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:

As September looms menacingly on the horizon, all nature aligns to reinforce the sobering message that summer 2010 is gone forever. More than a few trees have sprouted red and yellow leaves, the punishing heat of the Toronto summer appears to be giving way to the air of fall, and – what is that strange humming sound in the air, especially on Thursday evenings?

Choirs or all sizes and configurations are beginning their vocal warmups. Major and minor chords buzz and resonate like eager cicadas at dusk. That strange, plaintive wail like the howl of a mournful coyote in the night? A choir director pleading in vain with singers to bring their pencils, put their music in order and pay their choir dues on time.

Choral singers, of course, are generally dormant in the summer. There is an odd and unsubstantiated rumour that they actually work for a living and go on the occasional vacation, but this is surely nothing more than idle conjecture.

If they are active at all, it is only as regards to the coming season of concerts, and each choir section has its own set of preparatory habits and customs. Sopranos check to make sure that their new season’s wardrobe is appropriate to both the year’s repertoire and to their central importance to the choir. Altos beam with pride on the new pair of sensible shoes they have invested in, knowing that the moment the conductor asks them to stand they will be able to do so in complete comfort – unlike those glory-hogs, the sopranos. The tenors busily practice their “scales” – in fact a series of spectacular high notes that bear the same relation to scales as chocolate icing to rye bread, smiling with satisfaction as the neighbours bang on the wall at a particularly resonant high C. The basses, getting ready for another comfortable season of snoozing in the back row, select their mystery novels, magazines and ergonomic pillows with care.

As these worthy folk assemble to grace us with another season’s concerts, let’s survey the vocal fun that awaits us in the year ahead. The Toronto Chamber Choir has a well-rounded season that includes a concert of English music from the renaissance era to modern times (October 24), a concert of the music of the great renaissance composer Josquin de Prez (April 2), and that finally delves into Bach’s fascination with numerology (May 15).

Tafelmusik Orchestra and Chamber Choir will be performing Handel’s Dixit Dominus (November 11-14), Bach’s B Minor Mass (February 9-13) and, interestingly, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – this group’s first foray into what has been traditionally the territory of larger choirs and modern instrument orchestras (April 7-10). John Tuttle’s Exultate Chamber singers have an ambitious season that includes Duruflé’s Requiem, one of Bach’s Lutheran masses, and Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil, often known as the Vespers (

An admirable four out of five concerts by the Elmer Iseler Singers feature music by Canadian composers, notably an a-cappella programme of mass settings by Healey Willan, Ruth Watson Henderson and Eleanor Daley, as well as Palestrina (October 24). EIS conductor Lydia Adams pursues this Canadian theme with the Amadeus Choir as well, as they perform Our Home and Native Land: Songs and Stories of Canada (May 14).

Soundstreams Canada celebrates ten years of hosting epic gatherings of choirs, combining 180 voices to perform various works by Arvo Pärt, and a newly commissioned piece by the venerable R. Murray Schafer (November 7). Kitcher’s Da Capo Chamber Choir is undertaking a number of concerts featuring new music, as well (

The Toronto Mendelssohn Choir takes part in the TSO’s performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (September 25), and follows this with Bach’s St John Passion (March 3) and Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor (May 11). Toronto’s Nathaniel Dett Chorale performs “Voices of the Diaspora – Haitian Voices” (February 23 and 26).

Barrie’s Lyrica Chamber Choir looks at some rarer repertoire in the excellent choral works of Montreal Composer Donald Patriquin (December 11), 19th-century German composer Josef Rheinberger (March 26), and an American themed mixed programme (May 28).

P22As a concert reviewer, the phrase “choral pot-pourri” tends to make my heart sink. But as a singer and concert-goer I know that these can be some of the most interesting concerts in any given season. It’s in concerts of smaller works that the interesting nooks and crannies of choral repertoire are fully explored. Smaller scale works – often written originally for liturgical contexts and not necessarily intended for concert performance – comprise a central part of the choral repertoire, and a concert of smaller works by one composer, or varied works with a similar theme, can be among the most interesting concerts of a season.

Several concerts in this vein are being given this season by Toronto’s Bell ‘Arte Singers (, and the Burlington Civic Chorale ( The Cantabile Choirs of Kingston have gone an audacious step further than a single themed concert, and have programmed an entire season of concerts on the theme of “Voyages.” This set of programmes looks particularly intriguing (

The multitudinous Messiah concerts that await us in December need no advertising at this time. One interesting point worth mentioning: recent scholarship has ascertained that the beloved “Hallelujah” chorus was in fact written by lesser-known Handel contemporary Nicola Porpora. Accordingly, no performance of Messiah this year will include that section of the work. (Just kidding!)

The Common Thread Community chorus of Toronto showcases Latin-American music (September 8), Robert Cooper’s Chorus Niagara provides a live choral soundtrack to the classic Lon Chaney film “Hunchback of Notre Dame” (November 5-6), and the Guelph Chamber Choir performs Bach’s Christmas Oratorio (November 27) and Brahms’ German Requiem (April 2). The Oriana Women’s Choir performs Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (March 5) and a special concert in tribute to William Brown’s 15th year as conductor (May 7).

Make sure to check out the various excellent childrens’ choirs in the region, among them the Mississauga Children’s Choir (, the Bach Children’s Chorus (, the Toronto Beaches Children’s Chorus ( and the Viva Youth Singers of Toronto ( The distinguished Toronto Children’s Chorus offers us a rare chance to hear Brahms’ Four Songs for Two Horns and Harp and Verdi’s Laudi Alla Vergine Maria (May 7).

All in all, the season appears to be a good mixture of the familiar and the rare, the majestic and the intimate. It’s excellent to see the amount of new music being performed: choirs are contributing new sounds to the tradition as well as building on what has gone before.

Benjamin Stein is a tenor and theorbist. He can be contacted at:

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