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Essential Opera is Growing!

We have exciting news to share: we are officially expanding!

For our Season 5 opening performance of Paride ed Elena, we are adding a performance at Kitchener’s historic Registry Theatre to follow the opening performance at the newly-renovated Trinity St. Paul’s Centre in Toronto. It’s our second time performing at the Registry – we closed Season 4 as part of the Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound with our triple bill of Canadian works. Season 4 also featured a repeat invitation to the New Hamburg Live! Festival of the Arts for a double bill of Italian comedies. We first performed in New Hamburg when we took our Alcina cast and orchestra to the Festival in Season 2. We were grateful for these opportunities to grow Essential Opera and are now pursuing performance opportunities in other areas of Ontario, as well as the East Coast!

Planning an Essential Opera show involves many steps and many people. We couldn’t do what we do without the generosity of our family, friends, volunteers, and donors. Now that we are performing in more cities, we will be looking for broader local connections. Here are some of the things that an Essential Opera volunteer might do:

  • organize/set up reception
  • front-of-house/ticket sales at the door
  • fundraising and sourcing donation gifts/prizes
  • help plan a fundraiser or other special event
  • billet out-of-town singers

We would love to hear from you, especially if you live in any of the following areas (but not limited to these!):

Toronto, Hamilton, Waterloo Region, Ottawa, Montreal, Fredericton, Saint John, Moncton, Charlottetown, Sackville, and Halifax.

 Thank you for your continued support and interest in Essential Opera. We look forward to presenting an exciting new season!


Haydn’s L’isola disabitata:

We had a really great time filming our promo trailer for this show. It was a cold, rainy morning in Toronto, and all we had to do was come up with a way to make a wet beach look like an island. Easy, right? You might have to use your imagination a little bit!

With each trailer, we aim to give our audiences a little flavour of the upcoming show – and a little chuckle! Enjoy; and see you at the show!

Tickets by clicking this link or at the door. http://www.essentialoperahaydn.eventsbot.com/


L’isola disabitata, azione teatrale
The Desert Island

Composed by Joseph Haydn
Libretto by Pietro Metastasio
Premiere: 06 December 1779 in Esterháza

(Franz) Joseph Haydn is traditionally remembered for his monumental contributions to the development of Classical instrumental forms in the eighteenth century. His economic use of motivic material, his remarkable capacity for both musical wit and depth of feeling, as well as his sheer productivity within these genres have won him the title of “father” to both the string quartet and the symphony. Lesser known are his fourteen operas composed between 1766 and 1783, while Haydn served as kapellmeister for the Esterházy family. 1779, the year L’isola disabitata premiered, marked a significant change in Haydn’s responsibilities within in the Esterházy Court. An updated contract permitted Haydn newfound freedom both artistically and with regard to his working conditions. His salary was nearly doubled, he was promised regular deliveries of goods, but most importantly, Haydn was released from the previous condition that all his work would be commissioned solely by Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. During this time, Esterháza was home to two opera houses: a main theatre built for large-scale works, which burned down just before the premiere of L’isola disabitata, as well as a marionette theatre. As Caryl Clark has written, Prince Nicolaus hoped to attract nobles and other honoured guests to his own remote “island,” by creating a regular, seasonal program of Italian opera. During his tenure as kapellmeister, Haydn was involved in the production of over one hundred operas.

Among them was Haydn’s L’isola disabitata (The Desert Island), his only setting of a Pietro Metastasio text, which engages in a common eighteenth-century dialogue that sought to evaluate the influences of nature and civilization on the formation of human character. As a result, Metastasio’s island setting not only resonates with the isolated retreat of Esterháza, but it also invites the audience to think through the seemingly irresolvable debate of nature versus civilization through the characters Costanza (soprano) and Silvia (soprano), sisters, who have been stranded on a desert island for the last thirteen years after a storm at sea. Unaware that her husband Gernando (tenor) has been abducted by pirates, Costanza believes that she has been intentionally left behind. She spends her time on the island lamenting the inconstancy of men and teaching Silvia to never trust such a faithless creature should she ever encounter one. As the much younger of the two sisters, Silvia remembers little of her life before the island. She relishes the beauty of her environment and claims that she and her sister have much to celebrate as masters of their surroundings. Carefree and innocent, Silvia is very much a Rousseauian child of nature. This straightforward narrative is complicated by the return of Gernando and his companion Enrico (baritone) to rescue the two sisters. Upon seeing Enrico, Silvia is immediately smitten and cannot believe that the sweet, attractive Enrico could be the heartache-inducing man of which she was warned. Gernando, having seen Costanza’s stone inscription announcing her suicide, believes his wife to be dead and declares that he too will end his life on the island. For his protection, Enrico insists on carrying Gernando back to the boat, but on his way meets Silvia and falls in love. The new couple manage to reunite Gernando and Costanza and the four rejoice in their good fortune.

True to its azione teatrale designation, Haydn’s setting emphasizes elements of both opera seria and Greek drama. With its sectional construction and dramatic emotional contrasts, Haydn’s sturm und drang overture is entirely self-contained and was published separately during Haydn’s lifetime. In typical Haydn form, the scenes are unified by simplistic, recurring motives. L’isola disabitata also features recitative accompagnato throughout, with recitative comprising the bulk of the opera and the vocal writing is largely restrained, with very little coloratura. Gernando, as noble lover and Costanza as ‘donna abbandonata,’ and both have lyrical, heartfelt vocal writing, as exemplified in Costanza’s Act I aria “Se non piange un infelice” while Silvia offers several comedic pauses to comment cheerfully on the island’s pastoral virtues. However, as Silvia transitions from ingenuous girl to young lover, there is an added layer of extra-musical interest: Luigia Polzelli, the soprano for whom the role was created, was Haydn’s mistress—a small contextual detail that inevitably informs the expressive tenderness of Silvia’s “Come il vapor s’accende” as she experiences love for the first time. Finally, Haydn neatly packages his Enlightenment themes and figures in the last scene. Vocal display, previously limited throughout the opera, emerges in the lively, celebratory quartet with the reunion of one couple and the marriage proposal of the other.

Notes by Maria Murphy


Alcina: Behind the Wand

This opera is full of characters with confused emotions and mixed motivations, the most conflicted of all is the title character, the sorceress Alcina. In opera, “sorceress” seems to be code for “any physically appealing woman of uncertain virtue, with bonus temper.” Like many “sorceresses”, both Alcina and Morgana are women in charge, unconstrained, and acting on instinct instead of playing by the social rules. How dare they!

Alcina has an entire island of ex-lovers roaming around in the form of wild beasts. She has Ruggiero locked up on the island as her emotional and physical prisoner; even young Oberto’s probably not free to leave, either, and his dad’s already been turned into the king of the forest. Is there a doctor in the house? Preferably a Dr. Freud?!?

Despite having all the markers of a classic villainness, it’s obvious that Handel fell a little in love with his seductive sorceress. For one thing, it would make perfect sense to name the show after the leading man, especially since he wins in the end, so why isn’t this opera called “Ruggiero”? Handel knew who the most compelling character on stage would be, and named the piece accordingly.

Rather than bursting onto the scene with a rage aria, as is traditional for villainnesses, we meet Alcina in an idyllic setting, cooing over Ruggiero like a kitten (Di, cor mio) and reminiscing about the start of their romance. Hardly the stuff of nightmares! Although the whole island is covered with creepy evidence, and Ruggiero’s mental state is obviously… problematic… we don’t really see the dark side of Alcina till the end of Act II. But by this time, her evil powers have somehow leaked away (Ombre pallide). Although she does fly into a rage from time to time (Ah, mio cor & Ma quando tornerai), she can’t actually harm anyone. So when she’s finally weeping and defeated (Mi restano le lagrime), it’s hard to be totally cheerful about it. Sure, she’s done some bad stuff in the past, but she’s sung aria after achingly beautiful aria! What’s an audience to do?

Alcina is an incredibly gratifying role to sing. Unlike many of my other roles – a passel of virtuous young ladies – Alcina is completely unrestrained. Anything goes when you’re an evil sorceress! In Handel, this is also true musically — I’m free to ornament however my voice wants, and as much or as little as I choose. (Hint: sorceresses ornament a lot! I’ve decided.)

I hope you all fall as much in love with Alcina as I have (and as I think Handel obviously did). I have a feeling the audience will be split. But the beauty is, the show works perfectly whether you love her or hate her.


Ruggiero: Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

When I was first told by a certain evil sorceress that she wanted to cast me as Ruggiero in Alcina, my heart began to race for all the wrong reasons: I thought I’d broken up with Handel; there’s going to be coloratura; don’t you think I’d be better suited to the romantic French opera?; OH MY GOD WHAT HAVE I GOTTEN MYSELF INTO??? Of course I said yes.

Nine months later, my heart is still racing at the prospect of giving birth to my inner Handel, but it’s been a great challenge & I look forward to performing with this fabulous cast of sorceresses & jilted lovers.

In the meantime, I have to go shopping for men’s clothes.


A few more words about Ruggiero, the unlikely hero, as quoted in full at Definitely the Opera:
[Ruggiero] has all of this emotional turmoil. His feelings are… a central point of the whole opera. To have him commenting emotionally on the magic is really important.

To make Ruggiero work you need a wonderful, expressive performer, and we have that in Vilma… Ruggiero is the canvass on which you can understand what’s actually going on with the other characters. Because everyone else is a little bit hard to pin down. Bradamante has come under false pretenses and in disguise. Alcina’s music is all loving and romantic and you can really be on her side, except that she’s doing something really terrible here and you can see how tormented Ruggiero is… [he’s] trapped. [He’s] had all his agency taken away from him by magic.

And in the end he does turn into a strong character who’s able to break through that because of love, so you see the strength. And Vilma’s been playing it very, very well.

~Erin and Vicki (with thanks to Lydia Perovic)


Bradamante: Contralto on a Mission

I have a lot to do in this show, between music directing and singing the role of Bradamante. As music director, I’ve been coaching the singers on things like Handel style and ornamentation, working with Lysiane at the harpsichord for a number of busy sessions. I led the orchestra’s (only!) rehearsal earlier this week, and I’m effectively in charge of the music rehearsals with the full cast – but periodically I have to switch hats and become Bradamante!

I love singing this role. It’s a real contralto part, which is unusual; it’s really low! My voice likes to live in those low notes. Some of the characters in this opera have a personal tempo that they tend to sing at: Bradamante sings FAST, which is also something I like to do. It’s like it was written for me. Another fun, and challenging, thing about this role is that Bradamante is a seriocomic character: her quest to save Ruggiero is completely serious, and as a result her arias are all dramatic in nature. But her scenes with Morgana are entirely comic relief, so I also get to play a bit with my comedic side.

Bradamante goes through a lot in this opera, and in fact, she probably goes through a lot before the show even starts. You could probably write a whole opera called “Bradamante” about the journey she and Melisso have taken to rescue Ruggiero. And once they get to Alcina’s island, it’s all much more complicated than they could possibly have thought.


Morgana: A Casual Affair

As we lead up to our final show of Season Two, Handel’s Alcina, we’re posting a few stories about the performers and characters you’re going to meet during the show. Like the opera, we’ll begin with feisty Morgana, sung by soprano Maureen Batt.

Morgana is unlike any character I’ve ever played before. As Morgana, I’m more selfish than say, Zerlina, Despina or Susanna. I scheme and plot like they do, but this time I’m not the mastermind; I’m just the sidekick, the sister sorceress (I would now like you to try and say “sister sorceress” six times in a row). But I’m way too busy falling in and out of love with men to do anything else. Within the first few lines of the opera I’m lovestruck for this ‘Ricciardo’ and am prepared to leave my beloved Oronte for fresh kicks. I’m hardly ever thinking of anyone else.

(If you find it confusing to remember the whole Bradamante/Ricciardo thing, here’s a tip: Bradamante is a woman, but she spends most of the opera pretending to be her own brother, Ricciardo. For those of you who know me personally, you know that my husband’s name is Richard. So I basically fall in love with someone who I think is Richard, but WHOA! it is not Richard. Alternatively, you could remind yourself that Bradamante is the one pretending to be a guy by shortening her name to Brad in your own brain. Yes, I’ve used these tactics myself.)

I have four major solo scenes:

Act 1: My first scene is all about me falling in love–at sight–with ‘Ricciardo’, and, ironically, ‘his’ face (O s’apre al riso). In my second scene, I try to protect Ricciardo from Alcina’s jealous spell. But Ricciardo explains that ‘he’ isn’t in love with Alcina so she shouldn’t be jealous. I assume, naturally, that this is because Ricciardo is in love with me. I then pledge my love to ‘him’ (Tornami a vagheggiar, probably the most famous aria in the whole opera).

Act 2: I explain to Alcina and Ruggiero that neither has any reason to be jealous, and therefore Alcina should not cast a spell on Ricciardo (Ama, sospira).

Act 3: I realize that Ricciardo is in fact Bradamante, a woman in love with Ruggiero, and I come crawling back to Oronte, pleading for forgiveness (Credete al mio dolore). This is one of my favourite arias to sing.

Getting a (broom?) handle on the plot: Alcina is one of the most soap opera-y operas you’ll ever see. You can just imagine how this would be played out in a few episodes of Days of Our Lives. The end of Act 2 comes to mind:

Bradamante (finally as herself, not in drag pretending to be Ricciardo) and Ruggiero are alone together. Ruggiero and Bradamante profess their love for one another. And I realize that I’ve been punked: Bradamante is NOT the dreamy Ricciardo I fell in love with at the beginning of the opera. Bradamante wasn’t trying to fool ME, I just get caught up in the process and everyone has to go along with it. (You can picture how the imaginary soap opera camera would continuously pan over to the eavesdropping Morgana while she witnesses this exchange between Ruggiero and Bradamante.) But now I’m enraged! I try to voice my anger, but I’m ignored. And the scene flashes back to focus on Ruggiero singing one of my favourite arias in the whole show: Verdi prati.

The soap opera continues with Alcina despairing over her unrequited love for Ruggiero. She is not happy. Not one little bit. Flash to the scene with the evil witch freaking out and calling on her evil counterparts (her furies, in this case) to help her. But something’s wrong….

End Scene: End of Act 2: Enter daytime TV commercial.

Great. Now I have “Witchy Woman” stuck in my head.  :)