Liz Upchurch has now been head of the COC Ensemble Studio for twenty years. To put that in perspective, Alain Coulombe was an Ensemble Studio member back then. So Liz has deeply influenced a whole generation of Canadian singers and it was fitting that there should be a concert in her honour in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. It’s named for the man who brought her to the COC and it’s been the venue for countless concerts by the Mama Bear’s cubs.
Off I went to the Four Seasons Centre to see Samuel Chan and Stéphane Mayer perform some Schubert. Sadly Sam was indisposed so what we got was a hastily, but very well, constructed program featuring some of the other singers in the Ensemble Studio.
Things kicked off with the increasingly impressive Anne-Sophie Neher in an accomplished rendering of Mozart’s “show off” piece Exsultate jubilate, in which she showed very decent control in the rather fiendish runs. She was back later with “The Presentation of the Rose” from Der Rosenkavalier which sounded suitably Straussian and sufficiently girlish at the same time. Nicely done. She made a third appearance with one of Adèles’s arias from Le comte Ory. This didn’t quite do it for me but it was fun to hear Stéphane playing around with the very Rossiniesque accompaniment.
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 back to the Salle Bourgie for the second and final batch of art song contestants. First up was mezzo Hagar Sharvit. I liked her. It’s a genuine mezzo voice and if her Fauré and Schubert offerings were a bit “flow of beautiful tone” they displayed plenty of power and a nice ability to spin a line. Her version of Britten’s O Waly, Waly was rather good ; more dramatic and with perfect diction. A strong start.
The COC has announced four additions to the COC Ensemble Studio for 2018/19. I don’t think there any surprises. The three prize winners from last season’s Centre Stage are joined by Lauren Margison, daughter of Richard and currently with the Atelier Lyrique in Montreal. Just for fun I researched how long the four had been on the OR radar. The most recent is Montreal based soprano Anna-Sophie Neher who was unknown to me until Centre Stage. Next would be mezzo Simona Genga; UoT graduate and top prize winner at Centre Stage. She first appeared in these pages in a review of a UoT concert in 2016. Bass-baritone Joel Allison has been on the watch list for a while. He first showed up in a review of a Talisker Players concert in March 2015 and I’ve followed him closely ever since, including his Norcop Prize winner recital. But by far the longest history goes to soprano Lauren Margison who I first wrote about as a 19 year old singing with her dad in the RBA in 2011! I wonder whether that record, seven years from first appearing in OR to joining the Ensemble Studio, will ever be broken. For the record, graduating this summer are Samantha Pickett, Megan Quick, Bruno Roy and Toronto’s favourite naked soprano Danika Lorèn.
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.
The contestants for this years Centre Stage; the competition for places in the COC’s Ensemble Studio have been announced. They are bass-baritone Joel Allison (Ottawa); tenor Matthew Dalen (Grande Prairie, Alta.); mezzo-soprano Simona Genga(Woodbridge, Ont.); soprano Natalie Image (Tsawwassen, B.C.); soprano Chelsea Rus (Abbotsford, B.C.); soprano Anna-Sophie Neher (Gatineau, Que.); and baritone Jonah Spungin (Ottawa). I’ve seen a fair bit of Allison, Rus, Dalen and Genga and I am absolutely not surprised at all that they are competing. They are all very promising young singers. I’m looking forward to hearing the others.
This year the judging panel includes regulars Alexander Neef, Roberto Mauro, Liz Upchurch, Wendy Nielsen and Nina Draganić but this year they will be joined by the extraordinary Mary Morrison, whose talent spotting credits include one Barbara Hannigan. Centre Stage is at the Four Seasons Centre on November 1st with the reception at 5.30pm and the competition starting at 6.30pm.