PUB: Formal name: public house – a building with a bar and one or more public rooms licensed for the sale and consumption of alcoholic drink, often also providing light meals. (Source: dictionary.com)

56aThis is the essence of Opera Bob’s Public House: the two year brain child of two good friends and myself. Located in the town whose hockey team is first to the golf course, with a soccer team masquerading as a football club, a basketball team whose constant rebuilding makes the TTC’s Sheppard line look like the road to the promised land, and a baseball team that, at least, keeps us hoping for another “touch them all Joe”! A town, in other words, where sport fans could use a drink.

In Hog’s Hipsterville, OB’s attempts to maintain the tradition of its name: a public place. A place where the neighbourhood Dad can take a break and catch the game of puck on the reality box, men of the letters of the law can toss back a half dozen after a long day of negotiations, the co-ed softball team can celebrate their shellacking, and the 905ers can see how the real spend their Friday nights; not standing in line for a sweaty basement bash.

As we spend every free moment posting on our walls, reading tweety’s latest squeak, waiting for our next message on our I-phone, I-pad, I-have no life, let us not forget the simpler and slower days of yore when human communication was done with the voice, the glaze, the shake of a head and the tap on the shoulder. Traditions are entrenched in our human condition for good reason. Just as opera was the rock music of its time (not the tuxedo wearing, champagne sipping we attribute to it), a bar is a solid wood counter, a bar man and taps of beer. Not a granite landing, with Hollywood star-in-waiting pouring you a martini from your choice of sixteen vodkas.

If opera is the highest form of human expression, combining all forms of art,  the pub must be the culmination of human disentanglement: the perfect place to vent, relax, let loose, argue, sit in solitary observance of our social machinations, or a place to drink the fruits of monkish labour.

Come down to the Public House; just off the Ossington strip on the road leading to the sleeper town of the steel Hammer. A place to be you, it’s a place where all are welcome (even plaid-shirt, tight jean, silly hat wearing, and match.com date varieties). Toss back a microbrew as Neil sings the line “Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” or a live group of ragtag culprits blasts through their songs much like the fat soprano busted through an aria of Joe Green’s at La Scala. Ponder deep questions: should a ball park dog only be consumed in the friendly confines or may it be done watching the great pastime on tv? How do you condimate yours while watching our boys in baby blue? The profundity persists…

Toronto-born operatic bass Robert Pomakov is currently working at the Metropolitan Opera on Rigoletto and Il Trovatore and makes his next local appearance in the COC’s new production of Rigoletto in the fall.

58__justthe_spot_heliconian_photo_andrew_fare58_justthespot_alisonmelville__by_menglin_gaoPart of rural Toronto when it was built in 1875, the Heliconian Hall is located near the south end of Hazelton Avenue, situated amongst galleries, upscale offices and private homes in what’s now known as Yorkville. It’s the home of the Heliconian Club, an organization founded in 1909 for professional women in the arts and one of the oldest associations of its kind in Canada.

For me, it’s a delightful and unpretentious little oasis in a surrounding sea of consumer excess, and an intimate concert hall which I have known since I was a kid. I played my first “non-compulsory” solo recital there, blissfully free from the pressure of university grading, and have made music there many more times since. I also recently became a member of the Heliconian Club and appreciate the opportunity it provides to connect and interact with women artists of various disciplines, backgrounds, ages, and perspectives on the creative life.

The current building opened in 1876 as the Olivet Congregational Church, and became the church hall and Sunday school in 1890 when a larger adjacent building was erected. In 1921, it was sold to the Painters Union and renamed Hazelton Hall when acquired by the Heliconian Club in 1923. Original elements of the Carpenter Gothic board-and-batten church have been restored to their former glory, including a Victorian rose window above the entrance, a majestic oak and brick wood-burning fireplace, vaulted ceiling and wooden rafters. The Hall has been appointed a National Historical Site, and the Lonely Planet website lists it as #213 of 540 places to visit in Toronto!

The current building also has a modest but well-appointed kitchen, a small bar and a patio at the rear, which is a convivial touch for summertime events. But perhaps what makes the Heliconian most appealing to musicians is its stellar acoustic and its intimate feel. With every seat occupied there’s room for 120, and the stage rises just a foot above the main floor, so there’s little chance of establishing that “us versus them” feeling that many performance venues still seem to evoke. It’s a great place for chamber music, and it’s easy to get to – two reasons why the revivified Baroque Music beside the Grange’s occasional concerts take place there. The hall is available for anyone to rent, at a very reasonable rate. An added bonus is that there’s almost always an art exhibit on display in the main space for concertgoers to explore.

BMBG’s previous home was the Church of St. George the Martyr, another historic building which predates the Heliconian Hall by about 40 years. These days, though, the multifaceted activities of the Music Gallery mean that the concert dates we’d like are often not available there. So we needed to find another venue for our concerts. The solution was truly a no-brainer: the historic and cozy atmosphere of the Heliconian Hall is perfect for our purposes, and the sound is fabulous. It’s a pleasure to play there. It feels very much like home.

BMBG’s upcoming Heliconian Hall concert The Coffeehouse Collective: Sociable music, Baroque-style is Friday March 4 at 8pm.

knox_college_-_clsWHEN I FURIOSI WAS in its toddler years, it staggered around the city looking for a place to set up its playpen. With a small but growing audience, this was a tricky search. Large venues seemed empty with our crowd, and tiny places made our somewhat unrestrained baroque ensemble feel like we were invading the audience’s personal space. Yes, chamber music is meant to be intimate, but no one wants to feel like the performers or audience can smell sweat.

After trying a few spots around town, we landed on Knox College Chapel. Tucked away in King’s College Circle, Knox College is the Presbyterian theology school of the University of Toronto. It boasts an address on St George Street, making it very easy to find and access, but the chapel itself is on the King’s end of the building.

It seats (tightly) about 150 people, and is a treat to the eye and ear. The intimate acoustic allows for chamber music to be performed with ease, but the chancel is distant enough from the pews to circumvent any odour problems. We always found the Knox staff friendly and there are enough toilets in the building to make for a short intermission.

The décor is spectacular – high vaulted ceilings with gothic wood, stone and glass panels. The passageway leading from St George to the chapel also leaves the traveler with a Hogwarts-esque feeling. Aside from the beauty and communion of the setting, Knox College Chapel contains two organs of note. The organ in the chancel is a modified Cassavant built in 1915, and the gallery organ is a Wolff tuned to a 5th comma meantone. All this is hidden in one of the best-kept secret concert venues in the city.

I Furiosi lasted happily in this space until early adolescence, at which point it had to seek larger accommodations. The glass doors at the entrance to the chapel still reverberate with the “BRAVO” yelled by one memorably drunken audience member, who stormed out, apparently overcome.

Although we are now in our adult digs and we do our own laundry and remember to have showers, we sometimes miss the early days with our friends at Knox. This is still the perfect spot for an up-and-coming chamber group. The acoustic is particularly beautiful for early music. Highly recommended for ensembles with impeccable personal hygiene.

DH Collage 2017 WEBIt has been two months since Dmitri Hvorostovsky is no longer with us, but it still hasn’t sunk in. It is just too hard to accept when a man of such physical and spiritual power and an instant smile on his face has left this world. The whole world knows him as an artist, but I was fortunate enough to know him as a human being and I want to share my thoughts and memories of him in that regard.

I have just returned from NYC, attending a special gathering organized by the Met Opera chair, Ann Ziff, for the artists, chorus members, stage hands, cleaners, ushers … basically everyone who works at the Met and wanted to come and raise a glass in Dima’s memory. The place was packed. And once again it reminded me how much Dima was loved by people, not just by his colleagues or opera connoisseurs but by the general public. He could connect with anyone … and he respected everyone, no matter their level of importance.

We first met in 2007 when I presented him in the War Songs project. I was trembling. He was a huge star already and I didn’t know what to expect. Also back then, I didn’t have much mileage dealing with stars of such calibre. But he made it so easy for me … it was a great first experience!

I remember how he wore a Maple Leaf jersey with his name on it, given to him by a friend the night before. He brought the jersey to the concert and tacked it near the stage. When I saw it and asked what it was for, he smiled and replied, “That’s my stage costume for tonight.” And he actually put it on for the encore! The audience went WILD!

It happened that the Toronto concert was the last one on a long 40-city world tour, and we took everyone, including the choir and orchestra, to a restaurant. In the middle of dinner, all the members of the choir and orchestra got up and sang to Dima – Mnogie Leta, a traditional Russian folk song that wishes someone a long life – Dima was so touched. I caught a tear on his face. He was a very humble man.

Now I understand that he crushed all the stereotypes of being a “star”. He was a truly deep, kind man, and he became quite philosophical towards to the end of his life … always thankful for everything he was able to achieve.

Within two years we had our next project here with Dima – Verdi arias with Sondra Radvanovsky. And there I saw the other side of him. We hired an orchestra from Montreal to accompany the tour (I am specifically not giving the name of the orchestra here) and when soloists arrived for the first rehearsal, the orchestra was not ready at all. Half of the scores were missing, as were some of the musicians. Dima stormed out of the room and said that either we find another orchestra or they have to get to work. Well… with having a first concert in three days and union musicians, it was not an easy time for me. I had to get into a lot of fights with the orchestra management in order to make things right (besides being totally embarrassed in front of my soloists). But Dmitri was absolutely right in his professional demands. He was a total perfectionist at his job.

Not everyone knows, but he practised EVERY DAY while he was sick and in treatment, and didn’t give up until almost his last days. He also pushed himself to exercise pretty much until the time he couldn’t walk anymore.

Incredible willpower prolonged his stage life for at least another year compared with his prognosis. He took every opportunity to be on stage during his illness whenever he could physically be there.

I recall him saying to me here in Toronto back in April 2017, “I don’t care if I am on stage in a wheelchair as long as I can sing. The moment I can’t, I am no longer interested in life.”

He also told me something which I will never forget, which was related to his last concert here in Toronto. He said, “You brought me back to life. Thank you.” Again, not many people know but Dima was in ICU for almost a month in December 2016. It happened in St. Petersburg. After his concert, he was taken to hospital with a terrible, very dangerous form of pneumonia. He had a huge hole in his lungs. Doctors were in awe that he was able to beat it, but he couldn’t sing for almost four months, and only started to sing a few weeks before his Toronto concert in April. One can only imagine what we went through as no one knew or could predict if Dima would be able to perform or not. We were all very nervous including Anna and Yusif and Mark Hildrew (Dima’s manager) … Everyone… But the internal power of this man was above and beyond any imagination.

He flew here with the whole family – Florence, Max, Nina and Illi (his mother-in-law), but he was already in a wheelchair.

Next day was the first rehearsal. He was nervous but he sounded beautiful! After the third aria, once he felt comfortable with the orchestra and his voice, he said “I am sorry we are done now – this is my first time singing after a four-month break and I need to be cautious.” One cannot imagine how much effort he put into going on stage that night … and it was a triumph!

Lots of people were here from all over the world including the top people from the Met. After such success in Toronto, Peter Gelb spoke to Dima and decided that he would go to NYC to participate in the Met gala two weeks later. He made a surprise appearance and the audience went wild!

Unfortunately, after that, things went downhill pretty quickly.

I went to see Dima on his birthday on October 16 … I was at his house and it was the last time. It was apparent that he was struggling with his speech and couldn’t walk at all. But despite all, he was extremely happy to see everyone. He smiled and looked satisfied. He spent about two hours with us – as long as he could. It was clear that this was goodbye.

Then it was the funeral in Moscow.

It was a very emotional and dramatic experience overall. I am sure many people watched the ceremony online. I tried to prepare myself mentally but I crashed at the very end. I lost it when thousands of people started clapping and screaming bravo.

The ceremony was held at Tchaikovsky Hall and a number of political figures and famous artists were making speeches while a huge line of Dima’s fans was entering the hall and stopping by the stage to say a final goodbye – tens of thousands of people in an endless line-up, with tons of flowers in the best of Russian traditions.

It was very quiet in the hall except for Dima’s voice in the background and occasional songs by the choir. So at the very end when they announced the service was over, everyone got up and started to clap. That lasted for over 30 minutes. While that was happening, the coffin was taken outside, where 10,000 people had gathered and created a corridor, throwing flowers on the pavement where men were carrying the coffin to the hearse.

That was truly heartbreaking and simply showed how much Dima was loved by his people. At the cemetery the next day, an old woman approached me. She was dressed very simply and cried all the time – she was such a big fan. She gave me 2,000 rubles (which I think might have been her full pension), asking me to wire this money to the National Hospital of Neurology and Neurosurgery in London, where Dima had been taking treatment. She said she didn’t have a computer and didn’t know how to do this but she wanted to do it in Dima’s name. That’s the impact he made on people’s lives. 

I can’t even begin to tell you how gratifying it is for me that I had a chance to work with him and be instrumental in presenting him in Canada.

I think he will remain with us for a long time before it will start to sink in that he is gone.

Despite how difficult it is for all of us – his friends and colleagues – to absorb this loss, it is totally unbearable for his family – kids, wife and of course his parents. It is simply unimaginable.

But his voice and his smile are here for eternity. He lived like a hero, fought like a hero and died like one.

Thank you, Dima.

–Svetlana Dvoretsky

Cathy ElliottI first met Cathy Elliott back in the early summer of 2004 when I stage managed her in an experimental musical production at the Toronto Fringe Festival. The days were long and intense, yet Cathy’s spirit shone through all of the stress with her laughter-infused genuine warmth and caring for everyone in the company.

More recently, when I started to adapt and direct Shakespeare plays for the DAREArts Foundation’s summer camps our paths crossed again, as Cathy wore many hats for DA in marketing and publicity as well as her now almost legendary work with the foundation in First Nations communities in Northern Ontario. One memorable summer she came to our rescue when the artist in charge of teaching our campers about set design was called away at the last minute. Cathy was there, ideas and plans ready to implement, energy to burn and to spare, to make everything work out well.

In mid-October of this year I heard with delight that she had just completed a very successful first workshop of the new musical Starlight Tours at Sheridan College, and Facebook was full of glowing posts from the participants about the inspiration of working with her. Created by Cathy with Leslie Arden, this musical, like a lot of her most recent work, combined two central themes in her life – her brilliant talent as a musical theatre creator and her desire to honour and share her heritage as an Indigenous artist and proud member of the Mi’kmaq nation.

The next day, October 16, I was shocked to hear that she was gone, killed the night before by a car while walking near her home in Alliston, Ontario. This was even more of a shock since her career was just beginning to soar, with her acclaimed performance this year in Corey Payette’s new musical about the residential schools, Children of God, at Urban Ink in Vancouver and at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. There was also the successful workshopping of Starlight Tours, her recent one-woman musical Moving Day, and another new musical very close to her heart, Lonecloud, about to begin its public journey at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Weesageechak Festival this week.

This past Sunday, November 19, there was a beautiful celebration of Cathy organized by her partner, Leslie Arden, and Native Earth, at their performance space at Daniel’s Spectrum in Regent Park. It was an amazing evening, not only moving but joyous, full of love and laughter, many stories from her friends and family, and performances from her musicals.

It was also a showcase of her work over the years: several songs from The Talking Stick commissioned by the Charlottetown Festival in 2011, the first all-Indigenous musical performed there; a sweet and moving solo from Silas Marner sung by the ageless Glynis Ranney; scenes from Lonecloud featuring Herbie Barnes in the title role of the Mi’kmaq medicine man who performed in Wild West shows; and excerpts from Fireweeds: Women of the Yukon from 1993, the musical she researched while performing as Diamond Tooth Gertie in the Yukon. The songs from this musical were feminist and galvanizing – why isn’t this a more widely known classic of Canadian musical theatre? The evening wrapped up with a magical rendition of “Stories Have Souls” from the in-progress Lonecloud sung by Arden, and then Cathy herself in a recorded version of From the Heart from The Talking Stick, to a final video photo montage (created by Michael Morey).

These last two songs can be seen as theme songs for Cathy, combining as they do the use of music to tell stories, the content of those stories being rooted in her Indigenous heritage and her desire to explore and share that heritage with the world – and, even if those stories begin in darkness like Starlight Tours, always looking for messages of love and hope.

These goals seem to have really begun when Cathy was the first Indigenous artist invited to join the charitable foundation DAREarts, as they headed up north to Webequie for their first time working with Indigenous youth, using arts, story and song to give confidence and inspire leadership. This was a partnership with Cathy that continued for ten years, only stopped by her passing, and would include her directing a documentary film about the experience, Fill My Hollow Bones, narrated by Graham Greene.

Marilyn Field, founder and director of DAREArts, has spoken about how that first trip for Cathy “was the beginning of her embracing and finding her Indigenous self,” that she seemed to find “her voice coming from deep inside herself.” Laura Mackinnon, lead teacher for DAREArts, who worked with Cathy for five years travelling all over the remote areas of the North (even to Tuktoyaktuk in the Arctic), put into words what many are feeling: “She taught me so much about Indigenous culture, about artistic generosity, storytelling and the power of a limitless imagination.”

Cathy leaves an immense legacy that we are lucky to have.

Sheridan College has established a Cathy Elliott Memorial Scholarship for Indigenous students: Sheridancollege.ca/giving-to-sheridan/ways-to-give/memorial-or-tribute-giving/cathy-elliott-memorial-scholarship.aspx; and DAREArts has created the Cathy Elliott Fund to Empower Indigenous Youth – darearts.com.

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