When a “Fantasy” becomes reality…(LOC’s ‘Fantasy of the Opera, 2012’ takes center stage)

If one ever wonders what happens when a bunch of opera singers meet well dressed donors under a themed evening of glamor, drinks, dinner/dancing, and a cabaret performance where anything BUT opera is performed; they need go no further than the Lyric Opera of Chicago to find out.  Once a year, Chicago’s finest and ‘fun-est’ attend the company’s famed “Fantasy of the Opera” Gala, which held it’s annual fete this past Friday (January 27, 2012).

For 28 years the opera company–but more specifically, it’s Guild Board of Directors–has put on this Gala as it’s most highly anticipated fund-raising event of the season.  It is, in my estimation, even more coveted an occasion than the celebrated Opera Ball that I have written about just recently (see my posting: “When Life Interrupts”).  There are three reasons for this: fun, Fun, and FUN.

Sure there are gowns and tuxedos, photographers and media; food, food, and more food; as well as the finest champagne and spirits money can buy.  There are also valuable raffle prizes, a variety of silent auction offerings which are bid on via a state-of-the-art electronic bidding process, and a great society band/orchestra that allows revelers to dance the night away.  The Lyric usually makes about $500,000 on the event, but the actual tally is always posted as a result of local newspaper and/or society page coverage the following week.  But what sets this party apart is the now legendary “Cabaret” performance that is given by the Stars of the Lyric Opera–this is where the FUN part of ‘fun, FUN, FUN’ comes in!!

As a result of having performed on this event some 16 years out of 28 (yes, I hold the record for the most appearances by any one artist), as well as hosting it twice, I can tell you that we singers look forward to it as much as any of the guests.  (I flew in from Toronto this year, especially for the occasion.)  There is no ‘pressure’ at these performances; the management wants us to have as relaxed a time as the attendees.  And over the years, I have seen the biggest stars of our industry just let their hair down and sing the great standards, show-pieces, country music favorites, national specialties, Broadway show tunes, jazz classics, torch songs, barber shop quartets, and even some rock-n-roll.  What the heck…it’s all about FUN, right???

I’ve watched gowned operatic super-stars fall flat on their face (literally) when their shoe heel catches their hemline, while others have taken to the stage to hoe-down when the timing seemed right; some have tripped or slipped as they entered or exited, some told jokes that bombed (like me) or left them howling (like me); high notes are blown, while others are spectacularly executed.  None of it matters really…because we are there just to enjoy…whether we sing a ballad/love song, or just a silly rendition of Don’t Fence Me In.

It is good to blow off some steam, not take ourselves too seriously, and assist in raising desperately needed funds for what I have always termed the art-form of all art-forms.  But it must also be noted that so many of our Guild Board members work for an entire year to make this one-night-extravaganza as important as any full-run opera production.  This year may have been one of the best, although they are always spectacular!  And as far as variety of cabaret performances go; there were no less than 14 performers that included Nathan Gunn, Amber Wagner, Emily Fons, James Kryshak, Jamie Barton, Philip Kraus, Susanna Philips, Morris Robinson, Alyson Cambridge, Rene Barbera, Elza van den Heever, and others still–including ‘yours truly’.  Maestro Craig Terry provided spirited accompaniment for all, while Lyric’s new General Director, Anthony Freud donned a cowboy hat and hosted as the Master of Ceremonies.

For the record, I rewrote the lyrics to Billy Joel’s Piano Man specifically for the event to honor “All things Lyric”.  I even got the audience to sing along, as I coolly sipped a “scotch on the rocks” on-stage!!  You see; after 16 years I know the temperature of our Chicago audiences pretty well, and see many a regular in the crowd each season.  If only I hadn’t needed to fly out the very next day…well, let’s just say the party may have continued at my home, which it has in years past!  Maybe we will do it next year–if I am invited back…although I am running out of party pieces!!!



“Afternoon Delight”…a COC regularity!

On this cold, foggy, but rainy Toronto Tuesday, in the midst of a winter that won’t make up its mind; the Greater Toronto Area (“The GTA” to us regulars…ha, ha…not really a regular…but I just couldn’t resist) had the opportunity to shed a few pounds over their lunch hour.  That is to say, instead of filling their stomachs, they could fill their souls instead, with a full helping of interesting musical/artistic fare–courtesy of a Free Concert Series in the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre of The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.  These free concerts and dance events focus themselves on six different areas of the performing arts, with today’s installment (Tuesday January 17, 2012) being that of the ‘Vocal Series’.

As rain droplets pocked the pavement below, and umbrella tops provided their own brand of pre-concert entertainment, an overflow audience perched itself on the third floor bleacher seating of the dramatic, glass-encased lobby amphitheatre, as others lined the fourth floor standing gallery and looked down.  They were treated to a program entitled In Praise of Women, which featured the long overdue, too long ignored, contributions of female composers to the musical firmament, along with texts by different poets of their day.  The program was performed by members of Canadian Opera Company’s “Ensemble”, or Young Artists Program…more on that later (and a pet-peeve about it!).

With appropriate spoken commentary that preceded some of the individual pieces–and some humorous anecdotes about the plight of the female composer as an entity–the assembled vocalists and their accompanists distinguished themselves by any and all critical measure.  While most will not recognize any of the singers by name (yet), and in most cases will not recognize the composers (Alma Mahler notwithstanding), all in attendance left more fulfilled, more entertained, and more educated than before they entered.

Soprano Mireille Asselin set the tone with an ethereal O Virtus Sapientiae by 10th Century composer Hildegard von Bingen, followed by the duets In der stillen Mitternacht, and So soll ich dich verlassen by Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel…whose own work was often attributed to her brother Felix!!  Ms. Asselin, Neil Craighead (bass-baritone), Ileana Montalbetti (soprano), and Christopher Enns (tenor), all acquitted themselves admirably in these rather dramatic and plangent pieces.  Mr. Craighead followed up with a vocally solid and polished Chanson triste and Reve d’un soir by Cecile Chaminade; while Mr. Enns delivered an earthy, well sung set of songs by Alma Mahler.

The crowning achievement of the afternoon, however, had to be Soprano Jacqueline Woodley’s 13 minute masterful exposition of Judith Weir’s King Harald’s Saga.  Armed with only a pitch-pipe, Woodley delivered the very angular, part narrated, part declamatory, part fioratura, chain of events about a Norwegian King’s ill-fated invasion of historic Yorkshire, England.  This piece, composed of three ‘acts’ and epilogue, required Woodley to create several characters (including a sort of Greek Chorus), utilize several characteristic voices, and act with only the help of an armchair; again, all without accompaniment.  She dispatched the devilishly difficult coloratura with absolute pinpoint accuracy and fully convincing characterizations throughout.  She riveted the crowd with her eyes and dazzled them with her vocal prowess.  This particular work can be Ms. Woodley’s recital tour de force for quite some time, should she so desire.

Rounding out the program was Ileana Montalbetti’s rendering of Donal Oge (Young Donal), Libby Larsen’s “aria in search of an opera”.  Montalbetti gave this anthem of ‘stinging rebuke’ a full-throated Canadian premiere, and charmed the audience with an experienced preface–having recently worked directly with the composer herself.  Jenna Douglas and Timothy Cheung provided fluid, delicate, and meaningful accompaniment throughout this program.

Finally, before I am accused of “puffing” this concert series, the COC ensemble members, or Canadian Opera Company in general; let me assure you that I do not know ANY of the singers (with the exception of Mr. Craighead, with whom I am currently working); I have barely exchanged words with the accompanists; and I hardly know this company.  But for the sake of full disclosure, I AM currently involved in a production of Tosca which will open on Saturday, January 21 2012.  Today, however, I was just another audience member sitting rather anonymously amongst the regulars who attend these concerts.  I did not identify myself, and was forced to study my program and its translations like any other concert goer.  In that all of the selections were new to me, I had to truly concentrate on the content of the offerings and am now merely reporting the proceedings exactly as I witnessed them.

Now to that little “pet-peeve” I mentioned earlier:
For years now I have been a guest member of audiences in various cities where I have worked world-wide, and have attended numerous concerts/recitals provided by ‘Young Artists’ under the auspices of a home Opera Company.  I, in fact, participated in such a program at the legendary Lyric Opera of Chicago many years ago (LOCAA then, The Ryan Opera Center now).  I have forever heard of them being referred to as “professional training programs”, or “opera schools” by their own administrators and members of the media.  Today’s description was “prestigious professional training program”.  While I am always prepared to accept the adjective of “prestigious” when attached to companies such as The Met, COC, Paris Opera, San Francisco Opera, HGO, and the aforementioned LOC; I do think it is time to drop the mischaracterization-terms of “training program” and “school”.  If today’s talent was any indication, these artists may be YOUNG, but they are hardly in need of ‘training’, as it were.  These young ladies and gentlemen displayed the grace of finished, competent artists of high caliber and true lasting potential.  They have been brought to these major opera companies to be given bona-fide, legitimate, on-stage experience on an international scale.

Therefore (even though I realize that I am getting very picky here), may I respectfully suggest that we weave into the public narrative this descriptive:  Professional Experience Program.

It’s just a thought, of course…



COC: The most interesting Opera Company in North America???

During a recent industry related conversation, one of opera’s most informed insiders intimated to me that Canadian Opera Company (COC) would, “in five years’ time, become the most interesting (opera) house in North America.”  While it is not likely for me to question the authority of this source, I found the words of Ronald Reagan (politics aside) ringing in my head…”Trust, but verify”.  Our late President used this phrase often as he dealt with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, with regard to the INF Treaty of 1987.  And if it was good enough for him (btw, Lenin used it too!), it was good enough for me to keep in the back of my mind.

It didn’t take too long, however, for me to realize that COC was/is at it’s core a most intriguing organization.  While hardly in its true infancy at over 60 years old, respectively; COC feels young.  They rehearse and administrate from a daring facility that has seen as it’s former lives (late 19th and early 20th century), a Textile Mill, a Gas/Oil concern, and a Maraschino Cherry factory; but converted–via technical and structural build-out–to a full fledged operatic operations center.  Its red brick walls, giant maroon shutters, wooden/bolted ceiling trusses, and large warehouse windows are perfect host companions to this art-form of all art-forms; as we rehearse the more classic Tosca juxtaposed against a far more contemporary Love from Afar (L’amour de loin).

The staff and administration (headed by Alexander Neef–General Director, now only in his late 30’s, and Johannes Debus–Music Director, mid 30’s)  are vibrant, but also unusually experienced on an international scale.  Filling the shoes of the likes of Lotfi Mansouri, Brian Dickie, and Richard Bradshaw cannot be easy (the latter in particular); therefore a company of this stature, with a very new performing arts center, and a loyal audience, for certain, needs forward thinking and energetic personnel.  This characteristic doesn’t begin and end with the front office, however.  My recent costume fitting was as thorough and creative as any I have experienced at the famed Metropolitan Opera, Paris Opera, San Francisco Opera, or Lyric Opera of Chicago (just to name a few respected venues with whom I have had multiple experiences), the stage management seems prepared for all occurences, the company employs a female chorus master (something you do NOT see everyday in this business), while the Artistic Administrator(s) are forever “putting out fires” (something you DO see everyday in this business!!).

The artistic planning is both bold and traditional…a high-wire that every opera company must walk with special care these days.  While taking the economy into account, attempting to broaden their gallery, and still appeal to the press; outreach is a priority, and so is energy and innovation.  What else would one expect from the first opera company to employ the use of supertitles for the benefit of their audience??…and that was almost 30 years ago!!!

The most interesting (opera) house in North America?”  We shall see; but don’t be surprised…the source I mentioned in the first sentence of this posting has rarely been wrong.  So I will trust for now, and verify later!