Canadian bass-baritone Iain MacNeil joined the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio in the fall of 2014, after studying at University of Toronto Opera with Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen. There’s a more complete biography on his website: here. His career is off to an impressive beginning. I singled him out in his portrayal of Dr Bartolo in the Ensemble’s Barber of Seville last spring, making me especially eager to see his latest comic creation: the title role of The Marriage of Figaro February 22nd.
I asked him some questions.
1- Are you more like your father or your mother?
I’d be hard-pressed to determine which of my parents were more influential toward the person that I’ve become. Both of my parents spent a large portion of their childhood abroad, my Mom in Liberia and my Dad in Australia, so I think I come by my wanderlust honestly. As for music, both of my parents sing in choirs and play an instrument or several. Their love and appreciation for music was passed directly on to my siblings and me by placing us in piano lessons, voice lessons, violin lessons, and dance lessons, as well as by encouraging us to participate in school and community bands and theatre. Where I think I resemble my Dad more than my Mom is in my passion for acquiring new skills. My Dad will pick up a new skill and pursue it until he has it completely within his grasp, even if it means hours and hours of reading, practising or whatever kind of training the skill entails. Thanks to this kind of diligence, he’s very handy, plays several instruments, was a committed rugby and basketball player in his teens, and went back to school in his forties to obtain a Master’s degree. I think the Jack-of-all-Trades gene was successfully handed down from him.
2- What is the best thing about being a singer?
There are a plethora of joys that singers experience. Travelling is high up on the list for me, especially when it’s to a place where I get to test run another language. In this international art form, opera singers are really lucky to have the chance to immerse ourselves in other cultures.
We are also really fortunate to be immersed in powerful music every day, and to be surrounded by passionate artists and lovers of the art form every day.
The ultimate gift, however, is less of an aspect of being a singer and more of a feeling. It’s the feeling of being completely unified with the music, and existing as its vessel for the audience. It is the most enabled, effervescent, connected and meaningful state that I know of, and it certainly does not occur every single time I sing. But when it does, it’s like your whole being is riding a wave, and the audience is riding it with you. There is nothing better.
3- Who do you like to listen to or watch?
When I was 14 I bought an MP3 player, and the music that was at my disposal was my Dad’s CD collection. Therefore the foundation of my musical taste is more or less music from the 70s: Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Eric Clapton, Queen. I think from living in Halifax for four years I’ve added East Coast traditional, folk, and Indie music to my regular diet, and from studying classical music at Dalhousie, I’ve added classical music, too! When I bought the MP3 player Dad said, “You can have this MP3 player, but make sure it contains 30% classical music.” I laughed, but ten years later it contains a lot more than that!
4- What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I suppose this is more of a superpower in its level of attainability, but I would like the ability to understand every language and every dialect that exists in the world.
5- When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
My favourite thing to do outside of work is ride my motorcycle. If I have weeks in a row of free time I’ll take a trip. I’ve been to St. John’s, Newfoundland and back on my 1974 Honda CB450, and let me tell you there is nothing like travelling with an un-obstructed view of the landscape and a bit of wind in your face, as long as you’re alright with being cold and wet every once in a while.
Playing guitar or jamming with my friends is tied for first as a favourite thing to do outside of singing.
Five or six more about singing Figaro in Marriage of Figaro with the Canadian Opera Company
1-For a role such as Figaro, you must have heard other interpretations, either recordings or live, of such a well-known role. How do you reconcile yourself to the forest of video & audio out there that might influence your own interpretation?
I don’t worry about people seeing or hearing an influence from another artist or interpretation.
In fact I’m absolutely open to having help in creating my own interpretation. I think that’s why we collaborate, with many brains being better than one. All I can hope is for people to believe my Figaro. Bryn is my favourite Figaro, so if someone heard bits of his Figaro in mine, I’d be flattered.
With regards to this production, I did watch DVDs of past productions, but it was the rehearsal process that has brought me closer to what I believe Claus Guth’s concept to be after.
2-What is your favourite moment in the opera?
Le Nozze di Figaro is full of fantastic moments, gorgeous music, and endless potential. The Act IV finale is currently my favourite 15 minutes of the opera, and arriving at, “Ah, tutti contenti saremo così,” with my colleagues is currently my favourite moment. At this point the “giorno di tormenti” is finally suspended for a few seconds of peace, tranquillity, and community. I can only imagine how it will feel to sing it with my fellow Ensemble members after a night on stage together.
3-Please talk about the COC production of Marriage of Figaro and Claus Guth’s take on this story.
When I first saw bits of the production years ago on YouTube, I was averse to the character of Cherubim, who is absolutely central to this production.Admittedly I did not know the opera well at all, and had no grounds other than a lack of understanding on which to dismiss the unicycling angel. However, the Ensemble cast became flies on the wall to the main cast’s rehearsals, Cherubim’s purpose became increasingly clearer to me. Da Ponte continuously refers to a God, or devil, or immortal being of some sort that is responsible for upsetting the plot at every turn. Claus Guth embodies this external force as Cherubino’s alter-ego, the angel Cherubim. Cherubim, also a pubescent boy who embodies Freud’s Eros, or life drive, arrives throughout the opera to remind the women of their suppressed longings in life and to drive the men crazy. Furthermore, he seems to have the special power to stop time and make his presence known at some of Mozart’s most beautifully suspended musical moments. It is during these times that the characters are often referring to a “diavol” or “nume” that is pulling the strings and orchestrating the craziness of this day. As such, the angel’s existence in this concept is aptly justified, and even organic.
As for my character, I’ve always seen Figaro as an outgoing, hot-headed individual, with a careful, calculated side that can’t be ignored. In this concept he is portrayed as more of an intellectual, almost autistic individual who, while still subject to outbursts, by nature carries out his scheming, plotting and conflict-resolution in an introverted, cerebral, logical kind of way. It’s a really interesting take on the character. Challenge: accepted!
4-I’d ask you to reflect on your time with the Ensemble Studio, and how it culminates in this production.
My time in the Ensemble Studio has been a full on dive into the art form, the business, and the craft of singing. In my two years I have met life-long friends, started a relationship with a prolific company, and acquired tools that I will call upon regularly if not daily for the rest of my life. I am proud to have made it through to the other side with a hugely expanded knowledge of what it means to be a classical singer today, and I look forward to continuing to take ownership of that knowledge.
A huge part of this knowledge has been acquired by sitting in rehearsal listening to the artists that sing here, and just by going to the opera a lot. Being in La traviata with Quinn [Kelsey] meant hearing his Germont many times, and I was always fascinated by it. Watching the rehearsal process is incredibly useful and informative for us as young singers so that we can understand what’s expected and what’s possible.
I enjoyed all of my role assignments. Dr. Bartolo was a definite highlight. It was frustrating but eventually so liberating to commit fully to a character that I wouldn’t normally sing. Figaro, however, promises to rival as a highlight for me, as does the opportunity to perform Songs of Travel with members of the COC orchestra in May.
5-The torch is always being passed to a new cohort, but sometimes it seems that the torch is about to go out, that opera is dying. Please talk about the next generation of opera (composers, singers, musicians) and what your peers bring to the table.
I haven’t been around long enough to be able to predict the future of this business, but I have been around long enough to have been completely transformed by this art form. I don’t doubt that it will change, and that part of my job will be to change with it, but I know that the foundational aspects of opera are timeless. For example, on a fundamental level I believe in the power of the human voice to connect with people. I am hopeful that composers of new operas also believe in that power, and I am hopeful that generations of future opera goers will also be transformed by the existing and growing canon of magnificent operas.
My job is to never stop learning, never stop honing my craft, and to never stop giving generously from the stage to the people in the audience. That is where I plan to direct my energy. I am absolutely aware that most opera-goers are not 25 years old, but I am, and if opera can grab a hold of my life from all the way out in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – and my story is not unique- then there is incredible potential for a future audience.
6-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I am indebted to and hugely appreciative of my mentors and teachers Wendy Nielsen, Liz Upchurch, and Rachel Andrist. These ladies care so much about opera and nurturing young talent, and they live this vocation daily. I am very happy to have them in my life.
I mentioned my Alma Mater, Dalhousie University. Without it, I doubt that I would be here. More specifically I would like to thank my Dalhousie voice teacher Marcia Swanston. She put the fire of singing in me, and guided me through the beginnings of understanding the craft and being a vessel for the music. I am very fortunate to have had her as a teacher.
Iain MacNeil and the Ensemble Studio take their turn suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous eros in Claus Guth’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, February 22nd at the Four Seasons Centre.