Parlando: The COC Blog


10 Things to Know: Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung


Robert Lepage's iconic double-bill Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung returns to Toronto to be performed for the first time on the Four Seasons Centre stage. Read on to discover the top 10 reasons why you have to get tickets for this spine-chilling duo of opera masterpieces while they last! 


Québec City native Robert Lepage is indisputably one of the most original theatre artists Canada has ever produced. His ground-breaking 1993 production of Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung was a watershed moment for the COC, establishing it as one of the world’s most visionary and compelling opera companies. Following its Toronto premiere, it garnered world-wide acclaim touring to New York, Edinburgh, Melbourne and Hong Kong. This spring Toronto audiences will be hearing the stunning sonic effects of these two revolutionary scores for the first time in the acoustic splendour of the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.


Set and costume designer Michael Levine draws inspiration for his visuals from the social and artistic zeitgeist of the period of composition. He cites Austrian painter Gustav Klimt’s richly gilded canvases as a reference for the huge gold frame that surrounds the proscenium and points to the sombre, unnerving works of Klimt’s Norwegian contemporary, Edvard Munch, as inspiration for his stage design.


Robert Lepage describes Erwartung as very “dark; a work of despair; Schoenberg doesn’t give any keys or clues to this piece. It’s very erratic—a sort of Freudian voyage.” He highlights these Freudian aspects by setting the opera in a mental ward where the sole character, “The Woman,” is straightjacketed and flooded by memories as she recounts the events of her search for her lover.


Largely self-taught, Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg’s (1874–1951) innovative experiments with harmony moved art music away from the late-Romantic lushness of Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler towards an atonal sound world that threw over the conventional rules of Western harmony. With his early opera Erwartung (1909), he extended the boundaries of tonality so far as to become the first composer to overstep them. You can hear guided samples at


Unlike Schoenberg, Hungarian Béla Bartók (1881-1945) did not reject contemporaries such as Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy—in fact, early works such as Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) were strongly influenced by their style. Instead, it was his research into the old, forgotten folk melodies of Hungary that freed him to create a unique musical fabric dominated by surprising, new dissonances.


In 1903, spurred on by the new anti-Austrian, anti-Habsburg movement in Hungary, Bartók declared in a letter: “all my life, in every way I shall serve but one aim; the benefit of the Hungarian nation.” He completed Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, just six years before the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the production’s creator, superstar Canadian director Robert Lepage, points out, “It was the end of a lot of empires; the end of a lot of Bluebeards who possessed lands and jewelry, but whose money was stained with blood.”


Schoenberg’s Erwartung is very much a product of the Expressionist movement that swept through all the arts during the early 20th century. His break from the traditional Western harmonic tradition with atonality unleashed a similarly “expressionist” sound world equipped to expose heated emotions of frightening power that had theretofore remained under wraps. Schoenberg’s librettist, the young medical student Marie Pappenheim, based her text on the elliptical, resonant language of patients undergoing psychoanalysis. As a member of the medical community, Marie may well have been familiar with “Anna O,” one of Sigmund Freud’s most famous patients—certainly there are similarities between that case and the text of Erwartung.


Erwartung’s complex score is particularly challenging due to its “in-between” status—Schoenberg wrote it after he had abandoned tonality (c. 1909) but before he had devised the 12-tone system (early 1920s). German philosopher and musicologist Theodor Adorno famously described it as being akin to “the seismographic recording of traumatic shocks;” a fragmentary score that almost never settles on any type of repeated theme or motif that might potentially offer definitive answers.


Previous to Bartók’s re-discovery of his homeland’s rich treasury of authentic melodies, the Hungarian classical “nationalist” style had been dominated by folk-like popular songs which were in fact corruptions of truly indigenous music. However, Bartók did not simply incorporate these folk materials verbatim; any of his “melodies” are entirely his own. Instead, he used them as models to intensify rhythms, expand his tonal palette and ultimately, explore the new dissonances that came to define his music. You can hear guided samples at


Canadian star, bass John Relyea, relishes the psychological challenges posed by Bluebeard who spends the entire opera in continual dialogue with his latest wife, Judith: “the through line of emotional tension is unbroken, relentless; likewise the score builds up dramatically as things get deeper and darker and doesn’t let you go.” 

Relyea’s Judith will be Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova with whom he has worked at Covent Garden. Relyea feels this will be “especially important in a piece that is very intimate; very exposed psychologically—having established trust with a colleague beforehand is extremely helpful in creating something very real earlier in the process of developing the characters.” 

Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó’s (The Woman, Erwartung) association with this production goes back to her days in the COC Ensemble Studio when she understudied the role of Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle. She calls her new role “probably the most challenging thing I’ve worked on to date. After looking at the first three pages I thought, ‘It’s never going to stick in my head,’ but it’s extremely satisfying when the puzzle falls into place!”

To find out more about our production of Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung, click here

Photo credits (top-bottom): (l-r) John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith in the Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2015, and Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist (in background) in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper; Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper; (l-r) Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist and Krisztina Szabó as the Woman in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper; John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard and Ekaterina Gubanova as Judith in the Canadian Opera Company production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper; (l-r) Mark Johnson as the Psychiatrist, Krisztina Szabó as the Woman and Noam Markus as the Lover in the Canadian Opera Company production of Erwartung, 2015. Photo: Michael Cooper

Posted by Kiersten Hay / in Bluebeard/Erwartung / comments (0) / permalink


Free Concert Series Highlights for May and June

Infusion Dance

The 2014/2015 season of the Free Concert Series is almost at a close. Be sure to stop by and catch the last shows of our ninth season, including 20th-century works, a world premiere and even bebop! Read on to discover some of the concert highlights coming in May and June; you could say we've been saving the best for last!

Thursday, May  7, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
Kara Huber, piano

Quickly gaining an international reputation for her extraordinary prowess and flair for contemporary music, award-winning American pianist Kara Huber shows that, in the right hands, piano études can be fun and funky. The program also features the world premiere of a new work written just for her by Andy Villemez.

Thursday, May  14, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
Folk Impressions
Shelley Brown, flute
James Shields, clarinet
Aya Miyagawa and Nancy Kershaw, violin
Josh Greenlaw, viola
Rebecca Morton, cello
Lori Gemmell, harp

Artists of the COC Orchestra and guest harpist Lori Gemmell perform works by Arnold Bax, Béla Bartók and Maurice Ravel. In the early 20th century, Bax, Bartók and Ravel found themselves in the midst of great change, chaos and war. Perhaps in response to this pressure, all three of the works in this program were influenced by their composer's love affair with a particular pastoral region.

Tuesday, May  19, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
Songs and Dances of Death
Ekaterina Gubanova, mezzo-soprano
Rachel Andrist, piano

Internationally acclaimed Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova (currently making her COC mainstage debut as Judith in Bluebeard’s Castle) performs Mussorgsky’s devastatingly beautiful song cycle Songs and Dances of Death.

Wednesday, May, 20, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
The Diary of One Who Disappeared
Charlotte Burrage, mezzo-soprano
Owen McCausland, tenor

Tenor Owen McCausland and mezzo-soprano Charlotte Burrage perform in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre one last time as members of the Ensemble Studio, before graduating from the program this spring. They present Janáček’s intensely dramatic song cycle, The Diary of One Who Disappeared.

Thursday, May 21, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
Harawi: Songs of Love and Death
Krisztina Szabó, mezzo-soprano
Christopher Mokrzewski, piano

Acclaimed Canadian mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó (currently singing the role of The Woman in the COC’s Erwartung) and pianist Christopher Mokrzewski (of Toronto's Against the Grain Theatre) unite to perform Olivier Messiaen’s exquisitely beautiful and deeply moving song cycle, Harawi (Songs of Love and Death). The piece is part of a trilogy of works embracing the Tristan myth and the concept of the simultaneous fulfillment of love and death.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015
12 — 1 p.m.
Instruments are for Surgeons
Cadence Vocal Quartet

Closing out the season is Cadence, Canada’s premier a cappella vocal ensemble. Famous for their infectious energy and uncanny verve, the group has been wowing audiences across the country and around the world for over 15 years. Whether performing classics by Joni Mitchell or Louis Prima, bebop standards or cheeky arrangement of 1980s hits, their hypnotic blend of complex harmonies, intricate arrangements, vocal dexterity and on-stage antics are simply irresistible!


Which concerts are you most looking forward to? Share it with us in the comments!

Banner credit: Víkingur Ólafsson. Photo: Kevin Lloyd

Posted by Kristin McKinnon / in Free Concert Series / comments (1) / permalink


Artist Basics: John Relyea


Canadian bass John Relyea continues to distinguish himself as one of today's finest singing actors. Hear him prove it onstage when he appears in our production of Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung this May, and read on to discover more about this Toronto-born international sensation!    

What he’s doing with us: John will be singing the role of the dark Duke Bluebeard in the first opera in the iconic double-bill, Bluebeard's Castle.


John as Duke Bluebeard in the Seattle Opera presentation of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2009. Photo: Rozarii Lynch

Where you might have seen him: Previously, John has appeared onstage in many of the world’s most celebrated opera houses including the Metropolitan Opera; San Francisco Opera (where he is an alumnus of the Merola Opera Program and a former Adler Fellow); Lyric Opera of Chicago; Seattle Opera; Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; Paris Opera; Bayerische Staatsoper; Vienna State Opera; Theater an der Wien; and the Mariinksy Theater.

(l-r) Malgorzata Walewska as Judith and John Relyea as Duke Bluebeard in the Seattle Opera presentation of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle, 2009. Photo: Rozarii Lynch

His past roles include the title roles in Attila, Le Nozze di Figaro, Bluebeard’s Castle, Don Quichotte, Attila, and Aleko; Zaccaria in Nabucco, Bertram in Roberto le Diable, Raimondo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Colline in La Bohème, Don Alfonso in Lucrezia Borgia, Don Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Alidoro in La Cenerentola, Giorgio in I puritani, Banquo in Macbeth, Garibaldo in Rodelinda, Méphistophélès in both Faust and La Damnation de Faust, the four villains in Les contes d’Hoffmann, Escamillo in Carmen, Marke in Tristan und Isolde, Caspar in Der Freischutz, Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress, Collatinus in The Rape of Lucretia, and King René in Iolanta. He last appeared onstage with the COC as the four villains in our 2012 production of The Tales of Hoffmann.

(l-r) Keri Alkema as Giulietta and John Relyea as Dapertutto in the Canadian Opera Company production of The Tales of Hoffmann, 2012. Photo: Chris Hutcheson

John is also in high demand as a concert artist, appearing regularly with orchestras such as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Pittsburgh Symphony, Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Toronto Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic. 

John Relyea as the Nightwatchman (start at 2:26) in the Metropolitan Opera production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, 2001.

He has appeared at various festivals, including Tanglewood, Ravinia, Blossom, Cincinnati May, Vail, Lanaudière, Salzburg, Edinburgh, Lucerne and Mostly Mozart, and in the BBC Proms.

John will be making a role debut as King Philip II in Verdi’s Don Carlo this summer at the Escorial in Spain. Be sure to catch him while he's here in Bluebeard's Castle, part of the iconic Bluebeard/Erwartung double-bill!

See John Relyea as Bluebeard in our current production of Bluebeard's Castle/Erwartung. For more information and to buy tickets, click here

Photo credit (banner): Shirley Suarez 

Posted by Kiersten Hay / in Bluebeard/Erwartung / comments (0) / permalink

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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001