Michael Rose is a familiar figure in the Toronto opera scene, a pianist, music-director & coach.
On July 28th Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) will be giving the world premiere of his first completed opera, A Northern Lights Dream presented on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus. Michael studied with Manus Sasonkin (1930-1992) and Malcolm Forsyth (1936-2011). While he has been writing and composing since childhood, his own musical creations always took a back seat to making a living as a performer & teacher. It’s only recently that Michael has begun to take it seriously as part of his professional life. After several readings of large-scale dramatic works and some songs that have been performed Northern Lights is both his first commission and first dramatic piece to make it to the stage: a musical composition for which he also wrote his own original libretto, with a small nod to Shakespeare.
On the occasion of the premiere of A Northern Lights Dream with SOLT, (who also present The Marriage of Figaro with Michael music-directing & at the piano) I asked Michael some questions about his creative life.
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
I suspect we all experience that profoundly startling moment in life when we suddenly find ourselves standing in an odd attitude or moving with a peculiar mannerism or saying something in a foreign but all-too-familiar voice. It’s that dreaded moment when your fantasy of uniqueness and independence is exploded, and you realize that, for that one split second, you have become your mother! Or your father. Or both. In my case, it’s both plus my maternal grandparents.
My musicality comes from both my parents. Musicians crop up on my mother’s side of the family through as many generations as we can trace. And my father, who was an orphan, taught himself to play the clarinet and trumpet. He played in bands in the Air Force and even in a community orchestra, when I was little. It was he who asked me if I wanted to take piano lessons. This was when I was six. We were living in the country near Brighton, Ontario. I don’t remember it, but the story is that my parents were in the kitchen when they heard a terrible racket in the back yard. They looked through the window and saw that I had taken a transistor radio outside and had surrounded myself with all the metal garbage cans and lids we had. I was bashing them with sticks to the music on the radio, a wannabe Ringo Starr.
I like to flatter myself with the claim that I resemble my grandfather. It’s not as true a claim as I would like. He was a gentle, patient soul, with an almost childlike conviction that the world is just what it should be and that everything is for the best. He loved my grandmother (and she him) perpetually. It was an ideal relationship. She was the business woman, driven, constantly exploring. He was happy to be helpful to her and to people at large. He was the kind of man who loved nothing more than pottering about among his rose bushes, pruning a bit here and there.
I share some of my grandparents’ traits. Like Grandad, I tend to wear rose-coloured glasses. But unlike his, mine have a sharp edge. Like Nana, I need to be on the move. I get anxious being too long in one place. But unlike my grandparents, I’ve never found a relationship like the one they had. On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for being single!
2) What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
There are many ‘best’ things in what I do. As a pianist, I cherish those moments when there’s electricity in the air and musical spontaneity is high; when the communication between players and between players and audience is somehow superhuman. I had one of those moments recently in a concert I played with the Forte Gay Men’s Chorus. There was a palpable energy from the audience. And from the first note to the last, there was magic. That is the kind of performance that keeps us addicted to all the hard work that goes into it!
As a coach, the best thing is to hear a young singer conquer a difficult challenge. Those moments are very exciting – for me as well as for the singer. SOLT gives me a chance to work with many gifted new singers. As pianist and music director, my aim is to inspire them to look at the score with fresh eyes and ears. The goal is to feed their imaginations. If they find themselves at the end of the summer singing and acting in a way they could never before have conceived, then I’ve done my job.
As composer and playwright, this season I have the added pleasure and responsibility of providing them with material to challenge and inspire them.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I don’t listen to a lot of music any more. I can’t remember the last time I listened to a recording. I enjoy live concerts; but after a day of music making, I much prefer to go see a play. Or read a book. I watch TV (I love Game of Thrones, Sense8, House of Cards, Davinci’s Demons, and many more!) and movies (mostly on my little laptop). But I prefer the intimacy, magic, and intellectual courage of live theater.
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I would love to be a mathematician. What’s happening now in science, particularly in astronomy, is amazing. I would love to be able to understand the mathematics of Newton and Einstein and then explore the many brilliant things that have been discovered since. But I’m just a musician. I can count, but I can’t add!
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
I love to sit in the sun at a coffee shop and read or write. Or just watch the world around me unfold. I also love to travel. But my favorite thing to do when I travel is to sit at a new coffee shop and watch the world around me unfold.
More questions about working with SOLT,
especially premiering Northern Lights Dream
1) I recall a composer once telling me that one learns to recognize one’s own authentic voice by imitating the things you like, trying out different procedures and sounds, until finally you discover something you like. Our culture has a fetish for newness & originality, while some other cultures make more of a virtue of the imitation of models or emulation of styles. Could you please address this both as a composer AND as a vocal coach, namely how do you reconcile imitation and originality?
This question is not as simple as it might seem. I think most people would say that originality is desirable. There’s nothing more tedious, for instance, than going to a new music theater piece and hearing music you’ve heard many times before with new lyrics stuck onto it. I feel cheated when that happens (and it happens a lot!) But there are natural limits to originality. Absolute originality would be incomprehensible to anyone but the composer. And what’s the good of that? Every artist learns from his or her predecessors. Brahms from Beethoven. Beethoven from Haydn. Everyone from Bach. We’re the product of innumerable influences. And that’s a healthy, human thing. If a composer can filter those influences into something that is uniquely her own, then she has accomplished something of significance for her audience.
I try not to be aware of any particular style or composer when I’m writing music. Fortunately, I’m aided by the simple fact that I write music for the stage. I’m not trying to write the great Canadian symphony! So I can be inspired by the characters and situations. That’s what dictates the style. I’m a music dramatist. I work to find the right sound for the character.
The same concepts apply to originality in a performer. A composer’s or writer’s work is filtered through the personality and technique of the performer. It’s a dance where both partners can easily tread upon one another’s feet!
The performer has the added influence of other performers and traditions. It’s hard sometimes to learn from outside sources without imitating them. Part of a coach’s job is finding the individual spark in a performer and encouraging that. Sometimes it’s necessary to smash icons. Often a young singer will adopt a musical mannerism that seems insincere or illogical. When questioned, the response is usually something like, “That’s how so and so does it.” My response is always, “If so and so’s name is not Beethoven, or Schubert or Debussy, then I don’t want to hear it.” But, naturally enough, young performers idolize their heroes. They want to be just like them. They must travel a long road before they gain the courage to make their own mistakes!
2) What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in your new opera?
In the case of A Northern Lights Dream, the characters gave me a chance to write a broad spectrum of style. I had completed about half of the music before I realized where my instincts were taking me. The story has humans, gods, and fairies. The more other-worldly or magical the character, the more complex the counterpoint and harmony; and the more operatic the sound. At the other end of the scale, for the earthy, folksier characters, the style moves closer to musical theater. Robin, who lives quite comfortably in both the magical and human realms, sings in an accessible style, but with great virtuosity.
3) please tell me a bit about the story of Northern Lights Dream.
The story is set in the town of Shakespeare, Ontario, in the present day. It opens with a 400 year old Robin Goodfellow (Shakespeare’s Puck) relating his frustrated attempts to win the heart of Aurora Borealis. He decides to change his trickster ways with mortals in order to gain the goddess’s favour.
In town, meanwhile, there is a fashion designer named Helen, whose shop is at risk of bankruptcy because of an unpaid bill for a wedding dress and bridesmaids gowns – unpaid because the bride and groom have had a row and called off the wedding. Helen, although wary of Robin’s powers, is eventually convinced by her friend and employee, Taylor, to seek the fairy’s assistance in getting the wedding back on track. This leads to a day of revelations for Helen and the other mortals as their hidden, inner lives are gradually made visible, both to themselves and to one another.
4) please reflect for a moment on the pedagogical value for a singer doing a new work, as opposed to a standard work such as Carmen
If you were to attend staging rehearsals at SOLT, you might hear Guillermo Silva-Marin, the director, say to the students, “Stop listening to the recordings!” I agree, wholeheartedly. You cannot say this too often or with too much conviction to a student. It’s advice I was given when I was young and advice that I promptly ignored. But it is good advice, nevertheless. Students must forge their own relationship with the score. To the best of their ability, they must channel the composer’s concept and not simply imitate the recreations recorded by other artists. To paraphrase Vladimir Horowitz, Why should they copy someone else’s mistakes, when they can make their own?
A new work has many pedagogical advantages. There are no recordings. The students have no choice. They must rely on their ability to interpret the score. Plus, the composer is present. They can test their interpretations against the source and see where they were right and where they went horribly off track! And the reverse is true. The composer can find those places in the score that need more precision in order to get the desired result.
5) If a young student wants to have a career, what qualities –between a big voice or a good range or musicianship or good acting– would you tell them to work on?
Musicianship and a musical, artistic imagination are essential. You can have the greatest voice in the world and excellent technique. But if you have no concept of how the music goes and nothing personal to express, then it is mere sound, signifying nothing. I always recommend that singers get back to the basics of music making. Forget that you’re a singer. Hum the tunes in the same way that anyone would hum a favorite melody while walking down the street. It’s the beauty of the tune that people want to hear, not just the beauty of the voice (although that’s important, too!)The next thing is to work on interpersonal relationships. If people enjoy being around you, they’ll be more likely to want to work with you. It comes down to some very simple things sometimes. Good hygiene. Wear deodorant, but not perfume. All musicians and artists (not just singers!) breathe. We need clean air! Be on time. If you habitually keep people waiting, you’re wasting precious time. You won’t be asked back. Be friendly but focussed. It may seem silly to mention such things. But there are many great performers out there. Your odds of being hired are that much better if people love spending time with you.Don’t ignore the other arts. Go to the theater, the art gallery. Read literature and poetry. Art is not created in a vacuum!
6) Please put Dream in context vis a vis operatic prototypes of the 21st century. How radical or conservative is this opera?
In terms of contemporary trends in new opera, Northern Lights fits with a stream of thought that predicts a merging of opera with musical theater. I don’t know how accurate that prediction is. But the trend is certainly there, starting with such luminaries as Menotti and Sondheim. I tend to think of my own work as theater with music.
Another recent development, spurred on no doubt by economic realities, is the resurgence of chamber opera. Indie companies like Against the Grain, are doing wonderful work in reinventing the standard repertoire for contemporary audiences, in English translation. I love the intimacy and immediacy of this kind of work. Toronto Operetta Theatre is another company that explores smaller scale work in English translation. There are advantages to this. The audience understands what’s being said. And, in a smaller theater, they get to be closer to the action. Hearing a singer from ten feet away is a totally different experience than hearing that singer from two hundred feet away!
7) What direction do you see yourself going after this?
I’ve started work on a new full-length show to be premiered in Toronto in the 2019-20 season. It hasn’t yet been announced publicly, so I won’t say which company it’s for. But I can say that I’m thrilled to be given the opportunity! Once SOLT is done and I’ve had a chance to see Northern Lights on its feet, I’ll sit down with Guillermo Silva-Marin and discuss possible revisions. As well as being the director of the show, Guillermo was my dramaturg during the writing process. His insights will be invaluable. The audience response will also be immensely informative.
8) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
I’ve been fortunate in my colleagues and my teachers. But the biggest influence has been my friends. It’s friends who really help us become who we are.
Or who we might be.
Michael Rose continues to wear several hats this summer:
- His new opera A Northern Lights Dream receives its world premiere on a double bill with John Beckwith’s Night Blooming Cereus on July 28th with Summer Opera Lyric Theatre (SOLT) at the Robert Gill Theatre.
- Michael will be music-director & pianist for The Marriage of Figaro
- SOLT’s 2017 schedule is as follows: (see website for details and purchase information)
Carmen – Jul 29 & Aug 6 at 2 pm; Aug 1 & 3 at 8 pm.
The Marriage Of Figaro – Jul 29, Aug 2 & 4 at 8 pm; Aug 2 at 2 pm
Night Blooming Cereus & A Northern Lights Dream – Jul 28 & Aug 5 at 8 pm; Jul 30 & Aug 5 at 2 pm.