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 www.operabyrequest.ca.

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 www.harbourfrontcentre.com.

 

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

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 www.coc.ca.

 

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

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 (www.exultate.net).

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 (dacapochamberchoir.ca).

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 (bellartesingers.ca), and the Burlington Civic Chorale (burlingtoncivicchorale.ca). 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 (cantabile.kingston.net).

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 (mississaugachildrenschoir.com), the Bach Children’s Chorus (www.bachorus.org), the Toronto Beaches Children’s Chorus (torontobeacheschildrenschorus.com) and the Viva Youth Singers of Toronto (vivayouthsingers.com). 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: choralscene@thewholenote.com.

The 2010/11 opera season is upon us with the promise of over 26 different opera productions announced so far in Toronto and environs over the next ten months. Rather than give an overview of all these productions, I’ll focus on the five I presently look forward to most.

The 2010/11 season marks the first season planned entirely by Canadian Opera Company general manager Alexander Neef. He seems to have looked over the company’s production record to find those operas that the company has never or at least not recently produced. The first of these to arrive is Benjamin Britten’s final opera Death in Venice (1973), last staged by the COC in 1984. The opera is based on Thomas Mann’s 1912 novella about an elderly writer’s strange attraction to Tadzio, a Polish boy staying with his family in Venice before a cholera epidemic strikes the city. The COC will present the acclaimed 2007 Aldeburgh Festival production directed by Yoshi Oida, starring Alan Oke, who won kudos there as Aschenbach, and conducted by Steuart Bedford, who conducted the original production in 1973. Britten’s spare, delicate score should fare much better in the Four Seasons Centre than it could in the O’Keefe in 1984. The opera runs from October 16 to November 6.

P20The second noteworthy opera from the COC is the Toronto premiere of John Adams’ Nixon in China (1987), an opera now performed around the world that had its Canadian premiere as part of the 2010 Vancouver Cultural Olympiad. The choice is significant for a number of reasons. First, the COC hasn’t presented an American opera since Kismet in 1987 and before that Candide in 1984. While it’s true that Canada is inundated with American popular culture, it is foolish to exclude those American works that have become accepted touchstones of 20th-century opera. There are other operas by Adams, not to mention by Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass or Jake Heggie, that have become well-known elsewhere but have never been staged here.

The COC production of Nixon in China comes from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis where it was staged in 2004 by James Robinson. He will also direct the Toronto production, which will feature Robert Orth as Richard Nixon, Adrian Thompson as Mao Tse-Tung and Tracy Dahl as Madame Mao. The production runs February 5 to 26, 2011. For more information see www.coc.ca.

Toronto is fortunate among North American cities to have a resident professional operetta company, Toronto Operetta Theatre. And we’re doubly fortunate that under the leadership of Guillermo Silva-Marin, the TOT has not been content to stage only Gilbert and Sullivan or Viennese operetta, but to introduce Toronto audiences to Old and New World zarzuela, the Spanish form of operetta that is part of the heritage of an increasing North American demographic. This year TOT presents its first production of Luisa Fernanda (1932) by Federico Moreno Torroba (1891-1982). The work is often considered the last of the great romantic zarzuelas before the form, as it became increasingly political, became extinct during the Spanish Civil War.

In Luisa Fernanda the action takes place in 1868 when the reign of Queen Isabel II is under threat by a revolutionary republican movement that eventually achieves success. For those curious to know more there is a 2006 DVD starring Placido Domingo as the protagonist, conducted by Jesús López-Corbos. The TOT production will be conducted by José Hernández and will star Mexican tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez and Canadian soprano Michèle Bogdanowicz. Luisa Fernanda plays March 9-13, 2011.

This season, Opera Atelier completes its long-held goal of staging what it calls its “Mozart Six.” The sixth in this series is Mozart’s second last opera, La Clemenza di Tito (1791), that Toronto has not seen fully staged since a COC production in 1991. What makes this production especially exciting is that it reunites five of the singers that made OA’s Idomeneo such a wild success in 2008. Returning for Tito are Kresimir Spicer in the title role, Measha Brüggergosman as Vitellia, Michael Maniaci as Sesto, Mireille Asselin as Servilia and Curtis Sullivan as Publio. David Fallis will conduct and Marshall Pynkoski will direct. See www.operaatelier.com for more.

Coming up sometime in 2011 (the date is still to be announced) will be the latest opera by Ana Sokolovic for Queen of Puddings Music Theatre. The work is called Svadba (The Wedding) and will be based on existing Slavic and Balkan folk tales. Sokolovic is the composer of QoP’s Sirens/Sirènes and the acclaimed chamber opera The Midnight Court from 2005 that travelled to London’s Covent Garden in 2006. Svadba, scored for six female singers, is set on the night before a fiancée leaves for her wedding while her friends keep her company with enactments of pagan rituals and peasant stories. See www.queenofpuddingsmusictheatre.com for further information.

 

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

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.

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