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Q&A | 41 Questions For Dean Burry

By Michael Vincent on January 23, 2016

Dean Burry
Dean Burry

If you’ve spent any time getting to know the people who make Toronto’s classical music and opera community tick, you may have likely bumped into one of our cities most admired composers, librettists, and educators.

Dean Burry came to Toronto by way of Gander Newfoundland, and after early piano lessons began composing music and writing plays. He studied saxophone at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, and learned to combine his love of theatre through composing operas and musicals. He later moved to Toronto to study at the U of T. To make ends meet, he worked at the box office at the Canadian Opera Company, and later as an educator with the COC. The COC commissioned his children’s opera, “The Brothers Grimm”, which was presented as a new opera for the annual school tour in 2001. It has since been seen over 160,000 times and was made a regular part of the COC’s touring repertoire.

In June, 2015 Dean Burry was appointed new Artistic Director of Canadian Children’s Opera Company. Fast forward to 2016, VIVA! Youth Singers of Toronto will premiere his new opera “The Sword in the Schoolyard” at Daniel’s Spectrum followed by the Canadian Children’s Opera Company‘s production of “The Hobbit,” which first premiered in 2004. We’re told the VIVA and CCOC are creating a “Toronto Festival of Children’s Opera” to tie these two pieces together.

This year also includes the premiere of Burry’s Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang at the Montreal Chamber music Festival, with Ben Heppner narrating.

Readers can catch Dean Burry’s DMA Composition graduation recital at U of T’s Victoria Chapel on February 9, and 8:00 p.m. More details here.

Q&A

What are three things about Toronto that make you want to live here?

1) Came for the music, stayed for the music.  What a great opera community we’ve got here.

2) Multiculturalism is a huge thing here, and I love that.  Given all the trouble in the world, Toronto is basically proof that not only can we all get along, but also grow a tremendous amount because of our differences.

3) Great, safe place to raise kids (a big part of my life for the last 10-years).  There are parks, skating rinks and adventures hidden all over the place.

Default drink/cocktail of choice?

I’m a lover of Belgian Trappist beer, but make me happy with a couple of fingers of Islay scotch, neat – the peatier, the better – liquid sod in a glass.  My wonderful wife Julia buys me a bottle each time I have a big premiere.

Name your favourite concert hall/venue in Toronto

I’m a fan of Mazzoleni Hall in the RCM’s Telus Centre. Love the intimacy and warmth.

Name your favourite concert hall/venue anywhere

The Joseph R. Smallwood Arts and Culture Centre in Gander NL (where I grew up) was a big part of my artistic development.  400 seat proscenium theatre, which was actually donated to the town of Gander by the Czechoslovakian government in thanks for the way they handled a tragic plane crash there (Gander is known for that…think 9/11) My first play was performed there when I was 15.  Big pit, great acoustic, excellent site lines, tons of wing space.  If I could, I’d pick it up and bring it here

Your role models?

That’s a hard one.  So many people play a role in who a person becomes.  My mom and dad for sure who gave me that “do what you want to do” mentality.  I also had teachers from an early age that really encouraged my creativity and so even in that small town; I never felt there was anything holding me back.  Recently, having returned to the University of Toronto, I’ve also found a real inspiration in composer Christos Hatzis and his attitude towards the role of new music in the world.  The Greek and the Newfoundlander…there’s an awful lot of loud laughing in our lessons.

Your favourite sound?

Children laughing…especially the quirky ones.

Your least favourite sound?

That grating generic alarm sound on clock radios!!!! What fiendish agent of hell came up with that?!

Your favourite smells?

As some many know, I was born in Newfoundland, and it’s still so much a part of who I am.  My father grew up in the fishing community of Newtown and on a warm summer day, the smell of the peat bogs with all their berries and the salt sea is intoxicating (whoa – think I just figured out where my love of Islay scotches comes from! Thanks, MT)

First thing that comes to your mind when you think about Toronto?

Craning my neck the first time I got here to gaze in wonder at the skyscrapers.  Still gets me.

The historical personalities, both good and bad that fascinate you the most?

Mary Pickford – Toronto woman who essentially made Hollywood.

Arnold Schoenberg – pretty sure we wouldn’t have gotten along at all and yet his music does speak to me.  (would have a scotch with Berg, though)

Is there a local music store that could sell you anything?

My beloved Recorder Centre on Dovercourt (my source for great penny whistles) closed down about a year ago.  Planning on making a trip to the Musideum soon.  That place looks great!

Your first three record store purchases?

Dave Brubeck – Time Out. Billy Joel – An Innocent Man. Bizet – L’arlesienne Suites (I started playing the saxophone in grade 8 and there aren’t many classical pieces with sax)

If you could board a plane this afternoon, where would it be taking you?

This afternoon is pretty chilly.  So let’s say Cuba.  I always thought that travel dollars should be spent on stimulating locations but the older I get, the more the idea of lying prostrate on warm sand appeals.

The strangest place you’ve ever been to?

I recently attended the traditional opera in Chengdu, China, which was wonderful and wacky. I loved it…but the complimentary ear cleaning beforehand was a little surreal.

The three books that you read that made an impact on you in your formative years?

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien.  The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger. The Lyre of Orpheus – Robertson Davies

Whose musical style do you covet?

Stravinsky and Britten

Where was the last place you traveled to for work or pleasure?

I was in Cardiff, Wales in June for business (workshopping a new production of my opera Pandora’s Locker) but business IS pleasure when you get to work as a composer. I could have toured castle ruins for a month.

Where did you go to school?

Gander Academy, Gander Junior High, Gander Collegiate (my dad was principal), Mount Allison University (part of my heart is still there), and the University of Toronto where I’m currently working on my doctorate.

What did you major in as an undergraduate?

I was a saxophone major, but I pretty quickly realized I much preferred to get other people to play instruments and sing for me. I joke that I became a composer because I hated practicing.

The strangest talent that you possess?

People say I’m a pretty good cake decorator.  They say I should do it professionally, which is either encouragement of my decorating skills or condemnation of my composing.

Shoe of choice?

Never been fancy when it comes to clothes.  Sketchers – recently moved to loafers – does that mean I’m getting old?

The different career path that you could have gone on?

I LOVE science…but nothing with too much math.  I would be a marine biologist…or maybe an archeologist.

Your ancestry?

South shore English fisherman who came to Newfoundland in the late 1600’s…but about three years ago I found out that my great-great-great-great-great grandfather (born in 1828) was from the Mi’kmaq First Nation.  That’s a ways back, I know, but it really had an impact on me, and I am so excited to explore more of that connection.

Your three favourite films?

Star Wars.  The Wizard of OZ. Psycho

Television show that you could tolerate re-runs of?

Robot Wars (guilty pleasure)

Under what circumstances would you join the army?

I REALLY respect people who step up in this way, and it moves me greatly to think of all the “average” people who eagerly signed up in the last 100 years.  I’m not sure if I possess that sort of bravery, but if my family were threatened, I’d be there in a heartbeat.

Your major character flaw?

I have always struggled with “living in the present”.  I’m a sentimental guy so always looking back and fighting through those early days of trying to get a career going always meant dreaming about the future.  When the girls were born, I vowed I’d never wish away another day, o that has helped a lot.

The character flaw in others that you can’t abide?

Insincerity.

How do you know when you can trust someone?

When they tell you what you did wrong, and it makes you feel better.

What was the luckiest moment in your life?

Taking a job in the box office at the Canadian Opera Company

What are you proudest of?

I’m most proud of the fact that I’m still doing it.  Still composing after so much adversity and so many challenges and doing it surrounded by the best family a fellow could ask for.

What musical instrument do you secretly long to play?

I’d love to play the violin/fiddle.  My wife is a great player and was recently appointed principal second with the Kingston Symphony.  My girls Blythe and Maeve have been playing since they were three. I can play a few different instruments but can’t seem to get my claws around that one.

What is the one animal that scares you the most?

New York composer John Corigliano’s Doberman.  I was at his apartment for a meeting years ago and when I sat down and waited for him to finish a lesson the dog got all up in my face and stared, softly but intensely growling.  I literally sat there whimpering “nice doggie…nice doggie…”

If you had a motto, what would it be?

Clarity.  Sincerity. (hey that’s pretty good…it kind of rhymes!)

Have you ever fired a gun? If so, what were the circumstances?

My dad and Uncle Roy took me duck hunting when I was 10 (pretty common in Newfoundland). Fired a shotgun while standing in shallow water and ended up on “me arse”.

Your favourite word?

“Wicked” (in the awesome sense, not the super-villain sense…wait, that is cool too!)

Your favourite curse word?

When I first met my wife she used to say “Crapperdamerung” – which is just perfect.

The thing that makes you the happiest?

Seeing the light in young people’s eyes as they experience and grow in the world (I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true)

The thing that makes you the angriest?

Mocking or belittling people who are brave enough to take risks.

The first three things that you do every morning?

Turn on CBC Metro Morning, feed the dogs (Felix and Annie), feed the kids – ideally the right food goes in the right place.

The piece of music you want played at your funeral?

Probably something of mine that I have yet to compose.  I can’t think of a better way to actually be present after I’m gone (I might even get some royalties J).

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Michael Vincent
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Michael Vincent

Michael Vincent is Publisher of Ludwig Van. He publishes regularly and writes occasionally. He has worked as a senior editor over fifteen years and is a former freelance classical music critic for the Toronto Star. Michael holds a Doctorate in Music from the University of Toronto.
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