An opera for opera novices

by Daniel McCabe, BA'89

Are you curious about opera, but timid about diving in? Does it seem just a little too dauntingly high-brow?

Patrick Hansen believes he has just the opera for you.

Hansen has been putting in long days – and evenings – in recent weeks, fine-tuning Opera McGill’s latest production, the Canadian premiere of Volpone, an opera that playfully explores the impact of greed on human behaviour.

Volpone is a perfect opera for someone unfamiliar with opera,” says Hansen, the director of opera studies at the Schulich School of Music and the stage director for the production. “It’s a comedy, it moves quickly, it has a relatively easy story to follow and it’s short – two hours, which for opera is really short!”

Hansen also believes that a student production like this one offers an ideal opportunity for neophytes to sample opera in a setting that isn’t intimidating.

“Most people are just afraid to take a chance and taste opera. I think trying out opera with students singing it is the perfect way to have a thrilling experience in the theatre. You’ll be inspired by these young people up there pursuing their dream, and there’s an energy to youthful operatic singers. Even though they may not be ‘finished products,’ they really throw themselves into entertaining an audience.”

One of those students, Gordon Bintner, BMus’10, has already attracted considerable attention. A master’s student in opera and voice, Bintner will be singing the title role of Volpone. Last fall, he took the top prize at the second annual Canadian Opera Company Ensemble Competition. In 2011, he was the grand prize winner at the OSM Standard Life Competition, organized by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. .

“Gordon’s combination of voice and physicality gives him a magnetism onstage that you can’t teach,” says Hansen. “Volpone is a con man, and so he needs to be extremely charismatic. [Gordon] is a great role model for the younger students, yet he also learns from his fellow students. The other lead, Kevin Delaney, has oodles of comedic experience, and it’s been great for Gordon to have to hold his own with Kevin.”

The production is part of Schulich’s Year of Contemporary Music, so Hansen and his team were on the lookout for a fairly recent work to stage. Volpone, by John Musto and Mark Campbell, fit the bill. Though based on Ben Jonson’s classic play of the same name from 1606, Musto and Campbell’s version of the tale premiered in 2004. The Washington Post declared the opera “a masterpiece” after its debut and a recorded performance of Volpone garnered a Grammy nomination a few years later.

“I've been a fan of [John Musto’s] music for decades now,” says Hansen, “and once I became familiar with the piece, I thought it would be a good fit for the students here and I loved the fact it was a comedy. Comedy is hard, and a great way to help young singers break out of their protective shells and take risks.”

A comedy, says Hansen, is “6,000 times more difficult to rehearse than a tragic or dramatic opera. Comedy is about timing, and in opera, the composer dictates almost 100 percent of the timing because they set the text to their music which has its own tempo. That means we have to fit physical gags, facial reactions, movement, whatever, into an existing ‘timing.’ It also means training my cast in a style of comedy that I’d describe as ‘operatic Mel Brooks.’”

Not only will this production mark Volpone’s Canadian debut, the composer Musto will be in the audience on opening night. “Most operas were composed hundreds of years ago, so the experience of singing an opera in front of the composer is unique and thrilling,” says Hansen. Musto will also attend the two orchestra dress rehearsals and cast members will have the chance to pick his brains.

Volpone marks the return to McGill of a familiar face – former Schulich professor Julian Wachner, who is serving as guest conductor for the production. Wachner was recently nominated for a Grammy Award for conducting the Choir of Trinity Wall Street and the Trinity Baroque Orchestra on the recording Israel in Egypt by George Frederic Handel. Wachner “has an incredible energy and a musical intellect that is inspiring to everyone he works with – orchestra, singers and the production team,” says Hansen. The McGill Symphony Orchestra will be performing along with the Opera McGill cast during the production.

Former Schulich professor and recent Grammy nominee Julian Wachner returns to McGill as the guest conductor for Volpone

Other members of the production team include costumer Ginette Grenier, a veteran of theatre and TV (“some of the best costumes we’ve ever presented onstage,” enthuses Hansen), and Florence Cornet, who brings the makeup expertise she developed on several Cirque du Soleil productions to bear on the elaborate animalistic looks that have been developed for Volpone’s cast members. Vincent Lefevre is in charge of set design, while Serge Filitrault oversees the lighting. Hansen says their contributions are instrumental. “It's a slightly magical forest in that it moves. The lights move and the physical set also moves because it's on a turntable.”

The setting for the Opera McGill version of Volpone is something of a twist. The story typically takes place in Vienna during the Renaissance. Hansen decided to play up the fact that the opera’s characters are named after animals (Volpone means fox, Voltore is vulture, Mosca is fly, etc) and he situates the tale in a setting that conjures of the forests of North Carolina, an area he is quite familiar with (and which, he points out, is where The Hunger Games was filmed).

“I’ll be interested to see how this plays out with the other themes of the show,” says Hansen, “and how the audience – and especially John Musto – reacts.”

Performances of Opera McGill’s Volpone will take place at Pollack Hall on January 30 and February 1 at 7:30 pm and on February 3 at 2 pm. Tickets are available at the Box Office at 555 Sherbrooke Street West between noon and 6 pm during week days and one hour before each performance. For more information about tickets, phone (514) 398-4547.