On November 1, after the COC’s new production of Verdi’s Falstaff and Opera Atelier’s new production of Handel’s Alcina both finish their runs, Toronto’s smaller opera companies take centre stage to explore rarities and brand new works.

beat - opera 1La Gran Vía: Operas from the seldom-heard Spanish repertoire bookend the month. On November 2, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents the Canadian premiere of La Gran Vía (1886) by Federico Chueca (1846-1908) and Joaquín Valverde (1846-1910). La Gran Vía will be the latest zarzuela, or Spanish version of operetta, that the TOT will have introduced to Canadian audiences. Unlike the previous zarzuelas, however, La Gran Vía is not realistic and romantic but surrealistic and satiric. The subject concerns the plan to build La Gran Vía in Madrid – a wide, modern boulevard like those Haussmann built in Paris between 1853 and 1870. Like Haussmann’s boulevards, La Gran Vía would entail the destruction of many old streets and neighbourhoods.

The zarzuela begins, in fact, with a collection of these threatened streets and plazas, personified and gathered to complain about the new boulevard. Two allegorical characters enter, El Paseante (the stroller) and the Caballero de Gracia (the graceful gentleman) to explain how the boulevard is unlikely to be built for a long time due to lack of funding and municipal infighting. (How right they are since the real Gran Vía was not begun until 1904 and completed in 1929!) Further allegorical figures include Prosperidad, Pacífico, Injurias, Petroleum and Gas. After many satirical swipes at contemporary scandals in Madrid (continually updated in performance), the piece concludes with the unveiling of the completed boulevard and a salute to the Madrid of the future. The zarzuela was a huge success in Madrid and eventually went on to further success in Paris, Vienna and Prague. Indeed, the work’s satire of city planning and the destruction of old neighbourhoods is something that any large city, including Toronto, should be able to appreciate. The show features Margie Bernal, Fabian Arciniegas, Pablo Benitez and Diego Catala with José Hernández as pianist and music director.

Voicebox: On November 30 Voicebox: Opera in Concert presents La Vida Breve (1913) by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). La Vida Breve was Falla’s first opera, his previous works for the stage all having been zarzuelas. The libretto written in Andalusian dialect concerns the gypsy Salud who is in love with the wealthy man Paco. He has led her on, not telling her he is already engaged to be married to a woman of his own class. Salud’s uncle and grandmother know Paco’s secret and try to dissuade Salud from interrupting Paco’s wedding. But all is in vain and tragedy results. French composer Claude Debussy directly influenced Falla in transforming the work first written as a number opera into one with a more continuous orchestral flow.

Performers include Isabel Bayrakdarian, Ernesto Ramírez and Guillermo Silva-Marin. José Herández is the pianist and music director and Robert Cooper is the director of the Voicebox Chorus.

beat - opera 2Tapestry Opera: In between these two Spanish-centred evenings, Tapestry Opera launches its 35th season by providing a glimpse into the future of opera with TapestryBriefs: Booster Shots running November 13 to 16. The Booster Shots consist of ten new short operas performed in and around the Distillery Historic District. Each night begins in the Ernest Balmer Studio, Tapestry’s studio and bar, with subsequent scenes taking place in other Distillery spaces – from freight elevators and brick-lined halls, to intimate corners and public galleries.

The ten operas will be performed by various combinations of only four singers. Newcomer, soprano Catherine Affleck, a recent graduate of Yale University School of Music, joins familiar Tapestry performers baritone Alex Dobson, tenor Keith Klassen and mezzo soprano Krisztina Szabó.

The Booster Shots have been created by an illustrious group of playwrights and composers. The group includes: Governor General Award-winning playwrights Nicolas Billon and Morris Panych; Siminovitch Prize-nominated writer Hannah Moscovitch; Dora Mavor Moore Award-winning playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard; Governor General Award-nominated playwright David Yee; composer Ivan Barbotin; Dean Burry, who has composed works for the Canadian Opera Company and the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus; Jules Léger Prize-winning composers James Rolfe and Nicole Lizée; Benton Roark, co-recipient of the Tournon Branley Prize for collaborative work in architecture and music; and SOCAN award-winner and co-artistic director of the Toy Piano Composers, Christopher Thornborrow.

The ten operas are:

 1984: The Folded Paper  by Christopher Thornborrow to a libretto by Nicolas Billon that stages an episode from George Orwell’s famous novel.

Bessie by Christopher Thornborrow and Morris Panych about a jazz singer who struggles with her boyfriend just before she is to go on stage.

Blind Woman by James Rolfe and David Yee about a dancer who has lost her vision.

Brooks Bush Gang by Benton Roark and Hannah Moscovitch, which focusses on a real woman-run 1860s gang responsible for ahigh-profile murder in Toronto.

Damnation by Ivan Barbotin and Morris Panych about a man condemned to hell who tries to devise a way to get out.

Fetishistby Ivan Barbotin and David Yee concerning an Asian woman who undergoes surgery to look more Caucasian.

Memes by Dean Burry and Nicolas Billon about a hipster couple on a first date who find they have almost nothing in common.

Oublietteby Ivan Barbotin and Donna-Michelle St. Bernard dealing with a young woman who has escaped imprisonment in a suburban basement and tries to regain a lost sense of self.

The Overcoatby James Rolfe and Morris Panych that stages a scene between two tailors from Nikolai Gogol’s short story of the same name.

R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Nicole Lizée and Nicolas Billon, an adaptation of a scene from Karel Čapek’s 1921 play that gave us the word “robot.”

The ten Booster Shots are directed by Tapestry artistic director Michael Hidetoshi Mori and designed by Yulia Shtern. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Christopher Foley and Jennifer Tung.

beat - opera 3Postcard and Pinafore: In addition to Tapestry’s 21st-century works, both of Toronto’s opera schools are producing fully-staged operas this month. On November 21 and 22 the Glenn Gould School of Music presents Postcard from Morocco, an opera from 1971 by American composer Dominick Argento. The libretto concerns seven characters waiting at a train station who are glad to sing about what they do but who do not wish to discuss the contents of their luggage. Though the passengers seem to be under the control of a mysterious puppetmaster, one of them struggles to break free. The work is an existentialist parable about how people define themselves; to reflect this Argento draws on an eclectic range of musical styles, ranging from cabaret to Wagner to operetta, to suit each character. Peter Tiefenbach conducts and Brent Krysa directs.

The following week the Opera Division of University of Toronto Faculty of Music stages the Gilbert and Sullivan chestnut H.M.S. Pinafore (1878) from November 27 to 30. It’s hard to believe but the last time the Opera Division staged a G&S operetta was Patience in 1990. Sandra Horst, Chorus Master for the COC, will conduct and Michael Patrick Albano will direct.

It should also be noted that Opera by Request performs three operas in concert this November – Mozart’s Don Giovanni on November 19, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly on November 21 and Handel’s Giulio Cesare on November 29. William Shookhoff is the pianist and music director for all three.

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

BBB-Opera1This month the Canadian Opera Company embarks on a season of greatest hits with operas (and even three productions of operas) that it has presented before. Over-familiarity, however, is not a danger, with many renowned singers making their COC debuts.

The COC opens the season with a new production of Verdi’s Falstaff directed by Canadian Robert Carsen, already acclaimed at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in 2012 and at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013 (which broadcast it live in December that year). Canadian baritone Gerald Finley returns to the COC for the first time in 20 years to sing the title role. The all-Canadian cast includes Simone Osborne as Nannetta, Frédéric Antoun as her lover Fenton, Russell Braun as Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Lauren Segal as Meg Page. Johannes Debus conducts. Falstaff has seven performances from October 3 to November 1.

Running in repertory with Falstaff will be Puccini’s ever-popular Madama Butterfly in the timeless production created by Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson for the COC in 1990. The production plays from October 10 to 31. The 12-performance run conducted by Patrick Lange will necessitate the use of two casts of principals. Sopranos Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce, both making their COC debuts, will alternate in the role of Cio-Cio San. Tenors Stefano Secco and Andrea Carè, also both making their COC debuts, will alternate as Pinkerton. As Sharpless, Dwayne Croft, making his COC debut, will alternate with Canadian Gregory Dahl, while Elizabeth DeShong returns to sing Suzuki in all performances. The singers’ scheduled appearances are listed on the COC’s Butterfly page.

Czech Gem by Request: For operagoers seeking more unusual fare, one of Toronto’s smaller companies, Opera by Request, has come up with a real gem – the Canadian premiere of Antonín Dvořák’s Jakobín in the composer’s final version of 1898. Czech opera used to be a staple at the COC under Richard Bradshaw, but the company has not staged a Czech opera since Dvořák’s Rusalka in the 2008/09 season. That production was the fulfillment of a vow that Bradshaw had made to COC co-founder Nicholas Goldschmidt to stage the beloved work, but, sadly, both had passed away by the time the production premiered.

Jakobín is the seventh of Dvořák’s 12 operas. Rusalka is the one opera by Dvořák to join the repertoire outside of the Czech Republic, but according to John Holland, an expert in Czech opera and co-founder of the Canadian Institute for Czech Music, many Czechs regard Jakobín not only as Dvořák’s greatest opera but also as the most Czech of all his operas. The reason for this is that the opera is set in a Czech village and is permeated with the influence of Czech folksong and dance. In that way Jakobín follows in the tradition of Bedřich Smetana’s ever-popular The Bartered Bride (1866), the first Czech opera to enter the international repertoire.

BBB-Opera2The story of Jakobín, however, is quite different from that of Smetana’s opera. The piece is set in a small Bohemian village in 1794. The date is significant because the action shows how the events of the French Revolution, then ongoing, have repercussions in faraway Bohemia. We meet the elderly Count Vilém of Harasov, who is about to hand over his power and property to his wicked nephew, Adolf. The nephew has convinced the count that his son, Bohuš, who has been living in Paris and is sympathetic to progressive social policies, is in actuality a Jacobin, the name given to supporters of the French Revolution. The fact that Bohuš has a French wife (Julie) makes him even more suspect. The result is that when Bohuš returns home, the count disinherits him. How the falsehoods about Bohuš and Julie are discovered and how the count is reconciled with them form the main thrust of the action.

In the subplot, the count’s self-important burgrave (or châtelain) Filip pays unwanted attentions to Terinka, the daughter of the village choirmaster Benda. Terinka is in love with the gamekeeper Jiří, who helps her fend off the nasty Filip. In a review of a revival of Jakobín at the Buxton Festival this summer, critic Mark Pullinger noted, “Part of the opera’s charm involves a semi-autobiographical portrait; there are parallels between Jiří, the young gamekeeper, and Dvořák himself. Benda, the kindly schoolmaster, could easily have been modelled on Antonín Liehmann, who taught Dvořák the rudiments of music and also – perhaps not without coincidence – had a daughter named Terinka, with whom Dvořák sang in the choir.” Critic George Hall, commenting on the same production, noted that the strengths of the story lie in “its emphasis on a community holding on to its values at a time of wider social upheaval, and a second commentary on music’s ability to bind people together.”

The fact that music binds people together is evident not just in the opera but in how the Czech community has come together in supporting this production of Jakobín. Opera by Request is a small company where the singers choose the repertoire for performances in concert with piano accompaniment. Three of the singers in Jakobín had previously performed in OBR’s production of Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa last year. They wanted to do another Czech opera, perhaps another Janáček work. John Holland suggested that they do something more unusual since, as it so happens, 2014 is designated as “The Year of Czech Music.” His choice was Jakobín, an opera never before staged in Canada and staged only once before in North America. Holland points out that Jakobín contains a wonderfully patriotic duet in Act 2, very appropriate to the émigré Czech community, about how Czech music has sustained them as they have wandered in foreign lands.

From the beginning Holland’s desire was to have the performance be bigger than the presenter’s usual opera in concert. The Czech Consulate, Czech Ministry of Culture and members of the Czech community lent their support to the project. Holland received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to expand the accompaniment from a piano to a chamber orchestra, thus giving William Shookhoff, OBR’s indefatigable accompanist, the chance to conduct. The singers will be off-book and interact under the stage direction of Holland. The production is billed as “semi-staged” since there will be no set or costumes, but there will be both an adult and a children’s chorus as the score requires. And, while the opera will be sung in Czech, there will be English surtitles.

The cast includes baritone Andrew Tees as the Count, baritone Michael Robert-Broder as Bohuš, soprano Michele Cusson as Julie, bass-baritone Domenico Sanfilippo as Adolf, baritone John Holland as Filip, tenor Lenard Whiting as Benda, soprano Danielle Dudycha as Terinka and tenor Ryan Harper as Jiří. The single performance will take place October 24 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. One can phone 647-969-3498 for more information or visit the website of the Canadian Institute for Czech Music at canczechmusic.ca.

Other rarities: While Jakobín, as a Canadian premiere, may be the principal rarity of October, there are performances of other rarities on hand to enliven the month. Opera by Request is also presenting a concert performance of Hamlet (1868) by Ambroise Thomas in Toronto on October 10 at the College St. United Church after performances in Montreal and Point-Claire, Quebec, earlier in the month. Simon Chaussee is the Prince of Denmark, Gerda Findeisen is Ophelia, Ioanna Touliatu is Gertrude, Norman Brown is Claudius, Danny LeClerc is Laërtes, Gianmarco Segato is Horatio and Simon Chalifoux is Polonius. William Shookhoff serves as pianist and music director.

Last, but certainly not least, Opera Atelier presents its first full-scale opera by Handel in the form of his Alcina from 1735. The opera runs from October 23 to November 1 and as usual is directed by Marshall Pynkoski and choreographed by Jeannette Lajeunnesse-Zingg, with David Fallis conducting the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. The story from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando furioso (1532) concerns the Circe-like sorceress Alcina who lives in a magical world composed of the souls of her past lovers. The question is whether the Christian knight Ruggiero can resist her enchantments to set these souls free.

The cast is made up of singers familiar from previous OA productions. Meghan Lindsay, who sang Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz, returns to sing the title role. Allyson McHardy sings the trousers role of Ruggiero and Wallis Giunta is Ruggiero’s beloved Bradamante. They are joined by Mireille Asselin, Krešimir Špicer and Olivier Laquerre.

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


For the 2014/15 opera season in Southern Ontario there will be a gap in offerings for fully-staged operas that many will feel keenly. This is the first season since 1980 in which there will be no Opera Hamilton. The company ceased operations early this year after its fall 2013 production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Management at Opera Hamilton used to say that the company functioned as the New York City Opera in relation to the COC’s Met, since OH was proud to showcase Canadian singers as often as possible. That comparison now has an ironic ring since the New York City Opera itself ceased operations in October last year. In March, Leonard Turnevicius, longtime reporter on the music scene for The Hamilton Spectator, wrote me to say, “It certainly looks as though fully staged, professional opera in Hamilton has come to an end.”

Not helping to alleviate the pall cast by the failure of Opera Hamilton was the announcement by the Canadian Opera Company that it would present only six productions in 2014/15 instead of its usual seven. The last time the COC presented only six productions was in the 2000/01 season when there was no separate COC Ensemble Studio production. (The last time the COC Ensemble Studio had its own production was in the 2007/08 season.)

Besides this, unlike last season when the COC presented three company premieres, this year not only has the COC staged all six operas before, but three of the productions are already familiar to COC audiences. What will make the new season exciting is the chance to see many well-known singers making their COC debuts.

features - on operaFinley in Falstaff: The season opener is a new production of Verdi’s final opera Falstaff by Robert Carsen running October 3 to November 1. This is a co-production with Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro alla Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and De Nederlandse Opera. Many will have already seen what the production looks like from the The Met: Live broadcast of it in December 2013. Carsen has moved the setting forward from Elizabethan times to 1950s England.

For many fans the main draw for Falstaff besides Carsen’s production will be the chance to see Canadian baritone Gerald Finley in the title role, back at the COC for the first time in 20 years. Canadians in the rest of the cast include Simone Osborne as Nannetta, Frédéric Antoun as her lover Fenton, Russell Braun as Ford, Marie-Nicole Lemieux as Mistress Quickly and Lauren Segal as Meg Page. Johannes Debus conducts. 

Racette in Butterfly: Running in repertory with Falstaff will be Puccini’s ever-popular Madama Butterfly in the timeless production created by Brian Macdonald and Susan Benson for the COC in 1990. The production running from October 10 to 31 has proved so successful one only wishes the COC had asked the duo to created more opera productions. The production will mark the COC debuts of several singers. Patricia Racette and Kelly Kaduce will alternate in the role of Cio-Cio San and Stefano Secco and Andrea Carè will alternate as Pinkterton. Dwayne Croft, making his COC debut, will alternate with Canadian Gregory Dahl as Sharpless, and Elizabeth DeShong returns to the COC as Suzuki. Patrick Lange conducts.

Braun in Giovanni: The winter season begins with a new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni in a co-production with Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Bolshoi Theatre and Teatro Real Madrid. The stage direction is by the Russian Dmitri Tcherniakov, though Tcherniakov has not stuck to merely directing Mozart’s opera. He has also given it a new story. Donna Anna is the daughter of the “Commander” but so is Zerlina. Donna Elvira is Donna Anna’s cousin and Don Giovanni is her husband. Leporello is said to be a relative who lives with them. The production had its world premiere in 2009 at Aix and that performance was filmed and is available on DVD from BelAir Classiques for those who want to test how they like Tcherniakov’s concept.

Russell Braun will sing Don Giovanni with Kyle Ketelsen as Leporello. They will be joined by Jennifer Holloway, Jane Archibald and Michael Schade. German early music specialist Michael Hofstetter will conduct. The opera runs from January 24 to February 21.

Goerke in Walküre: Running in repertory with the Mozart is a return of Atom Egoyan’s production of Wagner’s Die Walküre, first seen on its own in 2004 and last seen as part of the full Der Ring des Nibelungen in 2006. The cast is full of singers making their COC debuts, most notably renowned soprano Christine Goerke making her role debut as Brünnhilde. Also appearing with the COC for the first time are Heidi Melton as Sieglinde, Johan Reuter as Wotan, Dmitry Ivaschenko as Hunding and Janina Baechle as Fricka. Clifton Forbis returns in the role of Siegmund and Johannes Debus conducts. The opera runs from January 31 to February 22. 

Hopkins in Barber: The spring season opens with a new production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, last seen here in 2008. This is a co-production with Houston Grand Opera, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Opera Australia. The stage director is the Catalonian Joan Font and the production is credited to a group called Els Comediants. If these names seem familiar it is because they were responsible for the colourful rat-filled production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola seen here in 2011. Again there will be many performers new to the COC, such as Joshua Hopkins as Figaro, Alek Shrader as Almaviva and Serena Malfi and Cecelia Hall alternating as Rosina. Rory Macdonald conducts and the production runs April 17 to May 22.

Relyea in Lepage revival: Running in repertory with the Rossini is the third revival of Robert Lepage’s double bill of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung. The surreal pairing was first seen in 1993 and last in 2002. The production marked the first time the COC was invited to the Edinburgh Festival and later to BAM in New York. The production, like François Girard’s Oedipus Rex in 1997, came from a time when the COC created Canadian productions that the rest of the world demanded to see rather than from simply partnering with well-known companies and seeing the results after the bigger companies had staged them.  

For this revival, John Relyea and Ekaterina Gubanova will sing Bluebeard and Judith in the Bartók while Krisztina Szabó will take on the role of the anonymous Woman in Erwartung. Johannes Debus will conduct and the double bill will run from May 6 to 23.

Atelier Breaks New Ground: While last season both productions by Opera Atelier were revivals, this season both not only are new but break new ground for the company. Running from October 23 to November 1 is OA’s first-ever production of a full-length Handel opera, in this case his Alcina of 1735. The story, from Torquato Tasso’s baroque epic Gerusalemme Liberata (1581), concerns the Circe-like sorceress Alcina who lives in a magical world composed of the souls of her past lovers. The question is whether the Christian knight Ruggiero can resist her enchantments to set these souls free.

The cast is made up of singers familiar from previous OA productions. Meghan Lindsay, who sang Agathe in OA’s Der Freischütz, returns to sing Alcina, Allyson McHardy sings the trousers role of Ruggiero, and Wallis Giunta is Ruggiero’s beloved Bradamante. They are joined by Mireille Asselin (Morgana), Krešimir Špicer (Oronte) and Olivier Laquerre (Melisso).

OA’s spring production is Hector Berlioz’s 1859 version of Gluck’s Orpheus et Eurydice. Berlioz drew from both of Gluck’s earlier French and Italian versions of the opera to recast it in his own orchestration, scoring the role of Orpheus for a contralto. Mireille Lebel will sing Orpheus, OA favourite Peggy Kriha Dye returns as Eurydice and Meghan Lindsay will sing Amour. The production is significant both for Opera Atelier and for Tafelmusik since it will mark their furthest incursion to date into the 19th century. The opera runs April 9 to 18. As usual Marshall Pynkoski will be the director for both productions and Jeannette Lajeunnesse Zingg will choreograph the artists of the Atelier Ballet.

features - on opera2TOT In Earnest: For additional fully-staged productions Torontonians have only to turn to Toronto Operetta Theatre. Its season begins with the zarzuela La Gran Vía (1886) by Federico Chueca on November 2. The work is a celebration of the old neighbourhoods of Madrid that were about to be destroyed by the Haussmann-like creation of a boulevard in the city. The TOT’s end-of-year show is a return of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado running from December 27, 2014, to January 4, 2015. The season concludes in April with a revival of the TOT-commissioned operetta Earnest, The Importance of Being (2008) by Victor Davies and Eugene Benson, based on the famous comedy by Oscar Wilde. This will be a rare occasion where a new Canadian work receives a revival after only seven years. 

features - on opera3Centuries apart: Enriching the season are two fully-staged productions of music theatre from completely opposite ends of the time spectrum. The Toronto Consort has performed many operas in concert but from May 22 to 24 it will mount a fully-staged production of The Play of Daniel, an English version of Ludus Danielis, a sung medieval play from the 13th century that tells the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den. Kevin Skelton will sing the role of Daniel with musical direction by David Fallis and stage direction by Alex Fallis.

In contrast to this, Soundstreams will offer the Toronto premiere of The Whisper Opera (2013) by American composer David Lang from February 26 to March 1. The opera explores the tension between our private and online selves by using a libretto made up of search-engine responses to questions of association. Soprano Tony Arnold and New York’s International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) make their Canadian debuts in an opera so quiet that it can be experienced by just 60 people at a time.

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


1909 OnOperaWe think of opera season ending with the end of May, but this is by no means the case this year. Three important opera productions take place in June and operatic events occur throughout Ontario in July and August.

First up June 3 to 8 is the world premiere of Airline Icarus by Brian Current to a libretto by Anton Piatigorsky. Icarus is one of the figures in Greek mythology whose story is an example of humanity’s overweening pride. His father Daedalus fashioned waxen wings for himself and his son to escape the labyrinth Daedalus designed. While Daedalus took the moderate path halfway between the sun and the sea, Icarus attempted to fly as high as he could; the sun melted his wings and he plunged into the sea.

In referencing the story, Piatigorsky means to “impart a mythic dimension to the mundane experience of contemporary air travel.” The action is set on board a plane bound for Cleveland and explores the inner thoughts of the passengers and crew on their journey. The cast includes Dawn Bailey, Vania Chan, Sean Clark, Alexander Dobson, Larissa Koniuk, David Roth, Zorana Sadiq, Geoffrey Sirett, Krisztina Szabó, Jennifer Taverner and Graham Thomson. The composer conducts and Tim Albery, best known for his staging of the COC’s Götterdämmerung, directs. The opera runs from June 3 to 8 at Daniels Spectrum. See soundstreams.ca for more information.

From June 12 to 15 is the Toronto premiere of another new opera, Shelter by Juliet Palmer to a libretto by Julie Salverson. A coproduction between Tapestry Opera and Edmonton Opera, Shelter had been scheduled to open last year in Toronto after its world premiere in Edmonton in November 2012. Of the opera, a depiction of a nuclear family in the Atomic Age, Salverson says, “I’ve always been attracted to catastrophic events. Joseph Campbell says to ‘follow your bliss,’ and while most people go after love or fulfillment, I’m drawn to tragedy and the fault lines in the psyche of a culture – the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually, sometimes, explode. Such is the story of Shelter.” Toronto audiences will remember New Zealand-born Palmer as the composer of the a cappella sewing-machine opera Stitch in 2008 and the women’s boxing opera Voice-Box in 2010. Palmer’s music for Shelter is described as combining the influences of Brahms, big band, funk and the post-apocalyptic sounds of 1990s Japanese punk. The cast includes Christine Duncan, Teiya Kasahara, Andrea Ludwig, Keith Klassen and Peter McGillivray. Leslie Dala conducts and Keith Turnbull directs.

June gives us not only new operas but older operas presented in new ways. That is what the inventive company Against the Grain Theatre intends with its production of Debussy’s 1902 masterpiece Pelléas et Mélisande. Continuing its mission of performing opera in unconventional places – La Bohème in a pub, The Marriage of Figaro at the AGO – AtG plans to stage Pelléas outdoors in the Max Tanenbaum Courtyard Gardens of the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre at 227 Front St. E. on June 19, 21, 23 and 25. 

Sung in French with English surtitles, Pelléas et Mélisande features an outstanding Canadian cast comprising baritone Étienne Dupuis making his role debut as Pelléas, soprano Miriam Khalil as Mélisande, baritone Gregory Dahl as Golaud, bass Alain Coulombe as Arkel, mezzo-soprano Megan Latham as Geneviève and soprano Andrea Núñez as Yniold. Guest music director Julien LeBlanc provides piano accompaniment, and the same creative team that created AtG’s much lauded 2012 production of The Turn of the Screw is reunited with direction by Joel Ivany, set design by Camellia Koo and lighting design by Jason Hand. 

On June 15, the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener is presenting an opera marathon. First on the bill is the one-person opera Love Songs by Ana Sokolović sung by Kristin Hoff. Next is a series of contemporary opera excerpts from the Bicycle Opera Project (see below). And last is a triple bill of new Canadian operas presented by Essential Opera. Premiered just in April this year, the three are Etiquette by Monica Pearce, Regina by Elisha Denburg and Heather by Chris Thornborrow. Also at Open Ears on June 11 and 12 is the multimedia chamber opera Mirror for soprano and visual artist from Inter Arts Matrix and on June 12 L’Homme et le cielfrom Fawn Opera. 

July: Those with a taste for old operas done in period style should head over to the Westben Arts Festival in Campbellford, a town about midway between Toronto and Ottawa on the Trent-Severn Waterway. There from July 4 to 6, Toronto Masque Theatre will perform Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Toronto Masque Theatre Chamber Orchestra and Chorus and members of the Westben Festival Chorus under the direction of Larry Beckwith.

1909 OnOpera2Late July and early August: Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has been a favourite refuge for operagoers in Toronto. This year all of SOLT’s performances fall in August. First to open is The Magic Flute playing on August 1, 3, 6 and 9 with Nicole Bellamy as pianist and music director. Next is Madame Butterfly playing on August 2, 5, 7 and 9 with Narmina Afadiyeva as pianist and music director. And last is a rare chance to see Samuel Barber’s opera Vanessa (1958) playing on August 2, 6, 8 and 10 with Raisa Nakhmanovich as pianist and music director. The operas are performed by singers who have joined SOLT to hone their skills and develop their careers. This year’s stellar faculty includes Derek Bate, Kevin Mallon, Marshall Pynkoski, Wayne Gooding, Kathy Domoney, Henry Ingram, Stuart Hamilton, Catherine Robbin, Diane Loeb and Guillermo Silva-Marin.

Farther afield in Haliburton there are performances of the Highlands Opera Studio run by Richard Margison and Valerie Kuinka. On August 13 and 15 HOS presents a double bill of two comic rarities, Donizetti’s Rita (1841) and William Walton’s The Bear (1967). On August 22, 24, 26 and 28 it presents Puccini’s Tosca. One reason Rita is obscure is that the Opéra Comique for whom he wrote it rejected it and plans for performances in Naples fell through. Rita finally received its posthumous premiere in 1860, ironically at the Opéra Comique. It was only in 2009 that a new critical edition of the score was published.

This summer marks the third anniversary of the innovative Bicycle Opera Project that 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 BOP aims to demythologize old ideas of what opera and what opera singers are like.

Their itinerary for this summer includes a stop on June 15 at the Open Ears Festival in Kitchener; July 12 and 13 at the Westben Arts Festival; July 25 to 27 at Stratford Summer Music; August 7 and 8 at the Toronto Summer Music Festival; and stops in between in Kingston, Prince Edward County, Belleville, Hamilton, Bayfield, London, Brantford, Waterloo and Guelph.

BOP’s 2014 repertory features short operas A little rain must fall by Chris Thornborrow, Bianchi: A Five Minute Bicycle Opera by Tobin Stokes written especially for the company, (What rhymes with) Azimuth? by Ivan Barbotin and Rosa by James Rolfe as well as opera excerpts from The Brothers Grimm by Dean Burry, Airline Icarus by Brian Current (see above) and L’Homme et le ciel by Adam Scime. The company includes Liza Balkan, stage director; Wesley Shen, music director; Geoffrey Sirett, baritone; Chris Enns, tenor; Stephanie Tritchew, mezzo; and Larissa Koniuk, Artistic Director and soprano.

Have an enjoyable summer!

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

1908-OperaThis May opera companies are presenting several works new to Toronto audiences.  One of the operas, East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, is a world premiere, but the others are works from the early part of the 20th century making a very belated first appearance.

The first work of note is The Cousin from Nowhere by Eduard Künneke (1885-1953) receiving its Canadian premiere from May 1 to 4 by Toronto Operetta Theatre. The curious title is one of two English versions of the original German title Der Vetter aus Dingsda.  After the operetta’s great success first in Berlin in 1921, then Vienna, and then all over German-speaking Europe, it opened in London in 1923 under the title The Cousin from Nowhere.  In 2000 when the Ohio Light Opera revived it and later recorded it, the company used the title The Cousin from Batavia.  The problem is that the word “Dingsda” just can’t be translated compactly into English.  Just as we say “whatshisname” when we can’t think of a the name of a person, Germans say “Dingsda” when they can’t think of the name of a place. 

What is certain is that The Cousin from Nowhere is one of the most delightful works from the Silver Age of operetta.  You need only listen to the excerpts on iTunes from the recording with the Kölner Rundfunkorchester to understand why the operetta was such a big hit.  Try the operetta standard for tenor “Ich bin nur ein armer Wandergesell” or the operetta standard for soprano “Strahlender Mond” to have a sense of Künneke’s gentle romantic side.  Then try “Sieben Jahr lebt’ ich in Batavia” for an idea of his clever satirical side.

The action is set in a small castle in Holland.  Julia (Lucia Cesaroni), heir to the castle but who has not yet come of age, is chafing under the rule of her aunt (Elizabeth Beeler) and uncle (Michael Nyby) who are her guardians.  She still dreams of her beloved cousin Roderich de Weert, who has been away in the Dutch colony of Batavia (in what is now Indonesia) for seven years.  Although she has sworn to be true to him, her aunt and uncle say she can’t wait any longer for Roderich.  Her uncle wants her to marry his nephew and a family friend wants her to marry his son.  One evening a mysterious traveller (Christopher Mayell) turns up looking for a place to stay.

Eventually, Julia begins to wonder if this traveller may actually be Roderich who has returned quite changed from the time spent in the Far East.  The traveller, however, denies it.  The next day, Julia’s best friend Hannchen (Charlotte Knight) arrives with a man who tells her that he is Roderich de Weert.  Who is the real Roderich and who is the impostor?  And what about Julia’s vow now that she has fallen in love with the traveller?  Those are the mysteries that the operetta poses and quite skilfully sorts out.

In Europe there have been five new productions of Der Vetter aus Dingsda since 2012.  The TOT production will be the first new production in North America since the revival of the extremely popular Ohio Light Opera staging in 2002.  As someone who has seen this charming work twice before, I urge operetta-lovers and anyone who loves the kind of 1920s dance music made popular by Max Raabe and his Palastorchester definitely not to miss it.  With Cousin, Jurgen Petrenko makes his TOT conducting debut and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs.

Bat-ta-clan postponed: In On Opera for April, I mentioned that from May 1 to 3 Opera 5 intended to present a pair of French operetta rarities in the form of Ba-ta-clan (1855) by Jacques Offenbach and L’Île du rêve (1898) by Reynaldo Hahn.  The performances were to inaugurate the new Alliance Française de Toronto Centre Culturel at 24 Spadina Road.  Unfortunately, the performance hall will not be ready in time, so Opera 5 has postponed the production until September.  Still on May 3 it will provide a preview of this unusual double bill at a party it is holding at Alliance Française at 8pm.  Teiya Kasahara and Adrian Kramer will sing accompanied by Maika’i Nash.

Bass Showcase: In its seventh and final opera of the 2013/14 season – and its last seven-opera season, for now – the COC is presenting Don Quichotte (1910) by Jules Massenet (1842-1912) for the first time.  The COC has staged only two of Massenet’s 28 extant operas – Manon in 1952 and Werther in 1981 and 1992.  Massenet wrote the opera with the great Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin in mind for the title role.  The work has since become a showcase role for a bass with Ferruccio Furlanetto, who will sing it in Toronto, as one of the opera’s premier proponents.  Quinn Kelsey, who won praise here in 2011 for his Rigoletto, will sing the aged knight’s trusty companion Sancho Panza and Anita Rachvelishvili will sing the role of Dulcinée, the lusty wench whom the knight imagines to be a fair damsel.  The colourfully whimsical production, set among gigantic books, comes from Seattle Opera and will be directed by Linda Brovsky, who directed it there.  COC Music Director Johannes Debus conducts.

East of The Sun: May concludes with the world premiere of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, a new children’s opera commissioned by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company. Based on the Norwegian folktale, the 70-minute-long opera is composed by Norbert Palej to a libretto by K.T. Bryski and has public performances May 30 to June 1.  Palej, originally from Cracow, Poland, is currently an associate professor of composition at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music.  K.T. Bryski is a fantasy novelist living in Toronto, best known for her novel Hapax (2012).  

The folk tale was one of those collected by the Brothers Grimm of Norway, Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, who published their collections of Norwegian folk tales and fairy tales between 1841 and 1871.  English speakers will likely best know the story from its translation by Sir George Webbe Dasent who gave its title to his 1910 translation of tales by Asbjørnsen and Moe.  

The plot, a variation on Beauty and the Beast, concerns a young farm girl who saves her starving family by befriending a mysterious white bear, who promises to make her father rich if he gives him his daughter.  The girl knows the bear changes his form at night but it is too dark to see him.  One night she brings a candle and discovers that he is really a young prince condemned to take on animal form during the day.  Unfortunately, the girl’s lack of trust in him means he must now go to his wicked stepmother, the evil queen of the trolls who cursed him in the first place, and marry her daughter, a troll princess.  The young girl now must seek the palace of the queen of the trolls that lies “east of the sun and west of the moon” to rescue the prince.  CCOC artistic director Ann Cooper Gay will conduct a chamber orchestra and Joel Ivany, founder of Against the Grain Theatre, will direct.


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

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