p10There are two important opera stories this month: one surrounded by a plethora of media attention, and one that should be better known. The first is the North American premiere of Prima Donna by Rufus Wainwright, at Toronto’s Luminato Festival. The second is Handel’s Giulio Cesare, marking the first time Orchestra London will stage its own opera production.

It is safe to say that no opera by a Canadian composer has ever received as much international media coverage as Prima Donna, the centrepiece of this year’s Luminato Festival. The principal reason is that its composer, Rufus Wainwright, is at age 36 already famous as a singer/songwriter. The son of folk-singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III and brother of singer Martha Wainwright, he was born into a musical family and began touring with them at age 13. In 1998 his self-titled first album won him the accolade “Best New Artist of the Year” from Rolling Stone.

In 2006, Peter Gelb, the new general manger of the Metropolitan Opera, commissioned new operas from nine composers in an effort to revitalize the Met and to draw in younger audiences. Of these nine, who included Jake Heggie (Dead Man Walking), Adam Guettel (The Light in the Piazza) and Wynton Marsalis, Wainwright had made the most progress by mid 2007. But there was a problem: Wainwright’s libretto, written by Bernadette Colomine and himself, was in French. Gelb claimed that presenting a new opera not in English was “an immediate impediment.” Wainwright, however, insisted that French was part of the texture of the work.

Once the two parted company, many festivals vied to produce it. It premiered at the Manchester International Festival on July 10, 2009, with a subsequent performances in London in April 2010. Wainwright insisted that Luminato should present the North American premiere.

The opera is set in Paris on July 14, 1970, and follows a day in the life of aging diva Régine Saint Laurent. She is planning her comeback but happens to fall in love with the journalist interviewing her. Wainwright, who has long been a fan of opera and whose songs are sometimes classified as “operatic pop,” has written an homage to traditional opera. Thus, audiences need not worry that this new work will also be avant garde. In Luminato’s new production, directed by Tim Albery, Janis Kelly reprises the title role with a cast that includes local favourites Gregory Dahl as the butler and Colin Ainsworth as the journalist. Robert Houssart conducts the 57-member orchestra. The opera will be performed at the Elgin Theatre on June 14, 16, 18 and 19. For more information see www.luminato.com.

cesaroniAt the start of the month, Orchestra London takes a bold new step by becoming a producer of opera. For the past five years the orchestra under maestro Timothy Vernon has presented one opera each June at the Grand Theatre. All of these have been transfers of productions from Pacific Opera Victoria where Vernon is the artistic director. The orchestra’s first production as “Opera London” is Handel’s Giulio Cesare, directed by American Timothy Nelson, who at age 30 has already received much acclaim for his productions.

Nelson is unusual as opera directors go because he is also a musician and conductor. In 2003 he founded American Opera Theatre at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, to explore his interests in movement, music, design and opera as theatre. In 2008 he was the director and conductor of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas (1688) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and last year, among many other credits, he was the director and conductor of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and John Blow’s Venus and Adonis in Virginia and the director of Philip Glass’s Hydrogen Jukebox, staged as part of Obama’s inaugural celebrations. Currently he is the artistic director of the Canadian Operatic Arts Academy at the University of Western Ontario.

Known for his up-to-date takes on the classics, Nelson plans to relocate the action in Giulio Cesare from Egypt to a present-day war-torn country suggesting Afghanistan. For a highly detailed look at Nelson’s thoughts behind this concept, have a look at his blog (blog.operalondon.ca), which includes video lectures and stage designs. The cast will feature the well-known countertenor Drew Minter in the title role with Lucia Cesaroni as Cleopatra, Roseanne van Sandwijk as Sesto and Ian Howell as Tolomeo.
Beside the excitement that this project will bring to London, this is a rare opportunity to see Handel’s opera fully-staged in a house of only 839 seats. Performances are June 3 and 5 at 7:30 and June 6 at 2pm. For more information visit www.uwo.ca/music/operalondon.

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

p16aThis year May is the new April. In the past, in Southern Ontario, April has seen the most operatic activity of any month of the year – but this year, May seems to have taken over that position. This month there are works from the 17th century to the 21st, most fully staged but some in concert format.

Dominating the schedule are three works staged by the Canadian Opera Company. The COC’s revival of its 1996 production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman opened on April 24 but continues until May 20. Evgeny Nikitin sings the title role, while Julie Makarov is Senta and Mats Almgren is Daland. The original director, Christopher Alden, directs, and COC music director Johannes Debus conducts his first Wagner opera for the company.

From May 1 to 30 the COC presents its first-ever Maria Stuarda, the 1835 opera by Gaetano Donizetti that premiered only three months after his Lucia di Lammermoor. Serena Farnocchia sings the title role with Alexandrina Pendatchanska as Elisabetta. Stephen Lawless directs the 2007 Dallas Opera production and Antony Walker conducts.

The COC concludes its 2009-10 season with its first production of Mozart’s Idomeneo since 2001. Toronto was treated to an outstanding Idomeneo from Opera Atelier in 2008, so it will be interesting to see how this 2007 production from l’Opéra du Rhin, directed by François de Carpentries, compares. Paul Groves sings the title role, with Krisztina Szabó as Idamante, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Ilia and Tamara Wilson as Elettra, so memorably sung for OA by Measha Brueggergosman. The opera runs from May 9 to 29 and is conducted by early music expert Harry Bicket.

Three more fully staged works come from smaller companies. Toronto Masque Theatre presents “A Molière Celebration.” In addition to purely spoken comedies, Molière also wrote so-called “comédie-ballets” that included interludes of song and dance often omitted in modern revivals. TMT will present the interludes written by Jean-Baptiste Lully for Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1670 and those written by Lully’s rival Marc-Antoine Charpentier for Le Malade imaginaire in 1673. Soloists will include sopranos Shannon Mercer and Dorothea Ventura, countertenor Richard Whittall, tenor Cory Knight and baritone David Roth. Performances take place at the Al Green Theatre in the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre from May 12 to 15, directed by Derek Boyes and conducted by Larry Beckwith. Visit www.torontomasquetheatre.com for details.

p16bMay will see the world premiere of Dean Burry’s The Secret World of Og, adapted from the beloved 1961 children’s book by Pierre Berton. The work is a commission by the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus, and all 200 members of the CCOC will be on stage. As many will know, the story concerns four children who descend through a trapdoor into an underground world of mushrooms whose green inhabitants can only utter the word “Og.” CCOC artistic director Ann Cooper Gay will conduct and Joe Ivany will direct. The opera runs from May 5 to 9. For more information visit
www.canadianchildrensopera.com.

p17Later in the month, from May 26 to 30, Urbanvessel revives its popular but highly unusual opera Stitch at the Theatre Centre. The 45-minute opera, subject of an “On Opera” interview with composer Juliet Palmer and librettist Anna Chatterton in March 2008, is written for three female voices accompanied only by the sound of sewing machines and concerns the mechanization of women’s work and its political ramifications. As in 2008, Christine Duncan, Patricia O’Callaghan and Neema Bickersteth will perform under the direction of Ruth Madoc-Jones. For more information visit
www.urbanvessel.com.

Two concert performances from Opera By Request fill out the month – Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail on May 7 and Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freischütz on May 15. Both take place at the College Street United Church, 452 College St. See www.operaby-request.ca for details.

Finally, on May 1 and 2 Toronto Operetta Theatre is holding “A Gilbert and Sullivan Extravaganza,” a gala concert of G&S highlights including high tea. All the funds raised will go to assist TOT’s 2010-11 season. TOT patrons will know that the company was forced to cancel its production of The Pirates of Penzance last month for financial reasons. One consequence of the economic downturn in the arts has been the loss of donors and sponsors. TOT was hit particularly hard when a major sponsor pulled out just before the current season began. The company had to raise emergency funds simply to stage its second show, Canada’s own operetta, Leo, the Royal Cadet, a work that TOT’s efforts had rescued from undeserved obscurity. As Canada’s only professional operetta company, as one of the few in the world that strives to present works from all the national traditions, and as a company that from the beginning has showcased Canadian singers, TOT is a gem that must be preserved. Potential sponsors and donors please take note. Visit www.torontooperetta.com for more information.

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

marion_portrait2005_3Over the years April has become the most opera-heavy month of the year. Joining a full slate of old favourites from well-known companies (I’ll say more about these later) is a world premiere from an exciting young company.

Indie(n) Rights Reserve presents Giiwedin (“The North Wind”), in co-production with the Native Earth Performing Arts Centre. The opera, written in the Anishnaabemowin, French and English languages, tells the story of Noodin-Kwe and her struggle to protect her ancestral land in Northeastern Ontario. It runs at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace April 8-24.

Librettist and co-composer Spy Dénommé-Welch and co-composer Catherine Magowan respeonded to questions I asked them, providing much insight into the opera and its background.

Read more: Giiwedin- Operatic Winds of Change

This March, two opera companies celebrate anniversaries: Opera By Request celebrates its third, and Tapestry New Opera Works its 30th. Tapestry was part of the boom in opera in the 1980s that also saw the birth of Opera Hamilton and Opera Atelier. The more recent rise of Opera by Request (OBR) shows that the audience for opera in Toronto is still increasing.

page 11_ Tamara Hummel in Rosa_Opera to go 2004_photo michael cooperOBR Artistic Director William Shookhoff shared the company’s impressive statistics: “By June 2010 when we will break for the summer, OBR will, in its short history, have performed 32 different operas in a total of 45 performances. I haven’t totalled up the number of singers, but let us conservatively estimate 150. We have also enjoyed the co-operative services of four area choirs, who have enhanced a number of performances. Can anyone else come close?”

If we emphasize that these have all been full-length or one-act operas, the answer is “No.” This month OBR will present Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera on March 5, Handel’s Giulio Cesare on March 12 and Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame on March 19. All operas are presented in concert with Shookhoff at the piano.

OBR presented its first performance on March 3, 2007. The idea came when two singers whom Shookhoff had accompanied in a recital of opera excerpts from La Traviata mentioned that they wished they could perform the entire opera. Shookhoff, a noted vocal coach, had always maintained that “singers study roles all the time but they never really learn them properly unless they perform them fully with the other cast members.”

What make OBR unusual is that all its repertoire is chosen by the singers themselves. All the box office returns go to the singers. Two or more singers will come forward with a proposal for an opera and will then seek out other singers to fill the remaining roles. What has developed is a form of co-operative, which Shookhoff likes, “because the people are there supporting one another; they’re not doing it for me.” In some cases, though, when a singer is new to Toronto or to the country and has few connections, Shookhoff will step in to take a more active part in the casting – but otherwise Shookhoff views himself primarily as a facilitator.

The concept has been so successful that Shookhoff now has to restrict how many OBR shows there will be in a given year. In future he foresees creating a network of music directors who can take on a greater number of operas. While the majority of singers are recent graduates of opera programmes around the country, there are also veteran singers who have desire to perform certain roles. The singers benefit simply by being heard – which in some cases has led to contracts – and by adding roles to their repertoire, which makes them more attractive as understudies or short-notice replacements. As Shookhoff notes, “Good luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” For more information about OBR visit www.operabyrequest.ca.

Meanwhile, Tapestry New Opera Works is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a special edition of its popular Opera to Go series. All five short works will be remounts from past seasons. The programme consists of The Laurels (2002) by Jeffrey Ryan to a libretto by Michael Lewis MacLennan; The Colony (2008) by Kevin Morse to a libretto by Lisa Codrington; Ashlike on the Cradle of the Wind (2006) by Andrew Staniland to a libretto by Jill Battison; Rosa (2004) by James Rolfe to a libretto by Camyar Chai; and Ice Time by Chan Ka Nin to a libretto by Mark Brownell. As usual, all five will be directed by Tom Diamond, with artistic director Wayne Strongman at the podium. The quartet of singers are Tapestry favourites: soprano Xin Wang, mezzo Krisztina Szabó, tenor Keith Klassen and baritone Peter McGillivray. The performances take place March 24-26 in the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District. For more information visit www.tapestrynewopera.com.

According to Strongman, many considerations went into choosing which works to include. First was the desire to reflect both the range of styles of opera, and the history of the series (which has led to similar programmes in Scotland and South Africa). Second was to provide showcases for the Opera to Go ensemble. Strongman is still glowing from having been named to the Order of Canada last December, cited for “his innovative contributions as the founding artistic director of Tapestry New Opera Works; as the long-time volunteer choral director for the Regent Park School of Music; and as a champion of Canadian composers.” Congratulations for such a well-deserved honour!

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

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.


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