I went to a small school where hero-worship was natural, given that we were all boys (that changed as they admitted girls for the first time in the very year I left, and yes I wish it had been sooner). We were taught to look to the older students for their example, and the older boys naturally tried to set a good example. Yes, in those days alumni were “Old Boys” because of course they were all boys and they were old in at least two senses of the word:
- Former students
- Old people, “old boys” being a nicer euphemism than “old men”
We would hear of the exploits of our Old Boys, going on to do great things as adults after graduation.
- Nobel Prize winner John Polanyi
- Author Lawrence Hill
- Toronto’s Mayor John Tory
- David Frum
- Graham Yost
- David Fallis
- John Allemang
I used to read John’s pieces in the Globe & Mail, among the most interesting & best written you’d find in that paper, whether you fancy food, poetry or ideas on how to fix the sport & business of ice hockey, (still one of the most interesting things I’ve ever seen written on the topic). I want to be very careful as I publish his responses to my questions in this space, given that he’s a better writer than I’ll ever be, and want to be sure to honour his thoughtful choice of words.
Why am I interviewing him? Because John was and is an extra—or to use the fancy word, a “supernumerary” –in productions with the Canadian Opera Company over a period of decades. That makes him both a participant and an observer. I sought to capture some of that for the blog, timing it for the week of the opening performance of his next appearance, namely Rigoletto. John will be onstage with Gilda & the Duke & Monterone & Rigoletto himself. He won’t be singing, but he is up there onstage, as he has been so often. I’ve got some questions that I ask him but first, let’s find out a bit more about who he is. While I usually assemble a kind of biographical sketch, I couldn’t do any better than to let my interview subject tell his own story. Trust me, it will eventually segue into Rigoletto as neatly as that loud C-minor chord by Verdi.
Stefan Vinke in the title role in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016 fearlessly meeting the magic fire (photo: Michael Cooper)
I’m from Toronto, and grew up in the new subdivisions of North York as a sports-crazed outdoorsy kid before being packed off to the downtown all-male academic hothouse known as University of Toronto Schools (UTS) at the age of 11. That was life-changing, as much for the strange and interesting brainiacs I encountered every day for the next seven years as for the slightly gritty and always stimulating urban environment that became my new norm. I was much more of the jock type than an A-student scholar, but I belatedly discovered some academic skills and found my way to University of Toronto, where I studied Latin and Greek, partly as an extreme assertion of non-conformity, mainly because it seemed like the richest and purest pursuit of knowledge I could imagine. From Toronto I went to Oxford for another three years, and for better or for worse spent more time on broader cultural pursuits – travel, museums, cooking, journalism, playing what the British call ice hockey – than on serious academic slogging.
I came back to Canada thinking I might like to write but not knowing how to get started. I worked at U of T for a bit, went to law school and dropped out fairly quickly, picked up some freelance editing work that kept me alive, got married and had a child in very short order and after a number of curt telephone rejections eventually persuaded someone at The Globe and Mail to let me write a sample article on wine and food. That developed into an unlikely summer internship, and 32 years later I retired from what was an extremely varied if highly eccentric career in journalism. For much of the time I was a feature writer, which meant I was a generalist who could be expected to write about almost anything, but I also wrote columns about food, TV, family life, language and being a sports fan, as well as turning out a daily book review over a crazy 18-month period and writing a weekly deadline poem. In the middle of all that I managed to add annual bouts of supering for the COC, and the amazing thing is that, apart from one very tense night cutting and editing my massive obituary of Rob Ford during brief rehearsal breaks, these parallel lives rarely came into conflict – they even dovetailed neatly when I chronicled my work in Siegfried for the Globe Arts section at the same time that I was sitting on the Globe editorial board. I left The Globe in 2016 and now spend my days as an urban vagabond, wandering the city’s ravines and getting in shape for long, hilly walks in Europe.
And now for some questions.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
My father was a smart and passionate obstetrician and gynecologist who also taught medical students at the University of Toronto. When I took my newborn son to our pediatrician, a former student, the first thing he said to me was, “People either loved or hated your father. I loved him.” I don’t think I inspire nearly as strong a reaction in either direction, but I share my father’s extremely critical manner and direct way of making my views known. In my kindergarten report card, I was criticized for my over-eagerness in telling other children how to do things right. My friends at university predicted, not always kindly, that I would become a judge. Clearly this is a quality that you need to rein in as an opera super — my colleagues would say I’m not always successful. But there’s a good side to this candour that I hope I also got from my father: He was afraid of nothing and no one, and would never hesitate to call out bad behaviour and hypocrisy, no matter what the consequences.
My father always wanted to be an actor. Oddly, his ambition for me was that I would become a hockey player. He wasn’t around much when I was growing up, given the time-consuming, unpredictable nature of obstetrics in those days, and it was my mother who did a lot of the minute-by-minute parenting. So I had a rather distant relationship with him for many years, and it wasn’t helped by his not always welcome criticism of my on-ice performance when he came to my games. I didn’t take hockey seriously enough as a result and it cost me as a player – though after a lot of conflict and torment, I found my way to what I think was a more stimulating and rewarding life of the mind. But it’s interesting to reflect back on this choice when I work in opera and observe the extreme dedication that aspiring singers bring to their craft – what if I’d applied myself with the same determination way back when, what could I have achieved by following my father’s overly opinionated guidance?
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
When I was a journalist, at least on the good days, I was lucky enough to get paid to learn new things and meet fascinating people. I was surrounded by clever, quirky, irreverent colleagues at The Globe who cared deeply about their work and talked with quick-witted eagerness about anything and everything. One of our problems with the outside world was how slowly it seemed to move in comparison with the impatient, accelerated newsroom style where everyone was a step or two ahead in their thinking. I miss that chatter, though of course when you finally sat down to start a 5,000-word profile of a political leader that was going to run on the weekend, the last thing you wanted was your colleagues arguing about bike lanes three feet from your churning brain. I always found writing hard, and what I loved about shaping words and ideas into an article that would hold people’s attention, make them think new thoughts and give them some ephemeral pleasure was also what I feared – at any given point in the writing process, there’s an infinite number of possible choices but only a finite amount of time in which to make them. In daily journalism, you have to accept that you can never be as good as you want to be, and that went strongly against my somewhat paralysing perfectionist streak. As a methodical stylist who tended to work week to week rather than moment to moment, I feared the short deadlines that were the norm in my business, and I missed out on some good opportunities because I didn’t think I could write to my standards against a ticking clock. But whenever I was forced into that situation, I realized that I loved the adrenalin rush as much as anyone, and enjoyed the challenge of performing within seemingly impossible conditions. My all-time favourite was trying to write a piece about the infamous Jose Bautista bat-flip game during the 2016 baseball playoffs – I had the luxury of filing from the Rogers Centre press box within an hour of the game’s ending, but there were so many crazy twists and turns that I had to wait until the on-field dramatics were finally done before I could begin to figure out what I’d just seen.
I’ll just add as an afterthought, because not many people have these experiences in common, that being present when Jose Bautista hit his game-changing home run and 50,000 people erupted into a single stadium-shaking scream was not so different from being on stage and in the centre of the action during the thrilling Council Chamber scene in Simon Boccanegra. You can feel the excitement in your body.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Well I have three cats, so I don’t feel like I need to spend a lot of time on cat videos. Compared to most people, I have a soft spot for real life, and try to avoid phones and computer screens as time-consuming distractions. But if I’m working at my desk, I’ll often listen with varying degrees of attention to the on-line opera streams (which are more the aria/overture streams) on CBC Music and ICI Musique as well as full-length operas on BBC. I tend not to watch operas on YouTube, though when I get a supering role I might study scenes so I can become familiar with the way words, music and action all combine. I record the Met operas when they turn up on PBS and the wackier range of European productions on the more obscure Mezzo channel (including a Rameau opera set in a giant refrigerator, Hippolyte et Aricie).
One of my tasks at home is to have recorded TV ready for post-dinner viewing, so I keep an eye out for uncut old movies that might pass the time nicely and bear repeated watching – Casablanca, The Third Man, Singin’ in the Rain. Classic TV comedies like 30 Rock, the early Simpsons, Larry Sanders, some Seinfeld are also popular. My taste in film comedies is a bit too boyish for the household, so I tend not to get to watch Animal House and Slap Shot as often as I’d like. Ditto suspense/adventure, though I can sometimes get away with classics like The Great Escape or The Guns of Navarone but never anything with Bruce Willis, Mel Gibson or Steven Seagal. When I was recovering from hernia surgery a few years ago, my wife unexpectedly brought me all the great Jean-Pierre Melville movies in the Criterion Collection to pass the time – which turned my recuperation into two of the happiest weeks in my life.
Not surprisingly, I like stylized Hitchcock movies, especially when I can persuade a younger person like my daughter to see their appeal – Rear Window and North by Northwest in particular. Christopher Guest’s satires are a shared pleasure, particularly A Mighty Wind (which mocks the folk craze of my very early youth) though I think my wife has seen Spinal Tap at least once too often. My Favourite Year with Peter O’Toole is probably our favourite movie together.
Obviously I skew old and nostalgic.
I became addicted to a vivid French series on TV5 about regional heritage called Les racines et les ailes, that takes me to remote places I could imagine walking to someday. In a similar vein, my wife and I are devotees of the Tour de France, and any other beautiful bike races that find their way onto Canadian TV. She also likes baseball, so Blue Jays games are a godsend.
If I’m alone in the house, I’ll sometimes listen to an entire opera and try to follow along in the original language – Cosi and Boheme are particularly good for my languishing Italian. Live opera on radio conjures up the excitement of being a super, but I can’t stand the prolonged Met intermission chatter so that’s a trade-off. I really miss the recorded COC productions that CBC once aired, particularly those where I thought I could hear my heavy-footed noisemaking on the stage (as a tottering plague victim in Idomeneo, as a tightly drilled marching soldier in the same show). I love to listen to Bach, a reflection of my contrapuntal Lutheran upbringing. We seem to have a lot of Baroque music around the house, and Cecilia Bartoli’s melancholy Italian love songs are at the top of the pantheon. The music critic at The Globe introduced me to Suzie LeBlanc’s Acadian songs and I’m eternally grateful. A classmate who played guitar when we were unsuccessfully rebellious teenagers discovered John Dowland’s lute music via Julian Bream (whose concerts we used to sneak into at Massey Hall), and I’ve been a fan ever since. I eventually sang a Dowland song at a student performance when I briefly took singing lessons. When I was young, I spent too much time for my own good in downtown clubs listening to blues, and I still get a thrill out of hearing the likes of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy. Somewhere I developed a taste for the songs of Charles Trenet, and I memorized a few of them (Je suis heureux, j’ai tout et j’ai rien) so I could pass the time on the gym treadmill by singing them to myself. My head is filled with old, really bad rock and roll from my childhood that I’m told I should never sing out loud, but that doesn’t stop me.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Of course I wish I could really sing. Apart from not having the discipline to learn technique, I was always too inhibited about how I’d sound. I took lessons briefly in my 20s, and got to the point of performing Cole Porter’s Night and Day for a small well-disposed crowd, so at least I conquered some of my fears.
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
I do a little too much relaxing now that I’m retired, so the key for me is to find relaxation that still has an element of work involved. My idea of taking it easy is to go on long, fast walks through Toronto ravines with a talkative friend, shovel snow for hours on end, try to solve cryptic crosswords and reclaim my lost youth by doing chin-ups and dips at the gym. But my favourite activity is my weekly reading group (which my son attends, bussing in from Hamilton, an added pleasure) where we do our best to translate and make sense of Homer, Ovid and Moliere – as good as literature gets.
More questions about life as an extra with the Canadian Opera Company, including the upcoming Rigoletto
Does a supernumerary (aka “extra”) need to know how to act?
We’re certainly asked to act by our directors, and when we do our jobs well we’re using our faces and our gestures to make the larger stage action more convincing and layered. It’s a tricky balance, of course, because often as a super your job is not to draw attention to yourself and away from the principal singers – you may be part of a crowd scene or an impassive henchman or a lowly servant, and it’s necessary to accept that the spotlight is definitely not on you. At the same time, you need to show fear, surprise, delight, disgust, vendetta-like fury and all those other oversized operatic emotions where the words and music call for it. As a small body on a big stage in a large theatre, you may have to overstate your reactions to reach your audience – directors will be sure to tell you when they think you’ve gone too far.
I used to be shy but I think I’ve learned over the years to risk doing more rather than playing it safe with less. The turning point might have been in La Boheme where those of us brought in as super soldiers were initially asked just to be a part of the troop that marches on-stage at the end of the street scene in Act II. But the director decided that since we were hanging around rehearsal anyway, we might as well join the Parisian crowd from the start of the act. And then we were left to our own devices to act like soldiers hanging out in Paris, eyeing the ladies, keeping the local urchins in line, bartering for second-hand musical instruments. In those situations, you might develop a bit of dialogue to make the pantomime more credible, while making sure not to talk over the singing – and generally you can count on one of the COC choristers to make you laugh and break character. I remember in Carmen, hawking my souvenir bulls in the middle of the crowds, when one of the female chorus looked up and said with faux-innocent wonder, “Oh look, the bulls are anatomically correct.” In my memory, one young member of the children’s chorus then said, “What’s anatomically correct mean?”
But improvising has its limits with complex staging – you think you’re the most natural boulevardier in all of Paris and suddenly you’re tripping over Mimi. It’s quite shaming to be called out by the director in front of the entire cast, so it’s also important as a super to have huge reserves of humility. There’s no talking back.
Super roles, and the skill-sets required, vary hugely. The first requirement, we’re always told, is that we fit the costume. Size matters. I lost a role in a recent opera because my waist was too small for the trousers that went with the part – damned with faint praise! There are many physically imposing roles I won’t get because I’m too short, and it doesn’t always help my cause that I’m getting older and balder. Of course, that made me useful as an old servant in Madama Butterfly – the one who looked genuinely shocked the first time Goro, our overseer, cuffed me across the head for daring to steal a glance at the visiting Americans. But even in the character of a rickety old man, the real me still needed the ability to fall suddenly down to my (padded) knees on a severely sloped stage, hold that tough posture without moving for several minutes, and then rise up on cue in a sudden movement without tottering and scuttle quickly off stage on legs that had probably fallen asleep.
On a crowded stage with constant movement, it’s important to have a hyper-acute sense of your surroundings and anticipate the unexpected – eyes in the back of your head, we always say. But don’t get too self-congratulatory about your superhuman Gretzky-like vigilance: You still have to watch the action in front of you and not be in the way if the tenor suddenly veers left instead of right. And if someone forgets to take a cup or a plate off stage at the end of a banquet scene, a careful super will do some instant housekeeping and take the offending item away so it’s not interfering with the next scene. Of course, you can be too smart for your own good – I spotted a scarf on the floor in Tosca and carried it off triumphantly, only to be called out for removing a crucial plot device. Fortunately, it was a rehearsal, where goofing up is part of the process.
I like super roles with an element of physicality, and when directors ask for volunteers my hand will shoot up. In Fidelio (“Is there anyone who’s not afraid of heights?”) I got to descend from a very tall ladder at the start of the show carrying files from the drawers that stretched up to the top of the stage. In Simon Boccanegra, I was part of the mob that disrupted the formal council meeting. I not only got to toss chairs, trusting that they would stop short of the orchestra pit, but engaged in a carefully choreographed fight scene that involved several throws and falls on the stage, all synched with the rising clamour of the chorus. The most demanding role of all was in the highly abstract production of Siegfried where supers and professional dancers combined into a choreographed ring of fire in Act III, using our hands to portray flame. Several of us – smaller, more nimble, possessed of huge stamina, unaffected by claustrophobia, slightly mad – were also chosen to lie tightly together in a small hole under the stage and over 20-plus minutes of awesomely dramatic music, using only our rising and falling arms, simulate the fire in which Siegfried forges his sword, just inches from our hidden faces. We gave ourselves a quiet round of weary applause every time we pulled off that feat.
There’s nothing quite that demanding in Rigoletto, although a few of us do act out the brutalizing of Monterone (played by Robert Pomakov) with some carefully choreographed punches. For the most part, we’re somewhat louche gentlemen in a club playing cards with the choristers, reading newspapers, sipping espresso and reacting to their singing, while trying to avoid thinking too hard about the nasty patriarchal world we’re a part of — registering disgust and contempt and delight where appropriate but looking the other way when necessary. This is harder than a physical role, at least for me, because it’s so dramatically nuanced and carefully timed to the words and music. But the director, Christopher Alden, has been very good about keeping us attentive to the sudden mood swings and sudden stylized freezes. Our final contribution is in what we’ve been calling the orgy scene toward the end of the opera – given my age, and the fact that my daughter plays one of the women in the Duke’s court, I’m happy to hide out at the back of the stage and writhe on my chair in blissful solitude.
When the COC prepares an opera, usually it’s well-known and available on records, such as Verdi’s Rigoletto. While it may not be required, do you ever listen to recordings or watch DVDs in anticipation of an opera you’re preparing?
That’s an essential part of the extended supering experience for me, getting to know an opera better while at the same time allaying my pre-performance anxiety. As a word person, I like to read the libretto both for the pleasure of the language, which is too often ignored or belittled by music-lovers – Nixon in China is amazing — but also to have a better sense of what is going on all around me while I’m smiling or frowning. Directors really don’t like a toothy grin when the words say you’ve turned morose. Video can be highly misleading, since productions vary so completely – I really had second thoughts about doing Siegfried after seeing a creaky, glacial Bayreuth production, but ours turned out to be a lot more fun and energetic. A vintage Pavarotti Rigoletto I watched to get a sense of pacing was also discouraging because it was too formal and elaborate in the old style – ours feels brisker and more relatable. So maybe, now that I think about it, it’s better to come into a show without preconceptions or too much advance knowledge. Opera buffs don’t seem to make good supers. I know that some of the operas I’ve enjoyed the most were those that were unfamiliar to me – Nixon in China, Roberto Devereux, Idomeneo, Simon Boccanegra (which I listened to in advance with some disappointment, only to realize in rehearsals that Verdi wrote two versions and I’d heard the wrong one). You have to remember that over several months of rehearsal and performance, there’s plenty of time for the music to grow on you, and maybe it’s better to experience the thrill of discovery and feel like you’re performing in the moment.
Do you ever listen to your scenes on record afterwards, as for instance the last act procession in Carmen or the fire music in Siegfried?
My wife is always on the lookout for Christmas and birthday presents for me, because I’m pretty indifferent to material things, so souvenir opera CDs became the go-to gift. My favourite was probably Simon Boccanegra: At any given moment as I hear the music, I can still visualize where I was, what I was doing, how we worked together so seamlessly across the crowded stage as we waved torches and herded choristers (don’t let them hear me say that!) in the conspiratorial darkness. This powerful and wonderful sensation of instant displacement has no comparison in any other part of my life. When I hear the bullfighters marching in near the end of Carmen, in my head I’m once again a souvenir-seller looking out into the aisles of the Four Seasons Centre and pointing out the picadors to some pocket-picking kids because our innovative director Joel Ivany decided to bring in the procession through the theatre. Sometimes I’ll be sitting at my desk, lost in the distant wanderings of Odysseus, and suddenly my flame-hands music from Siegfried will pop up on Radio-Canada’s online opera station and I’ll be right there under the stage, staring up at Stefan Vinke and preparing to give my fingers a sudden shake. Even thinking about it now, I get a frisson of fully committed pleasure. Wow.
Stefan Vinke in the title role in the Canadian Opera Company production of Siegfried, 2016 including John’s “flame-hands”. (photo: Michael Cooper)
Can you tell us about your many different appearances with the COC (the operas & who you were playing)?
Okay, here goes. I did a couple of shows when I was young and intrigued by this strange, new dramatic form called opera I’d discovered while a student in England. In Werther (the 1979-80 season) I was a very nervous, possibly even terrified, villager in the joyful Christmas scene at the top of the show. That led to an amazing Otello directed by Lotfi Mansouri and starring James McCracken (1980-81), where I was one of many worried citizens in the opening storm scene, which was followed by some drunken carousing where I convincingly waved a drinking mug and less successfully tried to dance with my female counterpart. My vow: Never dance in an opera again.
Then that long break called life. I made my unheralded comeback in Fidelio (2008-9), lured in by my daughter who was between jobs and decided that she’d like to try supering based on the stories I’d told her about my youthful experiences. As it turned out, we both were selected to play cold-hearted bureaucrats in a Kafkaesque dystopia – must be a genetic thing. From which followed:
Simon Boccanegra (2008-9). At various points I was a pro-Boccanegra conspirator and late-night torch-carrier, a court official, a bearer of treasure-chests, a rioter and a brawler, and a wedding attendant, again with the torches. Talk about versatility.
Carmen (2009-10). I ogled the girls from the cigarette factory, then admired the testosterone-fuelled matador Escamillo. Too much enraptured staring for my taste.
Idomeneo (2009-10). One of the all-time great super experiences. I got to strip the clothing off poor Trojan prisoners, march in step and salute on cue with fellow Cretan guards, lift very heavy dead people onto stretchers and carry them off, stagger through the chorus as a scary plague victim, do some heavy-duty stage-shifting (at the dress rehearsal, I managed to fall into a suddenly exposed hole in the floor), perform carefully timed wedding ceremonials, and witness some amazing Mozart arias without looking like a fan. The only drawback was that the production seemed to take its style from early Star Trek and as soldiers we wore three layers of early space-age synthetic materials – on hot days, under hot lights, we were soaked with sweat.
Nixon in China (2010-11). I was the dad in a typical TV-watching American family that witnessed Richard Nixon’s trip to China, first by wolfing down TV dinners and then, transformed, by trying to eat chow mein with chopsticks. I wore an Elvis wig and garish bell-bottoms. My daughter had a blonde bouffant wig and played my wife. My actual wife still finds this creepy.
Trovatore (2012-13). As a soldier, I walked in the retinue of Russell Braun’s Count di Luna. At one point I made the fundamental super mistake of trying to push him on-stage after I thought he hadn’t heard his entrance cue. It turned out that he was just being a pro and waiting for the applause to die down from the previous aria. Fellow-supers who were there still won’t let me forget this. As a gypsy, I got to carry a gun and get into a show-down with some terrified, outnumbered chorister-soldiers, which is always fun. During the Anvil Chorus, I helped manufacture a wagon wheel (which I then had to wheel off-stage through the chorus – not easy) and tossed around celebratory wine-skins. My baseball experience came in handy, but some supers outright refused to play catch because no one wants to screw up in front of 2,000 people. I feel the same way about dancing.
La Boheme (2013-14). As well as walking around Paris at leisure, we soldiers had to march more formally with the military band that crashes the crowd scene, which involved hours of rehearsal for a few moments of well-drilled stage time. I got to carry and wave the regimental flag, a good way to get the attention of friends in the audience.
Roberto Devereux (2013-14). Among other tasks as guards in elaborate Elizabethan dress, two of us had the job of hauling around the imprisoned Roberto Devereux (or Bobby D. as he was known). Four different tenors played the role during the run, and we had to adjust our level of hands-on faux-brutality depending on the preferences of each performer. Our favourite was Leonardo Capalbo who turned to us when we first met and said simply, “Be rough.”
Madama Butterfly (2014/15). As a humble servant at the wedding ceremonials, I didn’t have to do much beyond working my way through the chorus serving tea and rice crackers. Except that at a single precise moment, I had to make a mad dash from the back of the stage to the front through the milling crowd (whispering “Coming through, watch out!”), carrying a cup of tea on a tray and dropping expertly to my knees centre-stage on a musical cue to meet Butterfly and Pinkerton. We had two Butterflys, and the first time I did my moves with Butterfly 2, I lifted up my tray from my reverent kneeling position – and she was nowhere to be seen.. “What’s he doing over there?”, she proclaimed in an angry whisper from stage right. I was in a state of heightened anxiety for the rest of the run.
Siegfried (2015-16). We supers played the role of fire – as hard as it sounds. We also writhed on the floor a lot, whether as a sort of abstract, metaphorical image of Siegfried’s brain, or as the extension of the dragon Fafner, whose gesticulating core was played by amazing dancers hanging in the air. My hardest task was to lie immobile for 40 minutes in Act II, and then repeat my motionlessness for seemingly interminable Wagnerian stretches in Act III, this time while kneeling and then standing at attention. We were given instructions on the best ways to slink off-stage if we started to faint.
Carmen (2015-16). In the first act, I played a soldier carrying documents back and forth across the square, meeting with fellow-soldiers for a brief chat, getting orders from desk-bound officers – so lots of mimed conversations and animated gestures. The second act took place in a sleazy bar, where I consorted with women of the night (not my strength, but we all have to try). Souvenir-selling in the Act IV bullfight scene was the high point – I got to walk down the aisles of the packed Four Season Centre waving my anatomically correct bulls on a giant pole and shouting (with tutelage from the COC’s French-language coach) “Les taureaux! Les beaux taureaux!”.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s 2016 Carmen. John is proudly holding his anatomically correct bulls near the left edge of the photo (photo: Gary Beechey)
Tosca (2016-17). I was a natural playing a fussy priest, running on stage as the harried leader of a crowd scene. I managed to do a flip onto the floor in the final show and no one noticed – that’s how convincingly chaotic we were. We priests also had to march on-stage carrying a towering four-poled canopy in the elaborate Te Deum scene, and I don’t think we ever managed to be completely symmetrical, though not from lack of practice. Fellow supers would watch our awkward performance and score us out of 10 in post-scene criticism sessions. We were more successful as guards in the firing squad that disposed of Cavaradossi – helped by the director’s glass-half-filled observation that since we were meant to be Italian soldiers, the sloppiness of our moves actually seemed more convincing.
Rigoletto (2017-18). What don’t we do? In elaborate Victorian dress, we play cards, hoist drinks, admire ladies, disdain Rigoletto, look cool, give Monterone a thrashing, eventually hang him, kidnap a pretty girl, lounge around reading newspapers, admire the Duke’s lovemaking from a few centimetres away, writhe orgiastically ourselves – there’s so much to like about this one.
Looking back on your appearances with the COC, what was the toughest assignment, either for you or for extras around you?
Many assignments seem hard at the beginning and almost effortless by the end – so looking back, I don’t always see the toughness that seemed harrowing at the time. But the one scene that never got easy was lying outstretched and immobile on the sloped stage throughout most of Act II in Siegfried. If you somehow set yourself into an awkward position, you had to hold it no matter what the pain, and of course an itch became unbearable over 40 minutes. Fortunately, we had a small break partway through where we got to wake up, writhe forward and then retreat to our original resting-place – but you couldn’t always find your exact way back while writhing in reverse with other pyjama-clad bodies in the darkness. And then you’d discover yourself splayed awkwardly and painfully over an uneven surface while waiting for the beautiful singing of the Forest Bird that meant relief was in sight.
What’s your favourite opera that you’ve ever done, and which show made you most proud of your role?
Hard call, but Simon Boccanegra probably demanded the most of my supering skills at a stage when I didn’t even know I had them. The old-school English director, Ian Judge, was a demanding taskmaster who would always bring us to order by shouting “Boys, boys, boys!” He used us extensively throughout the opera and entrusted us with a leadership role on stage – where we ran around with gangs of chorus members waving torches that in my case always seemed to flicker out (you’d then cadge a light from your nearest fellow-super, though one overly dramatic colleague would only oblige if I asked him politely in Italian). The slightly dangerous live-action nature of these scenes was a thrill, as was the intricate fight scene at the front of the stage that was the culmination of a very carefully planned riot we supers instigated in the formal Council Chamber setting. But we also had quieter, more formalized moments, and got to work extensively alongside a very genial group of principal singers over the course of an unusually long rehearsal phase. Normally supers are part-timers who are called to rehearse only at nights and on weekends, but Ian Judge insisted that we work days as well and I happened to have four weeks of paid vacation that I had to burn up. So the entire experience, even allowing for a lot of hard, repetitive work and the occasional outbursts of directorial criticism, was supering paradise.
When you’re in an opera, I’d expect that you’re listening closely to the performances, perhaps thrilling to the voices. Who impressed you the most?
In fact we’re not always listening closely to the performances, at least not with full attention. Part of doing my job properly is being immersed in the task at hand – playing cards in Rigoletto, we’re throwing our money into the pot, accusing the dealer of cheating, pouring a shot of brandy from the decanter, no matter what the Duke is saying about questa or quella. And meanwhile another part of the brain is thinking ahead to our next move, the upcoming cues that will prompt us to change focus (and not screw up). The only time we really get to experience voices and performances like an audience does is when we’re standing in the wings, waiting for our next entrance, or when we’re dropped into a scene where our actual job is to focus attention on the singer. And then I find myself suddenly savouring the amazing powers of the human voice and thinking how lucky I am.
Okay, that’s the preamble. Almost all singers are impressive to me, so it’s invidious to pick out a few, but you asked. Paolo Gavanelli in Boccanegra was such a touching, tortured father-figure as an actor-singer with a huge dramatic range of lyricism and high emotion. He was close to us supers and we knew he was suffering from gout during the run, which made his work even more impressive. We also worked extensively with the Canadian bass Alain Coulombe, and as much as I enjoy his singing, I really like to watch his face – he’s expressive but never hammy, the definition of cool and suave, even when he’s about to meet his end in Carmen.
I first encountered the wonderful Tamara Wilson in Boccanegra but still wasn’t prepared for the fireworks when she sang an astonishing drama-queen aria inches from my ears as the crazed Elettra in Idomeneo.
Simon Boccanegra – (l – r) Mikhail Agafonov as Gabriele Adorno, Tamara Wilson as Maria Boccanegra and Paolo Gavanelli as Simon Boccanegra in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Simon Boccanegra, 2009, (photo: Michael Cooper)
We had a number of Rodolfos in La Boheme, but I remember waiting to go on stage for the start of Act II as the young Michael Fabiano, who arrived late in the production cycle, was singing near the end of Act I – I can’t pretend to be a music critic, but I knew right away I was hearing a voice that was powerful, beautiful, tender and effortless.
How could I not be impressed by Stefan Vinke in Siegfried, especially because he spent a large part of Act I staring into the fire pit where we supers were lurking, and singing directly to our oscillating flame-hands with unlimited exuberance? He said at the time that we were as important to him as he was to us, which told me a lot about the role we supers play in conveying action and reaction – the more energy we supply, the better our singing counterparts can perform. But it only just occurred to me now that our fire-pit faces were veiled with a black mesh hood, so he must have been talking more precisely about our darting hands and fingers.
I have a soft spot for tragedy-tinged, guilt-ridden, silken-voiced mezzos and Allyson McHardy brought me to a halt every time I was passing through the wings backstage at Roberto Devereux. You’re just doing your job, thinking about an upcoming costume change, and suddenly you’re transfixed. Devereux generally was a great show for musical appreciation – two of us lucky supers got to stand guard throughout an astonishing high-tension scene between Russell Braun, Leonardo Capalbo and Sondra Radvanovsky, and we had to remind each other not to get lulled by the amazing sounds and forget our synchronized yanking of a giant on-stage carpet – look, the opera is still standing!
Of all the individual performances I’ve seen, Sondra’s in Devereux was the most awesome. She ranged from girlish and flirtatious to embittered old hag as Queen Elizabeth I, and she invested every moment with uninhibited dramatic intensity. Her face is wonderfully mobile, always expanding the emotional range of her singing. And she wasn’t afraid to make jarring, unpleasant sounds when her character and situation called for it, which made me realize a little late in my career that great opera is about real life, not abstracted beauty. My son had never seen an opera before I gave him tickets to Devereux. To this day he still talks about Sondra’s performance.
I get to be in the middle of a lot of good operas, and one revelation for me has been the greatness of the COC chorus. People are people in rehearsals — chatty, thoughtful, goofy, friendly, aloof — and you sometimes forget the artistry they can produce as a massed voice in a dramatic context, especially with all that added body language. There have been too many good moments to mention – the swelling street scene in Boheme, the excited bullfight crowd in Carmen, the prisoners’ chorus in Fidelio, the haunting Miserere in Trovatore, the humming chorus in Butterfly, Fuoco di gioia in Otello – but one I’ll never forget is the mass disruption of the Council Chamber in Boccanegra which starts in the cramped wings and builds inexorably to a fit of fury when the chorus invades the stage. As a marauding super, I always had to humble myself by remembering that everything I was proud of doing would be a lot harder if I also had to watch the conductor and sing perfectly.
You’ve done so many: but is there any opera you are especially wishing you could do?
I’d like to do Otello again – so much great music, crowd scenes that are supering-magnets and with luck I’m too old to dance. Failing that, any other big Verdi opera, maybe Don Carlo (I think I’d make a great condemned heretic). The upcoming Anna Bolena with Sondra Radvanovsky would be a great experience – if nothing else, I know my way around the Tudor costumes. And Hadrian by Rufus Wainwright is very intriguing, though I’m guessing that even at the super level, it might skew towards the young and beautiful.
Do you recall any director especially for what he or she showed you about acting, about opera, about what you could do?
It’s rare that supers go one on one with directors, unless we’ve stood out by doing something horribly wrong. Generally we work more closely with assistant directors who are especially skilled and patient at plotting out the intricacies of crowd scenes and teaching individuals to work as a group – great people such as Graham Cozzubbo who put us soldiers through our paces in La Boheme, and Marilyn Gronsdal who coached me as priest and firing-squad member last season in Tosca and now has perfected my timing as one of the Duke’s smooth henchmen in Rigoletto. James Binkley is an extremely amiable, safety-conscious, verisimilitude-crafting fight director who makes mild-mannered novices like me look convincing as thugs – watch for my back-handed thumping of Monterone in Act I of Rigoletto. As supers, we wouldn’t exist without the tireless, good-humoured women who co-ordinate our work with the COC, Elizabeth Walker and Analee Stein. And once we’re on the job, we rapidly come to realize what a complex team we’re a part of – the frighteningly competent yet still good-humoured stage managers and assistant stage managers are our moment-to-moment bosses, and they manage to see and know everything without losing their patience with adults who sometimes act like small children.
We’re always learning, but the one person who taught me the most in the shortest time was Donna Feore, our choreographer in Siegfried. In a matter of weeks, she turned a rag-tag bunch of random supers into a Wagnerian drill team, teaching us how to turn our arms and fingers into abstract flames, coaching us on music-cued formation walking around the severely raked stage, giving us the confidence to feel like we were an integral part of the highly visual production, and generally making us happy to come to work for long hours of physical labour. More personally, she praised my improvised crawling/writhing technique to the rest of the gang and gave me the confidence to lie under the stage more or less on top of four other crazies like me and wave my hands rhythmically for the length of a TV sitcom. Who wouldn’t admire a woman like that? Where else could I have such an amazing experience?
The Canadian Opera Company winter season begins Saturday January 20th with Rigoletto, including the chorus, the orchestra, the singers: and supernumeraries such as John Allemang. For further information.
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company’s Rigoletto, 2011 (photo: Michael Cooper)