BWW Previews: CANADIAN OPERA COMPANY Ensemble Members Rock Mozart

The Canadian Opera Company's Ensemble Studio was created in 1980 as a vehicle for training Canada's next generation of opera superstars. Its current members will be taking to the Four Seasons Centre For The Performing Arts on February 7th, replacing regular cast members in Atom Egoyan's production of the Mozart opera Cosi fan tutte for one night only. Two current members of the Ensemble say to expect something very unique and special.

Baritone Cameron McPhail and soprano Aviva Fortunata, who will be singing the roles of lovers Guglielmo and Fiordiligi for the opera's first act, are sitting in the members' lounge of the Four Seasons Centre, illuminated by the greyish early afternoon light of a long, cold Toronto winter. McPhail, affable and with movie-star looks, smiles as he sips on a coffee, as the red-haired Fortunata sits primly in a patterned dress, her hands folded, but not quite concealing her fancy nails. They're delicately painted with distinct butterfly patterns echoing Cosi's unique visual motifs.

"There's such a high expectations of professionalism in the Ensemble program," Fortunata observes. "Maybe it's unspoken - or it's spoken somewhere -but there is an expectation you come in fully prepared and ready to learn."

The Ensemble is chosen through a national audition process. Members of the Ensemble Studio receive a blend of advanced study and practical experience, including vocal, theatrical and career development instruction. As well as understudying major roles taking, Ensemble members take part in an annual school tour (this past year the Ensemble toured Dean Burry's The Brothers Grimm and Pergolesi's La Serva Padrona); they also put on chamber productions, perform in COC mainstage productions, and put on a special performance of a COC mainstage production. Last year it was Clemenza di Tito; this year it's Cosi fan tutte. Notable graduates of the Ensemble program include soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, mezzo-soprano Krisztina Szabó, and tenor Ben Heppner. Another graduate, Canadian bass Robert Gleadow, is currently singing the role of Guglielmo in Cosi.

Both Fortunata and McPhail agree current Ensemble members have developed a special bond. "We've had dinners together, hung out, gone on tour together, travelled around and done eighty shows for kids in grade three, and, at nine in the morning after whatever you did the night before... it just brings you together in a lot of ways," McPhail says. "It's what makes the Ensemble show special."

That bond is evident over the next hour, with Fortunata and McPhail frequently finishing each others' sentences and questioning each another on aspects of various productions and composer styles. It's obvious the Ensemble experience, for all its emphasis on the art and business aspects of opera, cultivates bonds that go far beyond the house. It's also obvious the Ensemble attracts a refreshingly diverse group of people who greatly contribute to the shape and flavour of the Canadian Opera Company itself.

Soprano Fortunata hails from a musical background; she took singing lessons from a young age, and originally planned on pursuing a career in musical theater. She performed in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the tender age of eight; five years later she saw her first opera, The Marriage of Figaro, produced by Calgary Opera, and everything changed.

"That was a good (opera) too," she remembers. "My friend, the first opera he saw was Norma, and he was all, "I hate opera!" I'm glad my first opera was (by) Mozart."

In 2008, Fortunata made her operatic debut, in the role of Appollonia in Haydn's La Canterina. A recipient of the 2012 Norcop Prize in Song Recital, she was also awarded a judges' commendation in the Mildred Miller International Voice Competition (Opera Theater of Pittsburgh). This past summer, she had the opportunity to sing selections from Wagner's epic Lohengrin with a full orchestra. Though she calls the experience "unsettling" and "daunting," she's tossing around more Wagner in the future.

McPhail's start in opera was more accidental. During his student days as a business student at the University of British Columbia in the 2000s, he was asked to step in for a sick friend who fronted a rock-and-roll cover band. Though he'd been in a high school musical (Hello Dolly!) and sung in the choir, McPhail had never sung for a crowd on his own before.

"It was a Whitesnake cover band, but the song I sang was "Motorin'" by Journey," McPhail recalls, grinning. "That was the first time I'd sung for people."

The Manitoba native was subsequently asked to appear in a production of Mozart's Don Giovanni in the Czech Republic, a 2008 collaboration between the European Music Academy, the Northern Czech Philarmonic, and the Bard On The Beach Festival.

"The first opera I saw was the one I was in," he says smiling.

He's since gone on to sing Ford in Falstaff, the title role in Gianni Schicchi, both the title role as well as Massetto in Don Giovanni, Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, Marcello in La Bohème, Riccardo in I Puritani, and George in Of Mice and Men.

Though he's come a long way since then, and the February 7th performance of Cosi will be his fourth time performing the opera since he began singing professionally, singing Mozart's work is becoming progressively more difficult.

"As I grow up, the things I used to be able to do better I'm less able to do, but I'm better at other things," the twenty-nine year-old observes. "And the things I've gotten better at aren't necessarily helpful with Cosi. I can get more noise and sound a lot more angry than I used to be able to, but I have a hard time negotiating the nuance and the subtlety. Because so much of Cosi is in these middle-of-the-road ensemble lines, where you have to be able to move around in different dynamics which a bass baritone like (Robert) Gleadow can do. A baritone, his voice sits a third higher, so he's right in purgatory and... it shows, I think!'

This will be Fortunata's first time singing the role of Fiordiligi, one-half of the sisterly duo who are tempted into infidelity by their disguised fiances. The singer seems nervous. I tell her it's a good thing to be singing the role for the first time now, that it means there's a lack of baggage. McPhail immediately agrees.

"That's a good way of looking at it."

Mozart, she thinks, "knew something about writing for the voice." But the more she sings, the more she discovers what works for her voice, and what doesn't; she just isn't sure Mozart works for the type of voice she has, one McPhail characterizes as balanced and warm.

"I'd like to get to the point where I go more towards Verdi than Mozart," the twenty-six year-old Fortunata says. "My voice comes out of me a lot easier in that repertoire. In (Cosi) especially, there are only a handful of moments I feel like I can actually just... sing. I'm leaning more towards (Verdi's work), it lets me sing like myself. I did half of Desdemona (in Verdi's Otello) this past summer. That was so much fun - I'd love to do the rest of it."

The pair, along with their Ensemble colleagues, are receiving direction mainly from the production's associate director, Marilyn Gronsdal, along with a few pointers from its current mainstage stars. But ultimately, it's up to McPhail and Fortunata to make the parts their own.

"If you heard the mainstage show and then listened to ours, that's one of the things that's so different: the voices," McPhail explains. "Layla (Claire, who sings Fiordiligi in the COC production) and Aviva are completely different as far as vocal quality. Layla's amazing, but different. Robert (Gleadow) and I are completely different. Paul (Appleby) and Andrew (Haji) are different. Sir Thomas (Allen) and Gordon (Bintner) are... similar!"

They laugh, though the pressures they face are immense. On this day, they'll be running through Cosi for the first time with an orchestra.

"It's nerve-wracking," Fortunata says softly.

She's been with the Ensemble for less than a year; for McPhail, this is his second, and final year; he'll be graduating soon.

"You'll be a grown-up!" his colleague says teasingly.

"Yep!" he cheerily responds, "I hope one day I can come back. When you come back the cheques are bigger, but the pressure is higher."

Top Photo: Charlotte Burrage as Dorabella, Andrew Haji as Ferrando, Gordon Bintner as Don Alfonso, Aviva Fortunata as Fiordiligi and Cameron McPhail as Guglielmo in the Ensemble Studio performance of the Canadian Opera Company's new production of Così fan tutte, 2014. | Photo: Michael Cooper

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From This Author Catherine Kustanczy

Catherine an arts writer specializing in reviews and longform profile features. She has worked in Dublin, London, Toronto, and New York City, in a variety (read more...)