Telling the story of the Canadian Opera Company is so interesting when you hear from those who were there! This (by no means exhaustive) history focuses on the milestones the company has achieved over the years from the perspective of the people who made it all happen. For a much more complete look at the COC’s first 50 years, please reference the fabulous book, Opera Viva, written by Ezra Schabas and Carl Morey.
Click on the links and the images below to enjoy this interactive look back at the first 60 years of Canada’s first and largest opera company, and feel free to contribute your own memories at the end of the article.
Herman Geiger-Torel, Nicholas Goldschmidt, Arnold Walter, Ettore Mazzoleni, Edward Johnson—the names of the people who molded and eventually created what has become known as the Canadian Opera Company—evoke reverent memories. Fortunately, they had the talent, the drive, the work ethic, the charisma, and the ability to dream big, and eventually they, along with countless others, formed the first permanent Canadian opera company. During the early years, they may have wondered if their fledgling company would ever become part of the country’s cultural fabric, but, we choose to hope that creating Canada’s largest opera company and one of the most important in North America was indeed their final goal!
In working towards this goal, the founders’ original dreams were nurtured by an amazing assortment of singers and orchestra musicians, volunteers, students, dedicated patrons, philanthropists and music lovers. These individuals were the collective glue that kept the young opera company afloat. Their contributions were, and have always been, completely integral to the success of the company. The Canadian Opera Festival (as it was then known) formally opened in February 1950 with 10 performances of three operas over the course of two weeks at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
“By the time I did the Bohème in 1950 at the Royal Alexandra, I already had been involved with the company right after I graduated from the Conservatory in 1948. I had already done Orpheus and concert performances of Bohème at Hart House and in the Eaton Auditorium [now known as the Carlu]. It was a fun time. You know, I’d never seen an opera performed until I started working with the Festival. Very few of us did—I mean, we’d sung arias, art songs and oratorios and stuff like that. But a few of our colleagues were a bit older and they had just come back from serving [in the Second World War] oversees, like Andrew MacMillan and of course Jan Rubes, and they had much more experience, so it was just a great opportunity to work with them—and they were such fun! It was a lot of work, but on opening night we knew that once we got on that stage we had to deliver. The audience was remarkable, it was full and there were lots of supporters there—and by the way, if it hadn’t been for the Ladies Committee selling all those tickets, I don’t know where we’d be today!” Mary Morrison (Mimì in La Bohème, 1950, and several other roles in the 1950s)
“I auditioned for Niki in 1948 on my 20th birthday and I’ll never forget it because you know, they were pretty tough and I was sitting in the hall waiting my turn and I remember I was just shaking! Anyway, I went in when they called me and I did the Card Scene from Carmen, and when it was over, Niki banged on the piano, and I thought, ‘uh oh, here it comes,’ and he said, ‘Oh, thank God, we have a real operatic mezzo!’ My principal role for the first season was Maddalena in Rigoletto, and I was also in the chorus for Don Giovanni, and because we were performing in rep, they had scheduled a Don Giovanni performance in the afternoon, and then I had my premiere in the evening. So I went to Niki and asked him if I had to sing that afternoon, seeing as how I had my premiere that night, and he said, ‘Of course!,’ so I went on! Anyway, that night I seem to remember that I missed a cue, and I was standing there, and Niki held the orchestra, and I thought that the tenor had maybe forgotten something, and then I hear Mario Bernardi (who was working with us at the time), screaming my name from offstage, and I realized it was me! Oh, it was terrible!" Joan Hall (Maddalena in Rigoletto, 1950, and several other roles in the 1950s)
“I attended every performance [that first season], hanging from the second balcony. There was a terrific sense of excitement. Everybody was just thrilled to death. They pulled out all the stops.” Stuart Hamilton (Music Director, Ensemble Studio 1980/81)
Many, many others who have joined the COC family over the years have given much of their lives in service to the COC as volunteers. (For example, the ladies of the COC Archives—see photo at left—have given more than 100 years to the company!) Throughout the company’s history, there has been no shortage of ways in which the volunteers have proven indispensable. Currently, the COC gratefully relies on approximately 250 volunteers who perform a myriad of tasks, from office work to giving opera house tours, from ushering to performing sensitive archival work, from serving as Board members to hosting patrons and artists—the list is long! In short, we owe a great debt to the countless number of people who have enthusiastically donated their time to the company.
“My love affair with the COC began in the winter of 1950 at the Royal Alex Theatre. I was attending a performance of La Bohème. I knew the music but had never seen a live performance of an opera before. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of it and hooked for life. A newly arrived refugee from Europe, I was already grateful to Canada for taking me in—and now, this gift of music! The COC earned my lifelong admiration, respect and gratitude for so enriching our lives.” Elizabeth Erskine (COC Volunteer 1972 – present)
Read Elizabeth Erskine's complete letter.
During the 1950s Geiger-Torel eventually moved into the position of chief stage director and Goldschmidt was chief conductor. In the company’s early years, performances continued at a steady pace enriching the city’s cultural landscape, but, arguably Geiger-Torel’s and Goldschmidt’s most important decision was to increase an awareness and appreciation of opera by sending small touring productions across the country. These productions traveled to communities unserved by opera and introduced entire generations to the art, and, not surprisingly, staked the COC’s claim to being Canada’s premier opera company. From 1958 to 1991, the COC performed over 1500 times across Canada, throughout Ontario and parts of the United States. These were in addition to mainstage productions performed in Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton, Kitchener and London between 1954 and 1976. Touring was an essential part of the company’s fabric.
"Even when we had roles in the mainstage performances, a lot of us toured too. I stayed in Ontario and didn’t do the big cross-country tours, and I remember we had a very young Robert Goulet with us working backstage for a time. He was like a younger brother to me then. I went to see him about 16 or 17 years ago when he was here to play the King in Camelot and I went backstage. He was so tired as he had had a matinee and an evening performance. He was so happy to be ‘the little brother again and be himself,’ and I asked him if he remembered making $4 a week back then, and he told me, ‘No, Joan, it was $5!’ I have his picture on my piano. Quite a guy and a good friend.” Joan Hall
Visit the Historical Timeline 1958 "First Tour" & "Tour Goes Awry" to learn more about the COC's touring productions.
International tours came later. In 1993/94 the company took its production of Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung directed by Robert Lepage to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Edinburgh International Festival, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In 2002 the company returned to the Edinburgh Festival with Oedipus Rex with Symphony of Psalms directed by François Girard. Both productions received extraordinary international acclaim.
“Both of those tours were really thrilling. BAM in 1993 was exciting because so many critics came and it was a huge success, and, you know, New York is New York! The double bill [Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung] is hard music, and I remember being really nervous, but it went very well. And Edinburgh was amazing because we got such acclaim from critics and audiences from all over Europe. Both tours were a quite an opportunity for the company, and our successes just added to our optimism for the future.” Robert Speer (COC Double bass player, 1978 – present)
Visit the Historical Timeline 1993 "International Awards Garnered for Lepage Operas" & 2002 "Edinburgh Tour" to learn more about the COC's later tours.
As the years went by, touring became less necessary (as there were now opera companies across Canada serving many previously isolated communities), or financially viable. Fortunately, the COC’s operas had been broadcast nationally on CBC Radio since the beginning, and several times on CBC Television as well, notably with the COC’s production of Louis Riel in 1969 and other productions from 1976 to 1989, including Norma and Anna Bolena starring Joan Sutherland. In 1983 the COC began producing broadcasts of its entire seasons on CBC, expanding the COC’s performance universe even further. Although the initial complete season broadcasts lasted about 10 years, they were revived in 2009/10, once again bringing the COC’s full season into the homes of all Canadians.
The COC continues to serve young Ontarians with annual school tours which bring the magic of opera to approximately 20,000 school children. Forty-five-minute operas of classic favourites like The Barber of Seville, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, along with new operas created specifically for young people, are huge hits with audiences, educators and parents alike. To date, Dean Burry’s opera The Brothers Grimm (2001) has been performed 350 times and seen by over 100,000 students since 2001. It has been added to the regular repertoire of several opera companies across North America, and is believed to be the most-performed Canadian opera in history.
“Back in 1999, I was given the opportunity to write The Brothers Grimm for the COC’s school tour. Not only has the piece put me on a national stage (there are advantages to writing the smallest piece for the biggest company!), but it has also given me the opportunity to see a work interpreted in over 15 different productions across the country. That kind of follow up is almost unheard of in Canadian opera, and has been invaluable in demonstrating what works in an opera. It also feels great to be putting a work out there written specifically for young people. Adapted versions of The Magic Flute and Cinderella are wonderful and important, but giving children their own opera is vital to making opera their own. For a young composer, Grimm was the gateway to a career and I’m thrilled that it continues to be the introduction to opera for many young people.” Dean Burry (Composer, Artist Educator for the Afterschool Opera Program 1997 – present)
By 1960, Nicholas Goldschmidt and Arnold Walter had moved on to other projects, leaving Herman Geiger-Torel in sole leadership of the company. His signature style of frugal pragmatism mixed with a burning desire to expand the country’s artistic horizons (in particular fostering Canadian talent) was evident in the seasons he created and the artists he employed. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the COC continued to perform, to expand its seasons, and to feature Canadian artists—Jon Vickers, Teresa Stratas, Maureen Forrester, Carol Vaness, Louis Quilco, Victor Braun, Judith Forst, Ermanno Mauro—many of whom continued their great careers outside of Canada, returning to the COC whenever possible.
Visit the Historical Timeline 1962 "Quilco in Rigoletto" & 1964 "Horne & Vickers in Aida" to read more about the Louis Quilco, Jon Vickers and Marilyn Horne at the COC.
After more than 20 years at the helm of Canada’s largest (and for several years, only) opera company, Geiger-Torel retired in 1976 (and sadly passed away shortly after his final season). Iranian-born and U.S.-educated Lotfi Mansouri began his 11-year tenure in 1976. Mansouri’s goals of audience development, more and better future planning and financial stability were immediately put into action.
In 1977, the creation of a COC Orchestra was almost an accident of financial necessity, although the benefits were soon visible. The most evident benefit to having a semi-permanent orchestra was the expansion of the COC’s season, which changed from one which took place only in the fall to one which took place over nine months. Concurrently, the creation of an independent chorus took effect. Over time, the ability for the COC to develop the talents within these groups created a distinct sound and solid backdrop to all COC productions. In 1989, then-General Director Brian Dickie (1989 – 1993) hired Richard Bradshaw as the COC’s first Music Director. The orchestra and chorus thrived under Bradshaw’s long tenure with the company (from Music Director to Artistic Director to General Director, 1989 – 2007) and have become hallmarks of the COC artistic standards.
“When I joined the COC Orchestra in the fall of 1978 we were just starting to find our legs as an opera orchestra, so it was a little unsettled, as it would be—forming an orchestra is not an easy thing to do. But I remember my first opera was Der Rosenkavalier, and the music was so beautiful and the experience was so emotional that I felt like crying during every performance. (I also remember making $75 per service and I felt SO rich!) After a couple of years, things settled down and we started really learning to play well together. Things really started to change when Richard [Bradshaw] took over and we started playing concerts at the Glenn Gould Studio and the George Weston Recital Hall, and of course the tours to BAM and Edinburgh with Bluebeard/Erwartung and Oedipus Rex really gave us confidence. It was so energizing for us! And, Richard was so exciting to work with. There’s no question that having your own orchestra establishes you as a ‘real’ opera company. An opera orchestra just plays differently than a symphony orchestra. We have a few specialized skills—something about knowing the stage conventions, watching the conductor differently, knowing when to pause—those kinds of things give us an advantage that conductors appreciate. We had one conductor a few years ago who said to us, ‘You know, if I were conducting this opera in Europe, I’d need 20 rehearsals to accomplish what you do in four.’” Elizabeth Gowen (COC Bassoonist 1978 – present)
In 1980, Mansouri created a much-needed program to fill the gap between what students learned in music school and what they needed to know as a budding professional, establishing the COC’s Ensemble Studio program. One of the first of its kind in North America, it was recognized early on as Canada’s premier training program for young singers, directors and coaches. From its beginnings, the two- or three-year program has produced artists of exceptional quality, and Canadian audiences are witness to the enormous talent these young professionals demonstrate over the course of the program. Graduates are regularly employed at the world’s leading opera companies and are renowned for their well-balanced training and strong work ethic. Over 90% of graduates continue to work in the extremely competitive field, spreading Canadian talent and influence all over the world.
“My own personal involvement in the establishment of the COC Ensemble brought me some of the happiest and most rewarding times of my tenure as General Director of the company. A young artist program as part of a professional opera company can serve as a springboard to a fully professional career. Such a program provides financial security with the guarantee of a yearly contract, plus the opportunity to work with a full staff of artistic personable, coaches, musical and dramatic, body movement, vocal control, and all the other necessary tools for a career. At the same time the young artist gains professional experience by participating in productions, in large or small roles, working with experienced conductors and directors, as well as major opera stars. Watching the DVD of the COC’s production of Anna Bolena, you see, next to Joan Sutherland, Judith Forst and James Morris, are Ben Heppner and Gidon Saks, both now enjoying major careers. So with these principles, goals and aspirations, the COC Ensemble was launched in 1980 with the invaluable Stuart Hamilton as its music director. One of the great aspects of the Ensemble that developed was the role these young people played as ambassadors for the COC to the community. After leaving the COC, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many Ensemble veterans at different opera companies. I am delighted to see so many Ensemble alumni performing in Canada and the U.S., Europe and even Australia. They continue the tradition of great Canadian artists such as Jon Vickers, Maureen Forrester, Louis Quilico and so many others.” Lotfi Mansouri (General Director 1976 – 1988)
“For me, it provided a steady paycheque for a couple of years. That was a plus. They also provided coachings and masterclasses with influential conductors and voice teachers. There was nothing like that at the time and it was very valuable.” Roxolana Roslak (Ensemble member 1980/81, various roles on the mainstage and in touring productions)
Visit the Historical Timeline 1980 "Ensemble Studio Formed" to learn more about the COC Ensemble Studio.
Transforming the lives of young artists is gratifying and important. Transforming the lives of opera patrons around the world, is truly remarkable. In 1983, for its production of Elektra, the COC invented SURTITLES™, the world’s first system by which audiences can read the opera’s libretto while watching a performance. Given the widespread usage of simultaneous translation today, it’s hard to believe that resistance to the new initiative was initially fierce, but, its advantages were quickly appreciated, and today a version of SURTITLES™ is used at virtually every opera house in the world.
“It was actually a fairly simple process. That winter we were doing Elektra and in the spring The Coronation of Poppea—two very literary operas—and Mr. Mansouri asked us to try to figure out a way to help audiences understand what was happening onstage, in the same way that subtitles do for films. So we came up with a pretty simple solution using slide projections, and premiered the surtitles for Elektra. It was difficult to judge the audience’s reaction from where I was sitting in the booth, but I seem to recall that it was divided between those who loved them and those who felt it detracted from what was happening on stage. The true test of surtitles’ worth came when the COC Board quickly approved a budget for them for the following season. Now, of course, there are very, very few opera companies that perform without some form of translation. If the COC is known for anything in the world, it’s for the invention of SURTITLES™.” John Leberg (Stage Manager/Director/Production Manager 1967 – 1976, Director of Operations 1976 – 1988, Deputy General Director 1988)
Visit the Historical Timeline 1983 "SURTITLES™ Invented" to see more images from Elektra.
The COC’s administration until the early 1980s led a vagabond life, shuttled from space to space with departments scattered through the city. The company desperately needed a permanent home—one that could house not only the offices, but also rehearsal spaces, props, costumes and scenery. Plans were developed to repurpose two buildings on the eastern fringes of downtown Toronto and in the mid-1980s the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre was opened thanks to a generous gift of $1 million from the Tanenbaums—at the time, the largest single gift given to an arts organization. The various departments that made up the COC were finally amalgamated under one roof.
“As an arts organization you really want to leave the gypsy life and establish some kind of permanency, and the best way to do that is to create a space for yourself, a place that you can settle in and start doing the work, instead of constantly worrying about where you’re going to live next. Prior to us renovating 227 Front St., we were lucky to have been given some office space by SunLife in what was the Aetna building at the corner of King and University where the marketing, fundraising and administrative folks worked. And, Royal Lepage gave us space in their building right across the street from the O’Keefe Centre for the technical and production departments. Being split up was challenging, but the good thing is that we started some really great partnerships with those companies. In the end, creating the opera centre was really one of the most important things the COC could have done for itself.” Rob Lamb (Various positions in the Development department 1985 – 1989, Director of Development 1989 – 1993, Managing Director 2002 – present, Acting General Director 2007/08)
Comprised of two buildings that had most recently served as the Consumers Gas Company engine, condensing and purifying houses, and Dalton’s Maraschino cherry factory, the Opera Centre now houses four rehearsal halls of varying sizes, warm-up rooms, lobbies and meeting spaces, two full floors of administrative offices, a props department and storage area, a costume shop, and wig and make-up areas. Its spacious rehearsal halls, the comfortable administrative areas, as well as the company’s personnel who are dedicated to its smooth running, are acclaimed throughout the opera world.
“One day as part of an historic preservation conference in town Margaret [Genovese, then the COC’s Director of Marketing] and I took a tour of the city to look at buildings of historic significance. (By the way, at this point Margaret and I had been looking for at least a year for a place with adequate space—clear space—for the COC to use for rehearsal halls and administrative offices, because by the early 1980s the COC was basically homeless.) Anyway, so we’re on this bus tour of ‘unknown Toronto’ and as we’re driving by the old Consumers Gas buildings on Front Street, the tour guide tells us that these buildings are remarkable because they are among the only buildings left in Toronto with a really huge amount of clear, open space in them. And, there was a For Sale sign on the building! So Margaret and I raced to find the real estate agent, and we showed it to Lotfi and we figured that everything was perfect. Then we talked about it with Paul Hellyer, who at the time was in charge of our Facilities Committee. And because he knew that it would take a while to get through the Board approval process, and that it was prime downtown property and we were afraid it would be sold to some land developer—Paul just bought it himself. Of course, once we got approval he sold it to us along with a personal contribution. Paul was one of the greats. I’m not sure we could have done it without him.” Dory Vanderhoof (COC Director of Development 1977 – 1989)
Read more about the Joey & Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre.
“You know, we have the best offices in the whole industry. When you think about, most opera companies have their offices in or attached somehow to their opera houses—and all of them are in the most undesirable places—underground or in the back of the building and they’re small and uncomfortable. We have these great offices with a lot of light and huge rehearsal halls. And, the fact that we had these offices meant that we were able to build an opera house with a relatively small footprint in downtown Toronto for only $150 million, because we would never have found a piece of land big enough for a building with space for both a theatre and offices—which wouldn’t have been good anyway!” Dory Vanderhoof
Once the COC stabilized its work environment with the Opera Centre, the company concentrated on finding a new home for its performances.
From the beginning, the COC led a peripatetic life, changing venues according to its production needs, financial dictates, and audience growth. In 1961, the COC moved into a new hall, one which would serve as its performance home for the next 45 years, the O’Keefe Centre (later renamed the Hummingbird Centre and now the Sony Centre). Although the O’Keefe was a substantial improvement over the alternatives, it wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t ours. The dream of owning our own opera house never died.
View the Historical Timeline 1961 "Move to O'Keefe Centre" to learn more about the move.
“I vividly remember when I was in the chorus in 1960, we were performing Otello at the Royal Alex. Because the theatre’s backstage area was too small for all of us (we would have been about 40), we were crowded into the narrow wings and down the steps leading out to the alleyway waiting for our cue. I remember Mr. Torel, as he passed by, telling us that one day we would have our own theatre where we could perform without worrying about space—one where we would have wonderful facilities. I don’t think anyone could have imagined it would be 46 years before that dream was realized.” Muriel Smith (Chorus member and soloist 1960 – 1969, Ensemble Studio Tour Manager 1981 – 1985, Scheduling Manager 1985 – 1991, COC Assistant Librarian 1992 – 2008)
Plans for a new opera house had been in the works in fits and starts for decades. We even got as far as six weeks away from breaking ground at the corner of Bay and Wellesley in 1989 with the ill-fated Ballet-Opera House project. Richard Bradshaw ruefully described the long struggle as the “Thirty Years' War.”
Finally, in 2002, the provincial and federal governments combined forces and funded several large-scale building projects in the GTA. At last the COC’s dreams were within reach, and after years of pushing and prodding, Richard Bradshaw was able to lead the company into a full-out push to the finish line. Architectural plans were solidified, and a fundraising campaign began, led by gifts from Four Seasons Hotel and Resorts and the Fraser Elliott Foundation. Groundbreaking took place in April 2003 at the site of a parking lot in downtown Toronto. Three years and three months later, an opera house stood on the spot. In June 2006, over 30,000 donors, subscribers, audience members, educators, school groups, media, and the general public attended a multitude of inaugural events including concerts and building tours, filling the opera house for the entire month. When the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts opened officially with its first production in September 2006 (of the first Canadian production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle), a collective sigh of relief and joy went up—the hall was spectacular, the acoustics superb (the hall received a rare N1 rating), and the sightlines impeccable. Everyone’s dreams were realized in that moment.
View the Interactive Journey of the building of the Four Seasons Centre.
The first season in the COC’s new home, and Canada’s first purpose-built opera house was euphoric. The company had never looked or sounded better. Sadly, Richard Bradshaw lived to experience only one season in the opera house, dying suddenly in August 2007. Many feel that the opera house would never have been built were it not for him.
Fortunately, Alexander Neef’s appointment as the COC’s new General Director in 2008, and the subsequent appointment in 2009 of Johannes Debus as Music Director, have brought new and exciting momentum to the company. The COC has always benefited from a reputation for artistic excellence, but our new opera house, universally acknowledged as one of the finest in the world, has greatly enhanced the company’s presence on the national and international scene and offers boundless opportunity for the company as begins its seventh decade.
Read Alexander Neef's blog.
Countless events, programs, and initiatives have taken place over the company’s 60-year history—so many, in fact, that it is impossible to mention them all. The Canadian Opera Company is a product of the thousands of people who have worked with, supported and applauded the company throughout its history. There is no way to adequately thank those who have given of their time, effort, artistry, imagination, enthusiasm, humour, talent, resources, money, spirit—in short, much of their lives—to the company. We are profoundly grateful to them all.
"I have such a delightful memory of the COC's Bartered Bride, not just of the opera itself but of the SURTITLES™ which instantly switched from English to Czech when the circus manager spoke to his performers in English. It was a humorous touch and the audience enjoyed it." Connie Stokes
"In the fall of 1945 the Royal Conservatory of Music, still known as the Toronto Conservatory of Music, became the place of study for a number of Second World War veterans. An opera program was incorporated into the course of study. That opera program was the beginning of the Canadian Opera Company.
"I was one of the veterans returning to civilian life. I had been a pilot and was a prisoner of war for three years in Stalag Luft III Sagan, Germany, which is known for The Great Escape. In 1946 I became part of the opera school. Most of the male contingent had very little musical background. A good many of these guys had never seen an opera and barely knew stage left from stage right.
"I was part of the early productions at the Eaton Auditorium, Hart House and when the company was formed, the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
"Perhaps my most vivid memories are with the production of The Consul in 1953-1954. It was a very emotional time for some of the cast as they had been involved in somewhat similar situations during the war. The memories were still raw. Theresa Gray Gasparini sang the role of Magda and she has become a lifelong friend. When she calls from Italy she still says 'this is John’s other wife.'
"At the beginning of The Consul the hero, John Sorel, rushes on stage escaping from his enemies. He turns over the table in the apartment. This particular evening at the Royal Alex, when the table fell with a clatter, clouds of dust rose from the floor! I decided at that moment that Magda must have been rather a poor housekeeper!!
"Another night, the hydro in the theatre went out in the middle of the performance. The theatre was black. Mr. Goldschmidt was stuck with his baton in the air, but George Brough who was playing the piano continuo in the pit never missed a beat and saved the day!
"I have always felt I have been part of a privileged group of people involved in the musical life of Toronto. In those years, without people such as Mr. Torel and Mr. Goldschmidt the Opera Company would not have existed. Without the young men who came back from World War II there would have been no male chorus.
"The Canadian Opera Company owes much to the people who in the beginning had a dream of making a contribution to the musical and cultural life of Canada and worked so hard under extremely trying conditions. It was a magical time!" Glenn Gardiner
"Two memories continue to fascinate me, both having to do with vocal mishaps. The first concerns a Rigoletto given by the COC in Hamilton (in the '50s?) where Jon Vickers played the Duke—and a very virile one at that. However, in those early days, his voice was still being formed, and he broke on several of the crucial high notes. Still, we could all hear the potential in that huge voice. The other memory concerns the Hamlet performance starring Joan Sutherland (I think I have that right) where, in the role of Ophelia, she began to descend into the pool, only to lose her footing just as she approached a very high sustained note. Being Dame Joan, she faltered for moment, then pulled herself together and gave us a glorious moment of vocal beauty." Don Gillies
"I am thrilled to celebrate The Canadian Opera Company's 60th anniversary! I arrived in Toronto in the fall of 1948 from Regina Saskatchewan. Joining me also from Regina was my good friend Stuart Hamilton the young concert pianist who would become my coach and accompanist. In the summer of 1948 Dr. Ernesto Vinci (U of T) presented a Master Class for voice at the (U of M) Winnipeg, he offered me a three-year full scholarship to attend the Opera School in Toronto. This was a thrill, privilege and honor!
"I made my debut as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto—this was the first production of the first Opera Festival at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on February 1950. The CBC would broadcast Rigoletto in December 1950 with the original cast. This production would open many doors and I was indeed fortunate enough to tour Canada in recital, opera and operetta, meeting the thousands who had listened to the opera.
"The CBC was the lifeline savior for the many young Canadians in the field of drama and music. Franz Kraemer fought the good fight allowing us young singers to be heard all over the world! In 1950 and 1951 I entered CBC French network Nos Futures Étoiles and CBC English network Singing Stars of Tomorrow, placing first in each.
"The life of an opera singer is an exciting role to play and from the bottom of my heart I wish to thank all attended and applauded my performance. Special thanks to Stuart Hamilton and my co-founder of The Hamilton Opera, Clifford Cox. They are both active in the fields of music and cricket. Congratulations COC 1950 – 2010! I remember my dear parents Nicholas and Kolina Kowalchuk, Rex Battle, Rosanna Kellner, Patricia Snell and George Crum, Kiwanis Club of Regina, Louise Roy, Jand and Susan Rubes, Walter Homburger, Walter Susskind, Simpson Co., Irving Guttman, Lois Pearson, COC colleagues, Frederick and all the Eggleton Family. Keep humming!" June Kowalchuk-Eggleton, Hamilton Ontario
Fill out the form below and tell us what you remember most about the COC's first 60 years.
Photos, from top: Pavlo Hunka as Wotan in the finale of the COC's production of Das Rheingold. Photo: Gary Beechey © 2006 | Edward Johnson, Nicholas Goldschmidt, Herman Geiger-Torel and Ettore Mazzoleni. Photo: National Film Board | Mary Morrison (Mimì), James Shields (Rodolfo) and Nicholas Goldschmidt (conductor) take their bows in the 1950 production of La Bohème | A scene from the 1950 production of Rigoletto | Volunteers in the Archive Library. Photo: COC © 2010 | Virginia Hatfield, Sonya Gosse, Peter Barrett and Victor Micallef in The Brothers Grimm for the 2005 Zellers Ensemble Studio School Tour. Photo: Gary Beechey © 2005 | COC General Director Richard Bradshaw and the COC Orchestra in rehearsal. Photo: Michael Cooper © 1994 | Members of the COC's first Ensemble Studio, 1980 | A scene from the 1983 production of Elektra | The Tanenbaums with COC General Director Lotfi Mansouri | The Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre | Ben Heppner, Richard Bradshaw and Adrianne Pieczonka at the curtain call for the June 14, 2006 Inaugural Gala for the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2006 | General Director Alexander Neef and Music Director Johannes Debus. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2009
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