1806 on operaQueen of Puddings Music Theatre announced on February 8 that it would conclude operations at the end of August of this year. For many it comes as a shock that Toronto should be losing a company that for the past 20 years has brought an uncompromising vision to the development and production of new Canadian chamber opera. Their legacy is a series of works, acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, which have redefined not only what a Canadian opera can be but also what opera itself can be. Beatrice Chancy (1998–1999) by James Rolfe and George Elliott Clarke was the first opera about black slavery in Canada and launched the career of soprano Measha Brueggergosman. The Midnight Court (2005–2007) by Ana Sokolović and Paul Bentley was the first Canadian opera — and QoP the first Canadian company — invited to the Linbury Studio at England’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

In contrast to these narrative-based works, QoP also explored the boundaries of opera. Love Songs (2008–2011) by Ana Sokolović, a solo opera that set various love poems and the words “I love you” in more than 100 languages, was declared the best production at the Zagreb Biennale and was subsequently presented at the prestigious Holland Festival. Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour (2010) by Pierre Klanac, John Rea and Fuhong Shi, presented three poems in medieval French, English and Mandarin in the form of a ritual that was hailed by EYE Weekly as “an exquisite piece of music theatre.” In 2012, co-founder and co-artistic director Dáirine Ní Mheadhra was awarded the Canada Council Molson Prize in the arts in recognition of her lifetime achievements and ongoing contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of Canada.

Why should Ní Mheadhra and co-founder and co-artistic director John Hess choose to end such an enterprise when it has reached the peak of its success? In some ways the question answers itself. The co-founders have decided that Queen of Puddings should end on a high note.

In an email interview near the end of last month, Ní Mheadhra agreed that she and Hess would answer a number of questions about QoP, its legacy and the future. Here it is:


Why did you decide that QoP should cease operations? Do you feel that QoP has achieved all the goals it was set up to achieve?

We decided that QoP should cease operations because after nearly 20 years we feel we’ve achieved what we set out to do, which was to commission and produce original Canadian opera to a high artistic standard and to develop an international profile for this work. In this current season the company is thriving, with the great success and critical acclaim for our production of Ana Sokolović’s opera Svadba-Wedding, now touring nationally and internationally. Coming up on April 30thwe are presenting the premiere of a new vocal chamber work, Inspired by Lorca, by composer Chris Paul Harman, sung by Krisztina Szabó with our ensemble at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.

We’ve been considering our decision for some months, and while we realize that it’s unusual to cease operations when an organization is extremely healthy, it felt like the right decision for us both in this phase of our lives and in the life cycle of QoP. The end of our season in August 2013 feels like a very natural artistic ebbing point, and it also coincides with the end of our current three-year operational funding, and thus feels like the right moment to close the company. We want to conclude in a year like this, which is full of artistic highlights and the fulfilment of our goals — with continued financial stability due to a deficit-free track record.

What do you feel are QoP’s greatest achievements over its existence?

Probably our greatest achievement has been never to accept “received wisdom” about the state of new music/opera in Canada, but to have furrowed our own path with our individual beliefs. Just one example: when Dáirine arrived in Toronto from Ireland in 1994 we were told that there were only two singers in Toronto who could possibly sing new opera. We thought that was a load of old rubbish. It would never have occurred to us to segregate new opera from middle opera or old opera. For us it’s all a continuum — Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Strauss, Shostakovich, Andriessen, Sokolović, Rolfe ... and the singers who sing those operas also sing contemporary Canadian opera — there’s no difference.

We think another very important achievement has been the international touring we’ve done of new Canadian opera, which hardly existed before QoP. That was hugely important to us. Before Dáirine came to Canada, she had no real impression of what new Canadian music was like as it didn’t have a strong profile internationally. But we’ve discovered that the best singers in the world live in Canada and that there’s huge composer talent here too. It has been our mission to deliver this news to the world!

For example, we’ve wanted to bring Ana Sokolović’s music back to her Serbian homeland for ten years, and last October we felt such inordinate pleasure walking down a main street in Belgrade with a big poster of Ana and Queen of Puddings outside the Atelje 212 Theatre announcing a performance of Svadba that night. In the performance the singers sang Serbian so well that we were asked how we ever managed to find six Serbian-Canadian singers! Shortly afterwards, we brought Svadba to Dublin (Dáirine’s hometown) and the audience could not believe the virtuosity of the singers and the sheer imagination and verve of the music. But all of this we knew all along, and knew that audiences outside of Canada just needed to hear these Canadian singers and music, and they would be bowled over. And they certainly were.

Are you worried that the gap left by the departure of QoP
will leave a gap in the creation of new opera in Canada,
or are you confident that QoP’s success as a deficit-free arts organization has left a model that others can build on?

We’d never have the hubris to think that we’d left a gap in new opera in Canada! People are very resilient and if there is a gap, it would be filled sooner or later. Now the deficit-free business, well that’s another story! That was a personal aesthetic — we would have been mortified to ever show up at a board meeting announcing that we’d gone into deficit. So along with our producer Nathalie Bonjour, we just made sure we never spent more than what we thought we could fundraise.

What will happen to the many works that QoP created? Will other companies have permission to perform them, or will they disappear along with the company?

QoP has an excellent track record of repeat performances of new operas. When we commission a new opera, we have exclusive rights for a few years after, but that being said we’ve never turned anyone away who wanted to do their own production of a QoP work. That’s what we all want — more productions of new operas! Just last week, the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore presented their own production of Svadba and in fall 2013 there will be another US production of Svadba. Our 2009 production, Love Songs, has already had three other versions performed in Canada with a fourth coming up in a few months. And so on. We consider the new operas we have commissioned as living organisms which will continue to be performed well into the future and form a vital part of the emerging canon of Canadian opera.

What plans do you have for the future?

John has a recital with soprano Erin Wall on March 7 at the St. Lawrence Centre in Toronto and then a BC recital tour with Ben Heppner. For Dáirine, she’s been approached about a few projects, but in the short term she’ll probably take a break after August 31st and fuel the imagination with walks in the mountains in County Kerry and long coffees on the Avenida da Liberdade in Lisbon. Then she’ll start having ideas for new projects and be back knocking on someone else’s door!

Let me give you my deepest thanks for truly enlivening the world of opera in Canada.

We’ve had a marvellous run of 20 years and experienced huge generosity, support and warmth from our friends and colleagues in Canada. They’ve all been integral to our work and we couldn’t have given the best of ourselves without their belief that we would do no less. 

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

onopera-feb2013On january 23 Canadian Opera Company General Director Alexander Neef announced his 2013/14 season. Neef has assembled a particularly starry line-up of singers and directors, but what is immediately striking about this season, the COC’s 64th, is that three of the seven operas have never been presented by the COC before. This is only the fourth time since 1990 (1991/92, 2008/09 and 2011/12 were the others) that this has happened. Having their COC premieres, back to back in spring 2014, will be Handel’s Hercules, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux andMassenet’s Don Quichotte. Adding spice to the season is that Hercules is also one of three COC-commissioned new productions.

The 2013/14 season opens, in fact, with one of these new productions: Puccini’s La Bohème. The opera was last seen here in 2009 and this will be its 15th appearance making it the COC’s most often staged opera. The new production, opening October 9, will be directed by Canadian-born British director John Caird, who directed Verdi’s Don Carlos for the company in 2007, and is probably most famous for the original production of Les Misérables, which has been running in London since 1985. Italian conductor Carlo Rizzi leads the COC Orchestra and Chorus. Alternating in the role of Mimì are Italian soprano Grazia Doronzio and Canadian soprano Joyce El-Khoury. The role of Rodolfo, Mimì’s lover, is shared by young tenors, Mexican David Lomelí (Rigoletto, 2011) and Romanian Teodor Ilincăi.

Alternating with La Bohème will be a production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes,  celebrating the centenary of the composer’s birth, and starring Ben Heppner in the title role. Last at the COC in 2003, this Grimes will be the company’s third. Australian director Neil Armfield, who directed Ariadne auf Naxos here in 2011, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2009 and Billy Budd in 2001, directs, and COC Music Director Johannes Debus makes his Britten debut. Three COC Ensemble Studio alumni appear — soprano Ileana Montalbetti, tenor Roger Honeywell, and baritone Peter Barrett. Alan Held, last year’s Gianni Schicchi, sings Captain Balstrode.

 The winter season opens on January 18, 2014, with Mozart’s Così fan tutte  running in repertory with Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. Così will be a new COC production by Canadian film director Atom Egoyan, his third production for the COC (Salome, 1996 and Die Walküre, 2004). Debus conducts. Cast as the sisters are two Canadians — soprano Layla Claire in her COC debut as Fiordiligi and mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta returning for a second season in a row, this time as Dorabella. The sisters’ two suitors are American tenor Paul Appleby (Ferrando) and COC Ensemble graduate bass-baritone Robert Gleadow (Guglielmo). Beloved Canadian soprano Tracy Dahl returns to the COC stage after a 19-year absence in the role of the wily servant Despina. Famed baritone Thomas Allen makes his COC debut as Don Alfonso.

For Un ballo in maschera Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and Greek-American tenor Dimitri Pittas make their role debuts as lovers Amelia and Riccardo. British baritone Roland Wood is Renato, Amelia’s husband; acclaimed Canadian mezzo-soprano Marie-Nicole Lemieux is the fortune teller Ulrica; and rising Ensemble Studio graduate, soprano Simone Osborne, is Oscar the page.

A question that always arises with Ballo is where it will be set — in 18th-century Stockholm, as Verdi intended, where King Gustav III was assassinated in 1792, or in Boston during the British colonial period, where censors forced him to move the action because of its incendiary plot. The directing duo Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito stir the pot again, by locating this production from the Berlin Staatsoper in the American South of the 1960s with its resonances of Kennedy-era tensions and assassinations.

Spring 2014 brings the three premieres. First up on April 5 is Handel’s Hercules (1745) in a new co-production with Lyric Opera of Chicago directed by the renowned Peter Sellars. Sellars’ production which moves the action from mythological Greece to the present day won universal acclaim when it premiered in Chicago in 2011. The COC presentation will use the Chicago cast, and what a cast. American bass-baritone Eric Owens makes his COC debut as Hercules; British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote is Hercules’s wife Dejanira; American countertenor David Daniels returns to the COC as Hercules’ trusted aide, Lichas; American tenor Richard Croft returns as Hercules’ son, Hyllus; and British soprano Lucy Crowe makes her COC debut as Iole, a princess Hercules has taken captive. Conducting is Baroque specialist and COC favourite Harry Bicket. In 2012 Tafelmusik presented a staged concert version of Hercules directed by Opera Atelier’s Marshall Pynkoski. Anyone who saw it will know that it is a powerful drama told in glorious music.

Beginning April 25, 2014, is a real rarity, Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux (1837). This opera, along with Maria Stuarda (1835) and Anna Bolena (1830), comprises what is sometimes called Donizetti’s “Three Queens” trilogy. It was first presented as a trilogy in 1972, with Beverly Sills as the slighted British monarch in each production. From 2007 to 2010 Dallas Opera mounted all three directed by Stephen Lawless and using a set inspired by Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. The COC’s Maria Stuarda was part of the Dallas Opera series and so is this Roberto Devereux. Is there an Anna Bolena in the wings?

American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, our Aida in 2010, makes her role debut as the central character Elisabetta, in love with the courtier Devereux. Making his COC and role debut as Devereux is Italian lyric tenor Giuseppe Filianoti. Also making role debuts are COC favourites, Canadian baritone Russell Braun and mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy as the Duke and Duchess of Nottingham. Italian conductor Corrado Rovaris makes his COC debut.

The final presentation of the 2013/14 season is another rarity, Don Quichotte (1910), one of the last operas by French composer Jules Massenet (1842–1912). The last time the COC presented an opera by Massenet was Werther in 1992. Don Quichotte has become a showcase work for great basses with Samuel Ramey, José van Dam and John Relyea recently essaying the role. Italian Ferruccio Furlanetto makes his COC debut in the title role of the iconic idealistic dreamer. Metropolitan Opera star, Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, makes her COC debut as Quichotte’s beloved Dulcinée. American baritone Quinn Kelsey, acclaimed here for his Rigoletto in 2011, returns to makes his role debut as Don Quichotte’s realistic sidekick, Sancho Panza. American Linda Brovsky, who helmed this production at the Seattle Opera, makes her COC debut as director. Johannes Debus conducts. Many see this opera not only as Massenet’s loving study of Cervantes’ hero but as the composer’s farewell to the age of romanticism that had inspired him throughout his life and that he saw fading with the dawn of the 20th century. The opera runs May 9 to 24, 2014. Visit coc.ca to inquire about subscriptions. 

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

There were so many opera performances crammed into November that it may come as a relief to opera fans that the pace lets up a bit for the last month of 2012 and the first of 2013. The period takes on a distinctly Germanic flavour with the COC’s GrimmFest (a tribute to the 200th anniversary of the Grimm brothers’ collection of fairy tales), Toronto Operetta Theatre’s production of The Merry Widow and the COC’s production in January of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. The key, though, is that there is opera available to appeal to a wide range of tastes.

onopera coc-grimm-7520GrimmFest: December begins with the COC’s GrimmFest (coc.ca/GrimmFest) running from December 4 to December 8. The occasion is the 200th anniversary of the publication in 1812 of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) by linguists, cultural researchers and brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. One of the effects of the rise of Romanticism was research into folk traditions in an effort to uncover the strands of national identity. Besides that, people were aware that with the rise of industrialization, the traditions of an oral culture were gradually dying out and many scholars set out to record oral poetry and stories before they were lost. There is some dispute about the sources that the Grimm brothers used, but the result of their work gave us such famous stories as “Rapunzel,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Fisherman and His Wife,” “Cinderella,” “Little Red Riding Hood,” “The Bremen Town Musicians,” “Tom Thumb,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White” and “Rumpelstiltskin” among the two hundred tales collected.

The centrepiece of GrimmFest will be the 500th performance of the children’s opera The Brothers Grimm by Dean Burry. The anniversary performance by the COC Ensemble Studio takes place on December 7 at Daniels Spectrum in Regent Park with two more performances on December 8. The opera was commissioned by the COC in 1999 and has since become the most performed Canadian opera of all time. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm are characters and the 45-minute opera shows how they were inspired to write “Rapunzel,” “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Little Red Riding Hood.” It has been a staple of the COC’s annual school tour since it premiered in 2001. In March 2012 it had its European premiere in Cardiff, Wales.

According to Burry, “When The Brothers Grimm premiered in 2001, I never expected that we would be celebrating its 500th performance 11 years later. It means so much to have been a part of this incredible journey and to have introduced so many young people to opera through the magic of these incredible fairy tales.”

Toronto Operetta Theatre (torontooperetta.com) will, as usual, present an operetta during the immediate pre- and post-New Year’s Eve period with a gala performance on New Year’s Eve itself. This year the work will be that ever-popular evocation of turn-of-the-century Paris, The Merry Widow (1905) by Franz Lehár. This will be the TOT’s fourth staging of the piece after productions in 1995, 2000 and 2007, bringing it equal with Johann Strauss, Jr.’s Die Fledermaus as the company’s most performed operetta.

Anyone who found the COC’s recent production of Die Fledermaus rather too concept-heavy should know that the TOT has always placed its emphasis on a work’s musical values above all else. The story involves the plan of the ambassador of Pontevedro, a bankrupt Balkan country, to find a Pontevedrian husband for Hannah Glawari, the country’s richest citizen, so that her money will remain in the country. With the current monetary crisis in the European Union, this amusing plot has acquired a strange new relevance. For the TOT production Leslie Ann Bradley sings the title role; former COC Ensemble member Adam Luther is Count Danilo, the man sent to woo her; David Ludwig is the ambassador Baron Zeta; Elizabeth Beeler, a former Hannah Glawari herself, is his wife Valencienne; and Keith Klassen is Camille de Rossillon, Valencienne’s admirer. Derek Bate, assistant conductor at the COC, conducts and Guillermo Silva-Marin directs. The operetta runs from December 28, 2012, to January 6, 2013.

onopera tristanbillviola-videoparis2005Tristan: One of the most anticipated offerings of the COC’s 2012-13 season is its production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, the company’s first production of the masterpiece since 1987. This staging is also notable as the COC debut of renowned American director Peter Sellars. Sellars first created this vision of Tristan in 2005 for Opéra Bastille in Paris. Its most notable aspect is the use of a film by video artist Bill Viola that is projected on a colossal screen above the singers’ heads throughout the entire length of the work. The film can be justified on the grounds of Wagner’s goal of creating a Gesamtkunstwerk or “total work of art” in the theatre that would combine the various artistic disciplines. Wagner’s own view of the role of the visual arts in opera was rather conventional as can be seen in sketches of the first production of the Ring Cycle, where stagehands push the Rhinemaidens mounted on trolleys back and forth behind painted waves. Sellars’ notion is that Viola’s film will serve not just as the set but will provide an ongoing visual commentary on the action as a parallel to Wagner’s concept of the orchestra as chorus.

Using extreme slow motion, Viola’s video uses actors to portray the metaphorical action behind Wagner’s story. He views the first act as an extended ritual of purification for the two lovers, while on stage the two characters maintain a strained stance of indifference to each other. As one can see from the examples on the COC website, Viola makes much use of fire and water imagery. Viola’s video has accompanied concert performances of Tristan in Los Angeles in 2004 and in New York, Los Angeles and Rotterdam in 2007. Only at the Bastille Opera in Paris — and now recreated for the COC — has the video been used for staged performances.

Ben Heppner, who sang Tristan for the premiere of Sellars’ production in 2005, sings the role January 29, February 2, 14, 17 and 20, with German tenor Burkhard Fritz of the Staatsoper Berlin taking over on February 8 and 23. German soprano Melanie Diener sings Isolde on the same dates as Heppner with American Margaret Jane Wray taking over opposite Fritz. Franz-Josef Selig sings King Marke, to whom Isolde is engaged. Daveda Karanas is Isolde’s maid Brangäne, who misguidedly concocts a love potion for her mistress, and Alan Held sings Kurwenal, Tristan’s loyal servant. At the podium is the world-renowned Czech conductor Jiří Bělohlávek, who has recorded widely for Chandos, Harmonia Mundi and Deutsche Grammophon among other labels.

In his program note for the original production, Sellars described the love duet in Tristan by saying, “We hear the celestial voice of compassion expounding Buddha’s four noble truths to mortals.” Given the influence of Buddhism on Wagner via the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), this statement is not as far-fetched as it might at first appear. Sellars aims to present Tristan as an exploration of spirituality, rather than sex as past directors have done. Whatever the result, the chance to see Tristan und Isolde in Toronto after such a long absence and to see Sellars’ work in our own Four Seasons Centre will start the new year on an aesthetic high.   

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

November sees the continuation of the large scale operas that opened in October from the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier and adds to the mix fully staged operas from smaller companies and opera schools. Enriching the month still further is the impressive number and variety of operas in concert — some with orchestra, some with piano.

The operas continuing from October are Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus and Opera Atelier’s period instrument production of Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz, both of which conclude on November 3. For a fully staged professional opera production the next option is Opera York’s staging of Verdi’s La Traviata on November 1 and 3 at the Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts (operayork.com). Mirela Tafaj is Violetta, Ricardo Iannello is Alfredo and Jeffrey Carl is Germont. Sabatino Vacca conducts and Penny Cookson directs. The wood-lined auditorium of the Richmond Hill Centre seats only 600 and makes an ideal venue for opera.

25-26onoperaggsOpera Schools: For other fully staged opera performances one has to look to the various opera schools busy preparing the stars of tomorrow. The University of Toronto Faculty of Music Opera Division (music.utoronto.ca) is presenting Gaetano Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore from November 22 to 25. The work, one of the most popular of all comic operas, hasn’t been seen fully staged in Toronto since 1999. It tells of the naive peasant Nemorino, who attempts to woo a wealthy young woman with the help of a love potion (only alcohol) bought from a visiting charlatan. Sandra Horst, best known as the chorus master for the COC, is the conductor; Michael Patrick Albano directs.

25-25onoperahorst-copyOver at the Royal Conservatory, the Glenn Gould School (performance.rcmusic.ca) has quite an unusual double bill on offer. On November 16 and 17 the students present Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (1968) by American composer Ned Rorem (born 1923) and Le Lauréat (1906) by Québécois composer François-Joseph Vézina (1849-1924). For Three Sisters, a 1943 play by Gertrude Stein provides the libretto. The work is a nonlinear murder mystery about three sisters (who are not sisters since they are orphans) and two brothers (who are brothers) who decide to play a game of murder. During the course of the 35-minute work, four of the five characters are killed or found dead, yet at the end the voices of all five are heard. They wonder, “Did we act it? Are we dead?” Coincidentally, or not, the only character to remain alive tells the others that it is time to sleep, raising the question of whether the action we’ve seen is real or imagined.

Le Lauréat is one of three opéras comiques along with Le Rajah (1910) and Le Fétiche (1912) that Vézina completed before his death. Vézina is perhaps best known as the conductor of the first-ever performance of “O Canada” in 1880. The libretto by Félix-Gabriel Marchand (the 11th premier of Quebec) concerns the love of Paul and Pauline, who are about to graduate from university. Pauline however, is penniless, and Paul’s uncle threatens to disinherit him should he marry her. The situation is saved by a deus ex machina in the form of a letter containing new information about Pauline. For both works Peter Tiefenbach is music director and Ashlie Corcoran is the stage director.

In Concert(1): For those who enjoy operas in concert with orchestra, there are two attractive choices. On November 1 and 3, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (tso.ca) presents the hour-long, one-act opera La vida breve (1913) by Manuel de Falla (1876–1946) in Spanish with English surtitles. The all-Spanish cast includes mezzo-sopranos Nancy Fabiola Herrera, Cristina Faus and Aidan Ferguson, along with flamenco musicians and dancer Núria Pomares. The libretto written by Carlos Fernández-Shaw in Andalusian dialect concerns the gypsy Salud (Herrera) 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. The conductor is Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. The program also includes Beethoven’s Symphony No.8.

Those who seek out new music need look no further than the Canadian premiere of Airline Icarus by award-winning composer Brian Current on November 25. Co-presented by the Royal Conservatory, where Current has been a faculty member since 2006, Airline Icarus is an opera-oratorio about the intersecting thoughts of passengers on a flight aboard a commercial airline. It is scored for nine musicians and nine singers. In 2005 it won Italy’s international Premio Fedora Award. Last year Current conducted the first fully staged performance in Verbania, Italy. The Toronto performance will include such well-known singers as Carla Huhtanen, Krisztina Szabó and Alexander Dobson. Jennifer Parr is the stage director and Current conducts. The Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council will help fund a recording of the work.

In Concert(2): This month opera in concert with piano accompaniment is especially well represented.Those who seek out rarities by well-known composers should head to the performance of Rossini’s Armida (1817) by VOICEBOX: Opera in Concert (operainconcert.com) on November 25. Toronto opera-goers are probably most familiar with the story from the presentations of Lully’s French baroque opera Armide (1686) staged by Opera Atelier earlier this year and in 2005. The plot of Rossini’s Armida is inspired by the same sections of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme Liberata as Lully’s Armide. It should be fascinating to see how Rossini approaches the material. The work fell into neglect until 1952 when Maria Callas appeared in its first modern production. Since then June Anderson and Renée Fleming have sung the title role. For VOICEBOX, Raphaëlle Paquette takes on Armida, Edgar Ernesto Ramirez sings Rinaldo, Christopher Mayell is Goffredo and Michael Ciufo is Genardo. Michael Rose is the music director and pianist. Robert Cooper directs the chorus.

While Opera In Concert has been around since 1974, Toronto Opera Collective (torontooperacollaborative.com) will embark on its first season with a performance of Beethoven’s Fidelio on November 10 at the Bloor Street United Church. Kristine Dandavino sings the title role, Jason Lamont is Florestan and Michael Robert-Broder is the villainous Don Pizarro. Nichole Bellamy is the pianist and conductor.

For quite a different style of German opera, Essential Opera (essentialopera.com) begins its third season on November 7 with The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Jeremy Ludwig sings Macheath, Maureen Batt is Polly, Erin Bardua is Lucy, David Roth is Peachum, Heather Jewson is Mrs. Peachum and James Levesque is the Narrator. Cathy Nosaty is the music director, pianist and accordionist. The performance in German and English takes place at Heliconian Hall in Yorkville.

Finally, Opera by Request (operabyrequest.ca), where the singers choose the repertory, has a wide range of operas in concert on offer. On November 3 it presents Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’amore, on November 9 Mozart’s Don Giovanni, on November 16 and 25 Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and on November 17 Bizet’s Les Pêcheurs des perles. All performances, except Onegin on the 16th, take place at the College Street United Church and are conducted by the indefatigable William Shookhoff from the piano. 

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

One of the most notable developments in Toronto’s opera scene this season is Opera Atelier’s first-ever production of an opera from the 19th-century — Der Freischütz (“The Marksman”) from 1821 by Carl Maria von Weber (1786–1826). Even though the opera is standard repertory in central Europe, it has never had a fully staged professional production in Toronto as far as anyone can determine. The OA production will be the work’s first period production in North America.

on opera pages 34-35der freischutzWhat marks Der Freischütz as the first important Romantic opera is its use of local folk legend as the subject matter, as opposed to classical history or mythology, and local folk music as inspiration for many arias and themes. Set in Bohemia near the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, the story centres on the forester Max (Krešimir Špicer), who loves Agathe (Meghan Lindsay) and is set to succeed her father Kuno (Olivier Laquerre) as head forester if he can pass a test in marksmanship. During practice, however, Max continually fails and his fear of losing brings him under the influence of the malevolent Kaspar (Vasil Garvanliev), whose soul is already forfeit to the Devil and who hopes to substitute Max in his place. Max persuades Kaspar to cast seven magic bullets for him to use in the contest. This occurs in the mysterious Wolf’s Glen where Kaspar calls upon the infernal spirit Samiel (Curtis Sullivan) for assistance in the midst of frightening images and demonic sounds. Meanwhile, Agathe, filled with foreboding, is consoled by her friend Ännchen (Carla Huhtanen). The contest itself brings a series of unexpected mishaps but concludes with the advice of a wise hermit (Gustav Andreassen) on how to cope with the outcome.

In a telephone interview with OA co-artistic director Marshall Pynkoski, I learned how OA came to make this leap into the 19th century and how it came to choose Weber’s opera as its first experiment. Pynkoski says, “For a long time Jeannette [Lajeunesse Zingg] and myself and our designers had talked about the concept of a ‘period production.’ It’s hard to believe now, but our first conflict on this point came when we announced we were going to do a period production of The Magic Flute [in 1991]. People told us the idea was ridiculous, that the work was standard repertory and asked why we would do this. We had to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘No, we think there is a very important and legitimate statement to be made by hearing Mozart on period instruments and looking at a period-sensitive production that is unique and has not been said in a long time.’ Now no one even thinks there’s anything odd about Mozart on period instruments.

Freischütz simply takes the basic concept of Flute and pushes the envelope farther which we’ve wanted to for some time. It’s been a long time since we’ve used the word ‘baroque’ in our company description. We call ourselves a ‘period opera and ballet company’ and our point now is that a ‘period production’ can be a reference to any period. That’s what fascinates. Of course, our initial focus was the baroque and that remains our first love, particularly the French baroque. But it is only natural as you start to explore these things that it keeps pushing you into new directions. It pushes you back and it pushes you forward, into earlier repertoire and into later repertoire. I think it’s a natural progression. The whole reasoning behind it is, ‘What was the original intention of the composer, of the librettist, of the designers? Where does it sit musically, dramatically, politically, artistically? What have we lost touch with over time? Have we lost anything worthwhile that is worth coming back to re-examine and that can challenge us in a new way?’

“I don’t want to do a museum production of Freischütz and I don’t think Freischütz will ever have looked like what we are doing. What we are doing is a Freischütz that explores all the possibilities that would have been open to performers in the early 19th century. Those ‘restrictions’ for want of a better word, have become the most thrilling take-off point, just as they were with Flute, and it has made us make huge jumps musically, dramatically and in terms of design. It’s taken us in directions we never dreamed we were going to go.

“Just to take one example: For the famous Wolf’s Glen scene, full of those wonderful, frightening satanic visions, there is no record of how they were created at the time. My first impulse was that they must have used a cyclorama, a huge painting that passed by on rollers. But such a technique would be far too expensive nowadays. Of course, we have our dancers and they are a tremendous asset. We thought of the magic lantern coming into use at the time, but slide shows have a negative resonance for us today that they did not have in the period. Then we thought if we use images what would they be of? Samiel is referred to as the ‘Black Huntsman’ so images of the hunt seemed natural. I looked at Géricault with his violent scenes of lions and cheetahs tearing animals apart, but they were too exotic. Then I thought of the crazy painting ‘The Nightmare’ by the Swiss-born British painter Henry Fuseli [1741–1825], an exact contemporary of Weber. The more I looked through his catalogue of works, the more I realized his visions of horror were a perfect match for the atmosphere Weber conjures up in the Wolf’s Glen. So it will be images from Fuseli that we will project on stage during that scene in the mode of a period phantasmagoria. We will be doing nothing that was not available to artists in the early 19th century. We will just be using 21st century technology to recreate it.”

How did OA come to choose Der Freischütz as its first foray into a new period? Pynkoski had considered doing a 19th century work for some time and had first considered Beethoven’s Leonore (1805), as the first version of his Fidelio is called. But it was conductor David Fallis, who suggested about three years ago that he and Jeannette Lajeunesse-Zingg have a look at Der Freischütz. What galvanized their attention happened in April last year when Krešimir Špicer was singing the title role in La Clemenza di Tito. Pynkoski, wondering when he and Špicer might ever work together again, said, “Kreš, tell me something you’re dying to do. We’ll do it for you. We just want you to come back. And he said instantly, ‘Well, I think you should be doing Freischütz and I should be singing Max.’” Pynkoski and Zingg went home, immediately listened to the CDs Fallis had given them, were overwhelmed by the work and told Špicer the next day they would be doing it — they didn’t know when — but they would be mounting it as a vehicle for him.

The 19th century may be new territory for Opera Atelier, but it is not for their orchestra, Tafelmusik. Tafelmusik has already played Beethoven’s symphonies to great acclaim and has programmed Chopin for next year. The most practical challenge is that the opera requires a 40-piece orchestra and David Fallis is still trying to figure out where to fit everybody in and around the pit at the Elgin Theatre.

Meanwhile, Pynkoski was bubbling over with news on a completely different topic. Two weeks after Freischütz closes, he and Zingg fly off to Salzburg to begin rehearsals for Mozart’s early opera Lucio Silla (1772), written when he was only 17. As it happens early music conductor Marc Minkowski has become the head of the Mozarteum in Salzburg. Ever since Minkowski first conducted for OA, he, Pynkoski and Zingg have longed to work together again, but Minkowski’s growing fame made scheduling trips to Toronto too difficult. Now he has asked the OA co-artistic directors to direct for him in Salzburg. Lucio Silla will premiere at the Mozarteum during Mozart Week on January 24, 2013, then travel to Bremen and Halle before returning to Salzburg in the summer.

But before that happens, Pynkoski and Zingg are focussing on Der Freischütz. Like The Magic Flute it is a singspiel, with spoken dialogue and sung arias. For Freischütz, the dialogue will be spoken in English and the arias sung in German with English surtitles. Flute and Freischütz make an excellent pairing. Both deal with the supernatural and both move from darkness to light, but Mozart’s focus is on the rational while Weber’s is on the irrational that lies just below the surface in everyday life. Der Freischütz runs from October 27 to November 3 at the Elgin Theatre. For tickets and more information visit www.operaatelier.com.

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

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