ARTS April 5th, 2008

By Lorianna De Giorgio

Dedicated artists bring opera to ‘the rest of us’

Giuseppe Macina’s eyes still light up when he recalls the emotions he felt when watching his first opera.

It was in Bari, Italy, in 1944, when Macina was barely six years old that his parents took him to see Verdi’s La Traviata at the southern city’s opera house.

Now, 63 years later, the artistic director of Toronto Opera Repertoire still remembers the flutter of butterflies he felt while watching the singers belt out their arias.

He knew at that moment — sitting on the edge of his seat — that opera was his destiny.

“Opera is everything,” Macina, 69, says over espresso at his elaborately decorated East York bungalow. “There is no other art form that is more complete than opera.

“My desire was to become a painter but opera consumed me. I needed it.”

And it seems Toronto’s opera scene needed him. After emigrating from Italy in 1954, Macina landed a prestigious scholarship to study voice and music at the Royal Conservatory of Music. He eventually became one of Canada’s top tenors, touring the country and working as a conductor and teacher.

In 1967 his love for opera led him to found the Toronto Opera Repertoire, a local company supported by the Toronto District School Board’s continuing education program. With its mandate to produce opera “for the rest of us”, Macina’s company of students — who pay to be members, and who range in age from 17 to 80 — produce two fully-staged productions each year.

Rehearsed and staged at the Bickford Centre Theatre on Bloor at Christie, the productions are presented in their original languages, complete with period costumes and sets.

While the Canadian Opera Company, with its state-of-the art opera house, is at the top of the list in public perception of opera in Toronto, smaller companies like the Toronto Opera Repertoire play a pivotal role in the local opera scene, Macina and others say.

Rather than competing with the COC, the smaller companies fill a different niche. Macina’s company will stage Puccini’s La Bohème Feb. 15 to March 2 at Bickford.

“I’m very happy to have an opera house,” he says. “It’s about time.”

In a city as diverse as Toronto, the local opera scene is just as diverse. Not counting community or neighbourhood-based organizations, the wide range of mid-size professional opera companies appeal to different opera aficionados.

Companies like Opera Atelier and Toronto Opera Repertoire pride themselves on producing true-to-form, classical productions, with sets and costumes that would be right at home in the 16th or 17th century.

On the flip side, Tapestry and others offer up new works, giving emerging composers and directors a chance to make their mark in the opera world.

And then there are organizations that appeal to a more select form of opera, such as the Toronto Operetta Theatre, a company geared toward promoting operetta.

Operetta, with firm opera roots, is the art form credited with begetting Broadway-esque productions.

“We don’t compete with the COC,” says Zofia Hall, president of the board of directors for the Toronto Operetta Theatre. “We supplement them.”

Now in its 23rd season, the non-profit company stages 2–3 operettas a year at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts. Thanks to grants from several foundations, including the Toronto Arts Council, plus a dedicated fan base, the TOT has been able to survive, Hall says.

Hall agrees with Macina that Toronto’s opera scene is strong and healthy.

“We have survived because our productions are so popular,” says Hall, who is currently promoting Earnest, The Importance of Being, on stage Feb. 22–24. “Our last show (The Count of Luxembourg) grossed over 80 percent in box office sales. That’s 20 percent higher than last season.”

Hall acknowledges operetta doesn’t attract a younger audience, but the TOT has introduced a family night, with half-priced tickets for children and youth up to 16, in a bid to create one.

One company that doesn’t have a problem attracting a younger crowd is Tapestry. Founded in 1979 as an eight-voice ensemble, the organization has made a name for itself as the producer of new opera works that promote emerging Canadian composers, writers, directors and performers.

The company’s innovative approach to opera extends to its programs and the places where the productions are staged.

Programs include INside Opera, a series of creative workshops for students; and the Tapestry New Work Studio, which allows budding artists a chance to creatively develop their ideas.

In terms of innovative locations, Tapestry has staged productions in a warehouse on Cherry St., in a downtown hotel and in a mill in Sault Ste. Marie.

“Originally we were terrified with the word ‘opera’ because it carried a lot of baggage,” admits artistic director Wayne Strongman. “But what we have done is taken the work to the streets.”

Strongman agrees with Macina and Hall that opera is an intense art form, full of drama and intrigue. But rather than producing centuries-old text, Strongman’s Tapestry chooses to premiere new works, showing the contemporary, timeless nature of opera.

“In Canada most people think of opera as the 12 classics in the Canon that are sung in Italian with big costumes and big singers,” he says, over the phone from Tapestry’s offices in the Distillery District. “We choose to show how it’s about our times, not some historic museum piece.”

Such is the case of Tapestry’s current production, Elijah’s Kite.

Written by James Rolfe and Camyar Chai, the family-friendly production that looks at bullying through the eyes of a child, is touring Ontario schools until April.

In June, Tapestry will bring the story of an Indonesian elephant to the second annual Luminato arts festival.

“What we are doing is breaking down those preconceived notions… that exclusivity of opera,” Strongman says. “(We’re showing) how you don’t need to dress up to go to the opera.

“It’s no longer just for a special occasion.”

Macina these days plays a smaller role in Toronto Opera Repertoire. He no longer works as the company’s conductor and set designer, but still as the artistic director. And he still believes in the power of opera.

“With Toronto Opera Repertoire we try to teach students to be the most historically accurate as possible,” Macina says, his eyes flashing with hints of the enthusiasm they held when he was six. “By learning the historical nature of an opera they learn the mannerisms and language.

“After they learn that they can do what they want.”