Operation: Opera by Moira Donovan of The Coast

This weekend at the Sir James Dunn Theatre, experience the big sounds of opera classics, without all of the stereotypes

These days, while the rest of campus is shrouded in mid-summer silence, the theatres and subterranean corridors of the Dalhousie Arts Centre are a hive of activity.

In mid-July, 70 young musicians and directors from across Canada descended on Halifax for the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop, a four-week program that culminates in a week-and-a-half of performances ending August 12: Carmen, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and four one-act operas. For Dr. Anthony Radford, director of the workshop’s production of Carmen—which debuted in 1875 as a flop, yet went on the become one of the most frequently performed examples of the genre—the workshop is a window onto the art form, showcasing some of its best-beloved pieces while hinting at its future.

“For the audience, they get to see what’s going on in the world of opera today” Radford says. “That’s kind of a cool thing—that you don’t need to go to the big cities to see that.”

The workshop cultivates an accessible approach, providing an opportunity for seasoned devotees and neophytes alike to experience opera in an intimate setting. Nina Scott-Stoddart, program director, believes that the scaled-down quality of the workshop is more than a function of its relatively small size; it’s also a particular way to engage with the art form. “I think there’s something about it when you strip all of the big opera stereotypes away—big people in front of big sets, the orchestra—it’s so much more immediate” she says. “You get right to the emotional heart of the piece.”

Although popular conception often understands opera as an archaic medium, participants emphasize that it’s important not to underestimate the energy and creativity that youth can bring, especially in a program where most of the performers are under 25.

For Haligonian Andrew Pickett, who plays Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, opera is ultimately about art itself, and can be transformative. “We think of opera on a social level, that belongs to the elite and that’s not what it actually is” he says. “Opera is the marriage of music and drama and that’s what’s really important—the magic that happens on stage. It’s made me a believer.”

Grab your opera glasses, Halifax, and prepare to be converted.

via Operation: Opera.

Fine cast, outstanding voices, great music opera workshop – Chronicle Herald Review

Chelsea Mahan, during dress rehearsal last week, plays Helena in the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop production of Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Sir James Dunn Theatre.  (TIM KROCHAK / Staff)

The operative word with the Halifax Summer Opera Workshop production of Midsummer Night’s Dream is magic.

I might be tempted to say “half-magic” but I don’t think magic is divisible.

The “half” is because a workshop production, even one as good as the one I saw in the Dunn Theatre Friday night, with piano accompaniment instead of orchestra, can’t and doesn’t aspire to present the full experience.

But what it does, with the help of a simple, uncluttered and extremely playable set, is hone your interest and drives you straight to iTunes, or wherever your recorded delights are kept, to get the full monty.

Pianist Greg Myra works the keyboard like an illusionist, spinning out of it webs of intricate musical figures in all registers, energizing the large cast of 19 to create four levels of beings, mischievously mingled in erotic fancies played out in a forest outside of Athens on a sweet midsummer’s night.

Dukes, courtiers, the mercurial Puck, the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Titania and the inimitable rustics all work the simple set with its six pillars. The off-centre platform enables the flow of the stage action.

The story is Shakespeare’s, condensed into two acts and the words his as well, which makes the side-titles projected on a screen useful and necessary.

But the diction of the cast is so good, you hardly need that aid, which is lucky because it can distract you.

There are two casts with two performances each between now and Sunday. Friday night’s cast will perform again on Thursday, while an alternate cast performed Saturday night and will again on Aug. 11.

All the voices were clear and well cast on opening night. But the most outstanding singer was Quebec soprano Frederique Drolet as Titania, with a fiery stage presence and a voice of pure crystal.

Counter-tenor Albert Montanez sang Oberon. He commanded the stage with a regal stride and could come on strong with an unpredictable scariness, though he seldom entered that counter-tenor nastiness that strips ions from metal. He certainly had it, but the part allowed him to let it out only once.

Steven Bourque as Puck, with a slim and diminutive athletic physique, was perhaps not as menacing as he could have been. He allowed Oberon to intimidate him.

Patrick MacDevitt and Nicole Stellino (Lysander and Hermia), Neil Reimer and Chelsea Mahan (Demetrius and Helena) played off each other well as they suffered the mood-changing fragrance of Puck’s love potion.

But, in this marvellous opera, Benjamin Britten gave full play to the rustics — Bottom, Quince, Flute, Snug, Snout and Starveling — as they rehearse and stage the farcical romantic tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe.

Jeremy Hirsch, as Nick Bottom the weaver, takes charge of the whole show, bosses everyone around and suggests himself for all the roles before he is squelched.

Later on we know he’s heading for trouble and don’t feel a bit sorry.

Hirsch is really too young and too dapper for this comic character, but he overcame those limitations to impose his own stage authority.

During the performance, Flute (Max Zander) as Thisbe, who collapsed in stage fright during rehearsals, suddenly took fire in performance before the Duke of Theseus. He buzzed dangerously around the set in a long white gown with funnels for voluptuous breasts.

In the end, with a chorus of eight fairies including Cobweb, Mustardseed, Peasebottom and Moth, Britten wrote some of the most exquisitely delicate, fresh and sweet music to bring the opera to a close.


Three Things I Learned From The American Arias Concert

One thing you can usually depend on as a classical singer is that the composer is really not invested in how you sing your music. Mozart is not going to come back from the dead if I sing an eighth instead of a quarter somewhere in an aria. HOWEVER all that changes once you are lucky enough to work on a piece with the composer. Singing and coaching with the person who wrote the song or the opera? That’s not intimidating, right? RIGHT?

Hah. It was intimidating, but Leonard Lehrman was lovely to work with and I think everyone who coaching his or her repertoire with him felt the same way.  I’ve never experienced working with the composer of my repertoire before, and I’m so glad I got to work with Dr. Lehrman and participate in the American Arias Concert- I’ve included some little lessons below.

 One- There is a wealth of repertoire waiting to be found and performed!

This concert was full of music that I’d never heard before, and loved. Jeremy Hirsch, one of my fellow bloggers, gave one of my favourite performances of the night-  “The Cradle Will Rock”, the title song from the 1937 opera. Another favourite piece from the program was “The Nickel Under the Foot”, sung by Nicole Smith, again from The Cradle Will Rock. Those two pieces are repertoire that will never be sung by me, sadly (again with the #sopranoproblems) BUT there was also a wealth of wonderful soprano repertoire that I’d never heard before- especially “I Wish It So” sung by Laura Noack and “Dublin Song” sung by Allison Mills. These pieces would be wonderful choices for any sopranos, especially those looking to step away from typical repertoire choices. You can bet any audition panel has heard every interpretation of “Vedrai, carino” umpteen times, but it’s a far greater chance that they’ve never or seldom heard “Dublin Song”.   I know in my program at York we are strongly encouraged to seek out modern repertoire, and the jury panels and teachers welcome hearing new music. This recital program was all American music, and I’d be interested to see a similar idea next year at HSOW, but maybe with Canadian repertoire? DEAR CANADIAN COMPOSERS: email Nina and you too can be in residency in HSOW for a week and have ALL THE FUN.

Two- Solos are great, but ENSEMBLES ARE THE MOST FUN

I love ensemble work. I think singers by nature are gregarious and cooperative and whatnot, but so much of the work we do is solitary- arias and auditions and practice sessions are not team sports. Getting to work with my colleagues on duets and trios is always a lot of fun for me, so I’m glad in the recital program to have had two trios and a duet. (Thank you Laura and Allison, Alex and Pedro, and Will!)  Singing in ensemble challenges you in different ways than in solo repertoire- you have to know when to balance and blend, and when to grab your moment within the piece, and to communicate with each other in rehearsal and in performance. Laura, Allison, and I had the closer to the program- a rollicking trio from Lehrman’s “E.G: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman” The trio was called “If I Can’t Dance” and involved a dance break at one point where we had to grab members from the audience to dance with us (Thank you Phil!)  It was challenging but we pulled it off with at least a little pizzazz. Also verve. Perhaps moxie as well. Helene Williams, Dr. Lehrman’s wife, and a great soprano in her own right, could taught a course on pizzazz and moxie and verve- she was a dynamo, and her solos as well as duets with Max Zander and Nina Scott-Stoddart, and especially with Dr. Lehrman, were a treat to watch. So even when you’re not in the ensembles, or solos, you can learn a great deal from watching your colleagues (something that was evident in the masterclass series at HSOW, which just wrapped up this week).

 Three- it’s all in the delivery.

Dr. Lehrman refers to himself as a “non-singer”, but he performed admirably in duets and solos throughout the program. My favourite was “Penny Candy” from No For An Answer check this. You can sing the pitches correctly and be the most rhythmic musician there ever was, but if you don’t believe in what you’re singing, you won’t convince anyone. Dr. Lehrman put so much energy and conviction into his music that it didn’t matter whether he was singing with beautiful tone and perfect intonation- we believed him and loved his performance for that reason. You gotta sell it. “If I Can’t Dance” worried me before the concert because it was a low, fast patter song about a woman who was full of anger and hated by thousands of people- I don’t really “do” angry- I’m not a particularly fire-y person. However, if I wanted to close the program and sing “If I Can’t Dance” with Laura and Allison, I had to find some way to believe in myself as Emma Goldman and really sell the trio. I don’t think I did it perfectly, but I think I pushed myself more than I have before to inhabit this character who is so different from myself.

The American Aria Concert was great fun, thank you to Nina, Marja, Dr. Lehrman, and Helene, and my fellow performers for their mentoring, organization, and collaboration!

american arias



Photos from the dress rehearsal of the Port cast of Dream in Halifax

Here are some photos of the first cast of Dream — production and costumes designed by Nina Scott-Stoddart.

Milena Bolaños, Joelle Lehoux and Meg Gandle


Hermia (Nicole Stellino) confronts Helena (Chelsea Mahan)


Oberon and Tytania from Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream
Tytania (Fréderique Drolet) and Oberon (Albert Montanez)
Mustardseed (Sabrina Romero), Peaseblossom (Milena Bolaños), Bottom (Jeremy Hirsch) and Tytania (Fréderique Drolet)
Thisbe (Max Zander)

All photos copyright Emily Jewer