This opera season, most of Canada’s major cities offer traditional stuff – your problematic Rigolettos, reassuring Bohèmes – with some out-of-the-box picks, such as Ghost Opera with puppets and Claude Vivier’s death ritual, Kopernikus. Whether you’re one to follow your favourite singers or are in search of the avant-garde, it’s happening this spring on stages across Canada:
I’m looking forward to Opera Atelier’s production of Idomeneo (April 4-13), because it’s a beast to sing. It’s probably because of its vocal demands that Mozart’s Greek-mythology-based masterpiece sees less stage time than Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, but I think that – for the most part – the company has rounded up the singers to do it justice, particularly with tenor Colin Ainsworth in the title role and soprano Meghan Lindsay as Ilia.
The one wild card in this cast is Measha Brueggergosman as the volatile Elettra. The Canadian soprano sang the role with Opera Atelier 10 years ago – and in the intervening decade her career has expanded into writing books and judging Canada’s Got Talent. Like a weird form of operatic voyeurism, I’m curious to hear if her voice is still in shape enough to sing the thing.
Sharing its performance dates with Idomeneo is an adventure of a totally different sort: Against the Grain Theatre’s production of Claude Vivier’s Kopernikus (April 4-13). The Canadian composer is known as much for his unique sound as for his premature death in a Paris hotel room in 1983, where he was murdered by a 19-year-old male sex worker; Vivier’s personal mythology adds to the mystery found in the pages of his only opera, which is subtitled Rituel de la mort (“Ritual for the Dead”). AtG artistic director Joel Ivany is one of today’s most passionate Vivier fans, and the only way to sell an audience on something such as Kopernikus is to do so with gusto.
For choices more middle-of-the-road, there’s the Canadian Opera Company’s spring lineup. David Alden’s stark, side-lit, something’s-slightly-off production of Verdi’s Otello comes to the Four Seasons Centre (April 27-May 21), in rotation with John Caird’s comfy and organic La Bohème (April 17-May 22). Both operas are designed to show off human voices, so it’s great news that they’re both cast with excellent singers. I’d even say that Bohème is worth it for the conductor, Italian Paolo Carignani, who’s a dream to watch on the podium. And I’m particularly amped for Gerald Finley’s Iago in Otello; his instrument is always disarmingly beautiful, and he’s such a text fanatic that he’s sure to be a delicious Shakespearean villain.
After that dust settles, there’s Tapestry Opera’s presentation of Shanawdithit (May 16-25). The opera by Dean Burry is titled for the Beothuk First Nations woman who was the last known member of her people; Shanawdithit’s 1829 death in St. John’s stands for all the Indigenous people who were affected and erased by European settlers. Newfoundland-born Burry has spent time with this story for more than 20 years, and this world-premiere version, with libretto by Canadian playwright Yvette Nolan and starring mezzo-soprano Marion Newman in the title role, is an important act of Indigenous artists telling their own stories. And before you deem it sanctimonious, know that Tapestry Opera has a certain knack for telling socially responsible stories, without making you feel like you’re being scolded.
L’Opéra de Montreal is likely having a grand time selling tickets for its Carmen (May 4-13), but the real point of interest in Place des Arts this spring is Twenty-Seven (March 23-31). The opera by Ricky Ian Gordon (The Grapes of Wrath) and Royce Vavrek (Breaking the Waves) takes place at 27 Rue de Fleurus in Paris, where Gertrude Stein lived with Alice B. Toklas and hosted salon nights with the likes of Picasso and Hemingway.
I’m pleasantly surprised to see Twenty-Seven on Montreal’s season, and in a new production by Oriol Tomas; it’s a stylistic breath of fresh air, and with the organic and musical-theatre-inspired language of Gordon and Vavrek, it’s a great pick for first-time opera-goers.
For a few seasons, Calgary Opera has been in managerial flux. Hopefully, that’s changed with the appointment of Bramwell Tovey as artistic director, but for the time being, the company’s seasons seem a bit schizophrenic. It’s not necessarily a bad thing for Calgary audiences, who are at least offered delightfully varied options.
Example: This spring, the company presents both Verdi’s Rigoletto (April 6-12), and the puppet opera Ghost Opera (May 29-June 8). It’s worth catching this Rigoletto for the sake of hearing Gregory Dahl in the title role (if you heard his Scarpia in Calgary Opera’s 2018 Tosca, you’ll know he’s a draw). CO’s Rigoletto is also great for conversation-starters, particularly this production by Michael Cavanagh; Cavanagh lets the opera stand for itself, without lending a helping hand to any of the injustice, sexism and abuse inherent in the story.
But if I had to choose, I’d vouch for the sheer novelty of Ghost Opera. The show is a collaborative effort by Calgary Opera, the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and the Old Trout Puppet Workshop; music is by Veronika Krausas, text by André Alexis and it’s meant to be one-part opera, one-part puppet show and many parts supernaturally spooky. I’ve only seen one puppet opera in my life, and the thing was so darn good that I’m now a permanent fan of the genre.
VANCOUVER and VICTORIA
On the West Coast this spring, it’s all about following the careers of Canadian singers. Pacific Opera Victoria kicks off the trend with its slightly strange choice of Emmerich Kálmán’s Countess Maritza (April 25-May 5). Kálmán is no household name today, but in the heyday of Viennese operetta, he was known for pulling the Czardas card (he was Hungarian, after all) – that means the music will be fun, and call for some serious vocal chops from the domestic cast headed by Lesley Ann Bradley, Adam Luther and Jennifer Taverner.
Vancouver Opera’s short-but-sweet season – deemed a festival, to be fair – isn’t particularly daring, save for the one-night-only, world-premiere performance of Brian Current’s The River of Light (May 3). Current’s piece is inspired by Dante, revolves around transcendence and features the excellent soprano Caitlin Wood. On VO’s traditional side, it’s a worthy outing to catch Robert Pomakov – the Canadian bass overdue for a leading role at home – as Méphistophélès in VO’s Faust (April 27-May 5); and her starring role in La Cenerentola (April 27-May 12) is a great chance to start paying close attention to mezzo Simone McIntosh.
And if none of that is interesting, you’ll have to wait for the particularly innovative Jesse: An ASL Opera, which gets its first workshop performance on June 24 at Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival. The opera is the work of deaf playwright and performer Landon Krentz, and he’s producing this performance along with British Columbia-based indie opera company re:Naissance Opera. I’ll admit that the idea of an American Sign Language opera sounds slightly oxymoronic, but Krentz’s aim is to infuse the rhythmic and expressive traits of sign language into opera; if anything, Jesse: An ASL Opera will be something entirely new.