The Ensemble Studio Competition again last night. Seven singers were competing with Ben Heppner’s jokes for cash prizes, champagne and, possibly, a place in the COC Ensemble Studio. There’s one thing I think is vital to understand about the Ensemble Studio Competition. The judges have been working with the singers for a week. The audience gets to hear them sing one aria. It’s easy to see why there isn’t always concurrence between the hall and the judging table. (That’s my excuse anyway).
I finally got to see Rufus Wainwright’s new opera Hadrian, to a libretto by Daniel Macivor, at the Four Seasons Centre last night. There’s been a lot of hype around it and I was interested; the few bits of music from it that I had heard intrigued me but I’m no fan of his earlier work Prima Donna. One thing was certain. The piece does not lack ambition. There are four acts totalling something like 160 minutes. There’s a large cast, a large orchestra, a large chorus and an epic storyline. It’s clearly an attempt to produce a “grand opera” for our times. Does it succeed?
So last night was this year’s iteration of the COC’s glitzy competition with cash and places in the Ensemble Studio at stake. It’s a bit of a weird thing to write about because the public, and this year the media, only see a fraction of what the judges are judging. We saw each singer do one aria. There had been a closed round earlier in the day to which, unlike in previous years, the media were not invited. Then there’s what the judges have seen in rehearsal, reputation etc. All in all what happens on the night influences the outcome about as much as at an Olympic figure skating event. So, in many ways it’s surprising that my picks were as close to the judges as they were.
Last night’s TSO concert was billed as a Tribute to Maureen Forrester with Ben Heppner MCing. Inevitably the main even was Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde but first there was a sesquie and the premiere of a new piece; L’Aube, for mezzo and orchestra by Howard Shore (he of Lord of the Rings etc). This was a setting of five poems by Elizabeth Cotnoir. It was retro, lush, tonal and, in a sense, well crafted but with very little variation between the movements, all of which were very slow. Susan Platts rich mezzo added to the rather soporific effect. Call me an unreformed modernist if you like but I’m really not sure what a piece like this adds to the symphonic repertoire.
The Canadian Children’s Opera Company have announced their 50th anniversary season. The big news is that the main production will be a new piece by Alice Ping Yee Ho and Marjorie Chan (the team behind The Lesson of Da Ji). The new piece is called The Monkiest King and is based on the legendary (and comic book) character the Monkey King. Like the earlier work it will fuse western opera and traditional Chinese music techniques and instruments. It will play at the Lyric Theatre at the Toronto Centre for the Arts May 25-27 2018.
There is also going to be a celebratory concert hosted by Ben Heppner on October 26 2017 at the Four Seasons Centre. Besides performances by the current CCOC there will be appearances from Richard Margison, Krisztina Szabó, Simone Osborne and Andrew Haji and a choir of CCOC alumni.
Last night’s Toronto Summer Music Festival concert, continuing the the me of “London Calling” was titled (Almost) the Last Night of the Proms and was a sort of recreation of that weird fusion of music and retro imperialism that hits the Albert Hall once per year. I went because I was curious. Toronto is no longer terribly British and it’s also notoriously buttoned down. Koerner Hall is a 1200 seat concert hall with no promenade space. The concert wasn’t the celebratory conclusion of eight weeks of promenading. Could it remotely match the atmosphere of the Last Night and, if not, would there be musical merit enough to make it worthwhile? The answer, sadly, is not really though some people did try.
There are actually some up coming concerts and so on to talk about. The big event is, of course, the Toronto Summer Music Festival. This starts on July 14th and it seems incredible that it’s four months since I previewed it. There are a couple of additional TSMF events worth noting, notably an interview with Ben Heppner in Walter Hall on August 4th at 2pm. There are also master classes including one with Anne Schwanewilms on July 19th from 2pm to 5pm, also in Walter Hall.
Summer Opera Lyric Theatre has also announced its performance line up. There are three operas on offer:
- There is a premiere of Davies and Benson’s A Tale of Two Cities, based on the Dickens novel. That’s on July 29th and August 6th at 8 pm and July 31 and Aug 6th at 3 pm.
- Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann is on July 30th and August 7th at 3 pm and August 2nd and 4th at 8 pm.
- Handel’s Julius Caesar is on July 30th, August 3rd and 5th at 8 pm and August 3rd at 3 pm.
All performances are at the Robert Gill Theatre, 214 College St. Three-performance subscription packages are $60; single tickets at $28, $22 (students & seniors). For tickets call 416-366-7723 or visit www.stlc.com.
If you have been wondering who would replace recently retired Ben Heppner in Westben’s annual Sunday Afternoon at the Opera, to be held this year on July 20th at 2:00 pm, the wait is over. It will be veteran coloratura soprano Tracy Dahl, last seen in Toronto as Despina. She’ll be accompanied by Ensemble Studio head honcho Liz Upchurch. Tickets available at www.westben.ca
Famed Canadian tenor Ben Heppner has announced his retirement from singing. It’s entirely understandable as he has been struggling with vocal problems for some considerable time. On form, he was magnificent and I was privileged to hear his Tristan when he returned to COC after a long absence in 2013. Unfortunately a run of Peter Grimes later in the year showed the other side of the coin with a cancellation and some pretty rough moments. Ben is a gentleman and a professional and I think he’s doing the right thing by the opera world, for which he’s been such a distinguished servant for so long. He’s already got a radio gig hosting CBC Radio’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and I’m sure other interesting opportunities will open up. On to pastures new…
Dieter Dorn’s production of Tristan und Isolde for the Metropolitan Opera is one of the most interesting from a design point of view that I have seen from the Met. If only the direction of and acting of the principals in this recording (made in either 1999 or 2001; sources differ) was up to the same standard!