A peculiar thing happens each year around mid-May in the largest, busiest city of Canada, the fifth largest North American city: mainstream Toronto opera life all but shuts down, give or take an intrepid indie daring a short early June run. And the season stays shut until the latter half of September. This year there’s an exception, a chamber opera at the Winter Garden in July thanks to the Toronto Summer Music Festival, but it’s likelier to be a one-off than a harbinger. Classical music lovers are somewhat luckier, with the TSO working full steam until the end of June, though it too starts the season late in September. Berlin, on the other hand, goes to the opera until early August and happily returns to it first week of September. Opera in Paris runs parallel with ballet until mid-July. London goes strong until mid-July and effectively has no respite with the Proms taking over from then on till mid-September.
Even regional European houses in small cities beat us in quantity and length. The opera house in Liège (population 200,000) has an eight-production season that runs until the end of June. Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam (population 780,000) starts its 12-production season early September and dovetails with Holland Festival on the other end to finish in early July.
What do the artists who make opera do in those four months that Toronto doesn’t do opera? And how do they explain our long break?
Soprano Ambur Braid recently returned home to Toronto after a Magic Flute run at the English National Opera in London, where she sang a wheelchair-bound Queen of the Night, and subsequently a very different, glammed-up Maleficent-like version of the same role at the Calgary Opera. “Evil royalty,” as she puts it, dramatic coloratura roles are becoming her calling card and one of her great historical research interests: those who attended the Canadian Art Song Project recital “The Living Spectacle” last winter were treated to a stand-up quality introduction to the wives of Henry VIII before her exceptional rendering of Try Me, Good King by Libby Larsen. She could not confirm or deny if she will return to the ENO in the near future, but I would bet on Yes, and on Verdi, the composer she’s starting to sing more, including the recital with Toronto Concert Orchestra at Casa Loma this May.
The voracious intellect whose interests range from Anne Boleyn to painter Stephen Appleby-Barr to Wes Anderson to caftans (if anybody will make them glamourous, it’ll be this statuesque soprano), Braid will combine work, study and travel this summer. “I’ll be singing the bitchy maid Dalinda in Richard Jones’ new Ariodante at the COC in September, so my June will be all Ariodante prep, all the time,” she says. She’ll also travel to Puglia to brush up her Italian, and try out agriturismo (“And eat and gain my preparatory weight,” she adds). “On August 6 I’m singing a recital of Rachmaninoff and Sibelius in Niagara-on-the-Lake, two new singing languages for me, and will be coaching all of that in July.” The COC rehearsals start on September 9.
We mull over possible reasons for the shortness of Toronto opera season, and wonder if it’s still presumed that since a lot of people of a certain class are out of town every weekend from May long weekend until Labour Day that everybody else is—or that they’re the only ones going to the opera. Opera tickets as a luxury item, opera audiences upper middle class? Sad state of affairs, if true, we agree. “Even in real estate,” she muses, “and in sales of clothes and jewellery, not a lot of people with buying power are in town in the summer, so that activity slows down.” The massive influx of tourists helps refill the audiences of London, Paris and Berlin during summer, she says after I bring up the European seasons. Is it about our habits, do we only do culture October to May? “It could be because we’re so young. Unlike Europeans, we are not brought up with it…And here, because it’s less subsidized and more expensive to go to the opera, you don’t go as often – it’s a special occasion thing. We say it shouldn’t be, but it is. And the relative rarity of performances also makes going to the opera a special event. You cannot show up at the opera house any day of the week and see something.” But she’s optimistic we’ll get there. “Hopefully we’ll get to the next step. Things are happening, it’s an exciting time to be in Canada.”
Christopher Mokrzewski has a similar take. “I get the feeling that Toronto is still a bit old-fashioned in that so much of the population takes significant time off in the summer. People are always travelling, are out of town, attending weddings and going to cottages, which makes it a little more difficult to maintain an active performance schedule with a diminished audience base,” writes the resident conductor at the Calgary Opera and music director of Against the Grain Theatre in an email. So musicians adapt and leave the city to work at festivals or train, like he’s about to do after wrapping up A Little Too Cozy, the AtG adaptation of Mozart/Da Ponte’s Così fan tutte. He’s taking a few days off in Toronto – “I’m desperate to get to a Jays game and see more concerts!” – before heading to St. Louis for a week on a professional development stipend from Calgary Opera. He’ll be working on bel canto repertoire with conductor Stephen Lord. The brilliant young musician is best known for the mashup of Schubert and Messiaen played with great conviction and drama in AtG’s “Death and Desire” last year, but his conducting interests are growing and it’s bel canto’s turn now.
He’s then off to Banff for six weeks, where he is music director for the Open Space Opera young artist program to conduct his first The Rape of Lucretia: his second one is the TSMF semi-staged performance at Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto’s one mainstream operatic exception of the summer. “I just love Banff to death. And I cannot wait for the real highlight of the summer, the Banff Centre Theatre Arts staff softball game. Big league!” Late July the AtG will perform at the Ottawa Chamber Fest, after which Mokrzewski returns to Calgary for a week of rehearsals and two weeks of performances at the Calgary Opera summer festival. “In late August and September I’ll likely be in Toronto and NYC for some professional development opportunities that are currently still in the works. Maybe I’ll take a few days off, if the mood strikes, and go on a road trip.”
Not a lot of leisure in Amanda Smith’s summer either. The emerging stage director and founding artistic director of FAWN Chamber Creative is already leaving her mark as one of the few movers within the Toronto Indie Opera network who embrace electronic music as essential for operatic creation and dance as essential to its performance. This approach was very much in evidence in Synaesthesia, FAWN’s recent six-composer workshop performance in the post-industrial area around Sterling Avenue that featured a dancer in pieces that alternate acoustic and electronic, live and tape. “I grew up listening to metal and noise music, it’s a big part of my life,” she says. The audience at Synaesthesia that night was mostly twentysomethings, and this was in part due to this bridging between the electronic music audience and the performing arts audience that those pieces proposed. “I also don’t want to charge people more than $20 per show. People are less willing to go to something unfamiliar if the tickets are more expensive. And us millennials are probably the most underemployed generation in a long while, with little disposable income.” One of the three audience-chosen pieces from the show will be commissioned into an opera. “We’re hoping to create a ballet lyrique and I want it to be sort of like devised theatre – only, devised opera. We have a workshop period, we’ll have a story, but the music will get devised.”
Smith’s degrees from Laurier and UofT are in voice and opera, but by the third year she knew she wanted to direct rather than sing. She’s since assisted a number of directors, including Michael Cavanagh for the world premiere of the now much-travelled Svadba by Ana Sokolović and Tim Albery for the landmark Grimes on the Beach at Aldeburgh Music Festival. Her summers so far have been about development. Last year she spent it in Quebec City observing the rehearsals for the new Robert Lepage production of L’Amour de loin and talking with the director (her theatre role model) about structuring rehearsals and getting the most out of people. This June she is travelling to Chicago to attend the Chicago Summer Opera program for two months. “I’ll be working with the director George Cederquist there. He does some exciting work, I’m really looking forward. I’m going to be mentored by him and have one-on-one seminars.” The two will work on Britten’s Albert Herring.
For the director Ashlie Corcoran there will be no summer vacation this year: the season at Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque where she is artistic director actually runs May to October, and her recently completed run of the play Das Ding at Canadian Stage was her 12th production in as many months. Three of the ten productions at the Playhouse she’ll direct herself: Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Coward’s Blythe Spirit and Das Ding by Philipp Löhle, a German play about globalization that she enthusiastically describes as “wild.” She’ll also be preparing for the pieces she’s directing in the fall, Blythe Spirit in Kamloops, the school tour at the COC and in December, Soundstreams’ Electric Messiah. Then off to direct the revival of The Magic Flute at the COC, the show she already assisted under the direction of Diane Paulus, and directed herself for the Ensemble Studio performance, and later revived at Opera Philadephia.
What guides her programming at the Playhouse? “It’s a year-long occupation, I’m always reading plays, seeing musicals, thinking about it constantly, and any time I see something that I’m interested in, I put it on a list or add it to the pile. And once I start programming, I see how all the pieces would fit together. It all needs to be high quality, intelligent, entertaining work, but I’m also looking for work that’s different and that sort of bounces up against each other, rubs against each other in interesting ways.” The audience is more of a regional theatre audience than summer audience, very diverse with very diverse expectations, and Corcoran aims to meet those but also to propose new and unexpected experiences. She says she can certainly imagine doing a chamber opera in the smaller Fire Hall in the future. “Last year we did an operetta, The Pirates of Penzance. I adapted it with Andrew Kushnir and we set it in 1927 in the prohibition times in the Thousand Islands. We re-wrote the libretto—Gilbert & Sullivan are in the public domain - so the pirates were rum runners, the police were the American coast guard, the sisters were a federation of teetotallers. We kept a lot of the original music, but we also included some other music from the 1920s. It was successful and great fun, and I hope to do it again in the future.”
Over at the COC, the costume department staff are already working on the two September productions. Sandra Corazza, COC’s costume supervisor tells me how her summer will unfold while giving me a tour of the third floor workrooms and storage spaces. The costumes for Ariodante and Norma are already there, shipped from their most recent dwelling places, the opera houses of Amsterdam and Barcelona respectively. The Handel was designed by Ultz with a mid-20th century Scottish village aesthetic, and there are a lot of old coats, wool sweaters and plain dresses on the rows of hangers before us. Corazza already saw the production in Amsterdam. “It’s good to be able to go backstage and ask the makers – dressers, makeup artists – what problems they had. Some of that stuff can’t be written precisely enough, even though we get the bible.” (The thick binder containing all the fabric samples, purchase information, sketches and photos is known as “the bible” among costume professionals.)
The forthcoming COC run will have an entirely new set of principals, some of whom are as physically different from their peers cast in the same roles in Aix-en-Provence and Amsterdam as imaginable. The petite green ensemble now on a mannequin will have to be adjusted for the taller Ginevra by Jane Archibald. Dalinda too – the “bitchy maid” to be revived by Ambur Braid – will probably have her clothes resized. “This wedding dress,” Sandra pulls out a long sturdy white gown with modest ornaments. “It never gets worn properly, she sort of slaps it on over her slip, then sees the puppet show and takes it off, and Dalinda puts it on at one point…It’s handled more than actually worn.” The trouser role baddie will be sung by Verduhi Abrahamyan, a mezzo taller than Sonia Prina, whose name is still attached to her biker style costumes. Alice Coote’s Ariodante will be the same height as his love interest, and it remains to be decided whether she’ll be slightly raised with the right pair of shoes. For costume resizing, the seam allowance and long hem come to the rescue.
Ultz is expected to arrive in Toronto by the end of June, but meanwhile the fittings for the smaller roles are already starting. “We still don’t have the casting of the chorus, six male and six female, and 24 and 24 in Norma. Once we know that, we will know now many costumes we have to build. In Aix and Amsterdam, they had these sweaters custom knit. If these are too small, we may have to find a knitter to knit us a sweater, or go with a different costume. If Ultz decides to redesign the chorus and the extras, we’ll have to make these costumes happen.”
The gold sequin-encrusted dress by the costume designer Jessica Jahn is already fitted and waiting for Sondra Radvanovsky’s Norma. “When we get the Barcelona bible, we can find out where all these fabrics came from and start contacting these companies. We may add more red to Russell Thomas’s costume. Details often get changed when productions move from stage to stage.” The fitting of the principals and chorus starts in earnest on the third week of August. There are also the understudies to clothe, and in Norma, the children. Corazza will take a vacation too, but July is the only possibility. The 2016/17 season is already underway on the third floor of the COC’s Front Street East building.
Lydia Perovic’s novella All That Sang is out now wherever you buy books. As for her June, she’s off to Amsterdam for some Herheim-directed opera, Jacobs-conducted Haydn and Joël Pommerat’s theatrical take on the French Revolution. After a few additional days in Antwerp and Brussels, she’s back in Toronto for the summer.