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.

It used to be that the only operatic productions that took place in December and January were from the Canadian Opera Company and Toronto Operetta Theatre. Now there are so many new small companies that there is quite a wide range of offerings available to see out the old year and see in the new.

COC: That being said, the production on the largest scale in these two months is the Canadian Opera Company’s remount of Verdi’s Rigoletto for ten performances from January 20 to February 23. The production, directed by Christopher Alden, was last seen in 2011. There is some controversy attached to the production, since Alden had previously created it for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2000. The action is set entirely inside a gentlemen’s gaming club in the early 1850s with the chorus onstage throughout the action. The various locations in the libretto are acted out using furniture from the club, the danger being that if people do not already know the story the staging provides no clues to help them. After its unpopular run at LOC, the production was deemed “unrevivable” and LOC now has a popular new production directed by E. Loren Meeker. When the COC and English National Opera approached Alden for a Rigoletto, he simply re-created the one he had done for Chicago.

In any case, the COC has revived the unrevivable and it features Roland Wood in the title role, Anna Christy as Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda, Stephen Costello and Joshua Guerrero (February 11, 17, 23) as the depraved Duke of Mantua, and Goderdzi Janelidze as the assassin Sparafucile. Stephen Lord conducts.

On a much lighter note, the COC has invited the public to see a new opera for children, The Magic Victrola, on December 1, 2 and 3. The opera also has a Chicago connection in that it was premiered by the LOC in 2015. In the opera, written by David Kersnar and Jacqueline Russell, two children stay at their grandfather’s place for the summer vacation. The grandfather has a Victrola and a set of opera recordings; the children find when they play the records that the characters come alive. The hour-long show includes well-known excerpts from The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, The Tales of Hoffmann, The Elixir of Love, Lakmé, Gianni Schicchi and Carmen. The opera, suitable for ages five and over, is performed by members of the COC Ensemble Studio and is directed by Ashlie Corcoran, with music direction by Rachael Kerr and Stéphane Mayer.

Toronto Operetta Theatre has been helping Torontonians bridge the old and the new years with operetta for more than 30 years. This year it revives its production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), last staged here in 2007, which the composer himself designated as an “operetta.” The work follows the adventures of the eternal optimist Candide, whose tutor has taught him to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds. This belief is sorely tested when Candide barely survives one disaster after another. Tonatiuh Abrego takes on the title role, while Vania Chan stars as his beloved Cunegonde and sings the show-stopping coloratura aria Glitter and Be Gay. TOT favourite Elizabeth Beeler sings the Old Lady, Nicholas Borg is Dr. Pangloss, Cian Horrobin is the Governor and Mikhail Shemet is Cacambo. Candide runs for six performances from December 28 to January 7. Derek Bate conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Talk Is Free Theatre: This is likely the first time ever that a person can see two different productions of Candide in Ontario in the same month. The second takes place at a non-traditional operatic showcase, Talk Is Free Theatre in Barrie, which is in the process of presenting the Bernstein work in a run from November 23 to December 2. The cast includes Thom Allison, Holly Chaplin, Gabi Epstein, Mike Nadajewski and Michael Torontow; Richard Ouzounian directs and Lily Ling conducts.

Shi Pei Pu, the original Mr. ShiTarragon Theatre, another non-traditional showcase for opera, is presenting Mr. Shi and His Lover, a one-act work by Njo Kong Kie that runs in Toronto until December 17. In the new year it plays at the NAC in Ottawa from January 3 to 13. Mr. Shi is made up of seven scenes in which two characters, Mr. Shi and Bernard Boursicot, reflect on the the strange but true story of their relationship. Boursicot, a young French diplomat stationed in China in 1964, fell in love with Shi Pei Pu, a male performer of the Peking Opera specializing in female roles, believing that Shi was actually a woman. Amazingly, Boursicot and Shi’s relationship continued for 20 years without Boursicot ever realizing Shi was a man, much less a spy recruited to entrap him. This story is the basis for David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play M. Butterfly. Jordan Cheng sings the role of Mr. Shi and Derek Kwan sings Boursicot. Njo Kong Kie conducts the singers and percussionist Yukie Lai from the piano in an eclectic score that ranges from Peking opera to traditional folk song, music hall, pop music, Western opera and the art song. Tam Chi Chun, the artistic director of Macau Experimental Theatre, directs.

Tryptych: Continuing its exploration of standard repertory with large orchestra, Tryptych Concert & Opera presents its final opera in Toronto before its co-artistic directors, Edward Franko and Lenard Whiting, move to Kenora to restart the company there. On December 9 and 10, Tryptych presents a fully-staged production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel in English at the P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough, with the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Beaches Children’s Chorus. The cast features Meghan Symon as Hansel, Marion Samuel-Stevens as Gretel, Douglas Tranquada as the Father, Mila Ionkova as the Mother, Kira Braun as the Dew Fairy and Sandman and Whiting himself as the Witch. Franko directs and Norman Reintamm conducts. Despite Franko and Whiting’s move, the two plan to stage at least one opera with the CBSO in Toronto every year. Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is already planned for next year.

Tapestry: In the realm of new music is the welcome return of Tapestry Opera’s popular Opera Briefs. This year’s “Winter Shorts” consists of ten opera scenes developed during Tapestry’s 2016 Composer-Librettist Laboratory. Creators of the shorts have drawn inspiration from current events and contemporary concerns including the Syrian refugee crisis, robot warfare, the 1984 Quebec National Assembly shooting, voyeurism, fairy tales and dysfunctional millennial relationships. This year’s operas include three composed by Afarin Mansouri, three from Iman Habibi, three from Norbert Palej and one from Kit Soden. The librettists are Bobby Theodore, Marcia Johnson, Phoebe Tsang and Jessica Murphy Moo. The performers are Alexander Dobson, Erica Iris, Keith Klassen and Jacqueline Woodley. “Winter Shorts” runs from November 30 to December 3.

Against the Grain: In contrast to Tapestry’s “bite-size” offerings, from December 14 to 16 Toronto’s indomitable Against the Grain Theatre presents a “new” full-length Handel opera in the form of Bound – A Handel Mash-up. AtG’s artistic director Joel Ivany and music director Topher Mokrzewski have collaborated with award-winning composer Kevin Lau to create a pastiche of music from Handel’s operas and oratorios that will focus on current world events. According to the AtG website, “In the wake of the world’s refugee crisis, this workshop will explore the current state of those displaced, dehumanized and mistreated, with texts and stories drawn from real-life news articles and world events.” When I asked Ivany in November what drew him to Handel instead of, say, Verdi, who also wrote about so many dispossessed people, he responded, “There is something in the form in which Handel wrote most of his music which is interesting. His draw to a formula, a repetition of text and simplicity in how he set it, is profound. Yes, Verdi is a master composer, but his music takes on a much more propelling aspect to the storytelling. Handel allows you to reflect, assess and move forward.”

Some of the pieces that Bound draws upon are Acis and Galetea, Alcina, Alexander’s Feast, Ariodante, Orlando, Floridante, Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Jephtha, Rinaldo, Rodelinda, Semele, Serse and Tolomeo. For the assembled score Ivany has written a new English libretto. The cast includes soprano Danika Lorèn, tenor Asitha Tennekoon, countertenor David Trudgen, baritone Justin Welsh and bass Michael Uloth. Ivany will direct and Mokrzewski will conduct.

Richard Margison and Lauren MargisonHighlands Opera premiere: Meanwhile, there is an important premiere outside Toronto. Opera lovers may know that the Highlands Opera Studio, based in Haliburton with Richard Margison as artistic director, presents opera in the summer. This year HOS will present a new work December 21 and 22, Mishaabooz’s Realm (Le Royaume de Michabous), with music and libretto by Cree composer Andrew Balfour. The opera, a co-production with L’Atelier Lyrique of L’Opéra de Montréal, will have its world premiere performances in Montreal on December 15 and 16 before moving to Haliburton.

The opera’s central figure is Mishaabooz, an important character in Anishinaabe storytelling. Mishaabooz is another name for Nanabozho, the great trickster spirit and shape-shifter, one of whose favourite forms is as a giant rabbit, who is often sent to earth by Gitche Manitou (the Creator) to teach the Ojibwe peoples. (Mishaabooz, in fact, means “Great Hare.”) In his composer’s statement, Balfour describes the opera as “a multi-media and multi-directional work, incorporating classical styles, unique choral and vocal perspectives, Indigenous musical and oral traditions, with a libretto in First Nations dialect, French and English, exploring contemporary issues concerning Canada’s relationship with our First People and the land of Turtle Island, past, present and future.”

Singers include soprano Lauren Margison and baritone Nathan Keoughan. Balfour and Cory Campbell will contribute vocals and play percussion while music director Louise-Andrée Baril will conduct from the piano. The chorus will be drawn from both Montreal and Haliburton. Valerie Kuinka is the stage director.

We clearly no longer have to wait until spring for variety in operatic activity in Ontario.

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

Dedicated Toronto operagoers know that operatic activity in Toronto is not confined to the city’s two largest companies, the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier. Numerous smaller companies have helped make the opera scene in Toronto one of the most diverse in North America. There is therefore a pang of sadness whenever one of these companies ceases operations, as did Queen of Puddings Music Theatre in 2013 and as will Toronto Masque Theatre in 2018. Some may have seen on the website for TrypTych Concert & Opera that co-artistic directors Edward Franko and Lenard Whiting will be leaving Toronto and moving to Kenora. To find out more about the history of TrypTych and how the move will affect the company, I interviewed Franko and Whiting last month.

TrypTych was founded in the early fall of 1999 by Franko, Whiting and William Shookhoff. Franko had been working with Nina Scott-Stoddart’s company Opera Anonymous. As Franko says, “The three of us all got together and thought that we should do something together and utilize all our different skills and decided that with the three heads of the beast and the famous Il Trittico [by Puccini] we could convert that to TrypTych and just change the spelling.”

Then, about ten years ago Shookhoff had to pull out of TrypTych due to health reasons, leaving Franko to do the opera side of the productions and Whiting the choral side. But the TrypTych name stuck. (As it happened, Shookhoff recovered and founded his own company, Opera By Request.)

Franko emphasizes: “We were very strong at the beginning about not just being an opera company. We felt that we didn’t want to be beholden to opera even though all three of us had a very strong connection to opera. We were also working with singers from a lot of different musical backgrounds. We thought that singing as a whole isn’t just opera – you have to be able to fit into a lot of categories. That’s why we did cabarets that featured music like jazz, pop and rock and quite a wide range of things. Then we had the classical oratorio side and tried to do some things that aren’t done a lot like Dubois’ Seven Last Words, Gounod’s Messe solennelle, Saint-Saëns’ Mass for Four Voices and even the Widor Mass.”

Whiting explained the reason for this dual focus: “This is part of the reality of what Canadian singers really have to be exposed to. There’s a handful that find a really wonderful opportunity in opera, but if you don’t happen to break into that market you’ve got to find other ways to present yourself and to be diverse.”

Edward Franko (left) and Lenard WhitingTrypTych has presented quite a number of seldom-heard operas over the past 18 seasons, such as Marcel Mihalovici’s Krapp, ou la dernière bande (1961), Hugo Weisgall’s The Stronger (1952), Jack Beeson’s Sorry, Wrong Number (1996), Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954), Quenten Doolittle’s Boiler Room Suite (1989) and the Canadian stage premiere of Verdi’s Oberto (1839).

Franko adds: “One of the big things we’ve been really happy with over the last five years has been our relationship with conductor Norman Reintamm and the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra, doing fully staged opera with a 60-piece orchestra at the 600-seat P.C. Ho Theatre in Scarborough. In fact, our shows get the best houses of all their concerts. We’ve done all three parts of Il Trittico now and two one-act operas last year. This December for the first time we’re doing a full-length opera, Hansel and Gretel, with the big orchestra, a children’s chorus and Lenard as the Witch with an LED screen for backdrops.

“A lot of the opportunities that opera school graduates get is singing opera in concert, which is great, but we and the CBSO give them a chance to incorporate all aspects of the art – singing, acting and movement on stage – with a full orchestra. Young people don’t get that chance very often.”

Toronto operagoers will be relieved to hear Franko affirm that “Even after we move north we’re keeping a connection with the CBSO and TrypTych so we’ll be able to do at least one production a year even though we’re far away.” Whiting has renovated the basement of their Toronto base at Trinity Presbyterian Church into a combined rehearsal space and concert/performance space for 125 people, “so there will be no need to rent since we already have space and a good working relationship all round.”

The main reason for choosing Kenora for their move is that is where Whiting is from. As Franko says, “We have a home up there on an island in Lake of the Woods and Lenard has been going back every year so that we now know lots of people in the community.”

Franko makes their goal clear: “TrypTych for us has always been a labour of love. We’ve never made money off it. Our goal now is to develop a real thriving arts company in Kenora that can operate all year round but with a summer focus. We want to work with the community and with young people to really develop a community organization. We want to make a great impact in a small place and give them a boost. We’re thinking of it as TrypTych North.”

On October 28 and 29, TrypTych staged the rarity H.M.S. Parliament (1880), in which the Canadian William Henry Fuller wrote a new libretto for Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) in order to satirize Canadian politics. “This will also be the first staged production we will do in Kenora,” Franko says. That being said, Franko and Whiting have already made plans for their next production in Toronto. “In February 2019 the CBSO and TrypTych will do Donizetti’sThe Elixir of Love. It will be performed in English because we’ve always been ones to make opera more accessible. We love the form and we want to make people more connected with it.”

Asked what some of the highlights were for them in Toronto, they agree that it was the workshops and the world premiere of Canadian composer Andrew Ager’s opera Frankenstein (2010). “It was a wonderful journey for us to work with him and make that piece come alive.”

Franko also lists the Canadian stage premiere of Grigori Frid’s The Diary of Anne Frank (1972), starring Shoshana Friedman. The production was invited to the Three Rings Festival in Prague and was staged in the gorgeous Spanish Synagogue. “It was overwhelming for me as a producer-director to have my work performed there,” Franko says.

For Whiting, highlights include Stanford’s Stabat Mater (1906), with piano and organ reduction, which Whiting calls “just to die for” and the company’s performance of Bach’s St. John Passion where he both conducted and sang the role of the Evangelist.

A huge challenge for Franko personally was both performing and directing himself in The Tell-Tale Heart (2006) for tenor and three cellos by German-born American composer Danny Ashkenasi, based on the tale by Edgar Allen Poe.

But they are not ready to talk about highlights only in the past tense. “We have at least 15 more years of being able to contribute to the arts scene up north in a really vital way,” Whiting says. “We have the energy and the imagination and the experience from working in Toronto, and we think that it’s time to bring our abilities to the people up north.” And when asked when they plan to retire, Franko states, “The artistic soul never retires.”

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

Patrick Jang, Carla Huhtanen and Phillip Addis in Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro (2010). OA’s revival of Figaro runs from October 26 to November 4.This October offers opera lovers a wide range of choices. The COC is presenting a new production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from October 11 to November 4. Opera Atelier is reviving its much-loved production of The Marriage of Figaro with American Douglas Williams making his OA debut in the title role from October 26 to November 4. And Toronto Masque Theatre begins its final season with a pairing of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1687) and James Rolfe’s Aeneas and Dido (2007) on October 20 and 21. Besides these, there are two 20th-century works that have never before been staged in Toronto. One is Richard Strauss’ Arabella, running at the COC for seven performances from October 5 to 28. The other is Musik für das Ende by Québécois composer Claude Vivier, given ten performances by Soundstreams from October 27 to November 4.

Arabella

Arabella (1933) was Strauss’ sixth and final collaboration with his favourite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Strauss asked Hofmannsthal for a “second Rosenkavalier” and Hofmannsthal was happy to oblige. Unfortunately, Hofmannsthal died in 1929 before he could revise the final two acts of the opera. Strauss, as a tribute to his friend, set the remaining libretto as it was.

The opera is a comedy set in Vienna in the 1860s, about a once-wealthy family who hopes an auspicious marriage for Arabella will restore the family fortunes. Erin Wall sings the title role and Jane Archibald the role of her younger sister Zdenka, a girl brought up as a boy to save money. Tomasz Konieczny is Mandryka, the wealthy man Arabella’s father hopes she will marry. And Michael Brandenburg is Matteo, the poor soldier who also loves Arabella but is secretly loved by Zdenka. Patrick Lange conducts.

I spoke with Tim Albery, who directed Arabella for Santa Fé Opera in 2012 in the same production we will see in Toronto.

Albery’s view toward directing a comedy like Arabella is that “there might be a tradition of playing it quite broad and that everyone should be aware of being in a comedy, but if that is a traditional approach, it’s not a very helpful one. I feel that the way to make a piece like this work is to play it as seriously as you can and if people laugh then it is because of the situation itself and not our intent to make it into a comedy.”

Albery finds an enjoyable paradox in Arabella: “Arabella is more concerned to reveal something of the human heart within a plot that, at one look, might seem inconsequential but at another strangely has a lot to say about how we want to live our lives; what love is and how what you think love is can change. In the case of Arabella, we see how one person can love parties and playing Beatrice-and-Benedick with men, and yet can meet someone who makes her realize that that’s utterly not what she wants at all. I find all of that within the neatness of the plot quite enticing because it’s a process we all go through in our lives. Over the course of our lives we often discover through meeting other people or being thrown into different circumstances that the life to live isn’t the one we thought ours would be.”

Erin Wall as Arabella and Zach Borichevsky as MaŠeo in the Santa Fe Opera production of Arabella, 2012Some see a dark side to Arabella, what with a family basically prostituting one daughter to raise money, and raising the other against her will as a boy. Albery agrees that there is such darkness, “but that to emphasize it is contrary to what the music is doing. And besides that, the libretto makes quite clear that both Arabella and Zdenka are bright, intelligent women who are totally aware of what their parents have done to them.” What he finds most interesting is that “the relationship between Arabella and Mandryka is really quite modern in the sense that they commit themselves to each other as equal partners.”

Some critics have felt that while it was noble of Strauss to honour Hofmannsthal by setting the unrevised last two acts as they were, this has led to Arabella being marked as “flawed.” Albery says that “there’s no doubt, especially in the third act, that we go over ground we’ve already gone over and we have conversations between characters we’ve already heard before. So there is a tradition of many cuts in the third act to remove sections that Hofmannsthal would likely have removed himself. It’s the kind of editing that Strauss didn’t like to do but which people of the future have done on his behalf. If it is not absolutely clear who knows what when, those are the kinds of decisions we have to make in the rehearsal room and as long as we know exactly what is happening so will the audience.”

Has Albery’s view of the opera changed since his production in 2012? Albery says, “What changes there are come from the different interactions of the performers, because different performers bring different things to the piece and I try really hard in my role to respond to what they offer.”

Vivier

The other major work of music theatre this month in no way fits the traditional operatic mould. It is Musik für das Ende written in 1971 by Claude Vivier (1948-83), now regarded as one of Canada’s greatest composers. The work Vivier described as a “grande cérémonie funèbre” was originally written for 20 performers divided into three groups, two of which are visible with one offstage. All the singers play instruments and are given specific physical tasks to perform. These instructions written into the score demonstrate that Vivier intended the work to be staged.

The piece was first performed in concert in 2012; Soundstreams will have the honour of presenting the world premiere staging of the work. Vivier, a devout Catholic, writes in his preamble to the score that the work was the product of his meditation that we are all surrounded by human beings destined to die: “I experienced the increasingly strange ceremony of beings disappearing forever and becoming ‘an infinite moment’ in eternal silence. This became ... a Ceremony of the End, infused with the hope that humanity would understand the real meaning of its earthly experience and ultimately purify itself.”

Chris Abraham has been chosen as the director and he explained to me in an interview the makeup of the evening, of which Musik für das Ende is both the overall title and one of the three segments.

“The evening begins with a 20-minute-long play by Zachary Russell, which is a fictional imagining of a night with Vivier (played by Alex Ivanovici) in Paris shortly after a violent encounter with a male prostitute who assaulted him. We meet Vivier just in the process of finishing what would be his final work, Do You Believe in the Immortality of the Soul? Vivier is trying to write the text for the piece which, as it turns out, prefigures his own death.” (On March 8, 1983, Vivier was murdered in Paris by a male prostitute.)

“That play is followed by a staged performance of Immortality, an eight-minute piece for tenor and soprano and 12 singers intended as the final section in an immense opéra fleuve that Vivier imagined as his magnum opus. And then we finish with Musik für das Ende.

“The reason why we approached Musik this way is that we wanted to open a door into the piece for the public who don’t know his work. We wanted to investigate the biographical mythology around his music. We wanted to demonstrate the continuity of his thought across his works. And we wanted to theatricalize what would otherwise be presented most likely in program notes, [so as to] …provide some kind of toolbox for the listener to enter into a deeper relationship with the music. Musik für das Ende has a narrative within it but it is also extremely experiential and intuitive, so we wanted to create a context where both registers would be part of the listening and viewing experience.

Musik für das Ende has a number of textual sources – the Catholic Good Friday liturgy along with mantras, some which come from Eastern traditions and some which are invented. There are also passages that require individual performers to express fragments of text about their own lives.

“We have very freely interpreted the notations Vivier has made in the score about staging. Since individuality is central to understanding the piece, we have made some changes to allow the audience to engage with the ten celebrants as individuals first before the celebrants become a group.

“…The staging is ever evolving and what guides it are the rules that are set down in the score. The score requires the passing of melodic lines from one singer to another so that the positioning of bodies onstage in relation to each other dictates itself. I have been closely observing the group’s movements, so my staging is really a kind of attempt to preserve those organic features of what happens to the group when they try to perform the score from memory.”

As someone who is primarily a theatre director, Abraham says, “It has been interesting to think of the task-based nature of music performance. The effort of the singers actually constitutes the dramatic spine of the piece and my role is to create a dramatic environment that allows the audience to come as close as they can to that effort and those tasks.”

As Abraham notes, “Much as Vivier was obsessed with death, he was also obsessed with reunion with an eternal beyond this world, and music for him was a kind of tool that he worked with to try to understand that eternal presence.”

Based on the schedules that have already been announced, the 2017/18 opera season in Toronto will see old productions of well-known operas balanced by world premieres and new productions of both rarities and familiar works. In a new development, more than one non-musical theatre company will produce a new opera as part of its regular season.

The Canadian Opera Company opens with its first-ever production of Richard Strauss’ Arabella (1933), Strauss’s sixth and final collaboration with famed librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The opera is a comedy set in Vienna in the 1860s about a once-wealthy family who hope an auspicious marriage for Arabella will restore the family fortunes. Erin Wall will sing the title role and Jane Archibald will sing the role of her younger sister Zdenka, a girl brought up as a boy to save money. Tomasz Konieczny is Mandryka, the wealthy man Arabella’s father hopes she will marry. Michael Brandenburg sings Matteo, the poor soldier who also loves Arabella but is secretly loved by Zdenka. Tim Albery, famed for his COC Götterdämmerung, will direct and Patrick Lange will conduct the seven performances running from October 5 to 28.

Alternating with Arabella is a new production of Donizetti’s beloved opera buffa The Elixir of Love (1832), an opera the company has not staged since 1999. Former COC Ensemble member Andrew Haji sings Nemorino, a peasant in love with the wealthy Adina. Simone Osborne sings Adina. Gordon Bintner is Belcore the pompous sergeant, also in love with Adina. And Andrew Shore sings Dulcamera, the quack doctor who sells Nemorino a fake love potion to win Adina’s love. James Robinson directs and Yves Abel conducts the eight performances running from October 11 to November 4.

The winter season sees the revival of Christopher Alden’s 2011 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto, alternating with a new production of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio. Rigoletto runs for ten performances from January 20 to February 23 and Abduction for seven performances from February 7 to 24. Roland Wood sings the title role of the tragic court jester, Anna Christy is his daughter, Stephen Costello sings the evil Duke of Mantua for the first six performances and Joshua Guerrero takes over for the final four. Stephen Lord, who conducted Norma last year, will wield the baton.

The COC has not staged Abduction since 1980, leaving that task to Opera Atelier which has mounted the opera for two runs since then. The COC’s new Abduction will be directed by Lebanese-Canadian playwright and director Wajdi Mouawad, famed for his play Scorched (Incendies), and conducted by Johannes Debus. Mauro Peter plays the noble Belmonte and Owen MacCausland is his servant Pedrillo, who rescue their respective beloveds Konstanze (Jane Archibald) and her servant Blonde (Claire de Sévigné) from the clutches of the Turkish Pasha Selim (Peter Lohmeyer).

(from left) Lothar Odinius as Tenor 2, Adam Luther as Tenor 1 and Peter Barrett as Baritone 1 in a scene from The Fox in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, 2009. - photo by Michael CooperThe COC spring season sees the return of Robert Lepage’s sensational production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables from 2010, which has since gone on to fame elsewhere. The program includes Stravinsky’s short operas The Nightingale (1914) and Renard (1916) along with Russian folksongs, the production united by the use of various Asian forms of puppetry. The orchestra is onstage and the pit is filled with water for the Vietnamese water puppets. Jane Archibald, artist in residence with the COC this season, sings the Nightingale, Owen Mccausland is the Fisherman, Christian Van Horn is the Emperor and Meredith Arwady sings the role of Death. The production runs for nine performances from April 13 to May 19 and is conducted by Johannes Debus. 

Alternating with Nightingale is the highly anticipated Anna Bolena by Donizetti, starring Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. With this opera Radvanovsky, who recently became a Canadian citizen, completes Donizetti’s so-called Three Queens Trilogy, although Donizetti never intended them as such. Anticipation is especially high among longtime operagoers since the last time the COC presented the opera back in 1984 it starred Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role with Richard Bonynge conducting. Joining Radvanovsky are Eric Owens as Henry VIII, Keri Alkema as Jane Seymour and Bruce Sledge as Lord Percy. Stephen Lawless will direct this third part of his unified production originally created for Dallas Opera. Corrado Rovaris will conduct.

Opera Atelier’s season features two revivals – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro running October 26 to November 4 and Monteverdi’s The Return of Ulysses running April 19-28. In the first, American Douglas Williams makes his OA debut in the title role with Mireille Asselin as Susanna, Stephen Hegedus as the Count, Peggy Kriha Dye as the Countess and Mireille Lebel as Cherubino. In the second, Krešimir Špicer returns to sing the title role joined by Mireille Lebel as Penelope, Carla Huhtanen as Fortuna, Christopher Enns as Telemaco, Stephen Hegedus as Neptune and Meghan Lindsay as Minerva. Both productions will be directed as usual by Marshall Pynkoski with David Fallis conducting the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra.

Tapestry Opera has an exciting season beginning with a brand new opera playing weekends in September with free admission. That opera is Bandits in the Valley by Benton Roark to a libretto by Julie Tepperman. Set in 1860s Toronto, it follows a group of thieves through Todmorden Mills who are aided by a travelling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe. The work features Keith Klassen, Jennifer Taverner, Jacques Arsenault, Alex Dobson, Sara Schabas and Stephanie Tritchew.

The season continues with the return of “Tapestry Briefs: Winter Shorts,” showcasing four new short operas from November 30 to December 3. As part of the “Tap:Ex” series of experimental works, Tapestry presents Forbidden from February 8 to 11, a collaboration between Iranian-Canadian composer Afarin Mansouri and spoken-word artist Donna Michelle St. Bernard in an exploration of what is forbidden and why it is tempting.

Toronto Operetta Theatre has three fully-staged revivals on offer. First, to celebrate Canada’s sesquicentennial, TOT revives The Widow (1882) by Calixa Lavallée (1842-91), composer of Canada’s national anthem, with Julie Nesrallah in the title role. Running from December 28, 2017 to January 7, 2018 is Leonard Bernstein’s Candide (1956), last staged by TOT in 2007. Tonatiuh Abrego sings the title role with Vania Chan as his beloved Cunegonde. The final offering is Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène (1864), a parody of the events leading to the Trojan War running April 25 to 29, starring Beste Kalender, Adam Fisher and Stuart Graham.

Toronto Masque: For fans of Toronto Masque Theatre this will be a bittersweet season since artistic director Larry Beckwith has decided that it will be the company’s last. The first of the TMT’s three mainstage shows will be a revival of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1687) paired with Canadian James Rolfe’s piece Aeneas and Dido (2007). Playing on October 20 and 21, the operas star Krisztina Szabó, Alexander Dobson, Andrea Ludwig and Jacqueline Woodley.

From February 8 to 10, TMT presents a staged version of J.S. Bach’s Peasant Cantata (1742), followed by “All the Diamonds,” a cabaret of torch songs, lieder and madrigals featuring Patricia O’Callaghan and Giles Tomkins. TMT’s final show, “The Last Chaconne: A Celebration,” plays only on May 12 when a star-studded collection of singers and musicians celebrate the achievements of the company.

Tarragon and Canadian Stage: Theatre companies in Toronto have ventured into the realm of opera before, but it is unusual to have two such companies do so in the same year. This season the Tarragon Theatre presents the opera Mr. Shi and His Lover by Toronto’s Njo Kong Kie to a libretto by Wong Teng Chi from November 7 to December 17. The opera, based on the story behind the play and film M. Butterfly, had its world premiere in Macau in 2013 and its acclaimed Toronto premiere last year at SummerWorks. It is performed in Mandarin with English surtitles and stars Jordan Cheng and Derek Kwan. The composer conducts an ensemble of piano, marimba and Chinese percussion.

Canadian Stage, which previously presented the Canadian premiere of Philippe Boesmans’ opera Julie in 2015, this season presents the world premiere of The Overcoat by James Rolfe to a libretto by Morris Panych, based on the 1842 story of the same name by Nikolai Gogol. Panych and Wendy Gorling had previously created a wildly successful version of The Overcoat as an extended wordless physical theatre piece. This new Overcoat will thus represent a complete re-imagining of how to present Gogol’s story. The Canadian Stage production, running March 29 to April 14, is a co-production with Tapestry Opera and Vancouver Opera and is one of the dozen or so must-sees of what is already shaping up to be a very attractive opera season.

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

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