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

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

Claude VivierClaude Vivier’s opera Kopernikus was commissioned in 1978 by the University of Montreal’s Music Faculty. Supported by the Canada Council, Vivier received a fee of $7,000 (approximately $22,000 in 2019 dollars), which allowed him to focus entirely on composition. Finished in May 1979, Vivier dedicated Kopernikus to “my maître and friend,” Gilles Tremblay. Kopernikus was premiered a year later, on May 8, 1980 at the Théâtre du Monument National in Montreal.

Since its premiere Kopernikus has travelled extensively, making it the most restaged Canadian opera in Canadian history with over 55 performances. Ranking in second place is the opera Louis Riel (1967), with under 30 performances. However, whereas Louis Riel was performed only once outside of Canada, Kopernikus, mostly unknown at home, is highly celebrated in Europe with almost yearly performances. Canadian restagings have been sporadic: Montreal in 1986 by friends of Vivier via the Événements du neuf; Vancouver in 1990 via the Vancouver New Music Society; the large-scale tour de force of Thom Sokoloski and Autumn Leaf Performance that led to performances in several European and Canadian cities in 2000 and 2001; and the most recent iteration, a 2017 Banff Centre production coming to Toronto in April via Against the Grain Theatre.

“No one is a prophet in their own land” is a not unfamiliar expression in Canadian arts and, considering Vivier’s profound relationship with religion and all things mystical, the expression is fitting; however, it is not much of an explanation for why Kopernikus is seldomly restaged here. In my search for answers I turned to the many Canadian articles and reviews about Kopernikus in the press over the past 20 years. Although producers and directors praise Kopernikus as a genius work of art, both the critics and the public generally express discontent over three recurring themes: the genre (the opera is not really an opera), the plot (there is no plot to follow, so how do you stage nothingness?), and its incomprehensible language (the opera is in French, German, and Vivier’s own invented language).

Thinking back to my own experience with Kopernikus at the Toronto premiere in June 2001, I wish I had been better prepared to receive Vivier’s work. When the performance ended, I was mesmerized, my head filled with complex sounds, syllables and meanings that took weeks to process. I also remember vividly the complete disconnect between various members of the audience; at the end of the performance the man sitting next to me was sleeping, but the one directly in front of me was on his feet madly clapping and hailing bravos at the performers. Since I have this wonderful opportunity to write about Kopernikus before the next set of performances, I hope I can not only help bridge that disconnect but also acknowledge and normalize the uneasiness that can come from it.

Kopernikus, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2017Pushing the boundaries

Although Vivier himself declared Kopernikus an opera, both seasoned critics and the public alike seem more comfortable with labelling it musical theatre (there are no arias) or oratorio (the theme is religious and the staging is minimal). Vivier, however, was insistent in calling this work an opera. In remarks prepared for the 1979 premiere, quoted here from Bob Gilmore’s 2014 book, Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life, Vivier defends his categorization when he states that “opera, as a form of expression of the soul and of human history, cannot die. The human being will always need to represent his/her fantasies, dreams, fears, and hopes.”In a later interview, with Angèle Dagenais in Le Devoir, March 3, 1980, when asked why he wrote an opera, a genre that is sometimes considered passé, he responded that “l’opéra permet la représentation d’états excessifs, et d’une dimension fantaisiste inconnue du théâtre.”Clearly, Vivier did not conceive Kopernikus as either a work of musical theatre or as an oratorio.

Vivier does push the boundaries of the operatic genre but not, as some believe, as a rejection of the old masters. Vivier was an avowed fan of Mozart; Agni, the main character in Kopernikus, undertakes a journey not unlike the main characters in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte. This expansion of boundaries is simply a composer evolving into his own mature style, finding new ways to disrupt expectations, and creating new roles and sounds for melody. In fact, and this could be the topic of an entirely different article, the style of melodic writing that draws breath in Kopernikus ultimately serves as a stepping stone for several of Vivier’s later works.

In scanning reviews, it also became apparent to me that part of Vivier’s contextualization of Kopernikus in the score of the opera was misunderstood in translation. Vivier wrote: “Il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire, mais une suite de scènes...” The first part, “il n’y a pas à proprement parler d’histoire” has been translated, interpreted, and served to the public as “there is no actual story,” which is a mistranslation. ‘À proprement dit’ or ‘à proprement parler’ is one of those very common, and confusing, francophone expressions. Add a negative in front of it and a language barrier is erected. As a native Francophone, however, I understand that Vivier is saying that Kopernikus is not a story in the traditional sense, rather than that there is no narrative. Granted, Vivier’s opera is devoid of villains or external conflict and this, perhaps, adds to the confusion. However, Agni, the central figure in Kopernikus undergoes a series of initiations that ultimately lead her to reach her final and purest spirit state, her dematerialization. The story is inherent in the series of scenes, in her ritualistic journey, where she encounters historical and mythical beings (her mother, Lewis Carroll, Mozart, the Queen of the Night, Tristan, Isolde and Copernicus) who accompany her from one world to the next.

Admittedly, the bare staging that typically accompanies Kopernikus can also be taken as a lack of narrative direction. It is, however, very much in line with Agni’s journey towards the purest of spiritual forms. Vivier explicitly left behind paragraphs of texts explaining each scene of the opera so that creative staging decisions could be left to the directors. Perhaps an unusual choice, but an explanation can be found in Vivier’s own words, again quoted from Gilmore’s book, when he states that he loves many operas of the standard repertory but “I rarely go see them because I usually don’t like the staging.”

Although Vivier kept out of staging decisions, he very much injected traces of himself throughout the staging of Kopernikus: the opera is scored for seven singers and seven instrumentalists (the number seven makes several appearances in other works and Vivier’s birthday is April 14); and in iconography Agni, the Hindu God of fire, is represented by a ram (Vivier’s astrological sign is Aries, a fire sign).

Fascinated with languages (he could speak at least five fluently), Vivier is perhaps the only composer to use an invented language throughout his entire compositional career, beginning with his first vocal work, Ojikawa (1968), and ending with his last, Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (1983). In Kopernikus, as in all of his previous works, his invented language is not a series of aleatoric nonsensical syllables, but rather a combination of automatic writing and the use of grammelot (coined by Commedia dell’arte players, grammelot refers to sounds, such as onomatopoeias, used to convey the sense of speech). Vivier’s invented language also seems to function as a code for Agni who most often speaks in the invented language to other characters but speaks French when expressing her inner thoughts.

Kopernikus also shows early indications of spectralism, a musical practice where compositional decisions are often based on visual representations (spectrograms) of mathematical analysis of harmonic series. Vivier’s spectralism of the late 1970s is an exploration of sounds as living objects and what he calls colours in both the sounds and textures he creates. Vivier’s linguistic skills, combined with his strong predilection for vocal writing and his early foray into spectralism, elevate the opera to a stunning work of art where simple lines of music are turned into extraordinary meaningful moments that surpass any semantic value.

Kopernikus, Banff Centre for the Arts, 2017Looking ahead

In one of his last letters, Vivier wrote to Montreal conductor Philippe Dourguin and laid out his outline for a second opera. His “opéra fleuve” on the explorer Marco Polo was to consist of seven parts and use previously composed materials. Conductor Reinbert de Leeuw (Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble) and director Pierre Audi (Nederlandse Opera) reconstituted Vivier’s opera in the 1990s. Because their version was different than what Vivier originally lays out in his letter, the opera was renamed Opéra-fleuve en deux parties, with Kopernikus as part one and Rêves d’un Marco Polo as part two. Part two ends with Vivier’s final composition, the very much discussed Glaubst du an die Unsterblichkeit der Seele (Do you believe in the soul’s immortality). In 2000, as part of the Holland Festival, Vivier’s Opéra-fleuve en deux parties received eight performances in Amsterdam, marking the world premiere of Rêves d’un Marco Polo. The production was subsequently revived, also in Amsterdam, in 2004, recorded by the Asko/Schoenberg Ensemble and released on DVD in 2006. Perhaps, we too, can soon have a premiere of Vivier’s Opéra-fleuve en deux parties and discover Rêves d’un Marco Polo.

Until then, we have Against the Grain Theatre’s Kopernikus to look forward to. Since the company’s past productions have audaciously reinterpreted operas of the classical repertoire, it seems a natural fit for AtG to move towards shaking things up in the unexplored world of Canadian opera (there are over 300 Canadian operas to choose from!). In the company’s press release, stage director Joel Ivany proclaims Kopernikus as “Canada’s greatest opera ever written” and promises an “an epic journey of fire, life, death and ultimately, hope.” His passion for the opera, and the stellar team that surrounds the production, does indeed give much to hope for: hope that Kopernikus receives the recognition it deserves and hope for a leading opera collective to guide us in towards a new era of (re)discovering our own Canadian works.

Kopernikus is not only a work of great vision and originality, it is also the legacy of a deeply spiritual and intellectual man. From life to death and timeless mystical spaces, the opera transports its listeners on a journey without the usual grounding semantic references. What then, is a listener to do? As Paula Citron reminds us, in her 2001 article on Kopernikus for Opera Canada, Vivier said it best on opening night in 1979: “... Let things go and just listen to the sound.”

Against the Grain Theatre presents Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus on April 4 to 6 and April 11 to 13 at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace.

Sophie Bisson is a PhD student in musicology at York University and an opera singer who is passionate about Canadian repertoire. Her doctoral research focuses on Canadian opera.

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. 


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

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

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