I wanted to shine a spotlight on OperOttawa, a relatively new company, by talking to their founder and Artistic Director, Canadian baritone Norman E. Brown.
OperOttawa present Handel’s Alcina on March 5th in Ottawa, so I wanted to ask Norman some questions.
Who and what is OperOttawa?
OperOttawa is a relatively young opera company (10th season) producing opera and concerts amidst the larger well-established companies across Canada. In Ottawa OperOttawa has specialized in filling a gap by producing operas and oratorios of the Baroque early periods, producing staged versions of lesser performed works, and supporting and encouraging young Canadian, Ottawa based composers. OperOttawa also endeavours to produce operas in their entirety with no cuts, giving singers an opportunity to fully learn major roles. We also offer younger and less experienced singers an opportunity to understudy main roles, with a chance to perform at rehearsals.
During the Covid pandemic OperOttawa successfully produced on-line the world premiere of Jack Hui Litster’s opera “The Day You Were Born” and led the return to live performances last November with a successful “Acis & Galatea” (costumed and semi-staged), our “alternative Messiah”, and a successful performance of Jack Hui Litster’s world premiere “What is Love“.
In November of 2022. The 10th season kicked off in October with a successful Opera Gala. OperOttawa was incorporated as a not-for-profit entity in November 2022, and formed its first Board of Directors.
Are you more like your father or your mother?
I get my musical talent from mother’s side of family. And probably my strong determination from father’s side.
What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
After studying the sciences and business administration and after a career in government it is great to be able to spend my time devoted to music both performing and producing. And yet I truly believe I couldn’t achieve what I do if it hadn’t been for those aspects of my life. So for me the best thing I hope I am doing is making it possible through mentorship or through providing opportunities for others to equally enjoy music.
The worst thing about what I do is seeing empty seats in our shows. OperOttawa engages some incredible singers and musicians, many of whom have performed on major stages internationally, and it is my goal and hope that their talent can be heard and appreciated by more.
Who do you like to listen to or watch?
While I do watch a lot of opera videos (at least half are the operas of Handel) I also have a penchant for horror films.
I think I would love to stage an opera one day with zombies of the apocalypse!
I also enjoy watching sports such as squash (before Covid I played in many tournaments) as well as bobsledding World Cup competitions. Something about the adrenaline rush the teams must experience as they fly down the track is akin to the rush I feel just before going on stage to sing a major role.
What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I wish I had continued my piano studies beyond the conservatory and the university. While I play quite well I would have liked to have the talent to play major works.
When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
One of my favourite pastimes is painting in oils. I have always had artistic talent and for the past 15 years I have done over 300 oil paintings, in various styles and themes. I sell my paintings in the hope to find them a loving home, and I donate the funds to charity. I also will admit to enjoy baking. My forte seems to be muffins of every kind possible. It’s where my creativity comes into action. I watch many films especially horror, science-fiction and historical documentaries. These tend to transport me to another place where I don’t have to worry about scores, schedules, rehearsals, or performances.
What was your first experience of classical music?
When I was 5 I joined the boys’ choir at my home church (St Anne’s Anglican in Toronto) where we received excellent training and were exposed to the most amazing music including Handel’s Messiah. We were accompanied by members of the Toronto Symphony which is where I fell in love with viola – an instrument I still play when time permits.
I was most fortunate as a child in primary school. I was always in the school choir and starting at age 8 I was chosen to sing in the May Concerts at Massey Hall. We would rehearse one afternoon a week for three months leading up to the concert. I sang in these concerts for 5 years.
What’s your favorite opera?
While I should be “politically correct“ and say my favourite opera is which ever one I am currently singing…but…
Quick answer – Mozart’s “Magic Flute” (which I will be conducting next November). Also one of my first opera roles was as Papageno.
Long answer – perhaps “Don Giovanni” because it is one of my favourite roles to sing – I made my official debut as Don G with the Stara Zagora State Opera in Bulgaria and subsequently sang the role on tour with Opera by Request and later sang the role in a creative production of “Don Giovanni Triumphant “.
I also love the opera “Aida” by Verdi. It was the first opera I sang at age 18 with the Canadian Opera Company in chorus. I think that was where I realized my future was in music.
I saw on Facebook that you said “Now is the time to get your tickets and support Ottawa’s longest running currently producing Opera Company—OperOttawa.” What is your history?
This is an amazing statement I am so proud to make. For the past ten years we continued (even during Covid on-line) to produce opera.
In addition to the history bio posted above for OperOttawa, my own history that got me to where I am started after I graduated from the Royal Conservatory of Music – Toronto, the Trinity College of Music – London UK, and the University of Toronto faculty of music, and I had concerns about what would happen if I could no longer perform. So, with the assistance of a Canada Council Arts B grant I completed my MBA in art’s administration. Eventually this led to my engagement as General Manager of Opera Lyra Ottawa in the early 1990s. Later with the demise of Opera Lyra I started producing opera performances under the banner of OperOttawa.
Our first show was Handel’s “Acis & Galatea” in 2012 featuring Erinne-Colleen Laurin as Alcina, myself as Polyphemus and Frederic Lacroix as our collaborative pianist. The three of us along with others just performed the opera as part of our 9th season and the return to live performances after Covid.
Since that first year we have performed over 25 performances including a fully staged “The Medium” by Menotti, a multi-city tour of Bizet’s “The Pearlfishers”, a semi-staged “Giulio Cesare” by Handel, and two World Premiere Operas by our composer-in-residence Jack Hui Litster – both for which we received City of Ottawa Arts Project Grants. OperOttawa has also produced concerts featuring local singers devoted to the music of Mozart, Schubert, or Bach & Handel.
OperOttawa has produced two performances of Handel’s “Messiah” the last one in 2022 featured many alternative versions of arias and a chorus that is rarely if not ever performed.
Currently OperOttawa produces three full opera productions per year.
What’s the hardest part you face wearing multiple hats, as Artistic Director.
Fortunately I am a very organized person who enjoys what I do. And so I wear many hats – Artistic Director (selecting the operas, casting, hiring orchestra and singers), General Manager (booking the venue, scheduling, contracting, budgeting, paying the bills), Conductor (conducting rehearsals and performances), Fund Raiser (filling out grants and creating fund raising strategies), Marketing Director (publicity, posters, programs, etc), Stage Director (stage direction for some shows), and Stage Crew (setting up and tear down for shows).
It sounds like a lot but I enjoy it and I think for the most part I am good at it.
In November 2022 OperOttawa became officially incorporated as a not-for-profit organization and we formed our first aboard of Directors who serve in an advisory capacity.
Tell us about your cast for Alcina
We have an incredible cast for “ALCINA” made up of long time audience favourites and regulars such as: Erinne-Colleen Laurin as Alcina, Morgan Strickland as Morgana, Carole Portelance as Bradamante and Kathleen Radke as Oberto. We also have, as always, Frederic Lacroix on keyboard continuo with the OperOttawa Orchestra and our wonderful chorus.
And you’re singing too? Tell us more.
In addition to conducting “Alcina” I will be singing the role of Melisso.
As a singer I keep very busy (see bio) with concert recitals, and operas in Canada, in Italy, in Bulgaria and in Japan.
I also perform as soloist in oratorio – recently sang in two different productions in 2022 as bass soloist in “Messiah”, and will be soloist in June 2023 in Bach’s “B minor Mass” in Toronto.
For many years I sang as professional lead with the Ottawa Choral Society as soloist and on tour, and with the Men & Boys’ Choir of Christ Church Cathedral that included Europe tours singing at St Paul’s London, Notre Dame Paris, Ely Cathedral, Salisbury Cathedral, and Chartres Cathedral to name a few.
What’s next for OperOttawa?
Next in the 2022-23 season we are producing “Il Matrimonio Segreto” (the secret marriage) by Cimarosa on Sunday May 7 2023 at 2:30 pm at First Baptist Church Ottawa.
OperOttawa’s 2023-24 season will include “Suor Angelica” by Puccini, “Magic Flute” by Mozart and a world premiere Requiem by Hui Litster. I will be conducting all three. And we will perform using only female upper voices!
Do you have any teachers or influences you’d care to mention?
I would be remiss not to mention my grade 1 teacher who handed me a recorder and a learning guide. I went through that first book in a week (I still have it!) and was given the second book.
In High School I played viola and received huge support and encouragement for my musicality from my music teacher Stanley Clarke.
My early singing studies were with John McKnight, Bernard Diamant and Patricia Kern. Later I worked with Saverio Bambi in Italy, Darina Tokova in Bulgaria and Tom Studebaker out of New York. I’m a big fan of Lucas Meacham and I follow his masterclasses on-line which are very useful.
My two favourite singers are Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker. When I listen to their recordings I always take away some new sense of what singing should be about.
OperOttawa present Alcina March 5th at First Baptist Church 140 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa Ontario.
(Click for tickets).