Sometimes it really is all about the music. Here is the latest edition to our blog series which explores life-changing moments when opera lovers were born.
I was about nine years old when I first heard an excerpt from Faust performed by the incomparable Feodor Chaliapin. He sang the Rondo "La Veau d'Or.” The recording was a scene from the opera where Mephistopheles enters the festivities and offers to sing. I have never heard a performer (before or after) who could vocally dominate a scene so completely—that the focus on him was so complete. His interpretation was so effective that, as of today, I still get shivers from hearing this particular selection. Furthermore, I am convinced that if there is a Devil it would sound exactly like Chaliapin.
Above: a recording of Feodor Chaliapin singing "La Veau d'Or" from Gounod's Faust.
Some of my early memories of classical music came from a friend’s dad playing 78 vinyls of Enrico Caruso. However, the real turn-on came when, at 10 or 11, I first saw Risë Stevens of the Metropolitan Opera sing and dancing the “Habanera” from Carmen in a movie with Bing Crosby. As I look back, I realize that I inherited a love of Latin music from my mother, an accomplished pianist who played for silent movies in a small theatre in Nova Scotia. This was all the more surprising as she was a MacDonald of Scots and Irish decent, but by then Xavier Cugat had brought to North America many catchy Latin melodies, as did Edmundo Ros in England. My love affair with the opera Carmen, especially the “Habanera,” has expanded to many mezzos, much to the consternation of my cousin and retired soprano, Jeannette Zarou of Düsseldorf. Though not a full-fledged subscriber, I do attend several COC performances each year, as well as a number of noon Free Concerts in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre.
Above: (left) acclaimed Canadian soprano Jeannette Zarou in La Bohème (COC, 1976), photo by Robert Ragsdale and (right) Stephen Hargreaves and Clémentine Margaine performing in the Free Concert Series, photo by Lara Hintelmann.
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Enjoy our next instalment in our blog series: The Opera That Changed My Life! The power of opera is a combination of many factors and goes far beyond the singing. These two stories showcase several other important aspects to life-changing operatic moments: lighting, costuming, and sets.
Back in the days of the COC's tenure at the O'Keefe Centre, I grabbed a ticket in the 1990s to a performance of Ariadne auf Naxos. Having just arrived in Toronto and living on a rather spartan advertising agency salary, the ticket broke the week's budget. However, I have subsequently come to the conclusion that it was some of the best money I have ever spent. I believe the production came from the US—perhaps Houston? The singing was stellar; Richard Bradshaw and the orchestra were at the top of their game. The opera within an opera was reaching its end. I was enthralled—and then it happened. Nearing the end, as Ariadne and Bacchus sing their duet and the audience (both on stage and in the house) are collectively immersed in the singers' expressed love, a thousand twinkly stars appear. My gasp of pure joy was echoed by everyone in the audience. The use of a lighting element at precisely the right moment of a delightful performance created a transformative experience. Can opera have the power to change a life? Those tiny points of light made a compelling argument that it can.
Above: a scene from Ariadne auf Naxos, directed by Tom Diamond, in the COC's 1995/1996 season.
Many years ago I worked in a junior capacity at the Sadler’s Wells (now the English National) Opera. One day I was offered a free ticket to the dress rehearsal of Der Rosenkavalier, my very first Strauss opera, at Glyndebourne that afternoon. With my boss’s encouragement, I hurried over to Victoria Station for the train to Lewes, and thence to Glyndebourne. As I walked into the intimate, old Glyndebourne theatre, I sensed that this was going to be something special, and I was right. Before the performance began, we were warned that there might be a few glitches—this was, after all, still a rehearsal. But there were no glitches; it was superb. There was a dream cast: Régine Crespin, Elisabeth Söderström, Anneliese Rothenberger, Oscar Czerwenka. The singing was wonderful, and Oliver Messel’s rococo sets and pastel-shade costumes were spectacular. This production didn’t receive universally favourable reviews from the critics, but for me it was perfection. I must have gotten back to London very late that night, but I didn’t care. I’d fallen in love with Strauss and his operas that day, a love that still endures many decades later. I'm a COC subscriber, as well as a frequent participant in the COC Opera Tours.
Above: set model by Oliver Messel for a hall in the house of Faninal, Act II of Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier, Glyndebourne Festival, 1959 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Dimitri Pittas and Grazia Doronzio in La Bohème (COC, 2013), photo by Michael Cooper; Russell Braun, David Watson, Tracy Dahl, Alberto Sanchez, and Ya Lin Zhang in Ariadne auf Naxos (COC, 1995), photo by Michael Cooper
We all know there are many different kinds of opera lovers and it definitely takes a specific type of person to fall in love with Wagner! As our production of Götterdämmerung comes to a close, we wanted to share the moments when two opera lovers became devoted Wagnerites.
I was 22 and walking past the old amphitheatre entrance at the Royal Opera House in London. A guy waved a ticket and said "it’s a good seat and only 30 bob!" I had nothing better planned and had been to a few operas but didn't know any Wagner. It started five minutes later, which is why he was in a hurry to sell. No surtitles and I didn't know what it was about. Anyway, [Birgit] Nilsson, [Gottlieb] Frick, [Wolfgang] Windgassen with Rita Hunter and Gwyneth Jones as Rhinemaidens or Norns, or both. [Georg] Solti conducting with demonic power. It blew my mind, even if I understood nothing.
I have been going to opera ever since, all over the world and averaging nearly 100 nights a year recently, trying to include a Ring Cycle every year. [Last summer I saw] the beautiful [Die] Meistersinger [von Nürnberg] opening night at Glyndebourne [Festival] with top headliners Gerry [Gerald Finley] and Michael [Schade]. It is awesome to have such marvelous Canadians everywhere!
I have been a COC subscriber for around 35 years now.
Above: a trailer for Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg as a part of the 2016 Glyndebourne Festival.
I was once cautioned against taking up with Wagner. Folks had talked of his ponderous works, his megalomania; his disregard for one’s demanding schedule and attention span, but perhaps it was exactly these qualities that attracted me to him. Tristan and Isolde opened up for me the metaphysics of music, the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Buddhism, and following from that, the realization that the folly of man arises from his insatiable desires, and that love, above all else, remains a redeeming quality in him. Tristan and Isolde is purely sublime. There is really no other way to describe it. This opera comes straight from the mind of an unquestionable genius, a man who undoubtedly succumbed to his prejudices, but who set music alight, and revolutionized it for the delight of modern audiences.
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001