Near and far, the force of opera is global. Here is the next instalment in our blog series which explores the moments when normal people became opera lovers.
It was 1951 and I was 18 years old. As part of the Festival of Britain celebrations, Kirsten Flagstad sang Isolde in Liverpool. It was only two performances and I booked tickets for both. What I did not know was that these were to be her final two performances of that role. I can still hardly believe my good fortune.
Above: a recording of Kirsten Flagstad singing "Liebestod" from Tristan und Isolde in a 1936 performance at Covent Garden with the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by Fritz Reiner.
It was 1967 and I was a 19 year-old university student in Paris for the summer, feeling like I was discovering the world for the first time. Don Carlos was playing at the Palais Garnier and I bought the cheapest ticket for a seat up in the rafters. Walking into that beautiful building took my breath away, but not nearly as much as Nicolai Ghiaurov in the role of Philip. At the end of the performance, I walked home in a state of ecstasy. A few months later, back home in Montreal, my dad managed to get me a ticket to Nabucco, again with Ghiaurov. More magic! Since that summer, I have been to many wonderful performances in various opera houses around the world, but nothing has equaled that night in Paris. To this day, Don Carlos remains my favourite opera and listening to Ghiaurov still excites me beyond measure.
Above: a recording of Nicolai Ghiaurov and Plácido Domingo in a 1983 production of Verdi's Don Carlos by The Metropolitan Opera.
As I grew up with parents who loved opera, answering the question about an opera that changed my life is a bit of a challenge, as I would say opera as an art form itself has changed my life. I cannot remember a time when we didn't listen to the CBC opera broadcasts on Saturdays and most of my parent's record collection were operas. The television show Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had a regular guest opera singer that also captured my imagination.
The first opera that I saw live was a production of the Tales of Hoffmann in 1971. We drove from Fredericton to see it in Saint John, New Brunswick. I was seven years old and the theatrical effects were like magic. The image of the portrait of Antonia's mother coming to life and singing is something that I will never forget. I was so enthralled that I insisted on sitting on my mother's lap for the last act because I did not want to fall asleep.
One of my other favourite opera memories was seeing a production of Rigoletto at the ancient arena in Verona, Italy in July of 1981. The historic setting, a full moon, live dogs, the audience holding birthday candles to celebrate Verdi, Sherrill Milnes singing live and not just on a record, all contributed to my lifelong love of opera. As a result I have been going to the COC ever since I moved to Toronto.
Above: Ekaterina Sadovnikova and Quinn Kelsey in Rigoletto (COC, 2011), photo by Michael Cooper.
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Being a true opera lover is a commitment, however, once you catch the bug, resistance is futile. Here is the latest edition to our blog series which explores life-changing moments when opera lovers were born.
Pietro Antoni De Vita
Visiting the Lyric Opera of Chicago when just a kid of 20 (my first solo trip anywhere), I was as excited as can be over the prospect of seeing and hearing my first Faust with none other than three of the greatest singers of the time: Mirella Freni, Alfredo Kraus, and Nicolai Ghiaurov. Knowing the score well, I was in utter anticipation of what was to come and could barely contain myself. I literally was a bundle of nerves as if I were the one to be performing. With the rise of the baton, one of the greatest operatic evenings of my life unfolded—all three major singers in splendid voice. The production was a gorgeous, rich, traditional staging of those beloved years. I was in rapture as we approached the first break (a very long two hours.) I thought I would literally melt away as Faust and Marguérite began their rapturous hymn of love. It was all ethereal, like an out of body experience. Nothing disappointed me as I awaited the final trio which sent me over the top. And, one of the most gratifying gifts of the evening was the meeting of Mirella, Alfredo, and Nikolai. Mirella and I formed a connection which lasted well past her performances of Fedora at the Metropolitan Opera and [Washington] DC Opera, where I had a private audience with her not too long before she retired. Those, indeed, were the days!
Above: a recording of the Lyric Opera of Chicago's 1980 production of Faust by Charles Gounod.
I saw my first opera in December, 1969 and it was at the Palais Garnier—the old opera house in Paris. I hated it. I thought it was clumsily staged and just too melodramatic for my taste. As a young man classical music was my music of choice, but I felt opera was not for me. I was on a winter-time trip to Europe and the woman I was traveling with was a pianist and an opera lover, so I was going along happily. After all, it was Paris, then Milan, Munich, Vienna and Budapest. So I felt I would just have to put up with opera even if I didn't care for it. Well, the next one was at La Scala—Don Carlo, with [Claudio] Abbado conducting, [Nicolai] Ghiaurov as Philip, [Rita Orlandi] Malaspina as Elisabeth, [Sherley] Verrett as Eboli, [Martti] Talvela as the Inquisitor, [Piero] Cappuccilli as Posa, and [Plácido] Domingo as Carlo. It knocked my socks off. I was completely enthralled.
Then it was [Birgit] Nilsson as Turandot in Munich, Lisa Della Casa in Arabella, Erich Kunz as Papageno in Vienna, Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry and James King in Fidelio in Vienna. There were a few clunkers along the way: a really boring Macbeth, a less than awesome [Die Walküre] in Budapest. But I was hooked. Other trips to Europe, some great productions, some not so much.
Coming to Canada I was lucky enough to have the type of career enabling me to be involved with opera. Here in Canada and in the United States, I have had the opportunity to experience the wonderful, risky world of opera and to see and hear some truly memorable productions. That first trip, and that encounter with that cast of Don Carlo, was instrumental in installing a love for and commitment to opera.
Above: Plácido Domingo and Rita Orlandi Malaspina in La Scala's 1969 production of Verdi's Don Carlo, photo by Erio Piccagliani.
Banner photo: David Pomeroy and Ana Ibarra in Faust (COC, 2007), photo by Michael Cooper
A new production of this uniquely Canadian contribution to the opera world is being conceived by one of Canadian theatre’s most acclaimed and inventive directors, Peter Hinton, with the COC’s celebrated music director, Johannes Debus, conducting. This production of Louis Riel is presented by the COC and its co-producer, National Arts Centre (NAC), in anticipation of Canada’s sesquicentennial and the 50th anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Louis Riel is sung in English, French, Michif and Cree with English, French, Michif and Cree SURTITLESTM.
Telling the history of Louis Riel is ever more important in this period of Truth and Reconciliation. It is the COC’s intention that an inclusive and expansive history shall be restored with the 2017 production. Throughout the conceptualization of the 2017 production of Louis Riel and in preparation for the rehearsal period, Hinton and his creative team have followed the guidance and wisdom of members of the Indigenous community.
“What struck me from the very beginning about this piece is the motivation for its creation. It is a contentious and provocative ‘celebratory’ work,” says Louis Riel director Peter Hinton. “When composer Harry Somers and librettist Mavor Moore were commissioned in 1966 by the Floyd S. Chalmers Foundation to write an opera to commemorate the centennial of Canada, Somers and Moore chose the subject of Louis Riel. Their choice to show Canada’s history of struggle and representation in the west, against colonialist and centralist objectives, is not only a metaphor for the conflicts which forged the idea of confederation, but also serves as a challenge for present and future understandings of our country.”
“We asked Peter Hinton to direct this production of Louis Riel because of his long-standing relationship and involvement with Indigenous artists and his knowledge and experience in mounting a theatrical project of this scale,” says COC General Director Alexander Neef. “His involvement brings an informed and culturally sensitive approach to the interpretation of Louis Riel that we are sharing on the stage.”
In 1967, Louis Riel was the first opera written by a Canadian to be presented by the COC, and the COC is the only professional opera company to date to have ever performed it. For more information and to purchase tickets, please click here.
Photo credit: Peter Hinton, photo by David Cooper
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001