The Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio had their annual noon-hour concert to commemorate the departure of some of their members, titled “Les Adieux”. The three performers?
- Michael Shannon, piano
- Cameron McPhail, baritone
- Sasha Djihanian, soprano
For most of the concert we went back and forth between artistic solo songs, in other words, far from the operatic idiom of the COC: until the last items on the program. It makes sense, considering that for most of their time with the Ensemble, these flamboyant singers are often required to soldier in comparative obscurity, rarely getting the opportunity to show us what they can really do, what their voices can do, what charisma they could display if given half a chance.
That is, until the last two items. Djihanian sang & danced a broadly seductive “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiss” from Giuditta by Lehar, including a couple of notes that might have been high C’s, tossed off to huge applause. It was a fitting reminder. The two youngsters singing for us were not just capable of snazzy high notes, but could take the stage with flamboyance. And to close? The pair offered us a poised and well-acted “là ci darem la mano” as an encore, the one time McPhail & Djihanian sang together. It was a fitting display of their musical dramatic skills, at this bitter-sweet moment of graduation, embarking on their careers.
For the rest of the hour we were hearing other sorts of singing, different tests of skill. McPhail opened with Chansons gaillardes, eight dryly ironic songs from Poulenc. They’re as much a test of your ability to keep a straight face as of vocal stylings, McPhail ever the deadpan comedian, never telegraphing the joke or tipping his hand, as suave a display as you could imagine.
Djihanian followed with a contrasting pair of Armenian Songs by Sayat Nova. Where “Kani vor jan im” showed off a rich middle voice in a moody composition that almost suggested that the soprano could sing mezzo-soprano rep if she so chose, “Kamancha” took us to a more extroverted place. She followed with Debussy’s Ariettes Oubliées, the furthest we’d drifted away from an operatic idiom, exploring varieties of internalized experience, with excellent support from Shannon. Another subdued pair of songs from Dvorak followed.
McPhail followed with I Was There, five powerful songs with English texts from Walt Whitman composed by American composer Lee Hoiby, requiring the singer to step forward into the spotlight.
All this variety serves to remind us that Ensemble Studio members can do much more than just opera. I wish them well in their future life.
I’ve often wondered whether Sasha shouldn’t explore the mezzo rep. She’s always sounded more comfortable in her lower register, to my ear at least. She wouldn’t be the first mezzo to be miscast as a soprano. Felicity Palmer debuted at ENO as Pamina! Actually she was pretty good but still…
It’s a fascinating question. Does one’s voice find its own way or does one in some sense choose? And if one is close to the boundary does one go where the voice is comfortable, or perhaps venture into territory that’s less comfortable but where the roles pay better? Depending on the teacher, you get different answers.
And there are other things going on. I believe Djihanian darkens sometimes, a tendency that some singers learn to use for dramatic effect. I believe that in every singer there are usually multiple possibilities in how they could sing & sound.