2105-Opera.jpgOn January 16, Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef unveiled the COC’s 2016/17 season. Where the 2015/16 season featured the first mainstage world premiere of a Canadian opera since 1999, the 2016/17 season will feature the first professional revival since 1975 of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel (1967), perhaps the best-known Canadian opera ever written. Other good news includes the company premiere of an opera by Handel, star casting in classic roles, greater use of Canadian directors (and a first female Canadian conductor) and the renewal of Johannes Debus’ contract as the COC Music Director.

Bellini and Handel: The 2016/17 season will open with a new production of Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece Norma (1831), last seen here in 2006. The new COC production is co-produced with San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago and Gran Teatre del Liceu of Barcelona and is directed by American Kevin Newbury. Two of the most in-demand sopranos today – American-born Sondra Radvanovsky and South African-born Elza van den Heever – alternate as the Druid high priestess Norma. American Russell Thomas returns to sing Pollione, Norma’s Roman lover. American mezzo-soprano, Isabel Leonard, returns to the COC in her role debut as Adalgisa, Pollione’s new lover. And Russian bass Dimitry Ivashchenko, last heard here as Hunding in Die Walküre, is Oroveso, Norma’s father. Bel canto specialist Stephen Lord, who conducted Norma here in 1998, will take the podium. Norma has eight performances from October 6 to November 5, 2016.

Running in repertory with Norma will be the company premiere of Handel’s Ariodante (1735), one of several operas by Handel based on Ludovico Ariosto’s Renaissance epic Orlando Furioso (1532). This will be the sixth opera by Handel the COC has staged and the third since 2012. After falling into obscurity in the 19th century, Ariodante was revived in the 1970s and is now regarded as one of Handel’s greatest operas. The COC production is co-produced with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam and Lyric Opera of Chicago, and is directed by Richard Jones, who directed The Queen of Spades here in 2002. British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, last seen here in 2014 as Dejanira in Handel’s Hercules, returns in the trousers role of Ariodante. Canadian soprano Jane Archibald makes her role debut as Ginevra, Ariodante’s wronged fiancée. Armenian mezzo-soprano Varduhi Abrahamyan makes her Canadian debut as Polinesso, the jealous rival of Ariodante. Young Canadian coloratura soprano Ambur Braid is Ginevra’s friend and unwitting betrayer, Dalinda. Canadian tenor Owen McCausland is Ariodante’s vengeful brother, Lurcanio, and French bass François Lis makes his Canadian debut as Ginevra’s father, the King of Scotland. Johannes Debus will conduct his first Handel opera. Ariodante has seven performances from October 16 to November 4, 2016.

Mozart and Wagner: The winter season pairs two familiar COC productions – Mozart’s The Magic Flute, last seen in 2011, and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung last seen in 2006. The Magic Flute will be staged by young Canadian director Ashlie Corcoran based on the original direction by Diane Paulus. Québécois early music specialist Bernard Labadie, music director of Les Violons du Roy, will make his COC debut as the conductor. Canadian tenors Andrew Haji and Owen McCausland alternate in the role of Tamino, Russian Elena Tsallagova and Canadian Kirsten MacKinnon alternate in the role of Tamino’s beloved Pamina, and Canadian baritones Joshua Hopkins and Phillip Addis alternate as the bird-catcher Papageno. American Kathryn Lewek and Canadian Ambur Braid share the coloratura soprano role of the Queen of the Night, while Croatian bass Goran Jurić, in his Canadian debut, and American bass Matt Boehler share the role of Sarastro. The Magic Flute runs for 12 performances from January 19 to February 24, 2017.

In repertory with Mozart’s lighthearted opera is Wagner’s doom-laden Götterdämmerung, the fourth opera of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, that concludes the action begun in Das Rheingold and carried on through Die Walküre and Siegfried. The charismatic American soprano Christine Goerke, who stunned audiences here with her effortless Brünnhilde in Die Walküre in 2015, returns to complete the valkyrie’s fateful journey in Götterdämmerung. Austrian tenor Andreas Schager makes his COC debut as Brünnhilde’s beloved Siegfried. German baritone Martin Gantner is Siegfried’s rival Gunther. Estonian Ain Anger makes his Canadian debut as Gunther’s evil half-brother, Hagen. Ileana Montalbetti is their sister Gutrune and Canadian bass Robert Pomakov is the dwarf Alberich. The original director, Tim Albery, takes the helm and Johannes Debus conducts his first Götterdämmerung. The opera runs for seven performances from February 2 to 25, 2017.

Somers’ Riel and Puccini’s Tosca: The spring season opens with what will surely be the opera event of the year – the revival of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel in a new production directed by Canadian Peter Hinton and conducted by Johannes Debus. Somers wrote the opera for Canada’s centennial in 1967 and now the COC is reviving it as a co-production with the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017.

The opera, with a libretto in English, French, Latin and Cree by Mavor Moore and Jacques Languirand, focuses on the Manitoba Métis schoolteacher Louis Riel (1844–85), who led the Red River Rebellion of 1869–70 and the North-West Rebellion of 1884–85. It is a story that serves as a nexus for tensions in Canada among the English, French and First Nations. Led by Riel, the Francophone Métis prevented the newly appointed Anglophone, William McDougall, from entering the huge territory acquired by the newly formed Canadian government. Riel set up his own provisional government and negotiated directly with the Canadian government to establish Manitoba as a province. With the arrival of Canadian troops, Riel was formally exiled from Canada but returned to lead the unsuccessful North-West Rebellion of the Métis in what would become Saskatchewan, where he was tried for high treason and executed.

Singing the title role is COC favourite Russell Braun. The all-Canadian principals include baritone James Westman as Sir John A. Macdonald; soprano Simone Osborne as Marguerite, Riel’s wife; mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as Julie, Riel’s mother and confidante; tenor Michael Colvin as Thomas Scott, the Orangeman executed on orders from Riel; and bass John Relyea as Bishop Taché, the cleric who helped the government betray Riel. The COC gave Louis Riel its world premiere in Toronto in 1967 and later performed it in Montreal. The COC revived it in 1975 and took it to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the Washington Star described it as “one of the most imaginative and powerful scores to have been written in this century.” The opera runs for seven performances from April 20 to May 13, 2017.

Moving from the unfamiliar to the familiar, the COC closes the 16/17 season with Puccini’s ever-popular Tosca (1900), last seen in 2012. This will be the second revival of the production designed by Kevin Knight and directed by Paul Curran. In 2012, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka sang the title role. This time because of its extended run, she will share it with American soprano Keri Alkema. Returning to the COC is renowned Mexican tenor Ramón Vargas making his role debut as Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, a role he shares with Italian tenor Andrea Carè. German bass-baritone Markus Marquardt makes his Canadian debut as the tyrannical Scarpia. The production runs for 12 performances from April 30 to May 20. Canadian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson will make her COC debut at the podium.

Also good news at the season announcement was that the contract of popular COC music director Johannes Debus has been extended through the 2020/21 season. The revival of Somers’ Louis Riel seems to mark a new commitment to Canadian opera after this season’s staging of Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe. The staying power of operas from the past can only be marked through revivals and the COC is the only company in Canada big enough to revive a large-scale opera like Louis Riel.

Also, the COC showed a new interest in fostering Canadian directing talent with the selection of Ashlie Corcoran and Peter Hinton. The late COC General Director Richard Bradshaw did much in this area by pairing a wide range of Canadian film and stage directors with operas. This led to such successes as Robert Lepage’s Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung in 1992, Atom Egoyan’s Salome in 1996, François Girard’s Oedipus Rex with A Symphony of Psalms in 1997, not to mention a heart-wrenching Dialogues of the Carmelites by Diana Leblanc 1997, a riveting Tosca by David William and an eerie The Turn of the Screw by Christopher Newton in 2002.

The only negative note is that the number of performances will shrink to 53 in 2016/17 from 55 in 2015/16, thus continuing their gradual decrease from a high of 70 in 2009/10 season.

Turning to the current season: Turning to the present, two COC productions will be playing in February. From February 2 to 14 is François Girard’s acclaimed production of Wagner’s Siegfried. German tenor Stefan Vinke sings the title role while the amazing soprano Christine Goerke returns as Brünnhilde in this, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. They are joined by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the dwarf, Mime, Alan Held as Wotan and Phillip Ens as the dragon, Fafner. Johannes Debus conducts.

Running in repertory with Siegfried is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro from February 4 to 27 in a production from the Salzburg Festival directed by Claus Guth. Josef Wagner stars in the title role with Jane Archibald as Susanna, Erin Wall as the Countess, Russell Braun as the Count and Emily Fons as Cherubino. Johannes Debus conducts. The COC Ensemble Studio takes over the principal roles on February 22. 

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

On Opera 1This December and January, there are far more operatic offerings than is usually the case. The largest-scale production will be the Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Wagner’s Siegfried beginning January 23, but that production is preceded by works of a wide variety of musical styles.

FAWN: The first of these is the world premiere of l’homme et le ciel by much-in-demand composer Adam Scime playing on December 3 and 4 at The Music Gallery. It is produced by FAWN Chamber Creative, a company dedicated to bringing new, affordable Canadian chamber opera to Toronto. The libretto by Ian Koiter is based on the Greek text The Shepherd of Hermas from the second century. The story concerns a former slave named Hermas, once owned by a woman named Rhoda, who begins to fall in love with her when they meet again even though Hermas has married. Over a period of 20 days Hermas receives five visions in which Rhoda appears as his heavenly accuser and tells him to pray for forgiveness. In the fifth vision a messenger appears disguised as a shepherd who delivers ten ethical precepts on how to live a Christian life. In Koiter’s version the sacred is a mirror of the profane and Hermas comes to see that his visions derive from repressed sexual impulses.

The 45-minute-long opera, written for a six-piece ensemble and live electronics, will be conducted by the composer. Baritone Alex Dobson sings Hermas, soprano Larissa Koniuk is Rhoda and soprano Adanya Dunn is The Messenger. Stage director Amanda Smith states: “This event will not only be for avid operagoers but for anyone with a hint of musical adventure and curiosity.”

Against the Grain: Following this world premiere is a new look at one of the most inescapable musical features of the Christmas season – Handel’s Messiah. This is a revival of Against the Grain Theatre’s highly acclaimed production of the oratorio in 2013. What places this Messiah in the opera category is that it is fully staged, costumed, choreographed and artfully lit. The cast has memorized their parts to eliminate the need for music stands and choral folders and to allow AtG’s artistic director Joel Ivany and choreographer Jennifer Nichols to use movement to bring out the meaning of the the oratorio.

As Ivany explained in correspondence: “What I’ve found by working on pieces that are not traditionally staged is a new form. It lives more in the world of ballet and contemporary dance. In dance, what you normally have is the mix of music with the movement of the body. The music enhances what the body is doing and, similarly, the movement by the dancers enhance the music.” Exposure to dance caused Ivany to ask: “What if we placed more specific movement in opera and song? Can gesture by a singer cause the same stirring as the movement of a dancer?” Of Messiah in particular, Ivany says, “This work is about peace and striving for good. For this production, I believe that having movement can help accomplish this by enhancing the music with the visual.”

Since the movement and choreography in this production will differ significantly from that in 2013, AtG’s 2015 Messiah is essentially a new show. Ivany says that he and Nichols have striven to create more of a narrative this time. The notion is: “We’re all on a journey. We can pinpoint where it began, and we know that there are several stops along the way before we arrive at our final, unknown destination. AtG’s Messiah highlights, in a somewhat abstract way, some of those ‘stops’ along our life journey.”

As for the soloists, they “do play specific roles, meaning they are each the same ‘person’ throughout the entire production. However, who that person is, is another question. I think they represent all of us – four different people, four different personalities and four different ranges of music and emotion.”

Messiah will be the largest-scale production AtG has ever mounted, and this time the Corporation of Roy Thomson Hall and Massey Hall is partnering with AtG. Music director Topher Mokrzewski will conduct an 18-piece orchestra and a 16-member chorus. The soloists will be soprano Miriam Khalil, mezzo-soprano Andrea Ludwig, tenor Owen McCausland and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. AtG’s Messiah runs from December 16 to 19.

TMT’s Mummers’ Masque: Opening just a day after Messiah, is another work that looks at an old tradition in a new way. This is The Mummers’ Masque by Dean Burry presented by Toronto Masque Theatre, December 17 to 19. TMT gave The Mummers’ Masque its world premiere in 2009 and is bringing it back because of its great success. Burry was born in Newfoundland, the one province in Canada where mummering, brought over by the province’s first English and Irish settlers, has remained a living folk tradition at Christmastime.

In the piece Burry weaves together three different versions of mummering. The oldest is that of mummers’ plays with stock characters, as Burry informed me in conversation, rather like an English folk version of commedia dell’arte. The plays always feature a hero, often St. George, and a villain, usually called the Turkish Knight – a memory of when the Ottoman Empire had made great incursions into Europe. Sometimes there would be a Princess, but the character who always appeared was the quack Doctor. In the plays, either the Hero or the Knight is killed in battle and the Doctor, through various outrageous cures, brings the dead man back to life. Though the plays are comic, the theme of death and resurrection is what ties them to the winter solstice and to celebrations of Christmas and New Year.

Mummering, or mumming, which derives from the German word for “disguise,” presently survives in Newfoundland as a form of “adult Halloween,” as Burry calls it, where people go from door-to-door in homemade costumes, usually cross-dressed, while playing instruments, singing and dancing. The people of the house give their strange visitors food and drink and try to guess their identities. The third tradition Burry uses is that found in the parts of Newfoundland settled by the Irish. This involves the mummers carrying a dead wren – nowadays just a likeness of one – and asking for money to bury it. Wren Day is December 26 and it is theorized that the wren represents the death of the old year, with December 25 as its last day.

Musically, Burry’s task as a composer was to blend his own modern classical idiom with the folk idiom of Newfoundland while allowing for audience participation in the singing of hymns and carols. Burry says that the greatest challenge was finding musicians who would be comfortable in both classical and folk traditions, especially in the case of the flutist, Ian Harper, who has to play the flute, the penny whistle and the uilleann pipes. The opera also contains the only known classical solo for the Newfoundland ugly stick, a homemade instrument made of a mop handle, a rubber boot and bottle caps nailed to the handle.

In The Mummers’ Masque, Carla Huhtanen will sing St. George, Marion Newman will be the Rival Knight and the Dragon, Christopher Mayell will be Princess Zebra and Giles Tomkins will be Father Christmas. There will also be step dancers and a children’s choir. Larry Beckwith will conduct the five-member band from the violin and Derek Boyes is the stage director.

TOT’s Student Prince: The main production for Toronto Operetta Theatre always straddles the old and new year. This season the operetta will be The Student Prince by Sigmund Romberg from 1924 playing December 27, 28, 31, January 2 and 3. The Student Prince was the longest-running work of music theatre in the 1920s with hits like Golden DaysDeep in My Heart, Dear and the tenor aria Overhead the Moon is Beaming. Since 1974 the operetta has been performed annually in the original English in its nominal setting at the University of Heidelberg. This will be the operetta’s third staging by the TOT – the first in 1989, the second in 2001/02.

The story uses one of the main plot clichés of operetta, the disguised aristocrat who falls in love with a commoner, but here the focus is not on the particulars of the plot but rather the universal feelings of nostalgia and regret for past deeds. Tenor Ernesto Ramirez sings Prince Karl Franz, who as a student falls in love with the local barmaid Kathie, soprano Jennifer Taverner. Tenor Stefan Fehr and baritone Curtis Sullivan are also in the cast. COC resident conductor Derek Bate is at the podium and TOT general director Guillermo Silva-Marin is the stage director.

COC’s Siegfried: The COC begins its winter season with a remount of its highly acclaimed production of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried by François Girard. The production debuted in 2005 and was last seen as part of the COC’s complete Ring Cycle in 2006. German tenor Stefan Vinke, one of the finest Siegfrieds in the world, makes his Canadian debut in the title role. Returning in the role of the warrior maiden Brünnhilde, after universal acclaim as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre earlier this year, will be American soprano Christine Goerke. Austrian Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke makes his Canadian debut as the sly dwarf Mime who raises Siegfried for malign purposes. British baritone Christopher Purves makes his COC debut as Mime’s evil brother Alberich. The COC has informed us that American contralto Meredith Arwady, who sang the role of Death in the 2011 COC production of Stravinsky’s The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, will sing the role of Erda. American bass-baritone Alan Held sings Wotan, known in this opera as The Wanderer. Canadian bass Phillip Ens reprises the role as the dragon Fafner, who guards a golden hoard. COC music director Johannes Debus conducts his first SiegfriedSiegfried is sung in German with English surtitles and runs January 23, 27, 30, February 2, 5, 11, 14.

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

Christopher AldenOne of the most anticipated events of the opera season is the world premiere of Pyramus and Thisbe (2010) by Canadian Barbara Monk Feldman, staged by the Canadian Opera Company. It is the the first Canadian opera that the COC has produced on its main stage since The Golden Ass by Randolph Peters in 1999. This will also be the first Canadian opera ever staged in the auditorium of the Four Seasons Centre. In addition, this will be only the second opera by a female composer that the COC has ever staged, the first being L’Amour de loin (2000) by Kaija Saariaho in 2012, and the first ever by a female Canadian composer.

Pyramus and Thisbe is presented with two vocal works by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), the Lamento d’Arianna (1608) and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624). The first is the sole aria remaining from a lost opera by Monteverdi, while the second, though sometimes called an opera, is really a narrative sequence of madrigals. Both are company premieres. Krisztina Szabó sings Arianna, Clorinda and Thisbe; Phillip Addis sings Tancredi and Pyramus; and Owen McCausland sings Testo, the Narrator in Il combattimento.

American Christopher Alden, who directed La Clemenza di Tito for the COC in 2013, Die Fledermaus in 2012 and Rigoletto in 2011, is the stage director for Pyramus and Thisbe. I spoke with him in mid-September about the project.

About two years ago COC General Director Alexander Neef approached Alden about directing the works. Impressed by Monk Feldman’s score and the challenges it poses, Alden accepted: “It’s always exciting to be offered a brand new piece since 90 percent or more of my profession is dealing with pieces from the past where the composers are long gone and there have already been so many productions and interpretations of the piece you’re doing. So it’s a breath of fresh air to be offered the chance to be involved in the creation of a work yourself.”

About Monk Feldman’s work itself, Alden comments, “It’s an amazing piece, very unique and unusual and intensely abstract and non-literal. It’s the opposite of a new opera based on a film or something like that. Barbara has created a piece in a very strong modernist vein which is an exciting thing to come up against because it forces one to reach into different areas to find a way to bring this piece to life. It’s quite an exciting challenge.”

The idea of presenting the two Monteverdi pieces in conjunction with Pyramus and Thisbe was there from the start because, as Alden notes, “The idea was to pair Barbara’s piece which is on a mythological subject with other pieces that come from that same world. And each is about these different couples – Pyramus and Thisbe, Tancredi and Clorinda and Ariadne and (even though he doesn’t sing in this piece) Theseus. Three couples, all of whom have rather problematical relationships, are connected in illustrating Shakespeare’s statement that ‘the course of true love never did run smooth.’ After this, the idea came to us of tying the three pieces together even more by casting the same two singers as each of the couples.”

The works will be presented beginning with Arianna, followed by Il Combattimento and concluding with Pyramus and Thisbe. Faced with staging three pieces without an interval, Alden says he “started to come to terms with how to make a theatrical event out of these three pieces, on the one hand, letting each piece play itself out telling its own story, but also at the same time finding an overall shape to the evening, so that one piece leads into the next.”

There is no visual shift in moving from the works from the 17th century to the 21st. Instead, Alden says, “This production isn’t so much about any particular time period, but places all three pieces within a rather abstract, rather open-ended theatrical setting. It’s very simple, very stripped-down and very focused on the two soloists plus the third soloist Owen McCausland, the Narrator of Il Combattimento. Even though he sings only in the second work, we’re finding a way to give him [McCausland] some strong personal involvement in the whole theatrical event so that he is actually on stage for all three pieces.”

Alden notes that “the issues involved in each of these three pieces bleed in and out of each other – issues about relationships between men and women – with Il Combattimento (which is to me the ultimate piece about the battle of the sexes) in which there is a literal fight to the death between a man and a woman in the dead of night and the male doesn’t realize until the end that the guy he has been fighting is his beloved disguised as a male warrior. This raises so many interesting issues about male-female relationships that have such an aggressive aspect as if they were two mortal enemies, like two different species.”

“But,” he continues, “the flip side of the coin is their attraction to each other, their desire for each other. These issues about relationships float through the other two pieces, including Barbara’s. In Pyramus and Thisbe you have two people from families who are enemies and build a wall to separate them. Yet the two young people find a way to communicate through a chink in the wall – an amazing image about separation and two people finding a relationship despite all of the forces that get in the way of that desire that we all have, to connect with another person in a deep relationship.”

Monk Feldman’s work, nevertheless, is quite abstract as Alden points out. Although the story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book IV, the libretto of the opera is made up of very diverse material including William Faulkner’s “The Long Summer” from The Hamlet (1940), St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul (c.1578) and Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonette an Orpheus (1923). In the preface to the score, Monk Feldman writes, “There is little or no drama: this opera is about the subtlety of the unconscious which substitutes for the wall in Ovid’s original, uniting as it separates the two lovers.”

Asked how he deals with such information, Alden replies, “There’s a lot more information than that. She’s been feeding me over the last year or so that we’ve been planning the opera. Barbara has very strong ideas about it and it’s been interesting for me, for once, not necessarily to be the sole auteur of an opera production which I’m directing (which I’m sort of used to by now), but also to have the writer right there with very strong feelings about it. It’s been a very exciting collaboration with Barbara.”

“It’s a fascinating challenge to bring to life this piece which is very abstract and written not as a conventional piece of theatre. It’s not about conventional theatrical tension, but rather it’s about creating a very sustained contemplative atmosphere, in a way very different from the Western theatrical tradition. The more ritualized tradition of Asian theatre has been an inspiration to me in thinking about her piece, to play it out in a somewhat more ritualized and detached way. That’s the challenge not just to me as a director but to the performers.”

“In the context of the whole evening, quite a bit of drama and conflict will already have been acted out in the Monteverdi pieces, so, in a way, in Barbara’s piece the male and female begin to move beyond that. Barbara’s piece is very much about transcending one’s ego issues and starting to move beyond them in a quasi-Buddhistic way and let go of all the patterns and cycles that we all get trapped in in our lives and to start to free ourselves up to find a different kind of relationship with existence and our worldly lives and ultimately our perceptions about mortality.” Mortality is symbolized in the opera by the lioness, which Pyramus mistakenly believes has killed Thisbe.

Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe, preceded by the two Monteverdi pieces, plays from October 20 to November 7. The running time is only one hour, ten minutes without intermission. Johannes Debus will conduct. 

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

The 2015/16 opera season in Toronto is shaping up to be an exciting one. Based on the schedules that have already been announced, there are already two world premieres on offer along with a North American premiere and several Canadian premieres.  

Opera_1_-_La_Traviata.jpgCOC entices: While the 2014/15 season was a very safe one for Canada’s largest opera company, the coming COC season is much more enticing with a world premiere plus two company premieres alongside four standard repertory works, two of which will be in new productions. The season opens with Verdi’s La Traviata running from October 8 to November 6.  The COC has replaced its unloved production by Dmitry Bertman with a new co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Houston Grand Opera by Arin Arbus. Russian Ekaterina Siurina and Canadian Joyce El-Khoury will alternate in the role of Violetta; American Charles Castronovo and Canadian tenor Andrew Haji will sing her lover Alfredo; and American Quinn Kelsey and Canadian James Westman will sing Alfredo’s disapproving father Germont. The conductor is Marco Guidarini.

The most anticipated opera of the season, however, is the one running in repertory with La Traviata. This is the Pyramus and Thisbe (2010) by Canadian Barbara Monk Feldman. This work is important for the company for several reasons. First of all, it is the first Canadian opera that the COC has produced on its main stage since The Golden Ass by Randolph Peters in 1999. Thus, what has been far too long a wait is now over. Second, this will be the first Canadian opera ever staged in the auditorium of the Four Seasons Centre. Third, this will be only the second opera by a female composer that the COC has ever staged, the first being L’Amour de loin (2000) by Kaija Saariaho in 2012, and the first ever by a female Canadian composer.

Pyramus and Thisbe is presented with two vocal works by Claudio Monteverdi, the Lamento d’Arianna(1608) and Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda (1624). The first is the sole aria remaining from a lost opera by Monteverdi while the second, though sometimes called an opera, is really a narrative sequence of madrigals. Both are company premieres. Krisztina Szabó sings Arianna, Clorinda and Thisbe; Phillip Addis sings Pyramus and Tancredi; and Owen McCausland sings Testo, the narrator in Il combattimento. American Christopher Alden, who directed La Clemenza di Tito in 2013 and Die Fledermaus in 2012, is the stage director and Johannes Debus will conduct. The triple bill will run from October 20 to November 7.

Opera_2_-_Monk_Feldman.jpgThe winter season begins with a remount of Wagner’s Siegfried in the familiar production by François Girard. American soprano Christine Goerke, who thrilled audiences earlier this year as Brünnhilde in Die Walküre, returns to continue Brünnhilde’s journey in Siegfried. German tenor Stefan Vinke sings the title role; Austrian Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke is Siegfried’s mentor Mime; and American Alan Held sings the god Wotan. Johannes Debus conducts and the production runs from January 23 to February 14.

Playing in repertory with Siegfried is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in a production from the Salzburg Festival directed by Claus Guth. Austrian bass-baritone Josef Wagner sings the title role, Canadian Jane Archibald is Susanna, Canadian Erin Wall sings the Countess, Russell Braun is the Count and American Emily Fons is Cherubino. Johannes Debus conducts.

The COC spring season pairs the familiar and the unfamiliar. Bizet’s Carmen reappears after only six years, this time directed by Toronto’s own Joel Ivany, artistic director of the popular avant-garde opera company Against the Grain Theatre. Georgian Anita Rachvelishvili and French mezzo Clémentine Margaine alternate in the title role; American Russell Thomas and Canadian David Pomeroy sing Don José; Americans Christian Van Horn and Zachary Nelson share the role of Escamillo; and Canadians Simone Osborne and Karine Boucher are Micaëla. Carmen, conducted by Paolo Carignani, runs from April 12 to May 15.

The unfamiliar opera is Maometto II (1820), only the second non-comic opera by Rossini the COC has ever presented. The opera concerns the attempt of Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II (1432-81) to conquer Venice, which unsurprisingly is framed as a story of thwarted love. Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sings the title role; Leah Crocetto is Maometto’s former lover Anna; Elizabeth DeShong sings the trousers role of Anna’s current lover Calbo; and Bruce Sledge is the Venetian noble Erisso. David Alden will direct the production from Santa Fe Opera as he did when it premiered there in 2012 and Harry Bickett will conduct. The opera runs from April 29 to May 14.

Opera Atelier’s 30th anniversary season also feature something old and something new. Old will be the company’s second revival of Lully’s Armide (1686), previously presented in 2005 and 2012. Following the Toronto run from October 22 to 31, OA takes the work to Versailles where OA now has a recurring engagement. The production will include such OA favourites as Colin Ainsworth, Daniel Belcher, Peggy Kriha Dye and Carla Huhtanen.

The new production will be Mozart’s early opera Lucio Silla (1772). Director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg had such success with it at the Salzburg Festival in 2013, they were invited to take it to La Scala in Milan. Now they will present it for a Canadian audience. Krešimir Špicer sings Lucio based on the Roman dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla (c.138-78 BC). Meghan Lindsay sings Giunia, the woman Lucio lusts after but who is already engaged to the Roman senator Cecilio, a trousers role sung by Peggy Kriha Dye. Performances run April 7 to 16 and are likely to be in high demand.

Toronto Operetta Theatre also offers two fully staged productions this year. Its season begins with a concert performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) on November 1, but its end-of-year show is a fully staged return of Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1924) starring Ernest Ramírez, Jennifer Taverner and Curtis Sullivan. The season concludes with the Canadian premiere of Jacinto Guerrero’s Los Gavilanes (The Sparrow Hawks) from 1923. Running April 27 to May 1, this work, well-known in Spain, is the latest in TOT’s admirable exploration of the Spanish and Latin American form of operetta known as zarzuela and stars Guillermo Silva-Marin and Miriam Khalil.

CanStage: An unexpected source for opera this year is Canadian Stage. The company’s artistic director Matthew Jocelyn directed both plays and opera during his time in Europe and now fulfills his dream of broadening Canadian Stage’s scope to include opera. As a co-production with Soundstreams, the company will present the North American premiere of Julie (2005) by Belgian composer Philippe Boesmans from November 17-29. Based on Strindberg’s seminal naturalistic play Miss Julie (1888), the opera stars Lucia Cervoni as Julie, Clarence Frazer as Jean and Sharleen Joynt as Christine. Les Dala conducts and Jocelyn directs.

Opera in Concert: Adding variety and sparkle to Toronto’s opera scene are the offerings of Voicebox: Opera in Concert. Its 2015/15 season begins with the Canadian premiere of Alexander Borodin’s Prince Igor (1890) on November 22 in Russian with English surtitles. On February 7, it presents the Canadian premiere of Falstaff (1799) by Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) – yes, the villain of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus (1979) whom Shaffer unjustly accuses of murdering Mozart. Luckily, due to the efforts of such singers as Cecilia Bartoli, Salieri’s reputation has revived and Voicebox, with accompaniment by the Aradia Ensemble under Kevin Mallon, will give us a rare chance to hear Salieri’s take on Shakespeare’s great comic character. The season ender is the world premiere of Isis and Osiris by Peter Anthony Togni to a libretto by poet Sharon Singer. Based on ancient Egyptian mythology, the opera concerns the sibling rivalry of the titular gods, fratricide and the quest for immortality. It stars Lucia Cesaroni, Julie Nesrallah, Ernesto Ramírez and Michael Nyby.  Robert Cooper conducts the orchestra and the Voicebox Chorus.

Although not every company has announced its plans, there is already much to look forward to. Stay tuned for more. 

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

Opera-ChairInLove.jpgThanks to the burgeoning interest in opera rarities and especially in new opera, opera performances in the summer months in Ontario are no longer the exception but the rule. Ontario does not as yet have a summer opera festival like the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, but so much operatic activity is occurring that Ontario residents need not feel deprived. 

June got off to an unusual start with the innovative Against the Grain Theatre’s presentation of two fully-staged song cycles on June 2 to 5 under the title “Death & Desire.” The two are Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin (1824) sung by Stephen Hegedus and Olivier Messiaen’s Harawi (1945) sung by Krisztina Szabó, most recently seen as The Woman in the COC production of Schoenberg’s Erwartung. AtG’s double bill, performed at the Neubacher Shor Contemporary Gallery, is directed by the company’s artistic director Joel Ivany, designed by Michael Gianfrancesco and lit by Jason Hand. Christopher Mokrzewski is the piano accompanist.

In an email, Ivany wrote: “During my time at the University of Toronto while obtaining my diploma in Opera Directing, I was able to act as production manager for the Aldeburgh Connection. Seeing such beautiful concerts put on by Bruce Ubukata and Stephen Ralls exposed me to a wealth of vocal music outside of opera. Many of these works received some ‘light’ staging during performance and I was always intrigued and challenged myself eventually to explore them further by using the tools that I was skilled in.”

By staging the Schubert and Messiaen cycles, Ivany is thus extending the implicit idea of song cycles as parlour operas. The 20 songs of Schubert’s cycle follow a clear narrative. A journeyman miller falls in love with the miller’s daughter, but when he sees that she favours another, he despairs and drowns himself. Messiaen’s 12-song cycle in French and Quechua is more abstract, although the title refers to a genre of Peruvian musical narrative that often ends in the death of young lovers. As Ivany says: “In discussion with Topher [Mokrzewski], we both decided that these two song cycles would complement each other quite well and indeed presented two very unique characters. Our core of the project is the Schubert, which naturally is more narrative driven and then we’ve interspersed it with the Messiaen to give voice to the female character, die schöne müllerin … What this has caused is more of a dialogue between these two characters and a jarring, but equally fitting auditory experience – something new.”

Opera-Obeah.jpgLuminato: In past years the Luminato Festival has included opera. This year it nominally does not, although it should be noted that R. Murray Schafer’s massive oratorio-cum-pageant Apocalypsis running from June 26 to 28 lists among its creative team the famed Samoan stage director Lemi Ponifasio. The piece already demands such a degree of theatricality that it may be difficult to distinguish from opera.

The text for Part One is based on the Biblical Psalm 148, the Book of Revelation and on contemporary poetry. The text for Part Two is an adaptation of one of the Dialogues (1584-85) of Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), who was burned for his heresies which included his belief that there were other suns surrounded by other planets that could support life. Part One of the work requires six choruses, four instrumental groups, five singers and three sound poets, plus dancers and mime artists. Part Two uses 12 choirs placed in a circle around the audience. Among the 1,000 performers will be performance artist Laurie Anderson (on video), actor Brent Carver and throat singer Tanya Tagaq.

Semi-Staged Chair: On a much more intimate scale, Opera by Request presents a semi-staged performance of the absurdist opera A Chair in Love (2005) by Welsh-Canadian composer John Metcalf to an English libretto by Quebecois playwright Larry Tremblay. The story concerns an avant-garde filmmaker who falls in love with a chair, thereby making his dog jealous. The performance will take place on July 17 at Arraymusic with Michael Robert-Broder as the filmmaker, Abigail Freeman as the Chair, Gregory Finney as the Dog and Kim Sartor as the Doctor. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director.

Lyrical Summer: In late July and early August, Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has regularly been a favourite refuge for operagoers in Toronto. This year, two of the three offerings are rarities from the German Romantic period. On July 31 and August 2, 5 and 8, SOLT presents a major rarity in the form of Der Vampyr (1821) by Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861), a composer who was a major influence on Wagner, who conducted the work in 1833. After the rise of Wagner’s operas, Marschner’s fell into obscurity. Now Der Vampyr is recognized as the link between Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz (1821) and Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer (1843).

Additionally, the present-day preoccupation with vampires in popular culture has helped to focus more interest on Marschner’s opera, which is based on a story by Lord Byron’s doctor, John Polidori (1795-1821). Polidori wrote his tale “The Vampyre” in 1814, when he along with Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley all decided to have a competition to see who could write the best horror story. Mary Shelley “won” since the work she wrote was her novel Frankenstein, first published in 1818. Polidori’s story, however, is famous in a different way as the first published modern vampire story, anticipating by decades Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Maria Hwa Yeong Jung will be the pianist and music director.

As a contrast, on August 1, 5, 7 and 9, SOLT presents the comic German Romantic opera Martha (1847) by Friedrich von Flotow (1812-83). The work was such an international hit in its first 100 years that its two most famous arias are best known in versions not in the original German. The instantly recognizable tenor aria “Ach! so fromm” is best known in Italian translation as “M’apparì” and the main soprano aria, the folksong-inspired “Letzte Rose,” is best known as “The Last Rose of Summer.” Natasha Fransblow will be the pianist and music director.

The third opera, presented August 1, 4, 6 and 8, is Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), an opera that famously stages a comic and a tragic plot simultaneously. Narmina Afandiyeva will be the pianist and music director.

Panamania, the cultural sidebar to the Pan American Games in Toronto in July and August, will include a new production of Nicole Brooks’ opera, Obeah Opera (2012), running August 4 to 8. The opera, presented by Nightwood Theatre and Culchahworks Arts Collective, is sung entirely a cappella by an all-female cast and focusses on the young Caribbean slave Tituba, the first to be accused of witchcraft in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953) about the Salem Witchcraft Trials. Tituba has merely been practising her native healing craft, known as obeah, that the Puritans in their hysteria interpreted as witchcraft. Andrew Craig conducts and Kim Weild directs.

Stratford to Haliburton: In Stratford, Stratford Summer Music will present a dinner-opera production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute on August 14 to 16 at the Revival House (formerly The Church Restaurant). Peter Tiefenbach is the music director and Brent Krysa is the adaptor and stage director, with sets and costumes in the style of Belgian surrealist René Magritte.

In Haliburton the Highlands Opera Studio, whose artistic director is tenor Richard Margison, will present two operas. One is a fully-staged production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on August 30 and September 1, 2 and 3. The other will be the Ontario premiere of the Canadian opera The Vinedressers (2001) by B.C. composer Tobin Stokes on August 19 and 21. The story, based on a First Nations myth, takes place on the first winery on Pelee Island. Margison is the stage director and Andrea Grant the pianist. Stokes’ best-known opera is perhaps Pauline (2014), written to a libretto by Margaret Atwood about the life of B.C. First Nations poet and performer Pauline Johnson (1861-1913).

Opera-Bicycle.jpgBicycle Opera: This summer marks the fourth anniversary of the innovative Bicycle Opera Project, which aims to bring contemporary Canadian opera to communities across Ontario that might otherwise not have the opportunity to hear it. According to its website: “The project focuses on operatic repertoire that deals with contemporary issues relevant to all audiences.” The singers and musicians travel from place to place by bicycle along with two trailers full of props, costumes and instruments. In so doing they aim to demythologize old ideas of what opera is, where opera can take place and what opera singers are like.

Their Ontario itinerary for this summer from August 14 to September 6 has not yet been announced but last year BOP made stops in Kingston, Prince Edward County, Belleville, Hamilton, Bayfield, London, Brantford, Waterloo and Guelph.

BOP’s 2015 repertoire features short operas and opera excerpts. These include The Auction – Prologue by John Burge; What time is it now? by Anna Höstman; The Blind Woman by James Rolfe; The Yellow Wallpaper by Cecilia Livingston; “Dreaming Duet” from The Bells of Baddeck by Dean Burry and Submission, also by Burry; Our Lady of Esquimalt Road by Leila Lustig; and, back by popular demand, Bianchi: A Bicycle Opera by Tobin Stokes which has become something of a BOP classic.

The company includes Liza Balkan, stage director; Wesley Shen, music director; Geoffrey Sirett, baritone; Chris Enns, tenor; Stephanie Tritchew, mezzo; Larissa Koniuk, artistic director and soprano; and Sonja Rainey, projection artist.

Have an enjoyable summer! 

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

Back to top