David Curry is racing through the backstage of the London Coliseum with his co-star Stephanie Marshall in tow, looking for a quiet place to talk. He pulls open the door to his dressing room, but there's not much room in there for anything apart from a couple of gondoliers' costumes. Marshall's dressing room? No, one of their colleagues is in there doing her eye makeup. On stage? Nope, the crew is having some kind of techie powwow between two candy-coloured gondolas.
As they rush through the theatre, Curry and Marshall catch up on the day's gossip. One of their cast-mates has a cold; another was thrown from his motorcycle the previous evening -- will they be fit to perform in a few hours when the curtain goes up on The Gondoliers? Apparently so. "Because that," Curry says with a comic flourish, "is show business!"
Eventually, Curry leads the way to a tiny wood-panelled room, currently an intermission sanctuary for moneyed donors to the English National Opera, but formerly known as the American Bar. This is, if not ironic, at least a bit rich, considering that these two young opera singers were born and raised in Canada, and would like to return -- a feat that's proven more difficult than you might imagine.
At the moment, they are fortunate enough to have plum jobs in the centre of the performing world, a fact for which they seem sincerely, Canadianly, grateful. Marshall, a mezzo-soprano, is Tessa in the English National Opera production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers, and Curry, a tenor, plays Marco.
Along with other roles, Curry has done some 400 performances of Gilbert and Sullivan in the past few years, "which has kept me on stage and singing." Marshall is a newcomer to the world of comic opera, and a somewhat hesitant one. "The operettas are kind of. . . ." She throws up her hands and assumes the grin of a dementedly happy person. "It's taken me a while to warm up to it, because I sometimes felt like that's all there is."
For singers, one of the unusual things about The Gondoliers is that it's democratic, with the big numbers doled out among the half-dozen lead roles. When it was written, the famous team were infuriated by their singers' demands for more money, and as a result wrote an operetta with no discernible star. Of course, the librettist and his composer were not on the best of terms at that point, although "they buried the hatchet," writes filmmaker Mike Leigh in the essay accompanying the ENO production, "probably motivated as much by anything by their need to earn a crust."
The Gondoliers was a hit when it opened in 1889. The current production has drawn mixed reviews, although the young Canadians' performances have been praised. ("Great finesse and, vitally, good diction," noted the Opera News.) This production is the first time the singers, both 33, have performed together, though they did attend London's Royal Academy of Music at the same time, and even auditioned on the same afternoon in 1997.
"David doesn't know this," Marshall says, smiling at her co-star, "but he auditioned before me and I kind of had a look at him like, 'who's the competition?' "
"I had no idea," Curry says.
Marshall grew up in Montreal, singing to whatever was on the radio, putting on little shows, "annoying my family," she says, until her mother gave her singing lessons at 12. Curry did the usual run of high-school musicals, but his family "absolutely hated the idea of me doing theatre," so he went to university with the hopes of being a doctor and studied to be a naval officer in his spare time. Both potential careers went down the drain when he got a job in a Toronto costume house and began singing Gilbert and Sullivan. Postgraduate studies landed them in London, a city they both love -- although they disagree on the charms of being able to drink beer on public transit -- and where they have chosen to raise their families (Marshall has a toddler daughter, and Curry two young children). That geographic decision pointed their careers toward Europe, and not back home, an issue that clearly rankles.
"I was talking to an agent and she asked why I wanted to work in Canada," Curry says, "And I said, 'Because I'm Canadian!' There's something about going out and doing it in the real world, and coming back and doing it there. That's one of my drives, to also develop a Canadian career."
They have both sung in Canada; Marshall had the lead in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Handmaid's Tale, a role she originated with the ENO in London. Curry had the more onerous job of singing in a sparrow-filled barn in rural Ontario a decade ago as part of the COC's unorthodox concert series. "Literally," he says, "all you could hear was the phht-phht as the bird shit hit the floor."
Still, they recognize that there are practical reasons why they might not yet be big names at home: "There are enough Canadian singers in Canada to fill the spots we'd be hired for," Marshall says. "Right away we're going to be more expensive, because our agents are going to be asking more -- we're used to being paid in pounds. Then they have to fly us over and put us up."
Curry jumps in: "That said, you look at Canadian casting and it's a lot of people from the Eastern bloc. They're cheap. . . ."
"They sing well," Marshall adds.
"They sing okay," Curry concedes. Their overlapping repartee is almost worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. They're equally entertaining, telling stories that are at once self-deprecating and yet a subtle hint-dropping of how far they've come. Marshall, for example, sang the role of Kate Pinkerton in Anthony Minghella's production of Madame Butterfly, even if the opera's most painful moment -- a child being taken away from its mother -- left her an emotional wreck. "It was only nine weeks after I'd had my baby," she says. "I was bawling, such a mess. For the first week I couldn't get anything out. I kept saying to Anthony Minghella, 'I'm so sorry!' But by the time we went on I was fine."
Curry, a couple of summers ago, found himself on a freezing-cold Glasgow stage in front of 15,000 spectators -- and millions more watching on TV -- as he was called in as a last-minute substitute on the last night of the Proms. The last night of the music festival is a big deal in Britain, and the singer who was supposed to perform had "bottled" -- lost his nerve. Curry stepped in with minimal rehearsal to sing a couple of tunes from West Side Story and the tricky number Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better. He must have done all right: Among the text messages that flowed in to the BBC during the broadcast were several marriage proposals.
Now, if only they could replicate that success back in the old country. Curry confides that in the end, he has only one dream: "I want to sing the national anthem during Hockey Night in Canada, the Leafs and Montreal. That's my real goal."