The story of Opera by Request, one of Toronto’s first indie opera companies.
Over the past few years, Toronto has become something of a hub for independent opera companies. Groups including Tapestry Opera, Against the Grain Theatre, MYOpera, Opera5, and Bicycle Opera have gained more and more prominence in our city’s cultural scene, eventually forming the collective Indie Opera T.O, founded by Michael Mori, Tapestry Opera’s Artistic Director.
But behind the prominence of these companies filled with up-and-comers and social media-savvy millennials, another company has quietly fostered its own community of singers: William Shookhoff’s Opera by Request.
On June 9th and 10th, Opera by Request, an opera company formed by a “fortuitous accident,” as described by founder Shookhoff, celebrates its tenth anniversary with a production of Der Rosenkavalier. The production features numerous alumni of Opera by Request, many of whom are now notable professional singers, and a seven-piece orchestra conducted by Shookhoff.
Musical Toronto spoke with Shookhoff in his North Toronto studio about this momentous anniversary, as well as the history of Opera by Request.
“It came about almost accidentally,” Shookhoff describes of the origins of OBR. “I was doing a joint recital with a soprano and baritone, and we did excerpts from Traviata. By the end, they both said we should’ve done the whole opera – we could’ve just added a tenor and a few supporting roles. This led to a not terribly serious discussion about the other operas they could do.”
Following this discussion, a singer-turned web designer got in touch with Shookhoff about creating an online platform. From there, operabyrequest.ca was born, a site where singers can sign up to request to perform operas. Once a cast formed, Shookhoff would provide the venue, piano accompaniment, and vocal, linguistic and stylistic coaching.
“I was opening the door for singers,” Shookhoff imparts. “Opera in concert is not a new idea. I wanted to create an opportunity for operas to be performed that singers chose.”
Shookhoff admits he thought people would only request to perform operas two or three times a month.
“Instead it’s been about two or three times a week,” he tells me. “It’s been non-stop. So sort of by accident, it’s been my life for the past ten years.”
And just how non-stop have things been?
“Rosenkavalier is actually the 90th opera we’ve done,” he tells me, as I gape in amazement. “If you’d asked me ten years ago how many I would’ve thought we’d done, I would’ve said thirty. And there’s still many standard works we haven’t done.”
Looking at Shookhoff’s list of works performed with OBR, their output spans from Baroque operas to Mozart to Bel Canto to French Romantics to Puccini and Verismo to Slavic to Wagner and his Successors to Contemporary Works, including all the operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
And the list of singers who perform these works bears just as much variety as the list of works performed, ranging from beginning singers to seasoned pros.
“It’s all sorts of variations on the idea of people coming to me with roles that they want to perform,” he describes. “Sometimes it’s people who’ve been hired to do a role with a major company who want to run it first, or sometimes it’s people who’ve had their careers but have roles they never got to do.
“By my five-year anniversary I’d done fifty operas with 150 singers,” he continues. “Now that it’s been ten years and ninety operas, I have no idea how many singers. It’s got to be over 300.”
As we conclude our conversation, I remark to Shookhoff how in a way, he’s like the father of Indie Opera T.O. He agrees that many of the artists who now run their own independent companies started by singing with Opera by Request.
And is Shookhoff slowing down?
“My thought was that after I did Rosenkavalier, I’d start parceling things out,” he responds, a twinkle in his eye. “But what’s been happening is people keep coming to me with interesting projects, and I don’t want to give them up! So it looks like I’m not retiring.”
With resources like Shookhoff, it’s no wonder Canada produces so many wonderful opera singers. Here’s to ninety more operas!