An inspiring evening as the Canadian Children’s Opera Company celebrates a Milestone
We live in an age of impermanence, especially in the arts. A fiftieth birthday is considered rare in a non-profit organization, given the precariousness of funding, and a general devaluing of the arts. The Canadian Children’s Opera Company (formerly the Canadian Children’s Opera Chorus) can be justly proud that it achieved such a milestone. It’s time for celebration.
And celebrate it did, in grand style, in a Gala appropriately named, Ruby’s Gold. A very well filled Four Seasons Centre, with many proud parents in the audience — very many of them former choristers themselves — to usher in CCOC’s 51st year. It was a very festive atmosphere all evening, an early highlight of the still-young 2017-18 musical season.
The event was fittingly called Ruby’s Gold because the CCOC was founded in 1968 by the late Ruby Mercer and Lloyd Bradshaw. Mercer was a former Metropolitan Opera soprano, broadcaster, author, and the founder of Opera Canada. I got to know Ruby Mercer in my musical circles, and later as a contributor to her magazine. Without a doubt, Ruby was passionate about nurturing the next generation. For her, children are precious — they are the “gold” of our culture; they inherit the future.
CCOC has 240 boys and girls aged 6 to 19 in five divisions, under the directorship of Teri Dunn. Among the choristers, 80 of them form the Principal Chorus and sing as the children’s chorus in COC productions and with the TSO. In its fifty-year history, the CCOC has commissioned thirteen operas, beginning with The Selfish Giant (1973) to this season’s The Monkiest King. It has toured North America and Europe, and made six recordings. Impressively, many alumni have gone on to musical careers or as leaders in other fields. The CCOC is justly proud of its many accomplishments.
This evening was hosted by the tenor Ben Heppner. Guest artists included sopranos Karina Gauvin, Measha Brueggergosman and Simone Osborne, mezzo Krisztina Szabo, vocalist Alana Bridgewater, tenor Andrew Haji, baritone Theodore Baerg, and actor Ben Carlson. Nicole Bellamy, Christina Faye and Steven Philcox were at the keyboard. In addition, former Artistic Directors John Tuttle (1985-2000) and Ann Cooper Gay (2000-2015), former CCOC accompanist Edward Moroney returned to perform. Remarkably, the singers were either former CCOC choristers or have worked with the CCOC in opera productions in the past. It was indeed a “family affair.”
The show opened with the chorus from Doctor Canon’s Cure, by Canadian composer Derek Holman, whose creations figured prominently in CCOC’s history. The CCOC-COC collaborations were highlighted in two excerpts from Carmen, with veteran baritone Theodore Baerg as Escamillo. Soprano Simone Osborne, a lovely Pamina at the COC, joined her voice with the three Genies in a delightful scene from Die Zauberflöte. Quebec soprano Karina Gauvin, who’s in town to be honoured with the “Rubies,” showed off her agility in “Da tempeste” from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, as well as a delicious excerpt from Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Tenor Andrew Haji, one of the best young tenors today, offered a clarion “La donna e mobile” from Rigoletto. Mezzo Krisztina Szabo was at her alluring best as Musetta in “Quando m’en vo,” I remember fondly her stunning diminuendo high B when she sang it at the COC, quite a feat for a mezzo. She repeated it flawlessly tonight. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman showed off her magnetic stage persona in two spirituals, while R&B/Soul/Gospel artist Alana Bridgewater contributed a striking “You Raise Me Up.” Very interesting was a preview of CCOC’s new commission penned by Hong Kong-born Canadian composer Alice Ho, The Monkiest King. She got her inspiration from the celebrated Chinese novel.
Arguably the single most memorable moment this evening was at the end, when the Alumni Chorus sang a medley from A Dickens of a Christmas, the English folksong “God Bless the Master” (conducted by John Tuttle) and the final number, “We Sing.” Seeing so many people in the audience getting up to make their way onstage was a powerful and moving statement. In an age when the arts are not taught — indeed not valued — in Canadian schools, when so many see arts as money-wasting, frivolous pastimes, these former choristers show powerfully that music does matter. It enriches our lives. It’s part of what makes us human. With their passion and commitment, the next 50 years of CCOC is assured.