La Scena Musicale

Friday, 25 November 2011

Miriam Khalil : Artist In Focus

Soprano Miriam Khalil (Mimi) and tenor Roger Honeywell (Rodolfo)

Soprano Miriam Khalil as Mimi in Opera Hamilton's La boheme
(Photo: Peter Oleskevitch)

Miriam Khalil: Artist In Focus

Joseph K. So

They say that the first love is the sweetest, to quote lyrics by hiphop artist Drake. This is certainly true with soprano Miriam Khalil.

No, it's not a comment on her romantic life but rather her artistic life. It seems that Khalil's very first live opera experience was La boheme and she fell instantly in love with the heroine Mimi. "The music took me to another world. I can easily relate to her character. She is not complicated at all and so makes her that much more approachable as a person. Her music has these moments of soaring beauty," explains Khalil in a recent conversation. By all accounts, her Mimi for Opera Hamilton last season was lovely, combining womanly warmth and vulnerability with gleaming vocalism. I ask her if she listens to recordings of Mimi in her preparation for the role - " I do - my favourite is Mirella Freni, and I also listen to Anna Netrebko for a different perspective. I like to see what different people bring to the role, but once I start to prepare it vocally, I don't listen to anyone."

Sadly I wasn't able to experience her Mimi due to an out of town assignment. The good news is that she is now bringing it to Toronto, in a revival of the freshly unorthodox La boheme for the Against the Grain Theatre, seen for the first time last Spring. In fact, Khalil was scheduled to sing it but when she got the call to go to the Glyndebourne Festival to appear as Almirena in Handel's Rinaldo, it was an opportunity too good to pass up.

This summer was her third at Glyndebourne. In 2009, she was recommended to Glyndebourne by artist manager Deborah Sanders of IMG as a cover for Danielle di Niese in the role of Cleopatra in Handel's Giulio Cesare. As luck would have it, di Niese became ill in the middle of a performance on June 10, and in the best tradition of "the show must go on", Khalil stepped in. "I sang from the side in Act 2 and I went on in costume for Act 3." Her ability to step in and did a nice job got her rehired the following year as a cover for Zerlina in Don Giovanni. She didn't get to go on, but it was a great experience just the same. It isn't every day that a young singer still in the early years of a career gets to have European exposure at such a prestigious house. This past summer, covering Almirena, Khalil was called upon to sing one performance, an important step in her career development.

Equally important in her young career was a first place at the Great Lakes Regionals of the 2007 Met Auditions. It led to her being invited to New York with the possibility to be in the Finals. If you look carefully, you will see her appearing briefly in the documentary, The Audition, that was part of the Met in HD series a couple of years ago. In the end, Khalil wasn't selected to be the final ten, but it was another important learning experience. "It was a slightly surreal and overwhelming experience to be on that stage, thinking that hopefully one day I will get to sing there," Khalil recalls. She is smart enough to know that as an artist, one never stops perfecting one's art. Over the years, she's been under the tutelage of several voice teachers - Jean McPhail (who also taught Isabel Bayrakdarian), Timothy Noble, Diana Soviero, and most recently Canadian soprano Wendy Nielsen. With maturity and training, the Khalil soprano has gained in strength, substance, and technical ease. Looking into the future, Khalil aims to stay focused on her core repertoire of Mozart and the Baroque masters, trying to keep the voice appropriately light and airy, so important in this repertoire. Future engagements, in addition to a number of concerts, will be Frasquita in a Pacific Opera Victoria Carmen later this season.

Against The Grain Theatre's La boheme

Based on performance statistics from 2005 to 2010, Puccini's La boheme at 447 performances is the fourth most popular opera in the world, just behind Die Zauberfloete, La traviata and Carmen, but ahead of such warhorses as Tosca, Don Giovanni and Madama Butterly. Its perennial appeal is easy to understand - perhaps more than any other opera, its story is about youth, love and life. Few operas resonate in the hearts of a contemporary audience like La boheme. In that spirit of a contemporary take on an old classic, the Against The Grain Theatre production is conceptualized by the creative team of director Joel Ivany, designer Camellia Koo and lighting designer Jason Hand. This team won third prize in the European Stage Directing Prize for their concept production of Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi earlier this year.

The opera will be sung in English, and I understand that the newly rewritten libretto by Joel Ivany will be full of local references. In keeping with a 2011 take on the Puccini masterpiece, Ivany's unexpurgated libretto will be provocative. The performing space is equally unorthodox, to take place in the bare-bones environs of the Tranzac Club in the Annex, an appropriately Bohemian neighborhood full of University of Toronto students. Instead of taking place on a stage, the performers will be interspersed among the audience, giving the proceedings a sense of immediacy and realism. This concept production follows a long tradition of updating this most "updatable" of operas. In the early 90s, the Opera Australia production by Baz Luhrmann had a thoroughly modern Boheme, with an extremely photogenic tenor David Hobson as Rodolfo opposite the lovely Cheryl Barker as Mimi. Luhrmann has since brought his concept to Broadway with spectacular success. Recently I saw a Boheme telecast on Swiss TV where the opera takes place in a high-rise! Updating is always a tricky business, and any conceptual re-imagining will not please everyone. The best way is to decide for yourself. There will be three performances, on Dec. 1 -3 at 8 p.m. at the Tranzac Club, 292 Brunswick Avenue in the Annex area of downtown Toronto. Cast includes Miriam Khalil (Mimi), Ryan Harper (Rodolfo), Justin Welsh (Marcello), Lindsay Sutherland Boal (Musetta), Neil Craighead (Colline) and Keith Lam, plus a full chorus.


Wednesday, 23 November 2011

In Memoriam: Sena Jurinac

Soprano Sena Jurinac as Elisabetta in Don Carlos

In Memoriam: Sena Jurinac (Oct. 24, 1921 - Nov. 22, 2011)
The great soprano Sena Jurinac passed away on Tuesday at her home near Augsburg in Germany. This information was confirmed by the Wiener Staatsoper, for many years Jurinac's home theatre where she had her greatest triumphs, and where she received the title of Kammersangerin. Born in Travnik in Bosnia (formerly Yugoslavia) in October 1921, Jurinac studied in Zagreb, Croatia, and made her debut in 1942 as Mimi in La boheme. Jurinac first sang at the Wiener Staatsoper as Cherubino in 1944 and remained a member of the company until 1983 when she made her farewell as the Marschallin. In the English speaking world, she was a favourite at Covent Garden and Glyndebourne, but sadly she never sang at the Metropolitan Opera. Rudolf Bing, in his memoirs, stated that he invited her on several occasions in the 1950's but Jurinac turned down the invitations. A specialist in Mozart and Strauss, she was a celebrated Contessa, Cherubino, Octavian, and Marschallin. She also sang Puccini - an estimable Butterfly - as well as Marie in Wozzeck. The Jurinac soprano in its prime was a gorgeous instrument, noted for its opulence and richness, particularly in the middle register. Her stately and aristocratic bearing on stage was a pleasure. She made relatively few recordings, but her most celebrated appearance on video is her Octavian opposite the incomparable Marschallin of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf in Der Rosenkavalier, with Herbert von Karajan conducting. This video has never been out of the catalogue, and recently remastered with fabulous results.

Photo: Sena Jurinac (Octavian) and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Marschallin) in Der Rosenkavalier


Sunday, 20 November 2011

This Week in Toronto (Nov. 21 - 27)

Conductor Andrey Boreyko (photo: Susanne Diesner)

Russian conductor Andrey Boreyko makes a welcome return to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra this week, in an eclectic program of Bernstein, Glazunov and Dvorak. Boreyko of course is no stranger to Canada, having held two separate posts, one as music director of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra from 2001-6, and also as principal guest conductor of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (2000-3). Boreyko is one of the very gifted of the current generation of conductors, having received terrific notices just about everywhere. His debut with the august Cleveland Orchestra last season was highly praised. He is in town for an extended period - well, given how busy conductors are these days, you can say two weeks is extended! He is conducting Bernstein's Overture to Candide, Glazunov's Concerto for Alto Saxophone and String Orchestra (with Branford Marsalis as soloist). The centerpiece is Dvorak's much loved Symphony No. 9 "From the New World" - a very moving piece and aptly paired with Bernstein. Two performances on Nov. 22 and 24 at 8 p.m. Next week Boreyko is conducting a all-Russian program (Prokofiev and Stravinsky) with Leila Josefowicz - more about that later.
On the weekend are two performances of light classics, under the banner of Toronto Symphony Orchestra Classical Spotlight. It is an eclectic program of Haydn, Beethoven, Cimarosa and Mozart, designed for those wanting to ease themselves into the joys of classical music, with several soloists performing bite-sized pieces. For example, Alexander Serendenko is playing only the 3rd movement of the Beethoven No. 1! Of special interest to voice fans is the appearance of BC soprano Layla Claire, who is making quite a splash in the opera world. I heard her at the Queen Elisabeth Competition several years ago, and she's now in the Lindemann Young Artists Program at the Met. What a coup for her, to be prominently featured in the new documentary on James Levine, released to mark his 40th anniversary at the Met! Ms. Claire will sing the short but sweet "Alleluja" from Mozart's Exsultate jubilate - if only she's singing the whole thing! Two performances - Saturday No. 26 at 7:30 p.m., repeated on Sunday at 3 p.m. Edwin Outwater, music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony, conducts.

Meanwhile, a couple of kilometers north of Roy Thomson Hall, the Royal Conservatory of Musicc Orchestra, featuring Canadian musicians of the future, will be giving a very interesting program on Nov. 25 8 p.m. at Koerner Hall. Uri Mayer is leading the young musicians in Bernstein's Suite from his ballet Fancy Free, Chausson's Poeme for Violin and Orchestra, and Strauss' mega-decibel Also sprach Zarathustra. I went to their season opener a couple of months ago, and heard them play Overture to Der fliegende Hollaender - a performance full of youthful enthusiasm and promise. Mayer is really picking daunting pieces for these young musicians, and they are rising to the challenge.

Now that the Canadian Opera Company fall season is over, the noon hour concerts at the Richard Bradshaw Amphitheatre are given over to instrumentalists. On Nov. 22, Canadian pianist and Toronto resident Ricker Choi is playing Brahms Six Pieces for Piano Op. 118, Scriabin Sonata No. 5 and Chopin Ballade No. 1, a well balanced and familiar program. Be sure to show up at least 30 minutes to an hour to be assured of a decent seat, but then there's always standing room.

Just because the COC is in hiatus doesn't mean there is no opera. In fact, if you can forgo an orchestra, Opera In Concert is presenting Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, an opera that I believe have never been staged in Canada. OIC must be commended for taking this piece on - with five acts and ballet, this is a marathon, but I can only assume it will be cut. [I just checked the OIC website and they are doing it in two acts!] In the hands of great singers, this is a wonderful work. Opera fans will be familiar with the fabled live performance of Sutherland, Corelli and Simionato from La Scala, sung in Italian - as Gli Ugonotti! The OIC performance will have soprano Laura Whalen and tenor Edgar Ernesto Ramirez as Marguerite and Raoul. Lesley Ann Bradley is the zwischenfach Valentine. Pianist Michael Rose will have the very daunting task of playing this gigantic piece - toi toi toi to all the artists!

Another important vocal event is the Aldeburgh Connection's The Great Comet: The Extraordinary Life and Music of Franz Liszt. Unfortunately this falls on exactly the same time as the Meyerbeer - on Nov. 27 2:30 pm at Walter Hall. Soloists are soprano Joni Henson, tenor Colin Ainsworth and baritone James Westman, with as usual Stephen Ralls and Bruce Ubukata at the piano. AC is known for intelligent and thought-provoking programming, so it is going to be difficult to decide!