What’s so Canadian about the “Canadian Opera Company”? It probably never occurs to the average person to question. The operas are usually written by long-dead Italians, Germans, the occasional Frenchman, and sometimes we get one in English. Nobody objects to the languages because of the glorious surtitles that –as we’re often reminded – were pioneered right here in Toronto by the COC.
Because we tend to think of opera as a European art-form, nobody makes much of a fuss when the stage is populated with foreigners. But maybe we should.
After all, the orchestra is Canadian, and so are the chorus. And sometimes, even the singers are Canadian. The COC’s current Magic Flute is a good example.
In the cast employed on opening night, the two stars –Prince Tamino & Princess Pamina—were played by Canadians Isabel Bayrakdarian and Michael Schade. The Queen of the Night, who sings the most impressive high notes of the night and if she does her job correctly, gets the applause to match, was also Canadian, namely Aline Kutan. All three acquitted themselves admirably, and would have been warmly greeted in any opera house, Canadian or otherwise.
But alongside those Canadians, were others. Neither the Papageno nor the Sarastro were Canadian. We may notice that Mozart gave Papageno (that is, Schikaneder, the librettist who created the part for himself) especially easy music because the role was and is meant to be a vehicle for comedy rather than great singing; that’s hardly a persuasive argument in favour of importing someone from the other side of the Atlantic. Sarastro is perhaps the opposite of Papageno, expected to sing impressive low notes and command with his presence on stage.
So in fact these non-Canadians in their two roles were adequate. It didn’t occur to me one way or the other, until tonight when I went to see the “Ensemble cast” sing the very same production of Magic Flute.
First, let me explain what the Ensemble is. It all began in Lotfi Mansouri’s days with the COC. Mansouri was General Director from 1976-1988 (hope I got the years right). Modeled on the Merola program at the San Francisco Opera, the Ensemble offered young singers a kind of apprenticeship in the company, giving them a salary, training, and occasional roles. The ensemble is comprised of young singers, not ready for prime-time, or so the theory would go, and to this day is a wonderful achievement for any singer.
Last night, I saw the Magic Flute, in a cast comprised of ensemble members. A young Canadian named Adrian Kramer sang Papageno. Kramer has a lovely voice and was much funnier than the imported singer he replaced. A young Canadian named Michael Uloth sang Sarastro. In fact, the person usually singing Sarastro was satisfactory but not particularly distinguished in his portrayal (I was more impressed in those other performances by Robert Gleadow as the Speaker, a small role that should not in the normal scheme of things ever overshadow a Sarastro). Uloth did a great job, whether in the lovely legato in both his arias, his confident low notes and particularly in the profundity of his final lines.
Simone Osborne may be an ensemble member, but she has already sung impressively in performances as an alternate in the role of Pamina. Tonight I saw her looking more relaxed, perhaps because this time she was among her peers, anchoring the production with another confident portrayal. Osborne always sounded fresh, and with a higher gear available for a few key moments. Her Tamino Christopher Enns was a convincingly handsome prince. Enns did not have the vocal ease of Michael Schade whom he replaced–but then who does?– sometimes gliding easily, while at other times sounding as though he were working hard. Even so, the sound was often very powerful, and never unconvincing.
If success can be understood as the greatest applause for the briefest appearance, then Ambur Braid was champ as the Queen of the Night, earning huge applause for both of her arias. She brought a seductive presence to the stage with every entrance, always the focus whenever she appeared. Her henchwomen, the three ladies — Ileana Montalbetti, Wallis Giunta and Riab Chaieb—-brought a funnier mood to the stage than the previous cast. Where the other ladies had been deadpan, I found these ladies much more willing to go after a laugh, and all the while singing with great accuracy & clarity.
The Ensemble has been a wonderful concept; the years a singer spends there could serve as a springboard to an international career, and that’s marvellous up to a point. But I have to take issue when the COC brings in mediocre foreigners while ignoring talented Canadians in the ranks of their Ensemble. I’m all in favour of importing talent if no Canadian can sing the part. In that case please bring in a Russian or an American or if necessary, a Martian.
But it is really nice to be able to go hear Canadians singing in the Canadian Opera Company.