You may know tenor Andrew Haji as a member of the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio, for his appearances with the COC in the Ensemble Studio performance of The Barber of Seville (as Count Almaviva in May 2015), and Così fan tutte (as Ferrando in February 2014).
Maybe you heard of Rob Ford the Opera? Haji’s portrayal of our former mayor might be his biggest previous claim to notoriety.
Notice the effortless lyrical line of the voice (hm that’s not how I remember Rob Ford!), and his comfort in the spotlight. Haji is a natural.
In September 2014, Andrew was the recipient of the Grand Prix, the Press Prize, and the Junior Jury Prize at the 50th International Vocal Competition in the Netherlands. This week Haji will be taking on the role of the poet Alfredo Germont in the COC production of la Traviata that premiered last week, alongside fellow Canadians Joyce El-Khoury and James Westman. On the occasion of his first performance of Alfredo on Friday October 16, in a run going until November 6th, I ask him ten questions: five about himself and five more about the portrayal.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
That’s a hard question to answer. I suppose the best thing I could say about my parents is that they raised me to be my very own person, and because of that I’m a very independent thinker. My dad taught me the value of hard work and for that I’m very thankful. I ended up choosing a career path very different from the one my parents had envisioned for me—and even different from the one I had envisioned for myself—but after realizing how much I enjoyed doing what I do, and seeing me find success in it, I’ve seen nothing but support from my family. They try to come out to see my performances from time to time, and even though they don’t really understand what it is I’m singing, they appreciate what I’m doing and are excited to see me do it.
2) What is the best thing about being a singer?
I love making people feel things. Happiness, sadness, love, loss; being able to affect people’s emotions is one of the most fantastic abilities, but it comes with much responsibility, as well. Many, many things combine to make a performance what it is—especially on the operatic stage, where you have the set, staging, costumes, lighting, orchestra, and all that—but at the heart of it all, we’re just telling a story. If you can tell your story in such a way that the audience feels like they’re living the story with you, I think you’ve done your job as a singer. Obviously the technical nitty-gritty is important, but if I had to choose between giving a meaningful and moving performance with an imperfect note or two, or a performance that’s technically flawless yet doesn’t really convey any sort of message, I’d take the former. I think most audiences would agree with that.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
Many people would say I have an eclectic taste in music. I find myself bouncing between two channels on my satellite radio—the Met Opera station, and the electronic music channel. Opera makes me feel things deeply, and electronic music tends to have the same effect on me. When it comes to opera, I have a shortlist of tenors I love to listen to—Pavarotti, Kraus, Bergonzi, mainly—but as much of my listening takes place on YouTube, I invariably end up listening to many others. It’s fantastic that we have immediate access to such a wealth of recordings at our fingertips these days.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I could fly. No, really. I’m just starting to realize how much travel is involved in this career, and I’m sure it would make my life a lot easier if I could just fly—or even teleport—from place to place. But other than that, I often wish I had a longer attention span—I tend to drift easily when doing any intensive work. It makes learning a new score or practicing a difficult passage more tedious than it should be. Oh, and cooking. I wish I was a better cook. Up until recently I tended to eat out more often than not, but now that I’m eating at home more I really need to add some tools to my kitchen toolbox.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Computers have always been a big hobby for me. In the 2 years following high school I tried to make it a career, but quickly learned that it just wasn’t for me. But I continue to do a lot of computer-related work both at home and for family and friends. I love learning about new technology and helping people get the most out of theirs. I started a small business that focuses on that, and keep it as a sort of side job to keep me “sane”, as I like to put it. It works a very different part of my brain than opera does, and it gives me a sense of balance in life. So if I’m not singing, I’m likely sitting at my computer or at someone else’s, learning, teaching, fixing, or doing a combination of the three simultaneously.
Five more about singing Alfredo in la traviata with the Canadian Opera Company
1- For a classic role such as Alfredo, you must have heard other interpretations, either recordings or live, of such a well-known role. Who are your favourite interpreters of the part?
You know, I’ve been very careful not to watch too many other performances of La traviata while preparing the role. I know very well how easy it is to see someone do something a certain way and then emulate it. I want my performances to be my own—unique and meaningful in my own way. I did see a performance of the opera last December in New York, with none other than Quinn Kelsey in the role of Germont, and Francesco Demuro perform the role of Alfredo, filling in for an ailing Stephen Costello. I found it to be a thoroughly enjoyable performance—little did I know that less than a year later, I would be performing the role myself. I believe it was just shortly after I returned from NYC that I got the call that they wanted me to do it here in Toronto.
2- What’s your favourite moment in the opera?
There are so many fantastic moments in the opera, that it’s really hard to pick one. The moment when Violetta implores Alfredo to love her after she has just been visited by Alfredo’s father—who asks her to leave Alfredo for good—is a big one. Then, when Alfredo confronts her at Flora’s party and pays her for her “services”—that’s a powerful moment, and possibly the turning point in the entire opera. Alfredo realizes how horrible he has behaved towards her and it really sets the scene for the final act to follow. The final scene, where Violetta musters enough strength to stand one last time before collapsing in her lover’s arms, is a scene which makes my heart beat faster every time I hear it. Every emotion comes crashing down on the stage—love, hate, happiness, sadness, remorse, regret—and Verdi’s score truly brings them to life. It’s magical.
3- Please talk a bit about this production, and the interpretation by director Arin Arbus.
This is very much a “traditional” production of the opera, but Arin has managed to make it even more meaningful and touching than your typical opera. During the entire staging process she emphasized how each person was feeling in a given scene, and she encouraged you to lock into those emotions and to show them in any way possible. The opera feels more realistic because of it, and I think it does a better job of bringing the audience into the experience than most of the operas I’ve seen. Her characters are three-dimensional, layering emotion on top of emotion and while it can sometimes be confusing to figure out, the payoff is so much greater. She is all about nuance and meaning and I really appreciate being able to really dig into the character in that way. It has been really fantastic to see the work she has been doing with our two Violettas, Ekaterina and Joyce. They both bring such a humanity and a depth to the character and it’s truly fantastic to watch.
4- Could you talk a bit about your upcoming engagements?
After a handful of Messiahs this December, I’m heading down to New York to sing in the Marilyn Horne Song Celebration at Carnegie Hall. I met Marilyn in the summer of 2013 when I participated in the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. She is just fantastic, and she has been such a great supporter of mine, and I’m very excited to be performing at Carnegie Hall for the first time because of her. After that I will be returning to Canada, but not to Toronto—I’ll be heading up north to Ottawa to perform the role of Jaquino in Beethoven’s Fidelio. It’s a new role for me, and it will be my Opera Lyra debut, but after seeing the show performed this summer in Salzburg I’m very excited for what it has in store. Then, after returning from Ottawa I’ll be jumping right into rehearsals for Maometto II at the COC. I’m performing the role of Condulmiero in the mainstage show, alongside some really fantastic singers. Finally, to end my COC year and as a way of saying “goodbye” to the Ensemble Studio, I’ll be performing a recital of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings as part of the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre. I couldn’t ask for a better way to end my 3 amazing years with the COC Ensemble Studio.
5) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I was lucky to have the same voice teacher throughout my entire university career: Dr. Darryl Edwards. In fact, it was partly thanks to him that I decided to pursue voice studies in the first place. He taught me a lot more than just how to sing, and he motivated me to be better at what I do every single day. He believed in me, gave me as many opportunities as I could handle, and guided me through what was fairly new territory. I’ve worked with some fantastic voice teachers during my life, but Darryl has the uncanny ability to take a pile of rock and keep squeezing it until you realize that there just might be something shiny underneath, ready to emerge if you nurture it and if you truly want it. I couldn’t possibly thank him enough for what he did to get my singing career off the ground.