The concept is exactly as it sounds. If you’re a singer wanting to do a role, Opera by Request is the place for you. William Shookhoff is a busy man, the pianist & music director responsible for making those requests happen.
I can’t pretend that I understand the conversations that go into the choice of repertoire, but I would assume that the chief conversations surround the big roles in an opera, the difficult parts.
- Naomi Eberhard sang Salome
- Ryan Harper sang Herod
- Michael Robert-Broder sang Jochanaan
- Leah Giselle Field sang Herodias
I didn’t ask, but I wonder. Did Shookhoff begin with a request from one or two people, and then approached likely candidates for the other parts? I do know that Ryan Harper came to his role relatively late in place of someone else.
None of the music was cut, although the ObR concept is virtual, along the lines of opera in concert rather than fully staged.
- No dance
- No costumes
- But there was a severed head!
And while there is no orchestra, just the grand piano at College St United Church, Shookhoff did admirably in emulating the Straussian sound.
The funny thing is, I seem to have come full circle. Back when I wrote for the University of Toronto student newspaper The Varsity in the 1970s I interviewed Bill Shookhoff, then a coach with the Canadian Opera Company in the Mansouri era. I remember that he spoke about the challenges of playing Salome. I had always hoped to hear him play it and now I got my wish.
To get through two hours of playing this score one has to make a few judicious choices. It’s not as loud as Strauss with his full orchestra: and how could it be? But that’s a good thing for the singers.
The singers we hear with Opera By Request are sometimes ex-members of the COC ensemble, sometimes singers who have not been admitted. Some of these performances are good enough to merit at least consideration by the powers that be with the big companies.
Michael Robert-Broder’s Jochanaan was a stunningly lyrical reading of this role, one that can sometimes be misread as a prudish fundamentalist, which is to distort the drama and the music. If it’s done right we should be seduced by this, the original evangelist. And I think that’s what we got from Michael, singing a smoothly lyrical line throughout, putting out a fabulous wall of sound from time to time, always on pitch and never harsh sounding. But most important he seemed to believe everything he was saying, to sing with a fervent love for his subject rather than like a fake preacher who has secrets in his closet.
Ryan Harper? Different kind of challenge. I’ve known this voice awhile, watching him develop as an artist, from a light tenor who sang in the Richmond Hill production of Cosi fan tutte, where he showed a gift for comedy, then as the second of the Rodolfos in Against the Grain’s La boheme, where his comic gift again took me by surprise. A Rodolfo who isn’t just a self-centred poet, but can actually bring something to the horseplay in Acts I & IV? Excellent! And surprising. His Don José for Loose Tea Music Theatre’s Tragédie de Carmen showed not just a growing heft in the voice, but acting chops as well. And so I wasn’t surprised at all to see him taking on Herod in Salome, at the last minute I found out in an after-the-show conversation. It’s a role that sometimes is done in a manner that escapes singing full out, thinking of the approach of Gerhard Stolze (on the Solti recording with Nilsson) where it’s a light sound that often verges on falsetto. We heard Richard Margison sing the pants off this role not so long ago with the COC. Harper gave us something between Margison’s full-out singing and Stolze’s faux production, as he sometimes put his voice into something very delicate and light –suitable for the ironic delivery we sometimes must have from Herod, and sometimes a very Wagnerian sound such as what we got from Margison, as in his hallucination sequence, or when the story turns dark in the last half hour.
Cian Horrobin had everything you want in a Narraboth. He’s young and exuberant sounding, he sang powerfully, and is attractive onstage. And Leah Giselle Field gave us the kind of sardonic delivery you want from your Herodias, the core of this dysfunctional family feud.
Opera by Request return Feb 10th at 7:30 pm with Bellini’s Norma. Further information.