Edmonton Opera Blog

Sampler of summer opera festivals

Wednesday, August 1. 2012

I made it to Bregenz in Austria late last night. I have a ticket to see Andre Chenier here tonight, but it has been raining. So, not sure if the weather gods will permit this extravagant set on the water of the lake to fascinate me tonight or not. I will keep you posted.

I started my sampler of summer opera festivals in Torre del Lago — a small town on a lake not far from Pisa and also just outside the seaside resort of Viareggio on the Tyrrhenian Sea in northern Italy. It’s a town where Puccini came as a young composer at the beginning of his career and spent 30 years of his life there. When Puccini first discovered the picturesque Torre del Lago, he found the area where he could return to the roots of his inspiration — the light, the sounds and scents of nature that could still inspire powerful and passionate emotions.  He first rented a house but then once the money started coming in from the successes of Manon Lescaut in 1893 and then La Bohème in 1896, he was able to purchase a house of his dreams — an ancient lookout tower. He had it restored and it was there that all of his major works were composed (Tosca, Madama Butterfly, La Fanciulla del West, La Rondine and Il Trittico). Puccini died in 1924 (only one act short of completing Turandot) and was first buried in Milano. His son moved Puccini’s remains to the small private chapel in the Torre del Lago villa in 1926. Visiting the villa (which is still privately owned by the family, similar to the Villa Verdi) brings this great man so close to us, his audience. It’s no wonder that 58 years ago, the Puccini Foundation started the Puccini Festival right outside the Puccini Villa on the shores of his beloved lake.

I stayed in Viareggo as the accommodation there was both cheaper and easier to find. This year’s festival had a novelty in its artistic programming — they added one opera by Verdi (La Traviata) to the usual Puccini opera choices (this year included Tosca, Madama Butterfly and La Bohème).

I saw Tosca first. A very traditional production, effective use of scenic elements to tell the story but not very inspiring as a production. What was great was the cast, as they certainly had some truly excellent singers — Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka as Tosca (some Edmonton Opera staff saw her as Tatiana in LA Opera’s Onegin last fall when she made her North American debut) and Rudy Park (a South Korean tenor who moved to Italy in 2002) as fantastic Mario Cavaradossi. I have heard him in a few roles before and hope that maybe one of these days we can hear him on our stage too.

The second night brought the production of Madama Butterfly. The production itself was lost on me. A very minimalist set that started well with excellent use of lighting on the naked, almost barren stage with the two oversized stones (seemed like the work of Barbara Hepworth). I wish it had stayed that way as bringing in some other geometrical shapes as set pieces later in the opera didn’t really work. The costumes didn’t manage to stay neither as an inspiration nor as a storytelling tool — in most cases — especially in the large chorus scenes they were a distraction and felt like they were inspired by Star Wars. I really felt for Cio Cio San struggling with her costume in Act 2, especially where she stumbled and tripped a number of times. The singers again (just like in Tosca) were worth the trip – Donata D’Annunzio Lombardi was a very strong Cio Cio San – both vocally and dramatically but the one that stood out was Pinkerton sung by the fantastic Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado. He was excellent.

So – just when we think that there are not enough tenors in this world, I was fortunate to hear two extraordinary voices in two nights!

Verona coming next…

Commentary: Opera North's "Die Walkure"

Thursday, July 26. 2012

When one mentions Wagner, Leeds, England, does not immediately come to mind. In fact, when one circumscribes the master’s works to The Ring Cycle, or one of its four operas, one thinks about the major opera houses of the world. Such is the magnitude of effort, financial commitment, singing and orchestral excellence required that only the largest houses can afford it and can attract the quality of performers who can take on this monstrosity of a work, or for that matter, any of his later works

My wife and I were travelling in England in June 2012 and had found that Opera North would be producing Die Walküre, the second of Wagner’s Ring Cycle operas, and for most people, the most popular. Not being a major house, could Opera North produce a credible performance?

Opera North came into existence in 1972 out of a recognition that there needed to be a significant opera company outside of London. Initially under the aegis of the English National Opera, Opera North found its independence a few years later, and currently produces nine operas per year with an annual budget of more than £11 million. This is more than twice as large as Edmonton Opera. It performs in Leeds, Birmingham, Gateshead and Salford Quays. This year, Opera North’s calendar calls for Don Giovanni, Faust, Otello, La Clemenza di Tito, La voix humaine and Dido and Aeneas, with more to follow in the summer program. Clearly, this is an adventurous company.

Its current general director is Richard Mantle, who in the early 1990s held the same position with Edmonton Opera. His reign was known for excellent productions, though not always appreciated by the locals. I remember a Julius Caesar by Handel done on a stage full of sand, and Caesar in a business suit and barefoot (because of the sand, you see). Another was Janáček's Jenufa, for which the tenor succumbed to some illness on opening day. At the last minute, Richard flew in a performer from Chicago who arrived five minutes before the performance was to start, sang the part and was put back on a plane to sing the same role the next night in Chicago. The latter company was furious when they heard what their tenor had done; he was supposed to be resting that day, but for us, it was a memorable performance.

Under-appreciated in the colonies, Richard moved back to his native country and has been producing great opera in Leeds and other centres in northern England ever since.

Richard said staging a full production of The Ring Cycle would bankrupt the company, but producing it in concert version, one opera per year, was achievable. We heard nearly 100 musicians perform Die Walküre, this year’s offering. Opera North has its own orchestra of 53 players, and supplemented this with freelance musicians from the region, making a total of 98, a respectable size for a Wagnerian performance. The violins may have sounded a bit thin at times, but the horns were spectacular, filling the hall with that typically bold, and occasionally overpowering, Wagnerian sound.

The principal singers were dressed in formal wear (their own, so the company saved even on costumes). They were excellent, with Brünnhilde especially standing out. Video and still projection behind the orchestra captured the mood of each scene, and occasionally told the backstory, for those not already familiar with this complex tale.

Other than the fact that the Town Hall is an old building with no air conditioning and it was insufferably hot, especially in the third act, it was a wonderful evening.

We were guests of Richard's at this performance (arranged by Sandra Gajic, the Edmonton Opera CEO) and enjoyed telling him about progress in Edmonton, about which both he and his wife seem to retain favourable memories. As well, we enjoyed the wine and subsequent dinner served during the second intermission. This was typically reserved for donors, but since it is the same people at all the operatic events in Leeds (we have the same situation in Edmonton), we were minor celebrities. People were amazed that we would have come such a distance to see an opera. We have travelled farther for opera and will likely continue to do so. Our dinner was in an elegant room with tuxedoed servers. Others, less privileged, were eating out of picnic baskets they had brought for the long intermission.

By the way, this habit of having one short intermission and one long is typically an English and German custom, and perhaps was dreamed up as an accommodation to the Wagnerian scale of operatic evenings. One cannot endure six hours without eating, so the second intermission is usually an hour or more, and people bring their dinner with them to the theatre, or make other more interesting arrangements. At Glyndebourne, they sit on the grass with their food baskets and bottle of wine, and enjoy the outdoors before going back in to see gods and nibelungs kill each other.

This concert format is something that Edmonton Opera should consider for a larger opera. We have never had the more ambitious works of Wagner here, and perhaps this concert version of the second Ring opera is possible.

Siegmund – Erik Nelson Werner
Sieglinde – Alwyn Mellor
Hunding – Clive Bayley
Wotan – Béla Perencz
Brünnhilde – Annalenna Persson
Fricka – Katarina Karnéus
Conductor – Richard Farnes

Gabe ShelleyGabe Shelley is a management consultant in Edmonton and an opera lover. He and his wife, Connie, travel the world for great opera. He has served on the Edmonton Opera board and continue to support its exciting future. Currently, he is a part of the artistic committee.

Sandra Gajic talks Opera

Monday, May 14. 2012

Courtesy of MKM

Jeffrey Jansen Talks Opera

Thursday, April 19. 2012

Fidelio: The process revealed

Monday, March 12. 2012

A little less than two weeks until we start rehearsals for Fidelio! We left fun and frivolity on the shores of Titipu what seems like only yesterday, and we will venture into a totally different world of where oppression and the joy of overcoming it is realized with Beethoven's glorious music.

The set designed by Bretta Gerecke has begun construction, and the costumes being designed by Deanna Finnman are coming together as you read this. I am always astonished by the creativity of both the scenic designer and the costume designer.  There are so many parameters thrown their way in their journey to realizing a design for a show.

Despite any restrictions, whether it be monetary or timelines, these two individuals always surprise me with their approach to create the world the opera needs to live in.  Always positive, they remind me of improv performers! Never say no!  Saying no only puts up blocks or resists moving forward.  Should an issue arise, they dive in, suggest alternatives and forge on usually coming up with something even better that will support the world the opera needs to live in and help tell the story.

I love working with designers!

Bernie Robitaille Talks Edmonton Opera

Monday, January 30. 2012

Tour of the Opera Warehouse with Technical Director Clayton Rodney

Thursday, January 26. 2012

Take a tour through the Opera Warehouse to see where we store our sets, set pieces, costumes and more!

Hans Forbrich Talks Edmonton Opera

Thursday, December 22. 2011

Stella Varvis Talks Edmonton Opera

Friday, November 25. 2011

Teresa Spinelli Talks Edmonton Opera

Wednesday, November 9. 2011

Paul Lorieau sings opera?

Friday, November 4. 2011

Paul LorieauPaul Lorieau is best known for singing the National Anthem for the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League from 1981 to 2011. But did you know Paul Lorieau actually started performing on the opera stage? Mr. Lorieau played the role of Beppe in Edmonton Opera’s 1964 production of Cavalleria Rusticana & I Pagliacci.

Backstage before the performance, Paul met Robert Clark (a local Edmontonian); where they compared notes, as they both played Beppe in Pagliacci. Robert had many questions for Mr. Lorieau asking what it was like to perform with Edmonton Opera back in the 60’s, to which he replied “The same great energy is still here.” The Edmonton Opera Chorus was elated to meet Mr. Lorieau; they surrounded him and took turns asking questions, as cast and crew prepared for the final run of the 2011 Cavalleria Rusticana & I Pagliacci at the Jubilee.

Cavalleria Rusticana / I PagliacciDuring intermission, Paul Lorieau (Beppe) and Kathryn Forrest (Lola) reunited on October 27, 2011. They reminisced about the production, cast, and crew but most importantly the lifelong memories and friendships made. When presented with the original 1964 playbill, laughter and joy filled the room as everyone flipped through the pages.

When asked what his favourite memory is from performing with Edmonton Opera he stated, “It was a truly memorable experience, from the cast to the costumes, it is a time I will never forget!”

A day in the life of...Aaron St. Clair Nicholson

Thursday, October 20. 2011
How does an opening night look like? What does he do to prepare for the role? Read in our new blog!

Aaron St. Clair NicholsonI try to rehearse the way I perform so performance morning is the same as rehearsal morning. Get up and make coffee. Read the newspaper and answer emails. My wife Brooke and I have breakfast - 2 soft boiled eggs - 2 pieces of toast - sliced tomato and cheddar cheese with bubbly water - every morning.

I also use morning affirmations about my life and my day to prepare me to be positive throughout the day. Negative energy can be strong so I try to affirm what I am grateful for and maintain an attitude that my day will be productive and fulfilling.

I always try to fully warm up in the day and then just rest until show time. Depending on the length of my role I will review my music and staging. Silvio is a very small but vocally demanding role so being warm is the priority for show time. To get warm I sing through the entire role after some basic vocalise. When I arrive at the theater I enjoy the ritual of being in the make-up chair and getting all prepared as the character with wigs and costume. I will take 10 minutes or so to gather my thoughts and prepare for a good performance. My attitude towards going out on stage helps my performance. Like a horse just before the race.

I am a bel canto singer and my teachers were old school Italian taught and they helped prepare me for Silvio. I love singing Leoncavallo but I rarely get the opportunity to sing his work so I am embracing this chance and would like the chance to do more in the future! I can relate to the character of Silvio easily because his passion is great. It ultimately leads to his demise but i can relate to that kind of fervent love.

I try not to rely on ritual so that if something goes wrong I am able to perform at a high level and not be distracted by what might or might not happen throughout the day of performance. Of course I need to be warm and well prepared but beyond that it's just little things like not eating to heavy before the show and taking time to collect my thoughts and energy.

It is important of course that my wife is with me when I am performing. Over our last 4 years a together we have made many sacrifices to be with one another when so often couples in performance especially opera are separated for most of the year. It is always great to get Brook's feedback about my performing and I love having family and friends in the audience for a show. I feel supported knowing that people are routing for me.

Pagliacci is the quintessential Italian Spaghetti and meatballs opera! The music is as Schmaltzy as it gets and I mean that in a good way. The most payoff per note out of any opera ever!

To see the upcoming production of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, please contact Edmonton Opera Box Office at 780-429-1000.

Aida at the Arena di Verona

Monday, October 17. 2011

The magic of sharing the experience of grand opera under the stars of Veneto in a 2000 year old Roman Arena in Verona with 14,000 people in the audience is unique in the world.  The moment when everyone lights their little candles at dusk as the orchestra tunes is one that still leaves me in awe..... Ever since I heard in one of my family sagas how my great aunt remembers going as a little girl with her mother to the first Aida there in 1913!

So when I heard that this year's Aida was actually the attempt to stage as close to the original 1913 Aida, I had to go and experience this grand spectacle myself.  And grand it certainly was in every possible way - a huge spectacle that got everyone in the audience cheering.  Vocally - I did wish that some of the lead singers were chosen differently, but then again - you can't have it all! I thought as I drove all day today back to Rome.  I believe that everyone needs to experience Aida in the two settings here in Italy at least once in their lives... Arena di Verona is one and the other is the restored Terme di Caracalla in Rome. 

The highlight for me this year was seeing two productions designed and directed by the Argentinean super star Hugo de Ana.  I love the way he deals with the challenge of staging operas created for small, closed spaces in a gigantic space like the Arena where it is not easy to conduct intimate affairs.  His first production for the Arena di Verona was Nabucco in 2000 which was amazingly like the spaceship from "Star Wars".  Then came Tosca in 2006 - where in spite of the concept of abstract and focusing the opera on the symbolic, on the atmosphere and the characters' intentions, the run was sold out and in huge demand even by the patrons so used to the traditional way of presenting opera at the Festival in Verona. This year his 2008 Il Barbiere di Siviglia was remounted and it was such a huge treat to see this grand scenic game within a complex miming and choreographic movement.  The Greek baritone Aris Argiris was wonderful and stole the "show" as great Figaro! 

I had a chance to see the new La Traviata also designed and directed by Hugo de Ana.  He used for this opera the concept of huge frames, empty of their mirrors - they help do both - fill the large spaces, reflect luxury but also help us experience the world of degenerating emotions.  I saw the Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho who had to use the sheer force of her voice to play her role.  I wish I was there when her co-patriot Inva Mula did the role.  I have seen Inva do the role of Violetta when she both sang and acted it beautifully.  The strongest cast member here was Geroge Gagnidze as Georgio Germont.

La Boheme....the concept of this production.... very stark, white, almost empty stage with Nicola Benois wanting us to share in the feeling of profound emotions and not be burdened by the often bothersome and heavy scenery that take away the reason why we are so moved by what we hear.  Marcelo Alvarez was the soul of the opera as Fiorenza Cedolina pushed herself out of her comfort zone... she is a wonderful dramatic soprano (I have seen her as an amazing Tosca) and one wonders why she was cast in the role where we wanted to hear a lyric soprano match Marcelo Alvarez's voice and timbre.  All I could think about was how I wanted to hear her in Un Ballo in Maschera!

Nabucco - the grand, opulent sets where the Verona Opera's chorus was the biggest star.... Although some of the lead singers were fabulous - Marco Vratogna as Nabucco and Vitalij Kowaljow as Zaccaria deserve a special mention.  But the chorus was certainly something else...... they "reinforced" the usual 162 members of the chorus with the additional 60!  After they sang "Va Pensiero", the audience lost it... so - what happens next?  The conductor rewinds that film.... and they do the whole scene again!  The custom of the place allows the audience to sing along when it's an encore!  Tears and all!

The power of opera at its best!

Production Blog September 13, 2011

Thursday, October 13. 2011

Saturday morning the trucks unload at the Jube and in goes the scenery for Cav/Pag! It’s always an adventure to get the set together. It was so long ago that the trailers were loaded , so once everything is pulled out, it is like a giant puzzle to familiarize oneself with all the pieces, sort things out and get everyone working to put it all together. I am always amazed at the co-ordinated teamwork with our TD (Clayton) and the IATSE crew (25+ members) – while lights are being swapped out or changed onstage, the trailers are being unloaded around them and side-stage, bits and pieces of the set are being constructed, the wardrobe crates are being moved into place, the costume maintenance shop is being created – all with a sense of purpose and genuine calmness. Incredible that it all happens in such a short time. With this set – we will have most of the scenery together the first day and a half (within 16 hours) – ready to be lit and be inhabited by the singers for Monday night rehearsal onstage.

It could be chaos at any moment – but because I am in charge of getting donuts for coffee breaks – we avoid any calamities. It’s all good!

Sir Francis Price Talks Edmonton Opera

Friday, October 7. 2011