There was a time long ago in the history of opera, when the singer/virtuoso was the boss. And that meant a world of divas competing against one another. Wanting the better aria. Seeking to upstage one another. (I wish I were making this up but for example ) Each one sought to be the bigger star.
-Flash forward to the 21st Century-
Essential Opera is a company that features two divas, Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua. They are not in a competition, as they’re a genuine team. These two talented women work together, not just singing, but building a company and a following. They’re celebrating their fifth anniversary with an opera production presented on September 27th in Toronto and October 1st in Kitchener. The opera is Paride ed Elena by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a composer whose 300th birthday is being celebrated in 2014.
And now, as Paride ed Elena help commemorate Gluck’s 300th and Essential Opera’s fifth, I ask Maureen Batt and Erin Bardua ten questions: five about the collaborating pair of divas, and five more about Essential Opera’s season opener.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
Maureen: My mother. Well, actually, I’d say I’m an even split between the two. But, I suspect most people would say I’m more like my mother. My mother was an English teacher, and when I was in junior high (at her same school), teachers would stop me in the hall and call me Mrs. Batt, mistaking me for her. (I suspect this would only happen when I wasn’t lugging around my massive LLBean bookbag). I get a lot of my mannerisms (and my red hair) from my mother. Mom’s side is Irish-Canadian, and Dad’s background is British and Canadian. Mom sang in choirs and played piano and violin (I took lessons on her violin, too). We always say that Dad plays the spoons.
Erin: I definitely look like my mother too, so when you see Maureen and me onstage, you’re seeing what it would’ve looked like if our mothers had started an opera company. Which is about the weirdest image I’ve thought of all week, and in a week that includes preparing for an opera based on Greek mythology, that’s counting a lot of weird imagery. 🙂 (Maureen: I’ll tell Mom she’d better pack an extra outfit for her interpretation of Amore). My father is more musical – he played the violin when he was young, and I think a lot of the recordings of classical music I heard as a kid were his selections.
2) What is the best thing or worst thing about running a company such as Essential Opera?
Both: The best thing has to be the opportunity to put works out there that might not otherwise get an outing, and to interpret what we perform as we choose – both musically and dramatically. There’s a lot of freedom, and at the same time we always want to stay aware of our audience and of providing something enriching and enjoyable.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Maureen: This is a tough one–there’s not much I don’t listen to. These days, if I’m not listening to a particular classical work (for business and pleasure!), I might have on Songza’s Blog50 or Ron Burgundy’s Bachelor Pad playlist. This very moment I’m listening to Patricia O’Callaghan.
When I’m preparing for a gig, I like to listen to that music while I’m working out. Sometimes I’ll listen to pre-existing recordings, or I might just listen to a voice memo recording that I’ve made of myself (this helps me with memorization and channeling energy for later when I’m in rehearsal). I love listening to classical music while I’m at the gym; there’s a meditative quality to running on a treadmill and listening to, say, Massenet or Mozart.
I grew up making mix tapes from the radio, listening to the Solid Gold Collection tapes, and listening to CBC. I can’t remember if my first CD was Celine or Mariah. But my musical background included the Top 40 of various decades, classic rock, female pop icons, local East Coast music, a lot of musical theatre, and a lot of jazz–my husband, then-boyfriend, was a jazz bassist; one of my favourite gifts from him was Michel Donato and Karen Young’s Second Time Around (I wore that tape out).
It might be cliché, but if I had to pick four favourite female artists to span the genres, I’d go with Ella, Madonna, Renee and Audra (McDonald).
Erin: I like Maureen’s choices, at the end there, a LOT – I’d have swapped Cyndi Lauper in for Madonna because that’s just me, but those are some powerhouse performing vocalists. (Maureen: LOVE Cyndi!)
Listening-wise, when I started studying singing I went through a phase of absolute obsession with mid-20th-century divas and bel canto in particular, now reflected by my CD collection – many compilation and recital discs of Callas, Sutherland, Sills, Tebaldi, Price, Freni, Scotto, de los Angeles… Then as I got to know my own voice better, I added Schwarzkopf, Janowitz, Popp… then I discovered La Renee and Barbara Bonney, Harolyn Blackwell, Dawn Upshaw. A couple of current artists who I think have it all going on vocally, musically, and dramatically are Diana Damrau and Sondra Radvanovsky. I’m a soprano geek! (Maureen: Your entire list just made me drool!) Lots of those artists did wonderful cabaret and crossover work (especially Upshaw, who led me to Audra McDonald) and that’s when I realized I could still hang onto my musical-theatre dork roots and love classical vocal music too. In the car, you’ll find me doing all the parts along with any Sondheim cast recording, or things like the musical [title of show] (Maureen: The BEST) or The Last Five Years.
When it comes to preparation, Maureen and I very similar; I like to get hold of as many recordings as are available and change up my listening to avoid getting stuck on one interpretation. Eventually, I might prefer one recording for its dramatic or musical interpretation, and another for the quality of the voices. I also use my own practice recordings a lot – it really helps me to make the piece my own.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
Both: We would both love to be fundraising whizzes and therefore dealing with larger budgets. We actually have skillsets that are similar, yet our working styles and preferences are quite complementary. So that’s really our only major gap where we have to seek advice from others, or where the tasks just seem a little more grueling than otherwise.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favorite thing to do?
Erin: I like to go for long walks with my iPod – you’ll find me wandering the streets or on transit giggling to myself a bit like a maniac, because my preferred non-work listening is mostly comedy podcasts. I also read a ton of nearly anything – classics, current fiction, fantasy/sci-fi, nonfiction – especially if it has a bit of humour to it.
Maureen: I’m equally in love with curling up on my couch and watching a movie and going out for a good glass of wine/beer with friends/family. I also spend a lot of my free time divided among the gym, FaceTime-ing long-distance friends/family, and dancing while no one is looking (that’s a thing, I promise).
Five more about Essential Opera’s presentation of Paride ed Elena on September 27th.
1)Tell us about Gluck’s Paride ed Elena and why you want to present this opera to start your fifth season.
Both: This is the 300th anniversary of Gluck’s birthday–so we took this opportunity to celebrate! Paride ed Elena is a perfect show for Essential Opera’s Season 5 opener: it’s intimate, it’s about relationships, and it focuses on realism and emotions. The storyline, while about the epic romance story of Paris and Helen, is easily accessible for any audience.
The music of Paride ed Elena is a really exciting example of Gluck’s “reform” operas. It was written at a time when Gluck and librettist Calzabigi were revolutionizing opera, so that the drama of the story would take centre stage. The music is constantly illustrating characters’ feelings and changes and pushing the action forward.
One of our unofficial mandates is to find shows with many roles for women–based on our auditions, women artists are underworked and we’re always thrilled to be able to provide opportunities to deserving artists. This show casts 5 women and features tons of gorgeous ensemble music!
2) what do you love about programming and organizing seasons with Essential Opera?
Both: We both truly love the behind-the-scenes, research side of our art as well as the performing side. Programming shows for Essential Opera gives us so many chances to learn new scores and delve into works we haven’t been exposed to before, as well as really explore better-known classics.
We’re lucky in that we both work really well together collaborating online and by phone – especially now that we’re living in separate cities and presenting in multiple locations! We’d die without cloud-based tools.
For each show, we choose a music director who specializes in that repertoire. We’ve been very fortunate to be able to hire Kate Carver (Figaro, Deserted Island), David Eliakis (Cherubin), Cathy Nosaty (Threepenny), Michael Rose (Schicchi and Campanello), and Cheryl Duvall (Canadian triple-bill). For this production, we’ve invited Dr. Vicki St. Pierre to return in her role as Music Director (she was MD of our Alcina shows in Season 2) along with Wesley Shen as Associate Music Director. Vicki’s a valuable resource to us, with her depth of understanding of classical and earlier music, and its context; and she’s also a fantastic vocal coach. (Full disclosure, Vicki is Erin’s wife, and we might be biased, but we love to take advantage of her brilliance when we can!)
3)Out of the complex planning and development cycle, what’s your favourite moment when you mount an opera?
Maureen: I think my favourite moment from the perspective of the artistic director, is the curtain call. At that moment, the show has successfully happened, and I feel an enormous sense of pride. It’s a very different sense of pride than the one you might feel as a solo singer. Being an AD means you get two performance highs–a singer high and an administrator high.
Erin: I agree – that’s an amazing sense of accomplishment. I also love the sense of infinite possibility when we’re first considering a piece for EO.
4) Please put Essential Opera into context for us, why your work is important to you.
Both: Essential Opera started out with an idea to do a single performance that would give us and some favourite colleagues a chance to do a favourite work. It has expanded into a much bigger endeavour, and of course, we’re happy with that! There are so, so many singers with terrific training and lots of experience, as well as younger artists coming up all the time, and with the industry the way it is, there’s so little work for us all. With smaller-scale presentations (we’re not bringing in any elephants!), we also have the opportunity to put on a huge variety of works in intimate circumstances – so we feel like we have something special happening for the artists as well as the audiences.
5) Is there anyone out there who you particularly admire, and who has influenced you?
Both: We really admire and are grateful to our colleagues who are also presenting classical and contemporary-classical music. For instance, we’ve had a lot of advice and support from Monica Pearce and the Toy Piano Composers on logistical and funding planning as we got started. That has been a terrific collaboration.
Maureen: It’s hard to see this question and not think of my family and my husband. Being a singer would be nearly impossible without my support system. I admire my entire family—immediate, extended, and in-laws!!—for standing by me on this extremely long journey (no one tells you it takes this long!). When I’m feeling like I need a little inspiration to practice more/harder/better, I think of my husband who used to hide out in the practice rooms at his music school until security had locked the doors. Then, he’d emerge from his bass locker and keep practicing into all hours of the night. While I am definitely a night owl, I don’t imagine that any of my neighbours would appreciate operatic singing at 4 AM. (I might try it anyway).
I’ve had four wonderful voice teachers who have supported me and inspired me in different ways: in my earlier days I studied with Maureen Steeves and David Mitchell, both in New Brunswick. And I’ve studied for many years with the remarkable mezzos Marcia Swanston and Jean MacPhail. I need to do a little shout-out to the amazing music education I experienced through school—playing in bands and orchestras, singing in choirs, and taking private music lessons was crucial to me realizing how much I loved music and how I needed it to be a part of my life.
Erin: I’ve been lucky to have many really wonderful coaches and teachers who have been very encouraging throughout my development and now as a professional. When I started singing, I was studying to be a flautist, and my flute teacher Lanny Pollet was very encouraging… of my singing career. 🙂 What’s especially lovely is the overwhelmingly positive response to Essential Opera from all the mentors and the colleagues I look up to – it gives me the energy to keep it up!
- Saturday, September 27, 2014, 8:00 p.m.
Trinity St. Paul’s Centre, Toronto
- Wednesday, October 1, 2014, 7:30 p.m.
The Registry Theatre, Kitchener
For tickets click here