"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…