Tonight was the annual Centre Stage event at the Four Seasons Centre, a combination of competition and gala celebration. It was wonderful seeing so many familiar & famous faces in an audience including Stephen Lord, Gunta Dreifelds, Bruce Ubukata and Janet Stubbs, plus the ones onstage such as our host Ben Heppner.
Some of us heard two arias from seven singers competing for spots in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. The evening began with private auditions of a first aria for a smaller audience, leading to the gala, and the second aria from each contestant. These performances are just the last in a series of hoops through which each of the candidates must leap, to impress the COC’s panel of judges.
We watched a short film that helped articulate the importance of the Ensemble, celebrating past winners who have gone on to international careers, while describing the functions it serves in the development of young singers. I think Andrew Haji put it best, when in one of his onscreen moments he said it fills the gap between schooling and a professional career. Lawyers article with law firms, doctors do residency, and singers in North America have a series of programs such as this one in Toronto, like the Merola Program in San Francisco and the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The auditions are a competition, as the singers seek to show who’s best, but they’re also a chance for the judges to assess the talent, and consider who might fit in best with the COC. I may be over-thinking this, as it appears that some years the COC have different needs. The 2016-17 Ensemble Studio is comprised of three mezzo-sopranos, two sopranos, two tenors and a single baritone, so I wonder whether that influences their selection of finalists, bringing in two baritones (they only have one), and only a single mezzo-soprano (they already have three). But that’s never how it works. One year the top three finishers were all tenors, even though that didn’t square at all with the company’s needs.
And similarly this year, when the Ensemble Studio already has three mezzo-sopranos, who would have expected that the winner would be another mezzo-soprano. But that’s who won, namely Simone McIntosh, heard in Toronto for example in Metro Youth opera’s 2015 production of Béatrice et Bénédict.
The second & third place finishers were the two baritones. This doesn’t make their presence in the Ensemble Studio a certainty (and I wonder what complexities they face in their decision making) , but I’d certainly welcome these three singers: McIntosh (first), Samuel Chan (second), and Geoffrey Schellenberg (third). I hope the COC also finds a spot for audience favourite soprano Myriam LeBlanc.
Maybe I’m getting old, but the candidates seemed so young this year, and of course they look younger every year, possibly because –relative to my own age—they actually are younger. The theatre was full of youngsters, as there was once again a partisan presence, rooting for friends & family a bit like this were a sporting event.
And speaking of education tenor Russell Thomas gave a clinic in musical hypnosis, with a pair of performances. We began on the same serious turf he’s walked in Carmen and Norma, in his intense reading of Cilea’s Lamento di Federico, holding the audience in the palm of his hand, followed by a warm fuzzy “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz”. The COC orchestra under Johannes Debus were solid throughout, particularly in a breakneck reading of the overture to Ruslan & Lyudmila, There are so many great scores I am dying to hear them play.
The weekend is the last part of their autumn season, with a last performance of Ariodante (Friday) and Norma (Saturday).