By Alexander Neef, General Director
As I watched this year’s Ensemble Studio members perform their first concert of the season in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre last week, I was once again struck by the wonderful musical talent that this country produces.
In creating the Ensemble Studio in 1980, former General Director Lotfi Mansouri had the foresight to begin the process of intensive training and nurturing of young Canadian artists, and it’s a legacy that I take very seriously.
This summer I visited three different young artist programs, starting in St. Andrews by-the-sea, New Brunswick, observing and participating in Wendy Nielsen’s fantastic opera program there. As I’m sure you know, Wendy is a world-renowned soprano who has appeared on our stage, as well as all the major stages of the world. In the past few years she has begun teaching, and last year I asked her to join the COC as a special coach for the Ensemble.
Although her program has been around for 10 years, I haven’t been able to visit it until this summer. The program is special for several reasons, but I particularly like that it is process-oriented — not results-oriented. There’s no showcase at the end of the program, so a singer can use his or her time to focus on specific strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to work on particular issues, rather than have to prepare for a performance.
St. Andrews is a small seaside town without the distractions of city life, so for the 10-day or two-week period while they are there, it’s all about the individuals and their improvement, and Wendy always assembles a fantastic team of coaches. This year the teaching staff included Liz Upchurch (the head of our Ensemble Studio program), and Anne Larlee and Tom Diamond — both graduates of the Ensemble as well. I was pleased to spend a few days there, sitting in on coachings, spending a few minutes in working sessions with each student individually, and finally hosting a Q & A with the entire group.
Alexander Neef with Anne Larlee, Lewis Dalvit and Wendy Nielsen
Later in August, I went back to Santa Fe Opera for the fifth year in a row to catch up on its always impressive mainstage opera season.
Santa Fe Opera also has a large and respected apprentice program comprised of singers, stage hands, dressers, etc. The apprentices spend the summer at the festival, and the singers, in addition to their individual training, are also the chorus for the mainstage operas. I enjoy going near the end of their season because in mid-August the apprentice singers give a public presentation of opera scenes. Hearing them in these scenes is a good way to assess their particular skills, almost better than in a single audition because these performances tend to be more honest.
In late August, for the third year in a row, I went up north to hang out with young Canadian singers at the Highlands Opera program in Haliburton. Highlands Opera gives young Canadian singers training as well as a showcase at the end of their stay. This year the program ended with performances of La Traviata, featuring Ensemble graduates Ambur Braid and Adam Luther as Violetta and Alfredo. I did 15-minute sessions with each of them and then a follow-up Q & A with the group. As always, it is inspiring to see and hear what the future holds.
Speaking of the future, please join us as the COC presents its third annual Ensemble Vocal Competition at the company’s fundraising gala – Centre Stage, on November 26. It’s a musical celebration and this year we are shining the spotlight even more brightly on up-and-coming opera stars by holding the competition in R. Fraser Elliott Hall, and the singers will perform with our COC Orchestra under the baton of Music Director Johannes Debus. Having scouted opera talent from across the country for the Ensemble Studio, what better way to recognize the young singers being fostered in this country than by creating a public platform that celebrates the future of opera in Canada?
Photos: (top) Alexander Neef. Photo by bohuang.ca; (middle) (l-r, back to front) Members of 2013/2014 Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio. (l-r, back to front) Andrew Haji, Charlotte Burrage, Owen McCausland, Gordon Bintner, Aviva Fortunata, Claire de Sévigné, Cameron McPhail, Clarence Frazer, Sasha Djihanian, Danielle MacMillan, Michael Shannon. Photo by Karen Reeves; (middle) St. Andrews, New Brunswick; (middle) Alexander Neef with Anne Larlee, Lewis Dalvit and Wendy Nielsen; Santa Fe Opera. Photo credits: Alexander Neef unless otherwise noted.
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This fall, alongside Puccini's romantic La Bohème, the Canadian Opera Company presents Benjamin Britten's powerful opera, Peter Grimes. Starring legendary tenor Ben Heppner in the title role, and Ensemble Studio graduate soprano Ileana Montalbetti as Ellen Orford, this production marks the first COC performance of Peter Grimes in a decade, and the first staging of the opera at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
The story of Peter Grimes is based on the "Peter Grimes" section of George Crabbe's epic poem The Borough (to honour the man who gave birth to the character, Britten wrote Crabbe in as a silent character in the opera) and the opera deals with village life, persecution and hope. In 2013, the opera is experiencing a surge of interest due to the 100th anniversary of Britten's birth, most notably an interesting staging at the Aldeburgh Festival (where Crabbe was born and Britten lived) with Peter Grimes staged outside on the beach.
To better understand Britten's seminal work, watch our Peter Grimes Anatomy of an Opera video below.
Peter Grimes runs from October 5 to 26 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Learn more about the production and buy tickets here.
Photo credits: Nicholas Bakopoulos-Cooke as John and Stuart Skelton as Peter Grimes in the Opera Australia production of Peter Grimes, 2009. Photo: Branco Gaica
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001