March sees performances of two rarities – both influenced by the Nationalist movement in music in the 19th century.  On March 9, 11, 12 and 13, Toronto Operetta Theatre presents a fully staged version of the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda (1932) by Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982) and on March 27 Opera in Concert presents a concert version of Antonín Dvořák’s comic opera The Devil and Kate (1899). Both works are regularly staged in their homelands – Spain and the Czech Republic, respectively – but are largely unknown outside of them. To discover more about the two works I spoke with Guillermo Silva-Marin, artistic director of both opera companies.

Luisa Fernanda is one of the most popular of all zarzuelas and will be the fourth zarzuela TOT has presented following Tomás Bretón’s La Verbena de la paloma in 1999, Gonzalo Roig’s Cecilia Valdés in 2003 and Francisco Asenjo Barbieri’s El Barberillo de Lavapiés in 2005. This makes TOT the only operetta company in the world, as far as can be determined, to include Spanish repertoire on a regular basis along with works from Europe and America. Ohio Light Opera, North America’s largest operetta festival, presented zarzuela once in 1999, but never since, and the Festival Internazionale dell’Operetta in Trieste has so far never included Spanish works.

Silva-Marin’s inclusion of zarzuela is a conscious effort to diversify the TOT’s offerings both because of the inherent value of the works and because the Hispanic community, as he notes, “is hardly ever represented in the cultural tapestry of this city.” Unlike Viennese or Parisian operetta, zarzuela has largely remained unknown outside of Spain, first because of the misconception that the works were “too typically Spanish” to travel and second for the practical reason that Spain was politically isolated in the central part of the 20th century when interest in opera was expanding.

It is true, though, that zarzuela is not quite like operetta. In fact, it presents an art form that neatly complements its European counterparts. As Silva-Marin explains, “Zarzuela is, unlike operetta, a little bit more overt as to how it is critical of social, moral and political issues and portrays those not so much in a fun way but in a critical way. Gilbert and Sullivan poke fun at those in power but the tone is light. In zarzuela it is more serious. A great number of zarzuelas are daringly critical of the government, the aristocracy or of whatever social issues they’re trying to present. That gives zarzuela more of an operatic tone. In Luisa Fernanda in particular the influence of Puccini and verismo is much stronger than in other zarzuelas of the period.” While the whole movement of zarzuela was to create a nationalist school of opera, Spanish composers were fully aware of the artistic movements of their time. Silva-Marin says, “You get this mixture which is fascinating in that it is undeniably Spanish but is pushing ahead under the influence of musical movements from abroad.”

Luisa Fernanda is set in Madrid in 1868 during the revolutionary republican movement that threatened the regime of Queen Isabel II.  A typical love triangle takes on political implications when the tenor lead Javier, a colonel, finds himself torn between his fiancée Luisa Fernanda, daughter of a court clerk and the Duchess Carolina.Luisa’s friends counsel her to forget Javier because of his dangerous revolutionary ideas and to accept the attentions of the wealthy landowner Vidal, who has come to Madrid to find a wife.

Mexican tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez will sing Javier, a role popularized on disc by Plácido Domingo and José Carreras. Michèle Bogdanowicz will sing Luisa, Miriam Khalil the Countess and Silva-Marin himself will sing Vidal. The zarzuela will be sung in Spanish with dialogue in English but for the first time the TOT will use surtitles for the musical numbers.

25_silva_marinShifting geography, Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate, like Luisa Fernanda, is a work that has never been off the boards in its home country since its premiere. Though it may seem heresy to say so, The Devil and Kate is generally considered even more popular in the Czech Republic and in Slovakia than than Dvořák’s best-known opera Rusalka (1901). Besides its robust humour, one of the work’s greatest attractions is its abundance of folk dances. Ever since Opera in Concert’s presentation of Rusalka in 1998, Silva-Marin became curious about Dvořák’s other eight published operas. As it happened he came across a DVD of the Wexford Festival’s 1988 production of the opera sung in English. Based on a Bohemian fairy tale, Kate wants to dance so much that she declares she’d dance with the devil himself. What do you know but a mysterious stranger named Marbuel suddenly appears, dances with Kate and disappears with her underground. Fortunately, Kate has a friend Jirka, who vows to rescue her. Marion Newman sings Kate, Giles Tomkins will be the devil’s servant Marbuel. OiC will use the same clever translation by Ian Gledhill used at Wexford.  For more information about TOT visit and for OiC go to Without the efforts of Guillermo Silva-Marin, Toronto’s opera scene would lose the diversity that makes it so rich.

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

Dominating the Toronto opera scene in February are two new productions by the Canadian Opera Company. On January 29 the company unveils its new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Incredibly, for such an audience favourite, it has had no mainstage production since 1993, although the COC Ensemble Studio did stage its own production at the MacMillan Theatre in 2006. Then on February 5 the company presents its first-ever staging of John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China. This is the first American work the COC has produced since the 1953 Wright and Forrest operetta Kismet in 1987. Some would say it’s about time we caught up with the operatic achievements of our neighbour to the south.

p14_15the_queen_of_the_night_sketch_-_photo_credit_myung_hee_choToronto has not been starved for Magic Flutes, it must be said, largely because of the rise of Opera Atelier. In 1991 OA unveiled its first production of the work followed by revivals in 2001 and 2006. The sets by Gerard Gauci, costumes by Dora Rust-D’Eye and direction of Marshall Pynkoski captured the sense of innocence and fun that make the work so appealing. In creating a new production the COC will find it is competing with one that Toronto audiences already cherish.

Diane Paulus, Artistic Director of the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard University, will helm the COC’s new staging. She is perhaps best known for having directed the 2009 Broadway revival of Hair, which won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. Those fearful that she will transpose Mozart’s opera to New York’s youth culture in the 1960s need only glance through the set and costume designs by Myung Hee Cho on display on the COC website to assuage their anxiety. The designs reflect the opera’s pseudo-Asian setting and emphasize masks – a move quite suitable for a story where people are not quite what they seem.

With a run of twelve performances, the COC will use alternates in the principal roles. The opening night cast features Michael Schade as Tamino, Isabel Bayrakdarian as Pamina, Rodion Pogossov as Papageno, Mikhail Petrenko as Sarastro and Aline Kutan as the Queen of the Night. Schade and Bayrakdarian sing on January 29 and February 1, 3, 6, 8, 12, 16 and 18. Frédéric Antoun and Simone Osborne sing the parts on February 10, 20, 23 and 25. If Antoun’s name seems familiar, it may be because audiences remember the Québécois tenor as the charismatic Belmonte in Opera Atelier’s Abduction from the Seraglio in 2008. At a special performance on February 17, members of the COC Ensemble Studio take over as soloists with all tickets at $20 to $55. At all performances Johannes Debus conducts the full COC Orchestra and Chorus. For more information visit

Alternating with The Magic Flute is John Adams’ Nixon in China on February 5, 9, 11, 13, 19, 22, 24 and 26. The COC will be presenting the acclaimed production that premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2004, the first major U.S. production after the work’s world premiere at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987. It was this production of the opera that received its Canadian premiere on March 13, 2010, as part of the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad.

The opera, with a libretto by poet Alice Goodman in rhyming couplets based on news accounts and memoirs of the people involved, follows Richard Nixon’s historic five-day visit to the People’s Republic of China from February 21 to 28 in 1972. This was the first-ever visit by a sitting U.S. president to China and the first formal contact between the two countries in over twenty years. The purpose of the ardently anti-communist Nixon was a move to establish ties to counter what was deemed the threat of the Soviet Union. The opera intertwines grand public spectacle with moments of quiet reflection and, in the tradition of grand opera, even includes a ballet.

Baritone Robert Orth will sing Richard Nixon with lyric soprano Maria Kanyova as Pat Nixon, tenor Adrian Thompson as Mao Tse-Tung, coloratura soprano Marisol Montalvo as Madame Mao, bass Thomas Hammons as Henry Kissinger and baritone Chen-Ye Yuan as Chou En-lai. Pablo Heras-Casado conducts and James Robinson, who directed the 2004 production, will direct.

Adams has written, “Both Nixon and Mao were adept manipulators of public opinion, and the second scene of Act I, the famous meeting between Mao and Nixon, brings these two complex figures together face to face in a dialogue that oscillates between philosophical sparring and political one-upsmanship. Of particular meaning to me were the roles of the two principal women, Pat and Chiang Ch’ing. Both wives of politicians, they represented the ying and the yang of the two alternatives to living with someone immersed in power and political manipulation.” Those unfamiliar with Adams‘ music need only seek out the orchestra piece he extracted from the opera, “The Chairman Dances,” to recognize the appeal of Adams’ music in its use of chugging rhythms, soaring melodies and allusions to popular music, in this case the foxtrot. At long last, COC audiences will see that American opera has evolved quite a way from confections like Kismet.

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

For the last month of 2010 and the first of 2011, the most interesting works of music theatre in Toronto are not operas but musicals. If you think I mean the jukebox musicals currently playing on King Street, think again. Fortunately for the reputation of the American musical, there are still composers who choose to engage with serious themes and choose the musical as the most appropriate form of expression for their ideas. Unfortunately, the difficulty of their work does not suit the current frivolous conception of musical-as-event or musical-as-party. Both musicals in question, Parade and Assassins, have thus achieved a succès d’estime rather than wide popularity. Their less than positive depiction of life in the United States requires an audience that is not only serious-minded but open-minded.

First up is Parade, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Alfred Uhry. It opened in 1998 and closed after 84 performances. Nevertheless, it won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Musical Score and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. The musical’s downbeat historical subject is the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering a 13-year-old employee. When, after reviewing the testimony, the Governor of Georgia commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment, Frank was transferred to a small-town prison where a lynching party kidnapped him and took him to his supposed victim’s hometown where they hanged him. The parade of the title is the annual parade for Confederate Memorial Day, a holiday still observed today in eight states.

Two theatre groups will join forces to produce the Canadian premiere of the musical: Acting Up Stage, responsible for Adam Guettel’s musical Light in the Piazza earlier this year, and Studio 180, the company behind such political plays as Stuff Happens and The Laramie Project. Michael Therriault will sing the role of Leo Frank, a role created by Brent Carver on Broadway, and Tracy Michailidis will play his wife Lucille. The cast is filled with members best-known from the Shaw Festival: Neil Barclay, Jeff Irving, Gabrielle Jones, George Masswohl, Mark McGrinder, Jay Turvey and Mark Uhre. The score, filled with references to popular music of the period, is conducted by Shaw Festival music director Paul Sportelli and directed by Studio 180 artistic director Joel Greenberg. Previews begin December 30, 2010, and the show opens January 3 2011, running to January 22 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. For more information phone 416-368-3110 or visit

p20Later in January comes a musical on an equally inflammatory topic: Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by John Weidman. The musical opened Off Broadway in 1990 and ran for only 73 performances. Another of Sondheim’s musicals structured by theme rather than plot, Assassins uses the stories of nine people who assassinated or tried to assassinate a US president to examine the perverse underside of the American Dream. Killing the most powerful person in the world gives the deluded characters access to instant fame.

The action is set within two frames. The first is the setting itself, a seedy carnival shooting gallery, where the insidious Proprietor invites fairgoers to step up and shoot a president. Within this frame is a narrative frame provided by the Balladeer, who, as in Brecht and Weill’s Threepenny Opera, provides the backgrounds of the eight sorry figures under examination. That the Balladeer also plays the ninth assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, is a further ploy to prevent identification of the actor with his role. Besides this, the production’s director Adam Brazier has the actors play instruments, inspired no doubt by John Doyle’s famous Sweeney Todd, thus forcing us to view the performances as performances.

Two innovative theatre companies combined forces to produce Assassins last year: Talk Is Free Theatre of Barrie and BirdLand Theatre of Toronto. The show received the 2010 Dora Award for Outstanding Production of a Musical which has led to this revival. The cast combines stars from both Stratford and Shaw: Graham Abbey, Lisa Horner, Trish Lindström and Steve Ross, among others. Reza Jacobs, assistant music director at the Shaw Festival, conducts the score that makes witty use of popular musical styles ranging from the 1860s of John Wilkes Booth to the 1980s of John Hinckley Jr . Performances take place January 8 to 23 at the Theatre Centre, 1087 Queen Street West. For more information phone 416-504-7529 or visit

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

Major productions from the Canadian Opera Company and Opera Atelier continue into November. But there are also numerous productions from the smaller companies that give the Toronto opera scene so much diversity and vibrancy.

Opera by Request will present a concert revival of Genoveva (1850), Robert Schumann’s only opera. Schumann, most famous today for his piano music, four symphonies, and his amazing output of Lieder, always nourished the dream of a “German opera.” Genoveva is based on a medieval legend concerning Genevieve of Brabant. It tells of Genoveva, the chaste wife of Siegfried of Trier, falsely accused of adultery by his servant Golo in revenge for rejecting his advances. Siegfried eventually discovers Golo’s deception and restores his wife’s honour. Richard Wagner told Schumann the libretto was undramatic, and the negative criticism of the work at its premiere discouraged Schumann from ever writing another opera.

Nevertheless, various recent revivals have often been enthusiastically received. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt stated, “Genoveva is a work of art for which one should be prepared to go to the barricades,” and the DVD he recorded at the Zurich Opera House in 2008 has brought many over to the cause.

The Opera by Request presentation will feature artistic director William Shookhoff at the piano accompanying Doug MacNaughton as Siegfried, Lenard Whiting as Golo and Mila Iankova as Genoveva. This will be only the second time the work has been performed in Canada, the first presented by Opera in Concert, where Whiting and MacNaughton also sang their respective roles.

p21Asked why the work has remained a rarity, Shookhoff admits that it could be “dramatically stronger,” but says, “Perhaps because the initial productions were beset with problems, and because Schumann had no reputation as an opera composer, it was easy for the work to be ignored.” MacNaughton adds that “Schumann didn’t have the time nor the energy to be a relentless self promoter like Richard Wagner.” Both are convinced of the work’s importance. MacNaughton calls it “the missing link between Weber and Wagner.” Shookhoff notes that “The piece is musically very powerful, and Schumann’s unique orchestrations, often unfairly maligned, carry the day. It is a perfect quartet opera, where each of the four principals is given arias of exquisite beauty (Schumann’s gift as a composer of song comes through), as well as well-constructed ensembles that reach powerful climaxes. The choral writing is on a par with Schumann’s best choral works.”

Take this rare opportunity to judge for yourself and attend the November 17 performance at University of Toronto, Scarborough Campus or the November 20 performance at Trinity Presbyterian York Mills, 2737 Bayview Avenue, at Highway 401. For more information visit

Moving to the present, Urbanvessel follows its acclaimed sewing-machine opera Stitch, with the world premiere of Voice-Box. The piece was inspired by the unusual combination of talents of mezzo-soprano Vilma Vitols, known from her appearances with Opera Atelier, but who is also an accomplished boxer. Composer Juliet Palmer says, “The result is a kind of fight night where the voice and body are both challenged. The audience gets a great sense of the power of women and the power of the singing voice.” Librettist Anna Chatterton adds, “We were also inspired by the history of female boxing. Up until 1991 women were not allowed to box until the lawyer Jenny Reid who had been training as a boxer took it to court and won the right for women to legally fight in the ring.” Women boxers last fought in the Olympics in 1922 and will finally do so again in 2012.

Asked about the structure of the work, Chatterton explains, “Voice-Box is similar to Stitch in that it is variations on the theme of female boxers rather than a linear story. This time round dance plays a larger role in the piece as choreographer Julia Aplin was on board from the beginning as a creator. We are looking at all the aspects of being a female boxer – the experience of being in the ring, fighting, training, getting ready to fight, female aggression, the choice to punch and to get punched, society’s assumptions when they see a woman with a black eye, and the history of female boxing. The opera is structured in a series of six bouts, with a fight of sorts in each bout.”

Palmer says, “The music took me to some strange new places. The electronic music is inspired by the clichés of sports themes as well as the totally captivating and visceral sounds of the boxing gym (the sounds of bells, punching bags, squeaking ropes and the hisses and grunts of a good fight). The vocal performances range from operatic combat to throat singing with a tango along the way. I needed to be able to show both the strength and vulnerability of these four incredible women.” The four performers are Vitols herself, Neema Bickersteth, Savoy Howe and Christine Duncan. Performances runs from November 10 to 14 at the Brigantine Room in the York Quay Centre, 235 Queen’s Quay West. For tickets phone 416-973-400 or visit


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

The 2010/11 season marks the beginning of a new era in the history of the Canadian Opera Company: the first season entirely planned by general manager Alexander Neef. Opera productions are scheduled so far ahead that, up till now, Neef had still been completing the plans created by his predecessor, the late Richard Bradshaw. In planning the current season, Neef seems to have looked very carefully over the company’s history to discover which operas were ripe for COC premieres and which were ready for revivals and new productions.

The season opens on October 2 with a new production of Verdi’s Aida. Incredible as it may seem, the COC has not staged this staple of the operatic repertoire since 1986! The fact that the opera premiered in Cairo in 1871 has caused various myths to accrue to it. It’s true that the opera was commissioned by Ismail Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, when Egypt was still part of the Ottoman Empire. It is not true, however, that it was written to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal (which occurred two years earlier) or to open the Khedivial Opera House (which opened with Verdi’s Rigoletto earlier in 1871), the first opera house on the African continent.

Another myth is that you haven’t seen a “real” Aida unless you’ve seen the Triumphal March of Act 2 with live elephants. It is true that twelve elephants were part of the opera’s world premiere, but except for times when the work is staged as spectacle rather than opera (as in Shanghai in 2000), the only venue that regularly featured elephants in this scene was the outdoor Arena di Verona, seating 30,000. Yet even there, Franco Zeffirelli’s new production in 2002 replaced them with dancers.

p13The obsession with elephants and Aida in the popular imagination points to the central difficulty in staging the opera. Despite all the notions of spectacle the opera is in fact an intimate work about the complications of love and power involving only four characters. This is the aspect that director Tim Albery will emphasize. According to the COC, “In approaching Aida, Albery has taken note of how many private, intimate scenes are placed in the context of a society of great power, wealth, expansiveness and nationalism, and has considered how these characteristics are reflected in the societies of our own times. He has set the opera in a luxurious and ostentatious palace in an unspecified war-torn country. The lavish opulence of the surroundings will stand in contrast to the fundamental intimacy of many of the opera’s most important scenes.”

There will be 12 performances from October 2 to November 5. The first six will be sung by Sondra Radvanovsky, an American who lives just outside Toronto and is considered by many as the pre-eminent Verdi soprano of her generation. The second six will be sung by Michele Capalbo, a Canadian now resident in New York and recently hailed by Opera News as “a world-class Aida.” Australian-born tenor Rosario La Spina will sing Radames with American mezzo Jill Grove as Amneris, American Scott Hendricks as Amonasro, and Canadians Phillip Ens and Alain Coulombe as Ramfis and the King of Egypt, respectively.

The second offering of the season is Benjamin Britten’s final opera, Death in Venice (1973), last staged by the COC in 1984.
p14aRichard Bradshaw used to refer to the Britten operas he presented as part of the COC’s “Britten series,” and it’s heartening to see that Neef is continuing that notion. Let’s hope this is not the end of it. We’ve never had Owen Wingrave (1970) – and is it too much to hope for Gloriana (1953)?

The COC staging is a co-production with the Aldeburgh Festival and three other opera companies, and its unveiling at Aldeburgh was greeted with rave reviews. As at Aldeburgh, Japanese director Yoshi Oida will helm the production. British tenor Alan Oke, who won great acclaim as Gustav von Aschenbach, the central character, will reprise the role here. And to top it all off, Britten expert Steuart Bedford, who conducted the original production in 1973 at age 34, will conduct. British baritone Peter Savidge will sing The Traveller, a man Aschenbach encounters in many different guises in Venice, and British counter-tenor William Tower will sing Apollo. Canadian Adam Sergison will play Tadzio, the boy who becomes the symbol of youth and creativity that Aschenbach feels he has lost. To increase the sense of difference and unattainability, Britten envisioned Tadzio as a non-singing dancer. The opera runs from October 16 to November 6, 2010. For tickets or more information for both Aida and Death in Venice, see


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

Back to top