By Linda and Michael Hutcheon
As we entered our seventh decade (yikes!), we realized that there was now a new period of life, that time beyond the usual point of retirement, for which there were precious few models. Firmly believing that opera (our particular passion) offers a perspective on practically all aspects of the human condition, we decided to examine the later years and last works of several successful composers of opera. Our goal? An understanding of their last years within the context of their entire artistic life course—and of the role of creativity in these years.
Of course, our current culture is one that is highly commercialized, resolutely anti-aging, and decidedly death-denying. It purports (with appropriate purchases) to keep us young forever, as though that were possible. The reality is, however, that we all age (if we are fortunate), and our lives change: social roles alter; the decline of physical health and cognition become worries and possibly realities; the world around us changes, sometimes at our expense. We wondered how artists of previous generations dealt with these inevitable changes. Did their creativity permit them to maintain social roles in later years? Did their creative works give them a forum in which to address those issues of aging and mortality? And, most importantly, what could we learn from their examples?
These are the questions that generated this book about aging and creativity, concepts that for many people do not sit easily side-by-side. However, as the lives of artists like Michelangelo (1475-1564), Goethe (1749-1832), and Elliott Carter (1908-2012) attest, they most certainly can. The canonical composers whose later-life stories are told in this book—Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)—offer radically individual responses to this conjunction of later life and creativity.
Each of these composers was a musical icon in his own country and, in his later years, each wrote an opera in which concerns about creativity and aging coalesced. The composition of an opera always requires a major commitment of time and energy because of the size and complexity of the work. To undertake this task in their later years meant exposing their creative activities to new pressures. These were multiple and, more importantly, different from those experienced by their younger selves—ranging from ill health to the critical expectations that stemmed from their previous success. We found that their late works did indeed help them to explore creatively their own aging and mortality; however, all of them also had to face those challenges that came with their own personal aging.
In addition, the social, political, and aesthetic changes of their times—from World Wars to the rise of musical modernism—offered external challenges both to their creativity and to their sense of themselves as artists and persons. The book tells the stories of their different but equally creative ways of addressing all these challenges and changes. It looks at their attitudes to their own aging and creativity and also steps back and assesses both those late operas and their critical reception at the time of their composition and subsequently.
What did we learn? Well, just as each composer began his career in an individual manner, so each also ended it in a unique way—thus belying one of the powerful clichés about older age in the media and in popular culture: that all older people are the same. Rather it is the complexity of the interrelationship of aging and creativity that leads to the radical individuality of these artists’ later years. Creativity in older life is not only possible, we learned, but a powerful aid in meeting the challenges of later life.
Linda and Michael Hutcheon’s book, Four Last Songs is available now at these fine bookstores and online. Learn more about the book here.
Michael Hutcheon is Professor of Medicine, and Linda Hutcheon is University Professor Emeritus of English and Comparative Literature, both at the University of Toronto. Together they have written three other books using opera as their cultural vehicle of choice: Opera: Desire, Disease, Death (1996), Bodily Charm: Living Opera (2000), and Opera: The Art of Dying (2004).
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Last month, Canada lost three singers of renown who graced the COC stage over the years. We take a moment to remember them.
Bass Osyp Hoshuliak sang on the COC mainstage in Tosca (1957), Otello (1960), as Banquo in Macbeth (1966), and performed the role of the King of Egypt three times in Aida (1963, 1964, 1968).
The COC production of Aida, 1968
The COC production of Louis Riel, 1968
You can read more on his life and legacy here.
The soprano Clarice Carson may have only sung four times at the COC, but her career took her around the world. At the COC she performed the title role in Tosca in both Toronto and Ottawa (1972), as Elizabeth de Valois in Don Carlos (1977) and as Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (1978).
Clarice Carson in Don Carlos with Victor Braun as Rodrigo
You can read more on her life and legacy in the following:
The Globe and Mail
The Toronto Star
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Photo credits (top down): A scene from the COC's Aida, 1968. Photo: COC Archives. A scene from the COC's Louis Riel, 1968. Photo: Alex Gray. Clarice Carson as Elisabeth de Valois and Victor Braun as Rodrigo in the COC's Don Carlos, 1977. Photo: Robert C. Ragsdale.
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From the multitude of vocal recitals presented through the Free Concert Series to, most recently, the blow-the-roof-off-the-opera-house performance of The Barber of Seville, members of the Canadian Opera Company’s Ensemble Studio have dazzled and delighted us this year with their exceptional skill and artistry. With the conclusion of the COC’s 2014/2015 season, it’s now time for the rest of the world to get a taste of the hotbed of talent that Toronto has been home to for the last nine months.
Tenor Andrew Haji travels to Athens, Greece this week to take part in a thrilling tribute to Greek-Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas on May 28. The Greek National Opera pays tribute to the legendary singer, featuring performances by Andrew and two internationally acclaimed Greek sopranos, Alexia Voulgaridou and Myrtò Papatanasiu. Andrew’s participation in the concert marks the first joint performance between Greek National Opera and the Canadian Opera Company. After a bit of a break, Andrew’s off to the Salzburg Festival’s Young Singers Project for July and August, coming back to Toronto just in time to start La Traviata rehearsals at the COC.
Bass-baritone Gordon Bintner also joins the Young Singers Project, an international benchmark and model for the supporting and nurturing of young vocalists. The curriculum goes beyond musical education and repertoire expansion, to include staged rehearsals, language coaching and Lied interpretation, with master classes led by Salzburg Festival artists that are open to the public. Before meeting up with Andrew in Austria, however, Gordon travels to Dresden, Germany to sing Bill in Bernstein’s A Quiet Place with Ensemble Modern on June 3 and stops in Montreal to sing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the McGill Chamber Orchestra on June 9.
Coming off an acclaimed run as Berta in the COC’s The Barber of Seville, soprano Aviva Fortunata is getting ready to sing a different tune and take on not one, but two of the opera world’s most admired vocal competitions. She’s the sole Canadian at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. The biennial event takes place from June 14 to 21, when 20 of the finest classical singers at the start of their careers come to the capital of Wales, hoping to win this prestigious singing competition. How does one follow up being chosen to compete in Cardiff Singer of the World? By being one of two Canadians invited to sing at famed world opera competition Operalia, which is being hosted for the first time by the Royal Opera House in London. Founded by Plácido Domingo, Operalia is committed to the discovery and honouring of the best new young singers of today and takes place this year from July 13 to 19. Viva Aviva!
Joining the Ensemble Studio gang gathering on the other side of the pond is baritone Iain MacNeil. He’ll be joining the Centre for Opera Studies in Italy program from June 15 to July 21 in pastoral Sulmona. In addition to individualized, one-on-one voice lessons, coaching sessions, movement classes and dramatic training, and master classes with an internationally renowned faculty of opera training professionals, Iain will be singing Guglielmo in Così fan tutte. Then it’s home to Canada where rumours have it that a motorcycling trip to St. John’s, NL is in the works as well as a possible recital in Brockville, Ont., come mid-August.
For fans wanting to check in on the Ensemble Studio artists over the summer, but are interested in staying closer to home, then Quebec is serving up some heavy operatic action right now!
The Montreal International Musical Competition for Voice runs from May 25 to June 5, and brings together 24 young classical singers from around the world. Only 12 candidates advance to the semi-finals with six vocalists chosen to go on to the finals as well as take part in a special concert on June 3 with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by the COC’s own Musical Director Johannes Debus. Among the 24 competitors this year is soprano Karine Boucher.
Karine follows up the vocal competition with a performance of Bruckner’s Mass No. 3 with the Orchestre Métropolitain under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin on July 4 as part of the Festival de Lanaudière in Joliette, Quebec. Then it’s home to Quebec City for some family-based hiking and camping and to learn her wide-ranging repertoire for next season at the COC, which includes La Traviata, The Marriage of Figaro, Carmen and Siegfried.
While in Montreal, Karine may cross paths with Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure, who heads to Montreal at the beginning of June for a recital with pianist Francis Perron for the Café Arts Vocal and to receive the Choquette-Symcox Award from Jeunesses Musicales Canada. Then it’s a trip south of the border to the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont. As part of Marlboro’s annual seven-week season, Jean-Philippe will be immersed in advanced artistic development and intensive, collaborative exploration of chamber music.
Intern coach and pianist Jennifer Szeto is doing her fair share of traveling this summer, dividing her time between Montreal and Calgary, and a few other places in between. When Karine faces the judges at the Montreal International Musical Competition it will be with Jennifer playing by her side. Then it’s off to the Brott Music Festival in Hamilton, Ont., the largest non-profit orchestral music festival in Canada, where Jennifer will coach and play rehearsals for The Barber of Seville being performed in July. That’s all that she can share… for now.
What are recent Ensemble Studio graduates up to this summer? Well, we’ve heard:
Safe travels to all and see you in September!
Photo Credits (top-down): The COC Ensemble Studio. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Andrew Haji. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Gordon Bintner. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Aviva Fortunata. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Iain MacNeil. Photo: Karen Reeves; Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Karine Boucher. Photo: Chris Hutcheson; Jennifer Szeto. Photo: Karen Reeves.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001