Entries by Michael Spassov

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!

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.

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.