An Evening with the Ensemble Studio

Institutions are like buildings. They have structures.  They’re solid, which means they resist change, and offer shelter to those who rely upon them. A change in an institution may be bewildering and hard to understand, but is ultimately inevitable, even in an institution, and usually leads to a new normal.

Tonight represented something new & different for the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio. Instead of offering their members roles in a special performance of one of the season’s operas, we saw something new, titled “An Evening with the Ensemble Studio.”

I wondered: why the change? but of course I don’t know the answer, so I can only speculate. There are three obvious reasons I would offer, that are only guesses of course:

  1. The past practice may have been too expensive. Imagine a whole set of costumes and all those rehearsals for one performance. And has it been worth it (meaning the shows from past years): in terms of what it might offer the members of the Ensemble Studio? I can’t say.
  2. The past practice may have other problems leading to its elimination. There was the year that the lead had the flu but went on anyway, something I wish I’d seen for the heroics involved but still: hardly a recommendation for the practice. Maybe Alexander Neef and the rest of the COC brass breathed a colossal sigh of relief that they survived that particular ordeal, and looked at coming up with something safer.
  3. And looking at the complement of singers this year, maybe they simply had no choice.

Tonight we saw five female ensemble members + a female guest sharing the stage with three men, suggesting that maybe the Ensemble Studio had no other option given their current complement.

I’m guessing that this experiment will become the norm. Instead of a fully staged opera we had semi-staged scenes, the singers in evening attire. That didn’t stop us from having a great time.

I suspect –speaking of cost—that one of the underlying factors in assembling the program is familiarity. We heard excerpts from Mozart’s la finta giardiniera; Bellini’s Norma; and Handel’s Ariodante. Two of the three items on tonight’s program are relatively familiar to the COC orchestra, meaning that less rehearsal dollars would be required.

There were some wonderful moments tonight, anchored by Johannes Debus leading the COC Orchestra.

Mireille Asselin showed her versatility, undertaking fragments of two totally different roles tonight. First she was a very funny Serpetta in the Mozart, then the contrite Dalinda from the last act of the Handel.

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(l-r) Mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo and Ensemble Studio alumna soprano Mireille Asselin perform in the Canadian Opera Company’s An Evening with the Ensemble Studio on February 23, 2017, with the COC Orchestra conducted by COC Music Director Johannes Debus. (Photo: Bronwen Sharp)

There were several highlights:

  • Arias by Lauren Eberwein, Charles Sy and Danika Loren in the Mozart
  • A full-out old fashioned sing from Megan Quick and Samantha Pickett in a wonderful excerpt from Norma
  • More fireworks from Emily D’Angelo & Danika Loren in the Handel

My one disappointment is that the hall wasn’t fuller, but I recall the same issue with the Ensemble performances of full operas. I don’t know if it’s a matter of how they’re promoted, so much as timing: falling near the end of the runs of The Magic Flute & Götterdämmerung (closing Friday & Saturday respectively). I wonder if they set this up in a week when there’s not so much going on, whether they could fill the hall? Perhaps at the very end of the season? I believe this can be another occasion for celebration.

But in fairness, this is the first time they’ve done this. The COC are an institution and one of the great things about institutions is that they’ll learn how to do this better every time they repeat the pattern.

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