Edmonton Opera Blog

Opera under development — auditions on both sides of the continent

Thursday, November 29. 2012

I’m writing now from New York, where we’re making our pilgrimage to do auditions, along with Timothy Vernon, Patrick Corrigan and Ian Rye from Pacific Opera Victoria. Every November/December is always known in the opera community as “audition season” — maybe because there usually isn’t much opera this time of year, since that’s when ballet companies use the halls to do The Nutcracker. In any case, we’re here to hear three days of auditions with our friends from POV, and to find some exciting young talent that we can bring to our audiences in Edmonton.

We’re especially excited to hear a few members of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Met tomorrow morning.

This is the third set of auditions we've done recently, as we were in Toronto at the end of October and in Calgary in late November. I just wanted to take a moment to say how much Sandra and I enjoyed Calgary Opera’s production of Verdi’s Otello last week. Otello was Verdi’s next-to-last opera, and his final tragedy (his last opera was Falstaff) and it’s an utter masterpiece. It was great to see many artists who have performed with Edmonton Opera before: Gregory Dahl, Colin Ainsworth, and John Mac Master — as well as to hear the orchestra wonderfully led by Robert Tweten, whom our audiences recently heard conducting Fidelio.

While we were in Calgary, we also got a chance to hear auditions of the Emerging Artists at Calgary Opera. What a fantastic group of singers! Every one of them had something really special to offer, and a couple of them are in the finals of the COC Ensemble Studio competition, which is happening this weekend in Toronto.

Young artist programs, like Calgary’s Emerging Artist program, COC’s Ensemble Studio and the Met’s Lindemann Program, are such an important part of what opera companies do, and they’re an essential part of developing the art form of opera. Many talented singers graduating out of college usually aren’t quite ready to begin professional careers — what they need is practical experience. And so the young artist program serves as kind of a bridge between school and the professional world. Once they have all the vocal and theoretical training from the university, a young artist program sets them up with all of the practical stage experience that they will need to be successful — it makes them “stage-smart,” and shows them what it’s like to work in a professional company. They also serve as ambassadors for the art form and for the company in the community by singing concerts wherever they can. It’s a win-win: the artists build their experience, and the city gets more opera!

Groundhog Day of opera

Wednesday, November 28. 2012

Inspired by the 30-Day Opera Challenge done by Austin Lyric Opera, the staff at the Edmonton Opera have taken on their own 30-day challenge. Each week, we'll post answers from staff members about various aspects of opera, whether it's their favourite aria, an opera house they'd like to visit or their opinion on a genre. We welcome comments about your own take on the question, either on the blog or via social media. 

Which opera would you see countless times?

Clayton Rodney, technical director: Satyagraha, composed by Phillip Glass and libretto by Glass and Constance DeJong. I saw it in New York, and it's hours of my life that I could just watch again and again.

Sandra Gajic, CEO: The Ring Cycle. I've seen it numerous times, all over the world, I've travelled for it, and each concept is so different and uncovers new layers. I will try to make it to Seattle (in August 2013) for their production of The Ring Cycle.

Cameron MacRae, creative coordinator: Satyagraha, more for the music than anything else. I love Phillip Glass and could just listen to him all the time.

Jelena Bojic, director of community relations: (When it was her turn, and two other people had already answered Satyagraha, she quipped that she thought she was being original with her choice.) Each of the acts is about a major cultural person who affected the world, and the music is amazing. Before I saw it, I had four espresso to prepare — it's almost four hours long — but I sat there with my eyes wide open throughout the entire thing, amazed.

Kelly Sheard, grant writer: Puccini wrote an opera, La Fanciulla del West, that happened in the Wild West. I don't know about seeing it again and again and again, but I'd certainly like to see it, as something completely different. 

Mandy MacRae, education and community outreach coordinator: I saw Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera, and the set and costumes were absolutely beautiful. I could watch that one many times.

Ha Neul Kim, company and stage manager: I have too many I'd watch over and over again. Bluebeard's Castle is one. I love it. It's just so different than anything else, and it's amazing. 

Tim Yakimec, director of production: I would see The Tales of Hoffmann over and over again. I have seen a number of productions of it, and I would see it again because of the music, but also because of different director's concepts working on the piece. I have seen four different perspectives and all have been so interesting because of the director's choice for setting and character development. 

Eight days with Shelter cast, crew and orchestra

Thursday, November 22. 2012

Sunday: Day 1 (Nov. 11)

Edmonton Opera production director Tim Yakimec arrives at my doorstep with a cargo van. Inside is the mini fridge I’d asked to have backstage, a printer and a kettle. The rest of the space is reserved to pick up the double bass at the airport. I’m along for the ride to the airport to become a driver, and bring back the Tapestry New Opera creative team. I don’t know any of them, so I made a sign to hold at the airport like in the movies. It says Edmonton Opera – Tapestry New Opera – SHELTER in big letters. Only one person noticed it. Sadly my life is not a Hollywood film.

Everyone from Tapestry has been working on this show for months; the writing and workshop process took years. As a local stage manager, I’m working just the shows and the week of tech to be backstage and be a local resource.

The van is rented, suitcases are found and we head back into town with the luggage, Ben, Beth and Aaron (video and lighting designers and their new baby!!), Sue (set designer) and Isolde (stage manager, my boss). I am a great tour guide (and a humble one as well) and take everyone to the grocery store to get set up for the week.

Isolde and I chat about what the week will look like over a tasty beverage. I’ve got a list of tasks for the morning!

Monday: Day 2 (Nov. 12)

A brisk walk to the hotel from my place, and I’m again the chauffeur, driving the gang to the theatre. At 8 a.m. It’s early.

Load-in has begun! The projection screen is being assembled and costumes are coming out of suitcases. Turns out that the suitcase is a prop too, not just a suitcase!

Then I’m driving back to the airport to find the orchestra, the cast, the director and maestro! We have two vans and Tim’s truck so luckily everyone and everything fits.

Isolde sent me a whole bunch of paperwork with my copy of the score the week before. Now we just need to make sure I know about the changes in blocking and the cuts to the score. That way I can make sure that all the props and quick-change pieces are in the right place at the right time backstage!

Onstage lights are being hung and focused. Sue is doing small repairs on costumes. Jesse (the bass player) comes to the theatre to make sure his bass arrived all in one piece. It has. It’s a great day.

Tuesday: Day 3 (Nov. 13)

Our props and costume areas are all set up. Lighting cues are being created. Connor, our supernumerary, and Michael, from Tapestry, are champions and are being the light-walkers. It’s not a glamorous job; it’s akin to being a stand-in in a movie. They stand onstage where the singers will be standing and the lights change in intensity around them until it looks perfect. This can take a while, and can be (for the light-walkers) pretty dull. But they hang in there! (And continue to do so for the next couple of days. Champs!)

I’m sitting by my score looking through it in the moments between needing to run to fetch something for someone, making tea and coffee, grabbing the prop/costume piece that’s needed onstage, relaying information from the carpentry shop to backstage and to the audience where the creative team is stationed. Today we are setting the prop house on fire. It takes a while to perfect the mechanism. The CSA fellow, Aidan (Tapestry production manager), and Jeff (EOA assistant technical director), are all working hard to make this piece of theatre magic work. Spoiler alert: The house burns at the end of the opera.

Then the cast arrives and it’s time to do the piano tech! How did that happen so quickly? I finally get to hear the music. All the pieces are coming together. I am trying to remember everyone’s name, what prop they need when and how all the scene changes we’ve worked on fit into the running time of the opera. Hectic, but fun!

Wednesday: Day 4 (Nov. 14)

The orchestra and the cast are all here, and it’s wonderful to hear what the opera will sound like with everyone. And it sounds great. There is one part of the show when I have a moment to groove out and dance backstage to the music. Yup, this is my real job!

We have a dress rehearsal tonight. There are a few invited guests, and they laugh at the jokes. It’s so good to have an audience. I am getting the feeling of the show too, but I’m still checking my notes all the time to make sure I don’t forget anything.

Thursday: Day 5 (Nov. 15)

It’s OPENING NIGHT!!!!

We have a short rehearsal in the afternoon to iron out the last couple of wrinkles. It’s the last time Keith, our director, and Wayne, the maestro, have to give notes before the big night.

Tonight the Edmonton Opera is treating us all to a small dinner at the theatre. What a wonderful surprise! I’m excited and nervous about the show. I haven’t written my opening night cards yet, so I hide backstage and write Toi Toi Toi to everyone!

But time ticks on, the patrons arrive and suddenly I’m giving the two minutes to show time call. And we’re off! And everything goes well. There are chuckles from the audience at all the right places, the singers are great, the music is soaring, the props are where they should be, the house burns just like it’s supposed to and then: applause! We did it!

I eat a lot of mini-pastries at the opening night reception to celebrate.

Friday: Day 6 (Nov. 16)

I get to sleep in today! What bliss. Plus, my job is to go to work and make the magic at the opera happen tonight. It’s pretty much the best. There are only a couple “day after opening” mishaps. I get to spend time with Maestro in the car as we race back to the hotel to get his score, and arrive back at the theatre to learn that a frappuccino leapt off the table onto Christine’s costume. Michelle, our wardrobe angel, saves the day! Everything is ready for the show, thankfully, and on it goes!

Saturday: Day 7 (Nov. 17)

It’s a two-show day today. Or as cast member Keith Klassen said to me, “Groundhog Day.” You know, like the movie where Bill Murray lives the same day over and over again? And it’s true, part way through the second show I’m looking at my notes thinking “Didn’t I already do that?” and I had done it: during the matinée.

There seems to be a gremlin in one of the moving lights. We will set it during the crew call before the show, and then during the show it has a mind of its own. I’m sure we’re the only ones who notice. We will fix it again tomorrow!

Sunday: Day 8 (Nov. 18)

It’s the last show! Isolde is already handing out taxi chits for some folks to leave right after the show. My mom and dad are coming to see it this afternoon and I’m excited to hear their reactions over birthday dinner tonight. Oh yeah, it’s my birthday — everyone sings to me backstage before the audience comes in. Opera “Happy Birthday” is the best! Wow.

The show runs smoothly and then the work lights are on, the crew has arrived and the screens are coming down, the orchestra is packing up, and I am emptying the coffee maker and packing up all my stage management supplies.

The crew will be working until everything gets cleared and restored to how the theatre was when we arrived. I’m not on that crew however, so once all the dressing rooms have been cleaned out, and my supplies are all packed up, Isolde, Tim and I pack the truck and I’m done.

I drive Isolde back to the hotel to say goodbye. I really can’t believe it’s only been a week. I’ve been so lucky to work with her — what an amazing stage manager and mentor. It’s been wonderful working with the whole company too! We say “until next time, whenever that is.”

And that’s it! The week of Shelter in Edmonton! Whew!

Anna Davidson was the assistant stage manager for the ATB Canadian Series production of "Shelter," at La Cité Francophone Nov. 15-18. She has previously worked with the Edmonton Opera on "The Mikado," "The Barber of Barrhead" and "Carmen." She has also worked as a stage manager for the Citadel Theatre, Northern Light Theatre, Shadow Theatre, Workshop West, Theatre Network, Concrete Theatre and L'Uni Theatre. She is a graduate of the theatre production program at MacEwan and the theatre performance program at Red Deer College. 

Wishlist of opera houses to visit

Tuesday, November 20. 2012

Inspired by the 30-Day Opera Challenge done by Austin Lyric Opera, the staff at the Edmonton Opera have taken on their own 30-day challenge. Each week, we'll post answers from staff members about various aspects of opera, whether it's their favourite aria, an opera house they'd like to visit or their opinion on a genre. We welcome comments about your own take on the question, either on the blog or via social media. 

Which opera house would you like to visit some day, and why?

Michael Spassov, artistic administrator & chorus master: The Mariinsky Theatre. I've always wanted to go to St. Petersburg, and Canadian architect Jack Diamond (Diamond Schmitt Architects) is the architect — the same architectural firm who designed the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto.

Tim Yakimec, director of production: The State Opera House in Prague. It has all the original stage mechanisms, and they all still work — they haven't modernized it. Plus the city is gorgeous. It's incredible that they're still using the original stage mechanisms and yet we're about always looking ahead to the next big thing.

Clayton Rodney, technical director: There's two — an old one, the Paris Opera House because it's in Paris, and the one in Oslo (Tim Yakimec has been there). An old one and a new one.

Tara-Lee LaRose, box office manager: I did lots in Vienna and I walked by the opera house, but I didn't go in, so I'd like to go to that one.

Analee Roman, CFO: Oslo, same as Clayton. Only because I think it would be cool to see opera performed on water. 

Amanda MacRae, education and community outreach coordinator: I would love to visit the Sydney Opera House. I really enjoy travelling and visiting different UNESCO heritage sites, and it would be amazing to take a tour through it and watch a performance. It's supposed to be a really stunning building.

Ha Neul Kim, company and stage manager: Shanghai Opera, because the original architecture is still on the outside, but they gutted the inside and built a whole new theatre inside.

Lauren Tenney, marketing coordinator: I have three. New York, because the Met is just something you should go to, and it's probably the easiest one that I could travel to. Sydney, because of the building, but I don't know if I'll ever get there. And Vienna, because it's old.

Cameron MacRae, creative coordinator: The same one that Clayton wants to go to, in Oslo. It's become such a destination for tourists, so it's cool that people might go just for the architecture but end up seeing an opera too. And I want to go to La Scala to see opera in a place where it's so much a part of the culture and history.

Jeff McAlpine, assistant technical director: The Royal Opera House, because I really like England, and that's what I think of when I think of England.

Sandra Gajic, CEO: Savonlinna, in Finland. It's an old ancient castle with a summer festival, and I haven't been there yet. 

Kelly Sheard, grant writer: The opera house I want to visit is a little less grand and a lot closer than some. I have yet to see the Canmore Opera House, located at Heritage Park in Calgary. I would like to sit with the resident ghost, Sam, in one of the rows. 

Jelena Bojic, director of community relations: Mine would be Vienna Opera House, as one of the most famous opera houses that has a different opera performance every day! The quality of productions sounds truly amazing and I'd love to see anything there. 

Catherine Szabo, communications coordinator: I would want to visit the Amargosa Opera House, in Death Valley, Calif., because it is literally in the middle of nowhere. Also, the Savonlinna Opera Festival sounds gorgeous.

Chicago weekend full of highlights

Monday, November 12. 2012

Leaving Edmonton in November during one of the first snowstorms felt rather good in spite of a very early flight. After a direct flight and a smooth ride to our boutique hotel — within easy walking distance to the Lyric Opera, Chicago Symphony, Art Institute and Millenium Park — we all had a lovely dinner together at Trattoria No. 10 (Italian food and wine was a must before Verdi!).

The first performance we saw at the Lyric was Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra. The music and drama of Simon Boccanegra are magnificent from the first bar to finish. No wonder it took Verdi 24 years to revise it after the initial debacle; it took the talent of Arrigo Boito to revise the original libretto that Piave did for the first performance in 1857. The version as we know it today was performed for the first time in 1881. In its revised form it became a masterpiece of late Verdi period, tightly structured — no more ceremonial moments distracting us form the drama at hand.  In 1881, the “showy” moments did not appeal to Verdi any longer. In this opera, Verdi composed some glorious music with profound lyricism while remaining such a musical psychologist. A great example of the latter is the duet of Amelia and Boccanegra, which brings forth such moving humanity to this great work.

The production was co-produced with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden back in 1995, set designed by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Peter Hall and directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the wonderful Lyric Opera orchestra. The cast was stellar — internationally acclaimed American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, legendary Italian bass Ferruccio Furlanetto as Fiesco, Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey as the power-hungry villain Paolo, Bulgarian soprano Krassimira Stoyanova in her American debut as Amelia and the American tenor Frank Lopardo portrayed Gabriele and his path from hating Boccanegra to calling him father.  It truly was a great night of perfectly done Verdi that we all loved, in spite of being exhausted.

Saturday was an early start so that the group could join the half-day architectural tour of Chicago organized by the Architectural Foundation of Chicago. It was worth every minute as we walked and were also driven on a bus with a great volunteer docent. Such a great reminder of the beginnings of building skyscrapers — we saw examples of Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright (we visited the Robie House in Hyde Park), from the neo-gothic style of the UofChicago’s campus to the very modern campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) designed in the ’40s and ’50s by Mies van der Rohe (first American university campus designed by a single architect since 1819 at the University of Virginia). I always loved these giants of architecture, though I have to agree with Mies van der Rohe that less is more! I occasionally wish that we implemented more of that restraint when designing opera productions!

Saturday night was dedicated to symphonic music at its best — Chicago Symphony under the baton of Charles Dutoit (he was for 25 years the artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and is currently both the artistic director and principal conductor of the London Royal Philharmonic Orchestra). On the program we had Britten’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, Op. 34, Walkton’s Violin Concerto performed beautifully by Gil Shaham and after the intermission Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A Major.  Dutoit conducted Beethoven’s 7 from memory in one breath, one take — no pauses, no rest, with all colours, dynamics, sounds, rhythm — everything coming at us in the audience as such powerful, phenomenal interpretation of the work of a genius! I can hardly remember when was the last time a symphony got such applause for its great performance! I was in tears! Our whole group was so energized that late night drinks and long conversation were in order! No one wanted to go to sleep after experiencing such a sublime performance.

Sunday – a treat of having brunch before the opera and then the matinee performance of Massenet’s Werther, based on the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther by great German Romantic poet Goethe. It puzzles me how a man like Massenet, who lived a life where passion or drama were not present, could get so deeply into a story as powerful as Werther and make such a masterpiece out of it. The suffering soul of us humans — what can be better for an opera! This production was co-produced with San Francisco Opera – set and costumes designed by Louis Desire and directed by Francisco Negrin. In the pit, Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera orchestra. American tenor Matthew Polenzani made the role debut as Werther and was more than beautifully matched by the French mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, who made her North American debut in the role of Charlotte. After the performance we organized for our tour an early dinner at an exclusive restaurant within the Lyric Opera building, open only to high-end donors. Our own patrons and members of this tour loved the privilege to be there and it gave us a chance to continue talking about the production right there. We didn’t have to walk back to our hotel in the rain until much later when, after great food and wine, we didn’t mind a little walk in the rain at all! It all was just perfect.

As all good things must end, so does our tour to Chicago too, but not until we visited the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday and had a nice lunch at the restaurant there, and all in good time to be picked up to go back to the airport. We parted saying, until we travel together again.

Sneak peek of "Shelter"

Friday, November 2. 2012

We opera-lovers sometimes lose sight of the fact that most of the “old masters” we revere (Verdi, Mozart, etc.) were writing opera for audiences who didn’t particularly care about “old masterworks,” the way many opera-goers do today. In fact, opera in Verdi’s time was more like movies are today: sure, there were some connoisseurs who would occasionally revive older operas, but 99 per cent of people wanted to see the latest hot new opera that had just come out.

So, last Wednesday, I found myself in Toronto at the offices of Tapestry New Opera Works — a Toronto opera company with whom we’ve co-produced the world premiere of one of the latest hot new Canadian operas, Julie Salverson and Juliet Palmer’s Shelter. I was there to get a sneak peek — a look at a “room run-through.” This is the point in the rehearsal process where we’re still in the rehearsal space, the singers are still in street clothes, we’re still using rehearsal props, but we’re finally beginning to run the show.

Shelter tells the story of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima from a distinctively Canadian point of view — the uranium used in that bomb came from Canadian mines, where the radioactivity killed many of the miners. It’s a show about the destructive power of science and war that begins in a Canadian uranium mining community and ends high above Japan.

Shelter engages these huge themes through an intimate story centred on a family torn apart by the forces of history: a Canadian couple named Thomas and Claire, and their daughter, Hope. There are two other characters: the Scientist, representing the promise of science to improve peoples’ lives, and the Pilot (who will drop the bomb) representing science’s more sinister aspects.

The show begins with simplicity itself: two people falling in love. In the scene where Thomas and Claire first meet at a garden party, Christine Duncan and Peter McGillivray communicated hilariously the dorky miscommunication of a first meeting. Later, as their daughter Hope (Maghan McPhee) falls in love with the Pilot (Keith Klassen), the music that accompanied it was really touching and romantic.

There’s also a powerful scene where the Scientist (Andrea Ludwig) confronts the Pilot as he is seducing Hope: the Scientist had always idealistically wished that science would be used to benefit humanity, and in the bomb he’s about to drop, she sees her work perverted into an instrument that will kill vast numbers of people.

We at Edmonton Opera are so excited about our new ATB Canadian Series, because through it we can reach out and create partnerships with companies like Tapestry who are creating new Canadian work. We can bring those works to our audiences in Edmonton — hot off the press, in English, in our own country, and speaking to our own themes.

Tapestry New Opera Works is a wonderful company: it’s the brainchild of music director Wayne Strongman, and what Wayne has created in Tapestry New Opera Works is something really special: an opera company devoted exclusively to new Canadian operas. And they don’t just present operas that have already been written — they nurture the creative process from the very beginning.

Their process begins with what’s called a LibLab (short for “composer-librettist laboratory”), where they invite a group of composers and librettists to Toronto, pair them off, and ask them to write short opera scenes, which are then performed by a group of singers and a pianist. This is a wonderful chance for librettist-composer collaborations to be born, as well as for composers and librettists to hone their craft.

Out of the LibLabs, Tapestry will identify a few artists who will receive commissions for a few works. Once the pieces are written, they’re performed in a “workshop” — a simple reading, with singers and a pianist, which gives the creators a chance to see the work on its feet in front of an audience, and iron out any kinks before the work hits the stage, but also to generate interest in producing the work — so that the work is the best it can be.

Opera auditions never disappoint

Tuesday, October 30. 2012

This latest trip to Toronto wouldn’t have happened without our successful application to Canada Council travel grant! We can count our blessings that there is still government funding for us in the opera sector that have to stay connected in our small opera community; see other productions, network with colleagues, hear singers across this vast continent. We can’t cast our future productions and bring to Edmonton talented, first of all Canadian, singers unless we hear them and in some cases also see them on stage. But also, as we know — we can’t always find who we need in Canada, so we have to be aware of what goes on opera stages internationally too. This is why we will be auditioning in New York next weekend, after last weekend’s auditions in Toronto.

This time artistic administrator Michael Spassov and I complemented the joint auditions with our three colleagues from the Pacific Opera Victoria while also seeing two of the COC’s fall productions. Yes, we packed a lot into two days!

Auditions – we started them on Saturday with hearing the artists from the world-renowned COC’s young artists’ program, the Ensemble Studio. Every year, hundreds of artists apply to this program, which is followed up by Ensemble Studio staff conducting audition tours across the continent and travelling to attend productions in further search of talent. This is supported by some wonderfully generous individuals as well as corporate philanthropy, as COC scouts for the best. As a result COC has a truly admirable group of young, very promising artists that are such pleasure to hear and see. It’s never a disappointment but always a challenge for us to find enough roles for as many as we can, to cast them in the next couple of seasons.

We auditioned numerous artists (each gets 10 minutes — in total we listened for 12 hours), some represented by agents, some self-represented. Some travelled from far away to come and sing for us, bringing their own pianists, marketing materials … they know how hard the competition for limited number of roles is, as we only offer a small number of productions across Canada, so they come well prepared and ready to charm, impress, wow us!

We have just digitized our artists’ database, so having all the details in one easily searchable place is wonderful — everything from artists’ names, vocal abilities, characteristics, to the repertoire they sing for us, potential roles suitable for the voice type, covers, understudies, emergency covers for some roles, and to singers we need to watch their progress in cases when they are still very young and developing. There is a lot to record as we want to make sure we have every single detail in there. This even includes what each of the artist wears to the audition — a big challenge for Michael with colours and a frequent topic of my teasing. He needs to understand that grey and beige are not the same!

On Saturday evening we saw the new production of the world’s probably most beloved operetta, Johann Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. This production was directed by Christopher Alden, designed by Allen Moyer (set), Constance Hoffmann (costumes) and Paul Palazzo (light). Johannes Debus, COC’s music director, conducted the amazing COC’s orchestra and always perfect chorus (thanks Sandra Horst). Allison Grant did real magic with the choreography. Great cast — tenor David Pomeroy as Alfred (we will see David as our Hoffmann in February), young, promising soprano Ambur Braid (member of the Ensemble Studio) alternating with Mireille Asselin in the role of Adele. American soprano Tamara Wilson was Rosalinde (unusual repertoire for Tamara; great voice for Leonora or Elizabeth and such), great Canadian tenor Michael Schade was Dr. Eisenstein, and American Mezzo Soprano Laura Tucker in the pant role of Prince Orlofsky. We heard Claire de Sevigne, Peter Barrett and James Westman (to mention a few) in some of the smaller roles. It was a fun-filled production, beautiful to watch as the costumes and the set worked so well! Great characters sung and acted so well, the story told well managing to resonate with today’s audiences as well as it did in 1874 when it premiered in Vienna.

The Sunday matinée performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore is this year’s COC’s tribute to Verdi’s 200th anniversary (and then adding Tristan in February celebrating Wagner’s bi-centenary too). This production was somewhat challenging to watch for a variety of reasons, one being the very dark, grey, ominous, monolithic sets brought from Opera de Marseille where it premiered in 2005 to mixed reviews. It was unfortunate that Ramon Vargas was not available to be at this performance — we had instead Italian tenor Riccardo Massi (regular at the Met) who was not on par with the amazing South African soprano Elza van den Heever (she is to have her Met debut as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda) or the powerful performance of the Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Manistina as Azucena. Canadian baritone Russell Braun was well received by the audience, though they took a bit of time to become warm and accepting of the great drama going on stage. I wasn’t sure if it was the Sunday afternoon nap time or what, but it took until almost the end of the performance before any kind of response was given to some great singing on the stage. This opera puts demands of highest order on the chorus (especially from the men) which the COC’s chorus met with great professionalism and beauty. Il Trovatore is such great opera; Verdi at his best and we found it a fitting tribute to the beloved composer. Musical direction by the Italian conductor Marco Guidarini was impeccable and a true pleasure to listen to.

So — all in all — great trip, two excellent productions of highest calibre and the ability to hear so many great singers both on stage and in audition! How can one wish for a better weekend!? I even managed to escape the super storm and made it on time to our own wonderful Edmonton Symphony’s Gala last night! Stay tuned for the travel/audition notes from NYC next weekend.

Opening night draws near

Monday, October 15. 2012

When I was asked by Sandra at Edmonton Opera to write a blog about my experience in Aida, I feared that I might not have much to say. Well, it turns out that I’ve been writing and editing for quite some time, and I have much to say!

Currently living in Fort McMurray, not only do I consider Edmonton Opera as my “local” opera company, but I am also very familiar with the concept of travelling for work. The principal artists hail from around the world, and I am deeply honoured to be working with them! At every turn they are inspiring me (and making me laugh sometimes, of course). I am finding that I need less sleep, and that I cannot keep from smiling most of each day. I stay longer at rehearsals than I am required to, because this music is exquisite, the process is intense, and I want to soak it all in. Everyone involved is giving 100% of their energy, vision and focus to present Aida with artistic integrity.

Sitting in these rehearsals, I ask myself a series of questions. How can opera not be relevant? How do I communicate to the masses that the stories, although often exaggerated, are about the human condition, about relationships, and are accessible and understandable? How do I describe the sheer power of the human voice and its spectrum of colours that the audience will hear in Aida? How do I tell the story of hundreds of people working from their hearts and minds to bring to you this tragic story? How do I convey the strength of the chorus, the beauty of the dancers, the precision of the music and the incredible visual spectacle that the audience will see? I believe the answer is to invite you to come to the opera with an open mind, to experience the utter magic for which there are no words.

It goes without saying that I miss my husband Mike when I’m away, and there are some lonely times. I am grateful that, although not an opera fan at all, he is ridiculously supportive of my career choices. Thank God, because when I walked out onstage at the first rehearsal in the Jubilee Auditorium, all I could do was throw up my arms to the invisible audience and let out a laugh, especially knowing that in the audience, every night, will be friends and family from Sherwood Park, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and throughout Alberta! This will not be the last time I share opera with amazing colleagues and audiences. In fact, I will go as far as to say that I believe that not only is opera relevant, but that it will become stronger in this generation. I look forward to continuing this amazing journey.

Edited to add: It is production week! The collective energy between the entire team is palpable. If that is any indication at all of what will be created each night when the curtain rises on Oct. 19, 21, 23 and 25, the audience is in for a powerful, visceral experience.

Cara Brown sings the role of the high priestess in the Edmonton Opera's production of "Aida." Originally from Edmonton, she currently lives in Fort McMurray. 

Large scale brainstorming

Monday, September 24. 2012

There's nothing more dangerous than a good idea, if it’s the only one you have.
-Mark Twain

I attended an audience development session in Montreal last week, conducted by Opera Canada, and had a chance to spend two days brainstorming with marketing people that work in all of our country’s opera companies. While these types of training sessions can be overwhelming, I came out of it feeling as energized as you do after a double espresso. The sessions were facilitated by Claude Legrand, author of Innovative Intelligence, a book that literally teaches you how to come up with good ideas. Claude believes that good ideas can only be a product of group work, and that if you come up with a great idea on your own, it’s most likely by accident. You need to be in a productive environment, surrounded by both experts and non-experts, creative and practical people. That way, you have a good mix, and great potential to have a successful brainstorming session.

It was certainly time well spent; we all put our minds together in this crazy, wild process that Claude teaches, and started stripping down our main problems and questions that follow all opera companies: How do we reach new audiences? How do we get people to come back after they see one opera? How do we provide great patron service, so that we differentiate ourselves from others?

Many other “How do we” questions came up, and our goal for this short session was not to find answers or solutions. It was to analyze the questions, remove the ambiguity and non-certainty of them, and then reformat the question and come to the core of it. It was an enlightening process that all of us really enjoyed and learned from, whether it was Canadian Opera Company that markets nine operas a year or one of the smaller companies that presents two. We all have the same goal and challenge: to attract new audiences while keeping the current audience engaged. There is no magic solution or answer, but we all strive to do that, and hope that we’ll be successful.

The amazing thing is that opera audiences are one of the most engaged and loyal audience, and that most of you who may be reading this not only love opera, but bring a friend or a family member to see at least one opera per season. You are passionate as much as we are, and with an audience like that, we can have a strong future in this ever-changing world. We need to learn, as a company and as an art form, how to keep our identity during the process. And we need your help. So please, tell us what we’re doing wrong, and we promise we will improve. Tell us if we’re doing something good, and we’ll try even harder. But we need the conversation to happen, otherwise we are doing this without you, and you’re the one that matters most.

Email or call us. Let’s talk. 

Chorus in full swing for "Aida"

Monday, September 10. 2012

I just wanted to take this chance to say how excited I am about how the chorus is already shaping up this year. After a meet-and-greet with the chorus and opera staff at the production facility in late August, we have started right in to Aida — one of the operas with some of the heaviest load for the chorus imaginable. The choral part is also hugely complex — at one point in the opera, it divides into as many as nine parts. It’s wonderful to be able to welcome back so many veterans, as well as to welcome so many new members, who we found through the auditions we held last May.

Our chorus for this show is much larger than what we usually have: 54 members compared to our usual 25 to 40. They also dominate the scene that many consider the crowning achievement of the opera: the Triumphal Scene, where the Egyptian populace celebrates their victory in the war against Ethiopia. The chorus play so many different roles: cheering crowds, soldiers, priests, dancing girls, boudoir attendants, prisoners of war, etc., etc. — often at the same time. It’s exceptionally demanding — I was telling the first tenors the other night that a lot of first tenor lines in Verdi are, in some ways, more demanding than the principal tenor parts, as they just have to sing high all the time for the whole opera. In any case, the sounds they are making are glorious.

The chorus is a huge part of Aida — it really doesn’t have a supporting part, but takes a real role in the action. The chorus acts as the priests who collectively condemn Radamès to death; the chorus is also the people collectively who successfully plead for mercy for the Ethiopian prisoners of war. In fact, the priests form one side of the central conflict of the opera — the conflict between young love and a state at war. There are few operas where the chorus is able to play so many different parts, though it necessitates a lot of costume changes. I can’t help but mention here how excited the men of the chorus are about wearing dance belts for the show. I also have to give a special mention to Andrae Marchak, who wore his dance belt, not only at rehearsal, but also on the trip over, while riding his bike through the streets of Edmonton!

I have to say that I have been so impressed with the dedication and the skill level of our chorus here in Edmonton. So many people have brought their own recording devices to rehearsals in order to tape the proceedings. All in all, we are having a wonderful start to a season full of operas that feature the chorus prominently.

Glimmerglass operas impress

Wednesday, September 5. 2012

Back to the performances. The Music Man (1957) – book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson. For those of you who know me, you will know that I am not a big fan of musicals (you can call me a snob, that’s OK!) but if musicals are to be done, then the level at which Glimmerglass Festival produced The Music Man was certainly the right way to go about it. No mics, trained voices, great direction, a well-done production. It was such a pleasure to see and hear great baritone Dwayne Croft in the role of Prof. Harold Hill having a comeback after 20 years to the same company where he had his opera debut in 1975 (in the chorus). So many members of the Young Artists Program together with the festival chorus singing, dancing, having fun. As Elizabeth Futral who played the lead female role of Marian Paroo rightly pointed out, “The basic lessons of The Music Man still ring true . . . people still pine away for good partners, communities still long to be engaged in activities that make them energized and there are redeeming qualities in all of us if we’ll just take enough time to look for them!” So, I had a fun evening in spite of myself! And at the end, the production crew was packing this production to go to Muscat, Oman. How wonderful is that?

Now a day later, I am writing this as I came back to my little, modest inn from one of the most powerful and emotional experiences in the opera world that I have known for a long time. I still feel shaken after seeing Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars. This musical tragedy (you could call it also “singspiel”) is definitely a masterpiece of musical application to dramatic narrative (quoting Virgil Thomson). This was Weill’s last stage work; it premiered in 1949 and survived him on Broadway by just three months — he died of a heart attack at the age of 50. In 1948, Weill’s collaborator Maxwell Anderson asked permission from the South African novelist Alan Paton to set the novel Cry, the Beloved Country to music. Weill always carried within him and often admitted to such deep awareness of the suffering of the underprivileged, the prosecuted, the oppressed and he definitely managed to address in this opera racial issues, injustice and tension but chose a distant land as opposed to his newly adopted home. This production was co-produced with the South African Cape Town Opera and I can’t even start imagining what it must have felt like being there and seeing it in South Africa. Tazewell Thompson’s directing stayed away from overly sentimental and kept the production in all of its elements a gut-wrenching experience, navigating us with utmost sensitivity and intelligence through the issues of almost biblical proportions — family, faith, redemption. Eric Owens in the role of Stephen Kumalo was absolutely phenomenal; he brought the audience to tears at the end of Act 1 with the song that gave the work its title which he sung with such raw existentialist despair “God who’s gone away . . . .” By the end of the performance in the last scene Eric himself was sobbing and so were the rest of us. The power of music, theatre, great artists, excellent production all as one with the audience that lets itself be taken on this journey. Another notable performance was by Sean Panikkar in the role of The Leader — he has a really nice, warm tenor voice that I wish to hear again.

For an opera house that doesn’t have AC and by the end of the first act can get rather warm, it has a very “cool” design — the outside side walls are on these huge sliders, so as the intermission starts, the walls get opened on two long sides, making the house nice and cool. I thought I would mention it for our house architect Clayton!

My last opera at Glimmerglass Festival was Aida — also the performance that closed this year’s festival. Aida was very, very successfully directed by Francesca Zambello (who is also the artistic and general director of Glimmerglass Festival). I have always admired her, but even more so after seeing her Ring Cycle a couple of years ago. It’s hard imagining Verdi’s grand opera Aida as chamber opera but it is full of very intimate scenes that easily get lost when you stage it on the grand stages of the world. It was really interesting seeing it from that perspective and also in the context of the Arab Spring, keeping it relevant to today’s Middle Eastern political situation. Machine guns, praying mats; military uniforms mixed with female and royalty costumes inspired by ancient Egypt. The conductor Nader Abbassi (who is the head of the Cairo Opera) gave the score such intimate reading and led the cast with secure, musical perfection. It was a predominantly young cast, filled with rising American stars — in the title role Michelle Johnson; Noah Stewart was very good as Radamès and is certainly someone to watch; Daveda Karanas was fantastic as Amneris, and Philip Gay as very young King. Eric Owens recovered from the afternoon’s performance of Lost in the Stars and was a wonderful Amonasro. Certainly a production that must have challenged some members of the audience who want the elephants and all of the trappings of the Triumphal March, but only a handful left the theatre at the one intermission. A thought-provoking production for sure that keeps the opera relevant in today’s world as much as it was when first premiered in Cairo.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Windows on the World.” In choosing this team, Francesca Zambello wanted to inspire discussion about our world today. In her own words: “The world we create   . . . will be reality, a world in which history can be examined, assumptions can be challenged and our common humanity celebrated.” Well done Francesca! Congratulations on your vision and the world you have created for us! I am looking forward to your next season. And left content with the last words I heard tonight: “Pace, Pace, Pace. . .”

Glimmerglass Festival opens 'windows on the world' with four operas

Thursday, August 30. 2012

Since its founding and very modest beginnings in 1975, Glimmerglass Festival has become a major destination for opera lovers from around the world. As well, it serves as training ground for artists and professionals in the performing arts world. It is based close to Cooperstown, which is apparently famous for its Baseball Hall of Fame (and that I know nothing about and am not even embarrassed to admit it). The festival started with four performances of La Bohème in a local high school and now has over 40 performances of four operas (although it seems that most years one of the four is more in the genre of the musical theatre but done as they say, in the “operatic” manner with no amplification) in a purpose-built theatre on the shore of Otsego Lake. The Alice Busch Opera Theater (914 seats) designed by Hugh Hardy opened in 1987. The interesting fact is that this was the first purpose-built American Hall for opera following the opening of new Metropolitan Opera house in 1966. Glimmerglass has a truly impressive Young Artists Program — this year there are 44 artists from all over the world, and the program has, over the years, launched many careers.

The hardest thing to come by in Cooperstown is reasonably priced — or for that matter any —accommodation. That seems to have been the case for years as visitors continue to struggle to find place to stay. In that respect it reminds me of places like Niagara-on-the-Lake or Stratford festivals in Ontario.

The first production I saw upon arrival was Jean-Baptiste Lully’s brilliant tragedie lirique Armide (1686) co-produced with Opera Atelier from Toronto. I saw it back in 2005 when it was first presented in Toronto with some of the same cast. Armide examines the conflict between the Muslim and Christian worlds during the First Crusade in the 11th century. The work is full of magic, enchantment, love, drama and raw passion — at the end of the opera all we are left with is the destruction of lives, still two worlds apart. The design by Gerard Gauci was inspired by glittering, exquisite illuminations from Persian culture of that same time (11th century). He also collaborated closely with a Persian calligrapher who translated parts of the libretto and wrote these elegant scripts on panels that were part of the set. Even the house curtain became a calligraphic masterpiece. Dora Rust D’Eye designed beautiful costumes that supported so well the story and the concept. Kudos to director Marshall Pynkoski and choreographer Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg to continue their inspired, wonderful quest to bring us back the beauty of so many of the rarely performed masterpieces. Their commitment to present these operas as much as possible true to their period of creation is not a simple task. Maestro David Fallis was excellent and led the chorus, the artists of Atelier Ballet and of course the wonderful cast in such a way that the production got standing ovation and numerous curtain calls — I stopped counting after seven! Armide was sung by a young soprano native of Minnesota, Peggy Kriha Dye — the bravos and standing ovations for her brought her to tears! Some notable young Canadian singers in this cast were Mireille Asselin, Meghan Lindsey (both sopranos originally from Ottawa) and the young tenor Aaron Ferguson. All three were this year chosen to be in the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Certainly artists to watch and I hope we can bring them to Edmonton one of these days.

Almost every name in and around Cooperstown is somehow related to the early American writer James Fenimore Cooper, his family, or his books and characters. He saw Otsego Lake as glimmering glass; the name Leatherstocking is everywhere including the local golf and country club; the beautiful art museum (Fenimore Art Museum) has been built on the same property where his stately house once stood ... the list goes on. I spent my Saturday morning at the Fenimore Art Museum with its impressive collection of Native American art. What also impressed me was that there is a good collaborative relationship with the Glimmerglass Festival, as there was an exhibit on Armide with set and costume sketches very prominently displayed at the art museum. They also had a costume that Renée Fleming wore in the Met’s production of Rossini’s Armida in 2010. A very nice touch.

Next week, Sandra continues her recap of Glimmerglass with The Music Man, Lost in the Stars and Aida.

Production facility tour

Tuesday, August 21. 2012

Edmonton Opera's assistant technical director talks about the new production facility, which consolidates three warehouses into one. The first build taking place in the space, "Les Contes d'Hoffmann," is scheduled to begin any day.

Stage on the Lake, summer operas Part 3

Friday, August 17. 2012

Bregenz Opera Festival has become a must go and see for the opera aficionados that above all love the sometimes absolutely outrageous but always creative to the extreme use of the lake as a basis for the elaborate opera sets. Bregenz is a small medieval town on the Austrian part of Lake Constance, a large body of water between Switzerland, Germany and Austria. My daughter thought the coolest way to get to Bregenz from Verona was over some treacherous, tiny alpine mountain pass that would then lead us through Liechtenstein. She really wanted to close the loop of seeing all of the smallest countries in the world, but had me drive the hairpin turns!

The Bregenz Festival produces one new grand opera on the “Stage on the Lake” every two years and has a well-deserved reputation for making the impossible viable, exciting and worth the trip to Bregenz. This was the second year of their production of André Chénier, an opera in four acts by Umberto Giordano set in the times of French Revolution (1789-1795). Director Keith Warner and David Fielding, set designer, took as inspiration the painting The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David from 1793. Many months after the initial concept was approved and developed, the cranes and barges delivered a 60-ton head onto the platform in the lake water. The eyes and mouth opening; cast, chorus, supers and stuntmen running up and down the numerous sets of stairs (apparently over 150 stairs) connecting various stages and platforms — but that was only a part of the stage. There were multiple stages with hundreds of performers that included the aerialists, rock climbers and divers — and numerous cast members, including the tenor in the title role, jumped into the lake at some point. It certainly was a memorable production.

The orchestra of the Bregenz Festival is the Vienna Philharmonic which played beautifully under the baton of Maestro Enrico Calesso (but hidden from the audience other than two large screens simulcasting from their space). The cast was great — Serbian born tenor Zoran Todorovich, living in Germany, was in the title role, and soprano from Uruguay Maria José Siri as Maddalena de Coigny, to mention just the two. The unfortunate reality of the festival is that due to its location, everyone is miked and the sound then mixed which was not always perfect. Still, it was a wonderful experience and I am truly pleased to have been there, even in the rain. The show went on through the rain and the audience, pretty much like our last year’s Opera Al Fresco audience, didn’t move until the end.

Summer opera festivals, part 2

Wednesday, August 8. 2012

I have been going to the summer festival at the Arena di Verona for many years and every time I go, I come to the same conclusion: no other place can beat it. It’s mainly because of the acoustical properties of the ancient Roman amphitheater that is far superior to other summer festival outdoor venues that I have been to. I have to admit that the sheer size of their budget allows for presenting each and every opera with best possible singers, huge choruses, supers and as a spectacle works with the masses there too, both the educated and the novices. The orchestra and chorus are of the highest quality. The cast has, in my experience, always been stellar.

This year was the 90th festival — the festival started in 1913 but had a few interruptions during the war years. 

This year I am seeing three operas in Verona; two last week and I will see one more on my way back to Rome.

Don Giovanni was the first one and the interesting fact was that this was the first time that Verona summer festival presented it. They gave the honour to the almost-90-year-old Franco Zeffirelli, the legend of opera, to both design the set and to direct it. It was an excellent production where Zeffirelli gave it a sense of Mozart’s time in terms of how he handled the production — both the look and the performing style. It worked well in spite of having hundreds on stage, which would have certainly not been the case at the time when the opera was first composed. Great cast with special mention of one of the world’s most celebrated bass-baritones, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, in the title role, well-established opera buffa interpreter Bruno de Simone as Leporello, young Bulgarian bass Deyan Vatchkov as Masetto (although I really wanted to hear him sing a different role!) and a promising young tenor from Albania, Saimir Pirgu, as Don Ottavio. I am now not sure if I am listening this year differently for male roles as we keep wanting more men in our Edmonton Opera chorus, so I am somewhat obsessed with that aspect of our search, but it seems that there is a pool of talented male singers on the summer stages of Europe. I have to add that all the female principals were wonderful to hear too which is especially so for the gorgeous Russian soprano Anna Samuil as Donna Anna. I only heard the French mezzo Geraldine Chauvet live in roles like Adalgisa — I knew she does a great Carmen but didn’t imagine her as Zerlina. I love it when great singers surprise us with what range and rep they can actually do and do it so well. It was especially moving when at the end of the opera, Franco Zeffirelli came onstage in his wheelchair and the entire cast and the wonderful conductor Daniel Oren all went on their knees so as not to be higher than Zeffirelli! I felt truly privileged being there that night.

The following night was Romeo et Juliette under the Verona stars and the heat that evening even after midnight persisted as the temperature never went below 35! Other than Faust, Romeo et Juliette is really the only other Gounod opera performed with any regularity. The production, which has only four performances this year, was designed by Eduardo Sanchi, beautiful costumes were designed by Silvia Aymonino, it was directed by Francesco Micheli and musically well-presented by the conductor Fabio Mastrangelo. The sets, the use of the arena as backdrop, lighting and costumes were a really wonderful, magical modern interpretation of the Shakespearean story. There were a couple of moments when I questioned my own ability to understand some set elements or a directorial decision but I quickly got over it. In title roles, to start with, Polish coloratura soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Juliette was fantastic. I wished I heard John Osborn doing his European debut just a week earlier, but I have to give credit to Stefano Secco as very good Romeo. All in all — a very satisfactory opera experience.