Singers are a vital element of opera on which audiences always have an opinion. They can elevate a production, detract from one, blend in with the scenery, or stand so outside of time and place as to be utterly singular.
Tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s signature silvery tone is indelibly linked to his buoyant performance as the Duke of Mantua and the famous aria “La donna è mobile” from Verdi’s Rigoletto. Maria Callas’s name alone conjures the sounds of her luscious “Vissi d’Arte” as Tosca. Joan Sutherland is forever associated with her performances in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. The varied levels of opera – staged, in-concert, recorded, rehearsed; scheduling, coaching, studying, networking – haven’t always been fully acknowledged, but have gained awareness over the past two-plus years because of the challenges wrought by the pandemic. Opera singing as a career has never been in a more precarious state.
Health, finances, opportunities, competition, cancellations: The challenges are myriad. The coronavirus pandemic continues to test the resilience of individuals, conservatories and companies alike. The current generation of working artists might look behind, to singers like Jon Vickers and Lois Marshall, even as they look at the world around them and try to determine – create, define – their place in it.
The following seven opera singers have a range of backgrounds and are at different, if fascinating, points in their careers. Many straddle lines between large and small stages, live and recorded work, ever watchful of cultivating the vocal and theatrical in tandem, an integration opera demands. Matthew Cairns, Asitha Tennekoon, Alain Coulombe, Melody Courage, Karina Gauvin, Joyce El-Khoury and Gerald Finley – these are names known to many Canadian opera lovers, names to remember for newcomers. Their talents offer a beacon of light in the coming weeks and months of winter’s darkness.
Matthew Cairns caught the attention of the opera world in 2018, when he won first prize at the annual Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition. The warm-toned tenor was a member of the company’s Ensemble Studio from 2019 to spring, 2022, and performed in productions of Dvorak’s Rusalka, Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and Puccini’s Turandot, as well as covering the central role of Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata. In May, Cairns was named one of six Grand Finals Winners at the 2022 Metropolitan Opera Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition (formerly the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions), an important event in the opera world. The University of Toronto alumnus just started his first year in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, and this season debuts on the famed New York stage, covering the role of Bob Boles in Britten’s Peter Grimes (which opened on Oct. 16) and as the messenger in Aida. He returns to Toronto in April to sing the role of Macduff in Verdi’s Macbeth with the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
Asitha Tennekoon’s award-winning 2016 performance as Paul in Tapestry Opera’s Rocking Horse Winner (based on a short story by D.H. Lawrence) is burned into the memory of everyone who saw it. Globe critic Richard Harris noted Tennekoon’s “silky emotional presence on stage – both vocally and dramatically,” a talent the Sri Lankan tenor has only intensified. As well as Tapestry, he has performed with Opéra de Montréal, Vancouver Opera, Soundstreams Canada, Against The Grain, and Opera Lafayette in the United States, and has performed the music of Bach, Mozart and Rossini. Tennekoon is also the co-founder of Amplified Opera (AO), a company whose aim is to place artists at the centre of public discourse. Currently performing as Remendado in Carmen at Pacific Opera Victoria, Tennekoon will next be seen in Vancouver in Angel’s Bone, a work about human trafficking, with a lateral leadership team made up of advisers and leaders from re:Naissance Opera, Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre, Arraymusic, Turning Point Ensemble and Loose Tea Music Theatre.
Bass Alain Coulombe has sung on a variety of celebrated stages (including Teatro Alla Scala Milan, the Salzburg Festival, and the Dutch National Opera), and in works ranging the sonic gamut, from traditional (Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Bellini’s Norma) to 20th-century (Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking; Somers’ Louis Riel). In 2019, he performed in an Against the Grain-led staging of the 1979 opera Kopernikus by Claude Vivier, which is partly written in an imaginary language specified by the composer. In September, Coulombe was a soloist in the world premiere of Paul Frehner’s choral work LEX, presented by Soundstreams Canada. Currently appearing as Zuniga in the COC revival of Carmen, in March the French-Canadian singer will perform in the Canadian premiere of Ainadamar (”Fountain of Tears”) with Opéra de Montréal. Based on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca, the work by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov and U.S. playwright David Henry Hwang also features Canadian soprano Emily Dorn as Margarita Xirgu, Lorca’s close collaborator.
Melody Courage made the most of pandemic-era lockdowns. In early 2021, she was part of Calgary Opera’s Opera Labs collaborative project Namwayut (“we are all one”), and worked with Vancouver’s Allegra Chamber Orchestra performing works by contemporary Canadian composers. The Métis soprano first gained notice in 2017 with her searing performance as The Native Girl in the world premiere of the Pacific Opera Victoria/City Opera Vancouver co-commission Missing (libretto, Marie Clements; music, Brian Current), which tells the story of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. In 2019, she performed in the Dora Award winning double-bill Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit, presented by Soundstreams Canada and Signal Theatre. As part of the COC’s digital concert series last year, Courage worked with composer Ian Cusson to premiere his new work, In Winter. This December, she performs with the Vancouver Bach Choir in Messiah (alongside tenor Asitha Tennekoon), and in February, she is set to sing the pivotal role of Chrisann Brennan opposite baritone Brett Polegato in the Canadian premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs with Calgary Opera.
Like Courage, soprano Karina Gauvin kept busy with music amid restrictions wrought by the pandemic. Jules Massenet: Complete Mélodies for voice and piano (released earlier this month via ATMA Classique) was recorded in Quebec during 2020 lockdowns. Gauvin sings 63 of the album’s 300+ songs, showcasing an immense vocal suppleness developed through years of experience performing the works of Gluck, Rameau, Mozart, Ravel, and (most especially) Handel, on a variety of stages, including the Bavarian State Opera, Teatro Real (Madrid), Wigmore Hall (London), and the Glyndebourne Festival. The twice-Grammy-nominated soprano, whose discography includes more than 50 recordings, was made an honorary director of the Art Song Foundation of Canada in 2017. In February, Gauvin is set to perform the title role in Handel’s Alcina with Les Violons du Roy in Quebec, before embarking on a series of concert dates in France, Germany and the Czech Republic. In June, she returns to France to perform as Marguerite in a semi-staged performance of Gounod’s Faust at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
Joyce El-Khoury has performed on some of the most celebrated stages in the opera world, including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Bavarian State Opera, and Teatro Real. Currently appearing as Michaela in Carmen with the COC, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano is set to debut in the title role of Anna Bolena at Bilbao Opera in November. The role (and opera) belong to composer Gaetano Donizetti’s famous trilogy of Tudor queens, the others being Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda, the latter sung by El-Khoury with Seattle Opera in 2016. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, El-Khoury has appeared with the COC as Violetta in La Traviata, Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, and as Liù in Turandot. In 2018, she performed in the world premiere of Sardanapalo, a previously unheard opera by Franz Liszt, with Staatskapelle Weimar, which became an award-winning recording. Last autumn, El-Khoury made her role debut as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Welsh National Opera; she returns to the role in May with Opéra de Montréal.
London, Paris, Munich, Berlin – Gerald Finley has a busy season ahead. The Ottawa-born bass baritone will sing the villains Scarpia (in Puccini’s Tosca) and Iago (in Verdi’s Otello); the randy Count Almaviva (in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; virtuous Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhauser; the tormented title role in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander. Amid all this, Finley will return to Toronto to perform the title role in a unique production of Bluebeard’s Castle. Originally produced by British group Theatre of Sound, the staging reimagines Bartok’s 1918 work as a domestic drama involving a long-married couple grappling with the wife’s dementia. Ottawa-born Finley, who has just wrapped up an acclaimed performance as Antony in John Adams’ new Antony and Cleopatra with San Francisco Opera, has used his plush bass baritone sound to dramatic effect in both large-scale opera and intimate lieder performances. He was part of the original Theatre of Sound/Bluebeard presentation in 2021, and will sing opposite Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka in a chamber-sized orchestration in Toronto.