Seven Canadian opera stars to watch
Singers are a vital part of opera about which the audience always has an opinion. They can elevate a production, detract from one, blend into the background, or stand so out of time and space that they are utterly singular.
The characteristic silvery tone of tenor Luciano Pavarotti is indelibly linked to his dynamic performance as Duke of Mantua and Verdi’s famous aria “La donna è mobile”. Rigoletto. The name of Maria Callas alone evokes the sounds of her succulent “Vissi d’Arte” as Tosca. Joan Sutherland is forever associated with her performances in the title role of Donizetti Lucia of Lammermoor. The varied levels of opera – staged, performed, recorded, rehearsed; planning, coaching, studying, networking – have not always been fully recognized, but have grown in prominence over the past two plus years due to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Opera singing as a career has never been in such a precarious state.
Health, finances, opportunities, competition, cancellations: the challenges are endless. The coronavirus pandemic continues to test the resilience of individuals, conservatories and businesses. Today’s generation of working artists could look back, to singers like Jon Vickers and Lois Marshall, even as they look to the world around them and try to figure out – create, define – their place in it.
The following seven opera singers have varied backgrounds and are at different, yet fascinating, points in their careers. Many lines straddling large and small stages, live and recorded work, always concerned with cultivating the vocal and theatrical tandem, an integrated opera demands it. Matthew Cairns, Asitha Tennekoon, Alain Coulombe, Melody Courage, Karina Gauvin, Joyce El-Khoury and Gerald Finley – these are names known to many Canadian opera lovers, names to remember for newcomers. Their talents provide a beacon of light in the weeks and months ahead of winter’s darkness.
Matthew Cairns came to the attention of the opera world in 2018, when it won first prize in the annual Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Studio Competition. The warm-toned tenor was a member of the company’s Ensemble Studio from 2019 through spring 2022 and has performed in Dvorak productions. Rusalkaby Humperdinck Hansel and Greteland Puccini Turandotwhile covering Alfredo’s central role in Verdi La Traviata. In May, Cairns was named one of six winners of the grand final of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2022 Eric and Dominique Laffont Competition (formerly the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions), a significant event in the world of opera. The University of Toronto alum has just begun his first year in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera, and this season makes his debut on the famed New York stage, covering the role of Bob Boles in Britten’s Pierre Grimes (which opened on October 16) and as a messenger in Aida. He returns to Toronto in April to sing the role of Macduff in Verdi’s macbeth with the Canadian Opera Company (COC).
Asitha TennekoonThe 2016 award-winning performance as Paul in Tapestry Opera’s rocking horse winner (based on a short story by DH Lawrence) is etched in the memory of all who have seen it. Globe critic Richard Harris noted Tennekoon’s “silky emotional presence on stage – both vocally and dramatically”, a talent the Sri Lankan tenor only intensified. In addition to Tapestry, he has performed with Opéra de Montréal, Vancouver Opera, Soundstreams Canada, Against The Grain and Opera Lafayette in the United States, and has performed the music of Bach, Mozart and Rossini. Tennekoon is also the co-founder of Amplified Opera (AO), a company whose goal is to place artists at the center of public discourse. Currently playing as Remendado in Carmen at Pacific Opera Victoria, Tennekoon will then be presented in Vancouver in angel bonea work on human trafficking, with a side leadership team made up of advisors and executives from re:Naissance Opera, Sound the Alarm: Music/Theatre, Arraymusic, Turning Point Ensemble and Loose Tea Music Theatre.
Low Alain Coulombe has sung on a variety of famous stages (including the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan, the Salzburg Festival and the Dutch National Opera) and in works ranging from the sonic range, to the traditional (Mozart’s Don Giovanni; Bellini’s norma) in the 20th century (Jake Heggie’s walking dead man; Somer’s Louis Riel). In 2019 he starred in a Against the Grain-directed staging of the 1979 opera Kopernikus by Claude Vivier, which is partly written in an imaginary language specified by the composer. In September, Coulombe was a soloist in the world premiere of Paul Frehner’s choral work THE EX, presented by Soundstreams Canada. Currently appearing as Zuniga in the COC revival of Carmenin March, the French-Canadian singer will perform at the Canadian premiere of Ainadamar (“Fountain of Tears”) with the Opéra de Montréal. Based on the life of Federico Garcia Lorca, the work by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov and American playwright David Henry Hwang also stars Canadian soprano Emily Dorn as Margarita Xirgu, Lorca’s close collaborator.
Courage Melody made the most of pandemic-era lockdowns. In early 2021 she was part of Calgary Opera’s Opera Labs collaborative project Namwayut (“we are all one”) and has worked with the Allegra Vancouver Chamber Orchestra performing works by contemporary Canadian composers. The mixed-race soprano first rose to prominence in 2017 with her searing performance as The Native Girl in the world premiere of the Pacific Opera Victoria/City Opera Vancouver co-commission Faded away (libretto, Marie Clements; music, Brian Current), which tells the story of missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada. In 2019, she starred in the Dora Award-winning double program Two Odysseys: Pimooteewin/Gállábártnit, presented by Soundstreams Canada and Signal Theatre. As part of the COC’s digital concert series last year, Courage worked with composer Ian Cusson to premiere his new work, In winter. In December, she performed with the Vancouver Bach Choir at Messiah (alongside tenor Asitha Tennekoon), and in February she is set to perform the central role of Chrisann Brennan opposite baritone Brett Polegato in the Canadian premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs with Calgary Opera.
Like Courage, soprano Karine Gauvin busy with music amid pandemic restrictions. Jules Massenet: Complete Melodies for voice and piano (released earlier this month via ATMA Classique) was recorded in Quebec during the 2020 lockdowns. Gauvin sings 63 of the album’s more than 300 songs, demonstrating immense vocal flexibility developed through years experience in performing the works of Gluck, Rameau, Mozart, Ravel and (especially) Handel, on various stages, including the Bavarian State Opera. , Teatro Real (Madrid), Wigmore Hall (London) and the Glyndebourne Festival. The two-time Grammy-nominated soprano, whose discography includes more than 50 recordings, was named Honorary Director of the Art Song Foundation of Canada in 2017. In February, Gauvin is set to perform the title role in Handel’s Alcine with Les Violons du Roy in Quebec, before embarking on a series of concerts in France, Germany and the Czech Republic. In June, she returns to France to play the role of Marguerite in a semi-stage performance by Gounod Faust at the Theater des Champs-Elysées.
Joyce El Khoury has performed on some of the most famous stages in the world of opera, including the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera and the Teatro Real. Currently appearing as Michaela in Carmen with the COC, the Lebanese-Canadian soprano will make her debut in the title role of Anna Bolena at the Bilbao Opera in November. The role (and the opera) belong to the famous trilogy of the Tudor queens by composer Gaetano Donizetti, the others being Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuardathe latter sung by El-Khoury with the Seattle Opera in 2016. A graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, El-Khoury appeared with the COC as Violetta in La TraviataTatyana in Eugene Oneginand like Liù in Turandot. In 2018, she participated in the world premiere of Sardanapalo, an unpublished opera by Franz Liszt, with Staatskapelle Weimar, which became an award-winning recording. Last fall, El-Khoury made her debut as Cio-Cio San in Puccini’s Lady Butterfly at the Welsh National Opera; she reprized the role in May with the Opéra de Montréal.
London, Paris, Munich, Berlin – Gerald Finley has a busy season ahead. The Ottawa-born bass-baritone will sing villainous Scarpia (in Puccini’s Tosca) and Iago (in Verdi otello); the exciting Count Almaviva (in Mozart Figaro’s wedding; virtuous Wolfram in Wagner Tannhauser; the tormented title role in Wagner The Fliegende Hollander. In the midst of it all, Finley will return to Toronto to perform the title role in a one-off production of Bluebeard’s Castle. Originally produced by British group Theater of Sound, the staging reimagines Bartok’s 1918 work as a domestic drama involving a long-married couple struggling with wifely dementia. Ottawa-born Finley, who just wrapped up an acclaimed performance as Antony in the new John Adams film Antony and Cleopatra with the San Francisco Opera, used his sumptuous bass-baritone sound to create dramatic effect in large-scale operas and intimate lieder performances. He was part of the original Theater of Sound/Bluebeard presentation in 2021 and will sing alongside Canadian soprano Adrienne Pieczonka in a chamber orchestra in Toronto.