Samuel Johnson famously called opera “an exotic and irrational entertainment,” but there are a few people in the world who can also justifiably call it something else: the family business.
John Relyea is one such person. Born in Toronto 40 years ago, the bass-baritone has done very well for himself, with engagements at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, London’s Covent Garden and prestigious opera houses in Paris, Vienna, Munich, San Francisco and Chicago.
His appearance as the four villains in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Jacques Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann (which opened this week) marks his COC debut, but for Toronto’s veteran opera fans his name is already familiar. He’s the son of bass-baritone Gary Relyea, who appeared with the COC on a regular basis from 1972 to 1995.
“When I tell people about my upbringing, it all sounds very unusual,” Relyea says in an interview between rehearsals at the COC’s headquarters on Front Street East. “But to me it seemed normal. And I was there, soaking it all in by osmosis. So I always knew I’d go into music in some way.”
For the teenaged Relyea, growing up in Toronto, the only uncertainty was deciding what kind of musician he’d become. First he studied piano, and then guitar. But when he started taking singing lessons from his father, the penny dropped.
“It all came to me so quickly that I took it as a sign,” he recalled. It was then that he decided to become a singer.
Relyea readily acknowledges that coming from an operatic family had its advantages. But, in his experience, these advantages have their limits.
“I was lucky to have access to family connections,” he admits. “My father would call up his conductor friends and ask them to hear me sing. But I still had to audition for everything I got. Nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re Gary Relyea’s son – come on in.’ It wasn’t like that at all.”
As well, he points out that a downside of having an opera-singing parent was his father’s lengthy absences from home, as Relyea senior travelled the world from one performance to the next. This is an issue that the younger Relyea has seen from two sides now that he himself is a father of two and is away from his Rhode Island home for nine or 10 months a year.
“It’s a lot to ask your kids to understand,” he says. “I can remember my dad going off to his engagements – it’s a hard thing for kids to get their heads around.”
The Relyeas are not the only intergenerational opera family in Canada. The name of baritone Gino Quilico will, for older opera fans, immediately invoke his father, the late baritone Louis Quilico, who enjoyed a distinguished operatic career.
The younger Quilico, who calls Montreal home, has a personal story that in some ways resembles John Relyea’s. Like Relyea, he was attracted to various kinds of music in his teens – and then one day turned to his father, to ask for his guidance in becoming an opera singer.
And like Relyea, Quilico found that being a famous singer’s son sometimes had a very specific impact on his career.
“It was more difficult because I had to prove myself a lot,” he says. “People expected things from me. And sometimes I would run into a conductor or a director who hated me, and I wouldn’t know why. Then I’d talk to my father and find out that he’d had a fight with that person, years ago.”
Unlike Relyea and Quilico, whose fathers encouraged their vocal ambitions, another Canadian baritone, Russell Braun, found himself unsupported by his opera-singing father, the late Victor Braun.
“My mother was encouraging,” he says, recalling his childhood in Germany. “But my father didn’t really want me to pursue music. He didn’t quite believe that I had the right kind of cutthroat personality for opera.”
Nevertheless, Braun – who now lives in Georgetown, Ont. – felt his father’s presence when he pressed forward with his operatic ambitions.
“When I auditioned for German theatres, I was remembered as the son of Victor Braun. But that sort of thing only works in your favour if you sing well.”
Today all three of these second-generation opera singers feel that their musical families were both enriching and challenging. And they’ve learned to take their backgrounds in stride.
“You have to get used to the fact that comparisons will be made,” Relyea says. “So you have to establish your own identity as a singer.”
Special to The Globe and Mail