Expo 67: This historic event was the highlight of Canada’s Centennial celebrations in 1967. Expo 67 saw more than 50 million visitors pour onto a new man-made island in the heart of Montreal, built specially for the major international exhibition, over the course of 183 days. It was a defining cultural moment in Canadian history and left a lasting legacy, including for two of today’s contributors. They share their stories of falling in love with opera after experiencing productions at the Expo.
As a 15-year-old boy, then living in Toronto, I was taken by my mother to hear my first opera. It was 1967, and among the many musical events that took place at Expo 67 in Montreal, the Royal Swedish Opera performed Tristan and Isolde. Isolde was sung by Birgit Nilsson, Tristan by Ken Neate, and Brangäne by Kerstin Meyer. It is hard to imagine a more legendary cast.
My mother had been trained in Montreal as a Wagnerian soprano by the famous teacher, pianist, and composer Alfred Laliberté. Although she never sang on stage, she knew all the major roles: Isolde, Brünnhilde, Kundry, etc. The tickets were a gift from my uncle. He wanted her to see and hear Nilsson, and I was her lucky date. My father didn't care for opera. Honestly I do not remember much, but the performance created a life-long opera lover of me, and that particular Wagner opera has remained my great favourite. It still brings tears to my eyes and a depth of emotion to my heart unlike any other operatic work.
Birgit Nilsson singing "Liebestod" from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
April 1964: I am taken to see our church's production of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde. This is the first of, to date, 16 productions of the opera I have seen, in four countries. The most recent was at Britten's home church, St. Margaret's, in his hometown of Lowestoft, Suffolk, on his centenary weekend in November 2013. Dame Felicity Palmer sang Mrs. Noye. One of the audience members had danced the Raven in an early production, very possibly the first, and was here to see his grandson do the same thing. I have heard this piece, live and on recording, upwards of 150 times, and I still am overwhelmed by it. Surely it is the greatest 20th-century work written for children.
A CBC presented excerpt of Benjamin Britten's Noye's Fludde, with Gary Relyea as Noah and Marcia Swanston as Mrs. Noah
June 1967: As part of Expo 67 in Montreal, the Royal Swedish Opera is invited to perform. They bring with them Ingmar Bergman's celebrated staging of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. My parents and I are seated in the fifth row in the house. A trumpet quartet plays the very brief Prelude, and I am hooked. The designer has taken great pains to replicate William Hogarth's engravings, the visual source for the piece. Act I, Scene ii, Mother Goose's brothel, captivates me, and I shed tears (I am in my mid-teens) at the ending, Tom Rakewell visited by Ann Trulove in Bedlam. The auction scene with Sellem is sharp and incisive. I can hardly talk of anything else for one year, until my father brings back from London the recording of the opera conducted by Stravinsky himself. After 50 years I can still hear and see this production in my mind's eye.
There have, of course, been other operas which have been memorable; these two, as a perceptive friend declared, "have gone into my soul."
An excerpt from the overture of Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress
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Photo credits: Expo 67 (Montreal, 1967), photo: Laurent Bélanger
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Ahh, the European getaway, new and inspiring sights, smells, and sounds; the discovery of beautiful things. In this week's tales of life-changing operatic events, we hear from two patrons of the COC who fell in love with opera while taking a trip across the pond.
My most memorable opera experience was in France in June last year (2015). I was visiting my French boyfriend who was living in Paris at the time and he told me to dress up for an evening surprise. I had no idea what to expect, so I put on a dress and got whisked away in his little Fiat out to the Parisian suburbs of Sceaux. When we arrived, we walked through a beautiful manicured park until we reached the destination. Turns out, he surprised me with an outdoor performance of La Traviata by Verdi with the Château de Sceaux serving as the backdrop. I thought I was dreaming. It was magnificent. I’ve attached a photo taken on my BlackBerry. It absolutely doesn’t do it justice.
In the summer of 1995, before my final year of university, I flew to Germany for a couple of weeks of travel. I devoted three days to exploring Berlin, and the city was filled with tourists and excitement that summer since artists Jeanne-Claude and Christo had wrapped the Reichstag parliament building in incandescent white and silver fabric in a statement of environmental art. The Berlin Wall had come down only six years prior and the former East Berlin neighbourhoods still looked decidedly different from those in the West. I admired the famous Brandenburg Gate and strolled Unter den Linden Boulevard, passing the Berlin Opera House. An impulsive stop at the ticket counter resulted in last-minute tickets to La Traviata that evening. The combination of the fascinating city, the beauty of the opera house and Verdi's magic was perfect for the creation of a lifelong opera lover.
Since that chance opportunity in Berlin, I have attended many different productions by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and was happy when my 12-year-old daughter decided to test out "this opera stuff" and accompanied me last fall. While I'm not sure she gets the same goosebumps I do, and she would never freely admit that her life had been changed by attending her first opera, she did stay awake and say it was "ok;" I'll call that an early win and get to work on spreading the magic to her younger sister and brother. I've seen firsthand how early, repeated exposure to sports has turned them into little Leafs and Jays fans—I plan to use that same logic and method for Verdi, Mozart and Puccini.
Photo credits (top - bottom): Roberto Gleadow as Dr. Grenvil and Ekaterina Siurina as Violetta in La Traviata (COC, 2015), photo: Michael Cooper; a scene from La Traviata at Château de Sceaux (2015), photo: Kyla Cham
When did you first listen to opera? For this instalment of The Opera That Changed My Life, we look at two submissions that found the music that changed their lives during (arguably) the most dramatic time in anyone's life: the teenage years.
La Bohème as a high school student. Act IV, orchestral chords before Mimì sings "Sono andati." That one moment caused me first to shiver and then to weep. Changed my life. I decided this was my career path. And I am fortunate to continue that choice.
P.S. That musical moment causes the same reaction today, 50 years later. Every time I walk on stage, that moment so long ago is still in my head. I wish I could remember who sang that Mimì. I do remember it was Richard Tucker as Rodolfo.
Angela Gheorghiu as Mimì and Roberto Alagna as Rodolfo sing "Sono andati? Fingevo di dormire" from La Bohème
When I was in grade 10, I always wanted to become a classical singer, and, if granted by chance and prayers, I wanted to become an opera singer too. Over the years, my voice teacher decided to take our vocal class on a field trip where we watched the COC’s production of Madama Butterfly. That was the very first opera that I watched and I fell in love with it, and ever since then I became more dedicated to classical singing and pursuing my dreams of becoming a classical singer. Apart from Madama Butterfly, the opera Tosca also changed my life because of its famous aria “Vissi d’arte.” Now, that line from Tosca is my inspiration in singing and remembering that I live for two things in this world: for love and for music.
Sondra Radvanovsky singing "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca (See her on stage at the COC this fall in Norma.)
Photo credit: Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly (COC, 2014), photo: Michael Cooper
Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001