Sometimes interviews are a pretext to get closer to someone you’ve admired for awhile, watching their development as an artist.
Oh sure, I’m interviewing Geoffrey Sirett because he’s about to star in the Canadian Stage – Tapestry Opera—Vancouver Opera co-production of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring. But I’ve been a keen observer, watching Sirett:
Not only does he do many things, he does them well. His tiny role in the Canadian Opera Company’s Arabella made a huge impression on me, and I’m hoping the boss noticed, because he’s done excellent work every time I’ve seen him. I hope we see more of him with the COC and elsewhere.
But in the immediate future? The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring in March and the occasion for some questions right now.
Baritone & conductor Geoffrey Sirett
1) Are you more like your father or your mother?
For those who know me, this answer will be no surprise: I am most like my father. For one thing, I am a few grey hairs short of being a 1.3x scale replica in physical attributes. My father is also a musician: he has a doctorate in choral conducting and pedagogy, making music, and singing in particular, a significant influence in my childhood. My musical training began at age six, singing under the direction of my father. My mother also sang, and continues to sing, in my father’s choirs, so advocacy for the arts, passion for musical expression, and support of my career pursuits is certainly owed to both of them.
2) What is the best or worst thing about what you do?
I often feel that the best and worst things in this career are one and the same. That is, the experiences that offer reward and fulfillment as an artist often are the same experiences that produce challenges and grief. Day to day, contract to contract, the balance shifts; sometimes favourably, sometimes not. I’m not sure if that is a necessity as an artist, but it’s certainly part of the cultural narrative and expectations for artists: make a lot of sacrifices. The more sacrifice, the more reward.
The rewards, no doubt, are numerous: creative expression, being a member of an artistic community, developing intense relationships, opportunities to travel, getting paid (hopefully in money) to do something you love, etc.
Sacrifices, though, rarely see the spotlight, and I think they need to play a larger role in the discourse of the arts and theatre: constant criticism (self and other), financial instability, significant time away from family and friends, etc.
Special, meaningful experiences sway the balance favourably. These are different for each artist, but I tend to find the greatest reward in the process of creation, and I am grateful that many opportunities for creation and development have made their way into my career. The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is no exception. It is an opportunity to be instrumental in the creation something new and vivid, which will no doubt contribute to the rich tapestry (pun intended) of new works that push the possibilities of this art-form forward.
3) Who do you like to listen to or watch?
I don’t listen to a lot of music. Audiobooks occupy the majority of my listening these days. Almost all non-fiction: lots of psychology, sociology, behavioural economics.
[also, Bryn Terfel:. because I have two ears and a heart]
Fellow nerds should check out:
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Kahneman
Nudge – Sunstein and Thaler
The Black Swan – Taleb
4) What ability or skill do you wish you had, that you don’t have?
I used to wish my falsetto was better, so I could be a counter tenor. It will never happen, so I’m content to live vicariously through Dan Taylor.
5) When you’re just relaxing and not working, what is your favourite thing to do?
Spend time with my wife, family, and friends, in whatever form that takes: Netflix, going out for drinks, playing squash (only if I’m winning), hiking/biking through nature.
More questions about Geoffrey’s projects, especially The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring
1- Please tell me a bit about the adaptation of Gogol’s story The Overcoat
- The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is a landmark partnership and co-production between Tapestry Opera, Canadian Stage and Vancouver Opera.
- It is the operatic re-imagining of the classic theatre production The Overcoat reuniting the original creative team twenty years after its debut.
- Award-winning composer James Rolfe (whose works include Inês, Elijah’s Kite and Beatrice Chancy) joins forces with Morris Panych, the acclaimed co-creator of The Overcoat, in order to bring bold operatic voice to a beloved tale. This is Morris’s first libretto.
- Music for The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring will be played by a live orchestra, as opposed to the pre-recorded Shostakovich musical score in the theatre production.
- The world premiere of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring will take place on March 29 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto running through to April 14. The production then heads west for Vancouver’s second annual Vancouver Opera Festival on April 28 and 29 as well as May 4 and 9-12.
Composer James Rolfe (Photo: Juliet Palmer)
Additional fun facts for your reference:
- The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring was conceived in Tapestry Opera’s 2014 LibLab, a program that pairs up leading librettists and composers.
- The two venues are the original Toronto and Vancouver homes for the critically-acclaimed theatre production of The Overcoat, created by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling. The theatre production in 1998 was praised as an “elegant expression of accomplished theatricality” by Variety Magazine.
[The cast & creative team are listed below ]
Some thoughts from my own voice:
The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring is beautifully rendered because it has managed to create something new and exciting while being faithful to, and drawing inspiration from, the original production. For those who don’t know, the original stage play The Overcoat was a non-verbal, movement-based theatre piece set to the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. Its success was ubiquitous, I think, due to the clarity of the story-telling and narrative as crafted by Morris Panych and Wendy Gorling. Because the vision and narrative of the original was so finely tuned, I believe the ‘Musical Tailoring’ enters this story with such a solid foundation that all text, singing, and new music serves to enhance the drama in a unique way. Fans of the original production will love this, as will new audiences.
2) What style of music—both in terms of harmony and vocalism—should we expect to hear in the new opera?
I know that Morris prefers to call this piece a “musical” rather than an “opera”. I don’t think the words need to be mutually exclusive, however I think the concern is that “new opera” or “contemporary opera” conjures images of atonality and a potentially inaccessible musical style. This is far from the case. James Rolfe has created a hauntingly beautiful, lyrical score, with memorable melodies in a tonal environment. That said, do not mistake this to imply simplicity. James is a masterful composer, every bit of music required to aid the story/drama but nothing superfluous. I think those who are opera-lovers will love this piece, as will those who love musicals. At the end of the day, it is its own piece, and it is splendid no matter what you call it.
3-Does riding a bicycle through the summer –as you have done with The Bicycle Opera Project—help your singing?
I do think that being on tour with the Bicycle Opera Project has provided advantages to my singing, at least regarding breath control and stamina. More than anything, though, tour cycling is meditative for me, provides an opportunity to clear my mind, and creates special bonding with my cast/cycling mates. These features of cycling likely contribute more to a healthy singing lifestyle than the physical benefits.My wife, Larissa Koniuk, is the driving force behind BOP. She determines its future and I support her as best I can. I expect it will always play a role in our lives and future, though, in some form or other.
Sirett & soprano Larissa Koniuk, L’Homme et l’Ange qui a venu du Ciel, from summer 2014.
4-please reflect for a moment on the challenges a singer faces doing a new work, as opposed to a standard work
No singer likes to admit that they listen to recordings when preparing roles. But the reality is, we usually do. Not to learn notes and pitches, but often to draw inspiration, learn about musical style and precedents that have been set by artists over many decades or centuries. Historical precedent can be oddly suffocating as an artist, since there are a lot of expectations about how a role “should” be done, and it can be difficult to find and explore oneself artistically within these confines.With new works you have the luxury of starting from scratch. It is both a daunting task and a great opportunity to create a unique role, find a vocal character that is idiosyncratic, and be free from expectations.
5) I think you have a gift for comedy, so much so that they’re promoting this show using your by now recognizable face. Have you heard this before?
I’ve not heard this much, if ever. In standard repertoire, the lyric baritone is either heroic or villainous, and I haven’t often had the opportunity to play comedic characters. On tour with bicycle opera, though, I’ve been able to play around more with comedic characters, and I enjoy it a lot. There is, I think, more artistic freedom in comedy. It can be choreographed, to a certain degree, but it needs to come from within and have the feeling of spontaneity, otherwise the jokes don’t land. Comedic works also lend themselves to improvisation, as you connect with the audience, play off of their energy, and refine timing and delivery in the moment.
6-The singing actor is a curious mix of skills. I was impressed by your appearances in Arabella (you made much of a tiny role that isn’t usually noticeable) and earlier in Against the Grain’s Messiah (the funniest moment in this piece was your inspired work in “All we like sheep”), leading me to ask about the actor side of your personal equation, and your background as an actor.
My acting experience is typical of most trained opera singers. At various points in our education, we are involved in acting courses, masterclasses and/or workshops, but for the most part we mostly learn it “on the job” and formal training is relatively minimal. I don’t think I offer much unique as an actor, but I try to commit to new ideas and push myself a little further each time. It’s a balance between pushing yourself towards the character, but also recognizing your limitations and pulling the character towards yourself and your own strengths.
7) in Bicycle Opera’s 2017 production of Sweat you were the music director. Will we see you pursue this aspect of your career further?
My venture as MD for Sweat was my opera conducting debut. Prior to that, I had training and some experience conducting choirs. This past year I have been working, periodically, as assistant conductor for the Cantabile Choirs of Kingston, a community choral organization founded by my father in 1996. This is a great platform for me to continue my training as a conductor, and also revitalize my love for choral music. This is a role that I will continue next year, so I do expect it to be a part of my future.
8-What direction do you see yourself going after this?
The most recent undertaking in my life has been the pursuit of a Masters degree in clinical psychology. This is a departure for me, as a life-long musician, but has long been a passion of mine and I enjoy it tremendously. How this will develop into my future life, I do not yet know, but in the mean time I am saturated with curiosity and enjoying learning everything that I can. I am approaching the end of my second year of course work, which will be followed by an 8-month clinical placement, likely some time next year.
9) Is there a teacher or an influence you’d care to name that you especially admire?
One of my first teachers, Alvin Reimer, continues to be an inspiration to me. He built the foundation of my vocal training, but was also a tremendous artist and exceptional human; I owe a lot to him, and am so grateful for the impression he made on me and my whole life. That is not to say there haven’t been many incredibly influential teachers and mentors over the years, but my heart tends to turn to Alvin first.
The world premiere of The Overcoat: A Musical Tailoring will take place on March 29 at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto running through to April 14. The production then heads west for Vancouver’s second annual Vancouver Opera Festival on April 28 and 29 as well as May 4 and 9-12
- Akakiy Akakiyevich: Geoffrey Sirett (baritone)
- Manager: Asitha Tennekoon (Dora Award-winning tenor)
- Head of Department: Peter McGillivray (baritone)
- Landlady: Andrea Ludwig (mezzo-soprano)
- Secretary: Meher Pavri (soprano)
- Mokiya: Keith Klassen (tenor)
- Sossiya: Aaron Durand (baritone)
- Khodozat: Giles Tomkins (bass)
- Mad Chorus: Erica Iris (mezzo-soprano), Caitlin Wood (soprano), Magali Simard-Galdés (soprano)
Creative Team ( * = part of original creative team)
- Composer: James Rolfe
- Playwright and director: Morris Panych*
- Movement: Wendy Gorling*
- Set Design: Ken MacDonald*
- Lighting Design: Alan Brodie*
- Costumes: Nancy Bryant*
Geoffrey Sirett as Akakiy in The Overcoat A Musical Tailoring (Photo: Dahlia Katz)