Tosca on my mind

Tosca is on my mind after the final performance yesterday.

Several of Puccini’s melodies are having their way with me, stuck in my head. I’m not complaining. But I can’t stop thinking about the opera and the Canadian Opera Company’s production. Erika and I attended the closing matinee Saturday, leading to this. I sometimes speak of Pollyanna as my alter-ego, that I promise that above all I must not do any harm in reviews. When the show is closed, however perhaps I can say a few things..?

I love Tosca almost more than any opera I know of, given that I’m unable to see Pelléas or Parsifal anytime soon. Is it perhaps time for critics to give it a rest about the critiques from Shaw, Britten and Joseph Kerman? If Tosca is a shabby shocker, what does that make Hitchcock’s Vertigo, ranked the greatest movie of all time a few years ago by the British Film Institute. Tosca is a flawless creation, arguably the greatest of Puccini’s operas and like Wagner 2.0 with its subtle use of themes in an opera that gets so much done quickly and economically, while packing in audiences time after time. I saw the COC show twice, the second time on my own $ via my COC subscription. And for what it’s worth, as I discussed renewing our subscription with Erika over the past few weeks, nothing was more persuasive than hearing Stefano La Colla sing “E lucevan le stelle.” Thank you Puccini, for persuading Erika to renew.

Stefano La Colla and Keri Alkema (photo: Michael Cooper)

Let me also speak briefly about one of Kerman’s worst phrases in Opera as Drama, when he speaks of the way Tosca ends. He says “Tosca leaps, and the orchestra screams the first thing that comes into its head.” The orchestra give us that same plaintive melody, “E lucevan le stelle” but this time, not softly. It’s a reminder of the precious moments in life that we cherish. Yet why would it be bad for an orchestra to scream the first thing that comes into its head? Orchestras represent emotion, not contrived fake drama. An orchestra being honest and emotional? Kerman must be jealous at some deep level of what happens at this moment, that Puccini is so insightful and clever in the way he constructs Act III of Tosca.

I wonder though, have we lost touch with how the work was written, how it was framed for the audiences in 1900 and shortly thereafter? I’m thinking of the context of Christianity that frames the work. Tosca is pious, Cavaradossi is not, and Scarpia nods toward convention even if he’s a complete hypocrite. Let me enlarge on that, as I think there are some things in Paul Curran’s production for the COC that are more aligned with the values of 2023 than with the time of the opera’s premiere in 1900, let alone the time of its setting, 1800. I get that from the mention of the Battle of Marengo, which was on June 14 1800.

Let me mention a few things where maybe we’ve lost track of the story and Puccini.

Angelotti is a refugee who hides in a church. If you recall the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the idea of sanctuary is fundamental, that anyone great or poor can find shelter in a church. That Angelotti must run away is bad enough. Scarpia comes barging into the church with his “Un tal baccano in Chiesa! Bel rispetto!” He enters as the defender of the faith, not its violator. In the COC production we see him obsess over Tosca while the Te Deum begins. And then Roland Wood strides past the priest and the assembled ceremony as though it were nothing, as though this priest were a nobody. Sorry that’s wrong (although this is surely what the director asked, as it was the same the last time we saw this production a few years ago). He supposedly comes to his senses (or as it says in the score “riavendosi come da un sogno” : coming back as though from a dream) to say Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!… (“Tosca you makeme forget God!”). The score tells us that he crosses himself, kneels and prays devoutly, as opposed to walking past the priest without any sign of respect. Benito Mussolini in the 1930s would have been more respectful than what we saw from our Scarpia.

Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage, left) in the Te Deum climaxing Act One of Tosca (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Okay, modern productions are permitted to take liberties. Of course we’re constantly watching modernized versions, impacted by our changing attitudes. Tosca is supposedly devout. While Keri Alkema really plays this (although a critic I know felt she was too restrained, preferring the edgier approach of Sinéad Campbell-Wallace ) it becomes problematic when the storyline is no longer consistent. Tosca (Sinéad that is) throws the fan at the painting, something rather over-the-top even if it’s an exciting moment, tears up the sketches and throws them like confetti in the church. If she’s devout would she do that? I ask this as a 21st century Christian Protestant, who feels some need to bow towards a sanctuary when I’m in it, let alone if I visit a Catholic church, which is usually even more formal about such things than a Protestant space. If I’m feeling that, surely a devout Christian woman of 1800 would be respectful. When she kills Scarpia and then says she forgives him, it shouldn’t evoke laughter (which I’ve heard in modern performances), even if yes that seems odd to us nowadays that she kills him and then forgives him. But I think it’s written in context with her piety, to represent her horror at what she’s done, leading her to put the cross on his chest as she’s leaving the body behind. And when Tosca calls out her final defiant line I believe she’s speaking out of piety, saying “O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!” (Oh Scarpia, before God!) to say that she’s confident he is more evil and her actions would be excused by God. Yes it’s a Sarah Bernhardt kind of moment, a histrionic instant to conclude. But it’s a reminder that God is there from beginning to end.

I still have Tosca’s music running through my head, partly because I remember the show from yesterday, partly because I pulled out the score to look at a few moments that I love. From my childhood it changed how I think. I may have been a fool to take Cavaradossi so seriously but there it is, I love his sensuous outlook on life, his appreciation of beauty, his willingness to help his friend and to cheer for Napoleon’s victory (as did so many before and after…Beethoven too) over the tyranny of his home.

While I love Pelléas and adore Parsifal and admire Les Troyens, Tosca always fills seats. And I will be there to see and hear it next time they produce it. To me it’s perfect. It never gets old.

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Apocryphonia: A Cabinet of Curiosities

There’s so much one can say about last night’s Apocryphonia concert “A Cabinet of Curiosities”, but I’ll try to keep it under control. I talked my head off with tenor Alexander Cappellazzo, who is the founder of Apocryphonia and the Diapente Renaissance Vocal Quintet, two Toronto-based groups dedicated to showcasing underperformed repertoire, the tenor starring in a recent opera by the Chevalier St George, L’Amant anonyme, impressing with his easy delivery and fearless command of his upper register.

I missed Diapente on the weekend of May 12, otherwise occupied, but determined not to miss this one.

In “underperformed repertoire” we’re encountering works from seven composers, six of whom I had never heard of before plus a seventh whom I admire (Hanns Eisler, whose music is rarely heard).

Here’s the program I downloaded, although two of the works listed by Yamada (# 5 and 7b) were omitted last night. Pianist Cecilia Nguyentran played all 34 pieces.

There were 19 piano solos plus 15 songs/ arias that require the piano, so while Alexander got breaks, Cecilia did not.

We were in the Cecil Community Centre, a lovely little venue with seating for 50 people that was completely filled up, an ideal performance situation allowing the artists to connect directly with the audience.

There was an added wrinkle to the process, namely the way the pieces were assembled. Instead of giving us the usual series all by one composer, we accomplished a kind of shuffle, as you might get from your electronic device. We were asked upon entry to pick from a jar, and then our picks would be constructed into a set list. I cheated because of whom I wanted to hear (Eisler), although that likely had no impact. Alexander joked that this made us complicit, that we helped create the program.

The magic jar in the foreground only had a few pieces left when I took this picture. Notice how the program is being assembled on the page.

I was a skeptic, thinking “but these are new to us, how is this going to work, if we disrupt the usual sequence…?“ But I was so wrong. There’s much to learn in coming at each movement each song afresh as though it’s a separate thing a separate beginning a fresh attack beginning anew in each piece, listening as though from first principles, without assumptions. I wish we could try that with something familiar, to de-familiarize de-construct the usual experience. What if we had Beethoven & Handel and Debussy, movements/chunks mixed in this random manner? I think it could be wonderful to hear the works we think we know, to change our thinking and make them new again.

Perhaps this is how we should always listen?

The last song was possibly the most interesting of all… was this by accident? A fluke caused by the programming algorithm /the game of selection? Perhaps.

“The mermaid” by Capel, is a stunning song more for baritone than tenor: with an interpolated high note Alexander added (as he told me after, when I resumed talking his ear off,.,,,).

The piano part includes the sounds of an oceanic turbulence, the watery grave of which we should be afraid, as each verse tumbles headlong downwards…. There’s a pattern in part of each verse that put me in mind of Debussy’s Sirenes, the perfect rhythms of nature’s organic and unstoppable energies. Yet this is a song not out of place in a bar, a ballad to caution young men lured to their deaths. Capel is a Canadian whose work deserves to be better known. Every one of these six songs was worth hearing.

I could comment on each composer, but am more inclined to want to dig up their scores and discover this music for myself.

Felix Blumenfeld? We heard 4 excerpts from his 10 Moments lyriques (1898), the last to put me in mind of a Chopin prelude from the 24 Op 28 with its wild octaves employed in chromatic ventures up and down the keyboard. Cecilia made remarkably bold sonorities from the upright piano.

Nicanor Abelardo is a Filipino composer whose three pieces from the 1920s included an Ave Maria with a high B (if my ear didn’t fail me), a prayer Alex chose to sing in a bold performative manner (presumably observing the dynamics as written)

Helen Hopekirk’s three Scottish songs encouraged Alexander to sing each one with a delightful colour and accent. They’re stunningly beautiful.

The concert was recorded, I hope it will be available possibly on video but certainly audio.

I will be watching to see what they’re up to next.

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Pete Davidson’s Bupkis

Pete Davidson’s new series Bupkis is in the twilight zone between reality tv and fiction.  It’s a kind of fiction made from reality…? I’m not sure, perhaps I’m giving it too much credit. It feels original.

And so we watch Pete Davidson play a version of himself. Not only does he show us mail addressed to Pete Davidson but he’s living in his mom’s basement on Staten Island, just as we’ve heard on Saturday Night Live and in the media.  

In the first episode his mom (played by Edie Falco) comes downstairs just as he’s jerking off, getting sprayed. 

If that bothers you this show is not for you.  

So we watched the first episode, which ran 33 minutes.  It was intense, impressive writing and great performances. The dialogue flows as spontaneously as the various bodily fluids.

Their cup runneth over.

This version of Davidson shows the same vulnerability to what we saw in Davidson’s film debut, King of Staten Island, someone mocked for the life he’s leading. What’s different in this show is that even as he’s mocked and sad about his life, we’re often reminded of his celebrity.  He’s constantly asked to pose with fans for selfies and photos.

Is he complaining or boasting? I can’t tell. But the title (from the yiddish word for nothing) is apt for such a self-deprecatory performer.

We meet Davidson’s grandfather, played abrasively by Joe Pesci. He’s apparently dying although IMDB tells us he’s going to last at least eight episodes, perhaps a bit like Brian Cox, whose presence redeemed many episodes of Succession.  In this first episode Davidson has heard that his grandpa is sick, and so arranges to take him out for a night with a hooker, with Uncle Roy (played by basso profundo Brad Garrett) invited along.   

IMDB tells me that in the series we’ll get to see Al Gore, Steve Buscemi, Jane Curtin, Kenan Thompson, Jon Stewart, even Garrett’s bro from another show, Ray Romano.

There’s a lot going on in a very short time. Not only did we laugh but we’ll watch the next episode.

With the WGA strike dragging on, stopping programs such as Davidson’s alma mater Saturday Night Live, Bupkis’s timing couldn’t be more perfect.

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Baroque Music from the Greatest Movies of All Time: Polina Osetinskaya, Virtuoso Pianist


Baroque Music from the Greatest Movies of All Time
“Clear and flawless articulation at every level, and an earnest demeanour.” – Gramophone, U.K.

“Plainly a pianist of a superior order” – KlassiskMusikk, Norway

“Her crystalline articulation drawing rich colours from the keyboard” – Ludwig Van Toronto, Canada

The sublime virtuoso pianist and human rights advocate Polina Osetinskaya returns to Toronto for her Canadian solo debut featuring music from some of the greatest films of all time. Show One Productions and Cherry Orchard Festival present Baroque Music from the Greatest Movies of All Time ─ a sprawling program featuring works by Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Rameau. Saturday, June 3, 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall, 273 Bloor Street West. This solo debut launches the tour of a program that will also be presented at Boston’s Berklee Performance Center, San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, the Lighthouse Artspace Chicago, and New York’s Kaufman Concert Hall at the 92Y. Tickets, starting at $48, may be obtained at the hall box office or online. More info is also online at

Music by Bach, Handel, Purcell, and Rameau have been prominently featured in movie soundtracks like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Jean-Paul Genet’s Casanova, not to mention in films by Tarkovsky, Greenaway, and Bergman. These works have become some of the most popular and enduring musical masterpieces in history. In Baroque music, Osetinskaya has found a harmonious companion for cinema classics that, for her, “Gives you a feeling of being protected. Baroque music is much more objective than music of the 19th century, for example. Everyone, and every emotion, can be found in this music.”

Osetinskaya’s genuine charm and impeccable attention to musical detail will make you understand why she rose to international acclaim as a soloist in demand by the greatest conductors on stage today from Carnegie Hall to Vienna’s Musikverein and London’s Barbican Centre. She began her career at the age of five and was soon recognized as a wunderkind, giving her first solo concert at the age of six and going on to study with Marina Wolf and Vera Gornostaeva. She’s since performed on international stages ranging from Rome’s Teatro Argentina, to Germany, Poland, Israel, Tokyo, the United States, and more. She’s also collaborated with the likes of Maxim Vengerov, Alexander Knyazev, Julian Milkis, Theodor Currentzis, and more. Osetinskaya is also a published author with a harrowing reflection on her childhood in her memoir, Farewell Sadness. Hers is a contemplative mind with reflections across a wide horizon, creating in various genres, including on the theatrical stage wherein she both acts and performs as a musician.

Osetinskaya has been a life-long human rights advocate, supporting political prisoners, performing charity recitals for patients in hospice care, and working as a trustee for Oxygen Foundation to support children with cystic fibrosis. Elsewhere, she has been vocal about her anti-war stance while remaining in Moscow, and has faced cancellation of her concerts in all state and government concert halls. In an interview with VAN Magazine, Osetinskaya reflected on how her childhood has prepared her to adapt to this censorship: “I remember when I was seven, [I] would go to the concerts of the big rock groups like Aquarium that were playing concerts in private apartments. This kind of underground culture of the early ‘80s is suddenly coming back. I’ll continue to play in those places, because the people who can’t leave Russia or prefer to stay in their own country and fight as they can for truth need art and music to heal their pain.”



The Talented Mr. Ripley, 1999; Dir. Anthony Minghella
1) Italian Concerto in F

Solaris, 1972; Dir. Andrey Tarkovsky
2) Chorale prelude “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” (“I cry to you, Lord”)

Fingers, 1978; Dir. James Toback
3) Toccata in E minor

Breaking the Waves, 1996; Dir. Lars von Trier
4) Sonata No. 2 in E-flat for flute and harpsichord (attributed to Bach)
II: Siciliano

The Godfather
, 1972; Dir. Francis Ford Coppola
5) Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor

Barry Lyndon, 1975; Dir. Stanley Kubrick
1) Suite No. 4 in D minor
III:  Sarabande

HENRY PURCELL (1659—1695)

The Draftsman’s Contract
“, 1982; Dir. Peter Greenaway
1) Ground in C minor


4 days in France
, 2016; Dir. Jerome Raybaud
1) From “Pièces de Clavecin” in E minor

2) Le rappel des oiseaux (The calling of birds)

The Maid, 2016; Dir. Pan Chang Uk
3) Tambourin (Tambourine)

Casanova, 2015; Dir. Jean-Pierrel Jeneut
4) La villageoise (The Villager)

5) From “Pièces de Clavecin” in D
Les tendres plaintes (Tender complaints)
Les Niais de Sologne (The Fools of Solon)
Les Soupirs (Sighs)
La Joyeuse (The Joyful)
L’entretien des Muses (Conversation of the Muses)
Les Cyclopes (Cyclops)

Autumn Sonata, 1978; Dir. Ingmar Bergman
2) Chaconne with variations in G

Press releases and announcements” are presented verbatim without comment

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Macbeth closing performance: women have it harder

Three weeks ago I reviewed the powerful opening night of the new Sir David McVicar production of Verdi’s Macbeth from the Canadian Opera Company. Today I came full circle watching the last show of the run including exciting changes in the cast. Miracles do happen. As you may have heard the COC gave the understudy a chance to play the lead. Tracy Cantin who had been playing Lady in waiting has been promoted, singing Lady Macbeth for the last few shows.

Long ago I remember hearing that women have it harder, at least in the theatre world. In school I recall that as a guy going out for an audition chances are you’d get a part just by showing up, because there were so many male parts. Meanwhile, there were many more women seeking parts, competing for far fewer roles (at least in the classical rep). The two operas the COC offer might be a perfect case in point. Macbeth is entirely men except for Lady Macbeth and her Lady in waiting. Tosca is even worse, cast entirely with men, plus that one female role, namely Tosca.

I heard Tracy today, undertaking a huge part. For starters, it’s a lot of notes, almost all sung perfectly, with personality. The young singer took the stage, seizing her opportunity. Tracy was opposite Metropolitan Opera star Quinn Kelsey, who made his role debut as Macbeth. Quinn has likely been singing the arias and ensembles over and over for weeks, expecting to take the stage in the first Macbeth of his career. While Tracy learned the music, you wonder, did she ever expect to be singing a performance? It’s rare that an understudy goes on, especially in a big role. I wonder how many staging rehearsals—if any—Tracy actually enjoyed. Chances are this has all been last-minute, as she was suddenly handed this opportunity. She surely didn’t have nearly as much time to prepare as Quinn did for his part.

I think Tracy sang very well, even if the role isn’t a perfect fit, requiring a slightly different voice, perhaps someone older, perhaps a darker sound. The part is a nasty figure pushing her husband to murder, whose last appearance is as a sleep- walker struggling with her guilt. It’s hard to sing, hard to perform convincingly. Tracy was well-received by an enthusiastic audience hollering their support for her.

Tracy Cantin enjoying the ovation from the audience

Charlotte Siegel replaced Tracy as the new Lady in waiting, sounding great in the sleep-walking scene with Lady Macbeth and the doctor.

For this my second time watching the show, every bit as enjoyable as the first time, I had a few more observations.

I enjoyed Quinn Kelsey’s performance. There are times he’s making beautiful sounds, other times when he’s dramatizing, making rougher sounds with his voice, maybe for dramatic effect. I’m hyper-sensitive to this because I saw traviata twice in the past week, and have been compulsively discussing with friends the ways film and TV are leading us to expect a more verismo style of acting and singing in operas from Verdi that were created in a bel canto style. I may sound old-fashioned, but I wish he’d trust his voice, which is so beautiful.

I heard stories about a previous Lady Macbeth Elinor Ross, who sang back in the time of Louis Quilico. Perhaps she sought to be in character? I heard that on the opening night she didn’t appear for her curtain call, forcing Quilico to go out, and then leaving Ross to make the last bow. I don’t think Quilico was happy about that. I also heard that at least once the Lady in waiting for that production received chewing gum in her hand from the diva as she was going onstage. Maybe you get a more true to life portrayal of such a hateful character if you misbehave backstage, making your cast-mates angry.

I found myself wondering, after reading other commentaries, whether we think of the witches as evil or not. Myself, I say no. They are like a character in the opera, perhaps the most important one in the whole show. The COC chorus were their usual strong performers, the witches especially. Aha, all those talented women in the chorus…

There’s so much Canadian talent, clearly visible in both Tosca and Macbeth. Knowing what was coming didn’t lessen the impacts of the last scenes. I found myself even more verklempt at the end than last time. It’s a combination of the singing of the two tenors I wrote in my review of the opening “Adam Luther as Malcolm and Matthew Cairns’ sweetly sung Macduff take over the opera towards the end. ” Luther’s voice has a genuine Verdi squillo, an interesting contrast to Cairns’ gentler sound.

The orchestra and chorus are the stars of some scenes, especially the last ones. Conductor Speranza Scappucci drove the last part of the opera to a rousing conclusion, a little bit of a risorgimento in the removal of an oppressive and tyrannical king (Macbeth) in the battle at the end, celebrated in the final chorus. I can’t get those melodies out of my head, and come to think of it that’s okay, I like it.

The COC’s spring season continues with performances of Tosca May 21, 23, 27, at the Four Seasons Centre.

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SOLO Traviata in Burlington

Last night was the boldest step forward yet for Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO), performing a fully staged La Traviata before a rapturous sold-out audience at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre (BPAC).

I’ve been observing the artistic version of the truism “if you build it they will come”. Downtown Toronto is alive all night because of culture. Barrie’s downtown has been enriched by a decade of Talk is Free Theatre, including a performance space offering a focus to their downtown. Niagara-on-the-lake and Stratford show us how culture can transform a smaller community into so much more. Richmond Hill has a beautiful new theatre as a focus in their downtown. And now Burlington joins the growing contingent of cities and towns reviving and developing their communities with artistic attractions.

We’ve been driving through this part of Southern Ontario for awhile now, as we avoid the big bridge in preference for the views one gets closer to the water. Last night I was glad to take a closer look at BPAC, a terrific facility that enhanced our experience last night.

Burlington Performing Arts Centre

Seating about 700 patrons, the intimacy of the space makes for something special. I’ve talked about acoustics before. The audience shares the sound (whatever isn’t absorbed by the building envelope), so when 2600 listen to the TSO, you’re getting a smaller share than when it’s only 700. No, that wasn’t the COC orchestra last night so there may be fluffs, yet the sensuousness of the sound is glorious. The lady sitting next to me gasped during the prelude to the last scene, the plaintive violins conducted by Sabatino Vacca plus the spectacle of Karoline Podolak as Violetta dying before us overwhelming her. And me too.

Ryan Hofman—who did double duty singing and in the lobby still in his costume during intermission, in his other role promoting SOLO—explained the rationale.

Ryan Hofman and James Westman backstage after the show

The bold choice by SOLO to cast the opera with the best talent they could get meant the sweet lyric voice of Ernesto Ramirez as Alfredo Germont, the strong Verdi baritone of James Westman as his father Giorgio Germont, and Karoline’s sparkling soprano, a Traviata to please the most ardent Verdi enthusiast. And getting a partnership with Classical 96.3 (a station I usually listen to) also helped promote the production, ensuring a fully sold-out house.

Conductor Vacca wears several hats as the founder and artistic director of SOLO and also conducting the orchestra.

Conductor Sabatino Vacca with the SOLO orchestra

While it’s a community group with an amateur chorus you wouldn’t know it from the music they made, enthusiastic party guests surrounding the romantic drama of Violetta and Alfredo, directed by Vincent Thomas in a traditional staging.

Vacca made this a very authentic sounding Traviata, in favoring a bel canto approach. By now it’s rare to encounter this, given the profound impact of verismo and film on operatic presentations. By verismo I mean the kinds of Violetta we’ve seen from such sopranos as Ileana Cotrubas or Maria Callas whose approach to acting the role also changes the way the role is sung, sobbing and gasping in places. The Zeffirelli film of Traviata starring Teresa Stratas adds layers of pathos, pushing us further from Verdi’s bel canto original.

Karoline Podolak, Ernesto Ramirez and James Westman with the SOLO orchestra

So Karoline Podolak seems impossibly alive and healthy until the end because she’s singing the work very much as written, reminding me a bit of Joan Sutherland in her ability to toss off delicate coloratura effortlessly. You sometimes hear that phrase, that an artist “made it sounds easy”, but that’s very true for Karoline, whose technique is superb. The voice has a tight focus, the phrasing truly perfect. I found myself envying Vacca, who got to work with this dream of an artist. And so it’s magical that a woman dying of a lung ailment should have such a voice, which is why we usually see singers gasping and moaning rather than singing it as written.

Ernesto Ramirez too gave Vacca the authentic sound for Alfredo. A pushed (spinto) voice is wrong for this role. It was a thrill to hear a genuine messa di voce in the soft “Parigi o cara” building steadily, so truly musical. Ernesto floats some notes, accentuating others when necessary with a big sound in the most dramatic scenes. I discussed this with a friend afterwards, comparing him to the tenor in Tosca, whose “trumpet” voice was out of tune on his two important high notes, and whose acting was rather two-dimensional. Give me a musical singer instead, particularly when he’s a Canadian.

James Westman is the key third principal, arriving in the second act to derail the story with his demands upon Violetta. James not only added his beautiful mellifluous tone both in his brilliant aria in the second act and in the ensembles that follow, but managed to reconcile the contradictions of his character, a loving father whose demands cause inadvertent destruction. I’m not accustomed to watching this and liking everyone’s character, believing the sincerity of the hugs between Violetta and Giorgio.

There were no weak spots in the cast. Daniela Agostino is a very sympathetic Annina in the last scene alongside the subdued baritone of Michael Robert-Broder’s Dr Grenvil, his softness perhaps penance for his edgier appearance in the role of the Barone Douphol. The life of the party? Perhaps Ryan Hofman as Marchese D’obigny, sounding good and having fun on either side of the curtain, or perhaps Adriana Albu’s effervescent Flora, Violetta’s BFF. Corey Arnold (whose excellent acting I’ve observed before) was a three-dimensional Gastone, making a lot out of this small part as Alfredo’s friend and fellow tenor.

I only wish there were more performances, but now that they’ve experienced a show that sold every ticket perhaps SOLO will offer a longer run next time. I hope so.

Karoline Podolak, James Westman and Ernesto Ramirez
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Tosca delivers

The Canadian Opera Company’s revival of Paul Curran’s Tosca makes a perfect match with the new David McVicar Macbeth, both powerful explorations of the intersections of the personal with the political featuring terrific performances. I was struck by the similarities, that both operas feature baritones exploring the nature of evil, sopranos who in various ways tempt & challenge them, and a pair of composers exploring responses to oppression.

Tosca is the perfect first opera to answer any critiques about the supposed weaknesses of the medium. When people die in this opera it’s brutal and nasty. They sing about beauty, desire, remembered love and dreams of escape, just like the rest of us but (spoiler alert) it doesn’t end well.

There is often a drama within the drama in opera, observing performers handling the challenges of the medium. The role of Tosca began with Sardou’s well-made play in the 1880s created as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt, and Puccini could do no less in creating a spectacular role for soprano that premiered at the dawn of the 20th century, requiring piety, love, jealousy, then murder and remorse. The history of the role is highlighted by performers such as Tebaldi or Callas, and collectors fondly compare different versions of scenes.

Last night was a lovely addition to my personal collection of memories of the role, as Keri Alkema undertook Tosca the day after her beloved dog died: or so I gather from social media, as she reported going home between performances. I was bracing myself to hear that she would cancel (who would blame her? If you’ve ever had a cat or dog, you’d understand that this is truly the death of a family member). But Keri not only showed up but gave us a very powerful, original performance. There was one place in particular that I want to mention, namely the big aria “vissi d’arte”, where Tosca confronts God about the meaning of her life. This was the most internalized, understated reading of the aria I’ve ever heard, sung more softly in places than usual. If you’ve ever been singing while feeling powerful emotion and had your voice quiver or break, you may wonder how one holds it together when one is powerfully moved. I don’t know, only that what I thought I heard was a totally personal reading of the aria, one that had me totally in tears for a few moments. This also features her brilliant approach to the last act (which I observed last time she undertook the role). If you have a chance to see and hear her in her remaining performance on May 13th you’ll get something very special.

Cavaradossi (Stefano La Colla) and Tosca (Keri Alkema) photo: Michael Cooper

The other two main characters don’t disappoint alongside Keri’s Tosca. There are many ways to play Scarpia, the villainous chief of police. Whether he’s physically grotesque or handsome his behaviour and his soul are ugly beyond anything you see short of a CNN town hall. Roland Wood is a delightfully hypocritical Scarpia, his piety seemingly genuine alongside his epicurean taste and insatiable lust, his vocalism secure and flawless.

Roland Wood as Scarpia (downstage, left) in the Te Deum climaxing Act One of Tosca (Photo: Michael Cooper)

Stefano La Colla as the painter Cavaradossi completes the love triangle, an intriguing contrast to Keri’s subtleties in his passionate attacks on high notes, sometimes verging a bit sharp but always fully committed to the moment.

Donato Di Stefano as the Sacristan is a genuine example of an old-school approach to the role, although he was given very little space to operate in his scenes, given the full-speed ahead tempi of conductor Giuliano Carella. The COC orchestra and chorus sounded great especially in the big Te Deum that closes the first act of the opera, one of Wood’s great moments as Scarpia.

Michael Colvin and Giles Tomkins were very effective as Spoletta and Sciarrone, two of the police working with Scarpia, giving their scenes a great deal of depth. Alex Halliday was a sympathetic jailer, impressive in the last act. Christian Pursell was an effective Angelotti in the opening scene.

Tosca continues until May 27th, with soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace singing all but one of the remaining performances.

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Opera by Request’s William Shookhoff

Aside from family William Shookhoff aka Bill aka “Shookie” is the person I’ve known longest of anyone I’ve mentioned on this blog. In fact I interviewed him back in 1976, for the University of Toronto’s student newspaper.

Bill Shookhoff

And so forty-six and a half years after the first one this is our second interview.

Let me begin by quoting Bill’s own text that he used on the occasion of a recent performance in Germany.

As the director of Opera by Request in Toronto, Canada, it is a thrill to be collaborating with Musik fur Musik in Berlin for Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander. Opera by Request was launched in March, 2007, with a mandate to present operas in a concert format, to enable singers to perform a complete role, and to bring a complete range of operas to audiences at affordable prices. To date, OBR has produced over 100 different operas, and has engaged hundreds of singers. The concept has grown, and we have collaborated with a number of off-shoot companies throughout Canada, but tonight marks the first time we are collaborating with a company located on another continent. On a personal note, I have collaborated with Musik fur Musik’s founder, Vanessa Lanch on numerous productions, plus recitals and competitions, including Canada’s prestigious New Music Competition, the Eckhardt-Grammattee, for which Vanessa was a finalist in 2011. It is a thrill to be collaborating with a cast representing four different countries. I hope you enjoy tonight’s performance as much as I’ve enjoyed preparing for it.

William Shookhoff
Opera by Request

Normally my introduction segues into an interview by mentioning a particular project that’s upcoming. But in Bill’s case there is always something coming up, if not next week, then next month next fall next year…. You saw how above Bill said “To date, OBR has produced over 100 different operas, and has engaged hundreds of singers”..? That’s another way of saying that he is a very busy guy. It was so when I interviewed him in 1976, and it’s still true.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

Definitely my father.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The best things are discovering new work and delving into all the aspects of the work, including orchestration, libretto, history. Also, perhaps most important, is working with other people, developing multi-generational relationships, learning from people of all ages and range of experience.

Worst thing is the countless hours of admin work: PR, emails, schedules, etc.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I listen to BBC 3 a lot, because of the variety. Wonderful concerts, but also great jazz programs, plays, conversations. Mostly watch tennis, and Met Opera on HD.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

The ability to play the non-classical string instruments, especially banjo, but also lute, yukelele, classical guitar. Also Renaissance instruments.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

Really, just doing that. Relaxing. Enjoying a martini, sitting on the porch, going for a walk, In bad weather, just watching the weather. Also reading, but I don’t read non-stop.

What was your first experience of music ?

My first piano teacher (a student at Cincinnati Conservatory) playing Rachmaninov 2 with University Orchestra. Also going with my brother to opera rehearsals (Cincinnati summer opera was held in an amphitheatre on the zoo grounds).

Who is your favorite composer?

Hard to say. I definitely lean towards Brahms and Mozart for instrumental work. Also Prokofieff and Beethoven. For opera, it’s really whatever I’m working on at the moment, though I specially love the major works of Britten, Strauss and late Verdi. Also Boito’s Mefistofele.

How did you begin to play operas?

I conducted The Boyfriend in high school and fell in love with the female lead. When I got to Eastman, I found that what I could do better than most of my colleagues was accompany singers, so when the opportunity came to audition as an opera coach/accompanist, I jumped at the chance and fortunately was accepted, the first undergrad to work in that capacity at Eastman.

Bill Shookhoff at Trinity Presbyterian Church York Mills 2018

What are the hardest operas to do in concert?

Definitely operas with lots of chorus. The bel canto operas are not terribly suited to piano renditions. Also operas with a lot of action that’s difficult to ignore (fight scenes, deaths).

Singers come out of training programs, including the ensemble studio of the COC. And then what? Some people can make a living, some can’t. You probably have a better handle on the available talent in this country than anyone. Stratford Festival and National Ballet function as places to employ almost 100% Canadian talent. Yet the fiction is out there that we need to bring in singers from abroad. Can you imagine Canadian opera with Canadian personnel?

Absolutely! Of course that talent needs to be nurtured and used judiciously, but there is no reason why young singers, given the training they receive in Canada, cannot be presented as the principal singers in a Canadian opera production. We’ve seen a few singers in recent years who have broken through these artificial barriers, enough to know that there are others equally capable, given the right opportunity.

Talk about Opera by Request and what you believe your mission is with OBR.

The main advantage of OBR is that it is the one place where singers can present roles of their own choosing. Of course, they quickly learn that taking charge of a production is not easy, but that experience (of being performer/producer) is also a valuable one. In this way, singers discover far more about a work than they would if they were simply hired to do a role by another producer. Sometimes the experience has been a wake-up call, where a singer realizes challenges they didn’t know were there. More often, though, it has raised the level of their performance and their understanding of the genre.

How does it work to select repertoire for OBR:

Usually, a few singers get together and present a concept to me, then we fill in the blanks, ie, decide on a timeline, find the rest of the cast, plan a rehearsal schedule and performance date. Occasionally, it’s been a single singer with a dream role in mind, then we work together to flesh it out. I never do all the work of casting for a single singer.

Turandot in 2020: (L-R) Narmina Efendiyeva, Naomi Eberhard, Bill Shookhoff, Amelia Daigle, Corey Arnold, Kyle McDonald

Are there operas you are hoping to do, that you can’t do (for instance LesTroyens,
an opera full of chorus & ballet divertissements is one of my favorite operas)

Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, yes Les Troyens.

Would you ever say no: to requests that you think are unwise for the singers, or something you would rather not undertake?

This has happened on occasion, but then we try to find an alternative that’s more realistic.

Explain the concept of Opera by Request: and explain why it’s important

It’s important for singers to know that there’s an organization that will consider any operatic work, no matter how far-fetched or unrealistic it may initially seem; or that they may be able to learn a role which other mentors or producers have discouraged them from pursuing, perhaps rightly, perhaps not.

How did you get the idea for Opera by Request. Did someone approach you?

It was an outgrowth of a duo recital program where some opera excerpts were included, and afterwards, the singers said “We could have done the whole opera with a little more work.” So I launched a website, thinking I may get two or three requests per year. Instead it’s been more like 2 or 3 requests per month.

Tell us about the upcoming OBR programs
(please note I asked Bill these questions awhile ago, so if anything here is out of date blame me, not Bill)

April 29th: “Caught in the Act”
Weisgall’s The Stronger, with Sharon Tikiryan
Martin’s Six Monologues from Jedermann with Michael Robert-Broder
Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit with Meghan Symon

June 9th: L’Elisir d’Amore (postponed from May)

June 24th: Rossini’s Otello (Canadian premiere?)

I hear that you’re also undertaking collaborations with other companies. What roles do you play?

I really enjoy collaborating with other companies and spreading the OBR concept to other venues. Calgary Concert Opera, CLM Productions in Edmonton, Abridged Opera in Windsor, are all in one way or another offshoots of OBR.

Bill Shookhoff at the Calgary Concert Opera Company in 2019

Norman Brown in Ottawa has done a tremendous job in creating OperOttawa, but I’d like to think the work he’s done with OBR was in some ways motivation for his initiative.

I wonder! It’s a funny coincidence that I realized I was overdue for an interview of Bill, when I recently interviewed Norman Brown.

Bill Shookhoff and Barbara King at Polaris Centre for the Performing Arts, October 2021

Do you have any influences / teachers you’d care to name.

Eugene List, piano; Edwin McArthur, opera production; Herman Geiger-Torel, who supported me from the moment I arrived in Canada back in the ‘70s.

Herman Geiger-Torel, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company 1960-1976.

Similarly James Craig. Mario Bernardi was a stern taskmaster, but instilled a sense of discipline and resilience which has helped me to this day.

I was very fortunate to have had the mentors I had, and the opportunities to grow and develop. I hope that in some way I’m able to give back in the same way, to a multi-generational pool of singers.

Rossini’s Otello may well be a Canadian premiere, as was undoubtedly Sullivan’s Ivanhoe. Many productions in the works for ’23-24. News of those will be coming out shortly.

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Gimeno Conducts Messiaen’s Epic Turangalila

Roy Thomson Hall was quite full tonight for the first of two Toronto Symphony concerts undertaking Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalila-Symphonie. But for such an event one wants a full house. The response from the audience was as rapturous as the music we had heard.

pianist Marc-André Hamelin (photo: Sim Cannety-Clarke)

My headline is no exaggeration, as I replicate the title the TSO put on our evening, including the stunning pianism of Marc-André Hamelin and the subtler contribution of Nathalie Forget via the ondes Martenot in front of a very large orchestra. It’s like a piano concerto. Hamelin is such a cool customer that he seems to be totally at ease while playing such an amazing range of sounds from soft to percussive clusters, touching seemingly every note of that piano, while offering a measure of reassurance to the rest of the performers as though he were a lifeguard. I suppose part of that is technique, that there’s no sign of effort even as he’s making amazing sounds.

Gustavo Gimeno, TSO Music Director

Gustavo Gimeno is still relatively new in his position as the TSO music director, but he’s beginning to show us who he really is. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the TSO themselves are showing us who they are, in their response to his leadership, fearless in their willingness to play anything.

In 1948 when this work appeared, it certainly appeared to be the most important creation of the century if not the most impressive use of serial composition techniques yet heard, a fabulous meeting of cultures and methods.

Nathalie Forget (photo: Mathilde Assier)

Sometimes it’s tonal with layers of dissonance fluttering about over top, like birds gathering on top of a solid statue. There are places where the clusters in the strings underpinning the quick piano music remind me of George Gershwin, had he lived longer.

There is so much joy and ecstasy in this piece, yet also painful drama. There’s a soft nocturne-like section that reminds me a bit of Wagner’s Tristan even if it’s much calmer, more like Berlioz’s nuit d’amour in his Roméo et Juliette. It’s a hypnotic array of stunning sounds.

And yet Messiaen’s sound is not one that has been emulated: at least not yet. I’m reminded of the conversations I’m hearing about the Ontario Science Centre, a modernist building that will be taken down if the Premier of Ontario has his way even though it’s one of the most beautiful examples of modernist architecture I’ve ever seen. I can’t think of any current composers using anything as complex –or as beautiful—as what we heard tonight. Like the Science Centre (dating from over 50 years ago), the futuristic sound of the ondes Martenot is in its way, an antique, an image of a future that never was. Oh well. Post-modern scores are more pragmatic, while minimalism is also a practical choice, easier for the composer and perhaps easier on the audience as well. The density of the score Messiaen created, layer upon layer, the challenges to the soloists (not just Hamelin & Forget, but also throughout the orchestra, particularly Eric Abramovitz, principal clarinet, and the percussionists), is unique. In a sense Messiaen is himself a virtuoso composer, daunting in the density of the challenges printed on the pages of the score. Did he leave every other composer behind in the process? No it’s not a competition, but even so one might wish that more would attempt something so ambitious.

Roy Thomson Hall is really ideal for this sort of work. There’s so much to hear, layer upon layer: and it could be perceived, the sound transparent.

The two concerts are a joyous celebration that’s one of the highlights of the TSO’s 100th season, but they’re also making a live recording from these two performances, which I’ll be eager to obtain once it comes out. We were asked to refrain from applauding, although there was a lot of coughing unfortunately. I suppose that’s inevitable when it’s live.

If there’s any way you can get to hear it Friday May 5th you should do so. They sounded amazing.

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Barkley: Snoopy or Benjy?

Barkley Barcza is our newest family member. We didn’t choose the name, glad to use the name that he already seems to know. And yes it sounds cute with his surname.

Snoopy is the beagle everyone knows, the creation of Charles Schulz as part of the Peanuts comic world. I grew up with the animated specials at Christmas time, Snoopy becoming a star with his own pop-song about his battle with the Red Baron. It’s fiction of course, but he’s the beagle of popular mythology, so much so that when I have walked Barkley Snoopy was mentioned by someone I met.

Speaking of which, I’m re-reading Fifteen Dogs André Alexis’s 2015 novel, while being mindful of the Crow’s Theatre adaptation from early this year.

While everyone experiences art differently, I wonder if anyone was feeling as I did, having just welcomed Barkley a few days before. I’m remembering what I wrote about Benjy the beagle.

When Benjy the beagle tells Majnoun about his ability to get a response from people by rolling over in the book, it’s a dark admission, that the dog can manipulate a human. But when Benjy (played by Peter Fernandes) demonstrates this to Majnoun (played by Tom Rooney) and all of us in the theatre, it’s hysterically funny. There’s a tonal shift as the prevailing tone of the show is lightened by the enormous amount of laughter. When you’re watching people impersonate dogs the laughs are guaranteed, and perhaps the first casualty is some of the seriousness that I might have craved.

Benjy is a survivor. He tricks several dogs into eating poison to escape from them. I am in awe of his intelligence.

And I don’t blame him of course. He’s just trying to survive.

Perhaps I was taking it all too seriously? But I was deep in the heart of my own drama with Barkley, a drama that’s still ongoing as he approaches his first birthday. I think of Snoopy (Charlie Brown’s cuddly pet) and Benjy as two extremes, as I learn more about Barkley.

While we do know the date of his birth, much of his life is a mystery. We know he has had previous owners, and they were not always kind to him. That’s more of the Benjy experience.

He’s a handsome beast, taller than we expected at times making me think he’s almost a foxhound rather than a beagle, especially when he’s running in the yard.

As with Benjy (or any dog) one doesn’t know what he’s thinking. Barkley is smart. We may think we’re in charge, but sometimes life turns into a game he’s playing with us. We have a television remote control that he ran with until we managed to give him a treat instead. I have a pair of glasses with teeth marks.

When I think of training sometimes I wonder who’s training whom (and try to laugh about it). Keeping it light makes it all much more enjoyable even if the progress is slow. Right now we’re doing our best to make him feel welcome, to make sure he gets enough hours of sleep per day, exercise and the right food. He knows the sit command and often comes for his name in the yard, knowing he’ll be rewarded. That sometimes feels like a Benjy thing, that he’s playing us for all the treats he can get.

No wonder he’s a bit overweight.

While we won’t give him a cake for his birthday on Tuesday, we will sing Happy Birthday to Barkley on Tuesday May 2nd.

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