Aida by Request

I am doing something I’m not supposed to do.  I went to a concert more or less having made up my mind what I was going to say before the first note sounded.  It’s not because I’m prejudiced and lacking objectivity.


William Shookhoff

Instead of talking about the performance I really wanted to talk about context, about the circumstances underlying tonight’s Aida, presented by Opera by Request.  As you may recall, I’ve reviewed them before, a rather unorthodox opera company run by Artistic Director William Shookhoff.

“By request” means just what you think.  Instead of a company whose programming and casting are driven by market forces, Shookhoff reverses the usual expectation.  Singers come to him wanting to undertake particular roles, although sometimes Shookhoff does pursue a singer.  But this company sometimes performs a valuable function, wonderfully illustrated by tonight’s concert.  Yes it was a concert, so not only were there no elephants, there was no chorus, nor orchestra nor set, nor any costumes either.  It was given for a relatively small audience of devoted listeners, likely drawn by the prospect of hearing the singers in new repertoire.

Here’s the thing.  The template one sees in opera companies –whether we speak of the Merola program in San Francisco, the Ensemble Studio here in Toronto with the Canadian Opera Company, or a host of other frameworks for young talent—is one with strengths and weaknesses.  This is a great way to give young singers a kind of paid apprenticeship, leading to a career.  It seems to be a great way to spot future Zerlinas or Figaros or Taminos, but when it comes to the bigger voices you need for a Verdi opera such as Aida..?

We’re told there’s a worldwide shortage of singers who can handle the roles in operas like Aida.  But maybe it’s the template that’s at fault, the philosophy of companies that select the wrong sort of talent, aiming to fill small parts.  To sing Aida or Radames or Amonasro or Amneris, you need to somehow hang around in the business until the voice comes around, until it’s ready to take on this heavier repertoire.  Some do people manage to hang around.  We’ve seen Christine Goerke, who had sung lighter roles for years, come to Toronto to undertake her first Brunnhildes.  Thank goodness she was able to wait for the changes in her voice.   We heard Sondra Radvanovsky sing a fabulous Aida a few years ago, opposite a weak Rhadames and a barking Amonasro.  Adrianne Pieczonka took on Amelia in Ballo in Maschera,  again a case of patiently waiting for the right time to take on a killer role.

What do you do if you’ve got a bigger voice, but don’t fit the ensemble template?  I don’t know!  It’s a scary question.  Some singers manage to stay in the business, while others continue singing intermittently, as their voices develop.  If you’re not singing regularly the development doesn’t happen the same way.  And so this is where Shookhoff and Opera by Request can play a useful role, at least for the singer, if not for the community at large.

I watched a production of Aida presented by a group of singers who are not singing with a big company such as the COC, perhaps not singing as often as they would wish.

  • Soprano Carrie Gray

    Soprano Carrie Gray

    Carrie Gray sang Aida, and was not at all daunted by this difficult role. Both of the big arias were musical highlights of the evening.  If she were singing more often she’d be better, but wow this was impressive, her legato smooth, her control solid.  I wish I could hear this voice more often.

  • Paul Williamson sang Rhadames, a voice that has grown in heft and colour since I last heard him. While he still has a very Italianate line, a splendid sound up top, he’s making a big big sound that matches Gray’s powerful voice.  This is a voice that would have improved the COC production had he been cast instead.
  • Michael Robert-Broder was for me the highlight of the show, speaking as someone who thinks Amonasro is the most interesting character in the opera. This is one of the prettiest readings of the role I’ve ever heard, a part that is sometimes barked (and again, this mellifluous singing would represent an improvement for the COC), which means that he gave us subtlety and even something verging on bel canto musicianship to which I am unaccustomed in this opera.
  • Ramona Carmelly was every inch the diva princess as Amneris, in a thoughtful performance that held nothing back, especially in her big scene in Act IV. This is a voice that could develop in several directions, as she has the top and low notes, and sang a huge role in a bluesy style a few months ago in the premiere of David Warrack’s Abraham.
  • Andrea Naccarato as the High Priestess made a huge impression in this small role.  I’ve heard Andrea sing “Un bel di”, so this was luxury casting, having such a powerful voice invoking the ancient god.

I have to wonder.  Would Jon Vickers or Maria Callas have managed to make it, to have a career had they come along in the opera world of the 21st century?  One would hope so.   But in the meantime, as the younger versions of Vickers and Callas sing as often as they can, seeking to make an impression, hoping for a career breakthrough, at the very least one can enjoy the voices in performances like this one.

For more information about Opera by Request click here.

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