Edmonton Opera Blog

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.

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.

Cast
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!