Conductor Leslie Dala aka Les Dala is especially well-known out west, having conducted at the Vancouver Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria and Vancouver Bach Choir, at Banff Centre and UBC Opera Ensemble. In October 2014 he conducted Vancouver Opera’s world premiere production of Stickboy by Neil Weisensel and Shane Koyczan, and just this month he stepped in to lead a production of The Magic Flute at Edmonton Opera.
An avid performer of contemporary music, Dala has recorded three dramatic works by Canadian composer Harry Somers, including Death of Enkidu starring tenor David Pomeroy for Centrediscs, and worked with all of the leading contemporary music ensembles in Vancouver, including the Hard Rubber Orchestra, Standing Wave and the Turning Point Ensemble. While Music Director of the Prince George Symphony he led several premieres of newly-commissioned works. Dala comes to Toronto next year to lead the Canadian premiere of Philippe Boesmans’ 2012 opera Julie in a co-production by Soundstreams & Canadian Stage. But he’s already here at the University of Toronto’s Opera Department, leading Dominick Argento’s 1971 opera Postcard from Morocco in a production running March 12-15th at the Edward Johnson Building.
On the occasion of his return to U of T, I ask Dala ten questions: five about himself and five more about conducting Postcard from Morocco.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I think I am a real cross between the two. Physically I resemble my father in a way that is almost scary and I think I share a lot of his personality traits. When it comes to the whole artistic side of things, that is really from my mom. She was a very talented and ambitious young musician growing up in Budapest in the 1940’s who studied piano, organ, violin and singing and dreamed of having a career in music. Then came the revolution in 1956 and life changed quite drastically…
She passed on her love of music to myself and my three siblings (my brother, Peter is also a conductor) and she sang in the church choir for years. Sadly she now has dementia and is in a care facility but she still responds to classical music.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about being a conductor?
It is both an exhilarating and humbling feeling to stand in front of a group of instrumentalists and/or singers and to be able to initiate and shape the music that they play/sing. At the best of times, it is like being part of something bigger than life especially if the repertoire is something like Beethoven #9 or Shostakovich #5.
Regardless of the size of ensemble, I am true believer that all music making should be like chamber music and it requires everyone involved to be fully committed and to feel that their individual voices are essential to the whole experience. At the worst of times, it can feel like you are a lone voice in the wilderness trying to create order out of chaos.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
My tastes in music are quite wide ranging. I love listening to everything from John Adams to Frank Zappa! I go through phases where I tend to listen to one composer for a while, usually to balance out whatever rep I am working on. The past month has been really interesting as I have been working on the Magic Flute, Shostakovich #5, Elijah and Postcard from Morocco with rehearsals and performances overlapping so at times like that Bach instrumental music and David Bowie provide nice relief!
As far as watching, I rarely sit in front of the TV but I do like to watch sporting events whether it be a hockey game, football, baseball or tennis just for the something different. I think YouTube is one of the greatest things ever and I enjoy watching performances of classical music. It is such an incredible resource and learning experience!
4-What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I was more of an athlete. I have tremendous respect for people who push themselves to the brink of their physical abilities.
5-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
I love to go for walks, especially by the seawall in Vancouver where I live or read or just sit and enjoy a nice cold beer or a glass of wine.
Five more about conducting Postcard from Morocco in March for University of Toronto’s Opera Department.
1-You lead professional opera productions and student ones (for instance at UBC). Please talk about the difference(s) between leading a professional production of an opera and one at a university opera department.
On the one hand, the process is the same and ideally the expectations are the same: namely, to collaborate with everyone to put together the best possible show we are capable of. The primary difference between the professional world and the student world is not the level of talent but the level of experience. We live in a time where there are so many excellent young singers receiving very fine training who are determined to succeed in this very challenging profession. This is my second opera at U of T and I find the singers to be at a very high level and they are extremely well prepared and very willing to work hard. When people have the right attitude and are willing to work hard, there is nothing they cannot accomplish!
2-Please introduce Dominick Argento’s Postcard from Morocco to a first-time listener of this 20th century work.
This is a piece I only knew by title before I started learning it. I have been marvelling at what a finely constructed score this is and so colourful. Some of it may strike the listener as being strange or modern but most of it is, I think very approachable. Argento writes extremely well for the voice and for the small instrumental ensemble and there are many hauntingly beautiful musical moments. The story on the other hand is quite bizarre and I am still not really sure what is going on! The story is set in 1914 in a train station in Zurich with the seven characters all sharing or guarding the contents of their suitcases. Some of the episodes are quite surreal!
I am so grateful that we have the amazing Michael Cavanagh directing this show. He is so wonderful at deconstructing what is going on and giving the singers very clear directions on how to tell the story. I would suspect that there will be many people who will come to the show and leave scratching their heads wondering what they just saw and heard but I think it will stay with them in a good way.
3- what’s your favourite moment in the opera?
It is difficult to pick just one, but I am awfully fond of the aria that the soprano sings in the latter part of the show with the text : “I keep my beloved in a box…this box…my lover is in here at this moment..” the music is very slow and still and it makes me think of the music of Olivier Messiaen, one of my favourite composers. There is also an amazing instrumental interlude called “Souvenirs de Bayreuth” which is basically a foxtrot based on themes from Wagner’s works. Some of the themes are obvious and some are hidden but Argento skilfully weaves them together in a most virtuosic manner. I am still not sure what will be going on dramatically at this point as it has not been staged yet but I am sure it will be something quite delicious.
4-How does it feel as an alumnus to come back to conduct an opera at the MacMillan Theatre?
It is very enjoyable to work in a place that I have so many fond memories of as a student. When I was at UofT, I was a piano performance major studying with William Aide and although I had a lot of singer friends, I literally had no involvement with the opera program. I was the accompanist for the Chamber Choir led by Doreen Rao for three years which I really enjoyed doing as my early education was at St. Michael’s Choir School so singing has always been very close to my heart. I still feel very much a student so it is just nice to know that I can hopefully offer something to people who are just starting out and try to encourage and guide them as best as I can over a short period of time.
5-Is there a teacher or influence who you recall that’s especially important to your development, that you’d care to mention?
I have been so fortunate to study with many amazing musicians like William Aide, Marek Jablonski, Lee Kum Sing and Lorand Fenyves for chamber music. When I was a teenager I studied the violin with a remarkable Hungarian lady named Elizabeth Tomosvary. She emigrated to Canada in her sixties and taught virtually up until her death at the age of 99! She had a tremendous passion for music and she was always curious to learn more and had incredible patience teaching young beginners. She was a subscriber to the TSO and she would go to so many concerts and she would always share what she had learned from the experience, whether it was the fingering or bowing someone had used or whether it was the stage presence of a particular performer. I thought to myself then that I would like to be like her and love my craft and always want to learn more.
Postcard from Morocco
MacMillan Theatre, Edward Johnson Building
80 Queen’s Park
March 12 to 14, 2015, 7.30pm
March 15, 2015, 2.30pm
For more information on our season, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or
call the Faculty of Music at 416.978.3740.