contributor, Polina Lyapustina, when this Teatro de Madrid/Lithuanian National Opera/Canadian Opera Company co-commission touched down in Lithuania, the second stop on its three-nation tour, having started out in Madrid. It’s an interesting read, dotted with Wilsonian gems. He recounts a conversation with Lady Gaga: “You know, Gaga, in the theatre the last second is the most important, and next is the first second. Sometimes, if you get the last second right, they will forgive you for everything you’ve done all night.” Then continues: “In making Turandot I always tried to figure what that last second is. And then, where we began. And then, how you would draw a line from the beginning to the end.”

And this: “A stage is unlike any other space. I hate naturalism. To be on stage is something artificial. And if you try to act naturally it seems artificial. But if you accept it as something artificial, it becomes more natural.”

I can’t wait.

Neef

The production also gives the opportunity for some early reflection on what the implications will be of Alexander Neef’s announced move, after ten years heading up the COC, to assume the position of General Director of Opéra National de Paris. From where I sit, looking at Turandot, it’s potentially really good news, looking at the calibre of casts he’s attracted and the international co-producing allegiances he’s been able to build. Having someone “on the other side” with a bedrock understanding that this is a good place to build bridges to can only be a good thing. It’s an offstage season story that will unfold very interestingly over time.

Opera Atelier

With Atelier’s fall production, Don Giovanni, still a month away (October 31), their big news is also a “French connection” story, with Atelier founders and co-directors, Marshall Pynkoski and Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg, having been invited to stage and choreograph Grétry’s opera Richard Coeur-de-lion, celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Royal Opera House at Versailles from October 10 to 13, 2019 at Château de Versailles. “This extraordinary event marks the ultimate recognition of Pynkoski and Lajeunesse Zingg’s interpretation of French Baroque repertoire – selected as the only non-French artists involved in this milestone anniversary of the most prestigious opera house in France,” said OA’s press release about the event. And I wouldn’t change a word of it.

Opera by Request planning the entire Wagner Ring Cycle over the Ontario Family Day weekend this coming February (hmmm, talk about dysfunctional families); Tapestry Opera embarking on their 40th season; Against the Grain Theatre completing its tenth …

Let the good times roll.

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

Opera performances in Southern Ontario are not quite as abundant this summer as they were last summer, but there is certainly enough activity to keep any opera-lover busy, especially those who have an interest in new opera.

June

Outside Toronto, the young opera company Vera Causa Opera is presenting its second annual Canadian Opera Fest in Cambridge, Guelph and Waterloo. A contest was held for local high school and middle students in the region to create the plot of an opera. Once selected, the students collaborated with VCO to turn these initial ideas into full stories with music, i.e. short operas.

Five winners were chosen. The first is The Village Girl, with a concept by Chloe Bissada and words and music by Dylan Langan. The story involves a young girl who wants to purchase a cow for her family’s farm to help boost the town’s economy, but the meat marketer refuses, putting the town on the brink of starvation. The opera explores family and responsibility.

The second is Refracted, with a libretto by Charlotte Lilley and music by Emma Verdonk. The work is a semi-abstract exploration of the influence of media and technology on one’s self-perception. A young girl debates with her reflection on how her culture is affecting her, and whether it is a welcome influence or not.

Third is La jugement, with a libretto by Emma Lemieux and music by Dylan Langan. This is an emotional musical soliloquy, relaying the story of a young woman battling an eating disorder. La jugement is performed in French.

Fourth is The Shoemaker’s Orphans, with a libretto by Rivi and Kyri Friedman and music by Emma Verdonk. The action takes place in France in the year 1600, during the outbreak of the Black Plague. After losing their father to the terrible disease, two sisters embark on a mission to prevent the spread of the disease, with the help of their kindly aunt.

The last of the five is L’étrange et belle, with a libretto by Lexie McCorkindale and Vanessa Kerr and music by Dylan Langan. The opera tells the story of an unstable young woman and her tempestuous relationships with her friends when she invites them to stay at her house for a Christmas celebration. This is the second opera of the five to be performed in French.

Performances will be held in Cambridge on June 14 at the Cambridge Centre for the Arts, in Waterloo on June 15 at Knox Presbyterian Church and in Guelph on June 16 at Harcourt Memorial United Church. The operas will feature performances by soprano Autumn Wascher, soprano Michaela Chiste and baritone Jorge Trabanco.

General Director Dylan Langan says: “It is great to see everyone coming together to make brand new opera, regardless of their previous experience. These are truly original and Canadian stories that need to be told.” VCO provides paid professional opportunities for youth, aimed at improving their health and well-being, while presenting affordable entertainment to the community with free admission for students and kids.

Closer to Toronto, Opera by Request has three presentations in June. On June 1 in Mississauga OBR presents Verdi’s Nabucco (1842) in concert with piano accompaniment at Christ Church UCC. Gene Wu sings the title role, Cristina Pisani is Abigaille, Dylan Wright is Zaccaria, Cian Horrobin is Ismaele and Meghan Symon is Fenena.

In Toronto on June 7, OBR presents a triple bill under the title “A Summer Feast,” at College St. United Church. The works include Henry Purcell’s If Music Be the Food of Love (1692), Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appétit!(1989) in which an television episode of Julia Child making a chocolate cake is set to music, and Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement (1954) about impoverished aristocrats having dinner for a wealthy prince they hope their daughter will marry. Performers include mezzo-soprano Meghan Symon, baritone Lawrence Shirkie, soprano Gwendolynn Yearwood, tenor Josh Clemenger and tenor Francis Domingue.

On June 15 in Toronto, OBR presents Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (1835) at St. Andrews United Church. Antonina Ermolenko sings Maria, Cristina Pisani is Elizabeth I, Paul Wiliamson is Leicester, Dylan Wright is Talbot, Henry Irwin is Cecil and Anna Belikova is Anna. For all three OBR operas in concert, William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Shiata Lewis in Obeah Opera. Photo by Osato EreborThis year the Luminato Festival has two operas on its schedule. The first is a remount of Obeah Opera by Nicole Brooks first seen in Toronto in 2012. The work, which runs from June 13 to 22, is an all-female a cappella opera that retells the story of the Salem witch trials from the perspective of the first woman accused, the young Caribbean slave Tituba.

The second opera, running June 19 to 23, is Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook. Last year Luminato presented it as a work in progress. Now it presents the finished piece. The story follows the life of composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), who escaped Nazi Germany for the US in 1938, only to be rejected for his adherence to Communism in 1948 and forced to return to Europe, finally settling in the new East Germany. The opera, conceived and directed by Tim Albery, constructs a song cycle of Eisler’s many Lieder to tell the story. Baritone Russell Braun is the soloist, Serouj Kradjian is the pianist and Michael Levine the designer.

July

This year the Brott Music Festival (June 27 to August 15) will again present a fully staged opera as part of its overall schedule. This summer’s opera will be Puccini’s La Bohème presented for one night only in Italian with English surtitles on July 18 at the FirstOntario Concert Hall. Natalya Gennadi sings Mimi, Andrew Derynck is Rodolfo, Chelsea Rus is Musetta, Kyle Lehmann is Marcello, Cesar Bello is Schaunard, Simon Chalifoux is Colline and John Fanning sings both Alcindoro and Benoît. The production changes the location from late 19th-century Paris to Hamilton in the 1930s. Boris Brott conducts the Brott Festival Orchestra.

Those who missed the Canadian Children’s Opera Company’s mainstage show earlier this year will have another chance to catch The Snow Queen (1993) by John Greer to a libretto by Jeremy James Taylor in Campbellford. On July 7 the CCOC will present the hour-long opera based on the 1844 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale at Westben Concerts at The Barn. Rob Kempson is the stage director and Teri Dunn is the conductor.

Katy Clark is Shoestring Opera’s Schoolyard Carmen. Photo by Jiayin LiuOn July 20 the Elora Festival hosts Shoestring Opera’s Schoolyard Carmen at the Heritage Barn in Fergus. In this adaptation for children in Grades 1 to 8, Carmen is a feisty little girl and newcomer to Canada who has a dark past. When Tory Adair, the “coolest kid in school” tries to bully her, she stands up to him. Shoestring Opera uses Carmen’s story to look at the immigrant in Canadian society, the child who is different, schoolyard bullying, personal independence and the saving properties of art.

Straddling July and August is Guillermo Silva-Marin’s venerable Summer Lyric Opera Theatre in Toronto. Founded in 1986, the training program culminates in staged concert performances. This year the operas are Verdi’s La Traviata (1853) on July 26, 28, 31 and August 3; Victor Davies’ Earnest, The Importance of Being (2008), an operetta based on Oscar Wilde’s well-known comedy, on July 27 and 30, August 1 and 4; and a double bill of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea (1937) and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi (1918) on July 27 and 31, August 2 and 3. All performances take place at the Robert Gill Theatre on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto.

August

Last year Stratford Summer Music presented a staged version of J.S. Bach so-called Coffee Cantata of 1733 and followed this up with a more contemporary version called The Cappuccino Cantata. This year the festival keeps up with the times with a new work, the Cannabis Cantata, A Musical ‘Pot’ Pourri, commissioned by Stratford Summer Music and Ottawa Chamberfest from Peter Tiefenbach. Soprano Mireille Asselin, tenor Matthew Dalen and baritone Adam Harris explore the new landscape of legal weed in Canada through music by J.S. Bach with a libretto reimagined by Tiefenbach, on August 1 at Factory 163 in Stratford.

The Highlands Opera Studio is presenting two programs of opera. On August 15 in Haliburton and on August 17 in Orillia, it presents a fascinating triple bill under the title “Women in Opera: Then and Now.” First on the bill is Puccini’s Suor Angelica (1918) with Valerie Kuinka as stage director, Louise-Andrée Baril as music director and Lauren Margison in the title role. Next are two short operas from 2019.The Chair, by Maria Atallah to a libretto by Alice Abracen, focuses on a teenaged girl who tries to cope with the death of her best friend in an accident.Book of Faces, by Kendra Harder to a libretto by Michelle Telford, takes an irreverent look at the many faces of social media. Both short works were winners of the inaugural Musique 3 Femmes prize for emerging female opera creators. Jessica Derventzis is the stage director for both and Jennifer Szeto the pianist and music director.

In Haliburton on August 22, 24, 25 and 26, HOS presents Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1912) in German with English surtitles with one cast on August 22 and 25 and another on August 24 and 26. Valerie Kuinka directs the Prologue and Richard Margison the main opera, while Philip Morehead is the music director for both parts.

All of this operatic activity should be more than enough to occupy any Southern Ontarian operagoer until the fall season.

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

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème continues to May 22 and its production of Verdi’s Otello to May 21. Yet, May is not simply devoted to revivals of standard repertory. The month also sees the premiere of a brand new Canadian opera from Tapestry Opera and the revival of two operas by American composer Dominick Argento who died on February 20 this year.

Neville Marriner (left) and Dominick ArgentoArgento wrote works in many genres but is best known for his operas, of which he wrote 13, and his dramatic song cycles that he termed “monodramas.” His best known operas are Postcard from Morocco (1971), Miss Havisham’s Fire (1977, rev. 1995) and The Aspern Papers (1988). Postcard from Morocco was last staged in Toronto by the University of Toronto Opera Division in 2015, but Argento’s other works have seldom been seen or heard in Ontario. 

Opera by Request, Toronto’s opera-in-concert company where the singers choose the repertoire, will be presenting a double-bill of Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night (1981) and one of Argento’s monodramas, A Water Bird Talk (1977). Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night focuses on the famous character in Dickens’ novel Great Expectations (1861) who was jilted on her wedding night and now, 50 years later, still replays the events in her mind. It is a prequel to another opera by Argento about the same character in Miss Havisham’s Fire. A Water Bird Talk is inspired by Chekhov’s one-person play On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco (1886). In Argento the gentleman lecturer does not deliver a talk about tobacco but about water birds, yet as in Chekhov’s play, the lecturer can’t refrain from mentioning illustrative points drawn from his private life.

The singer behind the selection of OBR’s double bill is soprano Brianna DeSantis. In April DeSantis provided me with a detailed account of how she was drawn to these works and how they function as a double bill. She writes: “I came across Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night when looking for a piece for my opera literature class. Being an avid reader, I first went to opera adaptations of literature. I came across Argento’s Miss Havisham’s Fire and Wedding Night and saw that we had a copy of the score and CD in the library at Western. I took a listen and loved it. I read Great Expectations as a child and was always attracted to Miss Havisham’s character – why was she like that? Argento’s work gives us a glimpse into her psyche.

“I decided to perform a small excerpt of the monodrama in a recital and loved it so much that I thought I should learn the whole piece one day. I believe we [Shookhoff and I] met sometime about a year ago and discussed doing Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night with Opera by Request. We thought of programming it with its frequently paired piece, Argento’sWater Bird Talk, because they both discuss the ins and outs of relationships, specifically, marriages.

“Since then, we have found ourselves a baritone [Parker Clement] to sing the role of the Lecturer, and I will be singing Miss Havisham. This project is special because it shines a light on gender disparity in madness, specifically in Miss Havisham’s Wedding Night, which is basically one long mad scene written in the vein of Lucia di Lammermoor. The opera provides a commentary on madness during the 19th century, where madness was often viewed as the irrational ‘female’ reaction to the rationality of the ‘male.’ We seek to highlight this gender disparity and offer a different perspective on what madness involves – that way the audience can decide. While the music may be unfamiliar, the message the operas seek to send is one that will resonate with many.”

The double bill, titled “Til Death Do Us Part? – A Dominick Argento Commemoration,” will have one performance in Toronto on May 3 at the College St. United Church with William Shookhoff as pianist and music director and Claire Harris on keyboard. The program will then be repeated in Windsor on May 4 at the Paulin Memorial Presbyterian Church.

Shanawdithit: A commemoration of another sort is the purpose behind Tapestry Opera’s second new opera of the season after its highly popular presentation of Hook Up by Chris Thornborrow earlier this year. This is the world premiere of Shanawdithit by Newfoundland composer Dean Burry to a libretto by Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan. Its title is the name of a woman (1801-29) encountered by a white settler William Cormack in 1829 in Newfoundland and thought to be the last member of the Beothuk Nation. Cormack took Shanawdithit to St. John’s where she created ten drawings that are the only first-person account of the life of the Beothuk.

In March, Tapestry Opera artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori provided me with invaluable information about the creation and importance of the opera which Burry and Nolan have been working on for the past three and a half years. Mori states: “This project came about a few years after a conversation between Dean Burry and Yvette Nolan about the subject of Shanawdithit for an opera.

Yvette Nolan. Photo by Alex Felipe“Yvette was very keen on finding a way to tell the story without relying on the texts of Cormack and other settler historians. The challenge with Shanawdithit was that there are no Beothuk Elders, there was little Indigenous documentation of the Beothuk, and even if there were surviving bloodlines, they had been mostly absorbed into the Mi’kmaq almost 200 years ago.

“Yvette turned to the ten drawings Shanawdithit did in her last year of life as one of the only first-person accounts of Beothuk life and Shanawdithit’s perspective. She proposed we work with the ten drawings and five to ten Indigenous artists to interpret them, with the intent of retelling the last days of Shanawdithit and questioning the prevailing dominant settler scholarship and history.

One of Shanawdithit’s drawings“Yvette, Dean and I met, and we proposed an unconventional approach to creation. Yvette would write the libretto, with elasticity for collaborative artist input, and with specific vessels for where the drawings would come to life, with a dominant point of view from a collaborating artist. The artists would meet with Yvette and depending on their discipline, also Dean and myself, to reflect on the drawings and work through their thoughts and what was possible within a musical-dramatic-narrative and design framework. 

“Dean would compose soundscapes, not music, to start. Drawing on his shared familiarity with the same lakes, land, rivers and weather that Shanawdithit grew up and lived in, he would experiment with capturing those sounds rather than risk imitating or appropriating ‘Indigenous’ music sounds or stereotypes.

“Five of our seven performers are also Indigenous performers (all of the named characters portrayed as Indigenous are Indigenous performers), Asitha Tennekoon plays Peyton and Clarence Frazer plays Cormack. Every step of the way the Indigenous performers were active participants in shaping and responding to the story and its potential treatment (e.g. engaging in the conversation of whether Cormack was a hero, a villain, or just out of his ken).

“Chronologically this meant that instead of Yvette completing a final libretto and sharing it with Dean for him to take over, as is most often the case, in-depth meetings with all of the collaborators following the first draft libretto led to changes in the libretto. New art commissions based on the artists’ interpretations had to have their directions finalized before Dean would compose that section. All in all, the process was complex and instead of hierarchical, it was collaborative and organic.”

In response to the question whether anyone saw a difficulty in having a non-Indigenous person compose the music, Mori writes, “Reconciliation on the truth and reconciliation website begins with the text ‘Reconciliation is an ongoing journey, one that will take a collective effort to find a new way forward.’ Many First Nations colleagues have stressed that the necessary dialogue is two-way. Indeed our history of violence and injustice against First Nations is also our history.

“That said, this is not another settler artist explaining what happened. The key to the success of Shanawdithit is in its welcoming Indigenous voices to shape and lead the work in creation and performance. This is meant to be a contrast to previous artistic works, histories and academic publications that ignored Indigenous voices and placed a positivist settler perspective on history. This work challenges that one-sided historical perspective. 

“Considering the collaborative and facilitation role of composition in how Dean is approaching Shanawdithit, it should be understandable why the team is not completely Indigenous. It is Indigenous led and as a result many will see the piece as a true coming together of settler and Indigenous arts and artists, where the Indigenous voices are privileged. In working in opera we can explore a story that requires Indigenous voices and leadership, which will have the story and its retelling reach a different and new public through the mixing audiences of opera, multimedia theatre and Indigenous arts in Toronto and St. John’s.”

Shanawdithit will be performed at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre in Toronto May 16, 18, 21, 22, 23 and 25 with Marion Newman in the title role and Clarence Frazer as William Cormack. The cast also includes Asitha Tennekoon, Rebecca Cuddy, Deantha Edmunds, Evan Korbut and Aria Evans. Michael Hidetoshi Mori and Yvette Nolan co-direct, Michelle Olson is the choreographer and Rosemary Thomson is the music director. On June 21 the opera, a co-production with Opera on the Avalon, will be performed at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre. 

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

In most years, April is the month with the single highest concentration of opera presentations in Toronto and environs. In past years there have often been so many examples of opera from all periods that the month’s offerings could form a survey of the genre. This month, for unknown reasons, there is a high concentration of operatic warhorses which will certainly please those who primarily enjoy familiar works. Yet, two companies are presenting works out of the ordinary to help spice up a month heavy on household-name composers.

Opera Atelier’s Idomeneo. Photo by Bruce ZingerIdomeneo and Atelier

The first on offer is a remount of Opera Atelier’s stunning production of Mozart’s Idomeneo (1780), first seen in 2008. Famed soprano Measha Brueggergosman made her Mozart operatic debut and her debut with Opera Atelier in this production. Now she returns to OA to sing the role of Elettra again. The cast includes tenor Colin Ainsworth in the title role, mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta as Idamante and soprano Meghan Lindsay as Ilia. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs.

Because the Mirvish production of the hit musical Come From Away has taken over OA’s traditional venue, the Elgin Theatre, Idomeneo will be performed in the Ed Mirvish Theatre, a block or so north of the Elgin. Audiences will have to decide whether performing in an auditorium with 700 more seats than the Elgin has any effect on the acoustics. The opera runs from April 4 to 13. 

Opera by Request

Opening next is familiar Mozart on a smaller scale in the form of his Così fan tutte in concert only on April 5 by Opera by Request. Deena Nicklefork sings Fiordiligi, Erin Armstrong is Dorabella, Conlan Gassi is Ferrando, Anthony Rodrigues is Guglielmo, Danie Friesen is Despina and John Holland is the cynical Don Alfonso. Claire Harris is the pianist and music director. 

Vera Causa

In April even the new company Vera Causa Opera, which presented the world premiere of Dylan Langan’s Dracula last month and will present a selection of arias from Canadian operas in June, has chosen a work from the standard repertory for April. This is Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from 1832 that the company, as per its mandate, will present in three cities in Southern Ontario. Allison Walmsley will sing Adina, James Smith will be Nemorino, Jorge Trabanco will be Belcore, Michaela Chiste is Giannetta and Camilo Rodriguez-Cuadrado is the wily Dr. Dulcamara. Dylan Langan conducts the Vera Causa Opera Chorus and Orchestra and is also the stage director. The production opens in Cambridge on April 5, moves to Waterloo on April 6 and finishes its run in Guelph on April 7.

Opera Belcanto

Filling out the crammed first week of April, running April 4 and 6 at the Richmond Hill Centre, is the blockbuster opera Carmen presented by Opera Belcanto of York. Mila Ionkova sings the title role, Stanislas Vitort is Don Jose, Michele Pearson is Micaela and Andrew Anderson is Escamillo. David Varjabed conducts the Opera Belcanto of York Chorus and Orchestra and Edward Franko, co-artistic director of TrypTych Concert and Opera which has now moved to Kenora, will direct. 

A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of La Boheme, 2013. Photo by Michael CooperCaird’s La Bohème at COC

In mid-April the spring season of the Canadian Opera Company opens with Puccini’s La Bohème, the opera that vies with Carmen as the world’s most popular. The production (which runs from April 17 to May 22) directed by John Caird was first seen in Toronto in 2013. It features Angel Blue as Mimi, Atalla Ayan as Rodolfo, Andriana Churchman as Musetta, Lucas Meachem as Marcello, Brandon Cedel as Colline and Phillip Addis as Schaunard. On May 5, 11 matinee and 22 the cast is Miriam Khalil as Mimi, Joshua Guerrero as Rodolfo, Danika Lorèn as Musetta, Andrzej Filończyk as Marcello, Önay Köse as Colline and Joel Allison as Schaunard. Fans of the opera may wish to see both casts. The conductor will be Paolo Carignani.

The COC follows La Bohème with yet another work from the standard repertory, Verdi’s Otello, but one not seen in Toronto since 2010. The production will be directed by David Alden, creator of such other COC productions as The Flying Dutchman, Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor. Alden’s production is most notable for relocating the action from the Renaissance to around the time of the opera’s premiere in 1887. The COC fields its first African-American Otello in the person of Russell Thomas. Canadian Gerald Finley is Iago, Tamara Wilson is Desdemona, Andrew Haji is Cassio and Carolyn Sproule is Emilia. COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts the opera that runs from April 27 to May 21. 

Lucia Cesaroni is The Merry WidowTOT goes tried and true

This year even Toronto Operetta Theatre finishes its season with the tried and true – in this case Franz Lehár’sThe Merry Widow (1905), the greatest of all Silver Age operettas. The opera runs April 24 to 28 and features Lucia Cesaroni in the title role, Michael Nyby as Count Danilo, Daniela Agostino as Valencienne and Gregory Finney as Baron Zeta. Larry Beckwith conducts the TOT Ensemble and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Dion Mazerolle, featured in Shakespeare’s CriminalAnd finally … something new

Despite this plethora of familiar works, April does offer one new opera and one important but seldom-seen opera. The new opera is Shakespeare’s Criminal by Dustin Peters to a libretto by Sky Gilbert. Orpheus Productions will give the chamber piece three workshop performances at Factory Theatre from April 26 to 28.

The magic realist work, set in the present, plays with the notion that Shakespeare was gay, a view some hold since many of Shakespeare’s sonnets are addressed to a young man. Other sonnets are addressed to an unknown woman whom critics have dubbed the “Dark Lady of the Sonnets.” In Shakespeare’s Criminal, an older male poet named Shakespeare is unable to admit that he is homosexual. Instead he hides his attraction for men in the eloquent language of the sonnets for which he is much esteemed. He meets a beautiful young HIV-positive man to whom he finds himself attracted, but whom he resists. Enter a wild, fierce voyeur who urges the older poet to fall in love with the young man and bed him. The woman is so persuasive that it seems the older closeted poet will succumb, but at the last moment he cannot bring himself to risk his reputation. In revenge, the woman turns the old poet into a tree – a gender-reversed image of what the river god Peneus does in Ovid’s Metamorphoses to his daughter Daphne to preserve her chastity.

Dustin Peters is a Toronto-based composer whose works range from concert and chamber music to film scores and pieces for voice and dance. Sky Gilbert is an award-winning writer, director, filmmaker and professor. His many critically acclaimed plays have been performed in theatres worldwide. Guernica will publish his investigation of Shakespeare’s rhetoric, Shakespeare: Beyond Science, later this year.

The opera features mezzo-soprano Marion Newman, baritone Dion Mazerolle and actor Nathaniel Bacon. The structure of Shakespeare’s Criminal is inspired by musicologist Ellen T. Harris’s notion that male composers were able to ground the emotional core of their operas through the wild female voice (something which eventually led to the tragic Romantic heroines of Verdi and Puccini). Presented opera-in-concert style, Shakespeare’s Criminal raises many questions including, “Why do gay men often gravitate towards friendships with women and vice versa?” Peters is music director of the accompanying string quartet and Gilbert directs.

And something seldom seen

The important seldom-seen opera in April is Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Kopernikus: Rituel de la Mort (1980), the only opera by Québécois composer Claude Vivier (1948-83). This will be the first performance of the opera in Toronto since a touring Banff Centre production visited in 2001. In 2017 the present AtG production also had its premiere at Banff. Of what may be the most performed Canadian opera outside Canada, director Joel Ivany says, “I think this could be Canada’s greatest opera ever written. Vivier was unique, he was an innovator and a true artist.”

Ivany related in a conversation in March that he first heard of Kopernikus when he read that famed director Peter Sellars included it on his wish list of operas he’d like to direct. Sellars indeed went on to direct the American premiere of the opera in 2016 at the Ojai Festival in California. Ivany began working on it as a project for Canada 150 at the Banff Centre. While AtG is well known for its productions of Mozart’s operas with new English libretti written by Ivany, Ivany mentions that AtG has also presented operas with their libretti unchanged such as its open-air production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande in 2014.

That will be the case with Kopernikus. Set in two acts for seven singers, it challenges the norms of classical opera with its innovative use of compositional and technical devices to create a vivid meditation on self-transcendence. It unfolds through a series of obscure trials, inspired by Mozart’s Magic Flute, but played as an enchanted ritual. Canadian mezzo-soprano Danielle MacMillan revives her role as Agni, the central character who travels to an unknown space suspended in time wherein she meets the fragmented embodiment of many eclectic characters, such as Tristan and Isolde, Copernicus, Lewis Caroll and Mozart. Singing these roles are mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, bass Alain Coulombe, baritone Dion Mazerolle, sopranos Nathalie Paulin and Jonelle Sills and baritone Bruno Roy. Joining the singers on stage are dancers Anisa Tejpar and William Yong who will realize Matjash Mrozewski’s choreography.

Ivany has taken an innovative twist on orchestration by incorporating members of the orchestra into the onstage roles of the ensemble. AtG music director Topher Mokrzewski conducts the dispersed ensemble. The production will be presented at Theatre Passe Muraille on April 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13, 2019. 

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

Back to top