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

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

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 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

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

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

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