All good things must come to an end. Brandon, Manitoba native Cameron McPhail has been a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, Canada’s premier training program for young opera professionals.
Recent COC appearances include Schaunard in La Bohème, Guglielmo in Così fan tutte (Ensemble Studio performance) and the Officer in Dialogues des Carmélites. Other credits include Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress (Music Academy of the West); Ford in Falstaff and the title roles in Don Giovanni and Gianni Schicchi (University of British Columbia Opera); Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, Masetto in Don Giovanni, Marcello in La Bohème, Riccardo in I Puritani and George in Of Mice and Men (Yale Opera Studio); Mercutio in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Ford (Opera NUOVA); Conte Almaviva in Le nozze di Figaro (Opera on the Avalon); and, Schaunard (Highlands Opera Studio). In February 2014, he won a George London Award (for a Canadian singer) in the George London Foundation Awards Competition. This summer, he appears as Marcello in La Bohème.
On the occasion of his farewell to the Ensemble Studio at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre on May 20th I ask McPhail ten questions: five about himself and five more about a special concert titled “Les Adieux”.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I am a legitimate cross-breed. As children, we subconsciously recognize traits and characteristics of each parent, then we do our best to embody the ones we admire. My dad was… I mean IS (sorry, Dad….) an athlete, a competitor, a philosopher and business man. My mother is warm, compassionate, artistic, creative and loves to shop.
I guess I fluctuate. I have my father’s competitive spirit, his wanderlust, hopefully as much of his manners and appreciation for people’s good qualities and their flaws as possible. He taught me to be gracious with people when they piss you off, because he always insisted that all people are inherently good and mean well. Thanks to my dad: I see my art as a product, I hate losing, I swear too much, I put too much butter on my toast and I like almost everybody. Thanks to my mom: I admire strong, independent, driven women; I could play as many sports as I wanted to, but had to be studying some sort of musical instrument. She was the performer and musician, my Dad was loud. A perfect recipe for an opera singer.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about being an opera singer?
The worst thing about being an opera singer is the uncertainty and not working. There are an infinite number of people who will tell you what they think, an infinite number of decisions to make which can affect your ability to put food on the table, pay a mortgage or get your kid braces. You can get an infection in your chest or sinuses and have to cancel an engagement that you might have been counting on to get you through the spring, or you can get a phone call from your manager letting you know that someone ELSE got an infection in their chest or sinuses and that you don’t need to worry about getting through spring anymore. As much as you work on your craft, as much as you practice, prepare, rehearse, you still need to be offered a job by someone. It’s not like being a lawyer where you can simply work harder and bill more hours. You can only work as frequently as someone else is willing to hire you. The big balancing act (in my opinion) lies between resisting the urge to become complacent and overly secure with your product, while also loving it enough to enjoy the journey through the ups and downs. Vocal technique is an infuriating, ever-changing labyrinth of variables. You go to bed thinking you have it. Then you wake up, head to the practice room, try to warm up and wonder during which REM cycle you got terrible again….
The worst things are also at the same time, some of the best things about being a singer. You get it together eventually. You become more consistent, you can correct mistakes yourself faster and that’s when the fun starts. All of those doubts and worries temporarily go away once you’re actually working. It’s hard to explain the feeling you get that contract, the feeling of walking past security through the stage-door. The way your heart starts to beat a bit faster when the orchestra begins tuning, and the feeling of standing in that principle bow-line when you’ve all had a great show and the audience is on their feet. Those are the moments when you forget that you’re actually being PAID to do this. It is those times when you feel extremely lucky, and you feel that urge to keep coming back, keep auditioning and keep getting better.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
If it’s opera that I’m working on, I think we all have our heroes we prefer to hear. I love Nicolai Herlea, Piero Cappuccili, Cornell MacNeil and Ettore Bastianini. If I need a DVD to watch, I’ll choose Simon Keenleyside, Bryn Terfel or Ferruccio Furlanetto. They are such incredible artists AND singers… Easy to emulate and be inspired.
If I’m not listening to opera (which is usually the case…), I’m a die-hard rock and roll fan. I grew up with Neil Young, Hendrix… Seeing The Rolling Stones live was a religious experience for me. Their virility, longevity and love of their craft is exactly what we need as opera singers. We want that 50-year career…
TV-wise, I think the greatest shows on TV are Pawn Stars and Deadliest Catch. Honorable Mentions go out to Game of Thrones, The Sopranos and Judge Judy. This summer, Cat (my wife) and I are going to do Breaking Bad and House of Cards. We’ll be on the road a ton… I tip my flask to the creators of Netflix.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I could play piano better than I do. I was an athlete growing up, and while I took some lessons when I was a kid, I never really learned to read music as well as I wish I had. These days, that would be an extremely useful skill, especially when I was learning The Rake’s Progress, Billy Budd and The Rape of Lucretia.
Slightly less practical, I would love to be a haberdasher, bespoke tailor or cobbler. I have slightly expensive tastes when it comes to clothes and shoes. If I could make my own, I’d probably reduce my costs. Maybe not… I love the parts of men’s fashion that celebrate purity, tradition and timelessness. Raw denim, Goodyear Welting and British Tweed, and hand-made suits made from the manes of Milanese Unicorns.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
On my days off, I love to pay golf. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world. It’s so pure, so imperfect and when it’s just you in the woods, you’re at address and the ball moves, you’re the only one who knows you just incurred a two stroke penalty. It’s a game that shows your true character and grit. It also has so many parallels with singing. The focus, the mental endurance, the demand for great strength, yet at the same time dexterity, agility and flexibility. You need control over your big muscles, yet the ability to isolate and manage the small, intricate ones. It is extremely difficult to be good at either golf or singing. As you age, some things get simpler and new things get harder. Perfection is unattainable.
If I’m on the road, I love to get a little dressed up and go for a walk. I’ll shop, see people, places, eat, drink, do whatever it is that people do where we are!
As a Prairie-boy, I was bred to love road trips. My bachelor’s degree in economics and geography was at the University of British Columbia. My wife is also from Vancouver, so needless to say, I have done the drive from Winnipeg to Vancouver more times than I can count. My Dad’s Cadillac CTS-V, a few great playlists and one of those Lumberjack Sandwiches from Safeway… I’m in. I don’t care how far it is.
Five more about your farewell concert with the Ensemble Studio.
1) Please talk a bit about the next step. How does one approach life after the Ensemble?
This is a tricky part, because there are so many different paths to choose from. My wife and I are both singers, we have the same manager but other than that, we are both making individual career moves while supporting each other every step of the way. We are engaged in North America next season, but we are also spending as much time as possible in Europe to sing as many auditions as possible. These days, it is very difficult to simply have a career in JUST North America or JUST Europe. You have to work hard to try and maintain a presence in as many places as possible. It’s not easy, but we simply keep working hard, keep taking voice lessons and set high goals. We both hope to sing in Canada as much as possible, but Europe has to be a priority too.
I am lucky enough to have the support here at the COC, in that they fully understand the importance of auditions and competitions… especially in your final year. If you’re not careful, you can enjoy the safe atmosphere of the Ensemble Studio, and once you’ve graduated, you’re on your own. The COC gives you every opportunity to cultivate future plans and a young singer can do everything right in his final year, but a challenging year after the Ensemble Studio is almost inevitable. I am very lucky to be relatively busy, but it’s still going to be an uphill battle. Wish me luck…
2) What do you love about the Ensemble Studio?
The Ensemble Studio is as good as it gets. There are comparable programs in the world, but ours here is on par with every single one. They gave me as good opportunities as any artist that has come through the program. I was given lessons, coaching, guidance, financial stability, networking, freedom to be in New York for auditions or competitions when I needed them, and roles on the COC mainstage alongside the best singers in the world as my cast mates. What more is there to say?
My colleagues are some of my best friends, they’re talented, creative and a hell of a lot of fun. We get to do a show together each year, and it’s always a huge success simply because of the relationships. It’s pretty hard not to be close with people that you’ve changed with in a broom closet somewhere in Northern Ontario at 8:30 a.m. for an elementary school performance of The Brothers Grimm. I always tried to wear my nicest underwear.
3) What will you be singing in Les Adieux, and does it have personal significance for you at this moment of saying goodbye?
For the Les Adieux concert, I’m going to sing two song cycles that I love very much. The first will be Poulenc’s Chansons Gaillardes. It is extremely difficult for both the singer and the pianist (Michael Shannon), but the rewards are countless. The poetry is so incredibly French… so beautiful, yet with so many ingenious metaphors, double-meanings and innuendos. To perform them properly takes great restraint, subtlety and vocal control. I hope you like them.
The second cycle is by American composer, the late, great Lee Hoiby called I Was There: Five Poems of Walt Whitman. The poems are timeless classics and Mr. Hoiby was a close friend of my voice teacher while I was at Yale. Mr. Hoiby was such a kind, passionate man who wrote remarkably well for the voice. He was a wonderful pianist, and Michael Shannon definitely has his hands full with this set too. Both sets, the Poulenc and the Hoiby are about as challenging a sing as it gets for me, so to do them both in one hour will be a hell of a challenge.
As a vehicle for saying goodbye to a place that will always be extremely dear to me, the Poulenc represents maturity, gained wisdom and the notion that your own, unaffected, natural voice is going to be best received. The Hoiby, beginning with the song “Beginning my studies” contains personal awakening, accomplishment, loss and inspiration garnered from quality leadership, and lastly, departure on a new adventure with the future unknown. I can’t think of better music with which to take my leave. Sasha Djihanian and I will also sing a duet from Don Giovanni, because it’s cute, charming and will be on the Four Seasons Centre stage next season!
4) Please put the COC Ensemble Studio into context, in a culture that doesn’t always value opera, at a time when it’s challenging to make a career.
Opera most certainly has a future. Anyone that says differently is being silly and close-minded. As time passes, there will be changes of course, but change is inevitable in all things. In the last month, the COC has just produced three of the greatest productions I have ever seen, anywhere in the world. World-class directors presenting well-thought-out productions sung by LITERALLY a half-dozen of the most in-demand singers on the planet. Eric Owens, David Daniels, Alice Coote, Sondra Radvanovsky, Russell Braun, Ferruccio Furlanetto?!?! Are you kidding me? You cannot go ANYWHERE else in the world right now and hear that many world-famous singers in the same week. ANYWHERE.
Sorry, I know that didn’t really answer your question… but in a way, it did. Context for a young artist program? Look who we get to watch in rehearsal. Our General Director, Alexander Neef, is a superstar. Only in the recent seasons are we seeing the vision and foresight that he has in distinguishing voices that are going to be valuable. These stars are going to keep coming to the COC and that attracts connoisseurs, agents, critics, coaches and the Ensemble Studio gets to be part of those performances, work with those conductors and directors. All of those superstars have high-powered management and they will hear us all. It’s cyclical. Talent attracts talent, and while people may question the future of opera, the shows I watched this weekend were packed, with people of all ages. It takes resilience and flexibility, but the young singers of the Ensemble Studio are getting to witness the re-birth of a company that has quickly established itself as one of the greatest houses in the world.
Canadian singers are wanted all over the world. The young batch of us in our 20s and 30s are benefitting from great work by singers like Adrienne Pieczonka, Russell Braun, Judith Forst, Tracy Dahl, Richard Margison, Ben Heppner and Gerald Finley. They’ve paved the road for us and set the bar extremely high, but luckily, we’re being exposed to that high level here at the COC, so we’re ready for the undertaking.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
There are a lot of people that I admire. I admire my parents, my brother, my wife, my in-laws, my friends.
There are people that heard me when I was still studying business at UBC, without whom I would never have done this. Bruce Pullan, Nancy Hermiston and Peter Barcza at the UBC School of Music got me excited to actually pursue opera for a semester or two and see how I did. After one semester, David Agler of the Wexford Festival, Richard Margison of Highlands Opera Studio, Kim Matice-Wanat of Opera NUOVA, and John Churchwell and Marilyn Horne of Music Academy of the West gave me the next series of shots. Each time someone says “YES”, we take a step forward in our confidence, determination and desire.
The biggest influence and positive impact has been recent. I’m approaching 30 years old and am on my way but it’s hard to know what to expect in the next five years. It has been my older colleagues, cast mates and other singers who are 5-10 years ahead of me who have really made the big difference. Guys like Stephen Costello, Josh Hopkins, Quinn Kelsey, Robert Pomakov, David Pomeroy and Dimitri Pittas are who give me my biggest motivation. They’re only about 4-7 years older than me, but they know exactly what I’m going through. They share ideas, advice, talk ‘man-to-man’ about money and investments over a few beers while making me feel like I belong. They’re the next generation of superstars and want me with them. They pay for dinner, despite my objections and say “just pay it forward man… I’m making lots… someone else did it for us not too long ago”. They remind me that money will come, success will happen if you play it smart and that I can support a family, pay a mortgage and be a happy man. That’s the way I want to be, the way I want to sing and the way I want to help another young guy someday.
“Les Adieux” is the special concert to end the season at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre, a goodbye from the departing members of the Ensemble Studio, May 20th at noon.