10 Questions for Colin Balzer

I’ve never seen tenor Colin Balzer in person, but I did watch his Don Ottavio twice in the broadcast of Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni presented by TFO less than a year ago: when it was becoming evident that the COC would be presenting the same production here.  In my review I made the following comments about Balzer as part of Tcherniakov’s rethink of the opera:

It’s all quite new, even if it’s also very different from what we expect. Is that a problem?  I don’t think so, as I love this kind of adventure, especially with a familiar text.  For example, in Don Ottavio’s “dalla sua pace”, portrayed by Colin Balzer, we get the real subtext.  Although he’s speaking of his desire to help his beloved Donna Anna find peace, we see him go into a foetal position as he sings, taking comfort from her instead.

Sorry, I didn’t mention that the acting is committed, nuanced, subtle, the voice, beautifully coloured and never unpleasant.  See for yourself.

Perhaps we’ll see him in an opera here someday, likely in the early rep he’s known for (anything from Dowland to Handel up to Mozart); but he’s also recorded songs by Hanns Eisler, an under-rated composer of the 20th Century.  Born & originally trained in British Columbia with an international career, he’s appeared in Toronto before, but I regret that I somehow missed the chance to hear him before.

In a couple of weeks he’ll be here in Toronto to sing in Messiah with Tafelmusik Dec 17th-21st (the latter the sing-along version).  In 2015 Balzer, is especially thrilled…

“…to be playing Ulisse in Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria at the Boston Early Music Festival this coming summer. The Festival is doing all three of Monteverdi’s operas this summer, so it is a real thrill to be a part of it.“

But in the immediate future, Messiah, the occasion for asking him ten questions: five about himself and five about his work on Handel’s masterpiece.

1-Are you more like your father or your mother?

Tenor Colin Balzer

That’s a tricky one. I have the volume and quick wit of my mother but the sense of humour and intensity of my father. Also his hairline.

2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a singer?

Best thing: Being able to physically produce sound waves which might bring even a small amount of beauty into the world.
Worst thing: Accidentally spitting on the people in the front row. Apologies to all those who have received a sprinkling for the sake of diction.

3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I love jazz. In high school it was jazz that opened the worlds of music to me. I couldn’t get enough of its  creativity, improvisation, and sense of play. Be it a solo vocalist like Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan, or Jon Hendricks, or a vocal ensemble like Take 6 or the latest iteration of The Swingle Singers, I keep coming back to them.

4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

Pistol squats. Look it up. Those things are crazy.

5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?

Probably cooking for my wife and kids. I still get to be creative and improvise but the focus is on putting stuff in their mouths rather than stuff coming out of mine.

Tenor Colin Balzer

Tenor Colin Balzer, bearing his all

Five more about undertaking Messiah with Tafelmusik

1-Talk for a moment about the challenges of Handel’s Messiah, especially for the tenor.

The biggest challenge with The Messiah is its own popularity. How do you balance the expectations of the audience with the need to stretch and surprise them.

As a tenor, you have to hit the ground running with Messiah. You are the first voice the audience hears (at least those that get there on time) so you get to set the tone vocally for the whole concert.

2-Please tell us about working with Ivars Taurins as Handel, and how he is in rehearsal and in preparation.

Ivars is always a joy to work with. He is supremely prepared and I suspect that he has a special nickname for each and every phrase and gesture. Ivars’ Messiah is lithe and agile without being reckless, it is passionate and sincere without being sentimental. Together with Tafelmusik’s fantastic orchestra and stellar choir, it is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying Messiahs that I have had the privilege to be a part of.

And when Ivars dons the persona of Handel, what you have in the Sing Along Messiah is nothing short of epic. If you love music, if you love to laugh, if you are partial to German accents, then you will love the Sing Along. I  guarantee that you will leave with more “good will towards men” than when you entered.

Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel  (photo by Gary Beechey)

Ivars Taurins as Herr Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

3-What’s your favourite moment in Messiah ?

Definitely the final Amen chorus. It starts intimate and prayer-like. By the end you’ve got church bells ringing, fireworks going off, the heavens opening up… I usually can’t even sing the final phrases I get so choked up

4-Messiah can be seen as theatre, as music, and for some so religiously inspired as to be genuinely sacred.  Where do you place the emphasis among those three (drama, music & spirit)in preparation & in performance?

I definitely place the emphasis on spirit. For me it is music with a message. I think that this is one of the reasons why The Messiah remains so popular today: it speaks directly to our humanity. The themes of hope, sacrifice, suffering, redemption, peace and celebration haven’t become any less relevant. Instead of calling it religiously inspired, I would say it is religiously inspiring.

5- Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?

James Fankhauser, my university choir conductor and the  former director of the Vancouver Cantata Singers. Under his skilled baton I first encountered so many of the great works from the repertoire, including The Messiah. His art is still the measure by which I judge every conductor I have ever worked with. Most are found wanting.


Tafelmusik present Handel’s Messiah December 17-20, 7:30 pm at Koerner Hall, followed by the Singalong at Massey Hall December 21st at 2 pm:
Directed by Ivars Taurins, with
Lydia Teuscher, soprano
James Laing, countertenor
Colin Balzer, tenor
Brett Polegato, baritone

The Singalong Messiah led by Herr Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

The Singalong Messiah led by Herr Handel (photo by Gary Beechey)

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