JOHANNES DEBUS lives in Toronto and Berlin with Elissa Lee, Jonah and Noah. Some of his other passions and pastimes include riding the family Brompton, baking pancakes grandma-style, taking nonsense photos and trying to understand the intricate rules of baseball.

Johannes DebusSuppose you're chatting with a friendly fellow traveller. After they have told you about their career in pest control or medical imaging, they ask what you do for a living. How might you reply? Fascinating, guys, what you are doing! Myself, I'm working as a simple manufacturer, creating sound with my bare hands.

Johannes Debus studied conducting at the Hamburg Conservatory, but his career as an operatic conductor is the outcome of ten years with the Frankfurt Opera, where he began as a pianist, coach and assistant conductor, eventually becoming their resident conductor. Debus was appointed music director of the Canadian Opera Company in 2009 after an acclaimed debut conducting their 2008 production of Prokofiev’s War and Peace.

Recently for the COC he’s conducted Falstaff, Die Walküre, Bluebeard’s Castle / Erwartung. In the current season he’s conducting the world première of Canadian John Frederick Barbara Monk Feldman’s Pyramus and Thisbe (onstage through Nov 7), Siegfried (Jan 23 to Feb 14) and  The Marriage of Figaro (Feb 4 to Feb 27). Beyond the COC here’s a current sampling of his agenda. In November he’ll conduct the National Arts Centre Orchestra, and the San Diego Symphony. In February he’ll conduct the Royal Conservatory Orchestra; in April The Cunning Little Vixen for the Frankfurt Opera; in May, The Marriage of Figaro for the Komische Oper in Berlin; and the Cleveland Orchestra at  the Blossom Festival this summer.

Debus’ TSO debut was part of their 2013 Mozart@257 – “Pure joy, driven like the wind.” (Robert Harris’ response in The Globe and Mail) Called upon to step in for James Levine at Tanglewood and for Sir Colin Davis at Symphony Hall, Debus conducts, internationally, repertoire of every kind.

~ Between opera houses and symphony halls one hopes he will find time for a little winter skating here in Ontario. ~

Debus as a childWhere were you born? Speyer am Rhein, in a lovely region called Palatinate, southwest of Germany, close to Alsace in France. I would like to call it the German Tuscany. I grew up in Speyer, and attended high school in Speyer.

And right after high school? I went to Hamburg to study conducting.

When you look at that childhood photo today, what do you think about? Happy childhood memories! I remember the wobbly feeling being on ice skates for the first time in my life. It was a lot of fun, though, enjoying really cold winters in such a way.

If you could travel back through time and meet that young person …? I might say: “Ask your mom to get you another hairstylist. What!? Your mom is your hairstylist?! Oops.”

I might ask: “Young man, could you imagine crossing the Atlantic one day and start living your dream in a place like Toronto?” The answer would have been a big question mark on my face, I suppose.

Your earliest specific memory of hearing music? My mom singing for me whilst changing my diapers. Now you can say, either I have a very good memory or I wore diapers significantly longer than others! She sang a beautiful German folksong with the following text: "Der Mai, der Mai, der lustige Mai..."

Other musicians in your childhood family? My parents didn’t play any musical instruments. They just loved music and loved passing that down to their kids. My father was an archivist and my mother was a librarian. We all got to sing, we all got to play the recorder (hooray) and we all learned other instruments. My younger brother is a fine jazz musician -- he is the really talented one.

Where did listening to music, fit into your life as a child? All sources to listen to music were important to me: the radio, even the TV at times, recordings in various (nowadays vintage) formats (MC, LP, CD). I remember the subscription concerts of the regional symphony orchestras, I remember lots of very fine concerts of renowned orchestras, ensembles and organists at the cathedral – memorable also just because of the 12 seconds reverberant sound, which gave certain pieces a slightly unusual soundscape.

But at the end it was all about being able to play music myself.

What is your first memory of making music yourself? Singing was in fact the first way to make music myself. I don't think there is a more elementary and better way to start.

Your first instrument? After maltreating everyone's ears with the unavoidable recorder, I continued with playing the piano. Don't know if it helped to reconcile those I might have offended with the recorder.

Other instruments? The most painful years of my early life – three years of violin lessons. I regret that I wasn't patient enough to continue. Instead I went on with the organ and played a lot in the local churches -- not the worst move, ask my piggy bank.

What are your earliest recollections of making music with other people? As elementary it is to sing, it is also an elementary experience to sing with others. I remember the great community and spirit we had in the choir when I was a young boy. It obviously also trains you to listen and in particular, to listen to others.

What do you remember about a first music teacher? I was lucky to have a few excellent teachers. But I remember one in particular for the legendary words in a rehearsal: "It sounds as if someone would pee on the Mona Lisa!"

How did conducting first become part of the picture? I loved to conduct the LP-player -- and didn't care if I made a fool of myself. Ask my siblings!

When did you first conduct for an audience? I can't remember precisely, must have been at the age of 15 or so, and probably choral music.

Can you suggest experiences from your childhood or teen years that helped to form your alacrity and appetite for staged works, opera in particular? Believe it or not: I didn't quite get it in my childhood. My Eureka Moment happened much later. I had to prepare a piece of music for the start of a course as part of my studies at Germany’s Hamburg Conservatory. I had to prepare La Traviata. When I sat down to play it, I had this moment of feeling this fantastic, fabulous range of emotions. That was the moment I was hooked. Now I'm an addict.

Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician? I was 17 by the time I felt it would be important -- to me at least – to give it a try to find my luck in music. Who knows, where and what I'd be today, if I would have failed.

Did you ever think you would do something else? I had a few other ideas -- pest control and medical imaging weren't part of that list, though. I was always fascinated by archeology, art history, classics etc.

Where does music fit into your family life at home today? Isn't family life an opera in itself?!

If you were driving alone and could sing along to ANY recording, what would you choose? Driving alone in the car? Hm, better no music. Imagine I would start conducting along... If you ask for recommendations for the lonely-cowboy-on-the-highway list: baroque music works astonishingly well for me, the Brandenburg Concertos for example. – great stuff to listen to, to whistle along and to keep you awake.


Mary McGeer lives in Toronto’s east end with her husband Rollie Thompson, a law professor. When she’s not making words-and-music magic she’s a voracious reader who loves watching old movies (1930 to 1950s).

Septembers_Child_-_Mary_McGeer.jpgMary McGeer is artistic director of the Talisker Players chamber music concert series. She’s also general manager and principal violist of the larger flexibly sized Talisker Players Choral Music Orchestra dedicated to collaborating with choirs. McGeer also freelances with  diverse  ensembles in and around Toronto, from baroque to new music. Principal violist of the Huronia Symphony from 1998 to 2010 and a member of the Phoenix String Quartet for ten years, she is also a teacher and chamber music coach.

The Talisker orchestra came first, arising out of a one-off gig in 1995 where McGeer assembled a chamber orchestra to perform with a choir. Today the ensemble is an accordion-pleated marvel that shrinks and grows according to the needs of the repertoire. It’s made up of fine working musicians who have a shared appreciation for music that has words.

Talisker Players chamber music concerts, “Where Words and Music Meet,” came a bit later. Their four-concert series of chamber performances celebrates its 20th anniversary this year at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre (as does The WholeNote). Talisker’s themed concerts of works for voice and chamber ensemble are usually narrated by an actor – always an engaging blend of vocal and instrumental music, poetry, and theatre.

Mary McGeer doesn’t remember her childhood photo being taken – she was barely two. But the photo and the context reflect both an early interest in literature and an environment that nurtured it.

McGeer grew up in Arvida, Quebec, in the Saguenay Valley.  After high school she went to McGill University where she studied history and political science, later completing a diploma in performance at Université Laval. She studied viola in Toronto and New York.

Your absolute earliest specific memory of hearing music?  The records my parents played: there were children’s records (Burl Ives…) also opera, and lots of Broadway. I still know all the words to several Broadway musicals. Opera – not so much.

Were there other musicians in your childhood family? No – they’re pretty much all scientists.

How did hearing music figure in your childhood life? Radio and records at home, music at school and in church, but not much live performance. Occasionally we would hear touring performers in recital.

First memories of  making music? Student recitals – also the annual Jeunesses Musicales competitions, always nerve-racking.

Did you sing as a child? No, other than hymns in church.

What was your first instrument, and why?

Piano. There were very few teachers of other instruments in that rather remote area at the time.

What do you remember about a first music teacher? Mme. Partous – I still have a vivid picture of her. She was a fine musician and gave her students an excellent grounding in theory and history, as well as technique.

Your first experiences of creating music with other people? There was not much opportunity in that part of the world. The closest would be accompanying my church choir.

What do you remember about your first times performing for an audience? I was always nervous about performing – possibly in part because I tended to be a crammer in preparation. As a youngster, I always preferred sight-reading – or fooling around on the instrument – to serious practice. That did change later on.

What do you think are the roots of your later appetite for staged works and multidisciplinary performance – the words-and-music aspect of what Talisker does? It would be my life as a bookworm, probably. Also, a lifelong interest in vocal music, and the joy of accompanying it, whether it’s choirs or solo singers.

Do you remember when you began to think of yourself as a career musician?  Not really, it sort of snuck up on me... .

In early life I assumed that music was not a career and that I’d be doing something else – in fact when I went to university I stopped playing altogether for a few years. Even after I came back to playing, I worked at a number of other things – history, journalism – before realizing that I needed to be a musician.

Where does music fit into your home life today?  My husband listens to a lot of music for pleasure. In my case, it’s usually with a purpose – investigating repertoire, hearing new singers, learning scores – which is a different kind of pleasure! But when I want to relax, I usually curl up with a book, or watch a movie.

UPCOMING The Talisker Players season opens October 27 and 28 with”Renovated Rhymes.”  We also have a number of engagements with choirs, in Toronto and farther afield – including, of course, a number of Messiahs as we get closer to Christmas.

New or recent recordings? We’re performing on an upcoming recording of the singer-songwriter Ian Thomas, in arrangements for string quartet by our cellist, Laura Jones. It’s a bit of a departure for us, and we’re looking forward to it!


Renovated Rhymes (Oct 27 and  28, at 8pm) is Talisker Players’ first concert of the 2015/16 season, at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre. Mary McGeer says it’s a fun program inspired by playful wordsmiths like Ogden Nash and Dennis Lee, and featuring tenor James McLennan and baritone Doug MacNaughton – both terrific singers who are also great comic actors. Ross Manson is the evening’s actor/reader. There is a pre-concert talk at 7:15pm  For all the intriguing and entertaining program details visit

WholeNote readers Bastien Woolf and Gwynn Arsenault each win a pair of tickets.

Music’s Children gratefully acknowledges Thom, Kay and Peter.

Errol Gay, with his mom, Bev, near Naramata, BC in 2012.Errol Gay lives in North York, Toronto, with Ann Cooper Gay and their beloved golden retriever, Patch. Some of his other pastimes include working out possible European train travel and solving not-too-difficult Sudoku and crossword puzzles.

Familie_Cooper-Gay.JPGMention Errol Gay to a group of musicians and you’ll get some warm smiles of recognition: ask each of them how they know him and you’ll get many different answers. In Paula Citron’s article in this issue (page 8) about his wife, Ann Cooper Gay, there are more details about his extraordinary life, including his association with the Canadian Children’s Opera Company.

Read more: May's Child - Errol Gay

2007-MC-Adult.jpgMervon Mehta is the Executive Director of Performing Arts for The Royal Conservatory, where he oversaw the September 2009 launch of Koerner Hall’s inaugural season. Today Mehta is responsible for programming Koerner Hall’s own classical, jazz, world music and pop concerts, and oversees all performances at the RCM TELUS Centre. Comfortable and engaging on stage, Mehta was an actor before he was an administrator, and appears on stage frequently as a narrator of orchestral works with a wide range of orchestras internationally.

Born in Vienna, Austria, Mehta grew up in Montreal. He is the son of conductor Zubin Mehta and soprano Carmen Lasky, and has a sister Zarina. The young family lived in Liverpool, Saskatoon and Philadelphia before Zubin Mehta became music director of the Montreal Symphony. Mervon Mehta’s parents divorced in 1964 and two years later Lasky married Zarin Mehta, Zubin Mehta’s brother.

Mehta “survived” Lower Canada College and left Montreal to attend Colgate University in upstate New York, later studying at The Neighbourhood Playhouse School in New York City. His work in theatre included two seasons at the Stratford Festival.

A more detailed account of Mehta’s career can be found in an interview with Paula Citron (The WholeNote, October 2013), available at

When someone asks what you do for a living? I tell them I am in the concert business. They get all excited. I them tell them I present classical, jazz and world music… they usually leave me alone.

Upcoming projects that excite you? The second edition of 21C Music Festival begins on May 20. I am very excited about the line-up that includes new music written for classical chamber ensembles by Canadian and international composers including some from the jazz, rock, hip-hop, flamenco and tango worlds.

Earliest memory of music? My mother’s singing. She is still at it!

Other musicians in your childhood family? My grandfather, Mehli Mehta, was a violinist, conductor and teacher who started the Bombay Symphony. My grandmother was an amateur pianist and music was their bond.  Every member of my immediate and extended family and all of their friends seemed to be in the music business. They were all very accomplished so I only heard the best music all the time. In my 20s I rebelled against music and went into theatre but, just like Michael Corleone, the family “pulled me back in.”

Growing up in Montreal our house was filled with musicians from the OSM, visiting soloists like Perlman, Zukerman, Barenboim, Vickers, Forester, Price and music business legends such as Pierre Beique and Sam Gesser. I was surrounded by the finest musicians and finest minds in the field. Somehow I learned lessons from them that I keep to this day. Foremost amongst these people was my uncle, Zarin Mehta, an accountant who took a sabbatical to run the Orchestre symphonie de Montréal in 1976 and never looked back.  His music management skills, his taste, his fiscal acuity are tops in our field. He is my mentor and we still talk at least once a week about artists, programs, fees and agents.


Other music, growing up?  CHOM FM in Montreal; first album I received was Sgt. Pepper; first album I bought was Jesus Christ Superstar. I still know all of the words to both. I took piano and violin lessons as a kid and was equally inept at both. But I would buy records or hear tunes on the radio and try to play them on the piano.

A first music teacher? I do remember (and still keep in touch with) my teacher from grade 6 or 7, Jennifer Giles. She allowed me to play Beatles tunes and showed me that lessons could actually be fun.

When did you first perform for an audience? My real performing started in University in an a cappella choir and in music theatre (The Boyfriend, Brigadoon, Camelot etc).

Your appetite for the stage? My parents took me to see a wide variety of theatre and music. They opened up my ears and mind to enormous possibilities. The soundtrack in our house was a mix of Wagner operas, Sinatra, Fischer-Dieskau, Beau Domage, CCR, Supertramp and Oscar Peterson. When I moved to the U.S. for college I was exposed to things I really hadn’t heard in Montreal like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder – they rocked my world.

Curating and programming? I always had a penchant for both sides of the stage… while at Stratford I managed a weekly cabaret series and directed some workshops here in Toronto. When I moved to Chicago my first job was as assistant director of The Importance of Being Earnest at The Court Theatre; I learned a few things about lighting, union contracts etc.

Did you ever think your life’s work would be in some entirely other sphere? In university I was an International Relations/Russian major. I was certain I would end up serving as a Canadian ambassador someday.

Music in your own day-to-day home and family life now? Music is 24/7… my son shares my love of African and Latin music and also tells me who the new pop stars are.

 You can read an expanded version of this interview online at


The Royal Conservatory Family Concerts are approximately 75 minutes long, and are as ideal for 6- to13-year-olds as they are for parents, grandparents and grown-up friends.

Monty Alexander’s Harlem-Kingston Express (April 25, 8pm, Koerner Hall) explores the connections between traditional reggae and straight-ahead jazz, while also forging some new ones. Pianist Monty Alexander, originally from Kingston, Jamaica, shot to fame when Sinatra first heard him in a tiny club

A pair of tickets for RICHARD SMITH

Natalie Merchant (May 2, 2pm, Koerner Hall) is a singer-songwriter and former lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs. Merchant’s Leave Your Sleep – a collection of classic children’s poetry adapted to original music in a range of styles –   inspired the creation of a hardcover picture book illustrated by Barbara McClintock, which includes a 19-track CD. Hear her band and a string ensemble bring them to life. This prize includes a pair of concert tickets and a signed copy of Leave Your Sleep.

The winner is LYNDA MOON

The Royal Conservatory’s  21C Music Festival presents

Off the Score (May 20, 8pm Koerner Hall) with ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland and Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker. They will join Met Opera violinist Yoon Kwon, bassist Marion Martinez and Electronic Valve Instrumentalist Judd Miller in a collaboration that concludes with the world premiere of Copeland’s Coincidence or Convergence?

A pair of tickets for JENNIFER LIU

Music’s Children gratefully acknowledges Carmen, Zarin, Zubin, Barbora, Fia, Ann, George and Beverly

NEW CONTEST! Who is May’s Child?

2007-MC-Contest.jpgConductor, composer, music librarian, trombonist, organist pianist, music educator.

Has “a very important date” at Harbourfront in May.

Also seen in these rabbit holes:
Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony, National Arts Centre Orchestra, Charlottetown Festival, Hart House Orchestra, Orchestra Toronto, High Park Choirs, Canadian Children’s Opera Company (just to name a few).

Know our Mystery Child’s name? WIN PRIZES! Send your best guess by April 24 to

2006-Marchs_Child_-_Jean_Stillwell.jpgJean Stilwell’s international career as a concert artist and operatic and lyric theatre mezzo-soprano has taken her all over the world but she has a well-maintained artistic presence in Canada. Her warm rich voice is currently familiar to many as radio co-host of Good Day GTA: Classical Breakfast with Mike Duncan & Jean Stilwell (weekdays 5-10am on the New Classical 96.3FM).

Some readers will remember Stilwell from the 1980’s in Stratford Festival Gilbert & Sullivan productions – including alternating with Maureen Forrester as the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe. Her first major operatic role in Canada was Olga (Eugene Onegin with the Vancouver Opera) followed by her very first Carmen (Lucian Pintilie’s Expo 86 production).  Subsequent engagements to sing Carmen include more than a dozen different companies. In Ontario Stilwell has sung a wide range of roles with Opera Atelier, Ottawa’s Opera Lyra, the Canadian Opera Company, Opera in Concert and Tapestry New Opera, and made numerous guest appearances with orchestras. Her ongoing cabaret and small-stage collaborations – in particular those with long-time musical friend Patti Loach (pianist and writer) – round out what continues to be an adventurous career.

Read more: March’s Child | Jean Stilwell
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