Monday, June 24, 2024

Opera Stars Are People Too – A Review of From Opera to Broadway

Bill Monahan

It’s not often that the Opera House at Meaford Hall resounds with real operatic voices. As beautiful as the venue is, and despite its acoustic clarity, it is too small to mount a full scale operatic production. And opera stars rarely perform in another context. So it was a treat to experience From Opera To Broadway on Saturday night, August 20.

We owe it to Angeline and Rob Dubien of Royal Lepage and to the Craigleith Manor for their sponsorship, and to the initiative of Craig Ashton who brought together four of his professional peers to create this special program.

The mood of the concert was carefully sculpted, starting with the ensemble singing Libiamo ne’lieti calici, a rollicking ‘drinking song’ from Verdi’s La Traviata and carrying through to an inspiring finale of The Impossible Dream followed by You’ll Never Walk Alone. The stage set was simple with some elegant decoration upstage and four microphones in a row with the piano off to one side.

Because of their power and presence, their classical precision and passion, there’s a tendency to deify opera performers in a sense. This program countered that in ways that were both designed and unintentional. After the opening number, Craig spoke to each of the other performers individually, asking them for personal stories to add a human dimension for the audience. Baritone Jan Vaculik told of singing to his infant son who burst into tears partway through the aria. Pianist Susan Black, after mentioning that the most important musical lesson she learned was to “never turn down a gig”, grabbed the microphone and stood to make a pitch directly to the audience to let us all know that she is for hire. Mezzo-soprano Katie Knapp recalled how she and Craig have difficulty singing duets together without dissolving in giggles. But the best anecdote came from soprano Teresa van der Hoeven, with her story of sharing the stage with another soprano who, in the midst of an animated chest-heaving solo suffered a wardrobe malfunction, and it fell to Teresa, while the music continued, to “stuff them back in”.

The other humanizing incident was accidental and occurred in Part Two of the show. In a duet with Craig of How Could I Ever Know from The Secret Garden, Teresa suddenly forgot her lines and had to stop the song to walk over to the piano and look over Susan’s shoulder at the music. She carried on through the verse and was stricken again with a sudden blank. This time she just looked in Susan’s direction and was prompted in a way that didn’t interrupt the flow of the song. I’ve seen live plays where the actor forgets the line and the hushed voice of a prompter comes from the wings, but this was special because Susan, who is also a mezzo-soprano, provided the prompt in a beautiful singing voice and for a moment the two voices sang in unison, an ethereal and enchanting effect.

It may seem cruel, or at minimum impolite, to point out what must have been an embarrassing moment for Teresa but it’s worth noting because of the way it reminded us that these performers are after all mere mortals, and because of the way she carried on with a professionalism that immediately returned us to the moving emotion of the song. And she can, at least, take comfort in the fact that her boobs didn’t pop out.

It was also a reminder that with this concert, all of the performers were out of their comfort zone. Normally they would be surrounded by a large ensemble, with elaborate sets and costumes and the momentum that such a production brings to a performance. To stand alone and exposed at a microphone must be daunting and it was very impressive that all of their performances soared as they did.

For me the high points were the duets, particularly to hear the two female voices or the two male voices blending to enrich the beautiful music. That and Craig’s performance of Maria from West Side Story. It is a song that demands extreme control from a singer to bring out the nuances of its dynamics and when it is done right it is very moving. He did it more than right, especially impressive in the way he drew out a long and perfectly controlled diminuendo at the end until nothing was left but the sound of your heart beating.

It is an indication of the power of a performance when it all seems to go by much too quickly. When we reached the end the audience rose to an ovation that the company obliged with just one more, all too brief, encore.

In his final remarks Craig acknowledged, as so many performers do, the professionalism of the staff and the beauty of the venue. This is particularly impressive coming from someone who has performed in large cities all over the world. We in Meaford can be grateful to have such a place in our little town.

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