Greetings Barczablog reader, Leslie Barcza was unable to attend the world premiere of Michael Rose’s, A Northern Lights Dream so I asked him for special permission to be a contributor in his absence.
Cast member, A Northern Lights Dream
“I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”
― William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Curating Can Con at the Toronto Operetta Theatre
Toronto Operetta Theatre is best known for what you might guess. Have a lovely dinner and then come to the theatre enjoy an evening of great music, beautiful singing and stir in a merry dance or two with a bit of jiggle on the side. Artistic director Guillermo Silva-Marin (Bill) has brought Toronto a bevy of some of Canada’s best performers, musicians and conductors for our pleasure.
With years of directing Operetta under his belt he knows a thing or two about the nuts and bolts of operetta and musical theatre. Bill has also curated two Canadian works that are (for now) lesser known, but every bit as enjoyable. I have been lucky enough to briefly rub shoulders with the creators of 2008’s Earnest, The Importance of being. This month, I had the great pleasure of performing in Michael Rose’s, A Northern Lights Dream (ANLD). Both of these works were curated, slowly with few resources and no incentives other than the desire to create great theatre.
ANLD was developed in stages. Michael Rose wrote it as a one act musical play for students at the Summer Opera Lyric Theatre. Rumour has it that Bill made a suggestion in passing as they were planning the 2017 season and Michael handed in an ensemble piece full of wit, unrequited love and GORGEOUS singing opportunities. I was lucky to sit in the audience that year to hear Michael’s beautiful songs. “Is there Room in your Closet?” will knock your socks off. It is written with such compassion for a women who will never receive the kind of love she hopes for from her husband. I recall him explaining to me that he wanted to write a musical theatre show for actors who could really sing. As a performer with two left feet who loves musical theatre, I wanted in from the start.
There’s nothing like having first contact with the composer. Our now expanded two act production was delayed twice and another production was canceled 3 times due to COVID. We squeaked through. I therefore had access to the score for a couple of years. I also had the privilege of being able to bend Mr. Rose’s ear from time to time as he developed my character of Mrs. Duke. “She’s not like other contralto roles.” Michael would explain. “She desperately wants to find friendship”. The first (one act) iteration of ANLD gave Mrs. Duke a wonderful comic song which is full of humour and fabulous ensemble singing that any fun-loving ham, like me, would kill to perform. The second act gives us another side of Mrs. D as she attempts to come to terms with the consequences of her actions.
“In the scale of things, love’s a little thing. But your love is all the world to me.” is the lyric sung elegantly by Lauren Pearl in the finale of ANLD this past May of 2022. She would not know it, but we fellow cast members waited nightly in the wings to hear those words, those notes and that soul stirring light touch of Lauren’s exquisite singing. For a guy who insists that he does not like people much, composer Michael Rose has created a bevy of great tunes and characters who personify the all too human need to be seen, understood and loved. Each in their own way they are flawed, loveable and held captive by unrequited love-in-idleness.
Set in Shakespeare, Ontario, Michael Rose pays homage to A Midsummernight’s Dream replacing Athenians with home grown salt of the earth local folk. The top of Arden Hill doubles as the fabled woodland and the realm of the fairies who await the arrival of their goddess, the Aurora Borealis. Her servant, Robin (Puck) is dispensed with the task of playing cupid with the humans. Try as he might, Robin’s matchmaking skills don’t quite hit the mark.
Mrs. Duke (me) is an aggravating contralto that jams a wedge into the story by refusing to pay for a load of tacky bridesmaids dresses (ordered by her) because her stepdaughter has called off her wedding. Mrs. Duke stiffs the local dress shop, sending its designer Helen (Christina Haldane) and dress maker Taylor (TOT fave Greg Finney) to the brink of ruin.
Tenor and Donut Donkey seller Nick (Ian Backstrom) pines unseen for his unrequited love. Having made a deal with Robin (Lauren Pearl) to cast a love spell on her university crush, soprano Christina can’t quite figure out why her husband does not return her affections. Rounding out the cast are the three fairies (Lilian Brooks, Daniela Agostino & Amy Moodie) who have presided unseen over humans for hundreds of years. They announce the coming of Aurora through song, sample bad coffee and enjoy Robin’s anguish over his unconsummated desire for Aurora.
Our audiences for the three performances were small but mighty. My cast members and I took this in stride. We were surprised and grateful to make it to the finish line. After 4 weeks of rehearsals, singing with masks and dipping ourselves in hand sanitizer, none of us felt confident that we’d make it to the stage. Nevertheless we persevered. One of our cast members did in fact contract COVID and missed almost half of the rehearsal period. She zoomed in from her sick bed and we carried on. While restaurants and other venues in Toronto seem to be “back in business” the theatre crowd may be more circumspect about re-entering public events. Many of TOT’s biggest supporters are seniors and quite wisely may be waiting a bit longer to come to the theatre.
Singers will be clamoring to sing these roles once the word gets out. While audiences were small, their appreciation was palpable. Small crowds can be shy to laugh or react (especially Canadian audiences) but not this crew. What a pleasure it was to ride the waves of recognition and connections from the crowd. We all worked hard to make those connections but the hard work started years before any of us hit the rehearsal hall.
I have never had the experience of sitting in a room to watch a conductor and a composer work through a score. There were cuts made for time saving reasons as TOT could not risk paying overtime fees at the St. Laurence centre. Our conductor, accompanist and coach Kate Carver led the rehearsal with a deep commitment to Michael Rose’s score. Every tempo was honoured and Kate cross referenced her piano score with the instrumental score very carefully to be sure that everything was inline. Admiringly she’d say, “This is such an incredible score, who’d think to use a recorder here? Michael, that’s who.”
Kate has a gentle touch which was needed. When you are working on a new score, you can’t cheat and listen to other singers. You have to make it your own which can be daunting but it’s also an opportunity. It’s not easy to put a bunch of singers at ease. On the rare occasion where she might have a disagreement with the composer (in front of the cast) she’d beam and casually call over her shoulder, “Mommy and daddy are fighting.” We all had too much on our plates to let egos get in the way.
As we walked off the stage from our final performance, it dawned on me that I had been a quiet witness seeing some of the origins of this piece that began to germinate 15 years ago. Michael Rose despite what he said about not liking people is a generous and mild mannered person long accustomed to working with singers. With all of his skills and talent, first and foremost, he’s a fan.
His arrival during the rehearsal period may have caused worries for those who do not know him. If that was the case those worries evaporated immediately when we saw his face. He has a way about him that makes you feel he assumes competence from singers. I met Michael Rose somewhere around 2005.
New to Toronto at that time, Michael had been hired as the musical director for Summer Opera Lyrics Theatre’s (SOLT) production of Falstaff. I freely admit to being a fish out of water in the singing world but for a lark, I thought that I would try my hand at opera.
Our ANLD director Bill Silva is a clever gentleman. He runs three separate companies through the same facility. Each company is designed to support singers at various stages of their development. I doubt if there are any impresarios like Bill. A retired singer, Bill was handpicked by the late Stewart Hamilton to take over Opera in Concert (OIC) which preforms rare gems that do not as a rule make it to the big stages. SOLT, OIC and TOT have cultivated and given a base to many of Ontario’s best singers. Our province is full of excellent singers who emerge from music programs with few options as to the next step for career development. Some lucky/gifted people may find themselves selected for apprentice programs with North American opera companies. Some go straight into teaching or other careers.
I call myself a fish out of water because I arrived at SOLT as a theatre program grad and comedic actor who studied clown and improvisation. I had no real understanding of the discipline and the amount of training it took to become a “legit” singer. By this I mean what some call a classically trained singer. I started singing lessons in my mid-thirties and found myself with a summer off sitting in a room with a bevy of some very high-strung singers. Like race horses, they were ready to sprint out of the gate or place a well-aimed kick to the side of your head. They felt the pressure and now with a little distance from those days, I understand why. I was nervous, visibly older, plus sized and thinking that I had made a huge mistake in coming. I sat in a chair beside a young soprano who with a sidelong glance got up and moved as far away from me as she could. I looked to my left and there was this handsome man with deep blue eyes you could swim in smiling at me. We chatted and I soon discovered that he would be my music director and friend of many years.
One of my co-stars in Falstaff ended up becoming my dance partner in ANLD. Greg Finney recently admitted to me that this was his first opera too. I never would have guessed. Some of us develop more slowly than others. Not Greg. He quickly grew through the ranks of Bill Silva’s repertory system to become a huge fan favourite at TOT.
Bill runs a tight ship and he is the captain. He needs to be as he has a lot of singers to look after. He is also responsible for paying the light bill and getting audiences to come to performances. He is serious and dedicated to running each operation smoothly. If you hope to sing on the larger stages, you will have to show him you will pursue excellence and simultaneously treat your colleagues with respect.
Coming from a theatre background I related best to Bill’s study of Stanislavsky. I would watch singers adjust to a new set of demands past making the most beautiful ahhhh sound on a B flat. He talked about the given circumstances for our characters and asked singers to analyze the text. This is why, I think that he would have us sing in English rather than the language for which an opera was written in originally.
One day, the world will wonder what Michael Rose is like. I can tell you that he is as enigmatic as any great artist. Michael is not a joiner, he has a mind of his own, he is curious, well read, understands the languages of opera, and plays piano like nobody’s business. While in Toronto Michael was a high in demand pianist almost instantly. He’s a foodie. One day, I walked into my coaching session with a Starbucks cup in my hand, he grabbed it and tossed it into the trash. “I’ll buy you a proper cup of coffee. Let’s go.” Off we sauntered down the Danforth for a much improved cup of Jo. I couldn’t admit to him that I didn’t taste the difference but I am sure that he was right. As my singing coach, he taught me refinement and to really hone in on what I was doing. His lessons were invaluable to me.
Bill Silva knows a good thing when he sees it. I popped in and out of the scene while Michael and Bill continued to collaborate building a short hand with one another.
When you have creative people but no money or time? I do not know how any of the companies run through the Jackman Centre survived a two year hiatus. Many companies have had to fold. We perhaps kept going to honour the donors and show results.
I mentioned Ernest, the Importance of Being, another show built in collaboration with TOT. Once again I circle back to the Summer Student program where Bill offered roles in this show to young up and coming singers. I was cast as the indomitable Lady Bracknell.
Bill provided us with the opportunity to meet with the Composer Victor Davies and librettist Eugene Benson. Once again, I was shy. I should have asked more questions. They talked about the challenges of getting produced in Canada, meetings they had with big companies and the drive to create. They talked about their ongoing debates with Bill Silva acting once again as the unofficial dramaturge. With so many obstacles and no way to make a living this way I wondered what kept them going.
Victor Davies came to every performance and wept through each one. He has a big heart and he’s quite a lot of fun. On closing night he and his wife walked me to my car and gave me some words of encouragement that I’ll never forget. Eugene bought me lunch one day during rehearsal and talked to me about living as an artist in Canada. Likewise, Michael Rose would become misty-eyed during rehearsals. I am not sure if he could believe that finally his work had hit the stage after years of fine-tuning and quiet collaboration with Bill Silva.
What I wonder about most is what will encourage these creative people to keep going. Other countries seem to have money to invest in their artists. It’s an old problem. We love to import the good stuff and we forget the richness we have here. Both of these shows can stand proudly up against any of the old chestnuts. Ernest, the Importance of Being could slide easily into the Shaw Festival’s season. Shavians would go nuts for it. Likewise we could all see A Northern Lights Dream at Stratford. Imagine seeing that at the newly rebuilt Tom Patterson theatre. It checks all the boxes and if we do say ourselves, it was a great show. The world does not know it yet, but we have just been a part of a major Canadian musical theatre piece that mixes elements of Operetta, bel canto singing and musical theatre. Our dream lasted over three performances.
“In the scale of things, love’s a little thing. But your love is all the world to me.”
Michael Rose, A Northern Lights Dream