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The COC’s Ensemble Studio: keeping abreast

C. Burrage & J-P Fortier-Lazure (© Michael Cooper)

Since its founding back in 1980 when Lotfi Mansouri was running the Canadian Opera Company, the Ensemble Studio has been successfully bringing promising young singers (plus pianist/coaches, conductors, and stage directors) to a higher level of professionalism. About 180 musicians have passed through the group. Its current head is Liz Upchurch who has been running the program for 12 years. The young singers receive coaching and perform comprimario roles during the regular season. They also perform in the small-scale operas given on extensive bus and truck tours to schools.

In addition to this, over the decades the company would stage special productions of unusual works or commissioned premiers in smaller venues expressly for the Ensemble members.

A big step in the group’s evolution took place in 2011 when the company began to cast a single performance of a main stage production with Ensemble members. The first of these was Die Zauberflöte followed by Semele, La clemenza di Tito, Così fan tutte and now this season’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. While one regrets fewer chances to see rarely performed works by, for example, Francesco Cavalli, the Four Seasons Centre has proved to be a splendid venue for young voices. In 2011 the company didn’t even try to sell tickets in the theatre’s upper reaches for the Studio’s performance, but now it is close to a sell-out with a notably lively, engaged audience.

Which brings us to this year’s performance of Barbiere (May 15). Thanks to the strong vocal talent in the Ensemble, the work was marvelously well cast. Charlotte Burrage made for an ultra-charming Rosina, and two fine lyric tenors shared the role of the Count: Andrew Haji in Act I and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure in Act II. Clarence Frazer commanded the stage in the title role and Iain MacNeil was aged cleverly as Dr. Bartolo. Gordon Bintner made as fine an impression as Don Basilio as he did last year as Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte. Karine Boucher was a strikingly glam Berta. But the strongest impression was just how confident and free-wheeling everyone was - not a hint of tentativeness. The phrase “to the manner born” comes to mind.

A second boost for the Ensemble’s profile came in 2013 with Centre Stage, a vocal competition that is now an annual gala (since it has been done twice and another is planned, it is now “annual”). A small group of singers selected from the many who have auditioned for a place in the Ensemble perform two arias each; a panel of judges select three winners and the audience also votes for their favourite. This has quickly become an established event. The auditions used to be a small event for an invited audience; now it is a large-scale participatory event with a larger audience now made more acutely aware of the Ensemble and its members.

And right now there is something else the company can point to with pride: at the 2015 Salzburg Festival, three of the thirteen members of the Young Artists Project are from the COC Ensemble: current members Gordon Bintner (bass-baritone) and Andrew Haji (tenor), plus mezzo-soprano Clair de Sévigné, who graduated from the Ensemble last year. The other ten members are from nine European countries. Canadian singers have been “going places” for several years now; the COC Ensemble Studio has been a major launching pad. We look forward to next season’s Ensemble Studio performance, Le nozze di Figaro.

Michael Johnson



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