Every now and then I get the opportunity to interview one of the key figures in the Canadian opera scene, people such as Stuart Hamilton or Marshall Pynkoski. Ann Cooper Gay is another such figure. I’ve known Ann a very long time.
How long? I remember a time before Mr (Errol) Gay came into the picture. I saw her Anne Truelove redeem Henry Ingram’s Tom Rakewell from the Nick Shadow of Peter Barcza at the U of T‘s Opera Department production. Ann played the organ at my first wedding, accompanying Peter singing my setting of William Carlos Williams’ poem “The Rewaking”. Even then I knew her for musicianship, energy, a unique personality, and it must be said, a deep well of patience and loving kindness because I know I must have been a pain in the butt. I may be conflating roles, but I am sure I recall a Despina and a Mimi, although hehehe it‘s awhile ago. But in other words, the Ann Cooper Gay who has been running the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus knows the medium from the inside out, as a gifted musician, singer, actor, and working artist before she undertook the complexities of running a company.
Excuse me if I digress, but the opportunity to remember Richard Bradshaw –and through his eyes to recall earlier days for Ann & the CCOC– is something I can’t pass up, as I cite both a letter from Richard Bradshaw to Ann Cooper Gay, plus a photo, showing Bradshaw-the-mentor with his heart very much on his sleeve.
You really are a most magnificent triumph in every way. Quite how you got that thing together with all its sometimes puzzling complexity, I don’t know, but it must have taken a will and enthusiasm that nobody has in quite such measure as you. I thought it was a remarkable achievement and many, many congratulations to you all (and to your excellent pianist)!
Richard.[Richard Bradshaw, General Director Canadian Opera Company]
As Bradshaw implies, it’s a huge undertaking. Recently I interviewed a CCOC alumna Kate Applin, and realized that Ann is an important figure who is often under the radar. Sometimes her charges appear in COC shows –the children in Tosca or La boheme or Carmen. The three genii in Magic Flute were CCOC singers. But at the same time, Ann keeps commissioning new operas from Canadian composers, recruiting young singers to replace those who have grown up with her as a role model, producing, fund-raising…. The latest such project will premiere on May 29th at the Enwave Theatre, Norbert Palej’s East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon, libretto by Kaitlin Bryski. I feel privileged to know Ann and Errol (who has composed some of the CCOC operas), for all this time. It seems especially apt that I’m assembling Ann’s responses on Mother’s Day, a time when we celebrate and honour mothers & nurturing spirits in our families and among us in our culture. Ann is a genuine mother figure even if she still has the energy and cute smile of the ingenue.
On the occasion of the May 29th premiere I ask Ann ten questions: five about herself and five more about CCOC and her work
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I am probably a good mix of both my parents. I love to dream and create and I am curious about most things in this world and beyond. I am passionate about learning and have enjoyed learning other languages and several musical instruments. My father’s sisters sang and played and my mother sang and played the piano. I wouldn’t describe my family as a musical one, but my parents made sure that I had a piano and a flute as well as good private teachers and my brother had his trumpet.
I was born in North Texas and grew up in South Texas where my father ran a store and my mother taught school. It was a small town along the Gulf Coast, but the opportunities were there in the form of very excellent musicians. The church organist (trained at the Chicago Conservatory of Music) taught me theory & organ and I started playing the organ at age 10; I was already playing flute by this time and the band director had attended the University of Michigan and had also studied under William Kincaid (principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra). His wife was my beloved piano teacher and choral director. What are the odds of finding this caliber of teachers in a small coastal town anywhere? There is a system in the States called the All-State Bands/Orchestras/Choirs run by the individual State Music Educators Assn. It’s all done by audition, is quite competitive, allowing advanced music students the opportunity to rehearse and perform with like-minded peers under the direction of top-notch guest clinicians. I lived for All-District, All-Region, and All-State Band. I also enjoyed being a majorette and a cheerleader – I must have enjoyed performing because it wasn’t a huge stretch to become an opera singer. I also liked to plan events and work with people and that led right into teaching and conducting. I like to think of myself as a salesperson for music. I believe in the power of music to change lives. I am a huge fan of the music program emanating from Venezuela – El Sistema.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being Artistic Director of a company such as Canadian Children’s Opera Company?
The best thing is watching the kids grow up, improve as singers and actors, develop leadership skills, and to see their pride when they have done a really good job. The hardest part is having to choose kids to sing lead roles over other kids who would love to do the roles, but aren’t yet ready to assume that responsibility – both vocally and dramatically. This is my 14th year (I can’t believe it) and the job I accepted in 2000 has evolved into something much more. I suppose the difficult part of the job, as it has developed over the fourteen years, is that one doesn’t really have a proper down time. That is partly my fault (I have trouble saying “no”) and the lack of funds to hire more staff. We have a great staff – both administratively and artistically and a wonderfully supportive board of directors. Locating proper funding is the real challenge, and that’s true for every arts organization.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I like to watch Jeopardy and The Agenda (TV). I listen to, and attend when time permits, operatic, symphonic, and celtic music concerts.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
The ability to reserve quiet time for myself…I’m working on it and I can see the benefits to one’s mind and body.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
I enjoy hearing daughter Erin sing and learning more about early music from her, sewing, reading, genealogy, discovering interesting postings on YouTube, & gardening now that the weather is better.
Five more about Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus and their upcoming production of East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon.
1) How does being Executive Artistic Director of Canadian Children’s Opera Company challenge you?
This is a very good question. How does CCOC keep me engaged? Well, I am never without something to do: that is, to think about, to decide upon, to figure out, to talk to staff about, to read hundreds of emails, to listen to new auditions, to listen to existing choristers and hear their progress, to answer parents’ questions, to attend board meetings, to interview potential staff (both artistic and administrative), to assist with fundraising, but most important is the necessity to plan rehearsals so that all material is covered and the children and youth will be able to present the music with confidence.
2) what do you love about programming & commissioning & producing with CCOC?
This is probably a walk down memory lane, but productions where the children and youth have contributed the most effort – musical and dramatic – toward making the opera a huge success. I love to hire professional singers to appear with the CCOC and they are terrific role models for the children. We’ve had many over the past and before my time, Ben Heppner, was a much-loved performer. In Harry Somers’ A Midwinter Night’s Dream, we had James Westman, Michael Colvin and Allyson McHardy; Dean Burry’s The Hobbit allowed us to work with John Fanning; in Errol Gay/Michael Albano’s A Dickens of a Christmas we had Mark Pedrotti, Ryan Harper, and James McLean; in Errol Gay/Michael Albano’s Laura’s Cow we had Andrew Love and CCOC alumni: Marta Herman, Tessa Laengert, and Adanya Dunn.
We’ve had wonderful stage directors starting with Tom Diamond, Duncan McIntosh, Valerie Kuinka, Joel Ivany [directing the current production], and Michael Albano. Our collaborative partners have provided opportunities that we might never have been able to experience: Canadian Opera Company, Toronto Symphony, Soundstreams Canada, Hannaford Street Silver Band, and the TENORS. From the inception of the RUBIES, the gala run by Opera Canada, the CCOC has opened the festivities. Ruby Mercer, our founder, also founded Opera Canada, so it’s a very lovely evening celebrating one of Canada’s visionaries in the field of opera. When I started in July 2000, there were only about 90 children in four divisions; we now have 150 kids in six divisions plus an outreach program called OPERAtion KIDS (in its sixth season). The total membership fluctuates between 150-190, depending upon the season. One thing I’m really pleased about: when I started in 2000, there weren’t a lot of graduates going into opera studies. Of course, there was always the brilliant Karina Gauvin and we’re enormously proud of her. Over these past 14 years, we’ve seen the numbers increase in the number of grads entering university and pursuing a degree in music. Some are already attached to German opera houses and that pleases me greatly. Our grads tend to go to U of T, McGill, Western, Laurier, UBC, and the Glenn Gould. Over the years I have been proud to hire alums to teach various choruses or work in an administrative position – Bronwen Low, Sophia Perlman, Tessa Laengert, Katy Harmer, Liam Falkenheim, and Adanya Dunn. The new (not so new, now!) directors at the COC (General Director, Alexander Neef, and Music Director, Johannes Debus) have welcomed the CCOC and we enjoy a wonderful working relationship with both of them.
3) Out of the complex planning and development cycle, what’s your favourite moment when you mount an opera?
I have two favourite moments: 1) when I come up with the idea and watch the librettist and composer react; 2) the buzz of the opening performance and the closing performance because the children and youth are so engaged and excited.
4) Please put CCOC into context, in a culture that doesn’t always value music education or classical culture.
Leslie, I asked Errol to put these thoughts into a paragraph or two and I think he has written something very, very fine. So, here is his contribution to this question:
CCOC is the only organization in Canada (and possibly the world) that commissions and performs operas written for and performed by children. There is an important cultural and philosophical corollary to this factual statement.
When children are exposed–positively–to an artistic format other than that with which they are bombarded mercilessly by the purveyors of crass commercialism, they tend to respond in an unusual fashion: they attain a sense of discernment. This is not to say they abandon the culture of their peers, but they do develop the ability to make informed distinctions among their cultural options. This is, of course, what education is all about: leading one to be able to make enlightened choices. The understanding of “high” art is, by definition if not by popular consensus in our times, a goal towards which any educated person should strive. Opera is perhaps its most complete manifestation in that it combines almost all of the separate elements of that all-encompassing term. Although “grand opera” may not have as much “traction” in the 21st century as it has had over the previous 400 years (it’s always about money, isn’t it?), chamber opera–and yes, children’s opera–have, I think, a future that will only grow in status and appeal. The longevity and accomplishments of the Canadian Children’s Opera Company attest to it.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
Obviously my husband, Dr. Errol Gay, who has shown patience in teaching me the craft of conducting, especially orchestral; my first opera mentors (musical and dramatic) were Dr. Herman Geiger-Torel (General Director, COC), Ernesto Barbini (COC conductor), Madame Irene Jessner (voice), James Craig (conductor/coach), Constance Fisher (stage director), Leon Major (stage director), Jan Rubes (singer & stage director), Bruce Lunkley (voice), Edward Matthiessen (voice), my friend — your brother Peter Barcza (baritone), Dr. Grady Wilson (organ), and huge thanks to the larger-than-life, former General Director, COC, Richard Bradshaw, who believed passionately in the CCOC.