L-R: Teiya Kasahara, Marion Newman, Asitha Tennekoon and Aria Umezawa.When opera artists Aria Umezawa and Teiya Kasahara decided to use the name ‘Amplified Opera’ for a new Toronto-based opera company and concert series, they knew it would sound like a misnomer.

“A colleague of mine came up with the name ‘Amplified Opera’ because he thought it would be deliberately provocative to opera audiences to say ‘amplified’,” Umezawa explains over video call in May 2020. “That, and this idea of amplifying voices from different perspectives in the industry.”

The opera world is one that holds on fiercely to its traditions, and a feature of the art form is that operatic singing is typically—and famously—acoustic. But when Umezawa and Kasahara officially launched Amplified Opera in Toronto in October 2019 (with a totally acoustic series of concerts), their paradoxical name, and the irreverence it suggests towards what many view as a defining characteristic of opera, was a key part of their mandate. They wanted to create a company that placed equity-seeking artists with diverse lives and experiences at the centre of public, operatic discourse—something where many traditional opera houses have repeatedly fallen short.

Opera has repeatedly been reported as an industry where racist and colonialist caricatures abound onstage; where in many opera houses the legitimacy of blackface in costumes is still considered a contemporary debate; and where, in one prominent example, the Metropolitan Opera’s 2016 staging of Kaija Saariaho’s L’amour de loin marked their first performance of an opera by a woman in 113 years.

The issue is not just one of representation and misrepresentation, but of the deeper, structural problems to which these stories point. In a recent interview with Michael Zarathus-Cook at Toronto-based online publication Ludwig Van Toronto, baritone Andrew Adridge talks about how representation in opera doesn’t work without structural change: that seeing the occasional Black artist in a lead operatic role does little for solving systemic issues within the industry, and does little for BIPOC (Black/Indigenous/People of Colour) aspiring artists beyond proving that they need to be exceptional to be welcomed into what many see as an overwhelmingly conservative and Eurocentric tradition.

Where many big opera houses have failed—weighed down by an aversion to risk-taking, a commitment to a flawed canon, a structural system that funnels the most privileged students and young artists into the most powerful positions, or a combination of the three—smaller companies like Amplified Opera have found their strength. In their ability to be flexible in challenging the operatic status quo, Amplified Opera, and other grassroots groups like it, have championed the idea that values-driven innovation in opera is possible and necessary—and that within the art form, there are newer, more relevant stories to be discovered.

Concept to realization

Umezawa and Kasahara explain that the idea for building an opera collective began in 2017 while Umezawa was visiting Canada from San Francisco, where she had been working as an Adler Fellow in stage direction at the San Francisco Opera.

“It was June, and I was expressing to her how frustrating it felt for me still within the opera industry, struggling with my gender and how I should present myself—even in an audition,” says Kasahara. “If I should wear the heels, or stuff my bra, or have the long hair, or have the short hair—all of this stuff. And Aria was explaining: ‘Well, not being yourself hasn’t gotten you anywhere—so why not be fully yourself and see what happens?’ It was like a huge lightbulb for me at that time.”

“We had also been talking about different ways to help artists find their agency,” they add. “So this idea of wanting to create an initiative to help artists and stimulate a conversation around the industry, around music, around art—it was kind of born that summer.”

When Umezawa returned from the United States after her fellowship, she and Kasahara decided to formalize their ideas as a Toronto-based opera company. For Umezawa, it was a chance to show the industry at large that there was a way to create operatic programming in which artistic merit and values-based organizing weren’t seen as separate initiatives.

“While I was [in San Francisco], there seemed to be industry-wide conversations starting around equity, diversity and inclusion, but often the way they were framed was that there were our ‘equity/diversity/inclusion concerns’—and then there were our ‘mainstage concerns,’” Umezawa says. “Many reasons were cited for why it was difficult to do an equity-focused mainstage show: ‘lack of talent at the right level’, ‘donor interests’, that it’s easier to do it in new opera but not easy to do it from the canon. I felt like there was a misunderstanding about what an opportunity including diverse voices in opera was.”

“When we are talking about how to make opera relevant—it’s to empower the artists performing opera to tell stories that resonate with them, and to actually invite conversation and critique and dialogue,” she adds. “I figured: this new company could actually be the proving ground for what can happen when you empower artists to tell stories on their own terms.”

Umezawa and Kasahara’s inaugural project, a three-concert series in October 2019 titled AMPLIFY, attempted to put their ideas into practice. Their first concert, The Way I See It (directed by Umezawa), featured mezzo-soprano/author Laurie Rubin and pianist Elizabeth Upchurch, who used their experiences as blind and visually impaired (respectively) individuals navigating the opera industry as a creative and curatorial starting point. The second event, The Queen in Me (directed by Andrea Donaldson and accompanied by Trevor Chartrand), was a one-person show that reinterpreted the story of the Queen of the Night to explore queerness and expressions of gender, starring Kasahara in the soprano role. The third concert—What’s Known to Me is Endless (directed by Michael Mohammed)—explored experiences of Black identity in Canada and the United States, featuring African-American baritone Kenneth Overton in collaboration with Canadian pianist Richard Coburn.

Teiya Kasahara (R) performing The Queen in Me in October 2019 at Amplified Opera’s inaugural concert series. Photo credit: Tanja Tiziana.Umezawa describes a moment in their first AMPLIFY concert when Rubin sang “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. “Beforehand, she told a story about her first and only guide dog and how that guide dog taught her what it meant to trust,” says Umezawa. “Then she revealed that the dog had passed away recently and dedicated the song to the guide dogs of the world, singing ‘you'll never walk alone.’ It was really touching—and not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of that song. I thought that was a great example of how we could reframe and reread some of these canonical works.”

Flexible futures

In April 2020, Umezawa and Kasahara announced the addition of opera artists Marion Newman and Asitha Tennekoon as co-founders to the Amplified Opera team. Both artists have years of operatic experience on local and international stages, and both bring fresh perspective to the one-year-old company.

Though they are new additions to the team, Newman and Tennekoon are joining as co-founders, with the idea that the four artists will share organizational roles and responsibilities in a fluid and non-hierarchical manner.

“When [Kasahara and I] started the company, we started out calling ourselves co-artistic directors and co-founders,’ says Umezawa. “And then we had a talk about the social structures that exist in opera that we would like to challenge. For me personally, the hierarchies that we’ve put into place in opera is something that I don’t believe is necessarily serving us anymore. So Teiya and I removed every title but co-founder, and when we brought Marion and Asitha in, we decided that if we’re all going to be doing all of the work, we’re all co-founders at this point.”

“I think it speaks to the transparency that we are trying to foster within this little company,” adds Kasahara. “Being small, and being new right now, and being nimble, we can be adaptable and flexible, especially to the situation we all find ourselves in.”

During a time when most arts organizations have had no choice but to streamline their activities due to complications related to the COVID-19 pandemic, news of their expansion came as a welcome surprise. For the team, these steps forward as a young company, and the time they have in quarantine to dedicate to this project, represent a source of positivity amid cancelled concert work.

“This is a really great time for us to get to know each other and how we work, and to actually have enough time to decide on our best practices,” says Newman. “That’s pretty special, because what we all had planned meant that we would all have been very busy, had all of that stuff gone ahead. So I'm keeping that in my heart as a good thing.”

“I love that we’re taking care of how we work with each other—the kind of culture we want to create for ourselves and thereby impact the industry as a whole,” adds Tennekoon. “Trying to hone in on the focal points that are the most impactful, so that we're not just figuring it out as we plan a specific event. I think that's important, because I don't think that what we want to say has been effectively brought forward and presented as one collective front for the industry [before].”

In the coming months, the team plans to launch Amplify Beta, a retrospective project that will include documentation from AMPLIFY, as well as personal stories submitted by AMPLIFY concertgoers last fall (which will be interpreted on digital media and through a visual art piece by local artist Aquil Virani).

They’ve also just announced an upcoming digital collaboration with Tapestry Opera, another independent company in Toronto focused on showcasing new works and perspectives in opera. Titled ‘Holding Space’, it will take the form of a three-part series of private digital discussions with BIPOC opera artists in Canada. Taking place on June 30, July 5 and July 8, the conversations will be moderated via Zoom, and will serve as open forums for artists to share their experiences. (There is also an option to submit discussion proposals anonymously on Amplified Opera’s website. Details and registration info can be found here.)

During our conversation in May, Newman expressed a similar sentiment around the need to give BIPOC creators opportunities for artistic agency within the opera creation process. Reflecting on musical projects in Canada on themes of Indigenous reconciliation that she’s been a part of as a First Nations mezzo-soprano, Newman recalled how efforts by some established organizations have lacked some of the deep and slow thought required to ensure that invited Indigenous artists were able to make informed artistic choices.

“One of the things I have felt quite deeply is frustration, when I see people who these stories are about or who are [asked to] create these stories—say, an [Indigenous] librettist who’s never written an opera before—and because they don't understand the art form, the things they are asking for might not actually reflect opera,” Newman says. “We need to be spending this time figuring out a way of working with community so that [artists] feel they are being heard—and their questions about how opera amplifies a story are being satisfied—before they actually have to produce a piece that goes onstage, or make recommendations about a director or designer who may or may not be the best person for that piece.”

“Create really good teams that understand from the root what those stories are, and give them the power to actually say [what they think],” she adds. “I have seen that being attempted, but not quite met yet with companies that are more established and used to doing things a certain way.”

--

What’s striking about the work of Amplified Opera is how absolutely unapologetic they are in their commitment to addressing issues in their field—and to doing it loudly, with an artist-first philosophy. Umezawa mentioned the hope that their company would serve as an example for what operatic programming that centres artist agency could look like; so far, it’s a plan that’s working.

“We went for it,’ says Kasahara. “We put something up, and the reaction from not only the public but also from our colleagues was that we didn't realise that we needed something like this. And we want more opportunities to talk: to engage with art, and with our personhood as well.”

Amplified Opera co-presents ‘Holding Space’ with Tapestry Opera as a series of private Zoom discussions on June 30, July 5 and July 8, 2020. For more information, visit https://www.amplifiedopera.com/.

Soprano Melody Courage (left) and tenor Bud Roach in Pimooteewin, from Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s co-production Two Odysseys. Photo credit: Dahlia Katz.Toronto’s Dora Mavor Moore Awards, given annually to celebrate outstanding achievements in theatre, opera and dance, are taking place on June 29, 2020 – not in person as is usually the case, but online on the Youtube channel of the Toronto Alliance of Performing Arts (TAPA).

Though this is the first time the awards ceremony has “gone virtual,” it promises to be as much a highlight of the theatrical year as it usually is, with a pre-taped award ceremony followed by a live “dance party” for anyone who would like to attend – even an invitation to dress up for the occasion and share photos of your outfit with TAPA’s social media channels. Unlike Broadway’s Tony Awards, the Doras are not typically televised; this year, producers have promised added entertainment for the occasion, with the irreverent Rick Mercer slated to open the evening, a script by Diane Flacks, and other special guests and VIP presenters throughout the show.

At the heart of the event, though, is the work being celebrated. Looking at the list of Dora nominees is almost surreal: almost 15 weeks into an unexpected life of COVID-19 quarantine and “physical distancing,” the list is full of reminders of the amazingly rich, diverse season of live performance that was forcibly shut down in March.

There isn’t room here to cover all 88 shows nominated over the seven award divisions, but one general observation I will make is that innovation and risk-taking are highlighted throughout. This is particularly true of the Opera division, with four of the five operas nominated for Outstanding Production being new creations and another two premieres nominated in the Outstanding New Opera division.

Opera

Tapestry Opera’s Jacqueline, Soundstreams/Luminato co-production Hell’s Fury, The Hollywood Songbook, and the Tapestry/Opera on the Avalon co-production Shanawdithit are nominated in both categories. FAWN’s exciting melding of opera and dance, Pandora, is the fourth new opera in the Outstanding Production category; the Outstanding New Opera category is rounded out by Loose Tea Music Theatre’s Anne Frank opera Singing Only Softly and Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s Two Odysseys.

Also exciting is that two of these nominees are Indigenous works. Tapestry and Opera on the Avalon’s May 2019 premiere Shanawdithit is centred on the story of the woman believed to be the last living member of the Beothuk Nation in what is now called Newfoundland. With a libretto by celebrated Algonquin playwright Yvette Nolan and a score by Newfoundlander Dean Burry, the whole was anchored in the person and beautiful voice of the Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations, English, Irish and Scottish soprano Marion Newman, who is also nominated for Outstanding Performance.

Soundstreams and Signal Theatre’s Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit, presented in November 2019, was even more groundbreaking: a double bill of the world’s first operas sung and narrated in Indigenous languages Cree and Sámi. It is also nominated in multiple categories.

Musical Theatre

Leading the Musical Theatre division with eight nominations is the Musical Stage Company  and Obsidian Theatre’s glorious production of Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s civil rights-era set musical Caroline, or Change in January and February 2020. Tied for the most nominations with Soulpepper’s The Brothers Size, another powerful show chronicling the Black experience in America, Caroline, or Change proved to be a showcase for outstanding performers in a top-notch cast. R&B star Jully Black (whom I had the pleasure of interviewing earlier this year), in her musical theatre debut as the title character, is nominated for Outstanding Performance. Vanessa Sears, who played her daughter, Emmie, and Stewart Adam McKensy, who played the Bus and Dryer, are also both nominated for Outstanding Featured Performer. (As you can see, the Doras no longer have gender-specific award categories – a change they made in 2019.)

Another exciting, innovative show that just got in before the COVID-19 “shutdown” is Eclipse Theatre’s location-specific Sunday in the Park with George, which made the audience feel as if we were in the middle of the Georges Seurat painting as it was being created. Among other nominations, Tess Benger, who brilliantly made the part of Dot her own, is nominated for Outstanding Performance. Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre’s Ghost Quartet, an exquisitely directed odd, eerie musical about four people whose stories transcend time and space, is also nominated for Outstanding Production, Outstanding Direction (Marie Farsi), and Outstanding Performance (Hailey Gillis).

On the more traditional side in the Outstanding Production category (though pushing boundaries in different ways) is the Mirvish production of Piaf/Dietrich by Daniel Große Boymann and Thomas Kahry, in a new adaptation by Erin Shields that explores the real-life friendship between Edith Piaf and Marlene Dietrich, as well as Young People’s Theatre’s (Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s) The Adventures of Pinocchio, a musical version of the classic fairy tale. The stars of both shows – Lousie Pitre (Piaf) and Jayne Lewis (Dietrich), and Connor Lucas (Pinocchio) – are also nominated for Outstanding Performance.

Dance

In the Dance division I am pleased to see that the highly talented young company Human Body Expression’s timely and provocative show Resonance has been nominated for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble.

Also on the evening’s menu will be the Jon Kaplan People’s Choice Award, named for the late, beloved theatre critic at NOW Magazine. Voting is open until June 21 at midnight. There is an added element of chance here, as voters can choose from any nominated show, or write in another show of their choice. You can cast your vote online at https://nowtoronto.com/doraawards.

There has been so much good theatre, opera and dance on offer this last season that I predict that the races in most of these award divisions are going to be tight – which will make the evening that much more exciting.

The 2019/20 Dora Awards will be presented online on Monday, June 29, 2020, from 7-9:30pm EDT:

- 7pm: use #Doras2020outfit on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram and post your outfit

- 7:30pm: Watch the Dora Awards on YouTube or via Facebook

- 8:30-9:30pm: Virtual Doras Dance Party

You can find a complete list of all the 2019/20 Dora nominees here.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

bananannerRebecca Bruton. Photo credit: Sarah Lianne Lewis.Since concerts have been shut down now for the last few months, various new music organizations have taken to creating alternatives to live performance. In the case of Arraymusic, they have embarked upon a new format for the months of May and June: an online flip-through booklet entitled Array: Living Room Talks - Staying Connected in Difficult Times.

To date, each month has featured a group of composers whose music Array has performed in the past. The booklet contains a link to that performance, along with another link to a recent video conversation between the composer and artistic director David Schotzko. In addition, each composer is featured in the booklet with photographs and quotes about their work. As Schotzko states in the introduction to the booklet, “great music should always be heard more than once.” 

The music and interviews with composers Raven Chacon, Allison Cameron, Rebecca Burton and Linda Catlin Smith make up the May booklet, with the first two weeks of June featuring composers Christopher  Mayo and Anna Höstman. There are three more interviews/performances to be released: on June 15, June 22, and June 19, featuring the music of John Mark Sherlock, Germaine Liu, and Martin Arnold, respectively.

In order to give a taste of each of the composers profiled so far, I decided to take a random approach to their interviews, “dropping the needle,” as it were, at a specific place along the video timeline. Despite the spontaneous nature of my writing process, I found that each of these transcribed excerpts gave a window into the individual nature of each composer’s practice.  Hopefully whatever catches your imagination in these excerpts will whet your appetite to dig deeper into the interviews and listen to the music being spoken about. For each interview, I’ve indicated the spot in the timeline where the transcription begins.

MAY 4: RAVEN CHACON

Raven Chacon: [5:20] “Back three hundred years ago in early America… there weren’t any of the sounds that are always in our subconscious from this sonic environment that all of us in the 21st century live in. Of course things were more quiet then, but there were more world views associated with sound. One of them was that when it was storming outside… it wasn’t the lightning that was going to kill you, it was the thunder that was going to kill you. Maybe the thunder being the voice of God instead of the actual electricity of the lightning.”

Composer Allison Cameron.

MAY 11: ALLISON CAMERON

Allison Cameron: [10:17] “The idea was that I didn’t want them [performers Nicole Rampersaud and Germaine Liu] to be stuck in it [reading notes from a score] and them thinking, “oh, I’ve got to read this music of Allison’s this way.” They still had to do that, but not in a way that limited what made their sound their sound. That combination of things is what was interesting in the first place, of mixing with Arraymusic… It’s the way you guys [Arraymusic] come about your musical sound. It’s a different way of doing it and pursuing it.” 

MAY 18: REBECCA BRUTON

Rebecca Bruton: [12:40] “When I listen to one section of a work, how does that section change based on what I’ve heard before and then based on what I hear after it… How specifically can a song act on the ears in a different way and how can I disrupt expectation in a song format? The moment I bring in a singer, which I did – the violinist was singing in it – then I think you listen in a certain way, but how can I maintain that formal approach while still having lyrics?”

MAY 25: LINDA CATLIN SMITH

Linda Catlin Smith: [17:18] “One of the things I remember talking to Rudolph [Komorous] about after I finished school and had moved to Toronto, and I was a bit lost… I asked him, “What do you think is coming up, the next thing that music is going to focus on?” And he didn’t bat an eye and said “melody”. I hadn’t been writing melodic music much, but when I think about it, some of us have moved into a more melodic way of thinking about things.”

JUNE 1: CHRISTOPHER MAYO

Christopher Mayo: [10:15] “The spiraling out of control really became the process of finding the photographers I wanted to interview. I don’t know a lot about photography, I don’t know photographers. I’ve actually written a lot of pieces about photography… I don’t know why I return to it as a topic for pieces… I was doing research on the internet to find people who were representative of photography in Canada… and finding people who were willing to either record themselves or have me come and record them.”

JUNE 8: ANNA HÖSTMAN

Anna Höstman: [19:23] “You’re having to go back and forth between these two perspectives and at a certain point be able to allow them to speak to one another. Some of those relationships come very easily and quickly, and others are a little harder. It’s a unique thing that you are learning this process of going back and forth and coming up with something that’s completely new out of that giving of yourself to that experience. I find pieces with text the hardest for me, but I find them the most rewarding in the end.”

Arraymusic’s initiative gives us another window into future possibilities for alternative ways of listening and engaging with new musical ideas and directions. Now the question will be to design ways in which new performances of new works can be heard as well. Perhaps live concerts will return sooner than we think, but a corner has been turned in approaching concert life in new and innovative ways, and the various experiments undertaken by different artists and presenters will, I’m sure, be part of the changing sonic sphere. 

Arraymusic’s “Living Room Talks” series is accessible as monthly online booklets. You can access the May booklet here and the June booklet here.

Wendalyn Bartley is a Toronto-based composer and electro-vocal sound artist. sounddreaming@gmail.com.

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra. Photo credit: Daniel Banko, Banko Media.The COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenging new world for all involved in the performing arts. With public concerts and presentations indefinitely cancelled, countless artists have witnessed their performing opportunities diminish vastly, if not eliminated completely, and expert outlooks do not inspire great optimism. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, recently canceled the first three months of their 2020-2021 season – they will kick the year off with their New Year’s gala on December 31 – and other organizations will likely follow with similarly cautious measures. In an environment where large gatherings may be prohibited for months (if not longer), how will arts organizations adapt?

Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra provides one possible solution. On May 27 and June 3, Tafelmusik presented the first two concerts of their new Tafelmusik at Home series, a set of virtual shows featuring members of the orchestra broadcasting performances from their homes.

The next webcast, titled Fantasia, takes place on June 10 and features solo performances by harpsichordist Charlotte Nediger, violinist Patricia Ahern, and violist Brandon Chui, of works by the well-known composers Telemann, Bach and Couperin. Also on the program is Nediger’s world premiere performance of Grégoire Jeay’s The Phantom of Goldberg, for solo harpsichord.

The Phantom of Goldberg was commissioned by Tafelmusik for their Goldberg Variations concert that was scheduled to take place in April. To compose a piece that is intentionally intertwined with one of the baroque’s monumental masterpieces is undoubtedly bold, but Jeay approaches Bach’s greatness with humility. According to Tafelmusik’s concert notes, Jeay says: “I chose not to write a 31st variation, but rather to offer an ‘Ouverture à la française’ which announces, very modestly, the immensity of this masterpiece. Bach himself writes a variation in overture form at the midpoint of the set (Variation 17), but it seemed to me appropriate to introduce another, as the overture style perfectly evokes the baroque epoch, and the nobility of the immense project which is the Goldbergs.”

Caprice

After Fantasia, a concert with music by three icons of the baroque era, Tafelmusik at Home returns on June 17 with Caprice, an opportunity for listeners to discover some rare gems from the 17th and 18th centuries. William Herschel’s Caprices for violin, Johann Matthias Sperger’s Sonata per il contrabasso et violoncello, and a variety of viola and bass duets from eastern Europe make up this program, which will combine a variety of instrumental and national influences into a single eclectic performance.

Sonata

The final instalment of Tafelmusik at Home is Sonata, with violinists Cristina Zacharias and Elisa Citterio, as well as cellist Allen Whear, going live on June 24. Johann Sebastian Bach’s music receives a prominent place in Sonata, with Zacharias and Whear performing the Partita in E Major and Suite in C Minor, respectively. Both works demonstrate Bach’s mastery in writing for solo instruments and his ability to create polyphonic textures and contrapuntal effects from a single stringed instrument. What is easily accomplished on a keyboard is much less straightforward on a violin, yet Bach manages to imply canonic and fugal structures with his characteristic musical language and ever-present beauty.

Elisa Citterio, Tafelmusik’s music director, brings solo violin music from outside Germany, including pieces by Sweden’s Johann Helmich Roman and Giuseppe Tartini. Tartini was a well-known and prolific Italian composer whose works are still heard today, but Roman will be a new name for many. Although less-known than his western contemporaries, Roman has been called ‘the Swedish Handel’ and ‘the father of Swedish music’ and his works, though not as numerous as Tartini’s, are high-quality and well worth becoming acquainted with.

Though the medium and circumstances are vastly different from ‘normal’, we must be grateful to all who are developing, adapting to, and entering a new stage of public performance – one that is still able to convey beauty and comfort, even from a distance.

Tafelmusik At Home continues online on June 10, June 17, and June 24 – for more information, visit https://www.tafelmusik.org/concert-calendar.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

bannerWe are living in unprecedented times. With live performance banned until the current global COVID-19 pandemic is under control, artists of all genres are using their imaginations to find new ways to virtually connect with their colleagues and audiences. One of the earliest initiatives in Canada to fill these gaps was BIG GIRL & Friends, an hour-long livestreamed show on YouTube, created and hosted by Toronto Musical Concerts’ artistic producer Christopher Wilson, and associate director, Ryan Kelly.

The show is a casually formatted musical theatre chat show, with the hosts (who seem to know everyone in Canadian musical theatre) welcoming guests who sing several songs interspersed with fun conversations about the industry, their career journeys, and how they are coping with the realities of social distancing. They also entertain questions from people watching via comments on the YouTube site. Guests so far have included Alessandro Constantini, Charlotte Moore, Gabi Epstein, Jake Espstein, Michael de Rose, Thom Allison, Erica Peck, Sara Strange and Bruce Dow, among others.

The show is free to watch and all the artists, and the hosts, are donating their performances, with donations to support the AFC (the Actors’ Fund of Canada) encouraged. Given the current lockdown, the AFC (founded and active since 1882) desperately needs funds to continue its support of arts workers who need financial and advocacy help — and that’s not just actors, but also directors and designers, stage managers and costume makers, musicians, writers, film crews and front-of-house workers. Anyone in the arts and entertainment industries who needs assistance can apply.

Impressed by Wilson and Kelly’s rapid deployment of their more-or-less daily fundraising show, and enjoying the fun of getting to know Canadian stars in such a personal format – despite each person being in their own living room – I reached out to Christopher Wilson to find out a bit more about how it all came about.

The following conversation has been condensed and edited.

Christopher Wilson L and Ryan Kelly RWN: What gave you the idea to start the YouTube BIG GIRL & Friends broadcasts, in this format?

CW: Our Canadian theatre industry ostensibly ground to a halt shortly after Friday, March 13 (ironically). With unprecedented cancellations and closures of both theatres and events nationwide, it became increasingly evident that we (the artistic community) were going to be adversely affected for some time with the swiftly shifting landscape of the coronavirus.

When the Broadway League announced that all Broadway theatres would close (initially until April 13), SiriusXM Broadway host Seth Rudetsky and his husband, producer James Wesley, began a daily online mini-show, entitled Stars In The House - featuring a "who's who" lineup of stage and screen stars, singing and performing live (from home on YouTube) to promote support for The Actors Fund (US).

I tuned into their first stream on March 16 (featuring Kelli O'Hara) and immediately knew that I had to facilitate a comparable initiative here in Canada, to benefit The AFC (Actors' Fund of Canada). Having worked in the Canadian professional musical theatre industry for nearly 30 years, I am fortunate to be connected with most of Canada's extraordinary musical theatre artists from coast to coast!

WN: Where does the name come from?

CW: During my only season performing at the Stratford Festival back in 1995, I was somewhat of a gregarious “Saint Bernard puppy” type of an emerging artist (you know, the type that inadvertently takes out small children and Christmas trees in their oblivious wake). One particular rehearsal day, during an overly-enthusiastic moment, I gently annoyed one of the company members (Canadian actor, writer and theatre director, Lee MacDougall – also an original Broadway cast member of Come from Away) who lovingly expressed, “You are such a BIG GIRL!” This was also a reference to my newly embraced self-identity as a gay man.

The nickname, Big Girl, became a term of endearment among company members at the Festival – and was officially coined a phrase when I was paged over the theatre intercom, “Big Girl to the stage, please!” Since that time, I have lovingly been referred to as the “tall, high-kicking, low singing BIG GIRL”. Several years ago, I self-produced two stage cabarets at the former Flying Beaver Pubaret under the name, “Big Girl & Friends”. Both cabaret events were fundraising initiatives for local charities including the AIDS Committee of Toronto and the Daily Bread Food Bank.

When I decided to embark upon this specific online fundraising initiative (under the auspices of Toronto Musical Concerts), the title seemed apt to return to [to] support The AFC!

WN: You and Ryan are based here in Toronto, and your first guests have been performers known here in the city. Will you be reaching out across the country to speak to artists based further afield, or to join forces with other fundraising teams based in other provinces?

CW: I am doing my best to remain aware of other fundraising initiatives across Canada to benefit both The AFC and the Canadian professional musical theatre industry. Most notable was last week's incredible Virtual 24-Hour Telethon to benefit the AFC, Places Please!, raising an impressive $41,000.

Most of our first week guests were well known in Toronto and southern Ontario, but this past week's guests included artists such as Tara Jackson from Calgary, and we will be hosting the Charlottetown Festival's artistic director, Adam Brasier in Prince Edward Island – and ideally, the Neptune Theatre's artistic director, Jeremy Webb in Halifax (among others).

My biggest concern lies in the fact that as long as we continue to remain in this state of social distancing and self-isolation, our artistic community will become increasingly vulnerable, both financially and more importantly, emotionally. As we settle into this “new normal,” it is my hope that we can share this online fundraising initiative on a much broader scale, to reach as wide an audience viewership across the country as possible.

BIG GIRL & Friends intends to stream daily Monday to Saturday at 7 PM ET / 4PM PT on Toronto Musical Concerts’ YouTube channel until regional theatres are open again. To access archived livestreams and find the daily viewer’s link, visit their website here. To make a tax-deductible donation to The AFC, please visit https://afchelps.ca/.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Back to top