Opera by Request’s William Shookhoff

Aside from family William Shookhoff aka Bill aka “Shookie” is the person I’ve known longest of anyone I’ve mentioned on this blog. In fact I interviewed him back in 1976, for the University of Toronto’s student newspaper.

Bill Shookhoff

And so forty-six and a half years after the first one this is our second interview.

Let me begin by quoting Bill’s own text that he used on the occasion of a recent performance in Germany.

As the director of Opera by Request in Toronto, Canada, it is a thrill to be collaborating with Musik fur Musik in Berlin for Wagner’s Der Fliegende Hollander. Opera by Request was launched in March, 2007, with a mandate to present operas in a concert format, to enable singers to perform a complete role, and to bring a complete range of operas to audiences at affordable prices. To date, OBR has produced over 100 different operas, and has engaged hundreds of singers. The concept has grown, and we have collaborated with a number of off-shoot companies throughout Canada, but tonight marks the first time we are collaborating with a company located on another continent. On a personal note, I have collaborated with Musik fur Musik’s founder, Vanessa Lanch on numerous productions, plus recitals and competitions, including Canada’s prestigious New Music Competition, the Eckhardt-Grammattee, for which Vanessa was a finalist in 2011. It is a thrill to be collaborating with a cast representing four different countries. I hope you enjoy tonight’s performance as much as I’ve enjoyed preparing for it.

William Shookhoff
Opera by Request

Normally my introduction segues into an interview by mentioning a particular project that’s upcoming. But in Bill’s case there is always something coming up, if not next week, then next month next fall next year…. You saw how above Bill said “To date, OBR has produced over 100 different operas, and has engaged hundreds of singers”..? That’s another way of saying that he is a very busy guy. It was so when I interviewed him in 1976, and it’s still true.

Are you more like your father or your mother?

Definitely my father.

What is the best or worst thing about what you do?

The best things are discovering new work and delving into all the aspects of the work, including orchestration, libretto, history. Also, perhaps most important, is working with other people, developing multi-generational relationships, learning from people of all ages and range of experience.

Worst thing is the countless hours of admin work: PR, emails, schedules, etc.

Who do you like to listen to or watch?

I listen to BBC 3 a lot, because of the variety. Wonderful concerts, but also great jazz programs, plays, conversations. Mostly watch tennis, and Met Opera on HD.

What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?

The ability to play the non-classical string instruments, especially banjo, but also lute, yukelele, classical guitar. Also Renaissance instruments.

When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?

Really, just doing that. Relaxing. Enjoying a martini, sitting on the porch, going for a walk, In bad weather, just watching the weather. Also reading, but I don’t read non-stop.

What was your first experience of music ?

My first piano teacher (a student at Cincinnati Conservatory) playing Rachmaninov 2 with University Orchestra. Also going with my brother to opera rehearsals (Cincinnati summer opera was held in an amphitheatre on the zoo grounds).

Who is your favorite composer?

Hard to say. I definitely lean towards Brahms and Mozart for instrumental work. Also Prokofieff and Beethoven. For opera, it’s really whatever I’m working on at the moment, though I specially love the major works of Britten, Strauss and late Verdi. Also Boito’s Mefistofele.

How did you begin to play operas?

I conducted The Boyfriend in high school and fell in love with the female lead. When I got to Eastman, I found that what I could do better than most of my colleagues was accompany singers, so when the opportunity came to audition as an opera coach/accompanist, I jumped at the chance and fortunately was accepted, the first undergrad to work in that capacity at Eastman.

Bill Shookhoff at Trinity Presbyterian Church York Mills 2018

What are the hardest operas to do in concert?

Definitely operas with lots of chorus. The bel canto operas are not terribly suited to piano renditions. Also operas with a lot of action that’s difficult to ignore (fight scenes, deaths).

Singers come out of training programs, including the ensemble studio of the COC. And then what? Some people can make a living, some can’t. You probably have a better handle on the available talent in this country than anyone. Stratford Festival and National Ballet function as places to employ almost 100% Canadian talent. Yet the fiction is out there that we need to bring in singers from abroad. Can you imagine Canadian opera with Canadian personnel?

Absolutely! Of course that talent needs to be nurtured and used judiciously, but there is no reason why young singers, given the training they receive in Canada, cannot be presented as the principal singers in a Canadian opera production. We’ve seen a few singers in recent years who have broken through these artificial barriers, enough to know that there are others equally capable, given the right opportunity.

Talk about Opera by Request and what you believe your mission is with OBR.

The main advantage of OBR is that it is the one place where singers can present roles of their own choosing. Of course, they quickly learn that taking charge of a production is not easy, but that experience (of being performer/producer) is also a valuable one. In this way, singers discover far more about a work than they would if they were simply hired to do a role by another producer. Sometimes the experience has been a wake-up call, where a singer realizes challenges they didn’t know were there. More often, though, it has raised the level of their performance and their understanding of the genre.

How does it work to select repertoire for OBR:

Usually, a few singers get together and present a concept to me, then we fill in the blanks, ie, decide on a timeline, find the rest of the cast, plan a rehearsal schedule and performance date. Occasionally, it’s been a single singer with a dream role in mind, then we work together to flesh it out. I never do all the work of casting for a single singer.

Turandot in 2020: (L-R) Narmina Efendiyeva, Naomi Eberhard, Bill Shookhoff, Amelia Daigle, Corey Arnold, Kyle McDonald

Are there operas you are hoping to do, that you can’t do (for instance LesTroyens,
an opera full of chorus & ballet divertissements is one of my favorite operas)

Peter Grimes, Billy Budd, yes Les Troyens.

Would you ever say no: to requests that you think are unwise for the singers, or something you would rather not undertake?

This has happened on occasion, but then we try to find an alternative that’s more realistic.

Explain the concept of Opera by Request: and explain why it’s important

It’s important for singers to know that there’s an organization that will consider any operatic work, no matter how far-fetched or unrealistic it may initially seem; or that they may be able to learn a role which other mentors or producers have discouraged them from pursuing, perhaps rightly, perhaps not.

How did you get the idea for Opera by Request. Did someone approach you?

It was an outgrowth of a duo recital program where some opera excerpts were included, and afterwards, the singers said “We could have done the whole opera with a little more work.” So I launched a website, thinking I may get two or three requests per year. Instead it’s been more like 2 or 3 requests per month.

Tell us about the upcoming OBR programs
(please note I asked Bill these questions awhile ago, so if anything here is out of date blame me, not Bill)

April 29th: “Caught in the Act”
Weisgall’s The Stronger, with Sharon Tikiryan
Martin’s Six Monologues from Jedermann with Michael Robert-Broder
Lee Hoiby’s Bon Appetit with Meghan Symon

June 9th: L’Elisir d’Amore (postponed from May)

June 24th: Rossini’s Otello (Canadian premiere?)

I hear that you’re also undertaking collaborations with other companies. What roles do you play?

I really enjoy collaborating with other companies and spreading the OBR concept to other venues. Calgary Concert Opera, CLM Productions in Edmonton, Abridged Opera in Windsor, are all in one way or another offshoots of OBR.

Bill Shookhoff at the Calgary Concert Opera Company in 2019

Norman Brown in Ottawa has done a tremendous job in creating OperOttawa, but I’d like to think the work he’s done with OBR was in some ways motivation for his initiative.

I wonder! It’s a funny coincidence that I realized I was overdue for an interview of Bill, when I recently interviewed Norman Brown.

Bill Shookhoff and Barbara King at Polaris Centre for the Performing Arts, October 2021

Do you have any influences / teachers you’d care to name.

Eugene List, piano; Edwin McArthur, opera production; Herman Geiger-Torel, who supported me from the moment I arrived in Canada back in the ‘70s.

Herman Geiger-Torel, General Director of the Canadian Opera Company 1960-1976.

Similarly James Craig. Mario Bernardi was a stern taskmaster, but instilled a sense of discipline and resilience which has helped me to this day.

I was very fortunate to have had the mentors I had, and the opportunities to grow and develop. I hope that in some way I’m able to give back in the same way, to a multi-generational pool of singers.

Rossini’s Otello may well be a Canadian premiere, as was undoubtedly Sullivan’s Ivanhoe. Many productions in the works for ’23-24. News of those will be coming out shortly.

You can follow them on their webpage or via social media (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).

This entry was posted in Personal ruminations & essays. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Opera by Request’s William Shookhoff

  1. Edward Brain says:

    Wonderful interview, Leslie!

    I have enjoyed several operas put on by Opera by Request, and they have been involved in a couple of events with the Toronto Wagner Society (Act One of Die Walkure 10 years ago this month in honour of Wagner’s 200th birthday, for example.)

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