Parlando: The COC Blog



By Claudine Domingue, Director of Public Relations

This Remembrance Day, we take a moment to salute those who were involved in the war effort during the Second World War and joined the fledgling Canadian Opera Company as singers in its nascent years.
Here are just a few of those to whom we pay tribute:


Glenn Gardiner as John Sorel, Nellie Smith as Mother, and Theresa Gray as Magda Sorel in The Consul. Photo credit: Alex Gray, 1954

Prior to becoming one of the original members of the Canadian Opera Company, Glenn Gardiner was a pilot who joined the RCAF in 1940, flying 23 missions until May 6, 1942, when his plane was shot down over Belgium. He was captured and transported to Stalag Luft III, site of the now-famous Great Escape. Gardiner acted as a lookout for the diggers, but was not one of the 79 who attempted escape because he suffered from claustrophobia. Gardiner spent exactly three years as a POW.

After the war, Gardiner returned to Toronto to study at the Toronto Conservatory of Music (later the Royal Conservatory), after which he met teacher Ernesto Vinci and the COC’s first General Director Herman Gieger-Torel who plunged him into the world of opera. For the COC, Gardiner sang in all the productions of the company’s first two years Rigoletto, Don Giovanni and La Bohème (1950), and Le nozze di Figaro, Madama Butterfly and Faust (1951). He also sang the role of John Sorel in Gian-Carlo Menotti’s The Consul in 1953 and 1954 among many other roles. 


Evelyn Gould as Lucinda, Andrew MacMillan as Lunardo, and Joanne Ivey as Margherita in School for Fathers (I quatro rusteghi). Photo credit: Alex Gray, 1954

During the war, bass-baritone Andrew MacMillan performed for the troops as a member of the Canadian Army Show. While he had already appeared extensively in operettas and musicals in Montreal during the 1930s, it wasn’t until the war was over that he began studying in earnest at the Royal Conservatory under Ernesto Vinci. In 1949 MacMillan became Herman Geiger-Torel’s teaching assistant, and in 1950 joined the company as both a singer and assistant stage director. Over the years, MacMillan was a valuable member of the company’s artistic roster singing lead roles in La Bohème, The Consul, Die Fledermaus, The Magic Flute, and The Marriage of Figaro. In addition, he directed Madama Butterfly in 1962, La Bohème in 1963 and 1965, and Die Fledermaus in 1964.

Irene Selemka as Mimi, James Shields as Rudolfo, Andrew MacMillan as Schaunard, and Jan Rubes as Colline in La Bohème. Photo credit: Alex Gray, 1954

Tenor James (Jimmie) Shields was already a well-known performer on radio and touring shows throughout the 1930s in Canada and the US, singing with the big bands of Morton Gould and Eddie Duchin, as well as appearing on the immensely popular radio shows hosted by Jack Benny, Fred Allen, and Fibber McGee and Molly. He also starred on his own weekly NBC program called Enna Jettick Melodies.  

From 1942-1946, he appeared as The Singing Sergeant-Major in the same Canadian Army Show as Andrew MacMillan. After the war, in addition to being a leading performer on CBC Opera, and appearing on stage at Massey Hall with the TSO and various other orchestras, he also sang for the COC. He was Rodolfo in La Bohème (1951 and 1954) and Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly (1951, 1953 and 1956). 

June Kowalchuk as Cio-Cio San, Joan Hall as Suzuki in Madama Butterfly. Photo credit: Joan Baillie COC Archives, 1951 

The ladies of the COC also participated in the war effort. Mezzo-soprano Joan Hall (Madama Butterfly, The Magic Flute, Rigoletto) remembers that she and others like sopranos Mary Morrison (Faust, The Magic Flute, The Bartered Bride, Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro), Jean Edwards (The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro) and June Kowalchuk (Rigoletto, Madama Butterfly), spent some of their pre-COC years “wearing long johns under our long dresses in the 40 below weather and singing in front of two or three thousand troops!!! In Manitoba!!! We didn’t know much about opera, but our stage experience was awesome!”

We remember them all with pride and gratitude. Thank you to the Joan Baillie Archives of the COC for the photographs and memories.

Posted by Kiersten Hay / in Remembrance Day / comments (2) / permalink


Free Concert Series Highlights for November

Eliana Cuevas Quintet in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre

This November, the Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre features an eclectic mix of concerts. From programs that showcase vocal and chamber music gems, to unique genre-bending world music and jazz, you will find concerts to move, inspire and entertain you. Here are a few that you won't want to miss!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014
5:30 - 6:30 p.m.
Walk to the Sea

Jewish-Canadian trumpeter and composer David Buchbinder teams up with Cuban piano master Hilario Durán and a crew of Canada’s top jazz and world musicians to form Odessa/Havana. In a unique cross-cultural collaboration, the group explores the commonalities of music from the Iberian peninsula and their shared Arabic, Roma, Sephardic and North African roots.


Thursday, November 6, 2014
12 - 1 p.m.
1914 - 1918: Lest We Forget...
Maxim Bernard

In the second of six concerts in our sub-series, A Century of Change: Remembering the World Wars and the Fall of the Berlin Wall, French-Canadian pianist Maxim Bernard commemorates the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War with a touching program of works written during the war. Maxim reflects on the role of the artist during one of the most pivotal periods in Western history through works by Rachmaninov, Medtner, Hindemith, Scriabin, Fauré and Ravel.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014
12 - 1 p.m.
Sub Urban Gypsy
Dominic Mancuso Group

Award-winning singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Dominic Mancuso leads a powerhouse quintet of Canada’s foremost world musicians in a compelling sonic exploration of his ancestry. With his passionate and soulful singing style, infectious on-stage energy and enchanting storytelling, Dominic embraces the repertoire of his southern Italian forefathers and infuses it with the rich multicultural flavours of his native Toronto. In this special presentation, he performs highlights from his Juno Award-winning album, Comfortably Mine, as well as the group’s recent studio offering, Sub Urban Gypsy.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014
12 - 1 p.m.
New Age Creations
Susan Hoeppner and Beverley Johnston

Two of Canada’s leading chamber musicians, flautist Susan Hoeppner and percussionist Beverley Johnston, unite for an eclectic hour of music for flute inspired by landscapes ranging from Canada’s Arctic to the island of Bali. The program includes works by Gareth Farr (Kembang Suling), Lou Harrison (Ariadne), Arvo Pärt (Spiegel im Spiegel), Dean Burry (Tempest in a Teacup) and Christos Hatzis (Arctic Dreams).


Thursday, November 20, 2014
12 - 1 p.m.
Chamber Connections: Voice
Artists of The Glenn Gould School

Don't miss the opportunity to hear the stars of tomorrow when artists of The Glenn Gould School present a rich and varied program of music for chamber ensemble and voice. The concert features a variety of vocal chamber gems, including Chausson’s entrancing Chanson perpétuelle for soprano and piano quintet. Hear Jessye Norman's take on the piece in the recording below.

Is there a concert you're looking forward to this month? Share it with us in the comments or on our Facebook page!

Banner credit: Eliana Cuevas Quintet, photo: Karen Reeves

Posted by Kristin McKinnon / in Free Concert Series / comments (0) / permalink


Can we get a womp-womp for valve trombones?

by Meighan Szigeti, Associate Manager, Digital Marketing 

With Falstaff wrapping up its wonderful run at the Four Seasons Centre, we thought we'd ask the members of the low brass section of the COC Orchestra - Charles Benaroya (Principal trombone), Ian Cowie (trombone), Herbert Poole (trombone), and Scott Irvine (tuba/cimbasso) - a bit about what's helping bring Verdi's very human, and humorous opera to life: the valve trombone!

(l-r: Johannes Debus, Musical Director; Charles Benaroya, Principal trombone; Ian Cowie, trombone;
Herbert Poole, bass trombone; and Scott Irvine, tuba/cimbasso.)


You might call Giuseppe Verdi obsessive when it came to the slightest detail, but it’s those small changes that truly bring out the mood that the composer was trying to achieve.

That’s where the valve trombone comes in.

Verdi envisioned a low brass section that could articulate the very quick, light passages that communicate not only the humor but also the very rich, human tone in the score. Falstaff was also Verdi’s last opera, and with decades of experience behind him, he went "all out" and a score that used all of the instruments to their fullest effect.

Charles Benaroya, Principal trombonist in the orchestra explains that when Verdi “was really starting to orchestrate at his best, he had these specific instruments in mind in his last two operas especially [Otello and Falstaff]. Everything gets used really well, in lots of different ways and there are a lot of fun effects [in Falstaff’s score].” 

Verdi may have very well be pleased with the COC Orchestra, as the COC is only one of two opera companies that recently used these unique instruments in their repertoire! In fact, for most Italian operas the COC low brass will use older instruments to fully realize the composer’s intended ideas in the score

But why go that extra mile? Benaroya explains that “Slide trombones today that are used in symphonies have been trending towards becoming bigger which leads to a broader heavier sounds, which is great if you’re announcing the arrival of the Valkyries, or if Salome is dying, but in this music, which is lighter and more humourous, the lighter, crisper sound that you get from the Valve trombones contributes to a more appropriate mood.” 

What's the difference anyway?

Charles explains what the difference is (and watch below to really hear it!) and why they might have fallen out of fashion: “On a Slide trombone, I had to articulate [with different breaths], or else you would end with one big 'smear' but on the Valve trombone you can do one stream of air, and the valves do all the work.” 

“Certain things are easier on a Valve system instead of a slide system, but as the instruments fell out of fashion, and then people stopped writing for them, because they knew they would be played by slide trombone players. The valve trombone never came into common use outside of Italy because the straighter tubing in a slide trombone allows for better airflow through the instrument, leading to a bigger, purer sound."

It might not seem like much of a difference to the average listener, but here's a an excerpt of a passage from Verdi’s Falstaff to illustrate how this instrument is bringing the score to life:

FUN FACT: Did you know the instrument being used by Charles (far left in the video clip) was owned by none other than Rob McConnell, founder and Director of the Boss Brass? This renowned group of Toronto-based brass musicians recorded many albums, including recording with famous singers like Mel Tormé!

Posted by Meighan Szigeti / in Falstaff / comments (0) / permalink

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



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