Monday night the Canadian Opera Company held their “Season Reveal,” a dramatic presentation whereby subscribers & guests were treated to a combination of announcements, musical performances & CGI to tell us the six operas coming in the 2019-2020 season. In the lobby of the Four Seasons Centre afterwards, on social media, in conversation, I heard comments pro & con in response to the announcement. This long diatribe responds to some of those comments.
The COC announced plans to stage six operas. There are three new productions:
- Puccini’s Turandot, directed by Robert Wilson
- Dvořák’s Rusalka directed by David McVicar
- Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel directed by Joel Ivany
In addition the COC offers 3 revivals:
- Rossini’s The Barber of Seville directed by Joan Font
- Verdi’s Aida directed by Tim Albery
- Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman directed by Christopher Alden
I am especially excited about the three new productions (especially Robert Wilson), not so excited by the other three. While I really love the Font Barber we saw it quite recently. I am conflicted about the Aida and Dutchman, a pair of productions where the director / designer seem to be fighting the score, whereas Font’s exuberant Barber enhances and enlarges the work. I admire the theatricality of Font & his team.
Let me get to the reason for the headline, and excuse me if I seem to be repeating myself as I ask a series of questions. I think of myself as being out of step with the mainstream and with my fellow critics & bloggers, who likely don’t have the same perspective as mine. Is the main objective of a company to present the best work possible, or are there other concerns? In addition to solvency I propose a nationalistic objective for the COC, one that I’ve heard muttered in passing but never articulated as a guiding principle.
First let me talk about the season, then we’ll get to the argument.
First in Turandot:
The part of Turandot is played by Tamara Wilson (wonderful singer) double with Marjorie Owens. Calaf is sung by Sergey Skorokhodov and Kamen Chanev. Liù is sung by Joyce El-Khoury (a Canadian) and Vanessa Vasquez. Timur is sung by Stefan Kocan. Ping is sung by Adrian Timpau, Pang by Julius Ahn, Pong by Joseph Hu. The Mandarin is sung by Joel Allison (a Canadian). The Prince of Persia is sung by Matthew Cairns (a Canadian).
Why are imports singing Ping, Pang & Pong? Why is Timur an import? I can think of Canadians who can sing these parts.
Next, in Rusalka:
Rusalka is Sondra Radvanovsky (Canadian resident and amazing singer). Vodnik is Matthew Rose and Stefan Kocan. I saw Canadian Robert Pomakov sing an excellent Vodnik in Montreal a few years ago. Ježibaba is Elena Manistina, Prince is Pavel Černoch, Foreign Princess is Keri Alkema (a singer I admire). First Wood Nymph is Anna-Sophie Neher (Canadian), Second Wood Nymph is Jamie Groote (Canadian), Third Wood Nymph is Lauren Segal (Canadian), Gamekeeper is Matthew Cairns (Canadian), and the Hunter is Vartan Gabrielian (Canadian).
Seeing a pattern yet? There’s a word for this. Insulting? Colonial? I recall from my childhood the way Canada was spoken of as a wasteland, indeed I recall New Yorkers arrogantly dismissing the COC in the 1990s when we were at times doing far more adventurous things than they: except they didn’t know it.
Let me continue.
For Barber of Seville:
Figaro is Vito Priante, Rosina is Emily D’Angelo (a Canadian), Almaviva, Santiago Ballerini, Bartolo Renato Girolami, Basilio, Brandon Cedel, Berta, Simona Genga (a Canadian), Fiorello Joel Allison (Canadian), Officer, Vartan Gabrielian (Canadian).
For Hansel and Gretel the pattern changes:
Hansel is Emily Fons, the lone foreigner, Gretel is Simone Osborne (Canadian), Peter is Russell Braun (Canadian), Gertrude is Krisztina Szabó (Canadian) and The Witch is Michael Colvin (Canadian).
And then we’re back to that funny pattern again for Aida:
Aida is Tamara Wilson (wonderful) Radames is Russell Thomas (wonderful), Amneris is Clémentine Margaine (especially wonderful), Amonasro is Roland Wood, Ramfis, Goderdzi Janelidze, King of Egypt, Richard Wiegold, The Messenger is Matthew Cairns (Canadian), the Priestess Simona Genga (Canadian).
And for Flying Dutchman, again:
The Dutchman Vitalij Kowaljow, Senta Marjorie Owens, Daland Dmitry Ulyanov, The Steersman Miles Mykkanen, Mary Ewa Płonka, Erik Michael Schade (Canadian)
If the only Canadian singers were graduates from the Ensemble Studio –and in case you’re wondering, there are lots and lots of good singers who either failed to get into the Studio or didn’t even try—even then, there are loads and loads of talented singers to choose from who can sing those roles sung by foreigners.
Are the Canadians more expensive than the foreigners being hired? OR in other words, is the COC saving money by bringing in non-Canadians to sing the King of Egypt, Amonasro or Mary or the Steuermann (we heard the hardest part of the role sung by Owen McCausland–a Canadian– Monday night by the way) or Don Basilio (sung by Canadian Robert Gleadow last time)? No, I’d think that in fact the Canadians are likely cheaper.
Are the Canadians as good as the foreigners? That depends on who you hire. For some roles you must go with the import. But there are good Canadians, without question. They’re singing all across the country with other opera companies, and even in Europe.
I bring this up because after a few excellent and encouraging seasons when I thought the COC was becoming more Canadian in its casting protocol, this season appears to be a big step backwards. For some roles the imports are great. I love Russell Thomas & Tamara Wilson. But while I am sure Roland Wood will be capable, I also like Canadians James Westman or Neil Craighead (who are merely the first two I thought of, as I am sure there are others who can sing the role). I don’t know the man singing Figaro this time but we did well with Joshua Hopkins last time (as well as Gordon Bintner & Andrew Haji in the ensemble cast). If you’re bringing in exceptional stars, all well and good that they be foreign imports. For other secondary roles such as Ping, Pang & Pong, Mary in Dutchman, Daland, the Steurmann…? Why hire foreigners for the small parts?
Now in fact there are Americans I really like that haven’t been back after impressive appearances. First and foremost was Kelly Kaduce, an amazing Butterfly, who sang Rusalka in Montreal, possibly the finest actor I’ve seen in an opera in the past decade. And in NY I saw Adam Klein sing Loge in Lepage’s Das Rheingold, adept at the wall-walking required of the role, and a spectacular actor. And then there’s Keri Alkema and Tamara Wilson and Russell Thomas, three amazing talents we will see next year. If they must bring in an American please let it be someone like these three, or the other two I mention.
But pardon me, there are literally tons of good Canadian singers. We make great hockey players and comedians and curlers in this country, and also opera singers. Per capita we’re an amazing place for opera & music. Some of these singers are making a huge impact abroad. I will come back to this in a moment.
But there are two related things to observe.
1) America is not as open as it once was. Was it ever open? Canadians have reported being shut out from the US organizations / companies whereas the doors were open before: at least for chorus and comprimario roles. Whether it’s Mr Trump’s impact, or perhaps he’s just a pretense, this is not a level playing field, not nearly, when –as far as we can tell—the COC appears to prefer imports.
2) I heard long ago that the COC actually has a charter. Maybe it doesn’t mean much? But it allegedly says that the COC is to hire Canadians whenever possible, to provide work & training for them. While the COC’s Ensemble Studio does serve a huge role in this: they’re essentially cheap labour who are cut loose after their brief term is over. It’s great training, to be sure: but there’s little sign of a commitment to casting Canadians: especially in this coming season’s offerings. I remember Berta from the last Barber, sung by Aviva Fortunata (a voice I miss).
So Canadians are allowed to sing the Prince of Persia—who sings one loud pathetic bleat of “Turandot” —before he gets his head chopped off.
Ha after writing this maybe COC Artistic Director Alexander Neef will offer me the role! Chop BARCZA’s head off! But also, what about David Pomeroy as Calaf? Or James Westman as Ping? Or any number of Canadian tenors as Pang or Pong? I saw Ryan Harper sing a splendid Ferrando in a Cosi fan tutte several years ago, why must they bring in an American yet again..?
As I was saying there are really a lot of talented singers out there, young and old. If you simply think back you can remember lots of people as I did without really searching, just remembering recent conversations on Facebook. I miss Virginia Hatfield, formerly of the ensemble studio (I saw her on social media yesterday). Rebecca Caine is a wonderful performer & singer (I’m a fan). This is me brain-storming now, btw. There are so many performers I could name, famous and not so famous. I have to return my Onegin score to the library which has English text (so I sing not “kuda kuda” but “oh where oh where”….), that reminds me of Natalya Gennadi who not only sings beautifully but could coach me on my Russian. Someday perhaps we’ll hear Vasilisa Atanackovic, a wonderful young talent. There’s Lance Ryan, the helden-tenor seen in a DVD of Les Troyens, making a big splash in Europe. But Ryan Harper (haha see the word-association?) is also a very good tenor, who appeared in Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen directed by Alaina Viau, opposite Cassandra Warner. I haven’t seen Warner lately, and it breaks my heart that Harper isn’t singing so much, as there’s not enough work. It’s not because of a lack of talent. There really isn’t enough work for everyone but it’s exacerbated if the small parts are given to foreign performers. And yes there are many brilliant Canadian directors. I’m still impressed by the prescience Alexander Neef showed in hiring Peter Hinton for Louis Riel. And there are many other Canadian directors. Alaina Viau, Ken Gass, Aria Umezawa..? Pardon me, there are so so many. If that COC charter means anything the company should begin with the aim to cast and run its shows 100% with Canadians onstage & backstage at least as a goal. Yes we do need stars to come in especially if no one from Canada can sing the role. By all means bring in a Christine Goerke, a Russell Thomas, a Tamara Wilson. They’re wonderful. I loved Tamara’s work in Die Fledermaus a few years ago opposite Ambur Braid, who alas is missing this year after being the best thing about Hadrian. I think of that Falstaff with Gerald Finley (a great Canadian artist), alongside so many other talents, including Russell Braun, Simone Osborne, Marie-Nicole Lemieux, Colin Ainsworth and Robert Gleadow: all Canadians. Yes we’re seeing Braun & Osborne this year, but not Lemieux, Ainsworth nor Gleadow. I miss Geoffrey Sirett , not just the star of The Overcoat, but a most intriguing presence onstage in a tiny role during Arabella last year. Sirett is a curious demonstration of what a mature performer can bring to the COC stage. The Ensemble Studio performers are usually too young to have much gravitas on stage, which is fixed when you have a complete performer such as Sirrett or for that matter Ryan Harper, who is a gifted actor.
And later this year things will change if Andrew Scheer replaces Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. No I don’t mean that Scheer will come see an opera and sneer at Regietheater or talk about artistic elites and their wine the way Mr Harper did (I’ve blacked it out… feel free to correct me on the precise quote… but I prefer to forget him altogether). As with Stephen Harper the support for the arts will dwindle. The CBC will be cut and the Canada Council will be cut. I am surprised that the arts organizations haven’t asked these tough question of the COC, to insist that the money be spent in ways relevant to Canadian tax-payers.
Meanwhile there are other opera companies. Marshall Pynkoski and David Fallis at Opera Atelier put on a first class show that is above all Canadian. Ditto for Joel Ivany and Topher Mokrzewski at Against the Grain. You donors who might be reading could consider whether the company you’re supporting is helping your country & its artists. This season is all very well, but is the company building for the future? And the granting agencies could make things a little tougher for companies such as the COC by asking them to be true to their charter, loyal to the taxpayer.
Later this week I’m looking forward to seeing Canadians onstage in Cosi fan tutte at the Four Seasons Centre: Tracy Dahl, Kirsten MacKinnon, Russell Braun & Emily D’angelo (the latter two so spectacular Monday in a duet from the Barber of Seville, I can’t wait to see them in Mozart this time).
Meanwhile in the background is the conversation at home about our COC subscription renewal. She loves Turandot and she’s a big fan of Joel Ivany & Against the Grain, so she’ll certainly want to see Hansel & Gretel. For her there’s no big interest in Wagner, while Aida without elephants or ancient Egypt is an oddity. And yet the COC is still a great night out. Of course we’ll renew.
But wouldn’t it be interesting if there were more Canadians up there onstage..? One can only hope.