Born in Manitoba, tenor Christopher Enns is in his final season with the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio.
He made his COC debut as an American/Glass Maker/Strolling Player in Death in Venice. Enns was one of the strengths of the Ensemble Studio’s mainstage performance of The Magic Flute in February 2011. On that occasion I said that he was “a convincingly handsome prince” and that “the sound was often very powerful, and never unconvincing.”
Enns holds a bachelor of vocal performance from the University of Manitoba, and a diploma in operatic performance from the University of Toronto. Enns has also performed with the Winnipeg Symphony, Saskatoon Opera, and the Aldeburgh Connection.
On February 6th Enns will be undertaking Tito in the Ensemble Production of La Clemenza di Tito (sharing the role with Owen McCausland). I asked him ten question: five about himself, and five about preparing the role.
1) Which of your parents do you resemble (what’s your nationality / ethnic background)?
I am a dead ringer for my father at my age. Both of my parents are from a German Mennonite background with dark hair and dark eyes, so a case could probably be made for either one. But since I have inherited the infamous Enns profile my father wins, dare I say it, by a fairly large nose.
2) What is the best thing / worst thing about being an opera singer?
I think there’s something amazing just in being able to answer that question. You spend so long training to be a singer, so long being a student that the ability to call yourself an official opera singer still seems to be a bit of a novelty to me…. even after a few years. But that’s not an answer to the question.
My favorite part of being a musician is the collaborative aspect to the art form. How great the whole can be if the sum of its parts commit to the process. The play and experimentation that goes on in the rehearsal room between director, conductor and your colleagues can be absolutely incredible. Add to that an orchestra, a chorus, and another hundred people working behind the scenes and you have opera. The work of so many hands going into a few short hours. The fact that I get to be a small part of that story is a real blessing.
And as it often is, the hardest thing I’ve found with being in this business is the reverse. Those moments where collaboration is hard to find, where the play is out of the work for whatever reason. Sometimes projects become more about ego than the story. Those are the times when opera seems very selfish and lonely.
But by and large this has not been the case. I have met some of the best people in the world through working in opera, and every job, every contract brings a few new faces to add to the group. That in itself has made a life in opera an incredibly rich thing to live.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Hmm… well this is not going to be a very classical answer. As much as I love living in the world of opera, I don’t listen to much of it in my free time. I actually don’t listen to a tonne of music at all, but when I do it’s often of the country/folk ilk. I grew up on a farm and have many fond memories of hours spent on the tractor belting out the latest Garth Brooks or Kenney Chesney hit.
Mainly my iPod is filled with books on tape and podcasts. Podcasts have become my new favourite thing (Yes, I realize that I’m about 5 years late to that party). I have become that wonderfully endearing (read: annoying) person who constantly interrupts conversions with anecdotes beginning with: So, I was listening to this podcast… The topics range from hardcore history podcasts (I just finished a 7-part, 12 hour-long series on the fall of the Roman Republic – good research for Tito), to my daily basketball updates. And sometimes, when the schedule gets busy, the only way that I know it’s Monday is because there’s a new This American Life podcast waiting for me when I get home.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I find this question difficult to answer, because there’s not a lot that I don’t wish I could do. I often wish that I had a more practical skill – like being able to build a house, or having the capacity to heal people – something that has very clear real world benefits. This is what my noble side thinks…
But really I’d love to be able to play a sport really well. Any sport. It could be completely random; although, I do have a better bedrock of knowledge for hockey or basketball than, say, for cricket. I am surprisingly uncoordinated, and have never managed to be anything more than that guy on the field with ‘a lot of heart’. But alas, until they make opera singing an Olympic sport I am content to sit on my couch and pretend that if I ever gave it chance I could probably pole vault… probably…
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Nothing terribly exciting I’m afraid. I have wonderful friends whom I see far too rarely, so whenever there’s a bit of a break in my schedule a lot of time is set aside to catch up with them. I’m an avid baker, desperately trying to reach the bar set by my mother and grandmother. This summer, for the first time since moving to Toronto, I took a dip in the world of gardening. I would call it semi-successful. The plants grew quite well and created a beautiful oasis on my deck… they did not however create much produce. So… I guess there’s always next year.
But generally when I’m not working, I try to take really deliberate rest. Once a year, if I have a longer break I like to get back to the farm in Manitoba and remember what it’s like to work hard in a completely different way.
Five more about appearing in the COC production of La Clemenza di Tito.
1) How does singing the role of Tito challenge you?
I find Mozart challenging in every situation and Tito is no exception. The role demands everything – sweet tender moments, and rousing dramatic coloratura. It really pushes a singer to the edge more than any other Mozart tenor role. It’s a really cool role to work on, but I won’t pretend that there aren’t pages that still give me heart palpitations.
There is also a lot of recitative, and recit just takes a lot of time to become part of me. It seems to need to take a trip around the world before settling somewhere in my brain.
2) What do you love about Tito: both the role & this production of the opera?
Before I started preparing this role in the summer I knew nothing about either the opera or the story of Tito. I assumed that because it was a lesser performed Mozart opera that it would be of lesser quality. But I have really fallen in love with this piece, both the music and the complexity of the relationships.
Tito is an incredible figure – an emperor by name, but a philosopher at heart. I love that he has decided to control his world not with cruelty and violence, but with generosity and clemency. On the surface this may paint him as a saint, but there is considerable potential for manipulation in ‘generosity’ and ‘clemency’. He uses his ‘goodness’ to control the world around him just as well as he could with any other method.
This production has forced me look past the Ghandi-esque facade of Tito, to the clever man behind the curtain who is pulling the strings of an empire. Pulling them by granting favours and mercy to everyone in the name of high ideals, but ever tightening his control on those to whom he grants them.
His friendship with Sesto, in the midst of the falseness of Tito’s world, is the only thing that keeps him afloat. I find the relationship between Sesto and Tito fascinating. Amongst all of this political intrigue Tito has this one real relationship; one place where he can be open and vulnerable. The juxtaposition of controlling manipulator and desperate friend creates an extremely interesting character to sink your teeth into.
3) Do you have a favourite moment in La Clemenza di Tito?
Since there are so many moments of intense emotion, and vocal virtuosity in this piece, it’s the simple moments I love best. There’s a moment in Act 1, following a very public scene with the chorus and Publio, when he and Sesto are alone together. It culminates in the singing of Tito’s first aria Del piu sublimo soglio. It’s an incredibly simple moment of closeness and love. The audience gets a glimpse into how intimate this relationship is that they have, and how much they need each other.
These simple moments are woven throughout the piece. I especially love Annio and Servilia’s music. Annio’s aria Torna di Tito a lato, as well as that exquisite Act 1 duet between the two lovers, Ah perdona al primo affetto
4) How do you relate to Tito (an absolute ruler) as a modern man living in a democracy?
In some ways Tito is living in a completely different world to ours and in some ways it’s not much different at all. Rome might have transitioned into an empire, but it still had a strong history as a people driven Republic, and we see that Tito is still often hamstrung by the Senate, as represented by the character of Publio. Just before the opera begins Tito has been forced to send away the woman he wanted to marry due to pressure from the Senate. The world he lives in is still fraught with political gamesmanship.
Although I can’t relate in the least to the life of an emperor of Rome, the struggles we see Tito go through are completely relatable. His struggles with what kind of leader he wants to be, and what kind of man he wants to be, make him far more relatable than the average absolute ruler.
Tito’s greatest frustration is that he can’t seem to find people he can trust; people who are real with him. He finds the world he lives in false and it’s driving him insane. This is not such a foreign problem.
On a purely political level I think there are moments in our modern world when we are caught in the mire of political inaction, when even the most stalwart defenders of democracy might wish for a benevolent leader like Tito.
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
When I look back at the path that has lead me here, it is abundantly clear that I have been immensely lucky to have had the people who have guided me. There are too many people to mention, and it’s difficult to choose, but I would like to give a special nod to my teachers throughout the years: Mel Braun, my first teacher back in Manitoba who opened me up to this world and taught me to sing with my body; Bob MacLaren who has, I am sure, sung the entire lyric tenor repertoire for me in our lessons together, and also taught me to sing with my heart; and my current teacher, Patrick Raftery, who has been my balance, and whose faith in me I will always be thankful for.
Christopher Enns sings Tito in the COC Ensemble Studio Production of La Clemenza di Tito February 6th at the Four Seasons Centre. Tickets are available online at coc.ca, by calling 416-363-8231