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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2209 opera 1Summers in Southern Ontario used to be known for their dearth of opera. Not anymore. While festivals such as Glimmerglass beckon across the border, there is so much operatic activity of interest in Ontario and Quebec that opera lovers need not venture out of Canada.


Stratford: Opening on May 31 and running until October 21, the Stratford Festival makes one of its occasional forays into operetta with a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore. The 1878 work, G&S’s first big success, features the favourite Gilbertian plot device of babies switched at birth and its attendant satire of the British class system. Steve Ross is Captain Corcoran, Mark Uhre is Ralph Rackstraw, who loves above his station in pining for Josephine, sung by Jennifer Rider-Shaw, the captain’s daughter. Affairs on board are scrutinized by Sir Joseph Porter, First Lord of the Admiralty, sung by Laurie Murdoch, while Lisa Horner, well-known from Mirvish musicals, is Little Buttercup. Lezlie Wade, who directed Obeah Opera in 2015 in Toronto, is the stage director and Franklin Brasz is the music director.

TOT: Those with a taste for more operetta should check out the Galope Offenbachienne on June 4 by Toronto Operetta Theatre. There will be excerpts from La Vie parisienne, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, La Belle Hélène, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein and Orphée aux enfers. Michael Rose at the piano will accompany Holly Chaplin, Meagan Larios, Michael McLean and Janaka Welihinda, and Virginia Reh will direct.

Opera by Request: As for those with a taste for opera that has operetta very much in mind, they will be pleased to see that Opera by Request, for its 10th anniversary gala, is presenting a semi-staged version of Richard Strauss’s waltz-inflected Der Rosenkavalier (1911) on June 9 and 10. Unlike most previous OBR operas, the opera will be accompanied by a chamber ensemble under the baton of William Shookhoff. Shookhoff states that Rosenkavalier will mark the debut of a new production model for OBR. Katharine Dain sings the role of the Marschallin, Barbara King is her lover Octavian, Uwe Dambruch is the Marschallin’s cousin Baron Ochs and Danielle Dudycha is the young Sophie, his fiancée who falls in love with Octavian.

TSO: On June 14 and 15, audiences can get a feel for how much changed in continental music between 1911 and 1933, when the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under Peter Oundjian presents the “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, written to a libretto by Bertolt Brecht after both had fled Nazi Germany. The story concerns two sisters, Anna I, a dancer, and Anna II, a singer, who are really two sides of the same person. The Annas’ actions are the subject of commentary by a male quartet called The Family. Anna I’s simple project is to have her own little house, but in trying to achieve this she commits each one of the seven deadly sins. Jennifer Nichols dances Anna I, Wallis Giunta sings Anna II, and the quartet is made up of tenors Isaiah Bell and Owen McCausland, baritone Geoffrey Sirrett and bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus. The much-in-demand Joel Ivany directs the semi-staged production, which also includes filmed segments. The evening program is completed with Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (1938), and Bela Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta (1937), and a short new work by Andrew Balfour.

Riel at NAC: On June 15 and 17, anyone who missed the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Louis Riel by Harry Somers and Mavor Moore will have another chance to see it at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It is the same production that played in Toronto directed by Peter Hinton and starring Russell Braun in the title role. The major difference will be that in Ottawa’s Alexander Shelley and the NAC Orchestra will replace Johannes Debus and the COC Orchestra.

Charlotte: Back in Toronto as part of Luminato on June 16 through 18 are performances of a work-in-progress called CHARLOTTE: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music. Czech composer Aleš Brezina has set a libretto by Canadian actor Alon Nashman about the life and artwork of French artist Charlotte Salomon (1917-1943), who produced over 1000 paintings between 1941 and 1942 while in hiding from the Nazis. Before she was deported to Auschwitz at age 26, she gave her book Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel to a local physician for safekeeping. The goal of CHARLOTTE is to put this modern singspiel on the stage as Salomon might have envisioned it. A cast of eight actors and singers, including Nashman, is directed by Pamela Howard and an ensemble of four is conducted by Peter Tiefenbach.

Opera 5: June closes with a major treat for rarity hunters in the form of Suffragette, presented June 22 through 25 by Opera 5. The evening is comprised of two one-act operas by British composer and women’s rights campaigner, Dame Ethel Smyth (1858-1944), the first female composer to be awarded a damehood. Her full-length opera The Wreckers (1906) is often considered one of the most important English operas ever written. Opera 5 will perform fully staged productions of Smyth’s Fête Galante (1923) and The Boatswain’s Mate (1916) accompanied by the composer’s own reductions for chamber orchestra. The first is a story about commedia dell’arte characters that ends unhappily. The second depicts a battle of the sexes and features Smyth’s own feminist March of the Women. Both works are directed by Jessica Derventzis and conducted by Evan Mitchell.


2209 opera 2Bicycle Opera: In July and August, the intrepid Bicycle Opera tours to towns all through Ontario. In the past the company has toured collections of very short operas or opera excerpts. This year, it is touring the Canadian premiere of a single one-act piece titled Sweat, by composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton. If these names seem familiar it is because the same duo wrote The Man Who Married Himself for Toronto Masque Theatre, which had its premiere earlier this year. Sweat is an a cappella opera for a five-member chorus and four soloists about the ethical problems of the global garment industry and is performed in English, Cantonese, Ukrainian, Spanish and Hungarian. The four soloists are Stephanie Tritchew as the Union Organizer, Catherine Daniel as an Overseer, Larissa Koniuk as a Neighbour and Keith Lam as the Factory Owner. The director is Banuta Rubess and Geoffrey Sirett conducts. The tour starts in Hamilton on July 15, travels to six other municipalities in Ontario including Ottawa and ends with a run in Toronto from August 3 to 6.

Brott’s Carmen: While many still lament the disappearance of Opera Hamilton, opera in Hamilton has not completely died. In recent years the Brott Music Festival has presented a fully staged opera as part of its offerings from June 21 to August 17. This summer’s opera will be Bizet’s Carmen, presented for one night only on July 13 at Mohawk College. Beste Kalender sings the title role, Justin Stolz is Don José, Lauren Margison is Micaëla and Johnathon Kirby is Escamillo. Patrick Hansen directs and Boris Brott conducts the Brott Festival Orchestra.

The Elora Festival also occasionally features opera. This year, the opera is Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, performed in concert by the Elora Singers and Festival Orchestra for one night only on July 27 on a double bill with Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, starring countertenor Daniel Taylor.

SOLT: Straddling the end of July and beginning of August are the three productions of the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre in Toronto, fully staged with piano accompaniment. Two of the offerings are standard repertoire. On July 29, August 1, 3 and 6 is Bizet’s Carmen and on July 29, August 2 and 4 is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. What stands out in this sesquicentennial year is a double bill of two Canadian operas – Night Blooming Cereus (1953-58) by John Beckwith and A Northern Lights Dream (2017) by Michael Rose. Beckwith’s opera, to a libretto by James Reaney, was commissioned by the CBC and first broadcast in 1959, with its first stage performance in 1960. The opera concerns the healing of a family rift that coincides with the mystical blooming of a rare plant that flowers once every 100 years. Rose’s opera will be a world premiere. It is set inside Helen’s Prêt-à-Porter and Bridal Shop on a hot midsummer day near the hamlet of Shakespeare, Ontario. A client’s refusal to pay a bill brings the shop close to ruin, until Helen calls on Robin to solve the problem and ordinary Ontarians start to meld with characters from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Stratford Summer Music: In August, opera can be found in unexpected places. For the past two years Stratford Summer Music has presented a staged opera with dinner at the Revival House (formerly known as The Church). This year, the opera will be Donizetti’s Don Pasquale (1843). Alexander Dobson sings the title role of an elderly bachelor who plans to disinherit his nephew by taking a wife and producing an heir. Irina Medvedeva sings Norina, the wily woman Don Pasquale wants to marry, and Jonathan MacArthur is the nephew Ernesto who is in love with Norina. Amanda Smith directs and designs the piece and Peter Tiefenbach is the music director. The opera runs August 18 through 20.

Highlands Opera: In Haliburton, the Highlands Opera Studio is presenting two operas. On August 27, 29, 30 and 31 it presents a fully staged production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, with one cast on the 27th and 30th and another on the 29th and 31st. On August 19, HOS presents the first public semi-staged workshop performance of a brand new Canadian opera, Wiikondiwin (Feast/Feasting), a co-commission with L’Atelier Lyrique de l’Opéra de Montréal, by Odawa composer Barbara Croall. Soprano Adanya Dunn and baritone Samuel Chan join with First Nations actors/singers/musicians Rod Nettagog, Bradley Nettagog and Croall herself in the performance. Woodland creatures are living happily until they realize that human influence is destroying their habitat. Led by a wolf, they hold a feast to discuss how to return the Earth to its healthy state. This December, Wiikondiwin will return in a fully staged form to both Haliburton and Montreal.

Opera Muskoka: A second summer opera company in cottage country is Opera Muskoka, now in its eighth year. On August 22 it presents a concert performance of Puccini’s La Bohème in Italian with English surtitles at the Rene M. Caisse Theatre in Bracebridge. Tenor Daevyd Pepper is the organizer and will perform Rodolfo in the opera.

Those willing to travel as far as Montreal will find a major treat in store. On August 6, the Festival de Lanaudière in Joliette will give audiences a chance to hear the Metropolitan Opera’s new music director designate, Quebec’s own Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conduct his favourite opera for the first time – Wagner’s Parsifal. The singers for this concert performance include tenor Christian Elsner, mezzo Mihoko Fujimura, baritones Peter Rose, Boaz Daniel and Brett Polegato and bass-baritone Thomas Goerz. Nézet-Séguin conducts Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain – certainly a pilgrimage worth making.

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


2208 On OperaThe focus of Toronto opera enthusiasts’ attention in April, self included, was the COC’s revival of the much heard of but seldom seen Canadian opera from 1967, Louis Riel, now running to May 13. The focus this month is on Tapestry Opera’s presentation of the world premiere of a new full-length Canadian opera, Oksana G., on May 24.

Since Oksana G. will be the largest production Tapestry has presented since Chan Ka Nin’s Iron Road in 2001, I spoke with Tapestry Opera artistic director Michael Mori in April about how the work came to be and how it was decided to expand it beyond chamber opera scale.

Mori said that composer Aaron Gervais and librettist Colleen Murphy met at a Tapestry LibLab in 2006: “In the LibLab, over the course of two weeks, four writers and four composers get to work with every one of their counterparts on a short ‘seed’ scene, in a kind of speed-dating fashion where the pressure and intensity of it are meant to encourage ideas that are free from the fetters of self-doubt. Sometimes the collaborations are just an experiment, but sometimes we strike on the kernel that shows the dynamic between the two creators that could be very exciting for something bigger.”

At the time, the subject of human trafficking was in the air. As Mori says, “Aaron and Colleen were talking about something that was more of an issue in 2006 than now, although it’s coming back with the war in Ukraine. With the fall of the Soviet Union came poverty in certain areas and with that came crime including human trafficking. This would be the world within which they wanted to explore the character of Oksana.” That collaboration led up to its performance as one of the “Tapestry Briefs” in 2006 where it had the title, The Enslavement and Liberation of Oksana G.

At that point Wayne Strongman, former A.D. of Tapestry, “felt it had the potential to develop into a fully grown opera. Even since the beginning Wayne and the creators had been thinking that this was one that needed a bit more time, a bit more breadth and scale, so that it wouldn’t be a two- or three-person piece in a chamber setting but would have both an epic-ness to the music and to the libretto, so the scalability of the staging would have to encompass that.”

Mori continues: “In those first years the Canadian Opera Creation Fund, an initiative of the Canada Council, was instrumental in first helping develop the work, as would later the COC and the Banff Centre. I came in 2012, a year before the first workshop of the second act. One of the reasons for the length of time between the Brief and and the workshop was that director Tom Diamond and Colleen felt that the characters should not sing everything in English but in the original languages the characters would be using. Colleen worked with a number of translators on giving this an element of realistic naturalism so that Ukrainian characters sing in Ukrainian among themselves and in Russian when communicating with a Russian or Italian with an Italian. Of course, this means the opera will be presented with surtitles.”

Canadian coloratura soprano Ambur Braid had originally been scheduled to sing the title role, but she had to pull out when an opportunity arose for her in Europe. Nevertheless, Mori is more than pleased with the replacement he found in Ukrainian-Canadian soprano Natalya Gennadi, who recently received her master’s degree in Operatic Performance from the University of Toronto. As Mori explains, “One reason why it is exciting to have Natalya Gennadi sing the role of Oksana is that she grew up in Ukraine at the time depicted in the opera. She has direct experience of poverty there, of hunger, of sharing shoes and of people in friends’ families who disappeared and reappeared five years later, and of some who never came back. So she will be able to sing with authority because it is her mother tongue and also because she has the greatest insight of any of us into what was happening at that time.”

Producing opera on a larger scale fits in with Mori’s overall plans for Tapestry’s future: “Oksana G. is a bigger project than we have done in about 15 years. Wayne and I wanted it to be special but we are a fiercely nimble company. I also wanted it to be within our ability to be flexible and to continue producing. One of the things I have tried to prioritize since I have become artistic director is that I want to present bigger shows in Toronto every year. So in the last four years we’ve had Shelter, M’dea Undone, The Devil Inside, Rocking Horse Winner and now Oksana. It was important to me also that this wouldn’t be so big that we would have to take a couple years off.”

Mori deliberately chose the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre on Front Street for the production because it is a non-traditional opera venue: “We want to embrace what it means to be an opera company in the 21st century in Toronto. So in creating our own theatre inside the space on Front Street, it’s going to have a much more industrial feel that won’t seem like you’re walking into one of those theatres that suggests a very prescriptive theatre experience.”

Mori emphasizes that “Oksana is a full-force opera. There will be over 40 people on stage, some as villagers, some as other trafficked women, and this lends to the breadth of her journey from a small town in Ukraine to a refugee shelter in Italy. The score was originally orchestrated for about 36 people, but since the space we’re using doesn’t have a pit, such forces would overwhelm the singers. Therefore, Aaron has reduced the orchestration to about 16. The future of the work will depend entirely on the openness of other producers in Canada and the States to this piece. This is not an opera about human trafficking but it is an opera that is framed by the challenge that that presents in the same way that Tosca [running at the COC until May 20] is framed by the politics of its time. It’s a story about survival and heroism and challenging the demons that you face and overcoming this idea that women in opera shouldn’t always be portrayed as victims.”

The key to the opera’s impact will be the empathy that we feel for Oksana: “One of the most important things is that the victims in human trafficking are dehumanized and we tend to dismiss the fact that they could be your sister, your friend; it could be anyone from any background. Just following Oksana’s story, her challenge to redemption, we take a human journey. We haven’t been given a lesson in anything but what we will always remember is that there are humans out there that this is happening to, and we do have an opportunity to know more, to help. It is an emotional journey that can help us to transcend that block that our culture has with looking at uncomfortable topics.”

To sum up, Mori is very excited about his cast and creatives and what they will do: “The team we have is really something. You never know how these things will go but I often find that if you put the right people in the room together, magic will happen.”

Oksana G. plays at the Imperial Oil Opera Theatre May 24, 26, 28 and 30. Natalya Gennadi sings Oksana. Tenor Keith Klassen is Konstantin, the man who trafficks her to the West. Tenor Adam Fisher sings Father Alexander who runs the refugee camp where Oksana finds herself. And mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó is Sofiya, Oksana’s mother. Tom Diamond, associated with the work since the beginning, is the stage director and the increasingly in-demand Jordan de Souza conducts.

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

2207-OperaBanner.jpg2207 On Opera 1While there are several noteworthy operas on offer in April, one looms over them all. This is the COC’s first new production of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel since it premiered in 1967. Co-produced by the Canadian Opera Company and the National Arts Centre, the new production will give Canadians the rare opportunity to see what has often been called the greatest Canadian opera ever written.

Written and performed for Canada’s centennial in 1967, Louis Riel is being revived for the sesquicentennial this year. Reasons for the scarcity of productions of it are not hard to see. The opera is in three acts and 17 scenes, requires a chorus, a 67-member orchestra and has 39 named roles. Composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore wanted to create an epic opera on the model of French grand opera and one could say they succeeded only too well.

In an interview in March, director Peter Hinton threw light on how he plans to meet the many challenges that the opera poses. Speaking of his concept for the production, Hinton explained, “What we’ve tried to do is create a setting that can serve each of the locations of the opera but also create a sort of container of imagery that in some ways sets the entire opera at the trial of Louis Riel. So on the one hand the set resembles Fort Garry, an enclosure, the contrast of a colonized building against an incredible landscape of the land, and also a courtroom where the events of history are put on trial and we’re examining the motivations and intentions behind enormous ideas like governments, justice, confederation. So it was very challenging but very exciting because the ideas of the opera are really big, the history is very big, and not surprisingly it’s very contemporary. Yes, it’s a historical story, but it’s one that continues to speak to us today.”

Hinton said that Somers and Moore made an intriguing choice of subject for an opera meant to celebrate Canada’s centennial: “I thought it was very interesting that they chose the history of Louis Riel. And I think that’s a very key kind of distinction because when I first sat down to listen to it I suspected it might be a very pro-Canada, ‘we are one nation,’ idealized kind of history telling. But I was really taken with how critical it is, how it brought forward the problems of Confederation, that it exposed Sir John A. Macdonald and his political motivations for Confederation in a very critical way. And so it poses very contemporary questions about what are we commemorating, what are we celebrating, what, in addition to our history of achievement, [are] our losses, our injustices, what continues to be needed to be worked out and expressed and understood today.”

Thus, Hinton’s concept for the opera as a trial means more than Riel’s trial. Canada and how it was founded are also on trial. In addition, Hinton points out, he is re-examining the opera itself: “In another way we’re sort of putting the opera on trial. Clearly, if the COC were to take on creating a new opera today about Louis Riel, it would have more indigenous and Métis involvement in the creation of it. So even more than the challenges of staging the narrative of Louis Riel, the politics of it have been much more challenging and very, very difficult to reconcile oneself with because opera itself might be characterized as one of the most colonial art forms because its roots are so Eurocentric.”

2207 On Opera 2The solution, as he explains it, was to treat Harry Somers’ and Mavor Moore’s opera as an artifact of its time.

“It reflects very much the aesthetic sensibilities of contemporary music of the 1960s and it has great dramatic strength and power and beauty. It also has many colonial biases. So part of the job here is to do the opera and let its beauty be heard and soar and not be afraid to cast light on its biases; not to pretend the opera is an Indigenous creation – it is definitely created by two white settler guys – but to try to open up a more inclusive representation in the show.

“And I have to say honestly that [COC General Director] Alexander Neef knew exactly what I was talking about…it took me a long time to make a commitment to be involved because of issues about inclusion and appropriation especially in light of Truth and Reconciliation. I’m very aware of my privilege and my own cultural heritage as a director for the piece. So I really had to think a way through that I could contribute without continuing a legacy of misrepresentation.”

To achieve this, Hinton has re-envisioned the opera’s chorus: “In the original production there was one very large opera chorus who played a variety of roles from members of the Métis Assembly to demonstrators at an Orangemen’s protest in Toronto. And I decided to split up the chorus and identify them culturally. So we in fact have two choruses in this production – one which we are calling the Parliamentary Chorus. This chorus is in modern dress and sing the allocated choral parts in the score but they are removed from the action. They sit above in a gallery not unlike visitors to a house of parliament and comment on the opera, debate the opera, encourage characters within the narrative to act or not. But they do nothing. They have no physical impact on the story or its outcome. They comment.

“In contrast and in equal representation in the show is a 35-member Indigenous chorus who are a physical chorus and we’re calling them the Land Assembly. They physically embody the world in which the narrative Riel is enacted and are directly involved in all of the action but are not given a voice. So in many respects the opera is one about silence, about who speaks on behalf of whom, and who gets a voice and who doesn’t. And so what I’m very hopeful about is that our Land Assembly brings a very strong Indigenous representation of bodies on stage and has an impact of reminding the audience as they see this story enacted that land is also about people. And the opera is also very much people and groups and where does someone stand as an individual, what do they represent. That’s one aspect of the show that will be very different from the way it was done 50 years ago.”

The COC has cast Indigenous men and women to make up the Land Assembly. In addition new characters have been added to the opera to present a more informed history of the Métis and Indigenous people. The previously unattributed opening vocal line is now delivered by a character known as The Folksinger, to be sung by Jani Lauzon, a singer of Métis heritage. The new role of The Activist, to be played by Cole Alvis of Métis-Irish/English heritage, will deliver the Land Acknowledgement as the opera unfolds, setting the tone for interpreting the action playing out on stage. 

 A separate group of 30 artists will play the 39 named characters in the opera with baritone Russell Braun as the title character. Among these are Joanna Burt, a Métis/Saugeen Ojibway artist, who sings Sara Riel, Cree actor and playwright Billy Merasty as the Plains Cree chief Poundmaker and Cree bass-baritone Everett Morrison as Cree war chief Wandering Spirit.

Justin Many Fingers, a singer, actor and dancer from the Lavern Kainai Blackfoot Reserve in southern Alberta, will perform two dance sequences titled “Buffalo Hunt,” in the last scene of Act II, intended as a reenactment of a Métis buffalo hunt.

Asked if, despite the opera’s biases, it is still a work worth being revived, Hinton answered, “Definitely. I think it’s a magnificent work of art. And it’s really important that we revive it and examine it. It was the first opera written by Canadians with a Canadian story produced at the Canadian Opera Company and so it’s a very interesting thing to take a look at what was created 50 years ago, where we have come in that time and how this piece sits within the repertoire of the works the COC does. I think it’s a really important complement to that. And I think the work is very powerful and very strong, but it requires context.

“We have to look at Louis Riel as one of the first civil activists. He’s right up there to me with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the states. He was an incredibly progressive person for his time. So looking at the history again in operatic terms is incredible and the show has enormous, enormous power and range, from satire in the way that Macdonald and Cartier and their political manoeuvres are expressed, to deep tragedy of someone who gave his entire life for justice for the people and maybe expressed it best in losing it. There’s a tragedy in that. It’s a magnificent work in that regard, so all of the efforts of this production are to bring that genius to light in it and to see how we can see that with the knowledge we have today. Producing the work is not just a chance to look but but also to guide us forward.” 

Louis Riel runs for seven performances from April 20 to May 13 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto and on June 15 and 17 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.

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

2206- BBB - On Opera 1.jpgThis March offers a feast for opera lovers who fancy a taste of something other than the standard opera fare. There are several opera rarities and two world premieres on offer and they are so scheduled that an intrepid operagoer can see them all.

The month begins with the world premiere of Odditorium from Soundstreams running March 2 to 5, a theatrical presentation of excerpts from R. Murray Schafer’s 12-opera Patria cycle. Director Chris Abraham has taken four sections of the cycle to create a 75-minute theatre piece for two singers (Carla Huhtanen and Andrea Ludwig) and two dancers in which Ariadne, one of the cycle’s reappearing characters, goes deep into a labyrinth where she encounters sideshows, lovers, buskers and Tantric experts. Schafer’s music has been re-scored for harp, accordion and percussion. Since the company devoted to presenting Patria last produced part of the cycle in 2013, Odditorium will provide audiences with a rare chance to become acquainted with Schafer’s magnum opus.

Krása’s Brundibár: Overlapping with Odditorium, running from March 3 to 5, is the first-ever performance by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company of Brundibár by Czech composer Hans Krása (1899-1944). Brundibár is an important children’s opera since it was written by a Jewish composer in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia and first premiered in a children’s orphanage in Prague in 1942. By the time of the performance, Krása had been transported to the concentration camp in Terezin (then known as Theresienstadt). By the next year almost all the chorus and staff had also been transported to Terezin. Terezin was set up as a model camp for propaganda purposes and the inmates were allowed to pursue the arts. From 1943 to 1944 Krása and his casts performed the opera 55 times. (According to new CCOC artistic director Dean Burry, the cast had to be constantly replaced as children were sent on to Auschwitz for extermination.)

One would not know the gruesome circumstances surrounding the opera from the work itself, though. It concerns a brother and a sister who try to earn money for milk for their ailing mother by singing in the town square. Brundibár, an evil organ-grinder with a moustache, chases them away, but with the help of three animals and the children of the town, the children chase him away.

I spoke with Burry, who was involved in the first production of the opera in Toronto in 1996. He said, “Since the opera is only about 35-minutes long, the CCOC received permission to use the film The Lady in Number 6 (2013) to frame the live performance. The film is about Alice Herz-Somers, who played the piano for Terezin performances and whose son was in the opera. We will also be using songs from the cantata For the Children (1996) by Canadian composer Robert Evans (1933-2005) that uses poetry written by the children of Terezin.” The CCOC’s production will mark the 75th anniversary of the work’s first performance in Prague. That the opera should have been performed in a concentration camp, Burry says is “a testament to the power of art.”

One question is how aware the young performers are of the historical context of the opera. As CCOC’s managing director Ken Hall wrote me, “As for the understanding of the kids, we have taken some pains to educate them on the circumstances of the opera. They have met John Freund, a Terezin survivor who attended the opera in the camp and had a lecture session with children’s novelist and holocaust educator Kathy Kacer. Some of children will be taking the production on tour this summer where they will actually visit the Terezin memorial.”

Concerning what it is like to work with children, director Joel Ivany wrote me, “What I enjoy about working with these younger performers is the expectation that they have for this experience. They know they are working with opera professionals and they’re trying their best to think about stagecraft, musicality, character and focus. Also, to see the sheer joy they get when you give them a prop to use is a great reminder of why we do this.”

2206- BBB - On Opera 2.jpgThe Masqued Man: The second world premiere of the month, running March 10 and 11, is Toronto Masque Theatre’s The Man Who Married Himself by composer Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Anna Chatterton with choreography by Hari Krishnan. The story derives from an Indian folktale about a man who, unwilling to marry a woman, creates a lover from his own left side. He is enchanted by her perfect beauty until he finds that this new woman longs for freedom and desires someone else.

Chatterton describes the background of her libretto: “While writing the libretto for The Man Who Married Himself, I was inspired by the work of contemporary Indian poet, scholar and translator A.K. Ramanujan. His renowned collection A Flowering Tree (1997) includes the original folktale which underpins our contemporary masque. Ramanujan’s work as a translator led me to the mid-17th-century Telugu poet Kshetrayya, whose erotic devotional songs [or padams] were written for, and in the voice of, the dancing courtesans who performed for both gods and kings. For me, these padams bring to life the sensual and intimate world of the original folktale The Man Who Married His Own Left Side.”

Palmer mentions that she began writing the opera while in India: “My earliest work on the piece was while I was in residence at the Kattaikkuttu Sangam in Kanchipuram, Tamil Nadu. This is a training school for girls and boys in the traditional vernacular music theatre form of Kattaikkuttu. I worked collaboratively with students exploring the original folk tale through vocal and movement-based improvisation…Members of the creative team (Anna, Hari and myself) express ourselves through our own creative voices, grounded in our respective traditions. The dramatic combination of song and dance is common to many Indian forms of music drama, but unlike the role of movement in Western opera, dance is an equal partner in the work.”

The opera will feature countertenor Scott Belluz, jazz vocalist Alex Samaras, improvisational Carnatic singer Susha and dancers Jelani Ade-Lam and Sze-Yang Ade-Lam. The piece is directed by Marie-Nathalie Lacoursière. Larry Beckwith conducts a six-member period instrument ensemble. The percussionist’s set-up will include hurdy-gurdy, tom-tom, cymbal, rattle, woodblocks, triangle, cowbell and hand drum. Following TMT’s motto of presenting “performing arts in fusion,” The Man Who Married Himself will thus combine song, music and dance as well as East and West.

Two 18th-century rarities: Also noteworthy this month are two 18th-century rarities being presented by Toronto opera schools. On March 15 and 17 the Glenn Gould School presents La cecchina (1760) by Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800). It is a perfectly delightful comic opera that anticipates Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1786) by focusing not on the deeds of historical or mythological characters but on the lives of ordinary people of the composer’s own time. Cecchina is conducted by Les Dala and directed by Marilyn Gronsdal, a frequent assistant director with the COC.

At the same time, March 16 to 19, University of Toronto Opera presents the seldom-performed Handel opera Imeneo (1740), a piece for only five soloists. The production is directed by Tim Albery, who directed the COC’s fantastic Götterdämmerung. This opera is on a much more intimate scale. As Albery describes it: “At an estate by the sea five young people struggle with increasing desperation to unravel a tangled, intractable web of love, gratitude, loyalty and friendship.” This will be the Toronto premiere of Imeneo and, according to U of T Opera Administrator Catherine Tait, likely “the Canadian premiere of the original (1740) version in which the title role is sung by a bass.” The work will be conducted by renowned countertenor and early music specialist Daniel Taylor.

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

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