This fall, the Canadian Opera Company will present the world premiere of the opera Hadrian by composer Rufus Wainwright and librettist Daniel MacIvor. The latest COC commissioned opera is highly anticipated (the last one goes back to The Golden Ass in 1999!) and will feature noteworthy Canadian artists, notably director Peter Hinton, soprano Ambur Braid, as Hadrian's wife, and tenor Ben Heppner, as Dinarchus. Heppner, host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Music, actually comes out of opera performance retirement for this special occasion! And of course two opera legends, American baritone Thomas Hampson in the title role, and Finnish soprano Karita Mattila as the former empress Plotina, bring international talent to the opera.
For this article, I really wanted to have a fresh look into not only the opera itself, but also into what creating and staging a new opera production entails, and how it contributes to the operatic repertoire. Luckily, a friend of mine, Russell Wustenberg, is working on the production as an Assistant Director, and he agreed to answer some questions that I had!
I first met Russell when he was working on (and singing in!) opera performances by Opera McGill, in Montreal
"I HAVE TRIED MANY POSITIONS IN OPERA, I FIND THAT DIRECTING IS ONE ELEMENT OF BEING AN OPERATIC ARTIST."
If you were to name two ballets, chances are The Nutcracker and Swan Lake would be among the first to come to mind. However, Tchaikovsky did not only write for the ballet, he also composed eleven operas. The Canadian Opera Company will present in the next few weeks Tchaikovsky's most famous opera, Eugene Onegin. Composed in 1877-1878, and premiered in Moscow, the 3 act opera is an example of Russian lyric opera. Before you head to the Four Seasons Centre for Performing Arts, here are a few key features about the production you should know.
What better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than with some opera? I know, I know, you can probably think of many different ways to spend quality-time with your significant other on February 14th. You can make reservations at that fancy restaurant he's been hinting at for the past month, or you could cook her a fabulous dinner set on a Pinterest-worthy decorated table. Sounds familiar to what you did last year?
So how about something you've never tried, something you've always postponed to later, or maybe something you never thought as a viable option? Or maybe it's the perfect opportunity because you've always wanted to do it! Every year, I get calls and messages asking me what operas I would suggest to bring a date to, whether they are trying to initiate their SO to join them once again or they've begun dating someone and want to impress.
Your mother approves, you need something to Step it up
It was freezing in Toronto. There was no snow (which is odd when you're from Montreal!) but it was windy and freezing. I was walking from my backstage visit at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performance Arts and heading to the waterfront to meet baritone Joshua Hopkins, who performs Papageno in The Magic Flute presentend at the Canadian Opera Company through January 19, 2017. But the freezing cold DRAINED my cellphone's battery and by the time I got to the meeting spot, it was DEAD. Complete panic. I was on time for the interview but I had no way of reaching him!
Thank god that when my phone got warmer, it came back to life! I immediately called him, apoligizing for being late and you know what? He was totally cool about it. Not upset, not disappointed, just happy I made it alright. Talk of breaking the diva opera singer stereotype.
He met me in the lobby of the building and suggested we head to the common area on the highest floor where we would be able to chat. So between the lobby and the 38th floor, we talked about my cat, which he knew by name (it's EugÃ©nie, learn it and love it) although I had never told him about her. Clearly, Joshua had checked my Instagram @chatdopera, which was definitely thoughtful and only slightly creepy. But hey, what you put on social media is for the world to see, sooo..
The view at the top was beautiful. Looking for a place to sit, we found a piano. Joshua went straight to it and began playing. So I filmed him of course. And then we took some selfies, because why not. But enough about how I genuinely want him to be my best friend, let's jump to Papageno!
Drama in the audience
As a performer, Joshua treats Papageno's suicide very seriously; Papageno is ready to die if he doesn't find his Papagena. It's a very serious moment. Seeing as he has performed in The Magic Flute a number of times, I checked with him he had been in the production of Opera Lyra in Ottawa a few years ago. When he confirmed it was him on stage, I immediately asked him if he had notice something strange in the audience on one of the nights. We began talking about the incident that happened in the audience. It was one of his most memorable stage moments. Joshua describes that the audience feels a lot of empathy for Papageno and want to follow him on his journey. Who isn't looking for love?
So when Papageno told the audience that he was going to kill himself unless we stopped him, a woman from the front loge on the second level threw herself at him in an attempt to save him! Luckily, the patrons on the lower level were able to catch her in time and she was not hurt. Joshua said that from the stage, he could only hear noises in the hall but seeing as Pinchas Zuckerman kept conducting, he kept on singing. #theshowmustgoon.
Tips for young singers
In winter weathers, our bodies are more dry, which is very unsettling for singers, Joshua mentionned. His trick to hydrate properly for a performance is to not drink water right before singing, which is what you would expect. Water actually has the reverse effect; it makes your throat more dry when you drink it before singing. Instead, he keeps a fresh apple in his dressing room, and each time he's about to go on stage, he takes a few bites. The apple actually mimics natural saliva. By the time the opera is done, so is the apple. This combined with a generous application of lip balm, and Joshua does not feel dry anymore!
Want to know a secret? Between the 2nd and the 3rd part of The Magic Flute, Joshua does not have the time to go back to his dressing room to nibble on his apple. So before the second part, he cuts a small piece of it, wraps it in a paper towel, and puts it in the pocket of his costume! Now you know what's really going on on stage if you're going to the Tsallagova/Haji production because there are two different casts performing at the COC.
I am really thrilled to have had a chance to speak with baritone Joshua Hopkins. I strongly recommend attending the few performances left of The Magic Flute at the COC, in which both casts are sure to have you smiling and laughing. Let yourself enjoy Mozart's operatic fairytale for an evening, and forget all about the reality outside the hall. And that freezing cold.
Why the COC is so awesome
The day before Gotterdmmerung's premiere, I received an email from the ticket office that offered a complementary seat upgrade. Considering that I had bought my ticket in the last row of Ring 5 (that is the absolute last row in the hall), any other seat would be an upgrade really. So I immediately emailed them back and got my tickets changed, free of charge. Best part, they seated me in the 2nd row of the Orchestra level! I could have extended my arm and touch Johannes Debus conducting the opera in the pit. I didn't, but I physically could have.
Now because Wagner's last Ring cycle opera lasts just over 5 hours long including both intermissions, it began at 6 p.m. whereas other operas usually begin at 7:30 p.m.. Because of this, leaving on the day of the performance was not the best idea I'll admit. I arrived in Toronto at 6:30 p.m. and still had to drop my suitcase at the airbnb I was renting. Good thing I was staying a few blocks from the bus station and from the opera house! The COC didn't allow late seating BUT they have a large TV screen on the 3rd floor where you can watch the live performance, which is better than nothing. AND you can have a glass of wine, which you can't if you're in the hall. So all in all, not a bad situation. I had Bob's Bearded Red, a collaboration with Millstreet Brewery and opera singer Robert Pomakov, who is interpreting Alberich in Gotterdammerung! It could not have been more appropriate, really.
Ain anger (Hagen) and Christine goerke (Brunnhilde)
The Men's Chorus
Brass section of the cOC orchestra
Props to all the musicians of the orchestra (and special props to those playing in The Magic Flute too!) who for the duration of the opera, performed almost without interruption (looking at you violin section!). An opera by Wagner can often times feel overall loud and it is one of the reasons I have some reservations about attending this one. I don't know what Johannes Debus did, but this production of Gotterdammerung was completely the opposite of what you would typically expect. And my favourite part, the brass section. Whether backstage or in the pit, their clear strong sound was thoroughly on point.
I am so happy to have overcome my initial resistance of watching a Wagnerian opera. This production is memorable from beginning to end and raises the bar. It's opera like you'd imagine opera to be, except better.
Gotterdammerung runs through February 25, 2017 at the four seasons centre for the performing arts. Tickets here.