Toronto 2017: New Digs!?

Well I did something a tad bit unorthodox this winter. I gathered up my life of just two and a half years in Montréal, (a city I truly adore) stowed some of it away in ‘storage’, gave some away and then bussed myself and the other third of it to a larger city six hours and one province away. All for an eleven-week rehearsal process that ended in three back-to-back performances in a completely new city. Perhaps that doesn’t sound as unconventional as I imagined it did back in early January, but it’s not a small change. There is not only the implicit need to secure not only a new part or full time job and an economical place to live in one of Canada’s busiest and most expensive cities, but also the need to face the reality of uprooting the majority of your social ties and putting down new ones in a relatively unknown environment. (I use relatively as a qualifier, but might suggest that it be taken with a grain of salt, since it was not as though I was relocating to a completely different country; one with any variety of different people, laws and languages. I don’t think anyone will argue that such a drastic change is something yet entirely different!) Finally there is the added task of learning and rehearsing a lead role in an opera by a composer whose music you haven’t got a whole lot of experience with, and is considered among other things, some of the most difficult to sing. However, that’s just what I did; I decided to relocate to Toronto, in the middle of February, the day after my thirtieth birthday. And here’s how it went down.

For those of you who don’t spend long hours in practice rooms alone, yelling (beautifully we hope?) at the four walls, a mirror and sometimes a piano or, if you’re lucky and can afford one; a coach or a teacher, you may not be aware that the beginning of September until about the middle of December is likely the busiest time of year for most of us ‘classical singers.’ This three and half, to four month period is a sort of convoluted rat-race jammed full of application forms, auditions, callbacks, performances and ultimately some increased level of personal travel. More often than not, much of this occurs at just about the same time, and typically runs concurrently with the whirlwind that is the heavyweight, liturgical season of Advent and Christmas. Thus it was during the month of November in the middle of just such a schedule, that I had an audition for the Calgary Opera Emerging Artists program. I remember being a little nervous because I’d had a number of rehearsals and concerts in the weeks and days prior, and had in fact, just returned from a trip to New York for two summer program auditions that didn’t translate into acceptance offers. (The topic of how to continually deal with rejection while preparing to sing more auditions, has of course been answered many times, but I think my personal take would be better served in a separate post. Good thing a new round of them is just around the corner!) But for whatever reason, circumstances happened to lined up that day; I went into the audition after working the morning at my day job (I was a janitor/dishwasher at a restaurant in the downtown area) and was feeling reservedly ready to put my best foot forward. Thankfully that is the way things seemed to go, even though most singers will lament the fact that it’s always tricky to know exactly what kind of an impression you make on a panel of people who are there only to judge every note, every movement, every breath. But, on this particular occasion, I was happy with what had transpired and so let myself be cautiously optimistic. At about the same time I got wind that a small independent company in Toronto was in search of a tenor to sing a lead in their April 2017 performance of Rossini’s ‘L’Italiana in Algeri’. Knowing that moving further west than Toronto by the coming fall was a somewhat tangible reality, I began to consider the possibility of auditioning for the role and then also what kind of potential there might be for immersing myself in one of the largest “markets” for opera and classical music in the country.

Of course, the details of the gig there presented unique challenge because of how the company is structured. MYOpera is one of a number of small, independent outfits that has cropped up in Canada’s largest city within the last decade or so. They have joined the likes of outfits such as Against The Grain Theatre, Tapestry Opera, Loose TEA Music Theatre, and Opera 5. Because they are smaller outfits, these companies sometimes operate with a group of artists and staff who are in the beginning stages of their careers and may have full and part-time day jobs which otherwise occupy significant portions of their schedules. In my estimation, about half of the time this means working a serving job or cafe gig, teaching lessons or even a full time ‘career’ in other fields like marketing, law or engineering. The result of this particular type of structure is inherent scheduling conflicts that are such a common hurdle to clear, that a company like MYOpera has little choice but to schedule rehearsals only on weekends. This year their production enveloped the eleven weekends from the 16th of February, until the 30th of April and would have required me to travel to and from Montreal for at least half of them. After considering the variables, I decided I didn’t want to spend ten to twelve hours on the train every week, (looking at the financial side of the situation also revealed a considerable cost) but I knew that the potential for solo work in Montreal over those same months was not as lucrative. It became increasingly clear that relocating to take advantage of this somewhat unique opportunity might lead to more work and networking connections in a new, vibrant community. So I sent in my audition material. Then two things happened almost simultaneously. I received a formal offer from Calgary to join the Emerging Artists program for the 2017-18 season and was offered the role in Toronto about a week later. Since I wasn’t going to be able to work out a decent compromise on the subject of regular travel between the two cities, I volunteered to make a more permanent move.

Immediately I began to formulate a plan to address some of the issues I mentioned above. I started sending off applications and reaching out to friends and family in search of a new part-time job to cover the rather large increase in cost of living, (the price of traveling efficiently twice a week for that same time amounted to the lower end of current Toronto rental fees) and a cheap, centrally located lodging that I could afford. Approximately two-hundred and fifty emails and PM’s later, I had not only three offers for couches to crash on until I could find more permanent lodgings, but a temporary week-long gig serving coffee at the Canadian International Auto show, an interview for a permanent cafe job in the downtown core (which I ended up getting), a Sundays-only church job one stop south of the MYOpera rehearsal location, and an audition for an upcoming two-part concert. (The second of which was part of the second annual Bach Festival Toronto that happened last weekend.) All in all, during the two and a half week span following my arrival, I’d somehow managed to take care of the ‘essentials’. A feat I accomplished in no small way without the help of friends and family far and wide. (Many thanks to you all!)

In the following few weeks, I then focused more on the music I’d been hired to sing and took advantage of the opportunity to meet a number of new and wonderful folks. Getting to know my fellow staff members at the cafe where I work has been a great experience. I don’t believe there is an exact method for evaluating a work environment where a family mentality is championed as a basic organizational hierarchy. That isn’t to say it doesn’t have its draw-backs, but as far as being welcoming, understanding and considerate of each other the folks at Avenue Cafe made me feel like part of the ‘fam’ from day one.

Meeting and working with the cast of singers, musicians and directors/administrators at MYOpera was also fantastic. Music director, principal coach and pianist Natasha Fransblow and I have worked together a fair bit before, but it was a real pleasure to co-operate with her again, along with plenty of new and friendly faces. Together with the eight other singers, we navigated a very tricky score, an interpretation that eliminated (for financial and practical reasons) a rather large chorus and placed the classic story of the hero and damsel-in-distress on its head. Director Anna Theodosakis was mostly responsible for this twist, and though she and I are also colleagues from a number of years ago, we had never previously worked in a director/actor relationship. It was inspiring and eye-opening to collaborate with someone who has a very intelligent and calculated approach to breaking down a drama and telling a story. At every turn, time and again over the course of the rehearsal process, she was able to consistently demonstrate an adage that I’ve long felt is integral to dramatic performance; when it comes to telling a story you’ve always got to be asking why characters behave the way they do. I strongly believe that modifying the story, or characters themselves, changing some aspects here and there, flip-flopping a device or highlighting a key component in a different light can be effective, but only if there is a healthy willingness to keep asking ‘why?’. And then of course one has to answer that question and I was impressed by how her talent for providing answers was always refreshingly creative and well constructed and executed. I’d never seen a shadow-puppet ‘mini show’ during an overture, but I think it worked fantastically! (and it was a lot of fun to do!)

That of course was and is always the best part; the performing! It still amazes me when I realize how lucky I am to have the privilege to study music and then to also get up on the stage and tell a story. On top of that, being able to present before a receptive and engaging audience is such an invigorating experience! To the credit of everyone involved, the three back-to-back shows received many accolades, among them comments about how funny the characters were, the consistently high level of ensemble and solo singing from the entire cast, and the mastery of both musical accompaniment and stage direction. I’ve attached links to those reviews, as well as the a website for all eleven “major” indy opera companies currently producing seasons, at the bottom of this blog.

The question now of course is what is next. At the time of completing this blog (It was very much a shot in the dark, as I’ve not spent much time writing and “publishing” my written sentiments about my life and music. It took much longer than I anticipated and I hope its something I can continue to experiment with in the future) I am in the middle of a wonderful baroque music summer camp put on by Toronto’s own Tafelmusik Ensemble. At the latter end of the first week, it’s been exciting to meet yet more artists, work closely with old friends, and to experience some of the most interesting music ever written. Then at the end of September, smack-dab in the middle of another audition season, I will pick everything up once again and trundle further west to Calgary for the start of my first year at Calgary Opera, where I know knew adventures await!

Thank’s for reading!

Links: (Reviews):

http://www.schmopera.com/in-review-the-italian-girl-in-algiers-at-myopera/

https://operaramblings.wordpress.com/2017/04/29/rompin-with-rossini/

https://barczablog.com/2017/04/29/myopera-rossini-the-perfect-marriage/

Indie Opera Toronto:

http://indieoperatoronto.ca

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