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Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Serenade to Shakespeare

Most of the big Shakespeare celebrations have come and gone. In case you missed it, 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death. Just a few years ago, we were celebrating the 450th anniversary of his birth (a date not quite as fixed as his death) in 2014. If the math fails you, that's 1564 - 1616 for good ol' Will Shakespeare.

I spent a whole year back in 2014 celebrating the 450th. Productions connected to Shakespeare's works on the stage: Giulio Cesare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I Capuleti e i Montecchi, a huge scenes program featuring excerpts of both the Shakespeare plays and their operatic treatments: scenes from The Tempest, Othello, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merry Wives of Windsor with the opera versions by Hoiby, Britten, Gounod, Nicolai, and Verdi, and a special evening of "Songs and Sonnets" focused on songs with Shakespeare texts by Tippet, Finzi, Quilter, Korngold, Thomson, and Vaughan Williams (his Serenade to Music was the finale.) We documented the whole year via the talents of videographer Anne Kostalas. The documentary, which is fascinating in all that it encompasses, is viewable here (highly recommended!): Shakespeare at Opera McGill

This year, I missed the big celebration in London, England (by just a few days) put together by The Globe. It looked amazing and I hope it was a huge success. Here's a link to that site: Shakespeare400 at the Globe

There were, are still, many more celebrations ongoing. One of them is happening toward the end of July at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Again, another link: July 27th Shakespeare Serenade at the TSMF

This is a combination of the Shakespeare scenes program and the evening of songs and sonnets from the Opera McGill 450th celebration and I'm really looking forward to putting these two evenings together for a Toronto audience. It's such a huge program that I couldn't play the whole thing, so I invited the wondrous Michael Shannon to share the program with me at the piano. It's all happening at the University of Toronto's Walter Hall on July 27th. Check that link out for ticket info and don't miss it!

Putting this program together has been a rather huge challenge. There are 16 singers involved, most of whom live in the Greater Toronto Area and are leading very busy lives this summer. The scenes program is slightly easier because it involves a trio or a quartet of people -- that's easy to schedule. The Serenade second-half of the program, however, is staged with all 16 singers moving about as individuals. There's only one way to do this and that's to have everyone present in order to make the interactions work. We're basically doing it in one night, so wish us all luck.

Not that I'm worried because the talent of the performers is huge, as is their experience. These singers have graced Canadian stages from Vancouver Opera to the Canadian Opera Company to L'opéra de Montreal as well as performing in hundreds of opera productions at their schools (yes, the majority did go to McGill but, hey, I wanted to work with my former students again!), summer training programs throughout Canada and the United States, and Indie opera companies like Opera5, Compagnie Baroque Mont-Royal, and Stu&Jess Productions. Michael Shannon, who is also a former student, has been spending his time learning his operatic trade at places like the San Francisco Opera and the C.O.C.; not too shabby!

It's a concert inspired by the Bard, with a traditional kind of opera scenes program yet with the twist being that the audience will first watch the singers act the original Shakespeare scene and then watch and hear what it looks like when adapted for the operatic stage. Truly a unique way of presenting these scenes and one that informs both the Shakespeare and the operatic version. It's also quite challenging for the singers to act the Shakespeare!

The second half is a non-traditional approach to a song recital. Normally, a singer walks out onto the concert stage with a pianist in tow, bows to the audience and then sings through a cycle of songs by someone, with the emphasis being on the text and the music. Dramatic energy and action is typically frowned upon (god knows why…) by many who view the recital as something quite conservative and stolid for, um, serious people. The audience sits in silence and reads translations of texts while they listen. (Sometimes I think I might as well be listening to a recording at many of the recent recitals I've attended.) When taken to its extreme, a singer can take away any original perspective on the piece, giving up any sort of personal stamp on a set of songs in order to give, I don't know, some sort of justice to the purity of the composer perhaps? This drives me crazy because, of course, with the great recitalists that is the last thing they do.

Well, this second half won't be like that at all. There'll be over a dozen singers on the stage, casually drinking and listening to each other express their love, anger, betrayal, dismay, or hope via the most amazing texts by Shakespeare set to music by some of the greatest composers of the 20th century. The idea is that these people onstage have just left some sort of summer dinner party and have entered the garden to enjoy more of each other, while some are inspired to recite poetry (via a number of the Sonnets) and fall in and out of love.  It all ends with all of the singers performing the magical Vaughan Williams Serenade To Music, which if you've never heard it sung by soloists with piano accompaniment is sure to please. In fact, my favourite song - ever - is featured on the evening's program and I can't wait to perform it live!

And make sure to check out the other amazing evenings at the Toronto Summer Music Festival. Here's the link to their home site: Toronto Summer Music Festival website

Monday, July 11, 2016

A Year In The Life!

A few years ago, I had an idea about how to make young singers' lives more accessible to others, either people who were just interested, but especially to other young students who might be thinking about pursuing a career in classical music. So many people out there in the wide world have very few inklings about what goes into learning to sing -- especially opera. I thought someone should follow around a singer for a year and see what their life was like.

Why? Because there's a lot of misinformation out there about what it takes to become successful in opera and I wanted to expose a bit more of the truth. Oftentimes people are surprised to find out that one can major in opera studies. Too often I'm asked some surprising questions by audience members: Do the students do their own stagings? or, Do the students make their costumes too? No, and, no.

I wanted to answer questions that I've been asked over the decades: What kind of young person studies opera? What do they do every week? How long does it take to rehearse an opera? What goes into these operas? What makes the student experience with Opera McGill special?

What does a year in the life of an opera student look like?

A few years ago I'd met an amazing videographer, Anne Kostalas. Anne has spent hundreds of hours creating dozens of terrific video "trailers" for Opera McGill productions (here are two links to check out: Rodelinda Preview & Midsummer Preview), creating the wonderful Shakespeare Sessions documentary, (here's the link to all six parts -- please do watch it! Year of Shakespeare 6 Episodes), as well as becoming a fixture in the Montreal opera scene (her work can also be seen on the Opéra de Montreal's Atelier website: Atelier Young Artist Profile).

Anne was excited about taking on this project, but I'm not sure she or I knew just how much time and effort it would take to really get the story. We decided to follow three students: Chelsea Rus, a soprano in her 2nd year of her masters degree; Jonah Spungin, a baritone finishing up his bachelors degree, and Rose Naggar-Tremblay, a mezzo-soprano in the middle of her bachelors degree.  All three were cast in multiple shows, all three led very busy lives -- Anne captured so much more than just their operatic lives.

When I asked Anne about the finalized documentary she said, "Sure it was hard work but I'm convinced filming and editing this documentary was nothing compared to how hard these young singers work every day."

A huge thanks to Jonah, Rose, and Chelsea who, as Anne puts it, "were very generous to let me into their lives. I was shocked recently to see that over the last year we had texted each other more than 600 times." When audiences watch these episodes, they'll see many of those 'behind the scenes' staff who are instrumental in making Opera McGill happen -- from our design team, to the Schulich School voice teachers and vocal coaches, but also to the community of friends and family that surrounds these students.

Interestingly, the question that neither of these three students ever asked me directly was "why was I chosen?"

Well -- these three students represent the best in all of the hundreds of students I've taught over the years. Students who are dedicated, who work hard to achieve high standards of excellence in performance, but who also live interesting lives outside of their studies while pursuing goals beyond their academic work. Most importantly, though, these students represent the POTENTIAL in every student who studies classical music.

This potential is dynamic and practically thermonuclear! It explodes everyday in the practice room, in the classroom, in the studios and rehearsal spaces, and on the stage here at the Schulich School of Music and all over the world.

Rose, Jonah, and Chelsea were quite gracious under the scrutiny of the camera, as Anne told me recently, "Opera McGill could not have wished for three finer ambassadors." I couldn't agree more!

A huge, massive THANK YOU to Anne Kostalas. I'm such a huge fan of her work -- she sees stories where so many do not -- and am thrilled at how this documentary seems like a love letter to not just Opera McGill, but to the McGill campus and all the people who study and work here.

So without further delay...

We've decided to launch the last of the three episodes here on my blog! If you haven't seen the first two episodes, please watch them too!

A Year In The Life: Episode ONE
A Year In The Life: Episode TWO

And here is the final episode, following Chelsea competing in the finals of the Wirth Voice Prize, Jonah deciding his future while performing in operetta and recital, and Rose putting together her role in Opera McGill's spring production of Rodelinda. (Plus graduation video!)

A Year In The Life: Episode THREE