Sabatino Vacca is a busy man, Music Director of the Cambridge Symphony, Milton Philharmonic and the Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestras, and now the Artistic Director of the brand-new Southern Ontario Lyric Opera, or “SOLO”. For the launch of SOLO’s first season a semi—staged production of Verdi’s La Traviata is only a few days away, with a fully staged production of Puccini’s Tosca to follow in March 2017. With the loss of Opera Hamilton in 2014, SOLO may help fill the vacuum, performing in the Burlington Performing Arts Centre.
Sabatino has conducted orchestras in the Czech Republic, Symphony Hamilton, the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony, the Scarborough Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Brampton Symphony Orchestra. For Opera York he has served as Artistic Director for productions of Carmen, Suor Angelica/Gianni Schicchi, La Traviata, The Barber of Seville, Tosca, Rigoletto, La Bohème, and Madama Butterfly, and as Conductor for Le Nozze di Figaro, Così Fan Tutte, Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci for Bel Canto Opera. For Brampton Lyric Opera he has conducted Pagliacci, and Rigoletto. For Opera Kitchener he has conducted Madama Butterfly and La Bohème. He is also currently on staff with Wilfrid Laurier University, has worked as an opera coach for the University of Toronto, as well as the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto. A recent soloist for Symphony Hamilton (in Liszt’s Totentanz at the piano), he also recently completed arrangements for Quartetto Gelato’s latest CD. Sabatino is the recipient of the Spirit of Ontario Award for the Arts by the National Congress of Italian Canadians.
On the occasion of SOLO’s inaugural production September 17th I asked him some questions to discover more about him and his professional life.
1-Are you more like your father or your mother?
I am flattered to reflect on my parents, and to think I have inherited qualities from both, as they shared many worthy and honourable characteristics. They were very opposite in many ways which complimented each other’s personalities. My mother could be very emotional and extroverted, while my dad was generally level-headed and more reserved. I have definitely inherited more of my father in this regard, and have never really been the social butterfly my mother could be.
I’m happy to say that they both shared a love and passion for music, especially opera! What a gift they passed on for which I’m ever grateful. Who knows what I would have ended up doing otherwise.
2-What is the best thing or worst thing about what you do?
I REALLY enjoy the challenge of building something from the ground up, developing a vision while at the same time being open and receptive to unexpected twists and turns in the journey. That’s when the creative juices really start to flow! The realization of how endless the possibilities are is both daunting and inspiring at times. It brings with it a great responsibility and motivation. One has to be careful to never lose sight of the bigger picture when one is immersed in the smaller details. If one is not careful it’s very easy to be left feeling dry and parched and wondering how you got there.
3-Who do you like to listen to or watch?
It’s fascinating to watch just how different conductors can be. Conducting styles often reflect the personality of a conductor, which then shapes the personality and style of an ensemble. I suppose the opposite can also be true to some extent, an ensemble can also exert its style and influence on a conductor. It’s very much give and take.
4-When you’re just relaxing and not working what is your favourite thing to do?
Play with my 3 year old son, soon to be 4. He’s at such an articulate and interactive age. I also enjoy gardening and looking after my vegetable garden. Part of what goes with that is coming up with an outdoor summer project every year. Last year I redid my deck, this year I redid my stairs leading up to the backyard lawn. I took my time with it and spread it out over several weeks a little at a time. I really miss that part of the outdoors during the winter.
More about presenting La Traviata for Southern Ontario Lyric Opera.
1-Please talk about how you reconcile the different sides of yourself, as you function as a director of a show, where you are also artistic director of the company.
As I mentioned previously I REALLY enjoy taking something new and building it from the ground up. It’s been absolutely delightful to see our Board for Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO) grow this past year, one at a time. They’re a GREAT team and I look forward to Board meetings!! Essential roles have mostly been filled, we are still looking around for someone with grant-writing experience, but as with many other tasks I’ll be covering that for now.
I’m the Music Director for 3 local orchestras: the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, Cambridge is where I reside; the Etobicoke Philharmonic Orchestra; and the Milton Philharmonic orchestra which I founded 2 years ago. With each group I’ve gained a lot of experience beyond the music side of things, and have discovered skills and talents I didn’t know I had. All of this experience I’ve been able to bring to SOLO. I enjoy getting into the advertising aspect and the challenge of getting the word out about our upcoming Traviata performance and our company in general. This also involves creative outreach possibilities in the community. It’s our mandate to be really involved with the community and not just pop up a couple of times a year and proclaim “here we are, come and see our show.” We are very much starting to build a community profile and build lovely partnerships along the way. Part of this work is through our Chorus who act as ambassadors for the company. They have performed 2 concerts at a local seniors home, something we will be doing more of. The Chorus has participated in a local outdoor festival in Burlington. We performed the national anthem for a city council meeting which gave us great exposure to all the Burlington city councillors and Mayor. We didn’t change the lyrics! The company was also asked to organize and perform a fundraising concert to help sponsor a Syrian refugee family at a local church in Hamilton, which turned out to be the church where I grew up, so it was a bit of a homecoming experience. The Chorus will be taking part in Culture Days concerts in early October, and we’ll probably be doing some outreach concerts around Christmas time.
Currently and for the past little while I’ve been working on SOLO related tasks any moment I can and will continue at this pace until our Traviata performance is done.
Is it stressful? Not really, I don’t have the time to get stressed.
2- Tell us about Traviata and why you wanted to make it SOLO’s debut piece.
Audiences love Traviata and it has not been performed in the area for 10 years, 2006 was the last time Opera Hamilton had performed it. The music is timeless and direct with lots of memorable tunes. Traviata is easy to take in if you’ve never been to a live opera performance before. It’s easy to relate to the characters in the opera and their motivations. We can all empathize with Violetta and admire how honourable she is, and we see many sides to her throughout the opera. She really comes to life through her impending death! We come to love – hate – love Alfredo. We can sympathize with Papa Germont. What parent wouldn’t be as protective of their child and family reputation as he is. We may not wholly agree with him but we can understand where he is coming from.
As a debut work for us Verdi’s other popular middle period works were also in the running, namely Rigoletto and Il Trovatore. I decided against the former mainly because it only requires a male chorus and I knew how much our ladies of the chorus wished to perform and not be left out. The latter opera requires some real heavy duty mature voices for one and I wanted to try and keep things on the lighter side vocally. The characters and story line are also not as real as with Traviata. The music is still memorable and powerful but overall does not have the same kind of connection with audiences as Traviata does.
3-Tell us about your cast for the SOLO production of Traviata.
I am very pleased with our cast. I’ve worked with each of our 3 main leads before and felt they would have a good chemistry together on stage in these roles.
Allison Arends has a great voice for the role of Violetta, and also the personality to play her many sides. Allison is a warm and engaging presence on stage (and off) and brings a great depth to the role.
Riccardo Iannello is a perfect counterpart to our heroine, bringing a passionate youthful naiveté to the role.
Jeffrey Carl is a commanding presence on stage with a rich baritone voice capable of great nuance and colour.
4-What is your favourite moment in Traviata?
Is it okay to say pretty much the whole opera? Sorry. Right from the get-go Verdi draws us into the world of Violetta Valery in the Prelude with a solemn opening for strings alone written in a high register. It is disputed among scholars whether Verdi took a cue from the Prelude to Lohengrin. Soon Verdi combines the “Amami Alfredo” theme in the cellos with more festive music in the upper strings, the latter shows Violetta’s other more social side, which then sets us up for the party scene. Verdi had a knack for writing great party music, i.e. the opening of Rigoletto, the end of Un Ballo in Maschera. There’s also more party music at Flora’s later in Act II; fun stuff! Another thing that strikes me about his opera scores in general is his sense of rhythm and off beat accents. If he were more contemporary I think he would be at home in a more jazz medium.
It might be easier for me to answer if there is a moment which is not particularly my favourite. Perhaps it would have to be Germont’s Cabaletta which is usually cut, it doesn’t seem as inspired as the rest of the opera.
5-Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
Definitely!! When I was at Opera School at U of T training as a coach Professor James Craig was a very big influence. In fact he got me involved with conducting which at the time was not even on my radar. Within the first few weeks I was there he asked me to prepare and conduct one of the choruses we were preparing for a concert. I quickly caught the conducting bug and have forever “blamed” him for it!!! We developed a friendship which continued long after he retired until he passed away in 2012. We spent time working through Traviata a work he was especially fond of and had conducted many times. He was very generous with his knowledge, and had lots of experience on which to draw. He was also one of the funniest persons I have ever met, often had me rolling in laughter when we went out for lunch or dinner together. He trained many generations of great Canadian singers who have had or are having major international careers.
Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO) present Verdi’s La Traviata at Burlington Performing Arts Centre September 17th at 7:30 p.m. (click for ticket information)