Opera performances in Southern Ontario in the summer are becoming more numerous every year. This year, a few young companies are taking opera to some municipalities that once had opera companies and to others that never had them. This is all to the good in broadening the audience for opera as well as broadening notions of what opera is, as the offerings mix standards and rarities with brand-new works.


Nota Bene: June 2018 begins with a rarity. The Nota Bene Baroque Players of Waterloo team up with Capella Intima of Toronto and the Gallery Players of Niagara to present Folly in Love (Gli equivoci nel sembiante) from 1679, the first opera written by Alessandro Scarlatti (1660-1725). The first performance takes place in Kitchener on June 1, the second in Hamilton on June 2 and the third in St. Catharines on June 3.

The opera concerns two nymphs, Lisetta and Clori, who are both in love with the same shepherd Eurillo. When a new shepherd Armindo arrives, the nymphs change their affections to him. After much confusion, the four sort themselves into two happy couples. Sheila Dietrich and Jennifer Enns sing the two nymphs, Bud Roach is Eurillo and David Roth is Armindo. Roach also conducts the six-member ensemble of period instruments. The opera is presented in concert in Italian with English surtitles.

Vera Causa: Also outside Toronto, the young opera company Vera Causa Opera is presenting an unusual double bill of new Canadian operas by women composers. The first is an opera in Croatian and English, Padajuća Zvijezda (The Fallen Star) by Julijana Hajdinjak, and the second is The Covenant by Dylann Miller. The first opera is inspired by a short story by the composer’s sister Danijela about two lovers in a celestial kingdom where love has been outlawed and is punished by banishment to Earth. It features Allison Walmsley as Luna, Melina Garcia Zambrano as Aurelia, Gabriel Sanchez Ortega as Solaris, Katerina Utochkina as Astra and Philip Klaassen as Stello. Rachel Kalap is the stage director and Dylan Langan conducts a five-member ensemble plus chorus. 

The second opera concerns witches, lesbians and priests and is about “empowering women to embrace their true selves from the perspective of a teenage girl in a small town.” In it Allison Walmsley sings Cate, Chad Quigley is Father Andrew, Kimberley Rose-Pefhany is Keira, Autumn Wascher is Delaney, Stephanie O’Leary is Lilith and Sam Rowlandson-O’Hara is Cate’s Mother. Rebecca Gray is the stage director and Isaac Page conducts a small instrumental ensemble and chorus. The operas will be performed on June 22 in Waterloo and on June 23 in Cambridge. As both the Nota Bene and the Vera Causa opera productions show, opera companies whose goal is to serve their local communities are springing up outside of Toronto.

By Request: In Toronto, Opera by Request has two presentations in June. The first on June 2 is Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The second on June 9 is Donizetti’s daunting Anna Bolena. In the Mozart, Lawrence Cotton sings the title role, Evan Korbut is Leporello, Laura Schatz is Donna Elvira, Carrie Gray is Donna Anna and Risa de Rege is Zerlina. Kate Carver is the pianist and music director. In the Donizetti, Antonina Ermolenko sings the title role, John Holland is Enrico VIII, Monica Zerbe is Giovanna Seymour and Paul Williamson is Lord Percy. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Opera 5: On June 13, 15 and 17, Toronto’s Opera 5, which up to now has focused on presenting rarities such as its Dame Ethel Smyth double bill last year, makes its first foray into a full-length opera from the standard repertory, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Johnathon Kirby sings the title role, Kevin Myers is the Count Almaviva, Stephanie Tritchew is his beloved Rosina, Jeremy Ludwig is her jealous guardian Don Bartolo and Giles Tomkins is her music teacher Don Basilio.

Rachel KrehmAs Opera 5 general director Rachel Krehm says, “The show will be set in the spring of 1914 in Spain just before the Last Great Summer (in which Spain declared its neutrality in World War I, a decision that would later seriously divide the country). A big feature of the set will be golden gates which symbolize Rosina’s entrapment – the outside world just out of reach. The comedy will come at you from every angle: the colours onstage, the physicality – but always inspired by the comedic genius from the score.” The opera will be fully staged and directed by Jessica Derventzis, with Evan Mitchell conducting an 11-piece ensemble.

Two from Luminato: The Luminato Festival has two opera-related offerings. From June 16 to 19 it presents Tables Turned, a remount of one of Tapestry Opera’s experimental Tap:Ex series from 2015. Soprano Carla Huhtanen and percussionist Ben Reimer join forces with Montreal composer, turntable artist and electronics specialist Nicole Lizée for a performance blending live and pre-recorded music with projections from classic films. Luminato’s other opera-like work is the production-in-progress Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook. The story follows the life of composer Hanns Eisler (1898-1962), who escaped Nazi Germany for the US in 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 and Serouj Kradjian is the pianist. The sole performance is on June 23, but Soundstreams has scheduled the work for a full production in June 2019.

Russell Braun - photo by Johannes IfkovitsLlandovery Castle: Finishing June in Toronto is an opera workshop of The Llandovery Castle by Stephanie Martin on June 26 and 27 in association with Bicycle Opera. The title refers to the name of a Canadian hospital ship that was torpedoed on June 27, 1918, by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic. Fourteen Canadian nurses from all across Canada were among the casualties. Paul Ciufo’s libretto focuses on the lives of Minnie “Kate” Gallaher, Rena “Bird” McLean and Matron Margaret “Pearl” Fraser. The characters also include Sergeant Arthur “Art” Knight and Major Tom Lyon (two of the 24 men who survived the sinking) and German U-boat commander Helmut Patzig. The opera is directed by Tom Diamond and Kimberley-Ann Bartczak conducts a chamber orchestra. The June 27 performance will mark the 100th anniversary of the tragedy.


S.O.L.T Going Strong: Straddling July and August is the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in Toronto, founded in 1986. The training program culminates in staged concert performances of three operas. This year the operas are Jules Massenet’s Manon (1884) on July 27, 29, August 1 and 4; George Frideric Handel’s Semele (1743) on July 28, August 1, 3 and 4; and a version of Mozart’s Così fan tutte (1789), renamed Fior and Dora after the heroines Fiordiligi and Dorabella, on July 28, 31, August 2 and 5.

Brott: This year the Brott Music Festival will again present a fully staged opera as part of its schedule from June 21 to August 16. This summer’s opera will be Mozart’s The Magic Flute, presented for one night only in English on July 19 at the FirstOntario Concert Hall. Anne-Marie MacIntosh sings Pamina, Zachary Rioux is Tamino, Holly Flack is the Queen of the Night, Max van Wyck is Papageno and Simon Chalifoux is Sarastro. Patrick Hansen directs the steampunk-designed production and Boris Brott conducts the Brott Festival Orchestra. 

Julie NesrallahMusic Niagara: Meanwhile, Music Niagara has two mainstream operas on offer. On July 9 it presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni in Niagara-on-the-Lake, starring Alexander Dobson in the title role supported by young Canadian talent. On July 21 it is presenting a version of Bizet’s most popular opera styled as Carmen on Tap, starring CBC Radio host Julie Nesrallah in the title role with tenor Richard Troxell as Don José. The twist with this production is that the opera is abridged and is set in the cellar of Old Winery Restaurant in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The production promises to give audiences a more intimate view of the classic work.

Coffee Time: Shifting to another successful music festival, Stratford Summer Music will be presenting a staged version of a secular J.S. Bach cantata not in a restaurant but in the Revel Caffe in downtown Stratford. The work is, of course, Bach’s so-called Coffee Cantata of 1733, in which a father tries to prevent his daughter from becoming addicted to her favourite pick-me-up. Simon Chalifoux, Elizabeth Polese and Asitha Tennekoon are the three singers and Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment for the three performances on July 27, 28 and 29.

Then, in early August, SSM presents a brand new response to The Coffee Cantata in the form of The Cappuccino Cantata, by the suspiciously pseudonymous “J.S. Bawk.” Set in Stratford in 2018, Gordon, who manages a coffee bar, is smitten with his barista, Stephanie, but she has a crush on the “boy with the MacBook” who comes in every day. Katy Clark, Adam Harris and Zachary Rioux are the singers and again Peter Tiefenbach provides the staging and the keyboard accompaniment. Performances are on August 10, 11 and 12, also at the Revel Caffe.

Also in August

Highlands Opera: In Haliburton, the Highlands Opera Studio is presenting three operas. On August 16 and 17 it presents an unusual double bill of two 20th-century Canadian comic operas by Tibor Polgar (1907-93). Polgar was born in Budapest and was a pianist and conductor with the Hungarian Radio Symphony Orchestra from 1925 to 1950. He fled Hungary after the Russian invasion, first to Germany and then to Canada, where he became a citizen in 1969. He was an instructor at the University of Toronto Opera Division from 1966 to 1975.

First on the double bill is The Glove, Polgar’s most performed opera, commissioned by the CBC in 1973. The libretto is based on the 1797 ballad by Friedrich Schiller about a princess who asks a knight to enter an arena of lions to fetch her fallen glove. Andy Erasmus sings the Ringmaster, Grace Canfield the Princess and Matthew Dalen the Knight. Second on the bill is The Troublemaker from 1968, based on a tale from The Thousand and One Nights. Matthew Dalen sings Abu Hussein, Andy Erasmus is Sherkan, Maria Lacey is Tamatil, Emma Bergin is Nushmet and Joseph Trumbo is The Cadi. On August 24 through 27 the Highlands Opera Studio presents Puccini’s La Bohème with two casts, one on August 24 and 26 and the other on August 25 and 27.

Opera Muskoka: The second summer opera company in cottage country is Opera Muskoka, now in its ninth year. On August 21 it presents a concert performance of Mozart’s Così fan tutte in Italian with English surtitles at the Rene M. Caisse Theatre in Bracebridge. Soprano Sharon Tikiryan is the producer and will sing the role of the calculating maid Despina.

All of this operatic activity all over the province is certainly enough to occupy any Southern Ontarian opera-goer until the fall.

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

The creation of new Canadian operas continues apace. April saw the premieres of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring by James Rolfe to a libretto by Morris Panych and the premiere of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies to his own libretto. May will see the premieres of two more new operas that form a stark contrast in terms of subject matter, performers and intended audience. The first off the mark is Hockey Noir, the Opera by Quebecois composer André Ristic. The second is The Monkiest King by Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ping Yee Ho. While at the COC The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, featuring two operas by Igor Stravinsky, continues to May 19, and Anna Bolena by Donizetti continues to May 26, the arrival of these brand-new operas demonstrates how varied and vibrant the opera scene in Toronto has become.

Hockey Noir the Opera - illustration by Kimberlyn Porter

Hockey Noir

Hockey Noir, the Opera premieres on May 10 with a second performance on May 11. Subtitled “A bilingual chamber opera in 3 periods,” Hockey Noir is the first full-scale opera to be presented by Toronto’s Continuum Contemporary Music. It is co-produced by Ensemble contemporain de Montréal (ECM) and the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. As the title suggests, the opera is an homage to film noir, as well as a portrayal of the perennial Montreal-Toronto rivalry in hockey (which is why the libretto is in both French and English).

The setting is a fictional 1950s Canada during the playoff final between the Montreal Quabs and the Toronto Pine Needles.The action is narrated in voice-over by a Detective Loiseau, who describes the details of his investigation and the goings-on behind the scenes of the playoff series. He observes the backroom schemes of a colourful cast of characters consisting of mobsters, drag queens, hockey stars and femme fatales, whose paths all become entangled.

The plot involves Romanov, the city’s mob boss, who also has the hockey community in his grip, and Madame Lasalle, an irresistible seductress and Romanov’s girlfriend, who is under his thumb but who secretly hopes to take his place. Their problem is Bigowsky, a young hotshot player for the Quabs. Bigowsky is in love with Lasalle and deep in debt to Romanov, who is forcing him to lose the series so that Romanov will win his wager on the Pine Needles. To escape Romanov’s clutches, Bigowsky disappears, disguises himself as a female groupie for the Quabs and prowls around the stands encouraging and coaching his friend and teammate, winger Guy Lafeuille, a hockey veteran who wants to end his career on a high note by winning the cup.

The opera came about after Continuum commissioned 3 Environments by André Ristic in September 2015. At that time, artistic director Ryan Scott discussed the idea of a larger collaboration with Ristic and proposed a remount of the ECM production of Ristic’s first opera with librettist Cecil Castellucci, the highly successful comic book opera, Les Aventures de Madame Merveille (2010). By then, however, Ristic and Castellucci were already at work on the idea of Hockey Noir.

Veronique Lacroix. Photo by Pierre Etienne-Bergeron

To mount the opera, the four singers, conductor Véronique Lacroix and six ECM musicians (string quartet, percussion and synthesizer) will be onstage. They interact with projections designed by Serge Maheu based on illustrations by Kimberlyn Porter, moving from frozen to animated states, leaping from the giant screen onto the “skating rink” onstage.

Romanov will be sung by baritone Pierre-Étienne Bergeron, Madame Lasalle by mezzo-soprano Marie-Annick Béliveau, Bigowsky by soprano Pascale Beaudin and Lafeuille by tenor Michiel Schrey. All four are familiar with Ristic’s musical style of caricature and his mix of acoustic and electronic instruments because they all appeared in Ristic and Castellucci’s previous opera. Marie-Josée Chartier is the choreographer and stage director.

CCOC’s Monkiest King

In complete contrast to Hockey Noir, which is aimed at adults familiar with the various tropes of 1950s film noir, is the other new opera of the month: The Monkiest King, the main opera production of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company, celebrating its 50th anniversary. The opera, commissioned by CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, is by composer Alice Ping Yee Ho and librettist Marjorie Chan, who won the 2013 Dora Award for Outstanding New Opera for their Toronto Masque Theatre commission of The Lessons of Da Ji. After school previews on May 25, the opera will have public performances on May 26 and 27.

The story is based on the Song Dynasty mythological figure of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. From these beginnings, the Monkey King as a mythological character grew to include Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu influences, spreading outside of China throughout East and Southeast Asia. He has appeared in many forms and adaptations, perhaps most prominently the classic 16th-century novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en. The novel is best known in English under the title Monkey, in the 1942 abridged translation of Arthur Waley. The figure remains prevalent in the modern day, with appearances in Hong Kong action movies and video games. A proud trickster character reminiscent of Raven in First Nations lore or the god Loki in Norse mythology, Sun Wukong rebels against heaven, but ultimately learns humility.

The novel consists of 100 chapters and, in its latest, complete translation by W.J.F. Jenner, is 2346 pages long. In her librettist’s statement, Marjorie Chan writes that she and Ho realized that for an opera intended to be only one hour long, they would have to focus on only the first seven chapters of the novel. She says, “I wanted to steer away from a strict adaptation. I highlighted different parts of the story, changed a few details about characters for more impact, while remaining truthful to the novel’s message. So, instead of the Monkey King, we have the Monkiest King! Part of the joy for me on this project was creating a work for 50 or so diverse performers, from the very young to those out of their teenage years!”

In Chan’s version the story is told within a frame in which a child hides near a stuffed monkey in the Chinese exhibit in a museum and falls asleep. The action is thus the child’s dream. The action begins with the birth of the Monkey King and continues through the displeasure his boasting causes the Jade Emperor, who pursues and imprisons him. He manages to escape and under the guidance of the goddess of mercy, Kwanyin, begins to give up his foolish ways to do good.  

Alice Ping Yee HoIn her composer’s statement, Alice Ho writes, “The opera is written especially to showcase the talents of Canadian Children’s Opera Company: their soloists and six choruses of different ages. The young singers are featured in an abundance of roles, including a number of animal characters, soldiers of heaven, villagers, as well as the forceful Jade Emperor and the benevolent Kwanyin. The combination of Chinese and Western instruments (Western and Chinese woodwinds, erhu, pipa, guzheng, harp, percussion and string quartet) instigates an exotic sound world that depicts both the past and present, life or dream.”

The opera also explores the dramatic and expressive use of languages, Ho explains. “Though primarily sung in English, there are Mandarin songs that were composed to reflect the poetic side and spiritual philosophy of ancient Chinese culture. The occasional injection of Mandarin words and Cantonese slang also highlights the authenticity of Chinese folk culture. As a Canadian-Chinese composer, I hope this new opera will inspire and educate child performers with the magic of music and drama in a different cultural context. Taking a fresh look at Chinese folk mythology, The Monkiest King will bring new energy to a ‘cross-cultural’ children’s opera, bringing something exuberant and challenging to a diversified music community. It is a dream project for me to bring this mischievous good-natured character to life in a contemporary children’s opera setting.”

Unlike many previous CCOC operas, The Monkiest King will feature no adult singers. The only adult performer will be Yi Xi, a dancer from Toronto’s Little Pear Garden Dance Company (LPGDC). Stage direction will be by Nina Lee Aquino, choreography by LPGDC artistic director Emily Cheung and music direction by Teri Dunn. The production promises fun and challenges to all! 

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

In any year, April is often the month with the single highest concentration of opera presentations in Toronto and environs – and 2018 is one of those years. In this April alone there are examples from every period of opera from the 17th century to the present. For newcomers or frequent operagoers April offers an unusual opportunity to gain an overview of the entire genre. The following are in chronological order based on the year they premiered.

Dancers Tyler Gledhill and Juri Hiraoka pose as Ulysses and Penelope from 'The Return of Ulyssess' - photo by Bruce Zinger1639/40 – The Return of Ulysses (Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria) by Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi’s Ulisse, one of the first great operas in music history, recounts Ulysses’ return to his home of Ithaca after 20 years’ absence, only to find his wife Penelope besieged by suitors convinced that he must be dead and pressuring her to remarry. Opera Atelier first staged the opera in 2007 and this will be its first remount. Krešimir Špicer, an OA favourite who has sung the title role throughout Europe, will be Ulisse. Mireille Lebel will sing his wife Penelope, Christopher Enns will be his son Telemaco, Laura Pudwell will be the Nurse and Carla Huhtanen, Kevin Skelton, Stephen Hegedus and Meghan Lindsay will sing the deities Fortuna, Jupiter, Neptune and Minerva, respectively. David Fallis conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs. April 19 to 28.

1733 – Orlando (composed 1719) by George Frideric Handel. The COC has been delving more into Handel’s operas but has so far not staged this work, which is counted one of the composer’s masterpieces. In it the Christian knight Orlando falls in love with the pagan princess Angelica, who is already in love with someone else. Orlando’s unrequited love drives him to madness. Opera by Request presents the opera in concert with mezzo Kinga Lizon singing the castrato role of Orlando. Vania Chan sings Angelica and Shannon Halliwell-McDonald sings Medoro, the man she loves. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director. April 7.

1791 – The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Those seeking to add Mozart to their April lineup will have to travel to Windsor to see a new, young opera company there perform this classic. The company’s name is Abridged Opera and in their mission statement they call themselves “an indie opera company designed to bring a taste of this grand art form to a community that has limited access. They condense classic operatic works without compromising the opera’s integrity.” The singers have not been determined but the stage director will be Tracey Atin. April 14 and 15.

1813 – The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’Italiana in Algeri) by Gioachino Rossini. Fans of Rossini will also have to travel out of Toronto to see the work of another new, young company, Vera Causa Opera, that has sprung up in the Waterloo region in the past couple of years to provide performance opportunities for emerging artists. The operas are presented staged, costumed and with orchestra. L’Italiana is one of Rossini’s best-known comic operas (even though it has not been seen at the COC since 2003). Katerina Utochkina sings Isabella, the Italian girl of the title. Domenico Sanfilippo is the Bey Mustafà, who wants to marry her. David Boan is Lindoro, the young man in love with her, and Kimberley-Rose Pefhany is Elvira, who wants to win back the love of her husband the Bey. Michaela Chiste directs and Dylan Langan conducts. April 6 in Cambridge and April 7 in Waterloo.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Anna Bolena in a scene from the Washington National Opera production of 'Anna Bolena.' - photo by Scott Suchman1830 – Anna Bolena by Gaetano Donizetti. With this opera the COC completes Donizetti’s so-called Three Queens trilogy of operas about Tudor monarchs, all starring superstar soprano and recent Canadian citizen Sondra Radvanovsky. In 2010 she sang the title role in Maria Stuarda and in 2014 she sang Elisabetta (Queen Elizabeth I) in Roberto Devereux. Now she sings the title role of the doomed Anne Boleyn, which Toronto audiences last heard back in 1984 sung by no less than the great Joan Sutherland. Eric Owens sings the role of Enrico VIII, Keri Alkema is his new love-interest Giovanna Seymour, Bruce Sledge sings Lord Percy and Allyson McHardy is Anna’s devoted page Smeton. Corrado Rovaris is again the conductor and Stephen Lawless, as with the previous two Three Queens instalments, is the stage director. April 28 to May 26.

1835 – Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti. Opera Belcanto of York is also performing Donizetti this month in Richmond Hill. Alicja Wysocka sings the title role, Berg Karazian is Edgardo, David Babayants is Enrico and Henry Irwin is Raimondo. Edward Franko is the stage director and David Varjabed conducts the Opera Belcanto of York Chorus and Orchestra. April 19 and 22.

1843 – Don Pasquale by Gaetano Donizetti. Those seeking Donizetti in a lighter vein should look for Opera by Request’s concert performance of one of the composer’s best-known comic operas not seen at the COC since 1994. Bass-baritone Mikhail Shemet sings the title role, soprano Grace Quinsey sings Norina, the wife who tries to tame the gruff Pasquale, and tenor Fabian Arciniegas sings Ernesto, the young man who loves Norina. Claire Harris is the music director and pianist. April 21.

1848 – Lohengrin by Richard Wagner. Opera by Request can also help those suffering from Wagner withdrawal. OBR is presenting Lohengrin, a standard repertory work that the COC last staged back in 1983. Lenard Whiting sings the title role of the mysterious knight, Vanessa Lanch is Elsa, goaded into asking a forbidden question, Jillian Yemen is the scheming Ortrud, Andrew Tees is Telramund and Steven Henrikson is King Heinrich. William Shookhoff is the music director and indefatigable pianist. April 13.

1859 – Orphée by Christoph Willibald Gluck as revised by Hector Berlioz. Toronto’s enterprising Against the Grain Theatre has collaborated with the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, Opera Columbus and New York’s Company XIV to create a new version of Orphée et Eurydice, the 1762 opera by Gluck, revised by Berlioz in 1859. Opera Atelier presented Berlioz’s version straight in 2015. Against the Grain has different plans. It says, “In 2018, we think this would become an electronic, baroque-burlesque descent into hell. While staying true to the original score ... and honouring the traditions of Baroque opera, this new production pushes the boundaries of operatic presentation through an orchestra that mixes acoustic and electric instruments, features captivating choreography from burlesque dancers, aerial artistry and a global virtual chorus.” The global virtual chorus is made up of videos from 100 people who answered AtG’s request by singing their choral parts in the score which were then electronically mixed.

Siman Chung - photo by Soyoon MoonKorean countertenor Siman Chung sings the title role, Canadian soprano Mireille Asselin is his love Eurydice and American aerialist and soprano Marcy Richardson portrays Amour. Topher Mokrzewski conducts an ensemble of 11 musicians, including electric guitar and synthesizer, and Joel Ivany directs. As a side note, the artistic director of co-producer Opera Columbus is none other than Opera Atelier favourite Peggy Kriha Dye, who sang Eurydice for OA in 2015. April 26 to 28.

1864 – La Belle Hélène by Jacques Offenbach. Toronto Operetta Theatre concludes its 2017/18 season with the company premiere of Offenbach’s famous satirical Trojan War operetta. The COC last presented the work in 1983. Beste Kalender sings the title role, Gregory Finney is her aged husband Menelaus, Adam Fisher is her young Trojan lover Paris and Stuart Graham is Agamemnon, who thinks Helen’s abduction is a just cause for war. Peter Tiefenbach conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. April 27 to 29.

1904 – Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. The fourth Opera by Request concert presentation this month is a staple of standard repertory. Deena Nicklefork sings Cio-Cio San, Will Ford is the faithless Pinkerton, Keith O’Brien is the American consul Sharpless and Madison Arsenault is Cio-Cio San’s faithful servant Suzuki. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director. April 27.

2009 – The Nightingale and Other Short Fables including Le Rossignol (1914) by Igor Stravinsky and Renard (composed 1916; premiere 1922) by Igor Stravinsky. The COC concludes its 2017/18 season with a revival of Robert Lepage’s unique take on two short operas by Stravinsky mixed with the composer’s settings of Russian folksongs. The production that premiered to huge acclaim in 2009 is most notable for placing the orchestra and chorus on stage and filling the pit with water for Vietnamese water puppets and other effects. The cast and conductor are completely different from those in 2009. This time Jane Archibald will sing the Nightingale, Owen McCausland will be the Fisherman, Christian Van Horn will be the Emperor and Johannes Debus will conduct. April 13 to May 19.

2018 – The Overcoat by James Rolfe. The first half of April will allow audiences to see the most recent Canadian opera to be fully staged in Toronto. This opera is an attempt to convert the wildly popular wordless 1997 physical theatre piece by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling into an opera. The original piece told the 1842 story by Nikolai Gogol through movement to selections of music by Shostakovich. It told of Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin, a government clerk who becomes obsessed with the notion that he must have a new overcoat to secure a promotion.

While the look of the opera will be the same as the theatre piece, Panych, who is also the stage director, has had to write a libretto. This has been set by James Rolfe, one of Canada’s most successful and prolific opera composers. In the 13-member cast, Geoffrey Sirett will sing Akaky, Peter McGillivray will be both the Tailor and the Head of Akaky’s Department and Andrea Ludwig will be Akaky’s Landlady. Leslie Dala conducts this co-production of Tapestry Opera, Vancouver Opera and Canadian Stage. March 29 to April 14.

2018 – Opera Peep Show. For a sampling of all sorts of opera, four indie opera companies have banded together to create a pay-as-you-go show at the Campbell House Museum. Four rooms of the 1822 downtown mansion are devoted to each company. Liederwölfe presents an assortment of some of the most famous scenes in opera. Essential Opera presents favourites from its past seasons. re:Naissance presents three dramatic scenes combining texts from Shakespeare with music by John Dowland and his contemporaries. And Urbanvessel presents the interactive performance Boots about a young woman’s relationship with her footwear. April 28 to 30.

From all of these offerings this April, new operagoers can acquire a wide background in the genre, while seasoned operagoers can easily construct their own festival.

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

In this exciting month Toronto will see the world premieres of two new Canadian operas. The first, The Overcoat by James Rolfe, opens March 29 and is covered elsewhere in this issue. The other is The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by Victor Davies, which will be presented March 24 and 25 by VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert. Having interviewed Davies last month and pored through his background paper for the work, the opera looks to be one of his most important compositions.

Victor Davies - photo by Graham Lindsay Wavelength MediaAs a play The Ecstasy of Rita Joe by George Ryga is considered one of the classics of Canadian drama. It premiered in Vancouver in November 1967 as a Canada Centennial project. As Davies explains: “Its impact was electric, as no Canadian play had been written which confronted issues head-on between Indigenous and mainline society.” In simple terms it follows the life of Rita Joe, who leaves her reservation in search of greater freedom in the city only to face racism, drugs, prostitution, rape and murder. Ryga uses the word “ecstasy” to refer ironically to her final moments before death. Interwoven with Rita Joe’s life is that of her friend Jaimie Paul, who also meets a tragic end. 

The play has had many subsequent productions, most recently at the National Arts Centre in 2013 with an all-Indigenous cast. In 1971 the Royal Winnipeg Ballet produced a ballet based on it choreographed by Norbert Vesak to music by Ann Mortifee, revived most recently in 2011.

In answer to the question of how Davies came to create an opera based on the play, he writes in his background paper: “The genesis of the idea, that I should make an opera of the play, came from the insistence/encouragement of two dear friends: well-known Indigenous stage and screen actor August Schellenberg, the original Jaimie Paul in the premiere production of the play in 1967, and director/producer John Juliani who produced the CBC radio adaptation of the play for which I composed the music. Both were convinced the play contained an opera.

“Ultimately, my two friends were right. The play is wonderful material for an opera. It is richly textured and contains vibrant larger-than-life characters, a classic tragic love story, the theme of young ideas and ambitions thwarted, the clash between value systems, both societal and generational, pathos, moments of wonderful humour, the underlying inner drive which calls for music to emerge in song, and richly poetic dramatic prose to inspire heightened lyric melody.”

Nevertheless, Davies was still concerned whether today a self-described “old white guy” should write an opera about Indigenous people. To determine if he should undertake the project, he consulted Rebecca Chartrand, a singer and friend with whom Davies collaborated for the Indigenous music in the Opening Ceremonies of the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg and who is the Aboriginal Consultant for Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg.

As Davies explains, “Her immediate reaction was that I must write the opera. She said it spoke directly to the current and important discussion about the missing and murdered Indigenous women. This was a turning point for us both. Since this initial meeting until the present she has been a constant force in urging us to bring the opera to life.”

In addition to Chartrand, Davies consulted and was encouraged in the creation of the opera by such members of the Indigenous community as playwrights Thomson Highway and Kevin Loring, and the chiefs of various First Nations including Chief Len George (son of Chief Dan George, who appeared in the play’s premiere).

In answer to the question why the play should become an opera, Davies lists four goals: “to bring the story, characters and their issues to new life powered by music; to put the story into a new frame to engage new publics; to create an important and viable vehicle for Indigenous opera singers; and to be a catalyst in the discussion about issues between Indigenous peoples and Canadian society at large.” 

A further question Davies addresses is why a play from 1967 should become an opera now. “This opera speaks to the important topic of the missing and murdered Indigenous women. Fifty years since the play’s creation, many serious issues are still unresolved in Indigenous life: tensions between the reserve and the city and the values they represent regarding stewardship of nature vs. modernity, conflicts between generations, the Indigenous world vs. the legal system, and prejudice against Indigenous people in general, all issues which underpin the problem of the missing and murdered women, and the residential school system.”

Davies says that Chartrand and Chief Isadore Day in Toronto and Chief Nepinak in Winnipeg “all spoke about how important they felt the opera would be in bringing Indigenous issues to mainline audiences in a new, more powerful way. They felt that bringing their story to the stage for audiences to whom the Indigenous story was nothing but a TV clip or a newspaper footnote would have an enormous impact. With characters with whom the audience could identify, who were alive, had aspirations, humour, and though their lives have a tragic end, the portrayal of these lives powered by music would bring home their story.”

Davies approached Opera in Concert three years ago about producing the work, and OiC organized a two-day workshop focusing on the libretto, which he also wrote. In transforming the play to an opera Davies made many changes. One was to eliminate the character of the Singer, a figure present in the play primarily to satirize the lack of understanding of liberal white people about what is happening to Indigenous people. While the action shifts back and forth in time, Davies’s libretto tells the story in chronological order. The five times Rita Joe is called before a magistrate become part of the libretto’s organizing structure. 

In commenting on the score, Davies says: “This work will be unlike anything I have done, rooted in the ethos of the contemporary worlds of the reserve, the streets and the city. There will be no actual Indigenous music or language, but I will create music which reflects Indigenous music, the characters themselves and their place in both reserve and city with the necessary contemporary grit, energy and texture of the 60s. However melody, rhythm, accessibility and immediacy are hallmarks of my music and will be in this work too. The score will be eclectic in style as befits characters and action.” Davies says that the music will range from the tonal and melodic for arias for Rita Joe and Jaimie Paul to the atonal and dissonant for scenes of violence and conflict. The music is not organized through leitmotifs in the Wagnerian sense, but it is shaped through the use of recurring themes associated with certain characters and actions. 

Marion Newman - photo by Ellen NewmanFor the VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert production, all the principal roles will be sung by Indigenous Canadian artists. Mezzo Marion Newman will sing the title role. Baritone Evan Korbut, a recent Stuart Hamilton Memorial Award winner, will sing the role of Jaimie Paul. Mezzo Michelle Lafferty will be Sister Eileen, baritone Everett Levi Morrison will be Father David Joe and mezzo Rose-Ellen Nichols will be the Old Woman. The Opera in Concert Chorus will take on a wide array of roles: members of the court, street women, women on the reserve and in jail and more. 

For the OiC production Guillermo Silva-Marin will serve as dramatic advisor. Robert Cooper will conduct the cast, the OiC Chorus and an ensemble of piano, cello, violin, clarinet and saxophone. The latter four instruments Davies says will add more “colour and weight” to the music than would piano alone. (While his last opera for Manitoba Opera, Transit of Venus (2007), employed an orchestra of 68, Davies says that for a full production of Rita Joe, he would be happy with an ensemble of 16.)

Attending the OiC performances will be representatives of Manitoba Opera and Vancouver Opera who may determine whether Davies’ opera moves on to future productions with their companies. For now, Davies is filled with gratitude. He writes that he gives “many thanks to dear friends both past and present who have given me... the passion and joy to search for the truth in the beautiful poetry of George Ryga. My hope is that those who see it as it emerges, will feel the same.”

Revised, 20/03/18: The third-to-last paragraph of this story has been revised to remove the statement that mezzo Marion Newman, who sings the title role of Rita Joe, also served as an advisor on the project. While she met twice, informally, with the composer during the development of the project,  the nature of the input offered and the extent to which it was accepted were not sufficient to warrant describing the role as advisory. Permission was neither sought by the composer nor given by Ms. Newman to characterize her role as that of advisor.

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

Christopher Hoile, our regular opera columnist, will return to his usual spot here in March, so I will leave it to him in his upcoming column, next issue, to walk you through the fine points of the Canadian Opera Company’s just-announced 2018/2019 season.

Instead, as an enthusiastic but inexpert guest columnist, I thought it might be fun to start out by addressing myself not to the column’s usual readers, but to those of you who, either as guests to our city, or new readers of this magazine, or opera newbies might benefit from some friendly advice on how to traverse the potentially tricky terrain (both geographic and semantic) of opera in our fair town. The rest of you, who know your way around both these things, can skip ahead a few paragraphs, for what’s actually on the menu.

Rule One (Geography): Be careful what you ask for – especially if you are in a cab. You might be lucky (or unlucky) enough to get a cab driver who actually knows his way around town, in which case responding to “Where to?” with a nonchalant“The Opera House, please” could result in finding yourself 3.7km due east of your intended destination, in an old Queen St. E. venue (that is actually called The Opera House!) in a throng of 1,200 or so mostly bobbing and weaving concertgoers, listening to Avatar, The Brains & Hellzapoppin’, with Gilda and Rigoletto nowhere in sight.

The actual opera house here is called the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (named after Vivaldi’s favourite hotel chain), and the city’s premier opera company, with typical Toronto understatement, is called the Canadian Opera Company. The COC shares the FSCPA, for performing purposes with Toronto’s premier ballet company, the equally modestly named National Ballet of Canada, otherwise known as NBoC, or “the Ballet.”

The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts - Photo by Sam JavanouhRule Two (Semantics): Having established that “The Opera House” is not the opera house, let’s move on to an equally crucial distinction, this time semantics. It is this: in Toronto, expressing an interest in "the opera" does not mean the same thing as expressing an interest in "opera." The former is generally assumed by listeners to mean performances by the the city’s premier opera company in the city’s premier opera house. The latter can mean a far more nuanced range of things.

 So listen very carefully when someone tells you about their relationship to this particular art form! The distinction between “I went to the opera” and “I went to an opera” is as important as the difference between a residential address on the 200s block of Chaplin Crescent or on the 300s block, the latter being where, after that winding avenue of stately homes crosses Eglinton Avenue, it peters out in a little thicket of mostly post-World War II midrise apartment buildings.

(I also suspect, with only the slightest tinge of arts worker bitterness, that more residents of the 200 block of Chaplin Crescent would be likely to have tickets to the opera than their trans-Eglintonian 300-block counterparts.)

All that being said, within their respective genres the COC and NBoC are, without doubt, the definite article, towering like forest giants above the Torontonian cultural undergrowth, and well-worth a visit.

So, now that we’ve established what the opera means in this town, and how to get there, let’s take a little ramble instead through the city’s operatic undergrowth, where the fascinating biodiversity of the town’s actual operatic culture can be observed and measured.

Welcome to the Undergrowth: It must first be said that “forest giant” and “undergrowth” are highly unscientific terms. For one thing, calling everything other than the two or three tallest trees in town the undergrowth is a vast oversimplification. Passionate devotees of Opera Atelier are almost as likely to say “the opera” as to say “an opera” when asked where they have been. And there are other companies out there (Tapestry and Against the Grain) which at this point have the capacity to flip between mainstream finesse and indie panache almost at will. There are also theatre companies that have tall tree status within their own non-operatic realm that occasionally turn their attention to the art form (Canadian Stage Company is perhaps the most notable among these, and we'll have much more to say about them in a future issue.)

That being said, there’s a pleasantly rich tangle of operatic activity in town. Some of it, to be sure, focuses on rendering, on a smaller, more community-friendly scale, the repertoire most usually performed at “the opera” (Toronto City Opera, Opera York and Opera by Request come most readily to mind.)

And there is a uniquely Torontonian gem of a company around, called VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert, featuring top-flight performers in very lightly staged concert renditions, occasionally of new works but more often of rarities from the grand operatic tradition too risky or problematic, for one reason or another, for the forest giants to stage.

And then there is the mysterious thing called “Indie Opera.”

Indie Opera: At any given moment in time, Toronto seems to have 10 or 12 indie opera companies, on the go. Not always the same 10 or 12, mind you. Birth, decay and death are as necessary to a fertile operatic climate as they are to a good operatic plot. And even within the 10-or-12-company official membership of Indie Opera Toronto, it doesn’t do to generalize as to individual companies’ stated purposes.

Loose Tea Music Theatre, for example, is currently investing significant time and passion in a third-Sunday-of-every-month residency at Bad Dog Comedy Theatre on Bloor near Ossington (their next show is February 18), with a madcap improvised show called “Whose Opera Is It Anyway?” Under the inspired co-direction of Loose Tea artistic director Alaina Viau and comedy improv heavyweight Carly Heffernan, Loose Tea’s core ensemble has been steeping themselves in the standard games and structures that are the meat and potatoes of comedy improv. It’s a win-win-win. The show is a delight for fans of opera and of improv alike. And the ensemble itself is learning the conspicuous bravery of actually listening affirmatively to each other and responding truthfully in the moment – attributes that will stand them in good stead as they re-engage down the line with projects with the social and artistic heft of their 2016 Carmen.

Meanwhile, Essential Opera, another indie stalwart, is working towards an April 22 concert performance with Orchestra Toronto of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, an exercise in cross-genre audience building and in carrying forward the key message inherent in the company name -- namely that the essence of opera is something different than its trappings and machinery.

What these two companies, and everything in between, have in common is that at some point in their gestation some individual or individuals said “If we are going to ever get to do operatically what we are interested in, we are going to have to do it ourselves.”

As already mentioned, you can get a rough idea of the players in the indie opera undergrowth by visiting indieoperatoronto.ca. But again, a cautionary note: like its member companies are, or were, Indie Opera Toronto has sprouted from do-it-yourself, volunteer-driven roots. So the information on the website is best viewed as a snapshot of the scene, compiled at a particular moment rather than chapter and verse. It nevertheless offers a way to delve deeper into projects and plans of the companies listed there, but it sometimes takes the site a while to catch up with the scene.

The Electric Bond Opera Ensemble

Soprano Sara Schabas' newly created Electric Bond Opera Ensemble is definitely the new kid on the indie opera block, but Schabas herself is not, having grown up in the world of “the opera.” So she comes to this project with a deeply rooted, organic passion for the storytelling power of the medium. Her grandfather, Ezra Schabas, among other musical achievements, was head of the University of Toronto Faculty of Music performance and opera department from 1968 to 1978, where Sara Schabas herself went on to complete an undergraduate degree in vocal performance. “Dad was a french horn player before he became a lawyer,” she explains, “and both my parents and all my grandparents had a huge love for opera. Starting at age four, they’d put on a VHS of La Boheme, Act 1 for me. I’d listen to Saturday Afternoon at the Opera every week. I was that weird kid who loved opera from a very young age. So it’s always been a very natural thing for me.”

Sara SchabasThe ensemble's name, she tells me, is a quote from Thomas Huxley, the agnostic 19th-century British biologist, nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” “We aim to present classical and operatic works that tell untold stories, reminding audiences and performers of what Huxley called the ‘electric bond of being’ by which all people are united.”

The company’s first show dives headlong into the company's stated aims – a fully staged, Canadian premiere performance, on February 10 and 11, of “ two one-act operas of survival,” Another Sunrise​ and ​Farewell, Auschwitz, by U.S. composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer – partners in operatic crime for Moby-Dick (2010) and the more recent It's a Wonderful Life which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2016.

The Toronto Another Sunrise​ and ​Farewell, Auschwitz will take place in Beth Tzedec Congregation’s Herman Hall on Bathurst Street and will represent, at several different levels, a journey of return for Schabas. We chatted briefly in The WholeNote offices.

WholeNote: So how did you discover Heggie?

Schabas: After undergrad at U of T, I went to Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University for a master's, and from there into an internship with Dayton Opera Company. I was one of their artists-in-residence and Jake Heggie actually came and did a short residency with us – so we put on a concert of his works that he narrated and coached us on. And then we also did Dead Man Walking [Heggie’s first big hit, in 2000, with librettist Terrence McNally]. Getting to know him and hearing the personal stories behind each of his works really drew me in, as well as the visceral reaction we got from audiences in all those performances. So when I heard he had this Holocaust one-act/two-act opera I thought it would be a really interesting experience for me not only to perform more of his works but to explore my heritage through an art form that doesn’t often explore Jewish stories.”

So which was the chicken and which was the egg? You wanted to do this particular opera so you decided to do it yourself? Or you wanted to do your own thing, and this was a perfect fit?

Well, moving back from the States after my student visa expired it took a bit to re-establish myself within the community. So, like many other singers, I started producing my own concerts, and I did a lot of refugee fundraising recitals – three of them when I moved back – as well as some other volunteer work. I knew I wanted to produce my own work with this specific social-justice-oriented angle. This piece was already there as a side passion project, and it fit perfectly.

Right now I’m guessing you are in the DIY thick of things …

Exactly right. When you’re in do-it-yourself mode you’re doing your own press releases, you’re pulling together the partners and in the middle of all of it you’re learning the music and all the rest of it.

So who is the actual artistic team you've assembled? The ones who are going to force you to take off your producer’s hat when you’re on the stage? Who had you already worked with?

SS: Yeah – well Michael Shannon, our music director, I worked with earlier this year at Tapestry Opera for Bandits in the Valley. I played Henri, which was both a piano-playing and a singing character. So Michael Shannon and I got quite close because he had to help me a lot with the piano, which is not something I’ve studied extensively, and he was just such a vibrant strong leader in that experience and in the other performances that I’ve seen him in that I thought he would be a perfect person to take the helm on this project. And Aaron Willis I’ve actually never worked with before ...

Aaron is …?

He’s the director – I’ve worked with his wife, Julie Tepperman, who was the librettist for Bandits in the Valley so we did a lot of talking about our shared Jewish heritage and I initially actually reached out to her to see if she’d be interested in directing. She she said she wasn't, but her husband would be. He has never directed an opera by himself before – he assisted with Julie last year at Canadian Stage – but he’s a very interesting director: he’s done a lot of immersive theatre, some of which also has a Jewish angle. He has this one famous play called The Yehud which is a comedy about two Orthodox Jews and what happens right after they get married – there’s the yehud room. The opportunity for me taking on this really meaty acting role to work with someone – he also has a background as an actor – with a strong theatrical background was a priority. So some old, some new ...

You say it's a meaty role? Does that tie in with the “untold stories” goal you talked about?

Krystyna Zywulska is a very interesting story because she’s someone who actually hid her Jewish identity: when she was in the Warsaw ghetto she created this new identity, and when she was imprisoned at Auschwitz it wasn’t as a Jew it was as a political prisoner; her story is one of reconciling with the terrible thing she did to her fellow Jews, and then finding out if her past can exist with her present …

So how to embrace the dichotomy ...

Absolutely. So hers is a very conflicted Holocaust story and a very rich one.

And the partnership with Beth Tzedec and with the Azrieli Foundation. How does all that happen?

Well – since moving back I’ve been doing a lot of singing in synagogues, so I’ve been a member of the choir at Beth Tzedec and they’re very interested in presenting survivors’ testimonies in different ways so basically I pitched the opera to them and they were interested. Azrieli also happened to be interested ...

How did you know about Azrieli?

That was a bit of an aha moment: I was at the Canadian Children's Opera Company's Brundibár last year, for which I know they also received help from the Azrieli foundation. So then I started looking them up ...

So, getting back to the show itself, what’s the breakdown of instruments?

It’s piano, clarinet, violin, cello and bass.

Sounds like almost a klezmer feel to it.

Yeah, the clarinet voice definitely has that feel. It has this certain chant-like melody that occurs throughout the piece and I was just remarking to Michael Shannon on how Jewish it sounds at times.

So how did you find the other singers?

Again, recommendations – I sang with Sean Watson in the Beth Shalom choir and Georgia Burashko I’ve just heard wonderful things about and she was very interested.

Any other projects already in the works? Do you dare wait to get the next thing going?

Yeah ... there are some ideas floating out there ... my friend Jacques Arsenault who’s a tenor and accordion player – also from Bandits in the Valley – and a couple of other friends and I are working on a potential Satie program for next year but we’re still finding the social justice, untold-story lens for that. He was a bit of an outcast in his lifetime – Satie – and he also has a lot of interesting dichotomies in his life between his cabaret works and his more formal works so we’re looking to put together a program about that. That’s the main thing right now. But it’s true – once you do one you have to start thinking about the next

Even while you're still doing the one ...otherwise you're stuck in the middle ...

Yeah – and then you miss out.

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

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