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Sunday, June 5, 2016

Toronto's Opera Scene!

Toronto Blog

I’ve been in Toronto the last two weeks rehearsing J. Strauss’ Die Fledermaus with Opera5, one of the many new, “indie” opera companies that have sprung up over the last five years in this, the 5th largest city in North America.

Yes, 5th largest city. At over 6 million, Toronto is bigger than Miami, Philly, Dallas-Ft.Worth, Boston, Houston, or Washington, D.C.

So there should be a viable operatic community here beyond the Canadian Opera Company.

And in my short time in Toronto, it is clear that it is thriving.

I arrived the weekend that Against the Grain Theatre (AGT) closed their critically acclaimed “translaptation” of Mozart’s Così fan tutte re-titled to “A Little Too Cozy”. It starred three McGill alumni: baritone Cairan Ryan (a former L’opéra de Montreal Atelier young artist), tenor Aaron Sheppard (currently a member of the Canadian Opera Company’s young artist program), and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb (who just finished up her 1st year at the Met’s prestigious Lindemann program). It was presented in an actual TV studio (it took place in a reality show setting, fyi) and was directed by the crown prince of Indie opera here in Canada, Joel Ivany.

Then a few nights ago I went to see the world premiere production of Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner, based on the short story of D.H. Lawrence. The creative libretto, which included the character of the “House” (sung by a quartet) was perfectly set by the amazing Scottish composer Gareth Williams. In fact, I sat there thinking that this was the 21st century’s version of The Turn of the Screw. Orchestrated for string quartet, piano (and toy piano at the end), the voices of the “house” were perfectly blended into the tense, lyrical strings which provided both an harmonic tapestry as well as becoming a character themselves during the horse racing scenes; Britten would have been proud to have written this score.  I urge everyone to check out this composer in more detail. Mr. Williams website:  Gareth Williams, composer 
Tapestry Opera's website is located here: Tapestry Opera Website

The cast was terrific! The "House" was sung by Sean Clark, Aaron Durand, Erica Iris, and Elaina Moreau; the Mother, Ava was given a sensitive portrayal by Carla Huhtanen, Uncle Oscar was Keith Klassen (who looked and sounded like a Broadway star), Bassett was Peter McGillivray, and the most amazing performance I’ve seen in quite some time was by the young tenor Asitha Tennekoon who sang the lead role of young Paul. This young singing actor gave an exceptional performance, artistic administrators should get this guy’s number and contract him now before others find out about him.  I was also most impressed with Michael Mori’s restrained but spooky direction, and the whole wondrous production design (particularly the set by Camellia Koo). The opera was conducted by the young and preternaturally talented Maestro, Jordan de Souza. He’s off to Europe to take a position with the Komische Oper in Berlin and at the Bregenz Festival in Austria.  I expect Mo. de Souza will take over the operatic world any day now. If you've never heard of him, check out this site: Mo. JdS website

The reason for my stay in Toronto is to conduct Opera5’s very broad and unique take on Fledermaus. It is an “immersive” production, meaning that the audience and the actors will be in the same space, literally dancing and interacting with each other. The 1st act is being designed and given in a “2D” set, then for the 2nd act the idea is that the opera jumps off of the stage and into full “3D”. Added into the mix is the Toronto-based drag queen Pearl Harbor as an MC of sorts, plus cabaret acts including a Burlesque dancer and an aerialist doing her moves literally within and above the audience! Although I wonder if all of the ideas inherent in Fledermaus work easily into this concept as the piece is still about a philandering married couple who blame the evening’s transgressions on the “champagne” – although in this production’s case there is a beer sponsor, so free Steam Whistle beer is being served on opening night throughout (yes, throughout!) the opera. We’ve changed all champagne references to “Steam Whistle”, in a blatant advertisement for this Toronto based beer.

If I can generalize what makes these sorts of Indie opera ventures different, I’d say that Against the Grain sets to manipulate conventional opera into new pieces entirely, tossing out the da Ponte libretti to Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro, and Così fan tutte and replacing them with all new characters and plots while keeping Mozart’s musical score. Eventually, they may run out of things to adapt and retranslate, so it’ll be interesting to see where the company goes. They are certainly venue-based and have exceptional PR here in Canada, plus have good taste in singers. The production of A Little Too Cozy was accompanied by string quartet and piano, which was also the orchestration for Tapestry’s recent world premiere. Yet Tapestry’s opera was actually scored for string quartet and piano, Mozart’s operas are for much more than that, usually. Tapestry seems to be much more of a “real” opera company (sorry to even suggest that moniker) in that they have a budget that can produce opera in a very polished and professional manner. Rocking Horse Winner looked like a Glimmerglass production, and could easily hold its own against many productions I've seen at much larger opera companies. The production values didn’t seem in any way “indie”, and so I wonder what Tapestry Opera might be able to do if they had even a portion of the COC's annual budget.

Opera5 is the upstart company, at least that’s the feeling I get from talking with many young singers here in Toronto. They are the plucky, “let’s-put-on-an-opera-in-my-barn” artists who are faced with the challenge of how to put on professional opera (with many artists who are Equity) with virtually no infrastructure most opera companies have: a paid staff, for instance, an office from which to sell tickets, a development director to raise funds, or regular rehearsal spaces. Opera5 is headed by the artistic vision of stage director, Aria Umezawa and Rachel Krehm (Opera5’s “general director” but really she’s a one-woman opera administration team.) Both are former students of mine. Frankly so many of the people involved in the Toronto Indie Opera scene are former students that there really is a mini-McGill community working inside these companies and on their stages! Check out Opera5's website: Opera5

[Make sure to read to the bottom to see a bunch of bonus links to HILARIOUS videos produced by Opera5!!]

Aria’s vision for this Fledermaus has been taken on by our co-director Jessica Derventzis while Aria moves to San Francisco for the summer to take part in the prestigious Merola Opera young artist program. Aria was my assistant director for over a dozen shows at McGill during my early years there and I couldn’t have built the program without her. She has a unique artistic vision, quite her own. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens after the wider world gets to know her. Jessica herself has produced numerous operas in Montreal under the team name of "Jess&Stu Productions", so she represents yet another indie opera company involved in creating found space, or venue-based,opera productions. 

Here's an interview with Aria: Interview on
Here's Jessica's site: Stu&Jess 

One of the things that does seem to make Opera5 different than the rest is their commitment to presenting operas with fuller orchestrations. Granted for this show there isn’t room in the space for a full orchestra. I think the dozen musicians we have in this reduced orchestration actually make a lovely sound that combines quite nicely with the voices in the room. For all of act 2 and 3 the singers are behind me, which is a challenge in a musical score that has multiple fermati (moments when the music is held in suspension from a time perspective) that normally are controlled by everyone watching the conductor. It reminds me of a number of musicals I’ve conducted where the orchestra is behind or, in some cases, in completely different rooms, than the singers. It can totally be done, and quite easily. It just takes rehearsal and planning (and flexibility from everyone involved!) Needless to say, it takes exceptional players to play a reduction and make it sound spectacular. These players are some of the best I’ve ever conducted, so it makes my job so much easier!

If there is a future for opera beyond the endless Boheme remounts, it is in the smaller opera companies and venue-based operatic productions springing up in New York City, Toronto, San Francisco, and Montreal. In fact, Michael Mori, the artistic director of Tapestry Opera has founded a group representing a dozen independent opera companies in the Toronto are: Indie Opera T. O.  I wonder if Opera America and/or (the Canadian wing of professional opera companies) are thinking about how to include these smaller opera companies in the wider discussions happening about the future of the art form?

If any of my readers are interested in supporting these companies, or finding out more about them, I urge you to check out their websites that I’ve provided along the way. Opera5 could really use your support, so if you are in the Toronto area on June 8, 9, 10, or 11 buy a ticket and come to the show. It certainly will NOT be your grandma’s Fledermaus, and you might find yourself enjoying the sonic boom of hearing an Adele sing her famous Laughing Song 4 feet away from you while a chorister sings backup literally standing next to you! Here's the link to buy tickets: Tickets for Fledermaus!

And as an added bonus, please check out Opera5's famous "OperaCheat" videos. They have over 100,000 views on YouTube and really shouldn't be missed. I've linked the latest OperaCheat video here: OperaCheats!