P9The 2010-11 season marks the 25th anniversary of Toronto Operetta Theatre, the only professional operetta company in Canada. The company rang in the new year with a successful production of one of its signature works, Imre Kálmán’s Countess Maritza. In February TOT will remount the thoroughly Canadian operetta,Oscar Telgmann’s Leo, the Royal Cadet (1889), a work that TOT rediscovered and first staged in 2001. The show runs February 17, 19, 20 and 21 at the Jane Mallett Theatre. For more information visit www.torontooperetta.com.

In a telephone interview, Guillermo Silva-Marin, TOT’s artistic director since its inception, explained how the company came to be and has evolved over its first quarter century. The notion for an operetta company first arose as a project of the now-defunct Ontario Multicultural Theatre Association (OMTA). It staged a production of Franz Lehár’s The Land of Smiles in 1984, for which Silva-Marin was an alternate lead. The production was intended as a fundraiser but actually lost money, and, as Silva-Marin puts it, “I opened my big mouth and said I could do better than that because they were so disorganized.” As a result, he was asked if he would like to be the operetta company’s artistic director. The first four productions of what was already named Toronto Operetta Theatre began on September 25, 1985, with Lehár’s The Count of Luxembourg. In 1989 OMTA agreed to allow TOT to incorporate as a separate company on the condition that it would also take over OMTA’s debt. TOT thus began life with a millstone which today, luckily, amounts to only 5 percent of its operating budget.

In 1991, however, a TTC strike drastically cut attendance. The debt mounted to 15 percent, and the company, which had been performing at the Bluma Appel Theatre and the Winter Garden, began looking for a more manageable venue – ideally, with about 500 seats, a proscenium stage and a pit. No such venue existed then, and indeed, no such venue exists now. Since 1994 the TOT has made the 497-seat Jane Mallett Theatre its home. Built as a concert hall, it does have a sense of intimacy and excellent acoustics, but the lack of a pit, wings or backstage space made it “challenging but in an inventive way,” Silva-Marin affirms. There he developed the company’s hallmark minimalist style. As he explains, “I’ve always been committed to telling the story from a simple approach to text and music. I often think that if I had a million dollars to spend, I wouldn’t spend it on staircases and chandeliers. I would have greater amount of rehearsals, pay the cast sufficiently, invest in orchestra time and in a creative team that could support dealing with the text and music in ways we don’t often have opportunities to do.” Audiences questionnaires have consistently confirmed Silva-Marin’s approach by saying that sustained singing and acting, not sets and costumes, should always be the company’s priority.

A look over the TOT’s production history shows that it has gradually grown away from a focus on Central European repertoire to embrace an increasingly wider range, including Gilbert and Sullivan, Old and New World zarzuela, and American musicals, leading to at least eight Canadian premieres. As Silva-Marin explains, “I knew that for the company to remain vital and strong it needed to explore a greater gamut of works that were perceived as operetta or operetta-like.” This thrust included tracking down the piano-vocal score of Leo in the National Library in Ottawa and commissioning John Greer to orchestrate it after a study of Telgmann’s other works. It also led the TOT to commission its first world premiere, Earnest the Importance of Being (2008) from Victor Davies and Ernest Benson. “Now that we did Earnest there are all kinds of people knocking on the door. And I’m delighted because the art form is still valid, and valid enough for us to invest in our own composers and produce our own works and even works on subjects that are intrinsically Canadian.”

Silva-Marin notes that the average audience now is younger that when the TOT began. Why should operetta continue to be popular? As Silva-Marin says, “Some might call it light or featherweight, but the simple truth is that opera and music theatre of this type represents the better life that humans could possibly have.” Here’s to another 25 years of spreading joy!

The COC Announces its New Season

On January 20, COC General Director Alexander Neef announced the company’s 61st season. Of special significance is that this is the first season planned entirely by Neef. It was clear that he looked to see what works the COC had been neglecting, because five operas are works the COC has not staged for at least twelve years and two are COC premieres.

P10The season opens on October 2 with a new production of Verdi’s Aida directed by Tim Albery and starring Sondra Radvanovsky in her company debut. Next is a new production of Britten’s Death in Venice conducted by Steuart Bedford, who conducted the opera’s world premiere in 1973. The winter season begins with a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute directed by Diane Paulus and starring Michael Schade and Isabel Bayrakdarian. This is paired with the COC premiere of John Adams’s modern classic Nixon in China with Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao. The spring season brings a new production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola with Brett Polegato as Dandini; Ariadne auf Naxos with Adrianne Pieczonka and Richard Margison; and finally, and surprisingly, the COC premiere of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice directed by Robert Carsen, with Lawrence Zazzo and Isabel Bayrakdarian.

Again the COC Ensemble Studio is allowed to take over one performance of The Magic Flute rather than being given its own production. This is unfortunate because the Ensemble productions were a way for the COC to stage a wide range of chamber operas from baroque to contemporary that helped to broaden our perceptions of what opera is.

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

Dean Burry - ComposerThe last month of 2009 and the first of 2010 will witness premieres of two new Canadian operas. On December 3, Toronto Masque Theatre will present the world premiere of The Mummers’ Masque by Dean Burry, and on January 20 TrypTych will present the world premiere of Andrew Ager’s Frankenstein. These are not the only events. The Music Gallery will present the “rockabilly techno opera” The Ship of Fools by renowned avant-gardists Daniella de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke on December 12, the Toronto Operetta Theatre will revive its production of Emmerich Kálmán’s Countess Maritza December 26-January 3 and the COC will revive its production of Bizet’s Carmen January 27-February 27.

The Mummers’ Masque is the 11th music theatre work by Newfoundland-born composer Dean Burry. His children’s opera The Brothers Grimm for the COC Ensemble for its annual schools tour is believed to be the most-performed opera in Canadian history. Burry’s companion piece to Grimm, The Bremen Town Musicians, will premiere with Opera Lyra Ottawa on December 12.

According to Burry, the masque “will be a contemporary interpretation of the mumming tradition in Canada and worldwide, incorporating dance, music, drama, stage combat and puppetry. Mummer plays are considered one of the forerunners of the masque, which makes this pairing of company and composer an obvious choice. With a new libretto fashioned from various historic sources, the music shall be in a contemporary style. The production is being created to play in non-traditional venues and capitalize on the informal nature of the original material.”

The venue for the premiere will be Victoria College Chapel at Victoria College on the University of Toronto Campus and will run December 3-6. The work incorporates the legend of St. George and traditional carols, while the musicians, singers and dancers move about the chapel in imitation of the Newfoundland Christmas tradition of door-to-door entertainment. The cast features Laura Whalen, Krisztina Szabó, John Kriter, Giles Tomkins, a children’s choir and band including such traditional instruments as accordion, penny-whistle, guitar and fiddle. See www.torontomasquetheatre.com for more information.

For Andrew Ager, Composer-in-Residence at St. James Cathedral in Toronto, will mark his first foray into opera. His previous works for choirs, soloists, orchestras and chamber ensembles have had numerous premieres in Europe. Next year he goes off to Santa Fe for performance of his Winter: An Evocation and then to Monte Carlo to make a recording of his organ music.

In a telephone conversation, Ager revealed that his interest in writing Frankenstein began about eight years ago when he was living in Halifax. He initially was drawn to the vampire novella Carmilla (1872) by Sheridan Le Fanu, but after conversations with William Whitla, a specialist in the Gothic novel at York University, he turned to the most famous Gothic novel of them all, with Whitla agreeing to serve as librettist. Ager admits he has a certain insider’s knowledge of the subject matter having once worked in a morgue in Halifax. A meeting with Edward Franko, Artistic Director of TrypTych Concerts and Opera, ensured that the work would see the light of day. TrypTych held a staged workshops of the opera in 2003 and 2005 when the work was three hours long. He has now shortened it to 100 minutes on the model of Richard Strauss’s Salome, feeling that an intermission would cause a deleterious break in tension.

From the very start, Ager and Whitla agreed that the opera must “at all costs avoid anything campy” particularly all the extraneous paraphernalia associated with the innumerable movie versions. Ager’s interest is in “following the book as closely as possible with its focus on the personal and metaphysical relation of the creator and his creation.”

Ager’s inspiration for the music is Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (1925) because of “its depiction of extreme psychological states.” Ager, however, does not employ Berg’s atonal technique but rather a mode he calls “extremely extended harmony.” In the nine-member cast tenor Lenard Whiting sings Victor, baritone Steven King sings the Monster and soprano Dawn Bailey sings Victor’s beloved and wife, Elizabeth. The premiere will be fully staged, with Ager providing the accompaniment on grand piano. Two companies in Germany have already expressed interest in the opera, but Ager hopes that a DVD of the January performances will provoke even more responses.

Meanwhile, Ager is already at work on his second opera, The Wings of the Dove, based on the 1902 Henry James novel, which he plans to have ready for presentation, fittingly enough, in a palazzo during the next Venice Biennale. For more information see

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


Two of November’s operatic highlights – Iphigénie en Tauride (1779) by Christoph Willibald Gluck from Opera Atelier and And the Rat Laughed (2005) by Ella Milch-Sheriff from Opera York – provide a glimpse of just how wide ranging the artform of opera can be.

And the Rat Laughed

15_aronsteinOpera York is now a resident company at the new Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts. In previous years it focused primarily on Italian repertory classics and developed partnerships with York Region’s Italian community. OY’s new consultant Peninah Zilberman felt it equally important to appeal to the region’s Jewish community, and brought this contemporary Israeli opera to the board’s attention. The Opera York production, presented in partnership with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, will be performed November 5, 7 and 8 in Hebrew with English surtitles. This will be not only the work’s North American premiere, but the first performance in North America of a Hebrew-language opera.

Author Nava Semel based the libretto on her 2001 novel of the same name. The action of the opera, shifting among three time periods – 1943-44, 1999 and 2099 – examines how memories of an event are preserved and changed. Two cultural anthropologists of 2099 are resolved to uncover the origins of a myth they know as “Girl and Rat.” They discover a report from 1999, when a schoolgirl interviewed her grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, to find out about her family history. As a child the grandmother was hidden in a cellar, a rat her only friend, and protected by the local farmers – except for a farmer’s son who repeatedly raped her. When support money from the girl’s parents ceases, the farmers take her to the local Roman Catholic priest and suggest he turn her in for a reward. Instead he saves her.

Einat Aronstein, who created the role in Israel, sings the role of the Little Girl. Adriana Albu plays the Grandmother that the Little Girl becomes and Dion Mazerolle is Father Stanislaw. Geoff Butler conducts and Penny Cookson directs. For more information and tickets visit www.operayork.com or call 905-787-8811.

Iphigénie en Tauride

From October 31 to November 7, Opera Atelier revives its 2003 production of Iphigénie en Tauride with a new cast in the principal roles. Croatian tenor Kresimir Spicer, last seen here as Mozart’s Idomeneo in 2004, sings Oreste. Canadian tenor Thomas Macleay makes his OA debut as Pylade. And OA regular Peggy Kriha Dye is Iphigénie.

Gluck has long been revered for his “reform operas,” with Iphigénie considered the culmination of his efforts. In a telephone conversation with conductor Andrew Parrott, I asked, “Why was Gluck considered so revolutionary in his time?” Parrott explained that Gluck’s reforms were directed at “bringing the drama back into opera.” The dominant form of the 18th century was the opera seria, best known to us through the operas of Handel. They are characterized by a strict separation of recitative and aria, and by the da capo aria in which the first section is repeated, albeit with florid ornamentation, after the second. According to Parrott, this type of opera was popular, and in Handel’s case, has regained popularity “because they were written, for lack of a better word, for ‘canary-fanciers.’” The opera’s primary function was to showcase star singers rather than to tell a unified story.

The difficulty with opera seria is its inherent tendency to stasis. As Parrott notes, “By the second half of the 18th century the form had ossified and was in need of reform.” Gluck banished the da capo aria so that a character’s emotional state would develop rather than return to its point of departure. He abolished cadenzas and blended recitative with aria to move the action forward. Parrott says, “Gluck wanted to bring opera back to its origins as sung drama” and notes that “singers on 18th-century playbills were referred to as ‘actors’ not ‘singers’, since all actors were also expected to sing.”

Although Parrott has nothing against modern productions, as long as they capture the true nature of a piece, he says the period productions of Opera Atelier make his job as conductor much easier because “there is no disruptive tension between the music and what I see on stage.” What Parrott admires particularly in the direction of Marshall Pynkoski and choreography of Jeannette Zingg is their keen attention to detail and their emphasis on “getting the balance right among all the arts involved in opera.” In particular, Parrott notes that OA singers learn “to act with their words, not only with their voices,” just as would have been the case in Gluck’s day. For more information about Iphigénie en Tauride, visit www.operaatelier.com.

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

12aThe undoubted highlight of the fall season is the world premiere of “The Nightingale and Other Short Fables,” directed by the renowned Robert Lepage. This is only his second project for the Canadian Opera Company – after his Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung of 1993, which caused the COC to be invited to festivals all over the world. Lepage has more of a hand in this production than the earlier one, since he also chose the various vocal and instrumental pieces by Igor Stravinsky that make up the evening’s programme, along with the two short operas The Nightingale (Le Rossignol) and Renard.

For The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, Robert Lepage draws on ancient and contemporary storytelling traditions, incorporating singers, acrobats and Asian shadow puppetry geared to appeal to audience members of all ages. A co-production with the Festival d’Aix- en-Provence and l’Opéra national de Lyon, in collaboration with Lepage’s Ex Machina company, this is the production’s only North American engagement. It runs October 17, 20, 22, 24, 30, and November 1, 4 and 5, and is sung in Russian with English surtitles.

The programme begins with a selection of short, non-operatic pieces: the jazzy octet Ragtime (1916), a set of four nonsense songs called Pribaoutki (1914), the four lullabies that comprise the The Cat’s Cradle Songs (1917), Two Poems of Constantin Balmont (1911), Four Russian Peasant Songs (1917) and Three Pieces for Solo Clarinet (1919). The songs introduce the theme of animals central to the two operas presented after the intermission.

Both The Nightingale and Renard were unconventional works in their own time. The Nightingale had its first performance in 1914 at the Paris Opera in a production by Sergei Diaghilev with the singers in the pit and their roles mimed and danced on stage. The next year the Princesse Edmond de Polignac commissioned Stravinsky to write a piece that could be played in her salon. Stravinsky envisioned Renard as a new form of theatre in which acrobatic dance would be connected with singing while declamation commented on the action. As it happened, the premiere of Renard never took place in the salon, but as part of a double-bill with Mavra in 1922 by the Ballets Russes, again at the Paris Opera. As with The Nightingale, the singers were part of the orchestra, while their roles were danced on stage.

In The Nightingale and Other Short Fables, Lepage takes Stravinsky’s innovations several steps further. The orchestra pit will be filled with water to become a pool where the singers perform and manipulate puppets designed by award-winning American puppet designer Michael Curry. The COC Orchestra, under the baton of Jonathan Darlington, performs on stage. The set is designed by Canadian Carl Fillion, who has worked with Lepage on many projects, including Lepage’s upcoming Ring Cycle with the Metropolitan Opera. The lighting designer, Canadian Étienne Boucher, is also part of Lepage’s Ring Cycle team. The Chinese-inspired costumes are by Mara Gottler, resident costume designer with Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival. Lepage’s notion, as explained in several video interviews available through the COC website (www.coc.ca), is to have the course of the action recapitulate the development of puppetry, from the simplest hand shadows to larger two-dimensional variations, and finally to the three-dimensional complexities of Vietnamese water puppetry.

12bRenard was last seen in Toronto in an imaginative COC Ensemble production directed by Tom Diamond. The story is based on Aleksandr Afanasyev’s popular compilation, Russian Folk Tales, and follows the Fox’s attempts to outsmart the Cock, who luckily is rescued by the Cat and the Ram. The cast includes Ensemble tenor Adam Luther and baritone Peter Barrett, who were both in Diamond’s production, tenor Lothar Odinius and bass Robert Pomakov. The cast is joined by five acrobats/puppeteers.

The Nightingale, based on a tale by Hans Christian Andersen, is narrated by a Fisherman (Odinius), who tells of an Emperor (bass Ilya Bannik), who longs to hear the song of the Nightingale (coloratura soprano Olga Peretyatko) at court. The bird appears, but when Japanese emissaries unveil a mechanical nightingale at court, the real bird flies away and the furious Emperor banishes it from his realm. Later, when the Emperor is ill and confronted by Death (contralto Maria Radner), the Nightingale contravenes the edict and returns to save the Emperor in an unexpected and moving way. Tickets are available online at www.coc.ca or by calling 416-363-8231.

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

The 2009-10 season is a very rich one, with much to please those who favour the tried and true and those curious about opera off the beaten path. Two events are certain to draw international attention to Toronto – the COC’s production of The Nightingale and Other Short Fables; and the North American premiere of Prima Donna, by Canadian singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright – but Toronto’s expanding number of smaller companies also have diverse treasures on offer. What follows is a small selection of some of the season’s highlights


The season begins on September 26 with the COC’s revival of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in an extended run to November 3. This will be the first presentation at the Four Seasons Centre of Susan Benson’s gorgeous, much lauded traditional production directed by Brian MacDonald. If you happen to have any friends who somehow have not yet visited the FSC, this is the perfect opportunity to invite them along.

The second COC offering is The Nightingale and Other Short Fables from October 17-November 5. For this production, director Robert Lepage links two short operas by Stravinsky, Le Rossignol (1914) and Renard (1916), with a miscellany of non-operatic pieces--the octet Ragtime (1916), Pribaoutki, a set of four nonsense songs (1914), the four lullabies that comprise the The Cat’s Cradle Songs (1917), Two Poems of Constantin Balmont (1911) and Four Russian Peasant Songs (1917). Lepage will be using the techniques of Southeast Asian puppetry in his staging, and the COC says the programme is aimed at an audience of all ages.

On October 25, Opera in Concert presents Rossini’s La Donna del lago (1819) based on the narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott. Alison d’Amato is the music director and the presentation will feature Virginia Hatfield, Amanda Jones, Paul Anthony Williamson, Graham Thomson and Gene Wu. At the end of the month, October 31-November 7, Opera Atelier presents a revival of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride (1779), last seen in 2003. The principals will be entirely new with Kresimir Spicer as Oreste, Thomas Macleay as Pylade and Peggy Kriha Dye as Iphigénie. Andrew Parrott conducts the Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Marshall Pynkoski directs.

In November, Opera York, which has focused primarily on warhorses, takes a new course by presenting the Canadian premiere of And the Rat Laughed, an Israeli opera from 2005 by Ella Milch-Sheriff sung in Hebrew with English surtitles. The libretto is by Nava Semel based on her novel of the same title. Opera York presents the work in partnership with the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. It runs November 5-12 at the Richmond Hill Centre for Performing Arts.

In commemoration of the 250th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death, the University of Toronto Opera Division presents Haydn’s Il mondo della luna (1777). The comic story tells of the would-be astrologer Eccitico, who convinces the wealthy Buonafede that he has been transported to the moon. The opera runs November 5-8 conducted by Miah Im and directed by Michael Patrick Albano and Erik Thor. Also in November, Opera By Request, a company whose singers choose the repertory themselves, offers concert performances of Ponchielli’s once popular La Gioconda (1876) featuring Caroline Johnston in the title role with Melanie Hartshorn-Walton, Karen Bojti, Peter Whalen and Melchiorre Nicosia.

December begins with a new work commissioned by Toronto Masque Theatre, The Mummer’s Masque, written by composer/librettist Dean
Burry in celebration of the Newfoundland mummer tradition. The singers will include Laura Albino, Krisztina Szabó, John Kriter, Giles Tomkins and a children’s choir. The production runs December 3-6.

18LepageFebruary 17-21, Toronto Operetta Theatre revives its popular production of Canada’s own operetta, Leo, the Royal Cadet (1889) by Oscar Telgmann. The tuneful tale follows the lives of cadets at the Royal Military College in Kingston, their departure for the Zulu Wars in South Africa and their return home.

In March, the Royal Conservatory of Music will give Toronto audiences a rare chance to see Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon (1899) sung by members of the Glenn Gould School and accompanied by the Royal Conservatory Orchestra under the baton of Mario Bernardi. Performances run March 20-25. March will also brings us a world premiere from Queen of Puddings Music Theatre: Beauty Dissolves in a Brief Hour – A Triptych. The work comprises three chamber operas sung in three languages (Mandarin, English and French) commissioned from three different Canadian composers – Fuhong Shi, John Rea and Pierre Klanac – and scored for two sopranos and virtuoso accordion player Joseph Petric.

April begins with another world premiere, Giiwedin, by Catherine Magowan and Algonquin poet Spy Dénommé-Welch. This, the most ambitious project in the history of Native Earth Performing Arts, is written in Anishnawbe Mowin, French and English and tells the story of a 150-year old Aboriginal woman fighting for her land. It runs April 9-24.

May 1-30 the COC presents its first-ever production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda (1835), written the same year as his Lucia di Lammermoor. It stars Serena Farnocchia, Alexandrina Pendatchanska, Eric Cutler and Patrick Carfizzi, and is conducted by Antony Walker with direction by Stephen Lawless.

The season ends with the North American premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna, as part of Luminato, running June 5-14. The opera was originally commissioned by the Met, but when Wainwright insisted that the libretto be in French, Met Artistic Director Peter Gelb abandoned the project. Thereupon it was swiftly picked up by Luminato along with the Melbourne International Arts Festival and the Manchester International Festival, where it had its world premiere in July this year. Also in June, Tapestry New Opera Works will present the world premiere of the staged “operatic oratorio” Dark Star by Andrew Staniland, a requiem about AIDS. Wayne Strongman conducts and Tom Diamond directs. This season, also look for Tryptych’s world premiere of Andrew Ager’s Frankenstein. Stay tuned for further developments!

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